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Weekend Edition – Beaterland Report: 10 000 Miles in a Cheap BMW

Antti Kautonen July 14, 2013 Finnish Line 11 Comments

sapporo_bmw_37

When I bought my winter daily driver BMW E34 5-series in early October, it had a touch over 229 000 km on the clock. The digital odo has now rolled to 245k, and I feel like it’s time to recap the past months, how the white saloon has done. It’s easy to scroll through used car ads on a daily basis, but what is it like to pick one, buy one and deal with the car for the entirety of Finnish winter and the following spring?

Prepare yourselves for the longest piece of writing I have bestowed upon these pages, as I dissect the 518i’s ownership experience.

This is where I wave my man card in the air: the BMW is my first rear-drive car. Up until now, all my cars have scraped from the front. This is not a bad thing, by all means, but before getting the E34 I had pretty much done my winter driving on FWD autopilot. Any hoonage had to be instigated by a flick of the handbrake, and the cars hadn’t really been steerable with the throttle. After getting embarrassingly stuck on a wet grass incline, I quickly learned I did need to develop an awareness of what the rear end is doing, or not doing. Call it RWD 101, and ice track driving and constant playing have developed my seat-of-the-pants sense.

When we left off in the initial article just after purchase, I noted down the various areas that needed rectifying or improving. So far, the bodywork has been the area receiving the most and the least hands-on attention; I meticulously buffed the resprayed, matte’d sections to a great shine and got the car looking 99% like a million bucks. The 1% not looking like a million bucks are the small rust spots in the front fenders and rockers, as I haven’t done anything about them. The good thing is that they haven’t advanced too much, and the car’s appearance has stayed respectable despite it getting constantly dirty. And boy, does it attract muck. One thing I’ve found I really need to spray the car down with a good pre-cleaning solution before attempting to wash it. Any dirt will otherwise simply stick on the white paint so hard, that a simple jet carwash will not remove it all. But with a good solution, the car will always emerge clean and white as dinner plates.

Mechanically, I have not been let down – too much. I replaced the tired valve cover gasket early on, but there is still oil seeping and dripping slowly from the front of the engine, seemingly from the chain cover seal. With the Sapporo, I eventually had the crank seal replaced, but the oil loss is so much smaller than with the Mitsu, that it’s simply not an issue at this point. My mechanic said it’s hardly a problem – and as a BMW enthusiast, his words about the feasibility of repairs are somewhat trustworthy. He also fixed the driver’s side door lock, that annoyingly packed in early on. I’ve been especially satisfied with the car’s Varta battery, which has not once gotten low on juice or died on me.

Oil hasn’t been the only thing ending up on the ground. A radiator O-ring started leaking, and other radiator hoses have been letting coolant on the ground as well. Another source of leaking has been the aux water pump, but that is only on the replacement list in the future and not a critical FIX IT NOW item. The windshield washer jets have been somewhat ineffective due to leaking hoses, which I haven’t managed to fix completely. I’m afraid this has contributed to the windshield’s state, as there are more scratches on it than when I got the car. And it hasn’t avoided its share of rock chips, either. An early victim was a driver’s side headlight, which got a big hole and a crack on it due to a rock hitting it. I ended up choosing to replace all headlights with aftermarket DEPO items. The damnedly ugly tow bar was banished as soon as possible.

I haven’t avoided preventative maintenance, not by far. The rear axle mounts got replaced at the school auto shop, and apparently were a complete pain to do. In addition to those, I replaced some steering column parts and a swing arm end link, to bring the handling slack to a minimum. The car no longer lurches when going for overtaking. Yeah, I do overtake every now and then, despite the car being a bit down on available power due to only having a 1.8-litre four. Since the 518i is a mileage champion more than a torque monster, I try to feather the throttle to eke the most out of it, and it rarely needs stomping on. The rewards are clear, as I’ve managed more than 36mpg on my cross-country jaunts. For an old large saloon, that is formidable – especially on the worthless 95E10 blend I’ve used solely.

What about other cosmetic work? I brought the interior up to date by replacing worn parts like the shifter knob and the shifter leather, which cleaned up the car’s interior appearance. Like I already mentioned in the initial write-up, I replaced the tired Blaupunkt with a Kienzle stereo, which hasn’t fallen short from my expectations. I thought up the major points of this write-up on a 500 km drive back north, listening through a large portion of Dire Straits’ published output on Spotify on my iPhone, hookud up to the AUX jack on the Kienzle. I listened to David Sylvian on the way south. On night drives, a short intermittent flicker or blackout of the dashboard lightning is triggered whenever main beams or indicators are switched on. There’s some kind of a glitch in the instrument panel, maybe a bad condensator. As the weather warmed up, the issue disappeared.

Wheel and tire-wise, I started the winter with the set of steelies with Hankook studded tires, then replacing them with a junkyard set of 16″ Flachstern OEM wheels with studless winter tires. These proved to be a revelation; I had never tried studless winter tires on any car of mine, and the amount of grip they offered was a surprise. Of course, the tires had a profile a touch too low, which naturally contributed to a larger speedometer error. And as I needed to do long jaunts as the winter progressed, I reverted back to studs and acquired original wheel trims on the steel wheels. In the photos, taken when I was letting the Sapporo go, the car wears 16″/8″ E38 Style 5:s on summer rubber – a tight fit due to an ET mismatch.

But, to finish it all off. How do I like it? I definitely like it, a lot. The BMW is better at being a car than any of my previous or current cars. The ride, the solidity, the feeling of build quality has been exceptional the whole winter long. The car comes off as a driver’s car, and with the long wheelbase it’s addictively easy to control in a flick of a slide. It’s been immensely difficult to resist kicking the tail out on any icy surface, be it a grocery run or an ice track blast. As a My First RWD Car, it could hardly be better.

But do I love it? It’s grown up on me, having taken its time. When I finished the first draft of this article, I had covered 10 000 km with the car. I had settled on the thought that the car is merely an appliance, a conveyance. I didn’t feel the love, and the attachment hadn’t happened yet. It took another 5000km in a single month, driving up and down and west and east around Finland, to get the car to click. On the Southeast Finland roadtrip, the car shrunk on the twisty roads’ corners, and showed me how it had just the right amount of power to surge through the corners, with me giving it ten tenths; any more power would’ve been a waste, any less would’ve been lacking. If it’s possible to have a jinba ittai moment with a slow E34, this was it – like the MX-5 sales phrase says, rider and horse as one.

Out of curiosity, I posted the car up for sale around the time when I ended up buying the 205. I had a local buyer candidate check out the car, drive it, and the moment he took it for a spin around the block I felt something yank my heartstrings. I couldn’t sell the BMW, not just yet. In what would be probably seen as a dickish move, I told the seller I was most likely going to keep the car for the foreseeable future. I’m not yet done with it.

Besides, my girlfriend still hates the Peugeot and really rather drives the BMW… but that’s just a minor detail, isn’t it?

  • dukeisduke

    So it's a 518i? With crank windows? I only ascertained that by reading the earlier Beaterland stories. What's acceleration like? I don't know how long it's been since BMW sold a car with crank windows in the US – what, 30 years?

    • Crank windows yes sir-ee. Another electric gizmo that cannot break on this car. 🙂 Acceleration exists.

      • dculberson

        See, your experience must not match up with mine. I've owned so many old beat up American cars with crank windows that electric windows seem MORE reliable to me. I spent so much time tugging on reluctant window cranks that if I never own another manual window car again I won't be sad.

        Then again it is a particularly helpless feeling if the power windows don't work. You just stare at it thinking, go! Stupid window!

  • lilpoindexter

    Check out mye28.com…even though yours is an e34, there are plenty of people there that can help if you get stuck.
    i have an '88 528e that I converted to manual as one of my daily drivers…There's something about the car that I really like…it isn't the power…It's the right size for a car, and it looks like a car, and not like a dildo or a bar of soap or a corndog. My car has around 339k KM and it passed California smog on the OG catalytic converter three weeks ago.

  • dropgate

    I owned an 1995 525i for a year or so. It was a fine car but it was painfully slow. I can't imagine what a 4-cylinder E34 must be like. I finally decided I couldn't take it any more and bought an E39 540i which I've had for years. Much more enjoyable car.

    • Coming from a 525i it would feel slow, coming from a 520i it probably wouldn't. It hasn't got big lungs, that's for sure.

      • Dean Bigglesworth

        I know from personal experience that 0-100kph in 23 seconds is aqequate, if not terribly exciting. I bet you a beer that your 518 is quite a bit quicker than that.

        Anyway this got me thinking what modern Bayerische Mutter Werkstatt product would be closest to this, and it's probably the E90 316i or 318i. Roughly the same power to weight ratio and outside dimensions, only much uglier. The interior doesn't look half bad as long as you skip the navigation, though.

        Now I'm tempted to pick up a base model 318i E91 Touring with a stick.

  • Piston Slap Yo Mama

    David Sylvian's "Secrets of the Beehive" is a colossally great album and I thought nobody would ever equal it. Then while shopping in a hyaku yen shop, Japan's equivalent of our dollar stores I stumbled across an intriguingly pretty cd by a band called Anywhen. It was one of the best things I'd ever heard. Then years later the lead singer embarks on a solo career and is signed to David Sylvian's label. I think you'll really like him, if you're not already a fan.
    [ jORyPnUdQ48 ]

  • nanoop

    Studded tyres: Most people I talked to about studded tyres (including myself, but I don't talk aloud to myself) told me they have them "for the last x metres", x being something between 10 and 1000, and dy/dx pretty steep.

    Flicker in the dash: In 1995, electronic components in cars such as capacitors were pretty good already, I'd guess it's a worn screen/ground, or an exhausted soldering spot. Unfortunately, lower upper class cars of the 90ies have like thousands of them (but hey, today's 5-series draw 1/5 A even when "totally off").

    FWD: you can still drift without handbrake, it's only the other way round: everly time you release the gas pedal (while slipping and after turning the steering wheel) something interesting might happen. That's how I learned to like a Focus better than a Rabbit/Golf during winter!

    • Let's say I look forward to going sideways in the 205. 🙂

  • wunno sev

    nice car, i like. E34s are a rare sight around here these days and in the US they all seemed to come as leather-lined heavily-optioned everything-will-breakmobiles, so even if it weren't for the rust they were not long for this earth

    tell me more about keeping your white car clean! i've had to wash mine every weekend since i bought it, or the dirt that gathers on the windows drips down when it rains…what's this prewash solution stuff?

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