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Monday, June 24, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Saturday, May 27, 2023

(Image: E36 in the shop for its 25th birthday)

Whew. It's been a long time since my last post here. Nearly four years, in fact. I do apologize for that, but there hasn't been anything of merit to report, at least until now. Let's get on with it.

25 Years Old

In late November of 1997 I was a 28 year old engineer flush with dot-com era cash. In what I can only describe as dopamine-seeking behavior and the result of a textbook case of seasonal affective disorder, I put down a deposit on my first BMW -- a 1998 Boston Green 328is Coupe with Sports package. Little did I know at the time what I was getting myself into, how much time and money I would spend owning it, and how it would fundamentally change what I expected from an automobile. Many people today would call me a "car guy" but the truth is I never was until I bought this car.

Back in the late 90s BMW was much like Porsche is now -- a generally low volume producer of high end vehicles. While it was possible to buy a BMW off the lot, most of those cars were typically low-trim models as required to keep the price down and the number of unit sales up -- the polar opposite of dealership strategy today, which is to sell high trim cars with every option installed to maximize their profit. Of course, I wanted a number of options not available with the dozen or so cars they had on the lot so I had to special order the vehicle and wait the roughly three months it took BMW to deliver back then.

On February 14, 1998 I arrived at the dealership to pick up my baby, one of a mere 22 BMWs delivered by the dealership that month. As I have said previously, the connection to Valentine's Day is only a coincidence, but I did fall in love with the car at first sight. As I walked into the showroom I saw one of those old black signs with press-in white letters on a small stand just inside of the door displaying "Welcome Mr. Vetter". This personal touch was symbolic of what was decidedly different about BMW at that time -- it was an exclusive ownership experience and a club of people, young and old, for whom BMW's marketing slogan "The Ultimate Driving Machine" actually meant something.

The sticker price was $38000, or roughly $70000 in today's highly inflated currency. At that time, BMW dealerships typically sold vehicles for nearly $5000 over invoice (~$9000 in today's money), but somehow I managed to sweet talk the sales rep into giving me $2500 over invoice. I offered as trade my nearly new but poorly-performing front-wheel-drive fifth generation Honda Prelude, for which I negotiated $16000. As a matter of personal policy I refused to have a car loan exceeding four years so I wound up with a payment of $450/month. Inflation adjusted, that's a bit over $800, sadly not far off the typical lease payment on a three series BMW today. I recall the sales rep telling me that approximately 30% of BMWs were leased. That number had increased to 60% by the time I bought my E46 in 2006, and I have a hard time believing it's not higher today, as most people who buy these cars really can't afford to purchase them outright or care to own them beyond the warranty period in any case.

I drove the E36 as my daily driver for 21 years and over 270000 miles, and in the process hit two deer, put the vehicle in the body shop six times, replaced 5 windshields, nearly 20 sets of tires, and more recently completely rebuilt the vehicle from the running gear to the interior. I have often joked that I've actually bought the car twice -- first as a fully assembled vehicle in 1998, and then as a series of parts purchased over the 21 years I actively drove and maintained it -- but the truth is the real money is closer to three times the original purchase price. Am I complaining? No. That averages out to just over $5000 a year, and that's considerably less than most people spend on the typical over-priced, front wheel drive, 4 cylinder buzz-box, touch-screen appliance available these days.

Six months into my ownership of the vehicle I brought the car in for a steering vibration and was introduced to the technician I've referred to throughout this blog. I have frequently praised his knowledge and helpful nature and can honestly say that the only reason I still own this car is because of his assistance over the years. He loaned me BMW special tools needed to work on it, heavily discounted various services, took time to teach me obscure details about its inner workings, and generally made owning the vehicle enjoyable, in spite of its substantial appetite for maintenance. Given that he has been at this dealership since they acquired the BMW franchise in the late 70s I knew the day would eventually come when he would sail off into a well-deserved retirement, and based on a recent conversation it appears that may occur at the end of 2023. That gives me a few months to get my affairs in order with these vehicles and get his personal phone number, because as much as I know about these cars, he's forgotten more about them than I'll ever know, and I will still find his counsel essential over the coming years.

As to the point of this post, on January 1st of this year my E36 officially qualified for historical vehicle status in New Jersey. This required a one-time payment of a historical vehicle registration fee and an extra fee for vanity plates. On January 2nd I mailed my first of three applications, each containing three preferred vanity plates with every combination of "98", "E36", "M52" and even some obscure vehicle option codes I could muster. The first two applications were returned with a note that all three selections were already taken. On the third application I punted with the last option being my current plate and that's exactly what I got. The perk of historical vehicle status is that state inspections are no longer required. I haven't driven the vehicle much in the last four years in large part due to my schedule and its less-than-convenient location, but mostly because the inspection lapsed long ago and driving the car without a valid inspection sticker was not without risk. But now I don't have to worry about that anymore and hope to take the vehicle out for some fun more frequently, especially this summer.

Hood Struts

While I worked on the vehicle back in 2017 I noticed that one of the hood struts wasn't doing its thing as well as the other, and that required me to provide additional assistance to open the hood. I had my hands full at the time of the overhaul so I elected to push off a new set of hood struts...until now. As I opened the hood to check fluids before I drove it over to the dealer the other day I realized that the hood would not stay open. So when I got there I added a set of hood struts to the list.

Replacing the struts was easy after I remembered how to do it. The end of the clip must be bent up just a bit to pull it out of the groove machined into the round bar welded to the mounting flange. At that point the strut can be pulled off the round bar. Even with the clip raised they required a bit of muscle to pull off as I found minor corrosion or dirt between the mating surfaces, so before I installed the new units I burnished the mounting points with some steel wool and then wiped them with some CV2 synthetic grease. As a result, the new parts slipped on easily and I checked that item off the list. The hood now raises with new vigor and remains open unassisted.

Another Battery

I'd noticed late last year that my battery charger had dropped to gel mode, which is its way of saying "this battery isn't holding a charge". It defaults to gel mode simply to protect the battery from overcharging but the downside is the float voltage is lower than ideal. Usually when the charger acts in this way it's a sign that one of the cells has reversed but I didn't bother to pull out a voltmeter this time -- I last replaced the battery almost four years to the date, in April of 2019 so I knew it was time, particularly if I expect to drive the vehicle more this summer.

The longest a battery has ever lasted in this vehicle was seven years, and that was when I was driving it every day. Two of the batteries failed around five years, but as BMW has started to source parts in places other than Germany, the quality in all parts have declined over the last 10-15 years and I don't think I've managed more than 3-4 years out of any battery in that time. This is not an encouraging trend but as I watch vehicles transition to EVs that glue everything shut I'm happy that replacing this vehicle's battery is as trivial as it should be in all vehicles -- I removed the bracket that holds it to the car, unbolted the terminal wires, and swapped the unit for a new stylish black-top part before I re-connected everything. No coding necessary.

Thankfully, BMW did not try to do something stupid like replace the flooded cell battery with an AGM that is all the rage in the new cars. Had they done that I would have sourced an aftermarket battery. AGMs are great batteries but they require adaptive charging systems to match the specific charge profile required by an AGM battery. My GTI supports this through coding but my E36 is an old dog that can't learn new tricks. Use of an AGM battery on a vehicle with a charging system that wasn't designed for it will prevent the battery from reaching the maximum state of charge, which translates into sulfation and a reduction in lifespan. Of course, only time will tell how many years I get out of this one.

Engine Oil Service

I'm ashamed to admit that I last changed the engine oil in late 2017 shortly after the overhaul. Since that time the vehicle has sat largely idle as I embarked on a new career and devoted much of my free time to that and other personal matters. As all oil ages by calendar time in addition to mileage this change was long overdue.

Once I drained the roughly 5 year old oil into a drain pan located in full sun I noticed a very slight shimmer, which indicates some wear metals are still working their way out of the engine. I found only a few bits of carbon between the pleats of the filter so the engine still appears healthy. This engine has always darkened its oil prematurely, at least with respect to the E46, so I considered the generally dark character of the oil to be completely normal and not a reflection of excessive blow-by.

After a recent visit with my dealer technician I found that BMW no longer makes 5W-30 and they have changed oil vendors once again. They have deemed their new 0W-30 a suitable replacement but sadly the price has shot up as well, making it no longer economically viable to get oil from the dealer, even with my discount. I have since sourced the LL-01 approved 5W-30 variant of the Castrol Edge product I use in my VW and I will be using that in the future. This is available in 5 quart bottles for $28 online, which cuts the cost for an oil service nearly in half.

For the record, the oil I used this time around in the E36 was BMW 5W-30 I actually purchased for the E46 several years ago.

Brake Fluid Flush

The last brake fluid flush was performed as part of the driveline overhaul so the service was overdue, to put it mildly. As the vehicle has largely remained stationary the last five years I fully expected the fluid to show signs of rust or other contamination but my concerns were unfounded. The fluid was perfectly clear, though a deeper gold color typical of aged TYP200. Once again I managed to push most (i.e. 90%) of a liter through all four calipers, with a majority of the fluid coming from the right rear due to the length of the brake line to that wheel.

BMW OBC Project Status

A few years ago I started a passion project based on the OpenOBC project that aimed to provide an enhanced replacement to the factory 18 button OBC. While this project has its own page, not everyone finds it. I've received several contacts over the last six months asking about the project's status so I figured I'd mention here that the project is still on hold. For future status updates, please check that article.

Future Plans

The current list of maintenance and project items include:

Mileage: 271200