BMW E39 M5 Ultimate Guide

2014 / 2015 Drive-My

Buying guide – BMW E39 M5 Ultimate Guide. Everything you could ever need to know about buying the icon that is an E39 M5. Depreciation has seen E39 M5 prices drop to a very affordable level and while we won’t pretend it’ll be a cheap car to run it’s such a fine machine that we reckon you must sample one at least once in your life. It could be a sound investment, too… Words: Bob Harper. Photography: Drive-MY.

Has BMW ever made a better all-rounder than the E39 M5? You could make a case for several other machines, I suppose, but nothing comes quite as close to being so intensely right straight out-of-the-box as the third generation M5. It was just so good at so many things – back road blaster, occasional track day weapon, cultured cruiser – and yet had the ability to swallow the whole family and its luggage, too. The S62 V8 is an absolute peach to sit behind and to open its taps wide is to experience greatness. No, it’s not perfect, but an M5 in fine fettle really is a joy to drive and is still a very rapid machine, even today. It almost acts as BMW’s crossover car – it bridges the gap between the analogue E34 and the significantly more digital E60 – electronics might have been creeping in but bar a hypersensitive traction control system there’s nothing in its electronic armoury that spoils the driving experience.

And the best news of all is that prices are currently still low. They’re on the rise, though, so don’t pussyfoot around trying to decide if you want to buy one. Hurry out now with wallet in hand and grab one before values go the same way as other older M cars.


History

The M version of the E39 was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 1998 but it wasn’t until October 1998 that full-scale production started. While E28 and E34 M5s had been hand-assembled by M GmbH at Garching, the new car was manufactured on the regular 5 Series production line at Dingolfing which allowed the car to be made in much larger numbers – 7895 LHD European-spec cars, 9992 LHD North American machines and 2595 RHD examples were produced, making a grand total of 20,482.

BMW E39 M5 - first series 1998 Geneva Motor Show

Up until this point all M5s had used a twin-cam 24-valve straight-six – the superb M88/S38 – but that unit had been taken as far as it could go so the E39 M5 became the first M car to feature an eight-cylinder engine – a stonking great V8 displacing nigh on fivelitres and developing a very healthy 400hp at 6600rpm. It was based on the M62 unit from the 540i and the new M powerplant was designated S62 and extensively revised for its M application.

Bore and stroke were up (2mm and 6.3mm respectively) to give a capacity of 4941cc, the compression ratio was upped to 11.0:1 and following proven M engineering philosophies there were individual electronically-controlled throttle bodies for each cylinder. There was also a double Vanos variable valve timing system on both the intake and exhaust cams, modified cylinder heads, oil-cooled pistons a G-force sensitive lubrication system, a coolant-to-oil heat exchanger, hollow camshafts, a dual air induction system and a high capacity water pump. While a specific output of 81hp per litre was mildly disappointing (the 3.8 E34 had 90hp per litre) the E39’s trump card was its flexibility – 369lb ft of torque all the way from 3800-5000rpm, but a glance at its torque curve tells a story of even greater flexibility with 354lb ft being available from just 2000rpm.

The V8 was mated to a Getrag Type D six-speed manual gearbox, similar to that used in the last of the line 3.8 E34 M5s, but with very slightly revised ratios and an uprated clutch was installed. There was the expected 25 per cent limited-slip differential, although for the first time on an M, BMW managed to link this up to its DSC Dynamic Stability Control which made the car much less of a handful in the wet.

The basic suspension layout followed that of its E39 brethren with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link system at the rear and like other E39s there was extensive use of aluminium to help to keep weight down. Springs were shorter and rated differently for the M5 and the shock absorbers also had bespoke valving and there were thicker anti-roll bars front and rear as well as steel ball joints in the place of rubber rear suspension bushes.

Steering was by recirculating ball but with a reduced ratio when compared to a 540i – 14.7:1 for the M5 versus 17.9:1 for the 540i. There was Servotronic assistance which was road-speed dependant but which also had two different ‘maps’ accessed via the M Driving Dynamics (Sport) button on the centre console which also significantly sharpened throttle response. When in Sport mode the steering was noticeably heavier.

Naturally enough the brakes were uprated to cope with the extra performance with 345mm front discs and 328mm rears (both vented), but somewhat inexplicably M decided to grip the discs with single piston callipers ensuring that the car’s brakes have constantly been one of its weak points.

Like previous M5s, externally there were a number of changes to ensure that it stood out from the crowd, but in a subtle and understated way. There was a set of tasty 18-inch chrome shadow alloys (8-inches at the front and 9.5-inches at the rear) which were shod with 245/40 and 275/35 tyres respectively. At the front the kidney grille featured a slightly larger chrome surround and there was a new front bumper/spoiler assembly and again at the rear there was a new bumper and valance through which sprouted four beefy exhausts. The mirrors were bespoke (and electrically folding) while there was also a pair of M5 badges on the side mouldings. Completing the package was a subtle body-coloured bootlip spoiler.

Inside there were grey-faced M dials with an 180mph speedo and a rev counter with an illuminated section that started at the 4000rpm mark which acted as a warning when the engine was cold to not use all of the revs.

When the M5 hit the UK showrooms in late 1998 it was priced at a heady £60,000, but you did get quite a few goodies for your money. Climate air conditioning, electrically adjustable sports seats with driver memory, heated seats, steel sunroof, xenon headlights, ten-speaker Hi-Fi system, six-disc CD player, M multi-function steering wheel, on-board computer with check control and eight airbags were all standard. Naturally enough you could also have some fun with the options list with sat nav, double glazing, Alcantara headlining, various different leather options, enhanced stereos and electric blinds all being offered, among others. It wouldn’t have taken much doing to see your £60k M5 turn into a £70k M5! However, the price did drop significantly (down to £52,000) when BMW ‘realigned’ its prices (along with the majority of other manufacturers) when UK buyers cottoned onto the fact that we really were being ripped off when it came to car buying in the UK.

Production changes were few and far between, but the main ones were a change in piston ring design in early 2000 to try to quench the V8’s thirst for oil and the September 2000 face-lift which saw the arrival of angel-eye headlights, revised rear light clusters and a new, sleeker 6.5-inch on-board monitor.


Buying one

It’s not that long ago that the classifieds seem to be riddled with cheap E39 M5s and one could have been forgiven for thinking that these were unloved big-engined bruisers that almost couldn’t be given away. That will certainly have been the case for some cars that may have had high mileage and had fallen into the hands of owners who loved the idea of the V8 and the associated performance but who couldn’t afford to carry out basic routine servicing let alone fix faults or carry out any preventative maintenance.

These days there seem to be far fewer of the £4k ‘spares or repair’ type machines on the market and as your typical E39 M5 buyer is now becoming far more discerning you may find that the cheaper cars tend to hang around for sale for quite a while whereas the more expensive cars that have far fewer faults are snapped up pretty rapidly. There does seem to be a trend in rising prices so you need to get on the M5 rollercoaster before they reach the point where you can no longer afford to buy one.

Below around the £8k mark you’ll find higher mileage examples that will probably have a number of faults even if their owners describe them as immaculate. There’s no reason not to go for one of these machines so long as you walk into the relationship with you eyes open – work out what’s wrong and the potential cost for rectification and if the numbers stack up then go for it. Higher mileages still put potential owners off but it’s not something to be scared of provided the car has had regular maintenance. An M5 that has been regularly used may also be a better prospect than one that’s been sat idle for any length of time as these cars do have a knack of going wrong when not doing anything!

 The middle ground of M5 ownership starts at £8k and runs up to £12,000-13,000 and here you’ll find a range of mileages, years and options. You can often find machines that are actually more or less the same at either end of the spectrum and their prices will simply reflect how optimistic or pessimistic their owners are. You’ll need to be looking at a car with a full history, a set of receipts to back this up and evidence that some of the common problems have been rectified.

From here prices stretch up to the £30k point with one North London BMW dealer fielding several very low mileage machines for the sort of money that should be bagging you the very, very best cars available. As a long-term investment they may well turn out to be good value for money and you do get the peace of mind that a full BMW Approved Used Warranty brings, but given that some independents are offering machines with around 60k miles on the clock for almost half the price we don’t currently think the main dealer machines offer value for money.

All prospective buyers must do their research covering everything from the basics of exterior colours, specific interiors and available options to common problems and the price of rectifying them. Look at as many cars as you can, look at how the owner treats the car (does he rev it hard from cold, for example?) and insist on seeing all the receipts and invoices for work that’s been carried out. And finally, buy on condition, not mileage. You may be surprised to discover that there are probably as many low mileage dogs as there are high mileage gems. And it might seem so obvious as to go without saying, but if you’re not 100 per cent certain you’re mechanically-minded enough to know what you’re looking at, get a potential purchase inspected by a specialist. It will undoubtedly be money well spent as an inspection will definitely throw up a point or two that can be used as a good bargaining tool.


Colours, interiors and options.

While it’s all well and good deciding you want an Estoril blue M5 with Caramel Heritage leather complete with sat nav and the built-in rear child seats the reality is that you will have to compromise somewhere along the line when it comes to the spec of your ideal M5. Give yourself a couple of interior and exterior colour combinations to choose from and try not to get too hung up on the car having sat nav. Both the first and second generation units are now about as much use as a chocolate teapot although, having said that, we can appreciate that the widescreen sat nav unit does look good sitting in the middle of the dash! Remember that it’s relatively easy to replace an early sat nav for a later one and that preface- lift headlights can be replaced with the more pleasing angel-eye units and celis rear clusters.

If you have your eye on resale then we reckon Carbon black and Le Mans blue are probably the most popular colours and currently Heritage leather seems to be slightly preferred over the two-tone sports seats. Think carefully about buying one with a lairy colour combination on the seats as it might put off future buyers, although as one man’s meat is another man’s poison it probably makes more sense to buy what you like, especially if the car is to be a long-term ownership prospect. You can bet your bottom dollar that if you buy an E39 M5 and keep it in good order you’ll definitely be able to find a buyer in the future as these cars will only get rarer and more desirable as time goes on.

We’ve listed the various colours and how many of each came to the UK (see page article) courtesy of the kind folk at  BMW E39 5-series Club owners If you’re interested in M5s – whichever generation – you really should register for the site as it has incredibly detailed information on all M5s – options fitted, interior colours, Individual specs etc. If you want to know what percentage of UK M5s came with sat nav M5portal has that information (66.9 per cent or 1737 cars, if you were interested), or how many UK cars had the rare Comfort Seats (just 95 cars, or 3.6 per cent of UK cars). No matter whether you’re after European, UK or North American production statistics, M5portal has them all. Highly recommended.


Bodywork

Had we been writing this a few years ago we could have almost glossed over this section without going into too much detail but the E39 M5 is now of an age where rust is becoming an issue. You shouldn’t be too worried, though, as the vast majority of well-lookedafter examples shouldn’t have too much serious rot. Do bear in mind that a car that’s spent all its life by the coast, or one coming from a part of the country that sees a lot of salt being spread on roads for large parts of the year, should be checked a little bit more closely underneath. We have heard of some cars that looked good up top but had serious corrosion underneath, and some so severe to make the car only suitable for breaking. Rear jacking points and subframe mountings should be examined, as should sills too. If it’s rusty to any extent underneath move on to the next car as repairs could well be uneconomic.

What might be more obvious will be the cosmetic issues that affect E39s. Bootlids rust where the two sections of metal join and rust around the filler flap is common as there isn’t a drain hole, which makes this area a real water trap. If you pop the bonnet have a look at its leading edge from the inside as rust here is quite common. Check the lights for damage – stone chips to the front covers can lead to misting up, as can faulty seals, and as all M5s came with xenons finding good used replacements is expensive. Having said that, if you’re looking at a pre-face-lift machine then damaged lights would be a good excuse to replace them with Hella angel-eye versions.

Check the bespoke M5 mirrors still fold as motors can seize up over time, especially if an owner doesn’t use this function, and new units are very costly. Examine the plastic front and rear bumpers for cracks and look for consistent panel gaps round the car and make sure the panels aren’t 50 shades of grey indicating previous accident damage. While you’re at it check the wheels for obvious signs of kerbing or corrosion – not a disaster but a good bargaining point.

Finally, have a close look at the Shadowline exterior trim as it tends to develop rust-type bubbles under the surface that look somewhat unsightly and if all the pieces of trim are thus affected it’ll be expensive to put right.

E39 M5 exterior colours, UK models
COLOUR COLOUR CODE HOW MANY
Carbon black metallic 416 711
Le Mans blue metallic 381 556
Silverstone metallic 425 389
Avus blue metallic 276 254
Titan silver metallic 354 220
Imola red II 405 79
Anthracite metallic 397 57
Alpine white III 300 52
Bluevvater metallic 896 44
Oxford green II metallic 430 40
Black II 668 34
Sterling grey metallic 472 31
Oxford green metallic 324 21
Royal red metallic 390 9
Chiaretto red metallic 894 2
Sonderlackierung (Individual) 490 96
* Most popular Individual colour was Estoril blue (52 examples) followed by Velvet blue (20 examples). For full breakdown see our site. 

Interior

Generally speaking, and as befits the model range that was dubbed ‘the best car in the world’, the E39’s interior is a hard-wearing, pleasant place to while away the days. As we’ve already mentioned, there were a number of interior combinations and they should all be fairly durable, although if the car you’re looking at has an unusual leather combo then pay particular attention to it to ensure there won’t be any costly repairs. Some wear on the driver’s seat bolster will be inevitable but make sure that the bolster itself isn’t too worn or saggy. While you’re there check the seats’ electrical adjustment feature still works.

And it’s mainly the electrics that you’ll be concentrating on with the interior of an E39, once you’ve established the leather’s in fine fettle. Check the dash display pixels (and those on the radio display) as these have a habit of failing over time. It doesn’t affect functionality but it does become an irritation when you can’t read the display. It’s not an expensive fix – a specialist pixel repair firm will do the repair on a dash pod for around £85 – but you would have to remove the cluster and post it to them unless you have a firm local to you. Alternatively you can buy the parts online and do the repair yourself if you’re feeling intrepid… there are a host of YouTube videos showing how to do the repair.

Heater control modules can fail, which tends to lead to a HVAC system with a mind of its own, and ensure the air-con is correctly functioning as a seller’s assertion that ‘it just needs a regas’ almost always means the dryer and condenser are ‘fubar’d’. Budget on over £500 if both are required. Finally, check the door seals, especially the one around the driver’s door as it tends to wear pretty rapidly. If an owner has replaced it, it shows a level of devotion to keeping their M5 in tip-top condition.

Е39 М5 Options 2001
STANDARD EQUIPMENT: Electric heated M mirrors, electric heated sports seats, electric steel sunroof, quad exhausts, ten-speaker Hi-Fi system, M multi-function steering wheel, M sport suspension, front, side, head and rear side airbags, rear spoiler, six CD disc changer, tyre pressure control system, xenon headlights with wash system
OPTIONS EXTENDED NAPPA HERITAGE LEATHER: £1325 ON BOARD MONITOR WITH TV: £1650
FULL NAPPA POINT LEATHER: £2895 ELECTRIC GLASS SUNROOF: £90
FULL NAPPA HERITAGE LEATHER: £4220 INTEGRATED CHILD SEATS: £260
ALCANTARA HEADLINING: £1035 COMFORT SEATS: £620
CLIMATE COMFORT WINDSCREEN: £190 ACTIVE FUNCTION (COMFORTS SEAT ONLY): £395
CHROMELINE EXTERIOR: No cost SECURITY GLAZING: £1730
DELETE REAR SPOILER: No cost SKI BAG: £150
DOUBLE GLAZING: £680 SUN PROTECTION GLASS: £210
GRADUATED TINT WINDSCREEN: £70 GSM TELEPHONE: £925
HI-FI CD DRIVE: £100 THROUGH LOAD FACILITY: £250
HI-FI MINI DISC: £295 ELECTRIC REAR BLIND: £230
HI-FI PROFESSIONAL CD SYSTEM: £885 ELECTRIC REAR BLIND/MANUAL REAR SIDE: £390
HI-FI INDIVIDUAL AUDIO: £950
NAVIGATION SYSTEM: £2195
COMMS PACK (CSM phone. Navigation, On-board monitor with TV and Text Trafficmaster): £3395

Engine

Ah, the big one, the heart of the beast. If you delve into the forums on m5board.com you could come away believing BMW didn’t really do all that good a job on the M5’s power unit as you could be forgiven for thinking that there are a myriad of problems just waiting to rear their ugly heads the moment you sign on the dotted line. While it’s true there are some common faults it’s not unreliable per se but like any M unit it can be expensive when it does go wrong. As we’ve said before, if you’re not sure, get a specialist to check a car for you before purchase as a diagnostic test may be very revealing.

Vanos are five seemingly random letters that strike fear into the heart of M owners but in reality the VAriable NOckenwellen Steuerung isn’t that bad on the M5. It’s just that if you do have problems and you’re unfortunate enough to require new units they’re seriously expensive – £2k a pop, and don’t forget there are two…

Over the years BMW tweaked the system and depending on when your car was manufactured you may be able to get away with replacing parts of the Vanos rather than the complete unit. All Vanos units (no matter when the car was made) will be noisy on start up from cold, but the noise should go within around 15 to 30 seconds. If it lasts much longer than that the chances are a replacement will be required in the near future. Preventative maintenance can involve stripping the units down and replacing the seals and there are now a number of specialist companies who deal almost exclusively with Vanos repairs.

Mass Air Flow meters (MAFs) are vital to the proper function of the S62 engine – they’re located in the M5 air intake tubes and report to the DME control unit the amount of air that is drawn into the engine, and what temperature this air is. The DME uses this to calculate how much fuel to inject. They tend to get gunged up every 50,000 miles or so and gradually start to affect the engine’s performance. Original BMW items are expensive – over £200 each – but many owners have replaced them with an identical Bosch part sourced from VW dealers which are considerably cheaper and appear to do just as good a job. Camshaft position sensors and crankshaft position sensors can also fail fairly regularly.

The issue of carbon build up hasn’t really been an issue in the UK, although in North America it’s been a hot topic for a number of years as the build up of carbon deposits in the secondary air system can bring on the ‘Service Engine Soon’ light which will lead to a failure of the emissions test in some US states’ version of the MoT test. However, some UK specialists are now seeing carbon build ups in UK cars that are throwing up all sorts of fault codes which generally point to failed sensors of one type or another; where these have been replaced and the engine still doesn’t function properly, further investigation has revealed an excess of carbon in the secondary air system. Over time the carbon can completely block the secondary air system passageways including the head ports and the only way to fix the problem is to strip the cylinder heads and the secondary air system plumbing and clear out the carbon. As you’d expect, anything that involves removing the heads is going to give your bank manager heart palpitations.

Another problem that’s developing are worn rod bearings in the bottom end. The number of failed bearings is relatively small given the number of S62s BMW made, although the chances are the first warning you’ll get of the problem is when your engine’s toast, although some do exhibit warning noises before failing. It does seem to be a problem that affects machines that are revved excessively from cold, or those that have been modified with higher rev limits but if you do have a higher mileage machine we’d recommend replacing them if possible. Costs vary on how much other work you have done when the bottom end is exposed but budget upwards of about £1300.

Don’t worry too much about oil consumption – in general all S62s like to sup a bit of Castrol from time to time and the earlier cars more so. A litre every 500 miles is not unusual. Later engines are said to be better as the piston ring design was changed in the early part of 2000, but some later engines do still burn oil. It’s not something to be unduly worried about, just make sure you’ve always got a bottle of the correct oil in the car as it’s not always easy to find the right grade when you’re out and about.

Oil leaks are not unknown either. Oil filter housings can fail (often as a result of being incorrectly handled come service time), rocker cover gaskets tend to weep relatively regularly and sump gaskets also fail. Lastly, budget for servicing. According to BMW’s fixed price menu service system an Oil Service with Microfilter will cost £199, an Inspection 1 £320, and an Inspection II £540. We’d probably recommend going to a specialist, though, as they will see many more of these cars these days and be much more familiar with their common foibles.


Transmission and drivetrain

Not too many concerns here as they’re generally tough in this department with the gearbox itself doing sterling work and having very few issues. Having said that, our old editorial M5 did need a new ‘box as it intermittently jumped out of third gear under hard acceleration which was very irritating…

The weak point, if there is one, is the clutch which can cry if it’s regularly subjected to abuse. Be a little gentler and you should get good life out of one. Around £600 should see a new one installed but don’t delay if you suspect the clutch is on its way out as a worn clutch will damage the flywheel, too.

Keep an eye on the diff seals as, like most BMWs, they tend to leak. A little dampness on the casing is okay – if it’s wet get them attended to. Prop couplings can fail, usually indicated by a vibration at speed.


Wheels, tyres and brakes

Again, no real horrors here, although if you drop your car off for a service and are told it needs pads and discs all-round and a full set of boots you’ll be in for a wallet-wilting experience. Tyre wear will depend on how heavy your right foot is but around £750 will get you a set of four boots from a quality manufacturer such as Goodyear or Michelin. If the car has DitchFinder remolds fitted think about where else the owner might have been cutting corners.

Front pads should cost around £200 fitted, with rears around £170… considerably more if discs are required. Also remember to look for evidence that the brake fluid has been regularly replaced. ABS sensors have been known to fail and in the same area wheel bearings can get a bit grumbly over time but we wouldn’t say it’s a desperately common fault.

Do examine the M Double Spoke alloys carefully as refurbishing them is costly and many companies struggle to get a good match for the chrome shadow finish. It’s almost inevitable they will need doing at some point so look for some recommendations on the forums of places local to you who have done this type of wheel before. We’d advise against painting them black or going for a car with aftermarket alloys – M5s will be worth more if they are original.


Steering and suspension

Like most heavy machines of this era it’s almost inevitable that components will wear and fail over time so do have a look at a car’s history to see what’s been replaced in the past. If you can’t see any evidence of new parts being required then budget on a big suspension refresh. Anti-roll bar links, thrust arm bushes and ball joints may all need doing while at the rear anti-roll bar brackets are notoriously weak and can be replaced with stronger modified examples.

Part of the joy of an E39 is its ability to be a back road blaster and a refined cruiser and this is down to the way BMW spec’d the suspension. Many aftermarket companies have tried to beat the OE setup and if you want a sharper handling machine then this is fine, but ultimately we’d replace tired dampers and worn springs with genuine BMW parts.


Verdict

Buy a bad one and you’ll almost certainly end up regretting buying an E39 M5, but do your homework carefully, look at as many as you can and enter into the relationship with open eyes (and a partially open wallet) and you should be able to revel in the joy of M5 ownership.

It’s such a satisfying car to own – it does everything well and nothing badly – and its Jekyll and Hyde nature is one that you could argue has yet to be bettered from BMW or any other manufacturer. People are beginning to catch on, though, so make sure you bag a good one before its too late!

BMW E39 M5
ENGINE: V8 quad-cam 32-valve
CAPACITY: 4941cc
BORE/STROKE: 94x89mm
COMPRESSION RATIO: 11.0:1
MAX POWER: 400hp @ 6600rpm
MAX TORQUE: 369lb ft @ 3800rpm
0-62MPH: 5.3 seconds
STANDING KILOMETRE: 24.1 seconds
50-75MPH (4TH GEAR): 4.8 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
ECONOMY: 20.3mpg
DIMENSIONS (L/W/H): 4784/1800/1432mm
TRACK (F/R): 1515/1527mm
WHEELBASE: 2830mm
WEIGHT (EU): 1795kg
TRANSMISSION: Getrag six-speed manual
25 per cent LSD
BRAKES: Ventilated 345/328mm discs single piston calipers ABS
STEERING: Recirculating ball Servotronic
WHEELS & TYRES: M Double spoke Style 65 alloys
FRONT: 8×18-inch with 245/40 ZR18 tyres
REAR: 9.5×18-inch with 275/35 ZR18 tyres
UK RHD IMPORTS: 1952
PRICE: £60 000 (1998) £52 000 (2001)

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