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hippie dave

What to look for when buying an E28.

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It recently occurred to me that us E28 nuts have discussed buying advice a few times, and continue to cover more or less the same points every time somebody new to the forum asks.

I collated information from all those previous threads and jotted it down on a brown envelope earlier in the year when I went to view an M535i on behalf of another member. The other day I found aforementioned brown envelope in the jacket I was wearing on the day and thought it might be a good idea to pull it all into one guide for the benefit of those coming here looking for buying advice.

If I have got something factually incorrect, I apologise. Shout and I will make amends.

If I have missed anything out, Add it to the thread.

Hopefully this write up will be of some use to new owners in the future.

The main thing to do with these cars is not to buy on mechanical, but on bodywork condition. They don't rust nearly as badly as some cars of the era, but its still 23 years now since the last one left Munich. Some body panels are hard to find but good used power plants are basically ten-a-penny, With mixing and matching from the range and (to an extent) even other models such as the 3,6 and 7 series entirely possible.

Common bodywork weak spots are as follows:

>Jacking points

>Ends of the sills (repro sills are available HERE for about £18 per side but do not include the full extent of the part of the rear edge that tends to rot) Ask the seller if any past repairs have been carried out, sometimes the sill drains can become blocked resulting in them filling with water.

>wheel arches and around mud flaps

>Sun roof panel (available at £125 from BMW but I doubt that includes prep and paint, which is about another £100): make sure the drain holes are not blocked by opening the roof and pouring a bottle of water down each of them: if it does not emerge at the sills either the drains need unblocking, someone has done a bodge-job on the sills, or there is damage to the drains in the A-pillars.

>underside edge of bonnet where the vents are at the screen (remove the rubber soundproofing to check) also check the leading edge.

>Wing bottoms: although there has been talk of some late e28's having galvanised panels. Some owners have found their wheelarches surprisingly rot-resistant, whereas both my D plate cars have some small bubbles round these areas

>Doors: underneath as well as round hinges

>Chrome bumpers, rear corners especially. These rot badly due to a design flaw in which rainwater is channelled onto them straight off the roof. They are very hard to find second hand and are £££ from BMW. However, Ducklordthefirst Is a metal polisher and sells re-chromed items.

>Footwells and floor: Check fronts carefully. The area around accelerator pedal tends to go, this is best checked from underneath with a screwdriver as the soundproofing applied to the floor does a good job of hiding this. not strictly hard to repair, but a common spot for corrosion. Lift the front carpets and the soundproof matting: If they are soaked like sponges it could point to either a leak in the bulkhead or screen area or damaged sunroof drains in the A-pillars. This may point to further rot in the footwells depending on how long they have been in this state. On the other hand, a leaking heater matrix may be the culprit, and marks will probably be evident on the carpet. its not strictly a hard job, but the whole dash and centre console has to come out, making replacement very time consuming.

If the soundproofing in the rear footwells and under the rear seat is wet this probably indicates a failed boot seal, a common failing point due to a design flaw as the corners split. available only at £51 from the dealer, they are still made to the old design and are a total utter ballache to glue in. Mine fitted badly on the 528 and the corners split again almost instantly.

Because I am a pikey I super glued my 520's one back together and it seems to hold.....

> Boot. again, the aforementioned boot seal issue. May initially appear as condensation on the underside of the lid, but it means sort it out sooner rather than later. This will begin to damage the boot trim, especially the board trim panel covering the rear lights, and as a result good ones of these are hard to find. wet rear footwells and mildew under the rear seat are also a sure sign of this. It could however be the rear light cluster seals: again, available at BMW for a price. the best way is to get inside the boot with a torch while someone hoses down the area.

>Fuel filler neck and tank: the seam where the filler meets the tank fails, and the three vent pipes in the top of the tank are a common place for corrosion.

>Rear lights/slam panel check round the number-plate-lights as this area goes. as do the bodywork seams where the rear slam panel meets the wing just below the tail lights. Also the light cluster seals fail as mentioned.

>A-pillars and front screen surround if there are any issues here then run and hide unless you could potentially weld yourself out of some very deep shite. This is brazed, rather than welded at the factory, making repairs very complex. Needless to say, it is more than likely to be a screen-out job.

On the M535i or any other car that may be body-kitted these issues are of even more importance as they are so easily masked by the body kit. front and rear valances need careful inspection, if there is any bubbling or evidence of filler around the sill skirts, boot spoiler, or wheel arch spats (the last two items are sometimes seen fitted to non bodykit cars), it is probably a damn sight worse underneath.

Other corrosion issues:

>Spare wheel well and boot floor

>Suspension: front suspension struts and top spring cups rot easily, and have been known to collapse while the car is in motion (with potentially lethal consequences). check their condition very carefully especially the spring cups.

>Rear subframe and axle mounts

>perished or corroded Fuel and brake lines:fuel issue will be apparent if there is a petrol smell under the bonnet. four metal pipes, two fuel and two brake, run along the floorpan adjacent to the rear sill. These have been known to corrode and be picked up at MOT time. The clips are a right bitch to remove, I broke two screwdrivers. best policy is to get medieval then drill new holes for new clips, but for gods sake be careful with grinding equipment where fuel lines are concerned.


eight different engines/models were available in the UK.

4 cylinder 518. Early, entry level carburettor model, now a rare car. carbs allegedly a right bitch to set up correctly, bog basic spec with no thermostatic heating and no PAS, was superseded by much bettered and slightly up-specced fuel injected 518i (M10B18)

"Baby six" 6 cylinder 520i and 525e (M20B20 and M20B27 respectively)

"Big six" 6 cylinder 525i, 528i, 535i and M535i (M30B25, M30B28, and M30B34 respectively)

518i wont break any speed records but are still capable in modern traffic and good on the fuel.

525e was an economy special and is said to be very good on the fuel, probably the best all-rounder from the range and fairly common, but this was only ever available as an auto in the UK. 520 was its lesser sibling, still a good and very capable car and available in manual guise but less powerful and less torquey than the 525e (or "eta"). fuel consumption is no better than that of an eta.

535 is the one for [clarkson voice] POWEEEEEEERRRR!!!! [/clarkson voice]. will easily show most moderns a clean pair of heels and can be wound up to near enough 150mph. 528 is its lesser sibling, performance definitely not as firey but still no slowcoach nonetheless. fuel consumption not significantly better than a 535. same goes for the 525i, not very common now and a bit of a "runt-of-the-litter" so to speak. consumption no better than that of a 528 and less poke yet again.

M5: fitted with a 6 cylinder twin cam 24 valve M88/3 unit. distinguished by "BMW M power" lettering on the rocker cover and no rectangular airbox like the M30. Very rare in the UK: only 187 RHD cars built for the UK market although there were some more RHD cars in south africa. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking some old nail of a 528i with posh wheels and some shiny badges is in fact a kosher M5. They are a completely different kettle of bananas but In a nutshell, they are distinguished by the engine, a black headlining and a very high spec level: all got air conditioning as standard among other goodies. Make as certain as certain can be there is proper Service history especially with regards to the timing chain.

> Most post-1986 518i, 520i and 525e cars were "lux" spec, this was a popular package that included as standard some popular options you would otherwise have to tick boxes for. these included sunroof, front electric windows and wing mirrors, central locking, velour trim (more durable than cloth), Alloy wheels, and fog lights.

> 535i and M535i cars: M535i arrived first in mid 1984 with the standard 535 following it in early 1985, the earliest examples being on B plates. The two are mechanically identical. Bilstien Dampers were fitted as standard to each, most were fitted with metric M sport wheels (many now replaced with an imperial size as their assosciated TRX tyres were utter rubbish), and The M535i was fitted with a body kit. That is the only difference, so dont let anyone try and fool you into thinking their M535 is some special works motorsport Mpower edition!

> GEARBOXES: 3.5 litre cars were available with a 5 speed "dogleg" sports close ratio manual gearbox, worth a premium now. On these, first gear is left and backwards. the alternative is a standard "H-pattern" 5 speed gearbox. H-pattern units are overdriven in fifth, whereas dogleg units are not (they are 1:1 in fifth) and as a result can be a bit of a bore when it comes to motorway cruising. 528's with dogleg boxes have been known to exist, too.

The 525e and the 535i could be had with a 4 speed "switchable" auto, so called because it can be switched between a "standard" and "sport" mode by means of a knob adjacent to the gearlever.

525e was only ever an auto in the UK. It is possible to convert it to 5 speed manual however with a 'box from a 325i. ask "bmop700f" or "elephant" about that one.

520i, 525i and 528i cars were available only with 5 speed manual or 4 speed non-switchable auto boxes (very early auto's were 3-speed).

518's and 518i's only ever came as 5 speed manuals, and I Think the 518's were in fact 4 speed.

Mechanical checks

Crucial with any M20 car is to ask when the cambelt was last changed: they should be done every 30,000 miles along with the water pump (the latter simply because its a pig of a job with the belt in situ). Not nescasserily something to check when buying, but the cylinder head on an M20 is secured with hex-head "stretch bolts": these have been known to snap without warning, and will more than likely wreck the cylinder head if any resulting shrapnel gets caught in the works. They may or may not have been replaced with non-stretching torx-head bolts. Just something to bear in mind if the head has to come off for any reason.

M30 engines share no parts with the M20, and have a timing chain which is not known for any issues: but the top end can get rattly so make sure its just tappets. Again, not strictly a buying point but check that the "banjo bolts" that secure the oil spray bar inside the cylinder head in an M30 engine are good and tight: these work loose over time: starving the valve train of oil. this results in damage through lack of lubrication and even more damage if the bolts fall out and get caught up in the camshaft. New ones are about £4 apiece from BMW and are supplied with loctite so are more or less fit-and forget. Just dont nip them up again after you've fitted them.

> Check the anti freeze is topped up: all these engines have aluminium cylinder heads so although its not as much of an issue as it is on later BMW's, cracked heads are such a bore. check that the temperature needle sits in the middle and more or less stays there.

Check for head gasket issues. As mentioned earlier, good used complete engines as well as cylinder heads are not impossible to find.

> An oil pressure light might just be down to a failed sensor

> Check for good service history

>Check the Exhaust is in reasonable nick

>Gear stick bush on a manual gearbox can wear, resulting in the gear stick feeling very loose and shaky. new bush not expensive but job is so much easier with the 'box out, so I am told.

> rear suspension subframe bushes are a tricky job to replace and require special tools (but do read Robbo's excellent guide to the subject if you do them yourself). a "clonk" from the rear on take-off is indicative of this problem.

> wheel swaps are common practice and can result in knocks or a shimmy at certain speeds, something to bear in mind.

> Knocking from the steering May be a broken steering box mount

> check the operation of the ABS if it is fitted. An ABS light "not following the correct sequence of operation" is an MOT fail: it should come on with the ignition, then go out when the engine is started. If it does this, but comes on at speed, there is a faulty wheel sensor, but diagnosing which one can be tricky, I am told. If it doesnt go out after the car is started, it could really be anything, most likely the ECU located above the glovebox. It is possible to remove the entire system if desired.

> A high or erratic idle speed is likely to be down to either a dodgy cold start valve, perished or pinched vacum pipes under the bonnet or a fault with the air flow meter (AFM: the module in front of the air filter with an electrical connection. The car should idle somewhere in the region of 800rpm, any higher than 1000 or so and you will want to inspect further.

Interior and other checks

> instrument clusters fail readily. the service indicator is the first to go: often followed by the temp gauge, rev counter and economy gauge. The issue lies with the two batteries in the circuit board that retain the service indicators memory: these fail and if they leak, the board and tracks can get damaged, rendering the board scrap. later boards can be repaired and the batteries do not leak as easily, but earlier boards apparently cannot be repaired after the batteries have failed thanks to the design. your best bet is to source a good used unit, getting harder nowadays especially as they changed the cluster design post 1986. BMW will want £400+ for a new board, although the later type at least can be repaired easily with batteries in a remotely mounted holder. PM myself if you want this sorting :wink:

>On board computer (OBC) is unlikely to work if the instrument cluster has issues as mentioned. a failed OBC backlight is easily fixed and the bulbs are pennies from BMW.

Dodgy Check control may be a faulty panel in the cabin or a faulty module in the boot.

> plastic stereo surrounds break, but are about £10 from BMW.

> a brake pad wear light probably indicates a failed sensor. one per axle: on the NSF and OSR wheels. these are only a few pounds through eBay and should be replaced along with brake pads.

> Metric M-sport wheels were standard on the M535i, and other metric rims were sometimes fitted to other e28's. The TRX or equivalent metric tyres are very expensive, and are said to handle very badly. Many have been replaced with either 14, 15, or 17" jobbies by now.

> If it has a tow bar, check it is a factory fit. Look in the boot and make sure you see three bracing bars. Check that the wiring doesn't look like spaghetti in scotchlock sauce.....

> Check that electric windows, sunroof and mirrors work: motors can pack up but are not too hard to find off breakers. Switches can become gummed up with dirt: easy enough to dismantle, clean and lubricate with a clean bench, instrument screwdrivers, emery cloth and a steady hand.

> Dicky central locking is likely to be the control unit/relay located in the a pillar behind the drivers speaker

> Heater motors are a common failing point

> Dash tops crack in the sun and are getting harder to find. If its been kept polished it shouldn't be too bad, but replacement is a time consuming job as All the trim, switches, heating controls and instruments need to come out in order to remove it.

Sun damage can also de-laminate the sun-visor panel (I fixed mine with some heavy duty clamps and upholsterers glue) as well as discolour the rear headrests, parcel shelf and seat covers and cause the materiel to go brittle. Rear headrests are hard to find. I did once read something about how one owner re-coloured his discoloured black rear parcel shelf with some aerosol upholstery paint.

> Drivers seat bolsters wear, and some of the many types of materiel BMW used over the years is NLA. good used interiors are available, ranging from £75 or so for a used-but-still-good cloth set to about the £350 mark for mint sport leather. E30 front seats will fit if the runners are exchanged. E32 and E34 seats fit with some modification (ask "positiv" or myself about that one). Door card trim can stretch and rip with age and really look scabby, but I re trimmed mine with some similar looking materiel from a local trim shop and some PVA. Net cost? <£10.

> A complete boot toolkit is always nice and actually pretty damn useful in my experience, complete ones come up occasionally at about £40-£50 for a standard and £80-100 for a "large" set but I believe individual components can be got from the dealer.

Here are all the links to the previous threads from which I have gleaned the information






If I have got something factually incorrect, I apologise. Shout and I will make amends.

If I have missed anything out, Add it to the thread.

Hopefully this write up will be of some use to new owners in the future.

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Good job Dave..I have made it a sticky!

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Nice one Dave, can i add the following which covers many of your points but is what i drafted for TBMW a while back (though the prices may well be wrong!:

The model to choose would depend on how you wish to use the car and there would seem to be a choice for all – I think one would be wise to discount the M5 due to complexity and rarity – the cost to re-build the head seems to be around the £2-3k mark which is required every 100,000 miles and whilst an epic car they’re probably a bit too specialist to consider.

For a cheap and cheerful commuter car the 518i is reckoned to be a reasonable run around shares the same 1.8 M10 as similar aged 318i’s and is fairly frugal and poky enough not to be a chore.

Next up the ladder are the M20 engined cars in either 520i or 525e flavour of these I’d suggest the 520i is a fine cruiser and gets you a sweet six cylinder engine but seems to be neither fish nor fowl in so much that its not terribly fast, especially in auto guise, nor particularly economical. The 525e is a touch faster and more frugal (although auto only in the UK).

Further up the chain are the M30 engine cars in 525i, 528i and 535i formats. The 525i would seem to be a bit of an anathema in so much that its not the same engine as found in the e30 325i (which makes around 170bhp) and is only good for 150bhp but has the fuel consumption of the larger M30 engines and so again it’s a bit like the 520i in that its neither a budget car or a speed machine.

The bigger M30 engines are probably the ones most people are looking at as a weekend type car and both offer decent performance although a modern turbo diesel would probably show a clean pair of heels to both. The 528i is reckoned to be the sweeter more rev happy engine and the 3.5 the torquey one.

A 535i is still pretty quick even by todays standards and has a 0-60 in the 7’s and a top speed in excess of 140mph.

The one thing to consider is that there isn’t really a dud in the range provided the shell is sound and all models present options for ‘fiddling’ or improving buy swapping bits a round from other models. I think the pick of the range would be a 525e as a suitable modern classic – fast enough for todays roads and relatively frugal even compared to the petrols of today – it is even perfectly feasible to drive one of these day to day and a few members of http://www.BMW5.co.uk do so.

From a practical point of view comparing an e28 to my daily e46 tourer is that they are about the same overall size and with the seats up the e28 offers a better boot and is really just as practical as a family car, it certainly feels better built. I would say the e28 comes from a time when cars where built to a specification and not a price point.

I think the best advice to a new comer to the marque is up to a point you can disregard the engine type and concentrate of finding a sound shell – rust can kill these cars and due to the relatively low value they command and its rarely economical to have a rot box repaired once they have reached a certain stage. That said they last far better than an equivalent ford or Vauxhall from the same era.

The places to check are the front jacking points, a box section on the floor plan, which isn’t really up to the task and collapses bending the floor and cracking the underseal leading to damp carpets and a hole, much of the interior needs to come out to get the carpet out to fix, not so much difficult but labour intensive if you’re paying.

The rear cills can go and the rear subframe mounting points are another favourite and rot here is usually terminal due to the cost of repair, both in its complexity and labour of getting the axle out of the way.

Boot corners seem susceptible when the boot rubbers go – which leads to a damp boot – obvious by condensation in the boot or ultimately damp rear foot wells.

The M535i body kit (which is a bit of a marmite option) can conceal grot too.

Chrome bumpers are becoming rare so make sure you have good ones as you’ll pay a few ££ to replace them!

Wings always rust at the front corner but are bolt on so not a big deal to sort and inner wings are starting to be an issue.

As said before they do wear better than equivalent fords or Vauxhalls but in purchasing one should have a good look over for rust as this will most likely be the killer for most of these cars.

There do seem to be a few mint ‘one old owner’ 525e’s about and these seem to still look very good for their age.

I think in essence if you’re desperate for a 535i don’t discount a solid 525i or 528i and transplant the bigger engine in and at the same time don’t discount a 520i if its sound – the 325i engine will drop straight in and any transplants the e30 boys can do should apply equally to the e28’s.

The 535i and M535i are essentially the same car with the body kit being the difference – both can be auto/ manual with sports or comfort seats.

Although badged as a M (not M5) it is really just a marketing exercise so it really comes down to whether you like the kit or not as there is nothing ‘extra’ to it

Mechanically they’re pretty robust and most service parts can be found through GSF and Eurocar parts and also many of the odds and ends can still be ordered through BMW and often at reasonable prices. There are (sadly) plenty being broken as they’re often worth more in parts and so I’ve never found a part unobtainable.

The main worry mechanically will be suspension wear, the e28 like the e34, has lots of levers and linkages in the suspension and a little wear in all of these can lead to a horrible drive most common is a shaking through the wheels between 45 and 60 which can be attributed to worn track control arm bushings – changing these will sharpen up many a tired feeling e28.

A clonk on take off will be the rear subframe bushes – a common failing and not easily DIYable at home without a special tool (although it can be done) but specialists seem to charge around £250ish to replace them.

Wheels and tyres should not be ignored the metric tyres fitted to many models are not highly regarded for grip, to replace they are exceedingly pricey – M535i 220/60R390 tyres are over £200 each and not great so one needs to budget on a set of 15/16/17” rims and tyres if they’re getting low – luckily there is a lot of choice from all years of 5, 7 and 8 series’

Gearshift quality can be very floppy by now – BMW sell the parts to tighten it up but it’s a fiddly with the ‘box in situ.

The three gearbox choices are the auto, overdrive manual and dog leg manual. The O/D and auto have no particular issues although the switchable auto does tend to pack up with age and the dogleg manual can be notchy and not particularly strong often expiring around 100k– replacements are pricey as the e30 M3 boys also use them.

With the age of these cars we are seeing more and more ‘no –start’ threads however these aren’t complex cars and a logical and thorough process of testing and elimination solves most problems without having to throw new parts and money at them. Its often a dodgy earth, old time expired ignition components or failed relay

The age of a would be e28 owner seems to be the 30 something onwards (although we have many younger owners including a 15 year old!) looking for something a bit more family orientated than the e30 say, the benefit of the e28 is that there seems to be less thrashed and trashed examples about.

I would say the owners on the whole are a bit more mature having perhaps grown out of their hot hatch phase and got a bit sensible, the fact they don’t seem to have yet attracted the ‘cool’ tax helps in so much that a good example needn’t cost the earth. I would say that on the whole they perhaps have a duller image (and certainly less ‘chav!’) than the e30.

Any prospective purchaser would do well to look at http://www.bmw5.co.uk for friendly help and advice and the purchase of a Bentley manual will be money very well spent – Haynes manuals are useful but only cover the 520i and 525e specifically else you are lumped in with the more generic ‘BMW 3 & 5 series manual (useful but not one of their best)

In DIY terms there isn’t anything really to worry about if you’re half reasonable with the spanners. Most jobs are DIY with perhaps the exception of the beam bushes (although it is possible) and even if you pay for servicing and repairs they’re a pretty straightforward beast.

In summation by the best and most solid you can find, mechanics can be sorted with relative ease but still remember that you want to buy with as much history and evidence of maintenance as possible – the £1000 bargain M535i will soon be a £2000 m535i once some of the oft neglected items have been sorted. The cost of brining one up to scratch often out weighs the low purchase price.

Certainly at the moment ignore the cars value when figuring maintenance costs to many now have been neglected and will have a catalogue of common faults to remedy – the value of good ones seems to be gently rising but I don’t ever see them having the cache of a nice e30.

They are robust, drive nicely and are practical, buy now whilst there are still good ones about and before they get squirreled away by enthusiats!

For the fiddler they are DIY and there are quite a few options to modify and upgrade both from within the BMW back catalogue and the aftermarket tuning companies.

Prices are hard to pin point an reasonable MOT failure (ie worth saving) can be 2-300 hundred for the smaller engined cars with something worth having starting around £1000 for the more desirable 525e, 528i, at this pricey point the M/535i & 535i is a bit of a gamble - £1500 should net a solid project with the very very best fetching say £5k but these are few and far between and it wanst to be very sorted at that price point ( obviously the Alpina’s and M5’s are a different ball park)

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Cambelt change on the M20 is every 30,000 miles. The Bentley says different but every other source gives the lower value.

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Cambelt change on the M20 is every 30,000 miles. The Bentley says different but every other source gives the lower value.

Thanks for that. Reminds me I really must get round to doing mine........

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nice one duncan and dave! question would be how much would a respray on a car cost? not accounting for rust repiars etc. i've got a white one (525e) which i'd bring back to its former glory and it needs a respray. i have been told that the BMW were generous with the paint in those days however i doubt that claying etc will bring me close to having what i want.

sunroof and rubbers were coming in at £200ish from BMW with VAT.

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you'll almost certainly need the whole dashboard, screen, heater fan, and wiper mechanism out and the bonnet off. Screen aside, thats not difficult per say but It'll take you a whole afternoon at least.

if thats all thats wrong, its not too badly bought at £200.

following that it'd be best to seek the advice of a bodywork specialist as this area is brazed, I believe.

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