COAL: BMW 540i — The Devil Is In The Detailing

My aunt has pretty good taste in cars. An MGB, a Volvo 740GLE, a Toyota 4Runner and a VW Passat wagon are some of the vehicles that have passed through her hands. A pretty eclectic list, as I read over it. But here’s the thing: have you ever known someone who buys good stuff and just…doesn’t take very good care of it? That’s Gina. She’s not a “car guy” by any means. The cars are just transportation appliances to her. They get dirty, they get dinged, they get repaired when something goes wrong, but they don’t see a lot of maintenance in-between. This, you may have heard, is not the kind of treatment that upscale German cars thrive under.

So when she told me she was willing to sell me her 2001 540i, I approached with caution. The E39 BMW is hailed by some as the pinnacle of BMW’s 5-series line. I’m partial to an E34 myself, especially with the baby 3.0-L V8 – I love me a tiny V8! (If anyone out there has an Alfa Romeo Montreal they’d like to let me evaluate, hit your boy up in the comments!). But I wouldn’t kick an E39 out of my driveway, especially not with the 4.4-L V8 and staggered M-Parallel wheels.

But I knew something of Gina’s history with the car, such as getting stuck in snow multiple times because she didn’t understand that those staggered M-Parallels needed proper rubber for her northern Ohio climate, instead of the summer tires they came with.

I knew the remote key fobs didn’t work, because BMW being BMW, the door locks were needlessly complicated and Gina had decided they were too expensive to fix, so she simply had gotten used to locking and unlocking the doors by inserting the key into the lock like some kind of caveman. God knows what else had she neglected or decided to just live with.

So we worked out a deal. I’d take the car on a trial basis and pay her only if it worked out.

The first step was the cleaning. Oh, the cleaning. Gina likes to eat, drink and apply makeup in the car, as well as use her cars for hauling purposes for which they were not intended. The interior had suffered about like you’d think. It took all my skills in interior detailing, but what eventually emerged, after many hours’ work, was a beautiful full leather interior with burr walnut trim. I’ve posted some before-and-after shots to show what I had to deal with. View these only with discretion and a strong stomach.

Yuk. Anyway, the car was loaded: factory cell phone in the armrest, navigation, and a setting that, while parked,  would turn the blower fan on to exhaust hot air out the sunroof before you left the office to drive home.

But even after detailing, it was far from pristine. Gina had tried touching up some chips and scratches herself, using blue paint. You will notice the car itself was not blue, but black. (This wasn’t a surprise to me, because on her Volvo, she once dealt with a floppy radio antenna by bending it forward and slamming the rear door shut on it.)

Let’s get those gross pictures out of our heads with something better:

That’s more like it. Anyway, Gina had also had some issues with the climate control not working correctly. I traced it to her habit of pulling too far forward against the curb when parking. She had wrecked the front air dam more than once this way, destroying the ambient temperature sensor to the confusion of the automatic climate control, which could no longer monitor the ambient temp. Having done this more than once, she eventually got fed up with having it fixed. Hence when I got the car, the outside temperature display would show implausible readings, like below 0° F or 122° F, and the windows would fog up instantly in the rain.

Because this was a BMW, it goes without saying that the EML light was on. I’d dismantle the intake, check and clean things, replace seals, clear the codes, and it would go off for a few days, then come back on.

But even with the light on, the 540i was magnificent to drive. The V8 was silky smooth and sounded glorious. The handling wasn’t sprightly, but it could hustle. Still, something was missing. Something my E34 530i had had: a clutch pedal.

And that was a problem because that car really did not like to downshift. I had a few embarrassing moments when trying to pass someone, expecting potent acceleration and getting only a leisurely gathering of pace as the transmission held fifth gear. For some reason, it only happened when trying to pass, not when I just punched it with no one in front of me. Surely there must have been an issue with the kickdown mechanism.

But rather than dig further into that issue, I realized the car wasn’t for me. It was bigger than what I usually drive, and it just wasn’t the kind of spritely, tossable car I love. That, plus the EML light, and some creeping rust spots, convinced me the car and I did not have a future together.

My aunt and I spoke and she cheerfully agreed to take the BMW back. While I had it, besides giving it a deep cleaning, I had tuned it up, changed all the fluids, replaced the tires and sway bar bushings, and fixed the temperature sensor, the door lock issue, and several other small but annoying things, so it hadn’t been a free ride from my point of view. But it was fun. I enjoy that sort of low-stakes tinkering, where you’re not desperately trying to keep a car running, but just enjoying seeing it gradually become better and better than the day you got it.

Gina sold the car to her sister-in-law, an Irish lady who also had pretty good taste in cars. Under Marylynn’s care, the BMW finally received some dealership attention that, after several visits, finally vanquished the EML light once and for all (although is an old BMW ever really be free of that infernal light?)

Marylynn once commented to me on how many young teenage boys seemed excited whenever they saw her car. Unfortunately, the 540i met its end sliding off a snowy road into a ditch. Marylynn was unhurt but the 540i was done.

Gina has not learned her lesson about German cars and today she drives an Audi Q3. I’m pleased to report she keeps it cleaner, although the bumpers show signs of parking-by-feel, in spite of the car having Parktronic assist with cameras. Do not buy a used car from Gina!