Back in October 2022, I bought my first-ever BMW when our Daydreaming Designer, the Bishop, sold me his 2001 BMW 525i Touring for the princely sum of just $1,500. I have since given the car to my wife, Sheryl, and we both enjoy the stately machine immensely. Unfortunately, much like any aging car in the Midwest, the car has some rust. Iron oxide is just a part of life in the Midwest, so you’d think there would be plenty of places to get it fixed. We’ve called every body shop we can think of in a 50-mile radius and many in neighboring states and have found very few even willing to look at the car.
Something wonderful happened back in October. The Bishop had a car to sell and I had money to spend. I looked the vehicle over and it was in nearly immaculate condition despite being a daily driver for 21 years. The paint glistened, the interior looked perfect, and the 2.5-liter straight-six under the hood quietly hummed away like a fine sewing machine. This was a car that seemed to prove the BMW naysayers wrong. Everything worked from top to bottom, including the notorious door handles and window regulators. This car had 120,000 miles on the odometer but felt and drove like it had half of that. Oh, and it came with nearly two decades of service records. You can tell the car has been loved.
This E39 wagon was ready to continue its next chapter with its new loving parents.
During my short period of ownership, I did exactly nothing to the E39. I thought of the wagon as nearly perfect and all I planned on doing was fixing what I thought was minor rust (more on that later) and getting window tint. Other than that, I enjoyed the car as is.
If you’ve never driven an E39, I highly recommend it. After years of owning Volkswagens, Smart Fortwos, and various American and Japanese vehicles, this BMW changed me. When you hop in, you’re presented with an interior and layout with driving in mind. BMW didn’t care about such luxuries as usable cupholders or a center control stack weighed down with buttons. No, you plop yourself down in a sporty-ish leather seat, slide that shifter into gear, and hit the road with a clear and large instrument cluster helping you guide your way.
When you put your foot on the throttle, the E39 responds immediately and sharply. I’ve yet to drive any other car with the level of finesse offered by the E39’s accelerator pedal. The throttle pedal is so sensitive and offers such minute adjustments that you feel as if the engine and your brain are perfectly in sync. If you hate having a delay between commanding the vehicle to move and the vehicle doing it, the E39 hits the sweet spot. The only vehicles I’ve experienced with sharper throttle control are EVs.
Once moving, the E39 provides heavy steering that delivers the same kind of on-the-point accuracy as the throttle. Provided the E39 is in good condition, you will always have confidence that your motions with the wheel have an immediate and direct impact on your course. Even the suspension is tuned for driving enjoyment. The E39’s stock suspension is firm but still takes hits well enough that it’s a fine road trip vehicle. I don’t normally buy into marketing slogans, but BMW was onto something when it used to say “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”
Sheryl perhaps loves this E39 more than I do. In fact, Sheryl loves the E39 so much that she says she likes how it drives more than her Holy Grail, the Oldsmobile LSS. Sheryl pretty much broke my brain when she said that. For the entirety of our relationship and then marriage, she couldn’t stop talking about GM H-bodies, and now she can’t stop talking about BMWs.
When the car came into her possession, she decided to do something she’s never done and Sheryl decided to make the car her own. As Sheryl told me, she really hasn’t been as attached to a car as she’s become to her BMW. So, now she keeps tinkering with making it closer to how she wants it to be. Since getting the car, she’s installed new blacked-out kidney grilles, sequential side turn indicators, a new stereo, sport package wheels, nifty LED headlight modules, window tint, 3D-printed cupholders, BMW logo puddle lights, and more.
Sheryl’s become so obsessed with “pimping” out her BMW that she decided to replace the cracking factory wood with Muschelahorn trim from Germany. She also replaced the cracked wood center console with black trim to match the Muschelahorn. Oh, and the car’s name is Wanda.
Along the way, Sheryl’s been fixing broken stuff. As I noted above, the factory wood trim was cracking and splitting, so she replaced it with the Muschelahorn trim. The vehicle itself also had a few drivability issues as it didn’t have working traction control or ABS, triggering what is known as the “Trifecta Lights.” A diagnostic scanner blamed the front left wheel speed sensor, even though the Bishop replaced the sensor twice.
That’s when a wise BMW enthusiast told me that if you replaced the sensor twice and the car still thinks it’s broken, it’s probably not the sensor but the ABS module. Apparently, when the ABS module fails, it blames another part of the car for its own failure. A BMW independent technician confirmed this. A used ABS module later and the Trifecta was dead. The two remaining lights on the instrument cluster have been confirmed to be a bad airbag sensor under the passenger carpet and a dying catalytic converter. In a week or so, Sheryl’s BMW will no longer have any warning lights at all on her dashboard.
She loves this car so much that she gave it a total brake job, refreshed the parking brake, and is replacing the spark plugs and coil packs right on time because she wants it to be in tip-top shape. She even replaced the blue-tinted side mirrors after they started peeling. That’s not even noting the replacement of brittle trim or her soon conversion of the cellphone holder armrest to a real storage compartment. My wife is doing things to her car that I don’t even do to my stuff.
Unfortunately, there is one hurdle that Sheryl and I have not been able to overcome ourselves, and it’s the rust. When I got the car from the Bishop, he noted that the car had been rust-repaired a decade ago, and now the car was rusting again. At the time, he showed us a few places that were rusty. The rockers were starting to get bad and the trunk was bad enough that tape was required to keep water out. Other than a few unsightly places, the E39 was still far cleaner than most here in Illinois.
I already had a short list of bodyshops that did affordable, but quality rust repair. Reader Shop-Teacher recommended the shop that made his GMC Sierra’s rockers–which had massive holes–look like new again. I saw the quality of the work with my own eyes and it’s great for what he paid.
When I started calling up these shops, I was shocked to learn that not a single one of them, even the cool place Shop-Teacher went to, was in the business of repairing rust anymore. All of them told me that they do nothing but insurance work now due to an uptick in crashed cars. When I asked one of the shops why they don’t repair rust anymore, they told me that insurance work pays out quickly and the repairs have a quick turnaround time. On the other hand, someone paying for rust repair may stop paying and abandon their vehicle. Continuing on, the shop told me that rust repairs also tend to start off with one estimate but get substantially more expensive with complications or additional rust.
Our areas of concern begin with the tailgate. It’s rusting from the inside out. We had the tailgate inspected and the prevailing opinion is that it’s not worth saving. The rust is so substantial that even metal parts of the tailgate’s electrical system are corroding. The recommendation is to find a rust-free tailgate, even one that’s the wrong color.
Next, we move to the rockers. Originally, these didn’t appear too bad. Sheryl has added nearly 20,000 miles to the car since I gave it to her 6 months ago, and the rust has accelerated to worse than we knew it to be. The rear of the rocker on the right side has holes. The left side is better, but isn’t too hot, itself. Aside from those areas, there were smaller zones of rust that weren’t rusted through and could probably be ground down with a grinding wheel.
Then, we discovered more bad news. Last weekend, we began the surgery to replace the vehicle’s cats and when a jack was placed under a jacking point, a thick layer of paint and factory rust protection flaked off, revealing a sea of rust that was hidden underneath. Crap. I checked the other side to see if it’s better. I think this could be whacked out with a wire wheel and paint, maybe?
While some of this rust is within my abilities to fix, the gaping hole in the rocker and the other places with advancing rust are admittedly above my pay grade. The wonderful Bill Caswell did teach me some of the basics of welding, but I’m nowhere near this level yet. Caswell tells me that repairs like these require enough work that not even he repairs rust. That’s all ignoring the fact that I don’t have a place to spend however much time I need to fix rust. My mini warehouse and garages are filled to the brim.
Finding Help Has Been Frustrating
Sheryl and I have decided to turn to the professionals. We figure it’s worth it to pay for someone who knows what they’re doing and get back a clean car that will hold up for years. The problem is that nobody wants to do it.
After I worked through my list, we started asking friends and started reaching out to family-owned bodyshops. Many of them said they used to repair rust and nearly all of them said they only perform insurance work now. A few shops said they would repair rust if they weren’t swamped with insurance work all of the time.
Thankfully, not every shop was a strike-out. One family-owned shop we found was local and it was owned by an elderly metalworker and bodyman with his daughter as his number one. Together, they not only performed insurance work but the kinds of jobs no other bodyshop would take. He quoted Sheryl $4,000 for the rust repair and was actually very excited to do it, stating that rust repair gives him something fun to do for once.
The bodyman’s plan was to cut the entire rockers out and weld new ones in. His logic was that if he welded in entirely new rockers, Sheryl wouldn’t need to come back in a year because another rust spot appeared on her 22-year-old rockers. His plan for the tailgate was equally ambitious. Like us, the shop couldn’t find any clean tailgates close enough to home. Since he has metalworking experience, the bodyman’s Plan B was to cut out all of the rust and then rebuild the tailgate from the inside out. This small shop also said that the $4,000 estimate would be close to reality, as they do not charge extra because they ran into a snag or something.
In a cruel twist of fate, when it came time to drop the car off, the bodyshop’s number was disconnected and nobody was found at the location. Sadly, it would appear that the shop is in the process of going out of business.
This forced us to try other places. The next shop to even take a look at the car was a hot-rod restoration shop. That shop told us that repairing rust on normal cars wasn’t really their thing, but they’d do it if we paid upfront. We got a quote for $7,000 and were warned that the price was likely to go up if they hit any snags. This shop’s plan is to cut out the bad rust, weld in new patches of metal, and then fill up voids behind the remaining rockers with something like POR-15 to hamper the development of more rust.
Finally, we found one more shop, a Maaco. This shop said that for an initial cost of $5,000, they’ll cut out the rust, replace the tailgate, and replace the cut portions with painted fiberglass. The previous shops said they could do the work in a week or two while Maaco said it would take at least three weeks and up to two months. My only concern here is that my family has never really had good luck with local Maaco franchises. Even the more expensive paint packages seem to last only a year or so.
So, we’ve been looking for more options. The Maaco repair could take two months with unknown quality. On the other hand, I’ve seen the hot-rod shop’s work and it’s phenomenal, but the shop said our daily driver would be on the backburner as it’s already working on restoring classics right now.
Getting desperate, Sheryl and I started an assault on every shop within road-tripping distance of our Illinois apartment. Most repeated similar statements about only handling insurance work while some said they don’t work on cars older than a certain year in the 2000s. Others said they could do the work if we were willing to wait about a year to get to the front of their waitlist. To date, only the three above shops were willing to even give us an estimate. Seemingly, either Wanda is too old or the insurance work is too heavy.
What To Do Next
It’s honestly baffling because you’d think, given the huge amount of rust in the Midwest, someone could make some money fixing rusty modern cars that people love.
Anyway, we’re not entirely sure how to move forward here. Sheryl got so desperate that she considered driving out to California and having the excellent Galpin Auto Sports handle it, but that perhaps makes even less sense than having the nearby hot-rod shop do it. I’ve been searching the nation for clean E39 wagons and have found that Sheryl could probably buy a rust-free wagon from California or down south for maybe $5,000 or so.
Sheryl tells me that just replacing this wagon with a random rust-free car wouldn’t be the same. In the time she’s owned Wanda, the car helped her find new confidence, inspired her to believe in herself, and helped her become a better version of herself. Further, the car’s taught her a lot and most importantly to her, Wanda was a gift from me.
Honestly? I get it. If the engine in my first Smart Fortwo blew tomorrow, I would replace it, even though I know that buying another Smart is the better financial decision. To me, there is only one Tucker. For Sheryl, there’s only one Wanda.
We have two estimates sitting on the table right now, so in the very worst case, the rust can get fixed. But, she feels a bit uneasy about it because, from our personal experience, rust repair was far cheaper than this just a few years ago. It feels like if we just tried a little harder, we’d find one of those shops again. But at the same time, we seemed to have called every single shop with a listing on Google.
Here’s where I toss the microphone to one of you. What should Sheryl do?
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