We’re going to take a break from the “Decapitating Louie” series, since I haven’t managed to get the head to a shop for the crack repair yet. Instead, I’m going to tell the story about the Sedona Red 2008 128i that’s sitting in my driveway.
As Austin Powers said, “Honestly, it’s not mine.”
Paul Muskopf, whom many of you know as one of CCA’s Technical Service Advisors, contacted me a few weeks ago and said that there was a well-priced high-mileage 128i for sale on Facebook Marketplace in Lynn, Massachusetts, maybe 45 minutes north of me, that he was interested in for his wife, Kerrie. I don’t really do formal pre-purchase inspections, particularly on newer cars that I have zero familiarity with; it’s time-consuming, and I don’t want the liability. Instead, if a car is something I’m intimately familiar with, like a 2002, I’ll do informal favors for people, which keeps it fun and keeps me largely off the hook if I miss something.
I was a bit leery about the 128i, as I know absolutely nothing about it or its N52 engine, and winter makes any inspection difficult. But Muskopf is special; he’s helped me out countless times when I’ve been stymied while troubleshooting Motronic issues. Plus, I’ll never forget when he and Brad Day looked at a very early 2002 for me years agoin Virginia, and saved me from buying a car that turned out to have a rotted frame rail.
Muskopf explained that really, as long as the 128i wasn’t spewing clouds of oil smoke, he wasn’t that worried about mechanical stuff; what he wanted most were eyes on its general condition, and to lnow whether there was any rust-bubbling from New England winters. I told him that I’d be glad to do it, that I’m available just about any time, and that he should just have the seller contact me.
The following morning, after a bit of phone tag, the seller and I settled on a time. I threw a Tyvek suit, a floor jack, jack stands, and an OBD-II code-reader into the trunk of my E39 and headed to Lynn.
The address the seller gave me turned out to be the parking lot of a hospital near his house. I staked out a space right out front where I could easily be found, but that part of the parking lot was sloped, and thus was unsafe for jacking. A few minutes later the Sedona Red 128i drove up. The seller and a passenger got out, and I was immediately greeted with the pungent scent of cannabis, both from them and the interior of the car. I laid out what I wanted to do in my role of remote looker: move the car to a flat area, jack it up, check for rust and major fluid leaks, drive the car, and then hook up my code reader and pull the codes. The seller was immediately put off, and in a response punctuated by addressing me as “bro” so often that I was reminded of Seth Meyers spoofing Boston accents, he told me that he didn’t want people wasting his time.
As if on cue, his phone rang, and it was someone else calling about the car (it was very well priced).
I offered that it might not even be possible for me to get a jack under the car, so why not let me take a minute and suss that out? The seller settled down a bit. I zipped on the Tyvek, deployed the aluminum floor jack, and discovered that, indeed, the reach of the jack wasn’t enough to access the jacking point under the engine, and the front two jack pads under the rocker panels were missing, so no jacking was going to happen. With my clothing sheathed in Tyvek, I literally crawled around in the white salt that was encrusting the asphalt of the hospital parking lot, getting next to and as far under the car as I could without a jack. The exposed metal components like the exhaust and rear trailing arms certainly had surface corrosion, but the car itself didn’t look at all rusty.
I then gave the car a once-over. The Sedona Red paint was pretty and shiny, free of any obvious dents or scratches except for some peeling clear coat on the front bumper cover. The seams were straight. The interior didn’t at all look like it had almost 240,000 miles. The only downside was the overpowering smell of cannabis.
The seller said that I could drive the car around the hospital parking lot. I asked, “Why? Is it not registered and insured?” He insisted that it was, and muttered something about other people wanting to see it and not having a lot of time. Rather than get into an argument over it, I basically ignored him and headed for the street, driving less than a mile before making a U-turn. The “service engine soon,” brake warning light, and ABS lights were blazing, but the car ran perfectly fine: smooth idle, plenty of power, no obvious thunks or clunks, brakes not screeching or pulling. The seller said that he thought that it was out of alignment and might need a tie rod, but I didn’t feel anything amiss on my short drive. I returned to the parking lot and connected my OBD-II code reader to see if I could pull the codes and find out what triggered the check-engine light, but for reasons unclear, it wouldn’t connect.
I said, “Okay, give me a few minutes; let me go into my car and relay all this to Paul, and then my role here will be finished, and you and he can have whatever conversation you’re going to have.” This set off a disconnect whereby the seller realized that I was there only to look at the car and wasn’t going to actually hand him a wad of cash on the spot. He again complained about people wasting his time.
From the privacy of my car I called Muskopf, and told him that the car presented itself well and drove fine, but the seller was young, headstrong, and a little sketchy. I asked if there was anything else he needed me to check while I was still there. He reiterated that he could deal with anything mechanical, and mainly wanted to make sure that rust wasn’t exploding everywhere. He said that he wanted the car and would call the seller, negotiate a price, buy it, and wire him the money.
I got back out of my car, knocked on the 128i’s window, weathered another blast of reefer-soaked air, and repeated what Muskopf had said. I expected the seller to be happy at the good news, but instead he shook his head. “That’s not going to work, bro,” he said. “I want to buy a plow truck before it snows again, and I need the cash now.”
I called Muskopf back, repeating the guy’s response and offering, “You’re sure you don’t need me to run to the bank and transact this thing for you?” He laughed and said that he had a couple of different cash apps and was sure that he and the seller could work it out. I relayed that to the frustrated-sounding, dejected-looking seller, and headed home, thinking, “My work here is done.”
When I arrived home, I found a message from Muskopf saying, “So… you know that offer you made to be the cash intermediary?”
We spoke on the phone, and Muskopf offered to wire me the money if I could run back up to Lynn with the cash. I said that was fine, and that I had space for the car in my driveway if need be. A few minutes later he messaged me, saying, “I also need to ask if you can pick up the car. I know this means corralling another driver.”
This time, I was the one essentially saying, “That’s not going to work, bro.” I explained that the older I get, the more risk-averse I am regarding buying cars and getting them home by pulling the plate off of one of my other cars and slapping it on, particularly in a situation like this where I’m not even the buyer (e.g., all the risk, none of the reward). [Note: The laws for this gray area between purchase and registration vary state-to-state, but I doubt that there’s any state where if the person driving the car home after the sale is not the new owner, and gets into an accident, the result is not a colossal expensive mess.]
“Tell you what,” I said to Muskopf. “Call the kid and tell him that if he delivers the car, title, and keys to me in Newton, I’ll hand him the cash, and that this can happen today. If he says yes, I’ll run to the bank right now.”
To my surprise, that’s exactly what happened. It was clear that the seller suddenly realized that the two old guys who an hour ago weren’t moving quickly enough for him were the people who were actually capable of following through and doing what they said, in sharp contrast with all the no-shows and the low-ballers that anyone selling a car on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace has to deal with. With three concise shared texts (one of which was my actual photo of the cash after running to the bank), all parties agreed that this would happen like right now, capped with our calling an Uber to get the seller home to Lynn.
An hour later, the seller and the 128i were in my driveway. Gone were the attitude and the frustration, and in their place were gratitude and graciousness. All remote transactions should occur this swiftly, decisively, and efficiently. (For the record, no, I don’t offer this as a general service, but BMW guy Ben Thongsai did something very similar for me when he looked at my Lotus Europa when it was for sale not far from him in Chicago in 2013. It’s a great big pay-it-forward world.)
The next day, Muskopf asked me if I could have another try at pulling the codes so that he could know whether or not he needed to bring parts when he came up from Virginia to pick up the car. I again tried my OBD-II scanner, and it again did not connect. I tried my ancient copy of PA Soft V1.40 and its OBD-II USB dongle connected to my equally ancient WinXP tablet, and to my surprise, it didn’t connect, either. I wondered whether one of the signals or pins on the OBD-II connector itself was damaged.
I shot a message to local BMW coding guy Sam Aleksanyan. I don’t know Aleksanyan well, but he runs a coding and flashing-related side business, and in an odd quadrangle of events—him buying an X5 stick like the one I had, advising me when I pinched a wire reinstalling the Z3’s transmission and caused a no-start condition, coincidentally knowing my son Ethan and running into him at an open mic during that brief period in April when such things reopened—make him enough of an acquaintance that the request seemed reasonable.
Aleksanyan said that he’d be glad to stop by with his laptop with BMW ITSA software on it. He pulled the codes. They were a few misfires, a bad wheel-speed sensor, and some codes that implicated the footwell module. In addition, both he and I noticed that when we ran the car, there was an oil-burning smell from the engine compartment, indicating the likely need for a valve-cover gasket. I relayed all this to Muskopf, and richly rewarded Aleksanyan with pizza.
So the cheerful-looking little Sedona Red 128i is currently sitting in my driveway, waiting for Muskopf to thread the needle with the weather, take the train up from Charlottesville, and drive the car back. And while it’s here, I keep looking at it.
The lines of the 1 Series never really did a lot for me; the car always struck me as oddly proportioned. But I’ll admit that with the model bloat that seems to affect all cars (e.g., the 3 Series became the size that the 5 Series used to be, so BMW had to introduce the 1 Series to have a car the size that the 3 Series used to be), and with the 1 Series being BMW’s last small rear-wheel-drive sedan, I now view it in a different light, and it’s growing on me. And the car looks great in this color. I may even have executed a search or two for 1 Series cars myself. If this one were a six-speed instead of an automatic, I might be tempted by the dark side, say, “Screw pay-it-forward,” sign my name on the title, and reverse Muskopf’s wire transfer (just kidding).
I hope that the weather will cooperate enough to allow me, when Muskopf gets here, to pull the 3.0CSi out and the 128i in so that we can change the valve-cover gasket and swap a few stick coils without freezing our digits off. In the meantime, in an attempt to lessen the cannabis smell, I’m leaving the windows down when the weather’s good, and rolling them up and running my ozone generator when it’s not.
But if I begin addressing people as “bro,” I may require an intervention.—Rob Siegel