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.
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!