For many BMW 5 Series enthusiasts, the E34-generation represents the end of an era. The E39 that came afterthe E34 was faster, more luxurious and more accommodating all around. But in some ways it was less mechanical feeling than its predecessor thanks to the additional weight and its refined nature. And then there is the matter of styling. While the E39 is undeniably a good looking car, its not as simple and tough looking as the E34, which had very traditional BMW styling cues, from the boxy shape to the round headlights and trademark kidney grill.
“I think it’s the last honest driving experience for the BMW 5 Series lineup,” says Taylor Griffith, who owns a 1995, E34-generation 540i. This is also a model that is quickly attaining classic car status, rather than just being an old car, so it looks appropriate sitting in the garage next to Taylor’s E24-generation M6.
When he bought his 540i, Taylor was looking at E36 M3s. But when he learned that the 540i, which is powered by BMW’s M60B40 V8, was far more powerful, his plans changed. The 540i’s motor belts out 286-hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque compared to the 240-hp and 240 ft-lbs of torque of an S52-powered E36 M3. The 540i was also available with a highly desirable 6-speed. Taylor has always been a fan of big ol’ American V8 engines, so the 540 was the perfect vehicle. More refined than an American car, it also boasted eight cylinders.
The E34 was purchased from a BMW buyer and seller in the Bay Area. “It was a typical 540, with leaks everywhere, a tired interior with a side bolster tear, every bushing in the car was bad, the steering was vague and the tires were mismatched,” recalls Taylor. On the plus side the BMW still had its original Oxford Green factory paint, was equipped with a desirable manual 6-speed gearbox and rode on a rare set of BBS RK alloys. Taylor sweetened his cash offer with a set of BMW Style 5 BBS wheels and an E24 sport seat and went home with the E34.
The BMW already sat lower on a set of H&R springs, so Taylor replaced the aging shocks with new, custom-valved Bilstein Sports. He also installed Moosehead Engineering polyurethane rear upper-strut mounts along with a 27-mm Racing Dynamics front swaybar and a 20-mm rear swaybar from a European-spec E34 M5 Touring. A Racing Dynamics front strut bar increases rigidity and sharpens up steering response, while a custom made rear strut bar tightens up the rear end. Polyurethane rear trailing arm bushings, subframe bushings and differential mount were sourced from AKG and Revshift made the polyurethane engine and transmission mounts. Taylor rounded out the chassis improvements with E31 8 Series aluminum lower control arms, a rebuilt steering box and Ireland Engineering adjustable front camber plates.
Taylor utilized OEM parts where possible, which was easy thanks to the fact that he is head of operations for San Francisco-based Part My Ride. The company has a huge computer database to connect buyers with parts that they need. But he also had to do a considerable amount of old fashioned internet searching for a lot of the parts used on the build. “Most of the aftermarket suspension parts for this car do not exist or are not made anymore so tracking them down was a challenge,” says Taylor. “It took months and months of Craigslist browsing and shopping on the UK and German versions of Craigslist as well.”
Taylor continued the OEM-plus philosophy when it came to the brakes, which are E31 8-Series, 4-piston Brembo calipers paired with EBC slotted rotors. The rear brake calipers are stock, but now work with EBC slotted rotors. Red Stuff brake pads are also from EBC. The 18x8.5-inch BBS RK were wisely retained and wear 245/40-ZR18 tires.
While the nearly 300-hp that the 540i has in stock shape is already pretty generous, Taylor rightly saw room for improvement. The original fuel injectors were swapped for Bosch Design 4 injectors, which also happen to be standard spec on the Chevrolet Corvette LS1 V8. The larger injectors are fed by a Walbro high-flow fuel pump, with an upgraded fuel pressure regulator controlling the amount of fuel. DUDMD supplied a reprogramed ECU chip and fuel map and a set of VAC under-drive pulleys further increase the power output. For the exhaust, Taylor eliminated the stock muffler and replaced it with 200 cell race catalytic converters from Magnaflow. The original airbox was trimmed to breathe better and also used a K&N filter. To complement the additional power, a 3.64:1 ratio rear LSD from an E34 M5 was also installed. A UUC carbon/Kevlar clutch was installed to cope with the extra power, while a lighter, 21-lb UUC alloy flywheel frees up revs and more power.
“I have three favorite things about this car,” says the cars owner. “And the first one is the noise that it makes. It’s angry, ferocious and no one ever believes that a BMW is coming down the road.” The other aspects that Taylor loves are the car’s luxurious interior, which came with rare Sport seats, and classic-looking exterior styling. The interior has been improved with E34 M5 rear headrests, a driver’s side Euro-spec glovebox, Euro center console and very cool, Euro-spec BMW fire extinguisher and bracket. The 540i remains largely stock on the outside, but now sports OEM Euro ‘smiley’ headlights, Euro side marker delete lights as well as a Euro M5 filler panel between the taillighs.
“You always have to be prepared for it to break your heart when something goes wrong,” admits Talyor. “But these cars are still old enough where you can work on them yourself with no need for modernized tools.”
Taylor built his 540i to be driven, and as such has no problem handing over the keys to let us get a first hand driving impression. In typical BMW fashion, the deeply-bolstered Sport seats are very comfortable, more so than more common Comfort seats. The uncorked M60 engine lets out a gloriously deep and hard-edged bellow when it fires to life. But considering the fact that there is no muffler at all, it’s not overly loud. Really, it sounds just perfect.
The upgraded UUC clutch is light and easy to modulate when we pull away. The shift throw is on the long side as I shift up and down through the gears, which definitely marks the car out as an older model. The M60 V8 is a total gem of a motor. While it produces generous torque for instant acceleration anywhere in the powerband, it also thrives on revs, a characteristic encouraged by the lighter flywheel. It’s not a rocket, but the responsive and powerful motor makes it a terrific road car.
Taylor’s upgrades to the chassis and suspension take an already great package and sharpens it up considerably. There is almost a total absence of body lean and even with the stiffer performance bushings throughout, road feel still feels composed, even over rough pavement. Classic BMW sedan experiences don’t get much better than this. The motor gives it the brash character of a hot-rod, but it still retained that refined, Teutonic feel that BMW does so well. “The beauty of owning an E34 540i is that it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says Taylor. “It can do many things while doing them unassumingly. This car is an animal that will throw you back in your seat, backfire like an American muscle car and get sideways through a canyon hairpin.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.