There are almost certainly four Yorkshiremen sitting somewhere reminiscing about when it were possible to buy an M5 for less than a punnet of chips. But for the rest of us, the realisation that it is still possible to find examples of one of BMW's finest products without straying into five figures is likely a surprise. This week's Pill isn't a one-off or an outlier, nor does it seem to be on fire; other well cared-for examples turn up regularly for similar money.
Thank supply and demand. Boosted by press coverage that got close to radioactive in its praise, the E39 sold in far higher volumes than the previous E34 did. Survival rates are high, too, this M5 having only briefly passed through the “cheap enough to break” point a few years ago. The E39 can fall prey to some expensive problems, but it is still special enough to convince owners it’s worth the cost to keep on the road. There is a huge spread of values, you could spend three or even four times as much on a low-mileage minter from a dealer, but our Pill is a reminder that this might be a canny time to buy close to the bottom of the current market.
Even with hype muzzled, and hyperbole locked in its kennel, this M5 deserves to be regarded as one of the all-time greats. The regular E39 5 Series was a high watermark in its own right, combining devastatingly handsome design with exemplary dynamics and a largely excellent range of powerplants. Other countries did get to experience four-cylinder E39s; I remember what an utter disappointment a gutless rental-spec 520d was. But BMW GB never sullied the engine bay of a UK-spec car with fewer than six pots of creamy goodness. (With the exception of the agrarian TDS diesel, which had a straight-six but sometimes seemed to be gargling gravel.)
Yet even compared to its talented siblings, the M5, launched in 1998, was something special. Its engine was based on the 4.4-litre V8 of the existing 540i, but was given the sort of workout that would get a six minute montage in a Rocky film. Capacity was increased to 5.0-litres and the M5 was also given VANOS variable valve timing, boosting power to a barely-precedented 400hp.
Design was similarly finessed with a transformation that was both discreet and muscular at the same time. The M5 sat on larger wheels - socking great 18-inchers - and got a tasteful body kit and lippy bootlid spoiler. The biggest hint as to its specialness came with the quad exhaust tailpipes. Given the modest proportions of the rear badge, these were likely the most obvious clue to slower moving traffic as to what had just passed them.
Reaction was almost universally favourable, and the new M5 found itself short of serious rivals. When it was launched the only alternative offering a similar combination of pace and comfort in the UK was the supercharged Jaguar XJR; a fine car, but one with a much older demographic appeal. Among the Germans the contemporary Audi S8 was an Autobahn-snorting high-speed express and the W210 Mercedes E55 was an amazing engine trapped in a distinctly undynamic chassis. If you wanted the finest sports saloon of the era there was little serious argument against the M5 being it, despite a chunky £59,995 pricetag.
A couple of years ago I had a chance to drive an E39 M5 for the first time since being regularly exposed to factory-fresh press cars. This caused a surprising amount of anxiety; not because it was a high-value dealer's car on a publishing company's insurance, rather because I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my memories of how good it was when new.
Yet I needn't have worried. Driven in a modern context the M5 feels different to the space-age rocketship I remember from the turn of the Millennium; but the excellence remains. Compared to concrete-sprung modern equivalents, the M5 feels languid and positively laid back, with horsepower inflation having tuned its subjective acceleration from startling to merely impressive. But it still rewards harder progress like pretty much no other saloon, with what has to be about the best-judged compromise between ride and handling of all time. All without switchable driving modes, nannying assistance systems or even flappy paddles: all E39s came with a five-speed manual ‘box.
As with anything deemed worthy of Pillification, there are some fairly substantial risks lurking, although nothing compared to the level of mechanical malady that the next-in-line E60 M5 can spring on the unwary. Mechanically the E39's biggest problems tend to come from that VANOS system. Pretty much all rattle on start-up, but carrying on when warm means the need to budget for replacement. It’s a common enough problem that an eco-system of specialists has grown to attend to it. Other known issues involve flaky mass airflow metres and oil-spewing rear differentials. As with lesser E39s, the M5 can have a serious appetite for suspension components too, and the skills of somebody who knows how to set them up.
There's also a large, oxide-flaked pachyderm lurking at the edge of the room here. The E39 might not disintegrate at the spectacular rate that late 'nineties Mercs could manage, but it can still suffer from serious rot - and the body-kitted M5 is also adept at hiding it well. Our Pill can certainly scrub up well, but its MOT history suggests some significant tinworm in recent years, with cautionary reports of recurring grot. Last year it failed on "offside rear vehicle structure corroded to the extent that the rigidity of the assembly is significantly reduced" - one of the MOT tester's biggies. It passed two days later, and the vendor is willing to share images of the work that was done on the sills, presumably at that time.
The car certainly seems to have had care and attention lavished on it under its current owner, with evidence of the sort of spend you'd probably like to see when considering a car like this, including some proper Goodyear Eagle tyres. As a pre-facelift car it doesn't have the 'accent ring' headlights that came later on, but on the plus side it does without the comedy period satnav that most later cars shipped with and the dashboard looks better for it. The digital display is also suffering from the lazy pixels that seem to afflict almost all BMWs from this period.
But even if this car does need work, it's hard not to see the value of a carefully curated M5 continuing to follow an upward trajectory. On the list of M Division's greatest hits - and excluding pension fund limited editions - the E39 probably comes second only to the E30 M3 that kicked the whole thing off. Anyone looking to speculate on the E30 will find that ship has already sailed, picked up passengers in France and Ireland, struck an iceberg south-east of Newfoundland, sunk with the loss of 1,500 lives and then been immortalized with a block-busting film containing tasteful nudity from an Oscar-winning British actress. In other words, it ain't gonna happen; but a cheapish E39 M5 could be a hugely entertaining roulette wheel to spin.