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Shed Buying Guide | BMW 1 Series (E87)

The original 1 Series can now be had for very little money indeed. Here's what you need to know...

By Tony Middlehurst / Thursday, July 25, 2019

You might be surprised to learn that early examples of BMW's 1 Series, introduced in 2004, are now coming on to the open market for well below Shed of the Week's £1500 top limit. Styled by an American under the beardy leadership of controversial style swami Chris Bangle, the original One sounded the death knell for the dock-tailed 3 Compact. It had Bangle's trademark 'sucked-in-cheeks' look, not loved by all, but later iterations filled out nicely to the car's visual advantage.

The One's wheelbase was 80mm longer than the Golf's, which sounded good until you remembered that the BMW's engine wasn't transversely mounted. The upshot of sticking with that traditional longitudinal BMW layout was 65mm less space between the front and back wheels than in a 3 Series saloon, a stat that wasn't massively appreciated by anyone unfortunate enough to be scrunched up in the back of a One on either side of the transmission tunnel. Heavy C-pillars didn't cheer them (or the driver) up much either.

But there was better news for the driver. The use of alloy for the front suspension allowed BMW to deliver the 50/50 front/back weight distribution that was such a high-profile part of the company's mission statement at the time. With rear-wheel drive, hydraulic power steering and a firmish ride it made a decent fist of 1 Series project leader Gerd Schuster's demands for a 'pure BMW with real driving pleasure, a high quality of steering and precise handling in a car that does not under- or oversteer.' Plus with the back seats folded you had up to 1150 litres of luggage space, giving the One a useful degree of practicality, and with prices starting at just over £15,600 it was the most accessible car in the BMW range. Having that BMW roundel on the key fob brought a real sense of achievement to a lot of people.

Fifteen years on, a Shed-priced 1 Series in 2004-2007 E87 five-door hatchback form is still an appealing buy. Why 2004-2007, and why the five-door? Well, the E81 three-door didn't arrive until 2007 and is out of our price range, as are the Coupés and Convertibles, plus there's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest there was a real slip in 1 Series quality standards after March 2007.

So, an early five-door it is then. But will you spend your £1500 or less in haste, only to repent at leisure? Shed gets very angry if his own precious leisure time is threatened, so to save yours he's generously put together this guide to the ups, downs and sideways hops of cheap 1 Series ownership.

Bodywork & Interior

Wetness in the rear of a 1 Series needs your attention. Moisture could be coming up through seatbelt bolts. Sometimes it's down to BMW having fitted the filters in the wheel arches upside down. Nice one.

Wherever it's coming from, if your car has a PDC (Parking Distance Control) unit in the boot and it's become wet the result may play havoc with your dash, knocking every instrument out. If you haven't checked the PDC, a BMW dealer may tell you that you need a new front electrical module at vast expense. There are a couple of plugs under the car that you can remove to let any water out.

The door handles are prone to sticking out after you've used them, an annoying trait that is even more annoyingly expensive and time-consuming to put right as you'll almost certainly need a new catch as well as a new handle. Finding one in the right colour might not be easy either.

Windows have a habit of sticking shut, and lit warning lights for the airbags and ESC (electronic stability control) are far from unknown, but airbag/seatbelt lights could just be the blue plug under the seat having come adrift. Leaving a Bluetooth-equipped 1 Series unlocked is not a good idea as it will continue to plaintively search for any linked mobile phones while you're gone, draining the battery. If the clock or mileage indicator reset without your permission, it could be a flattening AGM battery.

You may notice a noise coming from just above the air vents. That could be nothing more serious than an improperly replaced cover after a service involving the pollen filter.

Engine & Transmission

The One had far less aluminium in its body than higher-grade BMWs like the Five and Six Series. The lightest One, the 116i with a 114bhp 1.6 petrol engine tipped the scales at a little under 1300kg. This was the only 1 Series engine with a 5-speed manual box. The 2.0-litre 118i petrol had 127bhp and weighed just over 1300kg, and the 1335kg double VANOS 120i produced 148bhp.

The 116i got a small but useful power hike to 120bhp in 2007 which makes it much more worth having, while the 118i went up from 127bhp to 141bhp. Six-cylinder engines didn't immediately feature in the 2004 launch, so the fastest early One was actually the 120d diesel, whose fine 2.0-litre engine in 161bhp, 251lb ft format delivered a 137mph top end. There was also a 120bhp 118d version for business users who were trying to keep their running costs down. That got lifted to 141bhp in the round of power-ups.

Petrol-powered Ones were by no means exempt from the coil problems that affected many German cars in the early part of this century. The telltale signs of impending trouble are poor running, a lack of power, unsteady temperature readings, some engine vibration and a whiff of petrol in the cabin. The car may even go into limp mode.

The (sort of) good news for early 1 buyers is that these coil problems persisted on four-cylinder petrols beyond 2007. The less good news is that early (2004-06) N43 116i and 118i timing chains were also vulnerable to 'skipping' on the sprockets. The solution was a new design chain tensioner plus a new bracket which was put onto all later cars.

Some 118i engines seized when fragments from broken plastic timing chain guides entered the sump, blocking the strainer and the flow of oil to the major moving parts. The chains themselves were given to snapping, especially those that hadn't benefitted from oil changes inside the 10,000-mile intervals that are recommended as an absolute minimum by those in the know. Many change their oil much more frequently, at 5-6k. That chain snap could happen on either N47 diesels or N43 petrols (especially the 116i) with as few as 60,000 miles on the clock. Chain rattle could begin even sooner if you had one of the batch of chains that are now known to be weak. Replacing a noisy chain can be £800-£900. Add a few hundred onto that if the chain snaps because there'll be collateral engine damage.

Swirl flaps on the N47 diesels wear and break up, and turbo failures are not unusual either. Whistling noises at 1000pm or 2000rpm are a clue. MAF sensors and injectors give grief, and issues with BMW's VANOS variable valve timing system are very common and could make an article on their own. Loss of power and torque, poor starting and running and heavy fuel consumption are all strong indicators of attention required. Having said that, going into limp mode and seeing an engine warning light and lots of exhaust smoke might simply be some dirt in your Valvetronic sensor, a much easier thing to solve.

Inconsistent idling from a cold start is likely to be one of the ECU issues that were common on early petrol models. The Dynamic Stability Control/Dynamic Traction Control gubbins has something of a reputation too. Either the sensor or, if you're unlucky, the entire TC unit might need replacing - and doing that will take you well into the four-figure bracket. If you experience non-engaging starter motor problems on a 118d, that could be down to a non-disengaging steering column lock. Wiggle the wheel to make dead sure the lock is off and try again.

On the transmission side, the One's manual gearboxes were never exactly famed for their ease of use. That made it difficult to tell the difference between normal and faulty units (of which there have been a few). Juddering issues with the dual mass flywheel (DMF) and clutch on some of the diesel Ones are depressingly common. Shed had this on his own 320d Touring and it cost him the thick end of a grand to sort out. Warrantied 1 Series owners were given a new type of DMF/clutch, but others had to try and make do with BMW's other and not altoegther successful 'fix' of a software change to increase the idle speed.

Factory recalls have covered the back axle putting the wheels out of alignment on very early 2004 cars, along with the side airbags and seatbelt tensioners and, most famously last year after some adverse publicity on a well-known BBC consumer programme, for a degraded connection between the battery and the fuse box on post-March 2007 cars. This was causing unexpected and potentially dangerous cutouts on the move. Though it might not seem it from the list of faults mentioned earlier, this model is better than average in terms of electrical reliability.

Suspension & Steering

A big part of the One's initial appeal was its sprightly handling. On used cars you need to keep a beady eye on front tyre wear: if it's uneven, that could be a simple tracking issue, but it could also be a faulty steering rack, especially on post-March 2007 cars. BMW replaced quite a few racks for free. It's still worth looking for wetness underneath as power steering fluid can leak out of the rack's end seal and creep into the track rod end's rubber gaiter.

If the tyres are wearing more on the outer edges, the camber pins need looking at. Some owners remove them altogether but Shed has no view on that.

Wheels, Tyres & Brakes

A survey pooling information from big leasing firms has shown that Ones traditionally endure harder brake use than the average family hatchback. Shed doesn't have information on the average age of the One leaser, but in business car terms it would be more junior than middle management, and without wishing to generalise the average young BMW 1 Series business driver has probably always been in a hurry to get promoted to a more aspirational level of BMW. By extension, they would also be in a hurry to get to the next appointment.

All first-gen Ones had disc brakes all round, but the discs on the 120d were vented. There was actually a factory recall on 1 Series brakes. A seal could blow, reducing crash-stop braking performance.

A faulty ABS pump module will light up the ACS/DCS dash lights and generate an 'SE20 - hydraulic pressure sensor internal' fault code. A new module is the only answer.


Four years after its 2004 introduction, one in every five new BMWs sold was a 1 Series. Not only is that it a testament to the basic rightness of the design, it also means that there's a vast choice of cars available to the sharp-eyed Shedman. These earlier cars appear to suffer fewer mechanical issues than the later ones.

If you don't mind diesel, then the later 141bhp 118d is a very useable all-round proposition.

In terms of spec, the boggo ES models had electric windows and a CD but didn't have alloys, climate control or parking sensors, all of which came in the SE. M Sport models might look snazzier with their bodykit bits but the ride is verging on punishing for those with delicate spines.

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