This makes me angry. Really, really angry. And no, that's not because £55,000 is a mammoth amount to pay for an E39 BMW M5; these days that doesn't seem much of a stretch for a low-mileage car like this. The reason why I am so angry, gutted, grief-stricken, bitter, or whatever the emotion is that's currently consuming me - perhaps all of them - is because this was my car. Well, not this exact one, but I had the exact same spec, and I didn't sell it for that figure. I still miss it.
I think the E39, in any spec, is one of those seminal cars. A rare example of a manufacturer spending way more on the engineering budget than it needed, to beat the opposition. Indeed, the E39 didn't only beat its rivals, it broke them. It was way ahead of everything at the time for ride, handling, refinement, interior quality and more. And 'more' included its straight-six engines being coupled to a five-speed ZF auto gearbox which together could equal Mobil's products for slickness. In some ways, the 'sixes' were so good that there really was no need to opt for the 4.4-litre V8 in the 535i and 540i, especially because some moaned that they didn't steer as well; the V8s swapped a steering rack for a steering box, because the former wouldn't fit. The M5's S62B50 V8 was a different matter, though.
To let a small detail the steering box blind you from the bigger picture would be crazy. The M5 was mega. I first drove one not long after it was launched, and it was probably the first car I'd driven that felt properly quick. As in OMG, smack-you-in-the-chops quick, and I'd driven plenty of fast stuff by then. Not least the rival Jaguar XJR-8 with 377hp from its supercharged AJ-V8 4.0-litre. But that still didn't pack the M5's 400hp punch and it couldn't match its traction, steering positivity (even though the XJR had a rack) or its body control, either. The greatest achievement of all was that, despite the colossal power and 369lb ft thundering through the back axle, it was so sublime when it broke traction.
That's why I just had to have one. I couldn't afford anything really exotic - in terms of purchase price or repair bills - and while I could've stretched to a 911 Carrera 2, the M5 delivered similar performance with all the usability I required. So I bought one, just like this. A 2002 facelift model with the larger infotainment screen, finished in Carbon Black, black nappa leather and ostrich grey inserts. I owned it for about six years, and it was a wonderful union. My brother had an E60 M5 wagon which coincided with my ownership of the E39 but, while I loved its V10, I wouldn't have traded it for the older model. The E39 was analogue. It had a six-speed manual gearbox and the only driver settings it had included the sport button, which you pressed if you felt the need to sharpen the throttle response and weight-up the steering. I rarely did. I much preferred its default setting. The only thing I did religiously was hit the 'ESP off' switch, because I loved using the M5's 'rear-wheel steering' around any roundabout and I trusted the back end completely.
I did go through a few tyres as a result. And, speaking of costs, how reliable was it? Well, I've forgotten how many miles I did in it, but it was a lot: it was my only car and I used it regularly, including trips to the south of France every year, for which it was brilliant. In that time, I replaced all the discs and pads (as much for warping, which the front discs were prone to doing, as wear). I renewed the front anti-roll bar drop links, which broke, and the blower motor thermistor. That fails and knocks out the interior fans, which is an easy and cheap job, but, annoyingly, it went in the south of France, in August. It needed a new sump at one stage, too, but only because a BMW dealer stripped the sump plug and tried to blame me, until I pointed out who did the last service - i.e. them.
There are a few other things to watch out for when buying an E39 M5. The Vanos, of course, although mine was fine. It tends to be a little noisy regardless of wear, but if the power delivery is staged or the idle is rough then watch out. Water leaks, mainly into the rear footwell, were an E39 trait and the M5's clutch was the one area where BMW, perhaps, did under-engineer the car. I drove a few that slipped after a quick shift. The instrument binnacle display also fails. The tiny solder joints on the multiplug dry out and you start losing digits. I seem to recall you can have them re-soldered, rather than replace the whole, expensive unit.
I also had mine repainted. Stupidly, I left it under an oak tree and it got covered in bird lime, which ruined near enough every panel. So it was stripped to the bare metal and rejuvenated, including its lovely chrome-effect 18-inch wheels. At which point, I decided it was so pristine that I had to sell it before it started picking up the dents and scratches from a life spent on the streets of north London. Admittedly, mine had 70k on the clock, but it was stunning in every respect with a full BMW service history. How much did I sell it for? The princely sum of £12,000. D'oh!
But if any classic car is worth today's inflated prices, surely it's this one. I drove BMW's heritage E39 M5 not so long ago, and it's still awesome. So much so that it doesn't feel like a stretch to say it would stand a chance in a modern-day group test. It'd be left behind on performance, of course, but that just proves how pointless the power race has become. You do not need more grunt. I can say with utter confidence that, if you buy an E39 M5, you won't regret it.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M5 (E39)
Engine: 4941cc, V8, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@6,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 369@3,800rpm
Year registered: 2000
Recorded mileage: 26,000
Price new: £52,000
Yours for: £54,990
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