How Fixing Even The Smallest Defect Can Make Your Old Car Feel Like New

How Fixing Even The Smallest Defect Can Make Your Old Car Feel Like New

Some days, starting my 1997 BMW 318ti is less “sheer driving pleasure” and more “dammit, now what?” I used to get frustrated about running into one (or more) of the failings in my hatch, but I’ve made peace with the fact that things are bound to break in my beater Bimmer and that taking the time to fix these small annoyances could make my old car feel new.

Here’s a brief list of what I’ve come across on my E36: Window regulators that are always broken, a sunroof that refuses to stay on track, an a/c expansion valve that makes a vague Yoshi sound and a slip ring that lost its horn function. None of these alarm me because I know their cause, and more important, how to procrastinate their solution.

But one defect in particular annoyed me more than the rest: the tiny dancer fuel gauge. Or, for those who have no feelings and do not like Elton John, a fuel gauge that refuses to stay in a fixed position and instead will bounce back and forth between either extreme of its scale. One second my gauge would say I had a full tank, the next it would rest shakily at half-tank until finally, it would droop below the empty mark.

THIS LITTLE RASCAL (Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.)

This is a well-known defect on the E36. Page after forum page is dedicated to helping drivers sort their faulty fuel gauges. The consensus is that over time the electrical connection between the instrument cluster circuit board and the pins of the fuel gauge deteriorates, so you get intermittent input/output between the components, and the needle on the dash fluctuates as a result. The fix is really as easy as restoring the connection between the pins and these electrical contacts.

In order to fix the gauge, I first had to remove the steering wheel, airbag and instrument cluster. Remember to always disconnect the battery before working with the airbag, and wait until the safety components are no longer charged. Otherwise, you run the risk of the airbag suddenly going off while you’re removing the wheel, so unplug your battery leads and let the car sit for half an hour or so. These links will help with removing the wheel and airbag, and this video can help with the cluster:

I took the following picture after disassembling the cluster. It was a simple matter of undoing a few fasteners and pulling the cluster apart.

These are the contacts for the fuel gauge pins on the lower left:

Fuel Gauge Electrical Contacts (Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.)

Here’s a closer look:

Fuel Gauge Electrical Contacts Up Close (Image: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.)

Now take something small, flat and not too sharp — I used the flat side of a tiny screwdriver from a glasses repair kit — and gently pry outward on the edges of the contacts inside of those openings, both left and right. These contacts are like small gates that the gauge pins line into. By prying outwards, you are creating a tighter insertion point that will produce a secure connection between the fuel gauge pins and contacts. Apply just a dab of conductive grease on the contacts and you are ready to reassemble.

But wait a minute! I’ve got the cluster out, so why not replace some of those old bulbs? There are a few different kinds of bulbs in the E36. The larger bulbs are for the tachometer and speedometer backlight and the smaller bulbs are for sensor lights and turn signals. Yes, BMW does include a socket for turn signals.

Rear of Instrument Cluster (Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.)

See that bulb socket there? The one labelled 3W?

Instrument Cluster Bulb Socket (Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.)

That is a friction socket and let me just say: you will never know the pleasure of unscrewing a twenty-three-year-old lightbulb by hand and replacing it with a new one until you own a dimly lit E36. On that day, you will know ecstasy.

I replaced as many bulbs as I could, then reassembled the cluster and put it back in place. After reinstalling the airbag and steering wheel, I was done. The next time I went on a drive I basked in the strong amber light of the dash and the security that comes with knowing just how much gas is really in the tank. Every time I fill up, I feel elated to see that little needle fixed in place.

Defects like these are inconveniences many of us will face and, let’s face it, ignore over the course of ownership. They can become background noise, but cleaning them up can give you a fresh perspective on your car. Without little pains-in-the-arse like my fuel gauge, all enthusiasts would have to do is drive our old cars. It can be a lot of fun to encounter an issue, diagnose it, troubleshoot it, throw some parts at it, be wrong, troubleshoot again and fix the thing.

When you finally get it right, you will feel that much more involved in the operation of your car. And you will start to realise that it remains on the road because of your ownership, rather than in spite of it.