Home » Man Buys Broken ‘Mechanic’s Special’ BMW i3 For Dirt Cheap. Fixes It In Front Of The Seller In 3 Minutes And Drives Off

Man Buys Broken ‘Mechanic’s Special’ BMW i3 For Dirt Cheap. Fixes It In Front Of The Seller In 3 Minutes And Drives Off

I3 Excellent 2
ADVERTISEMENT

It’s a seller’s worst nightmare: You put a car up for sale for dirt cheap because it’s broken. Then someone stops by, pays you, and then immediately fixes the car, adding $3,000 in value in just three minutes. That’s what happened to a Sacramento-based BMW i3 seller, and it’s also what happened to me except I was on the fixing side of the equation. Here’s what happened with both the i3 owner and me in these “mechanic’s special” situations.

The article was titled “Here’s What Happened When I Drove 500 Miles To Pick Up A Free Car,” and it’s one hat picked up so much steam, it led Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) to tweet it out onto his page:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

As you can probably surmise by the tweet and my introduction, I managed to fix the car in question, which had been offered to me for free by an Ohio State University college student who thought his engine had blown up and who had no space to fix it. I drove around four hours from Detroit to pick up the Jeep, only to realize that the issue was that the flex plate bolts had backed out of the torque converter. So I simply screwed those things back in and voila! The Jeep fired up like a dream.

Here’s a look at the “concerto of mechanical decrepitude,” as the young seller put it:

ADVERTISEMENT

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

Now behold the repaired machine:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by David Tracy (@davidntracy)

You may be wondering if I had any interest whatsoever in driving that free Jeep away and thus scoring the Deal Of The Century. And the answer is: Absolutely not. At no point did I ever think that the right thing to do was to fix the Jeep in 20 minutes and then drive it away as the seller looked on, upset that he hadn’t been able to diagnose and repair the vehicle on his own. It’s not a matter of whether or not it’s acceptable — certainly it would be acceptable had I driven off — it’s a matter of whether or not I want to upset someone else, and I don’t. Perhaps if I were in a tougher financial situation I’d weigh scoring a hot deal higher than my unwillingness to upset others, but given the situation I was in at the time as an entry-level writer living near Detroit, the right move was clear as day.

ADVERTISEMENT

I bring this up because recently I was considering buying a broken BMW i3. Here, check out the listing:

Screen Shot 2023 09 08 At 5.42.16 Am

The vehicle was listed as a “MECHANIC’s SPECIAL,” with the full description mentioning what the seller thought was wrong with the electric BMW:

I have a 2014 BMW i3 60Ah with the range extender engine (REX). If you see this ad, then the car is still available. This is being sold as-is and is a MECHANIC’s SPECIAL and I believe needs the EME motor controller repaired or replaced (it is also known as a motor inverter). I have a clear and clean title, with no liens. Interior is in like-new condition with no scuffs, no scratches, no tears. Rear seat are like new since it hardly ever had any rear passengers. I still have the original factory window sticker which has been laminated (photo shown in this ad).

EME is short for “Electric Motor Electronics,” (which includes the inverter that converts DC current from the battery to AC for the motor) and it is covered by California’s mandatory Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) warranty, but only up to 10 years, 150,000 miles. This 2014 i3 for sale has nearly 170,000 miles on the clock.

00000 Kko8dho5k1v 0ci0t2 1200x900

ADVERTISEMENT

The seller describes what led to the failure:

Here’s the current problem. During the heat wave in early August, I was driving on the freeway and suddenly a warning light popped up on the dash saying “Transmission Malfunction” but the car kept driving normally. Got it home, parked it, fully recharged it overnight. By morning, the car shuddered when I put it into reverse or drive. After trying a few times, the car now won’t move at all. After doing my research online, it looks like either the motor position sensor has gone bad (buried inside the motor), or possibly the EME has a glitch (electric motor electronics, also known as the inverter), which is a module mounted on top of the electric motor. My research says that if it gets hot, the sensor or the capacitor(s) pop and gives the symptoms as I described. It’s apparently an expensive part, costing a couple thousand dollars (on eBay it looks like a used part is between $1000-3000) plus whatever ridiculous money the dealer wants for labor to install it. When I look into the engine hatch, I can see the module sitting on top of the motor. I’m pretty mechanically inclined but I don’t have the equipment or courage to tackle it, particularly as I’m worried about the high voltage battery. Nobody has tinkered with it, so it’s all original and untouched. I’ve purposely left the motor/engine bay in original slightly dusty condition so you can see that nobody has gone into it. This might be a good project car for someone who wants to fix it, or probably be good for someone who needs a good engine, battery, body, or interior parts to repair a wrecked i3.

00e0e Izaxvlo6eni 0ci0t2 1200x900

The seller mentions that, outside of this problem, the i3 is in excellent shape, with a battery that still offers great range:

It has been very dependable up until a couple weeks ago at the beginning of August. It has a bit over 169,000 miles on it, mostly driven on the REX engine since I do a lot of highway commuting. It has fast charging capability, but I hardly ever used the fast charger to reduce wear on the battery. I carried around a personal No-Spill gas can and topped off the little onboard gas tank at rest stops. The battery pack has almost no degradation, as I avoided running it below 10% and most of the time kept the charge between 50-75% and drove it like a gas car, using the battery as a range extending buffer…basically I did the reverse of everyone else who uses this as a battery car and using the engine as the range extender. At last check when it had around 150k miles, the battery only had about a 12% degradation using an online diagnostic menu (however that menu can no longer be accessed because of the error/warning message). When the car had about 168k miles, I took a photo of the instrument cluster showing that on a full charge it was still estimating 89 miles of electric range and 118 miles on the gas tank if driven in Eco Pro mode. I drive slowly and carefully, which is why my mileage range estimates are above average. Photo of that is attached. I performed the European firmware upgrade so the full 2.4 gallon fuel tank is usable, the hold-charge function is activated which allows you to turn on the engine at any time once the battery is 75% charge or less, and the AM radio has been activated. It pretty consistently gets around 36-38MPG running on gasoline. The window sticker says the EPA rates it as 39MPG on the gas engine. I have the original owners manual. The engine runs perfect, does not burn oil, does not smoke. It received oil changes regularly and was meticulously maintained. Has a newer 12v accessory battery as well.

Air conditioner works perfect, steering and alignment is crisp and perfect, wheel bearings are excellent, no odd noises or sounds. Up until recently, it drove like a new car.

[…]

This model is fully loaded. It has the larger console display, Harmon Kardon speakers, automatic emergency braking, automatic self-parallel parking, curb distance sensors, adaptive cruise control using the front camera. I found that a good used main battery pack alone sells for around $3000-5000 on eBay, and that the wheels are worth $250-500 each. If you part it out yourself, you’ll get plenty back for your efforts. However, I don’t have the willpower or space to do that.

The rear tires are still about 90% tread remaining. The front tires are about 20% tread remaining.

Title in hand and ready to transfer. Sold as-is.

00808 Lff84u6nxyk 0ci0t2 1200x900

“Asking $5,000,” the seller concludes. “The car WILL NOT drive or move. The computer turns off the car when you step on the accelerator pedal as a safeguard to protect the motor due to the warning message. It must be towed away. Alternatively if someone is interested in just buying parts off of the car, let me know what you want and if I don’t sell it as a complete vehicle, I will consider parting it out.”

I emailed the seller about the car and asked if he’d had it looked at by a dealer. He replied with a negative, saying it was just going to cost too much. From the seller:

ADVERTISEMENT

Nope, I haven’t had any professionals look at it. I already know that if I took it over to the BMW dealer, they would charge a fortune just to diagnose it, and even if they could fix it, the cost of labor would probably be something crazy. A few years ago on this car, the airbag light came on, and I took it over to Neillo BMW, the local dealership. They said it was just a sensor glitch but got the factory to approve a goodwill free driver airbag replacement anyway (I have the receipt for the work order). The bill was like $300 diagnostic (plugging in a scanner), $600 labor (basically using two rods to pop the old out out and snap the new on in and took them like 30 seconds, and $2000 for the new replacement airbag). So if the factory hadn’t done that for free, I’d be looking at a a $2900 bill for replacing a driver’s airbag. If it was a Toyota, that job would be like $300. Based on that, if the drivetrain needs diagnosing…I’d rather not even bother with having the dealer look at it because they’re going to charge me something crazy.

01212 2pai1nh1hgf 0ci0t2 1200x900
The tires are worth a lot! So having a good set of rubber donuts is a big deal!

He told me he was worried the issue might be something silly, recounting a story of an unnecessary $8000 expenditure on an air conditioning unit for his house:

I just hope it’s not something silly, or I’d be kicking myself. About a decade ago, our house air conditioner quit working. I checked the main circuit breaker panel and it looked OK. The unit was about 8 years old so I figured it probably just wore out. I hired an HVAC shop to install a new unit, costing me about $8000. After they ripped out the old one, and did all the work to install the new one, it wouldn’t turn on. They then walked around the house and said there was a secondary breaker for the AC unit, flipped that ON and the new unit started running. I had a horrible realization that my old AC unit was probably still good, and simply tripped the secondary circuit breaker. SO….if I had a BMW dealer look a the car, it might be something simple, but even simple things at the dealer will still cost a fortune. So, I’ve just decided to see if someone wants it as a fun project car.

Sadly, the seller’s fear came true, as he followed up on my email with:

Hi I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so wanted let you know that I already sold the BMW i3. A guy from Washington drove down here and was looking to fix up the i3 for his kid’s first car. However, I thought you might be curious on what happened. The guy came with a car dolly, and brought along a buddy who is a BMW i3 enthusiast and came with a computer and cable, plugged into the OBDII socket. After looking at everything he agreed to buy it. As soon as I signed over the title, I asked if he needed help getting it on the tow dolly. Instead, he said he was going to try something. Removed the motor cover, disconnected the high voltage cable and rubbed a nail file on it, reconnected, hooked up the computer to reset. THE ERROR MESSAGE DISAPPEARED AND HE DROVE IT AWAY. It was a corroded connector on the high voltage cable! Took him like 3 minutes to fix. Oh well… At least a kid is going to have a nice first car, and I drove it plenty enough to get my value out of it.

Oh boy. That’s an absolute nightmare for the seller!

00o0o 40jr7acghhv 0ci0t2 1200x900

He actually told me a bit about how he felt afterwards, saying he’d done something similar to what his buyer had just done:

ADVERTISEMENT

The thing is that I could have, but didn’t want to tinker with it. I also refused to let others come tinker with it before buying, or else someone else might have figured out the actual problem before I sold it. My logic was that if people saw that I already fiddled with the car…then anyone who legitimately wanted it as a project car would probably go away because they think that nobody else could fix it or that something is ruined. Besides, the likelihood of me tinkering and fixing it myself wouldn’t have worked. I didn’t have the BMW computer to reset the car. Moreover, even if I got it in fully working condition, the KBB private party value is only about $6000-7000 due to the high mileage. If I towed it to a BMW dealer for diagnosis, paid for the diagnostic fee, and towed it back again, just that alone would have cost me $1000. So, I figured if I could get $5000, as-is, then it’s the same as selling it for $6000-7000 after sinking money for the dealer to diagnose or fix it.

In all honesty, I’ve done something similar years ago. There was a Honda 2-cycle motor scooter that I picked up back in the 1980’s and it was really sluggish, as if the engine had low compression and no power. The prior owner had already tinkered with it, so I swapped a new carb, new intake, new spark plugs, took apart and reassembled the gearbox, etc. It still didn’t run right. By pure chance I saw some carbon buildup in the exhaust manifold and chipped away probably a tiny spec of carbon, which I didn’t think would matter much. Immediately the motor scooter ran great, had plenty of power, and started right up. Since the scooter was a bit beat-up from the former owner trying to fix it, I decided to buy a nicer one. Found another for a deep discount with a similar problem. That owner didn’t know what’s wrong and thought the engine had no compression and was basically junk, so he was selling it cheap. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t buying a lemon so I asked if I could try removing the carbon on the manifold first, and if it worked, I would buy it. We agreed on a price. I spent 15 minutes removing the muffler, chipping some carbon away, and put it back together. The scooter started right up and ran perfect! EXCEPT the owner now refused to sell it to me, but also refused to pay me for my “volunteer” work of fixing the scooter. Well, when I found another similar motor scooter a few months later suffering the same problem, and the owner was selling it for half price, I just bought it, came home, did my 15 minute repair, and got a perfectly working motor scooter out of the deal.

So, if someone knows what they’re doing, I’m not going fuss or get upset because it’s something I can’t do anyway. It would have been nice to know it was a simple fix….but the reality is it could have ended equally badly where I tinkered with it, maybe damaged something else, and now nobody wanted it. Looking at it another way, as the car already has 169k miles, even if it’s running now, it’s just a matter of time before the other mechanical stuff will need replacement. Things like the AC compressor won’t run forever, that little scooter engine I’m surprised is still operating, the wheel bearings would eventually wear out, the motor mounts will eventually crack, etc. Any one of those things would cost money to fix..

He’s a good sport, but I think the lesson to be learned here is simple: If you buy a broken “Mechanic’s Special” vehicle at a discounted price, don’t fix it in front of the seller. Certainly don’t fix the thing before they sell it, and even if they do hand over the title, fixing it in three minutes is likely to upset them. Just drag it, tow it, or roll it around the corner out of sight and then get to wrenching.

Personally, if I knew the seller had put some effort into fixing something and I knew for sure that the repair was super simple, I think telling the seller what the problem is is the nice thing to do. But that’s just my personal view.

Image credit for all: Craigslist Seller

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
67 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ron888
Ron888
8 months ago

Thinking about it more, he actually made the same mistake twice! Both times he thought diagnosis was pointless

Ron888
Ron888
8 months ago

Ouch that was hard to read.I love a bargain and have been faced with some moral dilemmas at times.
My personal choice is to fix it for them if they’re poor,or take the deal if they’re rich. Or if they’re somewhere in the middle,maybe charge them something for the repair

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
9 months ago

I have two stories sort of like this… first was an RX8 sold at a shady used car lot in cleveland for $900 with a “broken timing chain”. Obviously intrigued by why someone would put valves, camshafts, and timing components into a rotary engine I called them up. Just from hearing it start and attempt to rev I was able to determine that it has one stuck apex seal, and one of the ignition coils feeding the bottom two plugs was bad. As I was going out of town for a week, I talked one of my friends into driving down there trailer in hand, but that I “think” this will fix it and he can drive it back home. He’s not the most mechanically savvy but I told him how to diagnose which of the two coils it is and how to verify that really was the problem, and told him he needs to feed about a tablespoon of atf into the intake as the engine’s cranking then let it sit for about 5 minutes. The shop mechanics were gathered around asking questions like “why on earth are you doing that” to which my friend could only reply “No clue! This sounds dumb and rotary engines are witchcraft!” or something to that line, then started the car up, it was one hell of a smoke show for the first 5 minutes, then drove it the 4 hours back to Chicago and let a friend of his borrow his car he drove down there for a few months as his car got totaled. (stretch goal for this trip) Car has since been totaled by getting t-boned twice in lemons races, but that engine is still going strong after 5-6 races.

Second one was much more boring. Found an IS300 getting parted out with a “blown engine” for $400 on craigslist. I already have an IS300 wagon that I was planning on doing a manual swap and figured it would be useful to have another engine to mock things up on so I can keep my practical car mobile. Guy said he’d sell me the rest of the car for $250 more so I agreed to that. interior was already stripped, but I wanted the wheels for winter tires, and the drivetrain for spares, then find something dumb at a junkyard like an old plymouth flat head and turn it into a lemons car. Found out that the main reason it wasn’t running was an electrical nightmare, and got it to limp along on 3 cylinders into the trailer rather than push it. Kept the parts I planned on, but had to scrap the car due to space issues rather than build yet one more lemons car, but taking apart that engine later I see that it was very well rebuilt maybe about 5K miles ago, so I now have a spare 2JZ sitting in my basement with no time to work on that manual swap anymore.

AustinAmbassadorYreg
AustinAmbassadorYreg
9 months ago

I was given a Peugeot 205 by a coworker who thought the transmission had gone out. When we got it home it was just a broken engine mount that was pressing on the transmission linkage, it was welded up that night and I drove it for 2 years without spending a dime on it.

Pappa P
Pappa P
9 months ago

I had an old boat motor that just didn’t want to run for me. This was after it ran just long enough to leave me stranded at the back of the lake.
Fuck that thing.
I went through a few steps diagnosing it to no avail. All the vitals were good.
I listed it for half price and just got rid of it quickly.
I sincerely hope that the guy who bought it just put in fresh gas and it fired right up.
Either way, I definitely don’t want to know.

WOV
WOV
9 months ago

And then the poor SOB wrote up $2k of content for you.

Fletcher Smith
Fletcher Smith
9 months ago

You’re a good man, David.

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
9 months ago

This story reminds me of the time my boss’s stepson was about to scrap his holy grail Honda Element with the stick. 300,000 miles but it still ran, albeit with a badly surging idle. Like it was barely drivable. I managed to limp it to a mechanic I used at the time. I forgot what he did, but he did a 1 minute fix (the surging idle went away even though the check engine light was still on. I forgot what he did to make that happen.) free of charge and I drove it back to my boss’s place. I told his step son “I’d feel really bad if I bought this off you for scrap value. List it on marketplace and see if anyone else wants it. If not, I’ll come back and buy it for scrap value.” Sure enough, someone bought it for $1,300 the very next week.

If I was more of a dirtbag, I’d have bought the car for $300 and lied about how it’s worthless or something. But because I value the relationship I have with my boss (plus I didn’t have the driveway space it turned out), I let the kid get more money out of the car.

From this story, it doesn’t seem like the seller got scammed, but still kind of a rude thing to have the title signed over first, then fix the car so the now previous owner can’t go “oh hey, it’s working again! That’ll be $7,000 please!”

Last edited 9 months ago by Chi_spotting
Scoutdude
Scoutdude
9 months ago

I’ve done a couple of those 1 min fix on used cars, one time I did it in front of the seller and the other time I drove it around the corner before performing the fix.

In both cases the cause was the same the owner decided they would do a tune up but didn’t have the skills needed.

One was a 69 Thunderbird. as mentioned the seller noted that he had tried to tune it up, it ran worse when he was done and decided to sell. It did fire right up but was popping out the carb and obviously not running on all 8 cylinders. I checked the firing order on the intake and it didn’t take long to figure out he had switched a pair of the plug wires. So I gave him his asking price, did the paper work and pulled it out of the garage, down the alley and around the corner. Stopped switched the two plug wires, fired it up, it ran on all 8 again and I was good to go.

The other was a 71 Pinto listed for $99 that the seller didn’t realize there was an alignment notch for the distributor cap and had installed it 180 degrees off. He was able to get one of the clips on and had a rubber band on the other side. I tried to give him $100 but he insisted I take my $1 in change. Completed the paper work, unlatched the cap spun it 180 degrees and it fit on properly. Moved the plug wires and drove it 100mi home.

I both cases I actually tuned it, you know, adjusting the points, timing and carb, not too long after getting them home and then drove them for several months before selling them for a profit.

Phil Layshio
Phil Layshio
9 months ago

Did something similar with a Camaro a few years back. It wouldn’t start, and the seller (my boss) thought it needed an engine. Paid him $300, swapped the engine control module and drove it off. Sold it to a coworker for 6k 3 days later. I didn’t work there much longer.

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil Layshio

That’s funny because I fixed my boss’s stepson’s Honda Element for free and he went from scrapping it to selling it for $1,300. But I happen to like my boss lol

Maxzillian
Maxzillian
9 months ago

Had a coworker who collected Allis Chalmers tractors. Many of them had a Roosa-Master injection pump that was known to suffer a “governor ring” failure. Basically a plastic disc inside the pump that isolated the governor from torsional vibration would crumble apart and the plastic bits would do things like jam open the relief valve that controlled the housing pressure or make the fuel rail stick.

He came across such a tractor that wouldn’t start and “needed a new pump”. He paid the seller, popped the cap off the fuel pump, slid the fuel rail forward, replaced the cap and drove the tractor up onto the trailer.

I think personally I would have just winched it on and fixed it out of sight of the seller.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
9 months ago

My story wasn’t “right in front of the seller”, but pretty quick. It also involved a… uhm… accessory.

I bought, for $300, a running-driving Subaru XT6 AWD with 5MT several years back. The air suspension had completely collapsed, and the dealership offered them a single Benjamin in trade value. They didn’t want to invest in fixing the expensive air suspension, but wanted more than that out of the car. I was more than happy to oblige.

So I showed up, forked over the cash, and donned my autocross helmet. Because riding the bump stops sucks, even just on city streets. Did bang my head several times on the 2 mile drive home, but hey, that’s what brain bucket was for, right?

Earlier Subarus had a very limited parts bin shared across almost the entire line. I think it cost me a grand total of $100 in used parts from the junkyard and a couple hours of my time to fully convert from air to regular coil suspension.

Cheap fix, and a win-win. They got the money they wanted, I got a fun car to hoon around, and I sold it for WAY more than I had into it when I was done playing with it.

Ben
Ben
9 months ago

If you can’t be bothered to plug in an OBDII reader and google the resulting codes then you reap what you sow, which in this case was nothing.

[insert gif of Willy Wonka yelling “You get nothing!”]

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
9 months ago

I’m of two minds about the conclusion. of course, it’s always nice to do good (the Jeep), and that will surely come around. In this case, it’s clear the seller doesn’t feel he got ripped off, and the buyer got a great car for a good cause. Win-win. On the other hand…

I’m a collector of a particularly rare and expensive (because of facebook marketplace resellers and 1st dibs) vintage furniture line… every once in a while, something will come up for sale, and the seller doesn’t know what it is (clearing out grandma’s house, or whatever). This usually means someone got a deal of a lifetime on something they generally couldn’t afford and is going to cherish it forever. Or, some bitter Betty across the country that knows they can’t get it will message them, and tell them what it is, and it will go from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand in a flash. Problem here is the seller had no idea what it was, so it had no value to them, they were still going to get what they wanted out of it (it is 70 year old furniture, after all). I was speaking to another lady about it and she made the incredibly valid point of, “I don’t feel bad buying the dirt cheap pieces from people at all *holds up cell phone* this is a computer, if you can’t Google the name etched in the drawer, that’s not on me.”

And she’s right. Obviously mechanic’s special cars are a little more complicated than that, but, “one man’s trash” and all that. If it doesn’t have value to you anymore, or you aren’t capable/able/bothered to fix it or find someone who can, and someone pays what you asked for it, no wrong was done, even if the fix is easy and free. They had knowledge you didn’t, and that has value, too.

Evan M
Evan M
9 months ago

That seller sounds super chill and I’m glad he is cool with how things played out.

Since we’re talking about “fixed right in front of the seller” deals, I have one that is kind of the opposite! My partner’s father tells a tale of the Fiat Spider he owned in college which, by all accounts, was a real POS. When it came time to sell it he found a guy that was willing to pay asking price IF it could make the drive to the buyer’s house, about 100 miles away, under its own power. I could not do that as it could barely drive around the block without breaking down, so what did my patterner’s father do? Why, have a buddy with a truck flat tow it up to about a block away from the buyer’s house, start it up, drive to the house, and sell the car. I think this was meant to be a cautionary take about not buying an old Fiat but has always stuck because of how silly the whole situation was.

Last edited 9 months ago by Evan M
CandleCamper
CandleCamper
9 months ago

When I used to buy/repair/sell typewriters, I bought a lot of ‘broken’ typers. “The big thing won’t move” usually meant the carriage lock was enabled, and the owner had never used it and didn’t know what to do. It’s basically the parking brake for a typewriter. I would usually pay without inspecting the machine if the photos were decent, and then unlock the carriage later at home.

67
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x