BMW’s timing chain problem comes back to haunt carmaker

Irish solicitor ‘inundated’ with BMW owners keen to sue over N47 diesel engine failures

BMW's travails with its N47 diesel engine failures, which had been thought sorted and finished with, are coming back to haunt the German carmaker. One Irish solicitor has told The Irish Times that he has clients looking to take BMW to court over the matter.

Dublin-based solicitor Dermot McNamara said: “We’ve been inundated with requests from clients and new clients since there has been increased media coverage in this area, especially in cases where BMW has refused to pay for the repairs or has only offered to pay for a nominal amount.”

Mr McNamara recently took a case, on behalf of a client, against BMW for a diesel engine failure, only for the case to be settled on the literal steps of the courthouse. According to him, this could mean that the actual number of cases out there is considerably higher than realised.

“It’s impossible to know how many similar cases have gone as far as that and then been settled at the last minute.”


The problem dates back to 2007 and the creation of BMW’s hugely popular 2.0-litre diesel engine family, which carried the internal code name of N47. The engine, which was fitted to versions of the 1, 3 and 5 Series, as well as the X1 and X3 SUVs, became a firm favourite with customers, not least because it managed to mix impressive fuel economy with low emissions levels. Indeed, the N47 engine, when fitted to the 5 Series saloon, became something of an embarrassment to the Irish government when it realised that BMW’s expensive luxury saloon was in the low Band B tax band supposedly designed to cover small, affordable family cars.

Simply stopping

Then the failures began. BMW owners would report their cars as simply stopping while being driven, thankfully usually at low speeds, but there were some reported high-speed incidents. The dashboard warning lights would come on and there would be no power to the steering, brakes or anything else. This would usually be followed by a visit to a dealer where terminal engine damage would be confirmed. This could lead to a bill as hefty as €6,000 for a replacement engine. Bad enough if you had bought the car from new, but disastrous if you were a second-hand buyer on a tighter budget.

The problem was traced to the engine’s timing chain, which regulates the movements of the pistons, camshafts and valves. If a timing chain works properly, then all is harmonious. If it breaks, or skips a beat, then terrible damage can be caused by the engine’s moving parts literally crashing into one another.

Things were made worse by the fact that BMW had originally designed the chain to be maintenance-free, so it was mounted at the back of the engine, effectively under the windscreen. That makes it all but impossible to inspect or repair without removing the engine entirely – a costly and time-consuming job.

Customers who had scrupulously kept up their service history with a main BMW dealer were, by and large, helped out by BMW, which paid for new engines to be fitted. Those who had strayed outside the main dealer network, even those who had gone to recognised marque specialists, were often given short shrift. BMW said that it operated a “goodwill policy” to customers whose engines failed outside the normal three-year warranty, but that policy did not extend to all.

‘Technical campaign’

A BMW Ireland spokesperson said: “BMW had issued a ‘technical campaign’ to replace the chain tensioner and, if required, the timing chain in certain N47 engine vehicles produced between February 2007 and June 2008. This action was consistent throughout other European markets. It was only vehicles produced during this period that are subject to the campaign as changes were made in the production process from that date onwards. However, any customer that experienced an issue, or who had concerns, were advised to contact their local authorised BMW retailer. Beyond standard warranty, BMW operated a generous goodwill policy and any customer concerns were assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Understandably, customers hearing of an issue will be concerned and will need some reassurance that their vehicle will not be subject to a timing chain failure. If the car is not displaying any unusual running characteristics then there is no need to be concerned. Those people still concerned can see their nearest authorised BMW retailer to have the vehicle inspected.”

That does not go far enough for many, however. BMW said that it issued a “technical campaign” rather than a full recall because the issue is not directly related to safety, and so it can deal with the issue case-by-case. Those affected claim that it is a safety issue, though, as the cars can fail without warning while the cars are being driven, and that it’s not a question of maintenance but of a specific manufacturing fault.

‘Discovery order’

Dermot McNamara suggests that if a court action can be brought beyond the settlement point, some clarity might finally be achieved. “As part of the court process, we could issue a discovery order against original factory data, and we could finally get some information about the root cause of the issue,” he said. “I think it’s also a very interesting point that BMW is still selling these cars as second-hand through its dealer network, often to people who don’t know about the issue, and often on BMW finance plans. How can they sell these engines second-hand knowing that there’s this fault?”

The timing chain fault (and the giveaway that the problem is imminent is a high-pitched “tinkling” sound coming from the engine, although it can still fail without warning) was supposed to have been fixed on engines dating from the second half of 2009, but there have been reports that engines from as late as 2011 are failing because of the issue. With just one solicitor claiming to have as many as 20 potential cases on the books, this is one Germanic quality problem that’s not going away in a hurry.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring