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A salute to the father of all BMWs

MY dad is one of those people for whom it is nearly impossible to buy Christmas presents.

MY dad is one of those people for whom it is nearly impossible to buy Christmas presents.

Not because he's got strange and unfathomable hobbies, but because he will inevitably show up in late December having bought himself exactly the same gift that you have squirreled away for him in the back of your closet.

This year he's bought himself a BMW. Hmm. The theory breaks down somewhat.

I got him socks.

Let's have a good look at Dad's Christmas present to himself because it's something rather special: a 550i, deep blue with the M-sport 19-inch alloy wheels, 360 horsepower V-8 engine and six-speed manual transmission. Luxury sedan my eye, this thing's a fighter-plane in mufti: ein Focke-Wulfe dressed up in a business suit.

More importantly, Dad's latest acquisition is his sixth BMW 5-series in a row. He's owned one of every chassis variant ever offered on Canadian soil, save the latest F10 models.

Oh sure, when he decided to replace his current 530i he pretended to shop around, looking at X5s and 3-series diesels and Mercedes-Benz SL coupes, but we all knew what the inevitable outcome would be. For a quarter-century, my dad's been a 5-series man.

I remember well the first time a 5-series BMW came into our home. It was an early-1980s E12 Chassis 528i, silver with a horrible velour interior.

Up until then, Dad's automotive history had been somewhat unfocussed. Motorcycles and MGBs back in Northern Ireland, a Chevy pickup after the move to Northern British Columbia (he crammed a Dodge Slant-Six into it), the ubiquitous Volvo sedan once I arrived on the scene and then a camperized VW Westfalia for family trips. Oh, and we always kept a Land Rover about the place for backroads exploring and making sure Dad had something to fix.

A wide and varied assortment, to be sure. But there was something missing. I never met my grandfather, but I've heard enough tales and seen enough old photographs to sketch a portrait of the man: dark-featured, sharp-eyed, laconic. The strong and silent country type, casting a bemused eye on his middle son.

Strong and silent, but not above comment. Of my father's motorcycle-riding style, he said, "I heard ye goin' tearin' up thon road, firing gears down that thing's throat like a buck eejit." To translate from the vernacular, me dad was a bit of a tearaway in his youth.

Small wonder then, that even grown-up, responsible, familyman Dad wasn't entirely in love with the Westfalia, which had the performance characteristics of a Galapagos land tortoise. A wounded Galapagos land tortoise.

So, the 5-series: sporting performance with everyday practicality. But he didn't get it quite right the first time with those velour seats. Nor did he hit the nail on the head with the second car, less than two years later: an E28 533i with that lovely 180 h.p. straight-six engine (good) and an automatic transmission (bad).

These were the days before BMW's steptronic automatics that are intended to be manually shifted, and the poor little slushbox did not take kindly to having gears "flung down its throat." Taking it in for the usual service, the technicians returned with awed and bewildered faces and a sample of tranny fluid that was black as a pint of Guinness. "What have you been doing to this thing?"

"Using it," was Dad's reply. The writing was on the wall, but the next 5-series was just right, a five-speed manual 1985 BMW 535i, Bronzitbeige with a deep brown leather interior.

I have many happy memories of my childhood. The hill on which we tobogganed in the winter. The smell of a bonfire of cut branches as we cleared our little piece of Canada. The muddy squelch of boots as my brother and I tramped about in the pond chasing frogs and tadpoles, inevitably emerging covered in muck (much to my mother's chagrin).

But ask me about the cars we had, and an image immediately leaps to the forefront of my mind. I'm in the back seat of that 535, the armrest down and forming a sort of demilitarized zone between myself and my brother. We're on our way home from school or piano lessons or soccer and we're just leaving the straight-line grid of roads that run through the Fraser Valley flood plain, heading into the hills.

As we leave the plain and begin to climb, Dad downshifts for the first of many curves and the 535 takes on a more urgent nature, like a horse quickening its pace as it smells the comfortable familiarity of home just ahead. Even now I can replay each corner of the road home in my head, feel the sideways pull of lateral-g, hear my brother laughing, feel the thrum of that big straight-six.

That 535 was to be the family's faithful steed for many a year. It suffered silently as two young men cut their manual-driving teeth on it, and eventually passed down into the hands of my brother. I love my brother, and he's a whiz with computers, but giving him a car is like handing a teething toddler a first-folio Shakespeare.

Still, the odometer on the '85 5-series kept turning, finally giving up the ghost somewhere around 480,000 kilometres. Near as I can reckon, the car itself did at least a hundred thousand klicks more.

The rust and the rattles got to a critical point so we finally traded it in on a short-lived '90 Mazda for my brother, patron saint of carmageddon. Meanwhile Dad had moved on to an E34chassis '94 540i.

The 540i was immensely powerful, but perhaps lacked some of the character of the 535i. Personally, I think it was the automatic transmission, though the 540i was capable of ridiculous on-ramp shove. I also think it saved my parents' life: on the Sea to Sky Highway just outside Squamish an oncoming minivan turned left against the lights and if not for those big BMW brakes and quick-reacting chassis, the accident could have been much more serious.

Even so, the 540i was dead, to be replaced by an E39 530i, a lovely little car from a series that I consider to be the last of the truly good-looking BMWs. Being both automatic and equipped with a moderately sized engine, the real surprise was how good the 5-series was on a twisty road. Good fuel economy too.

But not quite special enough, and this new "Gentleman's M5" is certainly that.

Will this be my father's last 5-series? I doubt it. He insists that this is the one he's going to keep for years, and I'm sure he will.

In this trim, he should be able to get years of faithful service out of it

My years of riding in the backseat have long been at an end; I've got my own family-haulin' hot-rod now. Like as not, if Dad picks me up, I ride shotgun, side by side. Heck, sometimes he rides in the back of my car.

But ask me what got me into cars, and I'm back in that 535i, seated in the rear, passenger-side as always, just able to see my dad in profile. The sunroof is open, the sun is shining and the swaying ash and birch we pass dapple the interior with flickering shadows.

I can see my dad. He's smiling, and I know what he's thinking. With kids and mortgage and career and all the stresses of life, this moment of escape is all too fleeting. He's thinking: I work hard, but this right here? This is worth it.

Happy 25th anniversary Dad.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.