Endurance rallies like the Allgäu-Orient treat man and machine to some brutal conditions. Both are required to roll with some hefty punches – you just have to hope that when the going gets tough, you both get going. But that’s not enough for the Allgäu-Orient Rally 2017; oh no, for this event you’re not even allowed to throw money at the problem. The cars have to be worth less than 1,111 euros or be more than 20 years old. The object of desire in our story – an E34 BMW 520i Touring – comfortably ticks the latter box, which adds a little extra to the permitted budget. With 1,500 euros in our pockets, the hunt is on.
Buying cars in this price segment can be a murky business. Values are pegged to all sorts of factors, things that the layman stands little chance of checking out with confidence. Mileage and accident damage, rust and wear can all be easily concealed and even professionals will struggle to assess the situation properly at the roadside. Not for nothing were the horse and cattle traders of the 19th century viewed with a certain suspicion whenever they opened their mouths. And it’s the same thing with used car sellers nowadays. For shoe polish used to visually enhance animals’ coats, read filler to cover up a car’s rust.
Whining has rarely helped, though. Especially when you’ve only got buttons to spend on an E34 BMW 5 Series Touring – one that you’re hoping will make the ideal car for a long-distance rally renowned for taking its toll on the competing machinery. At more than 6,000 kilometres, the Allgäu-Orient Rally 2017 is one of the longest endurance rallies of them all. Which means a young team with little automotive experience have a challenge on their hands to find the right used car for the job.
Finding out where the bodies are buried (so to speak)
26-year-old horticulture student Sophia (aka Soffa) and 28-year-old co-driver Andreas – a musician and enthusiastic tinkerer – are both part of the “5ever” team lining up for the rally with thee cars, each crewed by two drivers. Today is all about securing their ride for the event. I.e. this is a shopping trip that matters. Luckily, they soon come across a car online that seems to fit the bill: a 1995 BMW 520i Touring in amazingly good condition and with 280,000 kilometres on the clock – for a negotiable 2,000 euros. Handily, the sellers live in a small village not far from Munich and are a charming family, which beats a professional dealer any day. Father and son are car fans, the son soon to qualify as a mechanic. Together, they are able to fill in all sorts of details about this 5 Series of a certain age. For example, it’s possible the tacho might have been tampered with, which means the car could have actually put 400,000 km through its wheels – instead of the 280,000 advertised. That will be worth checking the control unit for.
Around the world ten times?
This level of transparency says a lot of good things about the sellers, but not necessarily about the car. Here the Touring reveals a few surprises – pleasant ones, too – when subjected to closer inspection. The engine bursts into life at the first time of asking and sends the lithe tones of its magnificent straight-six engine tingling through the exhaust. The seller-cum-mechanic-in-waiting had already carried out the necessary work on the worn-out suspension, meaning that the shock absorbers, spherical roller bearings and suspension arms are new, likewise the alternator and radiator. Importantly, the car had also recently passed its roadworthiness test carried out by the TÜV inspection authorities. So it is in excellent shape for its prospective voyage over less-than-perfect roads. The air conditioning, though, has long since given up the ghost and has not been regassed. This is something many used car owners tend to skimp on, maintenance-wise, and subsequent repair work can be expensive.
Just under 31,000 examples of the BMW 520i Touring were sold, making it the second-most-popular model variant after the 525tds. The M50 engine – upgraded in 1990 to include four-valve technology and good for 150 horsepower in the 520i – is a sublime performer. Soffa and Andreas are also rather impressed by the dark-green Petrol Mica paintwork of the 5 Series and its attractive alloy wheels. However, it’s difficult for them to judge how sound a car they’re looking it; they just don’t have a sufficiently seasoned eye. So the arrival of someone who knows a thing or two about the business is warmly welcomed.
Here’s an expert when you need one.
Axel from BMW Group Classic is here to give the pair a helping hand. He is an experienced technician who knows the various BMW model series from day-to-day involvement with them at the Classic workshop, and he says the E34 is not known for any particular weak points. In fact it has a reputation for being extremely robust and durable. Neglected high-milers may show rust around the edges, but most issues are simply the result of wear. All the moving parts are subject to the forces of friction, of course, and will perish at some stage. Bearings, suspension components and brakes all have a finite lifespan and will need replacing. In other words, it probably won’t be problems with mechanical parts that stop this particular car in its tracks, but insufficient TLC. It’s a state of affairs used car buyers are often loathe to accept.
Under the marvelling gaze of Soffa and Andreas, Axel crawls around the car inside and out, taking a close look at the engine, cooling system and axles, checking the brakes and the electrics for any closet gremlins, opening cover plates and peering under panels. This is the practiced routine of the expert, someone who knows exactly where to train his eye. It all culminates in a nod of approval in the direction of the two budding rally drivers – confirmation that they’ve picked a good’n.
The acid test
Next up is the all-important test drive, without which no car should ever find a new owner. And that means Soffa and Andreas also need to get behind the wheel, not just Axel. After all, these are the people poised to part with their “hard earned” – and the dark-green 5 Series will be their home-from-home for over 6,000 kilometres on their journey into the Middle East, should they go ahead.
After two hours of in-depth pokes and prods, followed by some brief haggling on price, the deal is sealed, the old owners and fledgling rally team sharing smiles. Outside on the terrace with coffee and biscuits, the paperwork is done and dusted and Axel predicts a rosy future for the sprightly old Touring. Soffa and Andreas have found the car that will take them on their Allgäu-Orient Rally adventure; there’s no going back now.