A flawed driving machine

DSC01296_49527f3d21a04-lightboxWe wind onto the A60 just to the east of Trier. The V12 is a powerful motor but it’s no high-rev screamer, and there’s a deep bellow from up front accompanied by a bassy rumble from the exhausts once the immense torque from the engine is fed through the transmission. With the gearbox in manual mode, a couple of quick pulls on the lever has the car swiftly changing down to 2nd. The rear sinks and the nose heads skyward as 326bhp and 345lb.ft of torque go to work. I click the lever back across the gate, and at approx 5k rpm the ‘box shifts up into third. That’s at about 70 mph. A smooth change into 4th comes at about 110mph, and by the time 5th gear is engaged we’re whistling along at a whisker above 120mph…

The A60 stretches out in front of us – a descent into a valley followed by the long grind up the other side. With no traffic to the rear or to the front, I simply tread on the accelerator.

In no time at all, the speedo is swinging past 130mph and the wife takes a couple of snaps for posterity. This is the fastest we had intended to travel. But what the Hell I think – we’re in Germany and the car feels good. So I keep my foot in. The car is tracking straight and true and seems intent on reeling in the horizon. We’re at the base of the valley now, the speedo having just swung past 140, and as the Big 7 takes on the hill the speedo settles with a slight lift of the accelerator at an indicated 150mph. The noise is noticeable but not intrusive – an aircraft-like rush of air past the side windows. But the car feels perfectly stable and capable of going even faster. That would be stupid though – the summit of the hill is fast approaching. So instead we storm up the other side of the valley at an indicated 2-and-a-half miles a minute, crest the summit and explode into beautiful sunshine.

I back off the accelerator slightly, and settle to a very relaxed 140mph cruise for the next few minutes, as the road is generally straight and level with the occasional long, lazy turn. This, and the uncanny ability of the BMW to make even a 140mph blast feel like a 70mph meander, resulted in us covering an inidicated 33 miles in 15 minutes…

That was a little over three years ago. For several reasons, many of them related to reliability, I have not really missed the E38 BMW since selling it in 2006. When I purchased it the previous year, I’d just sold my beloved Ferrari 550 Maranello, and keen to ensure a V12 presence in the garage, I agreed to part-exchange my W140 Mercedes-Benz S500 for the immaculate, low-mileage 750iL from a (sadly now defunct) specialist not far from Dartford.

All was well for the first few months, and for the most part we enjoyed wafting around and soaking up that very peculiar German approach to luxury motoring (everything covered in leather, wood that looks like plastic, lights, bells and whistles where a Jaguar would apologetically supply a gauge as a solution, etc…).

First signs of trouble arose roughly four months into my ownership. A strong smell of fuel was apparent around the rear of the car, followed a week or so later by petrol visibly escaping just behind the offside rear wheel. This continued for a couple of weeks (which, with the benefit of hindsight, was sheer stupidity on my part) until an opportunity presented itself to get the car into the North Oxford BMW.

They diagnosed a cracked fuel-tank. The original tank was metal, and of a ‘dual-tank’ nature, being slung out either side of the differential, but connected via a common tube in the centre. A deal was done with the aforementioned specialist who graciously agreed to pay half the cost, which eased the burden a little and the tank was replaced shortly after for a plastic item, at my own specialist in Swansea.

All was well for approximately two months. Then, once again, more fuel leaks. This time, fuel was visibly escaping just ahead of the offside rear as I would fill the tank. Back again to North Oxford, who this time diagnosed a faulty seal on the sender unit, which sits on top of the tank, and is only accessible by removing the rear-seat. As fuel enters the tank, the sender unit kicks-in and sends it to the other side. However, on my car the seal was faulty, and the pump was unable to move the fuel fast enough to the other side to avoid it sploshing out through the gaps. Cue more fuel-spills on forecourts, fire-risk, insurance issues, police asking questions at the local Esso pumps etc…

A new seal was fitted, the whole lot glued, welded, spot-riveted etc into place and at long last, we had a dry forecourt when filling and no damp patches or worse under the car first thing in the morning.

Imagine my indignation then, late in the summer of 2006, when I started the V12 one morning (not quite such an event as turning over the V12 in a Daimler, Ferrari or Mercedes-Benz) only to be greeted by a ‘low coolant’ warning glaring at me from the dashboard. Levels checked, it was obvious she was losing water somewhere.

Back to North Oxford. Again. Back on the ramps. A cracked radiator was diagnosed this time and, as bizarre luck would have it (what are the odds?) they had a replacement in stock. But I was in no mood – this was the last time BFS would drag me to the garage on a Saturday morning. Circumstances had changed in my life, and I suppose you could say that the car actually did me a favour. Within two weeks, she had gone, to be replaced by a brand-new diesel-powered BMW, but that’s another story. [Mark has already started his 535d Journal- ed]

Next time, some driving impressions and a more detailed guide for anybody who has the courage to take one on. If you are, I urge you to heed the advice – you are going to need it.

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Mark Williams