• BMW’s Finest Hour, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Overheating and Love the E39

    Why do I own and daily-drive a sixteen-year-old BMW that could die at any moment?

    If you think about it objectively, it’s beyond silly. I live in a country that berates enthusiasts for daring to run older cars that might actually be somewhat desirable. Every facet of every law seems designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain and financial penalty on anyone not driving an econobox on some sort of finance deal. Tax and insurance costs are preposterously high, and driving an old, petrol car is almost a form of social suicide to those who don’t get it.

    I’ll be honest from the very start. I paid the princely sum of €800 for this wonderful chariot. It’s a 2002 520i M Sport, an Irish car from new, and came with a year’s test, Pirellis on the front and Bridgestones on the back. It’s got some of the looks of an M5, with about ten per cent of the go, and has a scandalous fondness for oil. It’s not what you’d call ‘mint’ by any stretch of the imagination, not even ‘DoneDeal mint’, and taking pictures of it parked in a puddle or beside a silage pit won’t make any difference.

    Optimum viewing distance is about ten metres away, because when you get closer, you’ll spot a series of varied and interesting body blemishes. A ladder fell on the rear of it at some point, and though it received a fresh bootlid, the two rear quarter panels still bear the scars of that unfortunate incident. The front bumper is cracked, along with one of the foglights.

    There are many, many parking dings, and one dent seems to suggest that it was hit by a rubber bullet. The paint is destroyed in swirl marks, scratches and smears. Fake carbon fibre trim adorns both B-pillars, and large divots in same mean that I’m hesitant to remove this disgusting affront to common decency and taste in the fear that it may be structurally integral in some way.

    The wheels are kerbed, and slow punctures on three of the four tyres would suggest that they’re not quite as round as they once were, either. The only saving grace is that it has escaped the sun strip, M-stripe grille and cut springs brigade (more about this in a future article), so it looks more or less as BMW intended, from a distance.

    Looking closer, we find an M54B22 engine with that aforementioned thirst for 5W30, brake discs that warp if you so much as think about putting any sort of force into them, and THE worst headlights I’ve ever experienced on any car. The interior was spec’d in an unusual and horrid combination of wood and black cloth, and the dashboard has quirks that include occasionally choosing not to work, and a temperature gauge whose sweep is about 30 degrees off to the left when it does. Not a big deal, I hear you say, but it’s an old BMW and what old BMWs like to do most of all is overheat. That’s something that I’m constantly afraid of (the temperature gauge anomaly doesn’t help), to the point where I’m seriously considering overhauling the entire cooling system at a cost of more than what I paid for the bloody car.

    On the road, it suffers from the infamous ‘E39 wobble’, which could be attributed to the buckled wheels, bearings, various suspension components, or something new and exciting that I haven’t thought of yet. The power steering pump is noisy. The heating is either too hot or too cold, but never neither, and sometimes the fan doesn’t work. One time, the brake light switch failed, which doesn’t sound like an overly big drama until you understand that said switch caused the throttle to become totally unresponsive as I was pulling out of a very busy junction. The windscreen washer pipes cracked on one slightly frosty night. The stereo sucks. The on-board computer is convinced that one of the rear bulbs is blown and heralds its assumption of same with a loud BONG every few minutes. I’ve checked. Numerous times. There are no bulbs blown. I now ignore it.

    So, all things considered, it’s a piece of shit. A big, stinking, ready-for-the-scrapyard piece of shit. Yet I’d still rather drive this old barge than an awful lot of the cars I see on our roads every day. Why? Because the E39 may just be the high watermark for the automobile as we know it. Not my one, obviously, because of what I’ve written above, but the E39 in general.

    For a start, it’s one of the best-looking saloons ever built, if not THE best. The M5 is an object lesson in how to design a bruising sports saloon with just the right amount of menace. M Sport models give cheapos like me the opportunity to almost fool people into thinking that we’re driving an M5, and the SE has its own floaty, chrome-y, wafty charm. Even the Touring looks cool. They came in tonnes of colours thanks to loads of standard paint options and BMW’s ‘Individual’ programme, so if you want a purple car, a light bluey-green thing or several different variations of red, they’re all out there.

    Inside, the dash wraps around the driver, and the clocks are wonderfully easy to read. It’s damn hard to beat being in an E39 at night, bathed in the red glow from the twin roof-mounted pinprick bulbs and the comforting amber dash lighting. The driving position is exemplary, and all the controls are tactile and sensibly-placed, even if the manual ‘box’s shift action isn’t the last word in precision. Even in my tatty high-mileage example, there are no squeaks or rattles, and nothing has worn through from use. It feels like it could go on for ever. There’s tonnes of space for everyone, along with ample boot capacity.

    And it handles. My word, it handles. For a big, heavy car on ‘sport’ suspension, the body control, balance and damping are incredible. It’s wonderfully comfortable and quiet at speed, and feels just at home flying down a country road as it does at three figures on a motorway. Now, with the base 2.2-litre engine it is woefully sluggish, but that motor is torquey and smooth and makes all the right noises, with the useful benefit of not challenging the rubbish brakes too much.

    In summary, it’s a brilliant design. No other car I’ve ever driven combines looks, handling, practicality, comfort and usability with such aplomb. Want to drive it to the shops? No problem. Want to cross Europe in comfort? Cool. Want to chuck it down your favourite road? Go wild. It does enough of everything to satisfy all.

    There are still so many left for small money that it would be silly not to indulge, if you can recognise that the expenses of tax and insurance can be countered with the fact that the E39 is at the absolute bottom of its depreciation curve. Only the M5’s values have really started to climb, but even those are still attainable for normal people with normal incomes. For a cooking petrol or diesel or model, the choice is endless, and parts are easily got. Sure, they have their foibles, but what car of this age doesn’t? Go in with your eyes open, heed the advice from the various forums and publications, and you’ll be fine. I didn’t think a ratty, €800 BMW could get under my skin so much, but it’s a keeper, and I fully intend to restore it back to its former glory as time goes on.