At some point in 2021, my good friend Nolan posted his newly acquired 2000 528i in a group we’re both a part of. He’d just bought it from a woman in Colorado, where he frequently was, and it was to be his daily driver. For reference, Nolan buys, restores and sells vintage cars, usually British sports cars: think Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, MGs, Lotuses and other cars that are small, spartan and less-than-comfortable. So, the 5 Series would have been quite a nice daily for him.
I’ve always liked the fourth generation “E39” 5 Series, which lasted from 1996 through 2003. It was a comprehensively engineered, safe and athletic car at every level: from the lowly 520i and 520d cars that were sold in other markets all the way up to the powerhouse M5. Although this car was in somewhat rough cosmetic shape, it did have one draw: it was a 5-speed manual.
Fast forward several months later, to early 2022, and Nolan has decided to use a different car as his daily driver, for the sheer excitement of something new. Because of course he has. He’s as bad as I am when it comes to switching cars, only he manages to actually make money doing so. Anyway, I’d expressed interest in it, and specifically interest in better learning how to drive a manual. I kind of knew what I was doing when it came to manual transmissions. I’d gotten a rough (and I do mean rough) start on a friend’s 2009 MINI Convertible S 6MT. And then someone formally taught me on their brand-new 2018 Honda HR-V 6MT, because I’d helped them find the car in the first place. But I wanted a manual-transmission car of my own, to really hone my skills. Over lunch one day, I expressed interest in it, so Nolan took me to see it.
As I said before, the E39 5 Series lasted from 1997 through 2003. 1997-2000 models were pre-facelift, while 2001-2003 were post-facelift. This E39 had the updated version of the M52 I6, measuring 2.8 liters and developing some 193 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque and a ZF 5-speed manual. It was also an M Sport, so it lacked most of the exterior chrome and had the 3-spoke steering wheel in place of the usual 4-spoke. The M52 was fundamentally bulletproof, so I wasn’t worried about that. Nolan told me the clutch had recently been replaced by the former owner, and there was proof of that in the glovebox.
That’s not to say it was a nice car. There was a lot wrong with it, mostly cosmetically. Walking up to the 528i from behind, I was immediately greeted by a faded roundel, a cracked rear bumper, a small dent on the edge of the trunk-lid, and questionable tires. Around the front, much of the trim on the bumper was tired and hazed, the front roundel was equally as faded as the back, and someone had replaced the headlights with aftermarket ones at some point. Inside, the headliner was failing, the A-pillar trim was missing (Nolan assured me he had these at his shop), the seats needed dying, the speedometer worked intermittently, some of the radio pixels had failed and the front cupholders were broken. But it drove okay. I stalled several times, but it seemed to run fine, which was all I wanted. With that in mind, I offered Nolan $1,800 instead of the $2,300 he wanted, and we struck a deal.
So, when Nolan said he’d let it go for $2,250, I talked him down to $1,800 and then struck a deal.
I came several days later to get the car, without Nolan there, though I had the keys. I figured the battery would be dead, and it was, so I came with a fresh battery. Getting it to the gas station (it was on fumes) and then home, 25-odd miles away in Edmond, was nerve-wracking, but I managed not to stall it. During that time, I observed the speedometer and cruise control failing to work and got a warning for a bulb being out on the right rear.
My best friend Austin drove it a few days later and came to a lurching stop so suddenly that the front passenger window regular, already on its way out, completely let go and allowed the window to drop fully into the door with a loud thud. So that was the first fix. I thought about just going to the junkyard and grabbing an E39 regulator, but didn’t want to go through all the trouble of replacing it and then having it fail again. So, I bought a new one off of FCP Euro for $50, which included their lifetime warranty, and installed it.
The other fix I performed was simple, which was for a problem I hadn’t noticed when I was buying the car. The sunroof opened and closed without issue, but someone had tied a piece of string to a hole in the deflector, which you needed to pull to fold the deflector and get the roof to close. Otherwise, the glass would impact the deflector and the pinch protection would cause it to stop and open back up. A quick perusal of the E39 forums told me that this was a common issue. Bending the deflector slightly and making sure the springs were greased was all that was needed to get everything back working, according to the forums. Failing that, you could unbolt and remove the deflector, and the additional wind noise would hardly be noticeable. I tried the former solution of bending it back into shape and it worked just fine.
At some point, after I had to replace the new battery under warranty, I got the bright idea to wire in a switch, so that I could safely disconnect the battery if the car went unused for more than a month.
Other than that, in the intervening 18 months or so, I’ve not really done anything with the 528i. I’ve driven it mainly at night (since the A/C doesn’t work) and practiced driving a manual transmission car, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. At the outset, I had it in my mind that it would be a good project car, but I can’t see putting any money into it. Good condition E39s in vastly more desirable spec go for under $5,000, and this 528i needs at least $3,000 in cosmetic work alone to look anything like presentable. Recently, the passenger-rear window regularly failed and dropped the window into the glass, and I think for that one, I really will just pull the door panel off and prop the glass back up. I haven’t even fixed the wonky speedometer, which I bet is just down to a bad wheel-speed sensor and would be an easy fix.
I’m the type to fire the parts cannon at a car—and spend copious amounts of money in so doing—to get it looking and driving nice, so it’s been an interesting experience to have something where I know I’m not going to do that. That said, the driveway is getting a little full, so I think it will get the old heave-ho soon. I’ll probably sell it or donate it to a charity, or perhaps a local automotive school.