My Fellow Americans (and one dedicated reader in the UK, because of whom I can now truly claim an international following — Cheers, Mate!):
The fact that I’m still getting used to the idea of a new millennium does nothing to stop yet another year from coming and going. That bus just keeps rolling along whether you’re in it, on it, under it, chasing it, or still abed. But with the new year comes January, a month pregnant with meaning for two particularly relevant reasons: three years ago I brought home my Beetle, and a year ago I began this blog about the same. Or at least, the blog might pretend to be about the Beetle. But since it’s titled “The Volksfool,” I suppose you could say it’s about me.
So yes. It is all about me.
Why did I do it? I like to think that it wasn’t simply a case of narcissism, especially given the way that I expose myself as a complete moron. Ostensibly, I can think of two reasons why I started this blog. The first was that I like to write. But I was finding that thinking about, doing research for, lying awake at night because of, and actually working on the car was expending every last drop of my mojo, and gave me scant creative energy left over for my usual sophomoric short stories and unfocused, rambling essays (none of which I had ever even thought about showing to anyone). So I decided to heed the shopworn advice given to aspiring writers, except at a ninety degree angle: I’m writing what I don’t know. As with the Volkswagen, I’m keenly aware that my aptitude in this endeavor also falls far short of the mark. But why should that matter? Should the fact that I’ll never be a Federer, a Djokovic, or a Nadal prevent me from taking up tennis?
A second reason for the blog was my suspicion that I was driving friends, family, coworkers, and total strangers completely batshit with Beetle-talk. With all of the enthusiasm of anyone who is a “born-again” anything, I would let loose with little warning, apropos of nothing, on anyone or anything with ears: my dentist, the teller at the drive-thru window, the call center operator, the barista at my favorite coffee shop, the cat. The low point was when I caught myself weighing the pros and cons of aftermarket fenders with my therapist. At least, I reasoned, I’m paying her to listen to me. But really!
I figured starting this blog might help me to blow off some of this manic fervor in a productive way, and possibly save a friendship or two. Maybe it has. On the other hand, sometimes I suspect that now — via the internet, email, and Facebook — I simply drive a far broader spectrum of people batshit. In the very least, it is a little easier (and far more subtle) to ignore someone virtually than to cover your ears and flee. In short, if the purpose of this blog was to put a cork in my own blowhole, it has failed. Spectacularly.
The true raison d’etre for this silliness, I’ve since discovered, is something that I could not foresee: everything I do, I do it for you.
This is the first, last, and only time I will quote Bryan Adams. Ever. As a matter of fact, I typed these words just prior to getting the icky feeling that somehow, somewhere, this territory had been covered already. I had to enlist Google to find out that they came straight from the man who was all of nine in the Summer of ’69. I don’t know how to spell “eew,” but eew! I quickly tapped my way back to the colon, but the cursor just sat there, blinking at me. After a few minutes I reasoned that if I said what I said before the realization that it had already been said by a mawkish balladeer from yesteryear — and if it’s true — then it’s legit. Indeed, an unintended result of this blog is that no matter what sort of mess I create in the garage, I’m going to have to report it. It keeps me motivated to do the very best I can. It keeps me honest.
I’m not usually one for the dreadful end-of-year retrospectives that seem to permeate the mediasphere. I figure, if I have to be reminded what happened in the past year, then I probably didn’t give a shit enough to file it in long term storage in the first place. Still, I think very few people realize how incrementally slow this re-Volksification work can be — especially for a rookie. It is helpful for me, from time to time, to look back at the meticulous shop-notes I’ve been keeping — 85 pages worth to date — to get a perspective on what I’ve done, to see that progress is indeed being made.
I spent this New Year’s weekend with my fifteen-year-old godson, who I hadn’t seen in at least five years. Aside from being once again reminded of the inherent irony in the fact that I even have a godson, it struck me how much he’d grown. Of course, it’s the kind of thing that’s easily lost on his family and friends — those who see him every day. It put me in mind of a house nine hundred miles from here — where, under many layers of latex paint on the door jamb of a closet in an upstairs bedroom — one might find penciled hash-marks indicating my own progress at various points (usually my birthday) during the 1970’s.
In this spirit I’d like to recap, as concisely as possible, what progress I’ve made on the Volkswagen during the past year. I will not enumerate the countless hours researching on the internet, reading restoration manuals, or hunting down parts — just the stuff that you could see, if I pointed it out to you.
A year ago I was half into the stripping, welding, filling, sanding, and priming of a used driver’s-side door that I’d had shipped from Interstate Used Parts in Lake Elsinore, California. I had decided that the door that came with the car was too rusty to mess with. The condition of the one they sent me was about the way she described it over the phone: rust-free, but with dents here and there, layers of white, orange, and blue paint, and two mystery holes where a goofy aftermarket mirror might have been bolted on at some point.
The passenger’s-side door was a keeper; yet it still took a bit of work. I also spent several sessions tweaking both door hinges to get the gaps straight, with great success. I can’t remember where I found the technique (probably on the forums at http://www.TheSamba.com) but basically it involved a ¾-inch chisel (used as a wedge), a 10mm socket (as a block), an old inner tube, and very strategically applied persuasion.
Around this same time I was researching specifications on where, exactly, the turn signal holes in the front fenders needed to be (documented in a previous episode, In Medias Res). When I bought the car it wore aftermarket fenders, which do not usually come pre-drilled. This allows the suppliers to market them over a wider range of model-years. Apparently, whichever previous owner mounted the fenders decided he’d rather leave everyone guessing, than to be bothered with installing the turn signals. (Oh — lemme guess — “Cal-Look,” right?) Otherwise the front fenders were in good shape. I had them blasted, undercoated them with Chassis Saver, and painted them in cheap primer just to keep the rusties at bay.
Throughout March and April I wasted over a dozen sessions in my quixotic attempt at making the ever-so-slightly warped hood perfect. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t see from ten feet away, but you could definitely feel it and it drove me up a wall. Finally I gave up. But I still have that hood. I’m willing to bet that somebody could bring it back. Just not me.
In May I brought home the old, unused, and possibly NOS hood that I found in the old man’s decades-old cache. It too needed a little bit of tender lovin’ — probably because my car was “tapped” and some point, and is a very teensy bit foreshortened up front — but by June I had it mostly sorted and looking pretty damn good. Not perfect. But pretty damn good.
In the heat of July, August, and early September I tackled the scraping away of all the old rubberized undercoating under where the gas tank goes — the frame head, the bulkhead, under the spare tire well, and anywhere else I could find it. I discovered that Easy Off works as well as anything, but it’s still slow, boring, and thankless work.
Since there was only so much of that particular brand of fun that I could handle at any given stretch, I alternated the work with other tasks. By hook or by crook I cleaned out decades of debris from inside the A-pillars. In the process I found a spot of rust-through on the passenger side, on the part of the inner pillar formed by the rear part of the wheelhouse. Unsatisfied with the pre-formed repair section I ordered, I made a piece from scratch. There were also some small trouble spots along the bottom inside edge of the pillar, which I similarly repaired. After some welding, filler, and primer, I must admit that I was starting to feel like a chest-thumping badass! I wrapped it up by dousing the inside of both pillars with Eastwood Internal Frame Coating to protect my good work. I lowered the front of the car back to earth and moved on.
When autumn came I had several things going on at once. The never-ending quest for suitable rear fenders continued, as well as the events chronicled in the previous post pertaining to the treatment thereof. Meanwhile, I still had to determine what was askew in back, at the business end. Something I’d been putting off until later.
Later came sooner than later. When later came it looked a lot like now. It would have been better late (but not never). Anyhow, I bolted up the best fenders I had at the time, a pair of beautifully-fitting but rusted, dented, and torn German ones. Then I attached the deck lid, bumper, and bumper hardware that came with the car. The first thing was that the bumper sat a bit higher on the left than the right, and the mounting bracket on the left didn’t pass through the fender cut-out with an even amount of clearance, like it did on the right side. I used a builder’s level on a two-by-four, spanning the bumper mounts, to make sure. But I didn’t really have to — you could see it. I tried the brand new bumper brackets I ordered from Wolfsburg West, but got the same result.
So I removed the bumper, brackets, and fenders to have a closer look at the bumper mount, the part that’s spot-welded to the car. I should note that, before I even went through this charade, I knew from previous work in the vicinity that the left fender mount was a bit banged up. I guess it’s one of the those things I was trying not to think too much about. Maybe I thought I was blowing things way out of proportion, and that once I fitted everything up, it would somehow magically fall into place. I’ve entertained such false hopes before.
The bumper mount was pretty much like I’d remembered. Viewed from the back, instead of the factory C-shape, it was crunched into something more like a Gothic T. The first inch or so of the bottom outside corner was torn. I wondered if at one time there had been a parking lot bump to the area, or if somebody tried to change a tire and used the left rear bumper mount as a jacking point. But the damage seemed relatively confined.
I spent the next session simply measuring, comparing the left side to the right, and recording the results in my notebook. For several hours, my only tools were a pencil and a set of calipers. I’m no draftsman, and the results would likely only make sense to me.
The results told me two things. The first was that the job I had done with the new rear apron, almost two years previous, was not so bad after all. Since both my skills and my standards have been increasing over time, I’ve found myself re-doing several things that I thought would pass muster the first time around. Installing that apron was my first welding job. It wasn’t perfect — I’ll need to go back and do some minor cosmetic repairs to where the very top edge of the piece meets the quarter panels — but my measurements assured me that I couldn’t do any better today, especially with an ill-fitting, aftermarket piece.
The second thing was no surprise. The left bumper mount was toast.
So you might think that, with such a deliberate and meticulous investigation, what came next would be equally methodical. But science morphed into pragmatism, which in turn gave way to outright denial. I figured I would have nothing to lose by trying some good old-fashioned leverage. I bored two holes in the end of a four-foot section of square steel tubing, bolted it to the bumper mount, and bounced up and down on the far end of the bar, like a monkey on a stick. Every now and then I’d stop to check my progress.
There was no progress. Unless you count the fact that all of my heaving and hoeing had broken one of the captive nuts in the battered mount free. So my choice was clear, simply because it was no longer a choice.
In a way, you could say it was a setback. But if you let yourself, you could say it’s all just one big setback. From the get-go. The minute you start peeling back carpet, stripping paint, or sanding back old body filler, it’s just one big setback after another. What did you expect? If you thought that all you’d have to do was go through the motions, and everything would just somehow wind up ready for the concourse, then you have to ask yourself: why bother?
A few weeks later, when I stood back and admired the new bumper mount that I had installed, I knew the answer. It was hard to imagine that there had ever been such a silly question. It was my best welding job to date. All I have is a simple MIG setup, so I couldn’t replicate, exactly, the factory’s work. But I finished off my plug-welds so cleanly that they are no more noticeable than the factory spot-welds.
(Note: We’re talking about the long, slender horizontal piece here. Just north of it you can see a rather sloppy seam from earlier work, as well as the not-so-clean plug-welds I did installing the apron two years previously. Both are functional and sturdy, but not nearly as nice as the welds on the mount itself, which are so clean you can hardly see them in the pic. It will all be underneath the fender anyway, but you can see that I’m starting to get the hang of it, yay?)
This solved at least half of the problem of as to why the back end of the car suggested Ferdinand Porsche’s hitherto unknown Cubist influences. The other issue was the deck lid. The one that came with the car was twisted; as a result, the gaps were all off. Plus, I’m not so sure it was an original VW piece anyhow. I do know that it was not native to this particular car, as it had holes drilled (too cleanly for a home job) for a “1300” emblem — signifying a ’66 model. Early on in this game (likely whilst suffering from an over-caffeinated inability to put first things first) I ordered an aftermarket deck lid online. When it arrived I hastily offered it up, was dismayed by the poor fit of the thing, and set it aside, frustrated. Soon I was distracted by other events and there it sat for over a year. Only when I came back to it, this past November, did I fully appreciate what an unconscionable piece of shit that deck lid was! I seem to recall that it was made in Taiwan, but I had lost the receipt. Not that it would have done me any good at this point; I just wanted to know who not to order from in the future. Just as well, I supposed. I might have been tempted to personally pay them a visit and deposit said piece of garbage on their doorstep, along with a flaming bag of poo.
I get regular alerts from eBay and TheSamba.com. Probably close to fifty of them a day. I never seem to get the filters set right. I get ads for virtually every category — from windshield washer reservoir caps to complete cars. Interior door panels for a Karmann Ghia. Engine lid for a late-model Bus. Thing fenders. Samba glass. Original brochures. Collectible toys. One of my all-time favorites showed just one blurry photograph of a rusting and dejected-looking 1968 Beetle. At least the seller was honest — and had a sense of humor:
SHOW CARs will not park anywhere near this pile.
MANY NOS PARTS have probably fallen off at some time.
DELUXE UPHOLSTERY would have to be purchased to replace the crap thats in it.
PORSCHE FUCHS would be a waste on this car.
ORIGINAL PAINT that is covered up by many layers and colors of cheap enamel.
REBUILT MOTOR would be necessary to make this beater run good.
A REALLY SWEET RIDE is something this car has not been called in a long time.
COLLECTIBLE beer cans can be found under the front hood.
BEAUTIFUL WOMEN laugh at the thought of riding in it.
FREE DELIVERY to the end of my driveway.
Although the vast majority of these e-mails are nothing but a diversion — and not even remotely relevant to the task at hand — I enjoy them immensely. I sort through all of them with gusto. As luck would have it, around the time that I realized I needed yet another deck lid — and this time, no aftermarket crap! — a hit came from California (as usual): an original 1965 deck lid in great condition. After some e-mailing we agreed on a price of $125, shipped.
The joy in this particular find lay roughly in thirds. The first was the hunt — which was admittedly easy, in this case. The second joy was of actually receiving the deck lid, fitting it up, and breathing a huge sigh of relief upon the discovery that the car itself was not askew. Everything they say about nothing fitting as well as an original German piece is true. You can tell right away. I was again reminded of something I would advise, in all seriousness, any newbie to do — something that I wish I had done: if you live east of the Rockies, before you do anything, make a comprehensive list of everything you even think you might need to bring your Volksie back to life. Don’t be afraid, for the time being, of going over budget. In fact, do yourself a favor and don’t have a budget. Withdraw from your 401k, or sell one of your children if you have to. And don’t limit yourself size-wise, either. Need an entire roof clip for your tin-top Bus? Put it on the list. An original, Okrasa-equipped 36-horse engine for your Oval time machine? Ditto. Nose section for your low-light Ghia? You got it.
Next, buy yourself a one-way ticket on a jet airplane to somewhere in sunny California. SoCal would probably be better; but if, say, you’ve always wanted to check out some real live redwoods, go for it. Have a ball. As a matter of fact, get yourself a first-class ticket. You deserve it. Oh, and bring a laptop, or a smartphone with a GPS function. You might need it.
When you get there, take a few days to dig the scene, eat right, and enjoy yourself. No big hurry. Stay in a fancy hotel — no Shamrock Motor Lodge for you! Rent a Porsche if that’s your thing. But before you get down to business, you’ll need to swap that Porsche for the biggest U-Haul you can find. It’s time to go shopping!
Seriously — I ain’t joshin’ you! If I had done what I just described, I am convinced that I would have come out cheaper, and would have had the car in paint by now. Even if I had gone overboard, any clean California parts left over could easily be sold for a hefty premium east of the Mississippi. I got lucky on that deck lid. But have you tried to have an original fender, hood, or engine case shipped cross-country lately? More often than not, the seller simply refuses to do it. “Local pickup only!” the ads say.
At least I now have a back-up plan for when they finally fire my ass. I aim to set up shop as an importer of original, rust-free Volkswagen parts from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. I’d put up a website, rent a warehouse, and buy a second-hand bread truck for this purpose. At least half my time would be spent roaming the desert Southwest in search of dry Volkswagens, or parts for the same. I’d need some basic tools, no doubt. I could also rig a camping setup in the back of the truck, or on the roof. Maybe bring along a mountain bike, an inflatable kayak, or hiking boots. Sounds an awful lot like a vacation to me! But I figure that if the Brits can ship containers full of West Coast Buses back to the UK at a profit, I could do this little thing. A beatific smile blossoms upon my otherwise scowling mug, just contemplating it.
The third joy that this deck lid brought me was the adventure of picking it up at the Greyhound station. Many people are surprised to learn that Greyhound does shipping, but they do. I had known about this option but was a little leery, at first, to consider it myself. But when the guy I bought the deck lid from asked if there was a Greyhound station near me, I figured what the hell. No, you can’t track your package, and they won’t deliver it to your door. But it’s a very cheap way to go, especially with odd-shaped, bulky car parts. I wasn’t even sure it was on its way when I got the call one afternoon, out of the blue, that the item was down at the station waiting to be picked up.
In our town, the bus station is the sort of structure that would be easy to ignore unless you were looking for it, although it’s only three blocks from the dead center of downtown. Some Greyhound stations of that era are considered historically significant for their Art Deco styling. Not this one. The building is made of yellow brick, indeterminate and indistinct. On this particular afternoon in early December it was dead quiet.
I parked the Subaru right out front and walked in. There were several rows of uncomfortable-looking wooden benches with fluorescent lights buzzing overhead. On the bench in the far corner a single sleeping figure slouched, mouth agape, against an overstuffed duffle bag. I could smell urine and I could smell cologne, both strong; if you asked me which was winning, I’d say it was a dead heat.
I walked up to the counter at the back of the room. In the paneled office beyond, a man with gray hair and skin like an old baseball mitt sat at an antique PC playing solitaire. He didn’t see me at first. There was a bell on the counter but I’m not the bell-ringing type. There was also a plastic squirt-bottle of hand sanitizer. I was wondering if you could sanitize other things with it when he noticed me.
The man didn’t say a single word the entire time. He lumbered out of the office and looked at me expectantly. I told him who I was. He shuffled back into the office, and emerged a minute later dragging an odd-shaped block of cardboard mummified in packing tape. He passed through the swinging door at the end of the counter, deposited the box at my feet, went back behind the counter, and produced a receipt. He put it on the counter and fixed it in place with his finger on the bottom line. Sign here. I signed, said thanks, and that was that.
As an added bonus, the deck lid wears an old, cracked, and scuffed coat of paint that I’m pretty sure is Java Green:
I will not disclose my thoughts on this color. All I will say is that my decision was already made regarding the first choice of color for the car. It just hit me one day, and imbued me with a clarity and certainty that I rarely enjoy. I haven’t given it much thought since. That’s how sure I am.
The only hint I will divulge is that it’s not Pearl White. That’s my second choice — and a close one at that. So if my body work is not quite up to snuff — if it can’t stand up to a real, actual color — then Pearl White it is. I would be more than content with that. Also, in the off chance I paint the car myself, it would be Pearl White. I would surmise that this would be the easiest way to go, short of rattle-can flat black.
So that is how things stood at the end of the year. What will the new year bring? Who the hell knows?
Just the other day my dad asked me when the car would be done. He’s been kind enough to suffer through my blog from time to time (and he may be reading this, so please don’t take this personally, Pop); but he had either forgotten that I hate it when people ask me this, or he was fucking with my head. It is not difficult to fuck my head. People do it all the time, however innocently and unintentionally. Even certain inanimate objects and concepts fuck with my head: Drive-thru windows at liquor stores. Segways. Free internet porn. Non-alcoholic beer. Decaffeinated coffee. Golf. The differences between friends and “friends.” Words like “synergy” and “paradigm” and “meme.”
Pop is a kind man. I do not believe he was fucking with my head. It was an innocent question, a logical question — the natural curiosity of a caring father, showing interest in what his often wayward son is up to. But I scoffed at the question, dismissed it, and changed the subject. Am I touchy about this? You bet. Why? Fear, uncertainty, and everything else you might expect from someone trying something new, someone finding himself way, way over his head in it. I can barely tell the difference between a push rod and a connecting rod. The cash balance in my coffee can lies somewhere between zero and the actual amount I’ll need to see the project through. Really, one of the few things I’ve got going for me is that I have no deadline. It will be done when it’s done, and not a moment before.
That said, having made my color choices I am hellbent on having the body in paint by the end of spring. So June, roughly, at the latest. I won’t even mind if, by mid-June, the body is done and I’m simply waiting for a slot on the paint man’s schedule. At least then I’ll be able to move on to any number of the hundreds of other tasks and subtasks that await me.
One of those tasks might be to get started on the Bus.
Did I neglect to mention my Christmas present? Yep, that’s right! It’s a beautiful 1962 Westfalia Camper, white over red. It came with the works: pop-top, roof rack, sink, cooktop, fold-down bed, and cabinets galore (the SO-34 option package, I believe). It is in mint condition. Everything is there. All 1,332 pieces. As a matter of fact, it’s still in the box. To be sure, it’s not for the young or faint-hearted — it is recommended only for those sixteen or older. Thankfully, it came with a booklet of illustrated step-by-step instructions.
The question is: which will I finish first?