What it's like owning an E39 BMW (as a student)

How hard can it possibly be?

1y ago

Like many of us, I had an automotive itch. For no particular reason, I just had to have a new car. I had owned my first car, a Fiesta, for just over two years. Nothing was wrong with it, and quite a lot was spot on, but I had decided it was time for something bigger and (hopefully) better.

With about ten grand to spend, I scoured the market for my next pride and joy. Being as picky as I am with the budget I had, this yielded few results. A Lexus GS300 with an interior that smelled like it had been constructed from industrial-strength air fresheners. A MkV Golf GTI that didn't look as good as the photos. And the 540i you see pictured above.

Having always been a fan of the E39, I gravitated towards it. I had read the reviews proclaiming it was the best BMW ever built. I had seen Jeremy Clarkson conquer Africa in one. I happened to notice it had about three times more torque than what I was driving at the time. And my Pop had told me years before that the 5 Series was "a very fine motor car". So there. I texted my mate, we drove the old Beamer, and I spoke to its mechanic. The car seemed like it was well looked after, it had less than 150,000 k's on the clock, and apart from a kidney grille falling out when I shut the bonnet, I couldn't spot any issues. I bargained the owner down to $8000 and sold the Fiesta that night. The following afternoon, I had keys in hand to the Ultimate Driving Machine.

The car I probably shouldn't have sold. But what's life without experiences?

The car I probably shouldn't have sold. But what's life without experiences?

For an entire thirty minutes, I really did feel like I had struck gold. There I was, floating down the road in my V8 BMW that cost me less than a secondhand Yaris. The Autumn sun was setting, Phil Collins was wafting throughout the cabin, and I still had a thousand bucks in pocket from selling the Fiesta, which was going straight into the 'Mods and Maintenance' fund. Then, about a kilometre from my destination, the 5-speed Tiptronic decided it didn't really feel like shifting past second gear anymore. My stomach dropped to somewhere around my kneecaps as I trawled down the street at three thousand RPM, but I soon calmed my nerves. And bowels. I knew what I was in for buying the car. I had some money aside. And thankfully, the problem didn't return for another few weeks.

On day two, I found that my floor mats were soaking wet from a wash that the car had earlier in the week. This was due to the vapour seals failing inside the doors, and was easily fixed with a run to Bunnings, a YouTube video and $19 spent on rubber butyl tape. The second-gear shenanigans ended up being due to a clogged heat exchanger which was making the gearbox overheat, and getting underneath the car I was able to skilfully remove the blockage using the longest screwdriver I could find and some stabbing-esque movements. The problem never returned. I replaced a few other bits and pieces like the windscreen seals and an armrest handle lid, and was quickly able to move on to the fun stuff. My fears of four-digit repair bills were but a distant memory, and my original optimism was bolstered.

After replacing the cassette-radio with a touchscreen unit and switching out some of the incandescent bulbs with LEDs, the car really started to feel complete. I had modernised it enough to make it enjoyable in daily use, without impacting its slightly-retro appeal. A lot of this was down to the styling of the car itself - being as conservative as it is, there's flexibility with modifications and adjustments. And while the earlier E39s may be showing their age a little, the facelifted versions still look surprisingly modern - impressive for a design that was finalised in 1992. My mates loved it, I was starting to feel more confident in owning it, and once I had gotten rid of the huge rear muffler, I formed an attachment to it that nags at me more than I would like.

Auto-only in Australia. Mercifully doesn't smell like air fresheners.

Auto-only in Australia. Mercifully doesn't smell like air fresheners.

I picked up a new casual job just as my residual Fiesta-fund expired, and it was lucky I did - not long afterwards, I had my first actual warning message from the car: "CHECK BRAKE LININGS". This occurred on a freeway while travelling at approximately 103kph, which was comforting. I pulled over (using the brakes, which worked) and decided to not only check the pads, but the rotors and calipers as well, and found that they were all indeed still there. I set off once again, at full throttle of course - who doesn't love a legal, necessitated 0-60?

The following weeks and months began to highlight a pattern of decay. The brake-check warnings became an almost daily occurrence, with the ambient temperature sensor also beginning to play up, which would be of negligible concern if it didn't affect the air conditioning. Which it does. After this, I began to blow fuel pump fuses, which of course cuts the engine, and in turn, power steering. Also good fun on the freeway. When I thought I had seen the worst of it, the car had a total electrical cutout, enough to reset the stereo and trip meter (much in the same way as when you completely remove the battery). Luckily, this only happened while I was parked, but from that point on, I knew the car had to go.

Play video

Car gets old. Exhaust note doesn't.

After a few attempts at sorting out the electrical gremlins, I took the car to my mechanic for a diagnosis, and found, rather unhelpfully, that it had zero error codes. He told me he would need it for longer to be able to figure out what was wrong, but I was determined to maintain the DIY spirit, and decided to try and track the issues down myself. I had no luck for the next few weeks, with the fuel pump situation still getting worse - I couldn't trust it for more than a 20-minute drive. Most annoyingly, replacing the fuse for the fuel pump got the car back up and running on the first turn of the key like nothing ever happened. The engine was strong, and there was still no sign of what was causing the issue. But time and again, the Bavarian beast was defeated by little fuse No. 54.

And that brings me to where I am today. Roughly $11,000 into a car (including mods) that originally cost about 240 grand. Based on that, I've decided it's still pretty good value for money, despite the headaches. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty, it usually isn't that expensive to repair, and a lot of the fixes I've done have cost next to nothing, and just require a little time and effort. The frustrating part has been how often the problems arrive, and the uncertainty behind them. But there is something about this car though. You can sense the attention to detail in every square inch of it. Regardless of how many times it's let you down that day, if you glance at it on the way out of the carpark, you can kind of forgive it - at least until the next time you CHECK BRAKE LININGS.

I have no idea how much this car will end up costing me. I have a new electronics control module on the way (GM III) which will hopefully fix up those dashboard warnings. As for the fuel system, a new pump seems to be in order, which is a pain seeing as the current one is less than a year old. But nothing about owning this car really went to plan, other than the fact that I knew it probably wouldn't go to plan. It's been responsible for substantial pain-in-the-arsery, and while it hasn't quite put me in debt, the constant dribble out of my bank account is beginning to get tedious. Would I recommend the E39? Only if you want it specifically because it's an E39. Do I regret buying it? Not at the moment. If I could go back and do it again, would I?


Ideally just with a backup Fiesta parked somewhere nearby.

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Comments (25)

  • Good work, driving and enjoying such cars is a lot more rewarding and character building than any modern vehicle.

    And they really are fairly reliable even into high mileage and older age.

    Non of my lot have less than 300,000km on the clocks.

    Keep up the good work.

      1 year ago
  • Nice BMW, I prefer that shape model to lots of the Newer Shape ones. Id have gone for an estate version though, but to each their own needs need requirements 🥂😄😁

      1 year ago
    • Love an estate too - unfortunately there’s not enough on the market!

        1 year ago
    • Cool cool, your post got me thinking of the same age of model, but the 850i, but I guess they're just as hard to find as good estates, plus Id imagine they're a bit pricier. Nice find though, congrats!

        1 year ago
  • Great story Ben. I bought my E39 530i Touring with about 40,000 from a friend, so I knew its life history to date. Owned it for a total of 7 years (had a 2 year break when another friend bought it, ran it up from 70,000 to 110,000, when I bought it back!). Eventually gave it to my brother at about 205,000 miles. He added another 15,000 before the gearbox failed. Common problem apparently, though my dealer was amazed the car had managed the mileage it had. I had regularly changed the transmission fluid every 25,000 miles. Best thing is, other than that final gearbox issue, the only other non service work were the rear air suspension bags. Incredibly reliable car, one of the best I’ve owned.

      1 year ago
  • People say these cars are unreliable, and while that statement isnt wrong, they're not as bad as people think. As long as you're willing to put the time and effort into fixing them yourself, you will be ok.

      1 year ago
  • Had a 530i with 5 speed manual for 12 years as a 2nd owner. Did no modifications. Solid car fired up every time. Yes needed maintenance regularly, and it was worth it.

      1 year ago