The Z3’s long-delayed bumper cover replacement

BMW bumper wear
Rob Siegel

One of my basic automotive tenets is that none of my 13 vehicles ever gets everything it needs. Choices must be made. This manifests itself in many ways. My Winnebago Rialta, for example, is missing the spare tire hatch and the rear bumper corner pieces, as both are no longer made and thus are very expensive when they show up used on eBay. Since the entire vibe of my particular Rialta is a bit on the well-used side, these blemishes don’t really jump out.

My Boston Green 1999 BMW Z3 roadster is similar. When I bought it in 2013, it was pretty run down. The previous owner loved the car, but a divorce, a move, and other demands on her time had relegated it to sitting outside for almost a year. When I first saw the car, it presented itself with flat tires, a dead battery, and a substantial interior coating of mildew. I jump started it and filled the tires, but nearly every dashboard indicator light was on, and after a short drive, it died completely. This isn’t unusual. Alternators aren’t designed to recharge completely flatlined batteries, and modern control-module-laden cars often don’t respond well when you simply jump start a doornail-dead battery and drive, as the control modules don’t see the right voltage levels—you often need to remove the dead battery and replace it with one that’s fully charged.

But I took the chance and bought it. Subsequent searches on Craigslist, eBay, and confirmed the three grand I paid made it the least-expensive, running, non-salvage six-cylinder Z3 in the country at the time.

Massachusetts inspection law requires all of the emissions and safety-related dashboard lights to be extinguished, but it didn’t really take that much to revive the car and achieve inspectability. The Check Engine Light (CEL) was on due to a minor evaporative leak from a deteriorated vacuum hose. The lights for the ABS and traction control were lit due to cracked solder joints in the control module for the ABS pump. A Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) light was on due to a dirty connector on one of the seatbelt tensioners. And, of course, that fresh battery. I gave the car a good cleaning and began driving it.

I quickly developed a lot of affection for the little car. Convertibles of any stripe, and little snappy-handling roadsters in particular, are wonderful vehicles. Drop the top, and it’s the automotive equivalent of forest bathing. Although the Z3 wasn’t specifically designed and marketed as any kind of a women’s niche vehicle, there’s something about its shape that seems to trigger the “it’s so cute” response. My wife, my sister, and their friends all loved it. We took to calling it “Zelda, the therapy car.”

BMW convertible front three quarter
My wife driving Zelda years ago. Rob Siegel

But you can’t hold onto everything forever. As the number of cars I owned climbed, I had nowhere to store Zelda, so in 2018, rather than leave it sitting outside over the winter, I sold it to my friend and neighbor Kim. Although I don’t work on cars for other people, I did work on Zelda, as it lived right around the corner, Kim is a dear friend, and that way I still got to drive it.

In the fall of 2020, Kim reported that Zelda’s clutch began making a lot of noise. I found that the noise was happening while the clutch was depressed, so it was obvious that the throwout bearing was going bad. It was certainly bound to get worse, but my advice was to maximize the top-down use of the car during the fall foliage months, and then we’d figure out what to do about it. However, I had little desire to do the work for her, as replacing the throwout bearing requires pulling the transmission. I’d done that job on my Z3 M Coupe (a.k.a. “the clownshoe”) years back, and the combination of a big engine and transmission in a tiny little car made for some very challenging bell housing bolt access.

The issue of the throwout bearing, however, got short-circuited, because one night while Kim’s son was using the car, in an inattentive moment likely fueled by youthful indiscretion, he ran Zelda into the curb surrounding a median strip. The impact pushed the front suspension back several inches, shattered the front bumper cover (what you’d normally call the front air dam; we’ll get to that below), the plastic inner fender liners and other low-hanging components like the A/C compressor bracket and idler pulley assembly, dented all four wheels, and blew the air bag.

Miraculously, though, the sheet metal was almost completely spared—the only metal damage was a small section of the rear corner of the right front fender being folded in by the pushed-back front wheel. But even still, the car would’ve certainly been totaled by the insurance company. That, combined with the need for a throwout bearing, drove its value through the floor. Kim and I talked, and came up with a number acceptable to the both of us for me to buy it back. The idea of both the car and “The Cult of Zelda” continuing to exist gave us both joy.

Yes, the front bumper cover was shattered—along with anything at curb height in the front of the car—but miraculously the bulk of the sheet metal was spared. Rob Siegel
BMW bumper trim cut
The rear corner of the right fender was mashed up by the tire but was straightened out by hand. Rob Siegel
BMW bumper trim
Not too bad, right? Rob Siegel

Over the winter of 2020–21, Zelda occupied the prime spot in my garage—the one on my mid-rise lift—as I replaced the bent lower control arms and other damaged steering and front suspension components as well as yanked the transmission to replace the bad throwout bearing (and other clutch components while I was in the neighborhood). By the spring of 2021, the car was back on its feet, continuing to provide the rolling Xanax experience in which a roadster excels.

There was still, however, the matter of the front bumper cover. And it looked like hell. In addition to being cracked in several places from the curb strike and held together via my application of Gorilla Glue and packing tape, it looked as if it had suffered prior damage, someone had patched it up with body filler and resprayed it, and the curb strike incident had caused much of that to flake off. Zelda is far from a mint car—she has scratches and a few little dents in the body panels—but unlike the missing corner pieces on my Rialta, Zelda’s beat-up front bumper cover was a wart that really stood out.

BMW bumper wear
It really was pretty ugly. Rob Siegel

I should explain the “bumper cover” thing. When a front aerodynamic aid is a factory or aftermarket option that sits below the bumper, it’s called a spoiler or an air dam. However, when it’s an integral part of the nose of the car and sits in front of the actual metal bumper, it’s called a front bumper cover. Whether that makes it harder or easier to replace depends on the car. On a Z3, it’s actually pretty easy.

But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. The dealer list price on a new OEM Z3 front bumper cover is $804, with discounted list about $675. Plus, since it wraps around the front of the car, it’s big, so unless you order it at a local dealer and pick it up, shipping can be a killer. In the photo below, you can see how the Z3’s front fender is a very small body panel, existing only behind the tire. The top line of the wheel arch is formed by the hood. The front section is actually the side of the plastic front bumper cover, dislodged here in this photo. This explains why, on such a little car, the bumper cover is so big.

BMW bumper wear
The Z3’s surprisingly small front fender leads to its surprisingly large front bumper cover. Rob Siegel

Aftermarket front bumper covers on eBay and Amazon are much less expensive than OE, dipping down as low as about $275 shipped. Plus, of course, you need to paint the replacement cover to match your car. Aftermarket spray cans of BMW Boston Green metallic paint are as low as $35 online, but with two cans of primer and two cans of paint, it adds up. And shooting something like this myself isn’t really something I do. Good paint work requires preparation, and I neither have the space nor the patience. If you know someone with a body shop who can do you a solid, maybe you can get a bumper cover shot for a hundred bucks. Otherwise, it’s likely two or three times that, if you can even find a body shop that’ll shoot it (most will want to do the entire insurance-billed repair).

Oh, and I also needed the two inner fender liners. The dealer list on these is $267 per side, but they’re available in the aftermarket for as low as about $100 a pair.

So I hoped for the “in a perfect world you can thread the needle” solution—that is, I kept my eyes open for a used front bumper cover from a Boston Green Z3 that was close enough that I could spare the shipping and pick it up myself. After all, I threaded that needle two years back when I was fixing the mouse-infested truck, needed a headliner specific to the 2008 3500HD Silverado extended cab (no sunroof, no entertainment system, no rear climate control) and found the correct headliner—a prohibitively-expensive item to ship—just 70 miles away down in Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, although there are plenty of used OEM Z3 front bumper covers on eBay and (their cost, shipped, seems to start at around $400 for something lightly scuffed), I never found a Boston Green one that was well-priced enough for me to buy it or close enough for me to pick up.

So in the spring of 2021, I did what I so often do—I opted for the cheapest possible solution. When I found a front bumper cover on Amazon on close-out for $180 shipped, I pulled the trigger, figuring I’d rattle-can it and call it done. While I wondered how the cost could be that low (when, on eBay and car-part, vendors wanted $200 just for the shipping), I chalked it up to the odd economics of Chinese-produced parts and Amazon vendors.

When the bumper cover arrived, I thought there must be some mistake, as it was in a box far too small to possibly contain it. When I opened the box, I was further mystified, as there was a bag inside with strapping material around it. I opened the bag to find an aftermarket bumper cover that was so flimsy, it was literally folded in thirds for shipping. I returned it.

BMW bumper wear parts
There’s actually a thrice-folded bumper cover inside this bag. Rob Siegel

My next attempt at cheaping out was when a friend of mine in Virginia offered me the front bumper cover from a purple Z3 he’d parted out. When I realized that I could pick it up on the way home from attending the event “The Vintage” in Asheville, North Carolina, it seemed the obvious solution. Unfortunately, when I got it home and looked at it closely, I realized that it was from a four-cylinder Z3 and thus had a smaller grille opening than mine. While it would fit, it was the wrong part for the car. Had it been Boston Green, I probably would’ve installed it anyway, but the idea of having to do work—or to pay someone to do work—to paint the wrong part stopped me.

BMW bumper replacement
I could’ve installed this as-is on the Boston Green Z3 and revel in the Smurf-like color scheme, but that just seemed cruel. Rob Siegel

And so Zelda continued to run around carrying the black eye from the curb strike incident.

Then, right before Christmas, I found the orange spectrum Recaro office chair down in southern Connecticut. To make the trip more worthwhile, I searched Facebook Marketplace for other things along the driving route that I might need, and to my delight I found a guy in Springfield, Massachusetts, parting out a Boston Green Z3. Unfortunately, the photo he sent me of the front bumper cover showed two splits on the lower section, but this was the only cover I’d found within easy driving distance. Plus, he also had the two fender liners, and was willing to take a hundred bucks for all of it. It was hard to see how I could go wrong. So I snagged it.

BMW bumper damage splits
It was damaged, but it was the right color. And cheap. Rob Siegel

I planned to pull Zelda back in the garage and give her back the prime spot on the mid-rise lift, but for various reasons the cars in there needed to stay where they were. It had been a fairly mild winter here in Boston, so I wondered if I could attack the front bumper cover in the driveway. I carefully jacked up the car, put a pair of metal plates on the asphalt, jackstands on the plates, and Zelda on the stands.

BMW bumper wear jacked up
Up goes Zelda in the driveway on a 60-degree February day in Boston. Rob Siegel

It turns out that there are just two T50 Torx bolts holding the bumper and cover assembly to the body; any other small fasteners securing the corners of the bumper cover to the inner fender liners had been torn away by the curb strike. So when I undid the two Torx bolts and tugged on the bumper cover, it and the bumper came out so easily that I was lucky it didn’t rip the wires connecting the fog lights and the corner markers (I should’ve removed their connectors first).

BMW bumper front end tear down
Well, that was easier than I expected. Rob Siegel
BMW bumper old vs new
The replacement may be imperfect, but it’s worlds better than the broken one. Rob Siegel

With the bumper cover removed, you can see how the actual aluminum bumper is inside it, secured by 16 reusable plastic rivets. There’s also the front grille at the bottom, and the fog lights and corner marker lights. All these needed to be transferred over to the new cover.

BMW bumper part inside
The actual bumper nestled inside the bumper cover. Rob Siegel

The replacement fender liners needed to be installed as well. I normally have no qualms about not cleaning parts I’ll never see, but the liners were literally coated on both sides with road salt, so I gave them a cleaning before installing them.

BMW bumper cowling
The pair of fender liners before cleaning. Rob Siegel

Things ground to a halt when I went to transfer over the fog lights. They’re held in place by fasteners through holes in tabs. I’d forgotten that both of the tabs on the passenger-side light had broken in the impact (you can see it dangling in the photo near the beginning of this piece). One of the tabs on the left light was broken as well. I epoxied them back in place as best I could and installed them.

BMW bumper marker light housing
One of several broken tabs on the fog lights. Rob Siegel

By this time, winter weather had moved back into Boston, and the car was under a cover under snow. I really didn’t want the bumper cover occupying prime real estate in the garage, so I peeled up the car’s cover just enough to expose the nose, and slid the bumper cover into place. I thought about skooching under the car and installing the Torx bolts holding the bumper to the body, but this way, when the weather warms back up, I can pull the cover back off (or at least out) so I can refinish the hazed plastic headlight covers without scratching the paint. Until it’s bolted in place, I’ll need to remember not to slam on the brakes.

BMW bumper cover up
The replacement bumper cover, installed for now. Yes that’s a fat zip tie securing where the biggest split yawns open. Don’t judge me. Rob Siegel

You may shake your head that I intentionally went to the effort to procure and install another damaged front bumper cover. I look at it differently. The $100 that I paid bought not just the only Boston Green front bumper cover within driving distance, but also the two inner fender liners that I needed to buy anyway (and OEM ones at that), so the bumper cover itself was essentially free. I now know that replacing it is trivial. If I find an uncracked correctly-colored one nearby for a good price, I’ll buy it. In the meantime, I haven’t lost anything, and I’ve gained a front bumper cover that comes close to making the car look whole again for hundreds of dollars less than any other path.

And, come spring, Zelda can hold her head up and not look she’s hiding a black eye.


Rob’s latest book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally inscribed copies from Rob’s website,

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    Rob, just wondering if you have ever figured up the cost of the time and effort you put into trying to do things on the cheep? You know kind of like driving 20 miles in city traffic to save a nickel a gallon on gas. Just a thought.
    Oh I see from the driveway photo your have not gotten around to replacing that windbreak of a utility box on your excellent American Chevy truck with a more useful and practical 8’ dully bed. Really that would be an excellent and useful project and you could sell the utility bed to a home improvement contractor that would use it. Just a thought.

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