Monday, October 12, 2009

Swapping your Differential: Serious Performance

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to help a fellow Bimmerhead add some pep to his car. This time it was in the form of a 3.38 differential swap and Hotchkis sway bars. I have covered the sway bars in subsequent blogs and on the forums so I will focus on the differential swap.

Right off the bat I can say that this was not a hard DIY. Yea, I know, you are thinking "yea, right". But it was truly an easy process. All you need to do is take your time and be mindful of what you are doing and you will be fine. I found a couple DIY's on the forums and read them over and over. I looked at the diagrams on and even crawled under my car for a look around. When I was confident I had done all the pre-DIY research I could do, I waited for the day to come. My friend arrived (came to Bham from Atlanta) with his new differential he sourced from an automatic car that was identical to his car (2001 330i). I found out later it wasn't exactly like his car, but more on that later.

I began by removing his rear sway bar, I did this because I was swapping them anyways. I guess you don't have to do this, but it is only a few extra bolts and with it out of the way, I had all the room I needed to work. Next, I unbolted the lower subframe brace (two bolts) and the heat shield. I also took off the two exhaust hangers so the muffler could hang down. Then it was just a matter of removing the driveshaft bolts and the half shaft bolts (you will need an external torx head for this size E12). Once I had all that done I just removed the 3 bolts that held the actual diff to the subframe and it falls out with a little "persuasion". I am not going into great detail because others already have. The best DIY is found here. It gives you more specifics. We had to remove the outer flanges because they are different. In my case I used a few prybars and a hammer to get them out. They come out easier than you'd think and then the new one's press right back on to the new diff housing.

Here are the little "tips" I picked up along the way:
1. Have a friend help you. Without one, it is next to impossible to lift the new differential into place. It is heavy and akward and I crushed my finger trying to be "he-man".
2. Make sure to do your research so you don't end up with a different input flange (where the driveshaft connects to the differential) because they are different on the 330 than the 323/325.
3. Change the fluid of the new/used diff BEFORE putting it in the car. It was so easy to just tip the replacement unit on it's side to drain it and then just pour in the new fluid. No need to use a pump this way and was so easy. Failure to do this could cause you headache. A recent post I saw where a guy did the swap and he assumed the new unit had fluid in it....and it didn't. Can you say boom?
4. Replace the differential bushing while you are in there. Think ahead......we didn't. Also, if you are going to do a new set of control arms, now would be the ideal time since the differential is out of your way.

Impressions of the swap are simply WOW! What a hoss. It really transformed 1st and 2nd gear (5 speed car) into a tire shredding fun zone. The 3.38 was a good choice IMO over the 3.46 because it is still liveable on the interstate. 70MPH = just over 3000rpm's. If you have a 6 speed (and shouldn't we all) you can certainly do a 3.46 with no problem at all. All in all I think the swap was well worth it. It only took me about 4 hours total (including rear sway bar) and that was my first time doing it and I was under the car while on jack stands. This is NOT a hard job and I would say if you can do brakes or VANOS, you can do this. So if you want a peppy ride, a diff swap is the next best thing to forced induction! Hopefully one day, I can document that process on my own car!

Friday, September 11, 2009

I love Labor Day, Rear Trailing Arm Bushings Replaced

First I want to apologize for the slacking off on my part regarding this blog. I had hoped to add a new post weekly. With a tough economy, I find myself spending more time working than typing.

This past weekend (Labor Day) I decided to replace my rear trailing arm bushings. Why you ask? Because they had 190k miles on them! I could tell the rear of my car was getting really unstable under hard cornering (or "commuting"). It was especially noticeable when doing rapid directional changes and when hitting on and off ramps hard. Best way to describe it is a drifting feeling, like the back end is lagging behind. Since I have quite a lot of suspension upgrades to my car, it bothered me and I just felt it was time to tighten things back up.

I was honestly a little nervous about the project at first, after all I was replacing the main connection point for the rear wheels. But after looking at it and reading the DIY's, it really isn't bad at all. In researcing the project I noticed a lot of the DIY's on the net say you MUST have this special removal tool for the bushing. Well, the little tool is $90! I didn't have $90, so I said my usual "I'll figure it out" and went to work. There are many, many DIY's on the procedure so I will spare you the details. But I will say this, if you have an air chisel, a hammer, and a sharp screwdriver, the old bushings come out just fine without the tool. I highly recommend the use of powerflex solid bushings for replacement of the OEM bushings. Unlike the front control arm bushings by powerflex, these do not increase driving harshness at all. They do however make a HUGE difference in handling, I picked up 7-9mph in the hard corners I usually drive. Also, the powerflex (or any urethane bushing) eliminates the worry about "preloading". Preloading is caused by the rubber bushing binding up when re-installing it and is a complicated process to keep it from doing so. With the urethane one's you bolt on and go. If you want to see pics of the process, here is the link to the post I made on

So to recap, here are the things you need to know to do this job:

1. Buy powerflex or UUC urethane bushings. I recommend powerflex and you can get them from Bimmerworld here. Bimmerworld is great and ships fast.
2. While the RTAB bushing removal tool is great, there are a variety of ways to remove the bushings without it. If you are creative, mechanically inclined, and don't mind a little sweat, it is not needed.
3. Mark the location of the upper bracket with a pen or scribe it with a screwdriver. This will ensure you get the plate back into position correctly.
4. You may need to drop your sway bar (I did) if you have aftermarket ones for clearance

Other than that, it was an easy DIY that netted great results. I mean you REALLY feel this "mod" and how it tightens up your car. Best $79 you'll spend. I guarantee it!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Helping others and paying it forward, you never know

It's 6pm on a Saturday, I have made a 3 hour trip to Atlanta to pick up some wheels for my BMW. I get everything and head off to return home to Birmingham. All of a sudden the oil light comes on, the battery light comes on, my power steering dies, and I instantly realize my main accessory belt has snapped. I pull over and inspect the damage. Sure enough, my water pump had failed, the bearing blew out shredding my belt and leaving me stranded 3 hours from home. What a helpless feeling!

Ever been in that position? Maybe not automotively speaking, but what about your life in general. What about others lives around you? I got to thinking today, that amidst all the chaos in this world people all around us are hurting and in desperate situations. Have you ever helped someone in a way that it cost you something? Money, sweat, time, pain, tears, maybe all of these? If you haven't, perhaps you haven't ever truly helped someone. Because real help costs something, if it doesn't, then it means very little. My ultimate example, Jesus, knew this well. He even said "what is greater, to say thy sins be forgiven thee or rise up and walk". Lip service is easy, a prayer for someone is easy, saying you'll keep someone in your thoughts is easy, but moving a friend into a new house, taking a homeless man to lunch (yes, into the restaurant), sitting in a hospital room for hours to hold the hand of a dying person, these are the things that define true help. I read a story once that I want to share with you. It is about a man in just such a situation.

"A nurse escorted a tired, anxious young man to the bed side of an elderly man. "Your son is here," she whispered to the patient. She had to repeat the words several times before the patient's eyes opened. He was heavily sedated because of the pain of his heart attack and he dimly saw the young man standing outside the oxygen tent.
He reached out his hand and the young man tightly wrapped his fingers around it, squeezing a message of encouragement. The nurse brought a chair next to the bedside. All through the night the young man sat holding the old mans hand, and offering gentle words of hope. The dying man said nothing as he held tightly to his son.
As dawn approached, the patient died. The young man placed on the bed the lifeless hand he had been holding, and then he went to notify the nurse.
While the nurse did what was necessary, the young man waited. When she had finished her task, the nurse began to say words of sympathy to the young man.
But he interrupted her. "Who was that man?" He asked.
The startled nurse replied, "I thought he was your father."
"No, he was not my father," he answered. "I never saw him before in my life."
"Then why didn't you say something when I took you to him?" asked the nurse.
He replied, "I also knew he needed his son, and his son just wasn't here. When I realized he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his son, I knew how much he needed me..." (source for this article is found here)

Can you imagine doing that? I can't. But I am not even talking about going to that extreme. Even stopping to change a tire for someone on the side of the road, carrying groceries to an old lady's car, or taking parts off of your car so a guy can just get home.

See the second half of the story I started at the beginning of this blog is that the guy who I bought the wheels from came to where I was, towed me to his house (thank goodness for tow hooks) with his BMW, let me use his tools, drove me to the parts store, and even gave me his waterpump pulley because I broke mine. Great story, but it doesn't end there, it gets even more incredible. That all happened in September of last year. Last month I get a PM from a guy on Bimmerfest that a person from Chatanooga, TN with an E46 is stuck in Birmingham and needs a good shop. I emailed them and offered to help. Turns out it was actually the forum members daughter who was in town for a wedding. She had the EXACT same failure as I had had in Georgia. The parts stores were closed and she needed to get home. I took my waterpump and pulley off of my car and gave them to her to get home! Talk about paying it forward! You can't tell me that God didn't engineer that set of circumstances!

So why am I telling you all this? So that you can be impressed with me? No. So you will think I am great? No. I don't want you to think about me at all! I am telling you this so you will think about those around you that need YOU! When you give, you get. And I am not talking about money. There is so much more you'll get than money it isn't even funny (hey, that rhymed). I charge you to pay it forward. Do more than you have to, do it often, and do it TODAY! You may never know when you will need someone yourself!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sway Bars: The biggest bang for your buck!

As we continue our look at the suspension components on the BMW, perhaps none are as hotly debated as sway bars. They give you the absolutely largest gain in performance for the least amount of money. A good set of sway bars can literally transform your car from a well handling car into a corner carving beast that makes your wife not want to ride with you (ask me how I know).

So you bought your BMW because it is billed as "The Ultimate Driving Machine". From the factory, BMW had several options on sway bars depending on your model. Sizes for them ranged between 18.5-24mm front diameter bars and 15-21mm rear bars depending on body style and year. Generally the 330's had the largest bars and as a general rule the thicker the bar, the more stable the car during aggressive driving. But it isn't as simple as "bigger bars are better".

What is important to remember is that the front and rear bars work in tandem, and small changes to either can have a drastic difference in the way your car handles. For instance, the Dinan performance sway bars for the E46 are much smaller diameter in comparison to my UUC Swaybarbarians and are set to add a little extra oversteer to the dramatic understeer your BMW has from the factory. It isn't a great deal of difference over factory sport sway bars and I can only figure this is because Dinan is a factory BMW performance division and they want it to be "aggressive" but still keep you from killing yourself. And since this topic is so broad and the range of changes and options is so great I will move on and discuss my personal findings and experience.

I got a used set of UUC swaybarbarians for the E46. It was an INSTANT and DRAMATIC change (intially I set the bars to their stiffest setting front and rear). All of a sudden my car felt like it was going to go where I pointed it and NO body roll whatsoever. It almost felt too "twitchy" and I admit, at first, I was a little scared of it. The tail end noticeably swept around much better. If my venerable little 323 motor had enough oomph, the car could be steered with the gas pedal. After a few weeks of driving it like this I became accustomed to the way it felt and began to push my car harder and harder. I then started playing with the different settings and I began to learn by FEEL how and what the car does. This is probably one of the more exciting things I have leared in my time as a "Bimmerhead" and I am loving it.

Here are a few pointers for those thinking about sway bars:

  • Get adjustable sway bars. Non adjustable sways would be boring and if you are paying upwards of $400, why not get something that allows you to make adjustments to fine tune the car to YOUR style?
  • Buy heavy duty adjustable front sway end links. You will kill your stock one's in short order if you don't and it makes a world of difference in feel and allows for even more fine tuning of your car.
  • Beef up your rear sway bar mount tabs. The BMW stock tabs on the rear are very weak and thin. Running a super fat, stiff bar like the UUC's, it is possible you could tear them. has a set of weld in reinforcements that cost $20 and you can probably get them welded in by a muffler shop for under $50. It is worth it. Keeping them from breaking is so much easier than fixing them when they are broken.
  • Stiffer isn't always better. You'll see what I mean when you get them!
  • Finally, GET SOME NEW SWAY BARS! It is the best mod I have ever done.
So that's it. To be honest I am getting a little bored with the suspension blog. And this entry was increasingly difficult because there are so many things to discuss and I can't possibly cover them all. I am not sure what the next entry will be, but feel free to drop me a line and suggest topics.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Suspension Part 2

One of the most popular upgrades for ANY car is the shocks/struts and springs. These items carry the weight of the car and have a HUGE impact on handling, good or bad. Does your car bounce? Float? Drift? Rock side to side? Feel loose? Chances are your shocks are worn out. Most BMW suspensions last around 80k miles. Any more than that and you probably notice any or all of the above symptoms.

BMW offered two shock/spring options on the E46 and most other models: sport and non-sport. Each has a different spring rate (the stiffness), ride height, and shock absorber stiffness. Obviously "sport" is lower and stiffer than "non sport". A general rule is the stiffer the spring/shock, the better the car handles. But there is much more to a good set-up than just "stiffness" so you must choose a set-up that best suits your driving style.

Here are some tips for choosing the right suspension:
  • Prioritize your needs. Do you like canyon carving or comfortable commuting? Can you handle bumps and humps? How low do you want your car? What is your budget? What are the roads like where you live? Does it snow/ice? How often can you afford to replace tires, shocks, etc? Make a list and be realistic, lots of guys buy the super hard "corner carver" kits only to regret it after the initial giddy feeling wears off. And at $700-$2500, it ain't a cheap mistake to make!
  • Once you have your list of things you want, take some time and do your research. Talk to the guys at Turner Motorsport, Bimmerworld, and other shops that race what they sell. They can tell you what works on the track and what works on the street. Most are more than willing to tell you their experience if you just ask. Also check the online forums (caution:the public is ultimately one sided and few people have the ability to be objective with their views so keep that in mind when they tell you XYZ kit is the only way to go).
  • Keep in mind the "collateral damage" you might cause to your car. Damage? What damage? So glad you asked. Things like tire wear, shock life, and body damage from scraping can all be things you have to deal with. Personally I deal with a severe inner tire wear problem from being lowered, great for tearing up the twisties, not so great when I am always buying tires. And I can't tell you how many times I have scraped my bumper by pulling to far forward in a parking space. Also, the lower and stiffer you go, the sooner shocks tend to need replacement (especially in pot hole riddled parts of the world).
  • Buy the best kit you can afford. Just as the engine is the heart of your drivetrain, the shocks and struts are the heart of your suspension. Going with a more expensive but tried and true brand can save you hassle and time down the road.
A lot of people ask me what I have on my car (knowing I am on a very limited budget but yet really like to go fast) so here is my set-up. I bought my car with 112k miles. It had H&R sport springs on it when I bought it. But the shocks were factory non-sport units. This is a MAJOR NO NO! Lowered cars need special shocks that are designed to operate at the lower height. It can be downright unsafe to run a super low spring with stock shocks, so don't do it! I swapped the shocks/struts for Tokico "Blue" shocks. They have a lifetime warranty and cost $389 shipped to my door for all 4 corners. Lots of import guys have used them for years with great success. They are a good mix of stiffness and driveability and work well with the lowered set-up. After 40k miles of moderate to hard core use, they still perform very well. Not all that exciting I know, but hey, it's all I can afford!

Next installment we discuss sway bars! Don't miss it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Suspension Q's and A's.........from my point of view

As car people we tend to treat our cars differently than "normal" people. By that I mean we wash them more often, we are bothered by brake dust on the wheels, bird poop makes us crazy, and if our car doesn't "feel" right we will spare no expense to restore it to former glory. BMW's have a certain feel to them that you have to experience to understand. It is one of the reasons we chose BMW, because we want to DRIVE our cars. But that feel can fade fast if we do not give our car the proper TLC it needs.

Most of this post will be focusing on the E46, but the ideas here can be applied to all BMW models. The first thing you have to come to terms with on suspension and BMW is that it costs more to maintain it than a Honda. Think of it this way, a road race car has to have LOTS of stuff done to it to keep it competitive. Your BMW is much closer to a race car than the average Accord. It was designed to run the Autobahn at triple digit speeds and give you the feedback and control you need to be safe. When things wear out, you feel it and you need to fix it. Ever have your steering wheel buck one direction or another under braking? A slight vibration you feel at 80mph but not 81mph? Do you hear clunking when hitting a pot hole? Is your ride just not "crisp" anymore?

Here are some common failure items and the parts I suggest you replace them with:

  • Control Arm Bushings: Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask about this on the forums. Most of the time the symptom is either the steering wheel shaking or jerking under braking, or a clunking noise. The control arm bushing is basically there to provide supoprt to the back end of the control arm itself and on the E46 is one of only three connection points. (see #6 on Diagram) It consists of an aluminum housing, a solid outer bushing pressed into the aluminum, and a rubber lined inner bushing filled with hydraluic fluid. It is a good desing for smoothing out the bumps in the road, but tends to fail within 60k miles and much sooner in colder climates. The rubber cracks, the fluid leaks out, and the bushing becomes much less affective. They are also hard to remove making DIY's more difficult. I personally prefer the solid bushings from Powerflex (no, I don't get spiffs from them). The solid bushings last much longer, give better feedback, last much longer, provide better handling, and are easy to remove for replacement or service to the control arm itself. The cost is a little higher(I got mine for $149 from here) and the only complaint I have heard is that they tend to magnify vibrations caused by other worn suspension components. All that said, they really made a difference on my car, and have withstood some pretty severe abuse now for about 50k miles. If you live where the roads are really, really bad, you may want to stay with OEM style like the Meyle HD's found at places like OEM Bimmer parts here. And contrary to what some say, you do not need to get an alignment if you just replace the bushings. There are positive locator pins that only allow them to mount in a certain place. If your car has more than 60k miles, chances are a fresh set of Control Arm Bushings will make a world of difference.

  • Control Arms Assembly: This part of the suspension is also a big part of keeping that tight feel to your car (see #5 in the above diagram). The E46 control arm has an inner ball joint and an outer ball joint. The inner joint connects the arm to the front sub-frame, and the outer joint connects to the tie rod. When these wear all kinds of clunking and vibration are common. Also you might get uneven tire wear and even a feeling of instability at higher speed. The entire arm should be replaced with a quality replacement arm. No shortcuts here, you gotta pony up some $$$ for these. Cheaper versions will fail early and you will have to redo them long before you want to. I prefer the Meyle HD versions found at OEM Bimmer parts here. They are only $350 and worth every penny. If you want a slightly stiffer ride, you can spring for the ZHP versions. I replaced mine with some regular HD versions and found them more than adequate for my aggressive driving style. I had over 139k miles on my OEM arms so replacing these made a HUGE difference in my car. It is worth mentiong that both the arms and the bushings can be done DIY in your own garage. It is not hard and well documented on the net. I have seen Indy's and dealers quote well over $1200 for control arms and bushings, this is pure highway robbery! Borrow some tools and a friend, an afternoon of work can save you $700 or more. Lastly, make sure you get an alignment after doing the control arms. I runied a brand new set of tires by not doing this. More to come, stay tuned......

Monday, July 6, 2009

Do you blindly trust your "expert" mechanic? Why?

It never ceases to amaze me, so called "certified" (more like certifiable) mechanics don't seem to have a frigging clue about cars, BMW's in particular. It seems like the recent set of mechanic college grads have never even DRIVEN a car. They can diagnose a computer code, but if you throw them a more complex problem, they don't seem to apply common sense.

A great example is a recent problem my ex-boss had with his 2004 BMW 330 ZHP Package. He took it to the local independent BMW mechanic place and told them to change his oil and air filter. He also mentioned he was getting poor gas mileage and had a CEL. This CEL (check engine light) code was checked by me a few weeks earlier as p0174 and p0171 which are system lean codes. Anyway a few hours later he called to check the status of his car and they had blown up his DME (computer) trying to re-flash it with the latest software. Car was dead. The problem with this is two fold. 1. The never called him to ask if he wanted a re-flash in software. 2. It doesn't make sense why they tried that to begin with. (I will elaborate more why in a moment). Then they told him it would cost $800 for a new DME, but they wouldn't charge him labor. I called and found several used DME's for $250 locally, but why would they charge this guy for their mistake? Unbelievable! Back to my comment about why they didn't need to re-flash the software to begin with. The simple fact is that the car used to get 4mpg better gas mileage without the software reflash. So common sense tells me there is something mechanically wrong somewhere or else it would be getting the same mileage it always got. And while a newer version of software may have been available, it certainly wasn't needed to restore the car to original fuel mileage standards. Yet, as is so often the case, the new breed of mechanic has no idea how to diagnose a problem more complex than a computer telling them to replace an 02 sensor.

Another story I just recently heard was even more mind blowing. An owner and member of a BMW online forum had some issues with sluggishness in his 330i. He was thinking it sounded like a VANOS problem which is pretty reliable to think. He asked a "trusted mechanic" (his words) about it and was told "the E46 didn't have VANOS problems, that was more on the 5 series". WHAT!? I did a quick search on and sure enough the part number for the E39 5 series VANOS and the part number for the E46 3 series VANOS are IDENTICAL! Meaning SAME EXACT PART! Now shouldn't a "trusted mechanic"/BMW expert know that? And in case that person is reading, yes you should replace your VANOS seals, and no you should not buy the Dr. VANOS kit, you should buy the Beisan Seals (only $60 here is the link) and have someone besides your "expert" install them.

To magnify this topic further, I (who found the VANOS part #'s in 5 minutes online) have zero hours in a ASE Certification school, no formal mechanic training, and no BMW training either. What I do have is 17 years of drag racing, trial and error, car repairs, and common sense (along with a decent mechanical aptitude) which has proven to save myself and countless people serious amounts of money. Am I an "expert"? I don't know about that. But what I do know is the
more I hear about what other so called "experts" are telling people (not to mention what they charge) and doing to people, I feel like a BMW genius.

In summary, I will tell you this. We live in the information age. Almost anything, ok ANYTHING, can be found on the internet if one dare look hard enough. BMW owners especially have multiple resources online. And tapping into the collective genius of an internet forum such as is worth way more than you can imagine. Go to Autozone and have your codes read, don't be afraid to dig around under your hood, or log on to a forum and ask a question. As I have said so many times, "what one man can do, another can do!" and working on cars is no different! So you don't have to blindly accept ANYONE's opinion (not even mine) without digging a little deeper first. It might save you money, it might save you time, it might save you both.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Sidekick, Star, Salesman, and an Angel

First of all, I have to give my wife credit for the title of this Blog. She mentioned the deaths of 4 prominent "celebrities" and asked "what is the meaning of all this?". She is referring of course to the death of Ed Mcmahon (the sidekick), Michael Jackson (the star), Billy Mays (the salesman) and Farrah Faucet (the Angel). Once again, this is supposed to be a car blog, but this first blog of July isn't really car related, so skip it if you don't want to hear my thoughts on life and death.

I guess we could just call it coincidence, I mean, "normal people" die everyday. But the world seems enthralled with the death of some very popular people and that is what prompted this particular set of ramblings. I guess the big question is "why?". Despite the coincidence of Billy Mays and Michael Jackson both being 51, and both dying from apparent heart failure, the 4 have little in common. But I believe God speaks to we human's whatever way He can. And this got me to thinking about what God is trying to say to us. My conclusion: we live in a unique time in history like none before us and God is calling one last time to those who would listen. Death makes us think about mortality, and an end that nobody can escape.

Solomon, the wisest man ever born, said "it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of laughter". And if we think about the hereafter, we are forced to ask ourselves the hard questions we try so hard to avoid thinking about.

We have so much "stuff" to keep our minds busy nowadays, why bother thinking about death?Well, all of a sudden, my TV is full of reminders that even Farrah, Michael, Ed, and Billy's time ran out. And it ran out before they probably were ready. So I believe the Lord is letting people have to come to grasp with these deaths of seemingly "immortal" stars of days past and present.
Unfortunately, I am a realist. I realize that these deaths have deeper meaning, but that very few will heed the warning or hear the voice of the Lord calling out. Jesus himself said "the way is narrow and few will find it". Ever wonder what "few" means? I do. I remember the aftermath of 9/11, millions flocked to churches looking for answers, myself included. And while I was changed forever, many soon forgot the peril and anguish of that day and continued to live their lives as they had. And I have no doubt these 4 deaths will be the same, though on a smaller scale. Some will seek answers to their own mortality. Some will find it in the true God, Jesus Christ. Others will find it in false gods and religions. What will you do?

I believe that the sidekick, star, salesman, and angel are a reminder that EVERYONE has an end. And that while they had lives that were extraordinary their deaths were ordinary. Death is the great equilizer. I hope you go into the house of mourning for a moment, but don' stay there. Find the good news, the silver lining, the truth: Jesus loves you and in Him, there is no death. We need not fear death, we need not worry about when our time is up. He called me by name before I was born (think about that for a moment), He knows the number of hairs on my head, He knows the number of my days, and in Him I am secure.

I hope you all have a wonderful 4th of July, and remember that not only can you celebrate the freedom of the USA, but you can also celebrate the freedom available to us all in Christ. Freedom from death, freedom from fear, and freedom from dying an "ordinary" death. Because in Him, when you die, it will be anything BUT ordinary!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Give me a BRAKE......

Ever come squealing to a halt at a traffic light? Ever hear a horrific grinding noise when you apply the brakes? Chances are you have, and it is un-nerving to say the least. Of all the systems your BMW (or other "lesser" brand car) has, I doubt any are more important than your braking system. I mean, you can 0-60 in 3 seconds in a supercharged M3, top 190Mph in an M5, swing through curves like nobody's business in a ZHP, but if you can't stop; what's the point?

As I recently did some inspections on my car I realized it was about time for new brakes (great, there goes $300 bucks!) and I figured now would be a good time to talk about brakes, my preferences, tips, tricks, and where to find good deals on parts (hint: it isn't the dealer).

BMW brakes are exceptional. It only took me one or two fast stops after I bought my 323 to realize the incredible stopping power of the E46. I then came to find out that the BMW brakes are lighter than most cars for better balance, and larger than most cars for better fade resistance and more stopping power. I also learned that OEM pads give the 1930's "dust bowl" nightmare a run for its money! These truths span the entire line of BMW models 3's, 5's, and 7's (the ///M cars get even beefier units). The braking system is designed essentially the same on the E34's, E36's, E39's and E46's I have repaired. So as a general rule, the steps to change brakes on an E34 is largely the same as an E46. The main difference being rotor size. The E46 323 like mine for instance, comes with 286mmX22mm front rotors while the 330 has 325mmX25mm rotors. These much larger brakes are why I switched my 323 over to 330 brakes. And yes, those 39mm's make a BIG difference in braking.

So where and what should you buy for brakes? Many people prefer OEM braking components (Brembo or Zimmerman rotors and Textar pads) because they work and a LOT of people think they have magical properties (don't even get me started on BMW coolant!). The reality is that the OEM spec stuff just plain works and you can't argue with a company like Brembo for brakes. But there are better options than textar or mintex for pads. This is where performance and driving style come in to play. If you like super aggressive driving, late, hard braking, and just plain having fun, a "bitier" pad like Hawk or EBC Red's might make your day. If you like low dust, but less aggressive stopping power (still excellent though) you might want to check out the ceramic offerings available by Hawk or Akebono. A friend has the Akebono's and they are great from a dust standpoint, but squeal in protest during a stop and this is something all ceramics I have experience with seem to have issues with. Another thought is that super aggressive pads also wear out your rotors faster (in addition to gobs of brake dust), so you'll want to keep that in mind. Overall the best mix in my opinion is the Hawk Street pads with Brembo rotors (or Zimmerman). Turner Motorsport has some excellent packages on their website featuring these products.

Real quick let me address the inevitable question about cross drilled/slotted rotors. The answer is yes, they look cool, but no, they don't help you stop any better in an E46. In fact, if you buy the wrong cross drilled rotors you can get rotor warpage, cracking, or total failure. Recently I put ebay cross drilled rotors on a Mini Cooper for a lady that really wanted them. Within 5,000 miles they were warped and she had to replace them with regular rotors. If you must go with cross drilled, EBC or Zimmerman are the only two manufacturers I would use. Again, Turner Motorsport has them for you. You just can't abuse your rotors enough, even on track day, to need cross drilled.

Lastly, here a few tips/tricks concerning brakes:

  1. You don't have to replace the brake sensors (saves you $20) if your brake light doesn't come on in your instrument cluster. You really shouldn't be waiting that long anyways. Even if it does come on, I personally just twist the wires together to make the light go off and zip tie them out of the way. Why? Because the sensors on most BMW's are on opposite corners (drivers front and passenger rear) and on my car, the back drivers side went all the way to the rotor and I never got the light to come on. They are pointless. Inspect your car regular and it won't sneak up on you. (dummy lights are for......well.......dummies!)
  2. Make sure to use steel wool on your caliper guide pins to get them nice and clean. I use a 0000 steel wool. This is important for proper brake function.
  3. Use a liberal amount of anti squeal on the BACK of the pads, please don't put it on the pad surface!
  4. Use a small dab of anti-seize compound on the hub BEFORE putting the new rotors back on, you will thank me for this when you go to change them again. Also put some on the rotor hub so getting your wheels off will be easier.
  5. Lastly, spend the $4 and buy new rotor retaining nuts. They are notorius for stripping out and it is a hassle you can avoid. If your old ones are giving you problems try using a torx bit to help give you some extra "bite" in the threads.

And there you have it. Brakes in a nutshell. Yes, there is a lot I missed and/or skipped. But you get the ideas. I leave you with Shad's list of links to places to buy brakes (I have used them all and they are all good):

Monday, June 22, 2009

Making a difference (a little non-car talk)

Can one man (or woman) make a difference? Have you ever wondered if that is really true? See when I think of people who made a difference I think of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Major Dick Winters (Easy Company Commander in WW2, featured in HBO's Band of Brothers), C.S. Lewis, and other men of relative "fame". But have you ever heard the story of Ray Blankenship? As I thought about things today that are far more important than BMW's, I thought of my relationship with Jesus, my family, my kids, and the people I help or have helped.

With all this blogging, twitter, and forum stuff I do, I have begun to think of myself as a crusader to the common man. To help those in need with car repairs for cheap prices and be as honest as I can be with them. To teach those who would learn to do their own repairs, to impart knowledge learned by my own sweat and blood. But I guess today I wondered, is this all my life is about? Have I become nothing more than a "car resource" when I have more knowledge to give, knowledge that really does make a difference. The knowledge of Jesus Christ, and what He has done for Shad Molck, and what He can do for you.

You're probably thinking, "oh brother, I came here for BMW advice and I get a wacko "Jesus Freak" out of nowhere". I assure you, I don't intend to Bible bash anyone. In fact, I am almost done with this entry, so just hang in there. I was an alcoholic, cocaine freak, 3 pack a day smoker, adulterer and liar. And through Christ I found the strength to quit all those things. In fact, I haven't had a drink of alcohol or a snort of anything in over 6 years. I'm faithful to my wife, and haven't smoked in over 6 years either. How do I know He is real, I know who I was, and I know who I am now. You don't get the old Shad to change with earthly power, it wasn't possible. So I don't need to argue if Jesus exists, if He is real, or if there is an eternity to earn. As sure as my BMW carves corners, the answer is YES, YES, YES! So what does that have to do with BMW's, me, this blog and Ray Blankenship (you didn't think I forgot about him did you?)? Well, here is the story of Ray Blankenship:

One summer morning as Ray Blankenship was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window, and saw a small girl being swept along in the rain-flooded drainage ditch beside his Andover, Ohio, home. Blankenship knew that farther downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath a road and then emptied into the main culvert. Ray dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the foundering child. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. Blankenship surfaced and was able to grab the child's arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about three feet of the yawning culvert, Ray's free hand felt something--possibly a rock-- protruding from one bank. He clung desperately, but the tremendous force of the water tried to tear him and the child away. "If I can just hang on until help comes," he thought. He did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Blankenship had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, for this selfless person was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. Ray Blankenship can't swim.

You see, what Ray did is what Jesus asks us to do. Just jump in the river and trust that He will pull you through. I believe he asked me to write about this because if I do nothing else, I should tell anyone I know (or who knows me) that life will end one day. What happens next is up to you. Jesus did the hard part, now you must make a choice. My choice was hard, my choice was 7 years ago, and my choice is to share it with you now.

I can tell you how to troubleshoot an A/C system, replace an oil separator, or even replace your VANOS seals. But if I don't tell you about Jesus, then I haven't fulfilled my purpose. I haven't been a "difference maker". I want to make a difference. No matter what you are going through, no matter what you believe, Jesus is out there, calling to each of us in the way we need to be called. I hope you find Him, then you can have your name called as a "difference maker" in eternity.

My next entry will be cars again. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Short Blog about A/C (follow up to yesterday's article)

Just wanted to say, I spent some time helping someone (pro-bono work) troubleshoot their A/C system on a 97 Grand-AM. I know, I know, a Pontiac? Well, at least I don't have to drive it. The lady has been through all last summer in the AL with no A/C, and it is super hot already this summer. I just HAD to help her get it working. What is so bad, she had it "professionally" serviced last year in May. She spent over $100 getting it filled and checked for leaks. The shop said it was good to go with no leaks. Within 4 hours of working on it, she had no cold air once again. She got the run-around and they opted not to help her and she didn't have the money to fight it, nor to get it fixed. Here is a short run-down of my findings in the hopes it may help one of you.

When I looked at the compressor with the A/C on full blast I noticed the compressor didn't turn. The question was, why wasn't it turning. I figured it was too low on R-134a for the compressor to run (it had to be that or the voltage switch was bad) and decided to spend $8 on a can of R-134a. After digging around to find the low pressure cap, which on this car was way down low between the firewall and the worthless Pontiac 4 banger motor just close enough to the manifold so I had to burn my hands, I added the can. It went in very fast and almost instantly the compressor kicked in and the air from the vents was cold. It needed another can, but since I wasn't sure it wouldn't all leak out, I opted to save her the additional $8. After seeing the compressor would indeed turn, I decided to add some UV dye and see if I can isolate a leak. It is real common for them to leak around the pulley on the compressor so I hope it is that easy. All this took me a whopping 15 minutes. I did not have time to check for leaks with the light and special glasses, but I will next week and update this article.

Just wanted you all to realize no matter if it is a BMW or a Pontiac, troubleshooting an A/C system is NOT rocket science. I have never even popped the hood of a Pontiac in my life, yet the concept is the same on all cars so it made it very easy to pinpoint the issue. I am excited that this lady will have ice cold air for less than 15% of what the indy shop quoted her!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keeping your cool this summer

Welcome to summer! In my part of the world the mercury has risen well above 90 and humidity to match. And lucky me, it stays this way till October! I swear, Alabama is the only place where you can get a sunburn, heatstroke, and dehydrated at a football game! And since I am what I call "hypo-thermatically sensitive", strong A/C is a MUST!

I have been pleasantly surprised with my BMW climate control system. It keeps things nice and cool in the hottest of temperatures. But last year about this time I was sitting at a red light and all of a sudden warm air starting pouring out of the vents. For me, this was worse than overheating. It was a giant unknown and I started having flash backs of my old Jetta. The air died and they said it would cost $1500 to fix it (so I traded it in). However, since I didn't have $1500 and I was not gonna sweat through an Alabama summer, I dove in to fix it. Here is my experience and some tips.

First thing I did was buy a quality pressure gauge. You need to know what your low side pressure is at a minimum to start with the diagnosis of the problem. On the E46 BMW the low side port is right next to your positive battery connector under the hood. I have found them to be in similar locations on the E36, E39, and E34.'s that I have worked on (note any pre 1993 vehicle like the E30 or E34 might still have R-12 in it which requires a conversion to R-134a style fittings). Now to read the pressure merely attach the pressure gauge with your A/C at full blast and see what you get. It is hard to say what "normal" is because pressures will rise and fall with the ambient temp. You could get a 25psi eading in 75 degree weather and the same car could read 35psi in 90 degree weather. But as a rule you should be bewteen 25 and 40psi and most gauges will have a blue, green and red section to help you see what is normal. On my car, I got really high pressures on the low side, close to 60psi. I did some research and it seemed my suction side of my compressor was not, uh......sucking. So I decided to replace the compressor. Normally I would have dug deeper, but my car had over 120k miles on it at this point so I knew it was time for a new one. I called BMW and they wanted over $900 for the compressor, stealership ripp off at its finest. I checked online and a new OEM one was still $450! I didn't have $450 so I sourced one from a used BMW with 90k miles on it for $150. SCORE! (note, if you want to find a used compressor try ask for Martin and tell him Shad told you to call).

If you decide to do your own A/C work just know that it is illegal to vent R-134a into the atmosphere. If you do it I doubt the EPA is going to come to your house with guns drawn, but since I don't know the legal liability of blogging this stuff, I will just say it is illegal and don't do it. Since you may not have an E46 like me I will save the detailed install process of the compressor, but just know I did it on a Thursday night, after work and it only took me 1 hour having never done it before. You also should install a new dryer to be "correct", however I didn't want to spend the extra $50 and since the compressor was used I figured, what the heck.

After the mechanical parts where replaced and connected I decided to proceed with a DIY re-fill of R-134a. Again, to be 100% correct in the repair you should pull a vacuum on your system for at least 30 minutes to make sure you have no leaks and get all the air out of the system. I don't have a vacuum pump so I bought an air vacuum pump from Harbor Freight ( for $13. It is basically a Venturi pump that uses forced air from your air compressor over a diaghram to create a vacuum. I let it run for about 20 minutes. (note: I have done many of these repairs without doing this and all were successful). Now I was ready to fill the system with R-134a. If you take only one point away from this article let it be this: ONLY PUT PURE R-134A into your A/C system! Do not buy the stuff with leak sealer in it, any synthetic stuff, or any stuff with seal conditioner or oil (you buy that seperate) in it. All that stuff can clog your system and cause a failure, yet millions of people buy that "recharge" crap they sell at AutoZone and ruin an otherwise properly working system. Don't do that! Then simply add the R-134a to the low pressure side attachement and add 2 cans to start. Then check pressure and if the vent temp is cold. If it is not quite where you want it, add another can or can and a half. Sometimes the can will empty really fast, sometimes it won't. If it seems the can isn't emptying into the system, you can put the base in some hot water to help move it along. On most BMW's I have worked on, you can actually set the can near the exhaust manifold and accomplish the same thing, but do NOT put it directly on the manifold or it will burst, just near it to get some of the heat from it. If you overfill the system you may not get any cold air at all, the systems are equipped with a high pressure valve that will kill the compressor if pressures get too high. It is best to fill the system in the hottest part of the day when the ambient temp is hottest. This allows the R-134a to expand as much as possible and will help you not to overfill. On mine I did the re-fill at night and I had perfect pressure and 39 degree air coming out of the vents. The next day it went hot again because the pressure had risen in the heat of the day. I had to evacuate a little R-134a out to make it start working again. After that, I have had no problems and still have ice cold air over a year later. Total cost to do my budget A/C redo was $300. That included all R-134a, oil, and the tool from Harbor Freight.

Much better than $1500 in my opinion!

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's time to "Summerize" your car.......

Every winter I see the oil change places and car shops with signs that say "winterize your car", and yet I almost never see "summerize your car". Maybe because some people would say "it is an all around good car" (get it, "summerize"?, ok, not funny.....but I digress). What baffles me is why these "expert" shops don't realize that summer is usually harder on our cars than winter.

Now our Canadian brethren or people from Buffalo, NY might be the exception, but for most of us Summer get's HOT. Here in Alabama it averages 92 degrees with 100% humidity from May till October. That kind of heat can wear down a car faster than you might think. And it can really wreak havoc on a BMW. Now I love my BMW, with 180k miles it still out drives most new cars. But why, oh why, did they see fit to put plastic in all the major components of the cooling system? This engineering mistake is even more mind blowing when you consider that most modern BMW's have an all aluminum motor. Effecient? Yes. Light weight? Sure. Prone to warp faster than a politician when overheated? You bet! How do you avoid this dastardly fate? Keep reading, I'll tell you....

Do you know how many times I see on the BMW forums that someone overheated their car and they had to replace the motor at a cost of $5-$14k dollars? More than I care to remember. This is an avoidable mistake. As your doctor always said, an ounce of prevention is worth $14,000 worth of saved money (or something like that).

The reality is that your A/C running full blast (I will cover how to maintain your A/C in my next post), sitting in beach traffic in 90 degree heat will "help" you uncover any weak point in your cooling system. And most people try and limp the car home or drive it to a safe place before turning off the car. With a BMW if you do that, I can assure you a $6000 or higher repair bill. Make sure that you and anyone who drives your car understands to turn the car off the moment they see the little red light. This is not optional!

But why not avoid the above scenario altogether? Here is how to get piece of mind for relatively low cost:

1. Check your coolant level weekly. Please do this when the car is cold to avoid third degree burns. The lilttle float should be sticking up past the top of your resevoir, if it isn't, add some antifreeze.

2. Replace your major cooling system parts. Change them BEFORE they break. If your car has 60k miles on it or more, this means YOU! Parts list includes:
  • water pump ($50, DO NOT buy the one with a plastic impeller, they break, ask me how I know)
  • thermostat ($60)
  • expansion tank ($55)
  • upper radiator hose ($23)
  • lower radiator hose ($30)
  • both drive belts ($50)

Overhauling the BMW cooling system is NOT hard to do yourself. There are about 100 DIY guides on the web showing what to do (see videos on the you tube bar to the right of this article).

3. Inspect your fan clutch (automatic), fan blades, and radiator. Make sure they are clean, not nicked or cut, and look like they are in decent shape. (Hint: your radiator collects a fair amount of crap between it and the A/C condensor, it wouldn't hurt to pull it out and clean it off with water, but do NOT scrub the fins of your radiator. They will bend and you will damage it).

4. Use Redline Water Wetter or similar product. These products have been tested and proven to lower temps as much as 10 degrees. This makes a big difference.

5. Keep your oil fresh. Most BMW purists change the oil every 7500 miles. In the summer you could do it every 6000 miles for added protection. A well lubricated motor creates less fritction, less friction means less heat. (also might want to consider a heavier weight oil for the summer on higher mileage cars over 100k).

Also, if your car has between 130k-150k miles on it, you should go ahead and replace the radiator. You can get them for less than $200 at Another good idea, if you have an automatic, is to replace the auto transmission thermostat ($60). It will almost always break when you remove the expansion tank and even if it doesn't break, if you re-use it and it fails it will kill an expensive transmission.

So think about it this way, for $268-528 ($528 includes radiator, and trans thermostat) you can avoid $6000-$14,000 in repair costs. I'd say that is a pretty good trade off. Not to mention you won't have to deal with being stranded with an overheated car, have to deal with a tow truck, or miss work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Check Engine Light Came On, Now What?

Ever been driving along and all of a sudden your check engine light comes on? Do you know what to do? "That's a silly question, we take it to a mechanic stupid!" I know, I know, so do a LOT of people, and then you lose hundreds of dollars out of your wallet for "diagnostics". And the funny part is, if you have a CEL your car is already telling you what the problem is!

All post 96 year model cars are equipped with a universal "language" if you will called OBD2 (On Board Diagnostics). This "language" uses a set of universally understood numerical codes that are associated with your cars vital systems. A CEL on the dash simply means one or more of your car's systems has exceeded a threshhold set forth by the manufacturer and it is no longer functioning properly. For instance, a P0304 code means you have a misfire on cylinder #4. A P0128 code means your thermostat is running cooler than it should and so forth. You can find a link to all the codes here: (note: there are also manufacturer specific codes too, which I will deal with later, keep reading).

So now that you know that, what now? Surely you have to spend a ton of money to get a certified mechanic to read the codes on his million dollar computer right? WRONG! General OBD2 scanners can be purchased from $39 up to $109 depending on features and style (you can even obtain BMW specific code readers for $100-$150). Your local auto parts store (AutoZone, Advance, Oreilley) will even read the codes for you at no charge!

Here are a few reasons why having a list of the codes is so important (even if you aren't a mechanic or going to try and do the work yourself):

1. Knowledge is power. If your car is throwing a thermostat code, and the mechanic says you need a new muffler, you can politely tell him how he can cram the muffler up his.......
2. You can determine the severity of the problem. If you are like me, sometimes money isn't falling out of your pockets. And if the code is a non critcial code (like an 02 sesnor code) then you know that you can still drive your car without risking major damage until you can afford to have it repaired.
3. You can post the codes on online forums and get an idea of what needs to be done, costs associated, and helpful tips. A lot of car specific forums (like Bimmerfest) have people on them that know a TON about the problems and issues with a specific car. They will often give you free tips and tricks to help.

So you see, the CEL is nothing to fear. Sure, sometimes your CEL can be something serious. But more often than not it is simply something you have neglected to replace because hey, you have a life right?

The next time your CEL pops up, head over to your local auto parts retailer and have them pull the codes and do some online research. You might save yourself $100's of dollars or more!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Will the helpful blogger please stand up?

Why in the world should you read another blog? I mean, all the "really good blogs" are already established right? Yea, and most mechanics are honest.

My goal is simple, to empower the people of the world to own a vehicle and not have to pay thousands of dollars to high priced con-artists, er, I mean, "mechanics". Simply put, this blog WILL SAVE YOU MONEY (and might make you laugh along the way).

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't call me and ask for advice on a car repair, pricing for parts, or a "hey, do I really need this". And since I am HONEST, they know they will get a straight answer with no bias. I specialize in BMW's and believe me, they are the worst. One story I recently read said a woman paid $800 for an oil change! I didn't realize BMW's took 12 BARRELS of sweet crude.....

Regardless, we shall see how this goes and how the public responds.

I look forward to my next entry, thanks for reading!