Car of the Month - October 2005

Cars of the Month

The Car of the Month for October belongs to:
Adam Wilson

My M535i came into my hands in May 2003 after owning a 1981 528i and hanging out on the firstfives board for probably three years. I loved the E12 styling and in a perfect world with infinite garage space (and money), I would have kept the 528i. But I decided that what I really wanted was the ultimate BMW factory version of the E12, and I wanted a real one. I sold the 528i to fellow listmember Tulsa Dave and began searching for the right M535i. My favorite color combo is white over black and in the back of my mind, this is what I wanted. Also white with Motorsport stripes has been the traditional configuration for BMW's factory racecars and I thought a white M535i would look great with this combination.

Eventually I came across an ad for an unassuming, euro E12 advertised as an M535i. With no front or rear spoilers as nearly all E12 M535i's had, I was skeptical about the car's authenticity. It was on Autotrader for the huge sum of $12,000 and the owner was in Georgia. After speaking with the owner who liked the car but was not a huge BMW enthusiast, I was able to confirm over the phone that it had the dogleg transmission and the vin # matched the E12 M535i sequence. Moreover, it was car #18 of 1410 produced so it was even more rare. Most importantly, it was white with black interior. A fellow firstfives member went and looked at the car for me confirming what it really was, a crank window, power-sunroof E12 M535i with no front or rear spoilers. Mileage was 161,500 approximately.

When I flew down from Chicago to see the car, I was already in love because of the vin# and color combo. (stupid mistake #1). I also didn't REALLY search for rust, but I saw some troubling signs (stupid mistake #2). Furthermore, the owner had zero paperwork for the car and couldn't even remember the year he bought it. (yep, mistake #3). Finally, I didn't try to bargain any further once I saw the car in person and noted many other flaws, but NO, I did NOT pay $12K! (stupid mistake #4!). I should have looked the car over more and paid far less. The owner thought he had a super rare gem (yes, rare, and it needed to be saved) but he was still miffed that he wasn't getting $12K. But, how many E12 M535i's are in the US, and this was a white one which I wanted? So overlooking the bent rear trailing arm, non-functional a/c, center console hack job with a terrible attempt at converting to power windows E28 style, the troubling signs of rust, and obvious headlight grille fitment issues due to accident damage in the front, I bought the car anyway and drove it back to Chicago.

The car was actually pretty reliable from the get-go and I set about trying to correct all of the misfortunes that had befallen the car during its hard life. I also started compiling a book of receipts and photos along the way so that I had a good record of my progress. One of the first things I did was contact the EPA/Dot record offices in Washington, D.C. to get the federalization paperwork for my car. Buying a greymarket BMW without this paperwork probably wasn't wise, but as long as you have a title from a state, most states in the US will honor that (California is more difficult). For a nominal fee, I was able to get the EPA records and the DOT paperwork which showed the car was imported to the US in November, 1985. The doorjamb of the car also had an engraving listing the owner who imported the car as Joe Harmon (more on this later). New Mahle/BBS 14x7 wheels were refinished and fitted to the car to ditch the ugly E28 bottlecaps it had on it. A new trailing arm replaced the bent left rear one, some brake work was done, and a new timing chain put in as preventative maintenance. I also ripped out the non-working (and non-original) a/c, sourced a new center console and crank window door panels from a euro 528i, and fitted rear headrests from the same parts-car euro 528i which matched my interior perfectly. The car was starting to come together.

As warmer weather came around in Chicago during the Spring of 2004, I started driving the car again after its winter hybernation. A new oil pump was put in because it took a long time to build oil pressure after a cold startup and the BMWCCA mechanic/enthusiast who did the job told me the motor had probably closer to 200K on it (the odometer showed about 162K) and it was nearly time to be rebuilt. A month or so later after a spirited drive, I returned home and saw that the car had been dripping large spots of oil down the driveway as I backed in the garage. The source wasn't obvious, but I think it was from the back of the head or the rear main seal. I decided to embark on an ambitious and complete rebuild of the motor for my own peace-of-mind.

Over the next 14 months, I learned a lot about the car, some good, some bad, and I feel like I really know much more about its inner workings after tackling this project myself. I disassembled nearly everything under the hood, pulled the engine, and stripped it to a bare block. I then took the motor and all the pieces to a reputable machinist who does engine rebuilds for hot rod drag racers and BMW Car Club race cars. He's well known in BMW circles in Chicago. He determined that new pistons were needed and they are not cheap for the 3453cc "L" block (M90) engines such as these. I decided to use JE custom pistons instead which are superior in terms of light weight, strength, and allow custom build parameters such as bumping compression. A .07mm overbore was done on the block whereas the first oversize with OEM Mahle pistons would have required a .2mm overbore. The JE pistons with rings and wrist pins were 3/4 of the cost of the Mahles and were 150 grams lighter for each piston. The bottom end was fully balanced including the crank, rods, pistons, harmonic balancer, flywheel, crank hub, and pressure plate. The rods were rebuilt and shot peened, the block was decked, and the head was pressure checked and tested but not worked over. The head had been redone by the previous owner approximately 10K miles ago and the machinist said it looked good. The compression ratio was bumped to 9.75:1 with the new pistons from the M90 engine's stock 9.3:1 rating. The casting date on the head is 1980 and the block has the car's vin # engraved on it so I'm sure the entire engine is original.

I began the slow reassembly process when the garage started getting warm enough to go out and work again in the early Spring of 2005. I used a JBR 8.5 lb aluminum flywheel and Sachs Sport clutch with new pilot and throwout bearings in addition to many other tweaks along the way. Some rust by the firewall was patched with POR-15, the fuel injectors were sent out to be flow tested and balanced, the oil pan, intake, valve cover gasket, and bell housing were blasted and clearcoated, new motor mounts were fitted, and new OEM hardware was used extensively through out the intake and engine accessory reassembly. New hoses and belts were also included of course. The oil cooler lines were also replaced with custom made, steel-braided lines. The original, euro exhaust manifolds that look like short headers were sent to Jet-Hot coatings and treated with their coating process.

Also during the engine rebuild process, other areas of the cars were addressed. Alpina progressive rate springs with Bilstein Sport shocks were fitted, and K-Mac front camber plates were installed. The original E12 M535i front and rear spoilers were sourced and the front spoiler was painted to match. Both were installed while the engine was at the machine shop. While the motor was out, the front subframe was even removed for cleaning and installation of new tie rods and radius rod bushings (Grunts bushings).

The car has only been back on the road since early August 2005 and there are still issues to fix and tweak. I retained the original exhaust for now just because the car was never going to get on the road by the end of summer if I waited for a new exhaust. I also was able to find out about Nolan "Joe" Harmon, the original owner in the United States who imported the car. Unfortunately he is deceased but I did locate his son who learned to drive stick in the car and recalled how much his father loved it. We have stayed in contact during my work on the car and hope to meet in person if he ever comes through Chicago.

There is much more info and documentation about the car and the engine rebuild process on my website,

Future plans include: 16" wheels, Motorsport stripes, Rust repair in the trunk and rear shock towers, new doors, new hood, paint, exhaust, auxiliary Cibie front lights, headlight washers, and flat Cibie headlights so that the washers will work.

Current status, parts replaced/modified:

Adam's 1980 528i

© 2005, ™