BMW E38 Common Problems And Solutions


The E38 7-Series line was BMW’s full-size offering when it came out in 1994 as a ’95 model, with the V12 version artfully accepting role of flagship.  They were large and in charge, and included long wheelbase models that ensured the well off executive family man would be able to get his entire family to the country for the weekend in style without having to make any sacrifices in comfort.  Nowadays, you can pick up one of these machines for pennies on the dollar.  You can get a 1998 BMW 740il (a $70k car when new, mind you) for under $5,000, putting it in a completely different market for the used car buyer.

Because of their age, however, you can’t expect such a complicated machine to come without a few common problem areas.  Here are the top 10 BMW E38 common problems you can expect to come across if you have recently purchased, or are looking to purchase a used E38 7-series.

1. Transmission Fluid/Filter

BMW claims their transmission is a lifetime fluid fill, but for us savvier of folks, we know there is simply no such thing.  All lubricative chemicals will age and lose their ability to do their job after awhile.  We have a kit that can help with that, H2522XKIT includes the filter and seals that you need, and 30504 D4 ATF is a fantastic Redline fluid that will refresh your transmission and ensure your car can go hundreds of thousands of miles.

2. Air Mass Meter

Do you have a check engine light on?  Bad off idle throttle response?  Gas mileage suffering?  The AMM or MAF (Mass Air Flow sensor as they are also called) is a common failure point, as with many cars.  If a good cleaning with some special MAF cleaner doesn’t solve it, the part number for the e38 is 13621433567 or 13621702078 depending on year.  If you have a V12, you’ll need two of these c13621736224.  Voila, your engine is back to revving free and running efficiently.

3. Power Steering Filter

Although important to keep the fluid topped off at all times, doing a power steering flush is recommended but not necessary.  In most cases, a strong maintenance plan will include only replacing the filter.  The filter is located in the reservoir, which you must buy as a complete assembly.  There are several variations of these reservoir/filter assemblies so be sure to check eEuroparts.com for proper fitment.  It doesn’t hurt to check under the hood of your car if you are unsure if your car has self-leveling suspension (the steering and SLS systems use the same reservoir).  Be sure to add the same fluid that came in the system, refer to your owners manual.  If your car has self-leveling suspension, you need CHF11S, or you will cause damage to the system.   Keep your fluid fresh and avoid costly repairs regarding your suspension or steering pump.

4. Drag Link/Idler Arm

If your steering feels sloppy or has a large deadzone in it, it’s most likely a worn out or failed drag link.  We offer the drag link here at eEuroparts, part number 32211096057.  Stop the wander and feel all that quality German engineering. These bushings generally last about 100k miles. Check the Idler while your crawling around down there, it’s part number 32211141592.  If both are no good, it’s safe to say your entire front end needs a refresh.  We offer a kit that has all these wear components included so you can replace everything at once and go another 100k miles.  Here is the kit:  100K10011, it includes sway bar end links, tie rod ends, the idler arm, control arms with bushings, and the drag link.

5. Heater Control Valve

BMW’s of this vintage all tend to have problems with their heater control valves, and associated plumbing tucked up on the firewall.  The BMW E38 is no exception, and when this valve fails, so will your heat.  The valve is on the pricey side, but it’s strictly not available at the time of publishing in an aftermarket solution, so it really depends on how cold your winters are!  The part number is 64118374994.

6. Jack Blocks

Whistle while you work…. not while you drive. The jack blocks are simply 4 rectangular chunks of rubber fastened on the frame rails of the car to land a hydraulic jack on when working on the car.  Because they are exposed directly to the elements, it’s common for them to break or otherwise fall off.  The hole they leave is directly in the airstream at highway speed and can cause a very annoying high pitched whistle.  They are easy enough to replace, the part number is 51717001650 and is also available in Uro brand.

7. Seat Lower Switch Covers

This is an easy one, the covers on the front seats covering up the switch panels are always cracked!  If they aren’t, consider yourself lucky, and if they are, you are still lucky because brand new ones are still available from BMW.  The part numbers are 52107058008 for black, 52107058009 for gray, and 52107058011 for beige tan.

8. Glove Box Latch

If you pull the handle on your glovebox and nothing happens, you’re not alone.  A common problem with the BMW e38 glove box is this latch 51168177644.  There are several failure points, but most of the time a plastic part (as usual) breaks inside and it’s over.  You can try to super glue it, but a better bet is to choke up and drop the change on a new Genuine BMW latch.

9. Radiator

That big V8 takes a lot of water to cool it down, so the huge radiator sees a lot of action.  As the E38 radiator ages, it becomes prone to catastrophic failure in a very specific way.  The main hose neck on the top of the radiator snaps right off.   This can be attributed to the plastic on the cooling system becoming too brittle to keep up with demand.  We have a few radiator choices for the E38 BMW 7-series, 17111702969 for E38’s up to 1998, and 17111436063 for cars made in 1999 and after.    Add the tank 17111741167 to the wish list too, as it is also made of the same plastic, and is also prone to break.

10. Center Valley Pan

From the factory, the center valley between the M60 and M62 engine’s cylinder banks were sealed by a cover/pan with a very inadequate seal on it.  This is known to fail early, allowing coolant to leak out and pool on top of the engine.  If you smell coolant, you have three main possible problem areas.  The radiator as discussed above, a water pump (which is a common replacement item on all cars), and the Valley Pan.  The pan has since been upgraded to address the issues from before, so you will only have to do this once.  However, you WILL need to do it once if it hasn’t already been retrofitted.  This pan is available in Uro and Genuine, and is cheap enough that it won’t break the bank.  The part number is 11141742042.  If you haven’t done it, nor has the previous owner, it is a good idea to do this as preventative maintenance.  We have a kit that comes with all the seals you need to get the job done, including the air intake seals (that must be removed to get to the valley pan), and coolant o-rings.  The part number for that is 100K10166

I hope that helps you keep one of these beauties on the road.  When well maintained, the E38 7-series is a dream boat.  Powerful, smooth, and quiet as a mouse.  If neglected, it can become your worst enemy.  Stay sharp, change your fluids, and keep your E38’s mojo running strong for years to come.

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36 thoughts on “BMW E38 Common Problems And Solutions
  1. Travis Ewoldt

    I have a very annoying squeak on my 98 BMW 740i when I hit bumps in the road you can hear it and you can also hear a rattling that sounds like it’s coming directly from the wheels. This car has only 30,000 original miles and was garaged all its life. Don’t know what could really be worn out but it was dry and try to bring some lubricant I checked all of the plate covers underneath and couldn’t really find anything loose that I thought could be causing it my mechanic that works on BMW’s had a hard time pinpointing it also

    • Adam Goral

      Hi Travis, mileage can be deceiving, as even though the car isn’t driving, it still continues existing. This means all the rubber bushings will continue to dry out, all of the suspension springs will continue to hold the entire weight of the car up, the shocks will still be under pressure etc… My guess would be to check the sway bar bushings and strut mounts as these are prime culprits for annoying suspension squeaks. If the rattle is a plasticy chatter, inspect the shocks by pushing down on the car on each corner to see if it bounces at all. If so, a shock might have leaked some pressure over time and is causing a racket due to vibration. It’s also not uncommon for cars that sit to take on passengers from the animal kingdom, which may deposit nuts and other things in weird places, causing problems as well.

    • Adam Goral

      Hi Alex, this is caused by old brake rotors that have warped. When was the last time you had a brake job? To be sure to fully eliminate the shake, you should consider a complete front and rear brake change, which we have both on our website for a great price. https://www.eeuroparts.com/Parts/48347/Disc-Brake-Kit-Front-324mm-100K10044/ is the front kit and https://www.eeuroparts.com/Parts/48348/Disc-Brake-Kit-Rear-324mm-100K10045/ is the rear. The kits come with the brake pad wear sensors as well.

      Remember, it is crucial to correctly bed in the brakes, otherwise your shake may come back. Be easy and smooth for the first 5 or 6 drives, don’t jab or slam on the brakes if possible. When coming to a stop, try not to hold on to the brakes too hard. If you don’t follow these steps, it is possible for the pads to deposit material unevenly onto the rotors when first braking in, and this will cause a shake as well.

      • Bob Barton

        Interesting thought about deposits left on the rotors from hard stops. Why wouldn’t the same thing happen at any time, regardless of the age of the brake pads and rotors?

        • Adam Goral

          When you bed in brakes, a thin layer of brake pad material is always left on the surface. Called the transfer layer, it’s the result of a molecular change of the pad surface as it heats for the first time after popping out of the manufacturing die. This layer creates a very specific kind of friction, known as adherent friction (pad material to pad material) which is a little different than abrasive friction (pad to rotor). With a smooth an established transfer layer of brake pad material on the rotor surface, rotor wear is substantially decreased and the pad and rotor relationship will be much smoother.

          Often times warped rotors are the result of an improper bed-in that left an uneven transfer layer. It might have felt fine at first, but as miles are added, the high and low spots turn into hot and cool spots. With the metal crystalline structure actually altered by this, so is the friction of the pad, and the end result is a vibration as your pad rolls over areas of grip-slip-grip-slip-grip-slip. A PROPERLY bedded in set of brakes will allow you to take your pads to the metal without any vibrations.

          Pad material is left on the rotor throughout the pad life, but with a properly established transfer layer, the likelyhood of this added material being uneven is far less, it’s the pad-to-bare metal transfer that’s the critical moment. Make sense?

    • Nick

      Could be 3 diffrent things. Lower control arm bushings and ball joint. Or the tie rods. Or the brake rotor could be warped.

  2. Sometimes when I slow down my steering becomes very stiff then when I speed up it go back to normal also make loud noise when turning sometimes I just changed my power steering pump and resivor about 2 months ago fluid level is good. What could this be. My cars is a1995 740i BMW

    • Adam Goral

      Hey Tyler, did you go through any type of bleeding procedure when you replaced the pump and filled the reservoir? It sounds like the power steering pump is not working, and I would guess that since it is new, you have air in the system. Much like your brakes, if there are air bubbles trapped, the air compresses and the fluid does not transfer. What brand power steering pump did you buy?

  3. Gilbert

    I have 2 problems with my 1995 e38. one is the SES light is always on. I cleaned the maf and it went of for a day then started to come back on. second and more troubling, when i got the car i didn’t noticed the the passenger side wheel was setback about an inch. So when the car started shaking i bought a whole new suspension, which then no one could align. finally i got a very good BMW dealer to get it close to specs. car doesnt shake, but as a result of the setback I’m going thru idler arms like crazy. doesnt show history of accident. i bought a new sub-frame, but before i go thru this, is there anything you can tell me that might save me the trouble.

    • Adam Goral

      Hi Gilbert, that does sound very troubling indeed. Your pondering about previous accidents could be correct. Even if it wasn’t reported (and it sounds like they just sort of left it that way), that car very well could have taken a hard curb hit at some point. Subframe bushings should be looked at and inspected, and if those are OK then the inspector will have to follow up to the mounts to make sure something else isn’t bent. Hopefully you can get away with a subframe replacement, and you can do bushings while you’re at it and have a new feeling car soon!

  4. Peter Darbin

    HI
    Any ideas I have a1995 E38 730il Heater control valve failed.Removed to fit kit so I blocked off the hoses so car usable but now it sounds like it is closed down the right bank .Repaired valve & refitted but still the same. Bled system ,temp gauge not showing normal running temp.
    Any idea Thanks peter

  5. Mike Kaufman

    I have a 1997 V8 740iL that will start after I disconnect the battery between starts. If I don’t disconnect. The battery it won’t restart after I shut the engine off. Otherwise full power when it’s running. Any ideas?

    • Adam Goral

      Does the car crank, or does it appear completely dead when you try to restart it? In this situation the first thing I would do is check and make sure the battery terminals are super clean and aren’t able to short anywhere, and the battery is in good working condition. Even a slightly low voltage tends to mess with the electronic systems in fine German luxury cars. Second thing I would check is the starter relay, maybe depowering and repowering the system wakes it up somehow if its sticky. Ultimately I think this unfortunately might have to do with an anti-theft related device or computer that needs to be cleared out by removing power. Do you have any check engine codes? Have you tried multiple keys?

  6. Anthony

    Hi i remove the splash guard under my 2000 740il on the passenger side in the front started to get weird nose like moaning noise coming from in cab but cant hear it outside the car when being driven any clue to what it could be its very annoying

  7. Richard Pisarski

    I have a 1997 740il that will not link the OBD2 connector to the vehicle I checked the fuses in the engine compartment and trunk double check fuse 27 and replaced the cap under the hood what else can I check the might help me out. Thanks

    • Adam Goral

      Is it specific with a single OBD reader or do different ones fail to connect? It looks like you are on the right track with the datalink connector cap, as that can prevent the OBD interface from initiating. Look at the plug and make sure no pins are bent or broken. If everything looks fine, then you have an electronic issue and should probably go to a dealer or a skilled independent with the special datalink (DLC) tool.

      • Richard Pisarski

        thanks Adam, failed from the emission place and the scanner I bought I will try a different one see if I get ant thing different.

  8. Joe Wathen

    I have a 2000 740il that the key does open the drivers door but the button on the key does nothing
    if i push the button on the console and lock the doors then get out of the drivers door. and you can tell I have no idea what to do I have checked the fuses and have not found one blown
    Can you give any help…

    • Adam Goral

      Does the remote key transmitter work at all? If not, I suspect the battery to be dead. First try this procedure, borrowed from bimmerforums.com.

      Unlock the E38 manually using the key in the key hole on the door.

      1. Open the door, get into the E38 and close the door.
      2. Put the key in the ignition.
      3. Within 5 seconds, turn the key to position 1 and then return it back to position 0.
      4. Remove key from the ignition.
      5. Press and hold down button “2” as shown in the picture above. While holding button 2 down, press button “1” three times. This must be completed within 10 seconds.
      6. Now release button “2”.
      7. The central locking system will activate and release the locking mechanism in the E38 to indicate that the initialization procedure has been completed. If you receive no response, the procedure must be repeated.
      8. Repeat procedure from Step 6 within thirty seconds for all other key remotes you have for this BMW.

      If this doesn’t work, your key battery may be worn out. It is a rechargable battery that is charged by the ignition and integrated into key, and like all batteries will go bad over time. Unfortunately the battery is not officially serviceable (although you can break the key open and give it a shot), here’s the one that fits your car https://www.eeuroparts.com/Parts/74889/Ignition-Key-Coded-66126933728/

        • Adam Goral

          Correct, one is not available from BMW and it is specifically not a serviceable item. The only way to replace the battery is to hunt a serviceable one down online, and break your key apart to get at it. You can get a brand new key through us, contact customer service about it and they will get back to you on the details and what information they need from you to get a brand new key for your 2000 BMW 740il. Thanks Joe.

  9. David

    Good morning,

    I have a 2001 e38 2.8i which is giving a strange rattling noise from the top front of the engine bay when warm, but only in drive or reverse. I have only been able to observe this at idle, or parking, so far. The radiator gave out a few days ago, and was replaced, but the engine didn’t overheat as it was having its MOT at the time. I don’t think the noise is coming from within the engine itself. It sounds more like one of the ancillaries. Temperature gauge is normal. No warning lights showing. Vehicle drives as normal.

    Any suggestions ?

      • David

        Good morning,

        Thank you for your advice. All of my follow up research on your tip, and the other symptoms on display, agrees with your diagnosis. Ironically, just as it became clear what the noise was and where it was coming from, it has stopped, for now. I have no doubt it will still need repairing as cars don’t fix themselves.

        • Adam Goral

          Be very careful, if the valve breaks off it can get sucked into your engine which can cause severe damage. Hopefully the noise stopping doesn’t signal that the valve has broken apart (and thus no more rattly valve).

    • Adam Goral

      You got a few people in the office drooling over it now, thanks a lot. While this really would be the ultimate driving machine, you are right about the possibility for cryptic-yet-crazy-expensive problems with a car like this. This car cost nearly 100k less than 20 years ago, and it is still full of parts that make up a 100k car, only they are old now. With that said, this would be a brilliant car to pick up for a few years and sell on, just to experience what this car felt like to drive back in BMW’s prime.

  10. Denise C Bergman

    Hello,
    I have purchased a used 2001 740i that occassionally loses power and shut downs without warning. It typically happens when I am coasting through a turn but today it happened when I came to a stop, lightly accelerated to make the turn, and then it died. Since I lose power steering and need to come to a complete stop to put into Park and re-start this is a significant safety concern. There are no indication lights prior to these Events occurring. Any ideas would be extremely welcome thank you.

    • Adam Goral

      This sounds to me like a fuel pressure problem, either the fuel pump is on the way out, or the filter is gummed up. Fuel pumps are very common failures on all cars with some years and mileage under their belts. We have an OEM quality Made In Germany VDO pump for a great price right now, I recommend replacing it if it’s never been done. We usually don’t ever suggest throwing parts at issues, but in the case of a fuel pump, I’d consider it preventative maintenance even if it doesn’t fix your problem. However, I am fairly certain it will. Replace the filter at the same time, which fortunately for this model includes the fuel pressure regulator built in!

      You can rent a fuel pressure tester, which looks like a tire gauge that goes onto a schraeder valve coming off the fuel rail. The reading should be around 50psi since the car uses a 3.5bar regulator. Here’s a basic video on how to do this test.

  11. Joe

    Hi… I have a 2001 E38 with 135k miles that has been stuttering in low acceleration (between 20-30 mph and especially if I am driving uphill) and occasionally I hear a grinding sound as well (again more so when going up hill). Once I accelerate past 40 mph the car is fine. BMW dealership told me a few years ago that the transmission in lower gear has an issue and it over-compensates as I get to around 50 mph when the stuttering stops. Cost for a rebuilt tranny ($6,500). Went to an independent shop here in the NYC area and he did a transmission service and also cleaned out the transmission plug which he said sometime can cause that stutter. Worked for a few days and now back to the stutter. Cost of a rebuilt tranny ($3,000) – a lot less than the dealership. He advised me not to do anything because the transmission is shifting fine and there are no failure messages in the dashboard. So I can keep driving it but the stuttering is concerning and very annoying. Please let me know if anyone has come across this. Thanks in advance.

    • Adam Goral

      Do you know how in depth his service was? IE how many quarts were added and what fluid did he use (The ZF 5HP24 trans needs to be LT 71141 specification) ) , was the trans filter changed etc. Did he plug in a BMW specific diagnostic computer to observe the operation of the transmission? Occasionally these transmissions have issues with something called an Drum clutch wearing out, specifically the A-Drum (there are multiple) but your mileage is fairly low. Here’s an interesting discussion on that: https://www.bimmerforums.com/forum/showthread.php?2343817-E38-Transmission-Problem . When was the last time the transmission had been serviced before this last one? Another potential fault, as with all automatic transmissions, are the seals in the valve body starting to leak. If that’s the case you can replace just the valve body, but you must find out what the issue is soon before you compromise the transmission by driving it around while it malfunctions.

      It’s common for people to buy a used transmission in a junkyard and do a very basic rebuilt as there are several wear parts that can be replaced fairly easily with the trans out of the car (such as the A-Drum clutch). Then they swap it in, requiring the least amount of downtime. Hope this helps

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