By on September 19, 2011


Still The Ultimate...


Jul writes:

Hey Man, I’d like to have your opinion: What do you think of the E39 M5?

Let me rephrase: What would you think about a 98000 miles absolutely mint condition, owned by an older gentleman with 3 or 4 other cars (the E39 not being his daily driver), with VANOS changed, clutch changed, and everything that could break down been changed as a preventive measure, E39 M5? … For $15K?

Wondering if I would treat myself to a potential money pit here buying this beast (that I already test drove, I’m in Love) knowing that I will not be driving it more than…5000 miles a year for the next two years MAX!


Sajeev answers:

I gotta say, E39 M5s are still the best super sedan on the planet. Sure they aren’t the top performer and lack the necessary gadgetry to spank today’s overstyled iron, but the driving experience is purer in the best BMW sedan ever made. The only flaw was the numb steering on-center. Which I quickly overlooked to fall in love with the rest of the package: I drove the finest E39 M5 (Sterling Gray with Caramel Leather) in 2002 and…well…that car completely changed my life.

Go ahead and buy it, but have about $5000 lying around for the next two years, because you could very well use it. Anything with rubber can and will fail at this age: go price a new power steering hose and see for yourself. The pixels (that always fail) on the cluster will be another few hundred. Anything that can possibly wear will do just that, even if the car sits around for most of the time. Time is not on its side, this will be a labor of love.

No wait…a labor of lust. I would buy this car, but you have been warned.

Jul answers:

Hey Sajeev,

Thanks a lot for the super quick reply man, really appreciate. As far as your answer I think we’re on the same page, unfortunately, if I want to be serious…I ride my motorcycle 90% of the time to commute but once in a while I need 4 wheels…So I guess the M5 would be driven about 2 days a week average, not enough to sit and wear all the rubber and seal components but still… As far as the pixel on the meter cluster screen they already started, it made me laugh cuz you’re right: They always do!

Oh well… I think I’m going to keep enjoying the bike and my old car and will wait a bit for a sport sedan… It’s not like I REALLY need it at the moment, but I liked entertaining the idea I think.

Sajeev concludes:

I really want you to buy this car, even if common sense demands otherwise. One thing we need to be clear on: rubber degrades just by sitting around…and once you heat cycle it a few times because you want to take the M5 on a few trips….boing! Something fails! And that’s assuming that all the electrics, leather, paint, suspension bits are like new. Which isn’t the smartest idea.

Tell me how this turns out for you.

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46 Comments on “Piston Slap: E39 M5, Labor of Lust?...”

  • avatar

    Don’t forget about the plastic end tanks on the radiator. But still…..E39 M5 FTW!

  • avatar

    I’d say, avoid it if you live in a state that requires annual inspections that include the emissions control check. Google “E39 M5 secondary air injection” for the nightmares related to carbon buildup in the secondary air injection ports in the heads. Or see:

    I sold mine right after its extended warranty expired, because I was getting actual wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares.

    The clutches are known to be a bit fragile (never had a problem with mine); one more thing that wears out is the differential mount bushing, heh heh… expensive, labor-wise, to replace.

  • avatar
    NTI 987

    I’ve had two. The last one I bought with 85k miles and sold two years later with 110k. They are fantastic cars. I might be picking up a third in the next year or so. I especially liked that I could add all the latest gadgets as factory upgrades (sirius radio, bluetooth, dvd navigation) despite the car now being 10 years old.

  • avatar

    I have gone through this dilemma about a dozen times over the past two years. Nicely appointed and well taken care of M5s seem to pop up about every month or two here in Oregon, and they always end up around the $15-18k mark. Then I just think about the two >100k mile bimmers I’ve owned in my life. One of these days I’ll pull the trigger. Once I convince my loving wife that $10K in a bank account for maintenance that’ll be drained in 18 months is a good investment.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a question and am coming from the perspective of never having seriously considered buying an old German car (yet). You said you would set aside $10K for maintenance and it would last around 18 months, so stuff would break and be fixed (expensively). However would that $10K cover you for many years after since I assume the new parts would last a good few years and there are only so many things that need to be fixed.

      • 0 avatar

        There are several way to approach german (BMW in my case) car ownership:
        1. Every time the car squeaks, rattles or a check engins light comes on you take it to the dealer and get run up the flagpole.
        2. You locate the resident BMW guru, everytown has one or several, create a relationship and get your car serviced for no more than your average Honda in cost of parts & labor.
        3. Split the difference. I can handle just about anything this side of a head gasket and BMW’s are surprisingly easy to work on. Usualy there is a DIY video on Youtube and routine maintainece parts are the same cost as most any other car. I use the local guru for stuff like alignments and things I dont have the tools or time for, thus far that has been only once.

        M cars have some expensive M maintainence and parts but the friend I know with a M5 E39 has not had any trouble

      • 0 avatar



        If you have to run to the dealer for everything (or anything post warranty) you will not have a happy ownership experience.

        An M5 is a VERY expensive car to maintain, but provides a commesurate driving experience. You get what you pay for.

      • 0 avatar

        @ DSWilly

        Hey Willy, got a suggestion of removing a snapped off bleeder from the rear caliper on my e46?

      • 0 avatar


        Go to autozone and buy a rebuilt caliper for $39.99 after you return the core. It is even stamped BMW, although it is made by ATE, the original supplier for BMW. I am assuming of course that you already tried PB blaster and an easyout.

      • 0 avatar

        1) Anecdotal experiences like “I have a friend who owned this car with no problems” mean very little to nothing. Read CR, read TrueDelta, and read owner forums. Bimmers over 100k are expensive to maintain and expensive parts break often.

        2) Find a local specialist and figure out if you can trust the guy. Have him inspect the car and provide an estimate for repairs for the next 12-18 months. Be wary….he has every incentive to tell you “I’ll be easy to maintain” because you’ll be going to him when the time comes for major repairs.

        3) I was exaggerating a bit for dramatic with the $10k in the bank. But at least $5k. Maybe more for an M5.

        4) I disagree with the idea that “BMWs are as easy to maintain as a Honda.” Mechanics I know say “they are engineered to death and you have to take out 10 parts to replace the part you need to get at.”

        But boy, do they drive nice, and get great HWY cruising MPG. Watch out for the dreaded 59-63mph road shimmy.

  • avatar

    Do it…..

  • avatar

    I like these, I haven’t ever really put thought into buying one, I always have been a fan of the 7-series from that period (I made the mistake of buying a 750iL a few months ago, which is STILL in the shop getting looked over.) But the M5 is a sweet choice of car, this has me going out to look for one now, everyone I have ever known that has had one loved it, though my friends tend to hide repair bills from me, the cars tend not to stay in the shop all the time, but repairs cost a lot. Basically, BUY IT.

  • avatar

    Go for it.

    • 0 avatar

      You are literally buying my dream car. A car from my dreams that I won’t get precisely for the reasons you are concerned about.

      Go for it! Let us know how it turns out.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    If you love it, go for it. Get it out of your system while you can. There are vehicles on my “must own” list and if I stumbled across one in the shape your describing I’d go for it just so I’d have the stories to tell someday.

  • avatar

    DO EEET!!!!

  • avatar

    Go for it. Join the M5Board to see common issues and many excellent DIY. Also bimmerfest and xoutpost (common NAV system with the X5, etc). I saved lots on labor doing items like the Waterpump-with-everything (which any V8 needs at 100k) and took the e39 M5 to the local BMW specialist (never the “stealership”). For parts I recommend Pelicanparts and TischerBWM. Each has excellent pricing vs the dealer, if you can plan your jobs around mail-order. There are free exploded diagrams on for BMW’s. Even still, my maintenance ran $1500-$2000 annually on a 3rd owner 100k M5.

  • avatar

    You’re asking specifically about an E39 M5, and I’m going to give you a generic answer:

    If you truly love motor vehicles (no matter how many wheels), sooner or later you’re going to run into a car (truck, motorcycle, whatever) that absolutely gives you wood just thinking about it. It’s for sale, it looks good and you can afford it.

    At which point you forget the naysayers, the cheap bastards that won’t own a car unless it’s a virtual pre-housing bubble Fortune 500 investment, those cringing folks that are worried about the cost of a rubber hose to the point that the buffalo screamed loudly the last time they had to take a nickle out to buy a replacement part. AKA, those people who claim to be motor vehicle lovers, but won’t back it up by being willing to take the risk once in a while to face a large repair bill in exchange for the glories of downshifting into a decreasing radius curve at 20mph above the posted speed limit (much less the recommended limit on that little yellow sign just before the curve).

    So you take a chance, buy a magnificent car, and every once in a while it prangs you for four figures? So what? Weigh that against all those good days, the days when life is completely in the toilet and everything is going wrong – but you don’t notice, ten miles down the road in that ‘you should have known better’ expense.

    I’ve done it. One of the great fascinations of my life was to own a Triumph T150V (for the uninitiated, the original 69-74 Triumph Trident). My best friend, who was the Triumph dealer in my home town when they were new warned me against it. Gave me a complete list of everything that’s going to go wrong if I was stupid enough to buy one.

    I bought one, anyway. And a bitsa, to boot. And in seven years of ownership, every one of those predicted things went wrong. And I’m still overjoyed I owned that bike, if for no other reason than adding that third cylinder to your basic 500cc British vertical twin turns it into something completely different. And, as a British motorcycle lover, my life would have been a lot poorer if I hadn’t experienced it. Even having to go thru a $2400 complete engine rebuild halfway through its life (my fault, due to a bit of arcane knowledge that I didn’t discover until after I blew the mill – never use the reserve petcock as reserve) didn’t hurt the enjoyment of that bike one bit.

    That’s not the only time. I’ve always felt that the Ducati Paso was one of the most gorgeous motorcycles ever made. And halfway thru my tenure as the parts manager at Ducati Richmond, I had a chance to get a 906, and a 1 of 100 blue and white one, no less. Yeah, those old Cagiva parts gave me fits until we (myself and the shop mechanics one winter) gave it a complete go-over and replaced a lot of the bike with later-built replacement parts. The end result? The only sport bike I’ve ever been completely comfortable in riding, one of the best rides of my life, and one of the most gorgeous motorcycles I will ever see. I cried the day I had to sell it (due to my wife’s health care costs, I’m caring for an invalid).

    I’m on my third “you gotta be out of your mind” vehicle right now. A 1987 Porsche 924S with 126k on the clock. Was originally looking for a first generation Miata when I stumbled across it. Always loved the front engine Porsche’s way more than the rear engined cars (fifteen years earlier almost bought a 928, got the ‘spreadsheet the repair costs’ willies and didn’t – still regret that decision). And the way it handled cut the couple of Miata’s, I’d previously driven, dead. And when the seller suggest we go back out an re-run the route I’d just driven, but a good bit faster, I was sold.

    I’m doing OK. Having no service records, I immediately budgeted for the $2k timing belt, water pump, etc., etc., etc. and had it done within a week of purchase. It annually pings me to the tune of about $500-700 for a repair. Fuel pump was the latest back in April. And since my wife is no longer capable of riding pillion with me on the bikes, I thank God that I spent the money. It still gives us a Saturday like we used to have, just with four wheels instead of two.

    Live. Its only money, and as long as there’s a roof over your head, food on the table, and something put aside to insure those two will be covered in the future, then live to enjoy. If you’re going to get like those on this forum who have to spreadsheet every repair and agonize over resale value, then just buy a damned Corolla and shut the ‘ef up. You’re not a car enthusiast, you’re an accountant who can only afford reliable appliances.

    And, I hope you never ‘get it out of your system’. Yeah, that M5 will someday lose it’s luster (maybe – it could turn out of be a lifelong keeper, no matter what the expense). At which point, follow another dream, and damned be the cost.

    Myself? I’m 61, and someday, before I die, I’m going to own a Ferrari. Nothing valuable or collectable as I can’t afford the purchase price (fortunately I’ve always like the 400i), but I’m going to have a genuine, ruinously expensive to maintenance Ferrari. And life as I see it will be better for the experience. I’ve got no kids to leave my estate to. Better I whittle it down a bit at a time supporting some good Ferrari mechanic, and have the joy of listening to the V-12 bellow down the straights.

    • 0 avatar

      Syke, I logged in from work just to say that this is, without a doubtm, one of the best posts I’ve ever read on TTAC. I like your way of thinking. Now you’ve got me contemplating selling/trading my LS1 240z for something else on my bucket list.

    • 0 avatar

      ↑ nominee for TTAC Poet Laureate. (Syke)

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve gone off the deep end myself a few times and never (completly) regretted it. A couple of my not totally practical purchases include a mid 80’s 535is, Porsche 944, a fly yellow Ducati Super Sport, a totally dumb Viper Red Dodge Hemi Quad Cab 4×4 with every toy known to man.

      I recall in vivid detail great times with them. I remember awesome rides, meaningful events and times when I went Zen and cleaned chain grease with WD-40 for hours. On the other hand I’ve owned ten or more transportation devices that I can’t even remember their model year or when I sold them.

      When you are around things that bring you joy whether it’s someone you love, music that moves you, or you are winding an M Motor to redline you are more alive. Any chance to be with, and do those things are finite. Do them all now and as frequently as you can. Because….you just don’t know.

      Five years ago I bought my perfect E46 330 with the Sport Package on e-Bay when I had some serious Beer Goggles on. Didn’t need it, but glad I bought it. It’s at 118k now and I maintain it instead of waiting for things to break and its been completely reliable. I plan on running it to 200k and giving it to my daughter.

      If you can afford it; do it.

    • 0 avatar

      Well said. I really like when a true enthusiast speaks up. Sometimes the pandering to Camrys and Corollas makes me ill. I would understand it if this website was for Parents magazine. But for those who understand how a tough day at work can be released by a spirited drive in a performance machine. You either get that or you don’t. But I can’t help but ask the question: Why does German performance have to be so damn frangible? In my opinion it doesn’t have to; it just is.

    • 0 avatar

      Syke, I’ve saved your reply for future reference when the time comes to replace my current car. Somewhere along the road of life I lost my way and became “financially responsible”, spreadsheets and all.

      +1 to one of the best posts on TTAC ever.

    • 0 avatar

      Holy Hell that was good readin. Thank you for putting in words what many people use as their reasons for doing what they do…or wish they would do.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnny Canada

      Epic post.

    • 0 avatar


      Very well said. Your post hits very close to home for me. Without going into details,my situation is very similar to yourself.

      I guess when the preacher says “for better or for worse” he means it eh?

      I took money I should have saved, and spent it on a Mustang convertible.

      I never looked back.

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent post!!! +1000000

    • 0 avatar

      Registered on this site just to say FUCK YES to this post. Well said my friend, well said indeed.

  • avatar

    Seriously consider a 528i or 530i.

    The engine isn’t quite there, but the steering is better on I6 BMWs of this era (I think the eights used a recirculating ball) and, well, Dinan et al can always help you with the power.

    • 0 avatar

      ^ This. Although a 540i with a manual will give you 99% of the daily driving thrills of the M5, with half the repair costs. Keep in mind, a frightening number of parts will unbolt off a 740 and onto a 540. Hell, before my brother sold his 5, I may have done a diff swap on my 7…

      The I6’s will be more reliable, but the 8’s aren’t bad if you are a little obsessive with the maintenance. No reason you can’t get 180-200k before one gives up.

      • 0 avatar

        “Although a 540i with a manual will give you 99% of the daily driving thrills of the M5”

        As a current owner of a M5 and having driven the 540 extensively before buying the M5, I respectfully disagree with this statement. It’s just not the same. The experience and the emotions I feel just aren’t the same.

      • 0 avatar

        ^ Ellomdian, the M5 is not the same as a 540i. I have to disagree because in my experience, the two offer a completely different driving experience. I don’t have to shift to pass someone, there is so much torque the shift is optional. As for parts, I pay the same doing DIY and mail-ordering M5 parts as a work colleague that pays dealer prices. At the end of the day he wishes he had the M badge.

        As for carbon buildup, that’s from old men driving around hyper-miling at 2000RPM on regular gas, which of course will carbon-up a 7500-RPM-redline v8. The Cadillac Northstar suffers the same issue.

        The e39 M5 has it all: Classic “E30” styling, wind-tunnel shaped silhouette, upgradable NAV and Bluetooth.

        There’s nothing like the engine growl of the S62 starting up in the morning or pulling up to the curb. The sound alone makes women wet.

    • 0 avatar

      “Seriously consider a 528i or 530i.

      The engine isn’t quite there, but the steering is better on I6 BMWs of this era (I think the eights used a recirculating ball) and, well, Dinan et al can always help you with the power.”


      The 528 will feel weak.
      I owned a new 530 which I loved, then had a well-used 540-6 which was much better (I even liked the recirc-ball steering better), then a rare white/carmel E39 M5 (used). No comparison at all. I thought “why did I wait so long”?
      I do highly recommend the luxury interior vs. the sport as the carmel leather looks like a Ferrari inside – just beautiful.

      After a few months though, I did start to long for a lighter more nimble car – the E39 is awesome but is still a heavy luxury car.

  • avatar

    I created an account just to answer this question. I bought a 2003 M5 exactly 2 years ago to the day. I have put over 50,000 miles on it since then; all of those miles have been with a smile on my face. All the money I have left over after essentials goes towards maintaining this car. I could have put a nice down payment towards a house or invested it in the stock market, and I have absolutely no regrets about my decision at all. Every single cent I have spent was well spent. I have been dreaming about this car since I was 12 years old. BUY IT.

  • avatar

    Let me put it this way: You have the opportunity to date a supermodel from the late 90’s, slightly past their prime, knowing upfront that the date will end well, but will cost you three thousand dollars upfront. Would you do it? I thought so.

  • avatar
    beach cruiser

    The two words, “auto enthusiast” get thrown around frequently. I feel an auto enthusiast is a person who reads the post by Syke and while doing so is nodding their head and saying “you damn right”. That was some real nice work there Syke.

  • avatar

    Buy it, if you have the economy to pay for the services, repairs, parts etc.or have the hands for the DIY.
    And have another car available, just in case. German cars are as temperamental as they are silent and well built. (IE, everything that ‘can’ break has NOT been replaced, it’s not a Toyota)
    BTW, in my opinion it’s neither as good looking or as well built as the E34, but it’s hard to find a low-mile E34 today. On the other hand I don’t trust low-mile cars. I always feel there must be a reason it hasn’t been driven.

  • avatar

    Money pit and “not for the feint of heart”… but then, if you’ve been married and divorced, you already know this about beautiful women and exotic cars!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    A weak spot on later model BMWs are the plastic components in the cooling system. My scruffy ol’ E 28s are very easy to work on. Parts are reasonable BMW is about the last car with an I6. I’m not familiar with this gen M5 Six throttle bodys? What ever, the more you can DIY, the better.

    • 0 avatar

      Weak plastics would be an understatement. If you look at the expansion tank on an E46 the wrong way it cracks. Anyone that does not do a complete cooling system overhaul, along with belts and idler and tensioner pulleys at 60K is playing Russian roulette, and will definitely consider suicide when they see the bill for the overheat repair. It involves much more than just a simple head gasket replacement.

  • avatar

    I owned an E39 528i sport for 6 years. I sold it a few years ago and have owned two other BMW’s since. That 528i has been my favorite car to date.

    I drove a 540i, and that’s a completely different animal. I would figure the M5 would be an even bigger jump than that.

    Even the I6 had maintenance issues, although the most expensive repair was the f*&$ing window regulators. Mechanical repair work isn’t too bad if it’s under the hood.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Speaking from e39 experience,these are great but fussy cars. I’d budget for spending an extra 10 grand to sort out even the nicest M5.

  • avatar
    Sam P


    For $15k get a nice E46 330i with a clutch. I admit my bias. I’ve owned one for a while and really enjoy it.

    You might even find a nice 330i ZHP for that price. It’s the closest thing to a 4-door M3 in the E46 body. Alpina cams, 6800 rpm redline, and a shorter final drive ratio.

    C&D review here:

  • avatar

    Syke said it so, so well.

    Live. It really is only money. No fair crying about the cost to run such a magnificent car. The car has ears – it hears what you say. Complain at YOUR peril. The car breaks itself when it’s had enough of YOU. Buy this car but don’t be THAT GUY!! Then the car will behave.

    Despite the spreadsheet blues I did buy a 928 more than 5 years ago. It took most of 5 years to get it together and running right but it was actually worth it. The car is sublime. It’s a source of pride. It’s also the source of 17 m.p.g. which used to be 14 m.p.g. I’ve also made lifelong friends that I’d never have met if it weren’t for this most impractical, most beloved thing.

    Get busy living, or get busy dying.

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