A used car like this might look "perfect", but if it was not
well taken care of, trying to fix it up could bankrupt you.
Note: While the comments in this article are related to BMWs in particular, they can be applied to any older car, particularly esoteric makes like BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, etc.
A "Fright Pig" is a car that is so worn out that nearly everything needs to be replaced. The problem with a fright pig is that they often look like any other used car to the uninitiated.
Most used cars that are 1-5 years old have few major mechanical issues, which is why they are often the best bargains for the car shopper. You can buy a 3-year-old Camry and it is still under warranty and has hardly any wear or major repair issues. But the same cannot be said for cars 8 years old or older.
Many folks get caught in the trap of the older used car. They drive by a used car dealer and see a shiny used BMW or other exotic marque, for sale at what seems to them to be a very low price.
"Gee," they say, "Look at that BMW for sale, and only $5000! Here's my chance to own a BMW I always dreamed about!"
So after driving by several days, they stop in and check it out. It sure looks shiny and new under the bright lights of the car dealer. They take it for a test drive and it seems to run OK as well. It has high mileage, but hey, it's a BMW, right? They are built like German tanks! Well, the salesman says so, anyway. And the dealer offers to finance the purchase, at the low, low rate of 16% interest.
So, unfortunately, they take the plunge. Hey, what could go wrong with a $5000 BMW?
Well, to begin with, they failed to check the book value and realize that a 15-year-old BMW is worth maybe $2000 to $3000 depending on condition. So right off the bat, our naive young friend has squandered two to three thousand dollars by paying too much for the car.
Why are old BMWs and other cars worth so little? Well, like any other car, German Engineering notwithstanding, they wear out over time. And as they wear out, they require repairs and replacement of parts.
German car companies have a reputation for making good cars because they also recommend servicing them at regular intervals (or at least they used to). For a BMW, this was outlined in the "Inspection I" and "Inspection II" protocols, where the car was scheduled to be brought back to the dealer for various inspections, fluid changes and even replacement of parts. If the car was maintained this way, it could be a very reliable car, for many years and even 200,000 miles or more.
But few are.
The problem is, while the original owner might do all this maintenance, often the second owner will neglect it. They buy the car fairly cheaply, put gas in it and occasionally change the oil, and drive it. When it gets old and starts to show signs of wear, they trade it in. It goes to auto auction, where our used car dealer buys it, shines it up, and puts it on his lot.
Compounding this problem is the fact that many young men (usually the audience for such cars) want to immediately spend money "hopping up" such cars. They get slick catalogs or go online to aftermarket parts sellers. The things they want are usually cosmetic "mods" - the type touted in teen car mags you see at the grocery store. They want shiny and loud things - shiny loud exhaust pipes, funky airdams, weird headlights and taillights, that sort of thing.
These types of "mods" can be easily bolted on with simple hand-tools. The kids who do this convince themselves they are "tuners" when in fact they are little more than kit builders, taking off one easily removable part of the car (the intake, the wheels, the muffler) and replacing it with another part. These aftermarket parts add little or no horsepower, and often make the acceleration and handling worse than stock. But they can cost thousands of dollars - all financed on a credit card at 22% interest.
So our intrepid you buyer decides that he has to have clear "Euro" turn signals and "Angel Eyes" headlights, as well as a brittle, fragile, fiberglass air dam for the front end (painted primer grey, of course, because he's "saving up" for a new paint-job - preferably Kermit-the-frog green). Out back, he removes a functioning exhaust system for an expensive stainless steel job with baloney cut exhaust tips that jut out at a jaunty angle (and stick out past the bumper). He maxes out his credit card for the largest rims possible, shod with the most obscurely named cheap Asian tires, that "only rub a little bit" when he turns. His E36 is now on its way to being a "racing machine"!!!
Unfortunately, a car like this, over a decade-and-a-half old and with over 150,000 miles on the clock, needs some serious attention. The suspension on these cars (like most) is pretty shot by 100,000 miles. The tie rods are worn, the ball joints loose, and the bushings collapsing. The struts and shocks no longer dampen and the springs are saggy. The cost of parts alone to do this job is well over $1000. Since our intrepid friend has no tools or garage to work in, he has to pay someone to do this work. The overall cost can easily exceed $2000.
Taking this as an opportunity to further "mod" the car, he opts for "high performance" shocks and lowering springs, lowering the car 2" (more is better, right?) which means the oversized wheels and tires rub even more. The stiff shocks mean the car rides harshly and rattles over every bump. Worst of all, the fiberglass airdam, already hitting objects, now plows into even the shallowest of driveway aprons. Within a month, it is cracked in several places.
The over-sized rims, cheaply made in China, bend when hitting a pothole. With only thin, low profile tires to protect them, and a stiff suspension not allowing for much rebound, they take a lot of punishment - and since the metallurgy is not the highest, they bend easily. Our young friend goes back to the rim shop and discovers they no longer sell that style. Even if he had the $500 to buy the shiny "bling" rim, he can't find a replacement. No matter, within a few weeks they are all bent and he goes back to the original wheels and tires, which are pretty worn out at this point and now look ridiculous with all the "mods" on the car.
But it gets worse. The car needs a brake job, of course. The fluids on the car were never changed regularly, so there is rust in the brake lines. It need one or more new calipers, new rotors, and a new master cylinder. $1500 later, he is back on the road. But then the car starts vibrating. The guibo is shot and is the center bearing. Alarmed he goes online to a discussion board, and realizes that this car has a litany of potential problems at this age.
For example, the cooling system, which was never changed on this car, will eventually wear out. And wear out it does, on the way to work, in a cloud of steam. He pulls over at the next exit, but the damage is done. The ordinarily robust BMW engine has one achilles heel - you can't overheat it - never, never, ever. Unlike a small block Chevy, which just runs slower then you overheat it, and just burns a little more oil, once it cools down, a BMW engine, when overheated, will blow a head gasket, warp a head, or worse.
Towed back to his mechanic, he gets the bad news: $2500 to put in a new head gasket and cooling system, presuming the head is not warped or damaged.
Our young friend adds up all the money he has "invested" in this car and figures out that it is well over $10,000 at this point, so he might as well "fix" the car. He ignores the fact that the repair cost will easily exceed the resale value at this point in time. The mechanic shrugs. He's seen this before and it will not turn out well. He will fix the car and the young man will eventually get pissed off at him, as if it were the mechanic's fault that this young man chose to throw thousands of dollars at this car - mostly paid for in a high interest rate car loan and in credit card payments.
At this point, our young friend is becoming less and less enamored of the BMW marque. "These cars are crap!" he says, "They keep falling apart! What next?"
The transmission is next. Yes, unfortunately he chose an automatic transmission, which defeats the entire point of this car. Some of these can last a long time, but since our young friend is fond of showing off by doing smoky burnouts, the tranny is taking a beating. One day on the way home from work, the car starts shifting funny. The transmission fault light comes on and the car suddenly revs and stops accelerating. He pulls over to the side of the road. The car is immobile. Once again, the car goes for a flatbed ride.
The news isn't good. Installing a rebuilt tranny will cost $3000 to $4000. A used transmission might be had for slightly less, but at this point in the car's design life cycle, there are few junked E36's left out there with workable transmissions with low miles.
Our young friend finally starts to see the light. The car is worn out. The interior has several major issues known to this car - the driver's side seat bolster is worn through and the recliner no longer works (nor do the heated seat bottom on the driver's side). The HVAC fan has quit and needs replacement (the mechanic already replaced the final stage resistor a year earlier). The speaker cones are rotted through and the car could use a whole new sound system. The door panels are popping off the doors and are bubbling up in several places - alarmingly so on the passenger's side. One power door lock does not work. The funky taillights make the "Brake light check" error message come on continually on the dashboard. The Check Engine light is on, as is the SRS light, (seatbelt switch was kicked).
And the odd thing is, he is more than willing to throw more money at this car, rather than "give up" on it. But his credit card is maxed out at this time, and the mechanic, taking pity on him by this point (having made several thousand dollars from him) says, "Dude, it ain't worth it!"
So another Fright Pig E36 heads off to the bone-yard. And our young friend spends the next decade paying off his credit cards and trying to repair his credit rating. And he will tell anyone within earshot what pieces of crap BMWs are.
And this was all preventable, too. How can you avoid the BMW "Fright Pig" (or any other pig for that matter)?
The answers are simple. First, if you are not handy with tools and do not have a lot of tools and a garage to work in, do not even think about buying decade-old cars like this. These are "handyman's specials" that people who like to tinker with cars (like me) can keep running and fix up - on a budget.
Second, don't assume that a prestige marque is made better than a pedestrian one. Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar are interesting cars, but not nearly as reliable as a Toyota or a Honda. The BMW message boards are full of former Toyota owners grousing about the reliability of BMWs. Well, they ain't Toyotas!
Third, always check blue book value before buying a used car. At the end of their design life, many cars are worth little or nothing, even if they look really nice.
Fourth, don't fall for a cosmetically good-looking car. Used BMWs can look "perfect" because many were garage kept and they have quality paint jobs. But if the underlying maintenance was not done along the way, they can easily require thousands and thousands of dollars of repairs just to put into reliable running condition. You can spend more on repairs than you spent on the car, quite easily. A $2000 BMW can require new tires, brakes, suspension, cooling system, and a whole host of other repairs than can cost $3000 to $5000 if you have to pay someone to do them.
Fifth, don't bother with trying to "mod" such a car, as the thousands of dollars spent are essentially down the toilet and will not improve the performance or resale value. In fact, these types of "mods" make the car basically impossible to sell to anyone other than a clueless teenager. Bolting on crap without doing basic maintenance is a sure recipe for disaster.
Sixth, know when to pull the plug on the project. A $2000 BMW can be a good bargain, if you are handy with tools, and can keep it running cheaply. You can drive a car like this - if you know how to fix it - for a few years, and then sell it to some chump like our young friend above. But once it needs a major repair like a new head gasket, a transmission, or anything that would cost more than the resale value, it is time to junk it, even if the paint still looks shiny and new.
Seventh - FISH FURTHER UPSTREAM. Our young friend here ended up spending well over $10,000 to purchase, repair, and "mod" this car, and ended up with nothing to show for it, other than a horribly unreliable car to drive for a year or two at most. For that same money, he could have purchased a much newer and lower mileage car. $10,000 can even buy a brand new car, these days (although not much of one).
Spending ten grand on a 15-year-old clapped out piece of shit makes no sense at all. Most people don't intentionally set out to do this, they just sort of let it happen to them.
Again, cars that are a decade old or older are really not for the faint of heart. There are some folks out there who buy such cars, do no maintenance on them and then drive them into the ground. Probably that is the most cost-effective thing to do to such a car. Trying to "fix up" such a car is cost prohibitive.
At the top of this page is a photo of one of my BMWs. Nice, eh? Only 75,000 miles, garage kept, and regular maintenance done. Even still, it will need new tires in the next year, as well as a suspension overhaul and new oxygen sensors and a serpentine belt and tensioner. I can do all this work myself for a parts cost of about $1200, not including the tires. To hire a mechanic to do it would cost $2000 to $3000. The book value on the car is about $6500 or so. Appearances can be deceiving! It ain't a fright pig by any means, but even still, a 13-year-old BMW will require regular maintenance.
So, avoid buying a fright pig. If you find yourself with one, don't compound the error by throwing money at it. Save these "mechanics specials" for the mechanics.
UPDATE: See also: "BMW Fright Pig, Part Deux" and "Why You Don't Want to Own a BMW" While I loved owning my BMWs (four at once was a bit much), I am content today to own a car that burns 87 octane, uses oil and filters from Wal-Mart, and has tires that you can buy at the wholesale club. A Nissan is no BMW, but darn, it is a lot cheaper to own. Sometimes it is easier to be a plebe.