Restoring a Dollar-Store Supercar Restoring a Dollar-Store Supercar

Posted in Art Of The Flip by Tavarish | Views: 31824

There are a few cardinal rules when buying a car to resell: Don't buy one with potentially expensive mechanical issues. Don't buy electrically complicated cars without proper diagnostic equipment. And never buy one that needs expensive bodywork. Unless, of course, it's a BMW E39 M5. This is the story of how I bought and sold the Ultimate Driving Machine.

Part 1: The answer is always E39.

Welcome, dear reader, to the millionth time you've been introduced to the 4-door chassis regarded by many to be the best ever made: The E39 BMW 5-series. The best way I can describe this platform is by imagining if a jack of all trades got his shit together and honed all of his abilities into a mega-skillset that had the power to convert a resume directly into a blank check. A "winning formula" would be putting it lightly.

It was one of the only cars where a front strut tower bar (or "Monte Carlo bar" if you're Jay Leno) wasn't necessary because the chassis was stiffer than a hilariously overdosed Cialis user. It was the first car in its class in which the suspension components were made from aluminum, because the Ultimate Driving Machine wouldn't have no stinkin' steel control arms. The ultimate version of the Ultimate Driving Machine was the M5, a car that housed an engine that was one dry sump and MoTec away from being in LeMans.

Here's everything you need to know about this magnificent car. Now onto the story.

Part 2: Thanks, but No Thanks.

People my age usually go out on the weekends and get drunk to escape the horrors of whatever monotonous, soul-sucking job they have to punch into Monday morning. This is called having a social life, I'm told. Personally, I feel that if I'm being taken for a ride by life, I might as well be in the driver's seat, so that's why I spend all night looking for cars.

My journey began with a craigslist ad that featured a 2000 BMW M5, a car that (if you have not read the above section) warranted at the very least, a test drive. The owner wanted $7900 for the car, which was ridiculously low, so I decided to run a vehicle history report on it, which it passed with flying colors. No reported accidents, but it had 7 previous owners. I was concerned, but I wasn't looking for a pristine example - I wanted a fixer-upper. Otherwise, this article would be titled "One Weird Trick To Make Money By Buying Perfect Cars From Clueless Idiots".

I went to New York to check out the car and, wouldn't you know it, there were a few issues. First, the car was just sideswiped while parked, which damaged both driver's side doors. "It just happened last night!" the owner explained. Right. It had a Check Engine Light on, the interior trim looked trashed, and the wheels were hideous.

Here's what I saw:

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Obviously I wasn't going to give this guy anywhere near the asking price, so I simply told him that I'd pass and I thanked him for his time. He yelled out "I'll do $6000!". I paused, but still declined and started the car to go home, a bit put off as to how people can buy nearly 6-figure cars and convert them into such neglected rolling dumpsters.

Then I got a text from the owner, asking what I would give him for the car. I threw out an offer that I probably shouldn't have, but it was what I felt the car was worth in its shape: $4000. He accepted immediately and I instantly regretted not going lower. We arranged a day where I could get the title and a temp registration, and I came and picked up my $4000 BMW E39 M5. What's the worst that could happen?

Part 3: Ambitious but Rubbish

Here's the part where I do a review of an abused, 14-year-old BMW. It was remarkably not bad. So not bad that it bordered on spectacular. As soon as I got in and fired the engine over, I felt that I wasn't in some near-beer 540i. This was a handcrafted engine that actually rewards you for beating on it. It had 8 independent throttle bodies, 6 forward speeds, a limited slip differential, and an exhaust note that I would put up against any exotic with 8 cylinders. Doug Demuro, come at me, bro!

The car didn't melt my face in straight-line speed and it didn't kick my ass, but it was more than enough power to get you a flip book of speeding tickets. I remember thinking that the S600 I bought earlier in the year could beat this thing at half throttle, probably pulling a lawnmower behind it. But that's not what this car was made for. It wasn't a 1/4 mile monster, it was a slut for the twisties, so I took the scenic route home. As soon as I hit an off-ramp at quite a bit over the posted limit, it almost looked like I knew what I was doing as far as buying cars was concerned. The car changed direction in a way that just shouldn't happen with a car of such size and weight. The S600 was like a pack of hyenas with roid rage in a straight line, but resembled a neutered manatee when it was introduced to a 35mph curve. The M5 was the opposite, commanding telepathic grip when things got bendy, but kind of lackluster in the straights. 

Until I hit the "Sport" Button.


I know some people don't see the point of a Sport button, but a single press of this button was like a 75-shot of nitrous. It was a cheat code, it unlocked a version of the car I didn't get when I first test drove it. The M5 was no longer some underacheiving all-rounder half-step up from the 540, it was freaking quick. With the extremely limiting traction control turned off, every unpopulated, sleepy turn became an excuse to learn the true meaning of oversteer.

Quick aside: I mentioned the Sport button because I'd never owned a car that had a functional Sport mode button, and I honestly didn't notice it was there. I looked down and wondered "What's this thing do?" and was pleasantly surprised. Noobs gotta learn somehow.

Gripping the beefy-yet-torn leather steering wheel and handling it as if I was on the Mulsanne Straight, I realized that I could turn this car into something I could sell, and something that above all else, would give whoever bought it the feeling of superiority you only get by driving a German car built specifically to demolish the Autobahn.

Part 4: The Long Road To Salvation

This was a huge project, and I had to make a game plan. My first step was to sort out its mechanical issues. From what I could diagnose using by OBDII reader, the car needed new O2 sensors, a new thermostat, and was badly overdue for an oil change. It also needed a new wheel bearing and alignment.

I elected to buy the O2 sensor and thermostat myself, and have a reputable shop do the work, in the interest of time. I was confident I could do the work myself, but the temperature outside was teetering between "Hell No" and "Fuck This", so it was well worth it to hire outside help.

The procedure for the thermostat is pretty involved, but it's outlined here in case any budding M5 owner wanted to take a crack at this common issue. The O2 sensor is a pretty standard deal, simply unscrew the old one and plug the new one in.

I changed the oil with the recommended Castrol TWS 10W60 and replaced the oil filter.I also decided to remove the upper intake plenum to see what was underneath.

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Quick Aside: Having weird oil is a way to check if your car is an exotic. If there's one brand of oil you can use, and it's $20 a quart on the low side, you might have something special. All the M-derived engines as of late used this oil, save for the US-Spec E36 M3 S52. That thing was pretty regular.

I found a set of M5 spindles online for $40 shipped (not a typo), and replaced one of my cracked ones, along with the wheel bearing and 4-wheel alignment. One tire needed replacing, so I got a matching brand used tire locally. 

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No Bueno.

After the function was sorted, I took the car to a body shop that could straighten out the battered mess that was the form. I was quoted $1860 to make the car's side look new, including the hanging of new doors. I wasn't planning on selling the car without fixing this issue, so I brought my shoebox full of rubber-banded singles and had the bodyshop keep the car for 3 long weeks until the work was done.

While I waited, I took all the pitted and perished brushed aluminum interior trim off the car, and recovered it with 3M Brushed Titanium vinyl wrap. It was very easy to apply and gave a very OEM look. I also bought an upgraded 16:9 Navigation Display for the car out of a 2001 BMW X5. It was entirely plug and play, and upgraded the look of the interior immensely.

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When I got my beloved M5 back, it was a bit worse than I had expected. The paint matched fine, as did the fitment on the new doors, but nothing was connected electrically. I did tell the bodyshop not to worry about the door panels, but they left out the trim, window regulators, mirror, and key cylinders. They pretty much bolted on a door shell and sent me on my way. In addition, they made a huge mess in the car and left tools all over the car.

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Since I kept the old doors, (something you should always do, just for the scrap value alone) I had all the screws and window trim that matched my car. Here's the tutorial I used on how to remove the weatherstripping and trim from the doors and here's how I installed the window regulator.

I also took Flat Black Plastidip and restored the door trim to a nice satin black.

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of the car when I was done with putting in the new trim, so I'll just show you the right side of the car, but I'll reverse it to give you an idea of what it looked like.

Nailed it.

Before cleaning the interior, I bought a good used steering wheel and installed it using this tutorial.

To clean the horrid interior, I needed an arsenal of reliable and effective weaponry. Here's what I used:

Here were the results:

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Part 5: It really ties the room together!

I had to do something about the hideous wheels. They were AC Schnitzer Type IVs that suffered from the same thing all aftermarket wheels do: horrible depreciation. Brand new they were priced around $5000. On the secondhand market, they were worth maybe $1000 in great shape, and mine weren't in great shape. Before refinishing the wheels, I looked around for a stock set of M5 wheels, to no avail. They were hard to find on a limited budget and I wasn't about to spend $1500 on a set of used factory wheels, so I had to make do with the German equivalent of whatever Xzibit put on his Escalade in 2003.

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I cleaned the wheels with 90 percent isopropyl alcohol, and sprayed them with 3 coats of Plastidip Real Aluminum and one coat of Glossifier.

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I wanted a polished lip, so I put the car in the air and turned it into a 400hp lathe. I turned the car on with the wheels in the air, and put it in gear. I sprayed it down with water and soap, and began sanding with 400 grit, 600 grit, 1000 grit, and 1500 grit, then rubbed with #0000 steel wool and MOTHER's metal polishing compound. The wheels in first gear were spinning slowly enough that getting hands or fingers caught in the spokes weren't a concern.

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Don't try this at home.

I also decided to polish the exhaust tips, and realized the car had an aftermarket Dinan exhaust. Upon further inspection, the car also had a Dinan ECU, as evidenced by the $2400 receipt I found stashed in the owner's manual. This increased the rev limit to 7300rpm and removed the 155mph speed limit. It pretty much took the training wheels off the car and turned it into what it should've been, pre-nanny state. This is why capitalism works, people.

I used some metal polish and #0000 steel wool to make the tips shine like new, without taking off any of the brand etching.

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 To finish off the exterior, I washed, clay barred, polished and waxed the car using these products:

I also followed these tutorials, made by Larry Kosilla at AMMO NYC and /DRIVE:

Here were the results:

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Part 6: Enough already!

Full disclosure: This flip took me 6 months. The reason for such a long turnaround time was that we had freezing/snowy weather for more than 4 months and working on the car was next to impossible. Add to that the time the body/alignment/repair shops took, and this car took quite a while to finish. This wasn't a usual turn of events, as my flips take me a month or less on average.

I put the car on ebay, and it sold for $11,600 to an eager guy across the country. It wasn't a perfect car and had some blemishes, but it was entirely mechanically sorted, ready to give its new owner a very firm but exciting kick in the pants. It will be missed.

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Here's the rundown for costs on this flip:

2000 BMW M5
Bodywork -1,860.00
Thermostat/O2 Sensor -400.00
Spindle/Wheel Bearing -260.00
3M Wrap -42.00
Misc. Interior Pieces -350.00
Plastidip/Tire/Refinishing -215.00
Navigation Upgrade -350.00
Total Spent -$7,477.00
Sold for: $11,600.00
Profit/Loss $4,213.00

Not bad for buying the world's cheapest and roughest M5. What do you think?

Do you have a car flipping or restoration story? We'd love to hear it!

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