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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Friday, February 17, 2012

New Dipstick O-Rings

Around the holidays I received a small donation from a reader: a package of two engine oil dipstick o-rings. The existing o-rings didn't appear to be in bad shape (which explains why I never thought to replace them), but I found the new parts to be more flexible. And once installed, I also found that the dipstick seated a bit more firmly than before. All in all, a simple and inexpensive bit of preventative maintenance. Thanks Jim!

More Front End Overhaul Parts

(Image: BMW Motorsport X-Brace)Given the scope and cost of the parts needed for the front end overhaul I hope to (finally) begin this spring I figured it would be a good idea to start buying the remaining parts in small batches more compatible with my monthly budget. I decided this month to acquire virtually all of the small parts for the project and added a couple slightly more expensive items including four brake lines and the X-brace.

Everything came within days with the exception of the x-brace. To make a long story short, BMW did show stock at the time I placed my order but when I checked on the status two weeks later there were none in stock anywhere in the world and no one was willing to commit to a delivery date. So either I happened to catch BMW with their logistical pants down or the x-brace is officially ENDED.

While browsing for other parts on Turner Motorsport I happened across an ad for an X-brace, at which point a dusty five watt lightbulb appeared over my head and hestitantly flickered to life. Not ten minutes later I wound up calling TMS and buying what ended up being the last one in stock. Total price: $218 shipped ground. It arrived the next day.

If you're wondering why I bought four brake lines, that's because all the lines are original and I have to break open and bleed the system to inspect the front calipers, so it makes sense to do all four corners and bleed once...especially before one of the lines gives out after fourteen years on the job and leaves me stranded somewhere.

I plan to order the steering column lock assembly parts next month because those will probably have the longest lead time. Struts and springs will follow, at which point I'll pull the car out of service for the work.

Stereo Upgrade Update

A couple months back I came up with a plan to replace the failing (and no-longer-available) BMW OE headunit. The only problem with my plan was that the headunit I felt best matched the vehicle and my requirements was $1200. Now, as this site has proven time and time again it's not like I can't write a check for $1200 for this car, but you may have noticed I tend to place a higher priority on mechanicals than cosmetics or entertainment and there is currently no shortage of mechanical projects waiting in queue for my time and money.

For this reason I vowed to continue looking for another headunit solution and a couple weeks ago I found it: the Pioneer DEH-80PRS is due on shelves in April and slated to retail for a far more tolerable $420 (estimated street price around $350). The 80PRS naturally sacrifices some aspects of the P99RS I liked, but nevertheless provides respectable features including SD card support, line-out independent Burr-Brown DACs, L/R independent 16-Band EQ, and time alignment. It also improves on the design of the P99RS in two major ways -- a larger, more accessible control knob and -- wait for it -- full control over the button and LCD backlighting colors. This deck should match the BMW lighting perfectly. Provided the early reviews are acceptable the 80PRS will take up residence in my dashboard.

Mileage: 218300, Parts: $488, Parts Saved: $80

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Early Spring Service Part 1

When I opened my maintenance schedule worksheet and plugged in the odometer reading last week I saw red. And no, I wasn't angry (this time). Instead, I was merely surprised at all the routine maintenance that was past due and highlighted in red, including an oil service and bottle of Techron for the fuel system (1500 miles overdue), engine air filter (5800 miles overdue), Microfilter (1300 miles overdue) and spark plugs (6600 miles overdue). So I decided to run over to the dealer yesterday and pick up all the parts necessary to do that work today.

Knowing that BMW has historically stocked parts from two spark plug suppliers (Bosch and NGK) I asked the parts guys for the NGK versions I've been using all along. They told me that both part numbers have been superceded and it appears that BMW now provides only NGK plugs made in Japan. I've noticed a lot of parts consolidation by BMW lately so this didn't exactly come as a surprise.

I pulled one of the NGK plugs out the box to find that it was equipped with quad electrodes. I don't remember my last set of NGKs having quad electrodes and I do recall hearing of problems with the Bosch aftermarket quad electrodes, but it's hard to argue when this is the only part BMW supplies. When I saw the price I started having flashbacks to my bouts with aircraft parts prices -- plugs are now $18 my cost or $22 retail. Fortunately I don't replace spark plugs that often or I might be inclined to find a cheaper source. Plus, as I've said before, BMW engines can be surprisingly finicky when it comes to plugs so I'm not about to sacrifice my smooth idle to save a few bucks in any case.

Once at the garage, first up was the engine air filter. As I've indicated before I tend to pull the filter every few thousand miles and tap it on a clean spot on the garage floor to remove all the dust and grit it tends to pick up. This probably explains why my oil analysis reports always indicate low silicon. But one thing that tapping the filter clean will not do is remove the finer particles that the filter media traps so this explains why BMW recommends replacement every 30000 miles. The job is one of the simplest on the car as long as you remember to tuck the pink foam fully into the plastic cassette before pushing the inner part of the cassette home, and sliding the cover closed.

I've got the microfilter job down to a science now so that was little more than a 10 minute job. I continue to be amazed at how well these filters do their job, as they are typically dark gray by the time I get around to replacing them. I must admit to taking pleasure in changing the microfilter now because it results in tangible proof of what it's kept out of my lungs, and in the case of the small leaves from one of the trees in front of my residence, what it has managed to keep out of the car's ventilation system as well.

Unfortunately, I started later in the day than I originally planned so I ran out of time and decided to postpone the oil service and spark plug change until next time. Till next time...

Front End Overhaul Update

While at the parts counter picking up the spring service necessities I decided to order a few more parts needed for the front end overhaul. I didn't have my list handy but I did remember that I needed engine mounts so I ordered those along with the mounting hardware. And since every BMW this age seems to go through the really annoying "spinning ignition lock" problem, I ordered a new lock body, coded lock cylinder, and ignition switch I expect to replace when I pull the steering column to replace the lower bearing. The lock cylinder will need to come from Germany and I tend to pay for all the parts at once, so I expect to drop about $475 in a few weeks.

And speaking of the steering column, through some research I learned that the fracture bolts are M8x25. Contrary to popular belief they are nothing special, metallurgically speaking. They are called "fracture bolts" not because they fracture at some particular crash load, but rather because the heads are designed to break off as they reach proper torque for security reasons. Of course, the entire design was created prior to EWS and the value of the bolts on EWS-equipped vehicles like my 1998 vintage is questionable at best. Even if a thief were to attempt to go through the hassle of pulling the bolts on the lock body, the car will not start without a properly coded key in proximity to the EWS ring antenna. So simply to make my life easier now and potentially in the future, the plan is to remove the fracture bolts and reassemble with garden-variety grade 8.8 M8x25 socket cap head bolts so I can use a common allen key to tighten them. My guess is they will be less expensive than the BMW bolts too. Time will tell.

I also realized this week that I would need to add another special tool to my arsenal to complete the front suspension overhaul -- an engine support. I wanted something mechanical as opposed to hydraulic for the same reason I don't work under cars supported only by a jack: hydraulics fail. So that led me to the cross beam type supports used by the dealer techs for this job. I decided to check with Baum Tools and found their model 10-222A. The problem? They wanted $430 plus shipping. I'm all for buying quality tools, but there was no way I could justify that kind of expense for a tool I expect to use once in a blue moon.

While browsing Eppy's catalog I found an American Forge & Foundry branded unit that appeared to be nicely adjustable and well built. Similar versions sourced under different names found favor on the forums so given the positive experience I've had with my AFF jack I decided to throw down the $125 and familiarize myself with the unit before the "big day".

Mileage: 219285, Parts: $211, Parts Saved: $50, Labor Saved: $165, Tools: $125

Friday, March 16, 2012

More Front End Overhaul Parts Arrive

Last week when I ordered the parts for the ignition lock I assumed that it would be at least a couple weeks for the lock to be coded but everything showed up in only a couple days. The parts guy confirmed that the lock was coded here in the states so that explains the quick turnaround.

The mounts are pretty much what I expected which is to say that the rubber is in a lot better shape than the existing mounts. Based on my experience with similar mounts used in aircraft I expect the new mounts to ever so slightly improve the vibration characteristics of the engine. They are not cheap ($80 each) but they will be one less thing I'll need to replace come engine overhaul time.

The lock cylinder, lock body, and ignition switch are being replaced simply because they have been actuated countless times and are subject to a very annoying failure mode. The labor required to replace them is shared with replacement of the squeaky lower steering column bearing so it makes sense to swap the parts now rather than when the key decides it wants to turn 360 degrees and not start the engine -- or worse, not shut it down. The parts weren't exactly cheap, but like most preventative maintenance their purchase requires a long term view.

And just so I don't get a bunch of mail about the subject -- tritium keychains are available onilne, but be aware they are not entirely legal to import into the US. Also note that I have measured the radiation emitted from this unit and it's about four times background...pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but stuff that in your pocket at your own risk. On the upside, the half-life of tritium is 12 years so the keychain will produce usable light for 20 years or more. I've had this for more than ten years now and it still glows nicely.

Mileage: 219555, Parts: $476, Parts Saved: $110

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Early Spring Service Part 2

With temperatures in the 60's and sunny skies, today seemed like a good day to finish up my early spring service by doing an oil service with oil analysis and spark plug replacement. I got both jobs done in less than two hours and both went about as smoothly as one could expect. Dare I say it, but this is old hat at this point.

Although I am concerned that the extra time on the oil will naturally inflate the oil analysis numbers, I skipped the analysis last fall and do need to keep an eye on the progression of the lead wear issue. The last thing I need is to start grinding away at a bearing and have a rod blow through the block. I really would like to overhaul my own engine rather than be forced to rely on an unknown core when the time comes, so that means some due diligence on my part. I plan to send the analysis out this week.

When it came time to do the plug service, I instinctually removed the covers for the nuts that secure the fuel rail cover (that's why they're removed in the picture) but I quickly speculated that I could remove the engine head cover without pulling the fuel rail cover despite the fact that they overlap a bit, particularly in one location near the front, and that turned out to be the case. That saved me all of a minute of work but life is short, so faster is better.

After I removed the coils I brought the compressor up to pressure and blew out the plug holes. As expected they were perfectly clean and dry to start with but it never hurts to play it safe. The old plugs loosened with a lot less drama than they did last time. This may be because my technician tightened the prior set a bit more than I do but I can't know that for sure. BMW's spec is 22 ft*lbs (dry fit, no anti-seize), so that's what I used to tighten the new plugs before buttoning everything up and turning the key to test my work. The engine fired on the first cylinder and settled into a very smooth idle. Pickup below 4000 RPM seemed to be a bit better too, but it is probably just in my head. Spending $100+ on new plugs will tend to do that.

(Image: Blackstone Labs oil analysis report on 3/22/2012 at 219585 miles) Incidentally, plugs are a good indicator of the state of the engine if you know what to look for. Generally speaking, plugs should be dry with a slight white tinge to the normal and expected light carbon deposits on and around the electrodes. One big red flag is wetness that does not evaporate, which indicates oil control ring wear; something that must be monitored on an engine this old. Another red flag is heavy black carbon fouling or very white and heat-damaged electrodes, which usually means mixture control problems. However, while I might expect to see this kind of fouling on an old carbureted engine or perhaps an engine with forced induction and a custom tune, it is highly unlikely to occur on a stock BMW engine for the simple reason that the DME can detect misfires and cut off fuel to the affected cylinder(s), as well as tightly control the mixture by monitoring the oxygen sensors in real time.

I found the plugs in good shape across the board, which tells me that all the cylinders are wearing consistently with good oil control. These plugs had more mileage on them than the set I replaced in 2007 and yet appeared to have held up better. Based on their appearance I would normally extend the replacement interval to 80K or more but as I've said before there are other things to be concerned about here, including valve cover gasket leaks and overall engine health. Thus it is always better to get your eyeballs "inside" the engine more frequently so my plug change interval will remain at 72K miles or roughly half the expected lifespan of the valve cover gaskets.

Now the fun part. When I combine the labor savings from Part 1 with the 2.0 hours of labor required for the oil service and plug replacement in Part 2, I'm looking at a total labor savings of $421. The parts savings of $50, while not as impressive, brings the total DIY dividend of this project to $471. My out of pocket cost again? $211. Total time out of my life? Three hours. DIY: It's like vitamins for your wallet™. :)

Next up: swapping my winter wheels and tires for my summer set.

Update 3/22/2012: I received the oil analysis today and the results were predictable. Lead is up again, but I think most of the increase can be attributed to the longer oil change interval and the possibility that oil changes in March skew the numbers due to all the cold winter starts which are known to be bad for engine wear in general and bearings in specific. In any case, I doubt 16PPM is anything to be concerned about right now but that will change, of course, if lead spikes from this "new norm". Next oil service will likely be in mid-summer.

Mileage: 219585, Labor Saved: $256, Labor: $25

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Summer Tire Swap

When I installed the winter tire set last fall I knew full well they were not in particularly good shape, and I'm not just talking about the depth of the tread. The front tires had developed a really annoying rhythmic growling noise at low speed reminiscent of a wheel bearing failure in addition to the roaring noise at high speed typical of all snow tires. And thanks to the communicative BMW steering system I also felt and heard a periodic sound most evident at low speed while turning that anyone else would have likely attributed to a screw or nail in the tire. In short, the tires were shot, but safe, and I needed to save money so I reluctantly returned them to service.

(Image: E36 side view with PS2s returned to service March 2012)Fortunately my bet on these old, worn out snow tires paid off. We did not have a winter season, or at least a traditional one. Other than the early snow that caused me to put the tires on in the first place, we received at most an inch of snow one day, and flurries on a couple other occasions. That was about it. So, although I normally wait until the first week in April to install my summer tire set because the chance for a snow storm is pretty low by then, given the weather so far this season and the forecast for 60's in the coming weeks I decided to swap the tires a couple weeks early.

The process went pretty much as expected, save for one thing. As I performed my usual inspection of the front end I found both left and right side foam shock absorbers (what BMW calls the "auxilliary shock absorbers"), broken into several pieces, barely clinging to the strut rods. That's not good because now there is nothing to prevent these tired struts from smashing into the upper spring perch and carrying damaging loads into the strut tower. The condition of the absorbers tells me that this is a very real concern as they have obviously been compressed too many times.

One upside is that the front brakes, while quite worn, appear to have enough life left in them to make it to June when I expect to pull the car out of service for the long-overdue overhaul. That means I will be able to put all new brake parts on the car rather than screw around with a bunch of old parts on what will hopefully be a near pristine, powder-coated front end.

The test drive with the PS2s was predictable: perfectly quiet at all speeds, neutral and exacting steering, and of course, on-rails handling. All I could think was "wow...my BMW isn't a truck with bad bearings after all". The plan now is to deliver all the wheels to a repair facility in eastern PA to have them dial indicated, straightened if required, and refinished before I install a new set of winter tires to ready them for next season. And yes, I'm planning to install another set of Winter Sport M3's. They're not bad tires...so long as you don't run them for more than two seasons or roughly 12K miles.

The tire swap took a couple hours, but that was because I had to haul tires and tools between my two garages, so I'll call this one hour labor saved, or $128.

Mileage: 219600, Labor Saved: $128

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Chuck Engine Light Reveals Cam Sensor Faults

Last night, shortly after I started the car to head home from the office, I realized that the CEL (otherwise known as the CHUCK ENGINE LIGHT) was illuminated. Rats. The vehicle seemed to run nicely all the way home so I assumed it wasn't anything critical. Still, I couldn't help but give my personal diagnostic subroutine a crack at the task. By the time I reached home I didn't have any viable theories so I decided at that point to simply get up early and take the car to my technician for access to his eons of experience and, of course, the BMW diagnostic computer.

After a brief search at the dealer this morning I found my technician hiding in the rear shop -- which I found to be refreshingly quiet as compared to the front shop -- and I only had to wait a few moments for him to finish up a phone call to solicit his assistance. While I waited I noticed an E92 coupe up on the lift with both tires on the left side of the car sporting a sizeable bubble in the sidewall. Someone had obviously hit a pothole and taken out at least $400 worth of tires (well, at dealer cost more like $600) and perhaps a couple wheels at $600 a pop. This can happen to anyone, especially as the roads deteriorate due to misappropriated budgets, but from what my technician says he sees many repeat offenders. That could be due to environment (some towns in NJ spend as little as 10% of their tax revenues on road maintenance, which I find reprehensible) or a lack of driving skill but it's probably a little of both.

When it came time to grab the diagnostic computer and probe the depths of my E36's DME for trouble codes my technician instinctually reached for the old GT1 because apparently the newer SSS still has trouble talking to the older cars, particularly with respect to its ability to reliably clear codes. "The problem", my technician recounted, "is that after you fix the problem by replacing whatever components were required, it fails to clear the codes and tricks you into thinking the problem still exists and that you have to continue troubleshooting". So new is not necessarily better. Gazing at the battle-worn wireless diagnostic head connected to my 20 pin connector I commented "man, you don't know how much I want one of those". He smirked and replied "yea, you and all the other dealers."

A couple minutes later the GT1 had successfully communicated the source of my CEL -- two cam position sensor faults, the last of which occurred about 2 hours ago (drive time). That didn't make much sense to me as I hadn't driven the car more than about 45 minutes since the CEL first appeared, but I wasn't about to question the diagnosis. My technician quickly showed me the location of the sensor I needed to replace. That rang a bell and I realized simultaneously as my technician explained the corrective action that I'd have to pull the airbox, alternator duct, vanos solenoid, and perhaps the CCV and vanos oil supply hoses out of the way to gain access to both the sensor and its electrical connector located under the intake manifold. After the GT1 predictably and quickly cleared the codes I drove over to the parts department to pick up a new sensor. I assumed that they would have to order the part but was surprised to learn that they had the part in stock so I picked it up today at a much appreciated 35% discount.

At this point I figured that I'd drive the car until I could afford the time to replace the sensor since it continued to run well. Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans. This evening I channeled Phil Connors when I started the car to go home only to see the CHUCK ENGINE light appear again. Double rats! This time I got out to listen to the engine and exhaust only to hear a very slightly unstable idle. Since I know camshaft sensor faults can cause the engine to run rough or fail to start at all, I took this as a sign that I should bring the car to the garage and swap it for the E46, if for no other reason than to avoid the hassle and expense of a tow should the sensor decide to give up the ghost permanently.

I showed up at the garage some 30 minutes later and found my baby waiting patiently for me after months of slumber. I turned the key and she eagerly fired on the first cylinder. A quick check of the tire pressure using my recently purchased gauge revealed the need to fire up the compressor, but I made quick work of that, transferred my stuff into my new(er) chariot, and headed home. I expect to replace the sensor later this week.

Mileage: 220160, Labor Saved: $80, Parts: $105, Parts Saved: $70

Friday, April 6, 2012

New Cam Sensor Installed, or What DIY Techs Do With Time Off

After many weeks without a day off I decided to take a vacation day today. Of course, "vacation" is relative, and I always have so many projects on the burner (as well as waiting in the wings) that time off always translates into time spent doing work of another type. And today was no different, since I knew I had to replace the cam sensor in the E36 in order to return it to service. While conducting some last minute research on the task I realized that I would indeed have to remove the vanos oil line and that meant having a couple new sealing rings at the ready, so the first task of the day was a trip to the dealer to pick up those parts. I called ahead to check on stock and I was fortunate twice -- first, because they had them in stock, and second, because they put a half dozen in a bag and handed them to me free of charge. Cool, eh?

Of course, no trip to the dealer with an ailing car would be complete without a trip down the line of new cars. During my stroll I discovered a beautiful Interlagos Blue 2012 M3. As I walked around the car I contemplated the sad fact that it contains the very last normally-aspirated engine in the M line. While I have never been a fan of the E9x series of BMWs, this particular car looked amazing....right up until I got to the window sticker: $75K including dual clutch gearbox, etc. I'd buy it only as a stripper (with a 6MT) but still they're $65K in that form and that's idiotic. And it's only going to worse from here -- the new F30 3 series is $41K stripped with a 4-banger. My technician has driven it and gave the engine the thumbs up, but turbocharged or not, regardless of the specs, I'm not spending $40K+ on a 4 cylinder car. Congratulations BMW...you're doing a fine job pushing me toward that Cayman S. Keep up the good work.

Back at the garage I took my time and replaced the cam sensor in a bit over an hour. As expected I had to pull the airbox, alternator duct, oil filter, vanos oil hose, and the vanos solenoid to provide clearance to remove the sensor. Incidentally, details on how to remove the airbox, alternator duct, and oil filter may be found in my Alternator and Oil Service DIYs. Once those parts were removed I placed a clean towel over the alternator, oil filter housing and belts just to be sure that if oil did leak at any point in the process it would not make a mess on the engine or worse, contaminate the belts. A 19mm box end wrench allowed me quickly remove the hollow bolt retaining the vanos oil hose, and perhaps because I put the car to bed several days ago only a few drops of oil came out of the hose as I removed it from the fitting.

With the hose removed I was able to get my huge 32 mm wrench on the flats of the vanos solenoid case and crack it loose. As it turned out the sensor wire leading from the solenoid is only about four inches long and terminates with a connector that mates with the wiring that runs under the intake manifold. I disconnected the sensor wire at this junction and then held the connector in one hand and rotated it at the same speed I loosened the solenoid housing to prevent the wire from twisting.. Why be so careful? The insulation on the wire was slightly heat damaged and a new vanos solenoid is $200. I expect to replace it when I overhaul the engine, but wanted to avoid that expense now. The most oil I saw during the entire process came when I removed the solenoid, but that too was a miniscule amount and was easily contained when I tipped the wire-end down as it came free of the head.

I wound up using a standard 3/8" drive 5mm allen socket to remove the sensor retaining bolt. It didn't want to come out initially so I took extra care to "rock" the bolt, meaning I loosened 1/8 turn then tightened it back up, then loosened 1/4 turn and then tightened, etc. After about two cycles I squirted a couple drops of PB blaster over the gap that now appeared between the head of the bolt and the face of the head and waited a minute before continuing. That dramatically reduced the friction on the bolt and it came out quickly and easily after that. This technique is helpful on rusted or corroded fasteners and, I can now report, on fasteners laced with thread locker. Sure enough, as the bolt came out I saw the tell-tale signs of blue loctite.

After pulling the old sensor out I spent some time cleaning the threads of the sensor retaining bolt as well as the recess in the head where the sensor o-ring sits before sending the new sender home, which literally popped into place. I put a drop of fresh blue loctite on the bolt before I drove that in and torqued by feel to about 5 foot pounds. It doesn't take much. I then reinstalled the solenoid, oil line, oil filter, alternator duct, and lastly, the airbox. I turned the key to find the CEL still present which was completely expected since CELs occur because of hard faults that must be cleared with diagnostic equipment. So after a quick leak check I decided to drive over to the dealer to find my technician and have him clear the codes once again.

This time I found my technician hiding in plain sight at the back of the front shop working on a 650. When I noticed the turbocharged engine tightly packed in the engine bay I commented "well, at least you can get to all the expensive hot-section bits that fail all the time", referring of course to how BMW now puts the turbos and wastegates in the valley of the engine. Obviously speaking from experience he wearily rebutted "yea, that's true, but good luck getting at the injectors...since they're now where the exhaust headers used to be". So much for progress.

A few minutes after I told him what I needed he offered to connect the new SSS but we didn't have much luck with that. It just refused to talk to the car. So we disconnected the equipment and drove back to the rear shop where he had ready access to the same GT1 and wireless head we used earlier in the week. Naturally, the GT1 cleared the codes no muss, no fuss. Before I knew it I had said my goodbyes and was headed home with the CEL extinguished and engine running smoothly. Mission accomplished.

I didn't think to ask what book labor is on a cam sensor replacement, but I have a hard time believing the customer is charged less than 1.5 hours for this task so I'll call this $192 labor saved. Combined with the parts savings that brings the DIY dividend for this project to $262. Once again, not a bad return for a couple hours out of my day.

Reader Donation: Box Wrench Socket and Bit Adapter Set

You may recall I used an "alternative" technique to swap out my failed driver's side window motor last year. A reader recently sent me mail to comment that the tool I was looking for at the time is called a box-end wrench adapter and he offered to send me a set to thank me for the writeup. The toolset arrived in the mail this week and has been added to my ever-growing tool collection. I expect them to come in handy the next time I have to replace the window motor because I'll probably use the "alternative" technique to replace the motor even if it is still operational simply to eliminate the need to remove the regulator.

My hope is that I won't need these tools for a couple years (which seems to be about how long those stupid motors last) but I know from long experience that I *will* need them eventually. Well, unless I go do something stupid and buy a new car to replace the E36.

Naaaaa. Never happen.

Mileage: 220220, Labor Saved: $192

Friday, April 27, 2012

More Front End Parts

This month I ordered the remaining"big ticket" items needed for the front suspension overhaul including the springs, struts, and guide supports. After a lot of thought I decided to go with OE guide supports rather than aftermarket camber plates for financial and logistical reasons. With everything I have planned for the car this year I felt the money would be better spent elsewhere and I just didn't want to deal with any fitment or noise issues that might come up with the plates while the car is a daily driver.

For some reason I seem to recall that the original guide supports for the E36 were stamped out of steel but that may just be my imagination. In any case the new parts I received are made of aluminum and appear quite similar to what I've seen on the newer cars. Toward that end they come with an alignment dowel installed (see picture). The dowel is screwed into the base and thus easily removed for the E36 application.

I also managed to pick up the M3 strut tower reinforcements because the roads in New Jersey continue to deteriorate and I want to minimize the chance of any deformation or ballooning of the strut towers. As it turns out these are made out of some surprisingly thick steel -- I didn't have my digital calipers handy but I beileve it to be 1.5 mm or about 16 gauge. The strength is bolstered by roughly 5mm long flanges bent on both the inner and outer diameters. Use of the reinforcements will naturally raise the front end by a hair but I think it's fair to say that the effect will be minimal.

The last thing on the order was a pack of four bolts required to reattach the subframe to the vehicle. The TIS shows two torque specifications:

Neither specification includes an torque angle yet the TIS does require replacement of the bolts. So those values are sufficient to bring the bolts beyond their yield point, or the point at which permanent stretch occurs. During my research I discovered many people advocating the use of star washers with these bolts. Again according to the TIS that only applies to "Up to model year 1993". "Since 1993", the holes in the frame were tapered and the star washers were removed from the assembly process. Both torque specifications are with threads dry and that precludes the use of thread-locker or even anti-seize as others have incorrectly advocated. To summarize, the bolts are installed dry and torqued to 105 Nm. That's it.

The few remaining items I need to start the work include:

If you're wondering why I'm doing the fender liners it's not for cosmetics though I'm sure they'll polish off the project quite nicely. Rather, I have to replace them because they provide a couple mounting points for the "pork chops" that long ago broke off. I guess they don't respond well to the shock of deer bouncing off the front bumper. Whooda thunk it?

I am also considering the installation of a metal underpanel which would eliminate the pork chops entirely, provide additional protection for the radiator/condensor assembly and streamline the airflow to boot, but I'll have to do some additional research first to figure out if there are any reasonably-priced parts available.

The month of May will likely be quite busy for me so my guess right now is that I will start work in June sometime.

Mileage: 221200, Parts: $950

Friday, May 18, 2012

Waste Oil Containers

For a long time I've been using old 5 gallon plastic containers similar to spackle cans originally used to hold hydraulic oil to store the many gallons of waste oil I accumulate before I have time to make a trip to the local hazmat facility. The containers have press-fit tops and small flexible (non-removable) spouts. They have worked reasonably well and I've never been willing to balk at the price (free), but they are not the perfect solution. The tops aren't exactly secure and are prone to leak, particularly if they are tipped over while being filled or transported.

For this reason I've been more than a little leery of storing the containers inside the garage. And storing containers with leaky tops outside in the weather creates its own hassle as I discovered once at the hazmat facility. They don't mind taking contaminated oil but they differentiate that from straight used motor oil, and I couldn't help but feel embarrassed when I watched the attendant abruptly stop pouring from one of containers as water started gushing out of it. Not wanting a repeat of that I decided to research a better solution in the form of a plastic waste oil container that could be properly sealed against the elements if I choose to keep them outside.

The search started at Home Depot, migrated to Lowes, and finally Tractor Supply. None had what I was looking for. All the plastic containers seemed to contain spouts like traditional gas cans, and if you've bought a gas can lately you know they have all been "idiot proofed" in a way that make it them difficult to fill and drain. After striking out I redirected my search online.

I decided to research plastics compatibility first because generic plastic storage containers come in many forms and not all are manufactured out of plastic like High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) that is compatible with gasoline or other solvents. While I received a brief education in plastics I ultimately decided to avoid the compatibility issue altogether and seek out a metal container.

Unfortunately, many of the metal container designs had issues as well. I was about to give up hope when I stumbled upon The Cary Company and found something they call a five gallon tight head pail with fittings (closures), part number 26W83B. The term "tight head" refers to the fact that the top of the container is permanently crimped to its body. This particular unit came with a sturdy metal handle riveted to the lid and two fittings that mimic what you might see on the top of a 55 gallon drum -- a fill/drain port about two inches in diameter and smaller port on the opposite side of the lid about 1 inch in diameter that serves as a vent.

My quote request met with some resistance, as it first specified a minimum order quantity of six. While I planned to eventually purchase that number of containers I didn't want to purchase all six without a good close look at them, just in case I found them poorly constructed or they otherwise failed to meet my expectations. I eventually got them to sell me two containers and the total came to around $60. Yea, I know -- ridiculous for a couple metal containers -- but I decided to go ahead anyway. Shipping and handling are, unfortunately, what kill the economics of this purchase but I feel at least somewhat justified because I did try to buy locally first.

The containers arrived today and I'm happy to say that they are at least what I expected. The closures come with thick rubber gaskets so I'm sure they will seal nicely, and the handle appears to be well constructed and sturdy enough to lift the 50 or so pounds of oil required. Other than that they're nothing more than simple metal containers. I don't know when I'll place my next order but I am planning to buy at least two more. Buying another four or six at once may be the most cost effective way to acquire them, however, and I'm sure that between my brother and I they can all be put to use.

Note: I don't get anything if you buy from Cary so this is not a paid endorsement of their products.

More Front End Parts and Tools

I've decided to go with AVK AK M8 nutserts to fasten the X-brace to the subframe. I spoke briefly to my technician about it and he said he uses SAE nutserts and the compression pliers tool simply because they are more readily available. I called HW Eckhardt, the same company referred to in Ron's X-Brace Install article which is, coincidentally, as old as my car. While they said they could look up the kit number Ron set up with them long ago I just told them what I wanted, which included the AA170 pliers, AA271-8125 conversion kit and a couple dozen AK series inserts. Price? Around $60.

The AK M8 inserts require a 17/32" hole. I have a nice set of SAE drill bits but interestingly enough 17/32 was not among the selection so I searched awhile before finding a US made 17/32 inch drill bit on Amazon (note: if you click on this link and ultimately buy the product, a small amount of your purchase will support this site). The distinction between this and a couple other bits I found is the fact that its shank is turned down to 1/2 inch, making it compatible with most 1/2 inch chucks.

The new fender liners, front quarter underpanels (i.e. pork chops), ABS/Brake sensor junction box, and steering isolation joint (i.e. guibo) also arrived. I decided to avoid buying all the hardware associated with the fender liners hoping that they would at least come with the tinnerman clips. As the picture shows that turned out to be the case. I'll no doubt need additional hardware to install these properly but I'll just buy that on an as-needed basis. After looking at all the lower steering column parts I decided apply the same logic -- I'll take it apart and then buy parts as needed.

Mileage: 222222, Parts: $240, Tools: $40

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 1

With a couple extra days off due to the Memorial Day holiday I decided to put the E36 up on a pair of jackstands and get to work on the long-awaited front suspension overhaul. I began by pulling the wheels off and taking "before" pictures I could use during the reassembly process.

I decided to break the ice by drilling the subframe for the X-brace nutserts. My new Bosch lithium battery drill allowed me to quickly enlarge the existing holes to 17/32 of an inch. That produced a few burrs that I quickly removed using my air powered IR die grinder equipped with a medium grit roloc disc. To protect the bare metal created by both drilling and deburring I decided to shoot a couple thin coats of black paint I found left over from the rear suspension overhaul. The paint took a bit longer than expected to dry due to high humidity but it was soon dry enough to continue.

I quickly installed the conversion kit in the AVK nutsert installation tool, screwed on a nutsert and then compressed it for test purposes (without installing it in the subframe). To say that this tool required a lot of force to compress the nutsert is an understatement. To be completely honest I think the tool is almost completely inadequate for the job. I say "almost" because I was ultimately able to install all four nutserts but not without getting under the car and contorting myself such that I could grip the tool handles with my hands, put my hands between my legs and use both hands and legs to compress the tool.

This is every bit ridiculous as it sounds. The tool handles are too short for the force required and probably should be at least double their current length. Good luck getting AVK to fix that design blunder. Given the force required to compress the nutserts relative to the test I performed, however, I think I can say that I installed them correctly and they are very tightly bonded with the subframe. For anyone considering this job I'd recommend the one-time use installation tools for this task as I think those will require a lot less physical effort due to their design. The only dowside is they're $4 each as I recall.

Several people suggested putting a couple of drops of red loctite on the nutserts before installing them in the subframe. Although I will need red loctite later in this project I didn't have any at this time. I decded not to run out for it given that the nutserts don't require it and my belief that loctite is not a fix for improper installation technique. And then there's the little fact that loctite reflows when subjected to temperatures typical of a powder coating oven. I did, however, decide to throw a pinch of salt over my shoulder and use some blue loctite I had on hand.


Next up: Disassembly.

Mileage: 222600

Monday, May 28, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 2

Based on my relatively slow progress yesterday I was determined to get some serious work done today.

I began the day by blowing the dust off my special 16mm open end wrench I made way back in 2007 to replace the swaybar endlinks and promptly disconnected the endlinks from the bar. I followed up by pulling the four 13mm bolts on the mounting clamps that hold the bar to the frame rails before pulling the swaybar and setting it aside in my powder coating pile. The finish has held up remarkably well and I could probably leave well enough alone but I figured it would be nice to have the swaybar match all the other freshly powdercoated parts that will soon grace the front end.

I then pulled off the brakes to find the pads just starting to cause wear on the sensor so the timing for the overhaul couldn't have been better. The brakes will be replaced with everything else in the front end, and that will make for a lot nicer look when it comes time for the photo / video shoots when I wrap up the project.

Using a pickle fork in my air hammer bought many years ago for this very job, I was able to break the tie rod ball joints free of the kingpins. It took some work from different angles with the smallest pickle fork in the set but they eventually popped free. All in all, the biggest problem with this job was getting the pickle fork stuck a few times where I was hammering continously but the fork wasn't moving inward anymore. I used a hammer to gently tap the fork back out and attacked it from a different angle until I achieved the desired result. There's probably some technique here that I failed to utilize as I don't recall seeing others having so much trouble.

The nightmare of the day was without a doubt dealing with the outer lower control arm ball joints. Starting on the right side of the vehicle I planned to keep the strut fastened to the kingpin, at least for the moment, but I ultimately realized that due to the design of the strut I could not completely remove the nut holding the outer ball joint to the kingpin. The correct approach is, of course, to remove the strut from the kingpin first but I didn't do that initially. Instead, I loosened the bolt until it hit the strut and then used my pickle fork to separate the ball joint from the kingpin. That did little more than cause the ball joint to spin when I attempted to loosen the nut further.

To remedy the situation I had to place my floor jack under the end of the control arm and push the ball joint shaft back into the kingpin. This mated the ball joint shaft in the tapered bore of the kingpin and created enough friction to allow me to apply the necessary torque to fully loosen and remove the nut. Needless to say, when I got around to the left side I broke out my air wrench and quickly removed all the bolts holding the strut to the kingpin. This allowed me to fully remove the outer ball joint nut and then use the pickle fork to break the ball joint shaft free of the kingpin. No muss, no fuss.

I knew going into this that a pickle fork destroys the ball joint boots and this was true in all cases where I used it. This might have been a factor had I wanted to reuse the lower control arms or tie rods but that clearly wasn't the case here. As the videos vividly show, the outer lower control arm ball joints were absolutely shot. When I grabbed one of the rotors at nine and three and pushed and pulled, I was amazed at the amount of slop. On the other hand, I found the tie rod ball joints in surprisingly good shape for their age but given the scope of this project they will be replaced anyway.

Next up is to drain and disconnect the steering rack, remove it from the subframe, and then pull the subframe, remove the lower control arms and heave them mightily into the garbage can. Once that's done I have to take the subframe and other parts to Mr. M Car. His welder will then install the TMS reinforcement kit on the subframe while he assembles the struts and presses new 96-99 M3 control arm bushings into my existing lollypops. When the subframe work is complete I plan to take it and several other components over to my powder coater who will sandblast and refinish them with the same semi-gloss black I used on the rear suspension components. That work will probably take a couple of weeks so I expect the car to be out of service for the better part of a month. As usual, however, I'm not exactly hurting while driving the E46.


Mileage: 222600

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 3

At the close of day 2 I had separated the struts from the kingpins but because I lacked a socket adapter to reduce the 3/4" drive of the 45 mm axle nut socket down to the 1/2" drive of my air wrench I could not remove the nuts, bearings or brake shields. So the first thing I did today was stop by Eppy's to pick up that adapter.

I began the work session by removing the wheel nuts. I was somewhat concerned that I would not have the leverage required to hold the kingpin still in isolation (since it was no longer connected to the strut or the car) but I quickly realized that this is why air tools were invented. I put the kingpin on the floor, put the tip of one foot on each of the brake caliber bracket bosses and went to town with the air wrench. The wheel nut came off so quickly it spun off the spindle and rolled a few feet away. The second wheel nut came off just as nicely, and I have video proof as evidence.

When it came time to pull the bearings I was aware that the inner race tends to stay behind on the spindle. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. The first bearing I pulled off with my hands brought the inner race with it, while the second left it behind. To remedy that I used some screwdrivers to pry it off. I wound up bending the brake shield due to the recessed nature of the inner race relative to the shield but I did not consider this an issue as I had plans to replace them. I noticed several cracks in the brake shield near each of the mounting holes so they needed to go. With the inner race removed I then wrapped up the task and pried the inner bearing shield cup off the spindle.

With the inner race of the second bearing removed I took some time to inspect the insides of the bearing. The grease still looked almost fresh and the balls were all perfectly shiny. I could not believe these bearings had over 220K miles in service. I snapped the inner race back onto the bearing and spun it to find it rolling smoothly -- perhaps not as smoothly or as tightly as the new bearings, but not bad either. I guess this sums up what I've gathered about bearings -- they are really best replaced on condition (meaning, when they fail). One thing is sure: quality OEM (SKG or FAG) bearings last a long time. For reference, my original factory bearings turned out to be FAG and I have bought SKG / Toyo to replace them.

The first snag of the day came when I attempted to remove the notoriously stubborn ABS sensors from the kingpin. The first job is, of course, to remove the sensor mounting bolts. I soaked both liberally in PB blaster and took a 10 minute break before returning to remove them. I loosened the first bolt and wicked yet more PB blaster into the threads before continuing and rocking the bolt, only to feel the bolt suddenly loosen up snap off, leaving a stud about 5/8" in length behind in the kingpin. Damn! I likely could have removed the stud myself but quickly resolved to deliver it to Don at Mr. M Car with the other parts the next day and have him remove it as I expected that to be a more efficient use of my time and money. The second bolt, incidentally, came out without any trouble.

When it came time to remove the sensors themselves from the kingpins they refused to budge. I found this reminiscent of the rear suspension overhaul and became quite nervous that I might destroy these very expensive sensors. I quickly decided to use a deep socket as a drift and found a 7/16" fit nicely. I wicked a bit more PB blaster into the small gap between the sensor and kingpin before fitting the socket and tapping with a hammer until it released. In less than a minute I had removed both sensors using this method. I found I had to hit both sensors quite hard to get them to break free but after that several lighter taps completed the task. A quick inspection of the sensors appeared to show no damage so I may have avoided a $300+ charge, but only time and a test drive will tell.

Moving back to the car I decided it was time to remove the control arms. I quickly removed the bolts holding the lollypops to the frame rails and then broke out the big guns (air hammer with large pickle fork) to remove the inner ball joint from the subframe. I found this considerably easier than dealing with the outer ball joints. The inners just popped free after a few seconds of trigger down time...and as luck would have it (and maybe a touch of planning) I have video proof. I set the arms aside as I expect to deliver them to Don so he can pull the bushings off the old arms. I could probably do it myself but it will take him less time. Naturally, I'm also planning to have him install the new control arm bushings at the same time.

Next up I decided to remove the tie rods from the rack so I pried off the clamps holding the dust boots to expose the inner tie rod nuts. At this point I realized that I would indeed need a thin 32 mm crows foot to both remove these arms and ultimately torque the new arms. I did not have that tool so I decided to attempt to remove the rack with the arms attached, simply so I could proceed to remove the subframe.

To remove the steering rack I had to first drain the rack using standard procedures. I took the time to put a bag around the pulley to protect the belt from any contamination with ATF, and then loosened and ultimately removed the banjo bolt on the pump. I then waited the 10 minutes or so required for the flow to slow to a drip before I loosened the clamp on the rubber hose connected to the ATF reservoir. Because I drained the system via the pump not a single drop of oil came out of the reservoir.

I then set about to disconnect the rack from the isolation joint in the steering column. Due to reduced clearance I decided to remove only the lower bolt for now. A small ratchet and open end wrench in combination worked but it was slow going as there isn't much room to swing anything.

When I started to loosen the bolts holding the steering rack to the subframe I realized that they were spinning but not loosening. I had originally assumed the bolts threaded into the rack but this was clearly not the case. Looking on top of the rack I found the nuts I needed to hold steady but I also found clearance to be an issue. I did manage to get one of my box-end wrenches up there but with the sun low on the horizon (I started late today due to the heat) and my patience wearing thin I decided to call it a day and pick this up next weekend.

Before I left the garage for the day I collected the parts I have to deliver to Don to build up my struts, and put everything in the trunk of the E46 so I could deliver them to him at lunch the following day. I'm back at the salt mine tomorrow so I'm done with the project until Saturday. Total time in disassembly so far: roughly 6 hours.


Mileage: 222600

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 4

Back on Wednesday when I returned to the salt mine I brought a box of parts to Don at Mr. M Car. I asked him to build up my struts, pull the old control arm bushings off the existing arms, toss the old arms in the garbage, and then press in the new M3 bushings into the lollypops.

When he began to examine the parts he seemed as intrigued by the new aluminum guide supports as I was when I received them. At first he thought I had bought the wrong parts but I told him I ordered the correct part numbers and that is what the dealer supplied. Curious, he went over to his copy of the ETK and ultimately determined that these are E85 (Z4) strut mounts and they have in fact superceded the existing E36 mounts which were made out of steel.

He then asked for my preference: did I want to have him press in the control arm bushings such that the "windows" were horizontal, as designed by BMW, or vertical in order to produce an effect equivalent to solid bushings. I naturally asked him what kind of a difference I might expect and he said "Minor, but perceptable. It's what we do for all the 'go-fast' guys". I said that I liked the idea of tightening up the front end and perhaps delivering a bit more road feel but I conceded that the car is intended for the street so we should probably go with the factory setup. Still, I suggested, if the effect is minor it probably doesn't matter -- "use your best judgement". So we'll see what he does when I pick them up next week. I'm sure I'll be happy with either setup.

Today when I got to the garage I expected to only do two things: remove the steering rack and remove the subframe from the vehicle as I figured this would signal the end of major disassembly. By the time I left the garage at the end of the day I got those two jobs done, installed a new audio system in the garage since my old one blew up last weekend, removed the fender liners and pork chops, cleaned up the rack and degreased the front end as required to inspect all the structural steel in the front end.

Earlier in the week I had asked Don for any tips he had for removal of the rack. He told me that the easiest way to get the clearance required to get a wrench on the left side nut on the top of the rack is simply to remove the lower engine mount nuts and the engine driven fan, then jack up the engine as required. Since I had to disconnect the mounts from the subframe anyway I did that and wound up jacking the engine about 3/4", or enough for the engine mount stud to fully exit the hole in the subframe. Worked like a charm. I started to remove the bolts with my ratchet but when that started to take an annoyingly long time I decided to break out the air tools, which naturally removed the bolts in a few moments.

Don also suggested using a combination of a large flat blade screwdriver and a pry bar to open the clamp-like isolation joint and use some PB blaster in order to help free the splined shaft. I did both of those things and still had some difficulty removing it but after a bunch of wiggling it finally came free. The downside is that as I tilted and jostled the rack I realized that I had changed the center position of the rack. I found the splined shaft basically impossible to mark in any meaningful way, in part because I fully expected to replace the mating component (the isolation joint). So at this point I'm not 100% sure what I'm going to do when it comes time to align the splined shafts, but I'll probably ping my technician or maybe Don this week to ask. They replace racks every other day so it can't be rocket science. I am, incidentally, considering the purchase of TMS's rack centering tool as the E36 version will work with my "all aluminum" rack model.

Once the rack was removed I decided to spend some time degreasing it. I first taped up the exposed steering shafts to prevent them from being scratched and then mixed up a strong batch of the same citrus degreaser I used on the rear suspension overhaul. It made relatively quick work of removing the gunk that had formed on the rack and managed to expose the various model and name plates on the rack. While I was at it I degreased the front of the engine driven fan clutch, since that seemed to have acquired a thick, sticky film of grease and dust that I figured might affect the accuracy of the bimetal thermostat.

After taking some pictures and video I decided to remove the fender liners so I could degrease the body structure and wheel wells before calling it a day. Everything went as planned until it came time to remove one of the nuts on the left side abs sensor junction box. Without any warning the stud simply snapped off as I began to loosen the nut. It's clear that I'll have to drill out what's left of the stud and then use a blind nut and screw of some sort (probably the same used to fasten the fender liners to the body) to properly reattach the junction box to the vehicle. Oh well. That's life in the big city.

Once the fender liners and pork chops were removed I set about to degrease each wheel well and gave everything a good rinse before I inspected the vehicle structure. I'm happy to report that BMW really had it's shit together when it coated these vehicles during manufacturing. Once I cleaned off all the gunk, which naturally made the water in my bucket pitch black, I found no rust anywhere. And despite the pounding this car has taken over the past 14 years I saw no obvious cracks or other damage. As far as I'm concerned I'm good to go at this point and can install the new fender liners as soon as I order new installation hardware. I could use the existing blind nuts and screws but they're all rusted and my hope is that the new parts will be zinc plated, as are many of the new fasteners provided by BMW.


Mileage: 222600, Parts: $87

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 5

Earlier in the week I took the subframe to my powdercoater to have him sandblast the areas to be welded. Although he initially quoted a two day turnaround he managed to get the job done the next day. I picked up the subframe and drove it over to Don at Mr. M Car so he could deliver it to his welder. Yesterday Don called and let me know everything including the subframe was ready to pick up.

While discussing the work he mentioned that everything went as planned except that he had to apply a good amount of heat to remove the broken bolt from the kingpin. As it turned out he installed the M3 bushings according to factory specifications (windows horizontal) and he applied some additional grease to the top of the guide support bearings as I requested. As I inspected the subframe with the kit installed I became somewhat concerned that I would not be able to get a socket into the hole provided to access the bottom engine mount nut. Don brought over the correct socket and realized my concerns were well founded as the socket would not fit so he installed an abrasive stone in his die grinder and removed a very small amount of metal until he obtained the required clearance. I paid Don $250 for his jobs well done plus $90 for the welder and headed for home.

I had intended to start work in the garage mid-morning today but I first had to handle a higher-priority task: a new receptionist at the dealership heard of the organic pizza I make and insisted I bring her some so that took the better part of the morning. I mean, it's a dirty job giving beautiful girls what they want but someone has to do it. I brought enough for others to try and it was well received. Because I brought the pizza in a traditional commercial pizza box one guy asked for the shop where I bought it...and then looked at me in disbelief when I told him it was home made. Another guy violated his diet when he grabbed the last slice but felt better when I told him this was better for him than most of the cardboard they eat around there every Saturday. With the glamorous world of BMW DIY maintenance beckoning, before long I said my goodbyes and headed for the garage.

I began the work session by replacing the broken electrical connector for the brake wear sensor. Because I had done one of these connectors before during the rear suspension overhaul it took all of a couple minutes to successfully pull the old wiring out of the connector and install it in the new one.

Next up, I attempted to replace the rubber engine mounts but discovered that I would need to use a socket to remove the top nut of the mounts and yet there was little to no room to swing a ratchet. That convinced me to pull the mount supports from the block. The right side was easily removed as I was able to use a 13mm socket and ratchet to pull the needed four bolts. The left side, however, was more complicated not only because of clearance but because the power steering reservoir bracket attaches to the mount. I had to remove the remaining hose from the reservoir and loosen the clamp to remove the reservoir itself before I could gain access to the four bolts on the block. Since the reservoir is now out of the car and it's a PITA to pull it from the top I plan to replace it with a new part. I last replaced it at 140K miles and ZF recommends this be changed every 100K miles or following replacement of any major components (i.e. the rack) so that's close enough for me.

A closer inspection of the mount supports showed them to be in good shape structurally but they had obviously suffered a good amount of surface corrosion over the years so I have decided to have them powdercoated with the same silver or gray I expect to use for the fuel filter cover in order to help the parts reflect heat. If the powdercoater balks at getting them back to me in a reasonable time, however, I may consider doing everything in semi-gloss black as I did for the rear end.

Next, because I managed to pick up all the new fender liner hardware from the dealer yesterday I decided to install the fender liners and pork chops (yea, with apple sauce). As expected, all the new hardware is zinc plated so it should hold up a lot better than the original cad-steel garbage. I didn't pay particular attention to how the fender liners were installed as I removed them so I had to play around with them a bit to figure out how to fit them properly. After about 20 minutes I had managed to replace all the blind nuts and tinnerman clips and install the left side fender liner. With that knowledge fresh in my mind I made quick work of the right side. The new liners and zinc-plated hardware really dress up the wheel wells but more importantly it's nice to see the liners and pork chops properly mated for a change. All in all I think this was worth the effort.

Before I left the garage for the day I decided to assemble the items I expected to bring to the powdercoater on Monday. I had originally planned to powdercoat the metal swaybar clamps but upon closer inspection I realized the inside of the clamps were severely bubbled up with rust so I plan to replace them. I hope to have the new parts powdercoated as well but that will depend on whether they are still cad-steel and whether the schedule will permit waiting the time required to get them in stock.

The other surprise of the day came when I decided to look more closely at the swaybar itself. When I removed it I saw what I thought was a bunch of rubber residue on the bar in the vicinity of the clamps but I quickly realized the bar itself was badly rusted. When I grabbed a screwdriver and attempted to scrape away the rust I broke several rust blisters and found the damage deeper than what I would consider safe so I now expect to replace the bar. I haven't decided what bar to use but my guess is I'll punt and use OE, particularly if the OE bar is cheaper than the aftermarket bars, and that does indeed appear to be the case.


Mileage: 222600, Parts: $324

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 6

Today I didn't get much more than a couple hours in before temperature and humidity became annoying once more but I did manage to (finally) disconnect the calipers and inspect them.

This was the first time I'd ever opened the brake line in this manner so I was naturally a bit cautious about doing so. To begin I made a point to use my 11mm flare nut wrench to avoid rounding over the fitting. As I loosened the fitting I found fluid began to leak out of the connection almost immediately but even with the hose fully disconnected I saw nothing more than a drop every few seconds. To make life easier come bleed time I decided to seal the end of the hard lines using a cap from an assortment I bought online. The best cap turned out to have an ID of roughly 3/16” or about 3mm but several were flexible enough to work.

With both lines capped my attention turned to the brake calipers. I removed the brake lines, pulled the bleeder screws and drained the fluid from the calipers into one of my new waste oil containers. The first thing I noticed is that the fluid in one of the calipers was a bit darker and cloudy than the other, which proves that flushing fluid doesn't necessarily push all the fluid out of the system. With the calipers drained I reinstalled the bleed screws, fired up the compressor, inserted a block of wood between each caliper piston and caliper frame and then proceeded to apply just enough pressure to the brake line port to push the piston out of the bore. The piston started to move slowly at first and then slammed hard against the wood. Sound advice: keep your fingers clear of the piston when you do this!

I went into this process thinking I'd refurbish the calipers and install the seal repair kit along with new caliber guide bushings. Unfortunately, an inspection of the pistons showed pitting in a couple areas. One piston was in decidedly better shape than the other, but still scored. While I have always known that rust on the polished outer surface of the piston is undesirable I lacked the experience to know how much rust (if any) represented a go/no-go condition so I posted a question over at bimmerforums and attached the picture shown above. Amazingly, in less than an hour, two well-respected pros on that forum responded “it's a paperweight”. Since the pistons are unavailable separately I have decided to add a new set of calipers to the list of parts I have to order this week. I can get ATE OEM units from Turner for $225/each and new BMW calipers for a bit more ($285 each). I'm not yet sure which I'll buy.

While I'm back at the salt mine this week I expect to deliver my parts to the powdercoater. My hope is to get those parts back by next weekend so I can begin assembly. However, as I have yet to pull the steering column, and doing that job should be a bit easier without the subframe installed due to clearance issues I won't shed any tears if the powdercoater drags his heels and delivers next week. In any case, I expect the car to be down for at least another couple of weeks and probably longer given that I'll have to get the car aligned before I can return it to service.

Mileage: 222600

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 7

On Friday I got a call from the powdercoater a few days earlier than expected in which he asked me to come by his shop to inspect the silver parts he had completed. I found everything came out nicely except for the fuel filter cover which suffered some minor color shifts. He offered to rework it but I let it slide, reasoning that it was nothing more than an underbody panel that no one would really see but me. He let me know the subframe and kingpins should be ready next week as promised so I put the silver parts in the trunk of the E46 and headed back to the salt mine.

Yesterday I conducted my weekly parts run at the dealer to pick up the new swaybar clamps and nuts, engine mount support bolts, ATF reservoir and (wait for it...) two brand new OE front brake calipers ($285 each with my discount). Total bill with donation to the state was a cool $700. While waiting at the parts counter a tech who knows me well, “K”, noticed the new calipers and asked me what I was using for guide pin lube. I said “nothing...I've traditionally kept them dry because I was told not to use grease of any kind or the bushings would swell”. About as quickly as the expression on his face turned to one of obvious disapproval he said “wait a second”, got up, went back to his bay and returned with a small jar of “Silicone Paste Lubricant”, which he then applied with a brush to the insides of the guide bushings while I watched. “It will make them slide a lot more easily”, he said knowingly. So I learned something today – lube on the guide bushings isn't necessarily a bad thing – provided it's silicone paste. Obviously I'll be buying a can of that at some point and updating my Brake DIY to reflect this little revelation.

“K” then asked curiously how many miles were on the old calipers. When I responded with 225K he commented “the only reason you got that mileage out of them is because you drive it every day...they usually rust out because the cars sit all the time”. So if you've been searching for the justification to use a BMW as a daily driver this factoid sounds about as good as any. :)

Later that day I ran over to Eppys to pick up a metric tap set as required to reattach the heat shield to the right side engine mount support. After some experimentation and analysis with the various taps I ultimately determined that the best route would be to drill with the same 13/64 bit and tap for M6 bolts. 13/64, incidentally, is a couple thousandths shy of the official bit size recommended for M6 threads but I wasn't about to add fuel to the fire and buy a metric drill bit set when I knew this would be good enough. I expect a bolt depth of 8mm to work so I ordered a small box of M6x1x8mm bolts from McMaster-Carr today and expect them to arrive this week.

Today I went to the garage in order to remove the steering column as required to replace the lower bearing which is presently on order. I first attempted to remove the collapsible steering shaft with U-joint from the fixed shaft that leads to the steering wheel. That proved to be rather annoying given the location of the bolt holding the U-joint to the shaft and because I found both components to be "intimately acquainted" with each other.

I first tried to pull the U-joint straight off the shaft, first from above, then on my back from below, in a concerted effort to get more leverage. No dice. Then I tried to get a small screwdriver in the split hoping to spread the splines apart sufficiently to release the shaft. No dice again. That's thick metal, folks...it takes a BIG screwdriver or pry bar to get the job done, neither of which I could get even remotely close to this joint due to lack of clearance. To make a long story short, the tricks of the day turned out to be PB blaster and wiggling the joint rapidly while pulling. Repeat: pulling straight off doesn't work. Wiggling at high frequency does.

The good news is, of course, that I managed to pull the collapsible shaft off the car and clean it up sufficiently to inspect it and verify it can be reused. The primary contaminants were dried cosmoline and thick layer of oil sludge, left there from when I foolishly attempted to remedy the bearing squeak with lubricant shot from precarious angles. I also used a brass brush to clean the external splines, which are now so clean they mate perfectly smoothly with the new isolation joint...something I expect to make installation a lot easier. I was not able to clean the internal splines on the U-joint end as well but a pinky wrapped with a cloth doused with the same Zep 45 lube used to clean the remainder of the part seemed to remove a bunch of gunk.

Next I removed the driver's footwell panel, knee protection plate, steering wheel, and other components as required to fully expose the fracture bolts holding the column to the car. Despite all my research on this subject I learned today that there are actually TWO sets of fracture bolts on this car – one to mate the lock assembly to the steering column (this is the pair everyone talks about when replacing the lock assembly) and another to mate the column to the car. Given the fact that I can easily drill out the former bolts once the column is out of the car I decided to focus my work on the column bolts. The problem is they're more deeply recessed into the dashboard which will likely inhibit the traditional method used to remove them (i.e. using a chisel to rotate the bolts).

Unfortunately I ran out of time today before I could tackle that job, but all that means is I'll have the week to work up a strategy to deal with the bolts. At this moment I'm thinking of cutting a notch in the head of each bolt with my Dremel and using a large flat-blade screwdriver to remove them. Worst case is I'll break the heads off and remove the studs later. And if you're wondering, there is NO WAY IN HELL I'm installing a new set of fracture bolts. While I don't expect to ever remove the column or lock assembly again I won't shoot myself in the foot. The fracture bolts will be replaced with some good-quality hex or allen head bolts.

If you're wondering how I'm planning to get all this back together and properly aligned, it's simple: I bought the Turner Motorsport E36 rack centering tool earlier in the week. This simple and ingenious tool makes it possible to keep the rack precisely centered while the steering wheel is installed on the correct spline. More on that tool when the time comes.

Sadly, I was only able to work on the car one day this weekend so I see this project getting pushed out longer than desired but that's the cost of doing things the right way and learning along the way.


Mileage: 222600, Parts: $700, Tools: $130

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 8

The bolts for the heat shield arrived promptly from McMaster-Carr so one night this week I drilled and tapped the right side engine support for the M8 button-head screws I used to attach the heat shield. Despite the cost of this little diversion I'm very happy with the end result. The video tells the full story.

I originally planned to begin work today by removing the steering column but I received a call from the powdercoater this morning indicating that the remaining parts were ready to pick up so I switched gears and ran over to his shop. Inspection of the parts revealed that he did a great job masking the kingpins so they now look better than new. Earlier in the week I asked him to make a point of getting powder (paint) inside the pockets we had reinforced on the subframe, simply to ensure I wouldn't have a rust problem in there, and he managed to address that nicely. He even took care to mask off a few of the areas on the brake caliper brackets I mentioned to him. Overall, everything came out as I expected. The original estimate for the work was $300 and the total came out to be $340, which I think is bargain considering I couldn't do the same work myself (factoring in my time) for less.

I left the powdercoater and ran over to the dealer to pick up the latest parts order including the new sport package swaybar (31351090182) and lower steering column parts including the lower metal bearing. Total bill this time: $175. Once at the garage I pulled out all the parts and instantly decided that installation of engine supports, mounts, heat shields, and subframe would be a lot more emotionally rewarding than screwing around with those damned fracture bolts. Can you blame me?

Because I needed to install the engine mount supports first I had to begin by removing the paint from the contact areas. My IR die grinder equipped with a roloc disk made very quick and clean work of that task as you can see. With that out of the way I applied a few shots of brake cleaner to the threaded bores in the block to clean the threads of a bunch of dirt.

I then went on a search for the proper torque value for the bolts that mate the support to the block but came up empty so I decided to use the standard generic M8 grade 8.8 bolt torque spec provided by BMW, or 24 Nm (17 ft*lbs). That torque is quite typical for bolts that thread into aluminum structures so I felt it was safe enough for the cast iron block. Given the contortions I had to go through to remove the left side support I thought for sure I would not be able to get the torque wrench on the bolts but I did manage to torque all the bolts properly.

The thick powdercoating reduced the diameter of the holes in the subframe that accept the engine mount studs so I put a metal abrasion bit in the Dremel and cleaned up the holes as required to make the studs fit snugly. Before mounting the subframe to the body I again used a bit of brake cleaner to clean the bolt holes in the frame rail because I knew any grease or dirt on the threads would affect the torque applied to the fastener. With the threads clean and both engine mounts balancing on the stop of the subframe I perched the engine mount heat shield on the right side mount and proceeded to lift the assembly to the vehicle.

It took a couple attempts to line up the top engine mount studs with the corresponding hole in the engine supports, particularly on the left side, as the engine was somewhat canted. I figured that was caused by the floor jack so I lowered it just a bit and the stud lined up perfectly. Before I installed the nuts on the engine mount studs I decided to torque the subframe bolts next.

As I indicated in a prior blog entry BMW provides three torque values for these fasteners: 100, 105, and 110 Nm. I decided to split the difference and apply 105 Nm (77 ft*lbs). I brought all the fasteners up to the final torque in steps. The bolts took their time firming up and for a while I felt like I was stretching the bolts (and in truth I probably was), but eventually they firmed up and the torque wrench clicked.

Now with the subframe firmly mounted to the vehicle I decided to install the bottom flange nuts on the lower engine mount studs. Following Don's advice I started the nuts by hand, which in itself was a minor challenge given the small diameter of the hole in the reinforcing plate, but I eventually caught enough threads to migrate to a socket. I reached for the nearest socket I could find, in this case a 16mm impact socket but I quickly found that it was too thick to fit in the hole so I grabbed one of my chrome sockets and that worked perfectly.

I had to lower the engine in steps to allow the top engine mount studs to mate properly with the engine supports and I found that due to the manner in which I had jacked up the engine the left side stud did not want to align with the hole in the support until I lowered the jack almost all the way down. At this point, however, the engine bridge support was still holding the engine up a good amount, so that may have contributed to the alignment issue. I simply lowered the engine and then checked the top studs to find them both securely in the holes in the supports and ready to accept the flange nuts.

Installing the top nuts turned out to be a bit more difficult but still manageable with a handy tool – a 1/2" drive SK swivel ratchet I originally bought to R&R the inner lower control arm ball joints. I don't know how I could have done this job without it. At $50 it wasn't exactly inexpensive when I bought it several years ago but today it paid for itself in spades. I did not torque the top or bottom flange nuts on the engine mounts because there was no way to use a torque wrench there. I simply tightened them until they firmed up, and they did so suddenly so there wasn't any guess work involved.

By the end of the work session the engine was once again resting comfortably on the mounts, the subframe was supporting the weight of the engine, and the engine bridge support was removed from the car for the first time in several weeks. Although I still have to deal with the steering column I think it's safe to say I've crossed the half-way mark in this project and that feels good.

Before I left the garage for the day I had one other small job to do: drill out the broken stud that is used to fasten the brake wear sensor junction box to the car. I figured I'd use an AVK stud insert to replace the welded stud but as the studs come in different grip ranges I needed to know how thick the metal was in this case. After breaking two drill bits in my set I finally broke through the metal and realized the metal was only 1-2mm thick. That was the good news. The bad news is I found another piece of metal about 3/8" behind that, and that may be the deal breaker insofar as using an insert is concerned as even the smallest inserts are 9 or 10mm deep in compressed form. I may wind up simply drilling and tapping the hole.


Mileage: 222600, Labor: $340, Parts: $175

Saturday, June 24, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 9

I started the day by attacking the fracture bolts with my Dremel equipped with a reinforced cutting disc. I exclusively use reinforced discs now because they tend not to break and throw shards in all directions when subjected to certain loads and I have found they wear a lot longer in general. After several minutes of cutting each bolt the Dremel was quite hot to the touch and I had managed to put deep slots in each head. Unfortunately, no matter what I did I could not budge either one of those bolts with a large screwdriver and I have blisters on my hands to prove it -- they are simply torqued too tightly. I even tried to use an old screwdriver as a chisel of sorts and use the "chisel method". No dice. They still would not budge in the slightest.

Right now I'm at a loss and don't know exactly what I'm going to do to get these bolts out, but they're coming out one way or another, even if I have to break out my air powered die grinder with a cutting disc and hack the heads completely off. At least then the column will be out of the car and I'll have a bit more room to work on removing the studs that will be left behind. Before I resort to such drastic measures, however, I may try an impact screwdriver first. I've seen them work miracles in the garages of friends so why not here, right? Think positive thoughts. I thank you.

Frustrated with my experience with the fracture bolts I decided to switch gears and install the control arm bushings onto the control arms, mount the control arms to the vehicle and install both the kingpins and struts to tie everything together.

409 turned out to be a reasonable installation lubricant for the bushings, though I still had to apply a good amount of force to the bushing as I simultaneously twisted it back and forth and pushed it down with the arm standing on end. In retrospect I think this is easier with the M bushings since the core of the bushing tends to move less than the highly webbed sport or stock versions. So if you're looking for an excuse to install M-bushings next time, there it is.

I've read that some people seem to have alignment issues with the lollypops when installing new arms but I did not find that to be the case. As I inserted the inner balljoint stem of the control arm into the subframe I found the lollypop mated perfectly with the alignment dowels in the body structure. Fastening the control arm to the vehicle was then a simple matter of inserting the two lollypop bolts (with washers) into the body structure and threading the 21mm locking nut onto the inner ball joint stem. I then repeated this process for the other side.

Next, I had to correctly identify the left and right struts, place the M shock tower reinforcement plate on top of the guide supports and then install the paper sealing gasket on top of those before heaving the assemblies up into the shock towers and hand tightening the three retaining nuts on each side. I took note at this time that BMW had the foresight to avoid applying the thick and irregular underbody coating to an area at the top of the shock tower corresponding to the outer diameter of the M reinforcements, so the reinforcement plates fit tightly to the shock towers, exactly as required, even on this non-M car.

With the control arms and struts installed the only thing left to do was install the kingpins and temporarily install all the hardware to tie everything together. At this point I discovered that I am missing the nuts used to fasten what BMW refers to as the "fit bolt" -- one of three fasteners that tie the strut to the kingpin -- so I decided to call it quits for the day. Naturally, I'm planning to order a couple of those this week and apply final torque to everything next weekend.

I've completely lost track of time on this project but I think I spent 2-3 hours today getting to this point including time needed to confirm part numbers and placement of selected parts like the washers on the fit bolts you can see in the pictures and video if you look carefully enough. Next weekend I'll pick up where I left off, sacrifice a couple goats to the fracture bolt Gods, and then install the brake shields, wheel bearings and brakes.


Mileage: 222600

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 10

This morning I stopped at Eppys to pick up a small set of cold chisels and a manual impact screwdriver (total: $60) to aid in my assault on the fracture bolts. I then stopped by the dealer to pick up a few odds and ends I ordered last week. When the receptionist smiled and feigned disappointment in me for spending less than $100 I realized I might be spending too much time and money there lately. Fortunately, I think it's safe to say I'm largely done buying parts for this project and I shouldn't need to make too many more trips to the dealership...that is until I start the "lower interior overhaul" project I have planned for later this year.

When I arrived at the garage I once again tried to attack the fracture bolts, this time armed with my new impact screwdriver. The good news is the tool worked as exactly as it should, but the bad news is it still failed to remove the bolts. I'm now planning to follow the advice of reader Brian, who kindly provided photos and a great description of the technique he used to remove the bolts. According to his technique I've done half the work already by cutting the slots deep into the heads. Now I simply need to cut half of the head off, continue cutting slightly into the other side of the head, and finish up with a chisel to break off the other half of the head. That should allow me to pull the column and then unscrew the remaining studs. I decided against continuing with this today since it was way too hot in the garage and doubly so in the car with little air circulation.

Incidentally, I received the high strength M8 bolts from McMaster-Carr that I plan to use to replace the fracture bolts, but I bought OE fracture bolts as well to serve as a means of comparison. More on this topic when I finally get the column out of the car.

With the fit bolt nuts in hand I decided to install those nuts and torque all the fasteners on the front end to spec. Here's a list of the torque specs and some comments:

Before I installed the brake shields I decided to test fit the ABS sensors in the kingpin bores. Neither sensor fit particularly well (what a frickin' surprise) so I installed a sanding drum in the Dremel and cleaned up the bores, after which the sensors fit cleanly and easily. I plan to apply a thin film of grease to the bores to help prevent the sensors from bonding too tightly with the kingpins. I decided against installing the sensors for now because I knew they would just get in the way.

In preparation for installation of the wheel bearings I installed the bearing dust shields, which must be press-fit to the stub axle. I tried to press the shields on by hand but quickly realized that wasn't going to work. As I walked around looking for what might pass as a drift the dusty five watt light bulb illuminated over my head as I passed a pile of old PVC electrical conduit. I found a piece of 2" schedule 40 conduit that matched the diameter of the shield nicely so I used that to install the shields on the car in only a couple minutes' time. Check out the video for the technique.

With the dust shields in place I finally got to use the BMW special tool I acquired many years ago to install the wheel bearings. As it turned out the fit between the left side stub axle fit and bearing was very tight so the tool was clearly needed in this case. I used the tool on the right side but the fit was loose enough that I was able to hand tighten the tool's nut to press the bearing to the shaft. All in all the tool made a potentially difficult task very easy, which is typical of most BMW special tools. Check out the full video explanation of how the tool works.

Next up is installation of the brakes and repair of the steering column. Once the column has been reinstalled I'll finish up by assembling the steering system, bleeding the brakes, and taking it out for a test drive.


Mileage: 222600, Parts: $43

Monday, July 2, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 11

Today I spent several hours at the garage repairing the broken sensor junction box stud, installing the brakes, brake wear sensor, ABS speed sensors, ATF reservoir bracket and bonding strap. Short of bleeding the brakes I've now completed everything I can do before removing, repairing, and reinstalling the steering column.

I decided to address the failed junction box mounting stud by drilling and tapping for the same M6x1 button-head screw I used to fasten the heat shield to the engine support. The screws came from McMaster-Carr in a package of 50 and I knew I'd be limited to about a 10 mm depth in any case, so why not kill two birds with one stone, right?

To prevent breaking my only 13/64 drill bit I dipped the tip of the bit in some ATF and began drilling very slowly (perhaps 1-2 RPM). That worked like a charm. I then opened up my new metric tap set and tapped for M6x1 threads. To avoid the nightmare that would result from breaking the tap off in the hole I dipped the tap in some ATF and slowly spun the tap into the hole by hand, reversing periodically when I felt resistance. When the tap started to spin freely I backed it out and then installed the M6 screw. The result was about as perfect as could be and looked almost "factory". For a brief moment I considered how much better it would look if I broke off the other stud and repeated the process but I quickly came to my senses, installed the junction box and moved on to the next task.

With the junction boxes installed on both sides I decided to install the small plastic wire management clips on the studs welded to each strut, connect the speed sensors and brake wear sensor and then route the wires accordingly. It was at this point that I (finally) noticed an easy way to tell the struts apart without going to the ETK. The metal plate welded to each strut is not identical as I previously assumed -- it has three holes on the left side and two holes on the right to accommodate the lack of a brake wear sensor on the right side.

Next, I applied anti-seize to the face of the hubs and installed the new brake rotors. As usual I also applied a bit of anti-seize to the rotor retaining screws and then secured each rotor to its hub. One point of interest: the latest batch of BMW OE rotors now comes covered in a silver paint that is intended to prevent rust. The paint is designed to wear off the face of the rotors naturally during the break-in process so it does not need to be removed. After mating the caliper brackets to the kingpins I torqued the new bolts to 81 ft*lbs, applied Plastilube grease to all the usual areas and installed the pads and calipers. I cleaned and installed the caliper guide pins before torquing them to 22 ft*lbs. And thanks to the tech who applied the silicone lube to the guide bushings the pins slid into the bushings far more easily than they have in the past. Last but not least, I completed the brake installation by installing new zinc-plated pad retaining clips.

While installing the brakes I noticed the natural tendency of the struts to rotate aft because of the caster angle of the struts and extra weight of the calipers so I scrounged up a bungie cord and tied the kingpins together via the tie rod mounts. I found this superior to a piece of wire because it stretched enough to let me rotate the struts as required to work on them but prevented them from flopping around.

To install the speed sensors I opened up a new jar of Redline CV-2 grease and applied a thin film to both the bore and the mating surface of each sensor. Now paranoid of the mounting bolts I put the wave washer on the bolts and then applied a bit of anti-seize to the threads before inserting the sensors and carefully threading the mounting bolts into the kingpins. I found that the bolts didn't really want to thread into the kingpins easily so I "rocked" them (alternately tightened and loosened) several times before sending them home. There is an official torque spec for these bolts but as I know full well the relatively light torque required to break these bolts I decided to play it safe and do it by feel.

I then degreased and mounted the ATF reservoir bracket to the engine mount. While doing this I noticed that one of the larger coolant lines was rubbing against one of the edges of the bracket so I cut off a piece of clear tubing I used to create my brake bleeding bottle, routed a ty-wrap through the tubing, and then wrapped it around the coolant line before securing the ty-wrap to a nearby structure to pull the coolant line away from the bracket. I used the tubing because the small ty-wrap could, under the proper conditions, act just as effectively as a sharp metal structure to cut through the coolant line. I'm not exactly sure why this interference problem exists but my experience in working on airplanes is to protect critical stuff like this BEFORE it becomes a problem.

Lastly, I installed the electrical grounding / bonding strap between the frame and engine support. I had intended to buy new OE hardware for this application but the parts guys couldn't find the bonding strap or the associated hardware in the ETK. Since I had just taken delivery of a bunch of M8x1.25 thread bolts intended to replace the fracture bolts I grabbed one of the M8x15 bolts, a spare M8 metal locking nut and used those to finish up this task.

I'm taking the next day off from the project to relax a bit (I'm supposed to be on vacation, after all), but will be back in the garage on Wednesday to get that f*@!$!#! steering column out of the car. Unfortunately we're in a heat wave and the forecast is for 97 degrees, but I'll do what I can before I melt. My kingdom for an air-conditioned garage.

Mileage: 222600

Wednesday July 4, 2012

ActiveE Undressed

Yesterday on my "day off" from the overhaul I stopped by the dealer to get some parts and find my technician to ask a few questions related to the steering column. I found him working on a generic 3 series, but knowing my interest in all things technical he directed my attention to the brand new ActiveE up on the adjacent lift with its powertrain removed from the rear of the car. Apparently BMW forgot to install some kind of seal during manufacturing so they were charged with the task to fix that omission.

The first thing that struck me was how modular they had made the car -- to the point that they only had to disconnect some large electrical connectors and remove four large bolts connecting the subframe to the body to drop the entire rear out of the car. My technician pointed out how BMW basically chopped the center out of a traditional 1 series rear subframe and mounted the surprisingly small reduction drive and 170 HP electric motor where the differential would traditionally be. Forward of that was a large, transverse-mounted, water cooled battery enclosure containing nearly 200 cells. Positioned longitudinally in place of the traditional driveshaft was another battery bank and forward of that was a third battery bank positioned where the gas engine would normally be installed.

So what do all of these battery banks get the driver? Between 60-100 miles of range. And that's it. Unlike a Prius, there is no gasoline backup or smaller "range extender" engine that is used to charge the batteries. If you run out of battery power you're calling a tow truck. My technician was quick to point out that while debugging a charging issue he took one of these cars out for an extended trip and the vehicle returned better range than expected due to all the regenerative braking and use of the Eco mode. He also pointed out that while the car has its limitations BMW is working to add elevation data to its navigation systems so the car can better calculate the range the owner will see in real life. For example, the car might help you avoid a "lossy" route like climbing a hill, or perhaps takes the hill into account, knowing that you will recover some range when you leverage regenerative braking on the way down.

As the ActiveE cars are only available for a two year lease it's pretty obvious that this is a beta test for technology that will be integrated with future vehicles. My technician says we'll soon see hybrid vehicles in the BMW lineup equipped with all electric drivetrains and "range extender" gasoline engines that are used only to charge the batteries. While the eco-nazis will pry the keys to my high performance gasoline-burning BMWs from my cold dead hands, I do see a place for all electric vehicles in the life of the average commuter. Whether the general public will accept a car that prioritizes heating of the battery banks over heating of the driver on cold winter mornings, however, remains to be seen.

To balance out all the new technology, on my way out my technician pointed me toward a 1981 E21 that had come in for some fuel injection work. He recommended I take a look under the car because it was something to behold...and he was right. The entire underbody looked like it had just rolled off the showroom floor. I left the dealership secure in the knowledge that other people obsess about their cars as I do. I am not alone. :)

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 12

I got a late start today but it didn't really matter. By the time I got up the temperature was already in the upper 80's and by Noon it was comfortably in the 90's with high humidity. I wasn't looking forward to going to the garage today but I knew the steering column wouldn't remove itself. I decided to break the ice today by washing the E46 and applying another coat of Menzerna sealant.

A discussion with my technician yesterday revealed that he uses the chisel technique exclusively to remove fracture bolts. He told me to position the chisel on the sloped portion of the head and then pound on the chisel until a groove has formed. Then, turn the chisel 90 degrees and stick the corner of the chisel into the groove about two-thirds of the way down the head (closer to the washer) before hitting the chisel once again to create a notch in the groove. After a few good hits he suggested the bolt would loosen up noticeably and I'd be home free. As it turned out, that's the technique I used and it played out exactly as my technician indicated. Before I extricated myself from the driver's side footwell I did my part for humanity and took a video demonstrating the technique.

With the steering column out of the car I found the lower portion of the steering shaft was covered in gunk, rusted, and in generally poor shape. To begin the disassembly required to gain access to the bearing I realized I had to pull off the retaining clip that was hugging a groove machined into the steering shaft. I used a screwdriver and hammer to apply some persuasion to the ring partially enclosing the retaining clip to move it up the shaft (toward the steering wheel). That exposed the retaining clip and allowed me to remove it with a pick.

When I tried to remove the ring from the shaft it bound just beyond the retaining clip groove but additional work with the hammer and chisel got the job done. With the ring removed I easily pulled the loose-fitting spring and bearing shield off the shaft. All that remained at this point was the bearing. I tried at first to remove it with prejudice but that did little more than dent the bearing shell. As I pulled the steering shaft toward the bottom of the column I felt it hit something. I instinctively pushed the shaft back up the column and then pulled it back down quickly and watched closely. I saw the gap between the steering column tube and bearing shell increase a bit so I repeated the process several times until the bearing came free of the steering column tube.

When I pulled the shaft a bit farther out of the column it became clear why the technique worked -- the shaft increases in diameter a few inches above the point at which the bearing normally rides and I had effectively used that as a drift to push out the bearing. Aside from being pretty weak on grease I found the old bearing to be in relatively good shape for its age.

Before I could install the new parts I knew I had to clean up the shaft. After working for several minutes with dry scotchbrite and achieving questionable results I decided to fire up the compressor and put my die grinder on the job. Because I knew I could do serious damage to the shaft using this method I regulated the pressure down to about 60 PSI (normal operating pressure is 90 PSI) and gingerly applied the trigger as required to keep the RPM as low as practical. That eliminated most of the visible rust but still produced lots of unsightly scuff marks so I decided to apply some PB blaster to the shaft and then use the scotchbrite pad to eliminate those marks. That worked like a charm and produced a brilliantly clean steering shaft worthy of return to the vehicle.

As I gathered the new parts prior to installation I took a close look at the new bearing and noticed it seemed to be a little weak on grease so I grabbed my jar of CV-2 and packed a bit more grease into the small gap between the inner and outer races. I also put a thin film of grease on the steering shaft where the inner race of the bearing rides, just in case a stubborn bearing in combination with a dry shaft contributed to the squeak. I then applied the bearing shield, spring, ring, and retaining clip to complete the assembly.

Next, I decided to use the chisel method to remove the fracture bolts on the lock housing. After a few minutes of work on each bolt I had them out of the housing and the housing removed from the steering column. I bought M8x1.25x16 hex head bolts to replace the fracture bolts but upon inserting the new bolts into the holes I realized they would not work due to insufficient clearance between the points on the head and the adjacent steering column structure. I will need to acquire socket cap head bolts (allen heads) to complete this task.

Before I left the garage for the day I decided to remove the old fuel filter cover in order to bring the old fasteners to the parts department for inspection, as they were unable to locate all of the parts via the parts book. I'm hoping they'll have something in stock I can use. If not, we'll have to go on a wild goose chase or I'll simply need to restore and reuse the old fasteners. With the old fuel filter cover removed I noticed a piece of foam insulation attached to the inside front of the cover that appears to protect the fuel lines as they transition into the space protected by the cover. It was pretty beat up and the adhesive was long past its prime. Amazingly, I found its part number so I plan to order that tomorrow. I also found heat damage on one of the vacuum lines leading to the fuel pressure regulator so I'll be ordering a length of that line as well.

If everything goes as planned, I should have the car back in one piece by the end of the weekend, which means I can schedule the alignment with Don for next week and finally return the car to service.


Mileage: 222600

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 13

Yesterday I ordered new socket cap head bolts for the lock housing from McMaster-Carr and expect them to arrive tomorrow. Since I knew I didn't need the lock housing installed on the column to install the column in the car and the column was holding up installation of the steering shaft, rack, and tierods, I decided to reinstall the column as is today.

To break the ice I started with something simple: I decided to tap the hole in the lock housing required to accept the screw that fastens the wiring loom support. Using the thread pitch gauge in combination with the taps I determined the thread was the familiar M6x1.0 so I once again dipped the tap in some spare ATF and created the necessary threads in under a minute. Practice makes perfect, as they say.

With that out of the way I installed the steering column and hand tightened the M8x1.25x25 bolts that I backed up with a couple cad-steel washers I had on hand. Before getting out of the car I rotated the steering shaft until the dimple in the face of the shaft used for steering wheel alignment was at the 12 o'clock position. I then attached the collapsible steering shaft U-joint to the column shaft such that the retaining bolt could be installed vertically as it was when I disassembled it. Since I was using new, non-corroded hardware the bolt slipped into the hole with ease. I held a 13mm box end wrench on the bottom nut while I used a ratchet with about 15" worth of extensions to snug the bolt. It sounds a little kludgy, but it actually made this a lot easier than cramming the ratchet down close to the head of the bolt as I did when I disassembled it. Live and learn.

The next natural step was to install the rack in the subframe. I inserted and then hand tightened the right side bolt and nut. I did not install the left side bolt at this point so I could pivot the left side of the rack in and out of the subframe as required to mate the rack's splined shaft with the isolation joint. Because the isolation joint was new and I took the time to clean up the splines on both the rack and the collapsible steering shaft all the components assembled with surprising ease.

A couple notes about the isolation joint. First, while it looks like the part is more or less symmetrical it can, in fact, only be installed one way. This became obvious as I attempted to insert one of the bolts and it wouldn't fit. Second, while the part can technically be installed on any available splines I made a point to position it such that I could gain access to the nut and bolt on the top and bottom of the part with the tools on hand. The part resides in close quarters so this must be taken into consideration.

I then decided to match the length of the new tierods to the old. For that task I aligned two three-foot pieces of aluminum angle parallel to each other separated by a distance equivalent to the length of the old tierod. I then placed the new tierod about 6-10 inches away from the old and "squeezed" the two pieces of angle up against the tierods. I then used a tape measure to check the distance between the ends of each angle. When both were identical, I assumed the tierods were matched in length. I'm not sure if there is an easier/better way to accomplish this, but my technique seemed to work.

All this turned out to be for naught, however, when I installed the tierods, centered the rack using the TMS special tool and stepped back to take a good look at the result. I found both rotors canted to the left by an obviously unacceptable amount. The rack centering tool can be installed in two ways so I double-checked that it was installed properly. I stopped to think a bit and even called Turner. Their tech staff were occupied with other tasks so they took my information and I went back to thinking. I eventually surmised that the only way this could happen is if the rack had been off-center since it was replaced at 90K miles and both tierods had been adjusted during the subsequent alignment(s) to accommodate that error.

According to Turner's literature, the entire point of the tool is to ensure the rack is centered, because an off-center rack can exacerbate bump steer. I wasn't about to perpetuate this condition so I decided to adjust the tierods by eye, using, among other references, the number of exposed threads on the tierod adjustment to keep the toe consistent from side to side. Note that this technique does not give me any precision whatsoever with respect to toe-in or out...just that the toe is approximately equal side to side, and for the short trip to the alignment shop I think that's all that matters.

When I had everything together I torqued the rack bolts to 41 ft*lbs and tightened the 32 mm inner and 17 mm outer nuts by hand. As usual, I had to use the floor jack to press the tapered shaft into the kingpin so the shaft wouldn't rotate while I snugged the metal locking nut.

When I called the parts desk earlier today to order the fuel hose, vacuum hose, and foam piece required to clean up the fuel filter area they told me that the vacuum hose and foam needed to come from Germany, which means about a two week delivery time. So rather than wait for those parts I decided to install the new cover now and tackle the refurb when the parts come in. Despite this setback it still looks a hell of a lot better than the original, which will be sent to its timely death at my local metal recycler. Incidentally, I cleaned up and sprayed the "flat nuts" with semi-gloss black I had on hand. As for the other screws it turns out they are the same used to fasten the fender liners to the car and I had one extra of those so I put it into service here. The other fastener, as well as the plastic blind nuts they screw into are original and I intend to replace them when the time comes.

All that remains is to bleed the brakes, install the lock housing / tumbler, steering wheel and related electrics, double-check all my fasteners, and then throw the wheels on and go for a test drive.

Mileage: 222600

Friday, July 6, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 14

The day started out on a sour note. I had tracked the package from McMaster-Carr containing the socket cap head bolts required to secure the lock housing and had fully expected delivery today when the tracking data said “on truck for delivery”. In fact that was not the case. UPS screwed up and left the package behind at the sorting facility. I asked them to deliver it to make good on their error and of course they refused. It will now be delivered Monday, which means I'll have to wait until next weekend to install the housing.

I began today's work session by bleeding the brakes. I expected a lot of technical challenges here but it turned out much like a routine flush. Running only 5 PSI in the bleeder and watching the level in the reservoir like a hawk I opened the bleeder screw on the right side caliper (farthest away from the reservoir in this case) and saw some spurts of air/fluid before it quickly changed to all fluid. While the old fluid drained into my collection bottle I hit the caliper with a dead blow hammer. I saw one 1/8” size bubble and a couple smaller bubbles exit the bleeder screw into the tubing but not much else. I let it run for a couple minutes and then closed the bleeder screw.

After the fluid appeared in the bleeder line on the left side I saw no additional bubbles for as long as I hit the caliper. When done I anxiously hopped in the car and depressed the brake pedal, which was naturally a little squishy at first given that the pistons hadn't yet expanded to push the pads into the rotors. I pressed the pedal about four times before the brakes firmed up very nicely. Several additional presses resulted in consistent pressure (no pedal sag) so the good news is the vacuum caps I installed on the brake lines appeared to have done their job and the brakes are ready for the test drive.

After cleaning up from the brake bleed I decided to install the new power steering fluid reservoir, secure it to the mount and attach the hoses. Incidentally, I noticed that the new reservoir cap is imprinted with the label "CHF11S only". That's obviously an example of inventory control on the part of BMW as all the new cars share this reservoir and require that $30/quart fluid. I did not receive the “ATF Only” adhesive label that was supposed to be supplied with the reservoir for my application so I decided to clean up the old cap and reuse it for now. I ultimately plan to replace this cap with the magnetized cap Jim donated some time ago. Jim also donated four stainless steel rotor retaining screws sold by ECS Tuning this week. They came too late to be installed but I'll be ready for the next four wheel brake job in about 30K miles...and based on the way I drive that won't be long in calendar time. Thanks again Jim!

I was about to start filling the power steering system while I had the front end in the air and could temporarily attach the steering wheel to cycle the rack but after a search of my parts bins I realized the sealing rings I had on hand were for the differential and vanos oil line rather than the banjo fitting on the power steering pump so I realized I'd have to order those and postpone that work. I went in search of the parts required to install the swaybar and X-brace but found I am apparently short the nuts required to attach the swaybar to the endlink so I'll have to buy those tomorrow. If they don't have them in stock, that work will have to be postponed as well.

I decided to give the tierod adjustment one more look before I snugged down the adjustment nuts. I also used a hammer to knock down the edge of the tierod locking rings and then pulled the boots into their proper locations. I did not secure the boots yet because I plan to use the rack centering tool during the alignment process and that requires access to the area covered by the boots.

Determined to get something of value done today I applied some anti-seize to the face of the rotor hats, installed the wheels without the center caps and then used the floor jack to bring the front end down to the ground for the first time in almost six weeks. The wheel gap is predictably gargantuan (about 1.5” above where it should be) but I expect that to come down after the springs settle. The camber is also noticeably positive but that routinely occurs as a consequence of jacking in general and I expect the wheels to spread out after I move the car just a few feet.

With the wheels firmly on the ground the last job of the day was to torque the axle nuts to the highest torque on the car – 214 ft*lbs. It took a lot longer than usual to wind up my largest torque wrench to achieve that setting but it took only a few moments on either side to hear a reassuring “click”. Due to a lack of clearance (and the risk of damaging the wheels if I slip), I knew I would have to remove the wheels to stake the axle nuts but I decided to leave the car on the ground for now and bask in the glow of a long-awaited milestone.

Tomorrow is expected to hit 100 degrees with high humidity and that's too oppressive for work of any kind so I'm taking the day off. I'll be back in the garage on Sunday to wrap up what I can with the parts on hand.

Mileage: 222600

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 15

The parts department had the swaybar to endlink nuts in stock so I picked those up yesterday. They did not have the power steering pump banjo fitting sealing rings so I ordered them.

While attempting to install the engine driven fan and top radiator cover on Friday I noticed that the plastic rivets that hold the two layers of the part together had failed on one side. This meant the part was not really sealing well enough to direct the proper ram airflow to the alternator. To solve this I ordered a new radiator cover as well as new blind nuts and fasteners for it.

I also noticed that I had apparently broken one of the mounts used to secure the end of the blue hardline used for fuel vapor recovery. I could not locate anything resembling that part in ETK and the part itself had no partial part number or other identifiable information printed on it so I decided to work up an alternate solution involving a BMW rubber isolation mount and an adel clamp. More on that when I install it.

Today I spent a couple hours at the garage doing what I could do with the parts on hand and installed the swaybar and X-brace. I even managed to pull the wheels, stake the axle nuts, and use the same piece of 2" PVC I used as a drift to press on the wheel bearing shields to press in the wheel bearing caps before installing the wheels and putting the car back on the ground.

You know you've been running a BMW website for a long time when you begin to reference your own on DIY articles, and I did exactly that when installing the swaybar. I made a point to remember to align the flats on the endlink ball joint before torquing it and all the other fasteners to spec and applying a bit of torque seal.

I had what some might think is an irrational fear that the holes on the front of the X-brace wouldn't perfectly line up with one or more nutserts in the subframe and for a moment I did struggle with one of the bolts, but I ultimately determined that was due to thread contamination rather than alignment. The recommended torque value for the AVK M8 inserts is 15.5 ft*lbs but I decided to torque to an even 15 ft*lbs and that's close enough. Research online indicated that the maximum torque before nutsert failure is about twice that value so 15 ft*lbs is quite conservative. The rear M10 bolts were torqued to an even 50 ft*lbs before I applied torque seal to both front and rear fasteners.

Incidentally, at least one X-brace DIY suggested using blue loctite on those fasteners. I did not want to risk tearing out the nutserts later so I did not apply any loctite. For this reason I plan to watch the torque seal on these fasteners particularly closely to ensure the bolts don't walk. If they do, I'll apply loctite at that time.

Next weekend I'll install the power steering system, new lock housing and tumbler, electrics and steering wheel. Then to wrap up the project I'll do the test drive and schedule the alignment with Don for the following week. Till then...

Mileage: 222600, Parts: $8

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 16

Yesterday I picked up a bunch of parts including the power steering system sealing rings and radiator cover. I also received the new vacuum and fuel line I expect to install those when I replace the fuel filter. The fuel line, incidentally, came in a three foot length for the ridiculous price of $40. I mean, come on, BMW. This is not carrying oxidizer to the turbopumps if you know what I mean. It's fucking low pressure fuel line. I know it's high quality stuff that lasts damn near forever but either BMW needs to get a program or I need to find another source for this stuff. The upside, I suppose, is that three feet will be enough to replace the smaller segments on either side of the fuel filter and then some.

When I arrived at the garage today it was unbearably hot and humid. I almost said "screw this" and headed back to the air conditioning but I was motivated to finish up the car today so I sucked it up and got to work. I began by installing a ty-wrap to secure the fuel and vacuum lines as they enter the front of the fuel filter cover. If you're wondering why I chose not to replace the filter, vacuum and fuel lines at this point, it came down to a simple matter of priorities. They're not required to test drive the car. I'll do that work eventually.

With that done I installed the new radiator cover. I had to install new blind nuts because someone who worked on the car at one point (likely one of the body shops following one of my deer hits) used the wrong screws. The clue was the fact that they had body color paint on them. I looked around the front end and found some screws missing from the radiator supports. These larger screws stretched the blind nuts so they would no longer accept the proper screws for this application. Strictly speaking I didn't have to replace the two tinnerman clips but the originals had seen better days and I had extras from the fender liner installation so I put them to good use. The new zinc-plated screws I installed to wrap up this task were, incidentally, the same part number used to secure the fender liners. While I'm happy with the overall installation, I definitely have to find another solution to the plastic rivets on the far left and right side because they're a pain in the ass to remove.

Since I received the sealing washers for the power steering system I placed a ring on either side of the banjo fitting, inserted the hollow bolt, mounted it to the pump and torqued it by feel before filling the ATF reservoir with new fluid. The system took only a small fraction of the total required because the pump needs to run in order to push the fluid through the rack but that will happen soon enough after the engine awakens from its deep slumber.

If you recall I managed to break the cheap plastic mount used to secure the fuel vapor recovery line (the blue hardline) to the side of the body just prior to point at which it connects via a flexible rubber hose to the purge valve. I knew from some research that the body nuts would accept the threaded stud of a rubber isolation mount (the same part number, incidentally, used to mount the airbox) so I bought that mount. I screwed it into the body nut, wrapped the fuel vapor line with a 1/2" Adel clamp and then secured it with a stainless steel lock washer and nut I found in my spare parts box. This mount secures the line in such a way that it does not rub against any nearby structures, and for a completely off-the-cuff solution I'm very happy with the result.

Once I completed the fuel line mount I reinstalled the airbox and got to work on the steering column. As you may recall I temporarily installed the M8x1.25x25 flange head bolts so I pulled them out individually, put a drop of blue loctite about half way up the threads and then torqued them to 10 ft*lbs. Of course there is no published torque spec for the fracture bolts but 10 ft*lbs seemed appropriate given the effort required to remove them.

I then mated the lock housing to the column and secured it with the new M8x1.25x16 socket cap head bolts obtained from McMaster-Carr. A lack of clearance between the top of the bolts and the dashboard prevented the use of a ratchet, or a torque wrench for that matter, so I used an allen key to tighten the bolts to an estimated 5 ft*lbs. As the bolts firmed up nicely I'm confident they won't loosen up, even at this light torque, so I did not use any loctite.

I thought I'd attempt to install the new ignition switch at this point but I quickly realized that the switch must be keyed with the shaft driven by the ignition key / tumbler so I knew I had to install the tumbler first. I must admit I fumbled with the tumbler for a few minutes before I got it to snap in place. I rotated the key "off", oriented the special tool access hole in the tumbler at the 12 o'clock position, pushed the tumbler into the lock housing and turned it clockwise until it locked into place. As I threaded the gear selector lockout cable into the housing I heard the steering shaft lock engage exactly as I expected.

With the tumbler now in place I was able to turn the key to rotate the shaft as required to install the new ignition switch. Once I saw the switch mated flush with the housing I installed the setscrews easily enough. I then reinstalled the EWS antenna on the ignition tumbler and ty-wrapped the wire bundles before turning the key on and off several times to hear the reassuring "click" of the ignition switch when in the "start" position. The new lock assembly feels great, if not a bit stiff, but that's to be expected, especially if I bother to compare it to parts with thousands of cycles on them.

Thinking I was home free I pressed in the upper steering column bearing into the lock housing, but quickly noticed something was not right: only roughly 1/2" of the steering shaft splines were exposed beyond the face of the bearing. The steering shaft was clearly recessed too far into the lock housing. When I tried to insert the steering wheel retaining bolt into the steering shaft and pull on it as I usually do to install the snap ring I found the shaft wouldn't budge. That was when it dawned on me: the steering shaft must be preloaded.

I reasoned that of the three points in the steering shaft where parts fit together (rack splines to isolation joint, isolation joint to collapsible shaft, and collapsible shaft to fixed steering shaft), the only joint that was designed to be adjustable is the isolation joint to collapsible shaft. So this meant I would need to loosen the associated bolt/nut, pull the steering shaft upward against spring pressure, and then tighten the joint before releasing that pressure.

Try as I might I knew it was not possible for me to be in two different places at the same time so I asked my brother for help. He pulled on the shaft until the spring fully compressed and then released just a bit, while I tightened the bolt/nut. When I told him to release the shaft I noticed the rubber in the isolation joint flex a bit and also recognized I could now see a good 1/2-3/4" of splines exposed on the collapsible shaft -- exactly as I now realized it appeared originally. If you look back at the pictures I took last week of the new isolation joint installed you'll note that no splines are showing. For the record, that's wrong.

Although I could have attempted to wrestle with the snap ring at this point I decided to call it quits for the day in large part due to my waning patience, but also because I wanted to try a different technique to install the snap ring brought to my attention by a reader. More about that next time.

So while it appears the E46 will get another week of exercise, once the snap ring is installed I estimate I'm no more than an hour away from the test drive. I'll wrap up the project by installing the fuel filter and related new parts, flushing the rear brakes so I can count this as an "official" brake flush, and completing a routine oil service.

Mileage: 222600

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Day 17

I began the day by using a new technique to install the snap ring at the top of the steering column. Traditionally this is an annoying, trial and error process because the steering shaft must be pulled against spring pressure while the snap ring is maneuvered into place. As luck would have it, a reader suggested a way to simplify this process: use a 1.5" long piece of 3/4" schedule 20 PVC as a drift in combination with the steering wheel retaining bolt to press the c-clip into position. The reader was nice enough to offer to send me a piece of pipe but I figured I could find what I needed at the local home center or plumbing supply store. As it turned out Schedule 20 PVC is no longer stocked anywhere.

Never one to give up, I grabbed some spare Schedule 40 electrical conduit and used the Dremel equipped with a sanding drum to sand the inside of the pipe down as required to fit over the splined shaft. I installed the makeshift drift onto the splined shaft, threaded the steering wheel retaining bolt into the steering shaft and then used a ratchet to tighten the bolt until I witnessed the pipe stretch as required to push the snap ring into the groove -- exactly as expected. Thanks for the idea Brian!

After this I reinstalled the steering column covers, steering wheel, airbag, footwell crash protection panel and, lastly, the footwell cover there was nothing else to do but re-attach the battery terminal for the first time in nearly two months and witness the car come back to life. A quick check of the engine bay revealed no stray tools so I got back in the car and anxiously turned the key. Not surprisingly the seemed eager to get back to business as it fired instantly and only misfired a couple times before it settled into the characteristic smooth idle.

Before I set out on the test drive I checked the level in the power steering reservoir, which can be done without fear of spraying ATF everywhere, incidentally. The level was low enough to expose the filter so I filled it to the proper level and rechecked it before I got back in the car once again, put it into gear, and pulled it out of the garage. Looking over the hood as the car rolled the first few feet I could see the front-end slowly drop as expected. Always cautious, I ran the car back and forth in the driveway to test the steering and brakes before I took it out on my local residential test loop. Despite the alignment being out of whack and having to hold the wheel slightly to the left to get the car to go straight I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Although I didn't exceed about 35 MPH or do any aggressive turning, the test drive was enough to suggest that the front end is very well behaved and far tighter now. I can't wait to get the car aligned so I can do a full evaluation.

One thing I forgot to mention earlier: when I pulled the front tires off the car originally in prep for the overhaul I noticed what I considered to be above average wear on the inner portion of the tread. Since camber is more or less fixed I know this wear is not due to excessive camber. More likely, I think, is that the slop in the ball joints on both the control arms and tie rods caused excessive toe (not sure in what direction...perhaps both, which might explain the sloppiness at 80+ MPH). Indeed, the factory specifications for toe on most BMWs is excessively positive in my opinion, so when it comes time to align the car I plan to shoot for zero toe. That may make the car a bit more skittish at high speed but I think the improvement in tire wear will more than offset that potential downside.

When I returned from the two mile jaunt I put the car back in the garage for an inspection. When that revealed nothing of consequence I pulled all the wheels to complete the brake fluid flush and was pleasantly surprised to find the fluid, particularly that exiting the rear calipers, in remarkably good shape for its age. It certainly wasn't as dark as the fluid shown on my Brake Flush DIY. I'm not sure why. The TYP200 fluid may just be better / more resilient than the stuff BMW sells and the dealer technicians use.

I had plans to do an oil service, detail the interior and exterior, and clean up the garage as well today but I ran out of time so those items are on the agenda for tomorrow. Aside from the alignment, which I have scheduled with Don for this week, the front suspension overhaul project is a wrap. Thanks to everyone who wrote in over the last two months with well wishes and tips.

Mileage: 222602

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Front Suspension Overhaul - Alignment

I took the car to Don this morning for an alignment and got some interesting results. The caster is now identical side to side, which hints that the strut or strut mount was bent and replacement of those components fixed the problem. Toe is also exactly where I want it. However, the right side camber is now out farther out of spec at +0.12 degrees (yes, 0.12 degrees positive). Since the maximum camber is -0.35 degrees, this is nearly a half-degree out of spec. For comparison, check out the prior results.

Don and I discussed several possible solutions. He gave the stock camber bolts a big thumbs down and said they simply don't hold their setting reliably. No surprise, I said, given that they're not an eccentric bolt. I then volunteered shims, but changed my mind, thinking that they would require more trial and error than I cared to perform. The last choice was, predictably, camber plates.

Don held both TCKline and Vorshlag plates in high regard, though he said from his perspective as a mechanic the biggest problem with most camber plates is the fact that they tend to bind up after being installed for some time and are therefore hard to adjust after the initial installation. The one plate he has found to NOT exhibit this problem? Vorshlag. Like all plates based on spherical bearings, however, he admitted the Vorshlag plates will produce noise and vibration that may be noticeable, if not objectionable, on the street. Not really news to me, but good to hear it confirmed. Since I knew I was not in a position to solve this problem today we continued with the alignment.

When I asked Don to adjust the front end for zero toe he warned me knowingly, "You don't want that. Zero toe will cause the front end to wander all over the place. We do that for track cars, but you'll absolutely hate it on the street." When I hinted that excessive tire wear was the justification he rebutted "it's necessary to sacrifice some tire wear to produce the centering force." I relented, thinking that I just replaced the entire front end to avoid erratic handling at speed so I didn't want to intentionally produce that effect. In the end we settled for 0.11 degrees toe-in on each side (0.22 degrees total toe-in), or roughly half the prior amount and factory spec.

By the time he snugged up all the adjustment bolts to secure the car's new alignment settings and completed the short test drive nearly two hours had passed. I gave him $175 for a job well done and headed home.

After about 75 miles of stop and go, straight-line high speed, and sweeping high speed turns I can report a few things:

With the project complete I've put the E46 to bed once again and will return to the salt mine tomorrow with my old faithful E36.

Project Summary

This was clearly my largest and most complicated project to date. While the rear suspension overhaul was complex in its own right, in retrospect I view it largely as a grunt labor project. The front end overhaul, on the other hand, was more of an engineering effort. I had to carefully evaluate and select parts to achieve my goals, engineer proper solutions to fix unanticipated problems, and even make my own tools.

Adding to the challenge (and time) to finish the project was my first use of video to help tell the story. Because video is hard to shoot and edit I have long resisted using it but just I have posted pictures where they nicely substituted for the proverbial 1000 words, I decided to use video in cases where I felt it could replace 1000 pictures. All of the videos in this project were raw from the camera and that's because I couldn't justify the time to do it any other way.

My original parts estimate was $2500 but over the course of the last six months I bought $3500 in parts and supplies. I outsourced $750 in labor and bought roughly $400 in tools. I did not keep accurate time records but I estimate I spent a good 50-60 hours screwing around in the garage over the past two months. It's fair to say a pro would have taken less time to do this work but it's also fair to say few people, pros included, would have bothered to do many of the things I did. So I'll just call this 30 hours or $3000 labor saved.

The next major project will be the "lower" interior overhaul, which will involve replacement of the carpet and leather on the front seats and arm rest in the center console. I also plan to have the A and C pillars covered in matching leather since I was never able to find a suitable cloth replacement.


Mileage: 222675, Labor: $175 [Project Total Estimates: Parts: $3500, Labor: $750, Tools $400, Labor Saved: $3000]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Oil Service

Given that the car sat in the garage for almost two months I decided to do an oil service a bit earlier than originally planned but skipped the oil analysis this time. With a mere 3320 miles in service I found the oil in predictably good shape, visually speaking at least.

The only difference in procedure came when I had to re-insert the drain plug. With the car on ramps and the X-Brace installed I noticed there was a bit less room to swing my long torque wrench, but I managed to torque the plug to the usual 18 ft*lbs. Despite this fact I don't see any reason to remove the X-Brace to conduct an oil service. It would help, however, if the front end were higher off the ground, or (what a surprise), on a lift. I'm still dreaming about that. Maybe some day.

I drained the oil from my capture basin into one of my new waste containers and found that the spout fit with plenty of room to spare. The old containers restricted my ability to position the basin vertically so there was always some oil left in the basin but that is no longer an issue with the new containers. For this reason I expect to pick up a few more containers eventually.

Front Suspension Followup

I have always known that the front and rear suspensions are designed to work together as a system but I didn't quite expect to feel as big of a difference in the rear end handling since completing work on the front end.

A case in point: One particular turn I take every morning is an s-shaped offramp with a badly undulating road surface at the first apex. For as long as I can remember the car has had difficulty tracking that turn. More than once I've had to counter steer to keep the rear in check. The effect was quite a bit more dramatic prior to the rear suspension overhaul but that didn't fix it entirely because the spent front struts were still compressing too much and causing the inside rear tire to lift excessively. Now that the front end compression is controlled and the body twist is reduced (thank you X-brace!), the car remains flat through the turn and takes the road surface imperfections with frightening ease.

One thing is sure...I no longer have to slow down to take that first turn. This is what I meant when I suggested the E36 now performs a lot more like the E46. Overall, my time with the car over the last week has reminded me why I bought the car in the first place. It handles absolutely beautifully, with stock parts no less, and the project was worth every bead of sweat, curse, scrape, broken drill bit, and painful swipe of the credit card.

Seat Parts Research

I decided to acquire the replacement seat base and backrest foam padding for my driver's side sport seat today. While browsing realoem.com I raised an eyebrow when I noticed that the backrest part was labeled ENDED. That wasn't the case just a few months ago so I called the dealer's parts desk praying they might be able to find one of the last parts in inventory here or abroad. Unfortunately, they confirmed my fears. They did say the seat base was available so I asked them to order that....quickly. I called Tischer knowing full well they have access to the same inventory systems and sure enough they said the part was NLA as well.

A brief googling session revealed no aftermarket suppliers. I considered for a moment whether I could send the padding to a company well known in the aviation industry for producing high quality custom seat foam but then I realized that wouldn't work because any such foam would lack the metal attachment points that are molded into the foam to attach the seat covers as well as other embedded structural components.

Frustrated, I decided to call BMW NA and complain to a customer rep. I began by telling the rep I bought the car based in part on BMW's reputation for supporting their cars far longer than domestic manufacturers and said I believed BMW had failed to meet my expectations in this regard. I gave the rep the part number I needed and pointed out this was only the latest in a growing list of NLA parts I need to keep my vehicle in safe operating condition. I made it quite clear that the lack of parts would not make me junk the car and give BMW another fat check. Since money talks, I emphasized that I would be willing to pay a reasonable premium for the part and that I knew many others who would do the same -- all BMW has to do is make the part available.

Predictably, the rep promised nothing more than to bring the issue to the "executives and engineers" and tell them there is still demand for these parts, but my guess is I'll sooner manage to pull a large celestial body out of my ass before BMW comes through. My plan at this point involves acquiring a couple small blocks of good quality foam from my aviation supplier, excising the damaged area in the bolster, gluing a new piece in place, and shaping it accordingly. Guess we'll see how that works out. It's not like I have any choice.

Mileage: 223050 [Oil Service at 222905], Parts: $45, Labor Saved: $100

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Seat Foam Base Arrives

The seat base foam came in last weekend. At $105 it wasn't exactly cheap but a close look at it reveals a design that would be next to impossible to duplicate for less so I'm not exactly complaining. Modern 3D scanning and CAD technology could be used to reverse engineer these kinds of parts but the investment could only be justified in the context of a business and I have to wonder whether a market really exists for this stuff given the lack of aftermarket E30 seat foam. What have E30 owners done about this? I draw the line at dumpster diving or buying 15 year old foam on fleabay.

Some research revealed that Recaro offers a couple aftermarket seats similar in design to the vaders that would probably look right at home in the car, as well as a custom service in which they will finish a seat in any cloth or leather provided by the customer, but as you might surmise that's not exactly an inexpensive option. Think $5K+ for two front seats. While it's nice to know a quality aftermarket option exists, needless to say the price is enough to convince me to stick with my factory seats.

New Headunit

Over the course of the last six months I've been trying to put together a home A/V setup on the cheap by looking out for specials and pulling the trigger at the right time. Just this week, when I went looking for a low-end A/V receiver to tie all the components together, I decided to take advantage of a special at Crutchfield. While wrapping up that order I saw the DEH-80PRS advertised (though at $349, not on special) and decided to add it to the invoice.

The unit arrived this week and my preliminary inspection confirmed the reviews. The front panel is constructed of polished (and hence reflective) plastic, the "joggle" control is covered in faux chrome that stands out like a sore thumb, and all the buttons have a poor tactile response (including an annoying audible click) that makes the entire unit feel cheap.

On the other hand it's still the least gaudy of any aftermarket headunit I've seen recently, save for the $1200 P99RS, and the backlighting should indeed match the OE lighting nicely. The 80PRS has a built-in amplifier so its high level outputs can be connected directly to the OE amplifier if necessary though I'm still planning to use the low level outputs in combination with a pair of Arc Audio ALDs to drive the four channel SE 4100. The wiring between the headunit and trunk will be installed while I have the seats out for the lower interior overhaul.

Rear Vent Window Seals

Over the last couple of years the rear vent windows have developed a small leak near the Hoffmeister kink so I decided to do something about that before winter.

When I opened the windows to take a closer look I found the flexible rubber seal that sits between the window surface and the interior felt/rubber seal completely disintegrated. A quick check of the ETK found the part described merely as a "covering". Left and Right versions were only about $13 each so I considered myself lucky and ordered them. The exterior rubber trim piece that helps draw water away from the base of each window had long ago succumbed to elements and cracked in several places so since those were about the same price I picked up a set of those as well.

An inspection of the main rubber/felt seal that wraps around the vent window opening showed it to be in remarkably good shape and I believe that is largely due to the fact that the other rubber seal protected it from exposure. This means I won't need to replace the felt seals and that's a good thing, of course, since they aren't cheap.

The Problem of Overengineering

There's an old joke that will be familiar to engineers and computer scientists alike that describes how each group would design a toaster. I'll spare you the traditional telling but the punch line is that the engineer's toaster is simple and purpose built while the computer scientist's toaster is hideously complicated. The first lesson it teaches is the engineer's mantra: KISS (keep it simple, stupid). By extension, the second lesson it teaches is just because you can build something doesn't mean you should build it. I've made more than a few comments about how I think cars (and BMWs in particular) are being overengineered these days and this week I encountered two more examples supporting my opinion.

First, I read an account on bimmerforums in which a guy said his wife and kids were locked against their will in a BMW for almost 30 minutes with interior temperatures "reaching 150 degrees" until rescue crews came to break the window and release them. Apparently when they got in the car all the doors locked and both the door pulls and unlocking button would not work. The guy seemed to indicate that he thought it was due to an electrical problem since nothing else in the car worked, while others quoted a page right out of the manual which stated that this is normal vehicle function when the car is locked with the keyless remote.

Now, I'm sure BMW engineers had good intentions here, but I don't care what they were thinking: door pulls should ALWAYS be tied to the door locks via a mechanical linkage and should ALWAYS open the door for emergency exit. No electrical power or software should ever interfere with this safety function. Period, end of story. There was nothing wrong with the door locking system on any BMW made up to this point including the E36 and E46, so why did they fucking change it? I'll tell you why: because BMW has too much money and too many engineers on the payroll with nothing better to do than think of solutions to problems that don't exist. This is the very definition of overengineering.

I learned of the second example this week at the dealer while waiting to order some parts. One of the techs I see there regularly told me that several of the newest cars including the X3 have eliminated the mechanical emergency brake actuated with a lever in the center console and replaced it with an electronic, button-operated "parking brake". I learned during my rear suspension overhaul that I'm not particularly fond of drum brakes and those $@#!#$! return springs, but they serve an important purpose and their elimination has a couple dire implications:

I realize every generation eventually reaches an age where they look back on their lives and perhaps naively view the world in which they grew up as better than the present day, but taking that bias into account I believe vehicle engineering is going in the wrong direction. As manufacturers continue their quest to turn cars into black boxes only they can fix at considerable cost, I'm warming to the idea of restoring more older vehicles to satisfy my transportation needs.

Mileage: 223400, Parts: $450

Saturday, August 25, 2012

OBC Bulb Failure and A Peek Inside the OBC

During the last few months the backlighting on the main display of the OBC has occasionally failed to illuminate. When the malfunction occurs the text continues to change appropriately when I press the various buttons so I know the OBC is functioning and the problem is limited in scope to the display backlighting circuitry.

Bimmerforums is host to a long-running thread in which the author is developing a replacement processing core for the OBC. Since I figured he had a lot more experience with the circuitry of the OBC I explained what I was seeing and asked him for ideas. He pointed out that the displays connect to the PCBs via ribbon cables and suggested that one of these may be at fault.

I had absolutely no incentive to pull the unit during the recent front suspension overhaul as it worked the vast majority of the time, but when one of the backlighting bulbs failed this week I decided to pull the unit today and crack it open to see if there was anything obvious amiss that I could fix.

I had hoped that the ribbon cables utilized connectors I could re-seat but as you can see cables were all soldered to the boards. A brief examination of the cables and the solder joints revealed no obvious problems. I also took a close look at all the components, paying particular attention to the electrolytic caps but noticed no bulging or other telltale signs of failure, imminent or otherwise. There wasn't much else to at that point except replace all the bulbs and reinstall the unit in the car.

These units are now $725 from BMW, which is a bit disturbing, but at least they are still available.

Mileage: 224200

Saturday, September 14, 2012

More Interior / Trim Parts

Over the last couple of weeks I picked up more parts for the upcoming interior / cosmetics overhaul. These included:

Next month I'll be buying the felt seals for both front doors. After that I'll order new leather and should be ready to start the project. Cold weather is looming, however, so this project may get postponed until next year.

Audio Research Raises More Questions

My original plan was to buy a four channel amplifier that supported balanced inputs and a set of passive crossovers to feed my existing drivers. I ultimately determined that the crossovers I needed for my application ran nearly $450 for all four channels. Always looking to save money, that led me to research how to build my own passive crossovers. At first glance the idea of building a couple of LC filters seems pretty straightforward and from a parts and wiring perspective it more or less is, but the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Passive crossovers consist of electronic components including capacitors, inductors and resistors that react to the power delivered by the amplifier output terminals. While these devices can be leveraged for productive purposes, like filtering out unwanted frequencies for each driver, they also produce many undesirable effects including nonlinear response, power consumption, phase shifts and a surprisingly nasty tendency to interact with one another in ways difficult to predict without a bunch of math.

As a consequence the mantra in crossover design is to minimize the number of components used and that typically means limiting oneself to first order (6db/octave) or worst case, 2nd order (12db/octave) filters. If that seems like an intuitive or completely reasonable idea, consider that some drivers can be damaged if they receive frequency content outside of their design specifications so, depending on how far the crossover frequency is from the edge of the acceptable frequency range, using a first order filter may not be sufficient to protect the driver. Welcome to the world of compromises that is passive crossover design.

Crossover points are selected based on the specific combination of drivers in a given application. The kicker is that these frequencies can only be approximated using the data provided by speaker driver manufacturers. In reality, each driver must be tested individually to verify its frequency response including resonant frequency, impedance (which is frequency dependent) and in the case of woofers in particular, the equivalent voice coil inductance (Le) that also changes with frequency. If you don't compensate for these factors using real world measurements, it's easy to build a crossover that quite honestly sounds like shit.

Proper crossover engineering therefore requires test equipment including a measurement microphone (a calibrated version of the Behringer ECM8000 is a current favorite), microphone preamp, a computer, and some potentially expensive software...though as I discovered some free packages will get the job done at the expense of a steep learning curve. It was around this point that I began to understand why those commercial crossovers cost so much.

I spent the better part of a week of evenings and lunch hours reading about the science and techniques of crossover design before I convinced myself that it would be possible (and probably a lot of fun) to build my own passive crossovers. Late that week, however, I had lunch with a colleague who, in addition to having considerable experience as a professional musician and by extension pro audio, is a EE who has built his share of custom speakers and crossovers. His response to my plans? "Go active and bi-amp. It solves a lot of problems you can't fix properly with any passive crossover. You won't regret the decision."

Research into that topic confirmed much of what I already knew, but my new-found knowledge of passive crossovers helped to put things in perspective. Indeed, the best place to do filtering is in the small signal domain, where simple operational amplifiers in conjunction with physically small and inexpensive passive components can be combined to create the necessary filters without regard to the interactions of these components with the speakers. Hint: they don't call a voice coil a "coil" for nothing: from the perspective of a passive filter network the voice coil is just another inductor with all the nasty nonlinear attributes pertaining thereto. It should now be clear why crossovers must be tuned to the specific drivers in use, and why using any off-the-shelf crossover (regardless of price or quality) with the wrong drivers will likely sound worse than a bad DIY hack.

Active crossovers avoid many of the pitfalls of passive crossovers and the consequences of working in the large signal domain. Specifically they:

So if active crossovers are so great, why isn't everyone bi-amping? Simple. Cost and space. The problem is worse with three way systems, assuming you want to separately power the midrange and tweeter. Most people, however, just build a simple passive low pass filter for the midrange (thus completing a band pass filter) and a high pass for the tweeter because of diminishing returns. The calculations ultimately reveal it is possible to use simpler low-order filters with fewer and smaller components at the higher frequencies. Should I decide to bi-amp I plan to do exactly this.

While the thought of dropping serious coin on a couple SE4100's is enough to turn me off the idea entirely, my more immediate problem is space. I'm limited to about 32" between the speakers on the rear deck, and to only about 10" front to back because the rear deck and related structure is curved so I can't efficiently use the space. The SE4100 is 16x8" but like all the other Arc Amps unfortunately terminates its connections on the ends of the chassis so they won't fit end to end in the space available. Regardless of cost, the SE4100 is therefore out of the running in a bi-amp configuration simply because it won't fit. For this reason I went in search of other amps that support balanced inputs.

I quickly found the Soundstream Reference REF4.400. At 16x10 it's not exactly small but it terminates connections on the rear of the unit so I can fit them end to end. The problem is that while Soundstream was once known as a high end amp manufacturer of similar caliber to Zapco and Arc, changes to the design and ownership since that time make me wonder if the new reference amps are indeed as good as the old. I believe the old amps were Class AB like the SE4100 while the new versions are Class G, but that's not necessarily a bad thing because at moderate listening levels (what I do most of the time), Class G is more efficient. On paper they look like good quality amps, and if the price ($280 each) is to be believed, a steal too. To their credit, they actually responded to a couple questions via email in about 4 hours. They clearly punted with one of their answers but at least they responded. I emailed Arc days earlier and I'm still waiting for their response.

If I had to make the call right now I'd probably go with the bi-amp Soundstream solution, but I know I can make a passive crossover solution work and if it allows me to gain additional knowledge in audio engineering -- despite its obvious shortcomings -- so much the better.

Many thanks to Rod Elliott for his excellent explanations of passive crossover design techniques and his comparision of active vs. passive crossovers. The articles assume some knowledge of electronics but are still an easy read.

Mileage: 225075, Parts: $550

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yet More Audio Equipment Research

Arc Audio finally got back to me – exactly six days from the date of my original email. My first question reflected my desire to use one or possibly two of the smaller KS series amps and asked simply whether they had any plans to add balanced inputs to the KS series. Their answer: a predictable NO. I asked if there was some way I could use the ALD to convert to balanced and then back again so I could use it in conjunction with the KS series. The answer again: NO. But they did suggest I could use the ALD in single-ended mode to gain the benefits of a line driver. The idea behind this is simple: increase the voltage so that noise becomes a smaller percentage of the signal content and the amp gains can be turned down, further reducing noise. Ignoring the fact that my headunit already supports 4V line outputs, balanced lines exist for a reason so I didn't consider that an acceptable solution.

I also sent another request to Soundstream that aimed to clarify the exact size of their amplifiers because while their owner's manual is entertaining in places (you'll have to read it to know what I mean), I found it lacking in certain technical areas including the exact dimensions I'd need to integrate the product into my vehicle. Unfortunately, they admitted that the roughly 16” width specified in the manual did not include the mounting flanges and the total width was in fact 16.875”. That put a damper on my plans for a bi-amp configuration that could utilize balanced inputs.

(Image: Front panel of Audio Control Industrial SA-3050A)The obvious solution to the problem would be to engineer a set of brackets and shelves – an amp rack, really – to stack the amplifiers vertically on the rear deck but when I realized how much trunk space it would consume I decided I would be more or less forced to go with a single amp, or deploy the smaller KS series amps and find another way to improve the quality of the signal sent to those amps.

Toward that end I read several white papers on balanced line transmission published by Jensen Transformers and that drew me to investigate some of their products including their transformer coupled ISO-MAX audio isolator. The CI-2RR appeared to be an ideal solution to provide ground noise rejection – the most likely form of noise in a BMW due to the nature of the electrical system design. The device also promised to provide some RFI rejection as long as the outputs from the device are kept short (they recommend less than 3 feet). I surmised that as long as no signal-carrying conductors are cut to a ¼ wavelength of any frequency I might care to transmit on they shouldn't turn into antennas, but given the near field strength I think it's inevitable RFI will be a problem regardless of the solution I choose. The least I can do is minimize it.

The upside to the ISO-MAX, as compared to the ALD, is that I won't need to find a place for them close to the headunit. They would likely be mounted in the trunk close to the amp(s) and that would make them easier to service. The CI-2RR retails for $150 and I need two, which makes them more expensive than the ALD, but a better design by virtue of the fact that they are passive devices (i.e. they don't require any power) and are guaranteed to provide the kind of isolation that only a transformer can provide.

There are reasons why, incidentally, the pro audio industry used transformer coupled balanced lines for years before moving more recently to digital transmission standards (Audio over Ethernet, for example). Availability of suitable operational amplifiers was clearly the limiting factor long ago but even modern active solutions, including those deployed in the Arc ALDs, work great in the lab but are often found to be less than ideal in the real world. Transformers are still the best solution and I see only one problem with the use of transformers in this context: cost.

While I once again entertained the idea of a single amp solution with custom crossovers and discussed matters with the same colleague who suggested I go active, he decided to take pity on me and give me his mid-1990's vintage Audio Control SA-3050A real time spectrum analyzer he once used on the road. Most audio spectrum analysis is done on computers these days and I plan to do the bulk of my own analysis on one as well but I expect to use the standalone RTA to verify those measurements. The unit also takes SPL measurements so while I care more about sound quality than loudness this feature should come in handy as well.

Of course, while I was very thankful to accept the gift it wasn't exactly without strings – he told me the measurement microphone was damaged at a gig one night when some drunken loser mistook it for a vocal mic and screamed into it. That's a clear no-no, since it can (and did, in this case) result in damage to the microphone capsule. Audio Control wants $150 for a new one and $100 to calibrate the mic to the box, and for that I have to send the unit back to them. I figure I'll be into it for about $300, but that's still a great deal for a good piece of test equipment, the latest revision of which still sells for $1500.

Winter Tire Options

(Image: Comparison of tread of Pirelli Sottozero Serie II and Winter Carving Edge)This week, as average daybreak temperatures once again flirted with the upper 40's, I figured I'd take some time to evaluate my winter tire options. While the Dunlop Winter Sport M3 has never been the perfect tire with regard to quality it has performed well in its intended role and been reasonably priced, so I naturally expected to buy another set this year. Unfortunately, a short search on Tire Rack revealed it has been discontinued. Figures.

More disturbing, however, is the fact that there is now only one performance winter tire available in 225/50/16 and that's the Pirelli Winter Sottozero Serie II (pictured: left). It seems reasonably well reviewed but the tread pattern is not nearly as aggressive as the M3 and appears to be better suited to very light snow and cold temperatures in general. That of course nicely describes the typical winter here in NJ so it's not a deal breaker.

However I'm not one to limit my options or make an uninformed decision so I went in search of alternatives and began with a visit to the awesome Miata.net Tire Size Calculator. As a 225 section width is already fairly large for my 7” wheels and better snow traction actually comes from narrower tires I knew I couldn't safely go wider. That dictated I look for tires with a smaller section width.

My options opened considerably for 205/55's because that is the OE spec for winter tires on this car but I quickly decided I don't want to run bicycle tires because dry performance will suffer too much. The other alternative is 215/55. This is only 10mm smaller in width (which will not be noticeable, either visually or behind the wheel) and a mere 1.8% larger in diameter than stock but less than the 2.2% I experienced when I equipped my CSL reps with 235/40's. Several additional tires are available in 215/55 including the Sottozero but none are in the Performance Winter segment.

Although I was reluctant to consider a full-blown winter tire, the Pirelli Winter Carving Edge (pictured: right) caught my eye because its tread pattern is quite similar to the M3, the reviews are excellent and the price reasonable, particularly when I consider keeping my still-brand-new M3 on the full size spare. Another possibility is the Dunlop Graspic DS-3 but I'm leery enough of Dunlop quality at this point to consider a different brand like Pirelli.

Mileage: 225075

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wurth True Glide

When I replaced the sunroof cassette a few years ago I noticed very little grease on the rails of the new cassette. While the cassette operates far more smoothly than the original and I know that is due largely to the lubricant in the cable guides, which are impossible to re-grease unless you pull the cables out, a modest amount of grease on the rails is important to reduce friction and load on the motor. I would have added some grease but I wanted to find the right grease for the job, and a couple weeks ago I did -- Wurth True Glide.

(Image: Wurth True Glide and HHS-K)Wurth describes True Glide as a "lithium soap grease based on synthetic and natural hydrocarbons". They also note it is highly adhesive, corrosion protectant, pressure resistant and stable over a wide range of temperatures. It also lacks any VOCs which should make the eco-nazis orgasm. The instructions specifically note applications like "sunroofs, door hinges and sliding rails" and that's exactly how I intend to use it.

To reduce the impact of shipping costs I ordered two tubes ($17 each) from Bavarian Autosport -- the only online supplier I could find with it in stock -- all the while knowing that one 5.3oz tube would likely last me the better part of several lifetimes. A good grease is like that -- a little goes a long way.

To test it I grabbed a flux brush from my electronics bench and applied a small amount to the inside edges of each sunroof rail. I found the grease to be identical in viscosity and color to the grease installed on the sunroof cassette from the factory so I think it's fair to say this is what BMW uses in this application. Naturally, the sunroof is perfectly smooth and silent in operation now.

Wurth HHS-K / 2000

While researching True Glide I came across another Wurth product called HHS-K (previously marketed as HHS-2000), which is apparently THE lubricant for door hinges because of its special properties: it applies as a penetrating oil and then, apparently as the carrier evaporates, dries to form a load-bearing grease.

Normally, any high pressure joint like a door hinge requires a grease, since straight oil wouldn't provide a thick enough protective layer and the result would be metal on metal (albeit at a reduced frictional coefficient). but in order to properly grease a hinge it has to come apart. Since NO ONE pulls their doors off to lube their hinges, HHS promises a unique solution to this problem.

I had more difficulty locating HHS-K online but ultimately found it at Paragon Products. Again, to reduce the impact of shipping cost ($10) I ordered two cans ($20 each). Interestingly, the cans I received are labeled with "For professional use only: Not for retail sale". I'm not sure why this is the case. It may just be a bulk vs. retail packaging thing, or it may be because the label further goes on to say "Extremely flammable. Possible cancer hazard, irritant" and suggests to remedy skin contact with with "plenty of soap and water -- do not use solvents". I'm no professional, but I'll use it professionally. I promise.

Winter Wheel Prep

Yesterday I decided to take my winter tire set to the local tire shop to have them dismount the old and worn Winter Sport M3s. As I hauled them out of the garage I decided to throw my set of CSLs in the back of the pickup and have those tires dismounted as well. The shop agreed to $10/ea plus $1.50 per discarded tire so an hour later I picked up my wheels and the two spare tires I chose to save from the scrap bin.

Based on a close inspection I've decided to send the spare wheel (known to be bent), as well as a sixth wheel I had in storage (with cosmetic damage only) out for refinishing this week. Then I'll bring all six wheels to my technician which will allow him to dial-indicate them and pick the best five out of six. I haven't decided whether I'll remount the basically new Winter Sport M3 as a spare but that will clearly help offset some of the wheel refinishing cost. The notable downside to that option is that it could result in less than predictable traction if I have to ride on the spare in winter conditions. As a pilot I tend to be prepared for anything, so I may just go for five new tires and consider the spare tire what it really is: a sunk cost.

I still haven't decided what tires I'll use this winter but I'm leaning toward the Pirelli performance winter option. I briefly considered Nokian as they have an excellent winter weather reputation but they're only sold in the US in my area at a large chain store and they're pricey as well. For giggles I called Tire Rack to ask why they don't sell them and they indicated they used to sell Nokian but found the company had problems supplying inventory consistently. A call to the local chain store revealed they would not be able to get the Nokian tire I wanted for "about 4-6 weeks", and this confirmed the Tire Rack rep wasn't blowing smoke just to sell me something he had in inventory. At that point I dismissed Nokian as an option and cursed the loss of a good half hour of my life I'll never get back. Open recommendation to Nokian: Get in the market and stack tires to the ceiling here or just go back to Finland.

More Parts and Plans

(Image: Driver side door seal)Last week while detailing the car I finally grew tired of looking at the dried and tattered driver's side door seal so I ordered the part. $280 later it arrived oriented in its own custom box. Next month I'll order its passenger-side mate. I will not be installing either, however, until I install the exterior roof ledge moldings, etc, and that won't be until after the car is painted.

And speaking of painting, due to the progression of rust on the car, body work is now the highest priority. Since I can't do that until next spring when I can put the E46 into service, that pushes the interior overhaul out to next summer. And it's probably just as well for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my desire to enjoy the smell of new leather...not new leather masked by the stench of "body shop".

In the meantime I'm considering replacing the crappy US-spec halogen reflector headlights with ZKW OEM halogen projectors to increase safety on those dark winter drives home. And no, I'm not planning on installing angel eyes or HIDs, as they are not historically accurate for this car, are known to cause issues with the OBC's lamp failure circuitry, and are illegal because they aren't self-leveling. Not that any of this stops people from bastardizing the beautifully understated styling of these wonderful cars, but I won't be a part of it.

Mileage: 226390, Parts: $280, Labor: $120

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Refinished Wheels Arrive

(Image: E36 Style 30 wheel refinished by Wheel Collision)I must admit that I wasn't terribly happy with the finish of the Style 30 wheel I bought from Wheel Collision a couple years back. While the base coat was fine and appeared to match the OE tint, the clear was applied inconsistently, resulting in both orange peel and a speckled texture. Given the quality issues and the costs involved in shipping I decided to search for other wheel refinishers in my area.

After quickly eliminating at least three shops due to bad reviews I contacted the shop that I had seen doing work in a box truck at my local dealer. I called the company and learned that while they were able to do minor repairs in the truck I would have to bring the bent wheel to their shop in Matawan to see if they could fix it. For basic refinishing they quoted $125/wheel but that was for the face only (not a full strip and repaint as is convention with Wheel Collision). He added that he'd need to see the bent wheel to determine the costs to straighten it but suggested $175-200 as a reasonable estimate.

Since I did not have a lot of flexibility in my schedule and thus the time to drive back and forth to Matawan, I ultimately decided to take the path of least resistance and call Wheel Collision. I told them about my quality concerns and the rep assured me that they would be addressed. Cost? $150 for refinishing + $25 core charge (refundable if I return my wheels) + $20 shipping, or $195 each. They told me they don't refinish every wheel in inventory and would have to refinish these before they could ship but I told them that was okay because I wasn't in a rush.

I picked up the wheels today and anxiously opened the boxes to find them nicely wrapped with protective closed cell foam and cushioned with four million (give or take) foam peanuts. Aside from a couple small defects in the basecoat on one wheel I'm happy with the finish this time. I must point out, however, that the finish is still not as good as OE, but that is to be expected given the differences in paint equipment and processes.

Winter Tire Research Continues

I discovered this week that the Pirelli Sottozero Serie II (the performance winter option) is no longer available in 215/55/16, at least from Tire Rack. What's worse is that the 225/50/16 version I originally wanted to use commands a $40 premium, apparently because it is a Porsche OE size. Show me how that tire is $40 better than its one-size-smaller brother and I'll buy it.

My technician has in the past recommended I stick with Michelin and Continental tires as he has found them to have the lowest eccentricity (road force numbers) so I took a closer look at both of those options. The Michelin X-Ice3 (latest in that line) is too new for any decent reviews but the few I read of it and its predecessor (X-Ice2) indicated that the tires, while quiet, suffer from lackluster performance. Tire Rack offers the Continental ExtremeWinterContact, but not in 215/55/16. 1010Tires.com does offer it in that size (thus proving it's available), but as they are on the west coast and lack an east coast warehouse, shipping time is roughly 10 business days and runs $25/tire. That's crazy.

(Image: BendPak four post lifts being installed)

If I can't get Tire Rack to special order the Continental or find it at a local distributor (since tax and shipping will likely be similar in cost) I'll likely go for the Pirelli Winter Carving Edge. And I may just do that in any case as they're running a mail-in rebate right now that brings the cost of four down to $480. I know from experience shipping from my local warehouse will be $10/each and that should bring the total back up to $520 but that's still within the realm of reason for a set of winter tires that should last at least two seasons.

Toybox Update

It's been just over a year since I last reported on the progress of my brother's toybox and that's because there really hasn't been any. He's been spending every waking moment and spare dollar building his business. Today, however, I discovered a crew in the garage installing some new four post BendPak lifts. At $2950 + $850 for installation (each) I think he made out but the two post lift was not part of this deal.

A brief "preflight inspection" revealed the BendPak units to be of good quality. They are rated at 9000 pounds each, and like all lifts subject to ALI certification, underwent testing at double the rated load, or 18000 pounds. The steel cable appears to be 3/8" in diameter and the terminations are substantial. As I've said before I'm not a fan of the nylon guide blocks but all the lifts in this class except for the Mohawk use them and I'm sure they'll last a lifetime in this very light duty application. The obvious upside to all four post lifts is that they don't have to be bolted to the floor (important when you have in-floor radiant heat), and these lifts in particular can be moved relatively easily (unloaded, of course) using the provided casters.

I watched briefly as the installer put close to four gallons of hydraulic oil in the reservoir of one of the lifts, connected a compressed air source to unlock the safety locks and performed an operational test. I didn't bother to stick around for the others because I needed to run a few errands this afternoon in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, which at this writing is forecast to follow a unique track and hit the NJ coastline head-on in a couple days. Needless to say it's times like this I wish I had my own toybox to protect my toys. Perhaps soon.

Mileage: 226969, Parts: $415

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Two Weeks of Hell

There's a well-worn saying in piloting: "The most important thing is the next two things". We're taught to plan ahead and never leave anything to chance. So while I go about my daily routine in life like anyone else I have always maintained a state of readiness for emergencies. Among the essentials are at least two weeks of food, a means to heat my home, extra flashlights and batteries, a water filter suitable for use in nearby waterways and perhaps equally important, the ability to communicate: as an FCC-licensed Amateur Radio operator I maintain a station capable of running for a considerable period of time on batteries. Little did I know that I would recently undergo a very thorough test of my preparedness skills and emergency resources over the last two weeks – a time many in this region would no doubt aptly describe as "two weeks of hell".

You may recall at the end of my last blog entry I made a somewhat short reference to Hurricane Sandy. Not only did that storm hit the NJ coast as planned, it destroyed many parts of it. It caused the bay, normally seven feet below the property of my mother's shore house, to flood the lower (garage) level of the home with nearly a full foot of murky, muddy water -- and she was considered lucky. Many people within earshot flooded a lot worse than that and lost all their vehicles. And not much farther away people lost their entire homes. According to my power company's website the storm took out power to about 93% of their coastal territory. Reports surfaced last week that the storm destroyed the natural gas pipeline system on the barrier island and many are speculating it will take a year or more to rebuild that.

(Image: Stack of Pirelli Winter Carving Edge in 215/55/16)Due in large part to the fact that I was prepared (or as prepared as I could be) this wasn't that big of a deal for me. For six days I simply stayed home and remained advised of the situation through my amateur station. I cooked and heated my home, read some books on paper (how quaint) and thanked my lucky stars every morning that my water heater had not yet been replaced with one of the newer eco-nazi models equipped with electronic ignition, as the old-faithful pilot light never failed to produce hot water. Voice calls via cell phone simply did not work for the first three days or so due to capacity issues with the 3G network, but I was fortunate that Verizon's 4G LTE network was up and running and my recently acquired smart phone served as my link to the Internet.

After six days without power I had grown almost comfortable living a simpler life. When my lights suddenly turned on while eating dinner by flashlight last Sunday night I put my fork down, looked up at the kitchen light, and sighed in relief while I listened to the beeps of various electronic devices throughout my home as they came back to life. At that point I figured the worst was behind me. By this time I had heard rumors of a new Nor'easter brewing off the coast but all the forecasts indicated it would be a rain and wind event that paled in comparison to the Hurricane, so I really didn't think much of it.

I knew something wasn't going as planned when I looked out my office window on Wednesday and noticed it snowing...heavily. A survey of my regular weather sites suggested no significance to the snow, and as of 2PM that day NOAA's usually accurate snowfall forecast map indicated no accumulating snow along the immediate coast and only a trace farther inland near my home. All the action appeared to be in the Poconos far to the west. Merely one hour later the snow began to accumulate on allegedly "warm" surfaces (like the roads), and at that point I knew I had to leave early if I ever expected to get the E36 home in one piece, as it remained equipped with high performance summer tires. I had seen this movie before and it sucked – big time.

In the end, I got home okay, albeit slowly, finished dinner and wrapped up some browsing. I was just about to head up for bed when it happened: the power cycled on and off three times, and finally went out permanently. And once again I went to bed in the dark, fully expecting to wake up without power. When I woke up the next morning without the aid of any electronic devices I glanced out the window to see eight+ inches of very heavy, wet snow everywhere dragging all the tree limbs low. I then panned over to my car and gasped at something I'd missed at first due to the natural camouflage of snow; a large tree had come down and missed the E36 by mere feet.

I managed to dig out from the storm and make it to the office, but the commute was an eye-opener. There were so many trees down and lines draped over the road at times I felt like I was participating in a slow-motion autocross slalom course. And when one idiot in front of me just decided to slam on his brakes for no reason, I wound up slipping on the thin film of slush and snow on the road for several car lengths. With the brake pedal pushed to the floor and the ABS pump roaring the car just would not slow down. I came close to hitting the guy but he probably saw me screaming at him in the mirror and he took off just in time. And mind you – I wasn't tailgating or going faster than about 15 MPH.

In the aftermath of the storm I learned from a local police officer that the bulk of the cars that spun off the roads in nearby towns a couple hours after I left the office were all BMWs, Mustangs, and Camaros. The common thread here was TIRES. Let that be a lesson to anyone even considering driving in snow -- and I mean ANY accumulating now -- with summer tires. You might as well be driving on ice. The irony in all of this is that I *finally* purchased four Pirelli Winter Carving Edge in 215/55/16 on Monday and they arrived at my dealer the day of the storm. Logistical headaches resulting from the snow prevented me from delivering the wheels to my technician for mounting this week but I hope to manage that sometime next week when temperatures are supposed to moderate into the upper 50's / lower 60's. Incidentally, at first I felt some reservations about buying a pure winter tire rather than a performance winter tire but if this snow storm is any indication of the winter in store for us I'm sure I won't regret my decision.

To top it all off, the second power outage lasted almost three days, bringing the total up to 9 days of the previous 12. The lights in my bedroom suddenly illuminated at 4AM this morning, at which point I got up and wrote this blog entry...for fear that I would go back to bed, wake up later this morning and figure it was all just a bad dream.

Despite all the chaos this week I did have the presence of mind to order the right side door seal and I picked that up today. This will probably be the last purchase for the interior overhaul until next year, at which point I'll pick up the leather.

Mileage: 227437, Parts: $852

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pirelli Winter Carving Edge Installed

I finally managed to get my Style 30 wheels to my technician for mounting the set of Pirelli Winter Carving Edge on Tuesday. I told him there was no rush so he finished them yesterday and I picked them up with my brother's pickup today. While I'm happy to have access to my brother's fleet of vehicles and heavy equipment for basically gas money, when the pickup almost refused to start leaving the dealer today I couldn't help but ponder the wisdom in having my own (*gasp*) truck. For giggles I priced a GMC 2500 HD 4x4 diesel and became violently ill. Would you believe they get $46K retail for that? I realize the discount levels are higher for domestic vehicles so I'd probably pay somewhat less but I'm still forced to ask -- in what fucking universe is a pickup truck worth $46K? Apparently GMC didn't get the memo -- they're not BMW. I now understand why the heartland of America is broke -- everyone is spending BMW money on trucks.

Back at the garage I made quick work of the tire swap. Exclusive of the time to gather tools the swap took an hour using jack stands. Given that 215/55 is a slightly larger diameter tire, while the front end was up in the air I turned the wheels lock to lock and spun each tire to check for rubbing. The right tire exhibited no clearance issues but the left tire did very slightly rub the inside edge of the wheel well at full left lock. The rubbing appears to be caused by the relatively high shoulder of the tread and is so slight I expect it to stop once the tread wears a bit. Incidentally, this confirms something I was fully aware of -- the steering rack is not perfectly centered -- but the offset was required to compensate for the fact that I reassembled the steering shaft one spline off during the front suspension overhaul earlier this year. That sounds bad but it's a far cry better from the setup prior to the overhaul. We're talking a couple millimeters of offset now vs. a couple centimeters. I'm not sweating it.

While cleaning up the PS2s before putting them to bed for the winter I took a good look at the tread. As expected the rears have slightly less tread remaining (perhaps by 1 or 2 mm) than the front, but they are still a couple mm above the wear bars. The tread wear is consistent from side to side on all tires, meaning that the alignment is damn near perfect front and rear. Due to the fact that the car was removed from service for 3-4 months over the last two seasons and the fact that I'll likely take it out of service yet again next year to paint it, wrap up the interior overhaul and *finally* rework the stereo I think there's a pretty good chance I'll be able to stretch those tires through a third season. They'll be at or beyond the wear bars at that point, but who cares -- they'll perform as well if not better as slicks. Just pray it doesn't rain. :)

A close look at the newly installed Winter Carving Edge tread revealed deep sipes in all the tread blocks. As I pushed against them with my thumb I could feel each portion of the block move easily in response. While I expected the tread to be soft today as temperatures hovered in the upper 50's I was surprised to see so much movement. I immediately assumed that this would translate into vague handling and the test drive home confirmed it. It's not so much that the initial "bite" of turn-in is sacrificed but rather that there is a slight delay felt mostly during recovery of a steering input. This is most easily demonstrated when the wheel is moved back and forth in a periodic motion at speed. I can feel the same delayed reaction of the rear tires causing the rear end to lag the steering inputs. The Winter Sport M3 did not have this problem but it was classified as a "Performance Winter" tire.

The Pirellis are naturally louder at speed than the PS2s and very slightly louder than the Winter Sport M3 (at least when they were new...all tires get louder as they wear) but this again is to be expected of a winter tire and I sincerely doubt you'll find me complaining about any of these traits when I'm forced to drive in a few inches of the white stuff. In fact, I can see how the sipes and flexibility of the smaller portions of the tread blocks could contribute to better traction in all conditions so I think it's safe for me to say what all software developers do: it's not a bug, it's a feature.

As usual, my technician wrote the road force numbers on the wheels: 8, 15, 15, 18. This is what I consider slightly below average tire quality -- nothing special and yet not the worst I've seen. It's on a par with Dunlop and near the top of the highest road force number (18 lbs) recommended by BMW. Fortunately the ride was smooth and I noticed no vibration or shimmying but I haven't exceeded 50 MPH yet. The commute on Monday should be enlightening. Something tells me I'm going to truly miss the PS2's razor sharp steering and handling the next four months.

Lock Cylinder and Housing Videos

I saved the lock cylinder and housing I removed during the front suspension overhaul earlier this year so I could do a couple videos on them but never found the time. I managed a first take while I was twiddling my thumbs during the recent power outage but the lighting sucked (a lack of electrical power will do that) and I rambled on for over 15 minutes. Since I don't have the time to edit I vowed to reshoot the video as two smaller videos and accomplished that today. If you're about to replace your lock cylinder or housing you may find these helpful.

Mileage: 227732, Labor: $200

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pirelli Review

After some time with the new set of Winter Carving Edge I can fairly say that they are the worst tire I have put on the car in 15 years. They have completely destabilized the handling of the vehicle. I was expecting some decrease in performance, obviously, but what was once sure-footed and accurate is now disturbingly unsettled and vague. It feels like I put the original front and rear suspensions back on the car. I kid you not.

(Image: Blackstone Labs report for 12/03/2012)The tires have an annoying tendency to wander and lose traction at speed. I've found I have to be exceedingly careful performing lane changes at 70+MPH because the rear end tends to step out, particularly if the lane change is accompanied by some acceleration (and it usually is) or conditions are wet. I concede that the front end "uncertainty" may be due to my toe setting but the rear end has no excuse: it's just sloppy.

Dry and wet performance is so horrible I'm glad I don't suffer from photosensitive epilepsy...as I have never seen the traction control light flicker as much in the life of the car as I have the last two weeks. I mean -- seriously -- when was the last time you heard me say this car had the power to break the wheels loose when shifting into third at 60+MPH during full-throttle acceleration on the highway...with an automatic transmission no less?

You might be thinking "well, what did you expect from a winter tire"? What I expected was performance roughly equivalent to the Winter Sport M3. That tire had the dry performance of a high performance all season (like the Pilot Sport A/S) the wet performance you'd expect from a deep directional tread designed to evacuate water, (hell, the steering was so positive in standing water I used to drive into puddles for fun), and outstanding snow performance. I could drive in 4+ inches without a bead of sweat on my brow. I wish the Pirelli was so capable and frankly can't understand why it isn't.

I haven't seen snow yet but, even if the snow performance is excellent, I know that I'm unwilling to sacrifice dry and wet performance to this extent and I plan to pitch these tires with a smile on my face when they're spent. I'd be willing to try the Sottozero's if Pirelli offered to buy these back and pay for the remounting but I'm not waiting at my inbox if you know what I mean. When I combine the below average road force numbers (i.e. poor quality construction) and dismal performance I think it's safe to say this will be my last set of Pirelli tires. And while I'm unwilling to condemn the entire product line based on this narrow sample I strongly advise anyone considering this tire for a BMW or similar high performance car to choose something else. You have been warned.

Oil Service and Analysis

A couple weeks ago I realized that a bit over 5000 miles had passed since my last oil service so I conducted one last weekend in little more than 20 minutes...a personal record. I also took a sample and received the analysis yesterday. The numbers seem to jive with my assertion that the increased lead wear seems to be caused by winter starts, but I'll have to see next summer's report to confirm it. All in all this was a reasonable report with no surprises. If these trends continue I expect the engine to reach 300K.

Mileage: 228625 [Oil Service at 228038], Parts: $55, Labor Saved: $100

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thermostat Housing Leak

Last night I hopped in the car to head home from work in advance of the long holiday weekend and the OBC illuminated with the familiar “Coolant Level Low” message. When I popped the hood and took a peek in the expansion tank I could clearly see the top of the coolant level sensor – proof positive it wasn't a sensor problem. I didn't have any coolant with me, obviously, but I knew from experience that when the coolant level sensor trips there is still more than enough coolant remaining in the system...provided the system isn't leaking. A quick look around the front end with an obscenely bright small LED flashlight showed the telltale signs of coolant leaking around the thermostat housing, down the front of the block and onto the power steering hoses and swaybar. I used a spare rag to wipe the area down so I could later gauge the extent of the leak.

(Image: Closeup of E36 thermostat installed in 12/2012)I'd seen this movie before so I vowed to watch the coolant temperature gauge as carefully as I would the turbine inlet temperature while leaning a high performance aircraft engine, and headed home. I noticed pretty early on in the drive that the heat was working perfectly. Had that not been the case I might have pulled over and called a tow truck, as that would have likely indicated a more severe loss of coolant.

I stopped at my garage on the way home, grabbed my bottle of 50/50 premixed BMW OE coolant I keep on hand to service the system and brought the level up to a point slightly over the divider visible through the hole in the expansion tank. This is the level I know from experience will result in a coolant level near the “Kalt/Cold” level imprinted on the side of the tank when the engine cools down. The remainder of the drive home was uneventful.

Once home I did some research to verify if I could install the Zionsville metal thermostat housing I had on hand from the last time I was faced with a need to replace the thermostat housing. At that time I decided against the metal unit because I lacked the proper flat gasket to use it, so the plan was to buy the gasket as well as a new thermostat and install the metal housing this time around. Some recent postings on bimmerforums, however, convinced me to change that plan.

It turns out that the quality of the housings produced after 2009 or so are not up to par and are prone to leaks. Several people also reported smelling coolant with no obvious signs of leaks, prompting some to consider the possibility that the porous quality of the castings results in a sort of osmosis process. The idea isn't as crazy as it sounds, since I know all too well it doesn't take much coolant to produce that smell. Since I knew I'd have absolutely no time to pull this again in the next few months I decided to go with the OE housing and thermostat again.

This morning I went out to the car to take a look at the coolant level and found it exactly where it should be – at the cold mark, so that reassured me that I was dealing with a slow leak. Still, I had plans to do a good amount of driving over the holiday weekend and with the threat of light snow at some point in the next few days I didn't want to risk bringing out the E46. So I switched gears and drove over to the dealer to pick up a thermostat housing, thermostat & o-ring, profile gasket, and a couple gallons of coolant -- one for topping off what I'd drain to replace the thermostat and another for my stock. I swapped the parts, refilled with a 50/50 mix of coolant and distilled water, washed down the front of the engine with plain water in about an hour and a half and drove home victorious.

The last thermostat housing I replaced in 2009 only gave me 30K miles in service. That was about half the lifespan of the preceding units and I never did figure out why that unit failed so quickly. The unit I replaced today was in service 58K miles so based on this and other experiences online I've decided to reduce my service interval on the thermostat housing (and thermostat, naturally, since you simply don't replace one without the other) to 55K miles.

Parts were $112 and I saved roughly $150 in labor and $25 in parts this time around.

Mileage: 229423, Parts: $112, Labor Saved: $150, Parts Saved: $25