Apologies in advance: here's another story that seemingly serves only to make us all feel quite old. But it does also highlight a very cheap (and very good) BMW, so it's not all bad. Here goes, then. The year 2021 marks a quarter of a century since BMW launched the E39 5 Series. Yikes. In fact, it was Frankfurt 1995 that the E34 replacement was first shown, cars reaching the UK the year after.
And in those 25 years, it's hard to think of a car that's been so consistently brilliant. The E39 5 Series was great as a new car, wiping the floor with the opposition for its entire production run; then it was great as a nearly new car, a used car, a Shed and now, as values are inching up, as a modern classic as well. Since the mid-1990s there's been an awful lot to appreciate about the fourth generation 5 Series.
Yet it was no great revelation, the E39 - it just did all that was required of it exceptionally well. Sure, there was more aluminium in the chassis than any previous 5 Series, but it still used Macpherson struts up front and a four-link rear. It was a front engined, rear-drive executive saloon with a range of six-cylinder and V8 petrol engines (plus some diesels), manual and automatic gearboxes. The E39 didn't break the mould in the way that its E60 predecessor did with its bold styling; it just delivered on everything that buyers had come to expect from a BMW saloon.
It looked great, it drove really nicely and most of the engines were strong; with a decent interior as well, the E39 proved tough to match in its seven years on sale. And with plenty sold, good ones were cheap for a very long time.
Ever so slightly, though, values are climbing. Numbers have declined, with E39s either having succumbed to rust or the allure of a scrappage deal, and the whole range has been hoiked up by the halo effect of M5 appreciation. Nobody needs reminding how appealing this era of cars is either, both in general and for BMW specifically. Models like this 5 Series, the E38 7 Series and the E46 3 Series are getting better looking by the day.
This E39 is the oldest on PH, a 1997 520i. It's a properly basic spec to match the entry level engine, too, with cloth seats, a manual gearbox and tiny alloy wheels on big rubber doughnut tyres. Perhaps you could call it utilitarian chic. Bet it rides nicely, too. Even if it won't be going that quickly...
Also in its favour are a low mileage of 86k, the original stereo (for those who don't like the updated unit), rust seen to a few years ago and what looks like a decent overall condition for something this old. Obviously it won't be perfect, and the E39 does have its list of known issues, but then this one is for sale at just £2,450.
Yep, less than £2.5k for one of the best BMW saloons ever made. Perhaps it isn't the most desirable engine, or everyone's favourite spec, but this is a hard E39 to argue with for so little cash. Moreover, and without wishing to try and predict the future, look what's happened to similarly ordinary BMW saloons from the past. This E28 525e is up at £7k, as is this E34 525i; you seemingly can't buy an E30 3 Series saloon for any less. Perhaps its weedy power output might peg the 520i back a little; on the other hand, its age and mileage would surely always ensure it's worth at least what it's for sale at now. And whatever it ends up at, you'll always have one of BMW's finest outside the house, which doesn't sound so bad. Come to think of it, maybe this is what 2021's family holiday fund can go on...
SPECIFICATION | BMW 520I (E39)
Engine: 1,991cc, straight six
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 150@5,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 140@4,200rpm
Recorded mileage: 86,000
Year registered: 1997
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £2,450
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