E39s Across America: If You Could Do It All Over Again, Would You?

In the realm of crazy that we car enthusiasts occupy, a cross-country trip in a newly purchased car is always a dream. That dream lived with me for a few years, and the cars I found were always beautifully cared-for BMWs in the Pacific Northwest or the Bay Area.

Seven years and countless hours of searching led to one ad on Craigslist. It had gone up only a few days before, so maybe I had a chance. This was the one: a 1997 E39 528i five-speed in Aubergine over Sand Beige. It was a twin to the first E39 I’d owned, a car that came into my life twelve years ago and stayed for five good years. As with any crazy love story, I began down a path of slight insanity to get that car again.

But could I really buy a barely running BMW 3,000 miles away and drive it home?

A clear view over the Pacific Northwest should be part of every E39 buying process.

As a starting point, I made a list of everyone in the BMW community I knew well enough to understand my insanity. My connections led to many dead ends, and my stomach began turning as I thought I might miss this opportunity. Would it just be better to eat the plane fare and fly to Portland myself? But then, with a quick snap of events, I was connected with two amazing people who helped me tirelessly. The first was Portland-area BMW tech Keith Coffman. For a fee, he completed a pre-purchase inspection and handled the car pickup and paperwork with the seller. Doing all of that made things considerably easier once I arrived in Portland. The other person was Brian Cone, one of the founders of the Oregon Chapter of the BMW CCA. Brian and I were connected through Steve Libby of the Puget Sound Chapter. Truly, Brian went above and beyond by offering the use to his garage to fix two E39s—more on that in a secondbefore we hit the road just 36 hours after we touched down at PDX.

As I was deep in planning the trip and purchasing the Aubergine car, one E39 became two when my good friend, Alex, who had lost his prized Alpine White E39 530i sedan in an accident six weeks before, found a great Alpine White E39 sport-package Touring in Portland. He was also able to use Keith to confirm that the car was as described. While the E39s age gracefully, they were released in 1996 as a 1997 model year, so we could not plan on a local BMW dealer having the parts in stock to bail us out. The more we planned, the more this trip was becoming a bigger adventure!

Alex and Wade meet Alex’s new Touring for the first time.

 

Wade’s new Aubergine 528i.

Thankfully, Brian Cone kindly let us ship all of our tools and parts to his home. Our team arrived on a Thursday morning; my best friend, Adam, as well as my mother, Sandy, had joined for technical support (and to drive, since we knew we would need to do shifts in order to make it home in time).

Brian took us down to the garage, where we found that he had meticulously laid out all of the parts and tools so that we could work efficiently. We jumped right in and completed an entire overhaul on the cooling system of the Aubergine car. It had received a partial overhaul previously, but I needed it to make it all the way to the East Coast. We replaced everything down to the water-pump nuts and radiator-hose clamps.

Ten hours later, we had completed one cooling system, one motor-mount arm, two oil changes, and a set of headlight adjusters, and we were covered in dirt from head to toe. We had dinner with Brian and his wife, but with two working cars and four drivers who needed to be back by Monday, we had a schedule to keep. We thanked our hosts and set off into the night.

Wyoming was filled with snow drifts and brisk winds.

As we drove, the temperature gauge started to go up a bit in the Aubergine car; I was getting nervous. The good news was that it was not spiking, and the light never came on. Blaming that one on air in the system, we turned in for the night after a few hundred miles and decided to check the coolant in the morning.

The next three days went by in a flash. It was a good thing the system had been bled; Utah had been so warm that we ate at In-N-Out Burger on the restaurant’s patio before taking off again to reach Cheyenne, Wyoming, late that night. When we woke the next morning, snow was looming behind us; without snow tires, we knew we would be in deep trouble if we did not beat the storm. That day brought the muted landscapes of frigid Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois—and one speeding ticket (blamed on the looming snow, of course).

In-N-Out Burger: a treat for those on the East Coast.

The team rolls into Pennsylvania—finally.

By the last day we were jetting through Indiana full speed ahead. Both E39s were holding their own. With over 200,000 miles on each, we expected (and planned) for issues. Extra light-control modules, cooling-system parts, oil, coolant, and a BMW code reader had been packed. The Aubergine car settled into its new cooling system well, and the Touring was as good as ever—even using the load-leveling rear suspension to keep all of our tools, luggage, and an extra set of wheels from causing the rear to droop.

That night we rolled up in front of my building in Jersey City, New Jersey, 2,902 miles from the beginning of the journey and many conversations, sing-alongs, and rest stops later. I woke up the next morning and spent 45 minutes gathering my thoughts. Not only had I found the Aubergine E39 I had been looking for, but it was now the car in which I had crossed the country. As it happened, AutoCheck revealed that my car was originally delivered at Chris BMW in Georgia. I can’t help but wonder if she already knew the way back east. I guess sometimes we are better off not to ask too many questions of our wise old BMWs.—Wade S. Howard

The crew: Wade, Adam, Sandy, and Alex, seen here after a restful night’s sleep at a ranch in Wyoming.

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