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Friday, October 31, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Shortly after pulling out of my driveway and tapping the brakes one morning I looked down to see the OBC informing me of "1 brake light fail". After I got over the coolness of having the car tell me precisely when a lamp has failed and realizing that it must be doing current sampling on that circuit every time I hit the brakes, I figured I'd just go to the dealer and pick up a lamp to replace it.

On the way there, I recalled that the Oil Service light had illuminated last week and since I'd been so busy at work lately I had kept forgetting to call my dealer for an appointment, so I figured I'd try to squeeze into their schedule for an oil service and just have them replace the bulb while they were at it.

I walked back into the shop to say hello to my mechanic and I told him that the car had been running fine since we did the plugs and idle valve. When I told him about the brake lamp, he recommended we replace all three, since the other two were likely to fail soon as well. After 5 years in operation, and the fact that they all illuminate at the same time -- thus have the same on-duty time -- I couldn't argue with that logic.

I also noted that I had started to feel a slight resistance about half-way through the door handle travel and some subtle resistance when I inserted my key into the door lock and turned it. He said he'd put some graphite in the lock and some grease in the locking mechanism. While I was at it, I asked him to put some silicone protectant on the door seals where they are exposed to light behind the glass.

This time I figured I'd wait for the service as I expected it to take only an hour to perform, and in the process saved the hassle of a loaner. They even sent the car through their wash bay, and cleaned all the nasty road salt off the car that had built up in only two days since I washed and waxed it.

The car is technically due for an Inspection II at 72000, but given all the work I've had done on the car in the last six months, and the fact that my mechanic always gives it a routine checkout when it comes in for service, I'm confident that I can delay that until 75000, at which time it will need another oil service anyway. Given that I'm putting about 1700 miles a month on the car, I figure that will be sometime in March or April.

Parts and labor (Oil Service plus 0.1 hour charge for lube & lamp replacement): $88. Total mileage, 70869.

Saturday, March 1, 2003

On what became the warmest and nicest day of the new year, I decided to wash and wax my baby. Shortly after I put the buffer away, I stepped back to admire a beauty I hadn't seen in several months due to the lousy weather and salt grime. I then hopped in to put the car away, turned the key, and then...misfire! In fact, not just a misfire...I really nasty steady miss that shook the whole car and eventually tripped the check engine light (first time I'd ever seen it do that). Damn...not again.

I started wondering whether she was getting back at me for having scheduled her for an Inspection II in two days, but I told myself...na...this baby gets all the TLC she needs...why would she intentionally cause me pain? (Sadly, I've found myself asking the same thing about "real" women, but I digress). :-)

To make a long story short, Monday morning rolled around and there I found my car on a flatbed again (well, last time it was a fork type truck and this time it was a real flatbed). I learned some more about towing BMWs. Believe it or not, if they're careful, they can hook to an E36's lower control arms but NOT on the E46...those components are now aluminum (which should serve to clarify why it's a pain in the ass to tow an E46 relative to an E36). Because the car started, I was able to drive it half way up the ramp so the tow driver could hook on to the lower control arms and minimize the force necessary to pull the car up on the ramp.

(Image: Location of ignition harness in engine bay) I arrived at my dealer, paid the tow guy $40, and found my mechanic standing by his bay door chatting with someone. I soon got his attention and related my theory on what may have caused the problem. He initially suspected that I flooded one or more of the spark plug holes, because a consistent miss will usually result from the water wicking up into the long tube that extends from the top of the plug to the base of the ignition coil and shorting out the connection. I told him I sprayed water near the sides of the bay, and maybe a bit on the engine cover, but nothing extreme and certainly did nothing differently than usual. He suggested that he'd give it a good look and call me later in the day, and recommended I just leave the car with him for another day so he could complete the Inspection II at the same time.

I arrived the next morning to snap some pics, expecting the car to be in a million pieces, but my mechanic not only managed to fix the misfire problem, but complete the Inspection II as well. It turned out the misfire was on cylinder number 6 (again), and he traced it to a loose ignition harness connector [click on thumbnail for a closeup view]. Somehow, I must have managed to jog that loose, but given how I cleaned the bay this time around, I don't think it happened this time...I think it was like that for the last several months, and ever since I had the earlier problem (if you'll recall, there was a misfire as well as an idle valve problem).

The good news is that the Inspection II went off without a hitch, with the following highlights:

Total damage: $700 for the inspection (P&L), $80 for troubleshooting the loose ignition harness connector, $70 for P&L to install the sunroof seal, for a grand (almost) total of $850. Mileage 73440.

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

On the drive home from work a couple weeks ago, I thought I saw the display of the climate control head go black for a split second. At the time I dismissed it, thinking that perhaps the display found its way into my blind spot (you know, the blind spot every one of us has in each of our eyes due to the location of the optic nerve on the retina?)

Unfortunately, about a week ago I realized I wasn't seeing things...the display really was dark for a second. Then it illuminated again...then it went dark again. This cycle continued for a few more times, and then the unit returned to normal operation. I decided that I would drop by my dealer to talk to my mechanic about it the next morning.

(Image: Climate control unit removed from dash) In short, my mechanic confirmed that this is typical of a failing climate control head, and said that it was impossible to tell how much longer it might operate. Since I didn't like the thought of suddenly being without heat, air-conditioning, and defrost, I confirmed they had a control head in stock, wrestled with my blood pressure as they revealed the price and made an appointment for the following week to have it replaced. To make a long story short, the unit operated intermittently before failing completely on the way home on the night before the appointment. I went in the next day and my mechanic swapped the unit out.

The job involved pulling the radio in order to gain access to the control head, moving the faceplate, buttons, and temperature sensor fan from the old unit to the new, and reprogramming the control head for North American conventions via the BMW diagnostics computer (when I'm not flying, I prefer my temperatures in Fahrenheit, thank you very much!).

I had also noticed that the Auto/Manual transmission switch light had failed again, so I decided to have them fix that. I whined about this being, like, the 80th time this stupid incandescent bulb had failed and the fact that I had just dropped 8 bills in this place last month, so they replaced it for cost of parts ($28) only...no labor charge. What can I say...sometimes it pays to whine.

While this is apparently not a common failure in these cars, I have heard of one other occurrence in a '96 vintage 328. I hope this means this was a fluke of manufacturing, but it's impossible to tell without more data.

The damage? Parts, $325, Labor/Tax: $80, Total $405. Mileage 75812.

Saturday, June 14, 2003

I've received a couple emails regarding failure modes for the climate control head. It seems that it can also fail in such a way that when the climate control system is turned off (by turning the fan all the way down), the fan will continue to run. Other failure modes include: selected buttons will have no effect, or the temperature will reset to 70 degrees. Bottom line, if anything like this happens, I would suggest that you replace the climate control head. As for replacing it yourself, unless you have access to a BMW diagnostic computer (not the $50 "diagnostic tool" used to reset the service lights, I can assure you) you can't program the unit properly. Take it to a dealer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

At nearly 6500 miles since the last inspection, it was time (well, actually a bit late) for another oil service. I showed up and chatted with my mechanic as usual. "Been pretty reliable lately? I haven't seen you", he said. "Well, " I said (while tapping the side of my head), "knock on wood, yea."

I mentioned I'd started to hear that annoying "sounds like bad A/C compressor bearings but is most likely just an "old loose belt" sound, and asked him to check it out and replace it if necessary.

An hour and a half later, the car had fresh oil and filter element, along with new A/C and fan belts. My mechanic showed me the A/C belt in particular and revealed several splits in some of the splines. He said that while there could still be sufficient tension on the belt (there was in this case), when the splines start to split, the belt won't grip as well under load, which could also explain those familiar sounds.

While we were on the subject of consumables I asked about all those coolant hoses with 80000 miles on them. He said "don't worry about them...they typically outlast the cooling system components, but if you really want to pick a time to replace them anyway, 100K would be a good idea." Okay, good enough for me.

Total labor $108.00, Parts, $98, Total $219. Mileage 79818.

Friday, August 1, 2003

So, here I was (again) minding my own business and some stupid kid in a slammed Civic with a cheezy body kit hanging half off the car races past me. Normally, this is no big deal, simply because I've made it a practice to let morons like this guy speed past me so they eventually splatter their brains on the guard rail and learn the valuable lesson "it's not nice to drive like an ASSHOLE".

(Image: Closeup of fog lamp assembly glass) This time, however, something came off of his POS and sailed toward me. I thought I was going to eat whatever it was, but then it quickly dipped below the level of my hood and I heard a loud "thump". I figured I had gotten lucky and merely ran over it. When I got home, I realized that wasn't the case. I found the left fog lamp assembly hanging by its supply wires, nearly touching the ground, the glass of the light assembly completely shattered, the bulb sheared off, and a few scratches on the paint around the apparent point of impact.

Surprisingly, I didn't freak out too much. And, no, it's not because I've been working on my anger management. Rather, it's because I'd seriously considered replacing the light assemblies anyway for the simple reason that six years of high speed driving had taken its toll on the glass, much in the same way it had on my first windshield. If you click on the image, you can see what I mean.

The next morning I went to my dealer and asked my mechanic to "take a quick look" at the problem, which he knows by now really means "off the clock". It took him about 30 seconds to say that if I bought the parts, he's snap them in for free. I then told him that if I was to replace the left assembly, I might as well replace the other so it matches. I also knew that if I were to replace one halogen bulb, I should replace the other to avoid possible subtle, but noticeable differences in color rendering that can appear between different bulb manufacturers and as bulbs age. His offer still held. I walked over to the parts counter and found the light assemblies priced at $70 each, and the bulbs a mere $9. Sold.

While the right-hand assembly went fine as expected, after my mechanic tried to insert the left light assembly into its mount, he realized that one of the mount's aiming pivots had been sheered off by the impact. Click on the picture to see what I mean. The two arrows indicate the points that should be one piece. The alignment arm to the right pivots on the broken shaft and is adjusted by a screw that is inside of the white plastic shaft on the upper right side of the bracket.

(Image: Fog lamp mounting assembly and rear of foglamp) He also could not seem to get the new light assembly to latch properly. The assembly is normally held in by one of those press-fit clip type arrangements...you can see the metal clip affixed to the far right of the light assembly, which snaps into the plastic pivoting receptacle on the mounting bracket to the left.

At that point I offered to go back to the parts desk and get the part, but he stopped me and said "wait a sec...". He then walked over to a couple of his spare parts bins and...amazingly...found the exact part we needed, saving me about $35! (Have I said lately that my mechanic is a cool guy?)

The downside was that replacement of the mounting bracket was a bit more involved than installing the light assembly, so I needed to pay a for a half hour of his labor to get the job done. The task involved removing one of the underside panels to gain access to the rear of the bracket where four screws hold it to the bumper cover. Considering he'd just saved me the equivalent cost in parts, I considered it a wash. Less than 45 minutes later, the job was done and paid for, and I was on my way.

Now that I know how this whole assembly is supposed to look and work, I could probably fix it myself if it happens again.

Total labor $45, Parts, $156, Total $214. Mileage 81880.

Monday, August 11, 2003

I submitted a claim to my insurance company a couple days after my fog lamp incident happened just for shits and giggles, thinking they'd find a way to avoid paying. Much to my pleasant surprise, a check arrived in the mail today for $114, or the total cost less my deductable. Kudos to State Farm...they really turned this around quickly without haggling. Have to admit it's nice to get even a tiny percentage of my premiums back.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Ok, I goofed. I accidentally caught the driver's door moulding on an obstruction in the garage. Due to the design of the moulding, it shifted on its mounting clips and wound up compressed (Image: Right side door moulding) between the door and the quarter panel. That effectively trashed the end of the moulding. Since the side moulding in particular was faded from UV damage, I figured I'd do something I'd been planning to do for some time -- replace all the moulding around the car.

I made my way to the dealer the next morning and spoke to the parts guy about this and he quoted me almost $450 for all of the moulding pieces around the (Image: Moulding Part Numbers)car. After I picked myself up off the floor, I chuckled and said, "well, hey, let's just order the left and right side mouldings today". $226 and a week later, I went back to pick them up.

Today I installed them. Pretty easy, actually. The moulding is attached to the car via plastic butterfly-type plastic mounting hardware. Each clip is covered with a soft rubber tip. According to my mechanic, the tip is required to prevent scratching the paint on the edge of the hole in the door that receives the clip. If you scratch the paint, you're asking for rust and corrosion to set in. After working with the clips, I figure the rubber tip is also required to create the proper interference fit and prevent vibration from wearing down the plastic mounting hardware. Incidentally, when you receive the moulding, the rubber tip is about half-way on the clip. That needs to be stretched over the mounting clip before you install it.

After carefully (but "firmly") pulling the old moulding off, I decided to wash and wax the entire car and pay particular attention to cleaning out the cruft that had formed on the paint under the moulding. After that was done, I started with the front left quarter panel trim and went around the car, firmly pushing the new moudling mounting clip into their respective holes. Mission accomplished.

At some point, I'll likely replace the front and rear trim, but right now, the car looks great again, so it's no biggie.

Monday September 1, 2003

Because I was a bit late performing the last (mid-cycle) oil service, I covered only about 3500 miles before the red service indicator and the "OIL SERVICE" text appeared. I don't really like doing oil changes more frequently than 5000 miles because there's simply nothing to be gained by doing so, but if for no other reason than to get back "on schedule", I did it anyway. My mechanic took care of everything perfectly as usual, but had one surprise in store for me (what else is new).

He mentioned that I may need front brake pads soon(!) After I got up off the floor (again), I told him I honestly hadn't looked at them recently, but that with only 24K miles since I did all four wheels and given that the first set of pads & rotors lasted 60K miles, I couldn't believe they would be due anytime soon. He told me that the rotors were still well within spec, so I would only need to replace pads. That was the second thing that didn't make sense...I told him I thought BMWs *always* replaced rotors and pads together because they usually wore at equivalent rates. Apparently not.

The only reason for the accelerated wear my mechanic could offer is that BMW must have changed vendors or the vendor changed formulations. I had heard of E46's going through front brakes every 30K miles, but I figured that was because the pads and rotors were completely different than the E36. Apparently not. He then went on to say that he regularly replaces pads before rotors and that, depending on my driving style I might still have 5-10K miles left on them. I thanked him and then walked over to the parts counter to do some research.

I asked the Parts guy if he could trace the part numbers for me to see if BMW at least acknowledged any change in brake pad vendor or formulation via a different part number or whether BMW offered a "high performance" pad for special applications. He said there was only one applicable part number for front pads and another for rear pads because they were from different vendors. Fronts are made by "Textar" and the rears by "Jurid". I've never heard of either vendor, but the fact that my rear brakes were wearing on schedule and the fronts were in the crapper about 35K miles too soon made me think, "uh, Textar brake pads suck ass". Oddly, opinions online seem to favor Textar.

Now for the interesting part...I spoke to a friend with a '98 528 and he said he just replaced his original pads and rotors at a bit over 50K miles. Given that the 528 is a heavier car, it's no surprise he got 10K less life out of them than I did, but I think this proves that my experience with the original pads, while certainly exceptional, is not unique. BMW MUST have changed pads at some point after my car was built (perhaps replacing a semi-metallic with an organic). I told my friend to keep a close eye on his front brakes, because they will likely last half as long as the original set.

So, looks like front pads will need to be done sometime in December. My tires are also nearing end of life (and wearing evenly, incidentally), so I'll likely be out another $600 as well.

Oil Service (P&L): $89, Mileage 83584.

Monday, September 29, 2003

On the drive to work today it dawned on me that I had a mere two days to bring my car through NJ DMV inspection. Of course, as anyone knows, getting through inspection around the end of the month can be a real pain in the ass and I expected today to be no exception. In fact, I figured tomorrow would be worse, so after checking in at the office, I drove over to the local DMV inspection station.

Before I tell you how much fun I had today, a little history is in order. NJ's DMV program was outsourced to a company called Parsons. They were given the charter to reduce costs and improve efficiency, while at the same time creating a new, more rigorous inspection process that would ensure that NJ could meet federal clean air standards. To make a long story short, they wasted more than $400 million of NJ taxpayer money before the State had to step in. What did we get for our money? A system that ran Windows 98(!!), crashed constantly (erasing several cars' worth of inspection data each time), a process that took far longer than that it replaced, and dynos that wouldn't run properly in cold weather. Why am I telling you this? Because recently they washed their hands of the dyno tests and replaced them with analysis of the OBD (On Board Diagnostic) computer interface for all cars 1996 and later.

My 1998 E36 is equipped with OBD II, the second generation system. These systems have a standard physical interface and communications protocols. That means that a mechanic can use the same cable and computer software to interact with the OBD, which explains why the DMV chose to pick on 96+ model year cars even though older cars had OBD functionality. The OBD connector in an E36 BMW is mounted inverted underneath the dash just to the right of the driver's side kick panel. BMW was kind enough to put a little access door over it with a "lock" that could be actuated by the edge of a coin or flat blade screwdriver. The access door is labeled with three big raised letters "OBD". Pretty hard to miss.

As I waited for the car at the end of the inspection line, thinking everything went reasonably well, I went into shock when the line guy walked toward my car with a big red REJECTED sticker. I said "Woa!...failed? For what??. "Uh, we couldn't find the OBD connector." he said. Sure enough, the inspection report said "OBD: missing". A few choice words ensued, and I told the guy if he couldn't find it, it was his problem...I wanted my "Passed" sticker now and he could sort out his lack of data two years hence. After it became clear he wasn't going to give me what I wanted, I asked to see the manager, who then spoke with the line people. They then confessed the OBD connector wasn't "missing", just "inaccessible".

Thinking that these people had just gone off the deep end, I crawled under the dash to look more closely at the receptacle. Sure enough, the receptacle was mounted facing rearward, rather than straight down so it was impossible to insert the plug. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, so I called my mechanic and asked him about it. He said he would have to take a look at it to recommend a course of action, so I left the inspection facility with a glaring "police magnet" affixed to my windshield and drove to the dealership.

As usual, it didn't take my mechanic long to figure out what needed to be done. He used a #1 philips screwdriver to pull two screws out of the OBD receptacle mounting flanges, rotated the receptacle such that it would face straight down, and reinstalled the screws. Well, DUH...if I knew it would be that easy, I would have done it myself, but given my disgust and haste to bring my conflict with DMV personnel to an end (if only for today), I didn't see the screws and just figured BMW had some special right-angled cable assembly for this application. Oh well, live and learn.

My mechanic's only comment was that the 5 series cars have the connector facing aft, while those in 3 series cars are supposed to face downward, so the assembly line guy in Regensburg must have had a few too many lagers that day. Whatever..the problem was solved and I was on my way back to the inspection station within 5 minutes. Fortunately, the reinspection only took about 10 minutes.

Moral? If you live in a state where they have recently instituted OBD analysis as part of the inspection process, you might want to pull that cover and take a quick look at the OBD receptacle to ensure it's installed properly BEFORE you show up at the inspection station. That simple check could save a lot of time and aggravation.

Mileage 84085, Cost $0 (not including my time and aspirin, of course).

October 2003

About 2000 miles after my mechanic told me I'd need front pads (and not rotors), I decided to schedule the work just to get it out of the way before the holidays. Shortly after the car went into the shop, my mechanic found me and said that he didn't feel it was time to do the pads. I told him that it looked as though I had less than 1/8" of pad left and I didn't want to wait too long, for fear of gouging the rotors. That's when he told me that I'm going to need rotors shortly anyway. Apparently the rotors are near 20.6 (mm, presumably), while the BMW minimum specification is 20.4. If I replaced pads now, I'd have to replace the rotors shortly anyway and probably toss the pads too. This means that not only are the front pads wearing at twice the rate of the previous set, the rotors are as well!

My mechanic maintains his belief that it's typical to replace the front brakes at twice the rate of the rears, but I have empirical evidence that suggests otherwise. When asked to explain the disparity, he holds to his opinion that the brake pad formulations have changed since my car was built in 1998. Obviously, they haven't changed for the better, but who am I to fight it. The E36 M3 did have issues with brake squealing and BMW eventually fixed that problem, but I don't know exactly how they fixed it.

If there can be any good in this, it's that my mechanic sent me home without any charge. He told me to come back when the brake wear light has illuminated. While I respect his logic in that I shouldn't replace parts until absolutely necessary, I honestly don't want to look at a stupid indicator light for the two weeks necessary to get an appointment and I don't like the idea of driving for two weeks on "known questionable" brakes. It's just not worth losing the car in a panic stop. I'll probably wait another 4-6 weeks and bring it in again for front pads and rotors and just be done with it. I'm expecting about $360 for the job, while the original "pads only" quote came in at $188.

This month would have ended on that fairly positive note, if it were not for the fact that I got ANOTHER rock in my windshield the other day, a mere month after getting a fresh inspection sticker, and a mere two years since I replaced the last one. I'm not exactly broken up about it because my insurance will cover all but $100 of the esimated $700 replacement, but also because the windshield had been hit by some smaller stones a few times before, and the entire surface was moderately pitted from all of my high speed highway driving. BMW windshields are very soft, no doubt about it!

I had the job scheduled for the last week in the month and would have included the report this month, but apparently two BMW windshields came through shipping cracked and needed to be returned (WTF BMW? You can engineer the best cars on the planet, but you can't engineer a damn shipping crate???). The good news in this situation is my insurance company has authorized me to use the same installer as last time, which is the same my dealer uses. These guys have a pretty good rep, and that's a good thing, since I don't allow people with room temperature IQs anywhere near my car.

Friday, November 7, 2003

I just had my second windshield installed, and decided to write a short article to update the original. Check them out.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The 2nd set of Dunlop SP8000's are spent. The rears are at the tread wear indicators, while the fronts have about 1/16" above them. As I've been pondering for some time whether to go with another set of SP8000s or try a new tire, I let these wear farther than the last set. As a result, I've really noticed a decrease in wet performance as well as a significant increase in tire noise. Considering that the tread now resembles a DOT legal racing slick, that's no surprise.

The main reason I'd considered going with a different tire is because this set of SP8000's was particularly out of round. When I brought the car to my mechanic shortly after they were installed at another local shop, he said he balanced the tires as best he could and moved the worst two the rear, where I would not feel them as much. He also strongly suggested I NOT buy Dunlop tires again.

When it became clear I'd need to look for new tires recently, I went back to him and asked for his opinion. He said that he balances tires all day long on a Hunter RoadForce balancer, which can measure the eccentricity of the tire in "lbs of road force differential". A perfect tire would present 0 lbs of differential, while a bad tire might between 30 and 40 lbs. He added that Dunlop and Bridgestone, for example, are all over the place...some good, but mostly bad (anywhere between 20 and 35lbs, with some as bad as 40). He said Continental aren't too bad, but Michelin are the best...at around 3-5 lbs on average.. BMW specifies a maximum of 18 lbs. So, what to do?

I initially considered many tires, including a promising alternative for the SP8000 - the Kumho ECSTA MX. But after weeks of on and off analysis, with emphasis on finding a tire with low eccentricity, I worked it down to one of the two Michelin Pilot Sport tires. The original Pilot Sport is a summer-only ultra high performance tire that comes on the newer sport-package BMWs, while the Pilot Sport A/S is Michelin's all season equivalent.

I really wanted to go for the summer tire, but two things stopped me.

The good news is the A/S came highly recommended. Nearly all personal reviews I read about this tire raved about its performance in dry, wet, and (yes) even snow. The downside? They're EXPENSIVE. Tire Rack had them for $180 each + shipping, or a total of $750...which is a LOT of money for tires that I'll likely replace in 18 months or 30K miles. Just for grins, I asked the dealer's parts guy how much they would charge for these tires and he said $250/each(!). When I mentioned Tire Rack's price he said that he would call Tire Rack if it were his choice, and added that I should have the tires shipped directly to the shop for installation. So I shall.

While they have the tires off, I plan to have them do front pads and rotors (still a bit ahead of schedule, but better to do before the holidays, IMHO), do the biennial brake fluid flush, and a mid-cycle oil change. Total bill will likely be around $1200.

Oh, and incidentally, I'm not fooling myself -- I know that these tires will NOT have the dry performance of the SP8000's. You need only look at the respective treads to see why. I am also concerned about more rapid tire wear on the Pilot Sport A/S, in spite of what I have read to the contrary. If the tire significantly impacts dry performance, next spring I will either buy a set of Pilot Sports or other tire I can burn up during the summer and swap the tires on the existing 16" rims, or I'll buy the 17" M-Contour rims (available on the E36 M3) and put the summer rubber on those. That way, at least, I can swap the tires on my own, and I'll improve the looks of the car as well. And, before you suggest how much THAT will cost, it's STILL cheaper than a second car. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Cost (parts): $750, Mileage 87005.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

THIRD windshield replacement

Yes, I had the (two-week-old) windshield replaced again, except this time it wasn't because of a stone hit...it was because I realized they didn't install the last one properly.

During the installation two weeks ago I noted that the windshield seemed to be sitting low in the frame, although it appeared centered laterally. I gauged this by looking at three factors:

When I tried to point this out to the installers they tried to pull the windshield up in the frame but it didn't want to budge. They did manage to close the gap a bit but that still left the window another 1/8" below where I felt it should be. When I made it clear to them that I didn't like the way it looked they commented that the extra gap would disappear behind the trim once it "relaxed" and conformed to the frame over the next day or two, but in case it didn't the lifetime warranty on materials and workmanship would cover the installation and they would come back to fix it for free. Naturally, I'm sure they didn't think that I would call them on this, but I did.

They hoped to save the existing glass, but ordered new glass just in case that didn't work out...and it didn't. They had the usual difficulty removing the glass and cracked it, so the new glass was installed. This time, they took special efforts to orient the glass before seating it, and pushed it firmly to the top of the frame BEFORE they pushed down on it. They also used a high-strength red fabric tape (as opposed to the blue painter's tape they normally use) to hold the windshield where it should be. My experience shows once the glass touches the glue and is in the frame, the friction created by both the glue and the rubber trim kit just won't allow the windshield to budge much, if at all so it needs to be set correctly from the start.

This installation actually looks better than the one they did two years ago, and in fact looks the way I remember the original did. The windshield appears to be "level" with the top of the windshield frame, rather than recessed slightly, and the rubber trim sits, appropriately, level across the windshield and the windshield frame. The trim on the top of the windshield also nicely hides the paint defect created by the old trim. In short, the windshield is where it should be.

I did note that the VIN# window is still a bit low, but that's obviously a glitch of the windshield manufacturing process, rather than the installation process. The windshields acquired in the last two weeks were made by the same manufacturer for BMW, but the logos and other writing on the windshield seemed to be in a different font, meaning this is a new "rev" of this windshield. Fortunately, I couldn't care less about this...let the cop, inspection station attendant, or whoever wants to verify my car's identity, bend over and squint a bit more to see it.

Now, the question I'm sure you're begging to ask -- would I use Quality Auto Glass again? Sure. They screwed up, but remedied the situation. I was out nothing more than a few phone calls. They were good about coordinating the installation time with me, and were generally cool about making things right.

P&L: $0, Mileage 87178

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

(Image: Hunter Tire Mounting Equipment)Wow. What a difference a set of tires can make. I just got home from the dealer with the new Michelin Pilot Sport A/S tires on the car and I cannot believe how much differently the car feels and drives with the new tires.

Some notable improvements:

I took the car up to 80 on a back road and, again, all I can say is WOW. I will never put another Dunlop tire on this car...to do so would be an affront to the quality of the car and the driving experience it can deliver...with the right tires. My mechanic was right all along.

And, for you skeptics, I think I can get away with saying that the car drives better than when I drove it off the lot by considering the car came from the factory with Dunlop tires. If you'll look back at first maintenance entries in 1998, you'll note I had problems with steering wheel vibration. What I didn't know then was that this was NOT due to some steering pump problem...it was due to flat-spotted and out-of-round tires that eventually "heat cycled" into shape. Sort of.

Of course, my mechanic was able to get more objective measurements of the new tires by using about $25K worth of tire mounting and balancing equipment (shown above -- mounting equipment on the left, road force/balancer on the right). Considering the cost of the equipment and the positive results, I'd say the $40/tire I spent for mounting/balancing/disposal is a bargain.

My mechanic told me that two of the tires produced about 6 lbs of road force, while the other two were just under 10. This is higher than his original estimate, but well below the maximum BMW (18) or Michelin (25) specifies. Naturally, the two 10's were mounted on the rear, but I'm here to tell you that you CANNOT feel 10 lbs of road force (on the rear, anyway).

(Image: Hunter Tire Balancing Equipment)Some recommendations that I've developed as a consequence of my experiences with tires on this car:

While the wheels were off, I also had the front pads and rotors changed, the brake fluid flushed (about 6 months ahead of schedule, but while in Rome...), and a mid-cycle synthetic oil change performed. Next major maintenance will be an Inspection I, in about 6K miles, or sometime in the February/March timeframe.

Total damage: P&L (excluding tires): $800. Mileage: 87609.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Thermostat Replacement

The first two years I drove the car on a daily basis, including during the depths of winter. During that time I was always impressed at how quickly the car would warm up and retain heat for a considerable time after shutdown. For ownership years 3 and 4 the car never left the garage on cold, crummy days.

When I brought the car back into routine service in year 5 and the weather turned cold, I noticed that the termperature gauge would no longer rise to the 12 o'clock position (vertical). The effect became more pronounced as the temperatures dropped below 35 degrees (pretty common here in NJ from late November to March). I shrugged it off as "normal" and drove all last winter with the gauge about 2-3 needle-widths on average below the vertical.

(Image: Closeup of thermostat) We had been enjoying fairly mild weather for some time this season, until a cold snap hit, with temperatures in the 20's and 30's. It was during this time I that noticed the temperature gauge riding lower than last season. Particularly while cruising at 80 MPH on the highway, the needle hovered around the tick mark on the face of the gauge about 1/3 the way up from the cold position. When the temperature rose to about 50 degrees a few days later (gotta love this crazy New England weather) the average reading rose again, but remained within a few needle-widths of the vertical.

If you know how automotive cooling systems work, this is a pretty easy diagnosis. I figured the thermostat just wasn't sealing properly, and was allowing coolant to flow out of the block and through the radiator, even when it was supposed to be fully closed.

I dropped by the dealer to speak with my mechanic, and he said that thermostats are one of the "hot items" on this model car. Turns out the thermostat on this car is of the simple mechanical variety (unlike the E46 and later rev cars which are electronically controlled), and this lower-than-normal temperature is a symptom of a weak spring or a degradation of the wax pellet that prevents opening of the thermostat until the coolant comes up to the rated temperature.

He said that replacement of the thermostat is a pretty simple procedure, and since the engine temperature wasn't dropping into the "cold" region, it wasn't doing any damage to the engine, but he agreed with me when I suggested that it was probably "cheap insurance" to replace it before it failed completely and left me without heat.

I got an appointment a week later and happened to watch the entire process, which took about 45 minutes to complete. It involved removing the black panel covering the top of the radiator (which also serves as a means to direct cooling airflow to the alternator). This exposed the radiator, which, incidentally, is far easier to replace than I thought. Remove few hoses and a couple mounting clips, and it slides right out. In fact, I imagine the thermostat would be much easier to get to with the radiator removed, so if I had to replace the radiator, I'd definitely do the thermostat at the same time....but I digress.

After inspecting the face of the radiator, he showed me that some leaves and other light debris had found their way into a space at the front base of the radiator. The debris wasn't blocking the radiator it to any great extent, but my mechanic naturally blew those out with a 2' long wand attached to a compressed air hose before continuing.

He then removed he engine-driven fan, a support bracket on the oil-driven VANOS actuator on the top-front of the engine (which apparently shares a bolt with the black high-density plastic thermostat housing), the 2" coolant hose attached to the housing, and then the housing itself.

(Image: Closeup of thermostat housing gasket) After the housing was removed he inspected it for leaks and cracks. He pointed out a couple white stains around its perimeter indicative of leaks, and said that the coolant is specially formulated to leave these "stains" behind to help find leaks long after the coolant has evaporated or burnt off.

Then, he pointed out some minor damage to the housing seal (pictured) and said it's pretty common for the antifreeze to crystalize at the interface of the housing and the seal, and this can ultimately cause the seal to be "pushed out" of the recess built into the housing for it, which ultimately causes leaks. I don't know if this was responsible for the (very) modest coolant loss I'd experienced over the last few years, but it seemed as good a probable cause as any.

After verifying that the replacement thermostat was the same temperature as the original (92 degrees C), he swapped the parts and put everything back together. If you look closely at the thermostat, you'll see the manufacturing date - this one was built six years ago to the month.

When it came time to refill the system with fresh coolant, my mechanic loosened the plastic vent screw slightly forward and to the right of the overflow bottle filler. This is required to allow air to escape the system and the coolant to fully fill the radiator. If you do not open this vent, the system will not fill completely (even though it will appear full). Note that because of this vent you do NOT need to run the engine while filling the coolant, but my mechanic nevertheless started the engine shortly before pulling the car out of the shop to ensure all air pockets had been purged and the coolant level was proper.

The car was supposed to be returned to me within an hour, but as it turned out my mechanic (who is also the lead tech in the shop) had to meet with a BMW engineer that dropped by just as I had arrived. For that reason, about two hours had passed since I'd arrived, so my mechanic offered to throw in the biennial coolant flush ($120) in for free. There was no real additional work, as replacing the thermostat drains roughly 1/3 of the coolant anyway, so all I really got was a few gallons of coolant for free...but I'll take what I can get! Christmas came early this year!

I then did my rounds, wished everyone a good holiday (especially the cute 20-something receptionist), and left with the coolant temperature needle perfectly vertical - exactly where it should be.

Cost: Parts, $35, Labor $135, Total $180. Mileage: 88215.