BMW M5 (E39) | PH Heroes
Does the combination of M Sport V8 power, a manual 'box and pick-ya-angles handling make the E39 peak M5?
By John Howell / Saturday, 12 November 2022 / Loading comments
This is more than a simple review of a PH hero car for me. This is my hero car. I don’t mean it’s literally mine – this car is owned by BMW UK – but the E39 M5 was an actual hero car that, after driving one back in about 1999, I just had to buy myself. So a few years later, I did. One of the reasons why I had to have an E39 M5 – and there are many – stretches all the way back to my formative years.
It was born of a journey of disappointment: cars just didn’t feel as fast as I was expecting them to. This all began when I had a lift home from school in my friend’s mum’s XR3i. This was the late ‘80s, remember, and the XR3i was the poster car of the day for young, naive minds like mine. I thought this mighty machine would produce face-gurning levels of G-force. Errr, no. Even as a kid I recognised it was not just a damp squib, it was sodden. On the outside I was smiling – I had to, as my mate looked to me for validation on how incredible his mum’s car was – but inside was a sea of disappointment.
This carried on for years, even as the cars I was driving became faster. By the mid ‘90s I was doing an apprenticeship at a Jaguar and Bentley dealer, and I continued to think that cars like the Lister V12 Series III and early Turbo Rs would wow me, but no. Quicker than an XR3i, yes, but hardly the Holy Grail of acceleration I was searching out. Then came the Jaguar X300. That spawned the XJR-6, with its six-cylinder 4.0-litre supercharged lump producing 326hp. I drove a new one of those – and a manual at that – but even that didn’t knock me for six. It was quick, I’ll give it that, but still didn’t pour petrol over my pants and set them ablaze.
Then one day in 1999 I drove an E39 M5. And when I hoofed that for the first time it was the epoch moment: wowsers, I thought, this is flipping fast. It didn’t just give me a mild and fleeting shove back in my seat, it properly pinned me there all the way through the rev range in first and second. I was still caged by that glorious invisible force in third, too, and right there and then was when I fell in love with the E39 M5.
By the early ‘00s I was selling new Ferraris and Maseratis, which were also fast by the way. We sold all sorts of sports cars, though, from GT3s to Murcielagos and everything in between. And when I left to start a new business, in a flash I’d lost access to all that quick stuff and this left a huge hole in my life. I still had a motorbike back then – a Honda VTR SP-1 – but I’ve always enjoyed cars more than bikes because I prefer going quickly sitting within four wheels than astride two. So I decided to buy something to give me my four-wheeled kicks and giggles.
I toyed with the idea of a 996, which is a car I respected hugely. But I needed a car that was practical – that would do the everyday stuff brilliantly – as well as be fast and fun, so there really was just one choice. I thought back to that day in 1999 when I’d driven the E39 M5. Mine was Carbon black, but in every other respect the same as the car we have here. The same two-tone nappa leather, and a post-2001 facelift model, with those sexy halo headlights, the bigger sat-nav screen and an on-board TV. That was mostly useless, of course; it was an analogue TV and you could rarely get a decent signal. But my God, the rest of the car was just sensational, and not only because it was an M5.
All E39s are brilliant bits of kit. It was one of those seminal cars that blew away the opposition completely with what was, clearly, a mighty R and D budget. Even the regular six-cylinder versions were wonderful things: beautifully engineered, well-sorted handling, a superb ride, silky cruising manners and interior quality that was in a different league to pretty much anything else. With that in mind, an E39-based M5 was always going to be exceptional.
So it transpired. I know it wasn’t low volume and hand-built like its predecessors (they built 20,482 in the end, 2,595 in right-hand drive), but that didn’t stop it feeling like peak M5 back then – and it still is today. Not only did it have 400hp, which was beyond anything else you could have in a production saloon car back then, it was also the last analogue M5. Sure you had a Sport button, but all that does is make the steering heavier and the throttle response sharper. I pressed it once and didn’t really bother again, because the standard setup was better. There’s also the button that turns off the stability control – now that one you do need, which I’ll get to in a bit. But there was no SMG auto with adjustable shift times, no drift mode, no switchable sports exhaust, no adjustable suspension. Just a six-speed manual ‘box, a mechanically limited-slip diff and that big V8 engine. What more do you need?
And that engine is the heart of this car. The S62 was M Sport’s first V8 motor and a joyous thing. Derived from the 4.4-litre M62, it’s bored and stroked to 4.9-litres, but, this being M Sport, there was so much more to it than that. It has individual throttle bodies for each of its eight cylinders and a drive-by-wire throttle. The compression ratio is increased to 11.0:1, and it has double VANOS to alter the exhaust and inlet valve phasing of both banks. The quad cams are hollowed out to reduce their mass, and driven by twin-timing chains that can take the strain. It even has a semi-dry sump with twin scavenging oil pumps to keep the engine well-lubricated during hard cornering.
Its 400hp arrives at 6,600rpm, but the S62 revs freely to 7,000rpm once those amber warm-up lights have receded and it’s up to temperature. It’s such a well-rounded engine, though. On the one hand, it’s a highly tuned V8: frenetic and formidable at the top end and capable of destroying an E55 in a drag race. But when you want to expose the other side of the M5’s character – the calm and easy-going mile muncher – you kick back, relax and use the torque. It peaks at 369lb ft at 3,800rpm, but with 184lb ft from just above idle it pulls in sixth quite happily.
The bold stats are 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds, and an electronically limited v-max of 155mph. That said, I can tell you from personal experience it didn’t stop there. Once, on a trip through Europe, my M5 didn’t hit the limiter until an indicated 165mph. It wasn’t labouring to get there, either. It was still pulling hard enough that I could feel the point when the cut in acceleration occurred, and that seemingly endless performance was finally precipitously pegged.
This car isn’t a one-trick pony, though. Yes, the engine is mighty but you get a marvellous chassis thrown in for free. I simply love the handling. It isn’t spiky or fickle. I rarely drove mine with the ESP on, whatever the weather. Why? Because I wanted to access to its playfulness at every opportunity. The progressive breakaway and inherent adjustability were why I owned the thing, and when those are teamed with just the right amount of power and a crisp, naturally aspirated throttle response, you can pick your angles with impunity. In six years of ownership, I never got bored of that.
People moan about the steering, of course. All six-cylinder E39s came with a steering rack, but for packaging reasons the V8s had a steering box instead. It’s not the massive blight some would have you believe, though. It’s not buzzing with feel, sure, but you can always sense the understeer coming and the rate of response is spot on. The M5 had a quicker Servotronic setup, but it wasn’t too quick, so it gives you plenty of confidence to get stuck in on back roads.
And speaking of confidence on back roads, this was a biggish car in its day, yet it feels like a minnow now. Nothing like as bulky as the current M5, and smaller, lighter and nimbler even than a contemporary M3. The biggest difference is the width. The E39 is over 10cm narrower than the M3, yet even that feels conservative when you’re out on the road. Probably because it has such relatively thin pillars, so you can see everything that’s coming at you more easily. But unlike older, paper-bag classics, there’s still enough structure and pyrotechnic pop-ups around you to instil this sense that you might survive a hefty brush with something solid.
Did I mention it’s also comfortable? No? Well, it is. M Sport gave it different shocks, lower springs and a set of gorgeous 18-inch chrome-effect wheels, but none of that ruins the ride. And once again, I put that down to the depth of engineering in the basic E39 platform – its aluminium front suspension components and the top-drawer multi-link set-up at the rear. It’s also peaceful at high speed, so it really is the consummate all-rounder.
Those aren’t just plagiarised words. I used my M5 as it should be used, so that’s my first-hand experience. Mine was my only car, you see, so it went to the supermarket, the south of France and everything in between. And it did it all perfectly, without missing a beat for the six years I owned it, even though it was no garage queen. The guy I’d bought it from was the perfect private vendor. You know the sort: you turn up to this huge house with several other exotics on the driveway, and immediately you know there’s been no skimping on the brand of oil or tyres.
Despite his collection, the M5 was his main workhorse, though. He was selling it because he’d done 60,000 miles in the three years since he’d bought it new, and didn’t want to stick that kind of mileage on it for another year. I asked what he was replacing it with, assuming to hear “V10” and “M5” in the answer. But no. He told he didn’t like the look or the complexity of the then-new E60. Then he walked me over to his garage, opened the door and there sat another E39 M5. A 5,000-miler that he’d searched everywhere for, in the same Le Mans blue as the car featured here, as it happens. ‘I bought this,’ he said, ‘because to me it’s the perfect car’.
It really is, you know. I thought that then and I still do now after all these years. I sold mine when it was absolutely mint for £12,000, but having driven this one it’s not the fact that I let it go for so little that irks me (although, rest assured that does irk me); it’s that I let it go at all. Driving this one reminded me how absolutely brilliant the E39 M5 is. Taking everything into consideration – the blend of tech and simplicity, the speed and the comfort, the practicality and excitement – is there a better classic car than this? Personally, I don’t think so.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M5 (E39)
Engine: 4,941cc, V8, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400 @ 6,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369 @ 3,800rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,795kg (DIN)
On sale: 1998-2003
Price new: £52,000
Price now: £25,000-£55,000
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