By on July 30, 2012


Craig writes:


Some time ago I purchased a 1995 (E36) BMW M3 as a project car. Mostly I have limited myself to bringing the maintenance up to date. I have a more than averagely equipped workshop and can find my way around a car pretty well (I have even built my own Brunton SuperStalker) One problem that has eluded me from day 1 is an intermittent ABS light.

Should I just ditch the ABS forever or is there a way to trouble shoot these things without Hans and Franz at the stealership taking me for a ride?

Sajeev answers:

I tend to like ABS, especially for a car that’s so race course worthy.  The E36 M3 is just a fantastic car in so many ways.  That said, I was disappointed when I googled Brunton SuperStalker and realized it wasn’t a murdered out full-size van with a suped up turbo diesel motor, air-ride suspension and big ass wheels.

A non-van referred to as a SuperStalker?  That’s almost criminal!

Right.  So, about the diagnosis, you have two options.  The first is spending a lot of time on the BMW forums, learning how to diagnose this vintage system and possibly finding a common problem with a somewhat easy to fix solution. Not really your cup of tea?  Then find an independent mechanic that specializes in BMWs and get 1-2 hours of their diagnosis instead.  It will be worth it.

The dealership isn’t the best move here, usually. Cars that are “E36-old” need a shop that is tailor-made to their unique needs.  Many (insert make here) dealerships know a good vintage (insert the same make here) shop and will recommend them to anyone. Yes, I’ve seen it happen! Most importantly, Hans and Franz will always encourage you to work your ABS.

“Hear me now, and believe me later: WORK YOUR E36 ABS!  ARE YOU A GIRLY MAN?” 


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9 Comments on “Piston Slap: Need a “Hans and Franz” ABS Workout?...”

  • avatar

    First step is to check wheel sensors. This is a very likely source of the problem.

  • avatar

    I had a ’97 M3 with the same problem and spent hours on the BMW forums over a period of a couple of years looking for help and also took the car to two different independent shops for diagnosis, one of which is may area’s go-to place for older BMW, all to no avail. Packard is correct that some people find that bad wheel speed sensors cause this, but while I never replaced mine, neither shop I took mine to thought this was the case or would help – and plenty of people on the forums have replaced all their sensors to no avail. The BMW specialist I took mine to basically said they couldn’t figure out the issue and wouldn’t be able to without simply guessing by replacing one part of the system after another (which I’d have to pay for along the way, understandably of course). The other shop thought it was probably the ABS module, which I seem to recall was about a $1500 procedure, but they admitted they weren’t sure it would correct the issue. I did find a place online that will rebuild your ABS module for a few hundred bucks but never tried that either since there simply was no way to tell whether it would work. So basically I just let this problem haunt me until I finally sold the car about a year ago (with full disclosure of this problem).

    Good luck with this – wish I had more to add to help. I guess if anything I’m just confirming that you aren’t nuts for this eluding you and that this may be something you ultimately simply cannot fix, at least not without basically replacing most everything that has to do with the ABS system one part at a time until the problem goes away.

    I really do hope you figure this out and look forward to hearing how it goes. Loved that E36 M3 and often wish I still had it.

  • avatar

    You also would want to check the brake pedal position sensor. I had the exact same intermittent ABS issue on my 98.

  • avatar

    That’s the one problem my E36 hasn’t had yet! But I wish you luck. Wheel speed sensors are the most likely culprit from the forum reading i’ve done in the past, though.

  • avatar

    Get a Bentley service manual, a good multimeter and follow the troubleshooting procedures. Its not that difficult.

  • avatar

    Wheel speed sensors. It’s not just for E36 beemer’s. If it isn’t that, get a code reader or take it to a mechanic.

  • avatar

    As stated before, make sure the wheel sensors and ABS rings are clean and there’s no obvious broken wires or teeth and then get the codes read.

    On some older systems you can do it your self by grounding a test wire and reading flash codes on the dash – newer ones need a proper scan code reader. Looks like yours is probably a Bosch system of similar vintage as the one in my Mustang so poke around the BMW boards and see if there’s a trick to reading out the codes – if not, take it somewhere that can read them and get the codes before you waste money throwing parts at it. A trusted European car specialist may be preferable to a dealer as they’re probaby more familiar with the workings of a BMW of your era than the dealer’s techs are.

    I was able to diagnose and repair my ABS system in my driveway with the codes, a multimeter and the diagnostic tree in my Chilton’s manual. Mine ended up being a dead control unit which I was able to replace with a cheap used one off eBay but there’s places that rebuild those too now for much, much less than what a new one would cost at the dealer’s parts counter.

    Just in case, you’re not running any seriously mismatched tires are you?

  • avatar

    Broken wiring was the problem with the ABS system I once repaired.

    I’d do a good visual inspection and if you’re into letting others touch your car you could maybe even have a specialty shop look at it. If the problem is then obvious, fix it. If not, I’d leave it. I don’t think I’d ever flat-spot a set of tires badly enough to justify spending a bunch of time and money to get it working.

  • avatar

    If it’s looking expensive in relation to how else that money could be spent on getting the car sorted, why not delete ABS and pull the bulb?

    From what I’ve read it seems ABS is over-rated as a safety feature. I’ve driven low-spec Jap cars with ABS where once it activated, braking was weaker than if you could just use the brakes yourself. Although BMW apparently have their brakes pretty sorted.

    From the Dog and Lemon guide on ABS:

    “Although ABS performs well on the test track,
    there is no evidence [that it] made significant
    reductions in the number of on-the-road crashes. A
    1994 Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) study
    and a subsequent 1995 study compared insurance
    claims for groups of otherwise identical cars with
    and without ABS, found no differences in the overall
    frequency or cost of crashes…”
    Because ABS should make the most difference
    on wet and slippery roads, researchers also studied
    insurance claims experience in 29 northern American
    states during winter months. Even there they found
    no difference in the frequency of insurance claims
    for vehicles with and without anti-lock brakes. A
    1997 Institute study and a 2001 update reported no
    difference in the overall fatal crash involvement of
    cars with and without ABS. Federal studies of ABS
    are consistent with Institute and HLDI findings.
    According to one federal report, ‘the overall, net
    effect of antilock brakes’ on both police-reported
    crashes and fatal crashes ‘was close to zero’.
    No one knows for sure why the test performance
    of ABS has not translated into a significant reduction
    in real-world crashes. A possible reason is that the
    average motorist rarely experiences total loss of
    vehicle control, which antilocks are designed to
    prevent. There is also evidence that many car owners
    do not know how to use antilock brakes effectively.
    An Institute survey of drivers with ABS-equipped cars
    found that more than 50 percent in North Carolina
    and 40 percent in Wisconsin incorrectly thought
    they should pump the brakes. Another possibility
    is that some motorists may drive less cautiously
    because they believe anti-lock brakes allow them to
    brake better.
    One possible reason for the failure of ABS to
    lower the road toll is that it affects the brakes only,
    leaving a human to make a number of critical (and
    sometimes wrong) decisions. Electronic Stability
    Control can help with this problem.

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