Some time ago, when planning holidays for this year, my wife and I decided this was the year we would finally do the family road trip round Europe. We have lived in the United Kingdom for seven years now, and though we’ve visited a number of different places on the continent, we haven’t yet done a full-on road trip. So we marked out a route, picked some dates, and booked a few AirBnBs.
The next step, of course, was to decide on the car. The E39 has served admirably on a number of occasions for family trips, but as I have said far too many times, I’ve been itching for something different. Knowing we would be taking a few smaller trips with my in-laws when they arrived in the summer, I started hunting for a second-generation Volvo V70/XC70, a car that has been on my radar for a while, particularly because of its seven-seat option. However, a couple of months ago, with the search for a seven-seat V70 with the right engine coming to naught, I decided we would just stick with the E39. After all, it has proved its reliability time after time, it’s big and comfortable, and would do the job well.
That said, I knew the car would need a bit of work before it would be ready for a 2000-mile road trip. There were three essential jobs that needed to be done: new front struts, new tyres, and a new water pump. I also wanted to replace the rear differential bushes, rear anti-roll bar bushes, and address a few other minor things. Though the parts ended up totalling more than I had really wanted to put into this car, the work had to be done if it was going to ferry us round Europe safely and comfortably.
About four weeks ago, I started to get to work, but right from the start, this turned into the most trying experience I’ve ever had working on a car. In my previous job, I could take a day or two out at my leisure to work on the car, but the role I’m in now doesn’t allow for that, so I had less time to give to working on the car. I could plan around this, except that every time I set aside a day to do some work, the temperature seemed to drop below freezing and/or several inches of snow fell. As a result, the car spent a good three weeks up on jack stands.
Eventually, with time no longer on my side, I had to bite the bullet, wrap up warm, and just get to work. I began with the front struts. Removing the strut and coil assembly proved to be particularly easy, at least on the offside. It was a matter of removing the track rod, loosening the lower control arm subframe mounting bolt, and then removing the three nuts on the strut tower. The whole assembly then drops down, and you can pull it out. The nearside presented more of a challenge, as the pinch bolt in the strut mount had basically welded itself into the hole. At some point, someone appears to have stuck a threaded bolt in there that then rusted into place. Cutting it in half to release the grip on the strut was easy enough, but because it is a large bolt (M12), it took a good amount of work to drill it out.
As you can see below, the struts were definitely due for replacement; it took almost no effort to push the top down into the tube, where it stuck and started leaking fluid. I was surprised it was this far gone; it hadn’t failed the old ‘bounce test’, wasn’t noticeably leaking anything, and though I could tell in driving they were wearing, it didn’t feel terrible by any means.
Getting the coils off the old struts and on to the new ones without killing myself was a particular highlight of this job, and proved to be less challenging than I thought it would be. Once I had the new assembly together, it took very little time to reassemble the front end.
I then turned my attention to the rear of the car, where a few things had to be done. Having renewed the front a few months prior, I first replaced the anti-roll bar bushes, which was a matter of simply undoing the bolt, lifting the mounting bracket, pulling out the old bush and putting the new one in place.
Then I attacked the rear differential mounts. As long as I’ve owned the car I have noticed some slack in the driveline, and have been addressing it bit by bit. I have mostly taken care of up to this point by replacing the gearbox mounts and rebuilding the propshaft. However, a little slack remained and, given the mileage of the car, the differential mounts seemed the next logical step.
This is not a job for the faint-hearted, as it involves removing the differential. And while I knew I was in for a big job, I was not prepared for just how difficult this whole process was going to be. Right from the start, I ran into a snag, when one of the e-torx bolts on the axle shaft rounded off and had to be cut.
Once you’ve removed the axle shafts and disconnected the CV joint on the propshaft from the flange on the front of the differential, removing the differential unit itself is not too difficult. On the six-cylinder E39s, it is held in place with three bolts, two on the rear, and one in front. With those out, and a jack under the differential, you can slowly lower the unit. While I had it out, I had some time to kill, so felt inspired to hit it with a coat of Hammerite.
Actually getting the bushes out ended up being the most difficult thing I’ve ever done on this car. In preparation for the job, I had purchased a bush press kit that was designed for use with BMWs, and was supposed to be universal enough to cover most bushes in various BMWs. The front bush came out with relatively little effort, but I ran into no end of trouble with the two rear bushes mounted in the subframe. My kit did not have a receiver cup big enough for the bush (they are 69mm in diameter), and no matter what combination of things I tried, I could not get them to budge. After scratching my head and trying to think of every possible solution besides getting on eBay and spending £400 to import the proper tool from America, I eventually spotted a hole saw in the drill drawer in my tool chest and decided to give that a try. It worked fairly well; I managed to get through most of it, and was then able to cut through the outer band of the mount with a hacksaw. It was not a neat job, nor was it easy, but it worked. Pressing the new mount in was much easier, and I managed to rig something up with my press kit and some bits I had lying round to get the new one in.
After the bushes were in, hoisting the differential back up into place and torquing it down was simple. With everything buttoned up, I used some degreaser on the underside just to clean it up, squirted a bunch of ACF-50 into various crevices and on to some exposed surfaces, and made sure all the eccentric bolts for the tracking were free and ready to adjust when I took it in for an alignment.
With the suspension and driveline all set up, I turned my attention to the final essential job: replacing the water pump. The cooling system on the E39 is known as a weak point, and the water pump usually gives no sign of wear before it disintegrates. With 75,000 miles on the clock, it was definitely due for replacement, especially being headed to the continent. I purchased a unit with upgraded bearings and a metal impeller. Being mounted to the front of the engine block, after you get the fan shroud and fan clutch out the way, it takes all of ten minutes to replace the water pump.
Though my tyres were still legal here (although just barely on the rear), I knew that a few European countries carried different regulations about tread depth, and so got some (mostly) new rubber for all four corners. I had them mounted, and the tracking done by a local German specialist.
Finally, I wanted to make sure the air conditioning still worked. I had re-gassed it last summer with a kit from Halfords, and to my delight, it continues to blow very cold air. I also cleaned up the headlamp lenses. Last year, I had reconditioned the lenses, but some orange peel remained after clear-coating them. I decided to try wet sanding them one more time with some 2000-grit paper, after which I polished them with Autoglym’s Paint Renovator. It worked incredibly well – I can’t believe how much clearer they are now.
And that was it. Finally, after three trying and stressful weeks in which everything seemed to go wrong, the car was back on the ground and ready to go. With a free Saturday, I headed out for a proper road test. After 170 miles, and giving everything a good workout, I am astounded by how much better the car drives now. I always thought it drove brilliantly, but particularly with the new struts and the tracking properly set up, it has been utterly transformed. The car feels so much smoother, sharper, and more planted.
It’s nice to know the trials of the past three weeks have not gone unrewarded. Europe, here we come.