Buying a Used BMW – part 1
Following is the first installment of what may become the ultimate article on buying previously owned BMW’s. Nast’s original manuscript some 37 edited pages, would probably fill a complete magazine. As a result, the piece will be broken into three or four parts. -Ed
About ten years has elapsed since I last wrote about buying a used BMW — It was so long ago that there was virtually no used 3- or 5- series cars, and the 7-series had not been released. The article was topical enough to be widely reprinted. So widely that the typos compounded humorously. I wrote that buyers should deduct $80 for a new radiator under certain circumstances; a newsletter reprinted this as $30; and another newsletter reprinted the misprint with a caustic comment from the editor regarding the availability of $30 radiators. This year my best quote for a new (2002) radiator was $160. Time marches on.
Buying a used car is fraught with risks and incalculables . After all, there must be some reason why ten million A mericans are annually willing to throw an average of $4000 apiece down the tu bes (first year depreciation) for the privilege of d riving a new car off the showroo m floo r. Howeve r, if approached with caution and intelli gence you can come out a winner.
This article will cover three major areas: General rules, a discussion of components and systems and their inspection , and a survey of models . The models surveyed will not include the very old (e.g. I 800tii), the very new (535i, 325i) or the u nusual (524td). The old and unusual cars are in short enough supply not to be of general interest (but see my I 978 (fact check) “Buying Used” article if you are looking for an old 4-cylinder model).
I generally d on’t get to work on cars until they are 3-5 years old so I d on’t personally know newer cars’ strengths and weaknesses, and the newest cars have a three year warranty anyway , so they are not much discussed, even though there seems to be quite a few late model BMW’s for sale. In preparing this article I have drawn on BMW service bulletins and technical articles in club newsletters; I have consulted with BMW dealer mechanics and parts managers of long standing; I have analyzed aftermarket part sales; and I bring to this seventeen years of BMW ownership and wrenching.
The first rule is never be in a hurry. I do not mean don’t close the deal the same d ay you learn of it, I do mean don’t take the first car that comes along if it’s not exactly right, and never , ever buy without a thorough inspection. You are thus required to go in knowing what you want , and at what price. You are going to size up the car, and not its current owner-the more you can ignore the owner, the better , as you are not buying the owner. Take the test drive alone, so you can concentrate on the car, not the owner’s distractions. Arrive at your offer without interference . Be flexible but never fall for his sob story-you will have to live with the car, not his ex-wife, etc.
Service Records. Some owners actually keep service records, and these are helpful but not conclusive. They are worth examining. No problem if the dealer or a shop has not done the work, so long as it has done (i.e. by the owner). But don’t rule our a problem your senses tell you is there just because records show it has been working on. It may be a design defect, or a lemon, or a new problem caused by the work performed. Machines contract iatrogenic disease, just as people do. The fact that the owner kept the records at all is a good sign, but there are some rare birds (like myself) who keep no records but change the oil and filter every 2500 miles just the same.
BMW NA has a central computer to which dealer computers can talk. Any recall, campaign or warranty work which has been performed in the last 5+ years should be entered into NA’s machine. I am told this is a one-way system (BMW NA’s computer collects information but does not disseminate it), so ask Montvale for a printout of any car you are thinking of buying — they should at least tell you which campaigns were performed on the car. (I’m not guaranteeing they will, though). Even records of routine service are stored in some dealers’ computers, and if you (or the seller) ask nicely you might be able to get those records (assuming a dealer has been servicing the car)
Crashes. Personally, I will not purchase a car which has been in a serious accident. They never seem to handle quite the same anymore. Furthermore, odd mechanical and aesthetic problems keep cropping up, such as failed water pumps, alternators, regulators, and brake boosters, rust patches, checking paint, etc.
The only way to tell if there has been a crash is to carefully examine the car everywhere. Sloppy fitment of panels, mis-match of paint, crumpled of badly refinished metal in those hard-to-reach spots, seams bondoed over [is this the first use of “bondo” as a verb in our written language? – author], paint over-spray, etc, are all signs. If you can’t spot this kind of thing, cajole or pay a friend to come who can. But remember, overspray can be caused by simple (sloppy) repainting, without major bod y damage. And also re member, an awful lot of BMW’s have been wrecked .
I inspected a 320i last year for a friend. It looked like a good car for a good price, but the paint on the driv er’s door wasn’t quite right. Closer inspection revealed that the door was originally green, not bronzit . I then noticed some seams were missing from the door sill, and got my magnet out. The sill was full of bond o, and further inspection revealed that the vertical post supporting the door had been replaced and where it joined the A pil lar was also full of bondo . That car had been in quite a crash, and corners were cut, literally and figuratively , in its repair. Spot welds on the floorpan were later found to have separated as well.
The previous owner. Even though you are not buyi ng the previous owner, you are buying the result of his care or abuse. Part of the zen of buying a used car is putting aside your feelings about the owner, positive or negative .
If the owner is dishonest, though , forget the car. You have enough head aches alread y. I inspected a 914 some years ago, which the owner repres ented had never been in an accident. Bond o in the passenger side door sill was cracked to a depth of a half inch. The owner seemed offended I didn’t even want to start the engine, but why waste the time? We weren’t going to d o any business.
Smoking is a real problem. If my feelings about smokers aren’t known they can be readily inferred, yet the last car I bought was from such an addict. When buying a one-owner 230SL of the right color there are limits to how fussy you can afford to get .
Age. Most cars will run for as long as you’re willing to put money into them. (Question :”How do you make a small fortune restoring a BM W?” Answer : “Start with a large fortune.”) The issue is, when does putting money into the car cease to make sense, either economically or in light of the pleasure derived from it?
Certain parts deteriorate as a func tion of age, notably rubber. BMW’s have a surprising amount of rubber in them, none of it cheap. Door and trunk gaskets, gaskets around lamps , lenses and windshields, rubber on and around bumpers, rubber in the suspen sion, rubber in the drivetrain, rubber in the shift linkage (five pieces there alone, depending how you count) – all of it goes bad. Radiators seem to lose efficiency in about ten years, and are more economical to replace than to have “rodded.” You must determine which such parts need replacement, and at what cost.
Other parts wear out as a function of use and abuse, such as trim and mechanical parts . Pitted or scored windshields are inevitable on a high mileage car, yet should be replaced. Carpets get tatty and seats begin to sag. Lack of maintenance kills hyd rau lic systems, paint and chromium . And so forth.
The sun is also a killer , as it bleaches interiors, cracks d ashboards, seats and headliners, destroys metallic and red pigmented paint and wipes out ru bber. A very germaine question to ask before even going to look at a car is whether it has been garaged.
One thing that d oes not deteriorate with age is styling. A motive to buy a used BM W can be that some of them are better looking than anything being built today. Ifyou have strong feelings this way, you may be willing to tolerate more expense and trouble than if you are merely looking for a conveyance. Be honest with yourself about this, though, so you can arrive at a realistic budget.
And remem ber, you are shopping for a used car. A used car will have some road rash and a few things that need attention. If you want a car in perfect shape, you’d better buy a new one.
Modifications. Until fairly recently BM W ‘s were, in my view, “kit” cars. Their full potential could not be realized without mod ification. However , there are good modifications and bad mod i fications, sometimes the d ifference being merely a matter of taste.
It is hard to louse u p suspension and wheel / tire modifications so Jong as k nown brands were intelligently used ; otherwise , beware. A good suspension mod is worth paying extra money for. The test is in the d riving. Does the car hold the road well , corner in a balanced manner, have cont rolled body roll without knocking out your fil lings? The harder you get to d rive the car, the better you ‘II know the suspension .
Engine mods require greater buyer perception . They generally decrease engine life , and a surprising nu mber make the car louder but not faster. They are not a substitute for rebuilding a worn out engine, either. If the owner has d one an engine mod without upgrading the suspension, the owner isn’t ve ry bright and the car is suspect. Generally , an engine mod doesn’t im prove the value of a used car much, and often you pay less if it’s been done.
Pricing . Pricing is q uite a regional affair, and defies generalization . In suggesting two formulae below , please u nderstand t hat these are just sugges tions, and not gospel. Price ranges for individ u al models are d iscussed later, but these are of limited use. The price comes d own to how badly you want the car and t he owner wants to part wit h it. No matter what market you are in, you are always ahead of the game paying extra for a straight clean car. Cond ition is everyt hing.
You are always ahead of the game paying extra for a straight clean car.
Also, the price you pay is not the cost of the car. I t wi ll need some work , I guarantee it, and probably the bul k of the work will be in t he fi rst year of ownership. So if you have $6000 to invest , don’t pay more than $5,000 for the car – you will need the rest for tires, or shocks, or a tranny overhaul, or brakes, etc.
That said, there are two ways to analyze pricing.
The first system is the one I use. Take the price of the car when new . Ded uct from it the cost of making all repairs necessary to make the car like new . Add to the price the value of acceptable modifications . Voila, the final price.
The meticulous reader is no d oubt m using that a used car, by this for mula, may be worth less than nothing, and he is pretty much cor rect – a n u mber of tired BMW’s out there are worth less than $300, and d on ‘t pay more!
The second system is an effort to rationalize the irrational pricing struc ture of used BM W’s prevailing tod ay . I say irrational because depreciation is far more rapid than it used to be, far more rapid than should be expected considering the size of the annual increase i n new car prices , and far less linked to the condition of the particu lar car than it should be . The magic of the BM W rou ndel seems to influence many bu yers more than the cond ition of t he car, and it should n’t.
Take the new cost of t he smallest model in a given year, and ded uct 20% for the first year. From the remainder , deduct I 0% for the second year. From that remainder , deduct 10% for the third year. And so forth , u ntil you reach the “floor”, which varies from model to model. For the 7-series, add
$3000, and for the 6-series add $4000. Some adjustment must be made for cond ition and equipment , of course.
Next month Mr. Nast will take us into the world of BMW sys tems and inspections, beginning with one of his favorite topics: rust . Ed.
This article was originally published in the April 1988 edition of Zundfolge