Tech Articles

Get off the bus! upgrade your ’02’s steering wheel.

One of the easiest low-cost upgrades for an ’02 is to replace the stock steering wheel with one from a later model 320i. It’ll only take an hour or two to do the whole installation. There are only two or three modifications that are needed to be done to the 320i steering wheel.

The standard 4-spoke steering wheel.

Two types of steering wheels were used on the 320i. The first was the standard 4-spoke version very similar in appearance to the steering wheels used in the later version of the ’02. There are four horn buttons (one on each spoke), and the steering wheel has a slight dish shape to it. You can expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $25 for this steering wheel from a junkyard or ’02 parts recycler.

The other steering wheel can be found in the 320is. This one has three spokes and a nicely padded thick leather covering. The horn button is in the center of the steering wheel, and the steering wheel is “flat” and looks a lot like a Momo or Nardi steering wheel. Depending on the condition (especially the leather covering), you can expect to pay at least $50 or more for one in good to excellent condition.


Getting Everything to Fit

Two modifications are necessary to mount the 320i steering wheel onto the ’02 steering column. The first involves positioning the steering wheel onto the steering column. Fortunately, the splines on the 320i steering wheel match the ones on the ’02 steering column.

If you place the 320i 4-spoke steering wheel onto the ’02 steering column, you’ll find that the bottom portion of the steering wheel interferes with the padding on the steering column by about a 1/4 inch. You can deal with this two ways: Grab a sharp utility knife and carefully trim away the bottom of the steering wheel, or install some sort of 1/4-inch thick spacer between the steering wheel and the steering column.

The 320is wheel from the back.

With the 320is steering wheel, the interference with the steering column is less than the 4-spoke steering wheel. You will need to remove only about a 1/8 inch from the bottom of the steering wheel surround or add a 1/8-inch thick spacer.

To remove the 1/8 inch of plastic, use tin snips to trim off the lower edge of the s-package surround until it doesn’t interfere with the column covers when turning. Clean and easy. I also have heard of using a belt sander to take off the extra plastic of the surround.

If you choose the spacer approach, you have to make your own spacer, as commercial flat washers are too large. The spacer needs to have an inner diameter of about 5/8 inch and can be no larger than 1 inch. When I installed a 320is steering wheel into my ’02, I made the spacer out of a piece of 1/8-inch diameter aluminum rod and bent it into a ring using one of the sockets from my toolbox as a mandrel.

One cautionary note about the use of a spacer: The lock nut might not grip the shaft threads if the spacer is too thick. Losing a steering wheel in mid-apex is BAD!


Getting the Horn to Work

Getting the horn button to work requires some modifications. In a nutshell, this is how the horn button works on an ’02. On the steering column, a thin sheetmetal brass ring (technically called a slip ring) is electrically connected to the coil of the horn relay. On the steering wheel, a small spring-loaded carbon (or brass) plunger is connected to the horn button. If everything works correctly, the spring plunger is always in contact with the brass ring as you turn the steering wheel. When you push the horn button, the circuit is closed to the relay and the horn goes off.

On a 320i, the mechanical hardware for the horn button is reversed. The plunger is on the steering column, and the brass ring is on the steering wheel. Don’t ask me why the BMW engineers did it this way. They just did.

Detail of what’s behind the scenes.

You have two options. One: Take a sharp utility knife, and make a radial cut completely through the brass ring on the 320i steering wheel. Once the ring is split, use pliers to carefully bend up one end of the ring high enough to form a cantilever leaf spring. Then bend the tip of the ring over to form a smooth contact surface for the steering column.

This method works well with the standard 4-spoke 320i steering wheel because there is little, if any, access to the internal wires going to the horn buttons. It can be used for the 320is steering wheel, too.

Two (for the 320is steering wheel): Remove the brass ring. Carefully enlarge one of the three holes on the base of the steering wheel hub just large enough to press fit the spring plunger into it. (Note: For the particular plunger I had, a 17/64-inch diameter hole was needed). Surprisingly, the location of the hole pattern is almost on the center of the slip ring on the steering column. Before you install the plunger into the 320is steering wheel, you may need to lengthen the wire.


Turn Signals

For ’02 with the turn-signal lever on the left-hand side, no modifications are necessary to the 320i steering wheels to automatically turn off the turn signal. I wish I could say the same for the pre-74 ’02s with the right-hand turn signal levers.

You can install the 320i wheels on early cars by two methods. Swap the high beam stalk and the blinker switches from side to side, or cut off the plastic protruding tab that cancels the blinkers with a dremel cut-off wheel from the 320is-package wheel and leave the original cancelling cam on the 2002 column and switches in place. The tab part unscrews on normal 320i wheels.The downside: You can’t use that s-package wheel on a 320i again, but you can on later 2002s.


Installation Steps

Park your ’02 with the wheels pointed straight ahead. This will help center the steering wheel. Remove the old steering wheel. Depending on which year ’02 you have, there are different ways to get the cover off of the steering wheel. Check your service manual for more information. Using a 22mm deep socket (a 7/8-inch socket also will work), remove the nut holding the steering wheel onto the steering column. The steering wheel can be removed without too much effort. A steering wheel puller is not needed. Carefully make a mark on the end of the steering column point straight down. This is a reference mark for centering the steering wheel. Modify the 320i steering wheel.

Install your new steering wheel and secure it in place with the nut. Be sure to install any needed spacers at this time. Connect the wire from the spring plunger or leaf spring to the horn button, and test the horn. Test drive the car. If the steering wheel appears to be off center, repeat the steps until the wheel position suits you. That’s all it takes to install a new 320i steering wheel into a ’02. It won’t make the car travel any faster, but it sure does make the driving experience a lot more enjoyable.


Steering Wheel Tips and Trivia

It is becoming more difficult to find a 320is steering wheel that is reasonably priced with the leather covering still in good condition. After all, the last 320is rolled off the factory floor 17 years ago, and this particular steering wheel has always been a hot commodity for ’02 and 320i. When I bought my 320is steering wheel, it had a damaged covering. I “fixed” it by installing a Wheelskins ( over the existing leather covering. The trick is to get the right size Wheelskins. Trust me on this one, and buy the “AXX” size.The standard 320i steering wheel uses a “AX” Wheelskin.

The 320is steering wheel.

If you use the 4-spoke version of the 320i steering wheel and find that one or two of the horn buttons don’t work, you probably need to clean the button copper contacts. The horn buttons can be removed by unscrewing the plastic screw from behind the button. Clean the copper contacts with some electrical contact cleaner and/or a small screwdriver to remove any oxidation on the contact surface.

The stock ’02 steering wheel is about 16 inches in diameter, the 320i and 320is steering wheels are about 15 inches in diameter, and the 2002 turbo steering wheel is about 15 inches.

The hub of the E30 steering wheel is very different from the 2002 and E21 320i hubs and does not have a chance of fitting a 2002 without a lot of modifications.

We thank David Lumbra and Curt Ingraham for their help and advice.

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