The "First Five", or E-12, started life in September 1972. The E-12 replaced the 1500-2000 series that were known as the "New Class" cars. The new class cars saved BMW from near bankruptcy in 1961/2, they gave their structure for use with the 02 series and eventually the 2000CS. They also allowed enough profits to create the six cylinder sedans and coupes of 1968. By 1972 the 1500-2000 was ten years old, BMW knew it needed a successful replacement to form the company's backbone in the 70s. The five series was the fifth "new class" car.
BMW were mindful on the importance of the American market, a proven source of profits in the 60s. Hence the E-12, more than any BMW before it, was targeted at the American market. The E-12 had convenience features its predecessor never had: factory aircon, power windows, power mirrors, electric sunroof, power steering, self-leveling rear suspension,central locking.
The styling of the E-12 was done by French stylist Paul Bracq. He had joined BMW after leaving Mercedes. For the E-12, he drew inspiration from the 1970 Bertone designed coupe styling exercise called Garmisch that was based on the 2002. The car was launched in Germany after the close of the Munich Olympics as the 520 and the 520i with similar engines to the 2002 and the 2002tii. Unlike its predecessor the E-12 had a rubber-mounted, rather than a rigid-mounted) radiator, recirculating ball steering instead of recirculating ball, plus the rear springs and shocks were no longer mounted seperately so that self-leveling suspension could be fitted. In addition, the glovebox featured a rechargeable flashlight like the Mercedes 350SL of 71. There was a computer diagnosis connector in the fuse box and the trunk featured a drop down tool tray. The E-12 was the first BMW with the indicator stalk on the left!
The E-12 was a real competitor to the Mercedes compact (W114) of 1968 which Bracq also styled. Thus in Europe there was an equivalent E-12 for each different engined Mercedes compact. For example, the BMW 528 was aimed directly at the Mercedes 280. As there was no competing MB model, BMW did not produce a 518 until the fuel crisis even though the 1800 was BMW's best seller at the time. Both rivals had their fuel filler at the back, and at the time people used to refer to the E-12 520 as the BMW 520 compact!
For America, BMW only intended to sell the six cylinder E-12. In Europe, its predecessor was a four cylinder car, but as it had no predecessor in the U.S., BMW decited to push E-12 upmarket. Thus the US got just one E-12, fitted with more luxury features than usually found in European E-12s. This was the 1975 530i fitted with a 3.0 litre motor so that when the air pump, thermal reactors, EGR was fitted the performance would still be similar to a European twin carb 528. The emissions approach allowed the US E-12 to pass the emissions test whilst getting the most HP possible. The 1975 US E-12 had L-jet injection, the only injected Euro E-12 at the time was the 2002tii engined 520i!
For 1977 the E-12 was restyled, gone was the flat hood needed to accomodate the air filter box on twin-carb Euro M30 cylinder cars. Also, the rear deck fuel filler,the rear lights were redone to match the new 7-Series (E-23). Plus the dashboard vents and the baffles they sat on were redesigned for better air distribution. This was very important on US cars which received integrated A/C as standard equipment in 1977.
For 1979, there was an emissions/economy rethink, given the advent of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), stricter emissions and the success of the Bosch 3-way catalyst and oxygen lambda-sond sensor. So for 79, the 530i became the 528i, with a smaller engine, more advanced ignition timing and unleaded fuel/3-way catalyst as the only emissions gear. The US 528i (now with transistorised ignition) was so good at emissions BMW could offer the E-12 in a 50 state version for the first time. The EPA rating was increased 5 mpg and the 0-60 time was down to 8.2secs! Gone were the old emission measures that deprived the 530i of thrust unless full throttle was exercised. Plus the steering wheel control stalks were redone from Bavaria to 7-Series (E-23) style.
Equipment improved too, the U.S. 528i came with all the power assists, stereo, A/C, with only the 2-way power roof, alloys, LSD and leather being optional. In 1980, as a result of a court case, BMW North.America offered any BMW owner with a cracked head to get a replacement at no charge even if the warranty had lapsed. In 1980 BMW launched the redesigned M30 head with bigger coolant passages to curb head cracking. Although the cracking problem had already fallen away when BMW stopped using thermal reactors at the end of 1978. Alloys became standard in 1980, as did a 5 speed overdrive stick where only a 4 speed had been available before.
1981 was the last year for the US E-12; the last years saw minor changes made. Weight reduction (thinner window glass, coolant hoses, body panels) and allowing the seatbelt anchor points to move with the seats occured.
The US E-12 had continued the BMW tradition of allowing US enthusiasts to get hold of a stick shift in an expensive sedan. A high proportion (for America) of US cars had stick shifts to maximise performance and driver fun. Inspite of extended bumpers and an 80/5 mph for 80, the US 528i could hit almost 100mph in third or nearly double the then 55 mph national speed limit. Although 5-Series sales doubled in 1982 with introduction of the 528e, by the end of '81, BMW had reached the limit of selling only to enthusiats.For 82 onwards BMW would have to grow up and cover the market on either side of its niche.
In South Africa, where local E-12 assembly started in 74, E-12 production continued until early 1984 (even though European production ceased in late 81). Thus S.African E-12 cars built after the end of Euro production feature E-28 dashboards, trac-link suspension, double pivot front suspension and other E-28 refinements.
BMW motorsport built three special E-12s. The first was a one off 1974 3.0 CSL engined car for Mr. Sieff (joint MD of Great Britain). The second was a low production run of 3.2 litre cars called the 533i in 1978. The third was the 1979-81 M535i, which had to be recalled to strengthen the diff boot mounting.
Alpina built special turbo and non-turbo E-12s,culminating in the 3.5 litre 330hp B7s! Quite a contrast to the 1974 fuel-crises 518 which had 90hp. British journal "Management Today" said (in 1971) that BMW's ability to stay independent by the end of the 70s hinged on the success of the 1500-2000 replacement. With 700,000 E-12s from European production in the former Glas Dingolfing plant,the British magazine needn't have worried!