Randomly Spotted: The BMW 524td, not your ordinary 1980s BMW 5-Series

BMW E28 524td

Not too long ago, I started a little section of egmCarTech called “Randomly Spotted,” where in my travels, if I were to stumble upon a rare and odd automobile, I would bring it to the table for discussion.

But in this version of Randomly Spotted, today’s feature may not seem too rare and odd to begin with, unlike that old Citroen I spotted. For starters, right off the bat, you may think: it’s a normal BMW E28 5-Series from 1981-1988, what’s so special?

And of course, I’d agree with you…that is, until your eyes meet the number badging on the right side of the trunk. Most of us Americans have become used to 5-Series designations like 525, 528, 533, 535, 540, and so on. But wait a second…5-2-4-t-d or 524td? What the heck is that?

Most of us are aware that BMW has as much of a history producing diesel passenger cars as every other European manufacturer, though their efforts were isolated to other markets where diesel passenger cars were more established. And it wasn’t until the introduction of the E90 335d and the E70 X5 3.0d that made it seem like BMW was offering diesel powered cars for the first time in America. But if you’ve ever pondered the question as to whether BMW had any previous diesel models offered in America in the past, the answer is yes, they have! Truth be told, the E90 335d and the E70 X5 3.0d were not BMW’s first attempt at importing diesel-powered models into North America.

This E28 524td happens to be the first and last diesel-powered model BMW ever sold in America prior to the 335d and the X5. Only imported from 1985 to 1986, the BMW 524td was the brand’s experimental model that would compete against the at-the-time, aging, but tried, tested and true Mercedes-Benz W123 300D.

That said, where as Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen were well established for importing diesel passenger cars consistently and with great success, BMW had attempted to jump on the bandwagon for the North American Market. But why was it only offered for one model-year?

At the time of the BMW E28’s launch in 1981, the brand’s reputation for sporty performance automobiles was deep in the process of being established and embedded in the opinions and minds of critics and consumers in America. As a result, BMW of North America didn’t feel that the 524td’s 114hp turbodiesel straight-six was fitting for the brand’s up and coming image, especially since BMW’s M-Division was beginning to take form from models like the E12 and E28 M535is, the fathers of the world-renown BMW M5. And despite this call, the E28 BMW 524td was the world’s fastest and most powerful diesel production car at the time and was capable of 30 mpg’s in the city and 33 on the highway.

Additionally, diesel was receiving terrible reception after General Motors had attempted to produce diesel passenger cars of their own. Arguably criticized for being powered by normal gasoline engines converted to diesels—which explaining why that doesn’t work is a more technical discussion—General Motors ruined the reputation of diesels because their versions were deemed terribly unreliable and underpowered.

Combine that with the fact that gasoline prices took a dive after the 1973 Oil Crisis, relieving consumers of the concern for fuel economy, the circumstances weren’t favoring BMW’s campaign to market the 524td. The final result: the 524td was pulled from the US market in 1986.

Because the 524td was so short-lived in North America, it is extraordinarily rare to come across one, both either running or rotting away in a barn or backyard. And why is it important? BMW only reintroduced diesels for the American market in 2009, so many prospective buyers in North America were still found to be a little apprehensive with swallowing the diesel passenger car pill. But thanks to a more open-minded consumer sphere in North America and greater awareness, diesel passenger cars have slowly been trickling their way into bigger prominence here in the states. That said, prospective American buyers shouldn’t be afraid of BMW diesels despite the impression that the brand only begun their diesel prospects for North America in 2009. The fact of the matter is that BMW has been producing diesel passenger cars for quite some time, just for Europe and other markets. So they ain’t no stranger to the game.

But should you express interest in picking up an E28 524td as a project or an antique, all I could say is good luck finding one, because this was the first North American E28 524td I’ve ever randomly spotted in the flesh and it seems like only the diehard Roundel enthusiasts are aware of the 524td here in America. And unfortunately, they only came with an automatic here in Americaland.

– By: Chris Chin

Chris Chin

Chris Chin is the Editor-In-Chief of egmCarTech and is a regular contributor to Automobile Magazine.

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