May 07 2007   Story: Bryan Joslin

This is the first in an on-going series on MWerks, where we will examine what kind of BMWs exist in a given price range. In the future we will explore various price ranges, up to about $25,000. To kick off the series, we have started at the $5000 level.

So you're itching for a Bimmer, but your budget's a little tight? Say, $5000 tight? You can't possibly get a decent used BMW for that kind of cash. Or can you? You might be surprised.

MWerks has gone on the hunt for BMWs that fall into a $5000 budget, and the results are interesting. Sure, there are 3 Series coupes and sedans galore for this kind of money, but there are also some hidden treasures, often overlooked by enthusiasts.

Buying a car is one thing, but living with it is another, especially when you're budget will remain tight. We've selected three of the more unusual discoveries and asked some of the experts in the BMW world what a new owner can expect in terms of potential problems and ongoing maintenance. We'll also dig into the aftermarket and see what kind of products exist for each of these models.

1989 635CSi- 100,000 miles
Kelley Blue Book, fair condition- $5125
Edmunds, clean condition- $4035


The E24 635CSi is, and will remain, a highly desirable BMW. Its classic silhouette is the final evolution of the original "big coupe" 3.0 CS of the late Sixties, and for many enthusiasts is the pinnacle of sporting elegance. BMW North America's Rob Mitchell confirmed the rarity of this beast, citing that only 1311 examples were sold in the US in 1989. Even more unique are those with manual transmissions- all 131 of them. They all featured the M30B35 24-valve engine that would also be fitted to the E32 735i and E34 535i, putting out 208 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque.

Because of its age, an '89 635CSi is still a fairly simple car for an enthusiast owner to work on. The 3.4-liter straight six is a robust engine that, if maintained right, should require only typical maintenance work- plugs, wires, cap and rotor, water pump, etc. Be aware that it is not uncommon for the camshafts to wear prematurely because of poor oiling, causing less-than-spectacular performance.

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Suspension and driveline wear are the most common problems, according to Drew Ingram of Turner Motorsport. Like E28 and E34 models, front thrust arm bushings, rear subframe mounts, and rear trailing arm bushings are all prone to deterioration over the years. OE-quality replacement parts are readily available, and these should not be overlooked. The same goes for the transmission flex disc (often referred to as the "guibo") and driveshaft support bearing. U-joint failures are fairly uncommon, but can be difficult and expensive to repair properly.

Otherwise, a late E24 suffers the same pitfalls of any Eighties-era German car. Electrical gremlins can, and likely will, pop up. Corrosion can also be a problem, so buy the cleanest example you can afford. And of course, know in advance that body and interior trim will probably be expensive and difficult to track down.

Depending on your interests and the depth of your pocketbook, there are many possibilities for enhancing your ownership experience. Turner's Ingram reckons the 635CSi is a decent candidate for the novice restorer. The community of "Shark" enthusiasts, as the E24s are often referred to, is a passionate and active bunch. Many would prefer to see an example lovingly restored to its proper glory than have it molested with aftermarket bits. However, if you're of the performance persuasion, there are parts to be had as well. The engine is chippable, and also responds well to intake upgrades and performance camshafts. Suspension modifications are as popular on the 6 Series as any other BMW, especially spring and shock upgrades. Sway bars, however, are becoming harder to source.

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Al Hafner of BMP Design feels the E24 is one of the best-looking BMWs, but warns they are among the priciest of the modern classics to restore properly. Many owners will blend subtle performance enhancements, like aftermarket suspension and wheels, with pure factory-original aesthetics for a clean but tailored look. European trim such as bumpers and lighting are also popular and "accepted" in most circles as well.

1995 530i- 140,000 miles
Kelley Blue Book, fair condition- $5500
Edmunds, clean condition- $4761


If you're looking for a unique V8 BMW and like to live on the edge a little, the 1995 530i might intrigue you. The E34 5 Series is a desirable car in its own right, but throw in the rare and unusual 3.0-liter V8 engine (M60B30), with its reputation for being temperamental, and you've got yourself a genuine love-hate relationship brewing.

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Most of the drama centers on the 3.0-liter V8 engine, which originally featured an aluminum block with cylinder liners coated with an alloy known as Nikasil. North America's sulfur-rich, low-quality gasoline reacted with the alloy, causing poor compression and rough running. Eventually, BMW extended the warranty on all affected engines to six years or 100,000 miles, and they replaced the Nikasil-lined blocks with Alusil-lined ones on engines that failed within that period. Problem is, not every last one was replaced, so there are still (theoretically, at least) some Nikasil time bombs on the road. Like any ticking time bomb, it's best to stay far, far away.

Aside from the questionable metallurgy, the little V8 shares the same predisposition as the M50 motor for shaking its oil pump off its bolts, which can obviously lead to catastrophic and terminal engine failure, regardless of what the block material is. Catalytic converters and OE exhaust systems are also prone to early failures, though aftermarket pieces are reasonably affordable.

Like any BMW with this many years and miles on it, suspension components are bound to be totally shot. Worn thrust arm bushings and tie rods are common culprits of a shimmying steering wheel, and any new owner should expect to replace these immediately.

Bodywork on the E34 is fairly solid, assuming the car has been cared for and is free of accident damage. And fortunately, almost any trim item from a 530i can also be found on a 525i or 540i of the same production series. The one problem area in the body department is electronic accessories. As Don Dethlefsen of The Werk Shop warns, these cars are filled with numerous sensors and electrical gadgets that often fail, leaving the owner almost helpless to repair the problems on his own. An experienced technician with proper diagnostic tools will be needed to right many of these failures.

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Because the 530i is simply a derivative of the very common 5 Series, enthusiast groups don't seem to demand a strict adherence to factory standards. That's the good news for someone who wants to modify his 530i. The bad news? Well, the 5 has never drawn the largest aftermarket following, so parts are a little more difficult to source than for your typical E36 3 Series. Suspension upgrades are plenty, and the little V8 responds well to chip tuning. Drew Ingram of Turner Motorsport says a performance chip will result in noticeable torque increases from just off idle, peaking at around 3000 rpm. He also notes that with the addition of a performance exhaust and a few minor tweaks, peak power can reach 250 to 260 horses, far exceeding the original output of 218 horsepower. Styling upgrades are still on the market, including body kits and lighting. Proper wheels, however, are becoming a bit less available, short of spending large coin on something from BBS or one of the German tuner houses.

Time will tell if the 530i ever achieves true cult status. Regardless, it's a safe bet that if you pick one up, you won't be passing yourself up on the highway very often.

1994 325i Convertible- 120,000 miles
Kelley Blue Book, fair condition- $5500
Edmunds, clean condition- $4772


When most people think of a 3 Series, it's probably a coupe or sedan that comes to mind first. But the E36 3 Series convertible can offer most of the pleasure of a fixed-roof BMW with the added bonus of open-air enjoyment. With its cloth top, the 325i convertible is an ideal fair-weather friend in most northern regions, but it can also be used as daily transportation if care is taken.

Like most other 325i's the convertible uses the ubiquitous M50 straight-six engine. Reliable if maintained properly, this engine has a few skeletons in its closet. The good news is that many enthusiasts have no problem working on this engine. An investment in a Bentley repair manual will pay dividends to anyone who wrenches his own car.

For starters, the water pumps are notorious for failing, often good for less than 60,000 miles. Many of the aftermarket replacements are not much better, but Stewart recently introduced an extremely robust unit with a lifetime warranty. Oil pump bolts also vibrate themselves out of place, removing the pump from the lubrication system. This, obviously, can be a very bad thing.

As with any other 13-year-old BMW, suspension parts will be worn. Expect to replace front control arms and rear control arm bushings. E36 rear subframes are also notorious for separating themselves from the bodies of their hosts, so be wary of one that has been used hard.

As with any convertible, the condition of the top will likely determine the overall condition of the car. An owner who neglects his canvas roof will probably neglect other maintenance areas on the car, and vice versa. Avoid cars with torn or patched roofs, as replacement can easily run a grand or more. It is not uncommon for the plastic rear window to be nearly opaque, and though some polishes and cleaners can help with minor cloudiness, an uncared-for window will necessitate removal of the top for a proper replacement.

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Along the same lines, convertible interiors often take a beating quite unlike their tin-top counterparts. Leather upholstery should be free of both cracks and fading, as these are both the result of overexposure and neglect. Be prepared for dust, dirt, and leaves to be found in every corner and crevice in the interior. A good detailing will remove most of that, but avoid any car with moldy or otherwise water-damaged carpet. Perpetually damp carpet will also mean rust underneath.

Aside from the top and top-specific trim, most parts from an E36 coupe will also work on the convertible, and every day more E36s end up in scrapyards as donor vehicles. The same applies to aftermarket accessories. From wheels and body kits to performance upgrades and European lighting, most of what works on a coupe will work on a convertible. And there is no shortage of aftermarket offerings for the E36. But if performance is your priority, you should probably stick with a coupe or sedan, and leave the convertible for easy cruising.

Final Words

So, it is possible to own a unique BMW for around $5000. However, there will certainly be pitfalls along the way at that price point, and any new owner should be prepared for at least a couple things to go wrong. As The Werk Shop's Don Dethlefsen puts it, these are cars that are probably on their third, fourth, maybe even fifth owners, and with each successive change of hands the amount of TLC any car receives drops exponentially. By the time a BMW has reached the $5000 mark, it is no longer living the pampered life- things simply will be neglected.

The one thing all of the experts agreed upon was that, especially for this amount of money, one should seek out the cleanest, lowest-mileage example he can afford. Another thousand dollars spent up front for a well-maintained, well-loved example could save many thousands down the road, not to mention the intangible headaches that come with unexpected repairs. Depending on your intentions, a clean undamaged example in need of minor mechanical work is usually preferred to a rust bucket that's had oil changes every 3000 miles.