Skip to content

‘80s BMWs: A Comprehensive Guide

The 1980s stand out as a golden era for performance cars, and during this time BMW emerged as a beacon of innovation and excellence. This decade witnessed BMWs explode into the racing circuit with a lineup of vehicles that not only dominated tracks but also paved the way for future legends. Among these were models that showcased the prowess of six-cylinder engines, manual transmissions, and a design ethos that has become iconic. The 1980s were a time when BMW solidified its reputation as a leader in innovative sports cars, combining the thrill of racing with the elegance of classic BMW body styles.

An Expansive Lineup of BMW M Models

BMW's commitment to performance was evident in their wide range of vehicles, from the E28 M5 to the E30 M3 models, each offering a unique blend of speed, agility, and refinement. These cars were not just about the raw stats; they were about creating a legacy. The first BMW M models, with their distinctive box flares, sport suspensions, and high-revving engines, became the standard bearers for what sports coupes and sedans could be. The introduction of the second-generation models brought improvements in speed, handling, and comfort, further cementing BMW’s place in the hearts of car enthusiasts around the world.

BMW: Introducing the Future of Performance Driving

The significance of these models cannot be overstated. They were more than just vehicles; they were a statement – a declaration of BMW's engineering prowess, design philosophy, and, most importantly, their vision for the future of performance driving. It was during the '80s that BMW truly became synonymous with performance and luxury, with each model reflecting a commitment to excellence that has endured through the decades.

As we dive deeper into the specifics of BMW's top-performing models of the 1980s, it's clear that these vehicles were not merely products of their time; they were the forebearers of a legacy that continues to influence the automotive world. From the 635 CSI to the Z1, these BMWs were the epitome of 80s innovation, combining powerful engines, sophisticated suspensions, and a driving experience that remains unmatched.

80s BMWs: Top Performing Models

The 1980s produced some of the most incredible performance cars the world has ever seen, and BMW has several that top the list. The BMWs of this era have always been sought after by enthusiasts, racers, and collectors and have only grown more popular over time. The ‘70s saw an increase in BMW’s North American presence with the creation of BMW M GmbH to focus on performance cars, and with the factory BMW racing team winning several high-profile events like 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. By the ‘80s, BMW cars were more popular than ever, and a large market for performance cars had been created. The models listed below are BMW’s top-performance cars of the ’80s. They were great cars when new and have grown to become legends of the automotive world.

1. 635 CSI

The first BMW 6 Series was produced from 1976 to 1989. It was designed to replace the BMW E9, which in 3.0 CSL form had brought BMW so much racing success in the ’70s. The 6 Series was a big, luxurious coupe with a six-cylinder engine. They were pleasant to drive and considered true Grand Touring cars, but the ultimate version of the 6 Series would arrive with the M635 CSI. The 6 Series body style was slightly updated for 1982 models, and the first 635 CSI was on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1983.

The M635 CSI was powered by an M88/3 engine, a powerful six-cylinder engine putting out 282 hp, and based on the M88, which was originally found in BMW’s M1 Supercar. The M635 CSI made for the U.S. market was badged as M6’s and featured the S38 engine, which produced 256 hp and was better suited to U.S. emission regulations. While there are several versions of the 635, the M635CSI/M6 models are most coveted due to low production numbers. Less than 6,000 were produced, and less than 1.800 were built for the U.S. market.

2. E28 M5

The E28 5 Series was produced from 1981 to 1988 and replaced BMW’s first 5 Series model, the E12. They could be found with four and six-cylinder engines and even had a diesel option, but the most popular E28 of all time was the M5. First produced in 1984, the M5 was based on the 535i sedan, and assembly began at the motorsport plant in Munich, Germany. The first M5s were fitted with the M88/3 engine, which was an updated version of the power plant found in the M1 Supercar. Putting a Supercar engine in the four-door body of the E28 platform made the M5 the fastest production sedan in the world.

The M5 arrived in the U.S. with a detuned version of the M88/3 called the S38B35 that featured a cat converter and was more U.S. emissions-friendly. The U.S. market M5 made 256 hp and was an instant success. Only 2,241 E28 M5 were produced, and these low production numbers coupled with the fact that they were the first in a long line of M5 sedans made them one of the rarest BMW M cars and highly coveted by collectors.  

3. Z1

Most BMW enthusiasts are familiar with the Z3, Z4, and even the V8-powered Z8, but many in the U.S. have never heard of, much less seen, a Z1. The Z1 was the first of  BMW’s Z Series of cars, all of which are two-seater convertibles (with a few coups here and there). They were produced from 1989 to 1991 and featured the M20 straight-six engine and a Getrag five-speed transmission out of the E30 3 Series, but they share little else in common with any other BMW production cars. The body was made up of removable plastic body panels, which, in theory, could be replaced in a few hours, allowing you to completely change the color of your car. The Z1 also featured a roll bar integrated into the windshield and a flat plastic undertray which aided in the car’s aerodynamics.

The Z1’s most striking feature was its doors. The driver and passenger doors retract vertically down into the body instead of opening outward like most conventional cars. The doors were operated by electric motors and toothed belts which allowed them to drop down into the door sill.  This innovative feature is the reason why so few of these cars have been seen by U.S. enthusiasts, the Z1 was not built to U.S. standards and was not available new here, but now that these cars have reached 35 years of age, some will start to trickle over. While the body might sound complicated, the fact that it’s a lightweight roadster with a straight-six and manual transmission makes it one of the coolest performance cars to come out of the ’80s.  

4. E34 M5

Production of the E34 began in 1987, with the E34 M5 beginning in 1988. The E34 M5 was powered by the S38 six-cylinder engine that put out 311 hp and was up to 335 by the end of its production run in 1995. The E34 was often overshadowed by the car it replaced, the E28 5 Series, but many like it for its more modern looks and upgraded handling and performance.  

The E34 M5 was most famous for the fact that it could be ordered as a station wagon. These were referred to as “Touring” models as opposed to a regular sedan. Not many of these wagons were produced, and they are one of the rarest M cars of any series or body style, but the fact that BMW produced an M5 station wagon is fantastic.

5. E30 M3

The BMW E30 M3 was not only one of the top performance cars of the ’80s, but it was also one of the most popular performance cars of all time. While other performance cars of this era were built to satisfy consumer demand, the E30 M3 was created as a homologation special to satisfy racing rules at the time. The car was powered by the S14 four-cylinder engine, which produced 192 hp in U.S. spec. Almost every single part on the M3 was different than a standard E30, and they could be purchased in coupe or convertible form. The E30 was a popular platform to modify and race, but the M3 took the experience to another level.

What really made the E30 the top performance BMW of the ’80s was its track record. The first generation of the M3 had five overall wins at Nurburgring 24 Hours, four overall wins at 24 Hours of Spa, and won various championships on multiple continents around the world. Almost 18,000 E30 M3s were produced in various forms for global markets, so while they were not the rarest 80s performance car, they rank at the top of any list due to their looks and performance on the street and track. 

80s BMWs: A Wrap-up

As we wrap up our journey through the iconic BMW models of the 1980s, it's clear that these cars embody a spirit of innovation, performance, and timeless design that continues to inspire today. 

But the story doesn't end with admiration and nostalgia. Thanks to companies like Condor Speed Shop, the legacy of these 80s BMWs is not only preserved but thrives in the modern era. With a wide range of performance parts available, from brake lines to engine mounts and even polycarbonate windows, there's no limit to how you can transform your 80s BMW into a track-ready beast.

Condor Speed Shop has everything you need to take your BMW to the next level. Don't just dream about the performance and style of the 80s – make it a reality. Visit Condor Speed Shop today and discover how you can upgrade your Bimmer, turning every drive into an homage to one of the greatest eras in automotive history.

Previous article A Guide to the Best BMW Performance Parts Brands
Next article Polyurethane vs. UHMW: What's the Difference?

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields