For as long as I can remember, I’ve held a strong interest in cars, though my parents accredit that to a toy school bus I had as a toddler. After I turned four, I would point to cars on the road and ask my dad what they were. His limited automotive knowledge meant that every SUV was a Jeep to me; everything else was a mishmash. Through clipping pictures of nice cars out of magazines, collecting Hot Wheels sized cars, and reading the undercarriage for the label, I started to form a vague understanding of what I was seeing on the road.
The first step in a chain of events that lead to me acquiring an ’03 530i was probably when my dad decided to move up from his then eight year old, base model Camry in 2003. He ended up leasing a black on black ’03 GS300, which, while being a nice car at the time, I didn’t think much of it as a six year old. In all honesty, I preferred my mom’s ’03 Highlander because I thought SUVs were badass. I still do; but Highlanders are no longer badass. My dad leased the GS for three years and turned it in, tiring of lease payments and wanting something he wouldn’t be afraid to put bikes in. His search initially encompassed Chrysler 300s (good thing that never happened) and Infiniti G35s, but turning towards Tacomas when he decided he wanted to fit bikes in the back.
In November 2005, the GS left the garage, and mom’s Highlander was joined by…another Highlander, in the same base model, four cylinder guise. My parents were happy with their Highlanders because it meant no car payments, and the new Highlander ended up going to my mom, but for me it was like an automotive purgatory. Though he liked the Highlander for its reliability and practicality, my dad always missed the GS300.
Seemingly out of the blue, my dad came to me while I was casually looking at Corvettes on Autotrader on a Friday afternoon in March of 2010; he wanted to have a nice car again. Not wanting to deal with car payments, the car would be used, but a $25k budget allowed for desirable options. The most popular choices were early Bangle-era 745Lis, W220 S-Classes, W211 E-Classes, early E60 5ers and LS430s.
Just a day after the search began, my dad found an E320 and an LS430 at a nearby dealership that looked good in the advertisement. The LS430 turned out to be lacking some luster; it had its fair share of scuffs, was a base model and had an odd smell. The E320, however, was solid. It rode nice, looked good and had a great Harmon/Kardon stereo. I also sat in an E60 525i in the showroom, which I didn’t care for; it felt overly plasticy and angular inside. Oddly, the E90 and E92 I sat in felt of higher quality.
Behind that 525i was a Cypress Pearl LS430, shining in the noon sunlight by a row of windows. I sat in the passenger seat, and the gray leather seat felt great under my bottom. My dad came over to look at it, and he agreed that it was a fine car. Unfortunately, that specific LS430 had already been sold to a buyer in Seattle. Undeterred, we went home and continued the search, with a greater emphasis on LS430s. Later that day, he found what appeared to be a garden variety ad for an ’02 LS430, but it was under-priced by several thousand dollars, and it had just 52,000 miles on it.
My dad called about it, and the seller, a Russian jeweler by the name of Peter, assured him that the car was legit; it was his wife’s car, and she wanted a new Mercedes. Separating us from that Lexus was several hundred miles, so my dad took a chance and flew to Studio City, California, the following Tuesday to buy the car sight-unseen. Miraculously, the car really was legit, and after exchanging the cash and title at a nearby bank, he drove the car back home that day.
I grew to appreciate that LS430’s comfort and amenities (we still have it, at 85,000 miles), but after it was joined by an ’06 Cooper S with 42,000 under its belt (96,000 now!) just a few weeks later (mom wanted a car too), I began to realize that you could actually have fun in a car. The Highlanders were appliances, and the Lexii were very biased towards comfort over performance, so I’d never really experienced a fun car.
After experiencing the near extremes of the comfort/handling spectrum on a day-to-day basis, I wanted something that balanced the two for my own car, though I initially searched for Minis at the beginning of a year-long car search. I was now fairly knowledgeable on a wide spectrum of cars, but still did plenty of research and decided that an E46 coupe or an E39 would be the ideal choice.
Finding one, however, was a task easier said than done. As it turned out, owners of second-hand Bimmers sucked at keeping their machine in running condition, and just about every one had yellowing headlights, ripped leather (how) and oxidized paint in all the wrong places. I think I can count on one hand how many decent Bimmers I found during about a year of Craigslist-trolling; it was discouraging as hell.
Suddenly, last December, the decent BMW owners of Arizona (all three of them) got together and decided to start selling their cars at the beginning of the month. First there was an ’03 330i that was well-optioned and equipped with some aftermarket coilovers, but the mileage was rather high at 120,000. About a week later, I found what appeared to be a nice ’03 525i with 75,000 miles. It was the basest of the base 5ers, but it was in excellent shape. That seller turned out to be a dealer posing as a private owner, and we really weren’t interested in that. I then found another ad for an ’03 530i with 64,000 on it. It wasn’t a very noteworthy ad, rather, it was your typical ALL CAPS ad giving a vague description of the car and a couple pictures.
That car turned out to be the real deal, and after comparing prices to E39s in California, my dad came to the decision that the car was worth looking at. The next day was a regular Friday at school, though thoughts concerning that 530i distracted me for most of the day. As it turned out, my thoughts weren’t for nothing: as I left school and came out to the pickup line, I noticed neither the Lexus or the Mini, but rather a Sterlinggrau E39 that looked very similar to the one I’d been wondering about all day. That turned out to be the first time I met my first car in person.
Both parents came along for the ride (though my mom bought the car alone), and we drove to a side street to switch drivers, a daily ritual since I’ve been able to drive, but not allowed to park on campus. After figuring out which seat adjustment did what (the twisting seat confused the hell out of me at first), I shifted the car into drive and set off for the first time in my own car- but not before the center console tried to eat my finger as I slid it forward.
Being used to the lazy throttle response of the Lexus, the Bimmer felt like a little rocket at first, despite being much slower than the Lexus in reality. To be honest, it was startling at first. I immediately started worrying that the snappy throttle response would be too addicting and I’d rack of speeding tickets, but luckily for my license and my gas mileage, I adapted by the end of the drive, but still appreciated the responsive transmission and eager inline-six. The brakes were just about as excellent as the ones on the Mini.
This ’03 530i started its life in Dingolfing on December 7th, 2002. After immigrating to America, it found itself at a dealer somewhere in California, where it lived a pretty easy life as an around-town car (there’s almost no rock chips) until 2011. The previous owner of the car, a Romanian BMW enthusiast, purchased the car and took it to its new home in Surprise, Arizona. He’d had several other 3ers and 5ers during his life, but preferred the 5-Series due to the increase in interior space and the reduction of road noise. Though he’d just purchased a 530i, his eyes were set on a different prize, and that prize turned out to be another ’03 530i, but with a manual transmission and the elusive M-Sport sport package. He’d been looking for such a car for two years.
As enthusiastic as he may have been for cars wearing the roundel, his maintenance habits may have been questionable. Since the purchase on December 13th, 2013, the car’s had a new radiator and one radiator hose (the other radiator hose was just purchased on the date of this posting), and the transmission has its quirks. A few times, when cold, the car’s had a very noticeable shuddering up until about 30-40 mph, coming from the center of the vehicle. It spits out codes concerning the torque converter when hooked up to a diagnostics system. The previous owner also skimped on the brakes, he only replaced the pads, but not the rotors, which will have to be corrected in the future. The car also has a coolant leak, which will be remedied once that new radiator hose is installed. Last month, a small plastic piece on the mechanism to which the power rear sunshade is held to snapped, which, after being carefully rolled back into its slot, means that I will no longer be making use of it.
Despite all that crap, this 530i isn’t a bad car. It’s quite likable. The ride is firm but comfortable, and it feels like a vault going down some of Phoenix’s crappier roads. The transmission is always agreeable to throttle inputs, meaning the car never feels flat-footed. Handling appears to be competent, but Phoenix’s city planners were apparently allergic to designing roads with real curves, and this car has yet to really venture outside of its new hometown. Like I said before, the brakes are excellent. The stereo is one of the better ones that I’ve experienced in a car as well. The seats are firm, but supportive and comfortable, and after being treated with Leatherique, are smooth to the touch and do a decent job of holding you in place.
Cosmetically, this car is in pretty good shape, which is an absolute must. Scratches, yellow headlights, oxidized paint, door dings and rock chips drive me nuts. To prevent sun-related damage, I bought a car cover for it to live under, because the Mini and Lexus get garage priority, and there’s only two spaces in that garage.
The little gray Bimmer has about 66,500 miles on as of today, and its sole modifications (if you can count them as such) are the removal of the rear headrests, which now live in my closet, and the addition of that purplish Arizona Highways plate.
Other than that, I plan to continue to repair all that previously mentioned crap over time, and generally just keep it clean. Currently it gets washed once a week, but my enthusiasm for that may change once temperatures resume their triple digit norms. I can assure you, though, that this Bimmer will not get beat on; it gets driven respectfully. There will be no stupid stickers, no tacked-on crap, and probably no suspension modifications. I appreciate this car for what it is, and I appreciate my parents for recognizing that I had an infatuation for these cars, or else I would’ve ended up with a Corolla, like everyone else.