Replace Billy Boat Exhaust with Stock Exhaust

The M5 came with an aftermarket Billy Boat exhaust. It looked nice, but I found it to be very loud. Because I didn’t put it on, I didn’t have any experience to compare it to the stock exhaust. I took it to a muffler shop and they assured me there were no leaks. After a while, I learned that I had to coast into my driveway with the engine off to avoid disturbing my neighbors at night. This was not sustainable.

The decision to go back to the stock exhaust was the first of many to return the M5 to as original as possible (and avoid the slippery slope of euro mods or other “improvements”). It took me a while to source one, as new units or NOS by then were not available. Eventually, one turned up on and after figuring out how to get it delivered with reasonable shipping costs, it arrived and I had the B&B swapped out. It was sold later to another board member.

Replace Battery, Alternator and Belts

Even after my no-start trouble-shooting, I was chasing a battery/charging issue for a while. After a lot of reading, one hypothesis was the bent/broken antenna, which was not allowing the mast to fully retract and draining the battery. After replacing the battery didn’t solve the problem, I looked into the alternator.

It was suggested that it could have simply been the diode, which was relatively easy to swap out. I decided to just R&R the alternator with a remanufactured unit. I also took this opportunity to replace the belts, as they had to come off anyway for the procedure. I also got a new air flow meter to intake boot, which also had to be removed anyway.

This was my first “major” DIY repair (major would be redefined many times during my ownership). It was also the first time experiencing frustration of not being able to readily (i.e., today) get the parts I needed. The gear and teeth on the alternator adjusting bracket were stripped, so I ordered the parts I thought I needed. It turned out (as often the case in my early ownership), the one I needed was different and unique to the M5. The actual part was several days out, but I was impatient so I modified the one I had to work. I tried to bend it, but ultimately cut it in half to fit, which I actually think is stronger than the original part.

This was my first truly gratifying project and I haven’t had a battery or alternator issue since.

Replace Floor Mats

The M5 came with some custom aftermarket floor mats with an “M” logo. They didn’t match the carpet that great and there weren’t mats in the rear. I ordered a new set of mats from Bavarian Auto, which were a simple upgrade.

I’m Running to the Store … Be Right Back

My first hiccup with vintage car ownership happened when I ran to the grocery store (an hour before guests were to arrive). Upon starting the car to return home, it didn’t. I contemplated the no start situation. It cranked fine, until it ran out of crank. I didn’t have time to deal with it, so I took an Uber home and returned later in the evening with gas (just in case I hadn’t learned what empty was) and jumper cables.

After it still would not start, I called a tow truck. The guy, being helpful, suggested maybe it was the ignition coil or distributor, the former he advise was easy to change. So, instead of towing it, I left it overnight and returned the next day with a new coil. I swapped it out in the Safeway parking lot, but still no start. Then, I had it towed in earnest to one of the independent shops in town that I let work on our cars.

They called and advised that there was “power to the coil but no reference signal.” They found the reference sensor connector was “broken and had vibrated loose.” Because the speed sensor is wrapped together in a loom along with the reference sensor, I was encouraged to just replace them both because there was no additional labor. I approved this because I didn’t know any better. $606.17 in parts and labor later and I was back on the road.

Several weeks later, I was working on the car (thankfully right in the driveway) and when I went to turn it on to put it away in the garage, it again wouldn’t start. It was getting dark, so I just left it there. I researched some things and then had an “ahah” moment on my way home. I went straight to the car, followed the reference sensor wire to the firewall and sure enough, I found it unplugged. I plugged it in and the car fired right up. I was relieved, but then I thought about the first failure. Was it as simple as my current situation and did I pay all that money when they could have just plugged it back in? I’ll never know, but for better or worse, that second-guessing started me on my DIY adventure with the M5. I’m thankful for it, but my wife may not be.

Procure Bentley Manual and Miscellaneous Parts

Even before the car arrived, I preemptively started ordering items for the car. Once it arrived, I found more items that needed attention. All of these items were sourced from eBay.

  • The day I won the eBay auction for the M5, I preemptively sourced a new window regulator for the front passenger door, which I knew from the seller to be inoperable.
  • A couple days later, I purchased the Bentley Manual for the BMW E28.
  • I needed some extra keys, so I ordered a couple OEM lighted key blanks.
  • I found one of the seat adjustment switches to be a little sticky and intermittent. In hindsight, it was probably from too liberal application of leather conditioner. I bought a replacement just in case, but cleaning up the connections made it work perfectly.
  • The “M” seat badges were all a little worn out, so I found 4 replacements for the front and rear seats.
  • Finally, the Check Control Unit near the sunroof switch wasn’t working. I purchased a replacement and when I went to install it, I found that the original was simply unplugged, seemingly to preempt the known issues with intermittent brake lights. I plugged it back in and the original worked perfectly.

The 80s Called – They Want Their Unicorn Back

The 1988 BMW M5 has been on my automotive bucket list since the list existed. In 1988, I was making $3.35 an hour, so this car was just a bit out of reach for a senior in high school. At the time, this car was a little too adult for me anyway, and the E30 M3 was more my speed, but equally out of my universe.

I believe the first M car I ever drove was my friend Jeffrey’s dad’s car, which was an M6. It had the same drivetrain as the M5, but was even more refined, with a leather dash and headliner and a beautiful Lotus White interior. The first M5 I ever drove was sometime at the end of college. It was on the used car lot of a BMW dealership in Flint. My friend, Christine, and I were on our way to volunteer at a summer day camp when I spotted it and veered off the freeway to take a look. She posed as my better half and was coached to not allow me to purchase the car, which in reality I couldn’t dream of affording.

That test drive ultimately satisfied my interest for a decade or two. The truth is, I’ve always been on the hunt for one of these. Anyone familiar with my automotive history knows I prefer sometimes odd, always rare, German cars. I’ve managed to check a few really great ones off the list the list. The 1988 E28 M5 meets the criteria with only 1,340 cars produced for North America: all of them model year 1988, all of them black, and (almost) all of them with a tan leather interior.

I never really liked the tan interior and most have held up very, very poorly. I have come to strictly prefer black interiors in all my cars and there happened to be 101 M5s built with a black extended leather interior for North America. Only 30 of these ended up in the US, with the rest built to Canadian (i.e., metric) specification.

This unicorn is one of those thirty – “1 of 30” as they’re often described. I’ve been looking seriously for an occasional third car and had a strong lead on another black on black in Portland earlier this year, but the timing just wasn’t right and I missed the opportunity. The trail went very cold and I diverted my attention to late 60s – early 70s Mercedes sedans.

Last month, this car popped up on eBay. I don’t know what kind of deranged people get in a bidding war for a 26 year-old car with 173K miles, but I was one of them. I was the high bidder with 90 seconds to go and feeling good. In the last 10 seconds, the bids went crazy, closing at a price I wouldn’t have considered. I was crushed.

A week later, I thought, what if the sale didn’t go through (as is often the case)?  Sure enough, the car was re-listed due to “non-paying winner.”  I settled in until the end of the second auction and put in a bid with about 30 seconds to go. Everyone’s cards were on the table and thankfully I won at a price much less than my reserve. I was elated.

Or, perhaps I was over zealous and impulsive?  This is the 3rd car I’ve bought sight-unseen on eBay. This was the most excited and nervous I had been to receive a car, which was shipped from Nashville, TN.

As the car was backing off the truck, I took a photo and sent it to Jeffrey. He responded, “A breech birth.”  We’ve been emailing/texting almost daily during the car search. For years, we’ve corresponded about cars, most of which we couldn’t or shouldn’t buy. Then one of us does something like this and there is consoling.

I will admit that upon initial inspection, I had some buyers remorse. It’s hard to tell the condition of a car in photos, especially one that was photographed so beautifully. It’s easy to be fooled by good lighting and glamour shots. The interior was also a lot rougher than I had expected.

“What have I done?” was the thought that kept going through my head as I spent the first couple hours with it. After a quick shake down drive up the hill and down the 280, I verified the car ran and stopped. I was very pleased that the A/C worked, which isn’t often the case with these cars. The car was pretty dusty from its cross-country trip, so I got it washed. It still looked ragged, especially in the unforgiving California sun. I got it smogged, and thankfully it passed.

I did another loop up the hill, down the beautiful 280, and off on Skyline Blvd and Crystal Springs Blvd. It felt great cruising with the sunroof and windows open (except for the one that doesn’t work). At a rated 10 MPG and with only a 16.6-gallon tank, it doesn’t take long to get to empty. I pulled into a gas station in an area I’ve never been. There was a guy in front of me filling his VW Golf. A typical gen-Yer would be forgiven for not knowing what this car was, but this young car guy came back to his car looking at the M5, shaking his head, and said, “Looks good, looks real good.”  I felt a little better.

Despite the many amenities (especially for its day), there is nothing modern about this car. The steering wheel is positioned similar to that in a school bus, there’s so much play in the gear shift that I had no idea if I was choosing reverse or 3rd, and it smelled a bit much of the tacky leather conditioner that seemed to cover everything. There was also a tinge of exhaust fumes and I already smelled like I just mowed the lawn.

I had checked the oil and getting back on the 280 I decided to get on it and see what it could do. Winding it up to its 6,900 RPM redline, the car really came into its own. At full boil, the 3.5L inline 6-cylinder sounds like a swarm of hornets attacking a wolverine, or a badger, or a buckeye (not an animal, i know – well…). My M Coupe’s S54 engine was perhaps the pinnacle of BMW’s normally aspirated straight-6 design and was much more refined. The S38B35 engine idles like a NASCAR, rumbling and burbling. However, the experience of winding it out is both visceral and intoxicating.

With no traction control, it’s easy to get the tail out. Somehow it chirps its tires while either up or downshifting to 2nd. It also stops like a boss. While driving it home the way it was meant to be driven, all my remorse and fears washed away.

Grace texted me, “How’s car?”  I replied, “It’s a project.”

I’ve had a few days to come to grips with bringing this thing home. This particular car is very original. However, with its mileage, it will never really be collectable. But, I’m not a collector. I’m happy to be its steward, tend to its needs, and perhaps make it even better (though never younger) for the next enthusiast to enjoy. That person will likely be equally deranged and will most likely have come of age during the 80s.

Long live the 80s!