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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Another Bad Window Motor

Over the last few months I'd noticed the telltale signs of a failing driver's door window motor; the window would occasionally stop at some point on its way up and occasionally go into "reset" mode in which one-touch up function does not work. I chose to ignore the symptoms because the window worked and I just couldn't believe that the motor could be on its way out as it had been little more than two years since I last replaced it and wrote my Power Window Motor and Regulator DIY article for all you fellow crazy DIYers to enjoy.

About a week ago I tried to bring the window down to pay a toll (thankfully not something I do very often despite living in a state most associated with exits and tolls) and it refused to budge. The window motor is now stuck in the full up position. Of course, there are worse places for window to become stuck, particularly when it's a balmy 21 degrees Fahrenheit and my backup car is inaccessible, snowed in at the garage where I store it. I briefly thought of momentarily disconnecting the battery in an attempt to see if this was just an unfortunate "dead spot" caused by the logic in the window motor that might be cleared in the process but I quickly decided to leave well-enough alone so I don't create a bigger headache.

(Image: Closeup of old microfilter after 19000 miles) Since I couldn't get the E46 out of the garage, I couldn't get the E36 in so I could fire up the kerosene heater and get to work. So I've been forced to delay the job until better weather arrives (or the solid block of snow and ice in front of my garage door melts). Of course, when I do manage to fix it I'll have my own DIY article to help me remember all the little details. The quote to remember for 2011: "You know you've owned a BMW and a BMW website for a long time when you start to reference your own DIY articles".

Microfilter Replaced, Oil Service Postponed

While reviewing my maintenance schedule worksheet I realized I was 4500 miles overdue for my 15000 mile microfilter change and 500 miles beyond my usual oil service interval of 4500 miles so I went to the dealer today and picked up parts and supplies for both tasks.

I made quick work of the microfilter. When I pulled the unit out a ton of small leaves from a tree outside my residence fell out of the opening, and running the HVAC blower forced yet more debris out of the airbox. The interior needed to be vacuumed in any case so I took care of that in short order. In than 10 minutes total I had the new filter back in the car and the footwell panel reinstalled.

When I arrived at the garage and realized the full extent of the snow / ice mess I decided to put off the oil service as well. As usual the engine has burned no measurable oil in the last 5000 miles and I don't intend to do an oil analysis this time around so I am not concerned about the extended drain interval affecting the numbers. Rest assured, I'll get to the job eventually.

Seat Belt Buckle Stop

A month ago I got in the car, reached for the seatbelt buckle behind me and couldn't find it. I looked back and realized it had fallen down to the bottom of the belt near the base of the door. A quick survey of the belt found the buckle stop (a small black button-like assembly pressed into the seat belt webbing) missing. I went to the dealer and ordered the parts, thinking this would be a simple matter of snapping the two parts together and getting on with my busy life.

As usual, I was wrong.

The parts that arrived resembled a thumbtack and a small washer with a cup in its center. It didn't take long to figure out that when the parts are installed by the belt manufacturer they obviously use some kind of specialized compression or hot melt tool that presses the parts together and then cleanly rounds over the "spike" so it retains the washer part.

Of course, the tool used for this installation process is made out of unobtanium, so I was left to figure this out on my own. I had been meaning to ask my dealer tech about this idiocy but my crazy schedule had so far precluded that so I finally went looking online for a solution. It turns out everyone just presses the spike through the belt, installs the washer, clips most of the spike off, uses a soldering iron to melt the end of the spike and then presses the molten end appropriately to flatten it out into the cup of the washer, thereby retaining the washer.

So that's what I plan on doing...as soon as I get back over to the garage where I left the parts.

Light at the end of the tunnel

My brother's town finally issued the building permit for his toy box. Since it's not really practical to work with concrete in freezing conditions he expects to break ground sometime in March. If all goes as planned, I expect the building to be usable sometime in early summer, which means this should be the last winter I'm forced to work outside. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it's called an automotive service lift.

Mileage: 203010, Parts: $30, Parts Saved: $5, Labor Saved: $80

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Seatbelt Buckle Stop Installed

(Image: Closeup of seatbelt stop special tool)I almost feel like an idiot for reporting the installation of something so trivial, but I managed to properly install the seatbelt buckle stop.

I received a bit of email about this subject following my last report, which kind of surprised me. Most people seemed to advocate the "press it in with a pair of pliers" approach and at least one person agreed with my original plan to involve a soldering iron. But I really wasn't happy with either approach when I knew full well, just by instinct, that BMW had to have a special tool for this job. And as it turns out, courtesy of my dealer technician, they do. It's special tool part number 00 5 040 N 9 00. The tool is a small U-shaped press milled from a roughly two inch square block of steel and includes a threaded rod with a T handle on one end and a cupped end on the other.

To install the parts, the thumbtack part is pressed through the seatbelt webbing, the washer is mated over the pointy end on the opposite side of the belt, and the entire assembly is inserted into the press. Then, the rod is threaded into one end of the press and the T-handle is turned clockwise to drive the end of the threaded rod down onto the pointy end of the thumbtack, ultimately compressing it into a nice hemispherical shape (see the picture). Just before I walked out the bay door to my car to install the part my technician gave me some good advice: "Don't crank it down too hard or the rod will push a hole through the washer and destroy the parts." I got it right the first time and I certainly couldn't argue with the result -- it looked virtually identical to the original factory piece.

(Image: Closeup of seatbelt retainer button installed with BMW special tool)Before leaving for the office I asked my tech how much the tool cost but he couldn't remember offhand. Plus, he rebutted "there's no point in buying it...this is likely the last time you'll need it". And he's probably right. Still, I'd never seen the tool advertised anywhere, its function is not easily duplicated by any other tool or combination of tools, and I know enough people with BMWs now that it might benefit someone at some point. So perhaps I'll splurge. It wouldn't be the first time.

Oil Service

My trusty maintenance schedule spreadsheet indicated that my last oil service occurred at 197986 miles, or 6174 miles ago. Since my last oil service occurred at mid-cycle, the green service indicator bars had long since extinguished and the yellow, red, and "Oil Service" indicators were now illuminated in their place. So in spite of a 45 degree temperature and bone-chilling wind with gusts to 40 mph I took an opportunity today to conduct a long overdue oil service.

Since I addressed my concern of lead wear with the last oil service I had no plans to take a sample this time, so this oil service turned out to be faster and less expensive than usual. My homemade clip lead tool allowed me to hold pin 7 of the 20 pin diagnostic connector to ground for three seconds as required to reset the service indicator and a turn of the key resulted in oil pressure in about five seconds. Another task completed in textbook fashion.

Mileage: 204160, Parts: $40, Parts Saved: $5, Labor Saved: $80

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Special Reader Donation: Magnetic Drain Plugs

(Image: Closeup of set of magnetic drain plugs) Back in December, long time BMW owner and enthusiast Jim Craig found my blog one day and sent me an email to say thanks for the coverage. Like many readers do, he offered some suggestions for various issues I was having at the time and promised to send me a donation to help out. But instead of money, this self-described "maintenance junkie" offered to send me some of his handywork -- a set of drain plugs and a power steering cap bonded to strong magnets I could use to extract ferrous metals from my differential, engine, and power steering system.

I received the following parts a couple weeks later:

  1. Two differential plugs
  2. One engine oil sump plug
  3. One power steering reservoir cap
  4. One transmission fill plug (manual transmission only)

The differential drain plugs are the current style equipped with a gasket and do not require a metal sealing ring. The plugs are identical and are designed to replace the existing drain and fill plugs. Jim suggested that I could swap out the fill plug whenever I want and then swap the drain plug at the next oil change, so that's what I plan to do.

The oil drain plug should capture its share of ferrous metals from the engine oil. And if you're wondering why it's essential to use a magnet in a system equipped with a filter, it's simple: paper filter media captures particles as small as 25-30 microns, while magnets can attract particles as small as a few microns.

While the vast majority of the wear metals in the power steering system are non-ferrous in nature (aluminum, mostly), the gears are ferrous and I'm confident that any particles captured by the magnets will be unable to cause further damage to the power steering system.

As for the transmission fill plug, this is for the manual transmission only as the automatic transmission is already equipped with several magnets in the pan. I won't be able to use this (well, unless I wind up doing that auto to ZF 6 speed swap) but I present it here to show the complete set.

(Image: Contact information for set of magnetic drain plugs)Which brings me to point out that while Jim is not mass producing these, he has offered to sell them as a set to interested parties for $50. Considering the cost of the raw materials I think that's a very fair price. If you're interested in buying a set, contact Jim directly for more information, and feel free to mention you learned about the set here. In the interest of full disclosure, I have received no compensation from him other than the original donation of this set of plugs, and will not benefit in any way from the transactions.

Mileage: 204405

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Purchase of Summer Wheels and Tires

Ever since I saw the benefit of moving to dedicated performance winter tires I've thought about going back to dedicated high performance summer-only rubber. I could never justify the cost of a set of Pilot Sport PS2 in 18" fitment, however, so I just stuck with the Pilot Sport A/S Plus. That got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing, I know). What if I downsized to a set of 17 inch wheels? That would have several benefits including lower weight, improved braking and acceleration performance (due to more of the wheel's mass being closer to the center of rotation), AND lower tire cost.

(Image: Set of M Contour wheels with PS2 installed) But the question remained. How much could I really expect to save by buying 17 vs 18 inch tires? Does $300 for a set of four PS2's sound like a lot of money? It certainly does to me. In fact, that was the catalyst for finding a new set of 17 inch wheels. I looked in the aftermarket and found it had largely abandoned the 17 inch wheel market with the exception of expensive lightweight wheels designed more for track duty than encounters with potholes on public roads. I also looked at BMW-centric aftermarket manufacturers including recognized BMW wheel designer BBS, but with their prices exceeding those of BMW's own offerings I quickly abandoned that pursuit.

Given my recent experience with the refinished Style 30 wheel I began to entertain the idea of just buying a set of refinished OE wheels native to either the E36 or E46. I had always admired the stock 17" Style 68 wheels on the E46 and I had found enough pictures to confirm they would not clash with the lines of the E36. The problem? Evidently the people at Wheel Collision took a close look at the BMW price book, because they seemed to consistently charge 90+% of retail for their offerings. For used wheels with a finish that does not, unfortunately, match the consistency and quality of the OE wheels? If that's my choice, the decision is a no-brainer -- I'll buy new.

So that brought me full circle -- right back to realoem.com and the list of wheels that were originally offered on the E36. I'd always been partial to the Style 23 wheel, otherwise known as the M Contour II, which was fit to M3's equipped with the premium package from 1996-1999. I checked the price at Tischer and was shocked to discover these wheels were literally half the cost of other M-branded wheels such as the Style 68's. With the 2010 financials still fresh in my mind I must confess I wasn't exactly eager to drop another $1300 on a set of wheels, no matter the perceived "savings". But with warmer weather fast approaching I decided to leverage a tax refund, some petty cash, and funds freed by my friend's recent decision to sell the Skyhawk, and throw down an order for a set of Style 23's.

With the purchase decision out of the way, the only question that remained was: staggered or non-staggered? Staggered wheels get a bum rap from people who say they "increase understeer". As I've argued before, that's not entirely true. What they do is reduce oversteer, which is not the same thing. And while decreasing the width of the tire in the front by 10mm is bound to have a negative effect on grip, I believe this will be easily offset relative to the A/S by the increased performance of the no-compromise PS2 tread compound and configuration. So I decided to order three 17x7.5" (yes, I believe in full-size spares...take that E90 owners!) and two 17x8.5" for the rear and wrap them all with PS2 rubber.

And speaking of rubber, when I called Tire Rack to place the order I realized once again why I deal with them. All I had to do was give them my name, the order specifics, and a credit card. They already had my billing and shipping information and offered to ship the tires to my dealer again. The entire process took less than two minutes. Before giving me the total price, the rep advised me that Michelin was starting a spring promotion the following day involving a $70 mail-in rebate and offered to delay posting the order until the next day so I could take advantage of the rebate. I was in no rush so I agreed, and in doing so reduced the tire cost from $850 to $780.

If you're wondering what will happen to the CSLs, the current plan is to send them to Wheel Collision later this year for refinishing, equip them with another set of Pilot Sport A/S, and mount them on the E46 in November so it may serve its role as a backup vehicle should the E36 decide to give up the ghost in the dead of winter. For accounting purposes, anything I do to those wheels at this point will be considered an E46 expense, and in that context the $825 Wheel Collision quoted me for refinishing really isn't a bad deal for a set of attractive wheels that will look more at home on the E46 by virtue of the fact that they were originally designed for it.

Lift Shopping

While slightly off the central topic of BMW maintenance, I figured I'd report my findings in my recent search for an automotive service lift for my brother's new garage. The goal was simply to understand the market, select a unit, and get a quote for both the lift and installation. My brother had only two requirements: the ability to lift all the vehicles in his fleet, ranging from an early 80's Chevette nostalgia car to his BMW, all the way up to the small box trucks used in his business, and a maximum ceiling height of 14 feet. So here's what I learned.

At this point I had narrowed the selection of lifts down to the specific type and capacity. The next order of business was to select a vendor and compare prices. To keep the work to a minimum, I focused on the following three vendors, all of whom are well known in the industry and favored on the various forums I read:

So at the end of the day I submitted my recommendation for a Rotary 12K two post lift to my brother. Now it's in his hands to pull the trigger or look for alternatives. Groundbreaking is scheduled for sometime this week but it's been delayed for a number of reasons already so anything is possible. Hopefully a lift will be among the first things installed in the completed building sometime this summer. I'm still hoping that I can do my front suspension overhaul on the lift, but logistics (as well as the mess of fluids I'm sure it will generate) may actually favor the old garage, its "well used" floor, and a set of jackstands.

Mileage: 205000, Parts $2130

Friday, March 25, 2011

Picked up Summer Wheels and Tires

Last week I received word from my dealer's parts guys that my new wheels and tires had come in, so I stopped in to see my technician to let him know what I had planned. I found him back in the "new" shop, constructed as part of the expansion of the dealership, helping another technician figure out if the Bosch alternator received from the parts department to replace a failed Valeo unit from an X5 would in fact, be a drop-in replacement. On the E36, you need a different pulley and lower mounting bolt to make the conversion work, so it wasn't hard for me to relate to their quandary.

(Image: Set of M Contour wheels with PS2 installed in the pickup bed) Rather than interrupt them, I took some time to look around the shop because I had never been back there before. Given my recent investigation into service lifts I naturally gravitated to the rows of symmetrical two post Rotary lifts. The first thing that jumped out at me was that their imposing columns made the shop seem cluttered, but I suppose that's a natural reaction after hanging out in the "old" shop all these years, which was equipped with in-ground lifts by necessity -- as my technician would later confirm, the old shop's bays are not as wide as a "modern" shop. I also took note of the fact that the front doors of the various cars and SAVs perched on the lifts would have clearance issues with the posts, so this drove home the benefits of an in-ground lift.

It also didn't take me long to notice the tile floor consisting of reddish-brown rectangular tiles arranged in a subway pattern. I found it to be far more attractive and "clean" looking than the dyed (and stained) concrete of the old shop. Given how much of a pain in the ass it is to finish concrete floors in an eye-pleasing way that holds up to gas, brake fluid, and other solvents over the long haul, I'm beginning to wonder if tile may be the answer. I still have my doubts as to how well tile will hold up in a garage environment (drop any good tools lately?) and something tells me I wouldn't want to know the cost of doing a large project like my brother's 3200 square foot toybox, but if it's good enough for BMW to spec for their dealerships, it can't be all that bad.

My technician and I quickly discussed my needs and I managed to follow through with his recommendation to speak with the service manager for a reduced mounting rate and to open a service order to complete the work. I managed to negotiate $200 for the set ($40/wheel), and although I told my technician that there was no rush he got the job done the following day. When I heard the weather forecast for sunny skies and near 80 degree temperatures last Friday, I decided to take my first vacation day in months, grab the wheels at my leisure, do some spring cleaning in the garage, exercise the double VANOS on the E46 on some nearby curvy country roads and generally take it easy for a change.

I must admit that once I got the wheels back to the garage it took all the will power I could muster not to install them, but I knew full well that the wonderful weather was only a tease and we'd likely be back in seasonal weather in short order. My decision to wait paid off, of course, as it snowed (lightly, thankfully) again this week and the diurnal temperatures promptly returned to a range well outside that tolerated by the PS2s. Installation of the wheels will have to wait a few more weeks.

Secondary Air Injection Pump Acting Up Again

I got in the car the other day and turned the key as I have thousands of times before. Not long after the engine settled into a nice idle I began to hear a faint high pitched whine coming from the vicinity of the dashboard. I opened the door and realized the sound was louder outside so I walked around the car and found it loudest in front of the vehicle. My first instinct was a pulley of some sort, but popping the hood allowed me to localize the problem to a familiar part -- the secondary air injection pump.

The last time this pump failed (back in 2002 at 67K miles), I learned from my technician that the reason these pumps fail is not because they wear out, but because the check valve fails. This allows exhaust gasses to work their way into the pump while it's not operating and that fries the motor and its bearings. Naturally, therefore, the best way to avoid spending $330+ on a new pump (up from $200 in 2002) is to spend around $95 on a new check valve on a regular basis as part of a preventative maintenance program.

My initial maintenance interval of the check valve was 72K miles. When that interval came and went without a whisper from the pump and valve installed in 2002 and my technician later told me that the original check valves more frequently failed due to a flaw in their design that had since been corrected, I decided to double the interval to 144K miles. Oddly enough, the schedule predicted failure (or at least the need to replace the parts) at 211K miles, a mere 6K miles (or six months) from now. Based on this failure, I've reduced the recommended replacement interval of the valve to 108K miles.

I recall I considered replacing the valve last year, but that plan was promptly thrown out the window when I discovered the failed trailing arm bushing which led me down the path to a very expensive rear end overhaul. So, I'm sure you're begging to ask -- what do I get for kicking the can down the road? A $460 bill for parts to replace the check valve AND the pump. I expect to order the parts for this repair early next month, but that assumes, of course, that the faint whine doesn't degenerate into the typical "vacuum cleaner sucked up a marble" racket sooner than that.

Mileage: 205450, Labor: $200

Sunday, April 10, 2011

New summer wheels and tires installed

After several weekends of colder weather the skies cleared, winds died down, temperatures rose to comfortable levels, and I finally managed to find time in my schedule to install the new M Contour wheels along with my first set of Pilot Sport PS2s yesterday.

Although the winter wheels hadn't been off the car in six months the anti-seize I applied during installation did its job, as the wheels practically fell off the hubs. Oddly, however, I must have forgotten to apply a sufficient coating of anti-seize to seal the heads of the rotor retaining bolt because I noticed some rust starting to form at the interface between the rotor and the bolt. If left alone I realized that could cause problems during the next brake job so I cleaned the entire rotor hat surface with blue paper towels, used a small fine wire brush to clean away the rust near the retaining bolt, and then applied a new coat of anti-seize before installing the new wheels.

As I've come to expect, my technician wrote the road force balance numbers on the inside of each wheel. When I picked them up he told me that all were in the "low single digits" and "the one without any number was perfect", which, he went on to say "is pretty typical of Michelin tires". As I examined each wheel I noted road force numbers of 2, 4, 5, 6, and "nothing". Fortunately, the "6" was one of the 7.5" wheels so I declared that the spare and quickly nestled it into the trunk. In less than an hour the other wheels were mounted and I took the car out for a test drive.

The sticky coating on the new tires managed to pick up every small stone on the road and create a cacophony of impacts in the wheel wells for the first couple of miles. Soon thereafter the coating wore off and the tires went nearly dead silent. I took that as a sign to step up the pace and put the vehicle into its element. The tires tracked beautifully and turn in was amazing. In fact, they performed so well that it was hard not to notice the extra body roll that occurred as a result of the higher lateral G-force the car was now able to maintain. Acceleration and braking are, as expected, less affected by these smaller wheels and tires and the ride quality was far better than the CSLs, which confirms my belief that 17 inch wheels are the optimum size for the E36. With my mission accomplished I headed back to the garage to give it a bath and move on to other tasks (non-BMW related, that is!)

If I had my technician mount the wheels on the car I would have paid the difference between what I paid to mount the tires on the wheels and balance them ($40 ea) and the normal cost of that service ($70), or $30 each...hence the $150 in the labor saved column.

Installed new driver's side window motor

For the past four months I haven't been able to open my driver's side window because I all-too-conveniently ignored the telltale signs of a failing motor. I bought the motor back in January when I foolishly considered braving the cold to deal with the problem but as I indicated earlier I wisely decided to leave well-enough alone. That is, until today.

I usually look forward to doing work on the car because I realize that I'll learn something and save money in the process, but I must admit this time I was dreading going to the garage largely because of the uncertainty involved. Given the inoperative motor, I had absolutely no idea how I would reposition the window as required to remove the regulator to gain access to the torx screws that fasten the motor to the regulator. On the drive over to the garage I more than once questioned the parentage of the BMW engineer responsible for a design that precludes removing the motor without removing the regulator but I did manage to come up with a plan of attack.

Although I'd long ago become a "pro" at removing the door panel without doing any serious damage, any perception of proficiency in this task was quickly overshadowed as the panel popped free of the door and I heard a bunch unpleasant sounds. I looked down to see both storage pockets and one of the vertical supports on the ground and realized at that very instant this was going to be "one of those days". After I set the door panel aside I took at closer look at the storage pockets and realized they had cracked in several places (thirteen year old plastic will do that). Still, they seemed repairable, so I went about the ritual of mixing up a couple tubes of five minute two-part epoxy and re-bonded the components with the door panel.

That headache over I turned my attention to the window motor itself and quickly decided to take a different approach to this repair than outlined in my DIY. With the window in the full-up position I had no problem getting my hand in the door in order to remove the four nuts and bolts holding the regulator to the door. But this time instead of removing the regulator entirely, I simply tried to pull the motor and regulator away from the door and access the T27 motor mounting screws from the rear. Unfortunately I could not pull the regulator more than about 2" away from the door so that meant I could not use my regular 1/4" drive ratchet. When combined with the needed torx socket, it was simply too deep.

I managed to find a T25 torx bit (not a T27, but close enough) and realized I could use that and a box end wrench to remove the screws. Of course, the bit was cut for 1/4" and none of my smaller metric box end wrenches would fit it (6mm and 7mm were both close, but no cigar). My brother, a big fan of 70's American iron, was looking over my shoulder at the time and decided at this moment to ridicule me for not having any SAE tools in my toolbox before productively volunteering a 1/4" box end wrench from his tool collection. I managed to prove pretty quickly that the basic idea was sound but I knew full well without ratcheting action I'd be working on this until the next ice age, so I ran over to Eppys and picked up a 1/4" ratcheting box end wrench. $12 later, I was on my way back to the garage. It took about 10 minutes to remove the three screws holding the motor to the regulator and the motor popped free. At this point a quick check revealed that the window moved freely up and down so this confirmed that the regulator was in good shape and the motor was the source of the problem.

Since the torx screws are designed to tap the plastic mounting holes in the body of the new motor and I knew I'd be limited in the torque I could apply in such an awkward position, I used my ratchet and T27 socket to quickly install the screws in the new motor to tap the holes. With that task done I proceeded to mate the motor with the regulator, being careful to align the motor's drive gear and the teeth in the regulator drive arm. Grabbing the window and moving it manually up and down a bit helped. I then held the motor to the regulator, installed the screws, and used my fabricated tool to tighten the screws one by one.

With the motor reconnected to the regulator, I did find I had to reconnect the battery and blip the window a bit in one direction to get all the regulator mounting holes to line up with the door, but once that was done I reinstalled the four bolts quickly and easily. With the regulator firmly mounted to the door, I got in the car, closed the door, tested full travel up and down, and then reset the electronic window stops.

The upside of the day resulted from my decision to keep the airbag connected whenever the battery was connected and the key was on so I never triggered the SRS warning light. It's a small thing to get reset at the dealer, but it's one less thing I'll have to do tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the downside is that during installation of the door panel one of the pockets cracked severely and my attempts to get the fasteners to mate with the door resulted in a chunk of the pocket breaking off. Now I have a nice silver-dollar-sized hole in one of the storage pockets. I saw this slow-motion train wreck coming for the last several years, but was put off by the $800 price of a new door panel. Now it appears I'll need to suck it up and buy one. I suppose it could be worse, though -- the part could no longer be available. We'll see about that this week when I call my dealer's parts guys for a quote.

Based on this work I plan to update my Power Window DIY shortly to reflect the new information and techniques. Look for that soon.

The new window motor cost $120 and the two tubes of epoxy were $10. I don't know what the current book labor is for a window motor replacement but I'd venture a guess it's at least an hour hence the $128 labor saved.

Mileage: 206460, Parts: $120, Labor saved: $278, Tools: $15, Materials: $10

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Replaced Secondary Air Pump and Check Valve

Earlier this week I ordered the pump, check valve, gasket and two copper lock nuts from my local dealer so I could replace the secondary air injection pump this weekend.

Late this afternoon as the sun raced for the horizon I started work. I disconnected the hoses, replaced the check valve and then the pump, and wrapped it up by reinstalling the hoses. Shortly after tightening the last hose clamp I glanced at a clock and was pleasantly surprised to learn that less than 45 minutes had elapsed.

As I was disconnecting the check valve the vacuum hose cracked in half near the nipple of the valve, but I anticipated as much and had the required hose "in stock" (actually, it was left over from the last time I replaced this hose circa 2007). Although the job only requires about 8 inches of hose, BMW supplies a three foot length so I have enough hose to do the job one or two more times.

I found the inside of the hose that delivers air from the pump to the valve covered in a bright yellow dust. This is consistent with the pictures I've seen of old pumps disassembled to reveal the horror that is a bright yellow watery goop (condensate, really) that pools in the motor and causes the pump to fail. The hose itself was in good shape so I shot some brake cleaner through it to clean it up and reinstalled it.

The parts cost $450. Book labor on this job is 1.5 hours or $192, hence the value in the labor-saved column. The 20 percent discount brings the DIY dividend to around $300.

Miscellaneous Factoids

A brake job for a modern 3 series vehicle is now $1800. This I overheard quite unexpectedly while waiting in line at the cashier at my dealer to pay for the air pump parts. I wasn't the guy paying and I nearly considered checking my underwear for a skidmark. The last time I quoted the job it was around $1200 and I thought that was insane but $1800 is ludicrous. The parts cost around $400 (at 20% off -- dealer cost is lower, obviously) and the job takes a pro no more than about an hour per axle. They're making a cool grand (or more) doing what has to be one of the easiest jobs on the car. And people pay it without blinking. I'm in the wrong business, obviously.

I also confirmed that a brake fluid flush is $200, a microfilter is $250 and a coolant flush is another $250. I couldn't help but wonder why the microfilter job is more than the brake fluid flush in spite of the price of the filter, as it takes considerably less labor to replace the microfilter in the currently-shipping vehicles (pop hood, take out two thumb screws, replace filter...in other words, a couple of minutes of work). The E36 is the biggest pain in the ass of any BMW made and it only takes me 10 minutes. As I've said here before, many of the newer BMWs come with wheels that permit the tech to bleed the brakes without removing the wheels, so that's a 10 minute job as well. And don't think for a second they drain your coolant from the block as they technically should during a coolant flush. The dirty little secret is that they drain the radiator, replace about a third of the fluid in the process, and refill it with little need to bleed the system. In other words, they can do it in around 10 minutes. Let your calculator reveal the injustice in all three cases.

As of today the E36 is mechanically "squawk free" for the first time in five months so I'm not planning any additional work until the front suspension overhaul. The plan is to collect the needed parts over the next several months and do the job in late June or July. My brother just broke ground this week on his toybox and the hope is to be in the building by that time so this job may serve as its christening.

Mileage: 206916, Parts: $450, Labor saved: $192, Parts Saved: $110.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cracked Windshield

Last Sunday I was cruising down the Garden State Parkway enroute to my mother's shore house to get together for mother's day when I took a small stone in the window. I didn't see the stone coming so it must have been pretty small, and didn't see any obvious damage so I considered myself lucky. After lunch I decided to give the car a bath. As I made my way around the car and approached the windshield I did a double-take. What I thought at first was just a stream of water flowing down the window I soon realized was a continuous crack in the center of the window extending from top to bottom.

You might think that I freaked out at this point, but in all honesty I just shrugged my shoulders, considered this a stroke of good luck, and finished washing the car. Why good luck, you ask? Simple. It needed to be replaced anyway. After being subjected to the commute for nearly four years, the window was heavily pitted and would practically turn opaque when driven into the sun. Because the window was thoroughly cracked, I knew its replacement was guaranteed by the insurance company and, given my $100 comprehensive deductable, my out of pocket cost would be reasonable.

The fly in the ointment, however, was the fact that about a year ago I'd switched from State Farm to Allstate and I didn't know how they would handle the claim. When I called my agent, they quickly transferred me to Allstate national, who then put me on hold for about 5 minutes. They then took my information, asked me a few questions about the state of the window, confirmed that it qualified for replacement vs. repair, and then suggested they would transfer me to their preferred repair company, Safelite.

Now, I'm sure that Safelite knows how to do this job just as well as anyone, but all things being equal I told the Allstate rep that I preferred to deal with DuRite. Allstate quickly transferred me to DuRite and DuRite's rep, Mike, took my vehicle information including VIN, confirmed my request for OE glass, and told me they'd call when it arrived to schedule the repair. The glass is expected in on Monday so it appears I'll put my fourth windshield in the car sometime this week.

While I had Mike on the phone I asked for a quote to do the rear window since one of the heater circuits is non-functional and the trim surrounding the window is disintegrating. The current plan is to do this work while the car is down for the front suspension overhaul. The cost? $550. Are you SURE you want to own an old BMW? :)

New Driver's Side Door Panel Arrives

After several weeks of commuting with a door panel that has insisted on making really noticeable and annoying rattling noises every time I go over a bump in the road, on Thursday I decided it was time to bite the bullet and buy a new door panel and a new tweeter pod to replace the part that had cracked several months back.

The parts guys took serious pity on me and gave me a whopping 36% off the door panel ($665 retail, $425 my cost) and a cool 40% off the new tweeter ($158 retail, $93 my cost). Those are the highest discount levels I've ever received on any substantial part I've ordered from them (i.e. not counting simple fasteners or wiper blades), and that's the good news.

The bad news is that BMW stocks and ships exactly one door panel part number in beige and that panel has no cutouts for the tweeter and midrange pods. A couple of the techs confirmed that this is the way it's done and I'll have to take a knife (and/or a dremel) to a brand-spanking-new $425 door panel to install the drivers. The upside is that the circumference of the pods is embossed into the rear of the panel to serve as a guide so I won't necessarily be cutting "blind". In spite of this, I can assure you that I'm not looking forward to that nerve-wracking task. Anyone want to come over and do it for me? :)

I'm also disheartened, but not surprised in the slightest, that BMW's interior subcontractor has done nothing to fix the moronic design of these door panels in the last thirteen years. For this reason, I plan to proactively apply two-part epoxy to all the "weak" areas of the panel in an effort to prevent its failure as long as possible, but only time will tell if my efforts will be for naught.

Mileage: 208200, Parts: $553, Parts Saved: $305

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fourth Windshield Replacement

The weather last week turned out to be rainy and unpredictable so DuRite suggested we replace the window this week. My schedule wouldn't permit doing the work at home so they were kind enough to drive the extra 30 minutes to my office and replace the window in the parking lot.

I honestly didn't expect any surprises, but as usual, reality thwarted my utopian view of the world. Upon removal of the old window, the installer and I noticed areas of rust exposed as the old adhesive was pulled out of the window channel. Virtually all of the rusty areas were in the window channel hidden from view with the window installed, but one area near the top left corner of the window had progressed to bubbling of the paint to a point just outside of the trim line. I simply hadn't noticed it until now.

We couldn't do anything about the rust at this point so they applied some conversion primer to the affected areas and installed the window as usual. While I don't expect the rust to progress too aggressively, I now know I'll need to bring the car to a body shop at some point in the next couple of years to pull the window and fix the rust properly. And yes, because of the encroachment of the rust into the exposed area of the roof line this will likely mean shooting the entire roof and blending into the pillars. Oh joy!

Incidentally, I thought ahead and ordered new cowl cover clamps and grommets and I'm glad I did. One of the clamps broke upon removal, and a closer inspection revealed that two of the grommets had gone missing, which meant that the clamps weren't gripping as tightly as they could. BMW sells the clamps (61-71-8-108-613) and grommets (51-13-8-124-389) as separate parts, but only in bags of 10. The clamps retailed for $4 each and the grommets an astounding $11 each (!). Once again, however, the parts guys took pity on me so the total was "only" $54. Fortunately, my insurance company should reimburse me for this. I just need to go through the process.

Interior Repair Quotes

I've been trying to figure out whether I could financially swing repairing the interior this year. A few weeks back I got quotes for new front seat leather consisting of seat and backrest sections. With BMW OE leather the total came to a stunning $1100 for the driver's seat and $900 for the passenger seat because the driver's seat needs new foam padding. Naturally, I decided to research alternatives. It appears that Gahh provides covers of equivalent quality for approximately $500 less so I am likely to go that route. I hadn't priced out the headrests with OE parts, but Gahh wants an extra $200 for the set or $1700 total for two new front seats.

Earlier this week on my way to work I stopped at the upholstery shop recommended by my technician. This is the same shop that replaced the leather covers on my driver's seat back in 1999 so I knew the shop had the requisite experience with BMW seats. The owner quoted me $270 to replace the leather on each seat ($540 total) provided I R&R'd the seats myself. He also told me that he'd need the seats for a bit over a week simply so he could interleave this work with the other jobs going on in his shop: understandable given that he appeared to be a one-man-band.

While I was at it, I asked for a quote to refinish the headliner and he came up with $400. Given the fact that this is about $50 more expensive than the OE part, the fabric was not guaranteed to match the OE fabric remaining on the pillars, and this would undoubtedly add several days to the project, the choice was simple. I plan to buy the OE headliner and be done with it. So it appears that if I replace the front seat leather and the headliner, I'm looking at around $2600. That's a bit too rich for my blood at the moment, so I intend to put that work off until next year. The upside is that I expect the interior work to complete the bulk of this "slow-motion restoration" so I see light at the end of the tunnel.

Additional Driver's Door Parts

For the last several years the driver's door lock and door pull have not felt nearly as smooth as those on the passenger door so I decided to buy some parts to address the issues at the same time I replace the door panel.

First up is what BMW calls a "lock repair kit". While keys and some lock components for BMWs are typically coded in Germany, the lock repair kit is generic to all vehicles and therefore shipped from one of BMW's domestic warehouses. The kit comes with a bunch of numbered pins and BMW leaves it up to the technician to code the new lock by disassembling the old lock cylinder, obtaining the numbers and positions of each pin, and duplicating the same pin sequence on the new lock. My technician gave me a few tips about the process including the need to use the grease included in the kit to ensure the springs don't bind up in the cylinder.

The structure of the door latch is made of metal, but a good part of its internal structure, including the "ramp" that allows for a smooth mating of the door and the door post, is made of plastic. Not surprisingly, after 13 years and thousands of cycles a deep groove has worn into the ramp of the original part and I think this is contributing to the notchy feel I get when I actuate the door pull to open the door.

I expect to complete the door repair and install the new door panel this weekend.

Mileage: 208200, Labor $100, Parts $250

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mechanical Tensioner Noise

Back in 2007 I noticed a rattling noise with the engine at idle. At the time my technician helped me trace it to the vicinity of the main accessory belt tensioner pulley so I replaced it. Unfortunately, while that was certainly part of the problem, it didn't completely eliminate the noise so I wound up replacing the tensioner as well.

Over the last couple of weeks I noticed that the noise had returned and as usual it was most prevalent at idle and when the engine was cold (i.e. first thing in the morning). So I figured I'd cut to the chase and order a new tensioner / pulley kit and install it this weekend in concert with other work I had planned. Imagine my surprise, however, when I looked up the part number and saw the dreaded word "ENDED" associated with it. I then read the fine print and found a ray of hope -- it was superceded with a new part number. My hopes were quickly dashed, however, when I traced the new number to a hydraulic tensioner conversion kit.

For those that don't know, these engines came from the factory with either a mechanical or hydraulic main belt tensioner. The mechanical variety is the "economy" option and is typically found on non-M vehicles. They tend to fail on a regular basis (72K is an ideal preventative maintenance interval) but at roughly $70 including pulley, replacement is seldom a financial concern. I learned long ago from my technician that the hydraulic tensioner is the high quality option and they tend to last "forever". My personal experience with the hydraulic tensioner governing my A/C belt would seem to bear that out -- while I've replaced the pulley a couple times the tensioner is original with 208K miles in service. But quality costs money, and this is no exception.

This explains, of course, why I didn't convert to the hydraulic tensioner back in 2007, and as I found out during a recent visit to my friendly neighborhood BMW parts counter, little as changed in this respect. The kit (sans pulley and other assorted hardware necessary for the conversion) is now $210. While some may think I like spending money on my cars, nothing could be further from the truth. Assuming I have a choice in the matter, I'd just as soon spend $70 vs. $200, but if I want an OE solution and a quality one at that, I'll have to splurge. And it's probably just as well if I never have to hear that annoying rattle again.

On the same visit to the dealer, I cornered my technician long enough to ask him about the conversion process. He said he just had to do this on his own E46 and was kind enough to print out the service information (SI B 11 04 03) governing the conversion on the E46 and later vehicles. The E36's M52 application wasn't specifically mentioned, but the SI gave me the information I needed to order the necessary parts. I'll provide the full parts list as well as the procedure to replace it in a future blog entry.

1M In Person

I finally got to see a Valencia Orange (VO) 1M in person at the dealership on Friday. Sorry, no pictures, as I didn't have my camera, but this is what I'm talking about. This particular vehicle still had all of the usual door protection moldings on it so I knew it was fresh off the carrier.

While I didn't dare sit in it out of respect for its new owner, peering in its open window I realized that BMW managed to keep the basic design of the 135i interior intact which, while not ideal, is a huge improvement over the nightmare designed for the E9x vehicles. The downsides of the 1M interior in my not-so-humble opinion include its use of alcantara as accent material and the colored stitching. I'm not a fan of alcantara because, like all suede fabrics, it wears poorly. It also offends my OCD in that its texture produces something of an "archaeological record" of its encounters with humans. As for the colored stitching, I think it looks great on the VO car, but only because it matches the exterior color. On a white or black car orange stitching will look out of place...even tacky. In the immortal words of Yoda, "do or do not...there is no try". Either give us white stitching on the white cars and gray or black stitching on the black cars, or don't bother.

(Image: Blackstone Labs oil analysis report on 6/8/2011 at 208800 miles) I found the body kit in general a bit too aggressive for my taste (I prefer conservative, or "sleeper" styling), but taken as a whole with the widebody, the exterior design simply works. It's -- dare I say it -- refreshingly retro and more in line with BMW's roots. And I thought I'd dismiss the exterior color as too flashy, but in person I found VO dances beautifully with the sun and highlights the aggressive exterior design. Still, if I had my choice (i.e. I could actually get an allocation and pick my color) I'd likely go with white. I've never been a fan of white on vehicles, but the pessimist in me is all too familiar with the fact that black is a nightmare to keep clean and white will be easier to blend than VO when (not if) something bad happens. Next time, BMW, I command thee to offer Estoril Blue, or any blue for that matter. You limited the color choices on a limited production vehicle. I get it. Would it have killed you to offer one more color?

A good look under the vehicle revealed its M parentage, and its underpinnings are probably the most attractive aspect of the car to me. My technician confirmed that the car borrows essentially the entire M3 suspension with the exception of the front subframe, which is great from a perspective of future parts availability. Interestingly, he also mentioned that the car is actually slightly wider than the M3, presumably referring to the fender flares.

In spite of its unfortunate reliance on complex and failure-prone turbocharging and direct fuel injection systems it should come as no surprise when I say that the 1M is the only car to come out of BMW's design group in the last ten years that I would seriously consider buying. In fact, as I walked around the 1M with the E36 parked a scant 20 feet away, I selfishly wondered whether it was time to move on, put the E46 into daily service and buy a 1M to take its rightful place in the garage.

Anyone want to make this easy for me and offer to buy the E36? :)

Oil Service

They say that when you start to go crazy the first thing you lose is your sense of time. If that's true, I'm the sanest man on the planet as I realized, without so much as a glance at my maintenance schedule, that it might be time for an oil change. A quick check of my records confirmed that around 4600 miles had passed since my last oil service so I picked up an oil service kit and completed the task in less than 20 minutes.

I decided to take an oil sample this time after skipping it last time. This will give me additional trend data to confirm the engine remains in good health after its recent lead wear scare.

Six quarts plus an oil filter came to $45. An oil service is now $200 at the dealer, so that is reflected in my Labor Saved column.

6/8/2011 Update: I received the oil analysis today. All in all it's a good report but, as you can see, lead appears to have increased slightly for this sample and this is the first time fuel dilution has been mentioned. I think the lead value is still in the "statistical noise" but it may very well be the result of bearing wear typical of an engine this age and thus the "new normal". I suspect the fuel dilution is the result of ring wear but, as indicated in the report, anything below 1% is normal so I'm picking nits here. In spite of these changes, I'm still planning to skip the sample next time. Cost for the analysis is now $25 so I've noted that in the Labor column.

Mileage: 208800, Parts: $45, Labor: $25, Labor Saved: $150

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Driver's Door Overhaul Day One

The holiday weekend afforded me some time in my schedule to begin work on the driver's door overhaul so this morning I grabbed the necessary documentation and parts and headed out to the garage.

I began by mixing up some epoxy to apply to the new door panel in an effort to strengthen it and reduce the risk of it breaking the next time I have to pull it off. I have traditionally mixed up epoxy on a piece of cardboard but I found that method messy and somewhat wasteful so I decided to try using one of the irrigation syringes I stock for use in brake fluid flushes. I capped the end of the syringe, pressed the base and hardener into it, mixed the epoxy with a long stick and then inserted the plunger to apply it as I would a tube of RTV. It worked! I used fewer tubes than planned and then set the door panel aside to dry.

(Image: Cutouts in new door panel made with a Dremel) I then started work on the car by removing the old door panel and sound insulation. That was the easy part and only took me five minutes since I've done it so many times. Unfortunately, the work that followed was not nearly as easy. To make a long story short, I toiled for almost two hours and only managed to extract the door latch assembly from the door using a T30 torx socket. The time spent wasn't exactly wasted, however. I now know how the locking assemblies interact and I also know why the door handle seemed to have developed a bit more slop over the years -- the operating rod that connects the door handle to the latch assembly was worn nearly half way through. Thousands of cycles of metal-to-metal contact will do that. The good news is I found that potential problem. The bad news is I lacked the parts to fix it and will need to order them this week. And that means I'll be driving the E46 this week.

Research for this project revealed that the best way to swap out the lock cylinder is to remove the door handle assembly. I found a DIY with some decent pictures and the writer seemed to indicate it was a straightfoward process. Unfortunately, my garage wasn't built in fantasy land. The writer glossed over something critical to this process that I only discovered after I loosened the door handle assembly and attempted to remove it: I couldn't get the handle to clear the window, even with it fully up.

Now, I'm not exactly stupid, though an ex-girlfriend or two would probably beg to differ. I tried to plan ahead here with a flashlight and mirror and honestly thought it would work. And it would have if there weren't a recess molded into the door sheet metal (the same one that allows you to get your fingers behind the handle). It turns out that I need another half inch for the handle to clear the recess and I'm not getting it unless I figure out a way to remove the window or tilt the back end of the window up and out of the way.

My patience was wearing thin at this point so I decided to cut the work session short and take both door panels home so I could prepare the new panel for installation. But even that turned out to be slightly more difficult than originally planned when I realized that not only did the panel come without pre-drilled holes for the speakers but it lacked a hole for the remote mirror switch as well. Without getting into too much detail at this point I'll just say that I measured three times and cut once. The end result was a perfectly cut door panel. A dremel equipped with a new carbide plunge cutting bit spinning at 20000 RPM made realtively easy work of the process but it did take me a solid hour to complete the task. And yes, it was just as nerve wracking as I predicted.

The plan for tomorrow is to simply get the door handle assembly out of the car via whatever means possible. If it's in good shape I'll code and install the new lock cylinder before I reinstall it. Then on Tuesday I'll order the new operating rod and other parts necessary to finish this up.

Mileage: 208880, Supplies: $30

Monday, May 30, 2011

Driver's Door Overhaul Day Two

I had planned to go over to the garage mid-morning but I awoke to torrential rain and thunder. The radar indicated a group of isolated cells on the move out of the area so I figured I'd do some additional research on my predicament while I waited for the skies to clear.

(Image: Rear of the original driver's door handle assembly) This time a search on bimmerforums revealed a much better DIY that confirmed what I already knew at this point -- the window must be removed, or at least moved out of the way, to replace the door handle assembly. The problem with that article was that I couldn't figure out why he had decided to remove the rear window guide when I figured it would be a hell of a lot easier just to remove the two bolts that hold the window to the trolley that rides in the guide, particularly because the guide must be precisely aligned or the window won't mate with the vehicle correctly.

I pulled up my copy of the TIS and found the long and involved instructions required to correctly align the window and decided that I'd just as soon avoid that procedure if necessary and remove only the two T25 torx bolts holding the window to the trolley, access to which is provided by holes in the door located under the side molding. Surprisingly, I found one other article on bimmerforums in which someone said to avoid removing those two bolts "at all cost", but they didn't say specifically why. While I know the bolts are used in the window adjustment process (and I later confirmed this at the garage), ask yourself the same question I did at this point: if you have a choice of removing 6 bolts that contribute to a given adjustment in several axes vs. 2 bolts that are used to adjust in a single axis, which would you choose? Yea, I thought so.

I headed over to the garage and spent a few hours washing and detailing the E46 before getting up the nerve to try to remove the window. I expected the worst, but it only took me about 15 minutes to analyze the situation, disconnect the regulator arms from the sliders, reposition the window manually as required to remove the two bolts holding the window to the trolley, and, uttimately, extract the old door handle assembly. Needless to say, I breathed one hell of a sigh of relief at this point and headed home in the E46, victorious.

Upon closer inspection, the handle assembly looked pretty beat up. The ring that connected to the operating rod connected to the latch was worn, though not as badly as the other end of the rod. The tumbler seemed to have a lot of radial play (certainly more than the lock in the passenger door), and I also wasn't particularly impressed with the condition of the microswitch that triggers the power lock system when the key is used to lock/unlock the door. So I've decided to order a new, fully coded handle assembly as well as a new electric lock actuator while I'm in the neighborhood. I have no desire to ever go this deep into the door again, so I'm planning to fix it the right way, once and for all.

Mileage: 208880

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hydraulic Tensioner Parts Received

After going through couple revisions to the parts list, this week I ordered and received the parts required to convert to the hydraulic tensioner. Here they are:

Part Number Arrow Description
11287838797 1 Hydraulic tensioner kit, includes baseplate, pitman arm, hydraulic tensioner and the hardware to fasten these components together.
11281748131 2 Adjusting pulley
11281730532 3 Metal mud guard for adjusting pulley (installs between adjuster and pulley)
07129905534 4 Fillister head screw (torx bolt used to fasten pulley to tensioner)
11281727159 5 Plastic protection cap for front of adjusting pulley
07119904532 6 M8x105 hex bolt
07119904533 8 M8x50 hex bolt
11287835130 7,9 Flat washer (Qty 2 Required, one used with *532, one with *533)
07119904115 10 Wave washer (used with *252)
07119904252 11 M8x35-8.8-ZNS hex bolt
12311713143 12 Plastic protection cap (covers M8x105 hex bolt, arrow 6)

(Image: Closeup of parts associated with the hydraulic accessory belt tensioner)While the baseplate, pitman arm, and hydraulic tensioner are available separately, they cost significantly more that way, so if doing the conversion the kit is the way to go.

Unrelated to the conversion project but included on invoice was a new idler pulley. I bought this simply because, where one pulley is on its way out, the other is sure to follow. It's not really hard to understand why these pulleys wear out. Since they're half the size of the crank pulley, when the engine is cruising at 3000 RPM these pulleys are actually turning at 6000 RPM! Next time your RPM needle is kissing the redline, keep this math in mind. The pulleys take a beating and don't last forever. Based on my experience, all pulleys should be replaced along with the belts at 60K. As previously disclosed, my most recent failure occurred at 72K.

Retail for the conversion parts is $320 and my cost was $255, or a savings of $65. Of course, I spent another $39 on the new idler pulley (11287841228), which brought the total right back up to $320 including tax. Sometimes I just can't win.

I had planned to install the tensioner at the same time I put the door back together this weekend but as it turned out I'm still waiting for the coded door handle assembly to come in from Germany. The parts guys called over there and confirmed that it should ship this coming week, so if that happens I expect to do all the work next weekend. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying the E46 and it's 6800 RPM redline. And that's hardly an inconvenience.

Mileage: 208880, Parts: $320, Parts Saved: $75

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hydraulic Tensioner Installed

(Image: Closeup of parts associated with the hydraulic accessory belt tensioner)

While I had planned to finish up the driver's door overhaul two weeks ago, after waiting almost three weeks for the door handle assembly to arrive I was informed that there were 40 open orders for the assemblies and BMW was waiting for their supplier to deliver new parts to them for coding. On Thursday I was told that the assemblies had arrived at BMW, they had started filling the orders, and I should see the new handle, fully coded, sometime this coming week. I have all the other parts I think I'll need for the job, so that means I should be able to wrap this up next weekend and get the E36 back into daily driver mode.

News of the delay, of course, left me with more than enough time this weekend to complete the hydraulic tensioner swap. I found the task old hat at this point, but that's not to say it was without its purplexing moments, however, including a bit of head scratching trying to figure out exactly how to mount the tensioner to the block. As it turns out, the hydraulic tensioner baseplate is secured to the block using three threaded holes. It abandons one of the holes used by the mechanical tensioner and and selects another hole, as yet unused.

When I attempted to test fit the bolt into the "unused" hole, I found it would not thread in more than 2-3 threads before stopping with more resistance than I could overcome with hand pressure. I took that as a sign to mean I had to clean out the threads, which I did quickly with a combination of brake cleaner, some Zep lube, and about ten attempts to alternately screw and unscrew the bolt into the block until it fully seated. After that, it was pretty much plug and play. Lacking any official torque specs, I just tightenend everything to feel, which is exactly what I did during last year's accessory overhaul.

The picture shows the three holes in the block used for the hydraulic tensioner (arrows 1, 2, and 3) with the bottom hole (arrow 3) being the "unused" hole I had to clean out (Note: this is the "before" picture). For orientation, note the crank pully / balancer on the left (arrow 4) and alternator on the right (arrow 5). Sorry for the non-centered picture...it was difficult to take pictures accurately with the camera wedged in the small space between the engine and radiator.

After I reassembled everything short of the engine driven fan, alternator cooling duct and airbox, I started the engine for the first time in three weeks. Once I verified the new tensioner and pullies were perfectly quiet, I shutdown the engine and wrapped up the job.

Book labor for this task is reportedly 1.2 hours and I completed the task in about an hour and a half, but I wasn't exactly interested in rushing. I'll translate that into $155 labor saved.

Mileage: 208880, Labor Saved: $155

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Door Handle Assembled

When the new driver's door handle assembly came in I found it in the expected condition and, best of all, my key turned the lock so I knew they had coded it correctly. Still, something didn't look right, however. I managed to kick a few extra synapses out of their deep slumber and then realized that the handle assembly does not come with the two microswitches required to complete the overhaul.

The first microswitch meshes with a cam on the rotating lock assembly and performs two functions. First, and most obviously, it triggers the central locking system to lock all doors when you turn the key all the way to the right. Second, if you hold the key in that position for more than a few seconds, it activates "convenience close" and closes all the windows and the sunroof. The other microswitch contacts a portion of the door handle so that when you lift it the interior lights turn on and (assuming the temperature is at or below freezing), the lock heater is activated. And yes, if you didn't know that, try it next winter when your lock freezes. Mine did several times last winter and it was great using this feature. Less than five seconds after pulling the handle the lock turned. I love it. Anyway, back on topic...

I pulled two part numbers off the side of the microswitches. The handle microswitch turned out to be 61311387028 and the central locking system part was 61131387631. While the parts guys easily found the *028 part, they could not initially find the *631 part in the system. Some searching ultimately revealed the part had been superceded by 51218208423. If you know the significance of the first few digits of BMW part numbers, that last one should have jogged your noodle. If you look up the *423 part in the book, the depiction of the part is nothing more than the microswitch itself (no pigtail or other info) and the description is "Left microswitch door catch". When the microswitches came in, the *028 part looked exactly like the one in my car but the *423 part looked like it belonged elsewhere on the car, and indeed it does.

If you look closely at the door post that is installed in the body there is a small button of sorts that is triggered as the door swings by it on its way to mate with the car. This is designed to cause the window to lower a very small amount so that the overpressure that would normally result from closing the door does not cause the window to bend slightly outward and contact the body trim. It's a complicated solution to a common problem with frameless doors, but it works.

In any case, the *423 part came with the microswitch embedded in an assembly needed for the door catch application so it threw me for a loop until I realized that this was BMW's answer to improving the efficiency of their inventory. The microswitch and pigtail itself can be used in either application -- it's just that it must be removed from the assembly needed for the door catch application. So that's what I did.

One other thing to look out for, assuming you're crazy enough to pull this thing apart is that the small plastic bushing (Arrow 3 on picture) is not available separately from what I can tell and is most certainly not included with the operating rod that connects to it. My bushing was not inserted in the location shown and as a result the operating rod was nearly worn half way through. The bushing shown came installed as pictured in the new handle assembly and I ordered a new operating rod to replace the worn part.

If you're wondering why there are two separate part numbers for what on the face appear to be nearly identical parts, you asked the same question I did. As confirmed with a volt ohm meter the *423 part is normally open and the *028 part is normally closed. Simple, eh?

Construction Here and There

As I've been visiting my dealer on a regular basis in the last month I've been watching the construction at their shop with interest. They pulled the old concrete floor out, replaced all the soil contaminated with hydraulic oil from the old-school lifts, and just recently started setting the tubs that enclose the new Rotary in-ground lifts. As you can see from the picture, the installation is pretty much as one would expect: they dig a deep hole (about seven feet from what I can tell), suspend the lift to the height of the finished floor and then backfill the hole with concrete to encase the lift. The plastic "tub" shown is completely sealed and indeed Rotary cites that as a selling point. If the lift starts leaking hydraulic oil, it will be retained in the tub and thus protect the environment. Of course, I'm pretty much a fixture around the dealership so the running joke is that one of the bays has my name on it. Access to the lift in my brother's toybox notwithstanding, I could only wish that were the case.

And speaking of the toybox, after a bit of a slow start, construction is proceeding nicely now. The foundation is up, multiple utility trenches have been dug 300' back to the house and the provisions for utilities including a natural gas generator have been laid and approved. The "bathtub" consisting of 2" thick foam insulation and a vapor barrier has been installed and the position of the lift has been determined. A couple 18" deep and wide holes have been dug directly below the post locations so this, in combination with a six inch slab, will effectively put two feet of reinforced concrete below each lift post. Complete overkill, of course, but it seems a wise thing to do considering we'll be lifting 10000 lb trucks on occasion. Pex for the heated floor is next and after that is approved the slab will be poured. From there, basic framing should take about a month. After that, it's anybody's guess as to how long it will take to wire the building and generally prepare it for use, but the hope is that it will be ready in some form by the end of August.

Longacre Racing Analog Tire Gauge

I have long equipped my cars with inexpensive ($15) electronic tire gauges to quickly verify tire pressure on the road, but wanted a high precision gauge to use in both my automotive and aviation pursuits. Some searching revealed favorable reviews of the Longacre Racing Model 50403 gauge so I decided to take a chance. I received the unit today and am pleasantly surprised at the build quality and features of this unit:

I asked Longacre where the gauge is made. They responded "the gauge itself comes from off shore and all other components are from the states. We manufacture the bleed assembly in our Monroe, Washington facility. All repair work is done in Washington as well."

While at $46 I wouldn't call it inexpensive, it's a quality, accurate piece that should be with me for a long time. If you're wondering, I bought mine from Amazon. Note: if you click on this link and ultimately buy the product, a small portion of your purchase will go toward my site support fund. This is a great way to donate to the site if you've found it helpful!

Mileage: 208880, Parts: $60, Tools: $46

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Driver's Door Overhaul - Complete

I managed to complete the driver's door overhaul today. The good news is that I managed to get everything back together and tested. Well, mostly. About the only thing I couldn't test was the lock heater, but I'm reasonably confident it will work. I guess I'll find out next winter.

The bad news is the assembly process took me about three solid hours. While I was surprised at the fact that I retained my composure for a vast majority of this tedious job, one element of the assembly process really got to me -- the operating rod that connects the interior door handle with the lock. Because the design is completely brain-damaged, it's difficult enough to mate the rod and lock outside of the door, but it's a certifiable pain in the ass inside the door. And guess what -- it's not possible to preassemble the two components outside the door and then insert them because they won't fit through the comparatively tiny hole in the door.

The solution to the problem was rather crude -- after installing the handle assembly and then the lock assembly, I inserted the rod into the door and then bent the rod as required to achieve the angle necessary to land the hook-shaped rod end into the lock lever. That is an order of magnitude easier said than done. And don't even think of asking me for specifics on exactly how and where I bent the rod. It was all by feel and intuition. And to tell the honest truth, I got lucky -- after countless tries and curses, I pulled and tugged and the rod fell into place.

I'm happy, however, to report that the extra effort I took to mark where the adjustment plate mated with the trolley paid off so I can officially communicate that it is NOT necessary to loosen or remove the rear window guide to complete this task. I simply reassembled the trolley and plate, tightened the screws just enough to create friction between the parts, and then used a screwdriver levered against the rear window guide or door frame as required to push the plate where the marks indicated it needed to go. I then tightened each screw down by feel and tested the results by pulling the window up manually and closing the door, carefully at first to ensure it wouldn't hit the window trim. It was perfectly aligned.

On the whole, the overhaul produced the expected results and then some. The external door handle no longer exhibits that "notchy" feeling as I pull it to open the door and the key lock turns smoothly and without slop. The bonus is the overhaul completely changed the way the door sounds when it closes. Rather than an odd rattle or kur-chunk, it closes firmly, smoothly and solidly -- just like it did when it was new. And last but not least, the task afforded me the opportunity to apply some "persuasion" to the small metal tab that blocks the slider on the door handle assembly (which is apparently present only on coupes). So the next time I have to remove the exterior door handle trim (and you just know there's going to be a "next time"), it should be a hell of a lot easier to access the slider.

As for costs: Considering how most of the new guys at the dealers these days have never even seen an E36, much less worked on one, I have a hard time believing they would have been able to do what I did in less time, but I'll just write this up as 3.0 hours labor saved, or $384. The entire driver's door overhaul project cost (hold on to your ass), $1073 in parts and a pittance ($30) in supplies. But it's done and I'm glad it did it.

Less is More

After hopping back into the E36 I realized something: the E46 is, by all measurable standards, the "better" car. The amazing suspension makes the car a true "point and shoot" at any speed -- especially those that risk jail time. Because the DME is smart enough to kill the engine for the brief instant it takes the transmission to shift, it does so without shocking the car or its driver, particularly in manual mode. And the performance package cams and exhaust make wonderful music all the way from the throaty idle to the 6800 RPM redline. But that's the problem. It does everything so well that driving it to its very high limit of performance is almost effortless.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the E46 and really enjoyed driving it the last month while the E36 was out of commission, but when I took the first turn in the E36 and felt the body lean I instinctively grinned ear to ear. I wish I could describe why the E36 is in some respects more fun to drive than its newer sibling, but it just is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I actually have to work to get the car to perform and thus it makes me feel more engaged as a driver. No matter what it is, my brief time without it convinced me I will have a very hard time letting go of it when the time comes. When will that be? Who knows. But rest assured I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.

Barring any more surprises, the next project is the front suspension overhaul.

Mileage: 208880, Parts: $210, Labor Saved: $384

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Control Arms Research

I spent a good amount of time in the past two weeks researching my front suspension options. The first item on the agenda was control arms. My original plan was to install 1995 M3 control arms. My latest research confirmed that the arms are correct for my application and that I should use centered bushings with these arms.

The main difference between the stock and M arms is that the outer ball joint is rubber encapsulated, in that there is a thin ring of rubber between the outer metal ring that is pressed into the arm and the ball joint itself. BMW did this to eliminate noise and vibration, but the unfortunate and predictable side effect is a reduction in steering feel and an increased risk of failure, particularly on the track.

I also confirmed that the stock ball joint is replaceable while the M equivalent is not, but that's not a limiting factor since most people acknowledge that when it's time to replace the outer ball joint it's just cheaper to install a new arm.

While on the same topic, I discovered that most control arms from the various flavors of the E30 and E36 have the same geometry. The notable exception is the 96-99 M3 arm, which adds caster. The 95 M3 achieved the same thing with offset control arm bushings to push the kingpin a bit farther forward in the wheel well and enhances the effect with offset strut supports that push the top of the strut backward. Since I have no need for increased caster on this car I plan to install the centered bushings from the 96-99 M3. This will allow me to preserve the stock non-M geometry and gain the strength and feel of the M3 ball joints.

My research additionally confirmed something I'd known instinctually for some time: that the solid control arm bushings should only be used with the solid ball joints of the M arms. Mixing and matching will result in increased wear and premature failure of the weaker parts.

Camber Plates Research

As you may recall, my original justification for camber plates on this car was to dial out the eccentricity of my shock towers in both caster and camber. A close second goal was to be able to run anywhere from 1.5 to 2.0 degrees of negative camber to dial out some understeer. Back then, my preliminary research revealed that Vorshlag was at the top of the heap so I naturally assumed I'd buy them and went about my business.

Since the use of camber plates affects other parts choices and because I always try to spend my money wisely, I decided to look more deeply into my camber plate options before I pulled the trigger. I will not admit exactly how much time I spent researching this topic last weekend, but let's just say I needed a shave afterward. I found lots of conflicting information being reported by both users and vendors, some of it understandable given the myriad options including strut and spring types, track and street applications, and new vs. second hand parts. Frankly, I found it difficult to decipher who was telling the truth based on real world experience and who was trying to sell me something, but I'll try to relay what I learned.

First, some nomenclature. As shown in the adjacent picture (Source: Vorshlag), you can see the camber/caster plate at the top (Arrow 1). Below that is the upper spring perch (Arrow 2), in this case Vorshlag's proprietary equivalent of the stock OE perch, and below that is the strut (Arrow 3). You may note the beefy double-row ball bearing that is provided with the perch (Arrow 4). Note: The spring is missing this picture.

The stock strut mounts are designed with a bearing surrounded by a large rubber isolation bushing which helps reduce coupling of noise and vibration from the road surface transmitted by the strut to the shock tower. You can clearly see the bushing by popping the hood and looking at the top of the shock towers. The bearing type utilized in the mount differs based on the suspension type. The standard suspension mount uses a simple plain bearing, while both the sport package non-M and M3 mounts utilize a ball bearing. When you realize that the entire strut -- and therefore the strut rod -- turns as the wheel is turned, the need for a bearing in this location, as well as the merits of a ball bearing relative to a plain bearing become clear.

(Image: Closeup of Vorshlag camber plate stack)Unfortunately, with the exception of one vendor's offering, all the camber plate designs eliminate the isolation bushing in favor of a spherical bearing of some sort to reduce flexing of the struts that can change alignment in unfavorable ways during aggressive turning or braking. No matter what way you slice it, no matter how much the vendors try to sugar-coat this issue, the reality is the use of camber plates will result in increased NVH (for the noobs, this refers to any undesired characteristic in the areas of Noise, Vibration, or Handling). The overwhelming majority of people pointed out that the Vorshlag plates are the quietest in this respect, but the more honest folk admitted that NVH can be an issue with ANY plate. It's just that the vast majority of people who use these places use them on the track and simply either don't hear the noise through the helmet or accept it in return for the increased performance camber plates afford them.

Some other honest people also admitted that spherical-bearing designs are susceptible to damage from potholes. If the strut ever bottoms out, it loads the spherical bearing in a way it was not designed to accept. Depending on the severity and frequency of the strikes, the bearing can loosen up or break entirely, leaving the owner to deal with clicks and/or clunks until they get the time to pull the struts and install new plates (or new parts assuming the vendor sells them separately...not all do). I couldn't underestimate the potential impact (no pun) of this problem on both my vehicle and wallet. The fact that I'm concerned about this and that I'm no cheapskate when it comes to this car should tell you something.

Most people seemed to recommend three vendors: Vorshlag, Ground Control, and TC Kline. There were a few other vendors mentioned, but let's just say they weren't mentioned in a positive light. Just so I don't have to listen to those manufacturers (or their legal representation) whine they'll remain nameless. Here's a summary of the pros and cons of the most popular brands:




Ground Control



TC Kline




Sadly, all the research did was to confirm that camber plates are designed primarily for track applications and really have no business being on a street car, at least as the vast majority of the plates are currently designed and finished. The lack of isolation between the strut and the strut tower begs for damage to the plate, the strut tower, or both. I understand that race parts are designed for a particular mission and isolation isn't one of them, but it seems to me there is a market for a camber plate meeting all of my requirements. GC comes the closest to my ideal with their street plates, but they made some design decisions I don't like on those units.

The end result is that I'll be skipping the camber plate installation and installing new OE strut supports. If I ever decide to "retire" this car to the track and transition to coilovers of some kind, I can always install a set of plates at that time. For now, I don't need a caster adjustment and the stock camber (-1.0 degrees) is, as they say, good enough for government work. And it's probably just as well, as I'm sure I'll find somewhere else to spend that $500.

Front End Overhaul - First Parts Arrived

I placed an order with Turner Motorsport for their E36 front subframe reinforcement kit and, because they were $50 cheaper ($100 total savings), a set of their SKF OEM front hub assemblies, wheel nuts and protection caps. Total for that order was $300. While inspecting the bearings I became concerned about the fact that the ABS trigger ring looked nothing like any other E36 or E46 trigger ring I'd ever seen. I double-checked the part number on the box and confirmed with Turner that I do indeed have the correct parts. Since I'm a "measure twice and cut once" kind of guy, I'll double-check that with my technician before installing them.

I also made what has become a ritual appearance at my dealer and ordered the 1995 M3 control arms, 96-99 bushings, and related hardware because there are no OEM equivalents available. When the parts came in late in the week and I went to pay for the invoice I found a woman complaining to the cashier about paying $12 for a bulb. I asked the woman if she wanted to trade invoices and looked at the cashier and smiled. When the woman heard the cashier rattle off my $460 obligation, the woman smiled and said "uh, no". All I could say was "I wish my average invoice here was $12". That seemed to diffuse the situation. Some people don't know how lucky they are.

Next on the list is the X-Brace with associated nutserts and installation tool, brake hoses, sway bar links, engine mounts, strut tower reinforcements, strut assemblies, and everything necessary to overhaul the steering column. Without the camber plates, and assuming the brake pistons aren't pitted (which would necessitate new or overhauled calipers because the pistons aren't separately available), I'm estimating $2500 in parts for the project.

Mileage: 209900, Parts: $760, Parts Saved: $200

Friday, August 5, 2011

Headliner Condition Worsens

(Image: Closeup of visor clip after it broken into a million pieces)A couple weeks ago I got in the car after work and noticed the fabric on the headliner had separated from the rear of the sunroof opening. A couple days later I was trying to pull down the driver's side sun visor to shield my eyes from the afternoon glare when the clip that holds the visor to the headliner suddenly snapped into several small pieces and rained down on me. If my anger management wasn't working I would have snapped into an equal number of pieces but I managed to calmly come up with a plan to fix the headliner and conduct an "abbreviated" interior refresh before I continue to acquire parts for the front suspension overhaul. Still, I couldn't help feeling like the evil scientist (BOO!) that tries to take Bugs Bunny's brain in the classic cartoon "Water Water Every Hare" when his plans meet with similar frustration. Delays, delays. Nothing but delays!

I headed over to my dealer today to order the parts necessary to fix the headliner. As it turned out all the needed parts were available in beige except for the small trim piece that houses the sunroof switch and covers the sunroof motor (hereinafter referred to as the "sunroof switch panel"). The ETK unexpectedly and unfortunately showed an "E" (as in "ENDED") next to the beige version of that part and a check of both domestic and international warehouses revealed none in stock. The parts guys were able to find two domestic dealers that had one each in stock, however they were quick to point out that the inventory system is not infallible and the parts may, in fact, not be present at those dealers. He placed a call to one of the dealers and they responded that their system showed they had the part but there was no bin number associated with it. Translated: they didn't know where to look for the part. They agreed to call back with the results of their search.

I had to leave before the next dealer was called but I asked the parts guys to order only that part and let me know when it comes in. Why? Because if the part comes in, I have my solution -- all OE parts in beige. If it turns out the part is not available or it arrives in rough shape, however, I'll need to choose one of three possible solutions I see at the moment:

  1. Take my existing parts to my local upholstery shop and have him cover everything with new fabric. Naturally, to ensure all the fabric matches I'll need to recover the A and C pillar trims. This will no doubt be more expensive than the OE parts solution and the unfortunate reality is that based on the fabric swatch books I saw at the upholstery shop, aftermarket fabric won't match the original fabric in color, texture, or thickness. While I'm sure the aftermarket fabric would look far better than what I have right now, my emphasis has always been to maintain the vehicle in "like new condition" with OE parts whenever possible so this is my least favorite option.
  2. Buy the OE parts in beige, have my upholstery shop cover my existing sunroof switch panel with a similar fabric and just turn my OCD gain knob down sufficiently to ignore the differences between the aftermarket and OE fabrics. This is probably the least expensive option because it would allow me to reuse my A & C pillar trims as is. But I'm not in the habit of spending craploads of money and not getting exactly what I want so this is also not a particularly attractive option.
  3. Take some inspiration from my E46 -- which comes with an anthracite (black) headliner and A & C pillar trims as part of the ZHP package -- and convert the E36 to black parts which are still available (at least I *think* they're available). As the E36 interior already blends beige and black components (like the dashboard and console), I think there's sufficient precedent for this approach. While this would force me to buy a few more parts including new visors and the map light assembly (otherwise known to young people everywhere as the "sex lights"), I think the effect would look great and provide an interesting perk: dirt from the cassette that rubs off on the interior trim panel would not be nearly as obvious as it is on lighter colors.

Since I need to remove the sunroof panel to replace the interior trim panel, I searched for articles and videos to learn more about the process. I managed to find a three-part video series in which the author assembles all the parts of the sunroof cassette and explains how the unit functions:

I think you'll find the videos as helpful as I did, but I'm sure you'll share my frustration with the quality of the camera and the lack of lighting. Note: If the links no longer work, please send me email. Videos can be dropped from YouTube without warning.

Technician Q&A

(Image: Headliner fabric detached on rear of sunroof opening)I managed to divert the attention of my technician today long enough to ask a few questions. First up was my concern about keeping the sunroof motor and cassette cable assembly "in sync", which can be an issue if you remove the motor and play around with the shuttle. He said that while he hadn't worked on an E36 in some time, he believed that the motor in the later model years of the E36 is "trainable" to stop when it reaches appropriate limits in both the retract and tilt modes. I do know for sure that the motor in my vehicle is equipped with a safety feature in that it will stop if it meets with sufficient resistance, as it would, for example, if I attempt to close the sunroof with my hand sticking through it. My guess is that the "training" feature leverages the current-sensing technology that makes the safety feature work, but I could be wrong.

I then mentioned that I had planned to pull the entire sunroof cassette "while in Rome" to replace the various plastic bits that are known to break at inopportune times. He quickly suggested that even if the individual parts are still available, BMW is aware that the success rate for repair of the sunroof assemblies in E36 and E46 vehicles by dealer technicians is not high and that unless I notice some obvious problem (like a half-broken slider) his advice was to leave well-enough alone and simply clean and regrease the tracks without further disassembly. His warning was based on his observation that unless everything is put back together exactly perfectly, "you'll hear a very expensive crunch or two" that will likely require the installation of an entirely new cassette. Interestingly, this is exactly what happened to the author of the above videos.

On another note, I asked him whether he had ever seen BMW use an all metal upper steering column support bearing and he said yes, but that the current nylon bearings are actually the better choice because the older metal bearings used to squeak....probably as much as the lower column bearing (which is all metal) does in my car right now. Sadly, the upper column bearing (yes, the very same bearing I replaced back in 2007 during my steering wheel conversion) just started "rattling" when I turn the wheel quickly, so that will need to be replaced when I overhaul the steering column and ignition lock assemblies during the front suspension overhaul.

While on the subject of steering wheel squeaks, I mentioned the high pitched metallic squeak in my steering column and the fact that most people say this comes from the lower bearing. He mentioned that it could also be coming from the steering column u-joint and that shooting some penetrating lube liberally over the joint, turning the wheel, and repeating the process a few times could help determine the part at fault.

Lastly, during a discussion that wound up comparing the money I'm spending on the E36 to a new 1M, I asked him if BMW has finally figured out a solution for the high pressure fuel pump failures that plague the N54, among other engines. He said that BMW has actually bought the tooling used to produce the pumps from the subcontractor in France and is now producing the pumps in-house. Two part numbers have been produced since that change. The first was effectively a continuation of the existing design but with better manufacturing tolerances and the most recent part is a new design. He didn't come out and say that they no longer replace HPFPs but I surmised that BMW acknowledged there was a serious problem and it appeared to be headed in the right direction. Presumably, BMW is using the latest version in the 1M so I don't think the HPFP issue would be a serious concern in the purchase decision of a 1M, but they are still too new to call the issue closed. Only time will tell.

Toybox Sneak Peek

Work on my brother's toybox continues at a brisk pace now.

A couple weeks ago I helped my brother run some hot and cold pex lines across the length of the floor, the point being to bring water to the far side of the building so we could wash cars over there. I also noticed that some of the pex laid by the contractor was a bit too close to the locations of the two lift posts so I helped move them to remain outside of those areas.

The next day a six inch thick slab of 5000 PSI concrete was poured. The job required 70 yards which was delivered in several trucks spaced roughly 45 minutes apart. Aside from a flat tire on the third truck that wound up delivering the final load a little "hot" (a bit too far into the curing process), the pour went exactly as planned. The finishers did a great job making the surface as smooth as glass and feathering the slope of the concrete toward each of the three floor drains, one in front of each door as required by local code. In the week following the pour my brother tried to keep the slab soaking wet with lawn sprinklers and in the process proved that the drains worked quite well.

The framing as shown was completed in a week. Blocking, sheathing, and the roof trusses are up next. The current hope is to have the building water tight by the end of this month, but that's a far cry from finished. Electric, water and gas utilities all need to be properly terminated in the building, and lighting, heating, and security systems need to be installed. I will be pleasantly surprised if the building is completely ready for use by Thanksgiving. Time flies during projects of this nature.

Mileage: 210750

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Interior Overhaul - First Parts Arrive

Last week I learned that the sunroof switch panel was not available at either of the dealers contacted by my parts department and therefore not available for this project. When I heard the news I considered converting to a black headliner but it didn't take long to look up enough part numbers to determine that wasn't an option as there were fewer parts available in black than beige, including the headliner itself. So I went back to the original plan to buy beige parts and recover the sunroof switch panel. A bulk of the parts, including the headliner, sunroof trim panel, parcel shelf, and exterior sunroof weather seal came in and I picked them up today.

Some things I noticed about the new parts:

I learned this week that the visor clips were no longer available in beige, but they were available in black and gray, so I decided to order four examples in black, two of which will remain in my spares drawer. I have not decided whether I'll paint them beige as there are enough black parts in the interior and in the vicinity of the visors (primarily the sex light and sunroof switches) that I doubt I'd really notice the difference, but the option is available provided I can mask or remove the metal contact used to complete the visor lighting circuit. Those parts haven't come in yet, but I expect them this week.

I did some research into my recovering options and found a company in Florida with a reputation for using the correct fabric for the task. The owner of the company told me that the German fabric used for the headliner comes with a 1/8" thick foam backing, in contrast to the typical US-sourced fabric which uses a 1/4" thick foam. Use of the correct foam is essential to preserve the look and fit of the original parts (particularly at the base of the pillars, which is a very tight fit) and is absolutely required on the interior sunroof trim panel because of the limited clearance when the panel slides back into the cassette.

While on the topic of the A & C pillars, the owner pointed out what I already knew -- my pillars are covered with a fabric that has no foam backing. He said that the process BMW's supplier uses to attach the fabric without bleeding the adhesive through the fabric is not easily duplicated in the field and for that reason he advocates installation of the same 1/8" thick foam backed fabric used on the headliner. He then added that BMW has done this on other models from the factory so use of the foam backed fabric in this application is appropriate for those (like me) trying to preserve the OE look.

I haven't quite figured out whether it will make sense to send all my parts to Florida for recovering or buy an appropriate amount of the fabric and have my local shop install it. On one hand, I like the fact that the shop in Florida deals with this fabric every day so I should naturally expect to get a first-class installation, but on the other hand I'm not particularly excited about the possibilty of losing the parts in transit or having the parts tied up at a shop 1000 miles away for weeks on end if they are swamped with business. In any case, I requested a fabric swatch and if that checks out, I'll make the call at that point.

Retail on the parts so far is $1028, but the parts guys discounted them to $815, hence $213 in the parts saved column.

USA Spec PA12-BMW iPod / Aux Adapter Purchased

For many years I have loathed subjecting my CD collection to the harsh automobile environment because many of the CDs I originally purchased in the <gasp> 80's are no longer in print, or are otherwise irreplaceable because the most recent remasters have been bastardized in the misguided quest to support the loudness war. I long ago ripped my entire collection to high-bitrate MP3 format for use with an old iRiver player I use while flying, but lacking any means to connect that player to the BMW audio system, the CD changer has remained in operation.

While thinking about the interior overhaul project I realized I would need to remove the rear seat to faciliate access to the parcel shelf and C pillars. This process is, coincidentaly, required to route cables from the trunk to the console for an iPod adapter, so I figured I'd leverage the opportunity to install an iPod adapter so I can finally retire the changer and protect my CD collection from further abuse.

The media adapter market is dominated by two players -- DICE and USASpec. The DICE adapters are the most popular because of their feature set, but one need only read the forums (bimmerforums, for example) to arrive at the opinion that the DICE adapters are unreliable and poorly supported. While the USASpec adapters aren't without fault, they seem to enjoy a comparitively favorable online opinion so I decided to purchase the PA12-BMW model through Amazon for $125. Note: If you click on this link and ultimately purchase the product, a small percentage of your purchase will go toward my site's support fund.

While at the moment I lack any first-hand operational experience with the USA Spec unit, I can say that if physical appearance counts for anything (and I think it does in this case), the USA Spec unit is well made. The PA12-BMW comes with a solid metal case and a set of cables with quality terminations. The fact that it supports both the iPod interface as well as a generic auxillary input, which can be used to connect other media players or a satellite radio interface, is icing on the cake. The USASpec unit doesn't support MP3 text display in the E36 application, but that's a fault of the radio and not the adapter. In any case, I don't care about that since I plan to use the adapter in the direct mode that keeps the iPod unlocked and available for navigation.

Obviously, I plan to take pictures of the installation and highlight them when the time comes. Stay tuned.

Mileage: 211440, Parts: $940, Parts Saved: $213

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Interior Overhaul - Headliner Swap and More Parts Arrive

Before I took delivery of the headliner I pulled it about half way out the box and examined it as best I could before accepting the part and taking it home. When I got the part home I pulled it completely out of the box to take pictures of it in support of the last blog entry. As I closely inspected the part I realized that portions of the fabric along two sharp points at the rear (back where the C-pillars mate with it) were separated from the fiberglass substrate.

The parcel shelf came wrapped in several protective layers -- in fact, so many that it was a real pain in the ass to open it for inspection at the dealer. For whatever reason, however, the headliner was shipped in an oversize box without any form of wrapping or edge protection. It wasn't difficult to figure out that the damage was caused by the fact that these two points absorb all the stress during shipment with the box in the vertical position. While I probably could have fixed the headliner, I have this thing about getting parts in perfect condition when I'm paying top dollar for them. So this week I asked the parts guys to order another headliner and arranged to swap it with a new part that was, fortunately, undamaged in this manner.

I also ordered a new beige headliner trim kit (what BMW refers to as a "synthetic strip", part number 54128173540) simply because it was only $42 and I didn't want to deal with any possibility of the original part snapping in half, as 14 year old rubber has a tendency to do. And in a fit of annoyance at the deterioration of the exterior rear window seal, I decided to order a new seal on the advice of a reader who emailed to say that it is quite possible to replace the seal without pulling the window. The seal comes in two pieces, the top portion (61311977608, $27) and the bottom (51318119281, $24). All three parts arrived today.

Aside from any parts needed to address any issues I discover (or cause) with the sunroof and the visor clips which are still on the boat inbound from Germany, I appear to have all of the parts required to complete the "upper half" of the interior overhaul project. Now all I need is some time and good weather to complete the task. I would have started the work this weekend but we're dealing with Hurricane Irene at the moment: a forecast of 12+ inches of rain and 60-80MPH winds are conspiring against me.

When I do finally begin work, the plan is to remove the headliner, remove the sunroof panel, clean the sunroof cassette and tracks as best I can without removing the unit from the car, install the new sunroof trim panel, and then reinstall everything. Given the cost of the parts involved and the prospect of very expensive mistakes I plan to take my time with the project. As a consequence, the E46 will likely be brought into service yet again.

Secondary Air Pump Disassembly

Believe it or not, I saved the secondary air pump I replaced a few months ago with the intent of taking it apart, learning its secrets, and possibly figuring out a way to overhaul the pump with a new motor so I could put it back into service the next time the pump fails...thus saving myself several hundred dollars.

I was able to drill out the aluminum rivets binding the case halves together easily enough, but to my dismay found that the manufacturer really doesn't want or expect anyone to service this thing. They pressed a collar onto the motor shaft to retain the radial blower and I can't get the thing off. I could have destroyed the blower to work around that problem, but something tells me it would be more difficult to replace the blower than the motor and I still want to try to repair this unit. The solution may involve bringing the unit to a machine shop to see if they can cut off the collar, but I don't have any time to deal with that right now so I put it back on the shelf for now. In the meantime, I figured you might find the pictures interesting.

Construction Update

Here are a few more pictures showing the state of my brother's toybox. Since these pictures were taken, ice and water shield was applied to the entire top of the roof and the first bundles of shingles perched at the ridge, but the builder decided against installing the shingles before the hurricane, since he said they are likely to lift in high winds until the dab of tar on each tab binds to the shingle under it, and that if he went ahead he'd likely have to repair it. It's raining and blowing like mad as I type this so I can't blame him for being cautious (or lazy).

I also figured I'd present one final picture of the dealer's refurbished shop because this really shows off the tile I mentioned in an earlier entry. I think the tile looks great and would seriously consider doing that in any garage of mine. The only difference is I'd probably want to install 12x12 tiles because merely looking at all those grout lines make my knees ache. I realize larger tiles can be more difficult to install, but the fewer tiles I have to place, the better.

Mileage: 211736, Parts $100

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Intermittent HVAC Blower Operation

A couple days ago I got into the car for the drive home and realized shortly after pulling out that the interior wasn't cooling down. A glance at the HVAC controller display showed it was commanding a relatively high fan speed but very little airflow was coming out of the vents. My internal diagnostic subroutine dusted itself off and got to work quickly as I nearly immediately concluded that the final stage unit (speed controller for you noobies) had bit the dust. I wasn't exactly surprised, given the fact that these units tend to fail far more frequently than once every 14 years and 210K miles. In fact, I consider myself lucky it lasted this long.

I figured that replacing the unit would be a simple matter of swinging by my dealer the next day, ordering a new part and installing it. Silly me. Hurricane Irene took out power to a lot of people, including me. I was out for 30 hours over the weekend and while I didn't know it at the time, I was one of the lucky ones. People a few streets over from me STILL don't have power as I'm writing this four days after the event, and (here's the relevant part), neither does my dealer. The strange thing is they're located on a multi-lane main road and the traffic lights adjacent to the property are working...but the dealership itself as well as its neighbors are dark. That means no computers, no phones, and most obviously, no ordering of parts.

I work near another dealer called Circle BMW. If you're not from NJ and it sounds familiar that's likely because they do Internet part sales (or at least used to...I'm not sure if they still do). I have bought parts locally from them in the past but nothing major...and it's not hard to see why. Despite informing the parts guy that I was an "enthusiast", write a blog, was in a pinch with no climate control, etc. he seemed genuinely uninterested in giving me anything more than the standard 10% CCA discount. When I told him that I normally get 20% off he interrogated me with "who gives you that?", to which I responded "[my local dealer's name] and Tischer". He responded by saying "Tischer, eh?" and rolling his eyes. When I pleaded one last time for a 20% "courtesy" discount to help me get my A/C working again, he said that he could only give me 20% if I owned a shop, to which I quickly retorted "if you knew how much money I give BMW every year in parts sales alone, you'd probably think I do". That was the end of our conversation and I walked out the door without the needed part.

I made a couple calls this morning to my dealer that both resulted in a busy signal (common when lots of people call a number in a hunt group when the lines aren't picking up because the subscriber's PBX is down). I translated that to mean the dealer was still without power so I decided to order the new FSU from Tischer (Part number 64116929540, $153). I paid a few bucks for shipping -- about equivalent to the tax I'd otherwise pay if the part were purchased locally since Tischer's shipping rates aren't as good as they used to be -- but I still netted $15 relative to the Circle price by buying from Tischer. I'll grant you that $15 isn't a lot of money in the grand scheme, but I was more than willing to use this opportunity to vote with my dollars and send a message to a company that would rather gouge their customers than take the long view and do what's necessary to build mutually beneficial business relationships.

When I turned the key to start the engine for the trip home from the office today I thought for a second I felt a bit of air coming from the center vent but I placed my hand over the vent and felt no airflow. Always the experimenter, I played around with the HVAC controller, alternately pressing the fan speed rocker switch and Auto buttons. Miraculously, this caused the blower to start up, which allowed me to enjoy air conditioning on the way home. This confirmed that the blower itself is fine, and that either the HVAC controller or the FSU is the culrpit...but since intermittent fan operation on cars equipped with automatic climate control is a classic symptom of a failed (or failing) FSU, I'm pretty confident that replacement of the FSU will fix the problem. We'll see in a few days when I get the part and the time to install it.

The Flip Side of Anger

Anger management is all about the way you handle things. So I handled my anger at Circle yesterday in the most productive way I knew: before heading back to the office I drove a couple doors down to the local Porsche dealership to speak with them about a Cayman S.

I walked into a refreshingly unpretentious and "cozy" showroom with space for no more than about four vehicles (but, oh my, what vehicles!) and asked to speak with some of the service people. I explained my background, the privileges afforded me by my BMW dealer and wound up asking some pointed questions about working on the Cayman myself, including having unfettered access to their technicians for technical support when needed.

I found the service manager knowledgeable about the cars as he answered my questions simply and easily with a "quiet enthusiasm". He allayed most of my fears about access to the Cayman's innards for maintenance purposes, though it is clear to me that a "preflight inspection" won't be nearly as easy as it is on the BMW. In the end, I emphasized the kind of business relationship I'll expect if I write the check and my general impression is that they would be more than willing to accommodate me...if not "officially", then certainly "off the record". And that's exactly how I'd characterize the way it's done at my BMW dealer.

While BMW has been a volume manufacturer far longer than I've been a BMW owner, my visit at the Porsche dealer was reminiscent of the earliest days of owning my E36 when the dealer was owned by a family, the ratio of enthusiasts to clueless soccer moms with spoiled brats in tow was decidedly higher and the pace was considerably slower. I needed nothing more than 15 minutes at the Porsche dealership to confirm that BMW and its entire dealer network is moving in the wrong direction (or perhaps more to the point, the wrong direction for ME). I am now convinced there will be a Porsche in my future. I'm not sure what I'll wind up buying or when (no thanks to the crappy economy), only that it will happen before the eco-nazis convince Porsche to eliminate a normally aspirated engine option, much as they have with BMW. My research on the Cayman continues.

Mileage: 211850, Parts $168, Parts Saved: $41

Saturday, September 3, 2011

State Inspection

I knew I might get the car into a state during the upcoming interior overhaul that might preclude taking it to inspection before the end of the month so I decided to take care of that yesterday in advance of the work I had planned for the weekend.

Fortunately, the car passed with flying colors and I even received an indirect complement on the car from one of the inspectors. While trapped in the little ventilated cage they put the owners in "for their own safety" I overheard the inspector in the next lane asking the guy working on my car for the model year. He followed up by saying "98, huh? Wow...that looks really good!" Of course, I don't really give a crap what people think of the car I drive -- I drive it for my own personal gratification -- but it's nice to see that the car still presents well after all the blood, sweat, tears and, of course, money I've spent maintaining it.

Interior Overhaul - Day 1

After washing the car and spending some time helping my brother prepare one of his vehicles to be wrapped for advertising purposes I began work on the interior overhaul project.

Naturally, I started with the easy stuff first including removal of the visors, the sunroof switch panel, oh-shit handles and the light assemblies that are press-fit into the headliner. I had hoped to salvage the passenger side visor clip but as I rotated the visor down to gain access to the screws at the mounting point the clip disintegrated in a familiar fashion. In all my years I've never seen plastic become this brittle before, but I suppose there's a first for everything. The fact that these cheap and failure-prone parts are no longer made by BMW in my interior color irritates me to no end (and yes, I'm planning to call BMWNA and bitch for all the good it will do), but I consider myself lucky that I was able to order new clips at all.

(Image: Old headliner removed and resting against side of E36)I then carefully removed the A, B and C pillars, knowing full well they are no longer available from BMW and any ham-fisted approach on my part would likely lead me down a road involving more time and money.

To remove the A pillar trims I grabbed the piece with two hands positioned near the top and middle of the part, squeezed the sides in a bit to get a good grip on it and tugged straight away (i.e. perpendicular to) the piller itself. There are two long plastic "fingers" built into the trim that upon installation are inserted into metal retention clips in the pillar itself. These are located near the top and middle of the pillar trim, while the bottom of the trim is retained to the vehicle only by its fit into the relief built into the dashboard, so once I freed the two clips, I just pulled the trim up and out. Unfortunately, a portion of one "finger" on each A pillar trim stayed behind with the metal retention clip in the body so I have some concern that I will need to buy new parts or they will not fit properly when I reinstall them.

To remove the C pillar trims I first removed the light assembly (which is simply press fit) and then inserted several fingers of one hand into the hole facing upward toward the top of the trim to support the piece as I attempted to use my other hand to grab the top edge of the trim before pulling straight out. This revealed two fasteners near the top edge of the trim. I then pulled the top of the trim away from the pillar enough to get a look at another couple of fasteners at the base of the trim. What I didn't realize until I completely removed the trim is that the "fingers" are molded such that the trim should be pulled toward the center of the vehicle, not perpendicular to the pillar as is the case with the A pillars. I have no idea why BMW did this, but I'm sure the same particle physicist that replaced tried and true screws with these God-forsaken one-time-use fastening methods was responsible.

The B pillar trims were still helping to hold up the headliner so I removed those at this point. I first removed the small half-moon shaped plastic trim that covers the seatbelt retaining nut and then removed the nut using a 16mm hex socket. I then removed the small T-shaped handle that allows vertical adjustment of the seatbelt by pulling it straight out and off the post on which it mounts. I then used a technique similar to that used on the A pillars to "squeeze and pull" the top of the trim off the car. What I didn't realize until I removed the first trim, however, is that the bottom is retained by an "L" shaped plastic clip that mates with a slot in the pillar and so I pulled the top of the trim away from the pillar too far before pulling the trim upward, and that wound up severely bending the L clip. Fortunately in this case, the bottom of the trim is largely retained by the side panel so I don't expect this to be a big problem.

Sadly, while I was looking more closely at the B pillar, I noticed that the center section of the driver's side rear panel (what would be the rear door panel if this was a sedan) had partially delaminated. Since I'll have the rear seats out to do the parcel shelf shortly, there's no time like the present to fix that with some five minute epoxy. Scope creep anyone?

With all the obvious parts retaining the headliner removed I gently wedged my index finger under the door seals and walked my finger along the length of the seal as I pulled the headliner down and out from under the seal. With both sides done and the headliner clearly loose on all four sides I sat back for a moment wondering why the headliner hadn't fallen down yet. Then I looked straight up at the sunroof opening and realized that the "synthetic strip" that lines the interior sunroof opening isn't just cosmetic -- it helps mate the headliner with a flange on the sunroof cassette. I couldn't get a good grip on the strip from the inside of the car so I fully opened the sunroof, stepped outside and grabbed it from the top. One good tug pulled the strip away from one side of the opening and the other sides followed easily enough. My brother was unassumingly sitting in the passenger seat so as the headliner dropped away at this point his head conveniently cushioned it's fall. What else is a brother for? :)

Before starting work today I did some additional research to determine exactly how to extract the headliner from the car. One comment I found online read "it's hard to describe how to remove the headliner. You'll figure it out when you get there". And that's not far from the truth. I moved the seats all the way aft and reclined the seat backs until they hit the back seat. The passenger window was already down for ventilation purposes so at that point all I needed to do was rotate the front of the headliner toward the passenger door. Common sense led me to realize that I needed to keep the right side of the headliner (facing aft at this point) up near the top rear corner of the door frame while I kept the left side lower than that, but higher than the dashboard. At this point I stopped and thanked the German designers and engineers since the headliner easily cleared the frameless door. I can't imagine how this job is done in the sedan. Good luck to you guys.

All in all, this is not the nightmare most people make this out to be. I wouldn't care to do this every day and I'm still nervous about installing the new part, but I did make a point to play around with the old part, pushing it in and out and generally experimenting with it to ensure I would be able to install the new part without bending it. Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans...

After some brief cleanup, I left for the day. I lost track of time during the process, but my brother mentioned I had been working for about an hour and a half. Felt like two hours to me, so I'll go with the latter estimate. That's no doubt higher than book but, as usual, now that I've done the job once I could probably do it again a lot faster.

Tomorrow I plan to go back to the garage and do the following:

  1. Remove, repair and reinstall the driver's side side rear panel.
  2. Clean and function check the sunroof
  3. Install the new external sunroof seal and do a water leakage test.
  4. Install the new rear window seals
  5. Install the new parcel shelf.
  6. Test and then permanently install the iPod adapter.

That's actually more work than it at first appears so I'm not sure I'll get it all done, but it's a plan.

GTI Evaluation Leads To Visor Clip Epiphany

Yesterday I found myself stuck in traffic in front of our local VW dealer so I decided on impulse to scoot in and take a look at the latest generation GTI. I've always had a thing for the GTI and in fact once owned a 2001 VR6 (with a stick, of course). In spite of some initial quality issues typical of VW at the time and a crappy dealer (thankfully since defunct), I really enjoyed the car and regretfully sold it in 2002 after the parasites on Wall Street got finished ass-fucking the tech industry on which I depended for my survival.

I found only 4 door 2011 leftovers as well as one used 2010 2 door on site, but that was enough to survey what VW had done in the last two design cycles and I was reasonably pleased at what I found. Unfortunately, VW no longer provides a normally aspirated or VR6 engine option (even in the upcoming R model), but that's life with the eco-nazis in control. The plaid cloth seats are considered the base trim but I actually like them more than the otherwise well-done leather. The fact that the cloth is lighter and ultimately cheaper to replace in the long run is a definite plus. Hey BMW, you listening? A cloth option (a la E30 M3) in M colors would rock. P.S. Alcantara sucks.

Anyway, back to the point for this segment. After sitting in the car a few minutes and investigating the tactile response of all the knobs and buttons I looked up at the visor and rotated it to reveal a visor clip very similar to that on the E36. I couldn't help but smirk. I pulled the visor out of the clip and saw the same type of electrical contact used in the BMW part to illuminate the mirror. I couldn't tell whether the part would fit the E36 but no sooner than I considered that as an option I realized parts from the E46 might work as well. The reason I didn't consider it earlier is because I figured the visors themselves might need to be replaced as well to make it work. Since today's work revealed that mine are in worse shape than I thought I am not opposed to replacing them if necessary.

Mileage: 212035

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Interior Overhaul - Day 2

Unfortunately I didn't get a ton of time to work on the car today but I did manage to do a few things: replace the sunroof seal, replace the rear window seals and pull the parcel shelf so I could take it and the new part home and ready it for installation.

To replace the rear window seals I pulled the bottom seal first and then the top seal. The bottom seal came off without any hassle, but because the fit of the top seal is tight to begin with and 14 years of exposure had turned the rubber into plastic, I found the top seal didn't really want to come off the window easily. About 5 minutes of determined pulling, twisting, and tugging managed to remove the seal without any damage to the paint or the window. With the seals removed I used a hose to clean out the area and then used some Goo-Gone to clean off a kind of unspeakable crud that had formed under the window.

Because the new seals were quite flexible (well, except for the bottom seal which actually integrates a metal reinforcement), installation of the new seals was easier than removal of the old seals. All I had to do was correctly center the seal on the window and use the bottom legs of the seal as a handle or lever of sorts to pull the seal around the top two corners of the window. I'll admit I wasn't perfect with the alignment the first time so I had to pull the sides up, slide the seal over a bit and then reinstall it, but within 5 minutes I had the new seal in place and it hadn't looked this good since I picked it up in 1998. Many thanks to the people who wrote to tell me I could do this without pulling the window.

Removal of the sunroof seal involved fully opening the sunroof, marking the center of the opening by placing a piece of painters tape adjacent to the seam in the existing seal, and then pulling the old seal off the opening with brute force. The double-sided foam tape used in this application is very resilient so a bunch of it remained behind on the metal lip. The best technique for removing what remained turned out to be good 'ol elbow grease. I used my thumb and index finger to roll over the foam and that caused it to lift up and take a majority of the adhesive with it. After about 10 minutes of that technique my fingers were begging for a break but I managed to get the job done. I then used some Goo Gone to remove what remained of the adhesive and then wiped the area with some denatured alcohol to prep the surface and promote adhesion of the new tape.

It turns out that BMW provides only about 1.5" extra material and one edge of the seal provided to me looked as though the adhesive had been compromised by removal of the orange protective tape. For that reason I simply started using the other side and walked the seal around the edge, pulling the orange protective tape off only an inch or two ahead of my work. The seal is perfectly shaped to mate with the metal edge so it didn't take much effort to ensure that the top of the seal remained flush with the edge. Once I got within a couple inches of the seam, I pulled out a brand new (and exceedingly sharp) razor blade and used a piece of cardboard perched on the edge of the recessed sunroof panel as a cutting surface to trim the seal to length. To ensure no gap in the seam I cut the seal about 1mm too long and "squeezed" it together. I finished up by closing the sunroof and inspecting the seam between the seal and sunroof panel for gaps. The result: a perfect fit.

To finish up today I decided to pull the parcel shelf. To remove the existing shelf I had to fold down the rear seat backs, pull the side bolsters off, pull out the four plastic rivets holding the black plastic trim piece to the parcel shelf and then remove the headrests before pulling the shelf forward and out of the car. The headrests, incidentally, are retained by metal clips that are only visible if the forward edge of the parcel shelf is lifted up in the vicinity of the headrests about 2". I used a hook tool to remove the clips and set them aside in one of my zip-lock bags for safe keeping. At that point I realized that I would have to remove one or both of the side panels to allow the shelf to move forward, but since I was short on time and didn't care about the old shelf, I just bent the shelf up about 6" from the driver's side as required to clear the side panel. Once the panel cleared the recess built into the side panel and the shelf came forward I noticed that the other edge of the panel came free of the recess in the passenger side panel. This convinced me that in order to install the new panel all I would have to do is pull the driver's side panel, and of course, I need to do that anyway so it's no inconvenience.

I also spent a bit of time cleaning the exposed sunroof tracks in an effort to determine whether I could eliminate all the noise exhibited by the sunroof but was unsuccessful. I also noticed that as I actuated the sunroof motor the tubes housing the bowden cables that actuate the sunroof panel were moving back and forth about a quarter of an inch. I'm not sure if that's normal, but I think it's an indication that the cables need to be pulled out and lubricated. Since I have no intention of doing that and putting the sunroof at risk without a backup on hand, I think I may just bite the bullet and buy a new cassette and sell this unit after I clean it up. That will afford me the opportunity to learn more about the sunroof, take some detailed pictures for the site, and get the car back in service as quickly as possible with a smoothly running sunroof that should prevent the need to pull the headliner for another 14 years.

Driver's Side Tail Lamp Assembly Failure

A few months ago I kept experiencing an intermittent "1 brake light fail" message on the OBC. When I'd restart the car the problem would go away. I eventually got fed up with the problem and decided to replace the bulbs on the theory that one of the filaments was a little flaky. That fixed the problem (or so I thought) so I went on with my life and didn't think much about it. That is, of course, until driving over to the garage today when the warning message appeared on the OBC display again. When I arrived I put a weight in front of the brake pedal to keep the brake lights on, went around to the back of the car and confirmed that the driver's side brake light was out.

I opened the trunk and pulled the protective cover on the tail light assembly in order to pull the offending bulb. The filament was intact but I did notice some corrosion on one of the terminals in the bulb socket so I cleaned that up with a pen eraser. I reinserted the socket into the tail lamp assembly and the brake light went on for a moment until I took my hand of the socket, at which point it flickered off. I grabbed the handle of the bulb socket and rocked it up and down. Sure enough, as I moved the socket the lamp alternately turned on and off. I pulled the socket again and took a good look at the mating terminals built into the tail light assembly only to find one of the terminals deeply pitted and corroded. I attempted to clean up the terminal with some abrasive cloth to no avail. The damage is done.

I subsequently inserted the socket several times and never was able to get the bulb to illuminate again, probably because the stupid design of these parts limits the contact area between the socket and the tail light assembly terminals to an area roughly 2mm in diameter, which is, not surprisingly, the size of the crater that has been been carved out of the terminal in the tail light housing due to corrosion or arcing. I may be able to fix this, at least temporarily, by applying some solder to fill in the hole, but I didn't have enough time today to remove the tail lamp assembly. That's first on my list when I return to the garage, but that won't be until next weekend because I'm taking Labor Day off.

Just kidding. I'll be working on other projects. Such is my life.

Mileage: 212050, Materials: $20

Monday, September 5, 2011

I managed to get a bunch of work totally unrelated to BMWs done today so I finished out the afternoon by doing a bit more on the project: preparing the parcel shelf for installation and repairing the tail lamp assembly.

Interior Overhaul - Day 3

Next up was the tedious task of preparing the parcel shell for installation. Using my dremel and carbide plunge cutting bit (the same one I bought to cut the new driver's door panel during the recent driver's door overhaul) I cut the four holes required for the headrest posts as well as the two holes required for the speaker grills.

To make sure I got the alignment correct (as this is clearly a measure-three-times-and-cut-once task) I mated the two parts and used the old shelf as a template as I outlined all the holes with a fine point marker. I also outlined the speaker cutouts with blue painter's tape to ensure I would stay within the lines. With the dremel running at near full speed I made reasonably quick work of cutting the holes undersize and then spent a good amount of time shaving the edges to bring them out to the tape lines for a near perfect fit.

Unfortunately, during all the test fitting I managed to break a majority of the retaining clips off the back of the speaker grills. It wasn't really my fault as the plastic is simply too brittle after 14 years of baking in the sun. My parts references show the grills are still available from BMW and the prices are reasonable too so I plan to buy new grills this week to round out the overhaul of the parcel shelf.

Tail Lamp Assembly Repaired

I removed the tail lamp assembly by first disconnecting the wiring connector and then removing the four 10mm nuts with captive washers. A light push on the lamp sockets from the inside popped the tail light assembly free of the vehicle and I took it home for further troubleshooting and repair. Once there, I confirmed that with the bulb and socket in place there was no continuity in the brake bulb circuit.

Upon removal of the socket I confirmed the problem: a severely degraded contact and the telltale signs of arcing (see the discolored plastic in the vicinity of the contact). I immediately assumed I could repair this by flowing some solder onto the contact but I knew that in order to promote good adhesion of the solder I had to remove the impurities on the surface of the contact. I accomplished this with a quick and gentle application of a small stone disc chucked in my dremel. Unfortunately, too much of the contact had already been burned away so this resulted in a small hole in the contact. To correct that problem I flowed enough solder at first to simply close the hole and then added just a bit more to create a small dome of solder sufficient to enhance the contact area by closing the gap between the contacts. After things cooled down I inserted the socket and performed another continuity test to find the circuit working as expected.

While I had the dremel handy I used a small polishing wheel to clean up the socket contacts but it's clear that one of the contacts has been heat damaged so I plan to order a new socket this week and hopefully prevent any additional problems.

Mileage: 212050

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Interior Overhaul - Day 4

This week I received several new parts including the FSU, sunroof cassette, and new speaker grills. The visor clips and third brake light grill are still on the boat.

The new sunroof cassette came preassembled with a new roof seal (something I'd considered buying for the old cassette had I decided to reinstall that) and pre-greased, so the only thing I should need to do is install the repair kit used to mount the interior panel, function test it, and then install it in the car before reinstalling the metal panel. Needless to say, I am quite nervous about installing this unit correctly, since breaking it would mean another delay and yet more money. My technician was on vacation this week so I expect to corner him this week to get more information before proceeding with the installation.

With my 20% discount the new speaker grills were $14 each and the sunroof panel repair kit only $38. The parts manager (a guy I've known forever because he worked at the dealership long before the ownership change in 2006) took considerable pity on me as he discounted the cassette by 25%, shaving a full $200 off the $800 retail price of that part. I've said it before, but it's nice to have friends in high places. :)

I also pulled the trigger on a iPod Touch 32GB and that should be here late this week. I briefly considered buying the Nano to save money and because its small size would have allowed me to stealthily install it in the ash tray, but at the end of the day I couldn't justify spending nearly two thirds the cost of a Touch while giving up what I wanted most -- a parametric equalizer that I could use to tweak the acoustics on the fly. The perk for me is that the Touch is not just a music player...it can do everything an iPhone or iPad can do, except make calls on a cell network, and I can use it anywhere WiFi is available. So, in my opinion, the Touch is clearly the better buy.

Interior Overhaul - Day 4

I went over to the garage today with the intent to install the repaired brake light assembly, parcel shelf, and FSU. I definitely made progress today, but for various reasons, I didn't get as far as I'd hoped.

I figured that the installation of the brake light assembly would be a nice way to ease into the work day so I began by cleaning the recess in the body that accommodates the brake light assembly before installing it. A quick test verified that the brake lights were now working. At this point my confidence and OCD combined to produce an overwhelming desire to remove the passenger side assembly in order to clean behind it. Just as when I removed the driver's side unit I found a bunch of crud packed behind the assembly so I grabbed the hunk of dirt and debris, tossed that outside where it belonged, and cleaned both the body and the assembly, paying particular attention the weather stripping that seals the assembly to the body. A couple minutes later I reinstalled the assembly and reconnected the electrical connector. However, when I pushed down on the brake pedal to verify the installation, I realized that the passenger side brake light no longer worked. Doh!

I turned the headlamp switch to the parking light position and walked around the back of the car to verify that the tail lamp bulbs were illuminated so I knew the electrical connector was properly seated. I decided to pull and reattach the electrical connector a few times on a hunch that the connections might be slightly corroded but that had no effect. So I pulled the connector off one more time and inspected the contacts more closely to find them covered with a green coating typical of highly oxidized copper. Lacking any contact cleaner in the garage I decided to use some emory cloth I had on hand to clean up the contacts.

The trick was tearing off no more than about 3/8" of the 3/4" wide cloth and rolling it up tightly so I could insert it into each contact and spin it around several times as required to remove the oxidation. That process noticeably cleaned up the contacts so I reinserted the electrical connector, performed another test, and was greeted with properly functioning brake lights. I wanted to get moving on other projects so I didn't bother to clean up the driver's side contacts but I expect to do that, wash all the contacts out with some contact cleaner and then sparingly apply some Noalox or other suitable anti-oxidation compound to prevent similar problems in the future. Why BMW didn't use a properly sealed connector here is beyond me.

With that task more or less complete I moved on to the parcel shelf -- only to realize that some of the small pieces of foam necessary for the installation were missing. So that meant a trip over to the local big box store to pick up some vinyl foam weather stripping. That took a good 40 minutes but I knew the lack of this foam would probably result in various creaks and rattles so it was worth the effort. At that point my brother came over to ask me to help him remove the seats in one of his cars so that ate up a solid half hour. By the time I got back to the garage I realized that I had yet to remove and repair the driver's side rear panel as required to install the parcel shelf so that was next on the list.

To remove the panel I had to remove the rear seat cushion, open the rear quarter window, and pull the quarter window weatherstripping up and away from the panel. As I surveyed the panel to ensure I would remove it without damaging it I noticed that it was fit loosely to the vehicle. From my work on the door panels I was quite familiar with this symptom and naturally assumed the upper support piece had separated from the panel itself. Interestingly, this worked to my advantage, as it didn't take much effort to pull the panel directly forward and away from the body. As the panel came away from the vehicle I confirmed my suspicion: the support had remained attached to the vehicle. It was at this point that I thanked myself for buying a couple extra tubes of 5 minute epoxy the last time I was at the box store.

I carefully pulled the upper support away from the car and took it and the panel outside for a closer look. The first thing I noticed was a bit of water staining on the leather. That could only come from a leaking window, yet a closer inspection of the weatherstripping did not reveal any obvious problems with the seal integrity. A quick application of some leather cleaner / conditioner did wonders for the overall cosmetic condition of the panel so I decided to proceed with the repair. First I pulled the panel inset away from the base of the panel enough to inject just the right amount of epoxy into the joint before compressing the two pieces and holding it for a few minutes until the epoxy set. Next, I mated the upper support with the car once again and installed the panel in a manner that allowed me to mark the front and rear edges of the support on the panel, before once again removing everything and bonding the support to the panel with another tube of epoxy.

I was pretty much out of time at this point so I decided to do one small job before leaving for the day: figure out how I would route the cables for the iPod adapter. The instructions point out (wisely, based on my reading online) that the adapter interface box needs to be mounted somewhere easily accessible just in case it is necessary to conduct a hard reset of the device or change one of the dip switch settings. After surveying the center console, I figured that would not be a good place for the unit for reasons of clearance and accessibility.

I pulled the adapter cables from the box and uncoiled them to get a feel for their length. As it turns out, the thicker and longer of the two cables that connects the CD changer wiring in the trunk to the interface box is sufficiently long to reach the glove box so I could install the unit in or near the glove box easily enough. But I also confirmed that I could mount the box in a small space currently filled with foam near the front corner of the rear seat and then route the iPod cable up through the center console. I'm not sure which I'll do yet, but I plan to think about it this week...which is probably the only benefit of my slow progress on this project: no rash decisions I'll regret later.

Mileage: 212050, Parts: $1030, Materials: $20, Parts Saved: $216

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interior Overhaul - Day 5

This morning I spent more time researching the sunroof cassette installation procedures. I printed out all of the relevant documentation from the TIS but found that it although it clarifies several operations it does not contain all the details I'll need to integrate what I have, at least without pulling and analyzing the workings of the old cassette. So that's the plan.

In the interest of making some progress in the forward direction I went to the garage this afternoon with the purpose of installing the new parcel shelf and generally reassembling the rear of the interior. As I attempted to install the shelf by inserting the passenger side first to work around the fact that the passenger side rear panel was still installed, I could not get the shelf to align properly. The driver's side kept binding on something, and in the process of pushing and tugging I heard a small ripping sound. I glanced over and found a sharp edge on the rear quarter window locking assembly and noticed that it had created a small but noticeable rip in the fabric on the edge of the shelf. After I was done belting out a good tune of explicatives and my blood pressure returned to normal, some test fitting of the C pillar trim revealed that the rip would be completely hidden by the panel. Good news in the end, but so much for shortcuts.

I decided to scrap my original plan of attack and remove the passenger rear side panel because this would allow me to install the shelf by pushing it directly aft. In what has become an almost comically predictable turn of events, the upper support of the panel separated as I removed it so that sent me off on another hour long repair project. Fortunately the inset panel in this case was still nicely attached to the base so I only needed a single tube of epoxy to reattach the support. While that was curing I successfully installed the shelf. The challenge this time was simultaneously mating the four rear alignment tabs with the slots in the body. The key is putting one hand between the clips on the right and the other between the clips on the left, pushing down sufficiently with both hands and then pushing the part home. The first couple of attempts resulted in one or two of the clips being above the slots, but I eventually got the job done.

There are two tricks to installing the headrests properly. First is to make sure that the retaining clips are installed with the flat or straight portion of the clip facing forward. It is possible to install them with the round portion facing forward and they'll even make a reassuring "click" sound as they're sent home, but the reality is the round part of the clip won't properly engage the slot milled into the sockets welded into the car or the posts themselves. If that happens the posts will just pull out. The second trick is to pull the headrest posts from the padded headrest component (bet you didn't realize you could do that, huh?) and insert them individually into the sockets in the body. This will make it far easier to determine that each post is fully seated in its socket and properly retained. If the posts aren't fully seated the posts will come out even if the retaining clips are installed correctly because the slot milled into the post will be on the wrong side of the retaining clip. The kicker is if you experience this installation error the posts will come out easily enough but now the retaining clips will prevent them from being reinstalled. Don't ask how I know this.

Next up was the black plastic trim piece that helps hold down the front edge of the parcel shelf. The trick to installing the trim piece is to first engage the retaining clips molded into the part before allowing the top of the part to come to rest on top of the front edge of the parcel shelf. The reason this is a "trick" is because it wasn't obvious to me that the clips even existed (the part must be flipped over to see them) and because it's entirely possible (though obviously incorrect) to install the part without the clips engaged.

To finish up, I applied some leather cleaner and conditioner to the side panels, bolsters and rear seat base before reinstalling everything. With the seat backs in their upright position I applied some more leather conditioner to them and the end result is presentable -- cleaner and slightly softer leather throughout. The headrests are completely baked, however, and beyond repair. I will be replacing them at some point in the future.

Words to the wise: before folding either rear seat back forward without the seat bottom cushion installed, be sure to put a pillow or some other cushion (I use an old comforter) over the seat base or two things will happen: 1) a really persistent and sticky "gook" will contaminate the leather, and 2) the metal electrical box (an accelerometer used to fire the airbags, if I recall correctly) will leave a lasting impression on the leather. I found this out last year and the seat is only now returning to normal.

The most challenging part of the overhaul, replacement of the sunroof cassette, is up next.

Mileage: 212050

Friday, September 16, 2011

Interior Overhaul - Removed Sunroof Cassette

Today I set about to remove the sunroof cassette from the car so I headed over to the dealer for a briefing from my technician. I found him working on an old Z3 and waited in line for access to his vast repository of knowledge. I brought my iPad loaded with pictures as well as the repair kit to serve as visual aids and got to business.

The most important piece of advice he gave me was to actuate the sunroof manually with the emergency allen key when I was preparing the unit for installation because, as he pointed out, the motor has more than enough power to wreck the cassette if something binds. I had heard this before so this wasn't exactly news, but it was helpful to hear him confirm my suspicions.

He also encouraged me to scribe the locations of the metal panel adjustment "wedges" before loosening the nuts on the rear of the panel. When I asked him about the BMW instructions to use Loctite 270 (otherwise known as "red" Loctite) on the front adjustment bolts he quickly dismissed that and told me that he has never applied Loctite to any such fastener and they have never come apart.

And while looking at one of the pictures of the seal that covers the rear half of the cassette I asked how to go about ensuring that the seal mates flat with the underside of the roof. He recommended using his tool of choice...a pick. Now why didn't I think of that?

When I asked him how long it would take him to install the new cassette and reinstall / align the metal panel just in case I chickened out, he said somewhere around two hours, assuming I installed the headliner, etc. All I would have to do is bring him both cassettes. He was quick to point out that the new cassette would fit in the trunk if I folded down the seats, which is not exactly something you'd find in the TIS. What can I say...my technician is a wealth of knowledge. I need to find a way to clone him before he retires.

On the way out, I decided to pick up a new brake light socket from the parts guys before heading over to the garage to remove the cassette as follows:

  1. I started with the sunroof closed (what BMW calls the "neutral" or "zero" position).
  2. I then tapped the sunroof open button for an instant...just enough to put the rear of the metal panel about 3 mm below its normal setting relative to the top of the roof.
  3. I carefully retracted the fabric panel back into the cassette, exposing the fasteners holding the metal panel to the cassette. BMW puts warnings all over its documentation that this panel should be moved gently and NOT forced in any way.
  4. At this point I planned to scribe the cross bar with the current locations of the alignment wedges, but I found they were already marked. I guess my technician was in here at some point that I can't recall. This is not an essential step because ultimately the wedges will be adjusted as necessary, but I can see how having them marked will get the panel in the ballpark.
  5. I then removed the three nuts at the rear and two bolts at the front of the metal panel using a 17mm hex socket and a T25 screwdriver, respectively. The right front side disconnected from the alignment pin without any effort, but the left side remained attached until I coaxed it apart. BMW says to push the metal panel up at the rear sufficient to disengage the pins at the front but I didn't see how doing that would help. A side-to-side motion did, however. I then set the panel aside in a safe location.
  6. With the metal panel removed, I moved the fabric panel back into the normal position (fully closed) and actuated the sunroof motor to place the unit into the vent position before moving it back into the neutral (fully closed) position in preparation for removal. BMW documentation makes a point to approach the "zero" position with some longer travel of the sunroof motor, no doubt to eliminate any hysteresis in the motor or limit switches.
  7. BMW instructions indicate to remove the electrical connectors, drain tubes, and one center bolt from the sunroof motor, followed by the fasteners at the front of the cassette, then the sides, and ultimately the four bolts at the rear corners, so that's what I did. To prevent the drain tubes from falling down into the body (unlikely, but conceivable) I wrapped the ends with some blue painter's tape and affixed the tail of the tape to the nearby body structure. Probably a bit of paranoia on my part but better safe than sorry.
  8. At this point, I got into the back seat and decided to use a little "body english" to help remove the cassette. I slouched down in the rear seat, kept my right foot on the floor for stability while I stretched my left foot up between the front seats to apply pressure to the front of the cassette. Then I spread my hands apart to straddle both rear corners of the cassette before disengaging the rear metal retaining clips. A small tug rearward and the cassette slid out of the slot in the front of the body. I lowered the cassette and balanced it on the front seat headrests while I extricated myself from the vehicle and easily maneuvered the unit out the passenger door. With the metal panel removed I found the cassette to be surprisingly light...perhaps only 15 pounds.

Total time was about two hours. I spent a good part of that time reading (and re-reading) the BMW documentation on this process and taking pictures. I know I could do it a lot faster next time (and by all that is holy, there better NOT be a next time).

All things considered, I found the cassette to be in relatively good shape, though the tracks and various components were quite dirty...no doubt because the grease attracts all kinds of grime over the years. The only thing out of place I found was a small black plastic washer-like part. I found it resting on the fabric panel but I don't know where it came from. It did look like it had broken off something, so perhaps this entire process wasn't exactly a wild goose chase. I may have caught something just about to break. With the cassette out of the car I took some time to take pictures and take some measurements that I hope will help align the new cassette to the zero position prior to installing the motor. I think that may be the most critical part of the entire installation process.

Next step: preparing, aligning, and installing the new cassette. If all goes as planned, I hope to do that tomorrow.

Mileage: 212050

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Interior Overhaul - New Sunroof Cassette Installed

This project has been leading up to one significant event -- the installation of the new sunroof cassette -- and I'm happy to say I completed that task today.

I began by comparing the old and new cassettes and closely analyzing the BMW instructions that indicate how to adjust the cassette to what BMW calls the "zero" or "neutral" (closed) position. The instructions note a dimension of 322 millimeters (12.67 inches) between the forward end of the rails and a particular point on the carriage that supports the crossbar. When I measured between the designated points on the old cassette I came up with 12.5" or maybe a little under that. Since I knew that the old cassette worked, I decided to use that measurement for the new cassette.

I originally assumed that the cassette came from BMW fully closed, but that was in error. In fact, the cassette is fully open and I needed to move the motor from the old cassette to the new, and then use the emergency allen key to drive the cassette drive mechanism to the zero position. By examining the old cassette I then figured out how to install the "repair kit" including the rails that drive the fabric panel. With that done, there was nothing else to do but install the cassette.

Incidentally, I chose to install the fabric panel after I installed the cassette simply to reduce the weight of the cassette and to make it less likely that I would accidentally put my foot on the fabric during the installation. In retrospect, this was a risk because of information I heard about the manufacturing tolerances of the new panels being out of spec, but I quickly compared the new fabric panel to the one still installed in the old cassette and found the shape to be identical. I think it's important to point out that the fabric panel is NOT flat by design, and I can understand how too much curvature in the panel could be a problem, but in this case it turned out to be a non-issue.

To install the cassette I got back in the rear seat in a slouched position and used my left foot to guide the cassette into the slot in the front while I secured the two rear temporary latches. One of them wouldn't hold, so I just loosely installed the two screws in that side and eventually the other side. I then used a right angled pick to make sure the gasket around the rear half the cassette "fanned" out correctly, sealing the cassette to the roof. With that done, I followed the remainder of the BMW instructions to secure the front screws, side screws, and then the two screws at each rear corner.

This seemed like a good point to install the fabric panel so I did that with ease. Nothing to really say about it except that the driver's side rear edge must be properly mated with the plastic piece that ultimately connects the panel rail to the cable drive system. Ten screws later, the panel was secured to the new cassette drive assembly. The passenger side rail, by the way, is not driven...it's used only to support that side of the fabric panel and keep it aligned with the track. In spite of the fact that my comparison of the old and new fabric panels suggested the part would work as intended, I decided to run a full travel sanity test of the sunroof using the emergency tool. That test confirmed that the fabric panel did not cause the sunroof mechanism to bind. With that critical information in hand, I decided to proceed with the powered test.

Before I did that, however, I needed to realign the motor to the zero position. Why? The motor WAS in the zero position when I removed it from the old cassette but since I used it to manually drive the new cassette to its zero position that meant the motor was not where it needed to be. To fix this inconsistency I had to remove the motor from the new cassette, attach the electrical plugs, and then activate it to let the motor seek the zero position. BMW's instructions warn about approaching the zero point from a distance due to hysteresis in the motor so I pressed the concave button deeply to activate the one touch open feature. This caused the motor to run for a while and come to a sudden stop. I then pressed the convex button to activate the motor in the "close" direction and found that (as usual) I had to press and hold the button to keep the motor in continuous operation until it stopped...right at the zero position. I reinstalled the motor using all three screws and then took a break to help my brother with one of his cars.

Upon my return to the garage I threw caution to the wind, put the key in the ignition, turned it to apply power, and then momentarily pressed the concave button to open the sunroof. I did this in several short bursts until the fabric panel fully retracted and the motor stopped on its own at the open limit. I then pressed the convex button to close the sunroof in one shot. The motor naturally stopped at the zero point and everything looked to be aligned, so I pressed it one more time to put the sunroof into tilt mode before once again returning it to the zero position.

I finished up the day by replacing the vinyl trim piece that's glued to the underside of the metal panel and then reinstalling and aligning the panel. This seemingly simple task took me almost 2 hours -- a bit over an hour to remove the trim piece and the resilient glue residue it left behind (acetone isn't perfect for this job, but it works) and another 20 minutes to get those *#@$! forward mounting rails connected to the panel. I figured I might encounter problems reinstalling the panel given the issues I had removing it, but I didn't think it would be this annoying. Still, the job is done and a sanity test of the sunroof worked PERFECTLY. It is dead silent during operation and the tubes that hold the bowden cables no longer shift left and right when I actuate the sunroof. The end justified the means in this case, and overall, I'm glad I spent the money to overhaul the sunroof.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, but the project is far from over. This week I have to order a new exterior sunroof seal since the foam is not sticking in the corners (!) and I also have to figure out what pillar trims I'll need to buy from BMW and how I'm going to recover them. Next weekend I plan to install the headliner, FSU and iPod adapter and return the vehicle to service. I don't expect the pillar trims to be ready for installation for a few weeks but I don't really care since they're cosmetic in nature.

Mileage: 212050, Materials: $5

Sunday, September 25, 2011

FSU Installed

First job of the day was to install the FSU. This turned out to be old hat, since I had already removed the lower portion of the dashboard previously during my steering wheel upgrade. Despite the existing FSU working normally for the moment, I replaced the 14 year old part with the new, revised unit. I completed this task in about 30 minutes and can say it's every bit as easy as people make it out to be.

About the only advice I can give (short of a DIY) is to be careful with the top left side of the lower dashboard panel. It hooks into the dash in a way that can be damaged if you lack patience and just try to pull the panel without holding and guiding it in just right way. As a friend says, it's just like a woman...you have to know how to handle her. Take your time, be gentle, and the part will come off in one piece as intended.

iPod Adapter Test

I decided to perform a test of the iPod adapter with my new iPod Touch. I simply removed the CD changer, attached the cables to the vehicle harness and connected the iPod to the unit. while leaving everything in the trunk. This test proved the unit works as advertised, but only with Apple's built-in music player. When I switched the unit into "direct" mode and tried to launch the EQU application I planned to use I found the volume to be artificially low. When I quit EQU and went back to the native music player the volume returned to normal. I'm not sure what's going on yet, but the test established that all the components work together so I plan to install the unit permanently when time allows.

Interior Overhaul - New Headliner Installed

I began the day's work on the interior overhaul project with the simplest of tasks -- installing the third brake light grille onto the parcel shelf, thus completing the overhaul of that component.

I then attempted to fix the problem with the exterior sunroof seal so I fully opened the sunroof and looked closely at the corners. Sure enough, the seal adhesive had refused to grip to the inside corners of the roof so I pulled the seal away as best I could and used a blue (low-lint) towel soaked with a bit of acetone to further clean the metal before reattaching the seal. That worked...for a couple hours, anyway. By the time I had finished the headliner installation and returned to look more closely I found the seal separated from the corners in at least two places again. Best I could tell was that the seal was under tension, which means I stretched the seal too much as I pulled it through the corners. I won't make that mistake again. Incidentally, I would have installed the new seal today but the parts guys ordered the wrong part. The new one is on order and I expect to install it next weekend.

Before I started installing the headliner, I decided to do a few more last minute sanity checks. First, I blew some compressed air through the sunroof drain lines just to make sure they weren't clogged. With the car doors open and the car in the garage, I could clearly hear the air escaping from the bottom of each drain line so I finished that task confident that should water enter the cassette, it would find its way out of the car. Next, I hand-checked the torque of all the fasteners used to hold the sunroof cassette to the body, and, finally, used my bright LED mag light to closely inspect the interior cassette seal to ensure it had fanned out properly. I found a few inches that were rolled over so I used a pick to fix that.

It was about this time that I realized I had yet to cut the additional holes in the headliner required to insert the sun visor lamp assemblies so I looked at the old panel and attempted to brainstorm a way to transfer the holes to the new headliner. I had thought about "spooning" the old and new parts like I did with the parcel shelf but I instinctually discounted doing that because the back of the old headliner was quite dirty and I didn't want to risk transferring any of that dirt to the pristine new part. My brother wandered into the garage, saw my predicament and wisely suggested something I hadn't thought of: using very thin painter's plastic as a "condom" for the new part. And as luck would have it, I happened to have a huge roll of the stuff in the garage left over from some of my painting projects around the house.

So I cut a suitably large piece of the plastic, laid it over the new headliner, placed the old headliner over it, and used a razor blade (two, actually, since one dulled pretty quickly cutting through the fiberglass substrate) to outline both holes on the new part. With the lines drawn in the fabric of the new part, I set the old headliner aside and continued cutting the new headliner until I worked all the way through the substrate. A quick test fit of the light assemblies confirmed that the holes were cut properly.

An impulsive person would have grabbed the new headliner and tried to shove it into the car at this point. Not me. Instead, I reached for the old headliner and brought it over to the car for a rehearsal of the installation process, the goal of which was to determine the exact series of motions and angles I'd need to use to get the new part through the door and past the two main obstacles to the process: the dashboard and the shifter. This turned out to be a very good idea, because during the first few attempts I kept hitting the shifter with the front left corner of the headliner. I'm pretty sure the corner was already delaminated from the start, but I certainly didn't spare it any abuse the first few tries. However, I did finally manage to figure out how to hold the headliner and shift and rotate it in one smooth motion. With that "muscle memory", I managed to swap the old part for the new one and install it quickly and easily without hitting anything. Whoever coined the phrase "practice makes perfect" wasn't kidding.

As you may recall, I managed to remove the old headliner without removing the seals from around the front doors and rear quarter windows. These seals constructively support the edges of the headliner, so while I was able to remove the old headliner without pulling the seals, the rehearsal convinced me that if I were to have any chance of getting the headliner up without interference, the seals needed to be pulled down and pushed out of the way. So I took a few minutes to do exactly that.

At this point the headliner was supported by the rear seat headrests and sloping down in the front because the front seat backs were reclined. So I raised the seat backs and that, in turn, raised the front of the headliner. This also provided the clearance necessary to get into the back seat for the next phase of the installation. But first, knowing full well my installation technique would leave me short a few hands and unable to reach very far for anything, I took a couple minutes to stage the parts and fasteners I'd need at all four corners -- the oh-shit handles and their philips screws were placed on the parcel shelf near each speaker grill and the visors were placed on the dashboard with their screws on the center console.

While it's not obvious by looking at the headliner, either in the pictures I've provided or in person, the rear edge of the headliner is actually formed to hook around a metal flange built into the roofline. So I got into the back seat, pulled the headliner aft of the flange, pushed it up and then forward. Then, I put my left leg between the front seats and put the tip of my foot under the metal brace that helps secure the sex light assembly to the headliner. Now, if you're conjuring up the mental image here, basically I'm using my hands and feet to get this job done. Imagine, therefore, the trickery necessary to keep the headliner from slipping off the rear flange while I repurposed my hands to load up the screwdriver and install the handles. I won't bore you with the details here, but let's just say I cursed more than a few times at the spring-loaded nature of the handles. Those made an otherwise simple job an order of magnitude more difficult.

With the rear of the headliner now in place, I extricated myself from the rear seat while keeping my left hand under the headliner and sliding it forward so I could move into the front seat as necessary to fasten the front of the headliner. In this position I was able to lower the headliner slightly as required to thread the various sun visor electrical connectors through the corresponding holes in the headliner. As I looked more closely at the connectors I saw an opportunity to use them as a means to hold up the headliner while I preloaded the screwdriver and attached both visors. Total time up to this point was about 10 minutes, and it was not a fun 10 minutes, I can assure you. Still, I was quite relieved to be at this point so I took a quick break before installing the synthetic strip and calling it a day.

Pillar Trim Experiment and Gahh Fabric Swatches

Last week I decided to purchase new A and C pillar trims from BMW for the whopping sum of $295. As mentioned earlier, they were no longer available in beige, so I had to pick another color. Since I had plans to recover them I could have purchased them in gray to save a couple bucks (believe it or not, these parts actually vary slightly in price based on color) but I settled on black so I could conduct a simple experiment. In a last ditch effort to avoid the expense and hassle of recovering the parts I held them in place to see if I could tolerate the look.

As expected, the E46 ZHP interior has conditioned me to accept the contrast of the black pillar trims in relation to the dark beige dashboard and parcel shelf, but I didn't like how they contrasted with the much lighter beige headliner. While it's true that people have done worse things to these interiors and some people might actually consider the contrast cool looking, I just wasn't digging it. So the plan remains to find an appropriate fabric and recover them.

Toward that end, I ordered fabric and leather swatches from Gahh and expect them later in this week. If the fabric checks out, I'll order a couple yards. I'm not sure whether I'll recover the trims myself or pay my local upholstery guy to do the job, but both options are on the table. Incidentally, the leather swatches are for the front seats that I plan to do next year. Gahh has a couple different beige leathers in stock so this will help nail down the specific color I'll need when the time comes.

Mileage: 212050, Parts: $295

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gahh Fabric and Leather Swatches Arrive

The Gahh fabric and leather swatches arrived this week.

The headliner fabric swatch has a noticeably different surface texture and color as compared to the new headliner. In fact, it looks much like the array of domestically available headliner fabrics I saw at my upholstery shop, except that the foam backing is 1/8" thick rather than 1/4" and the weave of the fabric is tighter and of generally higher quality. I don't think the fabric is ideal for my application, but I may not have a choice in the matter. I plan to contact BMW Classic this week to see if they can help source the correct fabric.

The leather swatches were a different story, fortunately. Taking into account fourteen years of bleaching courtesy of our neighborhood fusion reactor, the seats in my car nicely match what Gahh calls "sand" while, for the sake of comparison, the light beige inserts in the two-tone door panels closely match what Gahh calls "light sand". I can definitely see ordering new leather seat and headrest covers in "sand" from them next year.

Incidentally, Gahh's policy is to charge $15 for up to four swatches and then reimburse the customer when they make their first order. This explains why I picked up the leather swatches now. I fully expect to order something from them, so I'm considering the swatches "free".

Interior Overhaul - Wrap Up

Yesterday I picked up a new sunroof seal and two E46 beige visor clips at the dealer. The parts guys told me that the black E36 visor clips I ordered are now officially backordered, which they suggested is BMW-speak for "they're no longer in production but we haven't updated our system with "ENDED yet". That means they may come in, but most likely will not. So I bought a couple E46 clips based on a hunch that they would work in the E36. Unfortunately, when I looked more closely at the E46 parts list, I realized that E46 visor clips do not come with an electrical contact because the E46 visor lights are wired differently. So the good news is I was able to get two visor clips in a color that perfectly matches my interior, and they are built more solidly than the E36 parts. The bad news is the electrically correct E36 parts are MIA and if I use the E46 parts my visor lights will no longer work. I've used those lights a handful of times in the 14 years I've owned the car so I'm not exactly in tears right now but I must admit the loss of functionality offends my OCD.

Today I went to the garage to wrap up this phase of the interior overhaul. The ultimate goal for the day was to return the E36 to service so I got to work replacing the sunroof seal. I went into this expecting the same hassle I experienced removing the original seal but as it turned out the seal just pulled off quickly and easily (especially in the corners) and took all of the "new" adhesive with it. Still, I didn't want to waste another seal so this time I brought out the heavy guns -- a blue towel and a can of brake cleaner, which is known to be an outstanding, if not exactly environmentally friendly, solvent. I gave the towel a few shots of cleaner and then carefully wiped the entire vertical edge of the roof panel. I paid particular attention to the corners and managed to remove a bit more adhesive residue left over from the original seal.

When I was at the dealer yesterday I met up with my technician to say thanks for all the advice and I mentioned that everything went very smoothly...except for the sunroof seal. When I relayed the fact that the seal failed to adhere to the corners and seemed to be under tension, he knowingly smiled and reassured me "Don't worry about it....the guys down in Spartanburg are doing the same thing to the new X3's". The proper technique, he noted, was to "push" the seal into the corners rather than pull it around like I did. This is a very subtle difference in technique but it's clear that one technique works and the other doesn't. So today I used the "push" technique to install the new seal with outstanding results.

I should also point out that it is very easy to accidentally install the seal too high and in retrospect I did that on the last seal. This time I used a finger running along the roofline to ensure that the seal didn't ride up and the end result is far better in appearance. In fact, it looks exactly like the seal my technician installed many years ago. There is obviously some technique involved with the installation of the sunroof seal and it takes some practice to get it right. So if you're planning to install the seal yourself, best buy two. If you get it right the first time, rest assured that the backup part will keep in storage since it comes vacuum sealed.

With the seal out of the way I installed the E46 visor clips quickly and easily. As expected, they matched the screw pattern and pulled the front of the headliner up into its intended position. My visor lights didn't work, but all things considered I was happy that I was able to achieve an original-equipment look. Just as quickly, I cleaned up the B pillar trims and permanently installed them. Then I temporarily reinstalled the original A and C pillar trims. I found the A pillar trims easy to install but the C pillars were a pain in the ass because of the interference of the quarter window locking mechanism (yes, even with the window open). I'm still not exactly sure what the best technique is here but I expect to get a lot more practice on those old trims before I subject my new parts to any abuse.

I decided at the last minute that the rear of the metal sunroof panel was too high so I went through the ritual required to push the fabric panel back and adjust the wedges to reduce the panel height. Since the process requires opening the sunroof until the panel drops below the roofline by 2-3mm and it's ill-advised to move the sunroof mechanism while the fabric panel is pushed back into the cassette, this winds up being a trial-and-error process. Fortunately, with my wedges now squarely in the center of their adjustment envelope, I got the job done in one shot and the result is absolutely perfect.

For those really interested in the technical specifics here...there is no precise "one size fits all" wedge setting because as the sunroof mechanism approaches zero position, the height of the crossbar changes. Put another way, if the full adjustment range of the wedges does not bring the sunroof metal panel to the proper height, that's a pretty good indication that the sunroof mechanism is not at the true and correct zero position. Now, in the case where the metal panel is being removed for other reasons (say, a fabric panel replacement) but the sunroof mechanism is not being adjusted (meaning, the position of the sunroof mechanism is not changed), that's where the process of scribing the current position of the wedges on the crossbar comes into play. That simply helps avoid the trial-and-error approach to the metal panel alignment process.

To finish up the day I cleaned the interior before washing both cars, putting the E46 to bed and driving home in the E36, victorious. So with the exception of the sunroof panel and pillar trim recovering effort, I'll consider this phase of the interior overhaul project finished. Parts and materials totaled $2285. I didn't keep strict time records because time was the least of my concerns while working with thousands of dollars of potentially irreplaceable parts, but my guess is I invested around 30 hours including research. I don't know what a pro would have taken to do the same job but I think 15 hours is pretty conservative estimate. At an independent that's $1200 and at the dealer it's just under $2000, so as usual I'll just average it out and call it $1500 labor saved.

By the way, the old sunroof cassette is now for sale. If you're interested in it, let me know.

Mileage: 212050, Parts: $295, Parts Saved: $56 [Project Totals: Parts: $2285, Labor Saved: $1500]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fabricated Custom Rear Window Sunshade

After spending a metric shitload of money refurbishing the upper half of the interior and contrasting the fresh fabric on the parcel shelf with that of the original, faded part, I decided to get serious about sunshades in my car.

I have traditionally used those flexible, collapsible sunshades simply because they are more convenient to store behind the seats, but they don't fit the rear window particularly well because when fully expanded they take on the form of a rounded rectangle. Thus, they don't reach into the corners, and because of the interference of the third brake light enclosure, they always leave a good portion of the rear deck exposed to the sun. This will no longer do. I have long used custom-fit sunshades in airplanes so I got the idea this weekend to produce a custom rear window sunshade from commonly-available Reflectix foil backed insulation. I found a 48" wide x 25 foot roll at Lowes for the reasonable sum of $45.

I thought for a time how to cut the material to the exact dimensions of the window opening and upon closer inspection observed that the inside edge of the black border around the window pretty well matched the interior dimensions required for the part. I quickly figured out that I'd be better off developing a paper template than cutting the material directly, so I walked out to the car with a small stack of 8x11 copy paper, a roll of blue painter's tape, and a pair of scissors and got to work.

I started on one side of the window, aligned the piece of paper to the inside edge of the black border, and then applied a small piece of tape to hold the paper in place. I then added more paper, cutting it as required to conform to the window border, until I had paper fit around the entire window. To enhance the strength of the template before I removed it from the vehicle, I filled in the holes in the center of the template with more paper and tape. I then carefully removed the template from the car, took it inside and laid it over a 27" x 48" section of insulation. How did I come up with 27 inches you ask? That's the height of the window as measured at the center of the window, from the top to the bottom moldings.

While working my way around the edge of the paper with a sharp scissor I decided to tweak the cuts in a few places to ensure I wouldn't undercut the piece and have to start over. In less than two minutes I had the prototype shade complete and took it out to fit it to the car. I found the bottom of the shade mated perfectly with the third brake light housing and reached far enough down into the base of the window to protect the rear-most edge of the parcel shelf. It also fit conveniently into the small notch at the top of the window frame produced by the rounded edge of the headliner. I wound up cutting a few millimeters of the top of the shade to make it easier to remove from the notch but that was about it.

I used the shade all this week during some of the last warm days of the season and am pleased with the results. The shade is easily installed and removed within seconds and it conveniently rolls up to save space. Works for me!

Toybox Update

Several people emailed me to request a progress report on my brother's toybox so I figured I'd tease you with a few more pictures. Since the last report in late August, the roofing, siding, and garage doors have been installed so the structure is officially weathertight. My brother energized the primary electrical panel and a nearby receptacle required by code. Other wiring including a smaller subpanel has been installed but not energized due to a lack of time. The dry wells that were required by the town to accept runoff have been dug but not completed.

Next, the floor will be etched and sealed, and the electrical and security system wiring completed in preparation for insulation, sheetrock, and paint. My guess is that we probably won't see the lift installed until the end of the year, but the structure is now weathertight and power is available, which means it can be used for impromptu repairs, which is particularly comforting given that the cool air has arrived and winter is just around the corner.

Mileage: 212820, Parts: $45

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Back to Winter Tires

I couldn't quite believe my eyes, but in the course of less than 12 hours, yesterday's forecast for 50 degrees and a rainy nor'easter here in New Jersey morphed into what would become our first hit of freezing temperatures and the first snow of the season. We don't normally get snow this early in the season so it caught everyone off guard, including me. We received the requisite high winds and rain, combined with about a 1/4" of ice pellets and snow yesterday, and today I woke up to find the car covered in about an inch of snow. Nothing big, but enough to convince me that winter had unceremoniously arrived and I needed to swap my PS2s for the Winter Sport M3s pronto.

(Image: E36 receiving its first service in the new garage)I have made it practice to replace my winter tires after two seasons because by that time in service the rears have typically worn down to or below the winter wear bars. However, after I closely inspected the tires I noticed that the rears were very slightly (perhaps 1/16") above the winter wear bars and the fronts were characteristically worn on the edges more than the center, but the center tread was well above the winter wear bars. In short, the tires were in reasonable condition so I decided to put these tires into service for another season and pocket the $800 in tires and mounting charges...at least until next year at this time.

So today I wound up doing the swap in my brother's toybox -- my first work in the new building. The lighting wasn't operational yet so I simply left the garage doors open and got to work in the balmy 40 degree air. It took me a little extra time because I had to haul all the necessary tools including my compressor down there but I eventually got the job done. I then washed the summer wheels before I put them and all the tools back in my garage. I would have preferred to leave some of my tools down there but the building will be soon cleared so the floor can be etched and sealed. No point in getting ahead of ourselves.

On a side note, the PS2s have worn far better than I anticipated this season, but I've attributed that largely to the fact that the car was taken out of service for two months earlier this year. The good news is that should allow me to get a full season out of the tires next year without hitting the wear bars. Time will tell.

Oil Service

I also realized a couple weeks ago that my odometer was creeping up on the 4500 mile mark since my last oil service, so I dropped by the dealer to pick up an oil service kit and conducted a routine oil service today. I decided to skip the oil sample this time around but expect to take a sample next time. I cleared the INSPECTION service indicator with my homemade reset tool by shorting pin 7 of the 20 pin connector to ground for exactly 11 seconds, started the engine, made sure the oil pressure light extinguished within a few seconds, closed the hood, pulled the car off the ramps and went home for the day.

Steering Wheel Noise

Over the last few months a noise and associated vibration in the steering wheel has developed that occurs whenever the steering wheel is turned rapidly, which is pretty much every turn at low speed (in my neighborhood, parking lots, and such). The noise was intermittent at first, but now it's gotten to the point that it's annoying me so I may have to pull the wheel and do some further troubleshooting. I had plans to address this next spring during the front suspension and steering column overhaul, but you know what they say about the best laid plans.

Surprise Garage-Warming Party

The best part of the day didn't have anything to do with the BMW, aside from the fact that I happened to be working on the car in the new building at the time. My brother's wife had pulled me aside last weekend to tell me she was planning a surprise "garage-warming party" for him today. To keep the secret while doing all the planning and even putting my brother to work sourcing the tables and chairs for 40 people, she told him that the party was to celebrate the birthday of one of her daughter's friends.

We had talked about my need to do some work on the car earlier in the week so he asked if I could come over early today and help him set up the tables and chairs. While doing this he openly questioned why his wife would actually want to have a party for a bunch of kids in an unfinished and unheated garage, but he wisely applied the time-worn wisdom of "don't ask the woman questions, just do what she says".

When a bunch of people including my brother's friends and his next-door neighbor appeared and encircled him at one of the buffet tables he got a bit suspicious so his wife revealed the real purpose of the gathering. The expression on his face was priceless, as was his later admission that this was the best time to hold the party in the building because in a few months it would be packed with cars as well as a lift and there wouldn't be any space to put the tables. Ain't that the truth!

Mileage: 213290, Parts: $45

Saturday, November 12, 2011

New Roundel

(Image: Parts received to fix the steering wheel noise)Most of the time I'm a pretty sedate driver and keep it around 10 over the 65 MPH speed limit on a local highway I frequent on my commute (qualification added so you guys don't think I'm one of those a$$holes that speed in residential neighborhoods). Since installing the winter tires, however, I've found myself occasionally hovering around 80 when conditions permit simply to avoid a niggling tendency of these tires to shake at my "sweet spot". I have only myself to blame, of course, as I installed the set for another season despite knowing full well that at least one of the wheels is slightly bent and needs to be repaired.

As a general rule I don't acknowledge the 335 or M3 drivers who want to play games on public roads, but recently my commute happened to sync up several mornings in a row with a cherry E30 M3 and I couldn't help but observe him leveraging his copy of the wonderful S14. One morning, an appreciative nod and a smile as he passed me was all I needed to decide to have a little fun. Race? Of course not. Just some high speed cruising as the Germanic Gods intended. With the M52 breathing deeply near the top of the torque curve, I noticed something out of the corner of my my eye fly over the car. I didn't think much of it at the time as it looked like a small plastic bag and I encounter those fairly often because I share the road with litterbugs.

Of course, the thing about driving a bit faster than usual is that the destination tends to come up quickly, so in no time I had to give my fellow enthusiast the casual two finger salute and take the exit for my office. As I got out of the car and locked the door I began to walk away, only to turn my head and give my baby one last lustful look. And that's when I saw it: the Roundel emblem was missing. I returned to the front of the car for a closer look and found all that remained was the chrome plastic substrate and some of the glue that had once bonded the emblem to it. I quickly connected the dots and chuckled when I realized I'd managed to drive so fast that I blew it off the car. Gven that it had started to look a little rough around the edges in recent months, this seemed a fitting end.

So the next day I went to the dealer and picked up a new Roundel for the annoyingly high sum of $25. Not long ago these things were $10, but like most of their most common parts BMW now feels justified in charging three times that price. Sigh. Fortunately, my pain eased as quickly as I installed the new Roundel in the parking lot and sped off to work. The car just looked naked without it.

Upper Steering Column Parts Arrive

The upper steering column noise I reported last time has grown worse with each passing day. I'm not sure if the colder weather has anything to do with it, but the reality is it's now making far more noise than I'm willing to tolerate until next spring when I have intention of overhauling the entire steering column.

(Image: 8 Oz bottle of Gummi Pflege rubber restorer)While at the dealer picking up the Roundel this week I therefore decided to order the parts I figured I'd need to fix the problem including the slip ring and snap ring. Today, when I went to the dealer to pick up the parts, the parts guy also presented me with a couple of parts I didn't order -- specifically the inner and outer collars. I knew those parts were likely to be in fine shape and not in need of replacement, but at less than $2 a piece I decided to take them just in case.

I'm not sure when I'll get to pull the wheel and install the parts, but it's on my short list.

11/22 Update: I didn't need the slip ring after all and returned it for a credit. The parts cost has been updated to reflect this.

Gummi Pflege Stift Application

One of the downsides of frameless doors is the fact that the rubber molding that seals the door opening is exposed to UV in areas the window cannot protect it. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that after 14 years of exposure portions of the molding have dried out. While searching for something unrelated on Amazon, I found something I've been looking for ever since BMW stopped carrying it several years ago: Einszett Gummi Pflege. For those that don't know, this stuff has a pretty amazing reputation for restoring rubber seals, and with each one on my E36 going for $300, the $8 seemed like a wise investment.

Today I applied the material to the exposed portion of the rubber seal several times and watched the rubber soak each application in within a few seconds. After three solid applications I noticed the solution took a bit longer to dry so I considered that a good place to stop. The result? The rubber was darker and a bit more pliable, but admittedly not nearly as smooth and flexible as the rubber protected by the door.

When I closed the door I noticed that the window closed the last quarter inch a bit more quietly...no doubt because the rubber was now more "slick". Indeed, the label suggests that Gummi Pflege can help prevent rubber from sticking to the window in freezing conditions, so I think it's safe to say that the stuff works. It won't perfectly restore 14 year old seals, but it does make a difference, and I think it would serve particularly well as a protectant if applied every 6 months to brand new seals. In fact, at this point I wished I'd done that from the start.

If you're thinking of picking up a bottle and you click on this link to purchase the product a (very) small amount of your purchase will go towards my site support fund. Thanks in advance for your support.

Mileage: 213290, Parts: $14, Materials: $8

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Steering Noise Fixed

While blessed with "reasonable" temperatures in the 50's, light winds and sunny skies I decided to attempt to fix the steering column noise today. Armed with the tools as specified in my Steering Wheel Conversion DIY I got to work.

Although I had purchased both the bearing and the slip ring, I decided to take a conservative approach to the repair and replace the bearing first. That way, I reasoned, should that fix the problem I would be able to return the slip ring and save $150. That turned out to be the right move, as I managed to replace the bearing in about 30 minutes, take a short test drive and confirm that the steering column was now completely silent.

I found this strange for two reasons:

  1. The bearing was last replaced in 2007 after 150K miles in service. That bearing started making noise about a month ago after a mere 65K miles in service. I'm not sure why the new bearing failed so quickly. Both were labeled "made in Germany", so that leaves a change in supplier quality or installation error as possibilities.
  2. The old bearing didn't feel that bad too me. I'm pretty good at identifying bad metal bearings, but aside from some additional play as compared to the new unit, I didn't really see anything wrong with it. The only thing I can think of is that it must tend to bind internally when installed due to the fact that it is a tight, press-fit.

When it came time to install the new bearing, I leveraged a tool I bought for last year's rear suspension overhaul -- a 30mm socket -- to serve as a drift. A slightly larger socket probably would have been ideal, but this one worked; a couple taps with the hammer seated the bearing simply and evenly.

I made surprisingly quick work of dealing with the snap ring this time time around, thus proving that experience counts. Using two large flat-blade screwdrivers perched at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions (with the open end of the snap ring facing down) seemed to make the installation easier. I noticed prior to installation that the old snap ring was slightly stretched open as compared to the new part, so the new ring was a bit more difficult to press into place over the steering shaft. But once pushed home it seated snugly in the groove and that allowed the inner collar to fit perfectly. I did not wind up installing the new collars I purchased because while there was some scoring on the outer collar (which is made of aluminum), I didn't think it needed to be replaced. I'll simply reserve those parts for later use.

While my dealer doesn't officially allow returns of electrical parts, I hope they'll make an exception in this case simply because I never installed the part. If they do allow the return, I'll apply a "credit" to my parts tally. If not, I'll just sell it to someone looking to do the three spoke conversion. I did not get a labor quote at the dealer for this job, but I have a very hard time believing I could get out of there for less than an hour + parts, so I'm calling this $128 labor saved.

11/22 Update: The parts department accepted the return of the slip ring and thus credited me $170. This reduces the parts cost for this repair to $14. The prior blog entry has been edited to reflect this change.

Mileage: 214261, Labor Saved: $128

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stereo Headunit Problems

Nearly five years ago I replaced the OE stereo headunit with a remanufactured unit for around $160. While I have long wanted to install a better audio system in the car, if you've been reading this site for any length of time you probably know that I have had higher priorities – then as well as now.

About six months ago a reader chimed in with a stereo-related question and mentioned his parts supplier was unable to get a replacement headunit from BMW as they were officially unavailable (ENDED in BMW parts parlance). So you can probably imagine the dread I felt when I recently started to notice my headunit's volume control acting up just like it did five years ago. Now when I turn the volume knob it often does the opposite of what I want (turn volume down, volume actually goes up and vice versa), works erratically (requires an inconsistent number of spins of the knob to change the volume a given amount), or not at all (makes me want to put my fist through it).

I called my parts department in a first effort to correct the problem and they confirmed that the units are no longer available in either new or remanufactured form. That left me with a couple options:

  1. Try to repair the radio by replacing the most likely cause of the problem -- the rotary encoder.
  2. Bite the bullet and install an aftermarket headunit.

I'm all for a challenge and an opportunity to save money but I quickly ruled out the repair idea primarily because of the low probability of finding a compatible part for a radio that hasn't been manufactured in over ten years. That led me to realize I'd need to search for a suitable aftermarket replacement.

Headunit Research

As I reviewed what currently passes for mobile audio headunits I grew increasingly depressed because they all seemed to suffer from the same problems I've screamed about for years:

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that I was only able to locate two headunits in the entire car audio market I'd remotely consider: the Parrot Asteroid and the Pioneer DEX-P99RS.

Parrot, perhaps best known for its radio control technology, released the Asteroid only in October so it's very new to the market. It runs Android and allegedly allows embedded developers to tweak the OS, which is a refreshing change from the closed and proprietary systems of the major audio equipment manufacturers. The unit lacks a CD player and that allows it to be half the depth of the normal DIN specification -- clearly an advantage when dealing with the wire bundle behind the unit. The problem with the Asteroid is that it's new and I've heard reports (subjective as though they are) that the sound quality isn't great, there are RFI issues with the display, and the firmware needs work. I don't have the time to do Parrot's field testing so that leaves the DEX-P99RS.

I must admit I've never been a fan of Pioneer equipment as they were always known years ago as a “consumer” option rather than an audiophile's choice, but this unit has a lot going for it:

The downsides are:

Amplifier Research

Like all high-end headunits the DEX-P99RS lacks internal amplification. For most audio enthusiasts that's a perk but for me it just means I'll be forced to swap out the factory amplifier at the same time.

Special capabilities of the P99RS create a dilemma: Do I leverage the power of the on-board DSP and use active filtering along with two four channel amplifiers to drive my components, or do I go the traditional route and send a full range signal back to a single four channel amp and use passive crossovers? While I know active filtering is more flexible and avoids all the coloration inherent in the passive components in traditional LC filter networks, the reality is I don't think I can justify the cost, weight, and complexity of a multi-amp system. So at this point I'm sticking with my original plan for a four channel amp in combination with passive filtering.

I did my share of research on the current state of the amplifier market and Arc Audio seems to be the way to go. Many of the their amps are designed by Robert Zeff (who founded Zapco and still designs many amps for well-known name brands under the Nikola Engineering banner) and fortunately several of the smaller units including the 75Wx4 K300.4 would fit nicely in the location of the stock amplifier. But the choice of amp can't (unfortunately) be based on size alone.

BMWs are electrically noisy vehicles and as such benefit significantly from the use of differential signaling between the headunit and amplifier. Arc Audio makes the “Audiophile Line Driver” or ALD, a unit similar in function to the Zapco Symbilink converters. The perk of the ALD is that they use common CAT5 twisted pair cabling to interconnect the amp and headunit. The downside is that only the SE 4100 (twice the cost of the K series and roughly equivalent to the Zapco 360.4 I priced some time ago) can directly accept the output of the ALD. The fact that the ALDs are not included with the amp is another annoyance, but at $120 MSRP (two required in my case), they are priced within the realm of reason and will be worth every penny if they prevent annoying hum or impulse noise from treading on my music.

The Complete Solution

By now you probably have a pretty good idea that the plan is to mate the Pioneer DEX-P99RS with the Arc Audio SE 4100 using two of the Pioneer's outputs (low and mid, probably) configured for full range output (filters disabled), each connected to an ALD to drive the "front" and "rear" inputs of the amplifier.

The ALD design allows use of custom-wired RJ45 connectors to route the signals from two ALDs over a single CAT5 cable I'll likely route through the center console and existing penetrations in the body to the amp mounted to the bottom of the rear deck. I'm not exactly clear on how I'll mount the amp to the deck, but simplicity may win over maintenance access. A simple shelf slightly larger than the amp combined with some standoffs and a few nutserts will get the job done.

Outputs from the speaker terminals of the amp will route to a set of passive crossovers mounted where the stock amplifier is now, as that is where all the vehicle speaker wiring presently terminates. And speaking of crossovers, I'm planning on using a CDT 2-way specifically designed to mate the CDT 6x9 sub and 1" tweeter, but I haven't figured out what to do with the front set yet. I would really like to keep the three way arrangement in front because I think that lends to a smoother midrange, but cost may win out, as the 3-way CDT crossover I could apply here is ridiculously expensive.

This is clearly a big and costly job, but that's not the half of it. I'm not really in a position to do the work until next year because the E46 doesn't have winter tires on it so I can't take the E36 out of service for an extended period of time. So that means if the volume knob doesn't last another 4-5 months, I may be forced to install the Alpine unit I pulled from the Acura before I sold it. The upside is that I now have at least a reasonable justification for a new audio system of some kind and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the end result. Stay tuned.

Mileage: 215200

Friday, December 23, 2011

Feedback from Ground Control

Back in July when I was in the planning stage of my front suspension overhaul project (delayed until next year) I wrote up the results of my research into caster/camber plates. At the time I believed I gave all the major players in this industry a fair shake and still stand by the vast majority of my comments.

About a week ago I received email out of the blue from Jay at Ground Control. While this was the first time he had contacted me I knew of him from my research of many threads on bimmerforums. I found him to be a fixture around there and a tireless source of general technical information on a variety of subjects, including, naturally, Ground Control's own caster/camber plates.

So it really didn't surprise me when Jay took the time to cite nearly my entire blog entry and over the course of several emails respond to my comments and questions point by point. In the process I learned a lot more about GC's plate design and BMW suspensions in general that I thought it appropriate to highlight the best parts of that discussion thread here and correct some inaccurate statements and conclusions I made earlier.

Off the top, Jay gave some feedback about my control arm bushing selection:

Note that the 1995 M3 is the only solid bushing for the front of the car. The 1996-99 is still "windowed", and can easily be felt flexing around even when new. It may be worth installing them, and they do not necessarily need to be installed horizontally.

He is correct. Though I may refer to the 96-99 as “solid”, they are indeed windowed, but the windows are tiny compared to the sport version, so I still plan to use 96-99 M3 versions. I expect those bushings in combination with the 95 arms to literally transform the front end – especially given that the vast majority of the front end suspension components are original and have every bit of 215K on them.

Later in the article I made a statement about the types of strut mounts on the car and including the assertion “the standard suspension mount uses a simple plain bearing, while both the sport package non-M and M3 mounts utilize a ball bearing”. His clarification:

This is only on early 1992 e36, where the spring rotates on it own ball bearing race. From 1993 onwards the M and NON-M strut mounts each use a roller bearing surrounded by rubber, and the strut shaft and spring rotate together. The E46 M3, E39 M5, E60 M6, and E92 M3 all use the newer style "separate shaft and bearing" setup, ironically identical to only the very first E36s.

The fact that the change happened so early in production probably explains why I had never heard about it. In a subsequent email he added:

The M upper mounts (guide supports) mount the shaft rigidly to the car. They do not have the inherent play of a center bearing, instead the shaft is bolted rigid, and does not twist when the car is steered. The GC street plates work on the same principle. this adds rigidity, and is actually quieter with higher damping rates because the shaft is not attached through a bearing.

I stated “some people admitted that spherical-bearing designs are susceptible to damage from potholes. If the strut ever bottoms out, it loads the spherical bearing in a way it was not designed to accept.” Jay clarified this:

This would only be on designs where the spring load is carried THROUGH the center bearing, and would not be applicable to designs where the spring load (aka the weight of the car) is carried on a peripheral surface that is NOT on the center bearing.

As I later learned, the spring load is indeed NOT carried on the center bearing in GC's designs. Interestingly, however, that DOES appear to be the case with the Vorshlag plates (they are welcome to chime in and prove me wrong), but they specify that the spherical bearing has been over-engineered to handle the abuse. And indeed, I know of no failures of the Vorshlag design while installed in a car. Back when I did the original research I did see a video on YouTube (couldn't find the link...it may have been removed) of someone intentionally breaking the Vorshlag plate in a hydraulic press, but I don't know what they were trying to prove, as I can destroy anything in a hydraulic press. Yes, even the world. (pinky on mouth) Mwuuuhaahahahahahaa.

Jay then asked me to clarify what I meant with my use of the term “plain bearing”, as he believed my statements with regard to the street plates' use of a plain bearing to be incorrect. His response:

The GC street plates use a sealed ball bearing assembly from SKF of Germany, that is steel balls on steel races, then encased in a waterproof nylon housing. This is much more weather resistant than an exposed metal bearing with dust seals on two edges. In addition, the bearing that GC buys has been designed for axial (thrust) use, and is not a radial bearing adapted to axial load.

I told him that I didn't really have any good pictures of the top of the perch so he sent over a picture which clearly shows GC Street plates are equipped with a sealed ball bearing assembly that is installed in the upper side of the perch. As Jay later clarified, this bearing is actually designed to tolerate an axial (thrust) load while most ball bearings are designed primarily for radial loads. I later surmised this is the reason Vorshlag uses a double-row ball bearing rather than a true thrust bearing configuration. It's not the best design but it works because the bearing is over-engineered for the application. To clarify the definitions of radial and axial loads, Jay also forwarded this helpful wikipedia link.

In another part of the article I mentioned how several people complained about noise from GC's plates, but I pointed out (and Jay corroborated) most of these complaints come from people using race parts on a street car. In Jay's own words:

The race plates are intentionally metal to metal.

When I mentioned my dislike of urethane bushings and suggested “I'd prefer a preloaded high durometer rubber bushing in this application”, Jay responded:

The medium high durometer (75A) urethane bushings on the GC plates are preloaded, the same as rubber would be, but are expected to last longer than rubber. The same durometer rubber, with the same preload, would be expected to have identical NVH, but would deteriorate over time.

The preloaded urethane provides a good compromise between noise and rigidity, because of a somewhat complex contoured shape that allow it to flex up and down. yet be more rigid laterally. Under no condition does metal ever touch metal, either spring or strut shaft.

While discussing the bushing type, I asked whether it is possible to replace the bushings and bearings in the field without trashing the parts. Jay responded in the affirmative and even created a video to demonstrate that they could be changed in exactly 18 seconds. The revelation I took home from this video (aside from the fact that it's obviously very easy to swap the parts) is that I'd be able to easily refinish the parts if warranted.

When I reiterated that my goal all along for the plates was to adjust the caster only enough to get it consistent side to side to compensate for irregularities in the shock towers, rather than make any radical adjustments, he responded with a picture (too blurry to publish) and the following:

Attached is a pic of the factory specs for body tolerances. I have circled the tolerance for the front strut holes, indicating that if the hole is off by more than 2mm, then the frame needs to be repaired / replaced / pulled.

The GC RACE camber/caster plates are designed to experiment/tune with caster, and have a large range (21mm) that will allow you to get into trouble if you aren't paying attention.

The STREET plates are designed to simply allow the caster to be adjusted to factory specs on each, hence the smaller range of 4mm. The caster is adjusted at the same time as camber, but the plate is marked to allow you to keep track.

That, of course, means the street plates will work in my application provided the eccentricity in my towers does not exceed 2 mm. That's not a lot in my opinion but I have no ready means to translate the fractions of a degree my towers are out of rig to a distance measurement suitable for comparison. Barring that, I'll simply have to buy the plates and see for myself when it comes time to align the car.

I am glad Jay came forward to correct some of my factual errors and I give him an "A+" for product pre-sales support. Add this and an outstanding warranty policy to the "Pros" column for Ground Control. I'm still not sure I'll go with camber plates next year, but if I do the Street plates are likely the best option for a street car.

In the interest of full disclosure, Ground Control does not sponsor this site and I did not initiate the email discussion.

Camber Plate Feedback Highlights

All pictures courtesy of Ground Control.

Year End Summary

This will likely be my last blog entry of 2011 so I figured I'd take a few moments to complete what has become a traditional year-end summary.

The big news is that I managed to set a new record. The problem is it's not the kind of record I want to set. Two large and expensive projects (the driver's door and upper interior overhaul) combined with a new set of high performance rubber drove costs to an all-time high. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time you know that's really saying something, and that is "I'm fucking insane". In fact, the numbers are so high I don't have the heart to publish them here and will wait until next year to update my long term review, where I consider it my duty to reveal the shocking reality of what it costs to own a BMW over the long haul to all those noobs who would consider a 15 year old BMW they picked up for pocket change to be anything remotely close to a "good deal".

On the upside I managed to save $1225 in parts and $2600 in labor to produce DIY dividend of roughly $4200. Also intriguing is the fact that despite all the specialized work required this year I only paid $325 in labor, and most of that was for routine stuff like tire mounting. I guess I can take comfort in that, while I'm spending a metric a$$load of money, I've also achieved a level of knowledge and maintenance independence that few people reach with these cars. That's not to say I'll be rebuilding my own engine or transmission anytime soon, but who knows...I'm just crazy enough to try.

The plans for next year include the front suspension overhaul, audio system upgrade, front seat leather replacement and some painting to address the rust in the front windshield opening. I expect the numbers next year to match or exceed this year, but I also expect next year to be the last "big dollar" year -- at least until I have to do the engine and transmission.

On the site statistics front, unique daily visitors now average 1250, up from about 950 last year, or a roughly 30% increase. The number of bots hitting the site has increased as well but expressed as a percentage of the total they're actually declining, which reflects the fact that more people are finding the site and reading on a regular basis.

Predictably, more of the search terms are starting to include references to the E46, as those cars have reached the age where dealer labor rates drive more people to seek DIY solutions. Fortunately, the underpinnings of the E46 are an evolution of the E36 so much of what I say in this blog can and will apply to the E46. I still don't know when or if I'll manage to document the E46 as specifically and thoroughly as the E36 since my time for this sort of thing is diminishing by the day, but I'll do what I can to help E46 owners as I have in the past. As usual, all E46-specific information will go in my E46 blog.

Best of luck and safe wrenching to all in 2012.

Mileage: 215780