I Found My Mom’s Long-Lost BMW 540iT and Someone Made It Even Better

Finding out a beloved childhood car has been restored and cared for by a fellow enthusiast is the greatest feeling ever.

byMaddox Kay|
Culture photo
John Hewitt / Maddox Kay


“I know this is a long shot,” I began a DM to a total stranger, after 10 p.m. on a Saturday, no less. “My mom ordered an ‘01 Electric Red 540iT back in the day, and I’m wondering if yours is the same car.” I attached the VIN, an iPhone shot of the window sticker, and a blurry copy of a photograph from 2001, pressed send, and put my phone down.

Two minutes later, it buzzed. “It appears it is your Mom’s car.”

Have you ever scoured the internet with hopes of finding a long-lost car, only to turn up dead end after dead end? So it went for me and my Mom’s beloved red station wagon, with every search uncovering more maddening roadblocks and question marks, until I finally struck unexpected gold last weekend.

John Hewitt

The History 

My mom wouldn’t call herself a car enthusiast, but she knows her way around a clutch pedal and even earned a byline on this site. After learning to drive on a 1972 Datsun 240Z, she owned a third-generation Honda Prelude (manual, of course) and an original Land Rover Discovery, both in red. But with two kids—four-year-old me and my sister barely one—and two large dogs, it was time for something practical that combined hauling ability with her unique flair.

After test-driving a handful of Volvo and Mercedes-Benz station wagons and finding them a bit dull, there was only one car that fit the bill: the E39 BMW 540iT. BMW offered the E39 wagon with a 4.4-liter V8 from 1999 to 2003, and they sold a total number in the low four digits as the new X5 took buyers’ attention away from wagons. According to BimmerForums, seven 540iTs were ever painted Electric Red (also known as Japan Red or Japanrot, in BMW speak), and my mom special-ordered one of these seven.

She went to four or five dealerships, most of which flat out denied her request to order a bright red station wagon. They were afraid she’d refuse delivery, and they’d be stuck with a car they couldn’t sell because it wasn’t silver or black, or an SUV. Finally, Long Beach BMW reluctantly agreed to the deal, and my parents ordered the wagon with a tan interior and just one option: the sport package.

I'm the dude on the left. Maddox Kay

Several months later, the car showed up. I wasn’t even five years old at the time, but I remember going to pick it up. There it was, sitting in the showroom, behind some ropes—my mom’s beautiful, bright red V8 station wagon. It was perfect.

My sister and I grew up in the back seat of that car, going to school, sports practices, and on road trips. The Counting Crows album Hard Candy will always conjure memories of sitting in back on a long, sunny highway, staring out the window at the Southern California landscape passing by. We kept it a decade, and it was the only one of my parents’ cars to ever earn a nickname, albeit an uninspired one—Red Rocket. I still wear a small scar on my left middle finger from an errant hatch slam, so you could say it left a mark on me.

Near the end, I begged my parents to keep it until I was old enough to drive—only a couple of years away at that point. But as it aged, its maintenance bills crept up, and they sold it. My mom made my dad trade it in alone because she was afraid she’d get emotional saying goodbye.

Several years later, in college, I became mildly obsessed with tracking the car down. I got a friend to pull a CarFax report, which told me the car was still registered and on the road near Atlanta. Score! It listed recent service history at a Georgia BMW dealer, which I called only to be told that it (understandably) wouldn’t provide customer contact information. I had hit my first dead end of many.

I set up Google alerts for the 540iT’s VIN and saved Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace searches in the Atlanta area, which I revisited weekly, and then monthly, with no success. I scoured forums and Facebook groups, only to run into more dead ends.

Then, life happened. I met someone, graduated, and got my first full-time job and first apartment. I didn’t forget about the old, red BMW, but I moved on, resigning myself to the fact that I’d probably never see it again. Every once in a while, my fianceé and I would be walking somewhere and I’d see an E39 wagon, or an early 2000s BMW in red, and it would stop me in my tracks.

Last week, I got the DM. From a mutual acquaintance in Atlanta, it read, “Could this be your mom’s old whip?” Attached was a Peachtree BMW CCA Instagram post with a photo of—you guessed it—a red 540iT with some tasteful modifications.

I didn’t get my hopes up. What were the chances? But a red wagon near Atlanta was worth a message, so there I found myself at 10 p.m. on a Saturday typing one up, prepared to be disappointed once again. Until I wasn’t.


John Hewitt owns The Dent Specialist, a body shop and car care facility in the Greater Atlanta area that specializes in paintless dent removal and other rejuvenation services for discerning clients. He found the 540iT behind a European car repair shop in Marietta in 2018. “It was in bad shape, best I know the tech bought it as a mechanical total with a slipping transmission,” he told me.

Hewitt swapped the faulty five-speed automatic transmission for a six-speed manual and set about getting the wagon into better-than-showroom shape. He’s replaced worn-out suspension components with fresh ones, added an M5 front bumper, and swapped broken interior trim pieces. “I’m trying to keep it classy,” he told me. “I don’t even mind the tan interior. I’ve been able to buy several pieces of trim that were broken, whereas the other interior colors don’t have new pieces available anymore.” Most recently, he added AC Schnitzer wheels to replace the stock Style 32s, ironically “from a guy in LA.”

The kicker? The 540iT is registered in his wife's name—even though "it's a car she didn't want." Hewitt says he did the six-speed swap for her because she "missed her manual car," a Mini Countryman the couple owned for a few years. They're no strangers to the platform, having owned several E39s and many BMWs over the years.

The six-speed manual swap was undertaken as a request from John's wife. John Hewitt

Hewitt has shown the car, winning Best Wagon at Bimmer Invasion 2023 with his daughter. “We are definitely enjoying it,” he added. 

Truthfully, I was overcome with emotion. This car was a part of my childhood that I had accepted I’d never see again, yet there it was, looking better than the day it rolled off the showroom floor. I can trace my affinity for quirky European cars of the late '90s and early 2000s straight back to this red wagon, and I'm not sure my career or car obsession would've turned out the same without its imprint.

I’d love to see it again at a show this year, or even drive it at some point, who knows. But for now, I’m content to know that it lives on in the world, better than ever, and cared for by someone who saw its potential when things could’ve taken a turn for the junkyard. To someone wondering what the heck happened to an old car they love, that’s a pretty ideal outcome.