Proustian Perfection

Mike Burger’s unrestored Bronzit 1988 535i isn’t only about cleanliness and originality. It’s also about a period-correct E28 driving experience, which can only be had from behind the wheel.

Photo: Proustian Perfection 1
July 12, 2013

Like most kids in Southern California, Mike Burger grew up surrounded by an omnipresent car culture, and he was on track to be a true car guy from an early age—a very early age. As a fidgety three-year-old, he managed to slide the car keys out of his mother’s hand while she waited in line at the Irvine post office, and he not only managed to start her Chevy Caprice but to back it out of its parking space—hitting a postal truck in the process—and to get a block down the road before terror struck and he jammed the gear selector into Park. Even though he’d done little damage—early ’70s Irvine consisted mainly of strawberry fields, and the post office was a trailer on blocks—the punishment was severe.

To Burger, it still seems justified.

“I put my mom through hell!” he says.

The incident didn’t dim his enthusiasm, and in later years he pestered his mom to take him to every car show possible. While he was in college—and old enough to drive legally—he picked up a Bavaria from a nearby BMW collector, glad to get a cool vintage BMW for a very low price. On the way home, however, he noticed the unmistakable smell of fuel in the cabin. Pulling the E3 over, he saw a pool of gasoline under the car. Opening the hood revealed a stream of fuel pouring from an opening in one of the Zenith carbs, an especially alarming sight given that Burger had just finished a cigarette. He realized he’d narrowly avoided a conflagration, and after limping home on one carburetor he swore he’d never drive a BMW again.

From skeptic to convert

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Fast-forwarding a few years finds Burger working in the sales department at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Newport Beach, where he saw a BMW that made him rethink that decision. The car was a Z8 traded in for a new Roller, and Burger came away amazed after taking it out for a drive.

“I couldn’t believe the workmanship and attention to detail,” Mike recalls. “It was one of the only cars I’ve driven recently that compared in fit, finish and driving experience to the Rolls-Royces that I sell. I was instantly a BMW fan again.”

Now he needed to determine which BMW to purchase. He wanted a vintage car with modern amenities that could be used on a regular basis, so he focused on the E28 5 Series. Finding one that lived up to his standards of excellence wouldn’t be easy, but some months later he located a 1988 535i in Bronzit metallic over Llama with a five-speed manual transmission. The car had been sold new by Sterling BMW in Newport Beach and had been cared for meticulously by both of its previous owners. It had only covered 74,000 miles, all in California, when Burger bought it, and its originality and condition scuttled his plan to use it as a daily driver. This E28 was destined for a higher calling.

During his search for the right car, Burger had become friendly with several members of Orange County’s vast and enthusiastic BMW community. He’d helped out on a few restoration projects and was getting the knack for what it would take to turn a completely stock 535i into something with a little more flair and panache.

Upon getting one of his own, his first step was to shed the car of its North American-spec diving board bumpers in favor of their smaller Euro-market counterparts, giving the 5er crisper, cleaner lines. At the same time, he installed a more aggressive Euro M5 front valence and chin spoiler, then took the extra step of going for a full European headlight conversion including the headlamp washing system—and it works perfectly!

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Next, Burger tracked down a pair of Sport seats from an E28 M5 and had them redone by Westminster Upholstery in Llama leather to match the interior, which was otherwise in showroom condition. He then bought a OEM windshield to replace the original, which was unbroken but had received enough dings and pitting to detract from the E28’s overall gleam.

A full refreshing of the suspension followed. Burger went with Bilstein Sport shocks and struts paired with Suspension Techniques high-performance springs. A set of BBS Style 5 wheels (refinished by Speedway Metal Refinishing in Santa Ana) completed the modifications.

A complete detailing of the engine compartment and undercarriage followed, including fresh powerdercoating on the intake airbox and fuel manifold and a fastidious cleaning of the rest of the car.

Taking home the trophies

On a lark, Burger entered it in a BMW CCA Clean Car Contest in San Diego in May 2011. He had no experience with showing his car, so he entered his 535i into the “Clean Car” category, which meant it would be judged on its interior and exterior appearance, with its hood and trunk closed. His car took an unexpected second-place finish, earning Burger instant respect from the BMW community and hooking him on the art of presenting perfect cars. He clearly had a knack for it, but he dedicated himself to learning as much as he could about perfecting his E28 from Orange County’s knowledgeable enthusiasts.

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The following year, he entered his car in the “Super Clean” category at San Diego, for which it would be subject to a full inspection of its interior, exterior, engine bay, trunk and undercarriage—the complete Q-tip terror treatment. Having spent countless hours getting his car ready, Burger was undaunted, and his 535i ended up winning this ultra-competitive category.

Emboldened by his victory, Burger entered his E28 in the Huntington Beach Concours, which had just added a new category for German classics. Thanks to meticulous planning and preparation, the car won again, taking first place in the “German Classics–Concours” class.

The biggest test was yet to come. In October 2012, Burger entered his car in the Legends of the Autobahn meet in Carmel Valley, the only German-focused event during the week of the Monterey Historic Races. As Bimmer has noted, the Legends meet has become quite a show in a very short time, encompassing not just BMWs but the finest Porsches, Mercedes and Audis on the West Coast.

Burger figured he’d have to work extra-hard to do well at Legends. First of all, he’d be driving the E28 to Monterey from Southern California, complete with luggage and a very patient and understanding wife. Once there, it would take a full day to prep the car for the show, even after a thorough cleaning in Orange County. (And you thought waxing your 2002 four times a year was a big deal!)

His attention to detail and tremendous work ethic resulted in his E28 taking first place in the Open Concours class, a significant achievement against the finest BMWs in the West.

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“I don’t think people realize what it takes to accomplish this sort of accolade,” Burger says. “Everything has been done to the highest standards and with OEM parts. I am a stickler for doing it right, and anyone who has seen this car in person knows that I’ve put a ton of effort in to making her as pretty as possible.”

Pure E28 sweetness

Indeed he has, but static beauty is only one aspect of Burger’s E28. Seeing it in motion is another, and driving it is altogether more wonderful.

Meeting up with Mike in Newport Beach, I follow him to Back Bay, noting the night-and-day difference between a car like his with European-spec bumpers and lights and the clumsier-looking North American cars. One more reason to shake your head at what goes on in Washington, DC!

I’ve seen and driven my share of Beautiful Bavarians, but this is the cleanest car I’ve ever seen, and that includes many that were still on the showroom floor. Burger seems pleased when I’m surprised that the entire car—including its engine compartment, trunk, interior, exterior and undercarriage—looks like a brand-new BMW.

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It’s so perfect that I’m a bit hesitant to get in, but I eventually put my foot onto the driver’s side CocoMat and slide into the Llama leather Sport seat. It’s like taking a time machine back to 1988, so free is the interior of cracks, creases, sun fading or damage of any sort. With the exception of the seat upholstery, this is an unrestored car in all-original condition, and its condition is as fine as any I’ve seen since Ray Sterbens’ 1973 Malaga 2002 tii [Bimmer #92]. Those OC guys really know how to preserve their BMWs!

With Mike in the passenger seat, I slip the Getrag 265 five-speed into first gear. The shifter has the crisp and correct tightness, with a just-like-new amount of resistance going into gear. The M30B34 engine responds perfectly, and the 25-year-old E28 jumps down the road with no hesitation or lag.

Despite its Euro cosmetics, this is still a North American-spec 5er, but every one of its 182 horses under the hood has reported for duty. This stock 535i gets up to speed quickly and satisfyingly—although I don’t have a stopwatch, we’re at 70 mph in what feels like an instant, and certainly to 60 in the factory-clamed seven-plus seconds.

The M30B34 may be less desirable to enthusiasts than the B35 version of the same engine, with its bigger valves and extra 30 horses, but that engine was really only necessary in the larger and heavier next-gen E34 that was sold in Europe while this E28 was still being sold over here. In this car, the B34 performs perfectly, even in (another surprise) completely stock form, with no performance upgrades.

On the winding roads around Back Bay, the Bilstein shocks and sportier springs give some added firmness and sureness through turns, but even with these minor upgrades, it rides essentially like bone-stock. That might not sound like a compliment, even on a BMW, but I love the way this car feels.

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A fast approach to a U-turn engages the ABS system, which works to perfection. The 5er snaps around the intersection in a perfect curve with the slightest bit of roll, pure E28 sweetness. I’ve driven some impressively modified E28s, but this 535i is one of the most honest BMWs I’ve ever driven, and there’s something really special about that.

A Proustian moment

I feel like I’ve driven this car before, and in fact I have, though not this individual 535i. Back in the waning days of the Reagan administration, I was a Wall Street hotshot doing my utmost to move paper assets from one side of the street to the other. Visiting my parents on Long Island in the fall of 1987, I took a detour to Competition Motors in Smithtown, NY, which was rolling new 2002s off the showroom floor and is still around to this day. Playing the part of the successful young broker, I acted mildly interested as I desperately tried to hide the hunger I’d had for a BMW ever since a ‘72 2002 addicted me to Bavarian iron for life. I coaxed a test drive of a five-speed 535i out of a skeptical salesman, who thought me too young to afford the $36,000 sticker price. He was correct, but I had an image to uphold.

Driving Mike’s 535i was Proustian moment, sending the physical memories of that test drive flooding back. Then as now, it was a fantastic car to drive, though the experience might be even more special today because so much care has been taken to keep this 5er in like-new condition. (And it was a good thing I couldn’t afford that E28 back in late ’87. A month later, the financial markets crashed, and I was out of work within a week. No matter; there was no place to park it in Manhattan anyway.)

From someone who once swore off BMWs as death machines, Burger has become a respected member of the BMW community in Southern California.

“I’m pretty damn lucky to have been a part of these great events and to have been able to meet such wonderful people whom I can now call friends,” he says. “They are very supportive and can appreciate what I am doing because they have been there and done it.”

As I hand back the keys, Mike tells me he’s finishing up the restoration of a Nachtblau (Midnight Blue) E9 coupe. If his stunning Bronzit 535i is any indication, that 3.0 CS should be a stunner.

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