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.
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).
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.
Ultimately, 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.