1981 BMW M535i E12

1981 BMW M535i E12

This E12 M535i has been a major part of the classic BMW scene for some time, thanks to its most recent owner, Anders Bilidt, today it is looking sharper than ever… Words: Simon Jackson & themarket.co.uk Photography: themarket.co.uk

The Forefather BMW M535i Rare E12 classic

BMW’s E12 was the first model to be given the 5 Series designation, between 1972 and 1981 BMW built almost 700,000 in factories across the globe – including locations as far flung as South Africa, Indonesia, and Thailand as well, of course, as the firm’s native Germany. The replacement for the much-loved New Classe was offered with a wide range of engines from the 89hp 1.8-litre of the 518 through to the 3.2-litre, 197hp, 533i. Inline four- and six-cylinder options were mated with a wide variety of manual and automatic gearboxes. Suspension came courtesy of McPherson struts at the front and a diagonal link axle at the rear. Most had steel wheels, all had recirculating ball steering – the basic models even still had drum brakes on the rear. It’s fair to say that the E12 was not a technologically advanced vehicle, and yet, for all its humble beginnings, the E12 ushered in a whole new category into the sector – that of the high-performance saloon.

“Then started the process of awakening the beast from its hibernation”

1981 BMW M535i E12

1981 BMW M535i E12

The 1981 BMW M535i E12 was the first volume production M car, launched in 1980, it was powered by a 3.5-litre straight-six – the M90 engine (M30B35) from the 635CSi E24 no less that develops 215hp. The gearbox was a dog-leg five-speed Getrag manual, the rear axle featured a limited-slip differential. Performance was strong with 60mph coming up in just under eight-seconds and a top speed of around 140mph. Of course, the braking system was upgraded, as was the suspension – the latter being both lower and stiffer than standard, and damped by specially developed Bilstein dampers. Front and rear spoilers gave the car visual flair, while the interior gained fancy, figure-hugging Recaro seats and the E26 M1’s sports steering wheel. This set the template for every fast BMW saloon that would follow. These cars were genuinely hand-built, rolled off the assembly line and transported to BMW Motorsport in Munich to have their engineers weave some magic. The E12 M535i was every inch an M car.

“As the first of the production M cars, it’s a hugely important part of BMW’s history”

BMW M535i Rare E12 classic

BMW M535i Rare E12 classic

However, it was all short-lived. Production only started in April 1980 and lasted barely 13 months, factories ramping-up for the forthcoming BMW E28 forced the M535i’s discontinuation in May 1981 after just 1,410 examples had been built for the European market – 960 of them being left-hand-drive, just 450 being right-hand drive, like the car you see here...

This M535i is believed to have been ordered new by a CEO from the Isle of Wight in January 1981. Remarkably, he appears to have ticked just about every single option box available, which means it is equipped with leather Recaro seats, air-conditioning, electric windows front and rear, and an electric tilt-and-slide sunroof. Finished in the ultra-rare colour of Reseda Green metallic (075), it has matching tinted Green windows and a Black leather interior. He also opted for a badge-delete option and chose not to have the distinctive M stripes down the car’s flanks. Described by The Market as a ‘matching numbers’, unmolested example, the car remains original with the exception of an aftermarket CD player and in-car phone. In the care of the same owner for the past five-years, it shows just six previous keepers, one being prominent UK BMW ‘02 and Neue Klasse saloon enthusiast, Paul Hill, from Cornwall, between 1994 and 2010. The car was then exported to Denmark where it joined a collection of E28 5 Series before being purchased by its current owner, Anders Bilidt, in 2015. It was re-imported into the UK in 2019, and has since undergone a meticulous recommissioning. Owner Anders is a self-confessed fan of Bavarian classics, he describes his “keeper” as a 1973 BMW 2002 – the first car he ever bought – so he clearly has good taste!

“Sadly I don’t have any documentation which determines the name of the first owner, but I would have loved to meet the gentleman as I sense he would have been an interesting individual,” said Anders. “He knew he wanted the ultimate sports saloon, yet amidst an era practically defined by the brash and the loud, this gentleman ignored the obvious thereby creating perhaps the perfect ‘Q-car’.

“I first saw the M535i in the flesh during the summer of 2002 when I was visiting the UK. During my travels through England I met Paul Hill who quickly became a very close friend. Paul had purchased the M535i just a year prior and was using it as his daily wheels while he continued to play with older BM’s.

“A couple of years later Paul drove his M535i across Europe to visit me in Denmark to take part in a classic BMW meet I had arranged with BMW Club Denmark. At every chance I got I would get behind the wheel of Paul’s gorgeous E12 – here was a saloon which felt, sounded and behaved like the iconic 3.0 CSL E9.

“In 2010, Paul called me out of the blue and asked whether I wanted to buy his car. Needless to say, I very much did! However, the timing was bad and I had to give it a miss. Instead I made sure that the M535i at least went to a caring home, so I put Paul in contact with a close Danish friend of mine who I figured would be interested. Soon after, the M535i was driven to Denmark and joined my friend’s E28 M5 and E28 Alpina B10 in his garage. However, while he treated the M535i to a full service upon arrival in Denmark, he just never got around to officially importing it into the country and registering it. Instead it just sat warm and snug in good BMW company for several years.

“Fast forward to 2015 – I was about to move to the UK and we agreed that it was time the M535i got to go home. With that, what I thought would never happen suddenly became reality: I was the owner of this amazing BMW M535i. Then started the process of awakening the beast from its hibernation,” said Anders.

Today the car is in fantastic shape. “A £5,000 invoice from Michael Neergaard of Denmark, is evidence that the bodywork has been comprehensibly restored. The bill covers the sourcing and fitting of a new old stock nearside rear door, new rear wheel arches, and a new lower rear valence as well as undertaking various minor welding to the floor and front inner arches,” explained The Market’s, Tristan Judge.

“All of the BMW’s cavities were then sprayed with Mike Sanders anti-corrosion grease to ward off future problems. The car was then repainted in its original colour of Reseda Green metallic by a friend of the vendor in the UK. He’s done a beautiful job, and the colour really pops. It’s as unusual as it is attractive, and the vendor tells us that he knows of only one other UK car in the same shade.

“The chromework is good too, as are the badges, light lenses, and glass. The window surrounds look like they could do with a polish, but that’s only half-a-day and a tin of Autosol. The rubber seals and trim all look to be good too, and, as you can see from the photos, the car looks utterly sensational with a crispness to its finish we love. It really does look every bit as good in the flesh as it does in the photographs and wants for nothing.

“The M535i sits on its original 6.5x14-inch Mahle BBS alloy wheels, and the owner even went to the trouble of tracking down five new Pirelli Cinturato CN36 tyres in the correct 205/70 dimensions for them. These alone set him back £900, but that he’s done so, which tells you all you need to know about his determination to get every little detail right – and boy, do they look terrific.”

On the inside the car is very original, the only modifications are the aforementioned modern stereo head-unit and the retro-fitted car phone.

“The original black leather Recaro seats are still firm and comfortable, they’re gently creased and all the more glorious for being so. There are no rips, tears or other damage, just a gentle easing into their years – we should all be so lucky as to age so gracefully,” explains Tristan. “The original three-spoke M1 steering wheel is present and correct too, as is the rare, and much sought after, dog-leg gearbox.”

When it comes to the mechanical side, it’s apparent that this BMW has been nicely fettled over the years, the seller has sourced a number of parts – many fitted recently – to keep all the cogs whirring. The ‘bay itself is a work-in-progress, it’s just a little TLC away from bringing it to the same condition as the rest of the vehicle. Owner Anders confirms: “The engine is one of the very sweetest straight-six BMW engines I’ve ever experienced. They all run a little different from one to the next, this one is an absolute peach!” So, why is Anders selling his dream drive?

“Eventually, in 2019, the M535i passed its first MoT since 2010. But that’s where a cruel twist of fate stepped in as another change of job dictated our departure from the UK. With help from friends, I have finished the M535i exactly as I wanted her to be, but I now I’ll have to let her go before I’ve even had the pleasure of enjoying her out on all those excellent backroads of the Peak District. I guess they shall remain dreams as my RHD sports saloon just doesn’t fit into our new life here in mainland Europe. But I know I at least played my little part in ensuring this fabulous car lives on, and with a genuine 109,100-miles on the clock and all the hard work done, too”.

It’s a cruel twist of fate, indeed, but Ander’s loss is most certainly someone else’s gain. At the time of writing this car was being offered by online classic car auction specialist The Market, here it would almost certainly find a new custodian, hopefully one with a passion equal to that of Anders. We’ll let The Market’s Tristan have the – rather fitting – last word: “As the first of the production M cars, it’s a hugely important part of BMW’s history and this example is very original, and yet has been refurbished with the express intention of keeping it as a usable driver’s car, rather than a museum-quality collector’s car that you’re afraid to use. This is good news from a financial perspective as well as a practical one; at a time when the very best cars are selling for what is frankly silly money, the £18,000 to £25,000 we expect this car to sell for is an absolute bargain – and we defy you to find a better driver’s car of the same kind from the same era.”

The Market: Classic Car Auctions

Based in Oxfordshire, online classic car auctions and price trends specialist The Market offers no buyer fees and low seller fees (5% incl. VAT): themarket.co.uk

TECH DATA 1981 BMW M535i E12

ENGINE: M30 straight-six, SOHC, 12-valve

CAPACITY: 3453cc

MAX POWER: 218bhp @ 5200rpm

MAX TORQUE: 224lb ft @ 4000rpm

0-62MPH: 7.5-seconds

TOP SPEED: 138mph

WEIGHT: 1465kg


PRICE (NEW): £13,745 (1981)



Nice E12 example!