Giving The E39 Some Love (Part I)

Hack Mechanic E39 530i Stick Sport

It was mid-November, almost four months ago, when I saw the ad for the triple-unicorn 2004 X5 (six-speed, sport package, tow package), drove to see it, bought it on the spot, and basically abandoned what had been my daily driver: the 2003 E39 530i stick sport in my driveway. The rationale for buying the X5 was threefold: (1) I wanted something that, if necessary, I could tow with; (2) The idea of the household having a big all-wheel-drive vehicle over the winter was appealing, and (3) the E39 needed a round of work that I either had to prosecute or postpone, and if I postponed it much longer, I needed something to take its place. But rationale smashionale, really, it was mostly an impulse buy: I was attracted to the X5’s triple-unicorn nature. I drove it and kind of liked it. Despite its 270,000 miles, it was in extraordinarily good condition, and $3,300 seemed to buy me a winter vehicle that needed only a right lower control arm and a few window regulators.

Saying that I abandoned the E39 in my driveway isn’t far from the truth. While I would’ve preferred to keep both cars on the road, the E39 really did need work, and I didn’t want to pay to insure two daily drivers. I disconnected the E39’s battery and bought an inexpensive five-layer car cover. Although I used the attachment straps that pass beneath the car to secure the cover, they ripped during high winds. I wrapped bungies around the trunk and hood, but during another windy spell, the cover escaped those, too. Bereft of both cover and license plates, the car did feel abandoned in the driveway.

But so far, the swap of the E39 for the X5 has worked out well. Of course, I haven’t used it to tow anything yet (much to the chagrin of some of my more trouble-making readers), and it’s been such a mild winter in Boston that neither the X5’s all-wheel drive, the snow tires I bought for it, nor the honking snowblower that replaced the little anemic Honda have seen much use. But the main thing is that after I replaced the control arm and ignored the broken window regulators and simply left the windows up, the X5, despite its nosebleed mileage, has been turnkey (gosh, I hate to jinx it by saying that).

Driving-wise, as I’ve written, I like the X5 a lot, but I can’t say that I love it. The suspension is firm enough and the car is quick enough that it feels like a BMW; the six-speed is fun, and the sport seats are supportive, but I don’t like the feeling of bulk or the high seating position. The gas mileage averages below 20, and I can’t say that I look forward to driving it, which is unusual for me and a BMW. More than once, as I’ve jumped into the X5, I’ve looked at the E39 naked and shivering in the driveway and thought, “I do miss having you as my daily.”

This past week, it’s been unseasonably warm in Boston, with excursions into the 60s, so today I took it upon myself to start the E39, run it around the block, and refresh my knowledge of its needs. I checked the oil; it was a little low, so I topped it off. In doing so, I saw some milky sludge on the underside of the oil fill cap, and this brought me to Need #1: The age of the car’s crankcase ventilation valve (CVV) is unknown.

When I bought the car, it had a leak that I traced to a cracked CVV hose. At the time, to get the check- engine light to go out so that I could get the car inspected,  I put a metal sleeve inside the cracked hose and sealed things up with hose clamps, but clearly the CVV and its hoses need to be replaced.

It’s a classic sign of the CVV needing replacement.

I re-connected the battery, and with a twist of the key, the car started immediately—but then settled into a lumpy idle. Shortly after, the Service Engine light went on. This reminded me of need #2: An intermittent misfire from a bad coil will throw a code. The misfire will usually clear with a few restarts, and it did, but for the price of a $20 coil pack, I thought that I should just plug in the OBD II code-reader, see which cylinder is misfiring (it was Coil #5), and order the coil (done).

Need #3 is the fact that the pixel display has failed so badly that the warning message could say “A NEARBY NUCLEAR REACTOR IS MELTING DOWN SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY” and I wouldn’t be able to read it. This caused a problem the past few times I’d taken the car in to get it inspected, because the mileage is virtually unreadable. I did some research on repairing the pixel display and decided that I’d likely pull the cluster out and send it to one of the vendors that fixes it for about $120 rather than deal with either pulling the needles off the gauges or peeling up the gauge backing and drilling holes in the display face.

Vanna, can I buy a C?

I commenced a very short local drive. Even while backing the car up the driveway, I could feel the thunk-thunk-thunk of the deposits that often form on the brake rotors of a car that’s been sitting. Sometimes, driving and hard braking will wipe the deposits off, but this was just a run around the block, and an illegal one at that: The car was still unregistered. Furthermore, when I parked the car last fall, it had a shudder on braking. At that time, it hadn’t been sitting, the rotors had been recently replaced, and the vibration was a shudder, not a pulsation through the brake pedal, so I thought that it was more likely due to the car needing front control arms than the rotors being bad. At the time, I replaced both its lower control arms, since they’re easy to service, but left the upper ones intact. The shudder lessened, but did not go away—so Need #4 is to sort this out. I think that getting the car legal again, driving it further, and jacking it up and spinning the wheels individually and checking for the pads hitting high spots on the rotors should precede any parts purchase. Of course, it’s possible that at this point it needs rotors and control arms.

It’s possible that some or all the rotors need to be replaced.

Need #5 is the cooling system. I have no idea if or when it had been serviced. I could see the date stamp on the radiator, and it said 2003—it was the original radiator . Of course I could just continue doing what I’d been doing, which was not touching the cooling system and waiting for it to break.

It was four years ago that I’d bought the E39. I paid $1,500 for it, which was a very good deal, even considering that it had 183,000 miles on it, had sat for about two years, needed a battery and tires, had wheels on it that looked like they came from Pep Boys, and had the check engine-light on. But now, less-than-pristine high-mileage E39 530is, even sport-package cars, seem to have very little value. So I needed to accept the fact that if I dropped some coin and some time and gave the E39 some love, it was not to raise its value, but because I like it and do look forward to driving it regularly again.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, 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.

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