Even if the E39 BMW M5 (1998-2003) had never turned any of its four, bespoke 18in Chrome Shadow alloy wheels (they’re easy to kerb and about £150 each to repair), we’d still be talking about it for its exhaust note alone. Idling, the 394bhp 4.9-litre V8 with double Vanos variable valve timing, eight throttle bodies and a free-flow exhaust is full of menace. Provoked, it explodes into vein-popping rage.
Parking the Lotus Carlton of 1990 conveniently to one side, the M5 is often credited with firing the starting gun on the modern-day saloon horsepower race, whose present pace-setters include the 552bhp M5 and 577bhp Mercedes-AMG E63 S. And the next M5 is expected to produce more than 600bhp.
But as any fule kno, it isn’t how fast you go, it’s how you get there – and getting there in the E39 M5 is still, 18 long years after the first cars took to the road, a thrilling and involving experience. BMW’s M division already had a great chassis to work with, to which it added beefed-up suspension, a limited-slip differential and sharper steering (no small achievement considering it was a recirculating ball set-up), while lowering the ride height. Ventilated discs allround and, by today’s standards, a rather interventionist ESP system (some owners switch it off) completed the changes. Add a Sport button and a six-speed manual gearbox (the throw is a little long but the shifts should be precise) and the M5 was ready to play.