Written By James Heaney
A Rare Beauty “Bernadette”
I first saw “Bernadette”, a stunning 1975 BMW 528 E12 in metallic brown with matching chrome and her alloy shoes sparkling at the European car showroom at Port Melbourne, Australia in the early nineties. My partner at the time told me not to touch her as she’d be too expensive to run. I did the opposite and bought her anyway. I was looking for an old Benz or something European and it had to be from the “old school” smell like leather, wood grain, classic shape, stately looks and of course the bonnet to open the reverse (how sensible) to conventional cars . Bernadette filled the bill. With her long bonnet and short backside (like all good German sports car should be) I fell for her wedge shape so James and Bernadette became an item. My partner also loved her.
In those days the 528 was wholly made at Stuttgart in Germany. The E12 started life in September 1972 as a 4 cylinder and replaced the 1500/200 series. Known as the “new class of cars”. The E12 came to Australia in 1974.
The E12 was designed by French stylist Paul Bracq who joined BMW after leaving Mercedes… the E12 was directly and wholly aimed at the 280 Benz (“First of Fives”). The 528 with it’s wedge shaped body must have seemed refreshing and youthfull against the boxy Benz at that time.
When I finally brought her home Bernadette was my Sunday car, as I always had a run-a-round car, but also would drive her on week days to clients. We spent long weekend drives and picnics in the old girl she never missed a trick and always had a presence when parked.
She loves to eat the highways and feels at home travelling @140 K but hates the cold until warm. She tolerates stop start traffic and loves a bit of a drink with her 1 ton frame. She’s a tough old bird at the best and worst of times. Bernadette was always reliable and never let me down.
In 2003 I came back from being OS for six months. Bernie was being looked after by family members but she was not exercised. While driving merrily down the freeway with the music on a bright sunny day, windows down, I heard a noise. I look at the bonnet and saw steam coming from all directions. I then looked at the temp gauge and to my shock the temperature was on boiling. She coughed, spluttered and chocked. Bernadette died at 29 yo with the original motor.
It was a sad day as the mechanic driver told me the worst “you’ve cooked the engine”. As I was traveling behind her I was watching her on the back of a truck in all of her classiness, she still looked beautiful even in death. Everybody said “it’s too expensive to get fixed and she’s old, parts are hard to find”, etc etc. The money I needed for her was a problem at the time as I’d just returned from OS, so she stayed at my friends for some months.
Everybody told me the same thing – get rid of her, even the mechanic told me it wasn’t worth it, you’re wasting your money to completely redo the engine from the ground up… so I did it anyway.
I was happy to do it and never regretted it. Bernadette was always a reliable car and besides she’s rare and no one has a car like her and that alone was enough.
Well then the family said “What a good car” the mechanic said “What a good car and a brilliant motor” and sung her praises. He became a fan, and everybody said the car would last another 29 years. Hmmm…
Somebody scratched her in Fitzroy, a trendy suburb of Melbourne, running a coin down all of her left hand panels – it was 1 cm deep. The only car in the street damaged, she was parked near hot sportier cars, Range rovers, but they wanted to damage the old girl. I also had the ash tray pinched and have never been able to get a replacement as it was upholstered with chrome around the edges not available in the country. Parts are getting harder to find.
Bernadette is rarer each year and often people would have a look at her and say nice old BM, or they don’t make em like that any more to that extent. The past BMs and Mercs are the true German classics and how I expect a European car should be (somewhat lost in recent years blending in this more of the same is best attitude) I have to agree I have no interest in the newer BMs and prefer other makes… It’sold BMs for me and the second one is going to be a 2 door …a rare one again and besides Bernadette needs a partner!
In 2010 Bernadette did get a partner, a 1986 E30 Baur in silver with a complimentary Navy blue roof affectionately called “little Bernie”. Both of them are the last of the retro style BMWs. I love the classic lines of these cars as well as all the 70s BMWs. To me this was the golden time when BMW did classic with perfection. Symmetry and well balanced resulting in beautiful proportions. The E30 is an example of this beautiful simplicity.
Bernadette has been a bit of a celebrity over the years with features in Unique Cars, The Herald Sun and Classic and Sports Cars. She has also been on show twice at Doncaster BMW show casing the new 5 series. She has been a bridal car and has a blog dedicated to her.
She is fairly well known around the traps. You’d hardly see an old E12 in that condition with her white shoes on the street corner any time too soon.
Sadly, last year 2018, after sitting in the garage for 4 years due to circumstances, the water coolant had eaten her insides. She was being readied for a run to Bendigo to the 100 years of motoring run with the BMW Car Club of Victoria when she, with a cough and splatter and smoking like a steam train came to a stand still.
What to do? Should I part with the old girl after 23 years and call it a day and farm her excellent body and interior parts off? Nahhh… I’m into rarity… I’m not into what everyone has. She’ll be back.
It took about 8 months as I needed to find the right person because I wouldn’t let just anyone touch my old E12. I had someone in mind but they were busy and I would have to wait. I stopped to see Steve Summit who now runs Northern BM. He convinced me he could do the job, I was impressed as he had been building racing motors since he was 15 and he and John looked after the old girl for some time with kid gloves and gave her the respect of an elderly lady
Now she back roaring and ready to go, the old girl feels like she has rockets on her back posterior. Steve must have worked some of that race car magic through her DNA.
Hopefully she’ll be around for another 24 years, she’ll be 44 this September so the story continues!