Friday, August 15, 2014
Lower Interior Overhaul: Lateral Panel Issues
As I was removing the rear seat bolsters prior to sending the car off for paint I noticed that the leather on the rear side panels (what BMW calls the “lateral panels”) had separated from the sharply recessed area near the seat base that provides a relief for the seat belts. My heart sank twice; first when I realized two new panels would cost a LOT more money and second when it dawned on me that the parts might not be available. Back at home I checked the parts book and saw the dreaded word: ENDED.
The next day I called my parts guys to check on availability and they confirmed my research: one side is available but the other side is not. Today I grew frustrated enough to do something pointless – call BMW USA again and complain about their unwillingness to provide parts for which there are no aftermarket equivalents. I'll quickly summarize the 20 minute phone call – they checked the same data my dealer did and told me what I already knew. And predictably, BMW did their best Judge Smails impression: “you'll get nothing and like it”.
So why am I so frustrated? The lateral panels, like the door panels, are difficult if not impossible to repair. If they were designed properly I could separate the pieces and then have new leather bonded to them but they are constructed of a cheap fiberboard material and fused together using plastic rivets that serve only one function – to make manufacturing faster and cheaper. Unfortunately, these rivets cannot be reused – once they are drilled out the parts cannot be mated again. So this leaves me (and to be completely honest, every other E36 owner) up the proverbial creek.
To repair the panel I plan to peel back the leather, sand away the old adhesive and apply a new layer of contact adhesive before I attempt to press the leather down again. A quick test on a portion of the panel where the leather is hidden by the seat cushion was enough to convince me that this is either going to be a colossal pain in the ass or it will result in irreparable damage to the panel substrate, leather, or both. I may have to purchase the part that remains in inventory and do further experimenting with my old part before I proceed to work on the part I cannot (currently) replace.
The long term solution is obvious. Someone needs to fabricate two-piece fiberglass or stamped metal equivalents that can then be covered with leather or fabric easily obtainable from Gahh or other suppliers. In fact, the same thing needs to be done for the door panels since even the new ones have the same design flaws and although I was able to buy new panels I'm not sure how much longer they'll remain available. People will likely balk at the cost for a new single-piece door panel produced in low volume but it will no doubt be a better deal than paying BMW prices for something that's just going to fall apart again in a few years.
And speaking of crappy door panels, as I pulled them off in prep to send the E36 to the paint shop today I decided to take a short video showing their common failure modes and how I repair them.