Brits on Tour
CM’S latest road trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.