The hazards of buying a car without seeing it in person

When I took driver’s education in high school, they were still showing the 1956 film, The Smith System of Driving. One of Mr. Smith’s five rules was “Always leave yourself an out.” I try to apply that to buying needy cars. No matter how good a deal sounds, odds are that when you see the car in person, you’ll be disappointed.

If you see a car in person before making a decision about purchasing it, you can just walk away. But when you buy remotely (and ignore the “Always leave yourself an out” rule), it’s easy to get burned.

About two years ago, I bought a long-dead BMW 2002tii sight-unseen that needed a lot of work. I couldn’t see it in person, but a diehard BMW friend inspected it for me. I indulged a life-long fantasy and went down with tools and parts, resurrected the car, road-tripped it a thousand miles home, then wrote a book about it (Ran When Parked). Five main factors made the adventure possible:

1) A deep familiarity with that make and model.

2) Having a friend nearby who could inspect the car, give me additional intel after the purchase, and had space where I could work on the car and a sofa I could sleep on.

3) An understanding of “The Big Seven” things that tend to strand a car.

4) Being able to order parts I was likely to need, and ship those and my tools to where I would be working on the car.

5) Having a network of people along the way in case the car broke.

Since I was successful, I’ve regarded the steps above as a template, but I’ve perhaps focused too much on the resurrection part and not enough on the pre-purchase inspection part.

Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I was perusing Craigslist for cars in Tampa—one of the cities I routinely search because my friend Al calls it home, thus satisfying factor #2—and stumbled onto a very appealing ad for a 1987 BMW 535i five-speed. This isn’t really a lust car for me, but these 5 Series BMW sedans from the ’80s (body code E28) have become quite collectible, with examples in excellent condition bringing eye-popping prices on The car reportedly had 133,000 miles on it, only a little rust bubbling on the sunroof and a door, and ran but needed brake work. The asking price was $2100. The photos appeared to show an intact car with a quite attractive Lama (chocolate) interior. The driver’s seat was torn, but I thought I could fix the brakes, reupholster the seat, sand and paint the isolated rust bubbles, and the car would easily be worth three times its current selling price.

The car’s luscious-looking Lama interior. bmw
The car’s luscious-looking Lama interior. Rob Siegel

I spoke with the seller and learned that the car was previously owned by a gentleman who had passed away. It sat for the next five years. The seller bought it, and got as far as sorting out the fuel system and getting the car running, but then found a nicer E28 that didn’t need work. When I ordered the Carfax and it backed up the story and showed no accidents, I became quite interested.

I told the seller about my idea of flying in, getting the car to my friend Al’s house, giving it what it needed, then driving it the 1500 miles home to Boston. He candidly offered that the car was probably much too needy for that. He explained that the car ran rough, leaked antifreeze, the brake pedal went to the floor (though it pumped up), and the tires were dry-rotted. Over the phone I helped him find the cause of the antifreeze leak—a loose clamp on a radiator hose. I joked that if I was going to make him a low offer, I’d better do so now before I remotely fixed his brakes.

I was interested, but I wanted to “leave myself an out.” I was delighted to find that there were $110 round-trip direct flights from Boston to Tampa via Spirit Airlines. I floated a proposition to the seller that I’d give him a $75 non-refundable deposit to hold the car, fly down, and look at it. If it was as described, I’d meet his reasonable asking price and drive or tow the car to my friend Al’s, but if the car was worse than I expected, I’d walk away, surrender my deposit, and take the return flight home. Unfortunately, the $110 airfare required a one-week advanced purchase, and the seller wanted the car gone.

We talked again the next day. He encouraged me to come up with a number at which I’d be willing to buy the car sight-unseen without an out. I asked whether the car idled rough, was rough at steady throttle, stumbled on open throttle, or all three. He said that the main issue was that the idle was rough, but freely admitted that, due to the fact that the brake pedal went to the floor, he basically hadn’t driven the car. I thought, hmmmm…. a rough idle can be as simple as a torn intake boot or detached vacuum line. Maybe this would be as easy as the antifreeze leak.

Now, the past year, I’ve lost out on a number of cars because, while I was waiting for a seller to send me additional photos I’d requested, someone else less risk-averse swooped in. I decided that it was here, on the beachhead of a E28 535i that I didn’t really lust for, that I would make my risk-related stand. I offered him a thousand bucks. We dickered and settled on $1400, with him paying the tow to my friend Al’s. He texted me a photo showing the title being put into a FedEx envelope, and sent him the money through PayPal. Done. I’d skipped the step of having someone inspect the car for me, but I thought that any risk was baked into the low purchase price. I felt invigorated by the idea that I was taking a little risk, would have a little adventure, and would make a little money.

A few days later, the car showed up at my friend Al’s house. He tested the brakes in his driveway for me, verifying that, although they initially went to the floor, they immediately pumped up and stopped the car. He then took the car for a very careful drive around the block. Al is not a BMW person or even a car person, so I couldn’t really get a definitive answer to the question of whether it felt like it was hesitating at even throttle. But he said that, other than a chainsaw-like exhaust rattle, the car did indeed start, run, drive, and stop.

Well, OK then! Ran When Parked II, here we come! I ordered a new brake master cylinder, spark plugs, belts, and a water pump. I picked out a date about two weeks out when both Al and I were available. I figured that I’d buy the $110 round-trip ticket with a three-day stay, fly down, have dinner with my old friend, and suss out the car. If I couldn’t get it road-worthy in three days, I’d fly back on the return ticket and ship the car home. Very little downside, right?

Oddly enough, the tires were what tripped me up. The 535i, like certain other 1980s European cars, used Michelin TRX tires. Widely referred to as “the Betamax of tires,” TRXs were a metric-sized tire that fit on a metric-sized rim. They’re still available through Coker tire, but they’re expensive. Nearly anyone owning a car that originally had TRXs has long since pitched both the wheels and the tires in favor of standard-sized fare. The wheels from a 1990s BMW 5 or 7 Series car will fit an E28, but the tires are too tall. Thus, I needed to find a set of wheels on which someone had already mounted the correct-sized tires for an E28, or buy wheels and tires separately. Figuring I could drive a little ways on the dry-rotted TRXs, I widened my Craigslist search from Tampa to Ocala and Jacksonville, but hinging a road trip on finding wheels and tires on Craigslist began to feel like trying to draw an inside straight. Bargain-hunting is much better done at home, without a pressing time frame.

I was not going to drive 1500 miles home on these.
I was not going to drive 1500 miles home on these. Rob Siegel

I projected the best-case cost of driving the car home. The $110 airfare, $35 for a carry-on bag (Spirit upcharges you for everything), $60 to ship my tools, $200 in fuel, $150 for two cheap hotel rooms, and $100 in food added up to about $650. And that excluded the issue of wheels and tires, and assumed that nothing would go wrong (a huge assumption).

With that baseline, I looked at shipping the car. When I got a quote for $700, I took it. It was clearly the easier and ultimately the cheaper solution. Besides, I’d already written Ran When Parked. I figured that this time I’d need to survive both a hurricane and a zombie apocalypse to justify getting another book out of it.

The first indication of my wise choice came when Al sent me the pics of the 535i being loaded onto the transport. One alarming photo showed the car engulfed in a cloud of blue oil smoke. My first thought was that maybe the oily cloud had gotten blown back from the truck. As they say, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It made me wonder… had I even asked the seller or Al if the engine smoked? Very sloppy of me.

BMW 2002tii burn oil This did not look good.
This did not look good. Rob Siegel

The second was when the car was delivered. I live on a small street, so I have cars picked up and delivered around the corner, two right turns and maybe a hundred yards away. The 535i was unloaded from the transport. It sat running, generating a cloud of oil smoke, then died. After multiple attempts, it restarted, but I had to keep my foot in it to prevent it from stalling. I barely got it into my driveway.

I sized up the car. Paint-wise, it was rougher than I’d hoped. The Florida sun had baked the Bronzit paint and flaked some of the clear coat. And the rust the seller had told me about on the right rear door was much worse than I’d expected. Fortunately the undercarriage was remarkably solid. But the idea that I could easily triple the value of the car by poking and prodding it here and there suddenly seemed wildly optimistic.

The rust on the right rear door was surprisingly bad.
The rust on the right rear door was surprisingly bad. Rob Siegel

I soon found why the car barely ran—the gas line coming out of the fuel pump had popped off, and gas was pouring out. It was miraculous that, with the loading and unloading of the car, this failure appeared to have occurred so close to home. I also found that the “chainsaw” sound Al described was nothing more than a loose heat shield on the gas tank.

Next, I looked at the brakes. Before I installed a new master cylinder, I thought there was no harm in first trying to see if bleeding the brakes firmed up the pedal. Unfortunately, nothing came out of the bleed nipples of three of the four calipers, indicating that the flexible rubber lines had swelled shut. I put a set of new braided stainless lines on order. Chalk another one up for shipping versus driving; I wouldn’t have automatically assumed it needed brake hoses.

But then the sucker punch came. Not only was the idle rough, but the engine was loud, with the tick-tick-tick sound of a badly maladjusted valve. The next morning, with the engine dead cold, I pulled off the valve cover to adjust the valves. I was initially thrilled by the clean golden hue of the valve train. But then, with horror, I saw the cause of the ticking—the #4 intake rocker arm was broken off. The pieces were lying inside the head.

This looked pretty.
This looked pretty. Rob Siegel

This did not. broken rocker arm
This did not. Rob Siegel

Was the broken arm rocker the reason why the owner parked the car for five years? Did the fellow I bought it from know? It doesn’t matter. The head will need to come off so the rocker shafts can be driven out with a drift. It will be a pain. I’ll likely do it, then try to move the car on to someone who has more lust for this particular model than I do.

The $1400 purchase price was seductively low, but with the shipping and parts purchases, I already have $2500 in the car. This needed repair—combined with the worse-than expected cosmetic condition—means that my headroom in the car has basically evaporated.

I have, in general, been pretty lucky with my car purchases, so I take this largely in stride. But had I seen the car in person before I bought it, the combination of the oil smoke, the rough running, and the mechanical noises would’ve warned me off.

As Mr. Smith said all those years ago, “Always leave yourself an out.”


Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can also order a personally inscribed copy here.

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