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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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January 6, 2006

Last month I dropped by the dealer to schedule an appointment for an oil service. While there, I spoke with my mechanic and brought up the issue of the sloppy 1->2 shift exhibited by the "new" transmission we installed a bit over a year ago. He asked me to schedule with a loaner so he could do a bit of driving to see what was up.

I brought the car in today. Later In the afternoon my mechanic informed me that the oil service went off without a hitch as usual, and that he was able to duplicate the 1->2 shift problem easily. He rendered an accurate description of the problem for the BMW tech center, and they ultimately suggested the next course of action -- tweaking of an adjustment band and replacement of a solenoid. The necessary parts (a pan gasket as well as the solenoid) are now on order. He asked me to bring the car back as soon as the parts come in -- probably early next week. He also mentioned that if this didn't fix the problem, the next step was another new transmission -- under warranty, of course.

The highlight of the day was getting to drive an E90 325i loaner. I developed fairly strong feelings about the car almost immediately. I can tell that if the E90 coupe is anything like the E90 sedan, it's going to be a love-hate relationship. This isn't an E90 site (yet), so I won't go into incredible detail about this, but I'll say a few things just in case anyone at BMW is reading.

Good things about the E90

Bad things about the E90

I don't like the exterior of this vehicle any more than any other Bangle design, but I could probably get used to it over time (much like I have grown to appreciate the E46). However, the one thing I cannot excuse under any circumstances is the interior. The people who designed (and approved) the interior need to be kicked in the nads and shown the door. Some cases in point:

The single biggest exterior design issue I have is the disturbing lack of protective side moldings. This evidently follows a disturbing trend in the auto industry to have form override function.

Do BMW designers think we live in a perfect world in which everyone is courteous enough to avoid slamming their doors into our cars? Where shopping carts don't become possessed and hurl into our vehicles at Mach 1? Or where I'm perfect enough to NEVER open my door too far in the garage right next to that metal structural support? I mean, BMW has intentionally screwed up the cosmetics of the car anyway...the least they could do is help us prevent ACCIDENTAL damage.

If you're wondering why I'm considering dropping $5K or more to refurbish my eight year old E36, now you know. Something tells me that truly great BMWs built by common-sense engineers are a thing of the past.

Parts $46, Labor $38. Total $99, Mileage: 123621.

January 30, 2006

After almost a month's delay, I brought the car in to have the 1->2 sloppy shift issue resolved. My mechanic adjusted the band and replaced the solenoid as requested by the tech line, but to no avail. I received a call around 3PM to let me know that BMW had approved replacement of the transmission free of charge. The appointment for that work is set for mid-February and is expected to take two days. There was no charge for today's work, and I got a free wash out of the deal as well.

While at the dealer, I asked the parts department to research some parts prices for the upcoming interior overhaul. Here are the results (note: these are retail prices, and I will receive a discount):

Obviously, this won't be an inexpensive endeavor, but as long as I don't sell the car or lose it in an accident, I can't lose. I figure that when combined with the new transmission, recent suspension and steering components, tires, and (soon) a new set of brakes, it's safe to say that the car will look and function like a new vehicle for considerably less cost. Due to the characteristics of the leather and carpet, I'm bound to restore some of that nice new car smell as well. How can you beat that?

Mileage: 124087.

Februrary 18, 2006

For the last two days I got to drive an E46 330i loaner while my E36 was in the shop getting a transmission replacement under warranty (if you have to ask, read my earlier reports). I have to tell you -- I really enjoyed driving this car, particularly after driving the E90. Did it necessarily take corners better than the E90? Not exactly. What I so much enjoyed about it was the relative lack of irritating design flaws. The traditional driver-centric cockpit design just "works" better, the center console-based window controls fall to my right hand as my left hand keeps the vehicle out of the weeds, the entire interior seems to have that distinctly German conservative feel to it, and the overall look of the car just seemed to mesh with what I'd say makes a BMW a BMW. Pretty amazing. When I wasn't cursing BMW designers I found I could actually focus on the pleasure of the driving experience again.

I don't know what was louder -- the squealing of the tires as the car took corners like it was on rails, or me...squealing in delight as I "rowed" the steptronic through the gears and listened to the beautiful symphony that is the BMW exhaust note. At that point, I had an epiphany. BMW has spoiled me. If the mechanicals were the only concern, I sincerely doubt I would ever care to own anything other than a BMW -- high maintenance costs and all. This is probably due in part to the fact that as I've grown older, I've come to appreciate that I have only one ticket to ride this little merry-go-round we call life, and life is too short to tolerate anything less than the highest quality in everything. Now if I can only convince BMW that its exterior and interior design groups need a refresher course on what it means to design a distinctly German automobile.

This evening I walked out to the service lot to find my faithful companion standing proudly -- new transmission installed, freshly washed and ready for action. As I drove home, I quickly concluded that the sloppy 1->2 shift was gone. Indeed, the transmission shifted better than it had in years. I also reflected on the fact that the car is now 8 years old this week, but you'd never know it by driving it (or looking at it for that matter). Good design never ages. Corollary: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. BMW design group: are you listening?

Incidentally, while I was at the dealership I decided on a whim to talk to one of the owners regarding my concerns about the E90 -- after all, I have to do my part to save BMW from spending millions on marketing surveys to tell them what I could for free. In a last gasp for some positive news regarding BMW's new design direction I asked "so, when is the new E90 coupe coming out?" Answer: "Your guess is as good as BMW's. We believe it's been pushed to either late this year or spring 2007." My follow-up question was "If I want to buy a coupe right now and E46 coupe allocations are halted, what are my options?" The answer surprised me. I'll keep you in suspense until my next report, but suffice it to say that if it comes to pass, it will have a profound effect on my vehicle ownership.

March 14, 2006

You know what they say about the "best laid plans". Well, that's what went through my mind soon after my car's front end gave a love tap to a deer one night a couple weeks ago. Thanks in large part to the car's phenomenal brakes, I was almost stopped at the point of impact and the damage was minor. Unfortunately, it still means another trip to the body shop at a most inconvenient time. The E46 isn't here yet, I no longer have the RSX as a backup and I'm too cheap to pay out of pocket for a rental car, so I'm driving one of my brother's many spare vehicles.

Because of the manner in which the car was (poorly) painted by the previous shop and our need to blend into the surrounding panels this time around, I'm planning on repainting the front of the car again. To reduce the time & materials required to strip, prep, and prime the originals as well as to decrease the chance for adhesion problems, I'm using all new parts -- hood, grill support, and lower fascia. And while I'm at it, I'm replacing the grills and trim components on the front of the car. It should look like new when it's done -- which, of course, is the point.

My insurance company naturally won't pay to do everything I want, so I will be dipping into my wallet for a considerable sum this time. This will make it nearly impossible to recover any reasonable approximation of the money I've put into the car over the past few years in any kind of sale or trade, so the plan now is to keep the car and run it alongside its younger brother. But trust me -- aside from the unanticipated expense, I'm not shedding any tears here. I still love the way this car looks and drives, and I'm actually looking forward to making it a project car and possibly autocrossing with it to build my mechanical and driving skills.

And speaking of driver skills, I felt that I did what I could to avoid the majority of the deer, but like most good pilots do at the end of every flight, I spent some time thinking about whether I could have done anything differently. While I know the car pretty well in all normal modes of operation, I'm decidedly less familiar with it near the extremes of its performance envelope. For this reason, I'm considering taking a short spring vacation down in Spartanburg, South Carolina at the BMW Performance Center and enrolling in the 2-day driver's course. Should be fun. Now all I need to do is find the time to go, and because I'll be flying myself down there in the Skyhawk, reasonable weather as well.

The car was delivered to the shop last night and they are expected to begin work today. If all goes as planned (and as long-time readers will attest, it never does) I should have my baby back in about 2 weeks. Until then I'll be slummin' in a '97 1500 pickup with a bad steering rack and squeaking belts. As Stimpy would say, "Joy!" :-)

April 13, 2006

Five weeks. Five weeks of driving assorted trucks, sitting 6 feet off the ground. Five weeks of hideous gas mileage, poor handling and road noise. And most importantly, I imagine -- five weeks of no double-takes from hot chicks. :-) A man can only take so much, right?

Tonight I pulled up to the body shop with my brother's van (which was due for some rust removal and would thus be staying at the shop for a few days) and saw her. The sun had set moments ago and the remainder of the afterglow reflected off of her beautifully smooth, polished paint. It was like reuniting with a long lost love. I inserted the key in the ignition, gently twisted it, and was immediately engaged with the throaty growl of the exhaust and the silky-smooth idle. It didn't take long to became aroused at the possibility of driving her again. And then I did. The biggest surprise was the seating position. I'd been driving so high for so long that the car made me feel as though my seat was resting on the road(!). The steering was amazingly tight, the ride compliant, but smooth, and the road noise nonexistent. My baby was back.

(Image: Front after body work)

As with all of life's twists and turns, this was a learning experience. I learned that my insurance company is two-faced. They no longer fairly treat people who choose to go to their own body shops. You either go to their recommended shop and get everything paid for without question (but with questionable completion standards), or they write a completely inadequate estimate based on a lot of self-serving rules. Based on my prior experience I didn't expect to bicker so much about the proper way to repair my car at an independent shop, but I did, and my debating skills only got me double what they originally offered or, all told, about 1/3 the total cost of the proper repair. I suppose I should consider myself lucky, since I just got a 30% discount on work I had already planned to do, but it still irks me.

When all was said and done, the phone tag and adjuster's second trip to see the car delayed the start of work for a week. Why the new work took an additional four weeks is beyond me, but no matter. It's done now and the car is back in my garage where it belongs.

Spoke to my dealer today and they were able to give me a bit more fine-grained information concerning the status of the E46. Looks like it's due into the port this Saturday. If that happens and the holiday doesn't screw with things too badly, I should take delivery late next week. Can't wait!

April 29, 2006

(Image: Fuel Senders)Fuel Pump and Sender Replacement

The 3-series fuel tank straddles the hump in the floor that provides clearance for the driveshaft. For this reason, the tank has a sender / suction unit to pull fuel from the driver's side (white unit) and a pump / secondary sender unit located on the passenger's side (blue unit). I decided to replace these units now for several reasons:

Over the years I've owned the BMW I have never really been as motivated about working on it myself as I have my other cars. Not exactly sure why, but I suppose it's a combination of the great service I've received from my dealer's maintenance department and the nature of the beast -- some maintenance procedures involve a $17000 BMW diagnostic computer that I have no intention of buying.

Fortunately, replacing the fuel pump / sender units is one of those tasks that does not involve the diagnostic computer. In addition, it can easily be performed by an owner with modest mechanical / technical ability and common hand tools. A combination of great online DIY articles and reassurance from my technician convinced me I could do this myself and save around $250 in labor in the process, so that's what I did.

The parts required for the task involved the pump ($160), sensor unit ($45) and two gaskets ($5 ea), or a total of $212 with tax. While I was at it, I also picked up a bottle of BMW Gasoline Treatment (Techron) on a separate trip, but the parts guy was kind enough to throw that over the wall for free rather than write an invoice for $2. I've said this before, but it's actually cheaper to buy Techron from a BMW parts department than in the retail space because it was developed by Chevron for BMW. It works for all cars, so if you're looking to clean up the injectors and top-end of your engine (probably a good idea at every inspection interval or 18K miles), drop by your local dealer for a bottle.

In any case, I completed the job in about 2 hours. I let the engine idle for a few minutes to make sure I had good fuel pressure and put my ear to the pump to make sure it was running properly before I buttoned everything up and took a "spirited" test drive around the block. Once that was out of the way, I grabbed the bottle of engine treatment and headed for my local gas station to top off with 93 octane (at no less than $3.07 a gallon...errrr). When I turned the key to start the engine for the short drive home, the fuel gauge rose to the proper place (just beyond the "F" indication), which indicated that the senders were working as expected. Mission accomplished.

I found the online DIY articles lacking a few details that I thought would help a newbie such as myself, so I plan to write my own. Look for it soon here. And speaking of BMW DIY articles, check out this great link aggregation site bimmerdiy.com.

Parts: $212, Labor $0, Labor Savings: $350, Mileage: 126096

May 19, 2006

Wow. I've been busy. Lots to talk about.

As you may have read earlier, I recently started a slow but steady effort to restore the E36 to its former glory. I've paid others to do some work -- like the recent front end repaint -- but I've also started a trend to do more work myself. I personally replaced the fuel pump & sender units, an aging Roundel on the hood, and a cracked and faded air inlet cover, saving myself hundreds in labor and learning something in the process.

For the last several years, I've wrestled with the notion of upgrading the stereo. I mean, the HK was a good system in its day, but this is the age of iPods and satellite radio -- neither of which are compatible with the HK in any form, OEM or aftermarket. The problem is the system really can't be upgraded piecemeal -- it needs a complete overhaul -- and I've never been able to find equipment to my liking or the time to perform the upgrade. However, two problems materialized that forced me to take action this week.

First, over the past couple of years the rotary encoder (volume knob) had started to take on a mind of its own, decreasing volume when I commanded an increase and vice versa. It got so bad in recent weeks that I couldn't really use the stereo. Second, about six months ago the driver's side midrange driver began making crackling noises. It's now so bad as to be virtually unlistenable if the music contains any significant midrange frequencies (female voices, in particular). Since I'm not ready to rip the interior out of the car and upgrade the stereo, I was determined to find a quick, short-term fix.

The solution for the volume knob turned out to be simple -- I bought a new (refurbished, actually) OEM headunit. I chose this route because it was the path of least resistance. A refurbished OEM headunit was only $135+tax with my discount and I didn't need to worry about interoperability problems between the OEM amplifier and an aftermarket headunit. I had planned to install the unit myself this weekend but the new radio had a $500 core charge that I'd have to pay if I couldn't return the old unit to the parts department when I picked up the new unit. For that reason I walked over to my technician and asked if he could perform the swap for me. Always accommodating, he agreed. So now my volume knob reacts as it did when it was new, and as a kicker, the face of the radio notably lacks the shiny "polished" look that occurs from repeated use of the buttons and controls. It looks and works like the day it rolled out of the showroom.

As for the midrange, I took a different approach. I could have bought a single OEM midrange driver to replace the failed unit for $80, but I figured that the passenger-side driver should probably be replaced at the same time because its level of degradation couldn't be far behind that of the driver-side unit. One day last week I was browsing the e46fanatics.com forums and saw mention of a set of replacement midrange drivers ($100) produced specifically for the BMW by Bavarian SoundWerks. The drivers arrived today and look great, but I'll have to wait to replace them because they require removal of both door panels. In preparation for that work I picked up a dozen panel fasteners just in case I broke a few. It turns out that there are several types of door panel fasteners available that will work on this car and I got the best one based on my technician's vast experience in these matters. I'll talk more about that in an upcoming DIY article. Now all I need is some reasonable weather and a few hours to get the job done.

I also have an appointment to bring the car in next week to have several things done:

The oil service and flushes are routine, but the primary driver for all this work is the water pump. I recently became aware that this pump has a very nasty failure mode. Since the fan is connected to a pulley which is connected directly to the water pump, if the water pump bearing fails the fan will move outside of its normal plane of rotation and contact the radiator. That will cause the fan to self destruct and throw shards into the hood, among other things. And the last thing I need right now is dents in my brand-new hood. It's generally considered wise to replace the water pump every 75K-100K miles, and needless to say my vehicle as a few more miles than that.

I had planned to take the time necessary to learn more about how to replace the water pump and other "while we're at it parts" like the thermostat & housing, etc. myself. After all, I'm now officially dangerous -- I have a Bentley Service Manual in my possession. However, when I considered I had a time bomb on my hands and it made little sense for my technician to do some of the work while I repeated tasks such as draining the coolant to perform other work myself, the sane choice was clear -- get my car to the shop ASAP and let my technician handle it all. I mean, why risk my $2700 paint job to save a few hundred in labor? That's a classic case of "penny wise and pound foolish".

Stay tuned for more restoration updates.

Parts $375, Mileage: 127130.

May 20, 2006

I recently began to research detailing techniques I could use not only to restore the the paint of the E36 but preserve the E46's factory finish as well.

If you ask the pros, detailing occurs in several stages:

Always the skeptic, I thought these multi-stage processes were created by the detailing products companies so they could get rich off of people with more money than brains, but I'm here to tell you that multi-stage detailing works -- extremely well, in fact. I won't go into detail here (that will be covered in an update to my Car Care Tips article), but let me say that I'm sold on the concept, and here's why:

(Image: E36 after Menzerna Detail)

After an investment of about 4 hours I stepped back to look at my handy work and couldn't believe I was looking at the same car. The picture doesn't do the finish justice, but trust me -- it looks great. The polish alone gave the paint a wet-look shine, and the results only got better when I applied the sealant coat (synthetic wax).

May 24, 2006

I took the car in for a major service today. We did a ton of things and I only had one surprise (unfortunately, it was a biggie). First, the things I planned to do:

Oil Service

Nothing much to report here. Just a routine service.

Brake Fluid Flush

(Image: BMW Composite Impeller Water Pump)BMW specifies brake fluid flushes every two years. I usually grind through a set of brakes in that time and just combine the flush with the brake job, but because the car sat a lot last year while I owned the RSX, I got a bit out of sync and I exceeded the calendar time limit by almost six months. No big deal, really, but the fluid is the lifeblood of the brake system.

Flushing the brake fluid enhances braking performance under extreme conditions (like deer avoidance) and is very cheap insurance against caliper damage, so I figured I'd do it in advance of the next brake job.

Based on what I can see, the fronts probably have around 5K to go, while the rears (with more than 60K on them now) may actually go a bit longer. I would very much like to do the brakes myself this time around because I need to learn more about the process as well as save some coin, but my schedule will have a lot to say about that.

Coolant Flush

I'd flushed my coolant last year, but when you put spend hundreds of dollars on new parts, you don't cheap out on a gallon of coolant and a gallon of distilled water. 'Nuff said.

Water Pump

This is the primary reason why I brought the car in. BMWs have a long history of problematic water pumps. On some units the impellers would just snap. On others, the bearings would fail, sending the fan outside of its normal plane of rotation, causing it to self destruct as it hit the radiator, among other things.

The currently-shipping pumps have what BMW chooses to call a "composite" impeller. When I hear "composite", I think plastic or fiberglass, but I'm here to tell you that even though the impeller looks like a common injection-molded plastic unit, when struck with a finger it rings like a light metal (magnesium or the like). Hopefully this will mean long life. Guess I'll find out.

Thermostat & Housing

This was a "while in Rome" fix. I'd replaced the thermostat once before when the original failed at around 60K miles. Given I now have 128K on the clock, it seemed wise to replace it again. Since we had to remove the thermostat housing (BMW refers to it as a "connection flange") to get to the thermostat, and the flange is made of a hard fibrous plastic (looks a lot like Bakelite) that has been subject to MANY heat cycles, I decided to swap that out for a new part as well.

(Image: Idler, Tensioner and Protective CapHoses

My technician was out on the day I ordered the parts for this little maintenance binge, so while we originally discussed replacing only the upper and lower radiator hoses, I ordered them all and had them installed today. All coolant hoses are now brand new and ready for another 120K+ miles.

Belts

Since the belts must be removed to do the other work and I noticed that the back side of the A/C belt was split in several places I decided to swap those out as well. The belts were done around 45K miles ago, which isn't very long in the grand scheme of things, but I've been told that's a pretty typical life span for serpentine belts.

Tensioners

These units consist of a sealed bearing and a plastic pulley. They each come with a dust cap. The upper tensioner (near the alternator) had lost its cover at some point. While the bearing is sealed, the outer edge of the bearing surface had rusted over. Left alone, I knew it would cause problems, so I decided to replace them both. Note that I chose not to replace the hydraulic cylinder associated with the A/C belt tensioner because my technician said that while the older mechanical variety were a "hot item", the hydraulic units have proven virtually bulletproof.

Fuel Filter

I have to admit I have no idea when this was last replaced. My technician said he remembered replacing it at one of the inspection II's but I don't remember seeing it on any invoice. So the filter on the car had either ~65K or 128K miles on it. Either way, it had been way too long, so it was time to replace it.

(Image: Fuel Filter) Replacing the fuel filter is a relatively simple DIY task that is needlessly complicated by its location under the car. The car must be on jack stands or (wait for it...) on a lift to do it in a reasonable time. Needless to say, this was a bit out of the scope of the work I'd planned but my tech offered to swap it out for me.

Now for the surprise.

Radiator

I expected a labor bill for around $500 for the installation of the parts I purchased earlier at nearly $350 when I got the call. My service advisor told me that my technician removed the hoses and found the inner surface of the radiator necks deteriorating. He recommended we replace the radiator for obvious reasons and I was not about to doubt him. In fact, I'd considered replacing it as part of this preventative maintenance binge but didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. So, the good news is that I have completely overhauled my cooling system just in time for summer. The obvious downside is it cost me around $1400 to do it.

The funny thing is that the dealer is on my way to work, and between chatting with my technician and ordering the parts, I'd become quite a fixture around there the past couple of weeks. One of the techs asked me if I intended to pay rent. I respectfully declined. :-)

Parts: $685, Labor $675, Total: $1443, Mileage: 128003.

May 25, 2006

Today I managed to finish my quick-fix to the audio system. I would have been done with the job on Sunday when I started it, but I wound up doing a bit more work than originally planned.

(Image: New midrange and tweeter on door panel)First, I had to fix the door panel when the strip of plastic fastener receptacles separated from the top of the panel. I confirmed online and with my technician that this is a common problem as the cars age. It just looks like BMW didn't use the right type of glue or enough of it. I solved the problem by rebonding the receptacle strip to the door panel using common construction adhesive. If you look closely at the image, you can see the glue oozing out from behind the receptacles. The good news is it didn't come apart when I slapped the door panel back on, but only time will tell if it will hold up.

Second, while I had the door panels off I figured take the opportunity to replace the tweeters. A quick trip to Crutchfield's website revealed I could purchase the Polk db1000 1" soft-dome tweeter set for $100 + shipping. While Crutchfield's fitment guide suggested these were "not recommended" for the E36, they don't know what they're talking about. With some very minor modifications to the OEM tweeter mount courtesy of my Dremel plus a bit of hot-melt glue they fit like a glove and I'm really happy with the results. And as luck would have it, I have an old set of Polk 5510 woofers that will fit nicely in the kick panels and complement the tweeters. In fact, installation of the woofers is the next step in the stereo upgrade process.

So how's it sound? The tweeters are actually pretty laid back but they definitely reach higher and are SO much smoother sounding than the OEM units it's not even funny. The BSW midranges are definitely brighter than the OEM units, almost to the point of being obtrusive, but they should do the job until I get around to doing the full stereo upgrade and disconnect them in favor of running a two-way component set.

Details of this fix and my overall upgrade plans will be covered in an upcoming article.

Parts: $220, Labor: $0, Labor Savings: $300 ($200 for door repair, $100 for speaker install). Mileage 128050.

June 12, 2006

Replacement of front kick-panel drivers

Last week I decided to go ahead and install the Polk Audio 5510 5 1/4" woofers I had hanging around. I managed to get the drivers installed and started a listening session to check for rattles and the like. The drivers performed as I expected so I remounted the passenger side kick panel and fired up the stereo again just to be sure everything was still okay. Figures Murphy decided to pay me a visit. As I turned the volume up I heard a horrible raspy noise coming from the passenger side driver during bass peaks. The driver sounded like it was blown, but I just figured there was a clearance problem between the driver surround and the kick panel. Time to take the kick panel off again. Rats.

(Image: OEM vs. Polk 5510 Driver)Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. Upon removal of the driver I figured out it wasn't fried in the traditional sense. Instead, the glue holding the dust shield / diaphragm to the speaker basket had dried out and given way, so when the cone went through its normal range of travel the diaphragm repeatedly hit the basket and produced a sound very similar to a blown driver. This really didn't surprise me, since the driver was manufactured 10 years ago and glue doesn't last forever.

At that point I resolved to remove both drivers and drive the car without them until I could find another solution. The pleasant surprise was that the stereo didn't sound all that bad with the 5 1/4" drivers removed -- if anything, it was a lot less muddy and easier on the ears. If that isn't a testament to how bad the OEM drivers are, I don't know what is.

The next day I called Polk Audio and told the friendly tech support guy of my plight. I let it slip that I've been a LONG time Polk customer (I still have a pair of the acclaimed 10B's in the basement) so the guy offered to provide replacement drivers in a 2 for 1 deal ($30 each) out of their remaining stock of roughly 150 units. The drivers came with a 1 year warranty, so I said "sold!".

The drivers arrived a couple days later and I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled them out of the packaging. They were indeed labeled "5510", but the baskets were a bit beefier and the cone was polypropylene instead of the reinforced paper composite of the original units. Apparently the drivers had gone through some reengineering over the years and this was the next step in their evolution.

I installed the drivers today and can only say that they are far superior to the OEM units. The muddiness is gone. And while they're certainly no subwoofer, they definitely add some bump to the soundstage that I can feel in my feet and in the steering wheel. Next step? New rear speakers...but those will have to wait until I recharge the toy budget.

A/C Compressor Sanity Check

On another note, it appears that my A/C compressor is starting to make a more consistent rattle than it has over the past several years. I've also noticed a more aggressive hit in vehicle performance when the compressor initially kicks in, and my technician told me that it could be due to the high pressure side not bleeding down fast enough, which is usually a sign that the unit is on its way out. Since I hate my car sounding like a coffee grinder I'd considered replacing the unit long ago, but I may get the opportunity to do that sooner rather than later. The A/C still works great, though, so I'm not in a rush to replace it. If it lasts through the season, great -- I'll do it next year after the other restoration work is complete.

Parts: $70, Labor: $0, Labor Savings: $50, Mileage: 128984

June 16, 2006

Ah, Mr. Murphy. Why do you trouble me so?

Today had to be one of the best weather days we've had yet this spring. Beautifully sunny skies, a few puffy clouds, great visibility and pleasantly warm temperatures in the mid 80's. And more of the same promised for the weekend. I arrived at work this fine Friday morning to find a skeleton crew. Apparently everyone thought it was pretty nice outside too, since they didn't bother to show up. I managed to put nearly a full day in until I was the second to last person there and heard the little voice in me whining "weekend is here, your work is (mostly) done, now go home". As I crossed the threshold of the company door, I thought I was home free. Beautiful weekend, here I come.

I have two primary routes home, one of which incorporates a short haul on a highway while the other involves back roads. The highway is usually faster, but not today. Within a 1000 feet of merging with the highway, it became clear that there was some kind of traffic problem ahead, so I made a quick dash for the nearest exit, which conveniently put me right on my alternate route home. I patted myself on the back for my quick thinking and thought the stars had aligned for me.

I then got a phone call -- it was my brother telling me that he had left for Ohio to see my cousin and was stuck in construction traffic somewhere in central PA. I told him I'd feed his cats and hung up. About that time, traffic here in NJ started to slow down a mile or so in advance of a major intersection. In about 10 minutes I managed to get within a few hundred feet of the intersection when the unthinkable happened.

I heard a loud "pop", the engine started making very unpleasant noises, steam started pouring out from under the hood and the interior vents, and the smell of coolant filled the air. God DAMMIT. The first thing that ran through my mind is that the A/C compressor seized, the belt snapped, and caused the very same catastrophic damage I'd hoped to avoid with the recent cooling system overhaul. I immediately turned the A/C compressor off, but that didn't solve anything. Probably because of my aircraft training, the thought of an engine fire ran through my mind at this point so I figured I needed to get the car off the road and get the hell out of it...quickly. In a strange twist of luck, I happened to be 10 feet from the entrance to a gas station, so I pulled in there. Fearing an overheat, a warped head, and a VERY big repair bill, I turned the car off immediately -- an "emergency procedure" my tech and I had discussed a week ago.

(Image: Blown Expansion Tank)I got out of the car and walked around to the front to watch a river of coolant draining from the car. I waited for a bulk of the steam to stop and opened the hood. I looked for the obvious stuff and found nothing wrong. The brand new belts, hoses, water pump, fan and radiator appeared intact. So where the hell was all of this coolant coming from? And then I saw it. The one thing I didn't replace failed. The expansion bottle had cracked vertically down its rear and that drained at least half of the coolant from the system in no time flat.

Fortunately, I had the number of the local towing company handy in my bag from when I did the fuel pump test run so I called them. They showed up in about an hour and for the third time in eight years saw my car towed to the dealer. I arrived at my dealer after most everyone but the sales staff had left for the day. I'd normally call my brother to come pick me up, but he was somewhere in Ohio by now and that was out of the question, so I kindly asked one of sales staff to take me the rest of the way home. They volunteered the services of one of the techs who was staying late to do a PDI for a customer delivery, so we grabbed an E90 and flogged it on the way home. With tongue in cheek, I made what little light I could of the incident and joked "aw, this sucks...I have to go home and drive the E46 for the next few days." But seriously -- this is precisely why I believe in having a second car.

I plan to see my tech first thing Monday morning to discuss the fix, but unless Murphy is still hanging around I expect it to be pretty simple -- a new expansion bottle and some anti-freeze. At this point I'm considering replacing the A/C compressor as well to prevent the scenario I envisioned from becoming reality, as the mere thought of paying for another radiator right now would drive me to drink.

Expect an update early next week. In the meantime, if you have over 100K miles on your car and haven't touched the cooling system, I'd strongly recommend you schedule the work soon. It's going to be a hot summer.

June 20, 2006

Cooling System Wrap-Up

(Image: New Expansion Tank)After a nice weekend of driving the E46, I took it to work on Monday morning. Since the dealer is on the way, I stopped in to brief my tech on what happened on Friday. Although he had a few jobs ahead of mine, I really didn't care. He was up to speed on what needed to be done and I certainly wasn't annoyed at the prospect of putting miles on the E46 to get it out of break-in. So, after talking shop for a bit, I let him get back to work and left for the salt mine.

Today, I got a call from my service advisor to let me know that the car was done, and I went to pick it up this evening. The cost was higher than anticipated because my tech recommended we install a new coolant level sensor ($30) and cap ($17) in addition to the expansion tank ($85), but I'm happy that there wasn't any other damage. The bill could have been a LOT worse.

I spoke to my tech and asked why he suggested replacement of the sensor and he said the original eight-year-old part looked a bit "funky" (obviously a technical term) and it would be difficult to replace later with the tank installed. Works for me. After he gave me the old tank, I looked closely at the crack and asked whether the filler cap has a pressure relief. Knowing where I was going he added "yes, it will release pressure at 2.0 bar (29 PSI), but I checked the old cap and it worked -- I simply replaced the cap because, well -- you don't want this to happen again for some strange reason, right?" Again, I couldn't argue with his logic. The cap is cheap insurance.

Changing of the Guard

Earlier this month the dealership I've come to know so well, King BMW of Freehold, changed hands. The King Family had been in the car business for over a hundred years and owned several franchises at this location before selling them off to focus exclusively on BMWs for the past five years. A few months ago they resolved to sell the remaining BMW franchise to a local dealership conglomerate and exit the auto sales business entirely.

In a long discussion with one of the sons, I expressed my disappointment and concern for the change, but after he told me why the family agreed to sell, I couldn't blame them. The family's justification for the sale was obviously never meant for public consumption so I won't repeat it here, but I will say that it had to do with BMWNA and what BMW wants the vehicles to become over the next 5-10 years. Needless to say, it's not good. The King family tried to do the right thing for the end customer (you and me) but BMWNA refused to budge, and the result, as they say, is history.

Thankfully, however, most of the people I've come to know on a first name basis are still there including one of the Kings, another family team consisting of mother, father and (unbearably hot) daughter, and a certain technician that used to fix the bike ridden by one of the King's sons -- who later grew up to be that technician's boss and general manager for the last 10 years. And yes, that technician was *my* technician. How's THAT for family history?

If news of the sale wasn't bad enough, I received word from my service advisor today that the new owners have increased the labor rate to $102 an hour (!). While I never liked paying in excess of $80/hour for King BMW to work on my car over the past eight years, I always took some solace in the belief that I was helping a local family-owned business thrive. Now all I feel I'm doing is helping a lot of indifferent bean-counters in a far-away office buy their next yacht. But such is business in America these days, and we have nothing but greedy MBA types and the colleges that train them to blame for it.

Hmmm...now where did I put my Bentley manual...

Total Mileage: 129114, Parts: $131, Labor: $235, Total: $388.

July 9, 2006

Power Steering Flush

Ever since I realized that BMW's recommendation for "lifetime" fluid on both the transmission and the power steering system was based more on marketing rather than engineering, I decided that I would flush the fluid at an interval BMW recommended before the advent of "free" scheduled maintenance, or around 30K miles.

In the process of creating my BMW Maintenance Schedule Worksheet, it dawned on me that it had been almost 30K miles since I replaced the steering rack and had the power steering fluid flushed. Flushing the fluid is easily a DIY project, so I bought the necessary tools and materials and did it myself. The lessons learned are in a DIY article.

Replacement of Fuel Tank Stone Guards

If you've ever looked under a BMW, you may have noticed some out-of-place plastic strips about a foot in front of each rear wheel. They are about 6" wide and extend about 1" below the bottom of the vehicle. The reason I noticed mine more lately is that they were broken almost in half and hanging down.

(Image: Stone Guard Replaced)I must admit I speculated a while about the true purpose of these things. My initial thought was they had something to do with deflecting the water stream that forms behind the front wheels in deep water, but they didn't seem positioned properly to serve that role. I quickly gave up and asked my technician for the scoop. He told me they serve two roles...

Apparently, BMW research revealed that the vast majority of flat tires occur on the rear tires because the front tires pick up whatever debris is on the road (like a stone or nail) and tend to rotate it to the vertical, pointy edge facing upward, just in time for the rear tire to run it over. The guards act as a vortex generator of sorts and create localized airflow turbulence necessary to help deflect the debris. Always the amateur aerodynamist, I'm seen my share of vortex generators and I know they really do work wonders...on airplanes...but I remain skeptical of this application.

Of course, the large horizontal surface of the guards also serve the completely legitimate and practical role of protecting the sides of the fuel tank from road debris, and it's for that reason that I decided to replace them.

The only thing that made this difficult is that I couldn't find the part numbers in the usual places, so my technician told me that I'd have to pull the parts to find them. That turned out to be very easy -- they're only held on by a 10mm bolt and what I believe to be a 6mm nut holding each part on. Incidentally, I didn't have any metric sockets below 9mm, so I used a 5/16" socket on the smaller nut and it worked fine. If you don't want to bother removing them, the part numbers on my 1998 coupe are 51 71 8 130 071 and 51 71 8 130 072 (yes, they're one digit off). The part numbers for your specific vehicle can be found in the BODYWORK->SIDE PANEL / TRIM section of realoem.com or your dealer's parts software.

Replacement of Miscellaneous Parts

While under the hood one day I noticed that the filter on the secondary air pump inlet tube (runs along the far right side of the engine bay near the top of the fender) was missing. Unfortunately, BMW only sells the entire tube, so I picked up one of those and installed it.

I also noticed that the hose connecting the intake manifold to the brake booster was a bit dried out, so I replaced that out of concern for a vacuum leak that would affect both engine performance and brake booster operation. It only cost a couple of bucks including two new clamps, so that was a no-brainer.

And, while I was looking at the brake booster hose, I got a close-up look at the flexible intake pipe that connects the throttle body to the mass airflow sensor. Cracks in the material were apparent adjacent to the large band clamps, so I figured I'd replace that as well. At $35, this was the most expensive of the miscellaneous parts, but necessary to prevent an intake leak and the many problems that would result from one.

Prep for A/C System Fix

While having some fun during a spirited drive, I had the windows open to vent the interior and heard a strange whining noise coming from the engine bay that varied with engine speed and was most noticeable above 4000 RPM. I initially thought it might have been the power steering pump given that I'd just worked on the system, but on instinct I turned off the A/C compressor and the noise went away. Upon coming to a stop, I heard the usual rattling noises coming from the compressor...only this time they were louder. I resolved at that point to replace the compressor. Another big bill, that's for sure, but it's all part of the restoration process.

Two different OEMs produce compressors for the E36 and there's no way to tell which one is appropriate for the vehicle without looking at the unit. Unfortunately, the information I needed was in a hard-to-reach spot (on the bottom near the rear of the compressor body), so my technician offered to put the car up on the lift. Within 30 seconds we found "Denzo" on the unit and asked the parts department to put one on order. Thanks again to my tech for taking time out of his ridiculously busy schedule to make all our lives easier come installation day at the end of the month.

Total Mileage: 129990, Parts: $92, Labor: $0, Total: $98, Labor Savings: $150

July 25, 2006

Auxiliary Cooling Fan Troubleshooting

After coming home from the dropzone last weekend, I decided to wash the bugs off the front end of the E46 before putting her to bed. While I was cleaning the grills I noticed the aux cooling fan started up, smoothly spooled up to a modest RPM and then -- presumably as the coolant temperature dropped -- ramped back down just as smoothly and turned off. At that point it dawned on me that I could not remember when I last heard the aux cooling fan operate on the E36. Since I'd heard it's supposed to run when the A/C is on and it most certainly has not been running (at least when I've been looking), this got me to thinking -- maybe it's broken and has been for a long time.

(Image: Aux Fan Block Diagram)I got up early today to enjoy the uncharacteristically crisp morning air and do a bit of troubleshooting. I reviewed the Bentley manual, which revealed the troubleshooting procedure. NOTE: the wiring color code in the troubleshooting section is WRONG, though fortunately the schematics in the rear of the manual are correct. I had to go through this procedure twice to get it right because of this discrepancy. Lesson learned? When working on BMW's and looking for a ground, think dirt (yes, "brown"). Anyway, here's the procedure:

  1. Disconnect the connector from the coolant temperature sensor (located at the top right of the radiator). Insert three pieces of wire (I used some solid copper from a piece of ethernet cable) into each of the three pins of that connector, and, with the ignition key in the "ON" position but the engine stopped, test for power. The center pin is ground, but to elminate the ground as a possible fault, I used a frame ground. I found 12 volts at pin 1 and 3 (the outer two pins).
  2. I then bridged the center pin of the coolant temperature sensor (brown wire, or ground) first to pin 1 and then to pin 2 to simulate a high coolant temperature and turn on the fan manually. As the aux fan on the E36 is a simple two speed unit, closing either circuit sends power to low and high speed relays located in the fuse box. The relays are needed to deal with the high power (30A) circuit required to power the fan.
  3. I pulled both the low and high speed relays and checked for power on pins 30 and 86 (these numbers are imprinted on the relay contact blades). I found 12 volts on both pins of the low speed relay but only on one pin of the high speed relay. There should be power on both pins on the high voltage relay, but the Bentley has been wrong before. Not sure if this is significant.

Fortunately, as I intermittently activated each circuit, the fan ran in low and high speed modes. That meant the fan and much of its control circuitry was okay -- and good thing too....the aux fan is $670(!) according to realoem.com. This test confirmed what my technician told me earlier, the fan is almost perfectly quiet running in low speed. And in fact it's not terribly loud running in high speed either. If you look at aerodynamic design of the blades this is no surprise -- they're designed with swept airfoils to negate the air turbulence that we hear as noise. This means it's likely that I wouldn't hear it over the engine or the engine driven fan -- I'd have to look at it instead.

Why did I go on this little detour to test the aux cooling fan when I was about to replace the A/C compressor? The A/C system needs a reasonable airflow through the condenser (a radiator-like device mated to the front of the engine coolant radiator) to dissipate the heat generated during the compression phase of the vapor cycle. If airflow is insufficient, the condenser fails to do its job and the pressure does not bleed down as much as it should. The compressor must then work against this higher-than-normal pressure to get its job done. This can cause the valves in the compressor to chatter -- and that's exactly what my compressor has been doing for at LEAST three or four years. Could the aux fan or one of its control circuits been broken that long? Certainly.

The BMW docs indicate that on the six-cylinder E36, three things turn on the aux fan:

  1. A request from the IKHA control panel / module
  2. High coolant temperature
  3. High refrigerant pressure

The point to bring home here is that the fan does not automatically turn on when the A/C "snowflake" button is pushed, nor will it run, apparently, unless there is insufficient airflow over the condenser. Since I drive mostly on the highway and the speed helps maintain reasonable coolant temperatures as well as refrigerant pressures without the need for even the engine driven fan, it's no surprise I haven't heard (or seen) the aux fan run lately.

Toys for the Birthday Boy

This morning I reached the mighty old age of 37. This means two things. First, I'll have to increase the minimum age on female prospects to 21 to remain "respectable" (or whatever I was when I started dating). :-) Second, it means I'm fully justified in buying some additional toys -- in this case, some essential tools I'll need to work on the cars and the airplane.

I just went to a local tool house called Eppy's. They have a great selection of reasonably-priced tools including SK. I used to work with hand tools every day in my previous life as an electrician, so I know how to abuse a tool. We beat on SK ratchet sets and they worked like the proverbial Timex, so choosing SK was a no-brainer.

This past weekend I wound up buying two torque wrenches (3/8" and 1/2" drive) with full metal handles and pivoting heads for getting into those odd places, a range of Torx sockets for the interior, a shallow 36mm socket for the oil filter cannister, one impact socket for the wheel studs (yes, I'm planning a full suite of air tools, too), and a giant 32mm wrench essential to remove the engine-driven fan. This ran about $600, and I'm not done yet, but I figure if I can get my toolset up to snuff quickly enough I can do the brakes on my own this time and nearly offset that amount in labor savings.

Truth be told, I considered going "high end" with Snap-On, at least for the torque wrenches, since I have worked with their stuff before and like it, but I don't intend to use these tools every day and I felt my tool dollars would be better spent on a wide range of tools rather than one or two items. Plus the local Snap-On rep never called me back. Way to push product, dude.

Tools and Equipment: $600, Mileage: 130552.

July 28, 2006

More Aux Fan Fun

I took the car in today for its appointment to have the A/C Compressor and Dryer replaced. I told my technician of my recent success in testing the fan and thought the refrigerant pressure switch was the culprit. After all, by sending voltage to the coils of the low and high speed relays I verified the relays themselves as well as the fan were in good shape, but the fan was still not running after several minutes at idle with the compressor running. Something was still wrong with the system.

He suggested that it's very rare to replace a compressor and they usually fail only because they've been run low on oil. That certainly wasn't the case here, but we couldn't ignore the compressor chattering. He reiterated that the compressor can get noisy if its working at higher-than-normal pressures and he'd need to spend some time troubleshooting the problem before he would feel comfortable changing the compressor and dryer outright. I agreed to leave the car with him for the day, and I got to drive an X3 around some sharp corners and scare myself. No, it's not a Coupe by any stretch.

Anyway, later in the day my technician let me know the culprit turned out to be the low speed relay after all. With the fan disabled, refrigerant gauges on the system showed the high pressure side peaking at nearly 350 PSI, while a typical maximum on this 90 degree F day was more like 250 PSI, simply due to a lack of airflow over the condensor. He didn't have the relay in stock so he ordered one and rigged the old relay contacts to remain closed at all times so the fan ran in normal speed mode continuously while the A/C was on -- not a perfect solution, but sufficient to confirm that the compressor itself appeared undamaged. This fix eliminated 90% of the noise as the running pressure dropped dramatically.

The remaining 10% of the noise appeared to come from the belt and idler pulley. He removed the 1-month-old A/C belt to find it in pretty bad shape -- apparently the extra load on the compressor had taken its toll on the belt. Upon closer inspection he then saw grease leaking from the A/C belt idler pulley (the only pulley we didn't replace during the cooling system overhaul). Naturally, he installed a new pulley before installing a new belt and later remarked to me that the compressor is now "quiet as a mouse".

The good news is that these fixes have eliminated the noise from the compressor and repaired some critical components of the A/C and cooling systems. The bad news is I have no idea how much damage I've done to the compressor over the years it's been running like that. For now, it seems, I'll avoid the cost of a compressor, but I'm still somewhat concerned about how long it will last. And I'm also concerned about the dryer, since those are known to fail and clog up the expansion valve with dessicant. I figure I've just put off the inevitable, but that's okay with me. I have several more pressing things to spend money on.

Total Mileage: 130764, Labor $255, Parts $75, Total $352.

August 8, 2006

Aux Fan Relay Replacement

(Image: Aux Fan Relay Contacts)After a snafu delayed delivery by about a week, the aux fan normal speed relay finally came in today and my tech swapped it while I waited in front of his bay.

The old relay is shown in the picture. Check out those burnt contacts -- they're nearly completely gone. Pretty nasty. Moral of the story? If your compressor is making noise and your aux fan isn't running, take the relay out, inspect the contacts, and if you find anything close to that depicted, replace it!

Incidentally, to remove the relay, use a pair of pliers and just grab that little T-shaped handle and pull straight up. The cover pries off with a thin flat-blade screwdriver pushed between the outer casing and the relay base. And the contact plate can be removed as shown to expose the contacts by squeezing the relay between one's fingers until the little arm shaped like a lolipop detaches from the latching pin. Easier done than said.

The A/C system has been working a lot better since my technician jury-rigged the old relay, and my first commute today in 85+ degree heat revealed simlar performance with the new relay. It's now freezing me out of the car.

Total Mileage: 131250, Labor: $0, Parts $16.

August 14, 2006

Flat Tire

When it rains, it pours. Lately I've been blowing a lot of coin on the car in an effort to keep up on maintenance, complete the restoration, and equip my garage with the tools required to do as much work myself as possible. So you can imagine my displeasure when I came out Friday morning, hopped in, and felt the wheel pull hard to the right as I pulled out. I instantly knew I had a flat tire.

Fortunately, my blood pressure remained at textbook levels. Maybe my anger management is really paying off, or I'm getting better at rationalizing the money I spend on these cars. Or perhaps it was just the fact that I had a really nice second car available and it was a perfect day to drive it. I don't know, really. A quick survey revealed a screw planted firmly in the tread of the right front tire, and since no one (including my dealer) will patch high-performance tires out of fear of liability, I instantly knew this tire was headed for the dump. But, of course, things are never that simple.

The next day I began to think about my options. First of all, I knew I had to put the spare on the car at my earliest convenience, since a BMW with a flat tire is about as useful as a submarine with a screen door....or a tank with a kickstand (Thanks very much...I'll be here all week!). But then I remembered that the spare tire is a different make and model -- a Dunlop SP8000 to be precise -- so that wouldn't be a permanent solution.

(Image: Right front jacked up) Oddly enough, over the past couple of weeks I'd noticed the front tires starting to make that lovely "wah wah wah" sound exhibited by the last set. When this happened to the last set I thought it was a fluke, but it's apparently a design flaw. Given that the tires can't be rotated at this point and wear dictated I buy at LEAST two tires, I just decided I'd get ready for winter and put four new tires on the car now and kill several birds with one (very expensive) stone.

Of course, I'm not one to throw good money after bad. A couple of the rims are bent (albeit mildly) and the finish on three of the rims is in questionable shape (to be expected given the eight years of abuse they've taken on my daily driver), so I didn't want to mount another set of new tires on these rims. That got me to thinking about buying a new set.

One of my priorities in the restoration has been to maintain the stock look, so my first choice rim was the 17" BMW M-Contour, which came on the M3 of the same vintage. It's very clear that the M-Contour rim was designed specifically for the lines of the E36 so this was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, sticker shock dictated I avoid it and other BMW OE rims, as I had no intention of paying $2K ($400x5) for rims just to preserve the stock look -- which some might argue looks a bit dated at this point anyway. Fortunately, I stumbled on a rim that is a replica of a wheel that ships on a current model BMW, looks like it belongs on the car (which is saying a lot considering it's an 18" rim) and is the right price.

In fact I managed to acquire five rims and new rubber in 235/40, mounted, balanced, and shipped for less than the cost of a full set of M-Contour rims alone. No need to twist my arm. I'm all about using BMW OE parts, and I'm NOT into the bling of large rims and low-profile tires, but this was a hard deal to pass up. Some of you "in the know" have likely figured out which rims I'm talking about, but I'll leave the rest of you in suspense until I have time to take a full set of pictures.

That decision made, Saturday morning I put the car in the garage, jacked it up (for the first time without a lift, mind you) and swapped the flat tire for the spare. I had a bitch of a time breaking the wheel studs free with the wrench BMW provides with the car and I bruised my hand cranking on it, but I got the job done. With the spare on the car I torqued the studs to 80 ft*lbs, which is at the low end of BMW's recently updated torque spec of 87 +/- 7 ft*lbs. I quickly concluded that I didn't want to repeat the experience, so later in the afternoon I went to Eppy's and bought a SK 1/2" drive breaker bar with a 24" handle. That will hold me over until I equip the garage with air tools.

While I had the wheel off, I confirmed that I'll need brakes very shortly. I expect the brake-wear indicator to trip within the next month, at which point I plan to do brakes myself for the first time on this car. That will save about $500 in labor, which will go a long way toward paying for the tools necessary to do the job in the first place.

I'm expecting the new rims and tires at the end of this week or early next. Look for the photo spread soon.

August 26, 2006

CSL Wheels Arrived

(Image: Velocity Motoring CSL Replicas)My new wheels arrived this week and they're (drum roll please) 18" Velocity Motoring CSL replicas. They look great as is, but I expect them to look even better wrapped in some nice high performance rubber and mounted on the car.

As I said in my last update, I'm not big on the bling thing, and I was somewhat concerned that anything but OE wheels would overpower the beautifully understated E36 body design, but I think these will freshen the look of the car in a tasteful way. And that's no surprise, really -- the CSL wheel IS a BMW design after all. The quality of the finish is definitely not OE but then again I'm not paying OE prices either. A reasonable compromise, I think.

I originally planned to have the vendor acquire and mount the tires, but when I learned that the tires would delay the shipment a week or more I cancelled the tire order and asked them to ship the wheels bare. While waiting for the wheels to arrive I went back to the drawing board to look for a good replacement for the Pilot Sport A/S, but the results were not encouraging.

The only well-reviewed "ultra-high-performance" all-season tires out there are the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S and the Pirelli PZero Nero. The Pirelli tires don't seem to have the complaints about noise later in life, but they apparently have a tendency to tramline and my technician backs up a few of the observations that Pirelli tires in general have a tendency to wear unevenly or just very quickly. They grip like mad (almost like a summer tire) but they have a tread life to match. And to top it all off, Tire Rack said Pirelli is discontinuing the PZero Nero and there's no word on its replacement. Ultimately, I think the best choice would be to put a set of Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 summer tires on the 18's and another set of the A/S on the 16's for winter-only use, but that would also be the most expensive route. I may do that eventually, but not this time around.

Ugh. I can't believe that I'm going to say this, but I may wind up going for Pilot Sport A/S again, this time in 235/40/18.

Flat Fixed

I managed to find a local tire place that would put a patch on the inside of the tire for $22, so I dropped off the tire and picked it up a couple hours later. When I went to pick up the tire they offered to put it on the car for me, but I passed because I knew full well they'd use an air wrench and over-torque it. And if you think that's no big deal, consider that when I got home and swapped the tire, I found I didn't really need my breaker bar to remove the wheel bolts. If they're torqued properly, I think the wrench provided in the car is sufficient.

All of this tire swapping got me to thinking. There are some things I plan to put in the car to make sure I can change a tire on the road safely from this point on:

The most interesting thing I noticed while running the car through several tanks of gas without the spare in the trunk? I blessed with 0.7 MPG higher gas mileage(!). You won't catch me running without a spare to save those pennies, though -- OPEC be damned.

Total Mileage: 131800, Wheels: $875, Parts and Labor: $22. Labor Savings: $20.

September 9, 2006

(Image: First DIY Oil Change)First DIY Oil Service

I know I've said that it doesn't make good fiscal sense to do oil changes yourself. By the time you get the parts, prep the work area, get the car up on ramps or jacked up, get the job done and then take the oil to your local HazMat facility or cooperative local garage, you've blown the better part of 2 hours if you're lucky. Normally, a DIY oil change only makes sense if your time is worth nothing and you like getting dirty.

However, as synthetic oil service at my local dealer is now over $100 and I can get the very same oil and parts my technician uses for slightly less than $40 with a CCA discount (less if I buy the filter elements in bulk online), I can save myself around $60 in labor by doing it myself. Will you catch me under the car when it's 20 degrees outside? Unlikely. But today was a beautiful late summer day so I gave it a shot.

There are just under a zillion BMW oil change DIY articles online, but I learned a few things that I felt I would benefit the BMW community, so I'm planning to write up my own words of wisdom. Look for the article soon.

Tools and Equipment

A few weeks ago while looking at tools required to access the differential drain plugs I learned that there is insufficient clearance between the differential and spare tire well to fit a traditional 14mm hex socket and ratchet wrench. Some Googling resulted in the answer -- the FACOM D10714, 14mm stubby hex socket. I called Eppys and ordered two for good measure. At $10 each they were a bit pricey, but I had to look at the big picture. The labor for a differential fluid flush at the dealer costs a hell of a lot more than that, so the first time I do it myself the tool will pay for itself several times over.

(Image: FACOM D10714 Stubby Socket)I went to Eppy's today to pick up the sockets and take a look at a jack to replace my brother's which was officially declared MIA. As it turned out they were out of stock on the units I had considered. They offered to deliver the jack in a few days if I placed an order today, but that wouldn't help me get the oil change done today. I solved my dilemma by grabbing a set of Rhino Ramps at Wal*Fart for $40. It's not wasted money because I'll need the ramps to elevate the front of the car sufficiently to get the jack under the car when doing the brake job or any other task that requires jack stands.

While at Eppy's, I also picked up an oil drain pan with a spout. Over the years I've used many containers as catch basins, including old cat litter boxes, but those usually become an unweildy mess when filled with 6+ quarts of hot, dirty oil. Having one with a spout would make transferring it to an old 5 gallon hydraulic oil container pretty easy. In fact, this turned out to be one of the better decisions of the day. It made dealing with the old oil completely painless.

Tire Update

With a mere 16500 miles in service, the Pilot Sport A/S tires have become very noisy. So noisy, in fact, that I've realized the noise is coming from the REAR tires, not the front as I originally surmised. Such is life with resonance -- it's hard to determine the source of noise because it reflects throughout the interior. This makes a lot more sense considering the rear tires are within a mm or so of the wear indicators.

In spite of the fact that the car sounds like an 18 wheeler with a couple of bent rims blasting down the highway, I've decided to run these for another month (or as long as I can stand to listen to the "wah wah wah wah" sound pounding into my head). I figure that will put me into October with new tires so I'll have fresh tread for the upcoming snow season. In the interim, I guess I'll have an excuse to turn up the stereo.

Bottom Line Reports Change

One of the things I've done at the end of virtually every maintenance update since I started this website is break down the costs into a "Bottom Line" so readers would be able to judge for themselves what it takes to run one of these machines. Now that I'm doing more things myself and reducing or eliminating labor charges in the process, I've decided to make a few changes to the manner in which I report these costs.

First of all, I've added a "Labor Savings" amount to preserve the accuracy of the reports. While the "Labor" amount will continue to reflect the cost of labor I pay professionals to do work for me, the "Labor Savings" amount will reflect the same cost of labor that I have saved by doing things myself. The Labor Savings will always be based on current labor amounts, so the true cost of ownership will be preserved for readers that choose not to turn wrenches. I've also decided to separate "Tools and Equipment" from the Parts cost to better track my investments in the stuff I have to buy to get the job done. This will allow me to compare the figures to see if I've made a "profit" from doing things myself.

For example, as you can see in the following bottom line, I paid $40 in parts, $40 for the ramps and $30 for tools at Eppy's. Given that the cost of labor for an oil service is presently $60, it's obvious that it actually cost me $10 MORE to do the oil service myself. The next time I do an oil service, however, I can naturally expect a net savings.

Total Mileage: 132500, Parts: $40, Tools & Equipment: $70, Labor Savings: $60

September, 10, 2006

Brake Job Preparation Complete

I'm ready for my first DIY brake job on the E36, as I managed to pick up a new jack and the necessary parts for a song. After a few weeks of weighing the various qualities of the handful of available manufacturers, I finally decided on the American Forge and Foundry 2 Ton Low Profile jack. It wasn't my first choice, but it was friendly on the wallet. I'll talk more about my purchase decision in a Tools article I'm writing, but suffice it to say that I now have a reliable means of lifting the vehicle.

When it came time to make a decision about the brake components, I ultimately decided to go OE. While aftermarket parts are less expensive and promise things like reduced brake dust, they do it at what personal reviews suggest is a net loss in braking performance (especially the initial bite) and an increase in noise.

Since I've put my this car on a tight budget I decided to order the parts via the least expensive route. Always the computer geek, and increasingly the tightwad, I developed a spreadsheet to compare and contrast the quotes provided by my local dealer, a couple out of state dealers and a few well-known and respected parts houses like Turner Motorosport. The winning quote came from Tischer BMW, a dealer in Silver Spring, MD that offered a 20% CCA discount. When the math was complete, Tischer's discounts were actually higher than 20% in some cases, so this was a no brainer. If they deliver as promised, they'll likely get my parts business from now on -- at least on items I don't need yesterday and aren't awkward or expensive to ship.

Differential Fluid Flush Prep

I've decided to replace the differential fluid primarily as a learning experience. My technician checked it about a year ago and gave it a good bill of health, but I don't think it's ever been replaced, and the thought of running 8+ year old gear oil just rubs me the wrong way. I picked up the tools last weekend, but I still lacked the fluid or a means to get it into the differential, so I took a trip to a local Pep Boys to find Mobil 1 75W-90 (without friction modifier, of course, since this is an open rear) and a fluid transfer pump. My dealer wanted $8 per half liter, but I found the Mobil 1 for roughly half that price at $8 per quart. The transfer pump was a mere $8, so that was a done deal. The only parts remaining are the crush washers for the drain and fill plugs, and I neglected to put those in my Tischer order so I'll buy them at my local dealer.

September 21, 2006

(Image: Wheel Partially Disassembled)It was a wheel bearing after all!

It's true what they say. Things are not always what they seem. And to think I was about to write off the Pilot Sport A/S. First I thought it was the front tires. Then I convinced myself it was the rear tires. But over the last two days I noticed the character of the annoying wah-wah-wah sound change, first to a more consistent growl, and then to a really annoying pulsating growling noise and vibration powerful enough to be felt through the floor. I may be slow at times, but I ain't stupid. I know a bad wheel bearing when I hear it.

Not 300 feet out of my driveway this morning the noise became almost deafening, so I decided to make trip to the dealer so my technician could confirm the diagnosis. On the way there I performed a few standard tests so I could give that data to my tech and hopefully save his time and mine. First I swerved left and right.. No real change. I accelerated rapidly. Still no change. Only when I quickly let off the gas following that acceleration did I notice the growling become more pronounced.

I arrived at the dealer and gave my tech the symptoms and the results of my tests. Accomodating as ever, he quickly hopped in the driver's seat for a test drive, but we didn't get more than a couple hundred feet toward the exit when he confirmed that it was the left wheel bearing. We turned around and headed back to his bay to discuss it. I knew what had to happen -- but I just didn't want to go back home to get the E46. With a sinister grin on my face I asked "So...how much longer do you think I can or should drive this?" With a playful tone he reasoned "Well, you'll have to bring it back for an appointment. It's seven miles to your house, and seven miles back here. That's fourteen miles!" Okay, okay. No need to hit me over the head.

Normally I'm willing to wait however long it takes to get an appointment, but since I wanted to get the car back in service as quickly as possible I brought the car in this evening in the hope that they'd get to it before the weekend. The next update will tell.

"Wait a minute", I hear you ask. "I thought you were on a DIY kick. Why are you having the dealer do this?" While replacement of front wheel bearings on a BMW is a straightforward task, and I do plan to do those myself soon, rear wheel bearings are a pain in the ass under optimal circumstances (i.e. you have the right tools and the bearings haven't fused themselves to the trailing arm or the hub). At this point I don't have the tools, I know that it would take at least a week to get them here, and mileage on the E46 is a lot more costly than that of the E36. And then there's the little voice in my head I often take with me when I fly, warning me "don't bite off more than you can chew on your first major DIY project". I think the brake job will be enough of a burden.

(Image: BMW Brake Pads)Brake Parts Arrived

On a positive note, I received the shipment from Tischer BMW and everything appears as ordered. Pads, rotors and set screws for four corners plus the two wear sensors came to a bit over $340. That's a great price so as long as they keep the discounts coming Tischer will get first crack at my parts business from now on. Many thanks to Jason for a completely professional transaction.

And speaking of brake parts, I just noticed a slight defect in the right front rotor that is the result of pad wear. It's no big deal at this point and I'm still hoping to do the brakes when the sensor trips, but if the rotor gets much worse, I'll consider the pads spent and just do the job to get it out of the way before cold weather sets in. No sense in working in a cold garage if you can avoid it, right?

Total Mileage: 132800, Parts: $343

September 27, 2006

(Image: Old Rear Wheel Bearing)Wheel Bearing Fixed

Picked up the car early this morning and took it to work. The wah-wah-wah sound is totally gone and the tires are as quiet as they should be at this point in their lives. That's the good news. The bad news is the price I paid to have this done...$510 with tax. Ouch. Book labor is 3.7 hours at $102 and the remainder is parts & tax.

While more than a few DIY'ers have voiced the opinion that they'd gladly pay someone to do this job (it can be a real PITA), I still say it's possible to do it yourself if you invest in the proper tools, which cost anywhere from $250 to $500 depending on what you buy. When the time comes to replace the right rear wheel bearing, I'm going to do that one myself...even if the tools cost me nearly as much. Worst case is I'll have to pull the trailing arm off the car and take it to a local mechanic to have the bearing pressed out. But no matter what happens I figure I'll learn a lot in the process and be able to rent the tools out to fellow DIY'ers to help recoup the cost. Fortunately wheel bearings tend to fail over a relatively long period (on the order of weeks) so when / if I notice the others starting to go I should have plenty of time to acquire the tools and allocate the time to do the job.

As you can see from the picture, this is a fairly large two-row tapered ball bearing unit with twin inner races and a single piece outer race. As is common, the inboard inner race (shown to the left of the main bearing assembly) stuck to the hub as it was pulled out of the trailing arm. Apparently it put up quite a fight, so my technician used a die grinder to weaken the race before breaking it and pulling it off the hub. Given all the noise this bearing made I expected to see more obvious internal distress but all I found was a relatively fine mix of metallic particles embedded in the grease. I guess that's all it takes to destroy the functional properties of a bearing.

The twelve-point axle nut (shown to the right of the bearing) holds the entire hub assembly to the axle shaft. As the nut is purposefully deformed when it is installed to ensure it won't spin, it's a single-use part. At $10 (retail) it's expensive too, but one might argue that this is not an area in which you should go cheap. They don't call them "jeezus" nuts for nothing.

Total Mileage: 133123, Labor: $377, $Parts $99, Total $510.

October 3, 2006

New Wiper Blades

After a nice morning of flying, the weather last Saturday went south pretty quickly. By 2PM I was on my way home from the airport in the rain and found my wipers streaking. I recalled hearing that my dealer now had Saturday hours so I stopped in to see if the parts department was open. Sure enough, I arrived to find a couple of familiar faces and wound up chatting a bit.

The parts guy had brought his really clean E30 in and showed me around it. This was the first time I'd seen an E30 up close, and was pleasantly surprised to find many familiar design cues brought forward into the E36. The E30 and E36 are as different as the E36 and E46, but it's easy to see the family history and the beauty in the simplicity of each design. Wish I could say the same for the E90/92. Damn you, Bangle!

Anyway, I intended to buy new wiper blades and install them myself, but not only did the parts guy give them to me on the house, the technician hanging out nearby offered to install them. Better yet, he took the time to show me an improved installation technique that did not involve bending the blade holders. He also pointed out that if you cut the rubber about 1/4" longer than the cutoff point in the metal stiffeners, you can use the rubber as a "wear gauge" of sorts. When the rubber shrinks to meet the edge of the stiffeners, it's time for new blades. Neat trick, eh?

Frozen Diff Plugs

The next day, I got psyched to drain the differential of fluid of questionable heritage and replace it with a couple quarts of Mobil 1 75W-90 I bought a few weeks ago, but it was not to be. What a pain in the rear, ahem, I mean "final drive". :-)

After a few attempts of several minutes each struggling to remove the fill plug, I just couldn't budge it. The Bentley says it's supposed to be torqued to 52 ft*lbs, and perhaps it was torqued to that spec some time ago, but it was now clearly frozen. I considered using my 1/2" drive, 2 foot breaker bar, but I lacked the required 1/2" female to 3/8" male adapter required to make that work with the stubby socket, and the tool house was closed by this time.

I chalked this up to yet another learning experience and resolved to get the adapter and/or a 3/8" drive, 16" long breaker bar next weekend to complete the task. Guess we'll see what happens then.

New Wheel Chocks

Since I knew there would be times I'd want to jack up the rear axle and leave the front end on the ground, I needed a good set of wheel chocks. I found both "large" ($14) and small ($7) collapsible chock at Pep Boys. The large chocks are actually called "SUV" chocks and are quite heavy, so they'll only be used around the garage, while I put the small chocks in the spare tire well just in case I need to change a flat on an incline. Yea, I know...you're not supposed to do that, but try finding perfectly level terrain in the mountains of northern NJ or PA!

The chocks and other tools are shown in the latest update to the tools article.

Mileage: 133400, Tools and Equipment: $22

October 8, 2006

Differential Fluid Replaced

(Image: Metal Contaminated Differential Fluid)This morning I decided to make another attempt to remove the differential fluid plugs. I went to Eppy's yesterday with the hope of finding a 3/8" drive 16" breaker bar but it turned out the 16" model was available in 1/2" drive only. The largest throw 3/8" drive model I could find was 10". I bought both with an adapter for the 16" bar, but I knew very well clearance might be an issue. Sure enough, once under the vehicle I tried the 16" bar with the adapter and found the assembly about 3/4" of an inch too deep. I then reached for the smaller 3/8" breaker bar and found that fit perfectly. A few good tugs managed to break the drain plugs free. Finally...I was in business.

Since I didn't take the car out to warm it up, the gear oil seemed to take its sweet time finding its way into my drain pan, but in only a few minutes it slowed to a trickle. At first glance the fluid looked brand new and I questioned whether I really needed to drain the fluid. However, as I pulled the drain pan out from under the car and into direct sunlight, I was shocked to find it filled with a very fine mix of copper or brass-colored metallic particles. When stirred, the oil shimmered with a pearlescent quality that reminded me of (as odd as this sounds) a shampoo I once used. Dark amber in color, the fluid was also darker than I originally thought, and certainly dirtier than the new Mobil 1 75W-90 I pumped in. The differential took every bit of the 1.8 quarts as specified in the Bentley manual, but I certainly didn't remove that much. I'm not sure where the oil went, but it wasn't in the differential. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the "waves" of metallic particles in the lower right hand portion of the drain pan. Note that the orange flakes in the center of the pan are NOT pieces of my differential...they're simply paper and glue residue leftover from the drain pan marketing label (thankfully!)

With the differential topped off, I hand tightened the fill plug and then prepared to torque the plugs to 52 ft*lbs as specified in the Bentley. I approached the full torque carefully, but decided to stop short of the full spec because it just didn't feel right -- the bolt did not produce the expected resistance as it neared the specified torque value. This was probably due to the crush washer (the bolt continues to spin at a near constant torque value as the washer is compressed), but I didn't want to take any chances. If I stripped the threads, I'd have to replace the differential cover, and although I wouldn't mind replacing it with a nice new BMW finned cover similar to the one on my E46 I'd just as soon avoid the expense right now. To remedy the problem, I backed off to 35 ft*lbs and the torque wrench responded with a click. I then stepped it up to 40 ft*lbs and got another click. Trying 45 ft*lb, however, caused more rotation than I felt comfortable with, so I left it at that. Taking static friction into account, my guess is that the plugs are somewhere around 40 ft*lbs and frankly I think that's sufficient -- spec or no spec. After all, it's not like I'm preparing the differential for space flight, right?

I used a paper towel to clean the area around each plug and took the car out for a short drive to a local sandwich shop to test for leaks. None to report, so that's mission accomplished. A differential fluid flush at my dealer is roughly $150 ($50 in parts, the remainder in labor). The aftermarket gear oil cost me $16 and the parts department gave me the crush washers on the house, so I saved myself roughly $135 doing this job myself. Was it worth doing and getting dirty doing it? Survey says "yes".

If you're wondering if you should replace your differential fluid, this is my take. Modern (post 1996) non-M BMWs come with an open differential. Fluid in open differentials in does not need to be replaced as often as in limited slip differentials, but I think it should be replaced at the first inspection to rid the unit of the metal created during break-in, and then every 36000 miles (every Inspection II) to replenish the anti-wear properties of the oil and rid the unit of any wear metals that may have accumulated. The gear oil I removed was, of course, thicker than the average motor oil at room temperature, but was much thinner than the new gear oil, so it's safe to say that gear oil breaks down over time as all oils do. Don't believe BMW's hype of lifetime fill differential oil. Regularly change your fluid and preserve the like-new tolerances of your differential.

Mileage: 133740, Parts: $16, Tools and Equipment: $66. Labor Saved: $135

November 11, 2006

Meow. Meow.

I left work a few minutes earlier than usual on the evening of election day to make sure I got to the polls before they closed. I was about 10 minutes into my trip, doing about 75MPH, when the "cockpit" was suddenly illuminated by a bright "Check Engine" light (CEL) in the gauge cluster. The car continued to run fine so I maintained speed and issued a request to pull my BMW troubleshooting mental subroutine from main memory and execute it. Fortunately, I'd used it recently so I got a cache hit and it loaded far faster than I expected (hey, I work with computers all day...why should this process be any different?)

At first, I considered the very real possibility that the incumbents had tampered with my vehicle so I wouldn't make it to my polling location in time to send them packing, but I ruled that out because I realized they lacked the intelligence required to sabotage anything but the federal budget and foreign policy. After I caught that exception and dismissed it, it didn't take much additional processing for the routine to spit out the most likely cause -- something to do with the catalytic converters or the post-cat oxygen sensors that measure cat efficiency. My technician had pulled that code a few times before, but the most recent state emissions tests demonstrated that the Cats are doing their job -- very well, in fact. There wasn't much I could do about the problem that evening, so I decided to continue on to the polls, do my part to save our democracy, and then head home.

The next morning I went to the dealer to find my technician away at school. Some other helpful techs pulled the codes and confirmed the CEL was flagged as a result of "Low Catalytic Converter Efficiency". Damn, I'm getting good at this stuff! They cleared the codes on my request to extinguish the annoying idiot light and told me my tech would be back the next day. Roughly 24 hours later, I showed up to give my tech the rundown and get his opinion.

I speculated aloud that the reason the code generated a CEL this time was because I did the oil change last time and the car simply hadn't been in his bay in a while. You see, although checking and clearing codes is not officially part of an oil service, my tech usually takes care of that because he likes to be thorough and notify customers of potential problems. This is important, because as I've pointed out before, many errors reported by the OBD / DME / TCM have thresholds, and will not necessarily trip a CEL if they occur. It may take two or more occurrences to trip the light. Since my technician didn't have an opportunity to clear any codes recently, there was probably an older code in the system and the election day event sent it over the threshold and triggered the light.

When I asked whether this was typically an oxygen sensor problem or really a Cat issue, he said with 135K miles on the clock, it was most likely a failing Cat. He also said that if I did need a new Cat, I'd be well advised to buy OE. With a knowing look on his face he warned me "...aftermarket cats just don't work on BMWs. I've pulled a lot of aftermarket junk off these cars." While I'm not looking forward to spending $1500, I am fortunate in that the 328is has the Cats in the mid-section of the exhaust rather than the headers, so replacing the Cats is as easy as dropping the exhaust from the headers back. My tech mentioned that the job is pretty straightforward and he recommended that if I decided to do it myself that I don't bother with disconnecting the rear and mid-sections of the exhaust -- just disconnect from the headers and drop the entire assembly down -- because it's a lot easier to deal with the bolts that connect the rear and mid-sections when they're out from under the car. Good news for when (not if) I need to do that.

It's been a few days since that problem and I haven't seen the CEL again. However, while driving today I managed to trigger another warning I'd expected to see several months ago -- the brake lining warning finally tripped after 48K miles on the fronts and a whopping 73K miles on the rear. It's very likely the front sensor tripped the warning, but I'm planning to do all four corners. If all goes as planned, I'll do the brake job tomorrow and get the car back on the road for my commute on Monday.

Technical Management

The past week brought some surprising news at my dealer. I'd known that my techician was expecting to retire from the business entirely in a few years, but he pulled me aside and told me that around the first of the year he'll be hanging up his torque wrenches and assuming his role as shop foreman exclusively. He said that in most BMW shops the foreman doesn't "work the line" as we pilots say, so this is really "the way things are(tm)".

After he got up off the floor and finished massaging his sore jaw, :-) I asked him "well, if you're not going to work on my car anymore, who do you recommend here? Obviously...I want someone who knows his trade like you do and can read between the lines of diagnostic codes on the GT1 for the best solutions to my problems." He quickly pointed someone out and in doing so named his successor.

I then pointed over at my tech's gigantic tool chest and the thousands of dollars worth of tools contained therein. "Hey, can I have those? I mean, you won't be needing them anymore, right?" His response was predictable. "Uh, I don't think so...I'll be using them soon enough if this management gig doesn't work out." Oh well. I tried. So it appears I'll be making a few more trips to Eppys after all.

Mileage: 135200.

November 12, 2006

First DIY Brake Job

I finally managed to assemble all of the parts, tools, and shop equipment I'd been amassing the last six months and tackle the brakes. Rather than detail the process here, I wrote up a separate DIY article you may find helpful. Bottom line, brake jobs on BMWs are very straightforward if you have a modicum of patience and mechanical ability.

Let's review the costs. As much as I've bitched about book labor, my dealer has never given me any discount on labor. Since book labor on a brake job is 2 hours per axle, at $102/hr we're looking at $408 in labor alone. I have traditionally received a discount on parts only when I walk up to the parts counter and buy them myself (very strange, but true), so when I consider a retail parts cost of $477, I arrive at a dealer cost of $910. Because I was able to do the job myself, I paid no labor charges per se, and I also managed to get a $135 discount on parts courtesy of Tischer BMW and my BMWCCA membership. $910 - $340 results in a net savings of roughly $570.

Now, I won't kid you -- I had to buy some tools to do this job, and my time isn't exactly worthless these days, so the real world savings is lower than that, but when I consider what a great learning experience and confidence builder this has been, the effective worth is much higher than the raw numbers suggest.

Mileage: 135225, Parts: $340, Parts Discount $135, Labor Saved: $433, Total DIY savings: $570.

November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day to all! Since I have the day off today and some time this morning before I binge on the culinary pleasures associated with this fine non-denominational holiday, I figured I'd update some of the background work I've been doing.

Inspections In Lieu

One of the reasons I was glad to pay my technician big bucks to do oil changes is that he would put the car on the lift and give it a mini-inspection of sorts. If anything was amiss, he'd let me know before things went wrong. Since I've been doing my own maintenance lately, however, I've been the one having to do those inspections. The recent brake job is a case in point. While I had the wheels off I got to take a close look at the underside of the vehicle, and this prompted some additional maintenance I plan to do over the coming months.

(Image: Closeup of front right stabilizer (sway) bar link) The belly of this car is remarkably clean given it's 8+ years old, but still dirtier than I need it to be in order to do a proper inspection to spot leaks, cracks and other problems. I think the best solution will be some degreasing agent delivered via compressed air wand. Eppy's is having an after-Thanksgiving sale tomorrow, so you know where I'll be.

The rear subframe of the vehicle is rusting at the welds. It appears to be a surface phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about, but I just hate seeing my baby rust. Unfortunately, removing the subframe for a proper stripping and paint job is a non-trivial task in that it requires complete removal of the rear suspension including differential. If were to do that, I'd be hard pressed not to do several other things while I'm in there:

Needless to say, that's a very slippery (and costly) slope, so the quick fix may be attacking the problem with strategic use of a wire wheel, masking, and a rattle can.

Front and rear swaybar links are showing their age and must be replaced. The links are nothing more than a bar with small rubber bushing in each end. The front link bushings appear to have partially separated from the inner surface of the link ends. While this isn't a wholesale failure of the part, the "slop" in the parts may account for what I believe to be an odd feedback I get through the steering wheel during aggressive, bumpy turns on some of our older highway exit ramps.The rear link bushings appear intact, but the rubber is clearly dry rotted, so I think I'll do those too. The rubber bushings that mount the bar to the body appear to be okay, but replacing them is easy enough while I'm under the car. Tischer will soon get the order for those so I can do them the same afternoon I swap in the new tires (see below).

Next spring I will likely do the front lower control arms in order to replace the ball joints and the rear trailing arm bushings to tighten up the rear. The vehicle still handles like a BMW, but it's definitely not as tight as the E46 -- even taking into account the fact that it's NOT an E46. I've read many a case of people having to replace these components at a far lower mileage than I have on my odometer, so I've either been blessed with perfect parts that are still in good shape (unlikely), I baby the car (most of the time, yes, but not always), or the changes in handling have been so subtle that I haven't noticed how bad things really are (bingo!) Those will be costly upgrades, but straightforward DIY projects that should save a couple thousand in labor.

(Image: E36 BMW Glovebox Convenience Flashlight) New glovebox flashlight

I've only used the integrated rechargeable flashlight from the glovebox of my E36 a few times, but it has come in very handy at those times. I'd noticed that it wasn't holding a charge anymore, so I considered replacing the batteries, soldering in new units as necessary. Unfortunately, upon disassembly I found the unit contains a set of batteries welded together and I could not find an equivalent set of batteries (solder tabs or not) to replace them. At that point I just decided to buy a new one.

My local dealer ordered the replacement, but the flashlight that arrived was a different type and did not fit in my car. When prompted about the discrepancy, the parts guy kind of shook his head, raised his shoulders and said "that's the only part available from BMW". Never one to take no for an answer, I emailed Jason at Tischer BMW in Silver Spring and he said he would be able to get it for me. I placed the order and received it a few days later. If you're wondering, the light I received is BMW part number 82119413147, and it works!

Microfilter

I wasn't scheduled to replace the microfilter for a few thousand miles (read: a few months) but I figured I'd leverage the shipping cost associated with the flashlight order as well as the Tischer discount and pick one up. Installing microfilters in an E36 is a royal pain the arse, but I consider it a rite of passage in DIY maintenance. There are those who have not (shouted explicatives) and those who will. I hope to document this process a bit better in a future update. Wish me luck. :-)

Tire Status

When the "tire noise" turned out to be a wheel bearing, I merely postponed the inevitable purchase of new tires. The rear tires are still above the tread wear indicators at nearly 20K miles, but are now slick in rain. So slick, in fact, that my recent driver training on the skidpad has come in VERY handy. The fronts naturally have more tread than the rears, but are badly cupped. Simply to ensure I have good rubber on the car during our upcoming snowy season (January through March), I'm planning to call Tire Rack the first week in December.

I've settled on buying four Pilot Sport A/S in 235/40/18 fitment and a single Pirelli pZero Nero M&S for the spare. Why? Two reasons. First, I don't want to spend the extra $70 on a tire that will be used very infrequently, if at all. And second, the spare needs to be able to go on either side of the car and the Pirelli, unlike the Pilot Sport, is a non-directional tire.

Mileage: 135860, Parts $23 (not counting the microfilter, which will be accounted for in a later update).

December 5, 2006

Jeez. I can't believe it's December already, but that's a good thing, because it means in less than a month the days start getting longer again and in another four months or so I can stop freezing my butt off in the garage working on the car. Anyway, lots to talk about today, so let's get started.

Pilot Sport A/S Wins Again

I wrestled with the choices for a long time, but today I finally managed to pick up new tires to go along with the new CSL wheels I purchased back in August.

The first issue I had to resolve was the proper size for this non-standard application.

My E46 came from the factory with 225/40/18 on the front (on an 8" wheel) and 255/35/18 on the rear (on an 8.5" wheel). In my opinion, the front tires appear slightly stretched over the wheel. However, it is a factory-approved configuration. If the CSL wheels were 8" wide, I would have bought 225/40's and called it a day -- but they are, in fact, 8.5" wide. It stands to reason that if the 225's looked stretched on the 8" wheel of the E46, they'd look ridiculous on the 8.5" CSL wheel. I saw several pictures on e46fanatics.com that confirmed this belief.

Complicating this issue is the fact that not all 225 series tires are created equal. The so-called section width (effectively the width of the tire measured at the widest point in the sidewall) varies among tire manufacturers and models of a given manufacturer. The typical range for a 225/40 series tire is 8.8-9.2 inches, so simply put, you have to look at the specs for the tire as well as the standard tire sizes if you need to reduce the impact of the "stretch effect".

(Image: Tire size comparison between OE 225/50/16 and 235/40/18 While the Pilot Sport tires tend to run wide and look a lot better on an 8.5" wheel as a consequence, I don't think they're wide enough. For this reason, I ultimately decided to upsize to 235/40. Since the 235/40 series tire is slightly taller than the OE 225/50/16 I'm running right now, the speedometer will read 2.2% lower, and that will cause a corresponding decrease in the odometer reading (about 450 miles over the lifespan of the set if we ignore the effects of normal tire wear). The interesting part is that BMW speedometers tend to read 3-4MPH too high on average, so the error introduced by the non-standard fitment reduces the effect of that error.

Trivia: The built-in error in the BMW speedometer is only present in the analog instrument. The optional OBC in my vehicle will, if repeatedly cleared while in the SPEED mode, show the "real" speed of the vehicle. Don't ask me why BMW did this. Some suggest it was the automotive equivalent of setting the time on one's clocks five minutes ahead to ensure you're always five minutes early. And yes, it has just about the same effect in the car too, since I typically add about five MPH to the indicated speed to make sure I'm driving at the posted limit.

The second thing I wrestled with was the brand of tire.

As I indicated in an earlier log entry, I had narrowed my choices down to the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S and the Pirelli PZero Nero M&S. Both brands were available in 235/40 fitment and both came highly recommended. A colleague recently purchased a set of Pirellis for his 5 series and has been happy with them. And here's the kicker -- the Pirellis were nearly $100 less expensive per tire. Since my money is busy doing other, more important things right now, I was a bit more price sensitive than usual. But, when all was said and done, I coughed up the cash for the Pilot Sport A/S. Why? The quality of tire construction is much more important on low-profile tires and Michelin is well known for producing true tires. The downside is that five tires came to a bit over $1300 with shipping. That's one serious hunk of change and the most I've ever spent on tires.

I had briefly considered buying the non-directional Pirelli PZero Nero M&S for the spare to save a few pennies, but figured I'd keep the brand the same so I could rotate the spare with the right rear (which tends to wear slightly faster than the left rear due to the open differential) and not have it look ghetto. A local tire rep also told me that if I really had to, I could run the directional Pilot Sport the "wrong way" for emergency purposes without any negative effect on the tire itself. I would only need to be cautious in inclement weather. That's good news.

Finally, logistics of delivery, mount, and balance

I originally planned to have Tire Rack drop ship the tires to my dealer and bring the wheels to them for the mount & balance. My plans were put on hold when I was informed that the new owners had raised the price to mount and balance a tire from a high, but acceptable $40 to the ludicrous sum of $75. Yes, you read that right. $75 PER TIRE. Their rationale? BMW book labor is 0.7 hours per tire, and people will pay it. Except me, of course. I learned some time ago what equipment King used to mount my tires, so it didn't take long to find a website that allowed me to search for registered operators of Hunter balancing equipment. I found a local company with the same equipment as my dealer that was willing to do the same job for $35 each.

I figured I'd just give the job to the indy shop, but since I'm not one to take no for an answer, I decided to go see the dealership service manager. When I arrived, I discovered that the service manager I'd known for many years (but never had to talk to regarding any service problem if you can believe that) had quit. I greeted the new manager and sat down with him to discuss my issue. He took my phone number to look up my records, then made a few comments about the long history I had with the company and the fact that he had seen me around the shop more than a few times. He asked me whether I had bought my cars there and I replied in the affirmative. We then discussed the fact that I thought $75 was excessive. I believe my sentiment was "I'm not a prude with my money, but I'm not stupid with it either". We also discussed what I wanted to do, and I emphasized that King management never had a problem with accepting drop-shipped tires because they knew I'd never buy from them anyway (thus it was no loss to them). After about 10 minutes, he finally relented and said in the interest of continuing a good business relationship with me that he would reduce the cost for the mount and balance to $40/tire.

I concluded the meeting with the impression that he didn't seem to think that the original price was abnormal or excessive. On one hand I can see that it is the duty of every business to charge what the market will bear, but on the other, the hippie in me suggests that there's a line between making money and outright greed -- and the dealership had crossed that line.

The tires should arrive at the dealer in the next couple of days.

Custom Sway Bar Link Wrench

(Image: Closeup of area sideswiped by moron)The front sway bar links connect to the front sway bar using a ball joint. To prevent the base of the joint (the bolt) from rotating when trying to remove the associated nut, you need a 16mm open-end wrench with a thin profile. My technician told me that although BMW provides a special tool for this purpose, in reality he uses a custom tool he made by grinding down a 16mm wrench. I bought a 16mm wrench from Eppys that I plan to sacrifice for this purpose, and while $10 is a lot to spend on a tool just to hack it up, it's cheaper than the BMW tool by a long shot. I'll talk more about that tool when I do the links.

Back to the Body Shop

Looks like I'm headed for the body shop -- for a third time. I came out from work tonight to find that the car had been sideswiped by a moron who parked next to me and decided to crank his wheel a bit too hard over while backing out. I didn't see who did it, and he didn't bother to leave a note with his information as required by law. In other words, it was a hit and run.

A bit of bad luck, I suppose, but as usual I plan to unravel the mess and spin it into gold:

If you've ever wondered why I have two cars and I don't commute with the E46, this is why. Breathe. Deeply. Relax.

Mileage: 136250, Parts: $1303

December 10, 2006

CSL Replica Wheels and Tires Installed

(Image: CSL replica wheels installed on E36) The Pilot Sport A/S tires showed up at my dealer on Thursday and I arranged to have my tech mount & balance them Friday. I threw the wheel boxes in the back of the pickup truck and took them to the dealership before work. As I transferred the boxes to my technician's bay, he commented on the utility of a pickup truck in such situations. With a straight face I replied "yea, this truck is awesome...it goes 0 to 60 in FOREVER. The only problem is if I drive it for more than 30 minutes at a time, I lose the ability to do complex math!" He chuckled as I broke into a smile.

While my technician finished the job later that day, I couldn't get away from work until later that night, so I figured I'd take advantage of my dealer's new Saturday hours to pick them up.

After a brief diversion to my county HazMat facility to drop off some old paint, household cleaners, a long-dead car battery and some used motor oil, I arrived at the dealership Saturday morning to find that my technician had stacked the wheels in one of the rear bays in the shop separated by pieces of cardboard as requested. As I carefully loaded them into the back of the pickup truck, a couple of techs wandered by. One guy commented that they looked good. I explained the fact that while they're replicas made in the far east and lack the casting quality and finish of the OE wheels when viewed up close, they admittedly look good at typical viewing distances, get the job done, and are about one-third the price of OE wheels (that is, assuming, you wanted to put up with 19" wheels, as there is no such thing as a 18" CSL / competition package wheel).

Upon closer inspection, I found my technician had to use anywhere from 0.5oz to 1.5oz of weights to balance them. I'm not sure whether this was due to casting irregularities or tire issues, but he was able to balance them with a minimum of weight by placing the weights on the outside edge of the wheel. It's certainly possible to put weights inside the face of the wheel where they are less noticeable, but weights are most effective when placed on the outside edge. This isn't a particularly attractive option, but I asked my technician to use his best judgement. My opinion is that looks take a back seat to function when necessary, and that's particularly true in the case of wheel weights since I can't see the weights when I'm driving (and truth be told, no one else can either).

A couple of hours later, I managed to install the wheels. They went on the car easily enough, and I noticed the hubcentric design fit the hubs snugly. This is important because a close fit in this area is required to prevent vibration or other problems that detract from the driving experience.

The Drive

So how's it drive? In a word: great. I was very concerned about how low-profile tires would affect the vehicle's well-balanced stock handling characteristics because this car is my daily driver. While I like the E46's ZHP suspension and it's a blast to drive fast in the twisties, I can honestly tell you that I do find it fatiguing to drive for a number of reasons and I did NOT want to recreate that feel with the E36. On the test drive, I was relieved to find that the car drove like it did running on the 16" wheels with a few minor exceptions.

First of all, I do feel more defects in the road through the steering wheel (front tires) and the "seat of my pants" (rear tires). This is to be expected with a shorter and stiffer sidewall. The tires are simply communicating more of those defects to the wheels, which are then transmitted through suspension components to the body structure. The ride is still perfectly smooth and is not jarring in any sense like the ZHP can be under certain conditions.

The turn-in is radically improved, as one would expect from larger wheels to spread the load, slightly wider tires, and a stiffer sidewall. The tires don't have as much "give" and when commanded to turn, they turn. I haven't yet explored the limits of the tires because I need to let them break-in first, but if the first few turns are any indication, the wider tires and wheels on the front of the car will significantly reduce understeer and therefore increase turning performance.

The pleasant surprise was the noticeable lack of steering instability that occurred with the 16" Pilot Sport A/S. Let me explain what I mean. Long time readers will remember that the car came from the factory with a summer tire, the Dunlop SP2000. I replaced that with a similar high performance summer tire, the SP8000. While I've forgotten how the SP2000's drove (yes, it's been nine years -- give me a break) I do recall that the SP8000's tramlined badly. I didn't have enough experience with the BMW (and, admittedly, cars in general) at that time to recognize the condition as a function of tires, but it was one of the reasons why I ultimately chose to replace it with the Pilot Sport A/S in 16x7, 225/50 fitment.

The Pilot Sport A/S cured the tramlining problem and returned the classic BMW "neutral" steering feel. Unfortunately, at times I felt the steering to be almost "too neutral". Call it "loose". Based on my short-term experience with the new wheels and tires, I can now say that the gyroscopic effects of the larger wheel mass combined with a stout, stiff sidewall perfectly stabilize the steering in the neutral position and contribute to an overall sense of steering precision that the car simply lacked up to this point. In that sense it steers a bit more like the E46, but is actually far more comfortable to drive for long periods because of the lower-ratio steering rack. To put it another way, the E36 has a slight deadband around the neutral steering position. The E46 does not.

The one negative is that acceleration is reduced slightly, but that was expected. The car has to get a lot more mass moving and that mass is farther away from the center of the hub. It's a simple matter of physics. On the upside, the one "radical departure" I made did not spin the wheels, so ASC never cut in, and the result was a nice, smooth, fast departure. Larger wheels won't help the quarter mile times, but I don't really care about that. All I *do* care about is ride quality, minimizing understeer and increasing overall traction in the twisties, which is where this car shines...as is the case with most BMWs.

The Look

(Image: Pilot Sport A/S 235/40/18 installed on CSL wheels)How does it look? Amazingly good considering the wheels were not designed specifically for the E36 body. They give the car a more aggressive, yet classy, look. While the body designers recently enlisted by BMW clearly need to see the business end of a .357, I have only praise for the wheel designers. BMW's wheel designs have become progressively more interesting and remained tasteful and classy at the same time. I mean, does anyone remember what the E36 "bottle caps" looked like? Egad. The sport-package double-spoke 16" wheels were the best-looking wheels of the day and still look great on the car, but it's safe to say the 18" CSL design tastefully advances the look of the E36 and brings it into the current day.

So how's the stretch, you ask? Fine. I'm really happy that I chose to go with 235/40's on the 8.5" wheel. The protective ridge of the tire extends just beyond the rim of the wheel. It's not enough to protect the rim in the event I curb it, but then again, neither was the 255/35 on the rear of the E46. You just have to accept the fact that curbing these wheels costs money, and you need to do everything in your power to avoid doing so.

Brakes Inspection and Followup

This week I'd noticed that if I pressed lightly on the brakes as I slowed to a stop, one of the brakes would squeal. It was very faint and happened only once every 10 stops or so, but it was enough to convince me I should pull the calipers off and apply some additional Plastilube grease on the contact points between the pads and the carrier bracket. I did this at the same time as the wheel swap for obvious reasons.

I'll admit that I did not put a lot of Plastilube on the carrier brackets originally because my technician suggested that the job required very little grease in general, but after looking at the TIS (BMW service information), I realized I didn't coat some areas BMW recommends. With that new found knowledge, I added grease in the proper points and reassembled the brakes. Naturally, the calipers came off very easily this time because no ridge had yet formed on the rotors. In fact, it took me less than five minutes to complete the operation per wheel. I can now see why people find it easy to change pads at the track. If you're not taking off the carrier bracket, etc, R&R'ing the calipers really takes no time.

The downside? During the test drive with the new wheels, the brakes squealed again. Not sure what the problem is. It may just be a characteristic of the OE pads I received (they do reserve the right to change the formulation), but more likely there's just something I've done wrong, as I have NEVER heard the brakes squeal on this car. If I come up with a cause and solution you'll read it here, that's for sure.

Mileage: 136480, Labor: $217

Monday, December 18, 2006

CSL Replica Valve Stem Issue

Last Saturday I was finishing my weekly car washing ritual and cleaning tons of fresh brake dust off the new CSL wheels for the first time when I discovered a potentially serious problem. As I pushed the sponge into the crevice between the valve stem and the wheel, I heard a hissing sound. I pulled the sponge away and the hissing stopped. I then grabbed the valve stem and rocked it back and forth. Hiss. Hiss. Hiss.

A quick pressure check found not one, but BOTH, rear tires at around 14 PSI, while the fronts were near 33 lbs as I would expect. I couldn't believe my eyes, so I checked it again. Same results. 14 PSI is way too low for a low profile tire. And in fact it's low enough to permit the tire to dismount from the wheel under load. I looked more closely at the sidewall of the rear tires and found they bulged outward a very slight amount as compared to the front tires, but not enough to communicate the severity of the problem. That's when I realized low-profile tires do not exhibit the signs of underinflation the way the 16" or smaller tires do.

The valves were obviously the cause of the lower pressure, but I couldn't immediately explain the disparity between the front and rear tire pressures. If this was a simple matter of centrifugal force, as a function of speed, pushing the stem outward and causing a leak, why didn't the front tires lose pressure?

I then remembered a similar case involving the E46 M3. People were bitching about the fact that the valve stem caps were contacting the wheel and marring the finish, and the problem was concentrated on the rear tires. It turned out that it had more to do with the wheel hop that occurs as the vehicle quickly accelerates and the tires claw for grip, or when the tires go over a bump in the road. The solution involved, from what I recall, installing fixed metal valve stems.

Later that night I sent email to the wheel distributor as well as to e46fanatics.com in search of information. The consensus was that the valves were improperly installed -- they simply weren't tightened enough. When I asked the distributor for a torque spec, he confessed he didn't have one. It appears the stems are installed "tight, but not too tight" and with a delicate sprinkling of pixie dust for good measure. I emphasized the critical nature of this problem and the liability it represented, but the distributor pointed out that he had not heard of anyone's stems leaking. One guy on e46fanatics admitted that while the stems on his car leaked in the same way as mine, he hadn't lost any pressure other than the normal and expected 1-2PSI per month. Guess I'm the first to experience this problem. Lucky me.

I went to the dealer first thing this morning and discussed the matter with my technician. He apologized for the error, but pointed out that lacking a torque spec, he tightened the stems as far as he thought prudent, as he didn't want to crush the o-ring and destroy the seal they're designed to create. Truth be told, the stems were tight and barely moved...but just weren't tight enough. We discussed the option of replacing the stems I provided with metal and rubber stems he installed on a daily basis, but we were also conscious of the fact that changing stems would affect the balance, and neither one of us wanted to rebalance the wheels unless absolutely necessary.

My technician agreed to address the issue as soon as I could get the wheels to him, so the plan is to drop them off tomorrow morning. For logistical reasons I may not put the wheels back on the car for some time, but I'll report on the fix in a few days.

Parts Order

I just learned that my company is shutting down during the week of Christmas, so I plan to leverage the extra time to do some needed work on the car. I'm planning to do:

I used realoem.com to find the myriad parts required for these tasks and put them in an email to Jason at Tischer BMW for a quote. Due to shipping costs, however, I'm planning to pick up the oil from my local dealer.

The last oil service was what I call a "mid-cycle" change, in which I don't reset the oil service indicator. This time I'll need to clear the indicator, so I figured it was time to acquire my own means of doing that. I've known for some time this amounted to grounding pin 7 of the diagnostic connector (under the hood) for a specific period of time (3 seconds for oil service, 9 for inspection), but I never bothered to concern myself with this because my dealer always took care of it.

Based on some great information I learned that BMW sells a short length of wire with a pin crimped on one end designed to fit the diagnostic connector. At less than $2, I figured this was better than buying those ridiculously overpriced $50 commercial service reset tools, so I included that part in the parts order as well. All I'll have to do is attach an alligator clip to the end of the wire and I'll have a $5 solution to this problem. I don't have a category in my "bottom line" reports for "tool savings", but if making my own tools becomes a regular thing around my garage, I may just add one.

The parts quote came back at $280. While that's a lot of money, it's a great deal for what I'm getting. Labor for the equivalent work would probably be at least twice that, so I think doing this work myself will make good fiscal sense. The parts should be here the middle of next week.

Mileage: 137000, Parts: $280

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

CSL Replica Valve Stem Issue Followup

I brought the wheels to my technician yesterday and picked them up this morning. The good news is that my tech was able to tighten the stems by simply deflating the tire and breaking the outside bead only, and doing so was easy enough because the mounting lubricant hadn't completely bonded the tire to the wheel. Since the tires weren't shifted on the wheel and we were able to use the original stems he didn't have to rebalance the tires.

Upon closer inspection, the stems still move around a bit, but they don't leak. This proves my assertion that there is a "sweet spot" of sorts, achieved at a specific torque, that is tight enough to prevent leaks, but loose enough not to split the o-ring. I still do not know what the "official" torque is, and I don't think I ever will know, apparently because the manufacturer assumes this is too trivial an issue to warrant any concern.

The assumption is that installers will just "know" how to install them properly, and if not, it's the installer's fault. That attitude is strangely reminescent of programmers I've worked with that write bad code, don't document anything, and then just expect the customer to "deal with it" in the field. I just hope for the manufacturer's sake that they start providing the necessary information to new customers or they may find themselves the target of a lawsuit when someone loses their car (or worse) over this. Think it can't happen? Think Firestone and think again.

All I can do at this point is communicate what I've learned so this doesn't bite anyone else:

  1. If your car is not equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), check tire pressures daily for a few days following the installation of new wheels, tires, or valve stems and then once weekly thereafter as part of normal maintenance.
  2. If you have metal valve stems, try to move them around a bit. If you hear ANY air leaking, get them to a tire shop and have them tightened. Centrifugal force -- and in particular, wheel hop due to rapid acceleration or bumps in the road -- can push the valve stems out and cause a leak. The leak may be only a momentary thing, but the effects are obviously cummulative and can have disasterous consequences on a high performance car if left unchecked. A BMW ain't no minivan.
  3. There's nothing wrong with rubber stems. In fact, I prefer them because they naturally seal against the inside of the wheel (they're a press fit), while metal stems rely on proper torque and one or more o-rings to maintain the seal. The KISS principle applies here as well as anywhere.

And speaking of tire pressure, it's not entirely clear what pressure I should be running in these tires. The E36 came with 15, 16, and 17 inch wheels over its lifetime, and the inflation data for those sizes is available on the door frame. The only data I have for 18" wheels comes from my E46, which specifies 32 lbs front / 38 lbs rear, but that is hardly applicable to the E36 due to differences in vehicle weight and wheel / tire sizes. I'm considering 34/36 lbs to start, and plan to closely watch tire wear, particularly on the rear. I used to run the 16" tires at 32/34 and have noticed the Pilot Sport A/S has worn a lot more in the center of the rear tires. This could be due to the softer compound used in the center of the tire, overinflation, or perhaps a little of both.

Mileage: 137180

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Oil Service

Right on schedule, I did my second DIY oil service. The job was a bit easier this time around for a few reasons:

This was the first time I had to reset the service indicator lights. As I indicated earlier, I used a special wire assembly sold by BMW to short pin 7 of the diagnostic connector to ground to reset the lights.

I only had one snag. You're supposed to short pin 7 for three (3) seconds to reset the OIL SERVICE indication but that didn't work. I did it again and that still had no effect. I did it a third time and the display changed to show "INSPECTION" and the bar graph changed from showing one green bar to one yellow bar remaining. This may very well have occurred because the car was ready for inspection rather than an oil service, but I lost track. I then decided to short the pin out for a continous period of nine (9) seconds, and that reset the lights properly. Since I don't really use the lights anymore other than as a general reminder to check out my maintenance schedule spreadsheet, if I reset both oil and inspection lights each time, that's fine with me.

Mileage: 137310, Parts: $36, Labor savings: $70

Front Sway Bar Links

(Image: New front stabilizer bar end link installed) This was a straightforward task with one exception. When checking realoem.com for the front sway bar parts I saw only one option for the bushings -- 24 mm. I knew that one of the attributes of the sports package on this car was a larger swaybar, so when realoem.com showed a "low-slung suspension" option for an 18mm rear bar, I figured that was the only difference. While I had the car jacked up for the oil change, however, I took a close look at the front sway bar bushings and saw "25.5" stamped on them. so it turns out that BOTH swaybars are larger on the sports suspension and the front is 25.5mm rather than 24mm. This meant I had ordered the wrong parts.

Knowing that some BMW parts are "phantoms" (that is to say, not shown in the parts diagrams of the ETK, but otherwise available if you enter the part number manually), I looked for a part number on the bushing. I managed to clean up the side of the bushing sufficiently to see a few numbers, but they didn't resemble a BMW part number so I didn't bother to copy them down. I went to the dealer's parts department on the assumption that realoem.com was out of date. It turned out that their latest ETK software provided the same (incorrect) information.

While hanging around the parts desk I ran into my technician. Always accomodating, he offered to put his lunch aside, put the car on the lift, and remove one of the bushings to look for a hidden part number. The only numbers on the bushing he found aside from the size (25.5) were the numbers I found earlier. He brought those numbers over to the parts desk and the parts guy was able to come up with a full part number and enter it into ETK manually. The good news at this point was that the part was available, but they didn't have any in stock, so my technician had to put the old ones back on the car.

While he had the car up on the lift, I asked him to take a quick look at several things -- trailing arm and subframe bushings, front lower control arms & balljoints, and tierods. He said that he "never" replaces the trailing arm bushings, which is really his way of saying they're a very rare fix in this shop. He also said that when the subframe bushings fail it's obvious, but mine weren't sagging at all -- they appeared to be in good shape. To finish up, he did the usual tug on the front wheels and gave the ball joints a clean bill of health. When I mentioned the problems I was trying to solve, he commented that at roughly 75K miles on the struts he felt they were about 3/4 of the way through their useful life and were the most likely culprit. Struts are now on the list for work I'm planning for the spring.

Back at home, I figured I'd just reinstall the new CSL wheels (with fixed valve stems), but once I pulled the front wheels off I realized that I could replace the end links now and do the bushings later without removing the wheels at that time, so that's what I did. It took me about 20 minutes to do the first link because I had to file down my 5/8" sacrificial combination wrench I bought the other day for this purpose, and just figure out what sizes of wrenches and sockets I'd need for the task. The second link was done in less than 5 minutes.

I originally decided to replace the sway bar end links because I thought they might be reponsible for the "shudder" I felt in the steering wheel as I drove over rough pavement, particularly when turning. After a few hundred miles of driving it's clear that the shudder is gone and the steering appears a bit smoother overall. As a result of this experience I've changed my recommended maintenance interval on end links to 72K miles.

I have yet to tackle the rear bar, but that will come soon.

Mileage: 137400, Parts $100, Labor Savings: $100

Body Shop Estimate

As you may recall, an unknown moron sideswiped the driver's side in a parking lot at work a few weeks ago. I took the car to the same shop that did the work earlier this year and settled on a plan to repaint the driver's side door and blend into the quarter panels, replace the driver's door pull trim and bump strip, the lower skirt and the two mirror covers. The damage? $1600.

This was technically considered an accident even though I was no where near the car when it happened, so my $500 deductable applied. The most I could hope to get from my insurance company is $1100, but it's likely they would refuse to do the job to my satisfaction and come up with their own, far cheaper, estimate. In addition, their bean counters would likely count this as an accident, even though it was a hit-and-run and the reps told me it wouldn't count against me. I pay less to insure both of my cars now than I used to pay to insure the E36 when it was new, so any money I might hope to get from my insurance is not worth the risk of a long-term increase in premiums.

The shop offered to take the car in next week, and my guess is that the work will take about two weeks to complete.

CSL Wheels Reinstalled

I decided to put the CSL wheels back on the car so I could put the valve stem issue to bed and also to test the new end links. The good news is that the valve stems appear to be holding air at 36 PSI and the end links quiet the steering shudder on the 18" wheels as well. The bad news is I'll have to remove the wheels again before I take the car to the body shop, as body work is a messy business and I don't want any sanding residue or overspray on them -- especially after all I've been through to get them on the car.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Front Sway Bar Bushings

The new 25.5mm front sway bar bushings came in so I picked them up and installed them today, and in doing so completed the front sway bar service. The steering is even smoother than it was before, and I honestly didn't expect much of a change because the old bushings, while slightly deformed, seemed to be in generally good shape.

The inner diameter of the new bushings fits the bar snugly, and the only issue involved fitting the bracket over the new bushing. The outer diameter of the bushing is slightly oversized so that tightening the bracket squeezes them against the bar to hold it tightly. I suppose in retrospect I could have used some sort of rubber lubricant that will dry out (my technician says Spray-9 works perfectly for this task) and cleaned up the bracket a bit, but I just used a hammer to gently tap the bracket over the bushing.

I then pushed the entire assembly up to the studs in the frame rail and threaded new nuts without difficulty. I noticed that this process initially opened up the split in the bushing a bit more than I expected, but the gap closed up again as the nuts reached their final torque of 22Nm or 16 ft*lbs and the bracket compressed the bushing against the bar.

For what it's worth, after 137K miles, the rubber in the old bushings was perfectly pliable...it was merely compressed in areas subject to the greatest stresses. Given the outcome, how inexpensive the parts are, and how easy it is to replace them, I recommend the bushings be replaced when the endlinks are done.

Mileage: 137600, Parts: $10, Labor savings: $80

Power Steering Hoses

(Image: Bottom of power steering reservoir showing hoses leaking) While the car was jacked up, I figured I'd take some pictures I needed to update the power steering flush article. And that's when I noticed leaks from both hoses on the bottom of the reservoir as well as some wetness around one of the fittings on the pump. The common denominator? Each fitting still sported the original BMW crimped clamp used during manufacturing nine years ago.

As I took a closer look at the hoses I noticed that the metal portion of the return line (the coil) was in bad shape too, except this had more to do with corrosion. I figure it will be just be a matter of time until this fails, so I expect to replace the hoses soon and do a flush as well. Of course, I don't expect things to be that easy. There's a distinct possibility that attempting to liberate the hoses from reservoir will break the nipples on it, so I plan to replace the reservoir as well. All told I'm probably looking at $150 in parts, but I'll probably save twice that again in labor doing it myself.

Year In Review

This will be my last maintenance blog entry of 2006, so I figured I'd reflect on the past year.

First of all, I've learned more about BMWs and auto maintenance in general in the past year than I had in the past 20. This has been a great educational experience. As with most new subject matter, I've regularly experienced the learning paradox -- the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know -- but that drives me to learn more and take more risk in the pursuit of that knowledge.

This year has seen the BMW portion of my site grow substantially. This is the first year that I've had something to say (good, bad, or indifferent) every month of the year. I've quadrupled the average number of unique site visitors and I've doubled my average bandwidth usage. dvatp.com is still a small site by most standards, but it's definitely becoming more popular -- for all the right reasons I think.

The interesting thing I've noticed is that search strings increasingly contain the specific terms "Doug Vetter", "Doug's Domain", or "Doug's BMW" (as opposed to generic terms like "diy bmw brakes", which tells me that people may not know my site URL, but they know my name and what I do. If this continues, pretty soon I'll be so popular that I'll find myself on the same social strata as the girl of my dreams. Incidentally, if you see my contributions here drop off precipitously at some point next year, it's likely because she's answered my prayers (or maybe those 1000s of stalker emails) and I'm busy with both hands on her rather than this damn insensitive keyboard. *sigh*. Back on topic.

I have several goals in the BMW space for 2007. I want to wrap up the restoration of the E36, increase the work I'm comfortable doing myself, and do whatever I can do to reduce the cost of ownership. After all, I have big plans for my money over the next several years and the less money I spend on maintenance (without compromising quality or safety, of course), the better.

To all the regulars, thanks for reading. I do this stuff for you. Here's to a great 2007!