Earlier this year I picked up a 1991 BMW 318i to serve as my track and autocross beater for the summer. Since then I’ve been making improvements and performing maintenance to make sure it wouldn’t break down on track. Alas, what I’ve done so far hasn’t been enough to stop the car from leaving me on the side of the road.
It all started the Thursday of Labor Day weekend. I had to get to eastern Connecticut to prep for a ChampCar endurance race that Saturday. I was waiting for parts for my M3 at the time, so I decided to take the E30 instead. That was a bad move.
As I was leaving my parking spot in NYC, something started to feel very wrong with the steering. I wasn’t sure if it was the column binding or the rack failing, but turning the wheel suddenly became way more difficult than usual. I was on a tight schedule so I decided to push on. The steering became increasingly heavy as the drive went on, with the rack sometimes getting stuck in place during low-speed maneuvers. I was able to get it free every time, and eventually made it to my friend’s house and parked the car for the weekend.
Fast-forward to Sunday morning. I fired up the E30 and backed out of my parking spot, but when I went to drive away, the steering rack simply wouldn’t turn left. It could point the front wheels all the way to the right, but there was a hard stop point right before any left-hand direction could be added. I tried to force it free, as I had done before, but this time it wouldn’t budge. My friends and I went as far as to jack the front end into the air to see if getting weight off the rack would change anything. But nothing worked. I was officially stranded.
Upon further examination, I discovered one of the previous owners had disconnected a couple of the hard lines on the power steering rack, freeing up holes where dirt could easily get in. Over time enough dirt must’ve built up in the rack to cause it to seize. There was no quick way out of this—I needed a new steering rack.
So I called up AAA and got the car towed 181 miles to my storage facility (AKA my parent’s house) where it could sit safely until the replacement rack arrived.
Fast-forward another week, and it’s time to install the used rack I got from eBay. Thankfully replacing a steering rack is, like most other things on E30s, extremely straightforward. This one was extra-simple because a previous owner deleted the power steering system ages ago. That meant no soft lines filled with power steering fluid to detach and drain.
I decided to leave the tie rods on and take the rack assembly out as one piece. I popped the tie rod ends from the knuckles on either end, removed the two bolts holding the rack to the subframe, and detached it from the steering column. The only sketchy part of this job is having to bend two metal tabs on the subframe to make enough clearance for the rack body to come out. Otherwise, it gets stuck between the subframe and the engine’s oil pan. Thankfully the tabs are easy to bend with a pair of pliers yet strong enough not to fail when hammered back into place.
I swapped the tie rods from the old rack to the new one, and threw the new rack into the car. Then eyeballed the alignment, tightened everything up, and put the car back on the ground. Job done!
The new rack is way easier to use than the old one, despite the continued lack of power steering. There’s less resistance at both low and high speeds, without any of the binding. My eyeball alignment certainly wasn’t perfect, and you can feel it when the car goes down the road. So I’ll have to take it to get professionally done before going on any long trips.
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