Rob is rightfully occupied with a family medical issue (everything’s fine), so this week we’re reprinting one of his favorite columns from Roundel magazine: April 1996. Rob expects to be back next week.
It is said that, as a writer, you are allowed to write one whiny piece every couple of years about how difficult it is to write. The Hack Mechanic equivalent is writing about what you would repair if you weren’t so lazy, if it weren’t so damned cold out, etc. This was supposed to be that piece.
There are some moderate repairs to be done on the E30 325iX—brakes, shocks, and exhaust are in varying needs of attention—but two minor and easily remedied problems, exacerbated by cold, rose to the fore.
First, the voltage regulator would not cut in during a cold idle. Several times I started the car on a frigid morning, went back inside for a second cup of coffee, and came out not to find defrosted windows and warm seats, but a stalled car and a discharged battery. I finally caught it in the act and noticed that the failure mode included having all the dash indicator lights—not only battery, but oil, brakes, and ABS—burning bright. A quick voltage check across the battery showed that, when in this state, the regulator was putting out an alarmingly low voltage. No wonder the battery was running down. I found that just blipping the throttle extinguished the lights and raised the voltage. Now, replacing the voltage regulator is a quick job—it’s integral with the brush pack and bolted to the alternator—but it’s cold out and… well, you understand.
The second problem was that the trunk lock would stick in the cold. Not only would the key not go in, but the entire lock cylinder would not slide fore to aft, making it impossible to unlatch the trunk. Neither de-icer nor lubricant seemed to help; only heat from a torch made a difference.
Normally, not having access to the trunk is just a minor hassle, but the ‘iX, like all E30 3 Series cars, has the battery in the trunk. So the one-two punch of regulator and trunk lock sometimes made the car die, then prevented access to the battery. But, again, it was cold, so I put it off. I was wondering how to parley this into an 800-word “I would be fixing this if it weren’t so damned cold” article when the following situation arose:
I start the iX on a single-digit morning, pull it out of the driveway, and it stalls, right in the middle of the street. I try to restart it, and quickly drain the battery, probably because the charge is low due to the flaky regulator and the cold. No problem; I’ll just jump it. Only I can’t access the jumper cables or, for that matter, the battery itself, because they’re in the trunk and the lock cylinder is frozen in its housing.
Since the trunk lock has frozen before, I keep a propane torch in the back of the car (not in the trunk, see, because I’m smart) to warm up the cylinder in the event of an emergency. Only problem is that propane, in single digit temperatures, is about as inflammatory as Mr. Rogers; I can get it lit inside the house, but the birthday-candle-sized flame doesn’t pump out a lot of BTUs outside.
So we try to push the ‘iX into the driveway, but we can’t because the snowplow has just come and the street is very slippery and uneven. I’m just about to have Maire Anne give the ‘iX a nudge with the Previa when one last twist of the key turns the engine over. Relieved, I pull the car into the driveway and bring the torch inside the house to warm it up. Maire Anne offers that this sort of thing makes most people buy new cars. Of course the joke is that the ‘iX is the new car to me. We head out to run errands.
We come back about an hour before sunset, and I figure that the time is propitious to tackle the sticky lock, which has transmogrified itself from minor inconvenience to major pain in the ass. While doing this, I start the car to let the battery charge up. The engine just barely has enough to do it, but it turns over.
Lubricating the outside of the lock cylinder makes no difference. Spraying the snot out of the spring and latch makes no difference. Okay, guess the little bugger’s gotta come out. Two ten-millimeter bolts undo the cylinder and mounting, which now is attached by… what? In the failing light I can make out a little L-shaped rod. Having taken apart many a lock, usually these rods either slide in a little hole or push-snap into a little holder. It’s cold and I’m running out of light and time, so I assume the latter and give the lock a firm tug. It obligingly releases the push-snap from the rod, which I see poking through the hole now visible in the back panel. I touch the barely protruding rod, which of course responds by falling down into the nether regions of lockdom. Oh well; tomorrow’s problem. I take the cylinder inside, clean it up, soak it in lubricant, and it’s still sticking. The next step would be to actually open it up, but it’s held together with a snap ring, and the snap ring pliers are in the garage, and the garage has two feet of snow in front of it. Not tonight, dear. I figure that even though I removed the lock, the latch is still in place, so I can still close the trunk and drive the car, unlatching the trunk, if necessary, with a screwdriver through the hole.
So I go outside to shut off the car and notice that both doors are locked.
And my only keys are in the ignition.
And the car is running.
My first thought was to blame Home Depot for not having a 3 Series key blank when I’d gone there the previous week to duplicate the key. My second was that I couldn’t lock my keys in my car normally; I had to do it in this very exotic Hack Mechanic way.
Okay. So something I did while removing the lock cylinder activated the central locking. Must have been that little rod. I trip the trunk latch, pop open the trunk, and can’t see a damned thing because it’s dark. Here, I have a drop light, right here in the trunk, that plugs into the lighter. Perfect. Except that I can’t plug it into the lighter because I can’t open the doors.
Right. Okay. I pull the Previa right behind and plug the drop light into it. Now, let’s see that rod… yes, goes to a plastic box with wires, clearly the central locking. Should just be able to manually reach in right… there… cold… cramped… got it… GSHWHACK. Okay, walk around to the driver’s door to pop that baby open, take my keys, get them copied, and end this silly little…
My surprise at seeing the doors still locked is perhaps equaled by the pathos of seeing, through the window, that the dash computer is telling me, in that cheery reassuring orange, that it’s eight degrees. Clearly the thing to do is shut the car off by hook or by crook and deal with it tomorrow.
Odd thoughts run through your mind. Let’s see, I could disconnect the battery… no, that wouldn’t kill it because it’d just run off the alternator. I could pull the fuel pump fuse… no, the hood is closed and the latch is inside the car. Right. I could disconnect the fuel line, or electrically neutralize the fuel pump. Or I could just take the coward’s way out and simply go inside. At worst I’d run out of gas before morning. At best I might find my battery fully charged.
Thing was, even if I cleaned, fixed, and reinstalled the lock cylinder, it would do no good, because the sole key was locked inside the car.
Then I had an idea: I could yank the cylinder out of “the rat” (my almost-a-parts-car 325e). After all, its sole reason for continued existence in my driveway was as a donor. Its lock cylinder didn’t stick. And, more important, I had the key.
Out came the lock cylinder from the rat, in it went into the ‘iX. Maneuvering the little rod back into place proved the most challenging part, and don’t you know that it needed to be done with the gloves off to get the benefit of that third eyeball at the end of the finger. But I got it in, turned the key, and heard that reassuring GSHWACK as this time the door lock actually did pop up. I shut off the car, took out the keys, and vowed to never again tempt the anger of the lock god.
Now, I’ve no doubt that, given time, I could’ve opened up the repair manual and figured out which wire to touch to power or ground to reset the central locking. But the story is in the telling, the devil is in the details, and the spare 325e in the driveway has to be good for something.
And next month I really will write about all that other stuff I would’ve fixed if it weren’t so damned cold.
—Rob Siegel (who really does have stuff like this happen on a fairy regular basis.)