In five months, I had gone from buying my dream car, living what felt like the dream life in a new job and new city, to smashing the 164’s oil pan and wrestling to replace it in for four agonizing, time-off-from-work days, and then once back on the road, having the car catch fire through no one’s fault but time. This time, the call from the boss had more than an air of impatience.
Hey David, have you had any luck getting your Alfa fixed?
No, I’m really sorry. We just bought a new wiring harness for it… working on determining if it will work right now.
Do you know when you will be back to work?
I am going to pick up a rental car tomorrow. I can be back on Tuesday.
You know, it’s probably best you hold off on that for now. You have been missing too much time and we are going to have to let you go.
Do you know that moment in the movies when the protagonist is swimming through an out-of-focus montage of grief and one last piece of bad news snaps the story back into focus? After that phone call, I looked out my window at my dead Alfa and in a moment of clarity, I realized just how much my situation had deteriorated.
I had just lost my job.
My beloved car was dead.
And the pandemic-fueled car market was pricing prospects out of my budget.
In search of advice and comfort, I turned to… Facebook. I needed an online hug. My online post to my favorite forum went like this:
Unfortunately, after two weeks of work, three round trips to Los Angeles a new wiring harness, and much more, my stepdad Mike unfortunately declared my Alfa dead. I live in Los Angeles, it’s not really possible to get around here without a car. I was not expecting to be back in the market this soon, and I am a little overwhelmed. What would you guys do in my position?
I don’t know what I expected to happen. I’d been hoping for maybe a little compassionate understanding, some advice for interesting cars I hadn’t thought of… no such luck. The comment section immediately devolved into roasting me for my “poor choices,” my Alfa, and, among the kinder threads, imploring pleas to forget enthusiast cars altogether. Would I consider a Toyota or Honda?
Without a car in L.A., you are left to the whims of an uncaring and infamously inadequate public transit god – where it takes three times as long to get anywhere if that stop happens to be where you even want to go. How could I go used-car shopping when the Craigslist shitbox is in Downey and I live in Pasadena? Never mind the fact that my savings barely had enough money for another car and next month’s rent.
I started dreading getting out of bed.
Before I could sink too far into despair, Mike called.
Hey, it can’t be easy looking at that Alfa every day. Why don’t you come back to Sacramento? We’ll regroup and go look at some cars.
On the way home, a message came through Facebook,
Hey, I’ll give you $500 for that Alfa, I am working on making a parts rig for my shop and I think an Alfa Mino pickup would make a great advertising piece.
He gave me five hundred reasons to consider his offer, but the prospect of seeing my alfa hacked into a pickup was too much to bear.
Back in Sacramento.
It’s nighttime. I’m in a daze. I don’t even remember the seven-hour drive north in the rental car. My mom’s doing her best to cheer me up but I’m just numb. After dinner, I grudgingly turn back to car hunting on Craigslist, I find a few so-so options in the Bay Area.
Later that night, Mike and I get to talking over drinks. I mentioned there’s an E320 CDI in Oakland that’s for sale for $4,500. He reminds me he doesn’t work on diesels and that I’d be on my own for that purchase.
Then, he pauses and says:
You know by the time you get the money out of savings, and we drive all the way out to the bay to look at cars, we could have just gotten the BMW running.
Wait, we are talking about that BMW, right?
That BMW is the same E39 5-Series that Mike asked an understanding friend if he could leave the stricken sedan at his place for a month. That month turned into six years parked in the mud under a growing oak tree. Like I said [link to the first article], Mike has a thing for what some would call “hopeless” cases and also for not quite letting a project go unfinished – even if it would take the better part of a decade to fix it.
And in the case of his ‘00 BMW 540i Sport 6MT, he thought he had gotten a gem for a song back in 2015. Only that inside a month that minor lifter ticking coming from the M62 4.4 Liter V8 quickly deteriorated into a horrible machine gun-paced clacking that could only be the notorious timing chain guides failing.
A quick word on turn-of-the-millennium BMW engine design. With 32 valves, 4.4 liters, four camshafts, two of them with variable valve timing Vanos units, and an interference design, all this complexity hinges on precise valve timing. So, what did BMW use to keep this jewel of a powerplant humming along nicely? How about skipping an idler sprocket and making a plastic horseshoe – you know for good luck.
The good boffins in Munich deemed it wise to create this amazing if hideously complicated Swiss watch of an engine that sealed up the timing chains behind all the accessories with nothing but a consumable piece of plastic to keep everything in line. What does that mean? It means that when the center horseshoe timing chain guide wears out, the chain starts running steel against aluminum which pumps aluminum flakes throughout the oil galleries (hopefully you bought good oil filters over the course of its life). And it means that if and when you fire up an M62 V8 and you hear anything amiss that isn’t the notoriously noisy Vanos itself, your Bimmer (or Range Rover) is on borrowed time!
Understanding all this and knowing full well that resurrecting this Ultimate Driving Machine would take every ounce of mechanical skill, drive, and patience that Mike and I had left, I said:
Screw it! Let’s do it.
Somewhere, among the oak trees, in the hills of Rescue, California, there’s a special place, where a friend of mine has built a temple to the gods of horsepower. During its time among the Chevys, the sad and forgotten BMW had become one with the forest, sporting an impressive colony of lichen down one side, several established clumps of moss, and half a ton of mud on the lower third for good measure. It was dirty enough to match any 50-year-old barn find.
However, inside things were looking good, the weatherstripping had done a remarkable job of keeping the wilderness at bay, and for the most part, it looked immaculate. A new battery in the trunk and, damn… the 20-year-old BMW electric key still works.
Cut to the next morning.
Armed with a four-ton floor jack, Mike’s specially chosen junkyard tested toolset, a jerrycan of fresh gas, and a new battery Mike and I set off for Rescue expecting a Mission Impossible level effort to get the BMW home.
With nothing more than a new battery and some Marvel Mystery Oil to prime the cylinders, the M62 fired right up six-year-old gas and all, as though it had been sitting for a week, not the last 6 years.
I’ll never forget what Mike said after the BMW came back to life.
This car wants to be saved!
Time to go, Pack up the tools, the smoke has dissipated. Mike, with the authority of a seasoned general.
You drive the jeep. Stick tight to me, don’t let anyone get between us.
This poor BMW looks like it’s just completed a Welsh rally stage. And here it is cruising down the road at 45 mph. Despite the ever-present clacking, it’s running amazingly well. On the way home, I found myself repeating a new mantra.
This car wants to be saved.
And back in L.A., things were not looking quite so hopeless for the stricken Alfa.