Here’s how to steal a dream car: buy a seller groceries, grab the keys, shake the guy’s hand and head out to the parking lot. Sit down in the leather bucket seat, turn the key, let the engine rise to life and the amber gauges cast light around the cabin. Then, smile and drive away. It’s not flashy. It’s not hard. It’s simply the process of locking in a 14-year-old car for pennies on the dollar. I just did it, and it’s easier than you think.
Produced from 1997 to 2003, the E39 (BMW’s internal name) is often touted as the “best car BMW ever made.” Available as an inline-six-cylinder or V8 both in either sedan, wagon or the balls-out M5, the E39 is known for its balance, looks and driving feel. It’s one of the most sought-after used cars on the market today, but with prices ranging from $5,000-$10,000 it’s an attainable dream car for many — myself included.
I was introduced to this fourth-generation 5-Series via Clive Owen as he ripped around Manhattan flinging his client, Madonna, all over the back seat. Directed by Guy Ritchie, “Star” was the fourth in a series of eight branded content commercials called The Hire (which arguably put Owen on the map). This series and other ads by BMW featuring the M5 during the early 2000s brought fame to the holy grail of sport sedans and put BMW’s E39 on the bedroom walls of teens nationwide. It’s stayed in my consciousness for a long time. And now, it’s finally within purchasing price.
I began my quest for the E39 a year ago, with loads of research: Wikipedia, various sites, videos online, talking to my car journalist friends, reading forums and window shopping eBay, Cars.com and Craigslist.
I started with my unicorn: a low-mileage manual 540i wagon with the sport package. I found approximately zero.
From manual to automatic, inline-six or V8, wagon or sedan, sport package or non, there are a number of possible configurations. I started with my unicorn: a low-mileage manual 540i wagon with the sport package. I found approximately zero of those over my four-month search and like dating criteria, I began prioritizing my desires. Since nothing beats seat time, I began contacting sellers to test drive the different trims and sort out exactly what I wanted.
The M5 was in the running for about a week, but they ranged closer to $15,000 which was near double what I wanted to pay. So, realistically, the search was between sedan and wagon (also known as Estate or Touring). For some unexplainable reason, I have always had a special place in my heart for wagons, and although the sedan is nearly 300 pounds lighter and certainly more of a performance setup, I had to go with my heart.
After months of searching, I found the perfect ride. It was was from Craigslist and located 300 miles away in L.A. (I’m currently in Phoenix), but it looked beautiful and I was heading there for Thanksgiving. It had 176,000 miles, yet it was in pristine shape. The car had been owned by an elderly couple; then the transmission crapped out and they sold it to a BMW mechanic. He flipped it, then sold it to the current owner, who then did a number of repairs and preemptive work (i.e. motor mounts).
They say you are buying the owner as much as you are buying the car. I liked this owner. We talked on the phone for a week and I had a friend in L.A. visit him and drive the car. The list price was $6,500 — a bit much considering the mileage, but the condition and history still made it appealing.
At the holiday, my family and I packed the car and headed off to L.A. About three hours into the drive, the seller texted me saying, “I just sold the car.” No prior call; no heads up. Just — boom — and the car was gone. I called him promptly to find out if he was joking. He wasn’t. Days of discussing logistics — down to the bank where we’d meet — and high hopes of my dream car were gone. I was furious.
This is the kind of thing can happen when dealing in used cars — especially when it comes to Craigslist. eBay has a much more secure way about doing business, but there are pitfalls there, too.
The seller texted me saying, “I just sold the car.” No prior call; no heads up. Just — boom — and the car was gone. I called him promptly to find out if he was joking. He wasn’t.
Lucky for my search, a few days after losing the car I found one in Palm Springs — essentially on route back to Phoenix. It was half the price, had fewer miles and was “always garaged,” so it was in great shape cosmetically. The owner set a place for us to meet and on the day, driving out to the restaurant parking lot I got a text. Different car, different owner, same story — “I’ve sold the car.” I was speechless. I called; he didn’t pick up. I text back and he said he had made a commitment, had a deposit in hand and that was it. I asked if I could at least see the car. He agreed.
I test drove the car, looked under the body at some key points, checked switches and buttons and made sure all the windows worked (a common issue). I looked for rust and ran a quick Carfax. It was Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, so having a mechanic look it over — which is always recommended — wasn’t going to happen. I gave it my best assessment, then boldly offered the full asking price ($4,000) to be paid that day, rather than just the deposit he was given. To my surprise, he agreed. And so that left us with only one last hurdle: it was Sunday.
No banks were open and the owner didn’t want me to leave with the car on the promise of a check (smart guy). So, we did what we could — I bought him $4,000 in Ralph’s grocery store gift cards, and he signed over the title. Unconventional, but effective.
I’ve had the car for two months now and I love it. Once I got home I immediately took it to a BMW dealer and paid $200 for them to do a full inspection. I then found a great German auto mechanic through Yelp, and had him start on some repairs (at half the cost of the dealership). All used cars will need some kind of work — which is why it’s important to factor that into your budget when shopping. Right away I had $2,000 of repairs to make, then another $400 after that. Still, the car’s total cost came in under $6,500.
Now I drive my 2002 Titanium Grey 525iT every day. It is, hopefully, the beginning of a long-term relationship with a car that might end up being the first in what I one day will call “my collection.” That’s the point of a dream car, isn’t it? Or this old Bimmer could crap out and cost too much to repair, and I’ll leave it for the next car on my list — but that’s the point of a pre-owned car, isn’t it?