I’ve been on a veritable rampage the past few days, getting tons of good work done while taking advantage of the odd, California-like weather. Got into the seventies, pretty sure – and dry, too. There’s something terribly wrong with that, in February, even for Georgia. But I won’t complain too loudly.
Although things went very well in the garage, inevitably there were moments – a day in the garage wouldn’t be complete without them – when nothing would suffice except for a string of twenty-first century profanity that would make George Carlin cringe (and then, take notes). Whenever that happens, on such a winter’s day, I inevitably think about the Christian kids two houses down.
There are like four or five of them that live there, in the big red house that used to be blue. They actually go outside like children used to – before getting abducted, molested, horribly mangled, or otherwise woe beset was all but guaranteed. Their dad set up a basketball goal at the end of the cul-de-sac, and a trampoline in the back yard. He bought them scooters for Christmas, and they buzzed up and down the block for hours. People griped, predictably, about covenants. But I think it’s great. As a matter of fact, anything that gets people uppity about their “covenants” is automatically okay in my book.
It’s surprising that nobody has griped about the ungodly pneumatic racket issuing from the garage behind the townhouse at the end of the row. Possibly they know that it would only serve to encourage.
I say they’re Christian kids because their father is the headmaster at a local Christian academy; also they have impeccable manners and seldom wear shoes. Late last fall one of them came around selling cookies for a fund-raiser. My wife agreed to the purchase but I was the one who accepted delivery of said cookies, and paid the boy. I invited him in while I wrote the check.
“No thank you, sir,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure there was a clear escape path. Obviously he had been schooled about shady characters like me.
Christian cookies, said my inner cynic. With holy high-fructose corn syrup. Just like Mary used to make.
If you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this, you’re not alone. It’s just something that I thought about whilst reflecting upon a good day’s work. The garage doors were open to the mild air. I sat on my stool sipping a coldie, admiring all that I surveyed, the clear winter sun casting long shadows on the concrete floor. I could see them in the cul-de-sac, with their basketball and their covenant-flouting goal, getting the most of this rare February day – one more shot – before the last of the daylight faded.
They’re good kids.
I would like to share what wonderful work I’ve been up to. These last few days of stunning weather has afforded me a choice: slave over my laptop to provide my loyal readers – who surely wait with baited breath – another fascinating installment in a timely manner; or actually get some work done on that mess in the garage, so that maybe I’ll actually drive it some day. But I’ll fill you in on all of that later. That’s a whole ‘nother trip. Now I’d like to finish the trip we started last time, a trip that occurred about a quarter-century ago. Sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
In 1975, there were 441,116 Beetles built, according to figures I found on TheSamba.com (http://www.thesamba.com/vw/archives/info/beetle_productionfigures.php). This figure doesn’t sound too shabby until you consider the following: starting in 1965, there were over a million built every single year (except in 1967, which came in just shy of one million for some odd reason) until 1973. After that, the numbers dropped off precipitously. By early 1980, there were no more Beetles sold in the United States. The story of why this happened is no secret: the Japanese took the inexpensive and reliable baton and ran with it. But the Beetle line soldiered on for another twenty-five years in Central and South America, still serving the needs of countries that had weaker emissions and safety standards.
Please do not confuse what I’m saying here with the BINO (Beetle in Name Only), a.k.a. the “New Beetle.” My mom has one of those and I think they’re fun and all, but that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s like comparing spätzle and chimichangas. Yes, the first original production Beetle (then called the KdF-Wagen – yet another goofy Nazi moniker, truth be told) left the factory in 1938; the last one rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico in 2003.
My 1975 model was by no means rare, but it was a member of a dying breed. You are more likely to see, say, a ’66 or a ’72 then a ’75 nowadays, either on the road or at a show. The former, of course, were more numerous. But it also seems that the earlier models are more collectible, and models from the ‘50’s – with split or oval rear windows – are more desirable still. For the most part I can see why, but it’s not something I can explain. Maybe as the design got more modern it lost some of its character.
Still, I would love to see more later-model Beetles. The late convertibles – say from ’78 or ’79 – do seem to have retained a following. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a standard 1975 sedan, especially one that hasn’t been dorked up in immoral (if not illegal) ways. It’s been years. Possibly decades.
I can’t recall the exact reasoning as to why I decided to part with that car – probably because, at that age, I was not capable of exact reasoning. It never left me stranded (except for running out of a gas once at three in the morning on a lonely two-laner somewhere in northwest Georgia); but being a cash-strapped college student, I probably didn’t have the time or money to maintain it like I felt I should. And most of my friends drove slightly newer Hondas or Toyotas, which sipped gas, had more pep, and took quite a thrashing. About the time I was starting to consider alternatives, my father mentioned someone at the office who was looking to off-load a second-hand Nissan, cheap.
I guess you could say I chose a new(er) Japanese econobox over my old Beetle for the same reasons that millions of others made the same choice.
The first thing I got for my new Beetle was a cassette deck. The next thing was a copy of John Muir’s classic, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat [sic] Idiot.” Those two things kept me motoring along just fine, for a while.
Early on, the car let it be known that the exhaust system needed attention. Seemed like it went all at once. One day she was purring along like a sewing machine; the next day it was loud as all getout. I remember standing behind the car in the high school parking lot one morning, smoking a cigarette and listening to the blub-blub-blub of the idling motor. It had a strange, watery, bubbling sound, like maybe I should have a plumber look at it.
Somebody said, “Yeah, that sounds like shit.”
I said, “What?”
“I SAID IT SOUNDS LIKE SHIT!” he repeated.
Granted, the obvious does sometimes elude. But this astute diagnostic assistance was neither required nor appreciated.
Still being very new to Volkswagens, and cars in general, I decided to have the pros handle it. Somebody recommended Jerry’s Auto Service, so that’s where I took it. After a quick look, Gerald (nobody called him “Jerry,” as far as I could tell) said I needed not only a new muffler, but new heater boxes too. Not even knowing what a “heater box” was, I took his word for it. I mean, what the hell – my dad was likely helping me out anyway. Looking back, it seems a bit peculiar that all three components would go at the same time, but maybe it just needed doin’ anyhow.
The first winter with the Beetle was also when I first got into skiing. We lived not far from some decent beginner-type slopes in the Catskills, close enough that a friend and I could head up after school and get in a couple of hours’ worth of skiing. Of course we took my car, because of the Volkswagen’s renowned handling in the snow. It was on one of these trips that I discovered the first “puzzler.”
Air-cooled Volkswagens are not known for their hill-climbing prowess. But even I could tell that having to pull over onto the shoulder and climb even modest grades in second gear was not normal. There were rolling hills where I lived, but usually there was just enough oomph for it not to be a problem around town. It took a sustained incline for the symptoms to manifest.
We gave up trying to ski that day, and fortunately home was downhill. First chance I had, I got out the “Idiot Book” but nothing made conclusive sense. I changed the fuel filter. I installed new spark plugs, ran new leads, and checked the coil. I messed around with the timing. And the next time we headed up to the Catskills – same thing.
I want to point out a key difference between myself at sixteen and myself at forty-one. Back then my main motivation was to have a car that worked. I would have been perfectly content not to have to lift a finger the whole time I had it. It was only with age and wisdom (or what passes for wisdom in some cultures) that I learned to enjoy learning, figuring things out, using the ol’ noodle every now and then. I now have a whole shelf of Volkswagen-related books. Many of them I could probably do without, but I simply enjoy perusing them from time to time. For example, I’m not into high-performance motors, but I find it fascinating and challenging trying to figure out how they work (and usually failing, but that’s beside the point).
So off I went to see Gerald with my altitudinally-challenged Volksie. He had it for a few days. When I went to pick the car up, I didn’t press Gerald for details of what he did. I just wanted to pay somebody to have the problem go away. I did take the trouble to glance at the invoice. Amongst the scribble I could make out “fuel filter” and “timing;” also, it seemed he had done something with the fuel injection, but that was (and still is) a complete mystery to me.
So what happened next time? You guessed it.
On the last failed attempt, we sat in frustrated silence all the way back to town. We were certainly in no mood to listen to that Beastie Boys tape for the umpteenth time. We no longer felt like fighting for our right to party. But this afforded me some time to actually think about the problem – yes, a radical concept for me back then, but understand that I was in a tight spot. The amazing thing was that by the time I pulled into the driveway, I had an idea.
My thought process (such as it was) went like this:
Problem: Gas pedal reaches floor but I still want more oomph.
Solution: Tighten accelerator cable to achieve sufficient oomphitude.
It didn’t cost me a nickel and it worked. I drove it that way for two more years, until I moved to Georgia, sold the Beetle, and never skied again.
Way to go, Gerald.
The biggest puzzler – not in terms of being a hindrance so much as its ability to drive me completely batshit – was when the horn started to sound every time I made a hard right turn. This got me all sorts of attention. I mustn’t have had the time or the inclination to deal with it myself, so again, to Jerry’s Auto Service we went.
“The steering column’s gonna need to come out,” Gerald said.
Understand that my trust in Gerald was beginning to wane by that point. I had at least gone though the trouble to read the paragraph in the “Idiot Book” that describes how the horn works (or doesn’t work). I thought about it as Gerald lit up a Winston, trying to remember what it said. The words “that wire is hell to replace” were floating around up there. I couldn’t remember if Muir described a procedure to actually do it. And there was no internet to turn to in those days.
“How much will that run me?” I asked – a reasonable question.
“Oh,” Gerald said, leaning back on his heels. He had an Einstein hairdo and wire-rimmed glasses. His bushy eyebrows rose high and his bright, beady blue eyes opened wide.
“Lots!” he said, blowing smoke. He began a low, gravelly chuckle which gradually escalated into a hacking cough. When he was through he gave me an actual ballpark figure, I think, but I was no longer listening. I considered taking the opportunity to explain to him about how an accelerator cable works, but decided against it. In the end, I simply said I’d have to think it over, and walked out.
I never went to see Gerald again.
When I got the car home, I impulsively reached underneath and yanked the wire out. Then I went in the house and had a reading from Muir:
“Don’t pull the wire out in your excitement . . . that wire is hell to replace.”
Hmmph. Okay. So now what?
Indeed, there was no procedure given on how, exactly, to replace the wire. Instead there was this simple, Yoda-like gem, predating those ubiquitous “wag more, bark less” bumper stickers by decades:
“My theory on horns is to drive in a way that you never need to use one.”
So I did.
Now hornless, the next thing to come up led to what I would later consider a mechanical tour de force, considering my youth and inexperience. My clutch started to slip. I recognized it right off the bat. How? My dad’s Mustang seemed to eat clutches for breakfast, and I simply knew what a failing clutch felt like.
I was learning some valuable lessons here. One was that there is no substitute for experience. I did not have to consult a book or come crawling back to Gerald to figure out what was wrong. Second, just like the epiphany I had driving home with a loose accelerator cable, most of my (relatively) brilliant thinking occurred whilst sitting comfortably with clean hands. To this day, if I’m in the garage and things start to go “tango-uniform,” and I don’t feel better after educating the Christian children about the effective use of colorful language, I simply call it a day. This is especially easy to say, of course, if the car in question is not your daily driver. But I won’t touch the Volksie in anger.
To change the clutch in an air-cooled Volkswagen, the engine needs to come out. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s actually a very simple set-up – one that even a shiftless, misguided teenager can figure out. The engine (in most stock models) simply hangs on the transaxle with four bolts, like a little monkey clinging to the bell-housing for dear life. Disconnect the fuel line, accelerator cable, and wiring, unbolt the motor, and lower it onto a dolly or a piece of plywood. The biggest challenge is getting it out from under the car. You can either recruit some friends to literally lift up the car from behind (as illustrated by a hilarious drawing in the “Idiot Book”) while some brave soul goes under and drags the motor out; or you can incrementally block and jack the rear-end high enough for the engine to slide out.
It took me weeks to replace the clutch. Then, like now, I worked very slowly and meticulously, labeling everything. From 1975 on, all air-cooled VWs in this country were fuel-injected – meaning it seemed like there were dozens of wires, few of which I knew the function of. There were pitfalls, too – broken bolts, lost clamps, bleeding knuckles, wires leading to nowhere. And then figuring out what parts I needed, the old-fashioned way – with a JC Whitney catalog and a telephone.
The engine has been out of my 1965 (my current project) for over a year now, shoved under my workbench, waiting for a rebuild. I barely remember removing it, because it was a “non-event” – in the grand scheme of things. I disconnected everything, even loosening the bolts a little, before I did the old block-and-jack. When I was ready, I called my wife out for help. I think it took, from start to finish, less than two hours. There are those who claim they can pour a cup a coffee, go out to the driveway, pull the engine, change the clutch, and re-install the engine before their coffee gets cold. This might be hyperbole; but the upshot is that it really is no big deal.
But to me, in that magical summer of ’86, it was a huge deal. I’m not looking for pity, but there was really nothing in life that I was good at. I had few friends, mediocre grades, and had long since given up on organized sports. So the day I finally got everything bolted back in and wired back up, turned the key, and drove off – pleasantly surprised that there were only a few small parts left behind on the garage floor, and nothing important-looking – I say, that was a day I will remember for a long time.
I wanted to drive by Jerry’s Auto Service, honk and give him the finger, but there was a small problem with that. Well, at least my finger still worked.
There was little else mechanically that I did while I had that car, aside from an occasional oil change and tune-up. I learned to live with the glitches – hornless, with a frozen odometer, and a gas gauge that always pointed north. Today, these things would intrigue me, and I would learn to fix them; but back then, I was perfectly content to drive that Beetle – especially after I addressed the aesthetic side of things.
I gave up trying to Bondo the dented old fenders, and bought a new set from JC Whitney, along with a new pair of running boards. For my seventeenth birthday I got the Earl Sheib Special, in Porsche Guards Red. The carpet was getting ratty, so I replaced it with low-profile industrial type, leftover from stuff that my parents had used on a room in the basement. I cut it myself, and it looked decent enough.
Actually, I’m being coy here. The Beetle looked fantastic! I got constant compliments on it – this at a time when you still saw plenty of them being used as daily drivers. It wasn’t perfect, but it was damn nice and it was mine.
It was sold in the spring of 1988, and I got that second-hand Nissan. It was reliable to the point of boredom, roomier, more comfortable – shit, it even had real heat! And air conditioning! And power steering! But it had absolutely no soul.
Fortunately, I was not there the day my Beetle left me. I must have been off at school, just like the daughter of the man from whom I bought the car in the first place. My dad took care of selling it. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think it sold for more than double what I had paid for it. Seeing as how no single thing I put into it was exorbitantly expensive, I probably came close to breaking even.
But today that is no consolation. I never met the woman who bought it, but I remember her name – Elsie Minton. I don’t like to think about where that red Volkswagen is today, but just maybe she still loves it and drives it, on occasion, when the weather is nice. Maybe she waxes it from time to time. Never drives over sixty. Country roads only.
In closing, I would like to address one minor point I mentioned in the previous installment, so as not to leave anyone drawing his or her own conclusions. You may recall that one reason I bought that 1975 Beetle, as opposed to the hearse, was a concern I had about not wanting to set for myself yet another obstacle to success in my relations (such as they were) with members of the opposite sex. Not that it was a primary concern, mind. If it were, I might have been wiser to buy a Camaro, or a jacked-up Cutlass, or something four-wheel drive. Something manly.
In the end, this concern was totally unfounded, as I learned that I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell anyhow. And it was up to me to ask: why not?
Let’s see: I’m a tall, goofy, gangly, moody kid with few friends, no future, and no discernible redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Nope, couldn’t be that.
I was left with no other alternative than to blame my lack of success in simply not having the proper accessories. Seems plausible, at least in theory:
Looks good on paper, at least. But in practice? I’ll likely never know.
And this one for sheer laughs, on so many fronts:
And the working man’s version:
Maybe I should have just gotten a Bus instead?
(A future installment: Oh, how I’d love a bus!)