A post on Jalopnik today jogged my memory about an experience I had owning a BMW. Below, you’ll find an updated version of a tale I spun many moons ago over on 502streetscene.com. Enjoy.
Once upon a time, I bought a BMW. 1999 540i with the manual six speed transmission. I thought I’d made it. I had a BMW. A desirable one. The Benchmark for a four door sports sedan. I thought I’d stolen it. Paid nine grand for it, and after replacing the clutch and the tires, I was cruising.
To this day, I still remember how well it drove. How you could drive it all day and not be tired because the seats were just that good. The stereo was shit until I replaced the speakers, but everything else about the car was amazing.
Then it all went downhill.
Rist off, it started idling like crap. The intake re-seal had to be done. It’s a typical item item, not a big deal. That was expected when I bought it. Knocked the job out in a weekend. No biggie, but the sheer number of fasteners and the low quality of the gaskets that crumbled to dust after just 100,000 miles was disappointing. Ford used much higher quality gaskets on my then-wife’s Sable. They were still nice and bendy at 110K when I replaced them.
Then I started getting Digital Throttle Control codes, and eventually it went to failsafe and wouldn’t move. Both TPS sensors in the throttlebody were fried. Root cause? The electrical connector on the computer-controlled thermostat leaked, and coolant wicked up the wires all the way back to the DME and shorted out a bunch of shit. Cost to repair that was a $300 throttle body, a $180 thermostat, a few connectors spliced into the wiring harness to stop water if it leaked again, and oh, I had to tear the top of the motor off and do the intake manifold re-seal all over again. Oh, and corrosion from the coolant shorted a pin that ran the secondary air injection pump to the #1 TPS… inside the DME. That meant unplugging the secondary air injection system, which is an emissions component, which means the car could no longer be registered anywhere that has emissions testing without a DME replacement.
Then the shitty plastic snap-on connectors they use on the radiator hoses failed catastrophically and without warning, dumping all my coolant out on the road in J-Town. Normally a cooling system failure is preceded by a leak. Not on a BMW. That shit just explodes.
THEN the real fun began. One day I start the car and it’s making this high pitch squeal. It’s coming from the driver side valve cover. Pull the valve cover, and there are chunks of what turned out to be timing chain guide all over the inside of the engine. BMW uses a very brittle and cheap plastic on the timing chain guides. If the tensioner isn’t replaced at the proper interval, the chain goes slack, beats the guides, and they crumble.
The kicker? There’s no replacement interval for the tensioner in ANY of the BMW service literature or the owner’s manual, which means most of these cars are running around with slack tensioners. From reading other peoples’ experiences on bimmerforums, the tensioner should be changed about every 50K miles or so.
But alas, it wasn’t on mine. Replacing the chain guides is a 23 hour job according to the book. It requires over a thousand dollars in special tools to block the cams and the crankshaft at TDC so nothing moves while you have the chain off, you have to tear the engine down to the bare longblock, and the car must be re-timed and the adaptations in the computer cleared or it’ll run like shit when you put it back together. The crank bolt must be torqued to 100ft-lb, then turned another 150 degrees in three more steps. I borrowed a torque wrench that did torque angle. It quit when I hit 500ft-lb on the bolt, and I was only halfway through the second tightening.
I did the guide replacement myself and then had it towed to Stein for them to re-time it. That lopped 15 hours off the bill, and it was still three grand.
Oh, and I spent an hour with a set of needle nose pliers pulling chunks of chain guide out of the oil pickup. Had that stray piece not gotten jammed in the right spot and made the noise and alerted me to the problem, I’d have never known, and the pickup would have eventually been completely blocked and the engine would have been oil starved and completely ruined.
Oh, and behind the chain guides is an oil separator. It’s made of brittle plastic and will break as soon as you touch it. Once it breaks, the car smokes like a freight train. Replacing it requires tearing the entire engine down again, because it’s behind the damn timing chain.
So, I got all that fixed. Car was running great… for a week. Then the steering interlock broke, immobilizing the car. Towed back to Stein, they had it two weeks waiting for the interlock, new keys, and a new ECS module. $600 more.
I put it up for sale right after that. In a single year, the car had cost me $7500 in parts and labor, $2000 in depreciation, used up all of my tows on my AAA membership, and was actually in-service for just 10 of the thirteen months I owned it.
I added it up after I sold it. I literally would have been cheaper for me to walk down to the BMW dealership and lease a BRAND NEW 550i than it was for me to own that E39 for a year. Literally. Lump together purchase price, parts, labor, and depreciation and divide by 12 and I could have driven a brand new car instead. Maddening.
As for doing the work yourself, a good friend once told me that a BMW owner needs but two tools: a cell phone and a checkbook. I used PTO to take many days off work to fix that damn car.
The only good thing, maintenance wise, about that car is changing the oil. With the canister filter and easy-to-reach drain, I didn’t even have to jack the thing up. Fifteen minute job… of course, by the time you buy the $30 filter kit and eight quarts of the $7.99 Mobil1 or Castrol Euro formula BMW LL certified oil, you have an $90 DIY oil change on your hands.
Like I said, I LOVED that car when it ran, I really did, but it made me pay for the pleasure.