BMW E12 M535i

THE BMW E12 M535i.

The pioneer.

THE BMW E12 M535i.The pioneer.

This automobile was a premiere for BMW M and at the same time the start of a success story: In 1979, the BMW M535i became the first vehicle produced in series from BMW M, back then still BMW Motorsport. The specialist press and customers received the strongest BMW E12 5 series with something approaching euphoria, coining phrases like “M for Muscles” or “The Bavarian Power Station”.

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BMW E12 M535i standing on the coast.
“A new dimension of understatement: extraordinary performance in reserved form.”
BMW brochure “M535i. Special version from Motorsport”, 1980


  • 01 First series model from BMW M
  • 02 Modified sports suspension
  • 03 Output: 160 kW (218 hp)
  • 04 Construction period: 04/1980 to 07/1981
  • 05 Production number: 1,650
BMW E12 M535i in front view driving on a country road.


When the BMW M535i was launched in 1980, it brought worlds together which had hitherto been separate: sporty driving, comfort and elegance and all in the dimensions of a top-of-the-range limousine. A revolutionary idea, because at the time the more potent engines were reserved for luxury limousines, coupés or classic sports cars. The new top model of the BMW E12 5 series went its own way: four doors, understated design, the latest technology and an engine straight out of motorsport distinguished the BMW M535i. One brochure for the vehicle put it aptly: “A top-of-the-range limousine, compact and businesslike, but with the performance and driving potential of a sophisticated sportscar.” Thus, the first performance model was born.

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Picture of the driving BMW E12 M525i from 1980

      BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

      The rear of the BMW E12 M535i.

          BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

          The front end of the BMW E12 M535i.

              BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

              The BMW E12 M535i driving in 1980.

                  BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

                  The BMW E12 M535i in front view, driving on a gravel road, in a photograph taken for the 1980 launch.

                      BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

                      The BMW E12 M535i in a shot from 1980 on a gravel road.

                          BMW E12 M535i: The first series model from BMW M

                          UNMISTAKEABLE LINEAGE.

                          Still today, insights from motor sport flow into BMW M series vehicles, the roots of the marque can be found in every automobile bearing the most powerful letters in the world. As it was with the first series model. The engine in the BMW M535i is based on that of the BMW M1. The 3,5l straight six-cylinder motor of the most powerful E12 5 series has the potency to match: 160 kW (218 hp) and 310 Nm.

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                          The engine of the BMW E12 M535i.

                          With this performance and weighing just 1,430 kilos, the BMW M535i achieved pretty impressive statistics for its time. To get from 0 to 100 km/h, the limousine took just 7.5 seconds and the top speed was 222 km/h according to the works. In 1980, German car magazine auto motor und sport reported some even more impressive figures: In their test, the M535i took only 7.0 seconds to reach the ton from a standing start and the top speed was an astonishing 227.8 km/h.


                          Because peak output is already available at 5,200 rpm and maximum torque achieved at 4,000 rpm, the 5 series was in a position to leave even greater-capacity 8-cylinder engines in its wake.

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                          TECHNICAL DATA.

                          BMW E12 M535i.

                          Engine: Straight 6-cylinder

                          Capacity: 3,453 cm³

                          Output : 160 kW (218 hp) at 5,200 rpm

                          Transmission: 5-speed sports gearbox

                          Top speed: 222 km/h

                          Weight: 1,430 kg

                          Length: 4,620 mm

                          Width: 1,690 mm

                          Height: 1,425 mm

                          Wheelbase: 2,636 mm

                          Number produced: 1,650

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                          “This Edelweiß Express, which should really only be sold to those of exemplary character, gives the impression of being almost weightless. The driver only needs to stroke the accelerator and every overtaking manoeuvre becomes a pleasure.”
                          Driving report in German car magazine Autozeitung in 1980
                          The BMW E12 M535i in profile on the coast.
                          Detail of the front with kidney and headlights of the BMW E12 M535i.
                          Detailed view of the rear of the BMW E12 M535i.

                          OPTICAL UNDERSTATEMENT.

                          Externally, the strongest 5 series makes an understated impression: No major changes to the bodywork, so that the hand of French designer Paul Bracq remains clearly recognizable on the BMW M535i. Extended lines, generous amounts of glass and a low waistline characterize the bodywork. Supplemented by typical BMW elements: double headlights and Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. The M automobile exclusively had the iconic cross-spoke alloy wheels. Nowadays, we associate them above all with the BMW E30 M3, although in fact the M535i had them as standard six years previously. 

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                          The front of the BMW E12 M535i.

                          Those wanting to highlight more of the limousine’s assets did so via the optional equipment. Special spoilers at the front and on the boot lid distinguished the M535i not just from the other 5 series models, they also improved the aerodynamics. The trim stripes in the M colours inside and out are purely decorative and a visual manifestation of the car’s motor sports roots. But even with these attributes the M535i wasn’t as conspicuous as most would have expected in this performance category. So “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is still the most common epithet applied to the M535i even today.

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                          Rear view of the BMW E12 M535i.
                          The rear seat of the BMW E12 M535i with M stripes.
                          “A BMW limousine which promises particularly intense pleasure, despite looking at first glance like a normal 520 or 528i.”
                          Test report in German car magazine auto motor und sport, 1980

                          A SPECIALITY.

                          Alongside the fusion of comfort and sportiness there were two watchwords for the developers of the BMW M535i: handling and safety. Which is why the vehicle was given a new suspension. Special struts and gas pressure absorbers were enhanced by a limited-slip differential on the rear axle and disc brakes on both axles. The result of these modifications was a fascinating road performance which even in borderline situations conveyed a feeling of absolute safety. Or as Autozeitung put it in 1980: “It’s hard to enjoy the driving experience in this car and retain one’s driving licence for very long.” auto motor and sport agreed: “The technicians have managed to find […] a chassis tuning better than any other in the current BMW programme.”

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                          The BMW E12 M535i driving on a country road.
                          Rear view of the BMW E12 M5435i driving on a country road.

                          ALWAYS A RARITY.

                          It’s unthinkable today, but back then the news that the most powerful letter in the world was now to be had in series had to get around first. So BMW Motorsport had to make provisions, as reported by Autozeitung in 1980: “One important accessory: every purchaser of a works M535i gets an additional handbook. When the car has to go to the workshop, BMW Motorsport advises owners to tell their mechanics about the changes made or ideally just give them the handbook.” An idiosyncrasy spared drivers of today’s BMW M 5 series automobiles.


                          Today, BMW E12 M535i’s are rare and seldom offered on the popular online platforms. When they are, prices for vehicles in good condition are around €40,000. This figure is nearly the car’s launch price in Germany in DMark: in the early 80s, the M535i cost DM 43,595.

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                          BMW E12 M535i.