What Did You Do For Your Car Today? The Whole Story.

I’ll admit, the bulk of this post’s title was lifted from a very popular and long-lived thread over on a marque-specific car site that I frequent. I have subsequently discovered that a similar thread, with the same title, exists on several other automotive sites. Regardless of where the thread lives, the basic idea – if you’ve not encountered it in your online travels – is that people post things that they’ve recently done to their cars so far as modifications, maintenance, whatever. Posts are often quite short and are sometimes intended to spur commentary about the modification/repair, but just as often no comment is sought.  Instead, the thread exists as an on-going commentary on things that owners do for the vehicles they love (or sometimes hate) and care for.

The posts that I enjoy most are those where it’s obvious that there’s more to the story of  something like “Replaced grill after original was messed up.”.  Unfortunately, many car sites do not seem to favor long-form narrative, and therefore seldom do I get the satisfaction of the rest of the story. For that matter, any sort of story is usually missing. That’s where CC comes in. There’s always more to the story here, and on top of that, more stories always seem to emerge in the comments.

So, sit back, put on your best rabbit hunting gear (because there are a few holes to fall into), and here’s the story of what I did for my car today. You are encouraged to add your own stories in the comments.

The tale starts with my daily driver, the last car in my COAL, and a car that from what I can intuit may not receive so much love here in the CC community.  I cannot recall the last time I saw a quasi-modern BMW covered on these virtual pages. Well, that’s ok. Vive la différence!  I love it, and have managed to keep it plugging along far longer than may be typical for many of its breed.  We’re at 230,000 miles and 13 years (in my driveway…15 years since it was European Delivered to its original owner).  Over the roughly 210,000 miles that I’ve driven it, I’ve steadily grown my abilities and tool box in order to take care of it (I do not name my cars. Never have. Fine if you do, but it’s simply not my thing.).

Over time, I have developed my own approach to auto maintenance and repair that involves experiencing mechanical issues…or perhaps more accurately, experiencing what I may wonder could be mechanical issues…and then engaging in a considerable amount of research, soul-searching, and planning before I actually dive in to address such issues.

That’s right.  I procrastinate.  Hugely.

Over the course of the past six months, I’ve noticed that pushing the START/STOP button hasn’t produced a particularly vigorous start of the engine.  Here I’ll note that I can count on one hand the number of times that pushing the START/STOP button has resulted in flat nothing. Yes, I still count on my hands. This is despite being in a profession where I frequently need to exhibit/feign familiarity with higher mathematics. It all comes down to the fact that humans typically have 10 fingers.  I’m not sure which of the previous three sentences is more surprising to readers.  I guess it depends on your opinion on a) BMWs, b) statistical analysis, c) the state of mathematics education in American public schools, or d) all of the above.

Anyway, my car has overall been remarkably reliable.  Most of the issues I’ve experienced have been things that more bothered me for aesthetic reasons than would result in flat-bedding it home.  Which is not to say that I have not had constant worries about one thing or another. Still, there are few things which I convince myself might be a problem that cannot be addressed through my replacing a hose, changing a sensor, or more often just cleaning something and resetting the computer.

So, in this case, “less vigorous starts” – which frankly sounds like the story of my life in the 21st century – has been one of the recent issues with my car and has therefore inspired many months of Internet and forum research.  I have reviewed videos and BMW N52 forum threads that run the gamut of pretty much any possible issue with a car designed by humans (not to mention incredibly sophisticated Bavarian and global automotive engineers) in the late 20th century.  The synthesis of all of this information comes down to:

“It could be the starter unless it’s one of many chassis grounds or more likely various computer modules that prevent starting although possibly it’s the cables to the battery that perhaps have had their various sensing functions triggered because of potential issues involving the starter, battery, or computer modules.”

Shirley someone knows, but many people don’t and they too make YouTube videos and forum posts about their opinions.  All of which is to say that what ought to be a fairly straight forward diagnosis of a function/repair that stretches back over 120 years into automotive history is about as clear a process on my car as haruspicy. (There you go, your word for the day. I encourage you to use it regularly, as do I.)

Not an actual ISTA+ screen from my car, but on any given day mine is pretty close.


Ah, you say, isn’t diagnosis of modern cars done via software that reads out the various error codes and points the mechanic to the failed component and proper repair?  Yeah, except for when the issue could be one of several things, and the error codes might be nested and masking each other. Thus something akin to “Your starter isn’t getting power” could mean that the starter itself is broken and/or that several things upstream (downstream too?) from the starter could be broken. I’m sure that there are engineers in Munich who have figured out the “correct” way to utilize the diagnostic system they created; but for most mere mortals – including unfortunately a lot of the folks who work in the customer-facing parts of the automotive repair industry – the solution is the tried and true “No issue found.”…sending you on your way until something more obvious breaks and brings the car back on a flatbed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My version of playing DIY auto mechanic is to spend my free time puzzling over the meaning of the software – just like the real mechanics do – and to essentially offer up to my customer (me) the same solution of just drive it and hope that what you know could be a problem doesn’t unavoidably become an actual problem.  In the case of the wimpy starts, I did this for six months – during which time I addressed any number of other clearly/maybe/who-the-heck-knows unrelated issues like coolant leaks, suspicious vibrations, etc.  All of these issues were (are) operating on their own timelines of “It could be a problem, but maybe not so let’s just see what happens.”.  To me, this illustrates the fact that the modern car is sort of a symphony of ongoing issues…all being monitored by the ever-vigilant diagnostic systems.  It’s kind of fascinating and probably something you’d never know about unless you bothered to monitor the software.  Oh, and something that you hope isn’t also the case with other complex mechanical systems such as passenger airliners and nuclear power plants.

As the above diagnostic software screen capture shows, there are eight different modules on that guy’s car that have an error code present.  Some of these are likely important, some not.  And don’t get the idea that whatever vehicle that screen comes from is a failing bucket of bolts.  It’s probably running just fine.  My car’s diagnostic screen looks like that too, and it also runs just fine.  Until it doesn’t.

So it was months down the wimpy starting diagnosis trail – which included at least two single-day 900 mile round trips to Western NY, several out-of-state overnight business trip drives, and a good amount of daily commuting – that I found myself needing to fly to Chicago.  No worries.  I was still following the trail, and most importantly, the car was still starting.  This represents a perfectly fine status quo in my decidedly non-perfectionist automotive universe.

Since this was a personal trip – i.e., not one where I could expense the insane price of on-site parking at Boston’s Logan airport (it’s not uncommon that I – or rather, a client – pay more to on-site park than the price of the airplane ticket) – I chose to park off-site at one of those ride-the-little-bus from the lot to the terminal places.  Sure, it’s outdoors, but my constant churning on wimpy-start issues said that if the problem was weather dependent (yeah, why not?) then that wouldn’t matter since it wasn’t actually supposed to be that cold over the several days where the car would be left in the PreFlight Airport Parking lot (I love their name, although someday I’d be interested in learning whether there’s “InFlight” parking as well).

Buongiorno! Welcome to Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day! I absolutely love this view of the H and K Concourse at O’Hare. It’s what arriving at a big airport is supposed to look like.


Well, Chicago was entertaining as always, fulfilling its role as one of my favorite cities to visit in the US.

What with the integration of trains into the urban landscape.

Here’s looking at you. We’ll never know what she was looking at.


The art.

And the miles and miles of vibrant walkable streets.

I did notice that it was a whole lot colder in Chicago than it had been apparently for the week or two before.  Oh well, it probably wasn’t like this in Boston.  After all, it was in the high 50s when I left the car at PreFlight.

Uh huh.  You by now know where this is going. And you’re at least partially correct.  At least partially.

After four days of a perfectly lovely – although cold – long weekend in Chicago, all that was left was to spend a little time at my favorite O’Hare bar/restaurant

…and to get some rest on the arriving-just-before-midnight flight home.  Something that I’ve done many dozens of times before. Often involving some measure of adventure, and stories for another day.

This brings us to the part of the story of What I Did for My Car Today that you’ve no-doubt been anticipating for quite a while. Upon arriving in Boston, and making my way from the bus to the car…

Nothing.  I mean, no ineffective grunt, no click.  Just dash lights and the faint sound of the in-tank fuel pump.

I can say this about the fuel pump as I’ve become very attuned to the whine of an in-tank fuel pump through always listening for it when I drive my ancient Volvo…a vehicle where the circuit that runs that pump frequently commits hari-kari, or whatever the Swedish version of that might be.  My first thought in that regard is “Viking Funeral“, and this is why I carry a fire extinguisher in the Volvo.

In the Volvo, a failed in-tank fuel pump means that the car will start, it just won’t drive without lurching every 100 feet as the main fuel pump attempts to accomplish the equivalent of sucking a golf-ball through a garden hose.  You could drive around like that for quite a while in the Volvo. I once drove through much of Oklahoma that way. It wasn’t fun. But it’s possible.  I now know that there’s a trick that I can accomplish with a bent paper clip that would prevent the lurching….and therefore I carry a supply of paper clips in the glovebox.

Well, no need for paper clips in the BMW as that fuel pump was humming along just fine. There are other purposes for paper clips in BMW diagnosis, but I’ll spare you that for the moment.  You can look it up on YouTube if you’d like.

It now being about 1am, and after several unsuccessful attempts by the very helpful PreFlight van drivers to jump start the car (I know…I have one, but I keep that jump start device in one of the other vehicles at home whose itty-bitty batteries frequently need it.), I gave up and decided to wait for daylight to try to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, I live about 30 miles from the airport. At 1am I was not going to get anyone to come get me and not only would an Uber be expensive, but it would be time consuming to have to come back down here the next morning. For some reason, I’m a bit self-conscious about sleeping in my car in the airport parking lot.  I really need to get over that.

Fortunately, there’s a hotel across the street from the parking lot and once I walked over there I was able to convince the hotel guy that he really could check me in to an open room even if I didn’t have a reservation and it was – as he kept repeating – “already tomorrow”.  Right dude, so where’s my flying car?  That last point seemed to cause great confusion, but we were able to negotiate our way through that.  The universally-understood phrase of “I have money. Take it.” ultimately did the trick.

Yep, that’s the PreFlight Parking lot there at the bottom of the picture.


As day broke on Chelsea, MA (where the parking lot is), I walked across the street and got busy figuring out what was really going on with the car.  A brief review of one of the many (many) YouTube videos I’d bookmarked over the previous six months indicated that there were a few tests I could try to determine the basis of my newly-developed “No Crank/No Start” situation.  You see, once the car was officially dead, it becomes a lot easier to narrow in on the cause.  And sure enough, I quickly landed on the fact (yes, a paper clip did figure into this diagnosis) that my problem was almost certainly what I probably should have figured out was in the process of dying over the past six months.  The starter.  The only thing that made me believe that it might not be was the fact that my whacking the starter with a big metal breaker bar did not result in it springing at least temporarily back to life.

The whacking thing is said to nearly always work, even on the Ultimate Driving Machine.

I carry a pretty good collection of tools in my car (among other things, they’re useful for taking apart and stripping parts from appliances that I find at the town dump and along the side of the road); but I did not have what I needed to confidently extract the starter from the innards of an E90-series BMW in the airport parking lot.  I was also pretty sure that the nice-ness of the parking lot folks would dissipate quickly if I were to start disassembling my car in their lot. This left me with a couple of options – get it towed to some shop, or get it towed home.  The first option would likely cost me the same as the second option for the tow, but then I would still be on the hook for paying someone to do what I would presume is pretty costly work. Further, a not inconsequential aspect of this is that I totally did not spent six months of research and cogitating on fixing starting problems (when fuel and spark were present) only to forfeit the opportunity to actually do the work myself.

Thus, towing home was my decision, and I spent the next two hours standing in the parking lot, monitoring the status of the tow truck on the GPS-enabled roadside assistance app, and watching the ever-fascinating Chelsea Street bridge in operation.

This vertical lift bridge allows barges to pass from Boston Harbor into the various tank farms and facilities that hold nearly all of the natural gas, gasoline, and fuel oil used throughout New England. It’s a pretty busy bridge and replaces a rickety 1930s drawbridge that had rather frequent “issues” of getting stuck and either disrupting traffic to the airport or the delivery of vital energy supplies to the region.  Anyway, for bridge-fans (and I know I’m not the only one here) it’s fun to watch in operation; even if one rarely gets to observe wacky occurrences such as the time a few months ago when the bridge operators mistakenly (?) raised the bridge with a car stuck on the span. They were fired.

I watched that thing go up and down a couple of times while awaiting the tow truck driver, who upon arrival formed the next part of this tale of automotive woe and intrigue.

I know nothing about operating a flatbed (or any other kind) tow truck; but I can imagine that it’s no small feat to extract a car out of a parking space in a full parking lot where the space between rows is only about two-thirds the length of the truck. Within 10 minutes of arriving in the lot, the driver had maneuvered the truck into position within inches of other cars in the lot, and had my car cranked up on the flatbed.  Moments after that, we were on our way through multiple Boston Harbor tunnels and headed for (my) home.  Taking a loaded flatbed tow truck through the Boston tunnels without Storrowing is exhilarating, I’ll just say.  Fortunately, the driver of my tow seemed paranaturally calm and in incredible control of the situation.

Just like a bus driver.  Which makes sense, because it turns out that’s exactly what he was.

In making chit-chat with Ramon the tow truck driver – I was going to be riding in the tow truck for at least 45 minutes and since I was paying good money for this service, I was going to extract maximum joy from the experience – I discovered that he’d been driving for this tow company for about 10 years. He specializes in long-distance tows.  One would be surprised (well, I am at least) just how often people require their disabled cars to be towed from say Boston to NYC…or Maine…or Virginia. He does one of these interstate tows about once a week.  I found out all of that, and got some pretty good towing stories, before we had fully cleared Boston.  At this point my questioning turned to “So what did you do before starting to work for this tow company?”.  And that’s where the really good stories started.

It turns out that tow truck driving is a retirement gig for Ramon. The man put in a full career driving for Greyhound, and let me tell you, apparently interstate bus drivers have A LOT of good stories.  Go figure.

The next hour — it took longer than usual to get from the airport to my house due to the fact that we were in an enormous and very low geared truck that seldom exceeded 45 mph – was spent with one story after another about driving between Seattle and places in Idaho, or how the Canadian border crossing works on a Greyhound traveling the NYC to Montreal route, and what it’s like to drive between Oklahoma and Dallas several times a week for a year.

Photo of Central Prison from “Vanished Raleigh” by Mike Legeros – https://legeros.com/vanished-raleigh/


If one can judge from Ramon’s recollections, some of the best (depends on your definition of “best”) bus driver stories seem to relate to prison.  He had stories about driving newly-released ex-prisoners in a number of states. Apparently he did a regular run in North Carolina that made a stop at Raleigh’s Central Prison to pick up recently-released inmates, taking them to the Charlotte area. On more than one occasion, his recently-liberated passengers decided to settle up various inside disputes on the trip to Charlotte; one time, this necessitated radioing ahead to State Police who pulled alongside the bus, stopped it, and provided the unruly passengers with a state-sponsored do-over back in Raleigh.

This was the view of Central Prison I saw every day of 6th grade in 1972/3.


I particularly resonated with Ramon’s North Carolina stories. Central Prison was a daily landmark on my school bus rides with the 16 year old driver, across Raleigh for 6th grade.  We drove by the prison every day and invariably one of my bus buddies, Curtis, would notice the prisoners out playing basketball in the prison yard.  His comment was always “Maybe prison isn’t so bad if you get to play basketball every day.”. Right. I sometimes worry about what might have happened to Curtis.

Other Ramon stories involved the inevitable sadness surrounding the bus bathroom complete with drug overdoses, mental health crises, and more prison fights. I think/know that I only got the Cliff Notes version of Ramon’s Greyhound career, and every story no matter how horrific ended with something along the lines of “The passengers got back on and we went on to the next stop.” or “It wasn’t until we got to the final stop that…”.

My main take-away here is that I someday want to write a book about Greyhound bus driver stories; and that if I were to go on a book tour for that book, I’d be damn happy to be able to take the plane and not a bus from stop to stop.

Upon arriving at my house, Ramon navigated my lengthy up and downhill driveway in reverse and dropped my car into my garage’s parking space as neatly as if I’d driven it in there under its own power. Then, with a virtual tip of what I imagined to be a bus driver’s cap, he was off. And my car was now ready for me to do something for it. After the parts arrived a week later.

Yes, I know I need to change the power steering reservoir. I’ve been researching that for a couple of months and the part is actually arriving today. Along with the special pliers necessary to remove and re-install the German-auto hose clamps.


Starter extraction on my car involves removal of the intake manifold, which in itself requires removal of a whole bunch of other stuff such as braces, breather lines, the airbox, throttle body, and numerous sensors.

You know it’s a special kind of car when the best tool for removing a particularly troublesome plastic junction box on the side of the intake manifold is an oyster knife.  I didn’t figure that out from YouTube or a forum post…I just came to it on my own, knowing a thing or two about prying open organic material that does not want to be pried open.

Ultimately, about a third to a half of the engine bay was emptied of parts and the starter was exposed. Ironically, the starter itself is held on with only two bolts.  OK, one of them is wedged between the bottom of the firewall and the transmission bell housing, necessitating some very awkward wrenching; but the whole thing can be done from the top of the car (except you’ll end up going under the car anyway to remove the splash guards that trap various sockets and bolts that you’ve dropped down there and that won’t come out on their own).

Once you take out the two bolts, all that’s left is to whack the thing with the big hammer.

And you have a liberated starter.  This one, original at 230,000 miles, was toast.  Something inside rattled around when I shook it.

I do not imagine that I’m going to have to replace the starter again for another 200,000 miles.  By the time I do, it probably will be ok to whack it with a hammer because it will be an inert piece of metal.  But apparently the folks in Hungary where this one comes from are familiar with the American fondness – as documented on YouTube – for hammering on their starters.  We have been warned.

I suppose that one of the advantages related to my excessive amount of reading/viewing about what could have been the cause of my car’s wimpy starting was that I had become familiar with the idea that a corroded ground strap could be one other thing that was causing this problem.  Therefore, when I ordered the starter, I also ordered the main engine ground strap that resides kind of sort of below the starter.  Sure enough, upon inspection this thing was not looking very healthy, so I performed the contortionist act necessary to change it too.

Its time had clearly come.

After about six hours of work (spread out over two days), I had everything replaced and buttoned back up. All told, I think that I’d probably spent at least double that amount of time “researching” the repair than it actually took to do it.  Oh well, next time I’ll be able to accomplish the job in probably two hours.  And money-wise, aside from the cost of the tow (Ramon did provide some tips for how I could beat that “next time”), the extra day in the parking lot, and the unexpected stay in a hotel…oh, and yes, the parts…I probably still came out ahead of what it would have cost to have the work done in a shop.  At least that’s the story that every DIY mechanic tells themself.  I’d also add that if I’d fixed the car months ago when I first started to research the issue, I’d never have heard Ramon’s stories, reflected first hand on what a cool experience it must be to drive a Greyhound professionally, or been reminded of 6th grade Curtis and what hopefully has not been his lifetime of state-sponsored basketball.

This time, when hitting the button…no more wimpy start.  If I’m not mistaken, the car hasn’t started with this much vigor for some number of years.

I may well be mistaken.

After a quick wash to remove four days of airport parking lot dust, all is good. Several days of driving indicate that I can let go of the wimpy starting issue, and focus instead on possible coolant leaks and the perennial favorite question of “Wait, was that oil spot on the floor before I parked the car there?”.

So, what did I do for my car today?  As far as the forum is concerned, the answer is “I changed the starter and washed it.”  But the whole story has to do with a lot more than a car and some wrenching.  It always does.