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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Last week I made an appointment at the dealer for an alignment simply because I got the last alignment done there, most generic alignment shops don't know how to align BMWs worth a damn, and frankly, I didn't know I had other options. I had resolved to pay the dealer's 2.5 hour ransom for an alignment until I learned that Don did alignments for a lot less using an older (but still quite useful) Hunter 611 alignment system. He said that most people don't think he does alignments because his shop lacks the traditional alignment rack equipped with turntables but as it turns out a full rack is a luxury and not a necessity. When Don agreed to do the job for a far more reasonable price it didn't take much effort on my part to call the dealer and cancel the appointment in favor of a new appointment at Don's shop for today.

I awoke to a weather forecast reminiscent of the past several weekends during which I worked on the vehicle drenched in sweat. Around Noon I arrived at Don's shop with the temperature solidly in 90's and knew this wasn't going to be fun for anyone involved. They had fans running in the shop, but as Don pointed out, in 95+ degree heat they feel like hair dryers. After waiting a few minutes for Don to stop cursing at the electrical system on a restored early 70's Jaguar he was working on, he pulled the E36 in and got to work.

If you've ever watched what happens to a suspension under load, you probably know instinctively that the specifications BMW supplies for camber, caster, and toe must be taken at a certain reference point. That reference point is the height of the fender well above the ground, which implies a specific degree of compression in the suspension. That, in turn, is set by loading the vehicle with lead weight, sandbags, dead hookers, old batteries, or whatever else might be lying around.

After Don loaded the vehicle appropriately, he raised it to chest height to install and calibrate each wheel sensor. Then he raised the vehicle as required to loosen the RTAB consoles and tie rod adjustment stop-nuts, at which point I took the opportunity to take a picture of the completed rear suspension overhaul I could not achieve with the vehicle on jack stands due to the limited sight distance.

My picture taking session was soon interrupted by Don muttering obscenities. The stop-nuts were frozen on both sides and no amount of penetrating fluid seemed to make a difference. So Don asked his tech to bring over the big guns -- an oxyacetylene torch. If you work on cars long enough you learn the law of maintenance: what cannot be fixed with a hammer can often be addressed with a bigger hammer, and failing that, heat. While Don grabbed the adjustment flats on the tie rod, his tech applied the flame to the area around the stop nuts. This caused the penetrating fluid to turn to flame, smoke and steam, and that ultimately dissolved the rust and freed the nuts. The car was then lowered onto some stands equipped with turntables to begin the adjustment process.

At this point, I got to take a look at the "before" alignment of the rear. Surprisingly, what I thought was a safe "toe in" estimate turned out to be about -0.3 degrees of toe (toe OUT) on each side. While the rear felt "locked down" in a way I hadn't experienced in years, this explains why it felt "eager" to turn in an unsettling way. As with all alignment specifications, there is an acceptable range of values, and BMW's minimum toe value is +0.05 degrees. Translated: no toe out. Of course, we're only talking fractions of a degree, but the point to take home here is that it doesn't take much to change the character of the vehicle.

The spec for rear camber on the sport package suspension is -2.3 degrees. Higher amounts of negative camber will help keep the rear locked down (lessen oversteer) at the expense of increased tire wear on the inside edge. I think BMW takes that to an extreme so we dialed a bit of camber out and left it at around -1.85 degrees. Toe is nothing to play with, however, so after using a screwdriver to nudge the RTAB consoles into spec he snugged those down and moved on to the front.

The perk about the rear end of the E36 is that it's adjustable to a small extent in both camber and toe. The stock front end, however, is only adjustable in toe. Caster and camber are fixed and based on the structure of the shock towers and the other suspension components. If one's intent is to maintain stock suspension geometry that doesn't sound like a big deal until you realize that the strut towers bend over time and don't always take kindly to the pounding of potholes. As it turns out, my right side caster is just out of specification and, perhaps more importantly, differs from the left by about 0.12 degrees. Camber is within spec on both sides, but different side to side as well.

How much these discrepancies affect the real-world handling of the vehicle is up for grabs, but the only way to fix them is to use caster/camber plates to make both caster and camber adjustable. The anal retentive German in me suggests that this might be something to address in the upcoming front end overhaul.

Mileage: 193850, Labor: $150

Friday, July 9, 2010

Oil Service and Analysis

(Image: ) Last weekend I conducted another oil service after 4372 miles in service and took a sample to send to Blackstone Labs for analysis. Today I received the analysis and breathed a sigh of relief when the report indicated that lead had dropped to 8 PPM. This isn't quite back to the baseline of 4 PPM yet but any drop in wear metals is a good thing. This means I can put off plans to pull the engine and instead focus on other things including overhauling the accessory section and the front suspension.

Front Suspension Overhaul Plans

And while I'm on the topic of the front suspension overhaul, I figured I'd point out what I plan to do:

Many consider a Z3 steering rack upgrade to be a worthwhile place to spend money, particularly for cars that see track duty, but I'm not sure the benefits outweigh the substantial costs in my case. I'd have to purchase the rack outright since I don't have an identical core, and that would translate into something in the neighborhood of $750. Too rich for my blood right now, but perhaps I'll change my mind once I get into the job.

Mileage: 194050 [Oil Service at 193678], Parts: $45, Labor: $25

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sagging Headliner

You've heard the phrase “when it rains, it pours”, right? And, no, I'm not referring to the three inches of rain we received earlier this week after a good six weeks with not so much as a trickle.

While craning my neck during the morning commute something about the headliner in the vicinity of the passenger side window caught my eye. I did a double take and realized that I had finally fallen victim of the dreaded sagging headliner problem. A closer look when I arrived at work revealed a good 30% of the headliner fabric has detached.

So now I have to add a headliner replacement to the long list of work I have planned for the car. Removing the headliner requires removal of the A, B, and C pillar trims and in order to remove the C pillar trim I have to remove the rear deck cover. As the vehicle has spent the better part of its life as a daily driver sitting out in the company parking lot under the blazing sun the cover is bleached nearly white. That means if I remove it I'd be stupid not to replace it.

Of course, if I'm pulling all the interior trim surrounding the rear window, that would be the ideal time to replace the back window to fix a couple of inoperative defrosting circuits that are conveniently in my line of sight through the rear view mirror and replace the exterior trim that has been hardening and distintegrating for years.

Removal of the headliner also requires removal of the door weatherstripping. I have wanted to replace that for many years but was always put off by its cost. When I last priced the parts a couple years ago each piece retailed for around $250. Now I wished I'd sucked it up and bought the parts back then, as the current price is (put your hands over your ears if cursing offends you), F$#!@! $375 each. My cost is a bit lower but it's still $600 for a couple pieces of weatherstripping. That is highway robbery by any stretch of the imagination, and this is coming from someone conditioned to aircraft parts prices.

As "luck" would have it, replacement of the deteriorating exterior shadowline window trim (the metal piece that surrounds the side windows and formed to fit the famous Hofmeister kink) also requires removal of the door weatherstripping, so it appears I'll be doing the shadowline trim as well. Fortunately those trim pieces are still relatively inexpensive at $35 each. And good thing too -- from what I'm told, they are very easy to bend during installation, and if that happens they go in the circular file.

One thing I have yet to figure out is how to get the headliner out of the interior without destroying it or anything else. Some suggest that reclining the seats is sufficient to provide the necessary clearance while others suggest the seats need to be removed entirely. If I remove the seats it will be hard not to rebuild them, but that's to be expected since I appear to have a thing for slippery slopes.

Mileage: 194378

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Battery Failure

The day began like any other. I walked out to the car, hopped in, and turned the key. Except this time the car didn't start. No slow spin of the starter. Not even a solenoid click. Just one key chime and the faint glow of a few annunciator lights that reminded me of the last scene in an Airwolf episode called Moffett's Ghost. "Hmmm", I said in my usual sarcastic inner voice, "this one is going to be hard to diagnose."

Normally I'd be well set to handle a situation like this but suffice it to say that my current living arrangements are less than ideal, with my backup car, backup battery (the one I pulled out of the car three years ago) and virtually all of my tools at another location. I did have a volt-ohm-meter (VOM) on hand so I checked the battery and found it at 10.9 volts. Now all I needed to do was determine WHY the battery was discharged.

The vehicle has been starting well and gave no indications of a charging system failure on the drive home the prior evening. I also didn't do anything stupid like leave the lights on overnight and the car is not equipped with an alarm. That meant either some silent accessory in the vehicle was drawing power and pulled the battery under or a cell reversed and the battery was toast. Based on the fact that the battery did not turn over the starter and did not "recover" with the key off as most discharged batteries will, instinct told me it was time for a new battery. Since the E36 is fairly "old school" and more tolerant of a defective battery than the newer vehicles I figured I'd call a local tow company to try a jump start then drive the car over to my garage to get the E46 that I could then use to get the new battery.

When the tow truck arrived the driver connected a 20 foot jumper cable between a jack on the truck and the battery. After a few minutes of charging the starter reluctantly turned over the engine and it settled into a smooth idle. I let the engine idle for ten minutes while the driver wrote up the paperwork and I continued troubleshooting. I put the VOM on the battery terminals and found the voltage at 13.9. This meant that there was enough juice in the battery to energize the field and that the alternator was capable of producing a high enough voltage to run the car's electronics. This increased the likelihood that the battery was at fault and hinted it would be okay to drive the vehicle the few miles necessary to reach my garage.

When I arrived at the garage I strategically parked the vehicle knowing full well that the battery likely wouldn't start the engine again. Needless to say, I wasn't surprised when I shut the car off and then turned the key again, only to be greeted by a sickly rapid key chime -- a tell-tale sign that the vehicle's systems were not receiving full voltage. Since the 15 minute drive would have sufficiently recharged an otherwise healthy battery, this confirmed the diagnosis of a reversed cell.

I got out out of the car, grabbed a 13mm shallow socket and small ratchet, and removed the battery ground terminal followed by the positive. Then I used a 10mm deep socket and 3" extension to remove the retaining bolt, pulled the battery out and plopped it into the trunk of the E46. I then drove over to my dealer and picked up a new battery for $111. Of course my technician saw me waiting at the parts counter (again), feigned surprise, and asked me "Hey, where's your uniform? You're here all the time...you might as well wear one!"

This evening I stopped at the garage on the way home from work and installed the new battery. The vehicle started enthusiastically so the battery appears to have been the problem. However, because I'm skeptical by nature I brought the backup battery, the tools necessary to swap it, and my high current battery charger home with me just in case history repeats itself tomorrow morning.


I have replaced the battery twice over the life of the vehicle. The original battery was replaced in my first maintenance binge back in June of 2002 when the vehicle was a bit over four years old. That battery, in turn, was replaced back in September 2007 in accordance with my maintenance schedule when it had been in service for five years. The core charge on the battery was only $5 so I kept the 2002 unit as a spare and keep it topped off with a Battery Tender.

I don't know why the 2007 unit failed prematurely but my guess is, like everything else, general manufacturing quality has dropped in order to help BMW's bottom line. BMW batteries were once supplied by Douglas (not me) and in 2006 they switched to Exide. The battery I installed in 2007 was therefore an Exide unit though I don't recall seeing an Exide brand on it. The new battery I installed today has the Exide name prominently displayed on the label.

The general consensus online seems to suggest that Douglas made good batteries and Exide quality is not up to par with the Douglas. Still others have suggested that Exide simply bought the Douglas factory so the batteries are made to the same standard of quality. In any case I can't make a judgment based on a single event but I won't be surprised if the new Exide unit fails in under three years. If it does I'll change my maintenance schedule at that time to reflect the new reality.

Most dealers, incidentally, get $90 to install a battery and of course they charge full retail for the battery which is $140. That means I saved $90 in labor and about $30 in parts doing this job myself.

Mileage: 194515, Labor: $75, Parts $111, Parts Saved: $29, Labor Saved: $90

Friday, July 23, 2010

Remaining Parts for Accessory Overhaul

The remaining parts needed for the accessory overhaul arrived today. I bought the parts from the local dealer primarily because I wanted to simplify handling of the core charge refunds. The dealer's parts guys were kind enough to extend a 20% discount to me so the alternator cost $471 ($589 retail) while the power steering pump cost $333 ($417 retail). I also picked up a few extra fasteners I neglected to pick up in the last Tischer order for around $6, which brought the total to $810. I also paid core charges of $50 for the alternator and $60 for the pump but I'll naturally get those back when I return the cores after the work is complete.

While the ETK indicates only the power steering pump is remanufactured, as the pictures show the alternator is remanufactured as well. I have heard stories about the relative quality of Bosch rebuilds and one site went so far as to disassemble an Bosch overhauled alternator to find it equipped with cheap Chinese bearings. Will I get the same lifespan out of this remanufactured alternator? Time will tell. Fortunately the rebuilt pump looks as good as new and feels like it should go the distance.

You may note that the alternator does not come with a pulley. This means I'll need to swap the pulley from the old unit using my air ratchet. The power steering pulley is, of course, being replaced with a new aftermarket aluminum unit as shown. After checking the fit of the new pulley on the pump the plastic pulley I bought earlier from the dealer was returned for credit.

Mileage: 194575, Parts: $810, Parts Saved: $202

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Accessory Overhaul Day One

I got a late start today because I just couldn't fathom the idea of getting up early on my birthday. The weather forecast also promised 90+ degrees with high humidity so I was not exactly rushing out the door to work on the car if you know what I mean.

In any case, I got to work around 1:30 and managed to accomplish the following before leaving at 7PM:

I had originally planned to do an "official" power steering flush as part of this work but quickly ruled that out because I didn't want to waste any more time trying to acquire the necessary fittings. Fortunately, the ATF that I purged from the rack was still in very good shape so I know I won't be doing the new pump any harm by swapping 90% of the fluid again. Truth be told, this is exactly the way a technician would do it.

Even after I drained the radiator, when I removed the water pump a bunch of coolant flowed out of the block. I was expecting some coolant but not that much. Needless to say I didn't have a drain pan underneath the car at the time and covered the floor in coolant. I hosed the floor down and then got back to work.

Believe it or not, until now I had never removed the air conditioning belt so I didn't know exactly how to de-tension the belt because it is equipped with a different tensioner (hydraulic) than the mechanical tensioner I've worked with before. I figured it out pretty quickly, however. Both belts were showing their age and definitely needed to be replaced. Mike Miller of the BMWCCA has more than once recommended 60K as a proper service interval for good quality serpentine belts. Crappy belts on the other hand, might not last as long, so that's why it's important to check them at least once a month.

I was somewhat confused about how to remove the power steering pump, as the new pump was assembled in such a way that it appeared to require only two long bolts to install it, but as it turns out it is installed using a total of four bolts, including two bolts accessible from the rear of the assembly. Oddly enough, one of the brackets provided with the new unit will have to be removed from the pump to install it.

The oil filter housing gasket was very hard and remained stuck to the block when I removed the housing. I carefully peeled the gasket from the block and then used some duct tape (the only thing I could get to stick) to close off the oil passages before spraying everything down with a can of brake cleaner. This wasn't the least expensive or the most environmentally friendly way to do this but I needed a stream of degreasing agent under pressure and this did the job. For whatever reason I don't yet have a compressed air cleaning wand in my tools arsenal that I could use to spray a more friendly degreasing agent (like the ZEP citrus stuff) but I plan to buy one soon.

I had some difficulty finding a torque spec for the six bolts that hold the oil filter housing to the block. I did find an obtuse reference in the TIS for 40Nm and that's probably safe for a cast iron block, but generally speaking most of the block fasteners have relatively low torque specs in the neighborhood of 25 Nm (18 ft*lbs) so I went the conservative route and torqued to 30 Nm (22 ft*lbs). I think this will be acceptable because I could feel the housing pivoting over the gasket so I knew it was doing its job. Whatever the torque spec, the key to installing the housing correctly is to evenly torque the bolts so the housing mates evenly with the block. I had to use a 12" extension and a deep 13mm socket to torque the bolts.

I'm still on vacation tomorrow and plan to finish the work then. So far I have about four hours in the job. I took several breaks and was forced to sit on my hands for about 45 minutes while I waited for a strong line of thunderstorms to pass, but I have to admit it was nice just to relax for a change and listen to the soothing sounds of wind, rain, and thunder.

Mileage: 194600

Monday, July 26, 2010

Accessory Overhaul Complete

I got up at a reasonable hour today so I managed to start work at around 11 AM and finish up around 5PM. I took almost an hour for lunch and had to run an errand in that time so that means I spent around four hours doing the following:

When I flushed the power steering system yesterday I took extra time to rotate the wheels back and forth until I could no longer feel resistance or hear fluid squishing in the system. This purged the maximum amount of fluid possible using the optimal flush method. When I filled it today I moved the wheels back and forth (actually by grabbing the spokes in the rim and pivoting the tire rather than the steering wheel) until I felt consistent resistance in the wheels. All told the system took almost a quart of fluid. After the test run the fluid was not translucent, but I wasn't expecting it to be as only the official flush method has any hope of flushing all the old fluid and particulates from the system. I plan to do that at some point in the future but as I said yesterday I couldn't justify the time at this point.

My technician originally told me that remanufactured alternators come with a pulley attached. The remanufactured unit I received from the dealer most certainly did not come with a pulley so I had to transfer the pulley to the new alternator. I made quick work of loosening the pulley nut with my air wrench and a 24 mm thinwall socket and I was able to pull the pulley off the shaft of the old alternator by hand without significant effort. Oddly, the very same pulley would not fit with mere hand pressure onto the shaft of the new alternator so I had to use a 22 mm impact socket as a drift and hammer the pulley onto the shaft. Mind you this was not a crude attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole...the pulley clearly fit the shaft...it was simply a press fit. After I installed the pulley I glanced skyward and said a small prayer that the new alternator was not defective because I didn't have the foggiest idea how I would remove the pulley from the shaft and transfer it back to the old alternator. If I ever do this job again I'll buy a spare pulley just in case.

I would have preassembled the engine driven fan and new clutch ahead of time to save a few minutes but I was not sure of the orientation. It is entirely possible to mate the fan to the clutch in several ways. For clearance reasons I had to be sure, so I just waited until I could examine the old unit more closely and use it as a template. Since I've removed and reinstalled the fan several times in the past I made quick work of installing it this time and took a minute to bask in the glow of a nice new clutch and fan assembly.

Incidentally, after a test drive I opened the hood and noticed that the engine driven fan was spinning and blowing air at a rate I hadn't seen in, well, a long time. This tells me that the original clutch was near or at end of life. After all, the viscous coupling is supposed to become rigid when the temperature increases and therefore turn the fan at the speed of the water pump, and I was clearly not used to seeing it blow this much air. So the lesson learned is these things do go bad and not necessarily in an obvious way. The corollary is that the engine driven fan serves a purpose on these cars and should not be removed, at least on vehicles that came equipped with them from the factory (not all did).

I always keep a gallon of 50/50 mixed coolant around just to top off the system when necessary. When I used the entire gallon I had on hand and realized the system wanted more I had to run out for some coolant and distilled water. That ate up a solid hour of the day but it was necessary because all told the system took nearly two gallons. This means I can count this as a coolant flush in my maintenance schedule. Fortunately I had no issues with the cooling system bleeding process, but this was likely because I left the front end jacked up for the first few minutes of engine operation.

A few weeks ago I was hanging out at Don's shop and saw first hand how the bleeding process can go awry. I stood silently to the side as he and one of his techs lit up a freshly overhauled S52 on a track-prepped M3. The tech began to add coolant and Don started the engine. To help circulate the coolant and free any air from the system he revved the engine between 4000 and 5000 RPM and watched the temperature needle (aftermarket VDO unit) like a hawk. When the needle started to rise above a safe point he took this as a sign that an air bubble had formed in the system and the pump was not circulating coolant as required. To remedy the problem they quickly put the front end of the vehicle on the lift and raised it to aid the bleeding process. As expected this cleared the air bubble and the temperature dropped to the regulated value. Lesson learned: the more coolant you remove from the system, the more you risk encountering problems during the bleed, and the more you have to be on your guard with respect to monitoring coolant temperature.

When everything was ready to go I verified all fluid levels and then applied a VOM to the battery terminals to make sure the system was charging. The charging voltage of 14.0 volts, while slightly higher than usual, was within the normal range. A short test drive around the block confirmed that the infamous power steering whirring noise that had plagued the car for years is gone. Once back at the garage I jacked up the front end again to conduct an inspection. I found no leaks or other problems so I put it back on the ground, pulled it out the garage, washed it for good measure and called the project complete.

Total project time was eight hours. I have no idea what the dealer would charge but something tells me that book labor, with each task taken separately as it usually is, would easily be in the vicinity of 6-8 hours. Multiplying the lower figure by $128 (my dealer's labor rate) equates to $768 so I think I can safely call that the labor saved doing this job myself. The parts came to a total of $1325. I saved $290 sourcing parts myself, so that brings the DIY dividend on this project to $1058. Not bad for a couple days work, doncha think?

Mileage: 194662, Labor Saved: $768