BMW car door: conquered

I’m reading this Lewis and Clark book, and it occurs to me last night that I’ve been on my own expedition. A one-man Corps of Discovery. My monthlong odyssey of the broken car door.

Here’s what happened: The door would lock sometimes, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Not a huge deal, but it nagged at me. “Gnawed” might be a better word. So in the spirit of Westward Expansion and exploration, I took the entire door apart and tried to figure out the problem and fix it myself. This was in early April.

Now, more than a month later, the project is complete. The door is fixed.

I now leave my notes and thoughts to any others who might embark on this same journey in the hopes that my setbacks and frustrations might be avoided.

Dear reader, before you take the door off your 1997 BMW 328ic E-36 3-series vehicle, please read ahead.

If there’s trouble with your door lock, it’s probably the actuator. They’re about $50-$60 online. I got mine here, with free shipping, and it arrived quickly without any problems at all.

BMW door lock actuator

This thing. This miserable thing here is the source of all of the trouble.

Of course to get at this thing, you need to take your door apart. This is a huge pain in the ass. In fact, this entire project is a huge pain in the ass. BMW doesn’t want you to take your own door apart. This car is designed for other people to take care of. Not you. Delicately built and patient people with small hands. That’s who needs to work on these cars. And people with degrees in engineering. But we’ve gone this far. Let’s carry on.

Step one: Take off the door panel. There are two screws under the pull handle that will need a T-20 torx screwdriver (looks about like this). After the screws come off, you’ll need to slide the handle panel off. Push in and slide it to the right.

Slide this handle panel to the right, and it snaps off

Slide this handle panel to the right, and it snaps off

Step two: Pop off the door panel. You’ll have to dig under the thing and mess with it awhile. It won’t come easy. Then unhook the speaker wires and mirror wires and set the whole thing aside. Remove the vapor barrier, too, and put it somewhere. I found that setting it in the kitchen worked pretty well. Nobody else in the house seemed to mind this enormous door panel just leaning against the fridge for more than a month. Maybe you’ll have the same luck I did!

Just go ahead and lean your door panel against the fridge in the kitchen. No one will mind.

Just go ahead and lean your door panel against the fridge in the kitchen. No one will mind.

Step three: OK, so now here we are. We’re in the door. I followed this guy’s directions because there were pictures and he seemed to know what he was doing. Everything worked out pretty well until it came time to put the new actuator onto the door lock thing. For some reason, it just would not go on, no matter what. And much of what you’re doing is by feel since you can’t really see inside the door. At some point, I fit it on, but it would only lock, not unlock, so I had to take it all apart again.

Right about here, a series of missteps and problems started happening.

  • To test whether I had it working properly, I closed the door and locked it. Since it wouldn’t unlock, my door was closed without a way to get it open because I had removed this connector bar that attached the door handle to the door lock mechanism. After a couple of days just reaching into the door’s guts and fussing with it, it finally came open. But I was this close to just taking the car to the junkyard.
  • The door mechanism is connected to the exterior handle by a hanger mechanism. If you don’t have that attached correctly, the door will never open. And hanging the mechanism on the hanger is exceptionally difficult.
  • But the worse problem is the connector bar that goes to the key turn. There’s a plastic piece that the connector snaps into. Good luck. Here’s a tip: Connect the top part to the key turn before trying to attach it to the plastic piece.

So what I ended up doing is taking everything apart again, which was a treat. Then I attached the door lock mechanism and tightened it all up, resigning myself to just never locking my door again. I figure that as long as I can at least close the door, I’m OK.

Turns out, though, that installing the actuator is easier if the whole mechanism is tightened and bolted onto the door. I slid it on, it clicked, worked, and that was that. Success!

All that’s left is to put the door panel back on. When I took it off, there was some adhesive that tore loose, so I reattached everything with this stuff: Gorilla glue. Worked like a dream. Kind of like a mini-sprayfoam. After letting it bond, everything was ready to put back together.

BMW door lock mechanism hanger.

This thing hangs onto a latch that connects to the door handle. If it's not attached right, your door won't open.

Door lock connector

This piece of plastic moves into the mechanism and is extremely hard to get to. The metal connector attaches and snaps into this.

Door lock connector.

If you can help it, just leave this thing alone. It attaches from the mechanism to the door lock. Getting it back on is ridiculously hard. You'll hate yourself if you attempt it.

The workshop.

For more than a month, while I figured this dumb thing out, this is what my car looked like.

Gorilla glue looks like this when it's bonded and dried.

The Gorilla glue after it set, bonded and dried. Looks like it might work.

Gorilla glue waiting to dry.

When you're waiting for the door panel and parts to dry, go ahead and use the kitchen table. No one will mind.

What the door saw.

What the door saw. The view from inside the door.

So. That’s that. My door lock didn’t work right, so I took everything apart (twice) and fixed it. Sure it took a while. But like Lewis and Clark, I persevered through frustrations, hardship and setbacks and emerged victorious. Clicking my key fob and hearing the door lock and unlock felt much like what I imagine the explorers felt looking at long last over the vast expanse of the Pacific. A territory conquered, a mission accomplished.

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