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Old 12-28-2019, 08:52 PM   #1
mr-canada
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Default Dimmer / Headlights 1999 318ti & CEL

Ok. This problem has me a bit frustrated. The dash instrumentation lights don't light up, making driving in the dark amazingly frustrating as I have to drop the vanity visor to get the light on to shift.

Some jerkoff smashed the windows on the drivers side after it was delivered but before it was paid off so it wasn't insured. I found the windows, which much ado they had to get shipped 5000 kms from Ontario to BC, then the courier company shattered the driver's side window and a replacement has been shipped.

However, the lack of drivers side windows likely caused corrosion in an already old (1999) dimmer switch. It is the kind with the knob that you pull out one click for running lights, two clicks for high beams. The lights that came with the car are either old are crappy and need to be replaced. The beams are oddly pointed so driving on high beams is like driving with regular headlights and they are horribly dimmed, so I would guess the previous owner did a DIY nightmare (hence getting a perfectly running 318ti for $2K CAD)

The previous owner also installed a decent stereo deck into it probably because he/she didn't want to deal with cassette tapes any more, but it doesn't seem to fit in the spot where the stock one goes, I'm guessing it's the wiring harness for it is in the way.

I went through the entire fuse list in the manual and checked every fuse that has to do with the instrumentation panel and they are all fine. The entire instrumentation panel all goes through this stupid dimmer switch (you twist the same one that you pull for the headlights) so I'm guessing it's the rheostat got fried from having no windows in the rain.

The CEL light is permanently on, I bought an OBD2 reader that can wipe out and read codes with a dictionary, so I can clear the CEL code, drive it around the block and see which codes come back up and make necessary fixes.

Unfortunately, these dimmers are rare and the cheapest one I can find is like $80 bucks. I dont particularly feel like running around scrap yards and taking apart dashes hoping to find one that works, as apparently this is a common problem.

Anyone know what the wiring looks like and where it goes? I may just yoink the whole dimmer and replace it with toggles, those won't fail. I'm guessing I'll need one toggle for running headlights, one for high beams, and one for 100% dimmer strength or nothing.

Also re the headlights - I may as well just buy extra bright LEDs. Anyone know what type of replacement bulbs I will need and how hard/easy it is to correctly aim the beams?

Finally, are there any common 318ti 99 problems that cause the CEL to be always on? The car runs like a dream, no knock, runs quiet, growls when it goes from grandma mode into beast mode lots of low end power. I guess the OBD2 scanner will tell me what the errors are.

On an unrelated side note: My Jeep started acting really funny, I bought it used the oil was like black when I got an oil change and replaced it all with synthetic. I figured it was the plugs, and the mechanic said it definitely was the plugs, one was broken and the gap on them was all screwed up. Replaced the plugs, it runs great but now it stalls. I'm hoping a OBD2 reset will fix it, because my hunch is the engine is still trying to compensate for the bad plugs.
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Old 12-28-2019, 10:10 PM   #2
John Firestone
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The ETK lists for a '99 318ti, the separate 60W electronic dimmer module, 61311391842, that the other E36 models use. IIRC, one of the cutouts in the panel near the steering wheel is sized to accept such a module. Is that cutout already filled in your car?

If the position is not filled and this were my car, I would probably wire a module to replace the light switch rheostat. The module is supposed to be short circuit protected (I ran one shorted for a few nights) and easier to replace. Just a thought.

Last edited by John Firestone; 12-28-2019 at 10:12 PM.
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Old 12-28-2019, 11:52 PM   #3
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The cutout is filled, it used to work before - before it was driven with no windows in the rain.

I searched for the other version by the knee or steering wheel, no wheel exists there and no cutout down there at all.

I think on the 99 they went "high tech" and put it all on one pull switch and twist knob. Lol.

Would rather not go to a dealership, they will charge me $240/h shop time. I tried to bribe a BMW tech with some offsite work but he said he hates electrical. Bumped into him by happenchance with a dead battery by the liquor store. No dice on him although he would be the best bet; if I had his number. I just gave him my card and told him to contact me.

It seems kind of stupid the whole instrumentation panel including gear goes all through one silly dimmer; it's kind of an important thing. The car rocks. Hence I wouldn't mind to just hardwire the damned dimmer in and make the lights manual on more reliable switches. I can blow over $100 on a dimmer switch and shipping, but it doesn't seem easy to remove. I fear I may have to actually pull the dashboard right off, there is no simple screw at the bottom like on other models. Would rather never have to do that again, like ever.

Unless someone here knows an easier way to replace the headlight/dimmer switch on a '99 1.9L 318ti, to which I would be all ears. I'm loathe to pull the dash because chances are, just doing that will cause more problems - it's pretty tight back there. Just trying to pull peices of the broken glass out caused the speaker on the drivers side to pop out of it's plug. Might have again been a **** DIY job.

Just want to restore this puppy to it's former stock glory as best I can, nothing fancy and money IS an object. I know bimmers are expensive toys but sinking a few thousand into a car I bought for 2 grand that I haven't even driven yet borders on insanity. I'd rather at least get to have some fun with it and nip away at the restoration. Poor car, it was left with a passenger side window half open because the window came off the regulator for over a year, pine needles got stuck into the paint on the hood. It's basically a rescue job due to neglect. Not a bad find though, it runs fantastic and almost all the electrical other than this silly dimmer thing works (plus I need some better headlights).
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Old 12-29-2019, 12:29 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mr-canada View Post
The cutout is filled, it used to work before - before it was driven with no windows in the rain.

I searched for the other version by the knee or steering wheel, no wheel exists there and no cutout down there at all.
Is there no panel west of the steering wheel and south of the left side air vent? What is filling what? Could you post a picture?

Quote:
I think on the 99 they went "high tech" and put it all on one pull switch and twist knob....
Just the opposite: the engineers, to translate a German expression, "cooked with water" and used an old-fashioned rheostat. Rheostats are less expensive than modern solid state controls (or were?), but are difficult to impossible to protect against shorts.

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It seems kind of stupid the whole instrumentation panel including gear goes all through one silly dimmer; it's kind of an important thing....
That is more cooking with water. Would you prefer to replace multiple rheostats?
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Old 12-29-2019, 12:38 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
Is there no panel west of the steering wheel and south of the left side air vent? What is filling what? Could you post a picture?
The rheostat/headlight is to the left of the steering wheel between the air vent and the steering wheel. I have tried blasting the F out of it with electrical contact cleaner but not getting any dice after multiple applications, but I do still have a full can. It is zero residue cleaner, not WD40 or something, specialized for electrical applications.

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
Just the opposite: the engineers, to translate a German expression, "cooked with water" and used an old-fashioned rheostat. Rheostats are less expensive than modern solid state controls (or were?), but are difficult to impossible to protect against shorts.

That is more cooking with water. Would you prefer to replace multiple rheostats?
Lol. Cooked with water is probably exactly what happened; even though it blew no fuses. It was tremendously rainy those days, and my stupid staff trashed the plastic I specifically told them to recover the window with when the car was parked while they were working. I can only imagine how much rain was blowing into the damn window.

Honestly, if I could do it cost efficiently, I'd prefer no rheostats at all. Rheostat impedance controls are notorious for getting dirty, scratchy, failing, in everything from home audio to... well... apparently cars. If I want the "dimmer" (ie. instrumentation lights on) then they may as well be full blast. It is highly doubtful that the push/pull (which is working) for the headlights are on a rheostat, the headlights are either on or off.

IMO if I can just get it to work at a reasonable price I will do so. If I am to rip off the whole damned dash I'm thinking may as well go all the way and replace them with automotive toggles, unless there is an easier way to simply replace the dimmer/headlight unit.

It also has a classic well documented problem, the left running light is out, which also has a high correlation with a bad dimmer. Why on earth they would even have the running lights on any circuit associated with the dimmer/headlight switch I can't imagine. Maybe because it's a 99. In Canada all running lights are regulated by law at some year to always be on when the vehicle is running.

Last edited by mr-canada; 12-29-2019 at 12:40 PM. Reason: Minor addition
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Old 12-29-2019, 12:50 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
the engineers, to translate a German expression, "cooked with water"
And yes, I do catch your translation of the German expression. Wouldn't expect that out of a BMW engineer, but it was a lower cost model.
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Old 12-29-2019, 04:15 PM   #7
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Hit the car with the OBD2 scanner. No codes come up. ABS light and the ! with triangle and swirly are still on, scanner is showing no codes. Did an erase anyway, no difference. Have another issue, seems like the floor lighting thinks the doors are open all the time, doesn't seem to turn off. (Maybe there's a sensor somewhere?) Not sure if it has to do with the windows, but is pretty annoying, it is a slow drain on the battery. Even with the engine running and both doors closed they stay on. Doesn't really distract from driving.

Also, dumb question, but how do I keep the high beams on? The two position puller switch goes from headlamps on, to headlamps with running lights, to full lights. Pulling the signal switch initiates hi beams, but can't figure out how to make them stay on. They seem to work fine, but obviously I can't drive in hi beam conditions with my hand on the puller, there has to be something somewhere else. Tried twisting the arm. Maybe pushing it? The jeep it's pretty simple, you just pull on it and then the high beams are engaged, if you flick it they flash. Some trick on the hi beams I don't know about here? I plan to take this car on the highways in the middle of nowhere (more fun driving) in summer a lot and I will definitely need hi beams. Hitting a deer, while never a good idea in the best of times, is even worse in the middle of nowhere.
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Old 12-29-2019, 04:35 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by mr-canada View Post
... Pulling the signal switch initiates hi beams, but can't figure out how to make them stay on....
Try pushing the stalk forward.
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Old 12-29-2019, 04:53 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by mr-canada View Post
And yes, I do catch your translation of the German expression. Wouldn't expect that out of a BMW engineer, but it was a lower cost model.
To say they cooked with water implies BMW was unadventurous and did not try anything special. If they were preparing sausages, they would have thrown them in a pot of boiling water rather than, say, frying them in an exotic curry.

The E36 Compact, which includes the 318ti, was an improvisation to test and reconnoiter a new and unknown market. BMW did not risk developing a brand new model in case the experiment flopped.

Last edited by John Firestone; 12-29-2019 at 04:58 PM.
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Old 12-29-2019, 05:24 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
Try pushing the stalk forward.
Good idea. I'll try that. Makes sense to me.
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Old 12-29-2019, 05:32 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
The E36 Compact, which includes the 318ti, was an improvisation to test and reconnoiter a new and unknown market. BMW did not risk developing a brand new model in case the experiment flopped.
Which it completely did flop, but not due to the engineers. On the 99 they bored out the engine to 1.9L, threw in a bunch of M parts, the engineers did everything they could to keep the car on the line. It was the salespeople working on % commission who refused to market or try to sell the thing in lieu of selling more expensive cars. The 99 was the engineers last ditch attempt.

The 318ti was a completely anomalous product. The engineering was excellent, it was an excellent product, but the dealers didn't even try to sell it, not unlike Commodore computers with the 128 or the Amiga, or Steve Jobs' NeXT, which were both way beyond their peers at a better price like the 318ti.

Usually best of value products get sold like hotcakes but the engineering is weak and a bad reputation kills the product. This car is one of the ones that it went the other way around.

Anyway not to digress on my own thread.

Any idea how to more easily remove the dimmer/light switch?

I've since learned that the ! with the swirly and triangle is a traction control issue. Odd it would pop up without moving the vehicle after the battery has been disconnected for a night to recharge it due to the floor light issue. I found the sensor on YouTube for the drivers' side door. Hopefully a bit of electrical contact cleaner fixes it, or I'm going to be disconnecting the battery every time I park it which doesn't do the BMW much justice. The replacement doesn't seem too difficult, but god I haven't even driven this thing more than 10 kms and I'm already replacing a lot of stuff. I want to enjoy it a bit before I fill a wheelbarrow of money into it so I feel like I'm getting my money's worth, in spirit at least.
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Old 12-29-2019, 06:54 PM   #12
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There is a product that is a battery quick disconnect. Essentially a switch for your battery. That might help while you get it sorted.

Probably try taking out the cluster to get at the switch. Not certain, but seems like that would work.
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Old 12-29-2019, 06:56 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mr-canada View Post
... Any idea how to more easily remove the dimmer/light switch?
Ten seconds of duckduckgo-ing found this thread.

Quote:
... I'm going to be disconnecting the battery every time I park it which doesn't do the BMW much justice. The replacement doesn't seem too difficult, but god I haven't even driven this thing more than 10 kms and I'm already replacing a lot of stuff....
I know the feeling from renovating 40 year old microscopes. At the moment, I have to pick up a 6.2mm drill to make a guide to top a block to create an elbow to complete a boom stand to mount a microscope.
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Old 12-29-2019, 06:59 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by BRADESTAR View Post
There is a product that is a battery quick disconnect. Essentially a switch for your battery. That might help while you get it sorted.

Probably try taking out the cluster to get at the switch. Not certain, but seems like that would work.
Cluster seems to be integrated into the dash, I dont see any screws anywhere.

I'd just short the dimmer with a toggle, the headlights seem to work fine, that would at least rectify the night driving issue, but access of the switch itself isn't immediately apparent without removing the entire dash. Of course pulling out half the screws and reefing on it is likely going to cause more problems.

There has to be some way to access that switch easier than removing the whole dash. ?
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Old 12-29-2019, 11:04 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by John Firestone View Post
Ten seconds of duckduckgo-ing found this thread.
Very good thread, thanks for the link. Whadda nightmare. If I have to go through all that I might just grab a sawsall and a drill and put in some toggle switches. That looks like a pain I'd never want to experience again. I'd just get BMW to do it but at $240/h shop time plus first born child for the part I'd probably be into the project for $500 bucks. Automotive toggles go for $29 for 3 and wires, are, well wires with negligible cost.

On the pushing on the arm re: the high beams. You were correct. Thanks for the tip. My Jeep you just pull it and hold it for a quarter second to engage or pull it and click it to disengage. I tried all manner of attempts that didn't work, twisting the arm, looking for a foot switch, but sometimes its something stupidly simple as it should be. I tried it and gave it a simple push and the high beams came on normally.

There were a few burned out fuses I replaced, but no dice on getting the instrumentation cluster lit up and replacing the fuses didn't do jack for the traction control issue. Seeing as the traction control warning popped up at the same time as the dimmer failed, it's probably yet another switch on the same circuit, as it's button is lit on the dimmer (ASC), maybe it's going to a relay and the system is detecting that it can't communicate with the switch.

Amazing that they ran so much through that one dimmer circuit. In the thread that you shared it says things about the cigarette lighter, stereo and a whole manner of other interior gadgets running off that circuit.

Last edited by mr-canada; 12-29-2019 at 11:07 PM. Reason: Minor addition
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