[The Hack Mechanic / March 2012, BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, all rights reserved]
One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is the one where the Organians prevent a war, then dissolve into energy. The rest of us, however, need to live in the corporeal universe, battered about by our needs and wants, and occasionally screaming at ourselves “what the hell are you doing?” That’s the proper context for the 2002 BMW M5 with 290,000 miles.
The ad, with an eye-poppingly-low asking price of $7000, said that the owner had bought the car at auction with 78,000 miles in 2005, but that it had been well cared-for, with many new parts including a timing chain and VANOS components. As for the high mileage, the ad said, “if you care for these high-performance German race cars as I have, then the miles are not an issue.” Sure, I thought, easy for you to say. You’re selling it. He added “if you want to drive this car, you must bring cash when you see it.”
Despite its “beast” reputation, I had no particular lust for an E39 M5. My E39 528iT sportwagon was, by a country mile, the most troublesome, highest-maintenance BMW I’ve ever owned, and I had no desire to magnify that flamethrower through the M lens. However, there is some degree of academic lure in a 150 mph M car that sold for over 100 grand new.
So I did my due diligence. I had the seller text me the VIN. The CarFax came up clean, and jived with his story of buying the car in 2005. (You never know unless you check. I’ve caught car flippers telling bald-faced lies.) A web search for the VIN unearthed a post on M5board.com from someone who had seen the car and reported that, actually, it wasn’t all that bad. I submitted the VIN to a decoder site, and it showed that the car was loaded with everything from parking assist to a suede anthracite headliner (if anything has ever so not impressed Maire Anne, it was me saying “but… it’s got a suede anthracite headliner”).
I posted a link to the CL ad for the car on Facebook, with the straw man argument “why not buy it, drive the living snot out of it until something expensive breaks, and then part it out?” The Hack Mechanic faithful sounded like guys egging a frat brother on to chug.
Right about this time, my son Ethan, not knowing any of this, gave me a pair of cufflinks with a six-speed gearshift pattern on them. A sign! Saints be praised! Then the seller texted me and offered me the car for six grand. Curiosity turned into obsession. Maire Anne said “Just go see it. Get it out of your system. It’ll be like that Bavaria in Belchertown you kept going on and on about until you were done with it.” Ah, she knows me too well.
So I made the call. I pulled six grand out of the bank. But if the seller was clear about wanting cash, I was equally adamant about wanting to see the receipts for the engine work.
He met me early one Sunday morning in the parking lot of a nearby hotel, opening the M5’s door and saying “get in.” I did. He then pulled onto Rt 95 and proceeded to weave through light traffic at 100 mph. I asked him to slow down. “Oh, you don’t like to drive fast?” he asked. “Why would you buy a car like this if you don’t like to drive fast?”
Actually, an excellent question.
Even as a passenger, I could feel the car’s bent wheels. Though he drove the car quite fast, he shifted in a very slow and deliberate manner, as if he was babying the transmission. He also said “on a car like this, you don’t use the brakes much, because the engine’s so powerful, it slows the car down really quickly.” This is not a statement that inspires confidence in the seller. Or the brakes.
We returned to the parking lot where I could look at the car. The body seemed intact, save dents in the front fenders the seller said were due to deer collisions. It wasn’t dripping copious volumes of fluid. There was a snotty metallic rattle almost certainly due to an idler pulley on the serpentine belt – trivial to fix. But… what’s that low pumping/knocking sound alternating from both sides of the V8? I asked to see the receipts for the engine work.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I forgot those.”
That was enough. What the hell am I doing? I’m losing access to the storage in the warehouse where I’ve worked for years. I need fewer cars, not more. The four-mile-each-way commute I’ve had since 1984 is about to increase to 20. I need something dependable and fuel-efficient, not a four hundred horsepower beast with nearly 300,000 miles on it that sucks gas like two Suburbans. Other than the bragging rights of buying an E39 M5 for six grand, other than having limitless material for endless Hack Mechanic columns, what would I buy this car for, really? I don’t want to find the pain threshold where I part it out when it breaks. When I bought my 1999 Z3 M Coupe, my lust was so strong that my left brain had to gag my right brain with a sock. This was the opposite. I admit it. I had no lust for this car. I thought, I should spend the time and money putting my tii back together. I’d get more enjoyment out of it than this car. Hell, I’d get more enjoyment out of a ’63 Ramber Classic than this car.
We’re done here.
“Do you want to drive it?” he asked. “No thanks,” I smiled. “I’m good.”
“I don’t think this car is for you,” he said. Amazingly, I agreed.
But, as Klingon Commander Kor said to Kirk after the Organians stopped the war, “it would’ve been glorious.”