1986 BMW 520i E28 BAGS air suspension
With its outstanding original spec, this clean E28 has sent its owner – a seasoned modifier – in a new and more sympathetic direction.
Words: Daniel Bevis
Photos: John Langley
STOCK OEM SYNDROME
You get to meet some real characters in the automotive scene, and one thing that keeps coming back, time and time again, is that car enthusiasts are car enthusiasts. That might sound like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but it’s completely logical: you don’t have to be an obsessive BMW superfan to build a cool BMW, it’s enough to be a fan of the culture of cars in general. Naturally, it helps that Liam Ainsworth (@liamainsworth_) sort of is an obsessive BMW superfan, but that’s not the only spice in his rack.
Among the various badass rides he’s put together over the years, one of the more boisterous was a 400hp VW Golf R that found itself on the cover of sister mag Fast Car in late 2020. At that time, Liam had this to say about his automotive outlook: “My style of modification is born out of enjoyment, I never have a specific direction – just whatever seems right at the time. I enjoy building cars, whether it’s for me, for someone else, or with my mates. It’s just about sick cars; air or static isn’t a thing for me, if it’s cool, then that’s all it’s about. I like stuff I find funny, and if someone’s got something to moan about, I’ll probably love it… the more ‘ruined’ the better! Stupid fitment, stupid stretch, stupid lows. But also clean and tidy, you’ve got to find the balance.”
I went with BAGS air suspension by OCD along with AccuAir management. When it came to the suspension there was no doubt on the brand – Only Charged Dubs’ own stuff is top quality
It’s interesting to note just how the balance has tipped in favour of the ‘clean and tidy’ with this latest acquisition, however. Could it be that Liam has mellowed, swapping belligerent needling for sympathetic gentility? It certainly helped that the project base for this stellar E28 was something of a unicorn.
“I’d wanted an E28 for a while,” he explains. “It’s the perfect ’80s styling, I love the shark-nose – and we do a lot of miles with shows all over the country, and European ’80s cars are perfect: reliable enough to do the miles, but old enough to be cool. And this was just the perfect model. I was searching for a while for the right one; it’s from a classic car auction, I’d been able to view the car, which cemented it even more. I was on the phone for the auction shouting ‘YES!’ to the next highest bid loud enough you could hear me on the live stream! One family owner, original car, 65,000 miles… it was like it had just rolled out the showroom. In Smaragdgrün with matching green interior, and in a condition I’ve genuinely never seen before – even the carpets, not a mark on them. I’m still yet to find another the same colour. I have original delivery receipts and the logbook from 1986, it has all original BMW branch stickers, full toolkit, everything that came with the car on the day.”
With such originality comes a lighter touch, although there’s no stopping a guy like Liam when he’s got an idea in his head. It was always the plan to modify this. But this time, given all that had been preserved over the decades, he was keen to enhance and accentuate rather than to radically alter. Tasteful, largely reversible mods to make a statement; to speak softly while carrying a big stick.
There’s precedent with old cars here, Liam hasn’t just waded in with his arms swinging and attempted to paint an E28 with a Golf R brush. He may have dabbled with various water-cooled VeeDubs, but, he’s also pretty handy with the spanners on his old 1950s Standard Eight – and, interestingly, he’s also got an M4, which is currently stock but presumably won’t be for too long. So all of these disparate influences and experiences got chucked merrily into the pot, and the result is something carefully considered and beautifully executed.
“I’d say I’ve always been interested in BMW,” he ponders, “but I became a full BMW head about three years ago. BMWs just stand out to me, they have their own personality, iconic badge and the M Sport racing heritage. I work for a Bavarian company, and I was over there recently and was lucky enough to visit the museum while the 50 Years of M display was there.” His first BMW was an E36 318i, something bought as a fast-road/drift beater with a welded diff and coils, although once he’d sorted a few racy bits like harnesses and a hydro handbrake, Covid hit, and all the drift days got shut down, so he sold it on. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted.
Fast-forward to April 2021, and that seed was enthusiastically sprouting in the form of this gloriously green 520i. All period-correct and with so many tales to tell, Liam was onto a winner from the get-go – but he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels. It was always the plan to put the car on air-ride for that killer show car stance, and that’s precisely what was inked as ‘job one’ on the to-do list. “I went with BAGS air suspension by OCD along with AccuAir management,” he explains. “When it came to the suspension there was no doubt on the brand – Only Charged Dubs’ own stuff is top quality. They’ve designed their kit to perfectly fit the car and done away with all the problems of other suppliers. I can’t recommend them enough! And I chose AccuAir management, with height sensors and Endo tank, I think it suits the car better, and the reliability of it was no question. Matt at OCD also did me a very clean notch of either side of the car for the rack and bottom arms, just to get that extra clearance for perfect fitment. He did a great job keeping it clean and OEM-looking to tie in with the car.”
While they were at it, the guys took the opportunity to renew and refresh as they went, replacing all of the arms, bushes, brake components and bearings. It was imperative that the underside of the car was as clean as everything up top and inside. And with such attention to detail permeating all of these matters, you can be darned sure that Liam would be paying equal heed to the correct wheel choice. “I started out with – and still have – a set of Azev wheels,” he says. “These were mainly to set up suspension while I decided on what I wanted to run. I was all over the place with wheels, wanting custom BMW alloys made into splits, but finding someone to do it, along with sourcing the wheels I wanted was I nightmare. I’d always had RSs in mind, although I started to think maybe they were too common – but then I thought: ‘What really suits a classic BMW more than BBS?’. I came across some RS faces that a friend had sitting around for a while that had been plugged, and I found a local machinist to machine the mating face and redrill to the correct PCD, and we were away! I had them fully machine-polished by Bim at Pugz Polishing, and while they were there, he freshened up my step lips and powder-coated my barrels from SRR.”
It’s a sympathetic aesthetic approach, as naturally, Liam was at pains to preserve as much of the E28’s 1980s character as possible. The original bumpers were retained, it remains unadorned by spoilers or decals, it’s simply been treated to a jolly good detailing to show off that glorious (and gloriously rare) factory paint. It’s the same story in the cabin too: the factory houndstooth interior was his favourite element of the car when he bought it, so it’s been a case of preservation and augmentation here. See those matching cushions? They were handmade by Lynne – that’s Matt from OCD’s mum – and they do a lot to amp up the luxurious cruiser vibe. Carl at OCD masterminded the boot build, again sticking to Liam’s concept of keeping it clean and simple and appropriate for the car.
“The only time spent in the engine bay was replacing various OEM parts and getting it back to its original glory,” Liam says. “I replaced all of the bonnet insulation and seals, removed and cleaned all the bottles, just to make the factory spec the very best it can be.”
So what’s next? “I really don’t think I want to do anything else,” he muses. “I keep talking about an engine swap, but I don’t want to ruin the originality. Maybe I’ll shave the bay over the winter, to show off the M20 motor instead.” Sounds like the man knows his own mind. And it’s impressive to note just how faithful he’s been to BMW’s own concept throughout this project. Yes, it was ever the plan to furnish it with a killer stance, but the more he unpicks the car’s impressive originality, the keener Liam is to celebrate it. It’s not mental like his Golf, but it’s not meant to be. He’s just a proper car enthusiast with a good eye for what’s right.
Dazzling fully-polished, stepped-up
17” BBS RSs. This E28 has been treated to a chassis notch to help it sit even lower.
Original M20 straight-six. went with BAGS air suspension by OCD along with AccuAir management. When
Boot build looks fantastic Interior features original houndstooth trim Air-ride controller.
DATA FILE 1986 BMW 520i E28
- ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION 2.0-litre straight-six M20B20. Five-speed manual gearbox
- CHASSIS 9x17” stepped-up BBS RS split-rims, BAGS air suspension by Only Charged Dubs, AccuAir management
- EXTERIOR Original spec, Smaragdgrün paint
- INTERIOR Original green houndstooth trim, custom cushions, custom boot build, Blaupunkt SQR 46 head unit
- THANKS All the lads at The Drivers Collection, Only Charged Dubs and BAGS suspension, and Stuart at SIC Detailing
- This E28 is just so clean