Saturday, May 4, 2013
During my last windshield replacement I found considerable rust forming underneath the window along the driver's side A-pillar. I didn't expect the problem so I couldn't do very much about it except install the new window and plan to fix the rust at some point in the near future.
Fast-forward two years. The rust has crept up the A-pillar at a blistering pace and is now easily seen above the window frame. While this was enough of a warning to schedule the body shop work ASAP, I didn't realize until I was cleaning the interior last weekend how critical this work is. After pulling the driver's side floor mat for vacuuming I found a small wet spot and ringed stain on the carpet, which can only mean one thing -- the A-pillar has rusted through sufficiently to cause a leak. This is not good.
Fortunately, I already scheduled an appointment for the middle of the month at the body shop I know through my brother. He's had a lot of work done there including repair of his mint, low-mileage E39 following a deer hit at highway speeds many years ago so I'm expecting reasonably good work. The downside to this shop is they're over an hour away and located in what I can only describe as a war zone. They buy more razor wire than the US military. But it's not like I have a choice, since the two local shops recommended by others refused to do any rust work. Apparently if they can't just throw new panels on the car they don't want anything to do with it. So be it.
Given my dedication to the car, my brother suggested I pull out the stops and just paint the entire car. That makes a lot of sense when you consider that a lot of the paint on this car looks like crap and the fact that I was planning to replace much of the exterior trim around the windows, etc. that should be replaced during a proper paint job, but I've decided against that, at least for now, primarily due to cost. The ballpark estimate is a whopping $7K provided I do the disassembly / re-assembly myself, plus parts of roughly $1500, or $8500 total.
While some would (correctly) question my sanity for putting that kind of money into anything other than a collectible, I'm not opposed to doing it provided I can retire the car from daily-driver status and garage it as a testament to 15 years of dedication to the brand. I just don't see the point of putting yet more money into the car only to have it sandblasted on the commute or – heaven forbid – involved in an accident. So the plan is to fix the rust, finish the interior restoration, install the new audio system, retire the car sometime in the next couple of years, and then repaint it from stem to stern.
I don't know what it is about the drive home in this car but many of the problems I've encountered seem to happen then, as if the car is chastising me for leaving it alone in the parking lot all day. Last week was no exception. Monday evening I started the car to go home and the OBC warned me about low coolant. I couldn't remember the last time I topped off the tank so I figured this was a routine topoff (these cars need coolant every 10-12K like clockwork) and stopped by the garage on the way home to fill it up.
When the same thing happened several days later I quickly realized that something was wrong, and I confirmed it when I got out of the car only to find coolant dripping from the bottom of the driver's side of the radiator. At this point I thanked myself for putting the coolant bottle in my trunk earlier in the week. I opened the expansion tank, brought the level up to the top of the divider and drove to my garage to pick up the E46. Once home, my maintenance records revealed it had been seven years and 105K since I last replaced the radiator when the expansion tank exploded. This has confirmed my belief that just as the water pumps on these cars need to go every 60K so does the radiator every 100K. I updated my maintenance schedule to reflect this. In this case the failure appears to be due to the weak point in the OE design – the plastic end caps, or more specifically, the seal between the end caps and the metal core.
While I am fully aware there are better options than the OE parts available in the aftermarket, as I've said before the math doesn't always work out. Nothing lasts forever, and despite the fact that radiators constructed entirely of aluminum might last longer there is no guarantee they'll last long enough to offset their higher cost. But I'm willing to try anything once. After researching options I ordered a new Fluidyne radiator from Turner which should be here next week. The core of the stock radiator is 33mm thick while the Fluidyne is just shy of 39mm. This means the Fluidyne should increase the cooling system capacity and efficiency slightly. There are thicker options but they necessitate removal of the mechanical fan (the so-called “fan delete mod”) for clearance purposes and I'm not interested in doing that. Turner also sells the well-regarded PWR unit but it's thicker still at 42mm and – holy shit on a shingle – it's $950. No thanks.
According to Turner the Fluidyne should accept the stock shroud and therefore stock expansion tank. I wanted to replace the expansion tank with an aluminum unit as well but I couldn't find one other than the Zionsville and that appears to mount only to their metal shroud which is designed for an electric fan – so that's out. Could the part be adapted somehow to the stock shroud? Perhaps, but with everything else going on in my life at the moment I don't have the time to deal with anything custom. Incidentally, I once considered the Euro expansion tank but my research some time ago revealed that would not work because it's typically mounted behind the passenger strut tower – precisely where the secondary air pump lives in my OBD II car. So while the Euro tank is a well known mod it only works on vehicles without the pump.
The perk of the Euro expansion tank is easier bleeding of the system since it is mounted significantly higher than the radiator. Interestingly, modern BMWs appear to use an expansion tank similar in design to (if not identical to) the old Euro tank and it's mounted forward of the passenger strut tower. That won't work for me either, since my washing fluid reservoir is located there. Could I convert to the tiny E39 washer reservoir and wedge the Euro tank in there somehow? Possible, but again, not something I want to tackle right now. So it appears I'll be installing another stock expansion tank.