Forewarning: This is not about a clean, pretty or polished M5 nor is it some stanced hard parker. It's the exact opposite, one that is dirty, loud, rugged and not afraid to be driven.
Several months back, an old buddy of mine mentioned he acquired some kind of M5. For one reason or another, I never bothered to ask about the kind and eventually managed to forget about it. Come summertime, I decided to visit for a few days. To my delight, it was an Imola Red E39 M5 that he bought. First impressions of the car were a combination of surprise and disdain. Most Imolas I've come across are a peach, mint and carefully driven. This one? While this one doesn’t look to be in bad shape at all, it looks like it was driven hard and proud. And sure it had ugly powdercoated black wheels thanks to the previous owner and sure it wasn't the freshest of examples, but it wasn't some garage queen either. If you ask me, the stock ride height is too tall, the paint had chips, the interior had bits of leather cracking and of course, the wheels needed to go (or at least restored to its beautiful stock finish). My buddy shared similar sentiments.
But you know what? I, as well as many others I’m sure, could go on and on about what's not perfect about it. And none of its imperfections took away from the fact that it was still an M5 that drove like an M5. And driving it is exactly what we decided to go do.
I have never driven an E39 M5 before. Strangely enough, the only M5 I have ever had seat time behind was an E60 M5 with an SMG tranny and that car was not quite my cup of tea. The brilliant, rev-happy and top end V10 felt out of place in such a big luxury saloon. It's a bit of a surprise then, that I found that the E39 M5 drives so differently. There was plenty of torque down under and it was very loud.
Did I mention it was unusually loud? Just a minute into the drive I asked him what kind exhaust system he was running. The sound and burble reminded me of something American, more specifically some kind of Mustang with perhaps a Modular 4.6.
His response was that it was nothing aftermarket. In fact, it was a stock system minus any resonators or mufflers. To the obsessive compulsive enthusiasts who go through a number of name brand exhaust system videos online to find the perfect tone, this was a kryptonite of an M5. This car did not emit a tone that was refined in anyway. The sound it makes liberates the S62 V8 from any muffling. In essence, in consistency with the rugged manner of this particular M5, minimal fucks were given. And I loved it.
The M5 also drives very differently from what I'm used to of my own car, a stiffened I-6 E39 on coilovers. The M5 is poised, but doesn't quite offer the razor sharpness of an I-6 Bimmer thanks to the lack of a rack and pinion system. My buddy's previous car was an E46 M3 and he agreed that they drive radically differently. This didn’t stop us from ripping up the curves like it was some dedicated canyon carver. Low-mid end torque made up for some of the fun lost through a heavy weight and a posh ride.
We came across a twisty road running through a valley not far from the Californian bay area and it offered a number of both fun and smooth roads and some other ones that are not so smooth covered in gravel and pebbles. Normally this would have been game over for someone with a hard parked show car. It wasn’t an issue for this M5 as it wasn’t afraid to be driven anywhere.
Leaving the rocky site, I was asked if I wanted shots of the beast kicking up a little smoke. I wasn’t about to encourage the proposition, but who doesn’t want to see an Imola Red M5 doing some work? Besides, it was the least it could do being the anti-garage queen it is.
The remainder of the road winded through open valleys and was seldom traveled given that we encountered few cars. Of the cars we did encounter though, we did not hesitate to overtake with runs to the redline (all while keeping the speed limit of course). It is long maintained that the American back road is best tackled with something American with a V8 in the front, three pedals and a shifter. Our version here is a bit more Bavarian, but roars along with a 5 liter V8 and a six speed no less.
As the road began to end feeding into a mundane interstate, we let the car cool off. No, it hasn’t broken down (luckily).
Naturally I began to wonder if the E39 M5 is a car I’d like to throw on my list of cars to own. Actually, that wasn’t the dilemma. I know I’ve wanted to own an E39 M5 since they debuted in 1999. The dilemma is whether or not to give up my E39 530i for one. Given how differently they drive, I’m not sure I can say definitely. Perhaps the formula to the perfect E39 is one some enthusiasts here have already figured out: an I-6 chassis with some kind of V8 (LSx or other) swap. For the BMW purists and the hardcore E39 enthusiasts, perhaps a 530i and an M5 come as the ideal combination.
I guess the real point to take away from all this is that one thing is for sure; the best M5 comes as one that is driven. At times, I’ve been guilty before for being reluctant to drive a car that I owned for one reason or another. It is the worst way to enjoy car ownership and the worst way to enjoy a car of this kind. While I’m not necessarily advocating neglecting the finish on your car and abusing it in dirt, I am advocating a refusal to let a car rot inside a garage. Take your car out and enjoy a drive.