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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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January 22, 2004

Gauge Cluster Light Replacement

(Image: Rear of instrument cluster)A week ago I got in the car one cold evening (about 5 degrees F) to drive home, and when I turned the key (but before I turned on the headlights) I noticed the odometer LCD was barely backlit. The only light it was receiving was obviously cast from the backlighting of the adjacent speedometer and tachometer gauges.

For a second or two I thought the display might have been affected by the cold, much as the other LCDs are (they react slowly and are noticeably less bright when first turned on) but I quickly realized that because the service indicator LCD (directly below the odometer) was functioning properly it was likely a simple backlighting problem.

I began to get a little irritated at this point because I started to see dollar signs. I didn't know whether the LCD was illuminated via a simple indcandescent bulb or some integral mechanism that would require replacement of the LCD or (gasp) the entire cluster. I also didn't know how much of the dash we'd have to remove to remove the gauge cluster. Even though I'd seen the entire dash in pieces when we went looking for a cooling system problem some time ago, I never saw how everything was dismantled.

(Image: Closeup of bulbs used to backlight gauge cluster)I made an appointment to have the gauge cluster looked at today, and I'm happy to report it turned out to be no big deal. The E36 gauge cluster uses three "large" incandescent bulbs (pictured to the right) to backlight the speedometer, tachometer, and the odometer display respectively. Click on the picture of the cluster to see where they are installed.

The cluster also uses "small" bulbs for each of the status lights at the bottom of the cluster. Not all positions are filled because not all status indications are applicable to this car. For example, one of the bulbs is for the diesel version of the car -- it indicates when the glow plugs are on.

If any of these bulbs blows, you will need to pull the cluster to replace them...something that would be extremely easy to do if it were not for the fact that the steering wheel gets in the way. That probably wouldn't be the case on the E46 which has tilt wheel, but this car has a fixed steering shaft (that I actually prefer due to its simplicity).

Removing the wheel requires removal of the airbag, a process I won't detail here for fear of liability. It comes off with a minimum of effort, however, and exposes the jeezus bolt...a large bolt that holds the wheel on the steering shaft. Remove that and the wheel pulls right off, clearing the way for the gauge cluster, which can then be removed by pulling the two screws positioned upside down in the glareshield.

Two cables that deliver data to the cluster are then removed, and the rear of the cluster is exposed. All bulbs are contained in bulb "holders" (the green components shown) which twist out of sockets in the back of the cluster. The "large" bulb holders appear as though they were meant to be removed by one's hand, but must be removed with a longnose pliers or similar because they are recessed into the back of the cluster and difficult to grasp with big fingers. The "small" bulb holders require a screwdriver to remove since their head is simply too small to grasp.

Although only the center "large" bulb was out in my case, we applied the same logic to these as we did my recent brake lamp failure. If one bulb has failed and it has the same duty-cycle as other bulbs, a failure of the other bulbs is not far behind...thus they would all be replaced. Also, while the headlamp switch bulb does not have anything to do with the cluster and can certainly be replaced without pulling the cluster or the wheel, I had my mechanic replace that bulb as well because it didn't cost me anything additional to do it at this time and because that is one of the few bulbs in the car that burns day or night...as long as the ignition is on.

Since I knew I was going to get hit up for 0.8 hour labor to replace a couple bulbs and the process would only take about 25 minutes, I asked my mechanic ahead of time to do a few things:

  1. give it a bath to shed the 60 pounds of road salt clinging to its exterior
  2. check tire pressures, since I'd been too lazy to go out in the cold to check them the last couple of weeks, and
  3. look at the driver's side seat belt height adjustment roller. It had been making subtle (but repetitive and annoying) squeaking noises whenever I'd go over a bump and my body would move sufficiently to tug on the seatbelt. He checked it out and wound up replacing a couple thin washers that help center the roller and prevent noise like this. He also gave it a quick shot of spray lube and...voila! No more noise.

While I was in the shop taking the pictures, we got on the topic of replacement of the center armrest, the leather on which is totally cracked and horrible looking. I went over to the parts desk and priced it...about $180, roughly half of what it was a few years ago when I priced it. For grins, I also priced a new steering wheel, in the hopes that I could get new leather for a reasonable price...no dice...about $400. I'll pass...for now, anyway, as the existing wheel is still in fairly good shape.

Oh, incidentally, the E46 cluster is backlit using LEDs...which is very good because E46 owners probably won't have any backlighting problems for the life of the car. However, if they DO go bad, they're not individually replaceable. My mechanic says you would need to buy an entire cluster, and something tells me that the parts alone would cost far more than the $85 I spent today.

** Jeezus Bolt...a colorful reference to what a driver might say if the bolt ever broke and the wheel came off in one's hands. See also "jeezus nut", which is used by pilots of certain helicopters when referring to a critical attachment bolt in the rotor system(!)

Parts $8, Labor $72. Total $85, Total mileage, 88696.

February 14, 2004

Leather armrest replacement, and six years of ownership

(Image: Center Console Cover Removed)As I mentioned last month, I priced a new armrest to replace the leather that had become quite distressed after serving its purpose for six years. I had considered replacing it a couple years ago, but the $360 price was just too high to justify. Now priced at $180, however, it seemed like a reasonable way to improve the look of the interior and get the part while BMW had it in inventory. There were apparently only 30 armrests left in worldwide inventory, and no word on whether the color-matched part would continue to be produced when that supply ran out. I also knew that a leather shop wouldn't be able to recover it for less...so I told the parts guy to order it.

The parts guy, accommodating as ever, printed out an exploded diagram of the armrest assembly and I took it over to my mechanic to get some pointers on the installation process. He suggested I get a couple new "friction grommets" (my words, not his...not sure (Image: Closeup of armrest hinge)what they're officially called) to replace the existing grommets. The purpose of the grommets is to add friction to the armrest hinge so it will remain vertical during deceleration, and after six years worth of "cycles" it was pretty clear the original grommets were shot. At $0.40 each (actually thrown in for free by the parts guy), that was a no-brainer.

The parts came in a few days ago and I finally got a chance to install them today. It took about 10 minutes, and would have taken only about 5 minutes had I not slowed down to take a few pictures.

To remove the existing armrest, I pulled out the ashtray for the rear seats to expose two screws. I removed those, pulled the black ashtray frame out of the color-matched rear center console cover, and then carefully removed the cover, exposing the armrest hinge and two 3" plastic hinge pins that retain the armrest. Based on a tip from my mechanic, I used two large flat blade screwdrivers to gently pry the pins out from the hinge and then pulled up on the armrest itself to remove it from the hinge.

(Image: Armrest installed - mmmm, fresh leather smell! I then installed the new grommets, aligned the new armrest in the hinge, and reinstalled the hinge pins before replacing the armrest cover, ashtray frame, ashtray, and finally, the two retaining screws. I took care to insert the hinge pins to retain a 1/8" gap between the flange on the pin and the hinge, as I found it originally, to make it easier to remove the armrest in the future. While replacing the ashtray frame I took care to route the wire leading to the ashtray lamp to avoid pinching it anywhere. And that was about it.

The one thing I noticed is that the leather matches the color of the seats (mostly...it's not perfect), rather than the darker color of the center console. I'm not sure why the color is different on this part (it may have something to do with BMW trying to reduce parts inventory...who knows), but I actually prefer the new arrangement over the old.

All in all, this was a simple fix, and saved me $65 in dealer labor charges.

Six Years Old: She turned six years old today. I can't quite believe it's been that long, but with some minor exceptions the car still looks and works like new. Pretty amazing. This car continues to remind me why I bought a BMW and why I'll likely buy another one, that is provided Chris Bangle doesn't fsck up the design of the next generation 3 any more than the early renderings would seem to indicate.

Speaking of Chris Bangle, have I mentioned that I think his designs suck? First, he destroyed the lines on the 7 with that stupid trunk lid stunt, then he put all sorts of annoying abstract lines on the Z4 (which is not selling well...I wonder why...), authored the Japanese-lookalike abortion that is the new 5, and most recently created the most hideous interior door panels I've ever seen on the X3. Oh, almost forgot the thing that initially sparked my displeasure with Mr. Bangle. EYEBROW HEADLAMPS. They looked a bit strange on the X5, but they totally destroyed the 7's front end.

Lest you think only the designers have lost their minds, BMW engineering is obviously having some kind of collective intellectual seizure as well. Consider the giant segfault that is the 7's I-Drive system (windows embedded based, if you hadn't guessed). For the first time in its history, BMW is buying back 7's from disgruntled owners, and I've overheard more than one BMW mechanic comment that the new 7 is the most unnecessarily complicated, unreliable piece of shit to ever come out of BMW. Yes, they're that screwed up.

Of course, problems like this rarely involve just one person, but if I were running BMW, I think the most prudent corrective action (at least on the design side of the house) would be to replace Chris Bangle with a German designer possessing the class, taste, and brains necessary to achieve the balance of form and function so evident in prior BMW designs. I'm not sure who to blame for the I-Drive fiasco and their ill-conceived alliance with Microsloth, but they need to get in line at the unemployment office as well. Uh, now...before it's too late.

Key points to BMW:

*sigh* Okay, sorry about that. I'm done ranting.

Future maintenance: I have an inspection I coming up in about 3000 miles, which I should schedule for sometime in mid to late March. I've also noticed increased frequency of ABS activation when brakes are applied when the rear wheels pass over a bump. This likely means the rear shocks are on their way out. I had hoped to wait until 100K miles, but I think I'll just do them at the Inspection to get them out of the way and get handling back in check for the summer performance driving season.

Tire update: All I can say is that the Pilot Sport A/S 225/50R16 KICK ASS in the snow AND dry conditions. It's a brilliant, well balanced tire that gives probably 95% of the dry performance of the SP8000 without the noise and extreme tramlining. Expensive, but worth every penny. This is THE perfect year-round tire for the E36 in 16" and larger sizes. (unfortunately, it does not come in 15"). The only reservation I have about the tires is longevity, but with a 400 treadwear (double that of the SP8000), I can only hope I'll get at least 30K miles out of the set.

Total Cost: Parts: $185, Labor $0, Mileage, 91105.

March 2, 2004

Ordered shocks, scheduled maintenance for the following week, (unrelated) notes on oxygen sensors and catalytic converters.

The inspection light came on a few days ago, and that means it's time for some routine service. But, this time I won't be doing the routine Inspection I. I talked things over with my mechanic, and he and I agreed that it makes little sense to pay for an inspection, given that he's seen the car a lot recently, he's done a lot of work that would be recommended or performed at the same time as the Inspection, and he always gives the car a good look when the car is in for any reason...even a simple mid-cycle oil service.

So, this time around, I'll be dispensing with the formal "Inspection I" and instead doing the few "concrete" things that are performed at the inspection instead...specifically:

The difference between the Inspection I and this "a la carte" plan? About $400.

I have absolutely no problem paying people to do a job, but in this case there simply wouldn't be much of a job to do, so I just couldn't justify spending almost six bills on the inspection when I had other work planned...which brings me to the reason for this report.

While riding over bumps the ABS will activate when the REAR tires pass over the bump. I've noticed this only in the last 20-30K miles or so, and, I guess because of all the frost heaving in the roads around here, I've noticed it a lot more most recently. Since the job of a shock is to dampen oscillations resulting from the compression/extension cycle of the spring and keep the tire in contact with the pavement, I took this to mean that it was time to do the shocks.

When I went to order the parts, I found there are two types of shocks listed for my specific model and VIN. One is called "Motorsport", and those are made by Bilstein. The second is called "MSport", and those are made by Boge. The question of the day was "well, which one is it?". My car has the "Sports" suspension, but NOT the M suspension. If you'll recall, when I had the struts done, they initially ordered the wrong (M) struts for the car, so I began to think maybe BMW got their part numbers crossed for various suspension components. The parts guy called the BMW tech line, and they said the "MSport" shocks are correct for this application.

Naturally, I was still a bit skeptical. When I told my mechanic the situation, he offered to put the car up on the lift to pull the numbers directly from the existing shocks, just to eliminate any confusion. Five minutes later we had the number "1090831" off one of the shocks. That so happened to be the "MSport" (Boge) number, so the tech line was right after all.

The shock mounts in this car are purposefully made soft, and they're a "hot button", so we'll be replacing those as well. There's also a heavy paper gasket that goes between the body and the shock mount, which prevents moisture from getting up into the body. They are replaced by default, and at a mere $0.50 each, they should be. All parts are on order and will be here in plenty of time for my appointment next Thursday.

Side Note: Oxygen Sensors and Catalytic Converters

My mechanic and I briefly talked about another car in the shop he was working on. It had an oxygen sensor problem, and since I've received more than a few emails about ox sensors, I asked him a couple of questions related to it.

First, I asked, "If the oxygen sensor fails, will that produce a code (and turn on the check engine light)?" He said that the ox sensor is one of the things most likely to produce a code. The point being, that if the ox sensor fails, you'll know it....so don't go replacing the ox sensor for fun. Replace it "on condition" as they say in the aviation biz -- in other words, when it fails.

Second, "Is it safe to drive the car with a known-failed ox sensor?" Turns out (contrary to my original belief) that on the E36, it IS okay, simply because if the ox sensor fails, the computer knows this and uses default "mid-range" values for mixture control, so it is unlikely to damage the catalytic converters. The car may not run well...particularly at altitude or temperature extremes, but it will run. Prior to the E36 series (pre 1991) the computers lacked any kind of "default" values, and would refuse to run if the ox sensor failed.

Lastly, "If there is a misfire, will that cause damage to the catalytic converter due to a rich mixture and an "afterburning" in the exhaust?" Turns out "no", simply because the computer knows what cylinder is misfiring and will turn off the fuel injector for that cylinder. The coil (spark plug) will remain operational, however, to ensure that anything in the cylinder is burned off safely. I know from experience that a hard miss makes the car run like trash, but it's nice to know that in an emergency situation (dark road out in the sticks on a rainy night), you can drive it to the service location without fear of destroying $2500 worth of exhaust components.

Oh, and speaking of exhaust components, I asked him how long the exhaust systems typically last in these cars. His answer: "forever". Knock on wood.

March 11, 2004

Oil Service, Microfilter Replacement, Installed shocks and four new exhaust system mounts

(Image: Closeup of rear shock mounts) I was out in Lancaster PA waiting on another mechanic to finish up some work on my other car (the airplane) and my dealer called to tell me that the car was done, but that my mechanic said he found the exhaust sagging a bit and I could use new mounts. "What's that? Only another hour and $175?...yea, okay go ahead...better than having to bring the car back in another couple weeks." Such is life with a BMW.

I sure am glad I chose not to do the formal inspection. The total bill for today amounted to $705, which is about the cost for an Inspection I with no "real" work done. Not cheap, but it would have been at least another $400 had I done the inspection. I'll take what I can get.

On the drive home I found the improvement in rear end handling to be almost as striking as the improvement in front end handling when I did the struts. Can't believe I waited this long. The "skittishness" of the rear end is completely gone. I feel the tires hugging the pavement over rough surfaces, and in general, the car seems "balanced" again. In retrospect, I think I should have done this around 70K miles, but I put up with it until now.

Above is a picture of the old shock mounts. The problem with these mounts is that the rubber isolator usually cracks around the center metal bearing. And while it may or may not be obvious from the closeup (flexing the rubber makes them more obvious), these mounts had just started to crack at 92K miles. You'll also note the paper gasket I mentioned earlier. Those should be replaced with the mounts, and, realistically speaking, the mounts replaced whenever you do the shocks.

Funny quote of the month:

Me: Yea, I'm pretty amazed I got 90K miles out of these shocks. I thought shocks were a 30-40K thing.

Mechanic: They are...on a FORD! (big grin)

So there you have it. One more reason to buy a BMW.

(Image: Closeup of exhaust hangar mount) Here is a picture of one of the exhaust hanger mounts. There are two of these and two simple reinforced rubber rings (not pictured...draw a mental picture and save me some bandwidth!) holding up the exhaust under normal circumstances. This mount is located such that it's not easy to see, but since my mechanic noticed the exhaust was hanging lower than it should be, he pulled the mounts and found this. What can I say...it pays to have someone who KNOWS your car work on it.

Many thanks to my mechanic, yet again, for saving the parts so I could show them to you.

Breakdown of the work: Oil Service: $73, Microfilter Replacement: $44, Rear shocks and mounts: $366, Exhaust mounts: $174.

Total parts $350, Total Labor $306, Grand (almost) Total $705. Mileage: 92459.

April 12, 2004

Brake light switch replacement

(Image: Closeup of brake pedal switch) The car has been running well the last month, so there hasn't been much to report. However, the other day the OBC reported "Brake Circuit Failure". The warning appeared as I was pulling into a parking space, and it didn't say anything about a Brake *Light* Failure (a warning I'd seen before), so I instinctively figured it had something to do with the brake pedal switch. No big deal, really.

However, the real question at this point was whether I had any brake lights for the drive home. Being alone at the time, I managed to wedge my ice scraper / brush (about 3 feet long) between the brake pedal and the front seat to discover that I DID, in fact, have brake lights. The OBC kept flashing the annoying warning (because, according to the manual, any failure having to do with the brake system is considered a "priority 1" failure, or something serious enough to warrant incessant nagging). I turned the car off to go into the store, and when I came out and restarted it, the warning was gone. Evidently, this was an intermittent fault. The fault occurred once more that weekend, so I decided to take care of it first thing Monday morning.

I needed only repeat the warning message to my mechanic for him to confirm that the problem was, indeed, due to a faulty brake light switch. He offered that the switch had been updated several years ago due to a high failure rate and that I was "pretty lucky" to have received more than double the expected service life out of it. Apparently they had a nasty habit of failing just out of warranty (like everything else on a BMW). :-)

When I inquired as to how the computer actually determined that the switch had gone bad, he said that the switch is actually two switches that are actuated in tandem, and that if the computer doesn't see both switches open and close simultaneously, it flags the error. Obviously, that would be the case if one of the two switches failed entirely, but it obviously caught an intermittent condition as well. Methinks the OBC was worth the money, as without it, I'd have never known about the problem until the other switch failed, leaving me without brake lights.

When I asked about whether this stored any kind of fault code, he said "no". Turning the key off and then back on again is sufficient to clear the warning, unless, of course, it's a permanent failure, at which point the condition will be flagged again the instant you depress the brake pedal.

The switch took a couple minutes to replace and I was quickly on my way. And, yes, this is something I could have done myself, but I was in a rush -- as usual -- and couldn't take the time to screw with it. A little pricey given the time it took to do, but I've received enough freebies from my mechanic lately that I considered it a wash.

Total parts $25, Total Labor, $36, Total $65. Mileage: 94244.

June 5, 2004

Oil Service, Rattling Exhaust Fix

You know your car needs a lot of maintenance when, after a mere month or two, you start to "miss" seeing and chatting with your mechanic. But, given my 22000 mile per annum driving habit, it didn't take long to rack up another 4500 miles on the odometer and schedule a visit for another mid-cycle synthetic oil service.

(Image: Catalytic Converters)Over the last few weeks, I'd noted an occasional rattling in the exhaust while idling. The sound was rather faint -- so faint, in fact, that I had to be outside of the car with my ear positioned "just so" to hear it coming from the front half of the car. I figured either a heat shield bracket had broken, or -- worst case -- the catalytic converter core had started to disintegrate.

Fortunately, as I pulled up to my mechanic's bay to say hello, the car was kind enough to demonstrate the malady for him. As usual, his experienced ear didn't take long to confirm my suspicions. An hour later, my mechanic found me and told me that he'd found (and fixed) the problem.

BMW apparently uses a steel wool type of insulation packed between the catalytic converter and the associated heat shield. This insulation is also used at the attachment points of the heat shield to reduce heat transfer into the shield. In the case of my car, some of this insulation had fallen out due to simple wear and tear. This caused the shield attachment point to vibrate against the exhaust pipe and create that distinctive sound.

He outlined three typical solutions for this:

Yea, I know. A decidedly low-tech solution for a relatively high-tech car, but it's safe and it works (and, ummm, it's FREE).

Parts $36, Labor, $36, Total $86. Mileage: 97317.

August 4, 2004

Oil Service, discussions about tranny / diff fluid flushes, possible catalytic converter problem, and Big Brother at BMW

Just another oil service this month. What can I say...I drive the hell out of this thing. The machine also rolled over 100000 miles a week or so ago. All things considered, the car is performing well (and no surprise...it seems at times like I've replaced everything that can be replaced...knock on wood).

I've noticed a slight rubbing / pulsing vibration when turning to the right occasionally, particularly in the morning. I watched my mechanic give the front end a good inspection while the car was up on the lift for the oil service and he said everything is in good shape. I asked whether it could be bearings, and his general thought was "no" simply because these cars don't have problems with bearings as long as the dust seals don't fail. That leaves the most likely case of tires, but they looked good to both of us. They're wearing evenly.

We spoke briefly about flushing the tranny and differential fluid. Turns out the tranny uses common ATF fluid, which is pretty cheap, while the diff uses a more costly synthetic fluid. He said that when he drains tranny fluid it's usually dirty, while the diff fluid looks clear, so my general take on this is unless you're towing something (with a BMW? Yea, I know), you probably should replace the ATF fluid at every other inspection II (every 60K miles) or just do it at 120K miles as BMW recommends on some of their tranny's, and do the diff fluid every 120K miles, if that.

The tranny has a filter, but it's never changed. Automatic transmissions also have a lot of critical seals and valves that can go bad. Unfortunately, when that happens, you're looking at a new tranny. They used to quote labor to repair transmissions in the field but they simply don't do that anymore. And, with the cost of labor and related warranty support issues, who can blame them. It's very likely cheaper and easier just to replace it. Note that I didn't say cheap...I said cheapER. I was late to the appointment and in a rush that day, so I didn't want to wait for the fluids. I told him that we'd do that and a quick test drive of that front end vibration (if it persisted) at the next appointment.

Being the cool guy he is, my mechanic offered to pull the codes from the OBD (no charge) just to make sure everything was running okay, and I watched him as he did it. Turns out that the emissions control subsystem reported two occurrences (the most recent occurring roughly 15 hours ago) of "low catalytic converter efficiency" on cylinders 1-3. I'm not sure exactly how the computer determines this, but I imagine it compares the output of the oxygen sensors on either side of the cats and flags an error if they disagree. This means either one of the cats is on its way out, or maybe one of the oxygen sensors is going bad -- I don't know which.

This should only be of concern before I go for inspection in September of 2005, so I figure I'll burn that bridge when I come to it. I don't know whether I'll even have the car by then (hey, anything can happen), and if it continues to be a rare, intermittent issue that doesn't detrimentally affect performance, I can always make a quick stop by the shop to clear the codes before I go to the DMV. After all, I don't know whether the DMV's computer will flag a single occurrence of this condition as a "major fault". The car's own computer doesn't seem to think it's that big a deal, because it didn't flag the check engine light (and it will only do this if the number of faults exceeds a given threshold). And I'll be damned if I'm going to drop probably almost 2G's with labor just to appease this EcoNazi state.

I also mentioned that I once noticed when in manual mode (A/M switch in "M" position), the shift from 1st to 2nd took a bit longer than I remember. My mechanic and I then discussed the shift adaptation program -- the tranny learns how you drive and adapts the length of the shift to suit that driving style. This means if you drive casually, it will shift smoothly (i.e. take longer to shift), while if you punch it all the time and depress the downshift trigger frequently, it will tend to shift more quickly, and thus more abruptly. He offered to clear the adaptation memory so the tranny would start learning from that point on. I tried to duplicate the condition again after I left the shop, but was unable to do so. I don't know if clearing the memory had any effect, but it was kinda cool to see him use the diagnostic computer to do that.

One interesting thing I learned about the diagnostic computers that BMW dealers use to analyze faults is that they're linked to BMW headquarters. When your car goes in for service the computer dumps the entire memory (not just the parameters the dealer can see or change) and sends it to BMW for analysis. This allows them to track faults and issue service bulletins for "hot" items. Yea, it's a bit "big brother", but that's technology for ya.

Parts $37, Labor, $38, Total $88. Mileage: 100984.

August 26, 2004

New Steering Rack Required

I realize this year the car has been treating me pretty well and I've gotten away with minimal maintenance, so it didn't really surprise me when those strange front-end noises I mentioned in the August 4th update started to get worse. This morning it was particularly obvious, and so I made the decision to drop by the dealer to see if my mechanic could enlighten me about it.

Now I had additional data to give him -- specifically that it did it only when the car was cold, in more locations than one (so it wasn't a characteristic of the road surface), and most recently, with the windows down, I had started to hear a bit of the classic power steering pump "growl" that occurs when fluid is low or the pump is on the way out.

The first thing he asked me is "did you check the fluid level?". Ah, no. I assumed that because power steering fluid (ATF, actually) isn't consumed, and we didn't find any leaks while the car was on the lift, the level was fine. Bad assumption. He unscrewed the cap of the reservoir, (which is below and to the right of the oil filter canister near the front of the engine) and said "well, that's part of the problem". I looked in and saw a white ring partially submerged in oil. "You're not supposed to see that when the fluid is filled to the proper level".

Of course, now I knew why I was hearing the pump growl -- the fluid was too low, but the question now was why? It had to be leaking somewhere. My mechanic instinctively bent down in front of the car, reached under the front end and began to "sssssh" me. I thought for a second he was doing his impression of Dr. Evil (let me tell you a little story about a man named SSSH!) but he asked me to be quiet so he could push on the steering rack tierod end boots. They made a strange mechanical gurgling sound, to which my mechanic proclaimed "bad rack".

"The seals have gone bad and fluid is collecting in the boots, which explains the low fluid level." "How long have you been experiencing the symptoms?", he asked. "Oh, about a month". "Okay ", he replied, "it's obviously not a bad leak, because if it were, the boots would have blown up like balloons, or split and you'd been leaking fluid everywhere. Since neither has happened, you can safely drive it. I'll just top the fluid, and we can get the parts ordered. We don't normally k/ppep racks in stock...outside of cars that have been in accidents, it's very rare to replace one." Lucky me.

The damage (drumroll, please)...about $1100, including an alignment. The rack is $600, and the remainder of the charge is miscellaneous parts and labor. The rack will be here in two days, but I couldn't get on the schedule until the second week in September. My mechanic is on vacation next week anyway, and all other things being equal, I prefer him to work on the car. Guess we'll wait and see if it gets worse before we have a chance to replace it.

On the drive to work, I yet again began to question the wisdom of keeping a BMW long-term, but in the grand scheme of things, this isn't that bad. Yes, the repair will cost big dollars, but with the newest 3-series equivalent to my car going for about $48K, in reality this translates into about two monthly payments. When I consider the opportunity costs of having to drop $25K on a down payment, combined with a sizeable monthly payment for 4 years, I think I'll take the occasional unexpected maintenance tab.

Update 8.15.04 - New Floor Mats and Wheel Centers

Several years ago I looked into replacing the driver's floor mat because it didn't look so hot, but I decided against it when I learned that I couldn't buy just one mat -- I had to buy the whole set for $125. This week I finally broke down and ordered a new set simply because the driver's mat backing had started to rip and the quarter-turn fastener receptacles bound to the mat weren't holding anymore. The new mats look great, and eliminate the quarter-turn fasteners in favor of a Velcro arrangement, which produces a lot cleaner installation. I definitely recommend buying the BMW cloth mats when it's time.

While asking the parts guys about the cloth mats, I asked about rubber mats. One of the guys said that while BMW doesn't make rubber mats for the E36, the ones designed for the E46 fit pretty well. He added that he had tried the well-known aftermarket brand specially designed for the BMW in his own E36 and found they didn't fit as well as the BMW mats. I asked if I could test fit them before I bought them, he agreed, and...what can I say...for $47 I couldn't pass them up. Right now they're serving as trunk liners (a function they serve very well...they prevent my flight case from thrashing about in the trunk when I turn aggressively) but they'll soon be put into use to protect the carpet when the weather turns crummy this fall. This effort alone should significantly extend the life of the cloth mats, so I figure the rubber mats are worth the extra dollars.

While washing the car recently I noticed the clear laminate on the face of the BMW logo wheel centers peeling away. I also noticed the centers didn't fit particularly well in the rims anymore, perhaps because the rubber lip around the outside edge of the centers had dried out. The parts department was training a new guy, and he initially told me the centers were something like $38 a piece. After they broke out the smelling salts, the guy corrected himself... "oh, sorry, those are $3.75 each". Ah, that's better. Sold X 4!

September 8, 2004

Steering Rack Installed

(Image: Old steering rack)I was feeling a bit wise-cracky this morning as I walked up to my service adviser and said in a serious tone, "Hey, I have a problem. I think the car is having an affair with [my mechanic]. She keeps making excuses to see him." In an equally serious and supportive tone he looked me square in the eyes and said "That's impossible, Doug, he's a married man!" We naturally broke out of character at that point and smiled. "We doing just the steering rack today?", he inquired." For her sake, I hope so!", I pleaded.

As planned, I had the new steering rack installed today. There's not much to say about it than I already have, aside from that my mechanic completed the job on time as usual and the steering does feel a bit tighter and smoother as a result. I had a 330 loaner today and got to feel what the new cars feel like, and have to admit that the new rack feels a lot like the 330. I can't honestly say it feels like my car when it was new, because I've frankly forgotten what that felt like. The car now has over 103K miles, after all.

(Image: New steering rack installed)Because I knew the rack included a core charge of $170 and I couldn't keep it as a souvenir, I asked my mechanic if he could hang on to it for a short time so I could come back and take pictures for the site. As usual, he agreed. Looks a little like an advanced assault weapon, doesn't it? :-) Then again, I better watch what I say, or the Feds will be knocking on the door with a search warrant. After all, we mere mortals can't own so much as a water pistol that even remotely looks like an assault weapon. Ah, but I digress.

This particular rack's casing had 10/97 stamped on it. If your rack has failed, I'd like to know the casting date. I doubt this is a quality control issue, but it never hurts to compare data. I've come to accept that some things on a BMW just simply wear out on a regular basis, but I wouldn't have expected this to be one of those parts, particularly after only 100K miles. I've never known anyone to replace a steering rack on any car, foreign or domestic -- power steering pumps, yes, steering racks, certainly not. "Discuss".

(Image: Alignment Results)If you look at the picture of the undercarriage, you can get a good idea of how the rack integrates with the front end. The two rods extending from the rack are the primary means of steering, so installation of a rack is about as critical as brakes, in my opinion.

Because removal of the rack affects the front end alignment, $125 of the cost of swapping the rack involved running the car through the alignment machine to verify everything was within tolerances. This data confirmed that I haven't bent anything and that I should get maximum life from this set of tires. Good thing too, if you recall how much they cost!

Chances are you'll never have to put a steering rack in a BMW, but if you do, at least you now know what to look for and what to expect in terms of cost.

Total Parts and Labor: $1036, Mileage 103073.

October 16, 2004

Deer Hit!

Well, it was bound to happen. A deer ran at full speed into the driver's side of the car while I was about 1000 feet from the end of my driveway. I was going around 40 MPH when it happened, and I thought the entire left side of the vehicle was trashed. Surprisingly, there was little damage, but I've still spent way too much time in the last two weeks investigating my options and dealing with both body shops and my insurance company.

The car will be going into the body shop for an extensive repaint on Monday. My insurance company is picking up the vast majority of the cost (thankfully), but I'll be driving a domestic POS for the next week or so. Details to follow when I get some extra time.

Moral of the story? Keep those high beams on while driving on darkly-lit country roads, and drive defensively! You never know what might jump out of the brush.

November 19, 2004

This has definitely been a month I'd just as soon forget, but I figured I'd write some of the more recent highlights anyway. By now, you've likely read my full account of the deer hit and my adventure getting the damage fixed at the body shop. What's not reflected in that article (at this writing, anyway) is that today I took delivery of the car -- for a second time.

When I picked the car up originally I told the shop owner that I wouldn't sign any form saying I was happy with the car until after I had a chance to detail it and look it over with a fine tooth comb. After detailing it, several defects stood out...including a small, but quite obvious ding on the freshly reworked hood. Yup, you got that right...somebody at the shop put a ding in the hood by the BMW emblem...ironically, not too far from the ding they removed. There was no paint damage, so given its proximity to the emblem, I knew exactly how it formed.

Learning how to close the hood of a BMW was the first thing my sales rep taught me on delivery day back in 1998. I've used the same technique hundreds of times and have never put a ding in my hood. For those that don't know, a BMW hood is closed by resting one's fingers on the center of the emblem and pulling the hood down until it's less than a foot above the latched position, or at the point where the struts fail to offset the hood's weight. You then let it slowly drop until it closes under its own weight. You NEVER push down on the hood to latch it! If you do, you are bound to either bend the hood or ding it! Point loads (like fingers) are the worst -- for the same reason that stiletto heels will generate a greater load per square inch than an elephant! (Of course, guys, if you want a woman to wear stilettos, it's probably a good idea avoid making such comparisons!) :-)

Anyway, we made plans to get the car back in the shop this past Monday, with an estimated completion time of two days. Needless to say, it took five, and I had to reject it this morning for several defects in the new work, before I took delivery around 3PM. The shop owner picked up the tab on the loaner car (approximately $45/day) for that time, so he lost almost $250 of profit right there...to say nothing of the labor and materials.

I realize no one is perfect, but the thing I really grew to dislike about this shop is that their policy seemed to be "do a half-ass job and then leave it for the customer to judge the work finished or not". I realize it's hard to make a living in this business, what with the insurance companies essentially dictating what a shop can charge ($45/hr for skilled labor in central New Jersey is actually quite laughable), and the usual problem of finding and retaining talented, motivated employees at the salaries that labor rate makes possible, but I have to believe that maybe if they changed their attitude and went the extra mile to do it right the first time they'd actually make more money -- not only from referrals, but also from the avoidance of costly mistakes like those on my car.

December 24, 2004

Body Shop Work Update

Shortly after the last update, the car wound up going back to the body shop for a third time, this time with 3M page markers stuck all over the car to highlight the flaws they missed the last two times. Thankfully, the shop paid for another loaner. At this writing, the car still isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than when we started the rework process. I'm content to leave it alone at this point because I don't want to put the paint at further risk.

And, if you're wondering, yes, the front bumper cover has already taken its first stone hits during the morning commute. People ask my why I have no desire to buy a new car, and this is it. Until I can eliminate or significantly reduce the length of my commute, I will continue to subject my daily driver to a hostile environment, and it makes no sense (IMHO) to subject a new car to that unless absolutely necessary.

Windshield Washer Fluid

The weather had been remarkably warm (in the 50's) through December, but we finally got our first shot of 15 degree weather last week. On the drive to work one cold morning I was reminded of a problem that plagued me last year -- frozen windshield washer fluid lines which render the washers inoperative. The cause is pretty simple -- my deliberate use of cheap, pre-mixed windshield washer fluid with a freezing point that is too high, even at "full strength". Not content to deal with this for the next several months, I stopped by my dealer's parts department to see what kind of fluid they had.

(Image: BMW Washer Fluid Label)Unfortunately, the 328's windshield washer system squirts fluid in mid air above the cabin air intake, and the smell of the fluid swiftly finds its way to the car's interior. I originally switched from the otherwise excellent OEM washer fluid for this reason, but at this point I was intent on having a functional windshield cleaning system, smell be damned.

The parts guy told me I could buy standard premixed gallon jugs or 16 oz bottles of concentrate. Since I'm not one to pay for water or bulk packaging, I picked up 4 bottles of the concentrate at $2.35 each (with a small discount). After reading the package and noting that my washer fluid reservoir was almost full, I decided to add one bottle to the reservoir and see how things went.

Windshield Wiper Replacement

A day or so later, I noticed that one of my windshield wipers had split, so just before a major rainstorm, I decided to get new blades. The parts guy brought the blades out, put them on the counter, and said "Happy Holidays". When I asked him "so, what do I owe you?", he smiled and said "They're on the house, Doug...have a great holiday!". Refills are only $6, but that made my day. What can I say? These guys are great...and not just during the holidays.

Anyway, I went out to put them on the car (for the first time by myself, as my mechanic normally put these on while I was in for an oil service), but I quickly realized I needed tools to do it. First, the blades are made extra long to fit all model cars, so I knew I'd need a cutter. Second, the blades are kept in place by slightly compressing one of the metal clips on the blade holders around some retainers on the metal blade stiffeners, so I knew I'd need a pair of long-nose pliers or similar. My mechanic happened to see me walking around aimlessly with the blades in hand, so he offered to put them on -- free of charge.

The process is pretty simple, but hard to explain without diagrams. There are two metal stiffeners mated to the blade. One side of these stiffeners is fitted with a couple retainer spikes that are designed to straddle the end clip on the blade holder. The other side of the stiffeners have a half dozen cut-marks that serve as length indicators for several different model cars. After you route the blade through the blade holder clips, straddle the retainers on either side of the last clip in the blade holder and squeeze the clip down on the blade slightly with the long-nose pliers. Then, at the far end of the blade, take note of the cut mark that provides about a 5mm overhang and break the stiffeners at that point. Lastly, cut the rubber blade approximately 3-5mm longer than the stiffeners to allow for shrinkage (if you look at your old blades, you may find the rubber portion of the blade shorter than the metal stiffeners, and this is why). Give the blades a swipe when you're ready, and you should be good to go.

Oh, one other thing to watch out for. To remove the blade holder from the wiper arm, you squeeze the top and bottom edges of the retaining clip located at the center of the blade holder. If you do it successfully, the retaining clip will separate from the blade holder in one piece. Unfortunately, one of the clips on my car broke into a few pieces. Before I could think about the need to buy a new clip, my mechanic had already searched his spare parts bin and found a replacement clip (wahoo!). When I asked him whether those clips are sold separately, he said it depends on the car. Therefore, in some cases you might need to buy an entire blade holder to replace that clip. The moral? Be careful removing your blade holders from the wiper arm!

Upcoming Work

The car hit 108000 miles this week, and I'm about 1500 miles away from an oil service. Assuming it doesn't need anything else major between now and then, I'm planning on replacing the tranny and diff fluid, as well as selected filters.

I've also been doing research on a replacement stereo system and have tentatively selected all of the components. It turns out that the OEM head unit uses differential signaling between the headunit and amplifier. While this is technically superior to so called "line level" signaling, it's fundmentally incompatible with aftermarket audio gear. For this reason, and because I want to use this opportunity to bring some newer technology into the car (mp3 playback, satellite radio, etc.) I'm convinced the best solution is to replace everything. My mechanic has kindly offered to help remove parts of the interior to make the installation as stealth as possible, so all I have to do now is justify $1500 worth of audio equipment.

Total Parts: $10, Labor: $0, Mileage: 108000.