I handle things with aplomb now. I can make a focused, autonomous assessment of a given situation, with a half-degree of cool detachment. I’m 48 and do not expect to live much past 60; no amount of wrenching during my time remaining will ever make me an old hand. Others will never turn to me for answers. Others will never say ask Bruce. He’d know.
But a little bit of experience does make the air-cooled lifestyle a bit more enjoyable. Plus, I get to use words like aplomb.
Zum Beispiel: A while back I did an impromptu tune-up on the Beetle in the parking lot of my parents’ condo, in a light drizzle. In general, the Beetle has been so reliable as to be (almost) boring. It just took a while to get the kinks out. But in the two years since I’ve been driving it again, it’s been my trusty, sunny-day driver. One weekend I took it up to the mountains, to Asheville; another weekend found us at a VW show near Chattanooga. Sure, there were little things — a sticky throttle, a broken speedometer cable — but this is the stuff that makes the whole thing fun. Otherwise, you may as well be driving a new Honda.
Spring came and I was due for a visit to Savannah, where my folks live. I’ve done the trip too many times to count. Drive time is just shy of five hours. You can cut the time in half with a borrowed Cessna, but if you include flight planning, checking the weather, preflight duties, rental fees, landing fees, parking fees, and fuel, in addition to the fact that I haven’t flown anything with a propellor in like twenty years, well, that wasn’t a real option anyway. Once I even did the trip on my bicycle. It took three days each way via back roads and several wrong turns that added hours in the saddle. Just for comparison. Any way you do it, as you head south from Athens the land just gets hotter and flatter and gnat-ier. And, forgive me for saying so, but there’s only so many thousands of acres of corporate pine forest a man can take before he transmogrifies into the tormented antagonist of some surreal James Dickey/Joseph Conrad mashup.
Big changes were afoot (I’ll get to that in a minute). In all likelihood, this would be my last time making the trip — from Athens, at least. May as well, I figured, go in style. May as well make it fun.
We got off to an unpromising start. Though the overall weather forecast was for improving conditions, the 52-year-old Beetle and I blasted out of Athens in a thundering downpour, lights on, wipers on high. Five minutes down the the road the left wiper blade suddenly came un-synced with the right one, making one or two more feeble, flopping, floundering sweeps before parking itself against the bottom of the windshield.
Shit shit shit.
I pressed my face to the glass, and could see that the spindle was still turning. So that was a good sign. But no amount of Rain-X could keep up with the sheets of hard rain scouring the car. I signaled and pulled over at the next subdivision. Quickly, so as to prevent getting completely soaked, I determined that this was simply a case of a loose grub screw. I tightened it down, thankful that I didn’t loose the entire wiper blade. Searching among the trash on the side of the road for missing parts in a thunderstorm is neither stylish nor fun.
Onward. . .
Soon enough the rain stopped and the landscape began to dry out. The rest of the drive was, for the most part, a pleasure. Definitely the most fun way to make the trip. I rolled down the windows and popped out the pop-outs. I did a steady 55 or 60 mph, about what I do in the Subaru.
I contemplated the fact that, when I first moved to Georgia thirty years ago, there were no armadillos until you got down below the Gnat Line. Now there are armadillos everywhere in the state, and they continue their intrepid march northward. As do, it seems, the gnats.
Near Madison I had to swerve to avoid hitting a river otter. That was a new one on me.
I have no radio in that car, don’t even want one. Usually the wonderful sound of the motor is all the music I need. But this was a long drive in a boring place; mindlessness began to settle in. I started to make up funny names, saying them aloud to see how they sounded, examining how they felt as they left my mouth. Horatius Croom. Oswald van Bonquers. Hmova Langrid. Lorna McNevers. Ahmed Atari. Aloysius Krunkelman.
Soon bored, I moved on to practicing my accents. A made-up-on-the-spot exchange between a mid-level New York mobster and his overeager Russian hit man went something like this:
HIT MAN: Why not just shoot him?
MOBSTER: Don’t worry about it.
HIT MAN: He knows too much.
MOBSTER: Aaaaay — don’t worry about it! Louie will take care of it. Louie takes care of everything!
HIT MAN: We should just shoot him.
(. . . and so on. . .)
I stopped several times to let the motor cool just a bit, for snacks, for a potty break. And although I’m probably the only aircooled VW owner who has a gas gauge that is actually somewhat accurate, I filled up in Sandersville (“Kaolin Capital of the World”) just to be on the safe side.
I noticed a small thing, though. Okay, wait. I’m brushing over the fact that the clunking I could hear, could feel, whenever I was a little careless with the clutch, probably meant that my front transmission mount was toast, which would be a big job, one that I should have done while I had the engine out. But that wasn’t urgent (yet), and it was something I was getting used to. The small thing was that, after each break, the engine was a little harder to start than normal. It would turn and fire, but it was taking a few tries to keep it lit. Wasn’t I about due for a tuneup?
My last stop was at the Parker’s Market in Metter (“Everything’s Better in Metter!”). I bought a cold bottle of water and a bag of peanut M&Ms. This time, the car started fine, but just as I was about to turn back onto the I-16 ramp eastbound, the motor simply died. I rolled to the shoulder and shut off the key. I got out, went around back, and opened the lid. Nothing obvious. There were no apparent leaks, no loose wires, no strange smells, and nothing seemed especially hot. As a matter of fact, if the position of the copper wire on the “Save My Bug” hot oil warning dipstick contraption was any indication, I was nowhere near running too hot — my reward, I choose to believe, for being a stickler with tinware, seals, and sensible speeds, in addition to the doghouse oil cooler conversion. I went back and turned the key. It cranked fine, but this time wouldn’t even catch.
(This is the part where I got some of my aplomb on.)
Without further ado, I took the plastic bottle of cold water, walked around back, and gently, carefully, poured a thin stream of the water onto the fuel pump, as well as the hose that runs up to the carburetor. Mindful of the distributor and everything else in there, I didn’t go crazy with it. Just enough to make it wet.
This time, it fired right away, and ran just fine all the way to Savannah.
The easy culprit was bad gas. I usually run ethanol-free, but that’s not always possible to find. The last two gas-ups had been the corn likker mix. I don’t like that. Nor, do I believe, does Rubylove. Hadn’t I read somewhere that E10 could be more susceptible to vapor lock? It was an easy culprit.
No sooner had I said my hellos to my parents then my brother showed up with a couple of his kids in tow. Getting to see my brother anymore is like getting an audience with the Pope. So I was glad to see him. But I winced inwardly when he wanted me to show him the car. He had not seen it since it was in pieces in my garage, another one of those things his slightly-off-kilter big brother was obsessing about lately. He had seen the pics and heard me talk about it on the phone, ad nauseum. And he had seen it there just now, in the parking lot. He and the kids were eager to see the inside, to hear it run, maybe go for a spin. But I was hesitant. Both Rubylove and myself needed a break.
Sure enough, it wouldn’t start. Failing to live up to expectations is a crushing thing for an older brother. I thought about going into the house and getting a cold glass of water — or, for style, a bottle of beer. My folks don’t drink beer, but for the sake of hospitality there is always a six-pack in the fridge, just for me. (Always, I suspect, the same six-pack, but it’s the thought that counts.) I usually decline, at least while sitting around their place. But I just didn’t want to push my luck. To my brother I could only offer excuses, justifications, rationalizations. “Bad gas,” I grumbled, mindful of my language in the presence of the young ‘uns. “Prolly needs a tuneup.”
After lunch my brother left. Then I asked my parents if I may be excused for a few minutes. I went outside, pulled my toolset out of the luggage compartment, and went to work. I was underneath, checking the valves, when my mom came out with her dachshund. We chatted idly while I worked. I usually don’t like small dogs, but I’ve always had a thing for dachshunds. My parents have had several of them over the years. Dachshunds are small and comical, but they don’t know it. On the inside they are stout and mighty. Remind you of something?
The valves looked fine, so I snapped the covers back into place and went topside. I popped the distributor cap and checked the points with a feeler gauge while pulling the engine through by hand. Okay there, too. As for the timing, in my garage I usually use a strobe, but I don’t carry that in my onboard toolkit. No worries, though: since I know how much advance my particular distributor gives, I can check it statically with a simple test light. Here, I found that the timing was slightly retarded. Was this the problem? I brought it up a degree or two, tightened the clamp down, climbed in, and turned the key. It started right up with a light puff of smoke. And hundreds of miles later, it hasn’t missed a beat. Result!
I fully realize that, to the average lifelong car guy, this is no big deal. So you fixed your freakin’ Bug. Big damn deal. But this about self-worth here. Most similarly-situated men of my age and demographic go for the Standard Male Insecurity Package: One large American pickup, one loud Harley, a tastefully curated selection of personal firearms, and a ready supply of Viagra. (Tangentially, I firmly believe that 90% of our issues with North Korea could be resolved if we simply sent Little-Big Man Kim the Package, with our complements. Might be worth a try, eh?)
But I digress. The number of pursuits in life in which I excel are exactly zero. So forgive me, please, for claiming my meager victories wherever I can find them. Forgive me if building and fixing my own little VW is seems like the world to me, because it is.
The following week, I drove Stella up to Asheville.
Oh, I almost forgot. You didn’t know about Stella, did you? Okay then:
Meet Stella! She’s a 1972 model, with 114,000 original miles. I’m the third owner, having bought it from an elderly couple who had owned it since 1974. It’s mostly original paint, has very little rust, and virtually all of the camping gear is there — privacy screen, rear mosquito net, child’s cot, toilet. I have a receipt for a professional engine rebuild about 15,000 miles ago, back in 2001. Suffice it to say, in recent years Stella had been spending less and less time on the road, and she needed a little work.
But more about that another time. That’s still not the big change I alluded to earlier. The big change is that we have finally done it. The big change is that we have finally moved to Maine!
People — in particular, people who have never been here — want to know why. Why Maine? “It gets cold there,” they say, as if we had never considered that. Our reasons are longstanding and numerous. We’ve wanted to do this thing for fifteen years, give or take. Finally, after my wife retired (at age 50) the time was right. That, in a nutshell, is my standard answer. I do not elaborate unless pressed. I do not try to dispel their notions of Maine as a frozen wasteland punctuated by lighthouses and lobster buoys. Ayuh! We’re up to our knees in blueberries and constantly having to scrape moose shit off our Bean Boots.
If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand anyway. Maine is not a heavily populated state. And I am just fine with that. You’re right. It is a nice place to visit. But you wouldn’t want to live here.
So here were are in Portland (the Original Portland!). The real estate scene here is tight and pricey so for now we’re cooling our jets in a rented apartment in a big ole house from 1892. I share a teeny tiny garage with the downstairs tenants. They keep surfboards in their half; the Beetle fits in my side, but barely.
I have no idea where I’m gonna park the Bus, when I get it here. I’ll figure something out. Right?
The second week here I took the Beetle to a small show at a campground near Brunswick. A couple of weeks later I drove to an ice cream shop/driving range in Auburn for the monthly club meeting, and got to meet some of the local cast of characters.
That reminds me. Here in New England, one thing you might notice is the way they repurpose old houses into businesses. I’m no fan of the big chains, but if you gotta have it, this is the way to go, versus razing whatever was at that intersection before and throwing up the standard-formula Anywhere, USA structure. So, what’s somebody’s living room today could be the Dunkin’ Donuts half of a gas station tomorrow.
Also, I’m not sure why but efforts to combine two totally unrelated businesses are quite common, with amusing results. Chip’s Bait & Auto Parts. Howie’s Fresh Clams & Firing Range. Moody’s Title Pawn & Bariatric Surgery. Like that. Maybe they’re just keeping their options open, keeping the portfolio diverse. Probably not a bad idea. As for me, there’s only one thing I can fake well enough to get paid for, and it’s certainly not working on old VWs.
Still, with aplomb a’plenty, I finally got around to changing out that kippered front transmission mount with a fresh one. With the help of a floor jack, a bottle jack, and the jack from the Subaru, I managed slide the entire engine and transmission back about two inches and do the swap without losing a single finger. What a difference! Turns out, it wasn’t the rubber itself that was bad, but the fact that the rubber had completely separated from the metal plate to which it had once been bonded. No wonder all the herky-jerky ill behavior. The thing was clapping and clunking back there, with all the effectiveness of an ice cream sandwich.
Then, on the first Sunday in August, I headed up to place called Acton, near the New Hampshire border, for the state’s biggest show of the year. And I gotta say, I was quite impressed!
Meanwhile, down in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Stella lies dormant, awaiting her time to shine, our mid-September road trip to take her north. I’ve been down there a few times since we left Athens. Once, regretting that I never had the time to do the ball joints — in spite of the fact that they were looking gritty and dry, with torn boots — I dropped her off a shop that was recommended. Judging by the what the mechanic found (he showed me the remains of the old joints) this was one job that was probably best done by a pro anyway. The work was by far the biggest expense I’ve had in my short ownership of the Bus, but now she is about as ready as can be. Soon, we go!
I’ve already loaded down the Bus with much of what we will need for the big trip. One of the last things was a basic onboard library, in the drawer underneath the sink. (But I’m sure my better-organized half will reorganize things to suit.) The hand-picked selection includes a binder containing my personal notes, an exploded diagram of a Weber DFEV progressive carburetor (the previous owner’s deal, don’t blame me), a hand-drawn schematic explaining to a future version of myself how I wired the controller for the electric fuel pump (my deal, will explain another time), the obligatory Bentley book, and a Haynes manual (for cross-reference).
Last, but certainly not least, I included a copy of the classic, John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, aka, “The Idiot Book”.
There was a time when that book was all I had. In 1985, when I was 16 and bought a 1975 Beetle, my mechanical knowledge was limited, pretty much, to Legos. And even then I never followed the directions. Sometimes I took things apart, just for the heck of it (a transistor radio, my Huffy 10-speed) but never could figure out how to put them back together again. As for this cool little car I had just bought (for $600, a bit battered but with 56,000 original miles!), I was in way, way over my head. Nobody in my family worked on cars, ever. Nor did any of my friends have any particular experience to offer. Sure, there were plenty of “car guys” in my class, but they all drove Chevelles and GTO’s and lived out in the onion fields. These were the guys who had beards in tenth grade. Volkswagens were for pussies.
There were no local VW clubs that I knew of, no “how-to” tapes I could borrow from the local library (VHS or Betamax). There were TRS-80’s and Commodore 64’s but certainly no http://www.thesamba.com. There weren’t even any local mechanics who specialized in aircooled Volkswagens — outside of the dealer, possibly, though this would have been too pricey for me anyhow. This was Orange County, New York, not Orange County, California. Even as early as the mid-1980’s, untold numbers of old Volksies had already been worn out and rust-eaten, deemed too cheap to even bother with anymore. Nobody cared about old Volkswagens.
Yet, somehow — and can’t remember how — I discovered this quirky little book for my quirky little car and used it to keep my Volkswagen alive.
Well, that and a JC Whitney catalog.
What could possibly go wrong?
Thirty-two years later, I sat at the fold-out dinette in the back of my Bus and casually turned the pages. No, it’s not the same exact copy. The one I had back in the 1980’s had a beige-colored cover. I kept it for a long time, but must of thrown it away at some point during the in-between years, when the battle between wistful and pragmatic was still too close to call, and time and money were in short supply. The copy I keep in the Beetle now is green (pictured) and the one in the Bus is blue. Probably there is a forum thread somewhere with a chart that correlates the color of the cover with the edition, but I don’t care. I mean, when a VW is the same age as its driver, how up-to-date does either need to be?
In 1985, hours that should have been spent studying for the SAT were spent instead with my nose The Idiot Book. (Only with age and wisdom do I realize that my 16-year-old self did, in fact, have his priorities straight. I mean that!) In 2009, when I bought that sad and battered specimen that would become my current Beetle, the joy of becoming reacquainted with The Idiot Book, after twenty years of wandering the desert in practical, reliable, Japanese econoboxes, was almost as great as breathing deep that intoxicating musk of horsehair and carburetion. But lately I’d been consulting other sources. Maybe it’s because of my metamorphosis from Complete Noob to Somewhat-Adept Novice. I’m more focused now. Generally, I know what needs to be done. And, referencing a specific page in Bentley, or a specific bookmark online, I can find all I need to know. Yet now, in 2017, I sat there, once again leafing through one of my favorite books of all time, of any genre.
For starters, the illustrations alone are worth the price of admission. Not only do they clarify what’s in the text, they are clever and funny too. Some of the drawings are subtle, too; in a few cases, I find them even funnier now than when I was a teenager. Peter Aschwanden — whose artistic oeuvre extends far beyond the works contained therein — was clearly the man for the job.
My personal faves: The impossibly four-handed “Valve Adjustment Method”. The three characters who lift up the rear end of “Ol’ Blew”, by the bumper, to remove the engine; one of them is so short that he simply holds his hands in the air while his two taller buddies do all the work. “Frontispiece”, a nocturnal scene in which the woman snores, fast asleep, while the man is stricken with night-terrors, visions of engine parts dancing in his head, ashtray on the night stand overfilled with butts. Then there’s “Bird’s Eye View” — a tweed-wearing man drives the Volkswagen and smokes his pipe, his wife sits comfortably next to him, while the cat in her lap looks aghast, right at the viewer (the bird?), up through where the roof of the car would have been.
As for John Muir himself, his folksy way of putting things puts the reader at ease (or, at least, as “at ease” as one could be whilst stranded on the side of the freeway with a sick Volkswagen) and sometimes outright hilarious. Missing deck lid springs must have already been an issue back then, as he reminds the reader to prop the lid up with a stick so it doesn’t “bust you one”. He describes how to remove the front beam and “. . . just throw it over your shoulder and truck on down to Volkswagen” to let them do the further repair work. (I can just picture some grease-smeared, bewildered hippie on the city bus with an entire front beam standing between his knees, as other riders eye him suspiciously. I can also picture strutting into my local VW dealer, in the year 2017, with a big, greasy beam over my own shoulder.) Muir adds a personal touch by describing how he likes to start the motor, roll a cigarette, and have it drawing good before he drives off, to ensure a proper warm up. And then there’s the bit about “balling it” in the back of the Bus. Period terminology, the meaning of which is a little hazy to me, but I’ll just let it rest there.
The best advice in the book is decidedly non-technical, but all-encompassing: “You must do this work with love or you fail.” Mighty hard to remember when you’ve busted your knuckles for the third time on the same stubborn bolt and you’ve lost yet another 10mm socket God-knows-where and you’ve got transmission fluid in your hair. Probably even harder to remember if you’re short on cash and this is your only set of wheels. I read a lot about Buddhist philosophy and this is about as succinct as it gets.
The book has gone through I don’t know how many editions and has been available for almost fifty years. Some say it served as the inspiration for later “For Dummies” and “For Idiots”-type books. It’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t learn how to line dance or perform dental work on yourself without the hassle of leaving the comfort of your own home. Of course, now we have YouTube to turn to but whatever the actual format, this is People Power we’re talking about here.
USA Today, “Snapshots”, 8/29/17: “58% of Americans say they learn more from technology than from people.”
The Idiot Book is, of course, not without its detractors.
But shit. Nowadays, free donuts and beer aren’t without their distractors.
People take umbrage. They take exception. They take offense. They take take take and never miss an opportunity to show how smart they are, to argue with a aerospace engineer-cum-hippie mechanic who’s been gone for forty years, God rest his soul.
They say no, you don’t really have to warm it up — the owner’s manual, they point out, says you can drive off right away. Which is true, if you haven’t disarmed the choke, as per another of Muir’s controversial positions. And they wax furious over his “Rap on Distributors”, in which Muir extols the virtues of a “009”-type mechanical distributor, versus the stock type. (“. . . so when you get bread ahead, buy one for your jewel.”)
Their points are not entirely without merits. But I am firmly in the warm-up camp (even though my choke is connected and functioning as it should) simply because my Volkswagen is an olden thing. (Much to my wife’s chagrin, I warm up my new Subaru too — which, I do understand, is for the most part pointless. My excuse here is, because that Subie is loaded up (or down?) with all kinds of gizmos, it takes its operator a minute or two for his gimbals to unlock after the half-century technological leap.) And while I understand the benefits of an SVDA distributor, I — along with bazillions of other aircooled VW owners, from the looks of it — am currently running a “009” in my Beetle, because that’s what I had on hand and it just works fine, thank you very much.
But here’s a key point most of the critics miss: It’s 2017. If you drive an aircooled VW in 2017, more than likely (and I know there are exceptions!) it is a hobby, and you have access to a boring modern car or truck that can get you to the sales meeting, to the shindig, to the beach, to the emergency room, wherever, when the weather is bad or the Volksie’s not running right or you want to relax in air-conditioned comfort instead of being a real man about it. Also, if you’re into this thing, here in 2017, you more than likely have discretionary income. You might not be ready to admit this, but you do. You’re are not generally forced to chose between tuition, food, gallbladder surgery, or fixing your car. Count yourself lucky that you can love your Volksie (or Volksies!) on your own time, at your own leisure.
Flash back, if you will, to 1969. Maybe you are a student, or maybe just the average Shmoe trying to get by. You got your hands on, say, a 1961 Beetle you found in the classifieds, or parked in somebody’s yard — not because you think VWs are especially cool, or because this one is an early square-window with the small tail lights or has pop-outs or a three-fold sunroof, but because it was cheap and it seemed to run okay and waiting at the bus stop was getting to be a real drag. It still hurt to shovel forth all that bread you made down at the record shop or the deli counter but now this Volkswagen is yours and you no sooner get it home than it seems to have developed the most inconvenient quirk of, well, not running.
What to do?
In class you’re learning about these computer things. There are giant mainframes and tape reels and punch cards and all kinds of high tech stuff but you’re reasonably intelligent and motivated. You’ll figure it out. But you don’t know the difference between a tie rod and a push rod. And you couldn’t care less about what actually makes the Volkswagen go (or not go), right up until the point that the going or not going is starting to be almost as much of a drag as riding the bus.
See where I’m going with this?
The biggest weakness in the critics’ arguments is that they are judging the book from the perspective of a hobbyist, fifty years in the future.
The biggest strength in Muir’s book was that, more important than his intimacy with Volkswagens, he was intimate with his readers. Knowing your audience is a cardinal rule in writing. (Note: I know my audience fairly well as it is, for the most part, me). Muir was not preaching to the choir. No, brothers and sisters, he was singing the gospel to an eager and receptive congregation, a flock desperately seeking salvation!
Can I get an amen?
Yet, I seldom refer to that book anymore. Even for my first (and, to date, only) engine build, my main source was Wilson’s How to Rebuild Your Volkswagen Aircooled Engine (aka, “The Red Book”), supplemented by the popular “Bug Me” video (Volume #3), as well as having my ever-tolerant local machinist/VW guru on speed dial. Perhaps I flatter myself that I am no longer in that congregation, no longer a part of Muir’s target audience. But that book is still one of my all-time favorites.
And I am assured to know that when something does go wrong on that road trip — something, more than likely, I’ve never had happen before — help is never far away.