Why I ended up buying two E12 BMW M535i's

Published: 28 January 2010

There’s something about impending fatherhood that makes me rush out and buy cars that I have absolutely no need for. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis thing, I’m not sure, but I can tell you that children are certainly expensive, though not for the reasons everyone thinks.

Three years ago I bought a 1989 911 Carrera two weeks before my son was born. Now, with another baby less than a month away, I’ve convinced myself that what I really need is a 1981 BMW M535i, the blue car you can see in the picture. Yes, the picture in which there’s also a white E12 M535i. Regular CAR Magazine readers may have seen it before lurking in a long-term test picture when I dragged it out from under a tree with my old Lexus IS-F.

The E12 M535i is a misunderstood car, sneered on by some because it doesn’t have 24-valve engine that was fitted to the M5 five years later, and confused by many with the later E28 M535i. While the E12 version was built by hand at M division in Garching, the E28 (recognised by its awful bodykit) was just a dress-up job built on the main line at Dingolfing. Damned sight easier to get parts for, though.

BMW M353i: a future classic?

But interest is finally picking up as the significance of the first M saloon dawns on collectors. They’re fun things with hilarious wet weather handling, a clunky dog-leg gearbox and cool corduroy Recaros. Everyone raves about the E28 M5 and having owned one of those too, I’d agree it’s a better car. But I love the E12’s rawness. It’s still pretty quick too: 140mph and 60mph in 7ish sec. There were 408 right hand drive E12 M535is built between 1980-81 but an appetite for rust and disappearing off wet roads backwards has killed most of them. There are probably comfortably less than 100 left in the UK and most of them are in bits.

Just like my white one in fact. I bought it back in October 2005 when I was young free and single. It had done just 70,000 miles but hadn’t been on the road since 1992. Since then it’s covered quite a few miles but as every one of them has been on the back of a flatbed truck moving it from house to house, the odometer hasn’t shifted.

Work in progress: the perennial enthusiast's problem

Women, babies, the Porsche and a pathetic unwillingness to work outside in the winter (I’ve only recently got a garage) are my excuses for it remaining inanimate. So I took the easy way out and bought another one. It’s not as original and has done double the miles but at least it drives and gets me back behind the wheel of a sharknose BMW while the white one is being finished.

And this year it really will be. I’ve set myself a summer 2010 deadline to get it back on the road or it’s off to Ebay with the thing. I’m putting my foot down in other matters too: I’ve told my girlfriend that a third baby is out of the question. Fortunately she agrees – we're running out of driveway.

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By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker