Life with an old banger, two years on

Two years ago today, I got up before dawn, took a train to the south side of Glasgow, and returned home later that afternoon with this.


Yes, I’ve now shared two years of my life with a 1999 BMW 528i. I’m starting to think about selling it soon – I’d never planned on keeping it anywhere near this long to begin with, and it’s time for a new adventure – and so I thought the two-year anniversary would be a good chance to reflect on the experience of owning this car.

James Ruppert’s idea of ‘bangernomics’, buying a car for cheap and running it on a small budget, really appealed to me when I first heard about it a few years ago, and I decided to give it a try. To some, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but for someone who knows what they’re looking for, and who perhaps has some mechanical inclination, this can be an extremely economical way to do a daily driver. Before I started looking for a car, I had to decide what I wanted. Getting the most for my money meant looking at higher-end cars that had reached the bottom of their depreciation curve, and after some research, I eventually landed on the E39 5-series as the best option for me. There were a good number of them around, and they had the reputation of being not only the best car BMW had ever built, but even one of the best cars ever made, full stop.


Setting my budget at £1000, I started hunting the classifieds. My demands were limited – I wanted one of the bigger petrol engines, it couldn’t be silver, and a manual transmission was preferable. As I could afford to be patient, I was able to wait for the right one to come along, and after a couple of months of searching, this lovely dark blue example appeared. With a 2.8L engine, manual gearbox, and just 54,000 miles on the clock, I was on the phone right away, and arranged to see it a few days later. The car did the 150 miles back home with ease, although I noted on the drive that a few things would have to be done. It needed a few bits in the front end, including a wheel bearing (on the test drive, I mistakenly assumed the low hum was the winter tyres), and the handbrake was terrible.

20151229_130427_HDR~2 (1)Within a couple of weeks, I started to get to work. For peace of mind, I gave it a service, and then replaced the front wheel bearings and control arms, and decided to do the brakes even though they still had a bit of life left in them. In the process I discovered that the front calipers would have to be rebuilt, as one was sticking, and the bleeder screw was seized and rounded off in the other. This was the first unexpected repair. The second came shortly afterwards, as the thermostat became stuck open. A few more followed in the next year or so, and I ended up having to fit new rear calipers, replace a broken coil spring, get new brake pipes fitted, and rebuild the propshaft. It has also needed the handbrake rebuilt twice, for both MOTs. Of all these, the only expensive repair was the brake pipes, and that was because I paid the garage to do it. I did the rest of the work myself, and since I enjoy working on cars, these unexpected repairs also turned out to be great learning experiences.

In all of this, though, the car has never failed to start, and when running, has never missed a beat. Outside of these unexpected repairs, the car has only ever required regular maintenance. I have spent some money on vanity projects, including little things like a gear knob and a bonnet badge, and bigger things like the headlamps, replacing the aftermarket units the previous owner installed with OEM ones (all of which calls my status as a bangernomicist into question, I realise). If I wanted to, I could easily spend some more sorting a few niggles – it has developed some surface rust on the sills and boot lid (although it is very clean underneath), the cruise control surges ever so slightly between 72-75mph, and for some reason, the throwout bearing (I think) rattles after you’ve driven the car for a long time (even though the clutch works perfectly fine).

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Two years and 18,000 miles later, I can say that owning the E39 has, on the whole, been a pleasure. Eighteen years after it rolled off the assembly line, it remains a good-looking car. It is easily the best driving car I’ve ever owned, and soaks up the miles on long-distance runs, while remaining quiet and comfortable. At the same time, if you want to open it up on a B-road, it complies fairly willingly. It is spacious, and has more than accommodated us for two family holidays. Barring the cupholders, everything inside still works. For all the stigma of expensive German cars, I have found it a remarkably easy car to work on, and parts have proved to be quite reasonable. It even garners an occasional compliment from people. Really, the only thing I would change is the gearbox – despite wanting it originally, I’ve found that the manual does not really suit the character of the car, and generally feels a bit clunky in normal driving.


What of the bangernomics experience? With the knowledge I now have, I would have done a few things differently. For one, I would have bought a car with higher mileage. That may sound strange, but the 60,000-mile mark is when a lot of stuff starts needing to be replaced, particularly pieces of the suspension. Had I bought one with higher mileage, that would have been taken care of already, and it would have cost me less on repairs. Additionally, a number of the other unexpected repairs could be attributed to a car not being driven enough. I also blame some of the rust on the lower mileage, and the fact that it sat for long periods of time under the leaden Glaswegian skies without being properly cared for, instead of being driven and dried out (although conversely, its lack of exposure to sun also means the paintwork still has remarkable depth and shine). Another thing I have learned to be more discerning about is a car’s history, and what to look for in the paperwork.

IMG_20170922_113236078_HDRUltimately, though, this experience has made me an even bigger devotee of bangernomics, and I would have a hard time spending much more than I did here for another daily driver (indeed, less than a year after the fact, we added another banger to the fleet). And that is because at the end of the day, for a mere £1000, I bought a well-equipped, reliable, and comfortable car that is also an absolute pleasure to drive. I would not hesitate to get in this car tomorrow and drive it across the continent. And I have complete confidence that with continued regular maintenance, it will do another two years and 18,000 miles with ease.


SEAT Leon (Mk1) front suspension overhaul

Next to your engine and gearbox, maintaining your suspension is one of the best things you can do for your car. The suspension is both what keeps you connected to the road, and what absorbs all the road’s imperfections, and in a bad state of repair, it will hurt your fuel economy, decrease the lifespan of your tyres, and adversely affect your car’s ride and handling, not to mention make your car less safe to operate.

Thankfully, rebuilding a suspension on many cars is not a terribly expensive or exceedingly difficult undertaking, and doing so can make a tired old car feel much newer again. It is also a job that can quite often be done an average DIY-er.


The front suspension on my 2002 SEAT Leon Cupra has been in need of a refresh for a while, and last week I finally got around to tackling the job. This post details the process. As the Mk1 Leon sits on the Volkswagen Group A4 platform, I believe the process will be the same (or very similar) for a Mk4 VW Golf, Mk1 Audi A3 and TT, and Mk1 Škoda Octavia. I apologise in advance for the quality of some of the photos – I was working in the evening as light was fading.


Notice the setup of the Leon’s front suspension. A lower control arm mounts in two places to the subframe, and to the bottom of the hub with a ball joint. Connecting the steering rack to the hub is a tie rod, and an anti-roll bar link connects the bar to the lower control arm. On the whole, it’s quite a simple arrangement.

The first step is to get everything loose. Begin with the 18mm bolts connecting the control arm to the subframe.

Next, remove the anti-roll bar link by removing the 16mm fasteners.


Following this, remove the tie rod end from the hub. The 19mm nut may spin off, but more than likely, particularly if the ball joint is worn, it will spin the ball joint as well. In my case, it was necessary to remove the boot, and firmly fix a pair of vice grips on the ball joint shaft in order to remove the nut.


However, before you actually remove the tie rod end from the hub, you will want to loosen the lower ball joint nut. If you wait until you’ve removed the tie rod end, the hub will start to move, making it difficult to loosen the ball joint nut. Just back it off to the point where you can spin it by hand, as you won’t be able to fully remove it with the CV joint in place.

Next, remove the three 13mm lower ball joint mounting bolts from the lower control arm, and pry the control arm away from the ball joint mount. This is not a necessary step, but it makes it a bit easier to remove the control arm if the ball joint is no longer attached.


At this point, on the other side of the car, the ball joint simply dropped out, but on this side it required the use of a ball joint fork to extract it from the hub. You’re not going to be saving any of the pieces, so do whatever it takes to get that old ball joint out. I had to pound on this one quite a bit to break it free.


Once the ball joint is broken free, simply remove the lower control arm. In most cases, you should be able to do this by hand, but a few taps with your rubber mallet won’t hurt if you find it’s stuck in the subframe mounts. Then spin the ball joint nut off all the way and remove the ball joint.


You can see here that the bush is worn out and cracked. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but new bushes will certainly help firm things up. Some people choose to keep the control arms and merely replace the bushes, which can be done, but the cost of buying a new control arm is so minimal, that in my opinion, it’s not worth the effort.


The final step in the disassembly process is to remove the inner tie rod from the steering rack. Removing the boot is one of the most difficult parts of this job, simply because of lack of space. I took a long, flathead screwdriver and eventually managed to pry the clip free, but you’ll need some patience here. Once it’s off, take a 34mm spanner to the tie rod, and it will spin off quite easily.



Now that everything is out of the way, you can begin to reassemble the front suspension. Begin with the inner tie rod, and screw the new piece into the steering rack. Once it’s hand tight, finish tightening it with the 34mm spanner. Don’t overdo it – once it is seated, just give it a turn with the spanner to set it firmly in place. Replace the tie rod boot, and then spin on the new tie rod end. Don’t attach it to the hub at this point.

Then you can set the new lower control arm in place. You will need to use a rubber mallet to tap it into the subframe mounts, but it will slide into place quite easily. Do not worry about aligning the holes perfectly just yet.


Push the new lower ball joint into the hub, and tighten the nut. The control arm I purchased already had the ball joint attached, but if yours doesn’t, make sure you fit the two pieces together before you place the assembly in the car. Interestingly, despite the fact it was easier to remove it separated, it’s much easier to refit it together.


Pay close attention to what kind of nut comes with your kit. Notice here that the new nut has a rubber ring inside of it, which is meant to act as a kind of lock. Normally, nuts like this fit onto a bolt with an opening at the end for a 5mm allen key, which holds it in place as you tighten the nut. However, it would be impossible to use this nut here, because as you can see, there is no room to use the allen key with the CV joint where it is. The result would be that the nut would grip the bolt and start spinning the ball joint, meaning you couldn’t tighten it properly. In my case, the best solution was to re-use the old nut. Some people will tell you that is heresy, but you can figure on adding a few hours to this job to remove the CV joint if you want to make room to use the new nut. Given that the nut is only torqued to 33lb.-ft., it won’t have been under a lot of stress previously, so in my view, it’s not worth the effort to use the replacement.

With the ball joint in place, use a punch or screwdriver to align the holes on the subframe mounts, and refasten the bolts. Then reattach the anti-roll bar link.

The final step is to finish fitting the new tie rod. So that your car is not wildly out of alignment, you’re going to want to take some measurements first. Using a micrometer, take the old tie rod and measure from the start of the threads on the inner tie rod to the point the locking nut sat. As you can see, I did this after removing everything from the car – it is probably easier and slightly more accurate to do it whilst the old assembly is still in place. Take that measurement and carry it over to the new tie rod, spinning the tie rod end on until it reaches your measurement. Then reattach the tie rod to the hub.

Once you’ve done that, torque everything down. The only fasteners that you won’t be able to properly torque are the ball joint nut and the inner tie rod to steering rack, unless you have a torque spanner. Here are the torque specs:

Front subframe mount: 74lb.-ft. + 1/4 turn
Rear subframe mount: 52lb.-ft. + 1/4 turn
Anti-roll bar link: 33lb.-ft.
Ball joint: 33lb.-ft.
Tie rod end: 33lb.-ft.

With this, the job is complete, and your suspension is fully refreshed and reassembled. The only thing left to do is to have the car aligned. After this, you should notice it riding and handling much better again.

Here are some photos of the front end after reassembly.

Rebuilding the front suspension on the Leon (and related A4-platform vehicles) is a simple task. As you can see above, there are not many parts involved, and the whole job can be done with basic hand tools.

A perfect evening drive

Someone, somewhere, has probably concocted a recipe for the perfect drive, using some sort of advanced scientific analysis. But as science was never my strong point, I am more inclined to think that there are probably several different recipes that would do the trick, depending on the circumstances.

As a case in point, I went out for a drive on Friday evening. Taking a familiar route, I circled through Northumberland and the southern end of the Scottish Borders, mostly using A-roads. Normally, if I want an enjoyable driving experience, I look for less-travelled B-roads that require more attention and engagement. However, after a long week of work that left me feeling tired and worn out, I wanted something more relaxing.


What I ended up with was one of the best drives I have ever had. The A697 and the A68, which I took north and south, respectively, are not particularly challenging roads. They flow faster, with longer, sweeping curves, and more gentle ups and downs – nice in their own way, but generally less involving for a keen driver. That turned out to be exactly what I needed that evening, though. The sky cleared, casting a wonderful, warm glow over everything, the roads were empty, and I simply relaxed back into my seat and enjoyed the beauty of the scenery unfolding around me. The air was cool and fresh, the car was running great, and I couldn’t have been more content.

On occasion, I’ve gone out for a drive in an attempt to clear my head, but found myself expending so much mental energy on a challenging B-road that I came back feeling more stressed than when I left. The opposite was true on Friday night: after three hours and 170 miles, I felt refreshed.

I decided to document part of the drive in time-lapse fashion. This picks up on the A697 a few miles off the A1, and concludes on the A68 juts south of Jedburgh. (I had an issue with my memory card, which is why the video isn’t so smooth towards the end.)

Whether this drive could be replicated again, I’m not sure; perhaps it was a one-time thing, a random occurrence of all the ingredients coming together at the right time. Whatever it was, it was as near to the perfect drive as I can imagine.

How to cripple your engine in one simple step

Vacuum leaks can be notoriously difficult to diagnose, as they can range from small cracks in a hose or intake pipe, to a clogged crankcase vent system, to an improperly sealed oil filler cap. This is largely the reason I have ignored my E39’s minor leak, because diagnosing it would mean removing the whole air intake system to check everything over. Plus, barring an occasional stumble at idle, the car seemed to run fine. However, last week, when it started tripping the check engine light and logging fuel trim codes, I decided it was time to sort it out.

The repair was simple – I had a small crack in one of the crankcase vent tubes, as well as in the air intake pipe. In the spirit of bangernomics, rather than buying new stuff, I simply used a bit of sealer and taped everything up; with such minor cracks, it really is not necessary to replace things at this point. While I had everything apart, I also gave the throttle body a good polishing.


On Saturday morning, I got in the car to set out for a drive, but as I pulled out onto the road, I noticed the car had no power. It just wouldn’t go, and when I put my foot down and it completely bogged. Turning around, I parked in the driveway and hooked up my diagnostic tool, which pulled a code for the inlet camshaft position sensor (code P0340, if you’re interested). At this point, I was so frustrated that I slammed the bonnet shut and headed out in the Leon.

When I opened the bonnet this morning again to look for the part I was going to need to buy, I noticed this.


Yes, that’s right. I forgot to plug the sensor back in when I was reconnecting everything.


With a mixture of embarrassment and relief, I reconnected the sensor, started the car, let it run for a bit, and then took a short drive up and down the main road. The car runs fine now, and all the codes are cleared.


There are two things to take away here. First, it is quite something that one little sensor can completely cripple a car. This particular sensor sends readings about camshaft positioning and timing to the ECU, which then uses that data to calibrate everything else, like timing and fuel injection settings, accordingly. Given its role, I am surprised the engine even ran at all. Second, when you do a job like this, double-check that you’ve reconnected everything!

Hey, we all make mistakes.

Why a Volvo V70 is a good thing

This is a Volvo V70. One you can currently purchase, in fact.

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And one you should, as I have suggested over on Chris Pollitt’s site, Why? Because wagons are always cool, and the V70 is also just a good car. Here’s my opening paragraph:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that wagons are cool. Well, perhaps it is not universally acknowledged, but it should be. As a case in point, take the second-generation Volvo V70. It more or less started out life as an S60, not a bad car in its own right, but rather forgettable. Turn it into an estate, however, and it suddenly becomes desirable (which is pretty much true of any Volvo, actually). Whilst retaining Volvo’s characteristic civility and restraint, the estate becomes eminently practical, more comfortable, and better to look at, not to mention that it will trick your neighbours into thinking you are refined and sensible.

Read the rest here.

Restoring hazed and oxidised headlights

Last month I replaced the aftermarket headlights on my E39 with OEM units. Since I had purchased these used, they had some of the usual hazing and oxidation on the lenses.

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So, arming myself with this excellent tutorial, some sandpaper, and a spray can of clear coat, I removed the headlights from the car – a very easy thing to do on the E39’s – and set to work.

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Wet-sanding and clear coating is said to be the definitive way to restore headlights, and to prevent future hazing and oxidation. If that’s true, I am very happy, because it took me no more than 30 minutes per headlight to achieve what you see below. After wet-sanding and clear coating, I set them aside to dry overnight.

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The tutorial recommends wet-sanding them a final time with 3000 grit to remove the orange peel, but I didn’t have any of that in my toolbox. Instead, I used a couple doses of AutoGlym’s Super Resin Polish, before coating them with a good layer of carnauba wax.

I’m really pleased with the results. Up close, you can can still see a bit of orange peel, but they really sharpen up the look of the car. For an hour’s work, I can’t complain at all.

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I gots to Getz in front!

Why yes, student in the 53-reg Hyundai Getz, I see you coming. It’s hard not to – you’re the only car in the outside lane of a fairly empty motorway. And I see you are approaching at a speed that I can only assume is making your little 1.3L engine cry out in anguish. But even though you’re travelling considerably faster than I am, you are still a ways behind me, and I would like to get around the lorry that is sitting in my lane. So I will speed up a bit and pass, because I will safely be back in the inside lane before you have closed the gap on me.

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Wait a moment, I’m sorry, now you’re going to have to stay behind me for a minute. There are cars coming down the slip road, and a lorry ahead is pulling into our lane to let them in. Come on now, is there really a need to scrutinise all the minor imperfections of my rear bumper at motorway speeds? Well, I hope your brakes work, because I’m about to use mine to bring us down to 60mph. There we go, now that the lorry has moved back over, I’ll accelerate back up to speed. Ah, I see that’s a difficult task for your little car. Never mind, just keep your foot to the floor and you’ll get there eventually.

Doggedly holding your position in the outside lane, I see, despite the fact that the inside lane is wide open again, and you have a queue of cars behind you who have far less trouble getting up to speed. I’m sorry to leave you behind once more, but I’ve just passed another car, and as I’m approaching another lorry, both of us are going to go around him, once again frustrating your attempts to coax the Getz to V-max.

Here we are, a downhill stretch. I can see you are anticipating this with everything you’ve got, hoping gravity will come to your aid while you continue flogging the Getz. As the inside lane is wide open, I’m just going to reset my cruise control and let you do your thing. Though I can’t hear it, I presume you’ve downshifted to press every last one of those 81bhps into service; after all, to maintain your dominance on this relatively quiet stretch of motorway, you need all the momentum you can get. There you go by, leaning forward determinedly as you stand on the accelerator pedal, doing everything in your power to get that needle to touch 90.

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 16.49.11Now, whilst your quest to lead the outside lane pack has been somewhat amusing to watch, particularly as you’ve employed such an inadequate tool for the job, I have noticed that we’re about to go back uphill. Not only that, but there is a third lane available. And it is not a small hill, which means you are going to lose a lot of that momentum you’ve worked so hard to attain. So for my own amusement, I’m going to speed up a little. We’ve reached the valley, and as we begin to head up I can see that you’re losing speed even faster than I anticipated. You briefly think about using this additional outside lane to pass a van, but realise no matter how hard you kick the Getz, it won’t cooperate any longer. Meanwhile, I’m sailing by you with ease, the corners of my mouth ever so slightly turning upwards.

Whether you even notice me, I don’t know. But I’m taking (probably too much) delight in having effortlessly, and without really breaking the speed limit, undone all you’ve worked for over these past several miles, taking a string of frustrated motorists you previously held up along with me.

Farewell, little Getz.

Overhauling the rear suspension on an E39 saloon

There is no definitive answer for how long a suspension component should last, but when your car regularly deals with rough roads, road salt, and other stressors, it is no surprise to find parts beginning to wear out around 50,000 miles. I bought my E39 in the autumn of 2015 with 54,000 miles on the clock, and it needed new tie rods up front. Since I had it apart, I also did the traction arms, control arms, and anti-roll bar links at the same time. A couple of months ago, at 68,000 miles, I replaced one of the rear strut and coil assemblies, and noticed at that point a split boot on the rear control arm. A creaking sound from the nearside rear also indicated a bad ball joint, which you can see below.

So, as I still needed to replace the other strut and coil assembly, I set out to install new controls arms, ball joints, and anti-roll bar links in the rear as well. This post details that process. (Note: These instructions apply to the E39 saloon. The setup is slightly different for estate models.)

Here you can see, first, the setup of the nearside rear suspension. The two control arms mount to the subframe, and attach to the top of the wheel hub. An integral link connects the hub to the control arm, with a ball joint at one end pressed into the hub. In the second photo, it is the control arm on the right that has the damaged boot.

Beginning with the car on the ground, measure the distance from the wheel centre to the top of the wheel arch. On my car, this was about 14 inches. Take note of this measurement, as you will need it later on. Then raise the car and remove the wheels.

The suspension overhaul begins by disconnecting the strut from the hub. This is attached with a 21mm bolt, and it will be extremely tight. Use lots of patience, and a long-handled ratchet with an angled head or a flex joint. Once it is loose, push the strut back out of its mount. Do so carefully, as the whole hub assembly will move up once the strut is loose.

Next remove the long bolt that passes through the lower control arm, integral link and ball joint. Get a good breaker bar for this one – the 24mm nut is tightened down to nearly 200lb.-ft. Once it’s off, tap out the bolt, and lift the hub assembly up to rest on the lower control arm.

Next, remove the integral link, which is attached to the hub with an 18mm bolt.

Now it is time to remove the ball joint. This will probably be the most difficult part of the job because it is pressed in, and given its exposure to road salt and the elements, things will feel like they’re welded together. Clamp the hub and lower control arm together with a pair of vice grips. Then, using a chisel, begin to pry the snap ring away from the hub. You’ll need a lot of patience here as the ring rusts to the carrier, but if you start at the opening and slowly work your way around, it will eventually come free.

Once the snap ring is off, remove the rubber boots from both sides of the ball joint, and then you can press the ball joint out. Owing to the unique design of these ball joints, you will need a special tool to remove them. These can be quite expensive, but I found one on eBay for £25 (if you check the forums, you will also find some DIY solutions that involve big C-clamps). As you can see in the photo below, it uses two cups, one to push, and one to receive the ball joint. The offside ball joint popped out easily, but the nearside required lots of 3-in-1, and me throwing all my weight onto a breaker bar. But in the end, it came out cleanly. After you remove the ball joint, use a wire wheel attachment with your drill to clean out the carrier in preparation for the new ball joint.

Now you can remove the upper control arms from the subframe. First, mark the position of the bolt on the control arm that sits towards the front. This is the toe adjustment for the rear-wheel alignment, so you need to ensure this remains as close as possible to the original position. Then remove the bolts from both control arms. Removing the 16mm nut from the toe adjuster bolt is not easy, as it’s in a very tight space. If, like me, you don’t have long-handled spanners, hook another spanner on the end of your 16mm spanner to get leverage to remove the nut. The other control arm uses an 18mm fastener.

Now you can remove the control arms from the hub. Should you be blessed with extraordinary patience, you can try and remove the 21mm and 17mm nuts that are inevitably welded to the hub. Even if you do manage to break the nuts loose, the ball joint inside the arm will spin with them, so I recommend just cutting them off with an angle grinder. I have marked below where I cut – on the front arm, right up against the hub, and on the rear arm, next to the washer that sits between the nut and hub. Go ahead and cut the anti-roll bar links off at the same time. I had the benefit of having the strut and coil assembly out at this point; if you don’t, it will take some careful angling with the grinder to get at the lower anti-roll bar link mount.

Make sure you place a brick or some other sort of support underneath the hub at this point to avoid pulling on the CV joint and the brake line. Now that everything is removed, reassembly can begin.


Begin with the anti-roll bar links, and then attach the new control arms to the hub. You could attach them to the subframe first, but this makes it more difficult to move the ball joint ends into position.

Next, resting the hub on the lower control arm again, press the new ball joint into place, and fit the new snap ring. Getting the snap ring on takes patience, but work it around carefully with a flathead screwdriver, mindful of the rubber boot, and it will seat properly.

Fit the new integral link, and fasten the upper bolt to the hub. Then lift the whole hub assembly and carefully slide it between the two ends of the lower control arm, as the ball joint boot will tear easily if it gets caught on the control arm. Once it’s in place, reinsert the long through bolt.

Reattach the upper control arms to the subframe. Then push down on the hub assembly and refit the strut.

Finally, preload the hub by putting a jack underneath and raising it normal ride height, using the measurement you took earlier. Then begin to torque everything down, using the following torque specifications:

Anti-roll bar links: 47lb.-ft.
Lower strut mount: 94 lb.-ft.
Toe-adjustment arm: 44lb.-ft. (subframe), 48lb.-ft. (hub)
Other upper control arm: 81lb.-ft. (subframe), 105lb.-ft. (hub)
Integral link to hub: 77lb.-ft.
Lower control arm through bolt: 188lb.-ft.

There is a problem here, though. Unfortunately, even with those specifications in hand, you will immediately realise that you can only get a torque wrench on some of the fasteners. I believe you can buy torque spanners, but I don’t have any, and so in the end, simply had to rely on feel when tightening a few of the fasteners. It’s not ideal, of course, but it was the best I could do with what I had.

Generally, replacing these parts means the geometry of the rear suspension will have shifted, and an alignment will be needed. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to bring it your local garage, but if you’re feeling brave, you can also do it at home with guides like this. The only thing I briefly checked after putting the wheels back on was the toe, by placing a straightedge across both wheels and measuring at the front and rear. To my delight, the measurements were exactly the same, indicating the wheels still point straight, and meaning it will probably only need minor adjustment.

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Overall, save for the difficult ball joint, a suspension overhaul on this car is not a very difficult process. Basic hand tools are all you need to accomplish the work, and parts are reasonably priced. Set aside a few hours for each side, and you will once again have an E39 that drives and rides as it should.

Review: 2017 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline+

There are few things more stressful than playing the hire car lottery. When I arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to begin a week-long road trip around the Great Lakes, I approached the hire car desk with trepidation. To my delight, I was given an option: ‘Would you like a Chevy Cruze, or a Volkswagen Jetta?’ A General Motors vehicle today is probably satisfactory, but I have memories of GM products from 10-15 years ago, and they are not good. ‘Jetta, please.’


Not yet sharing the MQB platform – the upcoming Mk7 Jetta will do so – this 2017 model is the final iteration of the PQ35 platform. Though dated now, having driven several Golfs built on the platform, I have high expectations for this car. If anything, I anticipate the Jetta to drive even better, given it’s longer wheelbase and its new powertrain.

IMG_20170409_110418452_HDRAfter collecting the car, I load up in preparation to set out on the trip. With two small children, there is quite a bit of stuff to take along – a car seat, booster seat, three large suitcases, and various other small things. The Jetta impresses at this point already, the sizeable boot easily swallowing our luggage. Prior to installing my youngest’s car seat, I sit in the back seat and am surprised to find it providing ample room. At 6’4″, there is enough space for my legs to entertain the prospect of a longer drive back there, although the sloping roofline means headroom is an issue. But for young children and smaller adults, comfort is not going to be a problem.


In the driver’s seat, you notice the typical Volkswagen build quality, which stands out all the more after spending some time in American vehicles. Fit and finish is good, and the materials are pleasant to the touch. Volkswagen does switchgear well, and things are well-laid out, with only a few minor niggles (try figuring out how to make the instrument panel read miles per hour!). For a family road-trip, the Trendline+ comes well-equipped, with USB inputs, a decent infotainment unit with good sound, and heated seats. The latter are firm, but supportive and comfortable. Again, my only complaint has to do with height – owing to the presence of a sunroof, I have to put the seat all the way down, and even then, my hair still brushes the roof.

We set out on the trip, and with 350 miles of motorway ahead of me, I have very little to worry about. Get up to speed, engage cruise control, and the Jetta soaks up the miles with ease. I am immediately impressed by how quiet the car is. At 70mph, the engine is turning just a tick over 2000rpm, and is nearly inaudible. On this first leg of the journey, the weather is not cooperating – lashes of rain, and 40+mph wind gusts (hence the condition of the car in the photos), and yet wind noise is minimal. What’s more, the car remains stable and planted, even through the strongest of gusts. So many North American roads are straight, which makes handling less of an issue for many people, but on the few twists and turns I find, the Jetta complies willingly. It’s not a GTI by any means, but you can throw it into a corner with some confidence. Roll is minimal, and it never really feels off balance.

IMG_20170408_122313278_HDRUnder the bonnet, the 1.4L TSI ticks away without a complaint. I’ve driven a few cars with the new TSI engines, and each time I’ve been impressed. That is no different here. The 1.4L engine for the North American market makes 150bhp and 184 lb.-ft., and as is characteristic of the TSI engines, provides most of that torque between 1400 and 3500rpm. That means power is always right where you want it for daily driving, whether you’re accelerating away from a start or passing at higher speeds. Whilst sounding strained near the redline, keep it below 5000rpm and the engine always feels responsive and smooth. Is it fast and sporty? Of course not. But it is more than adequate, and for a daily driver, I could see myself being perfectly happy with this engine.

Less impressive is the 6-speed automatic gearbox, which regularly seems confused about which gear it actually wants to be in. This is especially noticeable if you adjust the throttle position when accelerating. Let’s say you press the accelerator, the gearbox shifts into second and then third, but then you let off the accelerator a little because of a slower car in front. The car will hold third, but once you increase pressure again, suddenly thinks you want second. And so it downshifts, and you’re now accelerating faster than you intend to. Let off the accelerator, and now it assumes you’re ready to cruise in fourth. At other times, it is slow to respond to prods from your right foot, as if it’s contemplating the benefits of downshifting before deciding to actually downshift. Even selecting sport mode and shifting by hand, the gearbox is slow in responding to your inputs, particularly on upshifts. In the end I discover that to get the smoothest acceleration, you need to drive in a relaxed manner – fine for empty rural roads, but a bit of an irritation around town. In my opinion, a manual gearbox is the better option to make the most of this engine, but depending on what you want from a car and your driving style, you may be perfectly happy with the automatic.


One nice feature of the gearbox, however, is automatic downshifts. I know that many automatics do this these days, but the downshifts are particularly pronounced here, and if you let off the accelerator early enough approaching a traffic light, you only need to touch the brakes at the last moment. Drive more spiritedly, and when you let off approaching a corner, the gearbox will downshift and hold the lower gear as you accelerate out of the corner. And when descending a hill, if the increase in speed is rapid, especially when using the cruise control, the gearbox will downshift to help slow the car down.

IMG_20170409_183808668_HDRLong distance trips are a chance to be impressed by how efficient these TSI engines are. Most of my driving on the trip is on motorways and long, straight, empty North American rural roads, which means my average speed over the whole 1500km is 58mph. Official figures put the Jetta’s fuel consumption at 5.9L/100km (47.9mpg). I know onboard computers can be inaccurate, but on one 300-mile trip the car is telling me we’ve done 5.4L/100km (52.3mpg), a significant improvement over the stated figure. At the end of the trip, which concludes with some shorter trips and stop-and-go traffic, we still come in at 5.8L/100km, and that’s in a car loaded down with people and luggage. That kind of economy will make anyone second-guess a diesel option, especially when the TSI is so much more responsive and engaging than an equivalent TDI.


Even on this increasingly antiquated platform, the Jetta Trendline+ is an attractive package. It drives and handles well, it is efficient, quiet and refined. The 1500km I spent behind the wheel were anything but a chore, and I walked away thinking that, if you have to buy a car for everyday use in North America, this should be on your top 5 list (with a manual gearbox, of course). If you’re going to buy new, I might suggest you wait for the next MQB-based Jetta, because I can only imagine it will be even better. But this model is a well-rounded and polished package, and considering the Trendline+ has an MSRP of $20,795 CAD, you can hardly ask for more.


2017 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline+

Engine: 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 150bhp, 184lb.-ft.
Fuel economy: 5.8L/100km (claimed: 5.9L/100km)
Mileage on collection: 29,849km
Total distance driven: 1463km
MSRP: $20,795 CAD
Official Volkswagen Jetta website

Lighting the road like it’s 1999

I bought my E39 for a variety of different reasons, but its headlamps were not one of them. The previous owner had fitted some imitation ‘angel eyes’ that he found on eBay, which, while providing good light, did not look very nice. It was particularly when looking at them from the side that you noticed how cheap they looked (despite costing about the same as a proper facelift set).


For quite a while, I left them alone. After all, they worked, they passed MOT, and I couldn’t find an OEM set for under £200. If I was going to replace the lights, it would have to be done cheaply. Patience was rewarded, however – a few months ago, I found a pre-facelift set off a breaking E39 for £50. They needed to be rebuilt, as they were missing a couple seals and the adjusters were broken (a typical problem on the E39), but they were complete and clean. A few quid for new adjusters, a helpful tutorial from YouTube, and a quiet Friday night in front of the TV, and I was in business.

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As this wasn’t really something essential, it has very much been an on-and-off project, but last night I finally installed them. So it was out the old…

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…and in with the new (old?).

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Without a doubt, there is no modification I have made to the car that has made me more happy than this. It looks so much better than it did before. I’m a big fan of originality, and it’s nice to see the car looking as it would have looked when it rolled off the line in 1999 (with 2017-quality bulbs, of course). The only thing left to do is remove a little bit of hazing from the lenses, and they will be perfect.