A commonly held idea in car culture is that “German reliability” is as oxymoronic as a diarrhea-free Chipotle burrito bowl. “The most expensive car I can ever buy is a cheap German,” people say. To prove them wrong, I bought a broken BMW 540i and planned to have someone other than me fix it, as I had other things to do, like watch Netflix and argue with people on Twitter. It didn’t turn out well.
About a year ago, I had something that you would likely call a problem. I had five cars in various stages of “almost-drivable” and diligently spent my nights looking into ways to add a sixth. Do you remember that guy on Hoarders that had too many cars and the city threatened to kick him off his property if he didn’t get rid of them? I watched that episode and wondered why the hell everyone was picking on this perfectly fine automotive enthusiast.
This was my mindset. All it took to bring me to my next viable automotive clusterfuck was one good prod with a cool enough car. Enter a good friend with a very broken, very desirable BMW. Oh no.
In March I purchased a 2000 BMW 540i, the car that looked and sounded every bit as menacing as the M5 with none of the typically expensive drawbacks of ownership. At least that was the idea.
The Poor Man’s M5
In fact, last year I wrote about why you, meaning everyone, should buy an E39 540i. The very car featured in the pictures of that article was my friend’s car - the same car I purchased and the one this article is about. Circle complete. Half Life 3 confirmed.
A true-to-life M Sport with a six-speed manual transmission, this car had almost all of the sport-themed creature comforts of the M5, save for the iconic dual exhaust pipes and no spare tire. And for all intents and purposes, this car’s 282 horsepower 4.4-liter V8 was every bit as capable in everyday traffic as an M5's 400 HP 5.0, without the $150 oil changes. It was a poor man’s four door sports car, if being poor meant flying Economy Plus—price tag, $3,000.
Sure, I could’ve probably picked one up in sort-of workable condition on Craigslist, but having been a part of this car’s life through working on it alongside the previous owner, I already felt an emotional connection, even if it was currently too dead to return the favor. I helped overhaul its cooling system. I braved freezing cold to dismantle its audio system for the install of a not-half-bad Chinese touchscreen unit. I knew the trick to opening the hood because the release didn’t work. If anyone was going to buy this car, it was going to be me, dammit.
But it wasn’t all puppies and champagne in used BMW land. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, this car was so far beyond what any sane person would consider salvageable that I actively omitted certain aspects of the story so my wife’s future divorce lawyer can’t use it against me.
Every time the engine was started, it sounded like a very angry Tin Man furiously beating off, which could only mean one thing—the thing you wish you didn’t have with a BMW 540i—mechanical, deep in the engine, and cancer-serious. The entire timing system, chain, guide, and tensioners, needed a complete overhaul.
For reasons I won’t go into, BMWs made in the late 90s and early 2000s had a tragically high failure rate of their plastic timing chain guides. The guides would disintegrate and the timing chains, made of metal, had nothing to run on other than the aluminum guide mounts.
Since metal on metal is a huge no-no in internal combustion, this led to engines that were way more explodey than what you’d expect for a car that cost more than $60,000 brand new. Fortunately, the remedy to this issue was simply to crack open the engine and change everything that looks used. The downside is that the BMW original parts cost north of $800 and the shop recommended to take 30 hours to do the whole thing.
Putting on my business hat, I knew that It would be dumb to lose money on the car, but with prices for good condition 540is fetching around $6500 in good shape, I had the tiniest bit of wiggle room until I reached my break-even budget. I thought it might just work.
In order to find out what was wrong for real with the marbles-in-a-can sounding engine, I drained the oil and removed the oil pan. A telltale sign of timing chain guide death would be the large chunks of plastic sitting at the bottom of the oil pan.
After seeing the horrid state of the engine’s timing system, I immediately ordered brand new BMW parts from the dealer using a friend’s shop discount, the grand total coming out to just north of $670. As if to mock me, I asked BMW’s techs about why the hell an engine’s timing system would eat itself in this fashion. “Oh yeah, they all do that!” Sweet.
Bringing It In
At this point I had two options—do the long-ass job myself or outsource it to a shop. While I was probably capable enough of doing the job myself, the climate at the time was on the cold side, I had a paid vacation abroad approaching, and I had five other cars that were vying for my lovin’ touch. The best option at the time was to give it to a shop for a week or two and have them deal with the hassle of dismantling the BMW’s complex and fiddly M62TU engine.
As I called around to BMW independent shops, I got quotes ranging from “$4500 and up” to straight up laughter followed by a dial tone. My last resort before throwing in the towel and occupying a few weekends worth of time to do it myself was a local shop that knew me and had no problem giving me discount rates because I’ve sent half a dozen of my own cars there for preventative maintenance and small repairs over the last few years. When I called up to ask what they would charge for the job, the shop owner noncommittally said “I don’t know, it’s gonna be a lot, like $1100 I think.” And he was right. With odds and ends, I paid about $2000 in the end.
It’s important to note that until this point, I had never had that particular shop perform any major mechanical work, but I figured that a bolt is a bolt is a bolt. The almost comically low price was simply too good to pass up if the shop could in fact deliver on their promise, and the likelihood of that was quite good, in my mind. I mean, they did run a repair shop for a living. What could happen?
As the car was in no condition to run, I had the car towed to them along with the newly acquired parts and proceeded to vacation for the next few weeks, confident that I was to return to a running BMW that now featured brand new timing components. As I knew I wouldn’t have been around, I paid the shop in advance for the work and had a friend pick the car up when it was ready.
A short while later, my now-carless friend retrieved my new-to-me Bimmer, with one slight hiccup. He sent me a text that read “the car’s running funny” with not much of a description as to if it was clown funny or my keys just fell down the storm drain funny. It was the second one.
Here’s the cavalcade of fecal matter that greeted me when I returned home:
The shop that took in my clacking, yet theoretically running-on-all-cylinders 540i managed to remove the timing noise and one whole cylinder in the process. When I called the shop in a frantic rage, the shop owner said, “Yeah, we think it has a bent valve somewhere. It’ll probably need a new head.”
Ironically, it was said with the confidence I would’ve loved to see in their initial pricing estimate.
I got a sinking feeling. You know the one, the feeling of having something taken from you without you even having a chance to realize it. It’s the same inkling you get when you discover that the big project that you’ve been putting off is due tomorrow because it turns out you can’t calendar for shit.
I swallowed my lumps and decided not to go after a shop, for a few reasons. Had I tried, the onus would likely have been on me to prove that I gave them a car that didn’t have a bent valve in the first place, a proposition that was muddled by the fact that I towed an awfully loud car to them with a missing oil pan and was technically in possession of the car for weeks before speaking up about the issue.
Even if I had a clear-cut case, I’d have to take time out of my schedule and use more of my money to get my original paid invoice back, all the while having a $5000 car that was worthless in its current broken form.
“They could be wrong,” I thought. The car was running, after all. It could’ve been something small. That’s when I broke out my compression tester and read zero pressure on cylinder six. It was dead. It had ceased to be. It was an ex-cylinder. Reality had set in. Game over.
This was my fault, not in an “I’m so unlucky, woe is me” sense, but in the understanding that everything in this situation was completely avoidable. I chose this shop with the knowledge that a calamity like this could’ve been a potential outcome, I didn’t take the steps to get the car running before I gave it to them, and there was little to no communication between the shop and I directly after I got the car.
Reliving this ordeal, I think the most frustrating aspect of it all was that I elected not to do it myself, when I could’ve likely done a better job than the noobs that took four figures out of my bank account balance for doing hideously shoddy work.
Although the shop did share the blame, I didn’t fault them as much as perhaps I should’ve, because as I saw it, they were operating within the bounds of their capability. The 540i had very unique and specific methods to time its engine, and if a tech didn’t possess the correct knowledge or tried to follow the procedure of any other car, they would’ve fucked it rightly up, as was likely the case with my handicapped 540.
The Rescue Attempt
I spent the next few months watching the car collect pollen in my driveway, while I patiently collected the parts needed to replace the passenger’s side cylinder head. I then removed the old cylinder head and inspected the valves.
Sure enough, there was a slight bend in one valve that allowed all the normally compressed air to escape, likely cause by a timing chain that was off by a tooth or three.
In all honesty, the job wasn’t as ruthlessly technical as the pictures may seem - although it was incredibly time consuming, the procedure was remarkably straightforward and any methodical individual with the right tools shouldn’t be scared to take this job head-on, no pun intended.
After cleaning the new cylinder head and block, triple checking torque angle values for the cylinder head, and quadruple checking that everything with the timing was on point with the help of custom-made rented tools, everything was buttoned up for a test run.
The car fired into life on the first crank, almost like I knew what I was doing. I would’ve cried tears of joy if my tear ducts weren’t permanently welded shut by my Soviet upbringing.
I ran the car up to temperature and while it wasn’t overheating, there was an amount of smoke coming out of the tailpipe that could’ve been classified as more than normal. Then, it became way more than normal. Then a neighbor ran over and asked if they should call the fire department. Ignition off, back to the drawing board.
I was out of ideas and tried frantically to brainstorm. Had this experiment all been for naught? Compression test and blown headgasket test readings were all fine and the car wasn’t exhibiting any oddly running issues other than the giant plumes of bluish-white smoke out of the exhaust. I was getting desperate.
I removed the intake manifold and discovered that quite a large reservoir of oil had collected inside. Essentially, I was spitting that oil directly into my intake valves and they were being burned in the combustion process. In a lawnmower, this would’ve been fine. In a V8 BMW, not so much.
On my last legs and tired from nearly a year of working on this car off and on, I toyed around with letting the car go for a loss and was this close to throwing in the grease-soaked towel when an Opponaut and reader by the name of Danny Zabolotny casually mentioned that I might want to change my air/oil separator. I replied “Yeah, the one on the back of the intake? It’s brand new.”
Danny, without missing a beat, said “No, the one in the engine behind the timing chain.”
I had but one response. “There’s one behind the timing chain?!”
Cutting to the chase, Danny was completely right, but the reason I had no clue what he was talking about was that this $20 part—the little plastic valve that hung around making friends with engine internals—was missing. The shop never re-installed it. Maybe they broke it and forgot to put it back or maybe they just didn’t care. Hell, maybe they knew what they were doing all along and wanted to fuck over the guy who said Ferraris were ugly.
In any case, I was potentially looking down the barrel of another 30 hours under the hood of the BMW, ironically enough, redoing the exactly procedure the shop should’ve done in the first place, exactly one year later, thousands of dollars in the hole, with the ambient temperature outside just above freezing.
What was that saying? In for a penny...
This is where the project was left off. In a million pieces but with more hope than ever of being the capable highway cruiser that I always envisioned it to be. I wager that I’ll be done with everything in about a week’s time, barring unexpected delays.
However, there was a silver lining in this ordeal. OK, maybe not silver; let’s call it a bronze lining. The extra time I spent with the car allowed me to make some minor aesthetic changes to the car, like purchasing a set of desirable OEM M-Parallel wheels and an illuminated M5 shift knob, because as as the modern philosopher Emmett Brown once said, if you’re gonna build a car, why not do it with some style?
What I Learned
While there’s a ton of things I would’ve now done differently had I known the outcome, I see it as a teachable moment. Instead of enlisting the help of shops with questionable ethics to save a buck, it might make more sense to learn a skill and do it yourself. If you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, get a friend to help.
Research what you’re supposed to do beforehand and understand that budgets and time constraints can be more like guidelines than hard stops when you’re building something for yourself.
Now, for the naysayers who think I shouldn’t have purchased such a crap car in the first place, or I should’ve just pursued the shop legally... there may indeed be merit to that argument. However, that line of thinking is rendered meaningless when you consider that a job on this grand of a scale is such an overwhelming confidence booster when everything works out that I’ll be walking on sunshine for a year. Also, with E39 prices thankfully increasing in the used market, I’ll be able to extract almost every penny from my hard-earned labor.
Even though I’ve damn near confirmed the phrase “The most expensive car you’ll ever buy is a cheap German car” beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll argue that it had almost nothing to do with the car and everything to do with my haphazard approach to the situation. It was my fault for dealing with a crappy shop, not protecting myself against calamity, and not double checking that the lengthy procedure was done to spec when I had the chance.
Accounting for my current $6000 total spend on this project and even pricing out the amount of work I put into it, it’s still a hell of a lot of car for the money. When I sell it on, I expect it to make its lucky owner one hell of an epic daily driver. That is, unless I fuck something up and I end up throwing my toolbox through the windshield.
And BMW: I’d like you to understand that Nissan, the car company that gave us the Sunny and the Murano CrossCabriolet, managed to make cars with bulletproof timing chains since the 1980s and your high-end, precision-built, new-millennium, German-engineered engine can’t make it to six figure mileage without spitting out plastic like a trophy wife on shopping day. Get your shit together.