Father, son, and five-door M5

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Brendan McAleer

Norman and Adam Klassen sit in the open hatch of their BMW as the last rays of a warm summer’s day gild the wagon’s flanks. Norman, the father, has more than a half century’s experience as a body man. His son is a master BMW technician. They built this car together. What started as a shared obsession forged an unbreakable bond.

“History repeats itself,” Norman says. “It might be in one ear and out the other at the time, but you can still hear your father’s voice. I still hear my father. It comes back to you.”

Klassen Sr.’s car history runs the gamut from heavy Detroit iron to air-cooled Volkswagens. He built show cars and mural vans, and even once owned a Jensen Interceptor. He talks about getting the look of a car right, no matter what the car actually was, how friends joked that he could sew a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The creativity was the appeal.

BMW M5
Brendan McAleer

Adam (Klassen the younger) detoured before embracing an automotive career. “First, I went into construction,” he says. “Trying to go my own way, you know? But really, I was trying to deny the inevitable. There are photos of me dressed up in a paint suit and mask. Hugging my dad under a Karmann-Ghia. I remember watching through the window while he painted the bumper of an E28 M5. He held on to that for years, gave it to me for Christmas when I was seventeen to put on my own 535i.”

Adam’s interest in BMWs started with the E30 3 Series. He still owns his first one. As a boy, he was always bringing car magazines to school, to the point that his teachers called home to gently suggest more conventional picture books. He loves getting to grips with the research, the mechanicals, parts numbers, and OEM accuracy.

The family has owned this BMW since 1999. It started out life as a rare Canadian-spec 525i Touring, rarer still for its unusual dual-panel panorama roof. Norman owned several 5-series wagons over the years, including one with a serial number just a few digits off this one: the cars would have been on the assembly line together at the same time.

In the latter part of his career, he was a representative for a German paint company, one that supplied most of the European marque specialists in the lower mainland. Driving around was his job, and he enjoyed it, but he says he was always a practical-minded man first. Bimmer wagons were the ideal fit.

BMW M5
Brendan McAleer

This car’s custom paint is nearly two decades old, but the M5 looks brand-new. It’s not a factory color, but rather something Norman picked out himself. Other small details reveal themselves as you poke around. The rear tires, for instance, are 45 sidewall to the fronts’ 40 sidewall. It gives the machine an ever-so-slight forward rake.

When E34 BMW 540s started coming in on trade at Autowest BMW, where Adam worked in Richmond, British Columbia, the idea of a V-8 swap for the wagon started percolating. The car’s stock 2.5-liter M50B25 straight-six was a smooth and lovely thing, but not exactly a powerhouse. A wagon from a company whose middle name is literally “Motoren” deserved something better. Norman picked up a 540i as a potential donor. Too nice to rip apart. He bought another. The front yard started cluttering up with BMWs.

Adam laughs. “Mom was pissed!”

“None of this is possible without an understanding wife,” Norman says, “Looking back on it, I’ve basically gotten away with murder. Not literally, of course.”

Before the scalpel could descend on one of the 540s, a new path showed itself. A beat-to-hell E34 M5, white and worn out by eastern Canada winters, became available locally. Norman sold one of his 5ers and bought it. The work began.

“When did we finish the project?” he says, “I don’t think you’re ever finished.”

BMW M5
Brendan McAleer

The M5’s engine was pulled out and sent to be rebuilt at a local performance shop. Meanwhile, Adam dived into factory technical manuals, sourcing parts, examining the schematics. Together they began pulling apart the rest of the donor car, subframes, hubs, gearbox, differential.

Working together forged the bond between the pair. But not without a few sparks getting thrown off.

“When you get older, you work a little smarter,” says Norman. “I was no different when I was younger. But you take a little more time to consider things before you do them.”

“You just want to get in there and get your hands dirty,” Adam grins, later adding, “My dad and I are so alike. We can butt heads a little. It’s like, ‘Dad, I know what I’m doing.’”

The finished product speaks for itself. Behind those four round headlights, complete with Canadian-spec headlight washers, sits the M5’s S38B36 inline-six. It’s been rebuilt with forged pistons, race-spec rods and main bearings, its six individual throttle bodies freshly ceramic coated. With a Dinan chip and a few other ancillary improvements, output is conservatively 350 hp, or roughly what the later European E34 M5s made.

BMW M5
Brendan McAleer

More impressive, perhaps, is the father-son duo’s complete replacement of major chassis components. The unibody is still a wagon, but everything from the suspension components to the subframes has been removed and replaced with M5 parts. Bushings were all refreshed and replaced, the M5’s brake system was moved over, and the M5 gearbox was fitted with a lightened flywheel.

BMW built just 891 examples of the E34 M5 Touring, never selling them in Canada or in U.S. market. It’s one of the most rare BMWs, behind only the wedge-shaped M1. Almost twice as many 2002 Turbos were made. Today, they are expensive collector items.

The question that any BMW fan would therefore ask upon seeing a car like this is, “Is it a real one?” The honest answer is that it’s more properly a clone, a custom build. “Tribute” is maybe the best word for it. What it is matters a lot less than how it was made. Thanks to this shared passion, father and son sit in the sun, joking about long days in the garage, rehashing childhood shenanigans involving shifting gears before first grade, and the coming to a deeper understanding of one another that arrives only after many years. Working side by side on a project does help grease the wheels, though.

No, this 5 Series wagon didn’t leave the factory looking anything like this, aesthetically or mechanically. Norman and Adam know it’s all the more special for that. So yes, it’s a real one.

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