BMW E36 Winter Project – Manual Steering Rack, Oil Pan, Valve Cover and Control Arms

With Winter now here, it was time yet again to move the BMW E36 race car into the garage, put it up on jack stands, and attack a few areas that needed attention. This is a long post as I got a lot done during the 20+ hours this whole ordeal took!

Here’s an upfront list of everything that I undertook in this first session:

– New 80A alternator
– New accessory belt tensioner
– New idler pulley
– New valve cover gaskets
– New accessory belt
– New AC belt
– New oil pan gasket
– New dipstick tube to oil pan o-ring
– New vanos oil line and crush washers
– New vanos solenoid o-ring
– New lower timing chain tensioner
– New engine oil
– New outer tie rods, both sides
– New spark plugs
– New fuel line, filter supply side
– New delrin steering shaft coupler (in place of stock rubber unit)
– New power steering delete aluminum fluid passage block
– New Z3 2.8L reinforced oil pickup tube
– New oil pump nut with safety wire
– New Meyle HD control arms
– Removed fuel filter bracket
– Removed steering fluid resevoir and bracket
– Removed power steering pump
– Removed power steering lines
– Flushed steering rack with new ATF fluid, left minimal in for lubrication
– Sanded valve cover and repainted
– Clean cross member
– Clean steering rack
– Clean oil pan
– Clean Vanos solenoid

As you can see, I tried to address everything I could while the front of the BMW’s suspension was completely disassembled.

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I focused on the top of the engine first before going under the car. This meant starting with the valve cover replacement due to leaks at the rear of the cover. Removing the valve cover is pretty straightforward and not too difficult. I just needed to remove a lot of small bolts around the perimeter, spark plug coils with boots, rail containing coil wires and a couple ground straps.

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Once the valve cover was off, I could see that someone previously applied gasket sealant on top of all the normal valve cover seals. The sealant had hardened over time and was definitely due for a replacement.

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I spent a little time scraping off old gasket material from the head but nothing too difficult. I just used standard gaskets and a little sealant at the front timing chain metal-to-metal seams and at the rear of the valve cover (per the official procedure). This also gave me a chance to really check out the timing chains and upper chain tensioner. They all looked great from what I could tell.

However, I did install the new version of the lower chain tensioner which is located on the side of the front timing chain. It can be replaced very easily without removing the valve cover.

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The previous owner said he recently replaced the spark plugs but I installed new ones just to be safe. I used NGK BKR6EK spark plugs that seem to be well received by the BMW E36 community. All of the old Autolite spark plugs showed optimal characteristics of a clean burning cylinder so no issue there.

I spent a little time with degreaser and sand paper on the valve cover to prepare it for paint. After some primer it was ready for high temperature black enamel and ready to be installed again (with all the coils and rail). Valve cover job complete!

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I also noticed some oil leaks from the vanos oil line on the top of the engine. This was a little tricky getting to but with the alternator removed it’s fairly accessible. I’ve seen others mention that you need to remove the intake manifold but that’s definitely not necessary. The vanos line provides oil from the engine block to the vanos timing unit and is prone to leak due to temperature cycles.

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In the picture above you can see the big difference between the old worn out vanos line and the new one. Just make sure to use new copper sealing rings on both side of the banjo bolts for proper sealing.

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I’ve been hearing some intermittent noise coming from the alternator lately and it wasn’t looking the best with some of the engine leaks. Time to replace it! I found a new 80 Amp unit online for a pretty great price. Since I have no stereo system or other non-essential electronics in the E36 to speak of, a lower powered 80A unit makes sense (as opposed to a 140A unit). Less output should translate to less taxing of the engine.

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The accessory belt tensioner and idler pulleys, which sit right next to the alternator, where also looking pretty poor. I spun the pulleys on both of them and they were too free wheeling with the bearings too worn. Time to replace them with new units (that are fairly inexpensive). Any pulley failure can lead to a belt breakage which then disables the water pump, not good!

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As you’ll see when I get under the car, I’m experiencing some definite leaks from my power steering system and have made the decision to just ditch the whole power steering setup. This means I’ll be running a manual rack which I think means the following:

Pros

  • Remove a lot of weight (power steering pump, lines, cooler, reservoir and fluid)
  • Remove potential future fluid leak sources
  • Less maintenance
  • Better steering feel above 10mph

Cons

  • Increased effort at very low speed (I just have to be manly!)

Also required for this swap is a passage way on the steering rack for air to cycle through from chamber to chamber. There are aluminum and delrin variants of this block that mount via the banjo bolts for the normal power steering fluid lines. I read that some people experienced cracking with the delrin version so I went with aluminum. I found a great product from Garagistic that works well.

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The power steering fluid reservoir was definitely the main source of the leaks. It seemed to just be oozing fluid from every surface somehow! In the trash it goes.

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The power steering pump however was in much better shape and showed no signs of leaks. I’m keeping it just in case I go back to power steering in the future.

Just remember that you’ll now need a new accessory drive belt that’s a different length because you’ve taken the power steering pump out of the belt route. I found that a 6PK1420 worked great. That belt part number means it’s 6 ribs and 1420mm (~56″) in length.

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With everything dealt with on the top of the engine, it was time to move under the car. In order to get access to everything that I needed, I had to remove the under engine cross member (which supports the engine mounts) which means I had to support the engine from above.

I didn’t really want to spend money on something just to support the engine, which would be rarely used, so I thought about some possible solutions using things that I had around the garage.

The BMW E36 2.5 liter 6 cylinder engine weighs a little over 500 lbs and is supported by two mounts. Because I will be supporting the engine by the eye on the front of the head, the mount will have to nearly support the full engine weight (even though their are two separate transmission mounts in the back).

I ended up putting together a wood structure using a long 2″x4″ board and two separate 1″x4″ boards perpendicularly mounted with angled metal brackets. I then put a chain around that and connected it to the BMW engine support bracket with a long threaded bolt.

The 1″x4″ boards fit perfectly in the channels that run on either side of the engine bay. They’re fully supported for about 12″ of length in the channel and distribute the engine weight quite well. The threaded bolt let me effectively tighten the assembly.

Once the engine was supported from beneath by a floor jack, I removed the steering rack and lower engine cross member. I slowly lowered the jack and watched the 2″x4″ board to see how much it bowed as the weight was placed on it. The movement was minimal and I was in business!

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So things were definitely covered in a lot of oil (and thus grime) on everything under the car. Take a look at what the steering rack looked like when I pulled it out. The BMW’s chassis side rails, cross member, oil pan, transmission and fuel lines looked similarly disgusting!

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After a lot of time spent with degreaser and my wire brush, the steering rack was back to looking pretty good!

You may also notice that the steering rack to steering column coupler looks different than normal. That’s because I replaced it with a delrin unit from Condor Speed Shop.

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The change in disk material from rubber to delrin allows a more tactile steering feel. The only issue is that you have to drill out rivets in the rubber disk in order to remove it from the aluminum brackets. Once you find the correct drill bit size it’s not too difficult.

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The outer steering rack tie rods were also in need of replacement. The boots were torn, which lets in contamination, and the sockets were too loose. Tie rods are pretty inexpensive but a critical component in the steering setup of any car. If suspect, just replace them.

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Removal of the tie rod ball joints from the control arm is made a lot easier by the use of a $20 dedicated tool like the Schwaben unit shown in the picture. I highly recommend it! I also used it for taking the controls arms out of the car.

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I’m using the Meyle HD control arms, which use all metal ball joints, instead of the standard OEM control arms, which use plastic in the ball joints. This change will add more crispness and less compliance in the suspension (like the previous change from rubber to delrin bushings).

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The ball joints in the old control arms were getting pretty loose and the boots were starting to tear. The new Meyle HD ball joints are nice and tight and should be great on the track.

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With all the suspension components addressed, it was finally time to address the engine oil pan. There are a lot of bolts to remove around the perimeter of the oil pan and even two located up in the transmission bell housing. Finding all the bolts is the hardest part of removing the oil pan!

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Here’s what the bottom of the engine look like with the oil pan removed. The left side of the photo is towards the front of the car. Also on the left side you can see the oil pump. The pickup tube connects to the oil pump, runs underneath the crankshaft windage tray, and into the oil pan sump wear it picks up new oil to distribute to the engine.

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The front nut on the oil pump pulley is known to come off, due to vibration, so it’s recommended to more firmly secure it. The most common ways are to permanently weld it in place or secure it with a drilled nut safety wired in place. As you can see in the picture above, I choose the safety wired nut method.

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The oil pickup tube is also known to fail, due to vibration, by developing a crack in the tube towards the pickup end. Simply swapping out the OEM E36 unit with an OEM unit from the BMW Z3 with the 2.8 liter unit solves the problem. The Z3 unit is reinforced at the end bracket and prevents the cracking. This is just a simple swap and remember to use blue loctite when reattaching the pickup tube.

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Here’s a view of just an interesting part of the engine that you rarely see. This is looking straight up into the cylinder from directly underneath. You can see the crank, with connecting rod attached, and even the piston up in the shadows.

I thought about replacing the rod bearings while I had the pan off, as some others due, but after a lot of research I determined that there was just too much that could go wrong with installation. To me, the potential benefits didn’t outweigh the risks and I decided not to touch them.

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Everything is looking much cleaner now! Hopefully I’ve now addressed all the oil leaks that were spotting my driveway. I now need to take the car over to my local independent mechanic to get the front end re-aligned. I thought I was being pretty good with adjusting the new tie rod ends threaded in the same amount as the old ones but unfortunately my toe setting is definitely not correct.

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And here are the MVPs from all this work!

  • Schwaben ball joint removal tool
  • Stiff steel wire brush

Without the Schwaben tool I’m sure I would’ve bent or broken something trying to remove all the ball joints. And without the brush there wasn’t a chance that I would’ve been able to get everything so clean.

Still more winter projects to come!

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