The BMW N52 engine is the last naturally aspirated inline-6 engine that BMW manufactured. That is a big deal considering the brand’s reputation for creating some of the best straight-6 engines ever made. Throughout the N52’s lengthy 11-year build cycle between 2004 and 2015, it garnered a reputation for smooth power delivery and bulletproof reliability. Even today, the N52 is widely considered to be one of the most reliable BMW engines of the modern era.
While touted for its reliability, there are some commonly talked about issues as far as the N52 is concerned. The most widely publicized issue is N52 lifter tick. N52 lifter tick is a metallic ticking noise that is caused by improper lubrication to the N52’s hydraulic valve lifters due to the design of the engine’s cylinder head. While N52 lifter tick doesn’t pose a risk to engine health, it is an annoyance that many people want to get rid of.
In this guide, we’ll cover the topic of BMW N52 lifter tick including what it is, its causes, symptoms, fixes, and more. If you are looking for more information on other N52 issues, take a look at our 7 Most Common BMW N52 Engine Problems Guide.
What is N52 Lifter Tick?
In the most basic terms, N52 lifter tick is a metallic clicking sound coming from the engine bay of an N52-powered BMW. In some cases, the ticking is very loud and pronounced and in other cases, it can be relatively subdued. N52 lifter tick scales with engine RPM, so the higher you rev the engine, the faster the tick occurs. Some N52 owners that have experienced the issue claim that the tick makes their car sound similar to a diesel engine when idling.
While we’ll go further into detail about the causes of BMW N52 lifter tick in the following section, the ticking noise stems from the N52’s valvetrain. More specifically, the ticking itself is caused by the N52’s hydraulic valve lifters which lack adequate lubrication when the engine is cold due to the design of the engine’s cylinder head.
While lifter tick is a problem on early N52 engines regardless of driving style or any other external circumstances, there are a couple of factors that play into how common the ticking issue creeps up on most N52 engines. Most N52 owners claim that valvetrain ticking is exacerbated if the car is only used for short trips and city driving. N52 owners that do primarily highway driving claim to not experience lifter tick quite as much. Additionally, N52 lifter tick seems to be significantly more prevalent in colder months, which is likely due to cold weather’s effect on oil viscosity.
What Causes BMW N52 Lifter Tick?
BMW N52 lifter tick was actually a pretty difficult issue for the BMW community to finally nail down due to the inconsistencies with the problem itself. However, now that BMW engineers and technicians have had ample time to tear down and inspect N52 engines with the lifter tick problem, we have a pretty good idea of what causes the problem.
Ultimately, there are a couple of factors that play into N52 hydraulic valve lifter tick, with the main two being the design of the N52’s cylinder head and the design of the N52’s hydraulic valve adjusters themselves.
BMW N52 Cylinder Head Design
The main contributor to N52 lifter tick is the design of the N52’s cylinder head itself. The issue stems from the head’s inability to supply adequate lubrication to the lifters when the engine oil is cold. There is a lack of oil in the lifter area because the engine head losses oil pressure when the engine is off.
Essentially, the oil drains from the cylinder head and does not return for a while after the engine warms. Short-distance driving doesn’t allow the oil to get up to operating temps, which allows the oil to thin. That is why lifter tick is more commonly reported in engines that don’t see very much highway driving. This is also why N52 lifter tick goes away after a period of extended driving. The oil gets up to operating temps and thins, allowing it to circulate into the lifter area. That also explains why cold weather has a negative impact on lifter tick, as the cold, thick oil can’t flow to the cylinder head effectively.
The design of the N52’s cylinder head was eventually remedied on later models of the engine. BMW eventually put a revised N52 cylinder head onto production cars with a build date after 11/31/2008, which largely fixed the issue. The later production cylinder heads feature a check valve to keep oil inside of the hydraulic valve adjusters when the engine is off.
BMW N52 Hydraulic Valve Lifter Design
While not as commonly known, the design of the N52’s hydraulic valve lifters themselves is also a significant contributor to the problem. The function of the N52’s hydraulic valve adjusters is to minimize valve clearance as the camshaft rotates.
Unlike antiquated solid lifters, hydraulic lifters are hollow and have an internal piston and spring, which allows oil to enter and exit the internal cavity within the lifters. Due to the N52’s HVA and cylinder head design, air can get trapped within the adjusters, not allowing them to function correctly. While hydraulic valve adjusters are already noisy to begin with, trapped air pockets can amplify the sound even further.
BMW N52 Hydraulic Lifter Tick – What Models Were Affected?
Ultimately, the N52 hydraulic valve lifter tick issue plagued nearly every BMW model that featured an N52 under the hood. If we listed every N52-powered BMW here, it would be quite the list, as it powered nearly every mid-low tier model in the BMW lineup from 2004-2013. The affected chassis are as follows:
- All E82, E83, E85, E86, E88, E60, E61, E70, E90, E91, E92, and E93 with the N51, N52 or N52K engines
It is important to mention that earlier N52 engines suffered with valve lifter tick issues much more than later model engines. That is mainly due to the fact that BMW revised the N52’s cylinder head design in November of 2008 which helped reduce the chance of the issue occurring on later engines. With that being said, there are plenty of reports of N52 lifter tick occurring on late-model N52 engines as well.
Does N52 Lifter Tick Do Damage?
While N52 lifter tick can sound pretty extreme if it continues to get worse over time, there is no correlation between the sound and engine damage down the line. In the technical service bulletin that BMW released concerning the N52 lifter tick issue, they claim that “the condition will not cause any damage to the engine.”
With that being said, there were some early reports from BMW owners that experienced the issue of scoring on engine components and metal shavings in the engine oil. While those N52 engines might have experienced lifter tick and those other issues simultaneously, there isn’t any evidence to show that the lifter issue was responsible for scoring or contaminated oil.
Despite the few claims that N52 lifter tick can cause engine damage, there are far more reports of BMW N52 owners experiencing the noise for years without any negative impact on drivability or engine condition. The bottom line is that noisy N52 lifters are more of an annoyance than a serious engine issue. While it is unquestionably that BMW should have recognized and remedied this issue much sooner than they did, it won’t affect drivability if you can’t get the problem fixed right away.
BMW N52 Hydraulic Valve Lifter Tick Symptoms
- Loud metallic clacking sound coming from the top of the engine
Ultimately, there aren’t usually any preliminary signs of N52 lifter tick until it begins happening. It is also a problem that tends to occur immediately and without warning, neither audibly or through engine fault codes. If you are unsure if your N52 is experiencing hydraulic valve lifter tick or another similar ticking noise (often the injectors), we’ll leave a sound clip below for you to compare.
While N52 lifter tick tends to begin happening out of the blue, there are a couple of circumstances where the problem occurs more frequently. For instance, most N52 owners notice that if they drive their car and then park it for a few days, the lifter tick tends to be much more pronounced on startup the next time. Driving short distances in colder climates also amplifies the intensity of the tick. The main factor in both of those circumstances is oil temperature. The ticking is louder in those instances as all of the oil has drained from the cylinder head and hasn’t had ample time to warm up to operating temperature.
BMW N52 Hydraulic Valve Lifter Tick Fixes
Over the years, there have been a number of “fixes” for the BMW N52 valve tick issue, with some having higher success rates than others. Fixes for the problem have ranged from bleeding procedures to oil viscosity changes, and even complete cylinder head replacements. While there are certainly ways to improve the lifter tick issue and limit the chances of the issue resurfacing, the problem truly does stem from the N52’s valvetrain design itself.
N52 Valve Lifter Bleed Procedure
In 2008, BMW released a technical service bulletin that outlined the N52’s hydraulic valve lifter tick issues and presented a bleeding procedure that would supposedly remedy the issue. The bleeding procedure essentially consisted of holding the engine at a consistent 2,000-3,000 rpm for three minutes and subsequently letting the engine idle for a further 20 seconds. If the lifter tick didn’t improve, the process could be repeated up to 5 additional times.
Ultimately, the lifter tick bleed procedure was never meant to be a permanent fix to the problem. Instead, it was a way to remedy the issue for a short period. All the bleed procedure effectively did was get the oil to its correct operating temperature, allowing it to flow from the crankcase to the cylinder head and to the lifters. The same result could be attained by simply driving at high rpm for a bit or through some sustained highway driving.
Oil Viscosity Change
Ever since the N52 community discovered that the N52 lifter tick issue was primarily due to low oil temperature and high viscosity, discussions about oil weight have been a hot topic. In theory, running a thinner oil not only takes less time to warm but also remains closer to its operating temperature viscosity when it is cold. Since the recommended 5W-30 BMW LL04 has a hard time reaching the lifters during startup or in cold weather, switching to a lighter oil makes some sense.
The main argument in favor of using lighter-weight oil is that even BMW uses 0W-30 oil in the majority of European dealerships for engines that call for BMW LL04. While it isn’t recommended to stray from the oil guidelines in the owner’s manual, most agree that 0W30 will work well in most circumstances as long as you don’t live in an area with a very warm climate year-round. If you aren’t comfortable with running such a thin oil all of the time, some N52 owners use 5W-30 in the warmer months and 0W-30 in the colder months.
There are quite a few mixed reports about how using thinner oil affects the N52 lifter tick situation. Some people claim that using thinner oil has greatly reduced the frequency and severity of their lifter tick while others claim that the tick only goes away immediately after the oil change and resurfaces shortly after.
BMW N52 Cylinder Head Replacement
While bleeding the lifters and running thinner oil has been shown to help the N52 lifter tick issue in the short term, the only true fix is to replace an early model N52 cylinder head with the revised cylinder head that BMW introduced late in the 2008 model year. The revised cylinder head was initially rolled out in November of 2008, and is found on all N52 BMWs produced in 2009 and beyond.
The revised N52 cylinder head features a different oiling system design, which features a check valve to keep oil inside of the hydraulic valve adjusters when the engine is off. By keeping oil inside of the lifters while the engine is off, they are at least lubricated with oil upon initial startup. However, lifter tick can still occur with the revised cylinder head if the oil doesn’t reach operating temperature before the lifters use all of the stored oil.
Historically, replacing the N52’s cylinder head is the main method of solving the engine’s lifter tick issues. When the N52 was a new engine and covered under warranty, N52 owners generally had their cylinder heads replaced under the factory powertrain warranty. Unfortunately, no N52 is covered at this point in time, so the cylinder head replacement would be an out-of-pocket fix.
While the replacement cylinder head did solve the lifter tick issue for most N52 owners that went ahead with it, there are still some reports of the issue resurfacing after the replacement. With that being said, it is the best chance of remedying the issue permanently.
Improved N5X Cylinder Head Casting Numbers:
N51 (B30): 7588277
N52 (B30): 7588273
N52K (B30): 7588271
BMW N52 Lifter Tick Repair Cost
Considering the fact that N52 lifter tick is a commonly reported issue that is purely an annoyance and not a risk to engine health, it is important to consider the options that you have at your disposal from a cost standpoint. While replacing the engine’s cylinder head with the improved design will likely solve the issue, that is a very costly replacement at this point, with all N52 engines being out of warranty.
The first step should be to see if the bleed procedure listed above works to alleviate the lifter tick issue. If it doesn’t, it could be a sign of a larger issue with your N52’s valvetrain components. However, if it does help the issue, most N52 owners have had pretty good luck with simply doing some high-rpm driving every once in a while to ensure oil is getting to the lifters. In some cases, intermittent high-rpm driving has remedied the issue for some N52 owners for months. That is a no-cost solution that simply requires a bit of diligence and intention.
While switching to a different oil weight is a touchy subject in the BMW community, some N52 owners have found that using thinner 0W-30 BMW-approved LL-01 oil helps the issue as well. Once again, we can’t recommend going against BMW’s factory oil recommendations, but thinner oil has been proven to work, which is another low-cost solution.
If you are looking to replace your N52’s cylinder head with a revised one, you’ll be looking at between $5,000-$7,000 for parts and labor. While it is understandable as to why some N52 owners would want to do this repair, it is hard to justify that cost when lifter tick doesn’t pose a serious risk to the engine.
BMW N52 Lifter Tick FAQ
Why is my N52 ticking?
Lifter tick from the N52’s hydraulic valve lifters is an extremely common problem on the BMW N52. The ticking is caused by insufficient lubrication to the valve lifters upon startup and in cold weather. This is due to the N52’s cylinder head design, which doesn’t supply enough oil to the hydraulic valve lifters until the engine oil is warm.
How do I stop my BMW lifter from ticking?
Ultimately, there are a couple of solutions to N52 lifter tick. Intermittently driving at high RPMs can force more oil into the cylinder head and lifters, alleviating the noise. Some N52 owners opt to use slightly thinner 0W-30 BMW -approved LL01 oil which warms quicker and flows to the lifters easier. BMW also redesigned the N52’s cylinder head in late 2008 which incorporated a check valve that keeps oil inside of the lifters when the engine is off. While expensive, swapping to a late-model cylinder head has been shown to reduce the frequency of the issue.
Will a ticking lifter cause damage?
According to BMW themselves, N52 lifter tick is purely an audible issue and does not cause any engine damage or affect drivability in any way. As a direct quote from the technical service bulletin that BMW released concerning the issue, “the condition will not cause any damage to the engine.”
BMW N52 Lifter Tick Summary
Ticking from the BMW N52’s hydraulic valve lifters is a widely reported problem that can affect any 2004-2015 BMW powered by the N52 engine. The sound itself sounds like a metallic clacking noise that typically occurs during startup or when the weather is cold. There aren’t typically any warning signs before N52 lifter tick starts and there aren’t usually any accompanying symptoms other than the noise. The ticking also scales with engine rpm, meaning the higher the revs, the faster the ticking occurs.
N52 lifter tick is caused by insufficient oiling to the hydraulic valve lifters due to the design of the engine’s cylinder head. Essentially, when the engine has been sitting for an extended period, the oil drains out of the cylinder head and hydraulic lifters and doesn’t return until the oil has reached operating temperature. That causes the non-lubricated lifters to make a loud ticking noise that typically goes away after a period of high-rpm driving.
There are a few ways to fix BMW N52 hydraulic valve lifter tick, with a couple being free or low cost and one being ludicrously expensive. Since high-rpm driving is one way to eliminate N52 lifter tick, intermittently driving above 5,000 rpm has stopped lifter tick for some N52 owners for months. Some N52 owners also say that switching to thinner 0W-30 BMW-approved LL01 oil also helps. Replacing an early model N52 cylinder head with a revised post-11/30/2008 build date cylinder head is another solution.
Ultimately, N52 lifter tick is an annoyance more than anything else. While it is undeniable that BMW should have resolved the issue sooner and provided solutions for anyone experiencing the issue, the fact that lifter tick does not cause any engine damage should bring some peace of mind to some.