Car Mechanics (UK)
Breaking Cat B write-offs
We try a new scheme by Copart and U-pull-it to harvest a BMW E39 540i Touring for spare parts.
For the DIY mechanic, finding spare parts for older cars can be an expensive business. Buying a replacement part direct from the manufacturer can often cost more than the vehicle is worth and scrapyards have got wise to the fact that supplying spares can be a lucrative sideline, particularly if certain parts are found to be in short supply.
Another possibility is a new scheme by Copart (copart.co.uk) called Breakerbid4u, where the company will place bids for you for a Category B write-off at auction, after which you can strip the vehicle for parts at a U-pull-it workshop (u-pull-it.co.uk/breakerbid-4-u) before they destroy the vehicle. Copart currently have six locations where you can buy a vehicle and break it on-site. The most convenient are York and Inverkeithing, just north of Edinburgh, which both have a U-pull-it next door. The Copart branches at Sandwich, Wolverhampton, Chester and Rochford don’t, but vehicles can be dismantled in special workshop bays. If you buy a vehicle at any of the other Copart branches you’ll then need to transport the vehicle to one of those six, but it’s not especially cheap: moving a vehicle from Sandtoft to York would be £84.
CM asked Copart to bid on our behalf for a 1999 BMW E39 540i Touring auto. Finished in Biarritz Blue Metallic, this would have been some machine 20 years ago and would have cost a fortune when new: full leather interior, electric heated comfort seats with memory, TV satellite-navigation, a built-in carphone, 17-inch BBS split-rim alloys and a hi-fi speaker set-up. Of course, most of the tech is useless now and, given the complexity of retro-fitting such stuff, you wouldn’t bother, but the various modules are useful for repairing an existing system and those alloy wheels were tempting.
‘V480 HJN’ had been on the road until recently, but its life was ended by a front corner shunt severe enough to rip off the nearside front strut and damage the A-post, so the door wouldn’t open and close. It wasn’t repairable and, with 150,000 miles on the clock, wasn’t worth doing anyway.
We’d spotted the car at Copart York’s website, which meant we could strip the car at U-pull-it in York. We worked out that we needed to be paying no more than £500 for it to be economically viable. As with all car auctions, there are fees and VAT on top of the winning bid. A £500 bid would thus incur a £65 auction fee, £7.50 internet fee, £12.50 load fee and £100 to rent the U-pull-it bay and have the engine pulled, which with the VAT added up to £825. We reckoned we could recoup our expenses selling on any parts harvested from the vehicle.
We filled in the form, sent it off and our bid was registered. Like any Copart auction, your bid is final and cannot be retracted, so make sure you really want it. Matters were simplified because we already had an account with Copart, which costs £45 per year. If you’re not a Copart member, it’s more expensive: you need to send copies of ID and a £250 deposit a day or two before the auction, while the U-pull-it bay rental is twice the member rate at £240.
On the day of the auction, the hammer fell at £479.50, well within our budget. Having paid for the car, we then rang the Breakerbid4u helpline and booked a slot at U-pull-it York to tear the 540i to bits the following Tuesday.
Going to pieces
One of the Breakerbid4u scheme’s stipulations for stripping a car is that you only have one working day to strip the vehicle, which means you need to get everything done between 8.00am and 5.00pm. Having rented a Ford Transit the previous day, we aimed to get to York by 8.30am to make a start.
U-pull-it had depolluted the BMW and placed it on trestles – welded-together steel wheels – ready to start the stripdown.
As we were planning to resell the M62 V8 engine, we began by unbolting the bonnet for more access, followed by the front panel and the single headlight remaining following the accident. Next to be removed were the aircon condenser, fan and radiator. Disconnecting the engine loom from the ECU was easy, as was detaching the various coolant hoses and earth straps, with the aim of dropping the whole engine and autobox down on the subframe.
While emptying the spare wheel well of its cargo, we found there was still a battery attached. This was a stroke of luck because it meant we could power the front seats back and forth to access the four retaining Torx bolts, as well as check the seat functions.
With the seats out, we went at the interior with a screwdriver. We weren’t planning to keep the interior as it would take up too much room, so we simply pulled up the carpets, removed all the modules and cut the wiring plugs as far down the loom as we could.
The M-sport rear bumper was off in no time, followed by the wheels.
We’d brought along a full set of BMW locking wheel bolt keys just in case, but the correct key was sitting in the ashtray. The nearly-new rear brake discs were saved, along with the calipers, the one good front caliper and the rear suspension air pump. We left the airbags on – they’re only £80 a pair new on ebay, so we’d be unlikely to find anyone looking for secondhand ones.
By noon, the wheels, seats, modules, lights, rear bumper, speedo cluster and sat-nav screen were out on the floor. Having advertised earlier that we were breaking this BMW E39, a guy from Leeds had already asked us to get him a rear door. This one turned out to be dead straight and the right colour, netting an easy £50 simply for undoing four 13mm nuts and a wiring plug!
By 3.00pm we were ready for the engine to be dropped out. U-pull-it’s mechanics were incredibly helpful and used their forklift to shift the car into the work bay, where the power unit was dropped out, the exhaust removed (they keep the catalytic converters) and the power unit on the subframe brought back out again. We unbolted the gearbox from the engine and the torque converter from the driveplate/flywheel, pulling the box off with the converter, thus avoiding an oil slick. The engine was lifted off the subframe and the Servotronic steering box removed.
By 4.00pm, we had loaded everything into the Transit van and were ready to head home – and work out how on earth we were going to lift an M62 V8 engine out of the back of the van again without the benefit of a crane!
Any profits you make on selling car parts will vary and obviously not everything will sell overnight. We chose this 540i because they are quite uncommon and are now valuable enough to be worth fixing and keeping on the road, whereas a 525i wouldn’t be. The aim was to make enough profit for the alloys to be restored, leaving us with a free set of BBS Style 5’s with new tyres.
The prices we could reasonably expect to achieve from all of the parts we harvested were: