Hiding in Plain Sight: Where to Find Tomorrow’s Collectible Cars, Today

By: Bridget Clerkin October 18, 2018
DMV.ORG breaks down the hidden lucrative gems in the collectable car market. First up: the BMW E28 5-series.
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Have you ever gotten a piece of good advice and didn’t take it?

The situation isn’t just ironic—it’s sometimes downright tragic. And while the world would be at least one pop song shorter without such missed opportunities, it would probably be much longer on happiness.

That’s why we here at DMV.ORG have launched a new series—"Hiding in Plain Sight”—to help future-minded folks find out which vehicles today are most likely to pay off big down the road.

Collectible cars are an extraordinarily lucrative market, with the right type of model able to fetch more than a $1 million at auction. But the barrier of entry for such a trade is often far too high, especially for someone just starting out.

A number of smaller-scale deals lurk in the shadows of those industry giants, however, and could add up to a tidy profit for someone who knows what to look for, and where to look.

Staying a step ahead of the market means a fortuitous Craigslist search and a couple thousand dollars may be all you need to get started.

To be sure, some automotive knowhow is also helpful when extracting these diamonds from the rough. And patience is a must-have: finding the right vehicle takes time, and waiting for the market to catch on can take even longer.

But the reward makes it worthwhile.

All told, the process is a bit like a treasure hunt—if you could hop in the treasure chest and enjoy driving it around for a few years before trading it in for its weight’s worth of gold.

And we here at DMV.ORG want to give you the map.

The Car

Today’s series focuses not on one car but a whole line to look out for: the BMW E28 5-series.

Built anywhere between 1981 to 1988, the line has several models that may offer the most future bang for their buck, including the 528e and the 535i.

So what does that mean? Let’s break it down quickly:

In the automotive world, “E28” is the name of the vehicle platform—also called a chassis or, roughly, the bones of the auto. Manufacturers often use these skeletons to provide the base for several different models in production. Those cars are then given various engines, outer bodies, and other options to keep the line diverse.

And a 5-series refers to the size of the outer body that’s placed on that chassis. For BMW, the first digit in the model number always signals the size of the car, with 5 representing a mid-size vehicle out of a total range of possibilities from 1 to 8.

The remaining two digits speak to engine size, with a 528 sporting a 2.8-liter engine, and a 535 featuring a 3.5-liter motor.

While an enthusiast may be happy to land any member of the E28 family, the 528e and 535i could land you the best possible deal.

Why You Want One

The line may represent BMW at its best—before the company got too big and was still a true badge of prestige.

E28 models—all of which were 5-series cars—are particularly high-performance and sport an excellent weight distribution that makes them especially responsive and fun to drive.

The various engines available in the line also make the rides flexible, with the cars equally comfortable cruising thousands of highway miles or tackling high-speed turns on country roads.

And the attention to detail given to the series was so great that even the feel of pushing down the blinker stalk was taken into consideration when building it.

E28 models—all of which were 5-series cars—are particularly high-performance and sport an excellent weight distribution that makes them especially responsive and fun to drive.

The E28 platform also gave rise to today’s BMW M5, which is one of the automaker’s most desirable—and expensive—cars, fetching more than $100,000 new and north of $50,000 for a clean ’80s example.

That the M5 is beginning to skyrocket in price is one reason why the E28 line is getting a second look from forward-thinking investors. But perhaps even more attractive is their bulletproof nature that may make the rides truly valuable in the long- and short-term.

Maintenance duties are not only rare but easy to perform when they do arise. Plenty of spare parts are still available for the E28 platform and can be found online for cheap. Their simple design makes even their engines exceptionally easy to replace, allowing the line of cars to withstand the test of time.

All told, the autos need little more than a modern set of wheels and tires to comfortably jump into this decade, making them a classic vehicle that can still be truly enjoyed on the road, as intended, and spared the mothball treatment for now.

Why You Can Afford One (for Now)

BMW E28 5series
A BMW E28 5-series.
Photo credit: Daniel Vorndran / CC-BY-SA-3.0

At the time they were released, the cars of the E28 5-series were considered luxury vehicles due to their comfortable seats, quiet engines, and the prestigious nature of their maker.

But luxury is a funny thing in the automotive world, often standing in for “modern,” and aging poorly by design.

As time wore on, the cushy interiors of the E28s wore out while their “superior” technology became first commonplace and then, eventually, out of date. And the market value of the vehicles tanked accordingly, with many of the models simply left to rot after their perceived usefulness had elapsed.

Still, the reciprocal nature of fashion often paints even the most outdated examples in a flattering light.

Compared to the rounded edges and soft plastics on the road today, the boxy steel design of the E28 5-series looks sharp and exceptionally handsome. Called the shark-nose BMW, the car’s look embodies 1980s style without embracing of some of the decade’s more questionable trends.

And the power and performance behind that design is as desirable as ever. Aside from their fantastic speed and handling capabilities, the vehicles come with the full suite of still-modern amenities like antilock brakes, electric windows, and air conditioning, but their simple controls and lack of bright, buzzy, and distracting infotainment systems make the driving experience that much more immersive.

What to Look For

As with any bargain hunt, the buyer must beware. Remember, cars are put up for sale for a reason, and deals that look too good to be true often are.

Make sure to do your homework—and proceed with caution—before pursuing any purchases, especially on Craigslist or other online outlets.

But when it comes to the E28 5-series, there are a few issues in particular to keep in mind for any potential long-term investment:

  • Rust. Especially when it’s on the floor. Steel repair is extremely expensive, and rust on the floor is an all-but-fatal flaw. If you’re looking to eventually make money off the vehicle, don’t bother. You should also look for rust in window frames, the bottom of doors, and the trunk lid—though these issues are easier, and slightly cheaper, to fix.
  • Cracks in the dashboard. If you’re looking to build a collector’s car, interior components become very important selling points. Replacing a dashboard is expensive, and while you can always use a cover to hide the defect, it’s not going to do much for the car’s resale value.
  • Upholstery quality. The soft materials used in the luxury models were quick to deteriorate. And while it’s possible to reupholster the interior, the process is daunting when undertaken personally and expensive when outsourced, costing as much as $2,000.
  • Air conditioning unit. This will almost certainly have to be converted, as the type of refrigerant used in the 1980s models is no longer commercially available. A working A/C may cost roughly another $800.

There are also a few useful things to keep in mind while shopping for your investment E28:

  • Look for a 5-speed model. The higher-performing transmission is not only more fun to drive, but more valuable.
  • Don’t be afraid of high mileage. The bulletproof motors can routinely make it over 200,000 miles—with an engine considered just “broken in” at as many as 180,000 miles.
  • And be wary of low mileage. A common failing on the E28 is a small white gear in the odometer, which frequently breaks, causing the numbers to stop spinning.

If you find a model that you like, don’t forget to ask to see the title, service history, and other related paperwork before making your purchase.

And if you decide to take an E28 home with you, make sure to change every drop of fluid before driving off into the sunset, including the oil, radiator fluid, transmission fluid, and brake fluid.

The Value

Of the entire series, the best bang for your buck will most likely come in the form of a 528e. The highly desirable model is still flying under the radar for now, with some available for as cheap as $600-700.

These especially inexpensive models may need a bit more love, but the extra investment is likely to pay back dividends, with the cars likely capable of fetching at least $10K-15K within the next 10 years.

To find the best deals, keep your eyes peeled and away from the computer. Websites may offer easier and more far-reaching options, but local want ads can be the source of many hidden gems.

Those with a bit more seed money—or a bit less patience—may want to splash out on the 535i. The top-end model of the E28 platform can still be found for as much as $6,000 today, though its resale value is already starting to skyrocket, reportedly reaching as high as $50,000 for an especially clean example.

To find the best deals, keep your eyes peeled and away from the computer. Websites may offer easier and more far-reaching options, but local want ads can be the source of many hidden gems.

Don’t forget to pay attention while driving down the street: if you see an E28 sitting in front of someone’s home and it still hasn’t moved a week later, it’s likely not going to. Pull over, knock on the door, and ask about it. It may be the best investment of time you’ll ever make.

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