Something old, something new

Combining vintage style with a modern stance, Rob Amason’s E28 gets the balance right.

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July 11, 2014

Buy a 1980s 5 Series and you’re faced with a dilemma: Should you give it a full restoration with Original BMW parts, making the car look as stunning as it did when it rolled off the assembly line, or should you transform it into a cool little hot rod, taking advantage of the car’s low buy-in price to indulge your wildest visions?

That’s what Rob Amason of Houston, Texas asked himself after he picked up a 1988 E28 528i three years ago. The car wasn’t in perfect condition, and leaving it as-is wasn’t an option. Ultimately, he decided to mix a full-on restoration with a few individualized touches that would update this timeless classic to suit 21st century taste.

First among those is ride height. E28s left the factory with ample ground clearance, and the first thing most enthusiasts have always done is reduce the ride height for better looks and improved handling. In 1981, that consisted of switching the coil springs for shorter, stiffer versions; today, using a custom air suspension allows hot rodders to not just reduce but almost eliminate the gap between the tire and the fenders.

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To modernize the look of the E28 he dubbed “Mr. Farnsworth,” Amason went with a custom setup from AirLift and Accuair, installed by Dorbritz Designs in Plano, Texas. The system consists of AirLift’s universal double-bellow air struts up front and universal sleeve bags at the rear, filled from dual polished tanks in the trunk pressurized by a pair of Viar silent compressors. The whole thing is controlled by an Accuair eLevel air management system that allows Amason to control the ride height with the flick of a switch. That lets the car sit low when it’s striking a pose or rise up again when it’s time to clear speed bumps, steep driveways or anything else that might damage the undercarriage or bodywork.

The car’s fenders frame a pristine set of HRE 506 wheels that are supposedly the only set in the United States. Measuring 8.5 × 17 inches up front and 9.5 × 17 inches at the rear, the staggered setup gives the 5 Series the extra visual pop it needs to stand apart from everything else on the road.

The rear brakes were upgraded with E32 750iL parts, a common modification back in the day. Up front, Amason took a more modern approach, fitting a custom-made Futura Design big brake kit that fills out the three-piece HRE wheels beautifully. The six-piston calipers were powdercoated in Alpine White with blue logos, while the large drilled and slotted rotors are mounted to aluminum hats anodized in blue.

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The hats are the perfect accent for the car’s Royal Blue metallic paint, which looks like it’s been freshly sprayed. In fact, it’s the original paint, the same stuff applied 26 years and 160,000 miles ago in Bavaria. To restore its lustre, Amason had a trusted detailer “correct” or machine polish the car’s finish. The effect is probably better than new thanks to the removal of any imperfections.

The car’s appearance also benefits from the addition of a few European-spec E28 parts that Amason sourced from overseas: smaller front and rear bumpers, grille, headlights and taillights. The latter eliminate the orange turn signal sections for full-red lenses everywhere except the backup lights. It’s a subtle improvement, but it helps complete the visual package.

While the immaculate exterior looks downright amazing, it’s the reworked and restored interior that really makes Amason’s car a unique ride. The ’80s are alive and well inside the cabin, and everything works, from the “check control” warning lights above the driver to the factory air conditioning.

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A wood-rimmed NRG wheel (with quick-release adapter) and matching shift knob are period-correct mods that would have been fitted by an enthusiast back in the day, while the modern Recaro bucket seats are totally 21st century. That touch of “new school” is matched by the M5 rear seats that replace the stock rear bench, giving back-seat passengers more support as well as a flip-down armrest. The entire interior was reupholstered by StereoFX in Houston in black and blue leather, with blue stitching that brings an echo of the Royal Blue exterior paint into the cabin.

No hot rod is complete without an upgraded engine, and the M20B27 small six in Amason’s E28 has been lightly massaged to make a few extra ponies. The 2.7-liter engine had already made the “e” to “i” transition before Amason got it, and he ordered its cylinder head rebuilt with upgraded camshafts, intake and exhaust valves and dual valve springs, and the Motronic 173 computer reprogrammed with a high-performance chip.

The modifications may sound modest, but the M20 six is well matched to the E28 chassis even in stock form. Although relatively small, the 2.7-liter engine packs enough low-end torque to make acceleration quite punchy and running through the gears extremely satisfying.

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The custom air suspension works well, too, allowing the BMW to cruise as smoothly as any modern luxury car. At the same time, it’s also sporty enough to remain composed under hard cornering on a mountain road—or what passes for such in Houston!

When we met with Amason in Texas, he and “Mr. Farnsworth” had just returned from a trip to Southern Worthersee in Helen, Georgia. Also known as SoWo, the event is a gathering of European cars in a touristy town that resembles a Bavarian village, where like-minded enthusiasts mix and mingle. The car was well received at SoWo, much to Rob’s delight, validating his decision to combine vintage looks with a bit of modern flair. We think he got the balance just right, having built an E28 that represents the best of what the ’80s and the ’10s have to offer.

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