A Touch of Glass

To date, the hardest part about the rebuilding of this Volkswagen was not the famously frustrating task of installing the windshield.

The hardest part was asking for help with the same.

Once I fell out of an airplane.  This was back when I was a “ramper” (baggage handler) for a small commuter airline.  It had been raining and my boots were wet.  One moment I was standing on the smooth aluminum floor in the rear cargo compartment of a De Havilland “Dash Eight” turboprop, handing overstuffed bags to a coworker, and the next minute I was flat on my back on the tarmac.  When I came to, there were a handful of other rampers looking down upon my prostrate and confused person, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed.

“Man,” somebody said.  The ramp was a noisy place so I was lip reading.  “Are you okay?”  Hands were extended.  I was only out for a second or two, I think.  But I was suddenly aware of two things: one, I had a massive headache; and two, I didn’t want anyone’s help.  I just wanted to be left the hell alone.

“Fine,” I mouthed.  “Go away.”

Of course they were having none of it.  With good intentions they helped me to my feet.  I was a little dizzy, but reasonably confident that I was not going to die in the next few minutes.  They led me into the break room.  Some said I should go get checked out by a doctor.  Others said I should file a report, and that there might be some “worker’s comp” in my future.  Someone said he would go tell Maria, our easily-excited, over-caffeinated, oft-hysterical supervisor.

“Do not,” I said, “tell Maria.”

After a few days my headache went away.  Looking back, I was foolish.  I most definitely should have had someone take me to the emergency room (someone, it would be hoped, other than Maria).  Instead I was back to work in less than an hour.  I finished my shift, drove home, and slept for fourteen hours straight.

I was lucky.  But this illustrates the lengths I’d go through to avoid the nagging feeling of being beholden to others for my own well-being.  It is rooted, I believe, in learning early on that others are a threat and “safety in numbers” is a myth.  My formative years were rife with experiences that only served to reinforce this sour view: By the time I was sixteen, I’d been kicked out of Cub Scouts (fighting); bullied in Little League; humiliated in football; rejected for basketball; beaten up in wrestling; ejected from marching band (shitty attitude); and kicked off the track team — the sole athletic pursuit in which I showed just a hint of promise — for the same shitty attitude.  I was cast out, ridiculed, rejected, and chased home from school more times than I could count.  With a mentally unstable mother and a workaholic father, sometimes I’m amazed I turned out as well as I did.  Thankfully, there were no guns in the house.

With the benefit of years, and a little bit of wisdom, I understand these things now.  My antisocial behavior was both self-defeating and self-fulfilling.  I see my mother’s problems with sympathy now — no, not sympathy.  Empathy.  And my father busted ass, for years, so that nobody else (especially his rudderless and ungrateful eldest son) would have to.  As a spoiled upper middle class white kid, I could simply skate on by, without being exceptional in any way, and come out okay in the end.

At least on paper.  But still there is this:  One is not a lonely number.  One is a safe number.

Decades on, not a single member of the local classic Volkswagen club had seen my project in person.  I’d posted some photos online, asked plenty of questions, and gotten plenty of helpful responses.  But online is online and in person is in person, and if you can’t tell the difference then you must be too young to remember hand-cranked windows and dial tones.  I’d also gotten tons of help from TheSamba.com, but again, that’s different.  There are hundreds of forum members on there, all waiting to show everyone how smart they are.  They don’t have to stop what they’re doing, clear an evening or a Saturday afternoon to come over and lend a hand.  And I don’t have to buy anyone pizza and beer.

But now I was completely stuck, unless I wanted bugs in my teeth and a stiff breeze in all weather.  I simply could not get the windshield in.

Installing a windshield in a Beetle — especially if, like me, you insist upon the proper chrome trim — is one of those jobs that, like headliners, many highly-experienced VW guys won’t even attempt.  There’s a guy in the local club who is literally world-renowned for intricately-engineered, high-tech, high-performance custom engines.  I’ve been to his shop (a complex of shops, actually) and I felt like a dog watching television.  But even he won’t touch a windshield.

Although I’ve heard some unsubstantiated rumors, by most accounts it’s a two-man job.  I say “man” because, usually, this sort of work is a man thing.  I also say “man” because I can tell you from experience that getting your wife to lend a hand will easily strain the limits of even the strongest marriage.

(Note: I will not go on a rant here but I can’t resist ‘splaining some things that need to be ‘splained.  One, I have absolutely no qualms about women doing this sort of work.  I mean damn, they built our bombers, flew them to Europe, and handed over the keys to the men — who usually went and got themselves killed in said bombers, but that’s besides the point.  All I’m saying is that you have to admit that the car thing is, usually, a guy thing.  How many custom car magazines have a scantily-clad man gracing the cover?

Two, since I’m talking about men and marriage, I’m wondering if two men in a gay marriage would have better luck installing a windshield together.  Perhaps there is not yet enough empirical evidence.  It is my hope that we’ll know something soon.  And then we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.)

In preparation, I watched I dunno how many videos.  I spent I dunno how much time online, studying the procedure.  I took pages and pages of notes.  In spite of this, and in spite of my wife’s willingness to give it a try (for which, truly, I’m grateful) we failed.  On the plus side, we didn’t break anything.  But try as we might, we just couldn’t get the windshield in.  As a matter of fact, we couldn’t even get the rear window in — which is, by all accounts, much easier to install and a lot less likely to break.  I had the über-cool original pop-outs in, as well as the door glass, with all new German seals.  But like I said, unless I wanted a completely new experience in air conditioning, I would need help finishing the job.

Actually, it wasn’t really help that I was seeking, per se.  What I had in mind when I posted on the forum of the local club was a recommendation for a professional glass guy (hopefully with some classic VW experience) who could come out to my house and do the installation.  I’d read accounts of even the pros breaking these windshields from time to time, but at least that would be his problem then, not mine.  I’d had enough.  Plus, in my mind, paying somebody to do something isn’t help.  It’s employment.

I didn’t have to wait long.  The first response was from, ironically, famous-engine man, who gave me the name and number of the glass guy he uses.  Perfect, I thought.  I jotted down the number.  There were two other responses, but since I already had what I thought I needed, I read them just out of curiosity.  One was from another club member, who I hadn’t even met, offering to come over and lend me a hand.  Just like that.  His only requirement was that either my garage be heated (it’s not) or that we do it on a warm day.

This is getting out of hand, I thought — by which I suppose I meant that if a complete stranger is offering to help, gratis, then I’m giving up a huge element of control and self-determination.  Far from grateful, or being imbued with a newfound sense of bonhomie, I thought shit.  This isn’t what I meant.  What if he’s an obnoxious redneck?  What if he eats lots of cabbage?  Or worse, what if he invites me to his church?  I found myself listing the ways I could, tactfully or not, decline.  Luckily, there weren’t any particularly warm days in the forecast, so I simply said thanks, and told him that I was considering multiple offers of generosity and would get back to him.

The other offer was from none other than “Howard.”  I’m not up to date on the management structure of the local club, but I’m certain that Howard sits firmly in the upper echelon — a vice president at least, or secretary general or assistant Grand Poobah or Minister of Mechanized Mayhem.  He is a machinist by trade and also deals in Volkswagen parts, both from his well-stocked shop/garage and at the various shows and swap-meets.  His focus is on the mechanical side of things, so until recently my contact with Howard has been somewhat limited.  Back when I still had the car on the road, he did some machine work on my carburetor, and sold me some brake shoes and rear drums.  I’d seen him a couple of times at the early meetings I attended, and once at a show down in Florida.  I knew that Howard is a walking encyclopedia of Volkswagen mechanics.  I also knew that he’s down to earth, friendly without being pushy, and humble.  I like Howard.

Accepting help from Howard was all the more palatable because, after all, I did buy things from him from time to time.  With the old forty-horse to rebuild, I’ll surely be buying a lot more over the next couple of months.  It wasn’t like he owed me anything, exactly.  I chose to think of it as allowing him to spend an hour or two in the customer appreciation department.

He said he could do it Thursday night, after work, and I was game.  He wanted to start with the back window first.  So as not to waste any of his time, Thursday afternoon I fed a big loop of plastic-coated 16-gauge wire into the inner lip of the seal, overlapping it on bottom, just like I’d read about and seen numerous times on the internet.  I left the whole thing inside so it would be warm and pliable.  I had rags and silicone spray standing by.

Howard showed up with naught but a homemade tool consisting of a length of strong, thin, nylon rope (or thick string, whichever) with a cylindrical hand-hold on either side.  Learning that I already fed the wire into the rubber, he shrugged his shoulders and said fine, let’s give that a try.  I got the impression that silicone wasn’t his lubricant of choice for the task, but he seemed game for that too.  He worked from the inside, pulling the lip over the rim with the wire, while I applied strategic pressure on the outside, when and where directed.  So far, this looked quite familiar.  Even when the wire broke.

Howard unfolded himself from the back seat and said okay, we need some warm, soapy water.  In my research I’d come across a few who use no lube, some who lube in strategic places only, and some who lube the living shit out of that bad boy.  I’d read about folks using silicone, WD-40, Windex, Dawn, olive oil, and — yes, it’s true — sex lube.  But if the man wants warm, soapy water, the man’s gonna get warm, soapy water.  This is part of what accepting help is all about — surrendering preconceived notions, and being open the idea that you might learn something here.

By the time I returned from the kitchen trailing suds from a steaming plastic berry bucket filled with warm water and a big ol’ squirt of Dr. Bronner’s, Howard was done feeding the thin rope from the tool he brought into the channel, ready for another go.  He dipped his hand in the bucket and lubed everything, copiously.  We set the glass into place, and I held it there while Howard crawled inside.  Lo and behold, we had that window in so fast I couldn’t believe it.


Even Howard seemed surprised.  He looked at his watch.  “You got some time?” he wanted to know.

“I’ve got all the time in the world.”

“You say you’ve got the rubber and trim already installed in the windshield?”


“It’s in the house, right?”


“Go get it.”

Excited by this new glimmer of hope, it’s a minor miracle that I didn’t drop the windshield, bang it on something, or trip over one of those cats (especially Sandbag) rushing through the house and back out to the garage.  We chatted while I watched him feed the rope into the channel.  When that was done we soaped up and got into position.

OMG WHOA! that didn’t come out like I meant!

Like I was saying, we applied liberal amounts of warm, soapy water and placed the windshield in its future home, shifting it around a bit; and when it looked about right, Howard got in the front seat and started pulling.  He’d point, I’d press.  He’d wave to the other side of the windshield, and reach through and hold the near side while I went around the nose.  He’d pull some more, bit by bit.  Around the bottom corners, first one, then the other.  Now towards the top, and around the top corners.  Getting a little tight in there.  Mere inches to go.  I leaned into it a little harder and thought I heard something that sounded like someone breaking an ice cube between his teeth.

“Oh, gosh darn,” came a midwestern accent from inside the car.  (Howard is a pious man.)

I had been leaning in so close that I was actually looking over the car at the time, admiring the gentle curves of that ruby red dome.  Having been back from the paint shop since July, it’s starting to get quite dusty.  But I kind of like it.  It gives it that fetching “barn find” look.  It took a second to register what all the gosh darning was about.  “Did it break?”

“Yeah,” Howard sighed, “it broke.”

I guess I’d expected such an event to be far more explosive.  But sure enough, when I let go and backed away, I saw one big crack, along with several smaller, parallel ones, running across the windshield, top to bottom, a few inches off center.  Game over.

I climbed in next to him and we discussed what to do next while we pried the now-garbage windshield out.  He had a few at his house, he said, and added that he would sell me one wholesale since he helped to break the first one.  I said that obviously I’d need another, but that it was ridiculous for him to accept less than his normal price for it, seeing as how he was kind enough to help me with this in the first place.  After some friendly bickering we agreed to split the difference.  Beetle windshields are surprisingly cheap anyhow — I paid about $50.  Some suggest buying more than one, due to the high chance of breakage.  So figure that into your cost.

When we got the broken windshield out, Howard looked again at his watch.  I live on the north-western fringe of town; Howard lives just south of town.  It would take the better part of an hour to drive over and return with a new windshield.  Adding to that the time to fit the rubber seal, insert the chrome trim, and feed the rope-tool into place, it would start to get late.  And one must always consider the Cherokee poltergeist that haunts the ground upon which my garage sits (against all covenants, I may add).  Still, for a while Howard seemed anxious to press on.  But I got the suspicion that this might be due to some misplaced sense of contrition, in addition to the fact that it was probably driving him nuts to get so close, only to meet with failure at the last second (or, in this case, the last inch).

“I say we call it a night,” I finally said.

Howard had a thought.  “I could come by Saturday morning.”

Again, I was having a hard time reading him.  Did he really want to schlep all the way over here a second time, on his Saturday morning, to help some clueless almost-a-stranger moron complete a task that few people sincerely enjoy?  Or was it now a personal mission, to see this thing through?  As far as I was concerned, I had seen enough.  In spite of our failure — or because of it — I was certain I knew what I needed to know.  He had taught me more than he suspected.

“I’ll tell you what . . .” I began.  My plan was to follow him over to his house, buy another windshield, and return home.  The next morning I would try to find a friend — it didn’t have to be a VW person now, with me and my newfound knowledge leading the way — to come by at some point and lend me a hand.  Howard lent me the rope-tool, and I said I’d let him know how it went.

A very close friend of mine is a mechanical genius.  He’s one of those guys who somehow knows how everything works.  A lot of people casually say, “Oh, we’re building a house” but what they really mean is that they’re having a house built.  But this friend literally built his own house.  He runs a growing manufacturing concern in town, and often maintains the machinery himself — making parts, if he has to, with an antique mill press and lathe.  I cycle with him quite frequently.  We can spend hours talking about motor oil.  He can school me on jet engines.  He can identify birds.  He knows which roadside berries are safe to eat.  He plays a mean game of poker.  One time, over the course of a seventy-mile bicycle ride in the country, I received an in-depth (and surprisingly interesting) discourse on chicken houses — how to tell the older ones from the new, how they are oriented to minimize extremes in temperature, how the lighting is controlled and how the fans circulate the air.  He does not eat chicken.

Aside from the fact that once, many years ago, he took a cross-country trip in a Karmann-Ghia, and his older brother used to own a split-window Bus, this friend has little interest in old Volkswagens.  As a matter of fact, I suspect he’s about up to here with my yammering about them.  Luckily for him, by his own admission he has attention span issues and probably just lets my voice get drowned out by the white noise in his own headspace.  Last week I flew with a guy who is obsessed with antique Russian carbines, so I can relate.

Good man that he is, after bribing my friend with the promise of beer and food he agreed to swing by after work.  As it turned out, we weren’t even through with the first round when the windshield was in, unbroken, and looking smart!  I had already fed the rope tool into place; but the rest of the process took exactly seven minutes.  It was almost too easy!


How did we do it?  Well, if you are looking for a “how to,” you would be well-served to do what I did — research the hell out of it.  Especially helpful was Chris Vallone’s video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGMd0CrEQig.  I also had the California Pacific / JBugs video on hand, and spent hours on www.thesamba.com.  So check all of these things out, and whatever else you might find.  Take it all in, then come back here.  I can wait.

There are very, very few things of which I can speak authoritatively.  Unfortunately, Volkswagen restoration is not one of them.  But marathon running and distance cycling are another thing.  I’ve been at it long enough to recognize that no matter what anyone else says, in the end you gotta do what works for you.  For example, before a big event which I know will have me pushing the limit for hours — well past the point at which I would otherwise shove my carbon fiber bicycle into the weeds, curl up on the cold asphalt in the fetal position, and wait patiently for the next logging truck — I eat a bagel, a bucket-sized bowl of granola, and two strong coffees.  Before an event whose caloric expenditure will be measured in the many-thousands, it is quite necessary to fuel the machine.  I know this combination works — for me.  I have friends who opt instead for bacon and eggs, or a burrito the size of a baby.  But I don’t know how they do it.  If I ate that much protein before riding off into the dawn, I’d be yakking by side of the road before I crossed the county line.  Yet those same friends are just as strong (alas, all too often stronger) than I.  My point is that we’re all different, see?  So I’ve learned to cringe when someone flatly says, all unequivocal-like, “Here’s what works.”

The same thing applies in the Volkswagen Wissenschaft.  There were a few things about Howard’s technique that I found peculiar at first — indeed, a couple of things he did seemed to break all of the “rules.”  The first what was that his starting point with the rope-thingy was at the sides, instead of the bottom.  In all of my research, everyone started at the bottom.  This was revolutionary!  But now that I think about it, starting at the sides better addressed one of the main problems my wife and I were having (about the windshield, at any rate), that it would “ride up” by the time we got to the top, making it impossible to get the top lip to settle into place.  When you start at the sides (that is, the “overlap” of the string/rope/wire extends all the way back up the sides), you establish anchor points early on that seem to keep the whole thing from moving.

I could try to describe the sequence that my friend and I used, but I think a drawing will do a better job at this:

Windshield sequence

The second thing that was different about his technique is that Howard is not a slapper.  Everything I’d seen showed or described the outside helper applying downward, open-handed pressure in the form of a firm (but not violent) slapping motion.  But Howard panicked when I started to do this.  “Don’t do that,” he said.  I think his alarm was perhaps unwarranted — indeed, I’d heard somewhere that at the factory, they used rubber mallets for the operation — but hey, it was his trip at that point so I went with it.  I’m here to say that strategic, steady pressure worked just fine.  So no slapping for me from now on.  This is what works for me.

Now get out there and find your own way.  If you have a notion to try cod liver oil, industrial-strength suction cups, and a come-along, go for it!  Let us know if it works.  Post it on YouTube.  If it doesn’t work, post it on YouTube anyway — we’d much rather watch you make a stupid mistake than make the same stupid mistake ourselves.  And if you get flustered and need some help, you know where to find me.  For in this, we are really not strangers after all.



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