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 > Technical Articles: / BMW E36 3-Series (1992-1999) >
Concours Corner: The Basics: Washing Your Engine Part I

Pelican Technical Article:

Concours Corner: The Basics: Washing Your Engine Part I

Bev Frohm


1-2 hours


$10-$20 dollars




Tape, Baggies, toothbrush, plastic wrap, rags, 2 plastic trash bags, towels, note pad, rubber bands, gloves, lots of quarters, wear old work clothes

Applicable Models:

BMW E30 3-Series (1984-93)
BMW E36 3-Series (1992-99)
BMW E46 3-Series (1999-06)

Parts Required:

GUNK engine cleaner or comparable engine degreasing product, local do-it-yourself car wash with steam cleaning setting

Performance Gain:

An engine and engine bay that looks as good if not better than it performs

Complementary Modification:

Clean your fan and other components within the engine bay
101 Performance Projects for Your BMW 3 Series

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.

Sixth in a series...

Cleaning the engine at first looks like a daunting task, but if you take your time and have patience the benefits will last for years.

Let’s assume you have an older BMW whose engine has never been touched beyond changing the oil and minor maintenance. You look at all the grease and gunk and want to say "Forget it!" My Porsche 911E was like that, the car had been raced, rallied and toured to the point I had over 300,000 miles on it. The engine was well maintained and clean by those standards. But not where I thought a person could put their hands in there without coming out with a grease trophy.

So where do you start? With a good engine wash. Take a can of engine cleaner (GUNK or some other comparable product) and go down to the local "Do It Yourself" (DIY) car wash. Why the DIY, because;

A) The DIY tanks are set up for yucky engine junk and will not hurt the environment B) Most of us do not have a high-pressure hose at home; you’ll need it. C) The area around your car will be a mess afterwards

Here are the following things you will need to take with you on your journey to the local DIY (do-it-yourselfer).

Tape, Baggies, toothbrush, plastic wrap, rags, 2 plastic trash bags, towels, note pad, rubber bands, gloves and lots of quarters.

First thing to do is protect your electrical components. Take a baggie and put it over the distributor, next use the rubber band or tape to secure the baggie in place. Each model is unique on where the electrical components are located, my car has electronics on the left side of the engine. I use the plastic wrap to protect this area and tape to secure it. Look anywhere else the water may cause you car-starting problems. If you have exposed carburetors, use the plastic wrap or Baggies to protect them.

Next thing I do is disconnect the coil wire, this way I won’t pull a no-brainer of starting the car with plastic inside the engine. You can guess why I started doing this J . Write yourself a note to reconnect the coil wire and put it on the steering wheel. On the note pad, write down the places you put the plastic and tape/rubber bands, it may seem redundant but better safe than sorry. Now take the towels and place them over you fenders and the deck lid. This will protect your paint from any debris and chemicals that may over spray. I suggest you wear old clothes while cleaning your engine and use gloves to protect your hands from the chemicals (latex is best).

Now you are ready to attack the built up yucky gunk. Take your engine cleaner and spray it liberally in the areas of the engine that have the most built up grease on them. Let the engine cleaner soak for a few minutes, it will start eating away at the grease and dirt. Depending on how bad the build up is, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to 20 minutes. You probably will not get it all this first go around, so keep that in mind. While the engine cleaner is soaking, take the toothbrush and gently work the engine cleaner on the worst spots, if you have a severe build up, you may have to do this with a larger (not stiffer) brush. Once you have determined the engine cleaner has stopped working, you are ready to steam clean.

Set the DIY’s wand setting to engine or steam clean (it may be slightly different depending on where you live). Take care not to use the wand on the exterior paint of your car. The heat and pressure from the wand was not meant for your paint. Now use the wand inside the engine compartment to steam away the engine cleaner and grease. Be patient and get the wand onto the nooks and crannies. Do not forget to get the sides of the engine compartments as well, dirt gets kicked up into the engine from the fan and always seems to find it’s way on the shelves of the engine.

While you are steaming the inside of the engine, make sure you do not get water inside your plastic covers. Once you are satisfied you have taken out as much dirt as possible (this go around), set the wand to rinse. The rinse water usually has a softening agent and will rinse the chemicals out of the engine.

A word of warning, GUNK works great but smells horrible. If you use GUNK, do not do this on the same day you are going to use the car for a date or tour. It takes a couple days for the smell to go away. There are other engine cleaners out there, I have tried the Citrus ones (they smell better) and GUNK. For the nasty jobs I use the GUNK, for the easier ones (like the new car) I use the Citrus engine cleaners.

When you finish rinsing the engine out shut off the wand. Now take the rags you brought with you and wipe down the engine. Make sure you use some pressure on the rags while wiping it down. The grease has softened because for the heat of the water and will come off easily in your rag. When you are finished with one rag (because it is too dirty or wet) put it in one of the plastic trash bags. Keep wiping down until the engine is rather dry or you run out of rags. Next take the towels off the deck lid and fenders. Wipe down the paint with the part of the towels that did not get wet or exposed to the chemicals. When done with the towels, put these in the other trash sack.

Now you are ready to get the engine ready for starting. First take ALL the plastic, tape and rubber bands out of the engine. Next reconnect the coil wire and make sure there are not any other foreign objects in the engine, like towels, toothbrushes or gloves. Check your notepad to make sure you got all your protective wrapping out.

You may want to put a few more quarters in the machine and rinse down the area you have been working. Chances are some of your greasy gunk might be on your shoes or get on someone else’s, be considerate.

Sometimes our BMWs do not want to start right away after a washing, make sure you give it plenty of time to start and take care not to flood the engine. If you protected you electrical components from water, your BMW should not have any problems starting up.

If you should have a problem, push the car into the sunshine and open the deck lid. Within a few minutes the components should dry out and you’ll be on your way.

If your engine was really bad, you may have to do the engine wash a couple times to get the worst junk out. Bare in mind, the grease and gunk took years to get there and it will not give up its home easily.

We’ll talk about getting you engine clean in a series of articles. Next time I talk about cleaning your fan and other components.

Bev Frohm

Comments and Suggestions:
Craig Comments: is there a 'dry' way to tackle this task?
January 3, 2014
  Followup from the Pelican Staff: You can use rags and a cleaner, wiping the engine by hand. - Nick at Pelican Parts  
JVick Comments: When washing your engine it will be hard to start when you are finished. Once started it will run rough due to water pooling around the spark plugs wells. Rather than waiting for engine heat and time to evaporate the water simply blow out the spark plug wells with air and your engine will start immediately and run just fine.
November 25, 2012
  Followup from the Pelican Staff: Thanks for the additional Info. We appreciate it.

I try to avoid directly spraying electrical components when washing the engine.
- Nick at Pelican Parts
bigaldepr Comments: I prefer Simple Green diluted about three to one with water. It is biodegradable, does not smell, does not corrode electrical components Gunk and other amine based cleaners and does not harden rubber. I spray the solution liberally all over items avoiding the covered items. I have an electric pressure washer 2000 psiand use it because the car wash pressure is too high. I blow it dry with a leaf blower then remove the covers. This removes the small pools in the low spots. Finally I blow the electrical connections with air hose from my air compressor. Then let it sit in the sun before starting. I did not follow this once and burnout the several output channels of my ECM.
May 1, 2010
  Followup from the Pelican Staff: Thanks for the additional Info. We appreciate it.
- Nick at Pelican Parts

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