COAL: 2000 BMW 540i – The Journey To My First V8

March 26, 2021

Don’t tell the EPA, but I evicted an entire ecosystem from the paintwork today. Amazingly, there was still a nice car hiding under all the mud, lichen, moss, spiderwebs, and squirrel shit. The clearcoat was a little faded on the hood and front fender, and one of the kidney grilles was black and the other was chrome, but that’s nothing a little sharpie can’t fix.

Before the timing chain guides went, I got to experience the 540I’s vast well of power once before. It was fast, handsome, and comfortable.  Six years later, that initial drive provided ample reason to justify the challenge that lay ahead.

On the one hand, I had a great example of an e39 with a V8 and six-speed inline to replace my failed Alfa that still needed to be gone from my landlady’s drive back in L.A. But, with the timing chains clacking away it was a long way from being a daily driver.  Fortunately, this job entailed entirely different, more favorable circumstances from my stricken Alfa 164 S.

For one, I was lucky to have Mike and his ocean of mechanical expertise on my side. Another plus: Mike had already purchased all of the parts (if not all of the tools) we would need to do the job he just hadn’t had the time to get started.  That said, we still had two weeks of intense surgery ahead of us. This wasn’t going to be easy, and I was still fighting the clock to ensure that see the Alfa wasn’t shipped off to LKQ and the crusher.

The first challenge on this quest to revive the Bimmer: “The Jesus Bolt.” The Jesus Bolt, so named because that’s what you are going to exclaim once you have taken one out. So far, the disassembly process had gone over beautifully, sure it was complicated, but there were no surprises. Mike, ever watchful, was checking my handiwork the whole time and keeping me organized.

Better still, unlike the Alfa which seemed to fight me every step of the way, the BMW was working with me as if it knew it was on its way to adventures in the Southland. It only took me two days of relatively easy work to get all the accessories out and to strip the engine down to the lower timing cover.

Unfortunately, the timing chains and guides wouldn’t be coming off without first removing the lower timing cover, and the lower timing cover wouldn’t be coming off without the Jesus Bolt being removed first. I am making such a big deal of this Jesus Bolt because this one, 32 millimeter, half-pound fine threaded monstrosity is responsible for holding the harmonic balancer to the crankshaft, and it is torqued down to a massive 300-foot pounds – a torque figure well beyond the capacity of most home mechanic torque wrenches.

I was confident, nay, cocksure that no bolt in the world could possibly hold out against Mike and me forever.  Our special patent-pending BMW Bolt Buster tool arrived just in time to tackle it.

We’re talking both sections of a four-foot-tall jack-handle on top of a half-inch-drive breaker bar for leverage. One foot on the bumper, one foot planted, both hands on the bar, and with back and quads engaged, and on three – I thrusted backward with all the violence I didn’t know I had.

And then the breaker bar snapped. Sending me tumbling backward. Disbelieving, I looked at the severed half inch pipe in still my grip.

Mike’s mouth was agape.

Have you ever broken one of those before, Mike?

 Can’t say I have but there’s a first time for everything.

 Thirty minutes of tries later…

Finally, with the aid of both sections of the jack handle for leverage, and the bolt buster using the whole weight of the car to hold the harmonic balancer in place, Mike and I managed to break the fearsome Jesus Bolt loose.

There’s no Corona sweeter than one earned after a hard day in the garage. No energy left for squeezing limes.

The nice thing about the Jesus Bolt is that it only required brute force to get the torque specification right. The double Vanos would require a much more delicate touch. While I was working away on the car, Mike was tirelessly sleuthing the forums searching for any potential surprises and as luck would have it, he found one.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Vanos is BMW’s variable valve timing acronym. For all the Japanese car fans out there, think: Honda V-Tech or Toyota VVTI only vastly more complicated, and, sadly, less reliable. Each Vanos unit on the M62 alters the intake cam profile giving the 540i buttery smooth torque from the low end, and prodigious shove from 3000 RPM to the 6000 RPM redline. It’s a great system, when it works, and to make it work requires two things: the skills of a master dentist to rebuild the Vanos units, and the expensive German trigger wheel alignment tools. Guess which one we didn’t have?


 So, here’s the deal, I’ve been reading online and those Vanos alignment tools… unfortunately, it seems the ones I bought for this job are no good they might not get the trigger wheels aligned correctly.

This didn’t surprise me.

Yeah, I saw that, that’s why we had to modify them before we took the timing chains off right? Do we know if the trigger wheels were aligned correctly when we took them off the car?

 No, it was giving me the warning light for a timing problem when we took it apart.  we can either put the engine back together and start praying, or we can wait, I ordered the good alignment tools, they’ll be here Friday.   

Decisions, decisions.

We could put the car back together, start it up and get lucky, or we could waste two days waiting for the tools to arrive. I had to get back to L.A. and my way home was still in a million pieces in the garage. And on other side of this the Alfa was still waiting for me in a kind of dead car purgatory.

With all this in mind, I decided I actually felt a little lucky.

There is no feeling quite like firing up an engine you have built with your own two hands for the first time. The sound of all of those thousands of complicated parts working together in harmony as the sum of the efforts of your own two hands (and perhaps another set that helped) is unnerving yet exhilarating. Did I remember to torque that one now inaccessible bolt down right? Should we have changed out that sprocket?

Only one way to know for sure.

 Firing up the mighty M62 was defined by that uncertainty, and the knowledge that if we did anything wrong, the engine would soon be in a million pieces again.  So, when the moment of truth came, my mom had a camera ready to capture either the glory or the tragedy.


The M62 cranked to life as though it hadn’t just had triple bypass surgery and was happily whirring away just in time for the UPS man to arrive with the verified German timing tools. The V8 was running beautifully and then the SERVICE ENGINE SOON light came on halfway to the smog center.

Sometimes I amaze myself. The next morning, I was up before the dawn, down in the garage working like a cracked-out orangutan in a desperate bid to get the trigger wheels realigned and the engine back together before the smog shops closed for the weekend.  It all worked. The Bimmer passed smog and was officially road legal and registered to one David Devereaux of Pasadena, California! Victory is sweet!

Nothing felt better than finally getting to know my new ride on a long-haul journey back home from Sacramento to L.A.

First impressions: this sedan is a lot more chill than the Alfa. On the street, the Alfa was always begging for another 1000 RPM. On the highway, it wasn’t happy until you were doing at least 90. While the 540i has ferocious power, plenty to obliterate the 255 section rear tires (don’t ask me how I know), it is just as happy ticking over 2500 rpm in sixth at an 80-mph cruise.

This car felt suddenly so much more responsible.  Solid.  Comfortable. The supportive seats, meat-locker grade AC, nice stereo, buttery smooth clutch and that signature muffled growl from the exhaust. As nice as it is during normal driving, the three spoke M5 steering wheel, and M wooden shifter are a constant reminder that the 540i is ready to rock.

Back in L.A. It was good to be home. And as it happens, a bit of good news for both me and the Alfa was waiting for on Facebook.

Hey, I saw your Alfa listing. I know a 164 specialist where I live in Chicago, he can probably fix it, what were you asking for it again?

 My new friend Stefan from Chicago ended up purchasing the Alfa and despite needless drama from two scofflaw transporter brokers, one who claimed ignorance that the Alfa didn’t run, and one who was a day and a half late, the Alfa ended up on a double decker tow truck to a new life in the Land of Lincoln.

Time to celebrate.

I took a day to celebrate cruising out to Malibu. En route, I reflected on the emotional rollercoaster of the last month.

Over the course of this journey, I discovered a new unfortunate phenomenon among enthusiasts, I call it reliability shaming. The sanctimonious attitude of some USDM Japanese car buyers honestly makes me never want to own a Corolla ever.  As I think about it, cars are more than appliances. They’re more than just transporting from A-to-B-to-C.  And so, the way I see it is if we’re going to spend so much time behind the wheel (particularly if we enjoy the act of driving) it should be at the helm of something we can truly love as opposed to numbly tolerate.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank all the people who helped save my ass from what was a very dicey situation. Mike, for trading off the BMW and all the parts I needed to fix it, and for going so far out of your way to help me try and fix the Alfa. My mom for helping me keep my head up when situations seemed impossibly dark and untenable. Lastly, Gunnar who not only was cheering me on from L.A. while I was working to fix the BMW, but who has once again gone out of his way to help me find my voice, and despite my various missteps helped me to bring what is thus far the best automotive story I’ve got to share with all of you.  So, thanks guys, none of this adventure would have been possible without you.