We all know that buying a 1997-2000 BMW E39 is cheaper. There seem to be more of them for sale, and those that are found are almost always several thousand dollars less than their 2001-2003 counterparts. There is a reason for this: cosmetics.
Other than the ‘face-lift’ cosmetic changes, BMW didn’t really change a whole lot on these cars. A few new colors, standard features, but nothing like updates between iPhone generations. Let’s first be clear with what the ‘face-lift’ did for the E39:
Face-lift BMW E39 5-Series: Production 9/00 and on.
Hella ‘angel eye’ Celis headlights
Hella LED Celis taillights
Navigation package included MKIII computer and 16:9 display
Various exterior colors added
528i model dropped for 525i and 530i with different engines
Black door trim painted body color (except M5)
Front grills more pronounced (except M5)
Window regulators and AC blower motor/control unit changed
Fog lights standard on non-M5 models
This post will obviously highlight the changes made in exterior lighting. 1997-2000 M5s already had clear back-up and side turn-signals with the old pre face-lift lights, but 2001+ models got their lenses changed from amber to clear with the newer-style Hella products.
Anyhow, anybody with a 97-00 E39 is likely looking to upgrade their lighting, I know I was when I bought my 2000 M5. With the pre face-lift hardware still installed, the car certainly looks as old as it actually is now. However, after the upgrades, the entire car looks more modern, aggressive, and fresh. This is partly because BMW still uses lights very similar to this, Celis rings in front, and LED bars in the rear.
Getting this look on your 97-00 E39 can be cheap, or can be very expensive. This all comes down to the kind of quality you’re looking for. eBay can be a great place to find aftermarket lights that look like OEM face-lift lights. However, to anybody that knows BMW, these lights will be quickly recognized as fake, cheap, and downright gaudy. I made the mistake of installing Depos on my M5. They had writing all over the lenses, were not proportioned correctly, and had 5 LEDs in each halo ring, which were clearly visible at light. The OEM lights are so much more elegant, provide a smoother, more even light, and are significantly more expensive. You get what you pay for.
I will detail the upgrade from OEM 2000 lights to OEM 2001+ lights in this article, in relation to the M5. Note that 528i and 540i should be nearly the same process.
Options- Firstly, be aware that there are two types of Hella face-lift headlights that you can install. The American version, or the European spec lights. The American lights are recognized by their orange side-marker, and orange LED inside of that marker. This was added in 2001 to meet American DOT specs. Since we’re changing them, we can make the decision to install the European lights, which have no side-marker bulb, and have beautifully clear lenses. I made this decision, and ordered them new from Ümnitza. Note that these are for cars with Xenon lights, non-xenon cars will need different, slightly less expensive housings. You can also buy any other 2001+ OEM headlight kit on eBay, which will likely be much cheaper.
Preface- Installation is fairly simple, just four 8mm bolts, and all of the wiring (disconnect before removing). If you find the signal bulbs hard to remove, you can do them as the headlight assembly starts to come out. When you remove those four bolts (two on top, two on the bottom), note that the headlight will slide out towards the front of the car, and that the little strip of body-painted trim will come with them. This trim will have to be transferred to the new light, just a few clips.
Wiring- The OEM 97-00 lights have four plugs, low-beam, high-beam, signal, and the leveling wire. The face-lifts have those four, plus a fifth connection for the halos (one bulb for each light). The low beams will be plug and play, just move your ballasts over to the new housings, and connect everything up. You’ll see how straight forward this is during the install. The turn-signal bulbs are different, since the 2000s had two-filament bulbs (one for signal, one for lights in position one or daytime running lamps) and the post face-lift lights use a single-filament bulb just for signaling. So for 97-00, the signal plug has 1x ground, and 2x power wires in the harness. You now need a signal bulb (for euro lights) that has 1x ground and 1x power. You also need a new connector for the halo, with 1x ground 1x power. Split the ground wire from from the signal harness. Use a wire tap, and add maybe 10 inches of 14/16 gauge wire. Then determine which positive wire is for the signal, and which will control the halo. Extend that wire over 10 inches or so to your new ground, and you have no created the power supply for the halo. The bright bulbs are different, but the sockets and wiring is the same. Bolt your new lights in place, and stand back. Be careful though, you may need a chair. Your BMW now looks incredible, much better than those foggy 97-00 lamps! Upgrading my OEM 97-00 lights to the European face-lift lights was probably about $1,300 at the end of the day, but it’s certainly worth it.
2000 M5 with pre face-lift OEM headlights.
2000 M5 with post face-lift Hella headlights.
Side-by-side comparison of face-lift (left) vs original (right).
The taillights make nearly as much of a difference as the headlights do. They’re quite a bit cheaper, and can all be done by yourself. If you try to buy used face-lift taillights on eBay, you’ll soon see that they won’t fit your car. In 2001, BMW welled the tail-light buckets out a little bit deeper to accommodate the higher-tech Hella lights. You may be able to make them fit with an extensive amount of re-forming, but there is an easier way. Turner Motorsport offers a Hella retro-fit kit of OEM lights for pre-lift cars! The retro-fit kit is made by Hella, and has all of the required hardware included for pre face-lift vehicle mounting. There is still some modification required to the light buckets, but it’s nothing that can’t be done in half of an afternoon with a good friend. I have a very detailed install video, embedded below, of when I put these lights on my M5. These will set you back about $600, but are easily worth it! Firstly, you need to disconnect and remove your old ones. Easy. Four eight millimeter bolts on each light, and a wiring harness. Pull your lights out, and clean up the holes where they used to live. The new lights, since they are an LED setup, will require some ballasts to be used as an ‘adapter’ in-between the car’s stock wiring and the back of the lights. This kit includes one ballast for each side, and a way to install them in the spare-tire well of non-M5 E39s. If you’re doing this to an M5, just do what I did, and install them behind the folding trunk panels on either side of the trunk. I just velcroed one on my amp (left) and the other on the inside of the fender (right). You will need to drill two new holes, and carefully pound out some of your light buckets to make them fit flush though. Take your time, be precise, and start with small pilot holes so you don’t have to keep drilling out the hole. Don’t be too nervous, it’ll be worth it in the end. Rubber seals are included with the lights, so as long as you don’t get too carried away, water should not be an issue. Plug in the ballasts, fit the lights, and put the bolts back on. Another incredible upgrade!
2000 M5 half way through install – OEM (left) face-lift Hella (right).
E39Source channel update video with post face-lift hedlights.
E39Source DIY to Facelift Headlights
Instruction video upgrading to post face-lift tail lights on 1997-2000 E39s.