Here’s some free advice: There’s nothing more expensive than a cheap German car. There’s a reason why that advice is free, though. It sucks. Any older car can be problematic and any car, from any company or region, can be expensive to repair. Here’s some better advice: There’s nothing more expensive than a car you bought thoughtlessly. I’ve thought a lot about this 2003 BMW 530i with the five-speed and the sport package. Yeah, it has traveled almost the distance from the Earth to the Moon, but that doesn’t faze me.
Am I tempting the automotive gods here? Absolutely. That’s the point of this car. It might turn out to be a super dumb purchase and I may be eating my words as well as drawing down my kid’s college fund. It also might be the single greatest purchase I’ve ever made.
How I Got It
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the search for the perfect cheap/fun car on Facebook Marketplace was slowly causing me to lose my mind. At that point I kind of gave up trying to find my next project car. Here’s what I wrote:
I love having oddball cars, but I tend to assume the universe will bring them to me as they’ve always done. One day a few years ago I was bored and on the Internet and decided to look and see what Volvo 240s were going for on eBay and, magically, I had a Volvo wagon in my driveway a week later. Not long after I acquired the Volvo a Greek clubowner friend-of-a-friend needed to stash a ’60s Mercedes sedan and that, too, ended up in my care (a friend of Alex Roy, of course, which is also how I ended up with a Tesla Model 3 for a bit). How does one become a Merkur owner? Unintentionally.
Not long after I posted the story I got this message, from reader Chris:
I just read your story about the fruitlessness of Facebook marketplace and think I may have a car to save your sanity. It’s not as quirky as a Saab but at least it has a manual.
I have a 2003 BMW 530i with 235k miles. I’ve owned it for the last 12 years, primarily while living in Georgia and California but I now live in Philadelphia. I bought it from Texas with 108k miles. It’s now my 3rd car and I’ve been meaning to sell it but haven’t been motivated to get rid of it until I read your article and thought you might like it. It runs great, no check engine light, jut got an oil/filter change last month, new coils and plugs 2,000 miles ago, stacks of maintenance records and a clean title. The attached pictures are from this summer when I first considered selling it. Someone had hit it while parked, I’ve since completely replaced the rear passenger door. I can take new pics but the weather is miserable right now.
Happy to share more info if you’re interested.
Thanks for all the work you’ve done at Jalopnik and now The Autopian.
The universe had spoken! I’ll admit to some initial hesitancy. I love E39s, but have only driven the Alex Roy Cannonball Run M5. Driving his car was a great experience for the first thirty minutes and then it decided to die on me. Some would consider this an omen. Not me. I’m an optimist and, besides, most of my Alex Roy experiences result in a car breaking, an entire film crew getting arrested on the Oregon Trail, or Alex going out for a three-minute drive around the block in a Peugeot 405 mi16 and just disappearing in Eastern France for a while.
With the help of our own Thomas (an old BMW expert) [Editor’s Note: That’s giving me way too much credit. – TH] and a few other friends in the community, I worked out an agreement with Chris ($3,000 delivered) and he brought the car up from Philly yesterday and I’m just counting the days until I can put some real miles on it.
Why I Felt Comfortable Making This Decision
When you’re buying a new car you’re mostly thinking about what you need and what you want. When you’re buying a used car it should be the opposite: What does your car need and what does your car want? After a lot of emailing and texting with Chris and consulting with friends I got the sense that this BMW didn’t need much immediately and mostly wanted someone to keep giving it the love and attention that it had gotten from Chris.
Part of the used car process is sizing up the person selling you a car. I won’t buy a car without knowing its story. Who is selling it? Why? How’d they get it? Chris bought the car with just 108,000 miles on it and managed to more than double the range. He’d read Alex’s book, actually, and knew he wanted an E39. An M5 was a little expensive for him so he decided on the 530i with the slightly more powerful BMW inline-six, sport package, and five-speed transmission.
[Editor’s Note: The sport package on E39 530is adds a wonderful set of sport seats with adjustable thigh support, blacked-out Shadowline window trims, M-Technic sports suspension, a lovely M-Technic three-spoke steering wheel, and 17-inch two-piece alloy wheels. It’s a pretty sweet option pack that’s definitely worth seeking out. – TH]
In the years since buying the car he’s driven it across the country multiple times and kept detailed records of every step of the car’s life. Seriously, look at the spreadsheets:
He even noted when the distance from the Earth to the Moon will be reached! There’s a good first goal. Chris was extremely clear with all the bits that had been addressed on the car as well as the little quirks. I don’t know Chris, of course, but I got good vibes and everything he said made sense. Thomas also pointed out that a higher mileage German car is less suspect than a low mileage one because you know someone had to be taking care of it.
As for the car, the 3.0-liter M54B30 straight-six is well known to be robust and the addition of a manual transmission means that there’s no big surprise automatic rebuild in my future. Bill Caswell, who knows more about BMWs than I know about the history of the Berlin Airlift (and I know a lot), thinks of E39s as Legos. “Just replace the pieces as you go,” was his advice.
What It’s Like
When Chris pulled up to my place yesterday I was delighted to see the Sterling Gray Metallic BMW looked just as good as it did in photos. There were a few scratches here and there, the nose is heavily pocked from more than 200,000 miles of road debris, and the headlights are in need of a refresh. If anything, the imperfections took a little pressure off the car. Chris spent so much time loving this car I’d have felt bad if it ended up being perfect.
There are a couple of awkward moments once we got into the car, however. The first was probably my fault. Chris installed a DICE media bridge that allows the E39’s older system to connect an iPhone and even display songs on the little media display. There’s a small cubby ahead of the armrest that contains the necessary cords for this system and, trying to close it, I immediately broke the brittle plastic cover. Oops. The car went 230,000 miles and couldn’t survive five minutes in my care.
Chris immediately froze up when this happened and I had to assure him that it wasn’t his fault and I didn’t care. It was something to fix and it in no way impacted the usability of the car.
The second issue was totally his fault, though. In the email he noted that the headliner was sagging on both sides where the fabric met the front window. Sitting in the car I couldn’t identify either sag and so he pulled down the passenger side visor to show me and the whole thing drooped maybe an inch. I laughed. Maybe too much. I could barely even photography the sag it was so minor.
Other than the predictable blemishes from years of use and a needed engine detail, this thing was nice. Just look at the tool kit! That tool kit is nicer than anything David owns.
Driving the car to the bank (heads up, Zelle will only let you send $500 to someone if you’ve never sent them money before) I knew I made the right decision. The car felt great. Everyone says these cars just feel right and this one feels right. The six is as smooth as everyone says, and the 228 horsepower and 221 lb.-ft. of torque felt more than adequate. This one’s equipped with the sport package so it hunkers down a little lower than a standard E39. This is a vast improvement in feel over my tall Forester.
Thomas suggested I swap over for a short-shift kit given that the throws, like the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, tend to run a little long. Maybe it’s just me, but I like the longer throws and I liked “Punch Drive Love.”
[Editor’s Note: While an E60 545i shift lever and a ZHP shift knob definitely shorten throws, their big benefit is taking much of the rubberiness out of the shifter in a cost-effective manner while using OEM parts. Think slick but not really notchy. -TH]
There’s a lot more to say about the car and I’ve got a big comparison with our man Gossin coming up, but I thought I’d let everyone know that I own a BMW with more than 200,000 miles and all I feel is happy.
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You got a good one, nice snag.
The German car “tax” is really overrated. Good luck, don’t die.
Love these cars! Probably the best non-M trim of the E39. Looks great.
So… even before the deal was done, something broke on you.
And so, it begins…