We have four cats gracing our otherwise blissful domestic environment, each of which is acting completely bonkers at the moment. It’s about 2am, and I’m convinced that they are acting as a team on a personal mission from Satan to ensure that I don’t fall asleep. One waits until I start to drift off before leaping into the bed, only to dart away when I lazily swat at her. Two others play tag, batting at each other from either side of the half-closed bedroom door. And the fourth – I have no idea where he is, and that can only mean trouble. Maybe it’s the full moon coming that’s got them all in a tizzy.
Finally I gave up trying and decided to get something done. I’d like to break out the hammer and dolly set, spring-steel slapper, and angle-grinder (fitted with a shrinking disc), and get back to work trying to make the hood somewhat presentable. But creating that sort of racket is not a viable option at this hour. Instead, now that one of the aforementioned beasties has settled into my lap (got what you wanted, dintchya?), I may as well continue this rambling screed.
It is my habit to hem and haw about something until everyone is up to here with it. Then I finally break down and do the thing. Maybe it’s a self-regulating function. For example, a while back I kept on about wanting to learn to play the accordion. But everyone just rolled their eyes and said well that’s just Bruce being Bruce. They simply ignored me, which is probably the best policy when I get like that. Sure enough, accordion fever passed after a week or two, and then it was on to the next thing – beekeeping, beer-making, billboard burning – whatever. But if the thing has staying power – that is, if I’m driving others completely batshit with my incessant, obsessive, manic chatter – then I guess it passes muster, and is worth actually doing.
As of January of 2009, I had not driven – or even ridden in – an air-cooled Volkswagen since I sold the ’75 in the spring of 1988. When it came time to revisit the scene, what I thought I wanted was a late 60’s or early 70’s model. I wanted something (relatively) easy to maintain and drive. Something easy to find parts for. Something with a whopping 50 horsepower, yet without the complication of fuel injection.
The first contender that I went to look at (a ’73) didn’t even have the complication of a fuel tank. I knew when I found it on eBay for $800 that I couldn’t expect much. But damn. I drove up to the guy’s house at the end of a cul-de-sac, on a lake. It was immediately apparent that I had found the place, as there were various old Volksies loitering about. Backed into the driveway was a late-model Karmann convertible with a natty, professorial-looking gentleman in the driver’s seat, revving the engine. The deck lid was up and I could see a man’s camo-bedecked backside behind it, oily rag dangling from a back pocket.
Presently he stood up and hollered, “More, more! Mash it! I wanna smell it!”
The professor acquiesced with a wince, putting his right foot down hard as the mechanic disappeared behind the deck lid again. Neither man seemed to notice me standing there.
After a moment Camo-man stood up straight, shaking his head. He wore a sour look on his mustachioed face, like he’d found a turd stuck in the fan shroud. “Naw,” he shouted with a Southern twang. “It’s too rich! Turn it off, it’s too rich!” The professor cut the engine. For a moment the only sound was the ticking of the hot motor.
“It’s right around the side,” Camo-man said in my general direction. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I’m trying to think of nice things to say about what I found there. But I keep coming up empty. When I come across an old Volksie that is clearly too far gone, I tend to take an anthropomorphological turn. I like to think that it lived a long life, full of good memories, with more sunshine than rain. I like to think it gave all it could give, and was loved and respected in return. To think otherwise would be akin to disrespect for the dead.
You would never call a partially decomposed corpse a piece of shit. There is just something wrong with that. A major processing error, like the lines that hold the universe together got crossed. Like the (female) dog we used to have that would run over and try to hump the cat every time I ran the coffee grinder. Like hoping to see some action at the family reunion.
So I will proceed as objectively as I can: the parts of the body that were not rusted through seemed to be held together with little more than the pale, chalky yellow paint. The floor was completely rotted out, so there was no interior to speak of. The window glass was in place, but all the rubber was cracked and rotted. There was a steering wheel, and a dash. A gear shifter, but no knob. No glove box door, no glove box – you could see straight through to the luggage compartment.
The deck lid was up and I was surprised to see an actual engine in there. A coat hanger was hooked through the inside of the deck lid vents; on the other end of the wire was a coffee can. A rubber hose led from the coffee can to the carburetor inlet pipe.
“It’ll start right up. I’ll show you.”
I turned and saw Camo-man standing there with a red plastic jerry can. He need not have bothered at that point, for I knew that this was way, way out of my league. But I said nothing as he poured a few ounces of gas into the coffee can.
Sure enough, it fired right up. Idled smoothly, and quiet enough so that I could listen to the valves doing their business. We stared at the idling engine while he tried to tell me that he and a buddy had actually driven the thing just a few weeks prior.
“It’ll need new brakes, though. Might get you back home, but it’ll need new brakes for sure.”
I had visions of myself sitting on a piece of plywood, Flintstoning my way along the hilly, two-lane country roads that separated here from there, without any brakes. And, lacking a rearview mirror, without the means to bear witness to the trail of rusty parts, foul-smelling fluids, and personal effects that would surely be left behind on the asphalt.
“I don’t have to do this, you know,” Camo-man said, apropos of nothing. He made a broad, sweeping gesture that included this Volkswagen, the one in the driveway, the other one in the garage, the trees, the lake, the clear winter sky. “I’ve got a master’s degree. My wife, she teaches at the university.”
I’m not sure where he was going with that one. Maybe he thought (mistakenly) that I was employed by said institution (as many are in my town), and felt that he had to somehow justify his plebian trappings. I must look brighter than I am. That’s easy to imagine – demonstrating proficiency in the operation of a three-story elevator would do the trick.
I thanked him for his time, and told him I’d have to think about it. This was not a lie – I did think about it, as I am thinking about it now. I’m thinking there was no way in hell! As an aside, I have since heard rumblings that Camo-man is of the less-than-savory sort. Therefore, I have no regrets about terminating my exchange with Camo-man.
Just like the first time around – way back when – the second car I looked at was the one I bought. One December day in 2008 I was running through town (training for a marathon) and saw it drive by. Old VWs have never failed to catch my eye, and this one was no exception. My first impression was wow, that one’s an oldie! Looks great!
It could have been the endorphins kicking in but yes, from the distance of a few feet, it looked nice. It had what was obviously an aftermarket, two-tone, white-over-blue paint job, and cheap, cheesy, five-spoke Empi-style wheels; but it had no obvious rust or major damage. And with that classic raspy, wheezy, tin-can-full-of-pennies sound, it was singing the healthy Volkswagen song.
Some time later I saw the same car parked in the yard of a bungalow in town, and saw it there several times after that. So when I responded to a rather vague Craigslist ad a month later (no photo included) and the guy gave me his address so I could come have a look-see, I was beginning to think that fate was showing me the way.
I saved a printout of the ad. It says:
1966 vw bug reduced 2 sell $1800
great beetle nice white leather interior, runs perfect new tires and wheels
Up close, from the outside, it still looked pretty darn good. I could tell that the blue paint was very cheaply done, and was peeling in places. My first guess – later revised – was that the car had originally been white. The rear apron was banged up. The hood and roof were both a bit on the wavy side, looking at a low angle. The fenders seemed okay, but I also knew that they might be loaded up with Bondo. At some point, a previous owner had done a cheap-o de-chroming job, as the body side-trim holes were filled in (fortunately with Bondo, not weld – a rare case in which I was thankful for somebody else’s half-assed job). I took a peek inside.
Well, yes, the “white leather” – actually stained white leatherette – was in remarkably good condition, with just a small tear on the side of the driver’s side seat back. The interior did have that wonderful old Volkswagen smell – horsehair, with a slight bouquet of gasoline. But it was immediately apparent that, except for the upholstery, most of it would need to be gutted. In place of a headliner was some sort of peel-and-stick imitation-vinyl padding. Worse, in place of the standard door finishings, someone (I didn’t ask who) had tacked up pieces Grandma’s old quilt! It had been a while, though – black mold stains were creeping up from the bottom. I would later enjoy dancing around the bonfire I made with those nasty old rags – throwing my hands in the air, chanting, making an offering to the almighty mercurial Volksgods!
I checked the floor pans. They we there, holding the seats roughly where they belonged. But not for long. Someone (again, it didn’t matter who) had rigged a repair patch under the battery tray, which was held in place with sheet metal screws. In other places the pans had rusted through entirely. This was really no surprise; anyone who’s shopping for an old Beetle knows to expect this possibility. It’s not necessarily a deal-killer. I was pleasantly surprised by the heater channels though — they seemed intact, as far as I could tell.
The engine started on the second try and sounded like I knew it would. We stood behind the car watching the motor run (a ritual born from a desire to avoid eye contact before the hard bargaining begins).
“Runs like a Porsche!” He said “Porsche” with only one syllable, which always makes me cringe. But he was right – it did sound nice. He told me he wasn’t sure how many miles were on the engine, as he had only had the car about a year. The previous owner had told him that the motor had only “a few thousand miles” on it, and that it was a 1500cc, as opposed to the original 1200cc.
I still have not determined this for sure, but I’m now more inclined to believe the motor is actually a 40-horse 1200, like what the car would have come with. The intake pipes meet the cylinder heads at a ninety-degree angle; after pulling the valve covers and checking the part numbers (genuine VW castings!), I have determined that they are indeed square-boss, late 40-horse heads (the good ones). It’s conceivable that aftermarket, larger cylinders have been installed at some time (up to 83mm, vs. the stock 77mm) but I don’t know how to tell without taking it apart. Plus, this would only bring it up to 1385cc, using the stock 64mm crank. There is no evidence of the widening that would be required to use a later 69mm crank.
All of this is academic because I’m planning on rebuilding the motor anyhow. I’ll find out what’s what when I tear it all apart. It was running well when I pulled it, but it has already been sitting under my bench for a year and a half. And I think it would be just the ticket to have a nice, fresh, clean motor back there – a known quantity with few worries. I aim to drive the thing.
Those of you wise in the ways of Volkswageneering may well be jumping out of your seat right now. Just you wait a minute! You said it’s a ’66, and it would have come with a 1200? Any fool knows that a ’66 came with the one-year-only 1300!
Yes, you are correct. You win the gold star. Just give me a damn minute and I’ll ‘splain.
Also in the seller’s yard were two Type 3 Squarebacks – one in pristine condition – and a bay-window Bus. He mentioned in passing that, over the years, he’d owned thirty air-cooled Volkswagens. This might have been a slight exaggeration; but it is true that aficionados often have more than one. (My wife may well have a lawyer on retainer in preparation for this contingency. Have I mentioned how oh Lord who art in heaven, please bring me a Bus?) Regardless, he explained that he really wasn’t a “Bug guy,” and that he was more into the other types. Something had to go, so this was the obvious contender.
Which leads to the fact that he might have been confused about the engine. Which also leads to the fact that he definitely was confused about the model year of the car. I knew right off the bat that it was a ’65 – a ’64 would have had slightly smaller windows, and a ’66 would have had a center defrost vent on the dash, for starters. Therefore, this car would have originally had a 1200cc engine. Satisfied?
Incidentally, the DMV still has it registered as a ’66. There is no title for the car (not necessary in this state for a car that old), and the levels of bureaucracy are way, way too deep to correct this. Therefore, for all official purposes it’s a ’66. But it’s really a ’65. Nuff said on that.
“Go ahead, take it for a spin,” he said. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
I had to back out of his steep driveway, and it took me a few tries – stalling it out in the process – to get used to the clutch. In retrospect, it was probably the aftermarket, centrifugal-advance, “009”-style Bosch distributor that I was having trouble with. I know now that you have to be assertive with it to get things spinning up nicely. But in no time I was going forward on level ground, rolling though town in this very old Volkswagen.
Recently I read a review of the new Volkswagen Jetta. Volkswagen is huge globally, but the only major market where they seem to lag a bit nowadays is right here in the United States. And that doesn’t sit well with Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Head Honcho over at Volkswagen AG. He wants to conquer Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Poland.
Part of that effort is the redesigned Jetta. They had to dumb down the dash controls and displays, to make it so easy that even an American could figure it out. To bring the price down a notch they reverted to drum brakes in the rear, which the reviewer took issue with. I seriously doubt the average American driver would even notice it, or if the average driver even knows what kind of brakes he or she has. How soon we forget that the car that made Volkswagen a global power in the first place had standard transmission, four-wheel drum brakes, no power steering, no seat heaters, no cup holders, no cruise control – and a spare tire and a gas tank in place of an airbag.
So it occurs to me that many, if not most, drivers today have no idea what it’s like to drive a car like that. My first car was a Beetle, so I never really gave it much thought. Until, that is, after driving more modern cars for twenty years, and getting behind the wheel of that old ‘65.
For the first few minutes the air was charged with nervous energy. The whole driving experience is brought down to an elemental level. The senses come alive. They must. Without a tachometer, you have to feel and hear your way through the gears. Without tight, effortless power steering you have to anticipate your turns. You definitely need to think ahead with the brakes – like, I may need to stop this crazy contraption at some point in the near future. And on-ramps are not the modern punch-and-go affair – you’ve got to coax the car up to highway speeds (or a loose interpretation thereof), all the while with your head on a pivot, looking for your chance to join the fracas.
I got it out on the bypass and started to relax. We hummed along at around sixty, the flat-four sounding like my own private barbershop quartet, bent around the mike, hats off and sweaty, singing strong and true. It was warm that day (plus, as I would later find out, the heater boxes were held open with coat hangers); I cracked open the little vent window, nostalgia welling up – why doesn’t my Subaru have those? With my hands still balanced at the top of the wheel, I uncurled my fingers to touch the windshield – oh yeah, I remember that. I took a deep breath, looked around, and smiled. That’s when I knew that this was the one.
Coming back through town, I wondered why everyone seemed to be looking at me. Part of me was thinking what’s the big damn deal? I’d forgotten that this was a new century – a new millennium even – and if my previous Volkswagen got any attention so many years ago, this one was a veritable time capsule.
Within an hour the car was parked in my garage. He came off the price just a little, but I thought I got a fair deal. As a matter of fact, having since completely gutted the car, I still believe this to be the case. Virtually every square inch has needed some sort of attention; yet there have been no knee-buckling, swoon-inducing, hard-liquor-requiring, ugly surprises. This is not to say it’s been easy. But not having much to compare it with, I would say it could have been a lot worse.
What were my original plans for the car? I’m not sure exactly. I can only say that any ideas I might have entertained did not include tearing it all apart, spending all my money on it, writing rambling blogs about it – in short, I certainly did not anticipate having it rule my life for the next two years (and counting). I think I had some vague notion of doing a “rolling resto” on it – short weekend projects – and maybe dropping it by the paint shop on my way to the bowling alley some day. But as I compiled a list of things I wanted to do, I began to suspect that that it would take every weekend, for the rest of my time here on Earth, to get it all done. So one late-summer day in 2009, I backed it into the garage for the last time and started to take it apart.
It sits there still. An amazingly patient little bugger.