Adventures in Cincinnati: Unplanned Repairs, Engine Building, and Local Car Meets!

Just before the weekend, we wrote about how to better enjoy those less exciting DIY repair jobs with some tips that help us keep a positive attitude towards unplanned repairs. As if to test the claims, the universe coincidentally responded quite appropriately. The drive from Akron to Cincinnati that was more stressful than originally anticipated, we attended multiple car shows, and a major unplanned repair were just a few of the highlights from the weekend.

With cars, the unexpected is the only real consistency we enthusiasts experience. The original weekend plans to attend Wolfsgart in Burlington, Vermont fell through, so a trip to Cincinnati to visit some BMW friends became the impromptu replacement. I decided to drive the E30 convertible since it didn’t get the full road trip it was promised, which ended up being for the best. Just before I left, my temperature gauge began dancing around. No big deal, just a possible fault with the cluster or the temperature sensor. I grabbed a spare cluster laying around my shop, packed up my ridiculous amount of tools needed to drive the E30 long distance, and took off with my dog riding shotgun.

Just outside of Wadsworth, the temp needle started to creep towards the danger zone. I knew the cluster or temp sensor, or possibly both, could be lying to me, but playing around with cooling issues is not something that should be made a habit. Fortunately, a bit of congestion allowed me to dip out of line to check the actual engine temperature and put the convertible top up just in time for a torrential downpour. Fortunately, the engine seemed happy enough and not above operating temperature despite the gauge indicating otherwise. This, however, would mean my first priority was a full diagnosis of the issues.

I arrived in Cinci to my friend’s house, an enormous bastion of BMW performance smack in the middle of downtown, and began forming a plan for the next day’s full schedule of car work. Cars and Coffee at Fuel, a local coffee joint, would start the morning off with the right foot. Afterward, we made trips to the local parts stores for some tools and parts for the M30 one of them is building. However, as is often the case for BMWs, a quick pitstop for beer ended with an unfortunate disaster: the alternator in the recently S50-swapped E36 drift car fried. We rescued the E36 with a few batteries donated by our other BMWs and returned to tackle its issues alongside our other ongoing projects. This was the first in a series of unexpected repairs we made throughout the weekend.

We rescued the E36, brought it back, and chucked in a new alternator. After that little fiasco, I dug into my car. I decided a full compression test was in order for the M52 in my E30. I feared the worst, but before I threw any parts at the car, I knew I needed to officially diagnose everything. Since it is an OBD2 engine, I hooked up a technician friend’s Snap-On scan tool and checked the codes. All the codes were ones I was aware the ECU stored as a result of hastily deleted systems during my initial swap, so nothing was out of the ordinary there. Compression testing revealed that each cylinder had equal compression: absolutely no blowby and high PSI across all cylinders, which meant the head gasket had not been blown. This was excellent news, so I took a break from working in the 100-degree heat to join my friends working on the M30.

The M30 that had been yanked from a 535is had been torn completely down to a bare block recently and just resprayed. The head, oil pan, and timing covers had all returned from the machine shop, so the fun of engine building began. We meticulously reassembled the engine bit by bit over a few cold drinks and snacks before I returned to my own car to finish putting the coils and beauty covers back in. It was then that I had a few choices to make as to how I would proceed with my car.

Since the engine diagnosis showed only good news, I had a few choices to make. My laser gun showed that the engine was sitting steady at the correct operating temperature, so the sensor or the cluster had to be my culprit. With a simple process of elimination and thorough diagnosis, I did not have to throw parts at the car and hope for the best. It just goes to show that the fastest way to do those DIY repairs is generally to do them the correct way, not the ‘quick way’ like just throwing a new radiator in and hoping it solves the issue. So many other things could be wrong with the car, so you always want to take the time to investigate the causes rather than treating the symptoms.

After I swapped out the faulty cluster with a spare I brought, it was only a few minutes before the universe proved that one way or another I was fated to dig into an M52 cooling system. No sooner had some of my friends left for a dinner date in their E36 vert than did we receive a distressed call: the notoriously weak cooling system had failed them.

A mere two exits up the highway, we found the pair on the side of the road with a very smoky E36. The water pump bearings had seized, which wrenched the water pump pulley, belt, and fan from their correct location and scattered several of their components all over the front of the engine bay. Fortunately, they stopped as soon as the car overheated. It goes to show that after a day of fiddling with unplanned issues, you still have no idea what to expect when you drive 20-year-old cars on a regular basis.

With their date plans canceled, we returned to the house to play musical cars and move everything to a more convenient place so we could easily knock out the repairs on the E36. Even with professionals, the predictably unpredictable cooling system of certain BMWs can be a complete curveball that requires you to drastically alter your schedule. We arranged the driveway and shop to a configuration more conducive to quickly taking care of the repairs and called it a night after that somewhat defeating failure. As the light faded, we felt slightly dejected before calling it a day.

The following morning, we postponed our immediate repairs to attend the once-a-month Gears and Beers hosted by Madtree brewing company in Cincinnati. The parking lot was not exceptionally full at any one time, but a steady trickle of unique cars kept us entertained enough to take our minds away from the nagging repair waiting a few blocks away. Noteworthy appearances were made by an original condition Vanagon Westfalia and a few immaculate E30s. The Audi S6 Avant we brought fit in well with the quirky crowd of eclectic individuals.

After G&B, a trip back to the parts store, and a short stopover at the grocery store, we had everything needed for our water pump job. While we prefer to purchase our parts from the lowest cost distributor, sometimes immediate repairs restrict the number of choices you can make. Such was our case, and we forked over the retail store prices for a new thermostat, coolant hoses, water pump, pulley, and accompanying hardware.

Fortunately, the damage was contained to the water pump failure and the shredded belt. The radiator survived its fight with the fan and nothing else was damaged. A quick parts interchange and coolant bleed had the car once again happy while the owner visibly relaxed. Thanks to some quick thinking, good friends, and a few frosty beverages, the E36 barely spent any time in the shop and was able to hit the road that evening for a top-down cruise. With all the right elements, even a disappointing failure that means immediate service can still be enjoyable.

With the repairs to the E36s complete, a clean bill of health for the E30, and a freshly built M30 engine to drop in a 1980 E24, the weekend rounded out perfectly. A comfortable drive back to Akron late Sunday evening provided the icing on the cake as I was able to thoroughly enjoy driving a car with the knowledge that the engine is strong. My dog and I cannonballed back around midnight (obviously we obeyed all traffic laws) and made it safely. The surprise-filled weekend behind us, we can now look forward to more unplanned repairs with a similarly positive attitude while we work on new exciting projects. Stay tuned for more adventures in old BMWs!

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