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BMW 550i (E60) | PH Fleet

Station cars should be dirt cheap and virtually free to run. So how has PH ended up with V8-powered 5 Series?

By PH Staff / Saturday, April 4, 2020

Late last year I had a niggling feeling, one that some on PH may admit to being familiar with; is my car really that necessary? The car in question was a 2013 three door M135i, once a glorious daily driver but now sat outside the house, getting far too little use for something with such a large chunk of change tied up in it.

A recent office move meant my commute to London had changed from driving to train-ing. Moreover, I had come to the realisation that not once had my daughter set foot in the car in her whole, entire life (admittedly only a time period of 10 months). And, oh, did I mention I had a 10 month old daughter?

We (aka my wife) had also jumped on board with the "every family in the UK must drive an SUV' mantra and recently signed a two-year lease on a Mercedes GLC 220. So, rather inevitably, from the day of delivery, much like Andy chucking Woody aside for Buzz, the M135i was left in the corner and we began to use the big shiny new thing to get everywhere instead.

So after 3+ years of owning an M135i and with 45k covered, including an incredible run from Hampshire to Loch Lomond in 2016 (ahhh, good times!) I decided it was probably time to free up some funds and buy something cheaper. My aim was to sell the M135i, bank the money and then use around a third of it to buy something that was as close to the M135i as I could get without feeling like it was a huge downgrade (oh and whilst still being interesting.... and quick... and fun...and PH worthy.

Over the years I've owned an array of cars that could have fit that bill; both R53 and R56 generations of Cooper S, a pretty ratty 172, plus a handful of mk1, mk2 and mk3 MX5s, all for relatively short periods as second or third cars - but they'd now likely involve too great a compromise. I also really wanted to use the opportunity to buy something I hadn't owned before, preferably as cheaply as possible.

And this is where the man maths really came into force. I figured if I could get hold of a CAT-N (cosmetically damaged car) and get the repairs done using second-hand parts for the right price, then I could end up with a car worth more on paper than what I paid and safe in the knowledge the repairs were actually done properly.

Cue Synetiq auctions. Those who have bought from here before are probably somewhat familiar with the process; a £50-ish annual membership allows you the right to bid on a range of trade auctions of mainly cat N and S insurance write-offs across the country (along with high mileage trade-ins and ex royal mail/police fleet disposal). The platform is all online, bids are binding and the descriptions are minimal; essentially you're taking a big gamble, which is all part of the thrill of auction buying I suppose. There was a much better write up on this from PH member Spantney, who puts it more eloquently than I ever could.

The only advice I would impart is you either need to be a mechanic or be friends with a mechanic for this to make any financial sense as a buying option. There is always a reason why these cars go through this type of auction, though it may not always be particularly apparent in either the description or photos.

As a creature of habit I started looking for older 1 and 3 Series '25s, '30s and '35s - aiming to get something as close as possible to what I was replacing - and then I saw it: a 2005 Carbon Schwartz E60 V8 550i on 106,000-miles with very light front damage. The advert description was brief and to the point, and I quote it in its entirety: "Accident damage starts and drives." What more does one need to know?

With it taking pride of place on the watchlist I then went about as many of the normal buyer checks as I could from the comfort of my armchair. Scouring the MOT database looking at what it had passed and failed on over the years - to get an admittedly highly assumptive handle of previous ownership. An HPI check (to make sure it hadn't been crashed twice!) and even a call to BMW to ask for service history - who I must say were really helpful and, although they couldn't give any firm info out without me first being a verified owner, told me there were a fair few records of the car going into the network for servicing and recall work, which all sounded promising.

Bids started to creep up across the week before, as with most auctions, alongside a big flurry at the end. The result being that I won the car for the princely sum of £3,100 plus fees (£366). Which was probably about £1,000 more than I wanted to spend in the first place - but as I'd sold the M135i that week and already banked the money, it was easy to get a bit carried away!

I've known friends that have bought a few cars over the years from these types of auctions and I gather it's always a slightly nervy time between the points of paying and seeing what turns up. The usual symptoms of buyer remorse/anxiety were seriously elevated pre-delivery, especially in my case as I had bought, virtually blind, a written-off, 15 year old V8 with 100,000 miles on the clock, potentially carrying a whole host of expensive faults.

The car was delivered by transporter a few days later, directly to my friend Drew's garage Solent MX5 (see again note above about having a good friend that's a mechanic). On arrival, first impressions were that the alloys were nothing short of immaculate, evidentially not long refurbished, with matching Goodyear Eagle F1s all around and plenty of tread. The bodywork looked fantastic and still had a paint treatment protection sticker in the rear window - a clue to why the metal looked so good, I guess.

I was also greeted by two keys and a handbook brimming with paperwork and receipts (over £10k worth!). They sat in an unmarked black leather interior, which still had a hint of that BMW smell I remember so vividly as a kid from my grandma's F reg E30 325i M sport Cabriolet - I'm convinced no other manufacturer's interior smells the same.

Aside from the damaged headlight, bonnet and bumper (thankfully on inspection no worse than the pictures and 'description' portrayed) the 550's exterior really did look spectacular. Standing from most angles and squinting, you could almost imagine the damage wasn't there. (In fact I did try and attempt to continue that technique for a while rather than actually fix it.)

Better still, on startup I was met with the reassuring sound of electrical motors whirring into life and the steering wheel and column gliding effortlessly out and down into place. This was a nice surprise not only as the M135i didn't have that function, but as I'd read just the night before about how these mechanisms can play up. (Note to future self: complete research phase pre-purchase to alleviate anxiety). The head-up display had also fired on giving instant 'fighter pilot' orange projection (again not something I had before) and the iDrive screen sprung into life.

A second push of the button (combined with a sharp intake of breath) and I was met with a very lovely, very reassuring V8 rumble. In fact it ran beautifully and sounded great, although perhaps that was to do with my relief that it had both started and didn't sound like a bag of spanners splattering oil onto the workshop floor.

The only thing left to do was actually drive it. I hesitate to use the phrase 'test drive' because obviously this did not involve 20 minutes with a cheery salesman or private seller, talking about the history of the car, sussing out their approach to vehicle maintenance and making sweeping judgements on their general character whilst trying to keep an ear out for weird noises. No, I was already on my own, resolute in the knowledge that if anything was amiss it was my problem to solve.

In this alternative world of car buying this process very much boils down to an assessment of the basics of what makes a car a car. Does it change gear as it should? Do the brakes work? Indeed, does it have brakes? Is a wheel bearing about to seize and rip an alloy off? Does it crab? Has it caught fire? Thankfully it drove well, as far as I could tell, or as far as anyone can tell up to 25mph over a few yards on a gravel track. (I did still have a smashed headlight and a bumper half unclipped so didn't really want to take to the road just yet).

Through the limited research I had undertaken up until that point (I've done much, much more since) I knew that the 550i shares its N62B48 engine not only with the 6 Series and X5 model of the same era, but also with the Morgan Aero 8 and Weismann GT MF4. Supposedly quite a reliable and unstressed lump by all accounts, but I certainly wasn't counting my chickens. A check back at the workshop revealed that every switch, mechanism, screen and dial functioned as it should, both mirrors even folding neatly into place. At this stage I think the only thing that didn't work was the spare key central locking button; presumably just flat.

It looked like I got lucky, then, meaning I could move on to the next steps of establishing what parts were needed, sourcing them and heading to the repair and spray booths. Things are rarely that straightforward, though, and there were more than a couple of surprises headed my way. More on that next time though...


Sam Liggett

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  1. BMW E60 5 Series [03-10]

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