2008 128i coupe (E82)

Jan ’23: I’m always on the lookout for new project cars. You might call that a problem, and you’d be right. You might also ask: “Why a BMW?” They are well known for their mechanical shortcomings, electrical gremlins and somewhat controversial styling. The short answer is that BMW still makes the kinds of cars I like to drive…or did…until they stopped. I mean, they still make great cars, but the newer ones don’t quite “tick all the boxes” for me. Please allow me to explain: I have some very specific preferences when it comes down to my vehicles. I’ll list them for you:

  1. Start off with a rear wheel drive chassis, the smaller the better.
  2. Manual gearbox, of course…and one of the three-pedal variety, please. Let’s have none of this “my DSG is better” hogwash.
  3. As for power, a smooth inline-6 would be ideal. Naturally aspirated would be best. I do like forced induction, but only when it has a proper torque curve. Frankly, turbos are best when paired with automatics in my limited experience.
  4. Independent suspension on all four corners…with disc brakes all ’round if possible.
  5. Rack & pinion steering, hopefully without any EPS/electrical servos. Hydraulic boost strongly preferred.
  6. As for computers, I would prefer less-obtrusive performance tech like fuel injection, ABS, airbags and traction control. Maybe the ever-helpful Bluetooth. Hopefully, we can avoid iDrive or other such ‘infomatic’ distractions.
  7. Trimmed in leather? Is that too much to ask?
  8. As for body type, I prefer hatchbacks, especially of the 5-door variety.
  9. Finally, is it exempt from the collector car tax?

How many cars do you know with that sort of spec? There aren’t many! Hey, at least I know what I like. I’ve owned many variants of this design, but none have really had them all. I’d guess this specific platform dates all the way back to the early 80s, with the E21 323i, Mercedes W201, and some Toyota & Jaguar products. If they were still available at any kind of reasonable price, I’d be shopping for them. BMW, being relatively old-fashioned, has kept making these anachronisms nearly to the present day.

So I set my sights on an E90 3-series sedan with a manual transmission in the RWD version. I was hoping for a 2006 330i (it has a tasty one-year-only selection of options), but I’d also be happy with an E92 coupe. I wanted to avoid the retractable hardtop variant. The Touring chassis (also known as an E91, Estate, station wagon or longroof) would be even better, but the odds were stacked massively against me. I also wanted to avoid the higher-spec versions (335i, M3, etc.) as they suffer from quite a few severe (expensive) reliability issues. Some can be quite expensive to sort out, such as the N54 direct injection system and the S65 rod bearings. Frankly, the N54 & N55 cars are also overpriced because of all the boost junkies.

Obviously, there were not a lot of these cars available due to my quite specific constraints. A few were available on the East Coast, but none were listed for any reasonable amount of money. I did miss out on a pretty decent 2006 330i manual, but it had high mileage. Transport costs were also prohibitive. I kept looking…hope springs eternal.

Eventually, one popped up on FB Marketplace. It was a little too expensive, and it wasn’t really running, and it wasn’t even a 3-series. It was a 128i, sort of the little sister to the 3-series. They’re the smallest of the BMW family and I hadn’t really considered one. Sure, I’ve been hearing about their virtues for quite some time. I’m sure they’re great. However, to be brutally honest, I was never a huge fan of the styling. But as the weeks went by with no other options, I started to think it over. The pictures were pretty good and he didn’t seem to be hiding anything obvious. The seller was obviously a car guy with a decent reputation. The car appeared to be in good cosmetic condition and it was painted in an especially nice color. The listing noted reasonable mileage (170K), no accidents, and significant engine problems. Interior pictures showed engine trim stored in the passenger seat…never a good sign. But that’s nothing much out of the ordinary for me, eh? A few days later the seller unexpectedly dropped the price down into my comfort zone. That made up my mind for me…the least I could do was go check it out.

I’ll be honest, it’s even uglier in person. To be completely fair, I won’t have to look at those goofy headlights when I’m driving it, will I? But the interior was a great fit for me. As long as the controls make sense and it still retains a semblance of BMW’s famed driving dynamics, I’ll be OK with it. As a bonus, something that ugly is always easy to find in a suburban parking lot.

The seller was quite honest about the car. His mechanic had tested the motor and found zero compression in multiple cylinders. Despite that, the car would start, barely run, then stall. But it didn’t even do that by the time I got there. It had a quite dead battery. So we haggled a bit. My price was based on the car needing a new motor, even though they usually have some life left in them. So we ended up in the middle, like we always do. I spent more than I had wanted for a dead car, but his final offer included professional flatbed delivery. Considering how expensive towing fees had gotten around that time, it ended up as a fair enough deal. The flatbed really ended up working to my advantage. When I went over to get the car ready for pickup, I couldn’t move it. One of the rear brakes was locked up. About 80′ of towing cable and his six ton winch easily solved that problem. When it arrived at my house, he dropped it delicately onto a set of wheel dollys I keep for just these sorts of situations.

This particular one is a fairly early production coupe, built on 8/25/2008, right at the end of the 2008 model year. Karmesin (crimson red) over an Anthrazit (black) interior. The upholstery is BMW’s vinyl leatherette, known as ‘Sensatec’. I’m pretty impressed with the durability and the feel, it does seem like a decent material. As for options, this one is quite basic, with only the cold-weather package. That installs heated seats, headlight sprayers and (I believe) heated mirrors. Oddly, the build sheet reports that it’s a hot weather version. Nuthin’ else, not even power seats! Less to break, as far as I’m concerned.

Troubleshooting: Once it was snug in the driveway, I bought a new battery. The car powered up nicely. My scanner showed the usual 40 or so OBD faults, nothing unusual for a BMW without a really good fresh battery. None were major problems. My scanner reported cyl 1-6 misfires, multiple cylinder misfires, and a MAF out of range error. My primary suspicion is a massive vacuum leak, but these motors do have occasional problems with dropped valvetronic springs, cam timing phase errors, and can also have broken bolts in the VANOS drive gears in later versions. To complete the usual “new-to-me BMW ritual”, I reset all the codes to see which would stick around.

Now that I had power to the car, I could start working out the rough running problems. This car is equipped with the N52B30, a DOHC 3.0 liter inline 6 that BMW installed in virtually everything they sold in the late oughts. This version uses a single-stage intake manifold that results in about 200hp. These engines are pretty durable in general but they do have their issues. This one has no problem starting, but it ran incredibly badly. No power, low idle, stalls in short order. As noted above, the previous owner (PO) claimed it had zero compression in a cylinder. He claimed that the mechanic “didn’t know BMWs”, inferring there was more to the puzzle. Sounds about right.

My first repair was the PCV system in the rear of the engine; these kits are available on Amazon for about $20. It’s not really easy to take this apart, it’s integrated into the valve cover, but I found that a good sharp 1/2″ wood chisel became my tool of choice. I used a bit of black RTV to seal it up, and reinstalled it. Although the internal diaphragm was indeed split, there was no change. The motor is still barely running.

Feb. 23: I pulled the VANOS check solenoids next. They were in decent shape, I tested them with 12VDC. They seemed to work well. I cleaned them & swapped them around. No change, the motor is still barely running.

March ’23: Until the weather clears up, I’ll take my time on maintenance and build up my tool kit instead. I’ve invested in a BMW timing kit, replacement parts (jack pads), tooling for the BMW N52 (long T50 & T60), and a new jump pack. This car blew out my old one; it was admittedly several years old. I guess it was time?

May ’23: I’d bought a cheap borescope to see what the pistons looked like. Every damn one of them had marks from the exhaust valves. Time to do a little exploratory surgery…I’ll pull the cylinder head to see what’s broken.

June ’23: So I finally got around to pulling the head. I’m not going to suggest doing that while the engine is installed in the car, but that’s how I chose to do it. Definitely not the easy way, unless you have a really substantial toolbox. While it might seem more convenient, and can be done, I honestly think it’d be easier to remove the whole engine. The engine bay is tight on the E82, everything is really hard to get at. The exhaust manifold is especially tight. The wheel wells are deep, the engine sits well back into the engine bay, and the cowl wraps tightly around the top of the motor. The cylinder head is actually too far under the cowl to pull it vertically. In the pursuit of chassis balance & handling, BMW sacrificed a good bit of serviceability. I’m particularly annoyed about the wiring harnesses. They can’t be disconnected from the chassis in any routine fashion, and they’re routed directly over the middle of the engine. They’re about as perfectly in the way as it’s possible to be, seemingly no matter what you’re doing. That’s why used BMWs with mechanical problems are cheap. To use this car as an example, up to this point I’ve invested less than $4K all-in. That includes the car, sales fees, taxes, transport costs, parts, tools, even taking my long-suffering wife out to a nice dinner. That’s the theme of this blog, isn’t it? Fast ‘n frugal machinery. I know it’s only a 128i, but it’s a manual, in decent overall shape, and even the right color combo for me.

July ’23: So now that I’ve finally gotten the head off the car, I can confirm that the cam timing was messed up. The big question is…why? One way is caused by serpentine belt ingestion. This can happen due to a drive belt getting ingested through the main front crank seal. I suppose it’s time to drop the oil pan next, just to verify that there aren’t any ribbons of serpentine left in there. I didn’t see any bits of chopped up belt in the top of the motor but it’s best to cover all the bases where BMW is concerned.

Well, I have some updates. Not really good ones. As noted above, the exhaust cam timing was off. If I understand what’s going on, the cam was massively advanced, like 30 degrees. I pulled the cam, and found this:

As you can see, the exhaust cam is pretty well spent, and both cam bearing shells are severely damaged. I also noted that the locating lugs on the bottom shell were all cracked off. It’s apparently pretty easy to install the cam bearing shells incorrectly. I’m not sure why this would cause severe oil starvation. I’m told that the cam bearing trays can be installed slightly misaligned, so the bearing surfaces are slightly offset. The steel cam rapidly wears out the aluminum bearing saddles, opening up the cam tolerances. Oil leaks in the cam saddle will result in variable valve timing (VVT) errors, because the whole system is driven by oil pressure. The VVT system (BMW calls it Vanos) is driven by oil pressure. I believe it’s fed through the control valves into the front cam bearing, filling up the pressure chambers inside the cam timing actuators. So if the system is low on oil pressure in the head, it can’t properly vary the exhaust camshaft timing. I’m suspecting that this fully advances the exhaust cam timing and results in the valves being held open during the compression stroke. The codes that would most likely be set are all indirect ones. Perhaps ignition coil failures on all cylinders, and maybe some MAF or O2 errors. I’m honestly surprised it ran at all, and truly astonished that it didn’t visibly bend every exhaust valve! I’m hoping those valves are still good, although it’s not looking that way.

Aug. 23: So I took a day off and went to my friendly local PnP. Grabbed a few parts to repair my poor broken BMW.

So you can see the old cam in these pictures, along with closeups of the replacement cam. I found a broken E60 530i in the PnP. As a bonus, it came with a three-stage manifold too. If I don’t sell it on eBay for the price I want, I’ll use it on this car. Essentially, I’ll end up with something like the 330i or European E82 (130i) once we’re done with the installation & flash.

I also took a look at the valves and gave them a quick sealing test. First, I screwed the spark plugs back into the head. Then I flipped it upside down, carefully leveled the head with some scrap wood blocks, then filled each of the combustion chambers with isopropyl.

No significant leaks! There was the tiniest bit of weeping from the single open intake valve, but surprisingly little even overnight. The intake valves were closed tightly enough that I could verify the exhaust valves were good in that cylinder. I believe it’s the #3 chamber in the above pictures.

Nov. 23: After collecting all the parts I needed, it was time to pop the head back onto the block. I put in a few orders with the usual trusty BMW vendors and prepped the used parts for installation. The long BMW head and tight BMW engine bay presented some challenges. I ended up basically pulling the entire cowling apart all the way back to the windshield, including the wipers. Removing those parts will definitely allow rainwater to drain into the open engine block, so I carefully draped a tarp over the roof of the car. It’s easy enough to pinch it between the doors and under the hood for a relatively decent amount of protection. You never know what sorts of roadblocks an old BMW will toss in your way, so I try not to get caught unprepared.

To save my back from the agony of holding a 50# head up over a delicate gasket, I bolted the a load leveler onto the partially-assembled head, hung it on an engine hoist, then carefully lowered it onto the block. I hadn’t removed the exhaust manifold from the car, so it was a bit fiddly. A few hours of frustration was all it took to get the head tucked back into place. You’ll need a few special tools, including long T50 & T60 sockets and the usual assortment of E-Torx sockets, wobbles & extensions. The head uses a large variety of bolts, including a few aluminum ones. All must be new, since they will be tightened beyond their capability to be re-used. The torque specifications are critically important to prevent broken fasteners. I had a little difficulty finding the most recent ones, I’ll post them here if I recall and add all the details later. You’ll also need to remove the valvetronic oil feed pipe and the cam stop post.

The other tricky bit was installing the cam and timing the engine. Both these tasks have to be done at the same time, and the valve springs really present a challenge, so the N52 timing kit is a necessity. I was installing a replacement exhaust cam & tray (or ‘cam ledge’, per BMWspeak). You’ll need a timing kit, I bought mine on Amazon. BMW has developed updated teflon seals to prevent cam tray wear around the VVT oil supply passages (vanos), they’re fun to install. Before the cam went in, I pulled every one of the exhaust valve adjusters for a squeeze test. A good hydraulic adjuster will barely give at all. So if they’re soft in any way, they need to be replaced. Don’t bother to do them as a set, I don’t think there’s a need for that in a high-mileage car. I had grabbed many spares from the donor along with the cam, so I swapped out the mushy ones. The next bit of fun was the cam. The cam and upper tray need to be pressed into the lower tray with a great deal of care. It’s possible to crack the camshaft, and it’s also possible to offset the trays horizontally. Both these situations are quite bad. BMW makes a tool with some offset feet that will depress the #2 cylinder exhaust valves enough to allow the cam to be installed. This tool also includes small clamps designed to align the cam trays horizontally. You don’t need it. Just slowly tighten the cam tray bolts evenly. Take your time. Here’s my technique:

  1. First, drop the lower tray into the head. The lower tray has some locating tangs, so be sure they’re properly lined up in the head. Be careful not to knock any of the followers off the valves.
  2. Then rest the cam and upper tray onto the lower tray. Don’t let the lower tray get lifted up, it must remain down on the head.
  3. Install the cam timing tool. It’ll prevent the camshaft from sliding around, allowing you to slowly tighten the upper tray onto the lower tray while gently pushing down the cam springs. You’ll want to focus your efforts around the #2 valves, since that’s where the highest spring pressure will manifest itself.

Once the cams were installed, I took the time to replace all the rubber seals on the cam cover and the intake manifold. I dropped the valve cover back on, re-installed the valvetronic motor, spun it ten turns (clockwise, I think?), then bolted the intake back on. Routed the harness all over everything and gave it a quick twice-over.

Then it was time to start the car! I reconnected the battery, plugged in the key fob, and gave the start button a quick stab. Lots of cranking, not much starting. Gave up for the day. Overnight, I wasn’t sure I’d actually completed every step of the reassembly properly. It turns out that a motor will not run without the injection harness connected. So I popped that back on, along with a few stray wiring connectors, and repeated the starting process. This time…it actually worked… After watching it smoke for a bit, I hooked up an OBD scan tool to monitor coolant temperatures. This trim level doesn’t get any kind of temp gauge, nor an oil dipstick.

It was very clattery, somewhat smelly, still needs a new serpentine, but at least it runs. Happy days are here again!

So I really earned this first drive. Off we went, around the block. I noted a noisy front bearing, some really loud tires, lots of warning lights. I also noted no speedometer, and then the DTC went berserk. I could hardly drive it up hills! Happily, BMW supplies a DTC disable switch. Once traction control was switched off, the car returned to normal. It’s a fun car to drive, no doubt about it.

So I ordered a pair of cheap front bearings off eBay, and a cheap new serpentine setup from RockAuto, some brand I didn’t recognize (as usual). The front bearing wasn’t a huge amount of fun to install. The only casualty was the front dust shield. They’re aluminum and tend to corrode in our salty climate. No big deal, I’ll add it to the next batch of parts. It wasn’t NEARLY as bad as the last Subaru rear bearing. I had to beat that thing out with a ten pound sledge, no joke. It’s the wife’s car, she bought it like that, and it’s totally not my fault. I HATE doing Subaru bearings, ’nuff said.

Dec. 23: So now that the motor appears to be healthy, it was time to catch up on all the other broken bits. It’s a BMW, after all! Current problems, in no particular order:

  • Passenger window has a mind of its own.
  • Strong smell of raw fuel outside the driver’s rear wheel.
  • Brakes are quite stuck.
  • Snow tires are really loud. One of them has a not-so-slow leak too.
  • Lights, lights, lights. I think everything showed up. DTC, SRS, ABS…nothing unusual to see here, you know the drill.
  • Lots of cryptic symbols. They all look like maintenance reminders, in various sinister colors.

The passenger window regulator simply needed to be reset. It took me about ten tries, but I finally got it set again.

The raw fuel is due to a cracking fuel sender housing, a common problem. I’m not sure it can be repaired with a sealant or epoxy patching, I’d expect it requires a new replacement. Better safe than sorry when dealing with raw fuel. Until I figure that out, I’ll be keeping the fuel tank under 3/4 full; I hear the plastic was updated to deal with cheap US alcohol fuels. These senders are quite the pricey unit!

I resolved the brakes with some new pads & rotors. I’d like to thank RockAuto for sending some used front rotors. They hadn’t been used for long, but they were most definitely used. Good thing the price was right!

It’ll need some tires, I’m keeping an eye open on CL and FB. I do have a few well-worn Michelin Pilots I might try to mount up on some cheap spare E46 17″ wheels.

I reset a bunch of lights, but the traction control isn’t happy. The driveshafts are prone to rust on the rear tone rings, but those rings can be replaced with cheap parts from Amazon. Parts are on the way, along with a 30mm 12-point for the updated hub nut. New tools are just part of the fun, aren’t they?

I spent some quality time resetting all the inspection & maintenance reminders. Germans are so thorough, aren’t they?

Eventually it’ll need a state inspection. We’ll get there, one step at a time. Progress!

Jan/Feb ’24: I spent some quality time trying to pull the rear axles. Not really. It sucked, and was a total fail. Details will follow (spoiler alert: all the new tools I bought were not enough).