One thing I really like about the newer BMWs is the clamshell-like storage compartment in the center armrest. Even the MINI Cooper factory armrest comes with a little compartment under the cushion. So, when I stumbled across some old photos of Bimmerforums member tlp-96m3/2's E36 M3 and its E46 center armrest last week, the wheels in my head started turning. I found an armrest retrofit kit in stock at the local dealer on Saturday, and on Sunday, I set to work installing it in my 328i.
The good news: The E46 armrest base bolts up to the mounting points on the E36 body. New E36 armrest kits are nearly impossible to find, but new E46 armrest kits are plentiful and reasonably priced at the moment.
The bad news: Getting the E36 center console to fit around the E46 armrest takes a good bit of effort. For starters, you'll have to do some cutting and drilling on the new armrest and your existing center console. I must have installed and uninstalled the armrest and center console at least ten times to get everything to fit properly. The installation also leaves you with an unsightly gap at the rear of the center console that you'll have to find a way to cover.
Disclaimer: I am not an automotive professional, nor am I affiliated with BMW. I'm not responsible for any injury or damage you cause if you choose to do this retrofit. Take appropriate safety precautions and use power tools in accordance with their manufacturers' instructions. The following is based solely upon my experience retrofitting an E46 center armrest to my 1997 328i sedan; I have not verified fitment on any other car. Verify part numbers before purchasing parts.
The E46 armrest retrofit kits come in a variety of colors and upholstery materials:
51 16 9 415 372 (black vinyl)
51 16 9 415 373 (beige vinyl)
51 16 9 415 374 (gray vinyl)
51 16 9 415 861 (black Montana leather)
51 16 9 415 862 (beige Montana leather)
51 16 9 415 863 (gray Montana leather)
51 16 9 415 867 (black Nappa leather)
51 16 9 415 868 (beige Nappa leather)
I have a black interior, so I don't know how well the gray and beige E46 armrests match the E36 gray and beige interiors. Take the time to examine the E46 colors and choose carefully. I suppose you could always dye the new armrest to your liking.
If you have Montana leather upholstery like I do, the Montana leather E46 armrest is a pretty good match for your seats. It does, however, have a slightly more pebbly texture than my relatively smooth E36 armrest. If you like the smoother texture, get the Nappa armrest. MSRP on the Montana leather armrest kits is $220, but you can get one for as little as $160 from Pacific BMW.
To learn how to remove the E36 armrest and center console, read old skool's instructive thread:
Armrest and Center Console Removal DIY
Here's what you get in the E46 armrest retrofit kit. The black Montana leather armrest is pictured.
Picture 1 - E46 Armrest Kit
The E46 center console has a rubbery satin finish that doesn't match anything else in the E36, so I didn't try fitting it to my car. I reinstalled the E36 center console around the E46 armrest. Keep the bag of fasteners in case you lose one.
You can see from the next two photos that the E46 armrest base is taller to accommodate the storage bin, and the armrest pad is shorter. I did not attempt to transfer the E46 armrest to the E36 base because the stop for the armrest in its raised position is different. There are also coiled springs that raise the armrest pad when you press the latch on the storage compartment, and I wasn't sure I would be able to put them back in after taking the armrest apart. So the E46 armrest and base went in whole.
Picture 2 - E36 and E46 Armrests Compared
Notice the single speed nut on the E36 base and the two speed nuts on the E46 base. This is where the center console connects to the base. Some modification to the E36 center console will be required.
Picture 3 - E36 and E46 Armrest Bases Compared
The next three pictures show the modifications you need to make. First, cut the vertical fin off the E46 armrest base so the center console will fit. I don't think this cut will affect the structural integrity of the base; it appears to be a support for the E46 center console.
Picture 4 - Cut This Piece Off
Trim the cross piece at the rear of the E36 center console so that it meets the two speed nuts at the rear of the E46 armrest base. Drill two holes in the cross piece and use two screws to anchor the center console solidly to the two speed nuts in the E46 armrest base. Take care not to scuff the E46 armrest pad when you reinstall the E36 center console.
Picture 5 - Modified Center Console
Cut the E36 center console rear trim to accommodate the wider hinge of the E46 armrest.
Picture 6 - Modified Rear Trim
The bolt holes in the armrest are oval-shaped slots, so they give you about 3/16" of back-and-forth play. When you bolt the E46 armrest base to the body of the car, slide the base all the way to the rear of the car before tightening the three mounting bolts. This is so that the center console will fit when you reinstall it. Trim the carpet at the rear of the base if you must, but be careful of the parking brake cables and wires back there.
Here's a view of the rear after everything is back together. You can see that there is a substantial gap below the hinge where you can see the armrest base. The E46 hinge sits slightly higher than the E36 hinge, and the springs on the ends of the hinge are also slightly visible. I plan to strip the vinyl from the center console rear trim, add filler pieces on the sides and below the hinge, then re-cover the plastic piece with new vinyl. The E46 rear trim piece (which came with the retrofit kit) appears to be a fairly close match to the E36 piece in terms of width, so I may be able to graft the two together.
Picture 7 - Needs Filler Piece
And here's the end result. The storage compartment is not huge, but small items (a notepad, garage door remote, etc.) will fit neatly inside. I have also seen photos of an iPod resting comfortably in there. To prevent stuff from spilling out, the latch for the storage compartment will not open if the armrest is in the raised position.
Picture 8 - Armrest Down
Picture 9 - Storage Compartment
The flash makes the armrest look gray, but it is indeed a matte black. The seats appear darker because they have a semi-gloss appearance after nine years of daily use, cleaning, and conditioning.
The E46 armrest pad is narrower, so if your E36 armrest rubs against the seats and makes a creaking noise like mine did, the E46 armrest may eliminate this problem.
I will post a picture of the reshaped/re-covered rear center console trim piece after I've finished it.
To be continued...
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 02-26-2008 at 10:07 PM. Reason: Removed statement that armrest is shorter, because it really isn't.
Very interesting so far....
FWIW you should be able to get a full center console and armrest from Bavarian auto recyclers for around $135 shipped.
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E36 DIY: My articles are now located in the E36 DIY page
Quite a bit of work, expense, and fabrication needed to get this job done. I’m not exactly sure why anyone would want to do this, but I suppose it’s beside the point for you. Those extra few square inches must be invaluable for you.
Cool I guess
Best of luck fabbing the trim pieces.
Alpinweiß II 1989 325i - FS
For me, this modification provides two benefits: it gives additional, discreet storage space, and it eliminates the creaking noise caused by my old armrest.
Most of the time was spent fitting and re-fitting and cutting excess plastic, but I enjoy tinkering with my car, and I didn't consider the expense to be insurmountable.
To reduce the cost of this upgrade, I will probably put my old armrest up for sale soon.
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 07-03-2005 at 08:53 PM.
i couldn't live with that gap in the back, looks like someone took a sawzal to it...
if you can cover that up nicely, then maybe.
I wana buy your E36 armrest, how much?
Good writeup, I think the original e36 armrest in in the way while shifting, and the extra storage space don't hurt either.
i always wondered if this was possible. creative idea. gj.
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Great writeup and very informative. I did the conversion for very same reason...I wanted a stealth storage space for things like my wallet etc. Did you determine what foam density you got on your new armrest. It seems that 2004+ e46's started to use a softer more spongier foam in the armrests. My 2003 is the harder type. BMW never seemed to change the part # for the new less dense foam padding so it's the luck of the draw if you get one or not. I would order a newer softer one if they could guarantee it to be softy.
Thanks to all for the compliments..and I haven't even finished yet!
Terry, the armrest I got feels like it has a firm (but not rock-hard) grade of foam underneath the leather. I would have to compare it against one from an earlier production E46. I didn't check the markings on the base to see when it was produced, but I'll look for them when I work on the center console again.
EDIT: I checked some pictures and found a green sticker on the side of the base. My E46 armrest was produced in late April 2004.
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 07-03-2005 at 08:52 PM.
I did a little work on the center console trim during the holiday weekend.
Picture 10 - Ears Grafted
I cut the "ears" off the E46 trim piece (included in the retrofit kit) and epoxied them to the E36 piece. The E36 piece looks funny because I peeled the black vinyl covering off. The epoxy I used is a two-part product called Perma-Poxy, available in the Wal-Mart automotive section. The vent gauge I assembled with this epoxy is holding up pretty well so far in the summer heat, so I'm using it here too.
Next: Just a couple more filler pieces around the sides and below the hinge. The filler pieces will be cut from some Plastruct ABS sheet stock I bought several months ago from the local hobby shop. After a bit of sanding, I'll wrap the finished piece with some leather-texture black vinyl from the local craft store.
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 02-26-2008 at 10:08 PM.
I've added the filler pieces, filled the seams, and sanded the edges down. The piece is now ready to be covered with vinyl. If time permits, I should be able to apply the vinyl this weekend.
Picture 11 - Ready for Vinyl
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 02-26-2008 at 10:07 PM.
The vinyl work is not perfect because this was my first time wrapping anything with vinyl. It's good enough. I used "marine vinyl" from the local Jo-Ann craft store.
Picture 12 - Finished Piece
Last edited by G. P. Burdell; 02-26-2008 at 10:08 PM.
very nice work. looks good now ... how much was the arm rest retrofit kit?
Very cool. I hate that little spring loaded change holder though. 2 of the 4 little plastic tabs holding the bottom on the springs broke so when ever I fiddle with the holder too much, it pops out sending springs and coins EVERYWHERE!
1998 BMW 540i 6MT- Black on Black leather.
1997 BMW 328i 5MT- R.I.P.
1998 Volvo C70 Coupe T5M- Saffron on Grey Leather.
Thanks for the compliment! MSRP for the Montana leather retrofit kits is $220. You can get it for less with a BMW CCA discount or by ordering from one of the big mail-order dealers like Circle or Pacific BMW.Originally Posted by Lawrence1
Very Cool. I did an E46 armrest conversion about a year back as well. Your DIY write-up was great. I will take some pictures tonight and post them.
Originally Posted by G. P. Burdell
Here are a few pictures of my install. I just finishd the gap out with some black trim plastic. I can post more information if needed
That looks pretty good. There are numerous ways to clean up the center console trim after installing the E46 armrest. My preference was to make the "ears" of the trim piece line up with the hinge to conceal the spring.
Your seats look amazingly clean. Did you have them reupholstered?
your e46 mod looks great! Yes, I had a set of vader seats custom covered in OEM sand vinyl to match my sand interior.
Your next mod should be the 3-spoke steering wheel with the stereo buttons. I just got my buttons to work with my aftermarket stereo...good stuff
I've had the three-spoke wheel for a couple of years. I'll have to look into the steering wheel controls. My husband has them on his MINI Cooper, and they're great.
There are parts for a few other projects that I should get around to installing first, though!
A small useful tad of information for those of you junkyard sourcers. You need longer screws for your armrest bolt-downs. Your stock ones are too puny to function correctly. The correct sizes are:
2 x M8x1.25 x30mm
1 x M8x1.25 x25mm
Or just get 3 of the M8x1.25x30mm bolts. Make sure it is 8.8 or you'll be sorry later.
Lowes has the bolts for $0.93/pair. You also need washers. I used the cheapie 8mm washers for $0.08/ea.
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