History Of The BMW 5 Series – Seven Generations And Counting From 1972

The 5 Series is BMW’s longest-running and most cherished nameplate. Appropriately then, BMW’s global marketing campaign of the all-new G30 5 Series gives firm nod to the heritage of its predecessors. Over the past month, BMW has been releasing a series of history videos dedicated to each preceding generation of the 5 Series.

1st Generation – E12 (1972 – 1981)

Carrying on from the successes of the New Class family that revitalized BMW’s fortunes in the 1960s, the first generation 5 Series pioneered BMW’s present-day three-digit naming convention. It was also the first BMW model to roll out from the Dingolfing plant that continues to be the BMW Group’s biggest production facility in Europe with 17,500 people in its employment.

Design of the E12 was signed off by Paul Bracq, BMW’s head of design from 1970 to 1974. The E12 was launched in 1972 with a pair of 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engines powering the carburettor-fed 520 and fuel-injected 520i. Six-cylinder engines were added to the roster only a year later.

Computer-aided engineering was employed in the design process of the E12, although not to the extensive level by today’s standards. BMW’s engineers had utilized computers to aid in calculations for the vehicle’s safety structures in rollover protection as well as crumple zone design against frontal collisions.

In its nine-year model run from 1972 to 1981, BMW sold over 700,000 units of the E12 5 Series, setting the foundation for one of its most successful model series ever.

2nd Generation – E28 (1981 – 1988)

Beneath its evolutionary appearance, the second-generation E28 5 Series boasted many technical upgrades over its predecessor. Inside, a fully revamped cockpit takes on a more driver-oriented focus as inspired by the E21 3 Series introduced in 1975.

Substantial engineering man-hours were put into the chassis, which included anti-lock braking system for the first time. The characteristic vibrations of ABS at work forced BMW engineers to reconfigure the suspension architecture. The complex calculations needed for the redesign was fed into computer – BMW’s only one and was used at the time to manage the computer’s spare part logistics and payroll.

Efficient powertrains took centre stage with the E28. In 1983, BMW introduced the 524td powered by the 2.4-litre M21 six-cylinder turbodiesel pushing out 115hp and 210Nm. It was the world’s fastest series-produced diesel vehicle with a top speed of 180 km/h.

Another efficiency-driven engine concept is the 525e. In contrast to the current approach of downsizing, BMW’s engineers took the 2.0-litre M20 six-cylinder petrol engine and re-stroked it to displace 2.7 litres but capped its operating range to low revs. Compared to the 520i of the same generation, the 525e’s identical power output of 129hp peaked at a lower 4,250rpm instead of over 6,000rpm. Fuel consumption of the 525e is said to be nine percent lower than the 520i.

In total, BMW sold approximately 722,000 units of the E28 5 Series.

3rd Generation – E34 (1988 – 1996)

Developed concurrently with the E32 7 Series, the E34 5 Series adopted much of its larger sibling’s styling cues. Its unassuming styling feels exceedingly conservative by today’s standards, but represented a radical departure from its two predecessors. Despite its boxy shape, the E34’s drag coefficient is a commendable 0.30 – competitive even by today’s standards.

A great variety of powertrains was offered with the E34; depending on market and model year, choices ranged from the 1.8-litre four-cylinder 518i right up to the 4.0-litre V8 540i with outputs from 113 to 286hp. All-wheel drive was introduced in 1991 with the 525iX, responding to demand from the North American market, laying the foundations for BMW’s now-famed xDrive all-wheel drive system. Electronic stability control also made its debut in the E34.

Another notable introduction with the E34 is the first ever 5 Series Touring model, the wagon bodystyle that has since become a staple of the 5 Series range. As an added touch of practicality, the E34 Touring’s rear windscreen can be separately opened to allow convenient loading and unloading of light items.

The E34 was immensely successful, with over 1.3 million units sold worldwide, nearly matching the combined total of both its predecessors.

4th Generation – E39 (1996 – 2004)

Largely regarded as one of BMW’s best 5 Series ever, the E39 debuted in December 1995 and officially went on sale in 1996. A thoroughly well-engineered vehicle even by today’s standards, the 20-year-old E39 featured extensive use of aluminium in its superstructure, enabling BMW to shed up to 65kg of weight compared to the E34.

The Touring model came two years after the sedan’s introduction. A key improvement from the E34 Touring is vastly improved luggage space, made possible by the use of a more compact aluminium rear axle to minimize intrusion by the strut domes. As a result the E39 Touring is able to provide a flat loading space with 410 litres of volume that can be further extended to 1,525 litres with the rear seats pushed down.

At the turn of the millennium, BMW gave a subtle but crucial facelift to the E39. One particular styling cue that continues to be seen today across the BMW range is the corona ring lighting signature of the front headlamps.

Production of the E39 came to an end in 2004, with approximately 1.4 million vehicles sold, with 266,000 of them being Touring models.

5th Generation – E60 (2004 – 2010)

After four generations of conservative looks, BMW made a conscious decision to radically alter the familiar 5 Series template with the E60. To go with its daring looks, the E60 was accordingly packed with a raft of new technologies.

Highlight features include Active Steering, adaptive headlights, and heads-up display. According to BMW, heads-up display helped improve resale rate of vehicles so-equipped by over 90 percent – a claim valid only, you’d suspect, for the US and European market.

Today a much-lauded feature, the iDrive system was still at its infancy during the days of the E60 and at the time much-maligned. It was only the second model to receive the feature after the equally-controversial E65 7 Series.

Carrying on from the E39’s extensive use of lightweight alloy construction, the E60 featured a lightened all-aluminium front end, which not only helped reduce the vehicle’s overall weight, but also contributed significantly to enable an even 50:50 front-rear weight distribution.

The E60’s production run of six years is significantly shorter than any of its predecessors, but BMW still managed to shift 1.4 million units of this car worldwide. Not bad for a car derided as ugly at the start of its model life cycle.

6th Generation – F10 (2010 – 2017)

The most successful version of the 5 Series to date, the F10 was an international best-seller throughout its model life cycle. Eschewing the curvy lines of the E60, the F10 went back to a more conservative shape more akin to the preceding E34 and E39 models.

Whilst going back to a conventional steel structure, BMW reconfigured the F10’s suspension to feature front double wishbones, a significant upgrade from the MacPherson strut setup used in previous models. Electric power steering is also introduced along with four-wheel Integral Active Steer – the M5 retained a hydraulic setup, however.

Less than 24 months ahead of the F10’s launch, BMW was thrown a curve ball by Euro NCAP’s new testing procedures, which forced the major adjustments to the F10’s front structure for improved pedestrian production. The efforts paid off, however, with a five-star rating.

In addition to the new familiar sedan and touring bodystyles, the sixth-generation 5 Series also had a unique Gran Turismo model that is said to blend the practicality of an SUV with the luxury of a grand tourer. A dedicated long wheelbase model was also offered exclusively in the Chinese market.

The F10 5 Series is likely to be the last ever 5 Series to have been offered with naturally-aspirated six-cylinder petrol engines, which were available at launch but subsequently phased out in favour of downsized 2.0-litre turbocharged mills.

It took just three years for BMW to hit 1 million sales for the sixth-generation 5 Series. The model generation eventually signed off with more than 2.3 million units sold, making it the most successful 5 Series ever.

In addition to the history videos, BMW also released the following video comparing the F10 side-by-side with its G30 successor:

Through our sister publication Carlist.my, this writer was also given the opportunity to drive the first four generations of the BMW 5 Series during the G30's international media launch in Lisbon, Portugal.