Project Car Diaries: I Won a $925 Audi S4 and I Swear It’s Not That Bad

The clean look of B5 Audi sedans has aged nicely. I’ve always wanted to own one, and this chance felt just right.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED Jan 11, 2023 1:00 PM
Project Car Diaries: I Won a $925 Audi S4 and I Swear It’s Not That Bad
Peter Nelson
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Christmas miracles come in many forms. Sometimes foul weather clears up just in time for your takeoff. Or a magical hat brings a snowman to life. For me, Christmas '22 brought the miracle of scoring a B5-generation Audi S4 for less than $1,000. It's time to start a new project!

I found this 20-year-old sport sedan on the salvage auction site Copart and won it in an online auction ... five times. My first four winning bids were below the reserve and the seller wouldn't let it go, but the fifth click was the charm.

A cheap, well-used turbo Audi is not the safest bet when it comes to finding a simple restoration project, but I'm pretty confident I found a little diamond in the rough here that's worth saving.

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A Dream Car Found Cheap

The whole process of buying this car took a while. It began a month prior when I happened upon the mighty Santorin Blue sedan on AutoBidMaster.com—a service that normal consumers can utilize to buy salvage auction cars—saw that it was local and that it seemed to have very clean paint. "Hm, neat," I thought. Its condition was listed as running and driving with "normal wear."

I've lusted after a B5 Audi S4 for far longer than many other cars. In fact, since high school when it was still quite fresh and started to pop up as lightly used fare. I've been looking for one even more aggressively since I drove my good friend Chris' prime, modified example last Summer. At the right price, this blue one had my attention.

Besides the fact that it was allegedly running and driving, the CarFax didn't show anything concerning and the title was clean. Despite coming from Copart, it didn't have a rebuilt or salvage title brand. I'm thinking (and hoping) the previous owner didn't want to deal with selling it and donated it, or perhaps it was donated in the event of the previous owner's passing. Regardless of how this could-be heap showed up at Copart, I still stayed conservative with my bidding.

I never offered more than $925 because after AutoBidMaster's fees, and the fact that these things can have nightmare-level issues, I wanted to make sure I could part it out and not lose my money if it turned out to be a pile. Or, heck, even be a little in the black. Copart's version of "running and driving" could mean anything from a buttery smooth idle to rod knock.

Peter Nelson

Finally Winning It

After each of the first four times I won it, the seller would come back and say they needed anywhere between $3,100 and $3,300. Each time I'd keep my offer very low, because nobody should get into a B5 project for that much scratch before fees. This would probably push it above $5,000 for the privilege. Plus, in the state of California, you get an Acquisition Bill of Sale and have to apply for a brand-new title through the DMV. I'll report back on that process when it happens.

It was entertaining to share the news with my colleagues each time. "Heh heh, looks like I won that S4 again! They'll probably want way too much money for it … again."

Finally, the chickens came to their senses and decided to make their way home to roost. One day I got an email from AutoBidMaster that said "Congratulations Peter!" "Oh, wow, they finally caved!" I thought, and was legitimately surprised. $925 did it. I assumed that since it was the end of the year, somebody wanted this German heap off the books. Works for me.

I signed the sales agreement documents, wired the money, and coordinated with a local delivery service which AutoBidMaster put me in touch with. Copart apparently doesn't let you drive a car off the lot, and I wasn't sure of its drivability anyway. So I was happy to pay someone to deliver it to me in Long Beach. At the end of the day, I spent just under $2,500 to have this S4 show up on my street. If you're thinking about pursuing similar ways to acquire a new vehicle, the whole process was quite straightforward and easy. Albeit loaded with fees.

Peter Nelson

First Impressions

When the tow truck rolled up, I was shocked—this S4 looked better than it had in the listing photos. The interior was disgusting and possessed seats that looked like they tested the temper of a methed-out Wolverine, but otherwise the body was straight and the paint was shiny underneath a film of grime. Only the clearly-has-been-repainted front bumper had some issues.

It fired up and idled fine with a jump pack, thus starting off its potentially lengthy list of needs with a new battery.

After I pulled the S into my driveway and popped the hood I noticed some steam and watery leakage underneath; it had a decent-sized coolant leak somewhere. The auction photos alluded to this—the reservoir looked devoid of pink G12. No big deal, there's plenty of cash in the budget to get this thing into pristine shape. After letting it cool down, the dipstick also revealed that the oil pan was full of somewhat fresh-looking oil. Nice.

I brought home a new battery from O'Reilly Auto Parts and the car still fired up quite strongly. It also idled smoothly and quietly, and revved up smoothly to boot. I retightened a diverter valve hose and it sounded slightly better. However, I didn't run it for too long due to the coolant leak.

A close examination confirmed that the auxiliary water pump was split into two pieces. This is a common issue on these cars, and as of this writing, I'm still waiting for a new one with accompanying hoses to show up in the mail. It'll be time-consuming to replace as the little bastard lives underneath the intake manifold and a sea of hoses and vacuum lines. But it seems to be a generally easy job assuming that hoses, vacuum lines, and plastic bits don't break in the process. I'll have spare bits and hose clamps on-hand.

After removing the covers and giving it a light cleaning, things are looking up! Kind of. Peter Nelson

I'm Thoroughly Excited

I can't drive this point home enough: I'm so delighted to own a B5 project. VW/Audi enthusiasts who are familiar with them generally seem to agree that while they demand attention, are tough to wrench on (super tight quarters under the hood—turbo swaps require pulling the engine), and can develop some annoying issues, they're awesome cars and are totally worth it. The B5 went away in the US market in 2002, and two years later I was bitten by the water-cooled VW bug with my A2 Jetta. I quickly learned of the mighty early 2000s S4 and instantly wanted to own one someday.

The B5 S4 is just an icon, too. It hails from an era of ultimate German sleeper status and has so much freaking potential. The aftermarket has shrunk a bit over the past couple of years, but there are still plenty of ways to turn them into supercar-quick monsters.

Modification isn't really on my mind just yet, though. My aim is to simply restore it into a clean, fresh, and mechanically sound example. I'll do some more minor modifications here and there, such as better-than-OE brake pads, better tires (albeit the Michelin all-seasons on it are still decent and just two years old), better dampers with sportier springs, and some factory-sourced aesthetic upgrades. A decent intake and exhaust, too. Oh, and possibly ditch the auto gearbox for three pedals.

However, I first want it to run brilliantly, look fresh, and be a clean, comfortable place to hang out in. And, you know, to be registrable and pass California Smog. It did so in 2021 so I'm not too concerned here. Next order of business: give it a thorough going-over and determine exactly what it needs to meet my high standards.

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