1986 BMW E28 535i Executive - Reader Resto

By: Ged Bulmer , Photography by: Ron Lutton

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This immaculately preserved Beemer named Bernice hails from an era where greed was good, and hair was big


1986 BMW 535i resto

Back in 1955 American folk musician Pete Seeger penned a tune that came to be recognised as one of the great political songs of all time. Seeger’s whimsical anti-war Where Have All the Flowers Gone? went on to be recorded by artists ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Roy Orbison and, perhaps most famously, Peter, Paul and Mary.

I was reminded of Seeger’s song when I caught up with classic car aficionado Ron Lutton, not because he arrived with flowers in his hair but because he quickly got to pondering about where had all the BMW E28 5 Series gone? To Ron, this is one of life’s enduring mysteries, up there with ‘who shot JFK?’, and ‘do aliens really exist?’. Ron’s interest stems from the fact he owns a particularly nice example of the breed and keeps a keen eye out for anything that might threaten his ambition to claim the title of Australia’s best E28 535i Executive Sedan.

bmw-535i-resto-after-15.jpgNarrow pillars and near upright front and rear glass give away its era

Trouble is, as Ron tells it, good examples of Australian-delivered E28 5 Series are as rare as rocking horse poo. He can’t seem to find many examples at all, let alone well-maintained units that challenge the quality of his bronze/beige metallic version, dubbed Bernice.

The story of how Ron’s Beemer came to be named Bernice is told, along with all manner of other intimate details, in a hard-cover 28-page book that he proudly tables when we meet in Melbourne on a briefly bright summer morning.

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bmw-535i-resto-6.jpgRon is very proud of Bernice the Beemer

Soon I was deeply immersed in the story of Bernice and how Ron came to own ‘her’. Bernice, by the way, has Greek origins and means "she who brings victory", which I know not because I speak Greek fluently, but because it says so right there on page three of Ron’s impressive compendium.

The Book of Bernice goes on to explain that Ron purchased the car in December 2016 from a local Albury family who had owned it since new. But before you get to that bit, you learn that this E28 5 Series was built in Munich in February 1986 as a special release model for the flagging Australian luxury car market. The list of extra fruit added to entice buyers included unique alloy wheels with 220mm-section width rubber, flared wheel arches, and a leather-trimmed three-spoke M-badged steering wheel.

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bmw-535i-resto-before-4.jpgRon's Beemer, as he purchased it

In a case of impeccably poor timing, Bernice eventually arrived in Melbourne in October 1987, just as international stock markets crashed. Globally shares plummeted by an average of 25 per cent but the impact was felt worse in Australia, where the market washed off a staggering 40 per cent. According to Ron’s research, the extended delay between Bernice’s build date and her Australian certification was due to the already declining economic conditions leading up to the Crash, causing some Australian buyers to cancel orders and the factory to hold back shipments until domestic supply could be absorbed. BMW Australia registered Bernice as a ‘company fleet vehicle’ upon her arrival, before selling her in early 1988 to Albury BMW dealership Preston Motors, who then sold it as a ‘demo’ with just 3000km on the clock to a local Albury family for $72,500. Fast-forward 29 years and Ron purchased Bernice in late 2016 from that original owner, in what he described as "extremely good condition" and with 88,357km on the clock, for a very reasonable $10,000.

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bmw-535i-resto-before-1.jpgSound deadener had seen better days

"Apart from the replacement of any necessary parts due to age or wearing out, this car is an original, unrestored vehicle," says Ron.

The car came with its original up-spec German-made 15-inch E28 rims, clad with fresh 220/55R15 Michelin TRX rubber, which Ron keeps and fits as required for show purposes. However, for daily driving and touring he uses a set of alternative E39 rims, fitted with 215/60R15 Yokohama tyres.

bmw-535i-resto-after-interior.jpgBack from Fatal Finish detailers

Out on the road the L-Jetronic fuel-injected 155kW 3.5-litre M30 inline petrol six hums sweetly, says Ron, putting its drive to the rear wheels (as nature intended) via a four-speed electro-hydraulic automatic. An interesting quirk of this model is the chunky console-mounted switch that controls the auto’s three shift programs – Economy, Sport and Drive – plus the multi-colored ‘energy control meter’ in the main instrument cluster. 

Bernice is well specified by today’s standards, with fast glass, four-wheel discs, velour-covered seating, air-conditioning and a factory-fitted BMW radio-cassette player. A period-correct Mitsubishi M461 Analog car phone mounted on the centre console conjures images of the Gordon Gecko-esque characters who ruled back then when Greed was Good, and hair was big.

bmw-535i-resto-after-dash.jpgThat’s not a lot of kilometres in 33 years

Ron probably wasn’t to know it at the time but purchasing Bernice, his first ‘Modern Classic’, set him on a path that’s damn near as addictive as the white powder that Gordon Gecko and his mates used to fuel their ’80s excesses. We’re talking here about car shows, which have since become a fixture in the life of Ron and his extended family.

Bernice has been exhibited at both the 2017 and 2018 Motorclassica events in Melbourne, as part of the BMW Car Club of Victoria display. She’s also attended the 2017 Chiltern Cancer Support Car Show; the 2018 National Show and Shine at Euroa; the 2018 and 2019 Sydney German Autofests; and finally the 2019 BMW Car Clubs Australian Nationals, held in Melbourne.

bmw-535i-resto-after-engine-bay.jpgYou could eat your dinner off that engine

Along the way Ron’s slowly been discovering and attending to all the little details that constitute a show-winning car, ranging from replacing the under-bonnet sound deadening material, to finding original period-spec BMW-stamped wheel balance weights.

Ron’s obsession, or attention to detail as he prefers to call it, has seen Bernice consistently adding glassware to the trophy cabinet, including third place in the BMW E23 to E30 class at the 2018 Sydney German Autofest; second place in the same section at the 2019 Sydney German Autofest; and a third in the E21 to E28 class at the 2019 BMW Car Clubs Australian Nationals, where Bernice was also the best displayed E28 5-Series (where Ron admits she was the only contender).

bmw-535i-resto-after-10.jpgBavaria’s finest always bring out owners’ smiles

"The car was the best and most original example of its make, model and age in Australia at the 2018 Sydney German Autofest," says Ron proudly.

But success has only bred desire, with Ron determined to go one better again this year, thanks in part to the support of a crack team of local Albury-Wodonga businesses who are helping take Bernice to new heights. Mechanicals are shared between Mick at Border BM and Matt and Ron at Barlow Brothers; paint and trim are looked after by Dave at Status Customs; while Jimmy at Fatal Finish adds the detailing touches.

bmw-535i-resto-after-6.jpg It’s action stations for Ron

Along the way Ron has learnt from the school of show ’n’ shine hard knocks that little details like discoloured coolant bottles and cracked or faded under-bonnet stickers are the hurdles he needs to clear in order to emphatically declare Bernice as Australia’s best BMW 1986 E28 535i Executive Sedan. Until then, Ron will keep an eye out for challengers while continuing to wonder, ‘Where have all E28’s gone, Long time passing?’... 

Shannons inspected and evaluated Ron’s car at the 2018 German Autofest and placed an insurance valuation of between $22,000 and $25,000, according to Ron.


Factory fresh


The plate shows a February 1986 build date.


Aussie arrival


And it was complied in October 1987.


Fully Loaded


The 535i was well decked out including a mobile phone.


Shiny and new


The netted door pockets are the only sign of rear passenger occupation. 


Hot wheels


Plenty of elbow grease was used to get the wheels back to this condition.


Looking good


The Beemer’s coachwork has survived our harsh climes very well.

Length of restoration: 4 years

1986 BMW 535i

Engine 3.5lt in-line six cylinder
Power 153kW @5500 rpm
Transmission Four-speed auto
Suspension Independent with MacPherson struts (f) Independent with trailing arms (r)
Brakes ventilated discs (f) 9" solid discs (r) power assisted


From Unique Cars issue 437, Mar 2020

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