Driven: BMW’s first diesel

12 July, 2013 | by Lance Branquinho

Let it be noted, that in the good year of 2013 BMW sells a turbodiesel derivative of each and every model it markets, from 1-Series to 7 – and even some M-division diesels in-between.

Although it seems as regulation as any offering from a German luxury brand it is quite a remarkable state of affairs for a company which never really thought diesel would fuel its sales success.

Think of pre-millennial BMW diesels in South Africa…not many come to mind, now do they? Much only E36 325tds in the mid-1990s and then E46 320d, which was the car to popularise Bavarian branded low-consumption driving pleasure in Mzansi.

What, though, of those original BMW diesels? Cars built against the better knowledge of BMW’s marketing department by engineers in the mid-1980s. Were we fortunate not to have been exposed to them in South Africa, or were these original compression-ignition BMWs a foundation for the triple-turbo diesel madness of X6 M50d and such?

AN UNASSUMING LEGEND

Well, BMW celebrated 30 years of its diesel car heritage recently and at an event on the outskirts of Munich we were given the privileged opportunity to drive one of these original BMW diesels, the E28 524d.

Ironically finished in what could be classed as period accurate Ferrari 328 red, this 524d is one of many classic heritage cars in BMW’s terrifically kept – and surprisingly well used – private collection. It’s a 1986 car and runs 63kW worth of 2.5-litre in-line six diesel. Though that output number appears rather underwhelming, there are things to consider: this is a car in its third decade and for its time, 63kW and 152Nm of torque was quite sufficient for something of 1330kg.

The BMW classic collection staff hand me 524d’s keys and indicate a black 730d pace-car I should follow on the 45km route through some choice Bavarian countryside. At first one is a touch taken aback: you know how valuable a low-mileage, concourse original E28 is and also think to yourself how the BMW ideology of driving pleasure can possibly reconcile with Ford Figo TDCi engine outputs.

Despite these doubts of value and performance I unlock the door (with a key, not a central locking infrared radar remote), settle into the driver’s seat and marvel at the uncluttered ergonomic simplicity that is E28 5-Series cabin architecture and detailing. Turn the key through the ignition barrel’s rotational motion a click, wait for the glow-lugs to warm, then a touch more clockwise and that naturally aspirated in-line six diesel strokes into its compression ignition start cycle.

As I exit the BMW heritage collection grounds I wonder how I’ll ever keep up with the 730d ahead of me. My mind is flooded with a panicked arithmetic of figures: 63kW versus 190kW, 152Nm plays 590Nm. I start looking around me at older generation VW Lupo TDis and know they’re probably swifter to 100kp than the classic 524d’s 38.6 seconds.

MORE THAN THE NUMBERS

After navigating out of the industrial area where BMW’s classic collection is kept, as the 524d roams into the Bavarian country roads behind a tidily patient 730d, I am reminded, as one should every once so often be, that statistics are so often sophistry and not the precondition to a great car.

Its 7.4l/100km combined consumption figure aside, 524d’s statistic are embarrassingly underwhelming, but to drive – it’s a revelation. The five-speed transmission is masterfully crafted, short yet well-spaced actions leverage it through the H-gate shift-guide and that in-line six diesel spins smoother than a sunflower oil drenched seal down a waterslide. It’s not quick, no, but the engine is so refined you can hardly tell it’s a diesel. There are naturally-aspirated diesel bakkies on sale in South Africa in 2013 which are not nearly as pleasant in operation as this 1984 524d.

For a 30-year old car from the mid-1980s this 524d remains so mechanically polished you don’t mind having to shift down the equally finessed five-speed transmission quite so often to keep up momentum. The controls are a blend of absolute joy and automotive artefact: no electric steering assistance, a thin-rimmed helm and brake-pedal actuation with nearly no travel.

From a contemporary perspective of hindsight it’s clear that 524d was a reconnoitring product for BMW, which saw Mercedes-Benz’s success with its W123 diesels and knew it would eventually be compelled to produce a counter.

That this 524d runs as well as it did on our 45km drive is testament to the longevity of well-tended BMW products. That it was almost illogically fun to drive too, is testament to the fallacy that is so often our obsession with speed and power statistics.

Perhaps most importantly, this car is the datum point for BMW’s modern tri-turbo technology: an acknowledgement of fact and credit to the foresight of those engineers who built it back in the 1980s, when diesel was still a dirty word in BMW headquarters.

     

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