BMW X5 E53

Wanted: Dignity and Self Respect

Meet Andrew. He’s a suave man about town who used to float around in a tidy 1980’s Mercedes SL. He was a veritable transatlantic Patrick Duffy (of Dallas fame, not Man from Atlantis.) Then children happened, and he bought a Great Wall. He lost his mojo.

bmw e53 2


Sick of watching Toyota Camry drivers pass him up slight inclines, their hats positioned on the rear parcel shelf and elderly fingers wrapped tight around their steering wheels, he had to do something. He bought a BMW X5, but not just any old X5. He bought a V8. A late 2006 E53 4.4 litre V8 in fact, the very last of the first generation, with 315 horses under the bonnet, X-drive all-wheel-drive, ZF 6-speed auto, panoramic sunroof, auto leveling Xenon adaptive headlights and a nice facelift before the next gen hit the road.

For $22,000 and 138,000 on the clock, it seems like a steal to me. In a little under the year he has had it, he has subsequently put another 18,000 on to that which included a 2,000 km round trip to Noosa with no issues, not even an aching bum. Luckily he bought it from a dealer and the statutory 3-month warranty came in handy when the brake controller needed to be replaced. Other than $300 for a new battery, it’s just been service bills since for a more than reasonable $500 for a major service, and $250 for minor.  I think I need to get his mechanics number, because those figures are a little hard to believe.

BMW-X5 Interior

So what is it like? 

There’s a definite uptick in quality to most cars, my Disco included – the paintwork, the seats, the steering wheel. Even the switchgear feels organic, not an after thought or a filler sourced from a parts bin. My only beef would be with the information screen that is small and its pixels certainly have seen better days. But all in all, it feels more like a sports car than an SUV. You’re encouraged to sit lower, but the visibility is cut too much, so you raise the electrically adjustable seat to get a feel for the proportions. It’s sizeable, but a lot smaller than my daily drive. And then you turn the key.

Pass the tissues, it’s that good. I’ve obviously been around diesel eruptions for too long, for that deep, sexual throbbing that only a V8 can give, that raucous cacophony as you rev the bejesus out of it, is a thing of beauty. Was that loud? I find myself thinking, giving the throttle another blip. Yes, yes, it might be. There is some sort of primeval connection between the guttural rumble all around but particularly beneath you and your pleasure button. Like sitting on a washing machine for more than 60 seconds, assuming you are male of course. I head toward the driveway which is, as you may remember, a bit steep and the perfect place to nail it for 30 metres. It really doesn’t matter what the car is like from here on, I am hooked.

Without the benefit of a Top Gear track, I can’t tell you how quick it really is, but Andrew is right, the throttle seems to learn your style of driving, it seems to sense that there’s a gap up front and wants you to floor it. It’s there, it’s ready, it’s like an energetic Rottweiler. Turn in is sharp, the brakes are strong and progressive and though it sits on far stiffer springs than most large 4×4’s, it takes the speed bumps and dips surprisingly well, not crashy at all. The only thing that began to bother me was the nearside wing mirror that automatically folds in when you select reverse. It’s fine if you’re looking for the pavement but not when you are gauging the width of a parking space or need to avoid a pillar. I later learn that this can be switched off.

What can he expect if he keeps it for a few more years?

  • Interestingly a number of contributors to the forums have suggested that the X5 has been beset by a few problems, worse even than the Mercedes M class in fact, the SUV that in its early days almost ruined Mercs iron clad reputation for quality. If Andrew’s beast is anything to go by, this may be unfounded, as it feels and looks as solid as a rock.
  • That being said, this being the V8 all good things do come to an end, and by 150,000 kms or so he needs to check the timing chain guide rails, as the plastic they are made of tends to go off about then.
  • As with my Discovery, there have been issues with the air suspension, something that many SUV’s will have from now on. It’s a small compressor and eventually gives up the ghost after 5-8 years. It’s not cheap either, probably $1400-1500 plus labour. However, it is worth checking the sensors before replacing the pump. At around a fifth of the price, the fat credit card size boxes can be a little temperamental.
  • Nonetheless, because of how the rear suspension is set up, the rear knuckle is loaded up with the air spring compressing down on it, this puts pressure on the rear wheel bushings and ball joints. This then gives rise to a common rear camber issue, exacerbated more so by larger than standard wheels.
  • Issues with the intake manifold leaking seem to be a regular occurrence along with weeping valve covers.
  • The cooling system is generally in need of an overhaul around 100,000-150,000 kms. The radiator has a reputation for leaking on models built between 2001 and 2008, and when it goes it has to be replaced. The rest of the cooling system should be checked and repaired at the same time and this can be expensive.
  • The water pump should also be replaced every 75,000-100,000 kms I’m told.
  • CV joints need constant attention, but I haven’t found a heavy car yet that doesn’t have this issue.
  • Externally, the door handle carriers are prone to break, but parts can be found reasonably cheaply online.

Considering it’s a hefty machine, this V8 is almost as frugal as my diesel, which I am finding hard to fathom. I specifically chose an oil burner to avoid huge fuel bills but perhaps I should rethink this strategy. With the sun roof open to its fullest extent, windows down, and heading along a twisting piece of tarmac, this is a great place to be. Then the kids switch on the pop box and the serenity is shattered. Bugger. 

Useful X5 Forums & Clubs 


OzBMW  –

BMW Owners Club 

BMW Club Australia


bmw e53 x5 v8

Mazda MX-5

Can I have my car back, Dad

Mazda has revealed its new MX-5  and for me it’s a thing of beauty and encapsulates everything a sports car should be – light, rear-wheel drive, slick manual gearshift, brilliant handling and simply fun, fun, fun. Who give’s a toss it’s not particular fast and has a 0-100kph time of around 8 seconds. That’s not the point and well done Mazda engineers for keeping to its principles and not overloading it with every imaginable electronic device that supposedly helps us become better drivers. No wonder they’ve sold over a million of the little blighters since inception in 1985.

mazda mx-5
2015 Mazda MX-5 – courtesy of

I’ve already singled it out as a potential first car for my son when he is old enough to start driving. His mother may not agree though, but what does she know? I can’t think of a better car to kick his driving career off. There’s only two seats so no late night joy rides with a bunch of his mates. It’s manual, so in my book will teach him how to handle a car far better than an automatic. It’s not a speedster, so no point in out running the cops or trying to burn off some dill in a Commodore. And of course, I will want to drive it, often.

Brand new, it will cost around $40k for the 1.5 litre model and closer to $50k for the 2 litre, which sounds about as expensive as a tinder date behind your third wife’s back. A quick glance through the classifieds suggests that it holds its price rather well too, with 2011 versions asking over $34k, and even 10 year old examples going for between $15-24k.

But when I get around to looking for one for my eldest (the jury is still out whether I’ll be asking him to stump up the cash or not – it doesn’t hurt to suggest he can chip in at the very least right?) will we be purchasing a money pit?

As I have written in an earlier post regarding a car older than a decade: tells us to “check that the Mazda’s engine starts easily, idles reasonably smoothly and doesn’t blow smoke from the exhaust under hard acceleration. The gearbox should be light and positive in its change action and not balk or crunch even on the fastest of changes.”

The soft top needs to be in good condition with no stitching missing. Hopefully it has not been used to race or run around too many tracks. A roll cage and things like a fire extinguisher would be a big give away. As with any car this old, if the numbers on the odometer do not align perfectly, you could be staring at a car that has been clocked. At this price though, I don’t care how limited edition it is, it would need to be exceptional to hand over your hard earned.

Anything else?

Well, the brake callipers are known to seize a bit but there are plenty of reconditioned parts available.

MK1 and MK2 models are prone to rust unfortunately, less so in Oz of course, but it’s well worth checking. Overseas this is probably the biggest MX5 killer outside of a teenager with a leaden foot. Areas of concern need to be the rear sill sections, rear wheel arches and the front chassis rails near the front subframe mounting. Thoroughly clean the drainage holes regularly and you can mitigate the issue.

For 1990-93 cars the o-ring on the CAS sensor (crank angle sensor), situated on the back of the cylinder head, can perish and start to leak. Mazda moved this to the exhaust camshaft for the 1994-95 model cars and began calling it the CPS (camshaft position sensor), but they are one and the same in case this crops up at some stage – confusingly, later models get both a CAS and a CPS and become two different things, but that’s another story. Anyway, on 1.8 litre cars the oil can drip onto the coolant feed pipes for the heater matrix and this will eventually make them burst. It’s worth replacing the cam cover gasket when changing the cam belt too as this can start to weep oil.

The slave cylinder in the clutch can sometimes fail and the clutch pedal will sink to the floor. Luckily, replacement units are not overly expensive.

The transmission tunnel has a tendency to get warm but reading the forums there seems a cheap remedy by changing the rubber turret boot that sits under the centre console.

The judder of noisey tappets can easily be silenced by an oil change and apparently can disappear entirely by using a fully synthetic oil.

If the timing belt has been overtightened you may hear cam belt whine and timing belts need to be changed every 100,000 kms.

Finally, if the engine is misfiring, it is not uncommon for the HT leads to fail, particularly the shortest it seems – HT (high tension) leads carry the sparks from the ignition system to the spark plugs. If that doesn’t rectify it, you may be looking at replacing the coil pack, which is more expensive.

All in all though, with some research and a bit of work, we may find one of these little things in our garage within the next five or six years. There are plenty of parts available, some great forums and when the sun’s out on a decent road, there won’t be many better places to be ignoring my son’s pleas of getting behind the wheel.

Useful links and forums:

Mazda MX-5 Clubs of Australia –

Australian Mazda Owners Club

MX5 Mania –

Piston Heads –

2010 mazda mx5
2010 Mazda MX-5 (Miata) – courtesy of

What does AU$10,000 or less get you?

Can you find a dream car for AU$10,000 or less? 

What do I constitute a dream car firstly? For me it needs an element of exclusivity. It needs power. It needs to be well put together and obviously well loved. Ideally it will have the best spec available at the time and it also needs to have as few kilometres on the clock as possible with full service history. Finally, it needs to be reliable. So, what does AU$10,000 or less get you?

In this part of the market we are more often than not talking about a car that is at least 5 years old and in many cases over 15. So we are in the realm of power loss, expensive part replacement and quite possibly rust. You can probably tell I am not talking about a run of the mill Toyota, Ford or Holden. Though undoubtedly there are some good buys among them, they simply don’t get my juices flowing. It doesn’t need to be Italian or German either, a nice little MX5 would suit me, for there are few cars around that would put a bigger smile on my face, especially for its price.

A glance around NSW shows up twenty possible contenders:

  1. 2002 Audi A4 3.0 137,000kms $9,499
  2. 2003 BMW 318is E36 Sport 145,000kms $8500
  3. 2001 BMW 530i E39 Steptronic 100,000kms $9500
  4. 2004 Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo 148,000kms $9000
  5. 2005 Ford Falcon XR6 171,000kms $10000
  6. 2007 Ford Fiesta XR4  91,000kms  $9990
  7. 1995 Holden HSV Clubsport VR 192,000kms $6500
  8. 2001 Commodore VX SS 114,000kms $8500
  9. 1990 Mazda MX5 Limited Edition 90,000kms $9880
  10. 1973 Mercedes 280 W114 30,000kms $7500
  11. 1998 Mercedes CLK 230 Kompressor 157,000kms $9990
  12. 2000 Mercedes CLK 230 Kompressor Elegance  170,000kms $9900
  13. 2002 Mini Cooper R50 106,000kms  $9500
  14. 1996 Nissan Skyline R33 GTS 104,000kms $8900
  15. 1990 Nissan 300ZX Targa 116,000kms $9990 (twin turbo)
  16. 1992 Nissan 300ZX 103,000kms $6500
  17. 1992 Subaru SVX 163,000kms  $9950
  18. 2004 Subaru Liberty 4 Gen GT Premium Pack 175,000kms  $10000
  19. 2005 Subaru Outback 150,000kms $9200
  20. 2000 Volvo C70T Convertible 103,000kms  $9000

As you can see there are some surprisingly tasty cars for the cash, and of all shapes and sizes too. Some are old, some rare but all tick the boxes in some way. But now I need to halve this list. A quick look at the odometers lends a hand, which takes out the Bimmer 318, Falcon XR6,  the HSV sadly, the older CLK even though it has less on the clock than the newer verson, the Skyline because it has an after market exhaust and undoubtedly been thrashed, one of the 300ZX’s and the Outback. So that’s down to 13, which goes next?

The Volvo, though good looking, and a soft top to boot, falls short simply because it was never a “fun” car to drive, fast at any rate. Slow whilst tootling around town maybe, but I’d have to put the roof up for fear of embarrassment, and what would be the point of that?

Next goes the 1973 Mercedes 280. Bloody lovely car and with its white-walled tyres as advertised it is a really cool set of wheels. But for driver enjoyment, all the others run rings around it.

The Mini Cooper gets scratched next. Nice car, very well specified, but it’s still only a Cooper, not the S or JCW.

And so we have our top 10:

  1. 2002 Audi A4 3.0 137,000kms $9,499
  2. 2001 BMW 530i E39 Steptronic 100,000kms $9500
  3. 2004 Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo 148.000kms $9000
  4. 2007 Ford Fiesta XR4 91,000kms $9990
  5. 2001 Commodore VX SS 114,000kms $8500
  6. 1990 Mazda MX5 Limited Edition 90,000kms $9880
  7. 2000 Mercedes CLK 230 Kompressor Elegance (supercharged) 170,000kms $9900
  8. 1992 Nissan 300ZX 103,000kms $6500
  9. 1992 Subaru SVX 163,000kms  $9950 (leather, 3.3i 6 cyl, very rare)
  10. 2004 Subaru Liberty 4 Gen GT Premium Pack 175,000kms  $10000 (2 ltr Turbo)

So let’s take a look a closer look.

  1. 2002 Audi A4 3.0 137,000kms $9,499

It’s a well built car, with beautiful lines, better in my opinion that the latest version, but the 3 litre is far more fiddly to work on than the 1.8T or 2.8 and parts are more expensive.  Apparently its timing belt needs to be replaced every 4 years which can cost up to $2,900+ (debatable). When added to the cost of large service you could be looking at a bill in excess of $4000. Hmmm maybe this is one to walk away from.

  1. 2001 BMW 530i E39 Steptronic 100,000kms $9500

BMW e 39There are very few reported problems, especially with E39’s built after 2000. Its cooling system can cause problems in time and brake wear is a consistent complaint with owners facing a hefty bill for replacement rotors and pads. Look for oil leaks around the engine and a rough idle could indicate a lack of servicing and extended oil change periods. But it is rapidly becoming the front runner.

  1. 2004 Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo 148.000kms $9000 1248926024922

Cheap and fast. If the car has been hooned, you could be staring at issues with the clutch and transmission. Build quality is obviously not as good as a BMW, but then this was just over a third of the price when new. At 148,000kms, I kind of think that there’s some expensive replacements around the corner, but they’d be cheaper than its European rivals.

  1. 2007 Ford Fiesta XR4 91,000kms $9990

Fiesta xr4The smallest, cheapest and newest car here. It may come without some of the niceties that others on the list have, such as a footrest or cruise control, but this is a zingy little motor. It’s the precursor to the current ST which globally has been lauded as one of the best little hot hatches money can buy and the XR4 is no different. Is it a dream car though? If I were 18 again, maybe so.

  1. 2001 Commodore VX SS 114,000kms $8500

    By: FotoSleuthCC BY 2. 

From reading the forums piston slap, or too much clearance between the piston and the cylinder walls has been a persistent problem with the VX, particularly with the early models. By revving the engine from cold to around 1500 rpm and listening for a knocking sound, you can easily find out.  The water pump has been known to go, as well as rear cv joints, along with a tendency to experience backlash in the driveline, or a certain amount of play in the gears’ synchro assembly. By accelerating hard in first gear, taking your foot off and back on again you may hear a knock, which would be a tell-tale sound. But this is a Holden, so cheaper to fix than the Euros and with improved safety over its predecessor, such as Bosch anti-lock brakes and traction control for the manual, this is still a contender. Still would this be a “dream” car? The current model V8 SS would be, but personally this generation never did it for me.

  1. By: Martin PettittCC BY 2.0

    1990 Mazda Mx5 Limited Edition 90,000kms $9880

I love the MX5, always have done but this is expensive for such an early model and appears to be over-priced by at least $4k. tells us to “check that the Mazda’s engine starts easily, idles reasonably smoothly and doesn’t blow smoke from the exhaust under hard acceleration. The gearbox should be light and positive in its change action and not baulk or crunch even on the fastest of changes.”

The soft top needs to be in good condition with no stitching missing. Hopefully it has not been used to race or run around too many tracks. A roll cage and things like a fire extinguisher would be a big give away. As with any car this old, if the numbers on the odometer do not align perfectly, you could be staring at a car that has been clocked. At this price though, I don’t care how limited edition it is, it would need to be exceptional to hand over your hard earned.

  1. 2000 Mercedes CLK 230 Kompressor Elegance 170,000kms $9900Mercedes CLK

As with the BMW, very little goes wrong with the Merc CLK. Its supercharged 2.3 engine, though no AMG, should give you enough of a push in the back to make you smile. However there has been issues with the control unit for the myriad of sensors it has. When some of these sensors go the car can’t be moved until the system clears itself, which can take anything up to 20 minutes, and can cost around $1000 to replace. Some drivers find the seats hard and uncomfortable, but most owners love their cars and forgive these little foibles. It is sleek and elegant and still looks as good on the road today as it did 13-14 years ago.

  1. 1992 Nissan 300ZX 103,000kms $6500

Nixxan ZXI was never too sure of these cars when they first appeared, perhaps it was the American badging, they called it the Fairlady, but today it still looks futuristic and very much like a sports car. The forums suggest it is usually a reliable beast but with no traction control it can be a handful in the wet. As with most of the cars here servicing and maintenance can be expensive but at $6500, you could put the remaining $3500 to good use and see many more kilometres of happily hairing around.

  1. 1992 Subaru SVX 163,000kms  $9950 Subaru SVX

This is the wild card, or joker in the pack, if you will. Subaru was intent on showing the world it could make more than just small hot hatches that like to go ram raiding. It was futuristic and quirky and, because it was a Subaru, was very well put together. Apparently its auto transmission was not up to much, and getting parts and replacements could be an issue today. The word is Subaru apparently lost $3,000 per car back in the 90’s but it is safe to say, this car stands out like almost no other.

  1. 2004 Subaru Liberty 4 Gen GT Premium Pack 175,000kms  $10000 

Subaru Liberty GT Gen 4Along with the Fiesta, the Liberty is perhaps the least “dream” like car on this list. But it would be foolish to ignore its capabilities. Famed for its unbreakable reliability, excellent build quality and, in this generation, its looks rivalled Audi’s A4. Some Subaru engines had a run of cylinder-head gaskets that were prone to fail and an ‘04 model could be one of the affected batches. Have it checked carefully but the new gasket design fixes the problem. This being said, the chances are that after 8 years this problem would have already been identified. Subaru engines do not tolerate poor maintenance and if oil changes have been missed, engines have been known to clog and die prematurely.

My Top 5


Ford Fiesta XR4

Mercedes CLK

Nissan 300ZX

Subaru GT

And the winner is …

If I follow my own rules, then the Merc CLK and and Subaru GT would fall by the wayside. Lovely as they may be, 170,000 plus kilometres is not something to ignore. No doubt the Scooby will go on for ever, they always do, and the Merc was built like a tank, but you know a transmission or an air conditioning unit is bound to go and that will take the shine off.

The Fiesta though the youngest and the easiest on the wallet just doesn’t quite shout “dream car.” The ZX, looks great, goes well, but I’d like to get home in one piece after a spot of rain.

So considering the small difference in price between them all, it seems obvious that my winner would be the BMW. Not only was the E39 one of the best saloon cars ever made, it was fast, supremely able and wonderfully put together. It may not be an M5, but surely it would be the next best thing.

To conclude then, it is quite possible to find an affordable car that ticks all the boxes and, depending upon the depth of your pockets to keep the vehicle in tip-top condition, there is a car for you. 100,000kms these days is not such an issue and for many cars it means the engine has barely been run in. Ensure any one of the cars mentioned is serviced at every interval, the right oil is used and changed regularly, and you make note of important belt changes, you may never live to regret your decision.

bmw e39

Alfa Romeo GT

alfa romeo gt

Alfa Romeo GT, hmmmm, mmmm

I say hmmm because it’s the first thing that comes to mind. “It’s an Alfa,” for those un-initiated in the Alfisti, is synonymous with “it’s a piece of shit,” let’s face it. Not to look at mind, but with respect to reliability. I guess it’s the automotive equivalent of marrying a porn star. It’s as sexy as hell but has a penchant for other men who like lube.

Mmmm speaks for itself. I mean look at it. The Alfa Romeo GT is a thing ofbeauty. On the inside as much as the out. Yes the leather seats are as good as they look and there’s even room for 3 kids, small ones preferably. But it’s the engine, all 3.2 litre V6 of it, and how it delivers its power that is the hook. You don’t even struggle because the sound then embraces you, the red hide squeezes your love handles and it’s all over red rover, its exhaust note sounding very much like a woman exhaling on a cigarette.


I can see why you’d want it, but do you need it?

If I were a younger man, say like Nadim, my chauffeur for the next 25 minutes, this car would have to be it. It’s got the lot. I think you can just make out the words chick and magnet on the side.

But I’m not going to ask him to let me drive because fair’s fair it’s not my place, he’s trying to sell it. If he offers though, I’d bite his arm off.

There are no nasty clunks on upshift, no jarring of the clutch. The power comes on so progressively that I have to check myself for being so used to turbos. The ride is firm but comfortable, and sitting amid the waves of red cow and beaches of tactile black plastic makes this a very nice place to be. I have to admit that for a passenger this is a tidy ride.alfa romeo gt interior

Now I must confess that on this occasion necessity stated that I had to bring two of my offspring with me, so perhaps you can understand my reticence to not ask to drive, I am taking liberties enough. I’ve just asked a bloke to drive me around in his impeccably presented motor with two – (vomit/sticky sweet/mess oh the mess) insert which ever is most appropriate – monsters in tow. And he did. Hats off to him.


But why this Alfa? This is the only GT V6 I can find locally that has had the Q2 diff upgrade. And why is that important I hear you ask. Well, other than the fact the original differential was hugely suspect engineering-wise, that when it went, it often took large chunks of the engine with it, much like a major operation back alley style. Other than that, the heavier nose and increase in power exposed the limits of traction, control and compromised the steering.

The Q2 on the other hand is different. Alfa’s limited-slip diff almost eliminates torque steer and understeer, which for a front driver with 244 horses/177 kW in its nose is no mean feat. And it works too with very few reported issues, if any. Traction and cornering are aided substantially, and Nadim has had few issues even in the wet. It’s almost like a 4WD  system for a front wheeler, as it splits the torque to either wheel according to the road conditions and means you can get on the throttle with more confidence as you exit a corner. So you’re safe in the knowledge that, if the inside tyre spins, the torsen type diff will transfer torque to the off-side wheel and maintain a peachy drive. It even improves the steering. And that is what this car should have always been about. 

“a self-locking front differential which incorporates all the strong points of a front-wheel drive system in terms of active safety, increasing driving enjoyment and control, while providing some of the advantages typical of four-wheel drive, but at a significantly lower cost and weight.”  Alfa’s take on its Q2 system

IMG_4762Equally as important is its ability to function. Forums the world over seem unanimous with praise and so far, few problems have been identified. From “it is probably the best upgrade you can do, and definitely worth doing as soon as you can afford it,” to  “the GT definitely needs a Q2, as well as protecting against the well talked about diff failure it transforms the way the car drives in all conditions.” Total costs for the upgrade range between $2-2,500 and whilst you are at it you could have the master cylinder and the clutch checked as the engine needs to come out.

So if you were to scratch that itch and finally say you own an Alfa, is this one to go for? Many would say the 147 GTA is the best, but in my opinion, the GT with the Q2 upgrade looks better, and has the slight edge when it comes to dynamics. It’s fast, it holds the road exceptionally well, and when compared to Alfa’s of old this one won’t be seeing too many blokes behind your back.


$11,000 – 35,000 for a mint condition 100th Anniversary edition built in 2010. Interestingly the MY2010 cars still did not come with the Q2 as standard, which is a shame.

The car on show here is for sale for $17,999 ono with just under 75,000 kms on the clock  – visit car sales for more information:


Service work ranges from $400 to around $1000 for a major service. This increases further depending on any parts needed.

Cam belts must be changed every 50,000kms or so. Alfa used to suggest every 72,000 miles but revised this down to 36,000 miles. It is worth changing the water pump at this time as it is a “belt off” job and will save you time and money.

The suspension has been known to get a bit “crashy” but otherwise it is up to the job. Nonetheless, it would be worth investing in new dampers & springs, so budget for that.


For more information on the GT go to the Research link:




Mercedes SL500 R129

Mercedes SL500 – Teutonic luxury that stands the test of time

“Nice car mate,” shouted the fluorescent vested workman outside the pub.

“Thanks, it certainly is,” I said, muttering it’s not mine as I walked past.

We laughed. He, because he probably thought I’d stolen it, for how else was a 22 year old able to get around in such luxury. Me, because he hadn’t noticed the German plates and therefore had not realised I was the passenger.

Courtesy of

It was 1991 and summer had befallen the UK, all two days of it and just happened to have coincided with a road trip from London to Southport and back again to attend a wedding.

The car was a brand new Mercedes SL500, silver and utterly gorgeous. Black leather interior, roof down, music blaring, marvellous.

What could have been better? Well the chance to drive the thing for one, but to no avail, my girlfriend had promised her father and he had made sure she knew that no-one else would have been insured. Being German, of course she followed the rules. Looking back, how could I blame her? Or him? Would you let a youth, an English youth at that, and one you barely knew, drive your $200,000 plus machine you had just bought across another country with your daughter in tow? No, I wouldn’t either. It’s amazing he let me in it in the first place or even let his daughter take it.

He was a large man and so fitted the car well, for SL’s were designed for rich men like him. He also fitted a soft tail Harley, something he asked me to procure for him, as it was cheaper for some reason in the UK. But his trust did not extend to his silver arrow obviously.

We drove the length of England and back, a round trip of some 700 kms. A paltry distance to most Australians but the time it took was not. The norm with any trip in the UK, then and now no doubt, was that with every wonderful motorway minute at speeds above 80, 90, 100 mph, you more often than not spent ten in a long, snarling traffic jam, caused most probably by some caravan wielding maniac or a hoon who couldn’t understand braking distances.

Courtesy of

Sounds atrocious doesn’t it. Not a bit of it. I climbed out after hours in that roomy, slippy passenger seat feeling as fresh as when I first entered it. At one point we encountered another SL in maybe the third jam of the day and, like Torvil and Dean, we mesmerised our fellow road users with the dance of our soft tops opening with electronic synchronisation.

The piece de resistance came along one, amazingly lonely straight when my willing driver drove her svelte foot into the carpet and we watched 150 mph come up in barely more than 20 seconds. I was entranced.

Twenty two years later, what can we expect. Those wonderfully straight lines and huge proportions still look as good. However, the rich men, like my ex-girlfriend’s father, have moved on to newer models and well before any problems arose. So we should be treading carefully as there is probably a gap of some ten to fifteen years since the smart money left. Cars like these are never cheap to maintain and so a fully loaded log book is a must, otherwise buyers are staring down the barrel, a gold plated barrel. Or are they?

Mercedes over engineered these cars to some incredible degree. This was pre-Chrysler days remember, and before that period of poor workmanship and crappy parts that almost lost the marque its bullet-proof reputation.

The grill slats, for instance, were made from spare titanium jet fighter engine blades. Incredibly aerodynamic and lighter than plastic, yet stronger than steel. The soft top had rain gutters to channel water to the rear rather than letting it drip down the sides. The hard top was made of aluminium and so weighed a mere 33 kilos. It had two, yes two, reverse gears. The first could propel you to over 75 km/h, which is fast enough but the second took you to 135. Simply select the “W” for winter mode and off you go, backwards.

The car was at the cutting edge of electronic wizardry. ABS, traction control, automatic roll over bar and automatically adjusting seat belts. It had fully independent suspension, front and rear, and though this sounds the norm today, you would have been hard pressed to find any of these things 22 years ago. It even has airbags, which were simply unheard of back then.

Under the bonnet you get a fuel injected, double overhead cam, 32 valve, 5 litre V8 that produced 320 bhp or 240 kW, and 450 Nm of torque. When new, it could drive all day at the limiter, 155 mph (250 km/h). It hit 100 km/h in around 6 seconds and 160 in under 15. Not bad for a car that weighs a fat man short of 2 tonnes.


But you do need to check a few things before you run to the bank, sell your soul or rob your children’s college fund. It’s not cheap at the pump. Expect 15 litres per 100 kms if you are lucky.

Only use a specialist for maintenance. They will be more expensive than your local guy, but the trade off will be worth it.

Make sure the oil pressure gauge reads ‘3’ most of the time. It can drop to 2 or little less when it’s hot and idling, but otherwise it needs to be ‘3’. If it is low when on the move, give it back and continue searching.

The spark controller for the ECU system can be expensive to replace, so ensure you service the ignition and replace the 4 coils and distributors reasonably regularly. It will work out cheaper.

Oil starvation can cause problems to the camshafts, and seeing as we are talking about a car that has done up to 100,000 kms or more, expect to change hoses and pipes as they will crack once disturbed. If this hasn’t been done before, walk away, you’ve met a lazy owner.

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The transmission fluid needs to be changed every 60-70,000 kms. Don’t listen to Merc dealers, as they were told this wasn’t necessary, but according to long standing owners, this has proven to be a top tip to keep it in fine fettle. The oil should not look burnt or brown, if it does you are back to the lazy owner again. I’ve read that transmission systems can go at 160kms, but you may not have to replace it, it may just be a problem with the speed detector gear. It is a little plastic part that is not too expensive. If there is any hint of a slip between gears whilst driving take it as a warning though. Also go for a drive with the roof down and listen for any noises coming from the rear.

Any warning lights on the facia, as you would expect, suggests problems. Check the roof works, and make sure the fabric is in good condition. It should take less than 20 seconds to extend or retract and should fit snuggly in its compartment. Check there is a hard top, and if there isn’t, don’t bother. They all came with one, whatever anyone says, and they will be more than $12-14,000 to replace. By the way, the hard top will only unlatch with the ignition on.

The roll bar must work, you will find it handy in a serious crash, and if it is stuck in the raised position the roof won’t work.

The steering can feel a little wooly and this can be worn steering dampers, but these are not too expensive to replace. Make sure there is no warping on the discs and replace the rotors when you service the brakes, never turn them.

Rust is a lesser problem in Australia, but check the boot panels near the battery box, the leading edges of the front wings and the jacking points. The last one is often over looked as they are covered with a plastic protector and owners may not be aware there is a problem.

imagesOther than this lot, these cars were built to last, and if you find a fastidious owner, chances are you have a well-maintained car to look at.

And finally, the price.

As mentioned these were in excess of $200,000 when new. But today, you can get a great car for around $25k with less than 100,000 kms on the odometer, and between $15-20,000 for higher mileage. Budget around $2-3k per year in maintenance and you have a car that will make you look like a rich man, a fat German rich man if you are so inclined.

Where can I find one:

Shannons are auctioning an 1992 Mercedes SL500 with 213,000 and a reserve of $15-20,000


Monday 21 Oct 2013 at 7pm

For $5k more you can find an example with half the kms

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