E38, E39 and E53 Instrument Clusters

The instrument clusters in the E38,  E39, and, E53 are interchangeable, though I’ve only ever seen the “low” cluster in the E39.  All E38 clusters are the “high” cluster.

All are renowned for losing pixels in the display – to the extent that sometimes even the mileage can be illegible.

We can now repair these using a brand new complete screen and/or ribbon from £90 plus P&P.

We can also code replacement clusters – from another car –  to remove the tamper dot, and switch off the ASC/DSC light you often find with a replacement cluster.

We can reset the mileage to zero – so that the cluster will read your mileage from the light control module – or to whatever mileage you want it to be.

Get in touch if you need your cluster repaired or recoded or the mileage corrected/tamper dot removed.

We can also code Light Control Modules, General Modules and EWS out of the car if required.



ZF Sealed For Life Gearboxes


When we bought this, the seller happily told us that it had a gearbox fault and that it would go into limp mode very quickly.  He wasn’t kidding! Within about 100 yards, it would go into limp mode (this provides fourth gear only – useable, but a bit of a pain, particularly taking off from standing on a hill!). Though, if you cleared the fault code, the car would drive normally until the next time you switched the ignition off.

Reading the codes showed that it had had problems with the fluid temperature sensor and gear monitoring.

We did all the work detailed in this blog entry and had reached the stage where we had to come to a decision about what to do with the gearbox fault.

BMW originally stated that these gearboxes (ZF5HP) were sealed for life and no fluid changes, checks, or top ups were required. They pretty quickly changed their tune and now suggest a fluid change and a filter at 100,000 miles.

Anecdotally, a transmission service can cure many “faults” and the never, ever wrong, ever, internet suggested that the fluid temp sensor fault “might” be cured by a fluid and filter change.

The car has only done 88000 miles, but it is nearly 20 years old and a few litres of fluid and a filter can’t go wrong

The proper fully synthetic fluid is quite dear, though the filter isn’t terrible. I reckoned about £100 at trade prices would get the fluid and filter. A DIY transmission service isn’t particularly difficult, but you are really only draining the fluid in the sump and you do leave a couple of litres in there, in the torque converter in particular.  To get it all out, you really need to use a specialised pump and even just filling it to the correct level is a bit of a pain for those without the special equipment.

I phoned the local ZF agents/service centre (Mackie Transmissions)  and they would supply us the correct fluid and filter from stock for just under £100. Or, they’d drain it, flush it, fit the filter and refill it for about £150. That’s a fluid change rather than just drain and refill. Go on then.

They were very professional.  They asked if there were any faults and explained that there was no guarantee that any faults would be fixed and in fact, some faults were known to get worse after a service.

We dropped it off first thing – in fourth gear – and they phoned at about 4:00. It was done and had been serviced successfully, but, unfortunately, it was still going into limp mode within a very short distance. The codes thrown were gear monitoring and slippage in second gear and third gear.  Only a rebuild would fix it – at a cost of about £1800!

Well, it was worth a try.  I’ll look out for a good secondhand gearbox, then.

We collected it and, sure enough, it went into limp mode after a few yards. I cleared the codes and drove it back.

I used it the next day, doing the same thing, clearing the codes and just driving it.  The next day, I thought it might have taken very slightly longer – maybe a few hundred yards –  to fail into limp mode and after a week, I was getting a few miles. After a fortnight, it went from East Kilbride out to Milngavie – 15 miles or so. Now, four or five weeks later – and I’m jinxing it now – it hasn’t gone into limp mode in over a week.

I’ve used it in manual, auto and sports mode; driven it gently, driven it normally and red lined it more than once,  and the gearbox “appears” to be working perfectly.

Now, I am not unrealistic, the gearbox may chuck its toys out the pram at any point and I may just be having a run of good luck, but my advice if your ZF5HP (fitted to loads of mid to late 90s onwards stuff, not just BMWs) is dropping into limp mode, without any obvious noise, bangs, clunks or slippage, is that a fluid and filter change is definitely worth a try before condemning the gearbox to the scrap pile.

What odds on “BONG” “Trans Failsafe Prog” tomorrow?


“Nice tables mate…..Nice contours mate….Pity they’re not….”

I don’t think the 18 way adjustable contour sports seats from the E38 have been bettered by BMW in the almost twenty years since they stopped producing them. 

They look great and they are probably the most comfortable car  seat you’ll have sat on.

Even today, they are sought after – particularly for E39 conversions where they bolt straight in with  a bit of wiring – and it is far from unusual to buy a car with them fitted just for the seats.  Well, I  think it’s far from unusual.

You can see why:-

If there are seats that are more desireable than the contours, it’d probably be the comfort seats with rear picnic tables and vanity headrests. These are usually found on highly specced iLs and our Cosmos Black car is fitted with these seats. Currently.

I don’t know if the tables and headrests were ever fitted to contour seats, but I’ve never seen a set from the factory. I’m not saying they weren’t, but I’ve not seen them.

The Cosmos Black iL has standard beige leather and despite the tables and headrests, the seats aren’t very good, having been badly overpainted at some point – and not using Liquid Leather products.

We were recently offered a potential breaker in the form of a 1998 740i with very little going for it at all, apart from a sweet running engine, a not unreasonable spec and standard beige leather interior. Oh…. and these:-

A plan was therefore formed.  

The comfort seats are out the iL and the tables removed. It’s not difficult to do and if you need to know how to remove the tables, the best way to learn is probably to watch this YouTube video.

Always tilt the top half of the backrest as far forward as it will go BEFORE you take the seats out the car. You’ll not get the tables out without the top backrest in this position.  I’m sure you can guess what makes me so certain of this?

Another top tip is that if you’re buying a pair of seats for the tables make sure the top half of the backrest moves because stripping out motors and mechanisms to get the tables out certainly adds some time and swear words to the process.  

With the seats out and the tables and backs removed, you also need to get the other parts from the comfort seats that are required to retrofit the tables and headrests to the contour seats.

Our experience is that you need to remove:-

The headrest motor and as much of the wiring that connects to the pin locating socket (which powers the headrest light) as you can get. This loom will not be in the contour seat loom.  You need these if you want the lights on the vanity headrests to work. Some may prefer to fit screens or DVD players as the vanity headrests aren’t particularly useful, and in that case, you don’t need the headrest motor. They’re only needed to power the headrest illumination

The comfort seat stripped of tables, and headrest motor

The two brackets at the top of the backrest that you can see here.  Grind off the welds and remove the brackets, carefully noting and measuring their position.

The cross spar that goes across the middle of the seat back where two lower screws bolt in. Just cut as much of this off as you can. It’s easy to trim to fit.

And you’re left with a pile of bits and a scrap seat that looks like this:-

Now fit these bits to the contour seat.

Ideally you need to put a couple of M5 rivnuts into predrilled holes in the frame, but I’m sure you could manage with spring clips or nuts and bolts, but I put rivnuts in. That’s what the factory used and I struggled to get in to tighten a nut on the left side.

Now you’re ready to test fit the tables.

If you’ve got it right all the holes will line up and you can finish off the welding.

To wire the headrest illumination, I just ran the cable directly back to the main power and earth sources at the connector block and soldered splices in using bits of loom chopped out of other E38s to keep colours consistent.

That provides power for the illumiated vanity mirrors in the headrests. 

You need to trim the leather to fit back in the tangs around where the new brackets have been fitted.

And that’s you. Fit the seat backs and you’ve  built a pair of probably  *the* most sought after seats you can have in your E38.

Next.  Cleaning, restoring and reconnolising the seats and fitting these pre facelift seats in a facelift car.

Period Looks in a Modern Stereo

In the era of the cars we like to see, BMW – at least for the UK market – didn’t offer a factory fit stereo. The cars were delivered to the dealer without any stereo fitted and the dealer fitted the most profitable one he could persuade the customer to buy. You see a lot of old Fairbairn’s cars with Kenwoods fitted, presumably because Harry did a deal with the Kenwood importer and most other dealers would have their favourites too. Blaupunkt were certainly popular as were Alpine and to a lesser extent Pioneer and Becker.

Sad, I know, but I think an old German car should preferably have an old German stereo in the dash.  Blaupunkts look good and have a huge range from low end radio only right up to remote controlled, graphically equalised, amplified top end stuff.   But something that looks cor react in the dash is old now – up to thirty years – old and probably sporting a faulty cassette player that’ll chew up your precious Human League/Madonna/Culture Club/Joy Division tapes rather than a (now outdated) CD player, no auxiliary input and no automatic mute. A power antenna feed is as good as it gets really.

In the days of IPods and smartphones, these period stereos are really little more than ornamental accessories that look good rather than have any useful function.

Modern head units are superb in terms of features and functions, MP3, Bluetooth, USB, Aux in etc. etc., but they generally look hideous  – lit up like a Christmas tree in Las Vegas – and look totally out of place in an old dashboard. There are some period looking relatively modern units, like dome of thevBecker range and they are superb, but getting hard to find now and not being made new any more, the newest of them is still about 8 years old with CD and no aux in and quite expensive.

Anoter option is to build modern electronics into a period chassis and there are companies specialising in these types of unit, but they tend to be quite expensive.

I’ve been looking for a decent looking modern stereo that suits the old BMW dash, but has modern functions and I think I might have found it.

The Continental range has CD options and Bluetooth options, you can get a unit with CD, Bluetooth, aux in, USB and DAB.  They are conservatively styled, with orange/amber illumination and while I’m sure they’ll be made in China, they are branded “Continental” and they don’t appear to be generic Chinese items available on Alibaba  with a Continental label. I’ve looked!

I’ve only been able to buy them from Germany and obviously, carriage costs and bank costs add to the cost, but the one below – perfect in my view with no CD, Bluetooth phone hands free with an external mic included if you want to use it, or an internal one, 6 preset RDS FM/AM tuner, Bluetooth audio streaming from your smartphone, Aux in to allow you to plug your Ipod in, and a USB port that you can plug a USB drive into and play MP3s etc. and everything else you need really – comes in at a pretty reasonable £100 delivered in the UK



They’re a standard single din and  very light and sHorst benefitting from the lack of CD or cassette mechanism and easy to fit – because of the depth, which can be a problem with bulkier standard units,  particularly in E30s. Utilising a standard ISO connection, fitting the one below took, literally, 5 minutes.

Our customer wanted to replace his “Christmas Tree in Vegas” head unit in his E30 convertible.


Not the worst, but a bit “blingy”.  Here is the Continental fitted and operating.

Conservative black and white styling that fits perfectly with the BMW dash and which illuminates orange – shown here with a phone connected and dialling out:-


And here showing connecting by Bluetooth for music streaming and the USB door open:-


An excellent modern head unit that has all the functions you need – particularly Bluetooth hands free – at a reasonable cost and looking much more in place than any of the alternatives available and with more useful functions for use today than the Beckers and Blaupunkts

These are are available to be specified with most options. You can have them with or without Bluetooth, cd, DAB. If you want something other than the nonCD, Bluetooth, USB version shown here, please get in touch and we’ll get you a quote. A full, all singing, all dancing CD, Bluetooth, USB Aux in unit is about £175

We have a couple of these as pictured (no CD with Bluetooth) and described in stock just now at £100 each.


Signs of a Well Cared For Car? And Cheap Fixes

My pet hate with E23 and E24s is the two screws on the A post gutter “hockey stick”. You never see cars with the correct blanking cap finishers fitted. I’ve even seen cars with the screw heads visibly painted black.

The correct caps are 71p each inc VAT. Please fit them.

The £3 spent tells people that the car is cared for. Like a full toolkit in the bootlid, OEM carpet mats and fixings or a spare wheel with a new tyre on it. Another of my favourites is dealer number plates – about £20 per pair and they just look “correct” as opposed to “Johnny’s Discount Motor Factors” in a font almost as big as the registration number.

Any other examples of little, cheap, or free details that tell you the car is or has been cared for?

And on a related point – E23s, 24s and 28s with doors that don’t fit properly. I’m talking about doors that need a slam to close because when you close them normally, they bounce off on to the safety catch.

Probably not fixed because they take hours to adjust properly and garages will have whistled through their teeth and quoted ridiculous sums to repair, with owners deciding not to bother for the sake of slamming the door a little harder.

Part no. 17 on the photo will in 90% of cases be missing. Splash out 80p per side and replace them and the doors will, in all probability, close perfectly.


The cheapest, most successful fix for most classic BMWs.

What is your favourite cheap fix?

We have these plastic stops and the E23/24 finishing caps in stock.

E30 325i Convertible Buying Guide – Part 1

I’ve always been of the opinion that the E30 325i convertible is the perfect classic car. Reliable, great fun to drive, good looking, particularly in chrome bumper guise, easy to maintain, relatively cheap to buy, practical with four reasonably useable seats and still a desireable car to own today.

The E30 arrived in ’82, but the full convertible didn’t appear until ’86. Until then, the only convertibles available were the factory sanctioned and dealer sold coachbuilt Baur TC cabriolets – converted two door saloon harking back to the E21 Baurs of the late 70s and early 80s.

Here’s a lovely E21 320 Baur cabrio, I kept for a little while.


These converted cars were continued into the E30 range and while, understandably, they became less popular from ’86 on when the factory full convertible became available, many were still converted for owners after the factory ragtop became available – the discerning purchasers presumably taking the view that the improved rigidity of the shell, comparative lack of scuttle shake and a full four seats were worth paying the significant cash and aesthetic premium for.

The Baur TC is beyond the scope of this article, but I would suggest that if you can find one of these later cars, particularly a facelifted post 1988 one, like the one pictured below, it might be worth considering for two reasons:-

1. The Baur is currently unloved and while cheap just now, there will be far fewer Baurs around than standard convertibles in years to come. They are good cars, just not quite so good looking as the later convertible.

2. The original purchaser would have had to walk past the far prettier car and would have chosen to spend significantly more on the Baur conversion. You could be forgiven for assuming that money was not this purchaser’s primary concern and that this type of owner would be unlikely to scrimp on maintenance or options. A late model Baur was bought by somebody who really wanted one and who could afford it. You could reap the benefit now.


Now might also be a good time to explain the position of the convertible in relation to the 1988 facelift. Basically the convertible got the mechanical facelift parts at or about the same time as the rest of the range. However the body changes didn’t appear on the convertible until 1990. So you have the chrome bumper, smaller rear light cars continuing until 1990 in the convertible and the plastic bumpers and larger lights appearing in 1988 on saloons and Tourings. I’ve seen 1990 “H” cars in both guises. It should also be noted here that the convertible stayed in production after the saloon was superseded by the E36. 1992 saw the end of convertible manufacture and the last cars were pretty much 1992 K – and almost exclusively 318is. There may be the very occasional straggler on the “L”. Tourings also remained in production much later than saloons and “L” plate Tourings are far from unheard of. All Tourings are post facelift.

So, getting back to the convertible, which to choose? 318i, 320i or 325i? The four cylinder cars do feel a bit lighter and nimbler, but they are often lower spec with fewer goodies and at the end of the day no lightness or feeling of deftness can atone for the lack of two cylinders, four valves and loads of bhp and torque.

Of the sixes, the M20b20 in the 320i is a lovely smoooth engine, if a little pedestrian, but the urban myth that it is no more economical than the 2.5 is actually true. It sounds just about as good and it really is, in general terms, just that little bit smoother, but its comparative lack of power and the fact that that loss isn’t offset by improved economy pretty much rules it out.

Though for a limited use cruiser, a good 320i convertible shouldn’t be discounted. They are possibly easier to find, particularly in good condition, and have often led an an easier life than the 325i.

But, for me anyway, it really boils down to a 325i convertible or a 325i convertible. The only real choice is between manual and auto and that is down to personal taste, but the M20b25 powered E30 convertible is ideally suited to the 4HP22EH switchable sports box. I would strongly recommend that you do not discount the switchable auto until you have tried one. It is perfect for the convertible.

So having established that we are looking for 325i convertible, what do we look for?

It is pretty common sense stuff, much the same as you would check before buying any classic car. By far the most important thing to look for in any E30, or indeed any classic BMW, is rust. Where?

For the convertibles you want to be checking everywhere externally visible, the base of the wings, inner wings, sills, front valance (bolt on) and particularly under any body kit fitted. From inside the boot, have a good look the boot floor – both for rust and evidence of accident repair – and the inner arches on both sides with the carpet trim out. Check the wells that hold the jack etc. too. From inside the cabin, if you can lift or peel back the carpets and get a look at the floor and sills so much the better. Removing the rear quarter cards lets you see the other side of the inner arches.

Look for interior dampness and try to find out where it is coming from. Not always easy on an old convertible.

Externally the rear arches rot as does the bulkhead at the base of the A post and in behind the glove box caused by poorly draining rain water.

So with the shell checked out and you’re happy that you know at least what rust is in there and how much it’ll cost to repair, the next thing to do, is to double your estimate. Having done that, where do you look next?

Some examples:-



We can’t leave the body shell without a word about identity and accident damage.

You should obviously check for accident damage – check the shut lines, check in the boot floor, the slam panel area and the chassis legs. Check for uneven tyre wear. Don’t be too concerned, though. These cars are at least 20 years old and the chances are there will have been a bump at some time. If it has been properly repaired, it is no big deal. Have the car HPI checked and again, be realistic about what you find.

These cars are worthless in the eyes of insurance loss adjusters and have been for a long while. They will be written off for the smallest repair. I bought a category C Motorsport convertible that needed a bonnet, a grille and one headlight to repair. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, i would think that any Cat C or D write off in the last 10 years is likely to have been pretty minor.

Anything older than that and repaired would have been an expensive repair and likely – but not certain – to have been done properly, but if not done properly, I’d think signs would be showing by now.

Unfortunately, it has to be mentioned though that a sizeable proportion of convertibles may have some issues with their identity. These were one of the most likely cars to be targeted by thieves and “ringers” (they buy an accident damaged write off and steal an identical car and give the stolen car the identity of the “repaired” damaged car) back in the day and I have certainly seen a few that were dubious.

Get the last seven digits of the VIN and ask a local dealer to do a specification enquiry. If the manufacture date, body style, colour and engine/gearbox all match the car you are looking at, the chances are it should be OK – unless they’ve been very professional and stolen the exact twin to “ring up”.

I’ve seen 316 4 door saloon identities on convertibles and Baurs were popular to “ring” into convertibles because of the body style on the V5.

Bear in mind too that many have been legitimately altered over the years with different paint and different engines and gearboxes. 320 to 325 conversions and auto to manual being pretty common place and the chances are that any dodgy dealing going on was many, many years ago and the original owners, insurers and Police are extremely unlikely to be interested now.

Remember though, that any write off categorisation may have an impact on future values and bid accordingly.

Probably the next most important part of a convertible is the roof. A new one to a good spec, supplied and fitted, will be £750. Ignore people who say you can have rear screens stitched in or that small holes can be easily repaired. They can’t, not properly and not without removing the fabric from the frame – at which point you are better replacing the whole thing. Second hand roofs that are good enough to fit are few and far between. Expect to pay £350 for one.

Check the top seal where it fits on to the screen header rail, look all round for small “abrasion” type wear and holes, check the stitching. Try and play a hose on the car to see if it lets water in. It will. It’s just a question of how much.

Frames are likely to be OK. If you can raise and lower it, it’ll be fine.

Power roofs come in two flavours, the 1989 EH electro hydraulic roof that is a masterpiece of over engineering fitted to M3s and Motorsports and the later simpler, less robust, electro mechanical versions based on a wiper motor. These were implemented not because they were better than the EH, they weren’t, but because the EH roof was fortunes to build and install. No matter which type is fitted, If they are working, consider it a bonus. If not, don’t believe the usual, “probably just a fuse” nonsense spouted by sellers. Either version can be costly and time consuming to get working correctly. As an example the ECU for the EH roof is £2500 plus VAT! A working power roof is a joy to behold. A faulty one is a nightmare. I like the EH. I wouldn’t have an EM. A manual is probably the best option.

We had this roof fitted to an E30 M3 convertible recently – it is a superb job at a cost of about £750 complete.


Next up is the interior.

Continue reading “E30 325i Convertible Buying Guide – Part 1”

E30 325i Convertible Buying Guide – Part 2

Having checked out the shell and the roof, you should move on to the interior.

All convertibles should have BMW sports seats as standard – often wrongly referred to as “Recaros”. These are available in a variety of leather colours and in various style of, primarily check, cloth.

Like the Recaros they are licensed copies of, they wear out the bolsters quite quickly. Replacement leather bolsters will be about £100 per side. More if the foam is damaged too. Cracked and scuffed leather can be improved dramatically with Gliptone Liquid Leather, badly cracked seats will need to be replaced.

A full standard leather interior in good condition for a convertible will be in the region of £500.

Seat mechanisms can wear, but their replacement is fairly straightforward.

Dashboards crack too around the oddments tray on the passenger side. A good replacement dash can cost £100. If you’re doing it yourself and it is your first one, allow a day to strip out and a day to replace. We’d charge a full day to replace a dash. Repairs never work in our experience and are often more unsightly than the crack. The definition of an optimist is an E30 convertible owner without a dash in his spares collection. Buy one now – even at £100 – while you can.

The rest of the interior is pretty hard wearing and visual inspection will be enough to assess what is required.

Mechanically these are robust and relatively cheap and easy to fix and maintain. Just the same checks as you would with any old BMW or older car in general.

Suspension bushes wear and the rears are a bit of a job, so may have been overlooked. A full new set of bushes, mounts and ball joints will transform a car for a few hundred pounds fitted – far less if you can do the work yourself.

Engines and drive trains are strong and robust. Check for signs of head gasket failure on a 6 cylinder – they do crack. If there is no evidence of a recent timing belt change, knock £200 off the price and get it done immediately. A snapped belt won’t see much change out of £1500 if you are having to pay to have the work done. Make sure the viscous coupling works properly – a failed one can cause the car to overheat in queuing or slow moving traffic. An M20 really shouldn’t be allowed to overheat. Make sure you are getting warm air into the cabin with the heater and blower on.


Propshaft centre bearings can go as can the rubber doughnut joining prop to gearbox. These are often fitted wrongly hastening wear.

Diffs, driveshafts and rear axle components are strong and reliable too. Problems will usually make themselves evident.

Handbrakes – especially on automatics – will probably need freeing off and lubricating.

Check the ride height. Many cars have been lowered – not of itself a bad thing, but some are lowered too far and rendered almost undriveable as a result. 25 mm lower than standard is perfect – anything more may cause a harsh, crashy ride.

Similarly many cars, particularly convertibles it seems are running on the wrong wheels. The best wheel and tyre combination for ride, handling and comfort for any E30 is the 15×7 inch wide BBS cross spoke wheel with 205/55/15 tyres. Standard 14″ alloys are good. Some 4 cylinders came with steel wheels. They should be updated to alloys. 16″ Alpinas or Hartges if genuine, are superb, if expensive. Anything that is 17″ or above is too big meaning that to get the correct rolling radius, the tyres need to be very low profile – back to harsh and crashy ride again.

I’ve seen a combination of over lowering and bad wheel choice ruin many an E30 – to the point of damaging the bodywork.

You should remember that it in all aspects, it is very, very difficult to improve on BMW’s original design.


Most parts are still available from the dealer network and some prices are surprisingly reasonable. Some are however, eye wateringly expensive. E30 part prices at the dealers are definitely on the up. I think the old stock of parts is coming to an end and new batches are being manufactured, with often significant price increases.

OEM Parts are often available from specialist trade factors such as Euro Car Parts and GSF for a fraction of the dealer prices, though as these cars get older, less parts are becoming available new in the aftermarket. There are plenty of second hand parts available – at the moment. Most enthusiasts we encounter who are planning to keep their cars are starting to lay in a stock of parts for future use.