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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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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.


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.


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.


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.