WHAT TO LOOK FOR
IS IT COOL?
The Nikasil cylinder bore issues and cylinder head gasket failures that afflicted early petrol examples should have been sorted long ago. Watch for top-end oil leaks, inlet air leaks and split breather hoses, failed ignition coils, and hot starting issues caused by air mass sensor failure. Rattling VANOS units can be rebuilt by specialists, but check for leaking water pumps and radiators.
CHECK THE HISTORY
Various E39s were subjected to some official recalls – with issues particularly involving the cooling fan, front suspension, and air-bag system, among others – so ensure that the car you’re looking at didn’t slip through the net. Before you buy, be sure to ask an official BMW dealer to check the chassis number, and get the work done immediately if it’s outstanding.
Exterior mirrors and light units will need checking for damage, and the latter can suffer from broken adjusters. New ones are pricey, so secondhand ones off the internet are the way to go. And if you’re tempted by the more practical Tourer, make sure that the tailgate operates as it should. Support struts fail and can be awkward to change, and check that the release mechanisms for the separate glass section and main tailgate are still working properly.
LOOK FOR RUST
Check for the onset of rust – it’s beginning to surface on early examples. It crops up around the wheelarches and fuel filler, but you should also scrutinise the jacking points and the sills – check the seams and the rear of the sill ahead of the rear wheelarches. Also keep an eye out for paint mismatches and signs of clumsy damage repairs, along with the usual dings and scratches that point to a hard life. Damaged bumpers aren’t uncommon, but used replacements are plentiful.
Transmissions don’t suffer from inherent issues, but both benefit from regular fluid changes (even the supposedly ‘sealed for life’ auto). Check that a manual gearbox isn’t suffering from a notchy shift – clutches should last up to 90,000 miles unless abused – and ensure that the Steptronic shift function on the auto still works as intended. There shouldn’t be any rear axle issues but listen for grumbles from the optional limited-slip differential.
WEAR AND TEAR
Brakes suffer from neglect and pennypinching owners so check the state of pads and discs, and look for corroded brake pipes. Ensure that ABS/stability control lights illuminate and extinguish correctly, too. Check for wear in front suspension arm and rear subframe bushes and rear axle lower ball joints. Steering wheel wobble is usually worn steering arm bushes.
Heater control panels fail – easily sourced via the internet – as does the heater resistor ‘hedgehog’, which costs around £30. The wiring loom into the boot can break, so look for faulty locks, lights and wipers. Look also for missing dashboard display pixels – a specialist fix is needed., though a failed light control module is a cheap secondhand fix. A trickier issue is the occupancy sensor mat for the passenger air-bag – replacement involves stripping the seat.
On diesels, check for excessive exhaust smoke and signs that the fuel injectors or turbo are ailing as replacements are costly. A blocked cam cover breather can cause expensive turbocharger issues, so ask whether it’s been upgraded to the later, more efficient ‘vortex’ type. 2001-on diesels also featured swirl flaps in the inlet manifold and bits breaking off will be catastrophic – fixes are available, though. Cam chains are bullet-proof as long as oil changes are regular.