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dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 10:28 a.m.

Hey all,

Just thought I'd share a story with you guys.

It started about a week ago when my 2000 540i wagon started having some odd transmission issues— for some reason, once in a while when it's cold the transmission temperature sensor malfunctions and throws the transmission into an overheat mode. I looked into fixing it, which involved a $130 transmission harness + a bunch of fluid because I'd have to drop the transmission oil pan. So I figured instead I would just fix the problem permanently, with a manual swap.

I hopped on Craigslist, as I am apt to do, and found a few promising donor cars locally. Unfortunately, none of them were available by the time I called— cheap manual 540i's seem to sell really quickly in Phoenix. So I broadened my search to California and saw a listing in San Diego that caught my eye. It had no pictures but it was a 2000 540i/6 for $1500. The ad was short— it said that the car had 140k miles and that the clutch fan blew up and took out the cooling system. I got in touch with the seller and got some more information, along with the following three pictures:







It looked to be in decent shape, had a 6-speed manual, and a black interior. So of course I told the seller I was interested, and prepared to head out on Saturday to pick it up. I had just sold the Mustang GT a week prior, so I had a bunch of cash burning a hole in my pocket. I enlisted the help of my friend Graham to accompany me on this potentially sketchy adventure, and on Saturday morning we headed out to San Diego at 8am. I brought a bunch of cooling system components from various parts cars, along with a bunch of tools.

Halfway to San Diego I realized I left the cash at home, whoops! I called my girlfriend and she deposited the cash at a bank so I could withdraw it in San Diego. Crisis averted, phew! With that taken care of, we pressed on to San Diego. It was a pretty easy drive, and we arrived in San Diego around 1pm. We met the seller around Pacific Beach and took our first look at the car. The car had some tasteful mods like a strut tower brace, coilovers, and a muffler delete, and seemed to be well-maintained, with regular oil changes, new tires, and new spark plugs that were installed recently. Cosmetically it wasn't great because it had been sitting dirty outside for the longest time, but for the price I didn't really care. I paid the $1500, got the title, and got to work with Graham on fixing the cooling system.

When the clutch fan blew up, it caused quite a bit of damage to the cooling system— it left large holes in the hood, tore up the hood insulation, destroyed the fan shroud, shredded the expansion tank, and cut both radiator hoses. Moral of the story— replace your BMW's fan clutch if it's still original! Graham and I moved quickly, removing all of the destroyed components within 30 minutes and tossing the busted parts into somebody's household trash can, since were literally working on the street.

Here are the new speed holes that the old clutch fan created:



With the new (used) clutch fan installed:



The scene on the street:



We did try to use as many old parts as possible to keep costs down, but we didn't have any good radiators so I had to buy some knockoff Onix brand one for like $100. Seems to fit decently.



After installing most of the new parts, we realized that the expansion tank I brought was no good— it was missing the overflow hose nipple. A quick run to O'Reilly's solved that, with a brand new Dorman brand expansion tank for $79. We also bought 3 gallons of pre-mixed Zerex G05 coolant. With the cooling system fully reassembled, we filled it via the upper radiator hose, which took care of a lot of the air that would be present in a new radiator. Bleeding went pretty quickly— we didn't even make a huge mess!

Now that the cooling system was mostly sorted, we started up the car for the first time. It started right up but ran pretty rough and threw a check engine light immediately. The cluster display had a lot of missing pixels, but there were enough pixels left that I could monitor the coolant temperature in cluster test #7. I also plugged in my code reader to check on the engine codes. There were 7 codes, all related to various misfires. I cleared the codes and then we limped the car across the street to put some gas in it since the tank was almost completely empty. With some fresh Shell gas (RIP my wallet) it seemed to run a bit better, but the CEL kept flashing repeatedly which was mildly concerning. We drove the car back to the previous street and continued to work on it there. 

Graham kept bleeding the cooling system as the car was reaching operating temperature, while I kept the code reader plugged in to see why the engine was running so poorly. Eventually we narrowed it down to cylinder #5 misbehaving. I had the idea of swapping the coils around to see if the code moved, and sure enough, the code moved to a misfire on cylinder #6. Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring extra coils with me, as I've never really had one fully fail before (I guess I'm lucky?). After making some calls, I found an Autozone that had an ignition coil in stock, so we parked the 540i/6, piled into the wagon and drove across town. The first Autozone we went to had the completely wrong coil, but we eventually found an Autozone with the correct ignition coil— it was a Duralast coil and it was $59. Not the worst thing ever, especially considering the lack of choices on a Saturday afternoon. Honestly, I'm impressed at the fact that I was able to find two fairly E39-specific parts at these "normal" parts stores.

As an aside, there was a guy who parked next to the touring in an Individual Imola Red F10 528i. I've never seen an F10 in Imola Red so that was pretty cool. You can easily see how much brighter Japan Rot is, kinda interesting.



After crawling back across town through traffic (traffic at 5pm on a Saturday? Why not, it's California!) we installed the new ignition coil, and the 540i/6 suddenly ran buttery smooth. No more shaking, no more CEL, and the coolant temperature seemed to stay steady at 103º - 105ºC. Now that I was certain it wasn't going to overheat (at least not immediately) I turned on the AC, which worked surprisingly well.

With this triumphant victory in mind, Graham and I headed to the nearest In N Out for a well-deserved meal (we hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was 6pm at that point). After a tasty break, we hit the road, heading back to Phoenix. Graham drove my 540it, and I drove my new-to-me 540i/6. We drove for a bit and the 540i/6 had no issues. It drove nicely and everything worked fine, with my only real complaint being the alignment. Still though, a running/driving 540i/6 with 140k and a clean title for $1500? Score!

We stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of San Diego to top up for the long drive home. If you think filling up one E39 with Shell Premium in California hurts, try filling up two! Ouch. I also took it as an opportunity to grab a few more pics of the car:





The paint definitely isn't in great shape, but for the price it doesn't matter too much. I find it funny how this is my third Anthracite Gray E39, having owned an M5 and another 540i/6 in this color before. This one has a black interior though, unlike the previous two that had a caramel interior and a gray interior, respectively.

The ride home was pleasantly uneventful, with both cars running excellent. The 540i/6 never got hotter than 105ºC, even when going up the mountains outside of San Diego at like 85mph. We both did 85-90mph most of the way home, since the roads were blissfully empty. Even though the 540i/6 is on some low-end coilovers, it actually rode pretty nicely. It also did way better than the wagon in terms of fuel economy— by the time we got home, the wagon had the gas light on, whereas the 540i/6 still had about a quarter of a tank left. I'm sure part of that extra efficiency is the decreased drivetrain loss of a manual, and the other part is the 540i/6 being lighter and having the standard 2.81 diff versus the wagon's upgraded 3.15 diff.

This was a nice view on the ride home:



It's crazy to think that we pulled this off so well; there are so many things that could have gone wrong. It's a fun adventure to buy a car sight-unseen, fix it, and then road trip it home. It's like my very own episode of Roadkill. Again, a big thanks to Graham for coming along for the ride, he was a big help in fixing the 540i/6 and was a good sport about it all.

So what are my plans for this 540i/6? A manual swap for my 540i wagon is the eventual goal. But this 540i/6 drives so well that I might just enjoy it for a bit (at least until something breaks). Gutting a perfectly running car is hard, even if it is a little beat-up. I've been daily driving it to work for a few days, it's nice to drive a BMW manual again.

759NRNG
759NRNG Dork
12/13/17 10:43 a.m.

This needs to be in an upcoming issue of the GRMmag.....unberkin' believable. If you have the 'space' I vote keep it and resurrect. With the hood already compromised ...maybe a tasteful vent of some sort?

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 10:46 a.m.
759NRNG said:

This needs to be in an upcoming issue of the GRMmag.....unberkin' believable. If you have the 'space' I vote keep it and resurrect. With the hood already compromised ...maybe a tasteful vent of some sort?

The funny thing is that literally one day after I got home with this 540i/6 I saw a lightly crashed E39 M5 in LA for $3700. Oh well, $1500 is all I had so no sense in being mad about that.

Maybe this car needs to hit the track, it's already kinda beat up. Hmmmmm

759NRNG
759NRNG Dork
12/13/17 10:56 a.m.

Hell yeah track this bad boy. How radical are you thinking?

Cooper_Tired
Cooper_Tired HalfDork
12/13/17 11:19 a.m.

Great find! 

 

Looking forward to see where this one heads! I really like the lines of the E39's and would love to find some iteration with a MT to split commuting duties with my Miata. 

 

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 11:51 a.m.
759NRNG said:

Hell yeah track this bad boy. How radical are you thinking?

I'm thinking autocross and drag racing for now, and eventually some HPDE. I love the E39 chassis but don't want to subject my somewhat rare red 540i wagon to track abuse. I want to keep the interior as intact as possible though— I'm not a fan of the stripped out look and I like my air conditioning.

I also have a 3.15 diff laying around in my parts wagon... that might be worth swapping in if I keep driving this car.

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 11:54 a.m.
Cooper_Tired said:

Great find! 

 

Looking forward to see where this one heads! I really like the lines of the E39's and would love to find some iteration with a MT to split commuting duties with my Miata. 

 

This will be an interesting build for sure, because I bought this car with plans of parting it out, but it's honestly way too good for that. I think this one might stick around for a while longer, it'll also let me take my red wagon off the road for some much-needed work, as it recently hit 200k miles and has a whole bunch of stuff that needs to be addressed.

759NRNG
759NRNG Dork
12/13/17 11:58 a.m.

Are V10's with manual trannies lingering  at LKQ? wink

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 12:08 p.m.
759NRNG said:

Are V10's with manual trannies lingering  at LKQ? wink

Honestly I wouldn't want an E60 M5, even for $1500. That V10 is so much more trouble than it's worth, even with its glorious exhaust note. I'd rather just supercharge a V8 if I wanted more power. Plus I like torque, which the V10 doesn't have much of.

759NRNG
759NRNG Dork
12/13/17 12:50 p.m.

Really not knowing much about these sixes......are there power adders for this or are you headed towards your thread title? 

Ovid_and_Flem
Ovid_and_Flem Dork
12/13/17 12:56 p.m.

In reply to dannyzabolotny :

Hero, mine, you are.yes

Vigo
Vigo UltimaDork
12/13/17 1:04 p.m.

Im glad you're driving it now because the investment of time+money+energy into a parts-only car got sketchier as the crazy story unfolded. I would have driven it across a state with no cooling fan or overflow nipple or a working 8th cylinder, but that's just me! laugh

I've driven a 540i/6 (belonged to another GRM'er even) and liked it quite a bit. I used to think i'd like to have a nice one until i figured out what the BaT crowd thought a nice 540 was worth, and if i'm competing with that i'll never drive a nice one again. Maybe i'll get lucky and see a really nice one with some mechanical issue for a good price. 

 

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 1:09 p.m.
759NRNG said:

Really not knowing much about these sixes......are there power adders for this or are you headed towards your thread title? 

It already has a V8, haha. It's a 540i with a 4.4L V8 and a 6-speed manual. Makes right around 290hp, though many would say BMW underrates their engines and that it's closer to 300hp. 320lb/ft of torque too.

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 1:13 p.m.
Vigo said:

Im glad you're driving it now because the investment of time+money+energy into a parts-only car got sketchier as the crazy story unfolded. I would have driven it across a state with no cooling fan or overflow nipple or a working 8th cylinder, but that's just me! laugh

I've driven a 540i/6 (belonged to another GRM'er even) and liked it quite a bit. I used to think i'd like to have a nice one until i figured out what the BaT crowd thought a nice 540 was worth, and if i'm competing with that i'll never drive a nice one again. Maybe i'll get lucky and see a really nice one with some mechanical issue for a good price. 

The only 540i's that the BaT crowd goes nuts over are the 2003 M-Sport ones because they got some of the M5 bodykit bits. The 1999-2001 ones are a lot more reasonably priced because they're seen as less desirable. Plenty of them out there for well under $5000 in good running condition. $1500 is on the lower end for sure though, I got a heck of a deal with this one.

These cars run really hot (105ºC) and the cooling system is highly pressurized, so leaving a small leak isn't an option— all of the coolant will shoot out as soon as you rev the engine.

dculberson
dculberson PowerDork
12/13/17 1:32 p.m.

I love it. And while it's nice to part out it's not THAT nice. A 6 speed wagon would be amazing. I agree with your "use it for now while i work on the wagon" idea but then it should be a trans donor! I bet you could make a couple grand selling bits out of it once you've gotten what you wanted. 

gearheadE30
gearheadE30 HalfDork
12/13/17 6:09 p.m.

Awesome! That one is a sport package car as well, with bonus nachos for having the sport seats (not automatically standard on all sport package cars, and often omitted if the car was equipped with the cold weather package). They don't normally sit that low either, so I'd guess someone has at least put different springs in it. Solid find!

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/13/17 6:28 p.m.
gearheadE30 said:

Awesome! That one is a sport package car as well, with bonus nachos for having the sport seats (not automatically standard on all sport package cars, and often omitted if the car was equipped with the cold weather package). They don't normally sit that low either, so I'd guess someone has at least put different springs in it. Solid find!

The sport seats are available in heated form as well, what you're thinking of are the comfort seats, which can be specced on top of a sport package.

And it's on coilovers. I forgot what brand, but something lower-end. It actually rides quite nicely for having cheap coilovers. I've never owned a car with coilovers before, haha. My 540i wagon is lowered with H&R springs on Koni Yellow shocks.

NOT A TA
NOT A TA Dork
12/13/17 9:15 p.m.

Great story!  I think when you're about ready to do the trans swap you should advertise the engine for sale ahead of time before you start pulling the car apart. Get more money for a running driving engine someone can test drive and see there's no issues before purchase. Then once you've got a deposit on it, pull it.

jfryjfry
jfryjfry HalfDork
12/13/17 11:47 p.m.

Amazing story! It sounds like failure was not an option; did you have a fall-back plan if the thing just wouldn't run???

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/14/17 12:04 a.m.
NOT A TA said:

Great story!  I think when you're about ready to do the trans swap you should advertise the engine for sale ahead of time before you start pulling the car apart. Get more money for a running driving engine someone can test drive and see there's no issues before purchase. Then once you've got a deposit on it, pull it.

Yeah, that was my thought. It'll be a lot easier to sell the engine with proof of it running.

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/14/17 12:05 a.m.
jfryjfry said:

Amazing story! It sounds like failure was not an option; did you have a fall-back plan if the thing just wouldn't run???

I had a $7 Harbor Freight tow strap and I was seriously contemplating flat-towing it 350 miles with my 540i wagon if it didn't run correctly. Safety third, as I always say.

grover
grover Reader
12/14/17 12:32 a.m.

wow.  What an incredible story man! Geeze, I can't believe how good this is, and for $1,500!!! 

akylekoz
akylekoz HalfDork
12/14/17 6:46 a.m.

So after expenses what do you have, less than $2018 into it?

Very Jelly over here, probably no rust either right?   

I'm torn, your manual wagon is like a dream car to me, yet I hate to see a perfectly good car go under the knife.

 

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/14/17 9:59 a.m.
grover said:

wow.  What an incredible story man! Geeze, I can't believe how good this is, and for $1,500!!! 

Right?! I was expecting it to be a total derelict beater for $1500, but it really surprised me. It's a little lacking cosmetically, but mechanically it's pretty strong.

dannyzabolotny
dannyzabolotny Reader
12/14/17 10:05 a.m.
akylekoz said:

So after expenses what do you have, less than $2018 into it?

Very Jelly over here, probably no rust either right?   

I'm torn, your manual wagon is like a dream car to me, yet I hate to see a perfectly good car go under the knife.

Here are the numbers:

  • Car: $1500
  • Radiator: $100
  • Expansion tank: $79
  • Ignition coil: $59

So in total, $1738— that's all it took to get it running and driving. Part of why it was so cheap to fix was because I used cheap parts and because I used a lot of old parts from previous parts cars.

Absolutely no rust because it's a California car. Plenty of sun damage in the paint though, but that doesn't ruin a car quite like rust does, so I'll take it.

How long this car lives honestly depends on two factors— my wagon's transmission health, where if the automatic dies I kinda have to do the swap, or if this 540i/6 breaks down in some way, since I don't want to put effort into fixing what is destined to be a parts car.

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