Border Crossings

Thirty years ago, BMW’s E12 M535i broke down the barrier between sports car and sedan while the R80 G/S was erasing the boundary between enduro bike and tourer.

December 3, 2010
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The barbed-wire fences, land mines and armed guards are gone now, and all that remains is a one-room building so nondescript we almost miss it. Other than a small sign, there’s nothing to indicate that this was, just twenty-one years ago, one of the most heavily fortified and tightly guarded international borders in the world.

Today, however, it’s just a spot on the road, Germany’s B79, to be precise. The border that for decades separated two countries—the Federal Republic of Germany on the west and the German Democratic Republic on the east—is now a negligible divide, at least politically.

Just as the border between one country and another can dissolve in an instant, so too can the border between one class of vehicle and another. It may be a superficial analogy, but it seems inescapable as we drive from the former GDR into the west in this E12 M535i, the car that erased the boundaries between sports car and sedan.

And just as this automobile melded the qualities of both to become the world’s first sports sedan, so the R80 G/S behind us did the same for motorcycles. Dual-purpose bikes had existed long before the G/S, of course, but they combined the virtues of a motocrosser and a lightweight urban runabout rather than those of an enduro bike and a tourer. The G/S did the latter, and the adventure bike was born.

We’ve been swapping between two wheels and four for eight days already by the time we cross the old border in Matterzoll, Lower Saxony. Having started in Hanover a week ago, we’re almost finished with the 2,000 Kilometers of Germany, the 2,000-km durch Deutschland. From Hanover, we’ve gone west to Osnabrück and northward to Bremen, then east to Rostock and south to Potsdam before heading westward again through Halle and Wolfsburg back to Hanover. It’s a long drive, to be sure, and it’s also been slow…agonizingly slow. More on that later; first, let’s meet our border-crossing vehicles.

M535i: Nearly invisible

If the M535i had been an East German trying to cross the border to the west in 1980, the year it was built, it would have done so in the engine compartment of an Isetta. (People did…) The in-house history of the M brand, BMW M Power, published a few years ago doesn’t even mention it, going straight from the mid-engine M1 to the E28 M5 as if this car never existed. Searching the BMW Archive, my corporate communications handler on this journey, Florian Moser, can find only the sales brochure printed in 1979—the BMW M Registry seems to have more information on this car than BMW, and Alex Palevsky’s excellent model history in Bimmer #83 can fill in the gaps.

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