Contrary to any popular wisdom about cheap, high mileage German cars, I rolled the dice and bought a 234,000 mile, 2003 BMW 530i completely sight unseen. I’ve now had the opportunity to drive the car for a month and I’m absolutely floored with how much I got for my measly three stacks. Cars are wonderful!
As a reminder, a couple of months ago I wrote a post complaining about how much I’d been put off by the used car buying process on Facebook Marketplace. Essentially, I gave up on trying to find a car and put it to the universe to bring me a car. Thankfully, Chris, an Autopian member and super nice guy, had the solution: I should buy his car. This wasn’t the first time a reader has offered a vehicle to me, but it’s the first time I’ve said yes.
Here’s what I got for $3,000.
The E39 BMW 530i Sport is the sweet spot
The E39 is a fabled sedan. It starred in Guy Ritchie’s BMW Films short “Star,” alongside Clive Owen and Madonna. It takes a lot of car to outshine Madonna, even if it was the height of her weird English accent phase, but I’d argue the car wins the day.
In the short film, the E39 in question is the top-of-the-line M5 trim with the torquey V8. I did not get that car. I also did not get the entry-level 525 or 528i (Mercedes got one of those, and it’s also excellent, no disrespect). I got the 530i with the Sport Package, which pairs BMW’s famous M54 inline-six with a five-speed manual.
According to the brochure I got from my buddy Joel for my birthday, this engine provides 225 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque at just 3,500 RPM. With the five-speed, my car is supposed to hustle to 60 mph in just 6.8 seconds.
The sport package also provides two-piece 17-inch wheels, an M-Technic sport suspension (which gives it the lower profile), a great M steering wheel, and leather sport seats. Given my history of Volvo 240s and Merkur XR4Tis, this might be the most horsepower of any car I’ve ever owned?
Similar to the GTS spec on the last few generations of 911s and Boxsters, the 530i with the sport package is for the person who wants the perfect balance of power, refinement, and understated grace. It’s also, allegedly, much more reliable than the V8 in the 540i and M5.
All the details are incredible
Chris, the prior owner, took exceptional care of the car. He gave me a stack of records and people are shocked when they see the interior. It’s not perfect, but this car has almost been to the moon? Yup! Check out this little guide for how to add three golf bags. I don’t plan on using this feature because, like Ben Affleck, I also think that golf and meth use are pretty similar.
I have been reliably informed that the two-piece wheels on the E39 are worth anywhere between $1,200 and $1,900, depending on condition and how much effort I want to put into cleaning and marketing them. This means that, if the worst happens, I can probably get back as much as half of the money I put into the car back so long as the wheels hold up.
The last owner was superstitious about the sunroof and no longer opened it, so I probably won’t either, but most of the buttons work. They also feel chunky and good. Every bit of this car feels extremely well built.
My buddy, who drives more different cars than almost anyone on Earth, held onto the car for a couple of weeks while I was on trips and was impressed by it. When I asked what he thought, he just opened the door and shut it. It made a reliable, deeply teutonic thump. You could almost hear the German national anthem play in that one moment.
There’s even a fancy modification to the car that allows me to play my iPhone through the stereo system and it tells me what song I’m listening to on the little display in the dash. I’m not sure I’ll ever need more than this, frankly.
I keep finding little decals and guides in this car and they’re perfectly late 20th century. I’m not removing a damn one of them.
How My $3,000 Car Drives
The suspension on these cars is legendary. It is the standard by which all other sports sedans should be judged (allegedly, the Lucid Air was benchmarked against the E39 by its designers). I’ve only been able to put a few hundred miles on the car since getting it because, well, I also bought an old Mercedes wagon for the site, but in the driving I’ve been able to do it’s a reminder of how great cars can be.
Modern cars can feel good, of course, and some do. Few modern cars, however, feel like an E39. Around town it practically floats from street to street, even with the sport suspension. When the road gets the least bit twisty it comes alive. My suspension has more than 230,000 miles on it and there are definitely some parts due for replacement. Yet, somehow, it still precisely communicates what’s happening on the road to me through the seat and steering wheel. It’s not the soft whisper of modern electric sedans or the blistering yell of ragged-edge supercars. It’s a confident, Michael Caine-esque voice saying “You’ve got plenty of grip left, sir, steady on.”
And it has a stick! An honest-to-goodness five-speed transmission. There’s a little halo of sunshine in this photo and I’m not photoshopping it out, because that’s exactly how I feel about it. The clutch feels perfect. It’s like the car was built around my legs.
The actual shifter action, though, leaves something to be desired. This isn’t particular to this car, as all 530i and 528i owners complain about a plastick-y feel. There are plenty of kits to address this and maybe I’ll do it, but for now it works so I’m not going to change it.
Power delivery is smooth with a gentle wafting of torque as I depress the accelerator. An inline-six is a great engine configuration, so I get why they’re having a comeback. This is exactly the opposite of the buzzy, high-revving 2.0-liter turbo fours we’ve all become accustomed to lately. There’s a place for those engines (this engine would feel out of place in a Civic Type R), but the pairing here is heavenly.
I also feel entirely safe putting a car seat in the vehicle with my daughter. She loves the “fancy” BMW and is excited when I can pick her up in it.
It’s Not Perfect, Of Course
Chris took the car to a full-service cleaner and got it washed and waxed, but it needs a good detail. The engine bay, in particular, looks like it’s in a car with 234,000 miles on the clock. I’ll probably look to Thomas for some advice on what to do first. I also have to either replace the headlight covers or try to restore them.
There’s one row of pixels missing from the center stack display and it’s stuck in a mode where it “echoes” all the sound. This is, apparently, to make it sound like I’m in a musical venue. This is cool if you’re listening to Blur’s “Song 2.” It’s hilarious and awful if you’re listening to a podcast. I know the button is in there somewhere, but I have to either fix this or ask for help to turn this feature off full-time.
When I was at FCP Euro working on Ski-Klasse I picked up the license plate bracket for the front because I don’t love the on-the-dash look. I just need to get some matching paint and put it together.
Driving it on the highway, over 65 mph, it’s clear something in the rear suspension is not up to spec (probably some bushings), because it starts to rear-wheel-steer like a Galant VR4. The rear brakes, too, probably need to be replaced. I guess I should get some new rubber, and I’m tempted to toss on some cheaper wheels so they don’t get damaged around here, but they look so good! I can’t decide. There’s also a bit of a power steering whine that makes me think something’s going to have to be fixed there sooner rather than later.
Finally, the A/C and heat work (I can feel hot and cold), but the blower motor takes about 20 minutes to turn on for some reason? The Internet says it may be the blower motor resistor, which is only about $57 to replace. The good news is, my buddies at FCP Euro have invited me back to meet their E39 expert, and we’ll do a whole walkaround and a whole post about what’s actually wrong with the car. My estimate is it’s about a day of wrenching and $1,000-$1,200 to get it up to a reasonable spec before tires.
Again, This Was Only $3,000
Matt Farah does a thing about how a car isn’t a “$40,000 driving experience” or a “$500,000” driving experience to make people consider if it’s really worth spending $96k on a Contour SVT. Is my car a $3,000 driving experience? Absolutely. It’s not perfect, but so long as I drop a quart of oil into it every 1,000 miles, there are no huge red flags that make me think (knock on wood) it’s going to spontaneously blow up on me.
My goal is to add another 70,000 miles on it and crest 300,000 miles, all without spending much more than what I paid for the car on it. Let’s see how it goes.
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I Bought A 20-Year Old BMW With 234,000 Miles On It To Prove The Haters Wrong
I Bought This Stately BMW E39 5 Series From Our Secret Designer For $1500 And It’s A Heck Of A Deal
Here’s Everything Wrong With Our $4,500 Mercedes E-Class Wagon: Project Ski-Klasse
All photos the author
I love my 190E because of the build quality of the Germans up until some time in the early 2000’s. The doors are like shutting the door of a bank vault. Any German engine I can think of that has inline cylinders a reliable. I wouldn’t buy anything past probably around 2008. I’ve probably had well over 60 vehicles, and the best have been the ones with tried and true engines and transmissions… With the exception of two. I had a 1st Gen Miata, and a 1st Gen Fusion Hybrid. Both cars were over engineered or something. Good article. Thanks!
Yep, I purchased a 2002 X5 3.0 for $2,000 with over 200,000 miles on it and this thing runs beautifully. Yeah I replaced a few things that I felt were necessary, most I did myself and it proves taking good care of these autos will treat you very good.
Amazing buy!! I own a 03 E39, Blue Water in color!! Owned it since 04. It has about 144 miles and run great. No major problems outside of regular maintenance. If you can, stick with the dealer unless you really great at repairs. I owe the longevity to regular maintenance and dealer service. Drive the car. BMWs that sit and sleep, don’t wake up well. When they sit, mechanical issues occur. Great purchase!!! I purchase alot of my cosmetics fpr the interior from Ebay and mechanical from BMW parts direct. Parts are 30-40% cheaper than the dealer. Normally the dealer will match the price. I think they order from there as well. Good luck. ????????
So very nice. Nice job. Its nearly time to replace our Subaru Outback. The two contenders are a BMW X5 (with 7 seat option) or a Volvo XC90. I love the look of the Volvo, especially the interior, but the idea of having an I6 back in my life makes the BMW so enticing, your comment about an I6 just being so perfect, is so true.
Love that powertrain. Can’t wait for it to warm up so I can go drive my e46!
I see those wheels (Style 42 by the way) for $600 all day long on Facebook Marketplace.
The “German National Anthem” does not play when you close the door of a BMW. This does: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b80Jw8MuZxo
I had three E39s from new…a 528i, 540i and M5, all stick shifts. They were just superb cars, and only had one fault on the 540 (transmission issue, gearbox replaced under warranty. I did a lot of long distance trips in them. One option I really liked was seats that were articulated on there setback so you could curve the seat around you a little bit.
Glad you are enjoying it.
I later went to a 645ci which I specified with a rare manual, and finally an M6. V10 with a nasty transmission. My final BMW. I wanted a manual in that car, and last year I came across one (V10 manual). I had never heard of one but they were available late in the run.
Very sorry to have missed that!
Has the CCV system been replaced recently? As it wears out, it can lead to increased oil consumption and vacuum leaks. Might be worth looking at that, I’ve replaced that system on several BMW’s with the M54 and it’s decreased oil consumption by a fair bit.
As for the sound system, you’ll need go into the DSP settings and disable the processing, that’ll fix the echo. Pretty sure you just have to click the “DSP” button on the head unit and it’ll take you there.
The rear steer is likely due to a combination of worn rear control arms, worn rear lower ball joints, and/or the alignment settings. Having worked on close to a hundred E39’s in my time running a BMW shop, that’s what is causing your “rear steer” feeling. The rear multi-link suspension is amazing, but it does feel like crap when it wears out. That and a lot of alignment shops are lazy and don’t adjust the rear end correctly because it’s kind of a nuisance— that’s also the reason that E39’s and many other modern BMW’s wear out rear tires on the insides… it’s not the factory camber settings as people like to complain about, it’s the rear toe.
For the shifter, I’d recommend replacing all of the bushings in the shift linkage, those can develop quite a bit of slop over the years and lead to a crappy feel. Along with that, get rid of the wooden shift knob, they feel very rubbery. My favorite mod to BMW’s of this era is the “ZHP” knob; it’s shorter, weighted, and just feels much more solid. You don’t even need a short shifter once you install that knob, it’s a lifehack to getting significantly improved shift quality in a BMW.
Good advice. I had issues getting my E39 and E38 aligned, I believe the factory procedure requires weights put in certain seats of the car so the suspension is loaded correctly. Most places didn’t want to bother.
The ZHP knob is a great upgrade. Just watch out for the appropriately named “b1tch clip” when doing the shifter bushings. Impossible to see and hard to reach/remove but definitely worth it to get that factory shift feel back.
The weights are part of it, the other part of it is that the toe adjustment is done on one of the upper arms and accessing the eccentric bolt is an absolute pain with the car on an alignment rack. BMW makes a special wrench for it, it’s got like 3 zigzags in it. Most alignment shops look at that, say “screw it,” and just crank the easily accessible camber adjustment bolt until the specs are “good enough.”
It’s funny that people still call it the b*tch clip, I’ve never really had any issues removing it. I guess it’s a lot harder to do when you’re on your back, I’ve had the luxury of doing it one a lift at my shop where everything is seemingly “easy.”
Love the car! I owned an 01 330i sedan with the 5 speed, put something like 150k miles on it. It is still my favorite car i have ever had. I remember the 1k mile/1 quart of oil need well, too.
Check the underhood plastics, as the coolant expansion tank (which is pressurized) is plastic, they eventually pop.
As for the shifter, the best upgrade i made on my 330 was the “ZHP shift knob”. It is slightly shorter, weighted, and leather wrapped. Believe it or not, it made a huge difference is shifting feel. I don’t think it cost more than $40 or $50.
I look forward to seeing more on your BMW, so i can relive BMW ownership vicariously!
I can attest to the quality of the ZHP knob.
SO if you change the oil at 5K, do you actually change it, or just change the filter. it would seem that most of the oil in the car at that point is fairly new.
Not so much changing the oil as it is emptying the metal fragments container…better out than in!
Good question. Haven’t gotten that far.
In 2019 I bought a 1 owner 2002 BMW 325Ci 5 speed with 155K and dailied it until 2022 and 188K. It had dealer service records for its entire life and was $3,600. In the 3 years I owned it I put on about $3,200 in parts plus a set of tires. Control arms, shocks and struts, motor mounts, valve cover gasket, VANOS rebuild, crankcase vent system, fuel pump and more. It also used a quart of oil ever ~1K miles.
I sold it for $4,500 and it was one of the funnest cars I’ve owned.
I’m really enjoying my new used e39 and I’m very interested in future articles about yours.
The I6 has to be the best choice. The V8 in mine isn’t a powerhouse by any modern measure and comes with a lot of baggage. The timing chains already rattle but I’m planning a LS swap this summer.
Regarding your radio, have you seen this?
It’s a full modern Android based car stereo that was specifically made to match the e39 interior. It even has buttons! That match the HVAC controls! Every other one I’ve seen replaces the entire center of the dash with a plain flat piece of plastic and screams “Pep Boys”.
I wonder if anyone has tried this. I’d be curious.
I ordered one and it’ll be here Friday. I can tell you all about it once I get it in.
All the pixels work in my old center display and I’d send it to you if you wanted it.
The instrument cluster display, however is about 75% dead. I probably should have sent that out for repair before buying a new stereo, but.. priorities… I can’t even see the actual mileage. The seller told me it had 245k and I had to take his word for it.
Easy to check mileage with a cheap OBD2 reader.
Check out M539 Restorations on Youtube. He is working on a 530I Touring right now, and much of what he is doing applies to your car, including an OEM plus brake upgrade.
Also, get ready, because making this one righr will cost you: OEM parts are the way to fly here, except where they can be improved. These are great cars when they are right.
Thank you! I’ll check him out.
For he radio display you can send it out to get repaired with a lifetime warranty
I used them for my 525i 3 years ago and it has been flawless. It is also super easy to remove and does not require the dashboard to come out. Just pull off the volume knob, and stick a (4mm?) hex key in the exposed hole. 1/4 turn and the who display can be pulled out, hinging on the right side. 1 minute operation.
E39s have been “on my radar” for a long, loooong time.
I’ve still never pulled the trigger on one. Instead, I’m on my third E36… Whoops.
“It’s the best car I’ve ever purchased.” Not sure if this is praise for the BMW or an indictment on the other cars you’ve purchased.
Overall, looks like a good deal, but 1 quart/1000 miles would worry me.
I got a total creampuff 525i E39 from a family friend. Car only had 65k miles on it when I bought it. Initially purchased by the family friend to be a sales vehicle – only driven in Michigan when there wasn’t snow on the ground. He was a medical supplies sales rep, after a few years and 65k on his BMW, the company he worked for got him a Toyota Sienna as a company car, He bought a 3 series wagon a year later because it was easier to handle their two large dogs, and the 5 series sat in storage. In 2020 he bought a new Audi All-Road and needed to make space. He remembered how much I loved this car as a kid and sold it to me for $1600. I drive it on nice days – put a set of M-sport wheels on it and it has about 71k miles now.
It needed a new fuel pump and a battery after sitting so long, but thankfully the e39 is the easiest fuel pump change in the universe. The only downside is that the car is a base 525i with an automatic, but its utterly perfect in every other way.
I worked for the company that made a lot of the original suspension components for the E39, and I remember talking to the old German head of product development, when discussing the then upcoming G30 5’er – he said, I don’t know why they try, they’ll never make a chassis better than the E39. Honestly that’s kind of how I feel too.
As someone who has considered buying a comparable S430, I’m watching this process carefully. I’m hoping Matt has an opportunity to put some serious mileage on this thing, to see if those Teutonic gremlins start doing their thing. Can it survive the super slab on a 16-hour, 1,000-mile stint?
The Teutonic gremlins are directly proportional to the care and attention of the previous owners – they make you pay for the sins of the PO, it’s misplaced aggression.
That’s so true. I looked at an S550 with 200k and a stack of receipts 6 inches tall from a local German mechanic with a good reputation (named “Manfred”, for gosh sake). It was essentially perfect, and was worth the 4 grand asking price all day. But I got the willies after pricing some parts that were likely candidates for replacement.
What I’ll say about the 00’s BMW vs Daimler debate is that generally – and I’m speaking in broad strokes here BMWs tend to have mechanical failures – cooling system, suspension parts that wear, and limited electrical faults – usually ancillary systems or annoyances. I’ll do mechanical work all day, but the electronics of a modern car skeeve me out – where as with Daimler, mechanically very sound, but electrically they’re my nightmare.
Hear, hear. I really don’t think old German cars are any more or less reliable than other cars. More complicated, maybe. But serviceable? Not actually impossible or bank-breaking to work on? Yeah.
These are right in the sweet spot of “modern enough to daily” and “old enough to be simple, fun, analog and easy to fix.” Well bought.
My e90 is right in the same zone, and I don’t think you can buy a better driving experience at this point in a newer car.
My plan is to never get rid of my 2006 330i. We will see if family life aligns, but it is the perfect sedan.
1qt/1k sounds familiar 🙂 Looking forward to hearing from the boring patrol about how their *whatever* has never burned a drop of oil or had a single unscheduled repair (/single thrilling moment) over the last 326,000 miles. Then again, those people probably don’t spend too much time on this site…
Funny you say 326,000 miles, that’s exactly how many miles my 92 525i has on the motor (the chassis has 304k, long story). It burns a quart of 20W50 every 500 miles though, haha.
I bought my first BMW, an E30 320i, in the dark, and the rain, behind a factory on an unlit trading estate in a moody part of a moody town.
I loved that car, and it only caught fire twice.
It was my first straight six, and it’s ruined other engines for me. Part of the reason I’m stuck with a Z4 Coupe I didn’t really want is because that 3.0 six is epic. It leaks oil because the pan is rusty, but it’s a £500 part so…
One of the best things about owning an old BMW is that for just about every oddball issue you might encounter, someone else has already come up with a reasonably cheap and/or easy fix.