Damon Langley purchased this BMW 530i used for $8600 (including all on-road costs) in 2021. Damon Langley wouldn’t buy this car again because: “The thing i loved most about this car was its looks, which is why next time I’ll probably just settle for a framed photograph of one. “
It’s no secret that ageing European cars carry a certain reputation that serves as the foundation of many a horror story only really told when someone utters the magical phrase, “I’m thinking of buying an old BMW.”
These stories are then usually passed along by people who never, and probably won’t ever, have first-hand experience with the very thing they seem to be so heavily vocally opposed to. Although these people with no interest in the cars themselves make their objections known, old Euro owners usually tell quite a different story.
Instead, their experiences boast an incomparable comfort level and transcendental drive. Not without their slight hiccups, across the board, Euro owners deem their cars some of the best cars they have ever owned.
This is why the E39 5 Series seems to sit in a strange, contradictory valley (as well as arguably any other pre-owned luxury car.) It’s also why after scouring the internet for reviews on any type of E39, as well as casually brining up I was thinking of buying one in conversation, I was at a loss for who to listen to. After all, one of life’s most important concepts is learning from experience, and in this instance the people with the first-hand experience are the ones whose advice carries the most weight… right?
So… with that muddled but somehow sound logic in mind…
When I first officially took ownership of my 2001 E39 530i M-Sport everything seemed to be falling into place. I had what I thought to be the best colour, trim level and engine, and thought well and truly that I had found what could be my ultimate driving machine. That is, until, after maybe 2 minutes when the radiator fan exploded in the carpark as the previous owner was counting their cash. This explosion would sum up my entire 5 month ownership of the 20-year-old autobahn king.
While the phrase “built like a tank” isn’t entirely wrong when in regards to the body and the engine (before it decided to start binge drinking oil), it must not extend to menial things like door rubbers, interior lights, driving lights, cupholders, windscreen washer motors, central locking, tail lights and window regulators, all of which seemed to spout numerous problems as well as deep seated desires to return to the dust from which they were created.
My favourite experience of this phenomenon was when interior light in the C Pillar just decided to fall out one day because it was a bit hot outside. My hood emblem soon followed suit when it one day too decided that it was sick of being on the bonnet of my car and took flight somewhere along the M79.
All in all, my ownership of the car can be summed up in this short, neat little quote; “This car presents really well. But when you start to look at it closely, it’s really not.” – My Mechanic 2021.
After a few weeks of ownership, it became quite clear to me that the car had been crashed. This became apparent through minor things from inconsistently dated receipts & service history to strangely specific missing parts and trim pieces, as well as an aftermarket front bumper bar, driving lights and passenger side headlight.
In light of all of this newly discovered information, the car instantly switched from something I was proud of to a really big lesson in used car buying. Ultimately, that how even if you’re switched on when you’re looking at a used car, it’s easy to make mistakes. Especially when you take the word of someone just because they express pride in ownership.
(eg. You check to see that the headlights work but you don’t check to see if they’re both OEM. You check to see that it has service history but you don’t check what that actually entails. The engine bay is spotless so you assume the car has had routine maintenance performed. )
Nevertheless, trying to push these thoughts of a tainted past to the back of my mind, through road trips, daily commutes, repair bills and the general dance that is used car ownership, my relationship with the E39 never really improved. It was so stagnated and absent that I avidly tried and maybe even forced myself to make out that a genuine connection was there and when I finally started to make headway, something else would start to go wrong.
They say if you don’t look back at your car when you walk away from it, you’re in the wrong car. Knowing this, I told myself time and time again to look back, simply just to try and convince myself that this was the right car for me. This is what stuck with me the most because the E39 is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sedans ever made, but the weight that my E39 carried just made me want to forget that it belonged to me every time I parked it.
It became harder and harder convince myself that this was my BMW and not just A BMW. This all makes it pretty hard to say how the ownership experience was when, honestly, I never really felt like I owned the car. Overall, it just felt like the car had a jaded history… that it was a problem child, or that at any second it would just turn on me.
On the road the atmosphere around the car was also quite neutral/negative. I always tended to make sure not to step on any toes and act like a stereotypical BMW driver but somehow still, this was a car that attracted attention. Through the 5 months of driving, I definitely got cut off, tailgated and honked at more than any other time in my driving career. (and no, there was nothing wrong with my indicating!)
To try and find some positive aspects , the car did feel like it was very well built at its core. I always felt very safe when driving due to the amount of airbags and just how solid the car felt to be in. The boot was also surprisingly large considering the size of the fuel tank & cabin space and comparison to how it looked from the outside. The rear struts being located in the cabin behind the rear seats in order to improve on this made a noticeable difference. (this is quite an irrelevant fact but i thought it was worth mentioning?)
As a musician carting quite a large load of music equipment around on a regular basis, I was always impressed with the amount of amps, guitars, drum hardware and keyboards we could end up fitting inside. Although, the boot’s opening s substantially narrower than the actual inside of the boot meaning that fitting bigger, bulkier items in was sometimes a game of real-life Tetris.
With the way that the pandemic affected the used car market, I would be lying if I said that I was 100 per cent happy with the price I paid for the car. On top of the already inflated price of the car, the cost of and amount of work it would go onto need over the next 5 months blew this car way out of water.
I would say, however, although the car was on the higher end of the price spectrum, I would still say that if It was an honest car it would have been worth it as it was one of, maybe 4(?), E39s in the state for sale at the time. Of the 4, the car was also definitely the cleanest (in photos anyway) and also was quite appealing being a black 530 M-sport with a black interior.
Considering that this car with options would have been around $105,000 in 2001 money and the fact that I only spent $8600 on it (before maintenance), this does, in the grand scheme of things, make the car appear to be great deal. Though the previous statement is true, rereading it sounds like the ravings of an alcoholic at their own intervention, or an addict trying to justify their addiction. Ultimately, what could be the core appeal of any used luxury car purchase is the sheer percentage of depreciation associated with the cars on the used market. Of course a saving of $96,400 sounds good. But, is it too good to be true? In a lot of aspects of the car, yes.
The features and optional extras this car came with, all of which would have been state-of-the-art for cars in 2001, 20 years on mostly only really worked intermittently, making for a bit of a royal headache. This was best exemplified through the dual-zone climate control that was riddled with gremlins which hindered its performance quite regularly. While sounding good on paper, the fact that it had so many issues meant that a lot of the times I found myself just pining for a simple, basic 3 knob Aircon and fan system. A brand new iPhone will someday soon be an old iPhone whereas a Nokia 3310 will work forever.
One of the few things that all reviews of the E39 mutually agree upon is how great a car this is for highway driving. Whilst touting all variants of the E39 as great cars, the main takeaway I had reading about specific models was how, when it comes to 6 cylinders, people who had settled for a 525 or 528 always regretted not getting a 530.
As I wasn’t interested in a V8 when I was looking, I decided that it would be best not to repeat these people’s regrets and in doing so, chose a 530. (This sensibility was confirmed after test driving a 528 and finding quite a noticeable difference of power in comparison.)
Now, I can write until the cows come home about how beautifully smooth the M54B30 engine is. It sounds magnificent, feels big and powerful and when you flatten your foot to your floor to activate the kick down (or as I called it the “get out of town button”) you can feel the car get up and go. This though, is where my praise for the powertrain kind of comes to a halt because, whilst it sounds and appears on paper that it should be a powerful sporty car, instead it’s quite the opposite. I also found the gears that the automatic transmission insisted on choosing to be all wrong, ultimately revving high when you don’t want it to, and completely bogging when you, in fact, wanted to give the car some beans.
Reconsidering everyone’s praise for the car on highways and Autobahns alike and what would it would need to facilitate that praise (quiet and able to operate at high speeds) it would be wrong to say that the car isn’t powerful or that it can’t go fast, because it is and it can… Ultimately, it just didn’t and it wasn’t in most situations where I needed it to be.
As a person who values things like low-down torque, and a quick 0-60 this car left a lot to be desired when it came to my daily needs. I live in metro Melbourne where the fastest I only ever really have to go is 80. Therefore, it kind of meant the power the car had and the fact that the car can sit very comfortably at Autobahn speeds (roughly 140km/h) wasn’t really relevant to my lifestyle. This may have been something I should have realised in hindsight when first considering buying one but maybe I was just choosing blissful ignorance. After all, if Guy Richie and Madonna made their E39 M5 work in the city, maybe I just thought I could too.
Economically speaking, i got roughly 12L/100 in the city and around 9 on highways. Not great, not terrible, just kind of what you’d expect from a 3.0L 6 Cylinder.
The technology in my car was hit and miss. The rain-sensing wipers sensed rain, but only sometimes. The power windows went down, but not necessarily up. The climate control was… actually just pretty bad in general, as I mentioned, and would turn off completely regularly on hot days or in car washes(?).
(This was something to do with a faulty outside ambient temp sensor telling the car that it was -40 degrees and there was as severe risk of the windows icing up.)
Either way, it definitely left a lot to be desired and as I previously mentioned, what once would have been a selling feature for this car kind of turned into a hinderance or another issue which would need to be rectified someday.
Despite all of these quirks, the biggest issue with the technology in this car was with the aftermarket touch screen head unit . This system would constantly fail, ran hot to the touch, never seemed to want to connect to my phone, or the internet, and when it did would completely crash the entire system. Any satellite navigation was impossible through this unit as for some reason it would put the car 100 metres away in any direction from where the car actually was, causing it to freak out, as well as making it practically unusable.
I never once thought that I would be longing for my cassette tape aux adapter, but I found myself doing that regularly. I can’t really feel like I can deduct marks on this aspect though as this wasn’t BMW more than it was just someone’s poor choosing in the long, unknown history of this car.
The ride comfort, soundproofing, balance and overall smoothness of the E39 was incomparable to anything I had experienced before. I can only assume this is why these cars have such a huge following and I can see why this engine was so critically acclaimed when it first came out because, my god, as I mentioned before it is just as smooth as butter.
My only wish was that I got to experience the car with its original sports suspension as opposed to some cheap aftermarket coil-overs which smashed the car and my spine over every single bump & crack in the road. The main reason I marked this so high out of ten was that, thinking about how good this car would have been stock made me wish that I had bought any other example of one instead of mine. (More-so than I already did because of, well, everything else about it.)
For the life of me I’ll never understand the appeal of coil-overs on a car like this. I will whole heartedly say It ruined this car and don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal and the need for coil-overs on something like a track car, or even just a slammed stanced boi at a cars and coffee, but on a daily driven sports sedan? Completely unnecessary. It was the final nail in the already pretty nailed up coffin.
Overall, reading my words back it’s hard to really have any final comments on something that I still sound so unsure and contradictory about. Any problems I had with the car were either to do with poor modifications, that were no fault of the car itself or my mindset shifting after piecing together the car’s stifled past and feeling kind of salty about it all.
It honestly kind of hurt to look at the car in the end as it slowly turned from a being great thing into a trophy of my downfalls and shortcomings.
Probably the biggest lesson one could take away would be to take caution and be extra vigilant when buying an old European car in comparison to other types of used cars. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying and owning one though, because on some masochistic level the beauty is worth the pain. This is maybe why I keep thinking to myself that with a more cautious approach, maybe that could bring a better all round car, avoiding the nightmare previously experienced?
Maybe then, it’s through a somewhat still present conscious ignorance that I can find the strength to look at an E39 with a doe eyed gaze and a belief that “if i did it again, it would all be different.”
Having said all this, now knowing & having firsthand experience of what it was like to own, would I buy one again?
I don’t know.
Would I recommend the car to anyone who might nervously murmur, similarly to myself at the start of this year, “I’m thinking of buying an old BMW”? Perhaps.