Fast forward almost exactly four years since I met Claus and the E28 M5 and this time I was getting close to pouring myself out of a different bar, this one in northern Italy. Specifically, I was in the city and comune of Busto Arsizio in the province of Varese, in the region of Lombardy, just north of Milan. I loved Italy, so much so that I had moved there about a year prior to escape the winters of the more northern parts of Europe. Plus, the food, the culture, the people, it’s just so intoxicating. Also, the alcohol is intoxicating, as I was experiencing this particular night, like many before, and many since. According to my bartender Giovanni, this particular town had just celebrated annual its winter tradition, the burning of the Giöbia. He continued, saying that the Giöbia is a (typically female) puppet that is meant to symbolize the end of winter and its troubles; on a more ominous note, it also marked the change from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society in ancient times. Europe is so cool, especially when you are this drunk.
It was on this night that my sense of deja-vu was set into overdrive. All over again. I had since traded my 535i for some Italian freddo (that means cool), a 1988 Alfa. Specifically, it was the Sprint 1.7 Quadrifoglio Verde, which was a mouthful to try to explain to people but was a fun little Italian hatchback with a wicked dual carb boxer 4-cylinder. It didn’t have the Autobahn speed of the BMW, but you know “when in Rome”. I’ll admit, it was a bit of an impulse purchase, the donna I was dating was an Italian car purist and she said that all enthusiasts should own an Alfa at some point. I took that as a challenge and ended up with the rosso red Sprint.
Which brings me back to the bottle of wine, or two, that I had emptied that particular night in Busto Arsizio. Much like that night outside of Munich where I met Claus, a story which I have told and retold to the shagrin of my friends, I was watching a Serie A football match on the TV when a gentleman sat down next to me. Again, he was in his early 50s but unlike Claus, this man called Ercole wasn’t in a bad mood at all. I had noticed when he sauntered into the establishment—as most distinguished Italian men do—making subtle, but noticeable, eye contact with the young ladies seated near the bar. Clearly he was not from the lower class, he had a full head of hair, his suit was made of some sort of impressive material, his dress shirt unbuttoned but still featuring a designer tie loosened around his neck. De rigueur Italian loafers completed the look.
Ercole sat down next to me and immediately extended his hand. I introduced myself and attempted some rough Italian. Most European citizens, occasionally even the French, will forgive an American his trespasses and sins if you at least attempt to speak their native language. At this point they typically save you with the fact that almost all Europeans learn at least some English. Ercole was no different and our talk turned quickly to cars.
Again, deja vu.
At this point, if I told you that I met another automobile designer in another bar, you’d say that I was full of merda. That’s shit in Italian. And I would typically have believed you, but as Ercole recounted some of the cars he had touched with his design pen, I sat there mouth agape. Names like Aston Martin DB5 GT Zagato, many Alfa’s and Lancia’s, the Ford GT70, and finally the BMW E34. “Are you kidding me” is along the lines of what I said, but with many more expletives. A lot fucking more.
Ercole was fascinating to say the least, he had grown up in this very town and got a degree in industrial engineering. He joined Zagato in 1960 after a stint in the military and the Aston DB4 up there was his first design project. An achingly beautiful car, he lamented that it was not as successful as they had hoped, production ceased after 20 cars (although their initial target was only 25). Ercole noted that just last year four additional DB4 chassis received the Zagato treatment, dubbed the Sanction II Zagatos. Ercole was a proud man and deservedly so. Our conversation returned to BMWs, an obvious passion of Ercole’s, even though he had since taken a job at a design and engineering company in Turin.
I told him of my missed opportunity to trade my 535i for the new M5, a car that still made up most of my daydreams; the remaining bit full of leggy Italian women. He smiled a wry smile and asked if I had heard of the new E34 M5. I put down my wine glass and asked that he not tease this drunk American with fanciful tales of automotive desire. He said it was quite real, and in fact, his was parked outside. I leaned off of my stool towards the exit as if an unseen compulsion was driving me to leave and see if this was indeed true. Ercole, said “let’s go for a little drive” but with an Italian staccato.
Outside, there was no grand reveal, no dramatic unveiling. There it sat, still ticking cool,the second generation M5, hand-built at BMW M GmbH in Garching, Germany. I was firing off questions lightning speed to Ercole. It turns out that the base E34 chassis was still produced at BMW’s Dingolfing plant and then showed up in Garching as a painted shell. Just as he had designed it. Over the next two weeks, he said that it was assembled by a team of M employees. And here it sat. Aside from a few encounters at triple digit speeds on German highways, I never really got to spend any time pouring over the E28 M5. The only made 2,241 cars after all. I wouldn’t let this opportunity pass me by, I just hoped I had enough sobriety to remember it.
Ercole allowed me a moment to take in the design, he noted that the drag coefficient of 0.32 was actually slightly higher than that of the production E34 because of the extra front and rear bumpers and side rocker panels. He popped open the forward tilting hood and said that this was where the magia happened; the S38B36 engine produced 311 bhp at 6,900 rpm and 266 lb. ft. of torque at 4,750 rpm. Ercole may have been a designer, but he knew his shit when it came to performance and engineering.
What came next actually felt like real magic, we climbed in and Ercole pointed the M5 north on the A8 to the A60 Tangenziale di Varese and then eventually northeast towards Como and blasted through the local towns and back roads like he grew up there, which he did of course. Heel to toe shifts preceded massive amounts of g-force loads as we prepared for the next corner. If you have experienced the perfect car on the perfect road, it was probably still not as amazing as this. And I wasn’t even driving. The rest of the evening was a blur, we stumbled out of a bar in Bellagio with some locals and I woke up the next day with my clothing strewn across the balcony belonging to an unimaginably gorgeous Italian woman.
I scampered across the room and found what I hoped were my underwear and stood on the balcony overlooking the lake. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, even to this day. Yet all I could think of was that M5. Well that and whether or not I had actually been invited to be in this woman’s villa? I guess there’s only one way to find out.