Brits on Tour

CM’S lat­est road trip.

Car Mechanics (UK) - - Contents -

 Here at CM we love a bar­gain. That usu­ally in­volves buy­ing a car cheaply due to some me­chan­i­cal or MOT work re­quired to make it road­wor­thy again. This is one of the rea­sons we cover these driv­ing tours on a bi-an­nual ba­sis: so we can ‘res­cue’ a model that is one step away from the scrap­man.

The rules for join­ing us on a trip around the con­ti­nent are pretty ba­sic: the ve­hi­cle has to be older than March 2001 (ie, within the two road tax brack­ets, not due to emis­sions) and it must have cost less than £300 to buy. Of course, you can spend as much as you like to fix it up and make it safe.

Orig­i­nally, we had planned a 2017 trip to Spain but, hav­ing hol­i­dayed in Spain my­self in June, re­alised it was a rather gru­elling 2000-mile slog – the very op­po­site of fun. So, we cut it back to a four-day tour of France, driv­ing west from Calais down to Rennes in Brit­tany.

Al­though I ex­tended a cou­ple of in­vi­ta­tions in CM for read­ers to join us, we didn’t get any re­sponse. I fully ap­pre­ci­ate that tak­ing a week out of work, get­ting a pass from your part­ner and leav­ing the kids at home isn’t al­ways go­ing to be pos­si­ble.

For this rea­son, I hadn’t given much thought to the ac­tual route of our tour, only that we would be head­ing to­wards Rennes and vis­it­ing a mo­tor museum some­where en route. How­ever, when reader Gavin Tar­rant emailed me for more in­for­ma­tion about seven weeks be­fore the trip was meant to start, I knew it was time to plot the route in finer detail.

Gavin was hop­ing to drive with us in his 1990 Mazda MX-5 Eunos and leave the wife and kids at home. He was an ex­pe­ri­enced Euro­pean driver, hav­ing cov­ered many mo­tor­ing events in the past, and these days didn’t get much chance to drive the two-seater sports car as much as he’d like, what with run­ning the kids around.

So, a bit of panic set in as 1) I hadn’t de­vised the route and 2) I hadn’t bought a suit­able car for the trip.

What with magazine dead­lines, it took me till mid-au­gust to get the route fi­nalised, with a leave date of Fri­day, Septem­ber 15, 2017. I then had to find a car. I con­tem­plated tak­ing my 1998 Ford Scor­pio es­tate, as it would eas­ily cover the mileage around France in some com­fort, what with its arm­chair­like front seats. But that wouldn’t cre­ate much re­pair cov­er­age for these pages, so I de­cided against it.

Spooky coin­ci­dence

As some­times hap­pens, a friend-of-afriend was look­ing to sell her black BMW 3-Se­ries and ap­proached me to see if I would sell it for her as she re­ceived no in­ter­est at its £1000 sell­ing price. She now needed the money and £500 would be enough to take it. “Could you sell it for that?” she won­dered.

Hang on, I thought... A reg­is­tra­tion num­ber check es­tab­lished it was a Fe­bru­ary 2001 car – just within our tour rules. So I vis­ited her for a test-drive. There were a few faults and short MOT, so I said that rather than try­ing to sell it for her, I’d give her £300 cash there and then. She couldn’t re­sist my fine fan of £50 notes (I had sold a Peu­geot 206 a few weeks ear­lier, hence my flash wad!). The 121,310-miler was on its way to the Knowles house­hold.

To be hon­est, on my test-drive I hadn’t no­ticed the near­side front strut mov­ing back and forth un­der brak­ing. I don’t think I did much brak­ing, us­ing the gears in­stead, this be­ing a fivespeed man­ual E46. All of my price bar­gain­ing was fo­cused on the fact that there wasn’t any oil on the dip­stick!

But then on the drive back home amidst traf­fic, it be­came ap­par­ent the near­side front strut was mov­ing around a lot when I touched the brakes. I knew the prob­lem could be down to the com­pli­ance bush at one cor­ner of the front track con­trol arm wish­bone and shook my head a few times won­der­ing how the pre­vi­ous owner had ac­tu­ally driven around with it like this.

Back home, I made room for the BMW to sit in my garage overnight. The fol­low­ing morn­ing drips of en­gine oil could be seen on the garage floor and that whiff of oil onto a hot sur­face was ob­vi­ous. Some 10W-40 was added

Buy­ing cheap cars is great if they don’t need much work. How­ever, some­times you find that once you’ve delved fur­ther, you re­alise there’s more wrong than you had bar­gained for. On fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion while un­der the ve­hi­cle, the bot­tom of the ra­di­a­tor was no­tice­ably sag­ging, al­most to the point where it threat­ened to burst at any minute. “They all do that, sir” is a phrase we can use here as most E46 models will suf­fer in this area. At least we got to re­fresh the coolant... to the en­gine and the coolant was checked (it was low), then I fired it into life. All dash lights went out fine, but af­ter 15-20 sec­onds a yel­low ‘oil’ sym­bol il­lu­mi­nated for around a minute be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing. This is one of those com­mon faults with BMWS, which is ap­par­ently due to fail­ure of the sen­sor in the sump that checks the tem­per­a­ture of the oil. As fix­ing it would be a sumpoff job, I didn’t worry about it too much.

Aside from that, the top hose was worn in one place. I think the PAS reser­voir was over­filled slightly (or the cap wasn’t on tightly enough) and it had slowly leaked over the orig­i­nal top hose, caus­ing it to dis­in­te­grate.

I could also hear an ex­haust leak. It was mi­nor when cold, turn­ing nois­ier (and smelly) when hot as the leak was just un­der the driver’s door.

De­spite this, the six-pot en­gine sounded sweet through the rev range and all four tyres were le­gal, with a mix of Miche­lin, Dun­lop, Con­ti­nen­tal and a cheapy on the near­side rear.

Good looker

Step back a few paces and this 2001 BMW E46 sa­loon did look the part. There were the ex­pected rust bub­bles on each whee­larch, but noth­ing com­pared to some I’ve seen – and hav­ing a black ex­te­rior, they weren’t that con­spic­u­ous. I found lots of ser­vice records in the glove­box, which showed a pre­vi­ous owner cher­ish­ing it for six years and the last-but-one owner fit­ting a new near­side front wing and hav­ing the whole car mopped pro­fes­sion­ally.

Be­ing the SE model, the in­te­rior is sil­ver leather (re­quir­ing a feed), with seven-spoke 16in al­loys as stan­dard.

Last minute

There were only eight days to pre­pare the BMW be­fore we de­parted for Calais for the start of the tour, so there was no way I’d be able to or­der parts and tackle all the jobs without send­ing my blood pres­sure soar­ing. In­stead, I sent a tasks list with the car to my lo­cal BMW spe­cial­ist – LMW Mo­tors at Pevensey in East Sus­sex (Tel: 01323 769988) – giv­ing the me­chan­ics just four days to turn it around. This would leave me one day to test-drive it lo­cally to make sure it was fit for the 1000-mile run.

Some jobs on the list were of the ‘If you get time, can you...’ type, but give the LMW team a pat on the back be­cause they man­aged to com­plete all I asked for and more. We won’t men­tion the fi­nal bill as it’s a bit em­bar­rass­ing, but then I wasn’t pre­pared for some of the un­forseen prob­lems – like the ra­di­a­tor re­place­ment, a new cam cover gas­ket, rear brake caliper re­moval (the near­side hand­brake was par­tially seized) and large amounts of cut­ting/ weld­ing to get the down­pipe and ex­haust sealed.

I was ready to hit the road with a fresh MOT. Or was I? More in the next is­sue...

Al­though badged as a 320i, the en­gine is in fact a M54 2.2-litre 24v straight-six unit, of­fer­ing 170bhp and mated to a five-speed man­ual gear­box. Av­er­age fuel con­sump­tion is pretty good at 30mpg, with a 0-60mph time of 7.9 sec­onds. It needs to be revved hard to get the power gains, but we weren’t brave enough to rev it that hard un­til we had it ser­viced at least.

A whole new track con­trol arm wish­bone was bought as, with both rub­ber bushes worn, it was cheaper and quicker to buy the whole com­po­nent with bushes in situ, than press out old bushes for re­newal. The worn old track con­trol arm didn’t have any BMW mark­ings, so I sus­pect it was an aftermarket re­place­ment.

The far cor­ner of the track con­trol arm wish­bone lo­cates into this com­pli­ance bush, which can be bought as a sep­a­rate item. It takes the full brak­ing forces and was se­ri­ously FUBAR – danger­ously so – and def­i­nitely would’ve re­sulted in an MOT fail­ure.

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