Shed(s) of the Week: Alfa 166/BMW 5 Series

Two Sheds in one this week, and a decision for you lot to make: who makes the best executive barges, the Germans or (cough) the Italians?

Just the question seems slightly ludicrous. Of course, you say, it must be the Germans. This E39 5 Series is an archetypal example of their engineering supremacy, you might go on to say. This 520 petrol we've found may not have the grunt of its higher-numbered siblings, but every one of its 148 horses is a proper thoroughbred guaranteed to arrive at any race without a trace of temperament or frothing at the mouth.

But hold on there one cotton-picking minute, as a fan of the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn might say. Alfa Romeo has made one, and arguably two, excellent execs in recent times.

Few would dispute the wonder of the 164, now moving nicely into 'sought-after' territory in 3.0 V6 guise. Its successor, the still under-appreciated 166, sits in the 164's shadow, and rightly so if you're talking about four-cylinder cars. But the 166 had better suspension than the 164, and you could get one with the glorious big six 3.0 in situ - like this example here.

Let's take a closer squint at both of these cars from an unjaundiced British perspective. First, the BMW. Once upon a time, cars that had been 'owned by a Doctor' (with a capital D to denote their enhanced social importance) were seen as good cars to buy. The same deference that oikish motor dealers extended to medical men was fully understood by the general hoi-polloi, who also saw doctors as posh, refined and too sophisticated to be mean to a car.

Nowadays, with the NHS in tatters and doctors increasingly seen as gaunt-eyed, sleep-deprived sufferers of high-level stress and possibly pretty poor drivers, the value of the 'owned by a Doctor' attribution is less clear. Especially when you remember that an old-fashioned doctor's round (do they still even do them?) would typically have been made up of car-killingly short journeys.

Still, this BMW has not one but two 'Doctors' scrawled, presumably illegibly, on its ownership record. As you would hope and expect to see from a dealer-advertised Five, it 'drives superb'. It features the classic small alloys, which is a good thing for an SE-spec car in regards to the ride quality, plus the good old on-board computer. Much better than those outboard computers that never worked very well in the rain.

Not sure why, but Vavona seems like the right wood trim for a Doctor-owned E39, or a gynaecologist-owned one anyway. Like all German Wood®, it looks like a cross between walnut, bird's eye maple and a caravan work surface, but even so most E39 owners seem to like it. They'd probably prefer German LeatherTM to the cloth you see here, but cloth does bring the bonus of extra grip to your back end, particularly when you're wearing corduroys.

Moving on to the Alfa, everything else pales into insignificance really when you lift the bonnet to reveal the automotive work of art that is - or was, sniff - Alfa's 3.0-litre V6 motor. It's a shame the vendor hasn't actually lifted the bonnet because it's a wonderful thing to behold, not just in how it sounds and goes but also in its appearance, so refreshingly 'in your face' in this depressing age of black plastic shrouds. Here's a video of one. Don't worry about the white smoke, ha ha.

It's a stylish machine, the Alfa. Not brilliantly well made mind. The interior plastics on the first one were nasty and well out of kilter with the high asking price Alfa GB asked for it on launch (around £28K). The depreciation was epic. All great news for the Shedman.
What can go wrong, though?

The weight of the Alfa's 3.0 engine always put extra pressure on the suspension. The 166's improved front end included a creaky upper wishbone. MAF sensors are known for going too, producing uneven running.

Electrics are not an Alfa strong point. The owner confesses to non-functioning nearside windows and refers to other known issues concerning the indicators and cruise control, but who needs any of that stuff in modern rude Britain?

This 166 has a manual gearbox, but neither it nor the auto has a reputation for giving trouble. Check that the clutch isn't biting until the top of the pedal, and remember that the 3.0 engine will routinely use up to a litre of oil per 1,000 miles.

And the E39? The petrols are more reliable than the diesels and cheaper to mend if something goes squiffy. As with the Alfa, suspension components fail, but that's normally just wear and tear, not something you'd think would be an issue on a 59,000-miler. Engine cooling is a bigger potential banana skin. Electrics can be troublesome here too: light control modules, window motors, boot releases, the heating system's 'hedgehog' resistor. So it's not just Alfa.

A bad E39 should be avoided. A good one, as this appears to be, could be a joy if not for ever, but for a very long time.

So, to return to the question at the beginning: which one would you buy? Both have full MoTs. The Alfa is a private sale, and £300 cheaper than the BMW. The dealer flogging the BMW is selling the numberplate separately, which is rather boring not least because it means we can't check the MoT history. However, we are told it has a full service history to go with its low mileage. Then again, the higher-mileage Alfa has a pretty spotless MOT history, with very little of any consequence having gone wrong in the last 10 years.

Oooh, it's so difficult. Over to you, in that case.

Here are the ads.

BMW 520i

VERY LOW MILEAGE 5 SERIES WITH 2 DOCTOR OWNERS FROM NEW! DRIVES SUPERB, FULL SERVICE HISTORY, NEW MOT, 3 X KEYS, CHERISHED PLATE NOT INCLUDED!!, Upgrades - Alloy Rims - Classic Style, Multi-Function Steering Wheel, On-Board Computer - 9 Functions, Polished Vavona Wood Trim, BMW 6 Disc CD Changer, Grey Cloth interior, Standard Features - 3x3 point rear seat belts, Air conditioning, Airbags, Alarm, Alloy wheels, CD Player, Central locking, Electric door mirrors, Electric windows, Height adjustable drivers seat, Power steering, Remote central locking, Cruise control. 5 seats, Green, HPI CHECKED, VIEWING BY APPOINTMENT, CREDIT/DEBIT CARDS ACCEPTED, FINANCE ARRANGED, PX WELCOME

Alfa 166 3.0 V6

It's a silver Super. 145K miles. Owned by me 12 years. Has full 12 months MOT. Niggles are near side windows not working although they clonk a little when the switch is pressed so the issue is inside the door..
Cooling fan ran on after drenching in rain storm. Not repeated since.
Other niggles are common to many 166's such as non cancelling indicators, non working cruise control.
Strengths are that aircon is ice cold having had new compressor a couple of years ago. Good tyres and wheels. Stainless rear exhaust. 
New clutch last year and very light clutch action. Very strong engine. 
Heater matrix done in 2009 together with heater fan.
Drive shaft boots plus front brake pipes (metal) plus rear flexis last year. 
Front suspension top arms also last year. 
Good brakes but new set of front discs and pads available too.
Cam belt will be due soon (last done Jan 2013 at 120K).
It looks great in the pictures but it does bear some scars from it's years of use. The bumpers are scratched and there is a small dent in the boot lid.
It's a hell of a lot of car for the money but needs an enthusiast to take it on now.
Call Doug on 07824 962135 for more details.

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Comments (124) Join the discussion on the forum

  • The_Guv 18 Aug 2017

    Quality choices

    I had a 1996 520 with cloth trim.
    It was a fantastic car but the electrics for the a/c and radio display were broken. Plus the engine was rebuilt due to the problem with the nikasil lining. I liked it that much I got a 2003 520i Esse which was full of problems relating to engine cylinder coils failing and corroded alloys.

    Would still recommend an e39 now.

  • monge 18 Aug 2017

    Cue the German fanboys ridiculing the Alfa (says the italian fanboy)

    For me it would be the Alfa every time. Just something about the style inside and out that wins it for me.

    Even the TS engine was a little fun, but the V6 is the best engine I have ever driven, heard or seen.

  • Uncle John 18 Aug 2017

    The Doctor owner thing does make me laugh, may have been a plus back in the days of yore but now about as relevant as a kick in the shins.

    Shed re - igniting the V6 vs I6 debate (Believe the BMW is a six)......

    For me the 166, mainly because I'm an Alfa fan and for the V6.

  • The Hypno-Toad 18 Aug 2017

    Alfa all day long.

    Saw a red one in beautiful condition round the corner from where I live the other day and I nearly left a note on his windscreen to say that if he wanted to sell it I'd be interested.

    And I've not get anywhere to park it.

    Or the money to run it.

    Or any need for it as a day to day runner.

    But boy is it pretty.

  • JD2329 18 Aug 2017

    A good E39 can very quickly become bad...a 520 is not exactly a ball of fire either. Though given the low mileage I'd pick it ahead of the Alfa.
    Two interesting sheds with proper engines.

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