This article is one in a series that have been released in conjunction with Wayne's new book, 101 Performance Projects for Your BMW 3 Series. The book contains 272 pages of full color projects detailing everything from performance mods to timing the camshafts. With more than 650+ full-color glossy photos accompanying extensive step-by-step procedures, this book is required reading in any 3 Series owner's collection. The book was released in August 2006, and is available for ordering now. See The Official Book Website for more details.
It's inevitable--one day, one of the lamps will burn out in your gauge cluster. Most people just tolerate this because, in their minds, the bulbs are difficult to reach and nobody knows how to get to them anyway. In reality, it's quite easy if you know the procedure for safely pulling out and removing the gauge cluster.
The first step is to write down which bulbs are burned out, and then disconnect the battery (see Project 84). I really can't stress this enough, for reasons I'll explain later in the text. Make sure you have the proper radio code required to reset your radio if you do disconnect the battery. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing your radio is dead and you don't have the code (although it is available from the BMW dealer).
With the battery disconnected, use a small stubby screwdriver to remove the two screws that fasten the gauge clusters to the top of the dashboard. On some later cars, these screws may require a stubby Torx driver--or you might be able to get away with using a small flat-head screwdriver in the top of the Torx head.
With the two screws removed, you should be able to pull the cluster out of its home in the molded dash. This, of course, is easier said than done. There isn't a big grab handle to pull the cluster out with. The best method is to grab the top of the cluster with your fingernails and pull it down. Using a soft plastic wedge, such as an old credit card, can help, and it won't damage the delicate plastic assembly.
With the gauges pulled out from the dash, you now need to reach behind and disconnect the wire harnesses from the rear. For each harness, you need to push a small tab on the rear of the connector, which then allows the white retaining lever to be lifted up. Don't use too much force, as you will break the delicate retaining levers; then the connectors will never be secure. (See Photo 2 for details.)
With the harnesses disconnected, you can now maneuver the gauge cluster out from the car. Be careful not to scratch the front of the gauge cluster on your steering wheel column. The removal process will require you to turn the steering wheel. Insert the key into the ignition and turn it so you can rotate the steering wheel. Verify that your battery is disconnected--if you turn on the ignition with the gauge cluster disconnected, the air bag computer will sense a fault and will trigger the air bag warning lamp. The air bag warning lamp can only be reset by using a special reset tool. If you don't have one, you'll be taking an expensive trip to the dealer.
With the gauge cluster removed, you can use a small screwdriver to replace the bulbs. There are three large green ones; they illuminate the analog gauges (3-watt bulb, part number 07 11 9 978 372). There are two medium-sized white/tan ones that illuminate the odometer display (1.5-watt bulb, part number 62 11 1 391 260). Finally, the small black ones are for illuminating the warning lamps (1.2-watt bulb, part number 62 13 1 383 311). I recommend replacing all three of the large green ones, the two white/tan ones, and the two turn-signal lamps, as they are lit the longest and tend to burn out more than the others.
When you are ready to reinstall the gauge cluster, make sure that the small retaining levers on the wire harnesses are pointed upward. Don't force them, as they are fragile and can break.
So what can go wrong with instrument clusters? Well, there are a lot of strange problems that can be attributed to faulty clusters and/or faulty wiring. The cruise control computer acquires speed information from the cluster, so when the cluster is having problems, the cruise control often shuts off. Radio volume on OEM radios is integrated with the gauge cluster output, so problems with the gauges often cause the radio volume to be lowered as well. Also adding to gauge problems may be a faulty door switch (see Project 67) or faulty wiring in the trunk (Project 82). Sometimes, when you install a short shift kit, the installation may accidentally pinch some wires in the tunnel, so double-check your work if you have recently installed one of these kits.
Also problematic are the harness plugs on the back of the gauges. Previous owners may not have been as careful with them and may have broken the connector-securing brackets. It's possible for these to vibrate loose after many miles.
A neat feature of the gauge cluster is the self-test function. This is used by the BMW dealers to diagnose various problems with the cluster, and also to test the various instrument modules. To activate the diagnostic mode, press and hold the odometer button. Then turn the ignition switch to the radio position, which is the first position on the ignition switch. The display should read something like "tESt 01." Once you see that message, let go of the odometer button. The instrument cluster will then cycle through some test cycles and display some numbers. Here is what they mean:
First display: BMW part number (six digits)
Second display: code number (five digits)--the internal coding plug number
Third display: K number (four digits)
Fourth display: chassis number (five digits)©part of your BMW's VIN number
Fifth display: software version (three digits)
Sixth display: revision index (two digits)--hardware number
After all of the information is displayed, a set of tests of the analog gauges will be performed. You can also use this test/diagnostic mode to reset your odometer. See www.101Projects.com/BMW/95.htm for more details on this procedure.
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On the E36, the gauge cluster is secured to the dash by two screws. Remove these screws with a small, stubby screwdriver (lower right). Pulling out the gauges themselves requires some effort, and it helps if you have long fingernails. Using a small pick, you can pull at the gauge cluster tabs that the screws mount into. Once the gauge cluster is pulled out far enough, disconnect the wire harnesses in the rear of the cluster (see Photo 3). With the harnesses disconnected, the cluster can be removed if you pull it all the way out; then rotate the steering wheel to the side (inset photo, upper right).
Be especially careful with the delicate retaining levers that attach the wire harness to the rear of the gauge cluster. The left photo shows one connector plugged into the rear of the cluster. The green arrow points to the small tab that must be pressed down in order to release the retaining lever. The middle photo shows the retaining lever being pulled back. Finally, in the right photo, the retaining lever has been pulled all the way up to the top, and the connector snaps out of the plug.
Here is a photo of the rear of the E36 gauge cluster. Each one of the plastic tabs is the back side of an instrument bulb. The black ones indicate individual lamps (like the ABS warning lamp), whereas the green ones are used for backlighting the gauges. The tan ones are used to illuminate the LCD/odometer display. Be sure to make a note of which bulbs are burned out before you pull the gauge cluster. The yellow arrows point to the five screws that must be removed to access the inside of the gauge cluster (see Project 91). 1: Temperature warning. 2: Right turn signal. 3: Left turn signal. 4: Oil pressure warning. 5: High-beam indicator. 6: Battery-charging indicator. 7: Low-fuel-level warning. 8/9/10: Gauge cluster illumination. 11: AST warning. 12/13: LCD/odometer illumination. 14: Air bag warning. 15: Catalytic converter warning. 16: Parking brake indicator. 17: Brake fluid warning. 18: Brake pad wear warning. 19: ABS warning. 20: Seatbelt warning. 21: System check control. 22: Automatic transmission warning. 23: Not enabled. 24: Check-engine warning. 25: Convertible anti-roll warning. 26: Not enabled. 27: Rear fog lamp. 28: Front fog lamp.
This photo shows the sequence for removing and replacing bulbs. In the upper left, you need to pull out the gauge cluster and disconnect the wire harness prior to removal. The upper right shows the process of removing one of the bulbs. Simply use a small screwdriver to turn the bulb counterclockwise. Use a pair of needle-nose pliers to pluck the bulb out of the assembly, as shown in the lower left. Finally, the new bulb is installed and twisted into place by the screwdriver, as shown by the photo on the lower right.