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Less than perfect timing – more BMW engine woes!

Modern Diesel engined cars are wonderful, aren’t they? So much power, efficiency and low emissions (well, during testing at least) whilst not rattling anywhere nearly as much as they used to. One of the best selling ‘luxury’ car brands, BMW, have been at the forefront of Diesel technology for many years, but it wasn’t always this way.  As far back as 1935, Mercedes were churning out oil burning versions of their range, yet BMW, although starting building cars in 1936,  didn’t even offer a Diesel engine in any of their range of until 1983, and then not for sale in the UK.

Fast-forward to the mid-90’s and BMW were selling Diesels by the million – the ever popular 3 series and 5 series offered excellent performance with fuel economy figures that would be unthinkable in an equivalent petrol car.

By 2006, BMW were offering their new 4 cylinder N47 Diesel engine throughout the 1 series, 3 series and 5 series ranges, with eager buyers, tempted by the 150 BHP+ power, bags of torque, 50 MPG economy and low CO2 emissions, snapping them up for premium prices. Even secondhand, a well used BMW 320D SE was one of the most highly prized used cars and residual values were rock solid. The Diesel engine was ‘the one to have’

Now, whilst not all car owners could realistically be expected to know the inner workings of their car’s engine, I’m fairly sure that most will have heard of a particular component called a cambelt (often known as a timing belt) and of the likely destruction of the engine in the event of this belt breaking. This synthetic rubber belt’s purpose is to drive the camshaft (which opens the valves) in synchronicity with the crankshaft, and to prevent any of the valves smashing into the pistons. The timing belt was first introduced in the early 1970’s (Vauxhall Victor FD as I recall!) and was designed to replace the metal chains that engines has previously used.  The belts ran quieter, rarely needed adjusting and if changed at the recommended intervals (typically every 4 years or 48000 miles), would prove pretty much trouble free. BMW used to use belts in several of their engines until the early early 1990’s. I remember my parent’s 1987 BMW 520i as the belt broke on that one morning and bent all 12 valves! I think it may have been the memory of repairing this outside that ruined my enjoyment of fixing cars forever!

Anyway, it wasn’t long before BMW went back to using chains again and they were all pretty much free of faults for many years. Unless you ran the engine really low on oil or never serviced it at all, BMW timing chains were great and certainly never worthy of a feature on Watchdog!

Now, whilst on most engines the timing chain and sprockets etc. are located at the front of the engine making replacement in situ, whilst not exactly easy, at least not impossible. We can for instance, replace the entire timing chain kit on a Vauxhall Corsa  in under 4 hours and it’s not particularly expensive.

BMW, in their wisdom, were clearly so confident in the longevity of their timing chains fitted to the new N47 engines and therefore decided that as it would ‘never need touching’, they’d move it to the back of the engine, tucked up against the bulkhead behind the dashboard! The back of the engine also has the gearbox, clutch and flywheel attached so the only way to access the chain is by removing the entire engine from the car!

Had these chains been as reliable as expected, it wouldn’t have been a problem for anyone but as sod’s law would dictate, things didn’t quite run as smoothly as they could!

It wasn’t long before these chains started to break, with catastrophic results for the insides of the engine, often resulting in BMW having to fit a new engine (at over £8000) under warranty! What’s worse, there didn’t even appear to be a particular reason for the breakages – it would affect cars with low mileages, high mileages, full service history, at motorway speeds or just ticking over. Breakage of the chain would cause the car to grind to a sudden halt, whilst inside the engine, valves would smash into pistons, camshafts would fracture, plastic chain guides shatter and all the manner of expensive things to happen. What’s more, with BMW main dealer labour rates well in excess of £130 an hour, this job (which ALWAYS involves complete engine removal and stripping), would cost at best £4000 and at worst, in excess of £8000 for a new engine! Either way, your car could be off the road for weeks while the either the dealer argues about who’s fault it was, or whilst the poor owner tries to scrape together enough money to pay for the repair to his ‘ultimate driving machine’ sat in the corner of a garage with its innards hanging out!

What’s more, with the oldest affected cars now being at least 10 years old and maybe only worth around £3000, in many cases it was simply not economically viable to spend this amount of money, so the cars were being scrapped! Imagine if you’d just bought a 2008 BMW 520D with 80k miles and full service history from a private seller for £5000, only for the chain to let go a few months later and to face the prospect of either throwing it away or spending the same again on fixing it! This happens with surprising regularity – we’ve had 6 such cases through our workshop in the last year alone!

The pictures below show just some of the damage expected.

It's not supposed to look like this!

It’s not supposed to look like this!

Out comes the engine.

Out comes the engine.

Shattered plastic guides

Shattered plastic guides

Fortunately, we can usually get the job done for just under £2500 including all parts, labour and VAT. Whilst not the cheapest of jobs, at least it won’t necessarily write off the car and keeps us in work.

If you own a BMW with the 2.0 Diesel engine,  made between 2006 and mid-2009 with the engine code N47 D20A or N47 D20D (you can look in the V5C document, service booklet  or call your friendly local BMW dealer to check), it might be worth getting an expert to have a look over it. If it hasn’t already broken or been replaced, it’ll cost around £1500 to change the lot as ‘preventative maintenance’ or between £2300 and £4000 if (and when) it breaks!

If you own one newer than mid 2009, you’re one of the lucky ones as after some modification by BMW, the later ones don’t seem to suffer from the same faults.

Either way, if you aspire to owning such a fine BMW automobile with this problematic engine, please be extra cautious (or buy a Mercedes instead). And don’t think for a moment that buying one from a used car dealer with a pricy warranty will help – every time we’ve tried to claim on behalf of a customer’s policy for similar breakage, the claim has been refused on the grounds of the part being ‘at end of life’. If the ‘life’ of a BMW timing chain is reckoned to be less than 100,000 miles, I’d steer well clear!


It’s almost Christmas so here’s a little poem I’ve written about a day in the garage………

‘Twas the day before Christmas and dumped outside our door 

Was a 10 year old Astra whose engine was poor. 

The mechanics were all getting ready to leave 

But it was pushed in the workshop with a reluctant heave 


Their tools were all nestled all snug in their chests 

But the boss said it wasn’t quite time to go yet 

So they opened the bonnet with no hint of a smile 

And said ‘It looks like me might still be here for a while’ 


They cranked over the engine to see what’s the matter 

And it coughed into life with an almighty clatter 

The workshop soon filled with a haze of blue smoke 

And they looked at the boss like it must be a joke. 


The customer phoned and was eager to hear 

If their Astra might live to at least the New Year 

They wanted to visit relations afar 

But this wouldn’t be possible without their dear car. 


In the workshop the mood was beginning to sour 

They wanted to be on their way in an hour! 

James pulled out the dipstick and soon began to grin 

“The engine’s filled with oil right up to the brim!” 


A  call to the owner and our fears were proved right 

He’d  poured in a whole gallon the previous night. 

The poor engine was full to the top of its head 

Another few miles and it would likely be dead 


At the prospect of leaving they leapt into action 

The oil was drained and with great satisfaction 

A new filter fitted and engine refilled 

With the right amount added and not a drop spilled 


A few puffs of smoke and in 5 minutes time 

The engine was purring and sounding just fine 

The mechanics did share a look of relief 

And they hoped that their time left at work would be brief 


A quick spin round the block and all was still well 

No clatter, no smoke and no nasty smell 

With customer called and on way to collect 

And a bill so much smaller than the national debt 


Our work here now done and the workshop floor scrubbed 

The technicians are all heading off to the pub. 

The Astra is heading straight back to its house 

And the workshop is almost as quiet as a mouse. 


As the boss sits alone and reflects on the day. 

His thoughts turn to Christmas and of going away. 

He remembers a lesson as he sits by the heater 


We’re back! What to expect from thegarageblog over the coming months

A typical job in our workshop - replacing a camshaft timing belt.

A typical job in our workshop – replacing a camshaft timing belt.

It’s been almost a year now since I last posted but I’m pleased to say that normal service has been resumed. Much has been happening over the last year in the exciting* world of running a busy garage and I’ve many tales to tell of scams, rip-offs and shoddy workmanship (not from us I might add!)

In the meantime, here’s a few things I’ve learned that I’ll soon be sharing…….

1) Timing chains are often the cause of catastrophe.
2) You’d be amazed just how many car owners never check their engine oil level.
3) Main dealers are still finding new ways to extract extra money from customers.
4) There are certain cars with specific engines that should be avoided at all costs (unless the car is new).

Anyway, it’s great to be back and don’t forget to check thegarageblog regularly.

Halfords in the news again (for the wrong reasons!) – A ‘less than thorough’ MOT Test.

A great story from www.garagewire.co.uk

Halfords MOT tester guilty of issuing a pass without doing test

Whistle blower contacted the DVSA with concerns that a tester was issuing certificates without inspecting cars

A Halfords MOT fraudster has been charged. Image credit: Google Street View.

A Halfords MOT fraudster has been charged.

Image credit: Google Street View.

Steven McDermott, an ex-employee at St Austell’s Halfords Autocentre, admitted that he had issued an MOT certificate without undertaking the physical test.It followed an investigation by the DVSA which carried out a number of interviews including management staff.

McDermott, of St Columb, Cornwall, was sentenced last month at Bodmin Magistrates’ Court to a 12-month community order, ordered to carry out 200 hours’ unpaid work, pay £2,627 costs and an £85 victim surcharge.

DVSA enforcement manager, Stuart Carter said: “The annual MOT is an important aspect of road safety and DVSA will pursue and prosecute those who defraud the system by issuing pass certificates without carrying out the test.

“This sentence sends out a clear message that those who put public safety at risk will be dealt with accordingly.

“I would like to thank the area team for this particularly good job as it was conducted in a very timely manner so as to protect the integrity of the MOT scheme.”

A Halfords spokesperson said: “We have taken this matter very seriously and always adhere to the highest standards in our 300 centres.

“In this case, through our own internal processes, we identified that a vehicle had been incorrectly recorded as having been MOT tested at the site.

“We carried out a full investigation into this matter, immediately suspended the colleague involved and we notified the DVSA who concluded that Halfords Autocentres had acted entirely in an appropriate manner.

“The person concerned no longer works for Halfords Autocentres.”

Now, I’ve heard of stories like this before but only from shady ‘backstreet’ garages and NEVER a ‘reputable’ company with such a huge high street presence as Halfords. Just goes to show that it can happen anywhere! All I can promise is that the only way you’ll get an MOT certificate issued here at Swiftest is if we actually test the car on our ramp!

They don’t call them ‘Main Stealers’ for nothing!

On the whole, I try to think of the car repair and servicing business as a fundamentally honest game. Unlike the offshore tax affairs of politicians and the super rich, the simple act of a professional technician carrying out necessary repairs and servicing to your car in exchange for a fair price paid to the company is quite straightforward.

At the top of the automotive repairing tree sits the Franchised Dealers. Affiliated to a particular manufacturer, their showrooms sell the cars and the aftersales departments (service and parts) cater for your needs from then on. Many people argue that there’s simply no better standard than a ‘main dealer’ and still insist on taking their cars to them for all servicing and repairs long after the manufacturer’s warranty has expired and often until the cars are in their teenage years and worth little more than a few hundred pounds! Having a ‘factory trained’ technician (as opposed to a regular qualified technician) working on your 12 year old Passat may make you feel mildly smug but when every service or repair bill puts a family holiday sized dent in your Barclaycard, it might be worth questioning whether the extra cost was really worthwhile?

Sure, the main dealer has a bright, clean and tidy workshop with a foreman to oversee everything. Their customer waiting area may even boast a ‘Juice Bar’ , a creche, and comfy armchairs to lounge on whilst your car is being fixed but did you ever stop to wonder who pays for all this?

Well, today I saw two perfect examples of how they might achieve this.

Imagine if you will an elderly lady with an 11 year old Volkswagen Polo. Believing that having a Volkswagen dealer do ALL of the servicing and repairs is the only way, she had a service a few months ago during which she was also told she needed a new cambelt, water pump, new front brake discs and pads and a brake fluid change. This little lot cost the best part of £800 and they also thoughtfully presented her with a list of other things that will need changing soon!

Up until the day it had this service, it had never leaked a drop of oil so imagine how surprised the owner was when every day afterwards, a few drops of engine oil would appear on her driveway overnight. After waiting a few weeks for it to stop (which it didn’t) she decided to call the Volkswagen dealer that carried out the work. They duly booked her in and carried out a ‘free’ inspection and quote to repair the oil leak.

Here is the actual wording on the job sheet she was given:

‘Carry out investigation in to oil leak. Raised vehicle in air and saw spots of oil on the floor. Cleaned area contaminated by oil and found dripping out from cambelt area and oil pump. Requires new oil pump and possible cambelt. Total cost £1008.51 including cambelt and poly V belt’

Now, the more vigilant reader of this blog might (quite correctly) say, ” Hang on a minute, didn’t it just have a new cambelt at the same dealer a few weeks ago?”. Well, this managed to raise alarm bells with the owner who decided to seek a second opinion. Her daughter has been a regular customer of ours for many years and recommended that we take a look for her.

Having cleaned all the oil that’d dripped everywhere and removed the timing belt cover for  look, it was immediately apparent that the only reason it was dripping oil was that the hole the oil was coming from was meant to have a bolt in it! I suspect that whichever ‘factory trained’ technician had recently replaced the cambelt had a small (but vital) spare bolt left by his toolbox having finished the job but rather than get the car back in, probably swept the evidence under the bench, leaving the poor customer with a dripping engine and the prospect of spending another £1000 on fixing the very leak their incompetence caused!

Fortunately, our technician, who’s not VW factory trained but is a time-served apprentice with more than 20 years experience of working on ALL makes of car, located a correct sized bolt to fit the hole, cleaned and degreased the area and fitted a new alternator belt (as the oil had been dripping all over it). Total time spent was about 1.5 hours and no need for a new oil pump and another cambelt! Total cost less that £150 all in. I’d like to think that we’ll also gain a new customer.

The second example of a main dealers’ over-zealous pricing and stringent MOT standards came in the form of a 2007 Nissan Note that belongs to a friend’s father. Having just been to a well known Nissan main dealer for a service and MOT test, it had failed on a few items. Now, the MOT scheme is just a minimum standard of safety for certain items and should be the same whether the car is tested at a main dealer or an independent garage like us. They had failed it on the two front lower suspension arm mounting bushes having ‘Bonding deteriorated and resulting in excessive movement’ as well as advising the front brakes ‘extremely worn’ and two tyres ‘on the limit’. Best of all, they’d quoted the owner the best part of £1000 just to fix the suspension bushes! The Nissan Note is a very modest family hatchback and not a supercar or limousine so quite how they justified these prices I have no idea. All I can say is that their MOT tester must’ve been in a foul mood or was awaiting the prospect of a healthy ‘bonus’ in his salary for helping to generate revenue for work that was clearly unnecessary.

The suspension bushes were a bit worn and the rubber bonding was certainly deteriorating but unless the bloke had the strength of the Incredible Hulk whilst shaking the wheels, I have no idea how he’d decided that this resulted in ‘excessive movement’. I’ve driven a Note with these bushes properly knackered and it knocked and clonked all over the road. This car drove silently and even after examining them closely, I still couldn’t see how they were a fail!

Anyway, to get it through their ‘free’ retest, they clearly had to be changed and unlike Nissan’s price, we fitted a pair of good quality aftermarket suspension arms at £44 each plus a couple of hours of labour to fit both sides. Even with replacing the two tyres that were close to the limit, the owner still had change from £420 which was a saving of well over £600 compared to their quote (which didn’t even include the new tyres!).

All I can say to those of you that insist on using a main dealer for all of your servicing and repairs is to ask yourself what you might do with the money you could save? Over the course of 5 years of using a dealer over a reputable independent, savings of £3000 are not unrealistic. That’s enough for a good holiday, a new boiler or even to upgrade to a newer car!

I know that they’re not all ‘stealers’ and that the majority do a great job at a fair price but if I can find two examples in one day, imagine how many must take place the length and breadth of the UK every day? I will leave you with one final thought……….

As a car dealer that takes cars in part exchange, I can tell you that if your 15 year old car has a full service history from a main dealer, or a similarly history from an established specialist or independent, it won’t make a penny’s difference to the price you’ll get! I might make the car more desirable to a fussy buyer to see row upon row of main dealer service stamps, but not if it’s dripping oil on the floor from a missing bolt!