If you’re like me (and, if you are, my condolences) you find that there’s something about the impending arrival of winter that makes you want to buy one more car before the nasty stuff starts falling. Part of the impulse is practical—you want to have the right car for winter itself. But part of it is frivolous scatter hoarding, looking to see if someone else is bailing out of a project rather than continuing to dedicate precious garage space to it. These two impulses are of course contradictory. So sue me. As Walt Whitman famously said, “I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
These two categories—fun cars and practical ones—intersect on the issue of towing, since you need one to drag home the other. For years I owned a cavalcade of Suburbans. I had them mainly to take the family on the big annual beach vacation, but they were also pressed into service if I bought something dead and needed to drag it back.
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to four years ago when I sold my E46 325xi wagon. With the stick and the sport package, it was a fun car, but the all-wheel drive made the steering feel kind of heavy, and when I needed to replace the front axles and CV joints, it was such a pain in the patootie that I never wanted to have anything to do with AWD on a BMW again. My friend Alex wanted to buy the car, so I sold it to him, but I was then without a daily driver BMW for the first time in 30 years. I began temporarily daily-driving the ratty 2003 Suburban, the last of its breed, still leading a lumbering existence in my driveway even though the big family beach vacations were a thing of the past.
And then, four years ago this Christmas, the ‘Burb popped its third brake line. I’d replaced the first two piecemeal, but rotted brake lines on these trucks are so ubiquitous that there was an NTSB investigation into it. It was time to do all the remaining ones. I ordered a set of pre-bent stainless brake lines from Rockauto for like eighty bucks, but installing them was incredibly onerous—I’d never do it again. Still, I powered through, got the ‘Burb safe, and drove it through that winter.
That is, until a few months later when I stumbled into the 2003 E39 530i stick sport. I’ve grown to love this car, and have written aout how it’s hands-down the best daily-driver BMW I’ve ever owned. However, although it does have the fold-down rear seats, its cargo-carrying capacity is limited, and even with snow tires, it’s not the best winter vehicle in the world. And it certainly can’t tow anything.
Over the past few months, a number of roads appeared to lead back to the towing issue. When I bought Hampton, the 48,000-mile ’73 2002 back in September, I needed to get down to Bridgehampton Long Island with a truck and trailer. Owning neither, I needed to borrow both, and the borrowing and returning added substantially to the logistics of the trip, so much so that, when I got back, I looked at putting a toe back in the waters of owning a tow vehicle. (See what I did there?)
However, there is a finite amount of room in my driveway, and the space that had been occupied by the Suburban is now taken up by the Winnebago Rialta RV. Because the Rialta is about the same size as a ‘Burb, sits in the same physical location at the end of the driveway, is used for vacation-related things, and is big inside, I tend to think of it as a sort-of functional substitute for the Suburban, but it’s not. The Rialta can’t tow anything, it doesn’t have four-wheel-drive, and although it’s big inside, it only has seating for three. Plus, everything has to go in through the narrow side door. You can stuff something big and bendable like a foam mattress through it, but you can’t use the Rialta to, say, haul home a washing machine or a refrigerator. So, the 350 days a year we’re not camping in it, it sits at the end of the driveway. I wanted another tow vehicle, but owning both the RV and another ‘Burb seemed excessive.
After the Hampton episode, I looked briefly at X5s. Now, I’ve made no secret of my disdain for not only BMW X cars, but for any crossover SUV. The idea that anyone would actually lust after such a vehicle makes me wonder about the future of mankind. I’ve always thought that, if you want a truck, buy a truck. At least that’s an honest vehicle. Crossovers always struck me as poor compromises best served by going over to the truck or the station wagon side of the fence. But E53 X5s are cheap these days, and are available with a standard transmission, though those are pretty rare. The unicorn would be finding an E53 X5 six-speed. The double unicorn would be a six-speed sport package example.
I floated the issue on Facebook of using a 5-speed 3.0-liter X5 as a tow vehicle, and the consensus seemed to be that, while the X5 hitch was rated for 6,000 pounds (a U-Haul auto transporter (trailer) weighs 2,100, so that’d theoretically give you 3,900 pounds of headroom for a car), it’s really a forced fit. Folks advised that it might work to occasionally trailer a small light car like a 2002 short distances, but really, an X5 with a V8 (or, indeed, a larger V8 vehicle LIKE A SUBURBAN) would be better. The V8 X5s aren’t available with a stick, and besides, I didn’t want the headaches associated with a BMW V8. So I dropped it.
I then went back to what I spend an inordinate amount of time doing—pounding on the internet trying to shake loose an E39, E46, or E91 rear-wheel drive manual transmission sport package wagon. Incredibly, last week I found the E46 wagon pictured below right near me in Arlington. It looked and sounded like it was exactly what I wanted—5-speed, rear wheel drive, sport seats, a long-term enthusiast owner, some tasteful mods—but when I drove it, it left me surprisingly cold. Part of that was, I believe, the aftermarket suspension and urethane bushings, but part of it was that I’d already owned an E46 sportwagon with the same beige interior, and to my surprise, instead of going yeeeeeha over the rear-wheel drive, it kind of felt like I was going backward in time, and not in a nostalgic way. Plus, when I drove it, I was reminded that the car’s 2.5-liter M54 engine is only rated at 184 horsepower and feels like it could use another 30. (As of this writing, that car is still available here. It’s being brokered for its owner by a very nice gentleman and backyard mechanic with whom I spent a delightful hour. Don’t let the fact that passed on it influence you if you’re looking for one.)
Having experienced this surprising sensation of “don’t look back” with the E46 wagon, I thought, well, maybe I should look forward. I began looking online at E61 5 Series wagons. Boy, these have gotten dirt cheap, with high-mileage examples falling below the $3000 mark. All of these cars, though, are all-wheel-drive, and six-speed sticks are rare as hen’s teeth. Sport package cars do exist, but the “sport package” on these cars is apparently only sport seats, steering wheel, and shadow-line trim. I was considering making an appointment to go see this compelling-looking $4,500 2009 535i xDrive wagon (the ad can be seen here), but when I floated the idea on Facebook, the response on the car’s predicted reliability and expense was so overwhelmingly negative that I backed off.
I also looked at Mazda6 wagons, as I like their lines, and they were available with a V6 and a stick. I found this 189,000-mile example out in central Massachusetts for $1,450, but then I remembered that I’d gone down this road before, drove a nice one at a dealer, and did not at all like the front-wheel drive.
Then, I found two cars that interested me. One was a beat-up E46 wagon with the holy trinity of stick, RWD, and sport package in Maine for a thousand bucks. The other was a running S52-equipped M Roadster in southern Connecticut for five grand. With cars that are nearby, you just drop everything and go and see them, but with cars that are a drive of several hours each way, I hate to make that drive twice (once to check them out, and again to come back with Maire Anne to pick them up and drive them home) so, man, it’s just so much easier if you can drive your truck to a U-Haul dealer, spend sixty bucks to rent an auto transporter, snap it on the ball, and go have a look prepared to drag the car home in one trip. Again, the “I need something that can tow” thing moved onto the front burner.
Then, a funny thing happened. Maire Anne said that she’d been wanting to replace the beat-up screen door on the front porch, and had found one for free on Craigslist, but when she went to pick it up in her Honda Fit, it was way too long (insert “it didn’t Fit” jokes here). I told her I’d go and pick it up in the Rialta, as something that slim can easily be maneuvered in the side door. That kicked off a conversation of the relative merits of the Rialta versus the ‘Burb. To my surprise, Maire Anne said the last thing I ever expected: “I miss having a Suburban. The stuff we used to be able to pick up in those things was great.”
Wow. Well, a car guy doesn’t need much more of a green light than that, right?
So Suburbans suddenly went hard on the radar. But, looking online, I found that most of the cheap Suburbans had rusted brake lines. Been there, done that, swore a cloud of blue language that dented the sheetrock in the garage. Would run screaming and swear out a vendetta against the GM employee who’d approved the original source of the brake lines if I had to do it a second time.
Okay, I thought, I don’t need a Suburban. I don’t need the ability to haul seven people plus a vacation-load of cargo. I just need something big and tow-capable, meaning a full-sized SUV with a V8. I thought, why don’t I look for something Japanese and reliable and get away from these obvious American quality control issues? You’d never find something like brake line rot in a Japanese rig, right?
Well, as they say, funny story…
I began looking at Nissan Armadas. Nice vehicles, 305 hp 5.6L V8, well-reviewed. Very difficult to find one for under three grand regardless of mileage. Oh, but look, here’s one on the Cape for $1,300, looks great in the ad, though the ad says something about needing a rear control arm. I contact the seller, it turned out her husband is a backyard mechanic, and he explained that the right rear upper control arm rusted out and the car can only be driven short distances until it’s replaced, but he has the part, just hasn’t had the time to install it. I looked online and found references to surprising levels of rear subframe and trailing arm rust in Armadas and Titan trucks.
You never know unless you go and look, right? I thought, it’s sooooo cheap, even if I have to pay for a tow home, how could it not be worth it? (Though the fact that I needed a tow vehicle to tow home the potential tow vehicle was not lost on me.) I drive an hour and a half each way out to the Cape and look at it. The mechanic husband has it jacked up and the wheel pulled off so I can see the problem. Turns out the upper rear right control arm has broken in half from rust, and even if he installs the replacement part he has, the lower control arm and the rear subframe itself have rust-through perforations that make them not long for this world. Plus, the vehicle hasn’t been used in over a year, has an exhaust leak and what sounds like a lifter tick, and an interior with a lot of mold.
When I got back from the Cape, I tried to re-center the search. What I needed was something:
- That could, if need be, safely tow a small to mid-size car reasonable distances
- That would be a better winter vehicle than the E39 530i
- That I wouldn’t hate owning, driving, and working on
- That was cheap enough that it didn’t take big money away from real cars
On a whim, I took another pass at the X5. My jaw dropped when I saw the following ad on Facebook Marketplace:
“2004 BMW X5 AWD 3.0i 6 spd Manual w/ Sport & Tow Package. 269,200 miles. 3 owners. Clean title – 95% California and Florida – parked in garage most of the time. No rust. Starts and runs excellent. Spark plug and direct coil replacement ($800), water pump replacement ($700), belt/pulley replacement ($300), new Autoguard Gold Battery (2/19), 6 Speed Manual Transmission replaced by BMW at 216k, and all services are up to date. The engine is strong and transmission shifts smoothly. The car come with 1 set of rubber floor mats and 2 sets of carpet floor mats, roof racks with genuine BMW Crossbars, a bag of hardware. Original owner’s manual with 2 original keys, Non-smoking, no pets, never towed anything no check engine/warning lights Rear door and pass window regulators need replacement (currently not working) The car is a gem and you will enjoy driving it! Asking $4,000, price is negotiable! Feel free to contact me anytime!”
Wait, what? So this wasn’t just a rare 5-speed, or a unicorn 6-speed, or a double unicorn 6-speed sport package. With the tow package (hitch, trailer socket, trailer ECU that turns on the trailer lights and shuts down the parking distance controller), this was a triple unicorn.
I loved the feel of the interior as shown in the ad. I’m not at all a fan of wood grain in modern cars. Give me black non-reflective surfaces any day. This one even had a black headliner.
The seller was a young man who had bought the car last May. A recent back injury was forcing him to switch to a car without a clutch pedal. He said that he’d already pulled the X5 off the road, but I was free to drive it short distances if I put a plate on it. It was only ten miles from my house. I scheduled an appointment to see it. Wouldn’t you?
If the Armada was worse than I could’ve imagined, the X5 was better. Much better. The “garaged most of the time” description appears to be accurate, because the undercarriage of this thing is clean enough to eat off. I jacked it up and shook both wheels, and immediately found a bad right lower control arm, but didn’t find any other red flags other than the bad window regulators disclosed in the ad. Before we headed off on the test drive, the seller said that he’d bought new rotors and pads, and had installed the pads but not the rotors, so between that and the lower control arm, the car was braking a little funny. And it was. But other than that, it ran and drove fine. I plugged in an OBDII scanner both before and after the drive, and found that there were no codes. And, most importantly, even xDrive’s heavy steering notwithstanding, I liked the car.
During a short respectful negotiation, I let the seller know what a triple unicorn he had—he already had a pretty good idea—but that due to the nearly 270,000 miles, his $4,000 asking price might be all the money even given the car’s extraordinary condition. He let me know his bottom line. We talked about the needed repairs (the lower control arm, the window regulators), batted around a few numbers, and in about 15 minutes settled on $3300. He was happy to send a car on which he’d already cancelled the insurance and registration on to an enthusiast owner like me, and I was excited to pick up an unusual car in such unusually good overall condition.
When I came out of the bank after pulling out the cash, the first snowflakes of the season were falling. They were just flurries, but I considered it a particularly good omen.
So, the triple unicorn X5 is mine. I’ve already ordered the lower control arm.
And now, the obvious questions:
Will I sell the E39 530i? Don’t know yet. I may just park it over the winter and live with the X5 for a while. We’ll see if the X5 complements it or supplants it.
And—I know you’re dying to ask—will it fit a screen door or a washing machine? And will it really tow anything heavier than a 2002 further than a few miles? Who the hell cares? I mean, really. Affordable triple unicorns don’t fall in your lap every day. If I still need to do those things, I can always, you know, buy a Suburban. I hear they’re wicked cheap if you’re just willing to change a few rotted brake lines.
Me: If I hate the X5, I can just sell it. With the rare option package, I don’t see how I can lose money.
X5: Hold my beer…
Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, was just released and is available on Amazon here. His other books, including his recent Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally-inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.