The Unknowns, Known and Unknown

            If it’s been a couple of weeks since the last entry into my chronicles of this slow motion train wreck, it’s simply because I have a life.  I am a dynamic character – a renaissance man, if you will.  My interests are broad and varied.  When I’m not tilting at windmills, I’m otherwise occupied sucking the marrow out of life – living every day like it’s my last, and trying to fit as many shopworn clichés into opening paragraphs as is humanly possible.

            Sometimes I think I should have reveled in my innocence a little bit longer.  The preposterous old Volkswagen looked decent enough, from the vantage point of the sidewalk as it went puttering past.  It ran fine, too, especially for sunny day, around town driving.  It’s not like I was anticipating a never-ending series of impromptu road trips with the thing, like some mad, modern-day Dean Moriarty, albeit with a little less horsepower.

            Best of all it made me smile just seeing it there in the garage.  Sometimes (usually after a couple of beers) I would go out and just sit in it, all quiet and reverent, and think, “Where the hell have you been?  What have you seen?  How many people have sat right where I’m sitting?  Who were they?  What stories did they make?” and such silliness.

            In the morning, as hot coffee purged my system of the lingering after-effects of a modest quantity of high gravity beer, I was more inclined to think in terms of known quantities.  I had no control over where that car had been, how it was treated by its unknown number of previous owners, or the largely irrelevant question of how many miles it had seen.  The concept of rebuilding the entire car had not yet risen from whatever murky depth that gives rise to such lunatic pipe dreams.

            Simpler, more immediate things presented themselves.  I was thinking in terms of motor oil, points, condensers, plugs, filters, ignition timing and valve gaps.  I was thinking in terms of the known quantities of a plain old tune-up.  It had been almost a quarter-century since my last Volkswagen tune-up, so I was admittedly out of practice.  I had Muir’s “Idiot Book” to guide me; and what I couldn’t find at the local parts store, I could buy from the local air-cooled Volkswagen guru.  But I was finding that even the known quantities were often unknown.

            A quote from that shining star of American intellectualism, purveyor of patriotica, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

            There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

            We also know there are known unknowns.

            That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

            But there are also unknown unknowns –

            The ones we don’t know we don’t know.

            I was getting on a school bus when I heard Reagan was shot.  I was driving my old Beetle to a friend’s house when the Challenger failed to thrive.  I was at the dentist when Nineleven happened.  At work when the Columbia vaporized.  Sitting in an airport for Colin Powell’s dog and pony show at the UN Security Council.  For the Branch Davidian fiasco, Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine massacre, and Deepwater Horizon explosion, I was doing what I always do on or about that day – celebrating my birthday (strange, isn’t it?).  I heard Mr. Rumsfeld deliver his patronizing, cynical gem on NPR while I was installing a ceiling fan.  I laughed so hard I almost fell of the ladder.

            Horton heard a Who.  The creepy kid in The Sixth Sense saw dead people.  And Rummy was beset on all sides by things that were unknown and therefore a direct threat to our national security.  A threat grave enough to go to war over.  That kind of language scared the collective shit out of us, and we acted/acquiesced accordingly.

            Given what happened next, Rumsfeld’s tongue-twisting argument doesn’t seem so funny anymore.  Even if it never serves (as it well should) as a cautionary tale in the annals of failed foreign policy, American exceptionalism, and nationalistic hubris, my takeaway is on a more personal level.  To wit: dropping a smart bomb on my garage is an effective solution to neither the known unknowns (timing settings, valve gap, etc.), nor the unknown unknowns (Abuse?  Neglect?  The Rust-Monster?) that surely lurk in the deep, dark corners within.

            Not to mention the pragmatic side of things.  Namely, I could probably have a semi-automatic, 9mm Glock delivered to the house in thirty minutes or less (or it’s free!), but I do not have ready access to bombs – smart or otherwise.  Plus, I’m not the weapons-wielding type.  I could probably do more damage with a MIG welder than with a MiG-29.

            For the first tune-up of my new, old Beetle, there were lots of unknowns.  But unlike Rummy, I figured out what they were before I went in with guns a’blazin’.  Because the engine was not original to the car, I wasn’t sure about various settings, such as valve gap and ignition timing.  I poked around and researched about cylinder heads and determined that mine were late 40-horse units, so decided to go with a .008 inch valve gap for both intake and exhaust.  Rather too loose, I figured, than too tight.  The car seemed okay with that.

            Timing was a challenge.  Originally, I’m pretty sure the car would have been equipped with a vacuum-advance distributor.  Without a vacuum retard, it was possible to set the idle advance with the motor off – as in, not running.  That’s the way the owner’s manual says to do it.  Pull the distributor cap off.  Turn the engine through manually (by way of the generator pulley) until the right-hand mark on the crankshaft pulley lines up with the joint-line on the case, and the rotor is pointing to the #1 mark on the rim of the dizzy.  Loosen the dizzy clamp slightly and turn the ignition on (but do not start the car!).  Attach one end of your test light to the coil (terminal 1) and the other to ground.  Rotate the whole distributor clockwise, light out, points closed.  Then back off slowly until the points just open, and the light just starts to shine.  Lock down the clamp, put the cap back on, and you’re done.

            But I had two problems with the factory approach.  First, my car was outfitted with an aftermarket “.009”-style, mechanical advance distributor.  This is a common retro-fit even on stock-like Beetles, because they’re cheap, easier to find than original types, and (some would say) improve acceleration performance.  But the quality of this aftermarket stuff can be iffy, and I’d heard stories about the total, “all-in” advance varying greatly.  I could set the advance as per the book, but who knows what would be going on back there at speed – when it really matters?  So off I went to Sears to get a strobe-style timing light.

             The second, and more challenging, problem was the condition of the crank pulley.  It was doing its job, but was scuffed and nicked to the point where there were no discernable marks of any kind.  Even if there were, I wouldn’t trust that whoever assembled the engine put the correct pulley on there.  So not only did I not have a timing mark, I had no indication of where TDC (top dead center) was.

            That’s where “Howard” (the local VW guru/machinist) came to the rescue.  He rigged up a cheap, ingenious little gadget that was well worth the ten bucks I paid him for it.  It’s fashioned from an old spark plug, hollowed out, with a threaded inner diameter through which a plain old bolt goes.  Basically it works like this: first, pull the distributor cap and hand-crank the engine until the rotor is pointing just shy of the #1 firing position.  Put a mark (I like white correction fluid) on the crank pulley in line with the case split.  Next you pull out the #1 spark plug and screw the tool into place.  By hand, insert the bolt into the threaded cylinder and screw it in until it stops; it’s now resting against the top of the #1 piston.  Then, slowly and gently pull the engine through backwards until it stops – the point when the top of the #1 cylinder touches the tip of the bolt again, going the other way.  Put a second mark on the pulley.

            If you know anything about it (which, when I did this procedure, I really didn’t), you can see that you’ve marked the pulley on opposite, but inherently equal, sides of the stroke.  Therefore, a mark in the middle of the two would be TDC for cylinder #1.  After filing a mark there, dabbing it with white-out, and scratching out the other two marks, I had the basis for determining the next thing – the actual timing mark.

            The book calls for 10° BTDC (before top dead center).  Using math that made me wish I had paid more attention to grade-school geometry (Wow!  There really is a use for pi!), I was able figure the distance I needed to measure along the circumference to arrive at a value that was somewhat close to 10°.  I put another mark there.

            For weeks I experimented with different settings.  But my main interest was that, when it was “all-in” (say, at 3500 rpm), I wanted around 30° total advance, give or take.  It seemed like a static setting of about 8° got me close.  Of course, I had no direct measurement of oil temperature – and therefore no empirical data.  But the engine started easily, was coolest to the touch (the tactile dipstick method), and didn’t run on after I shut it off.  No noticeable detonation going on.  I suppose if my dash were festooned with aftermarket gages I could be more scientific about it, but that’s just not my thing.  It’s a Volkswagen – not an Airbus.

            Changing the oil, setting the valve gap, and installing new points, condenser, and spark plugs were straight-forward.  I didn’t have any rolling paper around, so I used a plain old feeler gauge for the point gap.  I did, however, discover a fun and exciting way to change the fan belt.

            I would never, ever admit this in the presence of my wife, but I do tend to be scatterbrained at times – especially when I have several things going on at once.  For some reason during that first tune-up I decided that I needed to run the motor.  Probably it was after I set the valve gap, but before I changed the oil.  Maybe I wanted to warm up the oil so it would drain better.  Anyhow, I turned the key and heard something like:


            Even I could tell that was not a normal, healthy Volkswagen sound, and immediately cut the key off.  I ran ‘round back and wasn’t sure, at first, what I was looking at.  My socket wrench was on the garage floor, a few feet away from the car.  The fan belt was limp, flopped over the rear apron.  I stood gaping at the whole scene for a few seconds before I figured it out.

            With all of the excitement of that first tune-up, I had put the socket on the generator pulley, intending to remove it to replace the belt.  I must have gotten up to get a big screw driver, which is inserted in the slot to hold the pulley still while you un-wrench the fixing nut.  After that, there’s naught but a blank desert landscape where the mad dance of daily life usually dwells.  Maybe I slid into a Debussy-inspired reverie of nymphs and fairies.  Maybe I was daydreaming about learning to play the glockenspiel.  Maybe I was thinking about how manly and handsome I’d look with a beard.  Who knows?  But it was on to the next thing, which was . . . starting the car to warm the oil up.

            In spite of all the noise, there didn’t appear to be anything damaged.  The fixing nut was still (barely) screwed onto the end of the generator shaft, so there was nothing lost.  The fan belt must have worked itself loose enough to ride off of the crank pulley before the socket wrench took off and I stop trying to start the car.

            I’m not normally the YouTube type – mainly because it reminds me how slow and rickety my antique laptop is.  But this video, along similar lines, is amazing.  I had to watch it a couple of times to really figure out how it’s done.  And no, I haven’t tried it.  I don’t plan to either.  Can you imagine what that guy’s mother went through?

            During the nine months or so that I actually drove the car (before dismantling it) there were other weekend-type projects I accomplished, like replacing the rear brake drums, rebuilding the carburetor, installing a new coil, and replacing the oil cooler seals.  But the thing that I really wanted addressed was the floor pans.

            There is a right way and a wrong way to do this.  The wrong way is to remove the seats and carpet, and try to weld the new panels in with the body in situ.  I might be a fool, but I am not interested in the wrong way of doing things.  The right way is to remove the body from the pan, cleanly removed the old metal, and weld in the new pans, with a new seal all around. 

            I like to think that now I have the know-how (if not the garage space) to do this.  I have taught myself to weld, with results good enough for most non-structural work.  I don’t trust my welding enough to make repairs to say, the frame head or an axle beam.  I’m not confident enough to do work for others either, even as a favor.  But most body work (especially if it won’t be seen once the car is reassembled) is fair game.  This would include the floor pans.

            Taking the body off is actually easier than it sounds, although I haven’t done it myself.  At this moment, I’m pretty sure myself and three other guys could have the body off my pan in about an hour, or less.  The car is already completely stripped – interior, glass, electrical, engine, gas tank, bumpers, lights, and trim.  All that’s left is to undo a series of bolts and lift the body off.  Just like that.

            But in the spring of ’09, grand schemes had not yet coalesced to the point of madness.  I found a professional an hour away who could do the work for about $1000.  I drove the car there – happy and in tune – and left it with him.

            I’m going to call him Robert because that’s his name.  He does fantastic work, and is very meticulous.  At first he seemed to be taking his time with it, but in the end I came to appreciate that good work simply takes time.  And during his time with my Beetle, Robert came across some rather alarming – and previously unknown – unknowns.

            About three weeks after dropping the car off I got a phone call from Robert.  I was in Bettendorf, Iowa, on business.  He was asking me if I had ever started to remove the body, but gave up for some reason.

            What made him ask me that?

            Robert explained that there about two dozen bolts that hold the body to the chassis.  I knew this, but didn’t want to interrupt since he was obviously going somewhere with it and I was curious.

            “Well, there were four bolts –,” and that’s when the electromagnet in my head started to wobble, squelching out what he said next.  I put my finger in my other ear and pressed the phone closer to my head, even though the problem (at this moment) was with the phone and not my hearing.


            “So I was just wondering about that,” he said, finishing an explanation I mostly missed.

            “Sorry, Robert.  I lost you there.  You were saying there were four bolts missing?”

            There was silence for a couple of seconds, and I was beginning to think I lost him again.

            “No, no,” he said.  “I said there were four bolts left!  There were only four bolts holding the body to the chassis.”

            I said something deeply profound, like, “Oh.”

            I tried to think about the potential ramifications of this revelation.  I knew that it was possible, with some slight temporary mocking up, to drive the chassis around without the body.  I’d seen photographs and promotional materials in which this was done.  Off the top of my head, I tried to think of the things bolted to the body that were absolutely necessary to make the car go – the steering column and the gas tank were the only things that came to mind.  I thought about the railroad tracks I’d crossed on the way to Robert’s shop, and how I’d taken the grade they were on a little too fast – enough to feel a gentle tug from gravity in my stomach.  I considered the possibility that I had been an unknowing participant in a shell game.

            Then I tried not to think about the potential ramifications of this revelation, but what he said next made it more difficult.

            “Not only that, but your spring plate covers were missing!”

            How could I not have noticed that?

            Understand that I do know a little bit about how a Volkswagen is put together.  Though I often require a few minutes of reflection, meditation, or research to connect the dots, I can usually figure things out.  I tried to imagine what, other than the axles, the spring plates, and the grace of God had been holding the rear wheel assemblies in place, keeping them from splaying out like a duck being dragged backwards by the neck.  But with a pro on the other end of the line, I just can’t keep up in real time.  Should it have been obvious, driving the thing?

            I didn’t ask.  I may have been imagining things, but the car did seem a little more solid when I drove it home later.  Of course, this might have been due to the fact that I was no longer perched atop the rusted-out tatters of the original floor pans.


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