New garage arrival: 1997 BMW 540i Touring

There's a new arrival in the DrivingTalk Garage: Introducing The Old Colonel

By Tim Kendall | 14th July 2013

Garage Log

  • Model: BMW 540i Touring
  • Date Purchased: June 2013
  • Total Mileage: 101,515
  • Mileage Since Last Report: 1,400
  • Cost Since Last Report: £312 (see text)
  • Economy: 27 mpg

The revolving door of DrivingTalk’s garage has been busy flapping hither and thither of late. Firstly the faithful but unloved Audi has drifted off peacefully into the afterlife. I say afterlife – it’s not actually dead, it’s gone to live in North London with a cheerful Romanian chap who will cherish and love it like I never did. I say peacefully – it’s a rattly old diesel so that bit’s a lie.

But as WN52 rattled off conspicuously and noisily for the next chapter of its frugal, unexciting existence, I mused what cheap motoring it had been. Acquired 27 months ago for a whisker over £3k, I’d done nothing to it in 32,000 miles other than two routine services, some rear tyres and a new wiper linkage. Letting it go for £2150, I was quite satisfied with the financial aspect of my relationship with that car – not something I’m able to boast of most automotive dalliances.

1997 BMW 540i Touring

The antique 540i is an unexpected addition to the DrivingTalk Garage

Which leads me onto its replacement. There’s no rational explanation for my car choice other than to sheepishly reveal that I got carried away at a car auction. Again. The plan had been to bag a tidy looking early Mk5 Golf GTI which I’d spotted in BCA’s Blackbushe sale that fateful Monday morning. But, best laid plans and all that. The Golf was bid way up past its forecourt value by an over-enthusiastic wally, so I sauntered back into the auction hall to find another target. Whereupon I happened on this majestic 1997 BMW 540i Touring, resplendent in Glacier Green.

It didn’t tick any of the boxes – being older than the last car, less economical to run, gadget-laden, over-complicated, and massive. So I bought it.

Why has DrivingTalk bought an old BMW 540i Touring?

Why? Well I had to – it looked utterly immaculate, and in its 15-year life had just two owners from new – the first for 10 years and the second, a Colonel from Guildford who purchased it in 2007 as an approved used BMW. I’ve developed a fetish for old BMWs as the other car in DrivingTalk’s garage will attest – and the E39 looks superb in estate form to my eyes. Just 101,000 miles has passed under its pristine 16-inch “Turbine” wheels in 15 years, so it’s led an undemanding existence, evidenced by the immaculate interior and unmarked load bay. Well you’d expect nothing less than an immaculate car from a man of military bearing. I’m not one for giving cars names but on this occasion, it seems rude not to – so from here on in, R255 JPK is ‘The Old Colonel’.

1997 BMW 540i Touring

Those parking sensors still work. More than can be said for my M5

Is it a nail?

Well I’d say not. Things like a matching set of Michelins inspire confidence and give the impression that it hasn’t been treated like a banger, despite its value being firmly in old scrapper territory. There’s also a service book brimming with no less than 12 stamps from BMW main dealers right up 10,000 miles ago and a huge wad of main agent invoices. Rummaging through the Old Colonel’s paperwork revealed a treasure trove of stuff to excite my inner anorak, including the original PDI sheet and order form showing that owner number one parted with over £52k in 1997 for the privilege of wafting out of the showroom in BMW’s flagship wagon.

1997 BMW 540i Touring

Sumptuous – this E39 has worn the miles very well

1997 BMW 540i Touring GSM carphone

This delightfully retro BMW carphone still works. Perfection.

What’s good about the 540i Touring?

Well it does tick one very important box – the one labelled Q-car. De-badged and sitting on comically small 16-inch wheels with balloon-like sidewalls, few would twig that there lurks a 4.4-litre V8 under the bonnet. It’s hard to tire of being able to embarrass Civic Type-Rs and all manner of other shouty stuff in a stealthy R-reg estate. And herein lies much of this old Beemer’s appeal to me.

There’s just something about the incongruous combination of sedate geriatric charm and oodles of torquey, mellifluous grunt from that 286bhp motor.Then there’s the fact this top-flight barge is bursting with gadgets. Xenon headlights, rain sensing wipers, electric memory seats and steering column, foldy mirrors, CD changer, soft-close tailgate, parking sensors – it all works. Plus my personal favourite – a period BMW GSM carphone complete with dangly cord and massive handset. Delightful.

BMW 540i Comfort seats

The Old Colonel is fitted with optional, infinitely adjustable ‘Comfort’ seats

The ‘Comfort’ seats, too, do exactly what they say on the tin, with infinite electric adjustment and a whole bunch of buttons with which to delight my easily amused nature.

So what’s the Old Colonel like to drive?

A bit like a boat really. Introduce your right foot to the carpet and it really does fly, but in a slightly nonchalant, disinterested fashion. The nose rises skywards and it rocks squidgily on its rear haunches. It’s a world away from the sharpness and urgency of an M5 – as you’d expect really – BMW’s M-division quite clearly haven’t been anywhere near it. Yet the E39 540 is all the more charming for its mix of speed and wallowy comfort. With a slushy 5-speed Steptronic autobox, the whole driving experience is lazy, unruffled and designed to get you to the office feeling fresh.

1997 BMW 540i Touring

The Old Colonel has worn the years well

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BMW E39 540i Touring

Still the Ultimate Driving Machine?

How much did the old lump cost?

The price of all this aging Teutonic charm? The hammer dropped at £1200 to which I had to add a few hundred more for the buyer’s fee and delivery, making this old barge quite a bargain – in my humble, rose-tinted opinion.

And the costs so far? I’ve stuck a new Bosch battery in (£90 from Euro Car Parts) and had the local BMW specialists give it the once-over and a full service with new oil, coolant and brake fluid, which set me back £200. Oh and some new wiper blades (£22). It’s already MOT’d until February 2014 and the only discernable weakness is a voracious appetite for petrol…

The Old Colonel has already been pressed it into service for a camping trip up to Ironbridge and it performed faultlessly. It’s true – you never know what’s around the corner with complicated old luxury cars but at the moment, the sun’s out, the sky is blue and everything’s still working. So fingers crossed the Old Colonel doesn’t slip his clogs for a while yet.





By Tim Kendall
14th July 2013

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