Friday, September 9, 2011

Factory OEM parts sometimes can be well worth the cost (and wait)

I'm cheap. I just can't lie. I'm that guy that uses the coupons for free coffee and searches Google for coupon codes before I order anything online.

Don't get the wrong idea, though: I'm not so cheap that I'll compromise on quality. Cheap, junky stuff is on my hate list right next to stuff that's overpriced. If I can see that something is cheaper because it sucks, I'll spend the extra money to get something that actually works.

The crankshaft position sensor on my 1991 BMW 318i is a perfect example of this quandary in action.

Long story short, I happened upon a 1991 318i (yes, that's an e30) on Craigslist one day that was advertised as a "mechanic special." It was in great shape, all service records from new, and no rust. But it had an odd problem: when started cold, it would idle great, but would not rev. It just bogged and bounced almost like it had a rev limiter at 1000rpm. Once thoroughly warm, it ran like new. Naturally, I took it in as my own and got to work sorting it out.

"How could I not take it upon myself to fix this car? Nice e30s are rare... I couldn't just leave it there to die, could I?"

I tried everything I could think of: temp sensors, vacuum leaks: I replaced every vacuum hose and both intake manifold gaskets, I removed and tested each fuel injector, tested the fuel pressure under every conceivable situation, checked the cam timing- even went so far as to test the ECU pinouts at the end of the harness! The camshaft position sensor tested out okay, and the crankshaft position sensor tested out of spec, but was new- I replaced it twice! I had probably spent 15 hours on the darned thing, and was ready to part it out.

Three weeks after buying the car, I'd had enough.

"I'm getting this car to run today," I told myself. The out-of-spec crankshaft position sensor was centered in my crosshairs. Both brand new sensors that I tried were aftermarket parts: I just couldn't justify the expense of a genuine BMW sensor. But a third generic sensor that I tested at the counter of the foreign parts store tested bad, too.

Slip of paper enclosed with the aftermarket sensor. The metal one pictured on the left is the BMW sensor. Contrary to the assertions made on the page, these two sensors are not interchangeable in any way, shape, or form.

That's when I drew the connection. Despite the fact that these sensors are being sold as different brand names: Forecast, Standard Motor Products, OEM (not really original equipment, just a scandalous brand name), they all come from the same factory in Italy. Yep, just look for the "Made in Italy" stamp.

I called both BMW dealerships in my area, and neither had the part. Both offered to order it for me from Ontario, CA. The price was more than double what I paid for the generic sensor, but at this point, buying a genuine BMW sensor was all I had left in the bag.

On recommendation from a member (aren't forums great?) I ordered the sensor from, a dealer in Silver Spring, Maryland which I highly recommend for all your parts needs (No advertising relationship with UpShift). I didn't expect the $5 handling fee on top of the shipping fee for my order, but the prices are still fantastic. I was very pleased the speed of shipping. They got the sensor to me very quickly, along with another obscure part I ordered for the belt drive that a the previous owner's mechanic had mangled up with his fat greasy fingers. [Let's say this: I don't like other people touching my cars.]

About a week and a half after I said "I'm getting this car to run today," I pessimistically removed the generic crankshaft position sensor for one last time and swapped the genuine Bimmer part in its place. I hobbled back to the driver seat, gingerly turned the key in the ignition, and broke one of motoring's Golden Rules: I stomped on the accelerator as the engine was stone cold.

It revved to 5,000 rpm, smooth as glass.

I've driven the e30 more than 2,000 miles since, and it hasn't failed me once.

Next time, I'll get a genuine sensor first. After reading this, maybe you will, too.

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