Run the equator: February 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Headlights and douchebags

In need of an eye-patch
One morning last summer I left the house and set off for work, only to discover that the left-side low-beam headlight of my beloved BMW had been smashed to bits during the night. At first I thought that some parallel-parking-challenged idiot with a high-set bumper has backed up accidentally straight into my headlight and left the scene. But there was no other damage to the front, which would have been consistent with such an incident. Upon taking a closer look it became apparent that the shards that were spread over the bumper and on the ground in front of the car weren’t only those of my lens – indeed they were mixed with pieces of a shattered bottle of beer. It all became clear in an instant: public drunkenness, vandalism under the cover of the night, let’s do something dangerous and feel invincible and then, well, uh... run. I could see the bottle label clinging to a pattern of broken glass – “Miller High Life – The Champagne of Beers”. The anger and cursing stopped for a moment as I thought out loud: what kind of douchebag drinks “The Champagne of Beers” anyway?

Only the exterior lens had been destroyed, the interior one was still intact, so I left it alone for the moment. For better or worse it worked, even if the light wasn’t diffused properly. But who likes to drive a car with gouged eye forever? It took me a few months and a couple of more important projects until I finally got to this one.

A new low-beam ellipsoid lens assembly runs for about $140, which I wasn’t willing to pay. A used headlight, complete with casing and both low- and high-beam lenses, goes for $150 on some web sites. With enough patience I found a guy who runs a junk yard on eBay, who was selling one full used headlight for $90. I offered him $75 and he accepted. I could have probably done better with more patience but the price was good enough.

Here’s how I replaced the broken headlight. The Flickr photo set is arranged in chronological order. Click on pictures to see photo annotations indicating the location of various components.

Pop the hood open and remove the three retaining clips that hold the top part of the front grille.

Remove the two retaining screws on the bottom side of the grille, left and right.

Remove the grille and then the three large screws that hold the headlight casing in place.

Release the electrical connectors from the low- and high-beam light bulbs. Remove the headlight casing.

At this point I noticed that the adjustment screws were located in different positions on the two casings. All photos of headlight assemblies that I was able to find online looked like my old one. The one that I had just purchased had the vertical adjustment screws in locations where the old casing had fixed, non-adjustable retaining screws. By all means of logic, the old casing seemed to have all its limbs in the right places and the new one was an aberration. How did the screws switch positions? Bad German assembly-line robot? Incompetent American mechanic? We’ll never know...

One-eyed monster
Being a stickler for correctness I decided to remove the lens assemblies from the new casing and install them on the old one. It seemed a better solution than the alternative of removing the new lenses, moving and adjusting the screws and re-installing the lenses. Besides, one the screws of the old casing seemed in better shape than the “new” ones, which were rusty and bent. I also decided to replace my old high-beam, which was chipped at the bottom.

To remove the lens assembly from the casing the Bentley manual says: “Using a hot air blower, heat the lens-assembly retaining clips, then pull out the light assembly.” Having already tried that when I replaced the light bulb last summer I know by now that this statement is total bull. The heat from the blower is supposed to loosen the plastic clip that fits tightly on the tip of the retaining screw, which is shaped like a bulb. I tried that with a hair dryer and besides burning my fingers I wasn’t able to make any difference – maybe if I had had 100 additional Watts I would have fared better. In the end I had to apply massive (but gentle!) force, pulling the lens away from the casing. It’s not a trivial task when there isn’t enough room to stick both hands in the opening and pry the parts apart, and you can only use the tips of your fingers – all the while worrying about breaking the lens assembly tabs, which are just plastic after all.

A lot of cursing and name-calling certainly helped.

Installing the new lens assemblies on the old casing was much easier than removing had been. A couple of the retaining clips had broken in the process, but between the old and the new lenses I had enough replacements.

I sure hope I don’t have to do this again any time soon. Stay away from my car. And if you drink that Champagne of Beers piss, stay away from me as well. All those who drink Miller High Life are douchebags. There are no exceptions.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Confessions of a weekend mechanic

I work a lot on my 1988 325 BMW; I do maintenence and replacement, I get dirty and bruised and I curse a lot. The car is like a piece of software in constant need of debugging. Why? you may be asking, why not buy something newer, more reliable? The answer is a simple one - because I love this car. It's a hobby that I didn't ask for, it just came over me. It wasn't a conscious decision, it just happened that I came to believe that the E30s - the 3-series BMWs built between 1983 and 1991 (more or less) - are the most beautiful cars ever designed. So I got myself one in 2005 for 1400 bucks and I put much more into it since. Sure, I love other cars too... but they don't matter, honey.

Despite the many things that need constant attention, my Bimmer has never let me down. The only days I can't drive it are when I screw up some replacement procedure and I have to keep the car on jackstands for longer than I had hoped while I wait for a part that I had accidentally broken.

There are many web sites with do-it-yourself articles for the E30 cars; I always try to learn as much as possible from others' accounts before starting work on a new area. But I found out that no web site or book ever covers all the little traps you can fall into when you attempt a complex replacement procedure. Therefore I decided to write my own car maintenance stories, focusing on the procedures that I found unexpectedly hard, the tools that didn't fit in narrow corners and the unexpected discoveries that happen when you venture in uncharted territory. Enjoy the reading! Comments are welcome.

Rear axle: Bilstein Sport shock absorbers, shock mounts, and H&R OE Sport springs
Front axle: Bilstein Sport shocks, H&R OE Sport springs, shock mounts, control arms, and control arm bushings
Replacement of a broken low-beam ellipsoid light assembly
Rear wheel brake pads and rotors
Fuel pump replacement
Replacement of E30 rear subframe bushings
Replacement of front subframe, oil pan gasket and motor mounts

Unfortunately it's only recently that I decided to take pictures with every repair procedure. In the world of car maintenance repair articles are worthles without pics, at least to amateurs like me. Sadly, much of my past work has remained undocumented. These are some of the procedures I'm proud to have successfully completed:

  • Valve adjustment
  • Steering pump leak repair (with silicone gel)
  • Fuel filter and fuel hose replacement
  • Various coolant leak repairs
  • Fix surging RPS at Idle caused by the throttle adjustment screw
  • Broken passenger's door actuator replacement
  • Turn signal switch diagnose and replacement
  • New driver's door lock cyliner, damaged by thieves who broke into the apartment's garage and stole the my gym bag along with a couple of cars
  • Door trim painting
  • Spark plug replacement
  • K&N air filter installation and cleaning
  • Oil change... duh!
  • New brake pads and rotors
  • OEM premium radio installation, dash repair
  • Replacement of various sensors
  • Other interior, exterior and engine-bay fixes, too many to enumerate

I have a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee as well, the first car I ever owned (Yes, I got my driving license and first car at the age of 27, a late bloomer if you will). My wife drives it now. It doesn't get my whole love and I am not dabbling with the engine, the suspension or anything else beyond the "easy", but I'm still trying to keep it in decent shape.

Right wheel done! Right-side front door latch replacement

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Jeep Grand Cherokee door latch replacement

Should I change the name of this blog to carrats? No travel is "happening" anymore and since I cannot bring myself to blog about irrelevant details of my life or Saturday's night party, I'm filling it with maybe-less-irrelevant details about my one and only hobby left.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo model year 2000 has been my daily driver since shortly after I arrived in Seattle in 2000, until I discovered stick-shift driving and the E30 3-series BMW a couple of years ago. Then, there was no looking back and the truck became my wife’s car. It’s still the vehicle I rely on when it snows, when we need to purchase anything larger than a bag of groceries, and when I have to take more than one passenger – since the 3-series was designed with the idea in mind that the people sitting in the rear did not have legs.

The passenger's side front door latch of the Jeep had been broken for years, making a shrill buzzing sound when engaged. The door could only be opened from the inside. Since I don't drive it anymore I neglected this car for a while, until my wife pointed that if I invest so much time in the old, sickly BMW I could at least fix her door.

The new latch was $78.43 (how do they come up with these numbers?...) plus $11.80 shipping on eBay. He deserved his positive rating. The guy (airparkcjd) had more than 4000 sales and 100% positive reviews.

The Flickr set is arranged in chronological order. Click on the photos to see notes describing the location of various components referred in this article.

Pry out the cap that covers the screw hole on the mirror flag bezel. (I have no idea why that piece of plastic is called "mirror flag bezel". It sounds a bit pompous and redundant.

Remove the panel-holding screw with a Philips screwdriver.

Remove the sheet metal screw located in the door cupped handle. On a side note, this screw was fine, but on the rear door, the screw had rusted and when I tried the same procedure it wouldn't budge. I soaked it with PB Blaster penetrating catalyst but I still couldn't loosen it. I applied force with various screwdriver bits until I destroyed the head and I had to drill it out.

Remove the Torx screw behind the door handle.

Pull the edges of the door panel until the plastic retaining clips pop open. It's a good idea to have replacement clips, some may break when the panel is removed.

Unhook the mirror electrical connector.

Release the two main door latch rods from the inner handle mechanism. The plastic clips on the handle must be pushed hard to release the latch rods. Your fingertips will hurt.

Remove the main electrical connector from the door panel. Before you remove it, make sure the window is all the way up.

A quick look at the underbelly of the beast…

Pull out the moisture dam and expose the latch rods. The dam is held in place by a slimy, sticky substance. It will re-attach with a bit of pressure.

Disconnect the inner latch rod from the external door handle mechanism. While it wasn’t that hard to get in there with the fingers and pry open the retaining clip, it was a total pain to take a picture of it because my lens can't focus under 2 feet. The clip is the little yellow spot at the top. It's the same kind of clip like all the others.

Unscrew the three Torx bolts that hold the latch to the door. At that point I realized I didn't have the right size Torx bit for those screws so I used a hex head and it worked nonetheless. Off to O'Reilly's to add one more set of screwdriver bits to my arsenal!

Remove the latch assembly and disconnect the electrical connector.

They look like evil metal bugs from outer space. The new latch (on the right) didn't come with the protective cover that the old one had, so I decided to reuse it.

Remove the single retaining screw that holds the cover to the latch, pry out the plastic cover and install it on the new latch.

Ready for installation! Installation is the reverse of removal. Don’t forget to attach all connectors and latch rod ends before pressing the panel back into the door clips.

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