We’re going to jump right into this: Last week a black 2003 BMW 540i M-Sport Touring sold for $72,000 on Bring A Trailer. Maybe you were following the auction closely—we at BimmerLife and the BMW Car Club of America certainly were!—or maybe you read about it in the reams of coverage bestowed upon this Touring in the hours following the sale, with more than a fair share of (justified) shock and awe at the price.
But we’re not here to point out that the car—offered by a longtime Tarheel Chapter BMW CCA member and an active E39 expert on M5Board and elsewhere—sold for the MSRP of a brand-new M4 or a CPO Alpina B7, or any flavor of Italian exotics on the same auction site. We’ve seen expensive E39s before, particularly from Enthusiast Auto Group in Cincinnati, Ohio. At this point, we’d prefer to address the questions posed by fellow youngtimer BMW owners: How and why did a sixteen-year-old 5 Series Touring become one of the most oft-discussed BMWs on Bring A Trailer, and what exactly can (or should) you do to capitalize on the changing landscape of post-2000 BMW platforms?
Of course, this black M-Sport was no ordinary wagon—and it had not been one for some time. It was in many ways the perfect storm of an E39, particularly on the renowned auction site with its love of on-paper prowess, clean paint, and a hefty dose of enthusiast thrills.
The car’s enticing attributes are almost too great to list: a long-term owner (13 years); reasonably low mileage (sitting at 105,000 at the point of sale); a documented history as a true M-Sport; an appealing color combination (with the seller expressing an ability and willingness to change interior colors for right buyer); and what is fast becoming a popular swap for E39 and E38 chassis cars, the BMW M5’s S62 V8 and accompanying six-speed manual transmission.
The auction itself was hardly standard fare, either, even for the hotbed of intersectional automotive enthusiasm that is Bring A Trailer. Even the administrators seemed to chase after the bidding, only promoting the car late in the day as the price climbed well past the mid-$40,000 range in which it had stayed for the majority of the seven-day auction before settling at $72,000.
The “why” of that price might seem self-explanatory from the spec sheet, but for those who—like us—immediately took to Craigslist in search of $800 E39 Touring shells and rear-ended M5s, here are a couple of other items to note with this particular car, starting (and practically ending) with the attention to detail and philosophy in design.
This Touring and the masterminds behind its creation, Brian Marks and fellow Tarheel member Paul Martin, have actually been featured in Roundel magazine before, back when the wagon was producing more than 600 horsepower thanks to a supercharger and methanol injection on the S62 V8. But even at the height of its power-focused phase, Brian’s philosophy was about what you’d expect from a man who uses German software to program his computers and imports his own OEM-spec wiring-harness fabric; his builds are meant to replicate what BMW would have built, had they offered this powertrain. Restraint and relevance are paramount in a high-value build.
Crucially, Brian’s builds are not backyard projects or languishing experiments—and they are more than simply engine swaps. Both this car and his daily-driver-slash-work-vehicle, an S54-powered E46 Touring, have been built in his private two-story workshop—one that includes a lift and a basement full of carefully collected M5 parts, a platform its builder knows inside and out. While you could build a car to the same specifications in your back yard, it’s not what we might call “recommended” without years of trial and error, at least compared to the $72,000 Touring.
The takeaway is that building such a vehicle requires more than just a motor. Multiple donor M5s made their way through the garage, all contributing their parts to this Touring and subsidizing other projects—and through the entire process, attention to detail remained king. The quality is evident in everything from the engine-bay wiring to the interior trim (free of creaks and rattles), and even the widescreen iDrive display, positioned as BMW would have placed it, and with software fully integrated into the nearly two-decades-old car (including engine management). And the quality is evident in the reliable performance of the S62 over the course of its forced-induction and naturally-aspired lives.
But there is hope for aspiring projecteers, or those who happen to have enthusiast-focused BMWs from the early 21st century. If the selling ability of this one beautifully constructed wagon means anything for the broader market, it’s that modified enthusiast cars may finally have their day. As Cam VanDerHorst put it last week, this E39 is the M5 Touring that BMW never put into production. Perhaps, guided by the attention to detail in this build, other dream-drivetrain E38s and E39s will begin to command higher prices, as long as their build quality matches that of their donor vehicles.
Who’s to say what BMW will break the Internet next—a V8-powered, manual E34 Touring? More M coupes, shocking the market again? Maybe it will be a certain S54 E46 Touring from the same Tarheel Chapter member as this wagon.
Whether future wagons will sell for the same astronomical prices or not, we should look at this E39 not necessarily an instruction manual or a gold rush of swapped E39s, but more as a representation of how popularity follows passion, even if it takes a couple of years. If anything, the point is much more simple: Build the BMW you deserve, and the buyers will come. They certainly did last week.—David Rose