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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

The Bugatti Chiron is boring

I said this last year when it was first revealed at the Geneva Motor Show, and I say it again after last night’s feature on Top Gear: I think the Bugatti Chiron is boring.

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There is no doubt that the Chiron is something of a technological marvel. Put your foot down, and the 1487bhp quad-turbo 8.0L W16 will catapult you to 60mph in 2.5 seconds, and only 11 seconds later, to 186mph – yes, that’s nearly 200 miles per hour in less time than it takes most cars to do a standing quarter mile. Hold on long enough, and you’ll reach a top speed that has to be limited to 261mph because the tyres can’t handle more than that. At £2.4 million, it’s almost the definition of exclusivity.

But that’s part of the problem. It’s so exclusive, and so out of reach, that it’s not even worth dreaming about. Never mind the fact that you will never own one, the possibility of even seeing one in the metal is virtually nil. It almost exists in another realm, where only oil sheiks fear to tread.

There is another problem, though, one that Chris Harris unintentionally identified last night on Top Gear, when he said, ‘The Chiron is really just about straightforward speed.’ As would be expected, and as I’m sure it is, he found the acceleration intoxicating. But is that really the point of the Chiron? As accomplished as it is in other areas, is its raison d’être really just to be the fastest in a straight line? We used to criticise the American manufacturers for building cars that were only good for winning drag races, but suddenly it’s acceptable because Bugatti has done it?

This is why the Chiron is boring. It really is just a ‘top trumps’ car. The only reason you would buy it is to be able to say you have the fastest and most exclusive production car available.

I thought it fitting, actually, that Rory Reid drove the Renault Twingo GT in the same episode. You’d never compare a Chiron with a Twingo, of course, but his comments about the ability to actually use all the Twingo’s power on the right roads were apt. It’s the same reason so many people love cars like the Fiesta ST and Golf GTI – they are useable sports cars. They’re not dramatically fast, but they have a level of performance that you can actually explore the limits of. alan They are cars that you can fully enjoy on the right roads. You don’t buy them to one-up the guy in the next lane. You buy them simply for the thrill of driving.

Sure, the Chiron commands a certain ‘wow’ factor. But at the end of the day, I’m left thinking, ‘So what?’

Fuel mileage testing can be fun

As my driving is largely for pleasure, I don’t generally worry about fuel mileage too much. That being said, every now and then I do try and see what kind of mileage I can coax out of my machines. My record with my E39 is 40.3mpg over 154 miles (according to its onboard computer), a figure I have managed twice on some careful motorway journeys.

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Sometimes attempting those kinds of records can be fun – I always enjoyed the Top Gear challenges that focused on fuel mileage, such as that in series 12, episode 4, where Clarkson, Hammond, and May attempted a run from Basel, Switzerland to Blackpool on one tank of fuel in a Jaguar XJ, Subaru Legacy, and Volkswagen Polo, respectively. It seemed a fairly boring challenge at first, but ended up being edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

So I was delighted to see on Twitter yesterday that Ed Wiseman, of Telegraph Cars, was going to attempt to drive from Land’s End to John o’Groats on one tank of fuel in a new Vauxhall Insignia 1.6 diesel. Vauxhall claims 70.6mpg combined on the Insignia, and with a 62-litre tank, the range for that kind of journey is theoretically there.

Ed posted regular updates along the way, and if you click the tweet above, you can follow his journey. And this is why Twitter is fun, because as he neared the end this morning, the drama was building. The onboard computer stopped showing the distance remaining, and as he counted down the miles, you began to wonder if the next tweet would be an image of him stranded on the side of the road.

So, did he make it? Find out here…

The drivers of 50mph work zones

You’re cruising down the motorway, eating up the miles, when you see that dreaded sign. Roadworks, two miles ahead. And not just that, but it’s a 13-mile long stretch of 50mph road, peppered with everyone’s favourite government revenue maker, the average speed camera.

You continue along until you see the first of the 50mph signs. Two things happen at this point. First, a number of cars slam on their brakes, seemingly taken by surprise at the sudden change in speed limit and expecting heavy fines if they are doing anything over 50 the instant they pass the sign. The rest all dive for the outside lane, forcing a bunch-up, and thus more heavy brake usage. You hang back a bit, taking your foot off the accelerator, letting the car gradually slow to 50, and then switch on the cruise control.

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Wisdom dictates that this would be the easy way through this section of road, and you think most people would figure this out. But alas, it’s only a matter of moments before you realise that no one knows what they’re doing.

You initially find yourself in the outside lane, passing those who slowed to 47 two miles back. Not half a mile into the work zone, you find your rear-view mirror rapidly filling with Audi, its driver blissfully unaware of how average speed cameras actually work. He’s convinced that as long as he’s doing 50 when he passes under the speed cameras, he’ll be fine. Everything in between is open season. After you gradually pass the lorry to your left, you move over, and he races by.

Resetting the cruise control to 50, you spot a Focus ahead. She looks to be comfortably cruising at 46, so it should be quick work getting round her, especially as the outside lane is clear. Without adjusting the speed, you approach, indicate, and move over. Only, suddenly the Focus is passing you, the presence of another car in her peripheral vision causing a reflex in her right foot. Before you know it, she’s switched the indicator on, ready to get around the Peugeot she is now rapidly approaching. She moves over, and immediately takes her foot off the accelerator, matching the speed of the car you thought she was going to pass. A back-and-forth game now ensues, as her unsteady foot can’t decide between 46 and 51. You close the gap between your two cars ever so slightly in the hopes that she’ll understand the error of her ways. After a few miles of fluctuation, she finally clears the Peugeot and moves back to the inside lane, and you sail by (only to notice the Peugeot pull out to pass, as she’s settled back down to 46, ready to begin the back-and-forth game again).

Back at 50, you see a Jaguar in the outside lane for no apparent reason, as the road ahead looks wide open. As you crest a slight hill, you then realise that there is a car over a mile ahead that you are closing in on incrementally. Mr Jag has his cruise control set at 49, ready to overtake the as-yet-undistinguishable car in the inside lane ahead doing 48.7, probably sometime next week. Wanting to honour the Highway Code’s rules on passing, you move in behind him and switch off your cruise control, assuming he will realise that there is more than enough time for him to move over and let you pass before he passes the car ahead. But no, he is resolute in his determination to occupy the outside lane. You start to wonder if it’s worth darting round him in the inside lane just to make a point, when the work zone ends, and the motorway again opens up to three lanes.

Once again cruising at 70, you give thanks that traffic wasn’t heavy, knowing that all of the above would have compounded to cause both lanes of traffic to crawl through the work zone at 39.

Why do some roads attract all the bad drivers?

It is interesting that some roads seem to attract all the bad drivers at once. You can drive miles and miles of motorway or cruise around town only occasionally encountering a bad driver, but then suddenly find yourself on a stretch of road where you feel like you’re fighting for your life with every passing mile.

The A171 between Middlesbrough and Whitby is such a road.

I often use Whitby as a base for exploring the North Yorkshire Moors, but to get there from my house requires driving that stretch of the A171. After today, I’m nearly ready to give up on it, though. It wasn’t even terribly busy at 10:30am, but I was tailgated numerous times, subjected to a couple of reckless 90mph+ overtakes, and nearly hit by someone attempting to cut me off in a roundabout just to get in front.

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All this paled in comparison to the lunatic in a Ford Kuga who suddenly decided he didn’t want me to pass him going up Birk Brow, and proceeded to nearly roll his vehicle trying to get around me in the bend pictured above using the inside lane. Little wonder they’ve got a couple of the signs pictured below posted along the route.

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This isn’t a one-time occurrence, either. It seems to be the case every time I travel the A171. So what is it that makes people drive like maniacs along a particular stretch of road? The A171 is certainly not a boring road – it has good scenery and enough sweeping curves to make it an involving and enjoyable drive. Hit it on a good day, and you’ll find most cars happily cruising along at the speed limit. What possible reason could people have to drive so recklessly all the time, then? Surely no one can be in a hurry to get to a tourist town like Whitby on a Saturday.

Any ideas?

Beauty and power

Some properly beautiful cars came out of Britain in the 1960s, including AC’s Cobra. Just look at those lines!

The car became well-known when the American tuner, Carroll Shelby, begin stuffing powerful V8 engines under the bonnet, most famously Ford’s 7.0L 427 ‘side oiler’, making 425bhp (on paper – manufacturers of the day notoriously understated power figures for insurance purposes). Though it was a financial disaster for Shelby, it dominated on the track due to its power-to-weight ratio. 

To this day, it’s the 427 Cobra that every young petrolhead dreams of, and understandably so: it has an in-your-face factor that’s hard to beat, especially when that massive V8 thunders out of un-silenced side pipes. But I’d much rather have the 289, like the example above, because while it would still have the commanding V8 presence and noise, it would be much more driveable.

(The car pictured above is a recreation by Hawk Cars – originals really can’t be found for under £250,000 – and is currently for sale on eBay.)

Look how far they’ve come

Up until recently, American cars were really only good for two things: going fast in straight lines, and lazily floating along endless miles of straight motorways. Their sports cars were no different, and on the track, anything European with even half the power would easily leave them in the dust. However, in the last decade or so, the Americans have suddenly gotten very serious about turning their sports cars into proper sports cars, and nowhere is that more evident than in the latest Corvette and Camaro.


Motor Trend
recently put the new Corvette Grand Sport, pictured top, up against one of the best handling cars of all time, the Porsche 911 Carrera S, and the former lapped Willow Springs nearly a whole second faster (see the first video below, starting at 16:10). Similarly, the new Camaro ZL1 recently lapped the Nürburgring in 7:29.6, which is not only more than 11 seconds faster than the previous ZL1, but is quicker than some of the fastest supercars currently in production, including the McLaren 650S and Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera (see the second video below).

It is really an astonishing achievement for Chevrolet to have built two sports cars that
can compete – indeed, dominate – at this level in such a short amount of time. And as someone who’s long been a fan of shouty V8-powered muscle cars, it’s nice to see them finally holding their own on the track. Now to address the interior build quality issues…

Do I need to stop calling myself a petrolhead?

Perhaps I need to stop calling myself a petrolhead.

To be sure, I fit the criteria in all sorts of ways. I’ve memorised the technical data for far too many cars since the mid-90s. My head snaps round whenever I hear the rumble of a V8. I take photos of random cars in car parks. And I do most of the repair work on my cars.

But I’m reluctant to let go of good cars. And this is where I begin to question my petrolhead status, because a real petrolhead would be buying and selling cars regularly, trying out and experiencing different things.

My first car was a 1994 Mazda 626. I had it for eight years. It was fairly boring, both to drive and to look at, but it was remarkably reliable and decently comfortable. In the summers, I did fortnightly 700-mile round trips at the weekends, and it never missed a beat. The head gasket finally gave out around 194,000 miles, but up until that point, almost nothing had ever gone wrong with it. I had a chance to buy several other cars, including an ‘85 Camaro Z28, and a late-70s Malibu that someone had stuffed with a big-block Chevy (I was living in Canada at the time). Those would have been fun, and I sometimes regret not being more adventurous.

I find myself in the same situation again now. Last October I bought a BMW 528i for bangernomics money. And I bought it with the intention of keeping it for a year at the most, and then moving on to something else. Paying so little for the car meant that I wasn’t going to lose any money on it, and in that price bracket on eBay, the pickings were (and continue to be) rich. Finding another car wouldn’t be a problem. All these below are going for £500-1000, have reasonable mileage, and good service histories.

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So here I am, two months away from a one-year anniversary with the E39. I’m spending a lot of time on eBay, and I have no less than 10 cars on my watch list. I have even put bids on a few. But I’m hesitant to really make an effort to find something else. Why? Because every time I get behind the wheel of the BMW, I’m reminded of how much I love it. The car drives beautifully. It looks good. Every Saturday, when I take my boys out for a drive, it glides across the countryside, evidently enjoying being given room to breath and stretch its legs. It runs well. It recently completed an 850-mile road trip without any issue, soaking up the motorway miles, and providing ample comfort and space for a family of four. And sure, it could do with a little bodywork, the aircon needs a re-gas, and I think the bearings on the clutch are a bit worn, but I’m certain it will do another 100,000 miles with ease.

Are there lots of other cars that could do the same? No doubt. But I’m not a gambling man, and I find myself balking at the idea of trading the E39 for something else when I don’t know whether it will treat me as well.

Where do I hand in my petrolhead card?