I’ve been feeling like a real mensch lately.

As in, “That Bruce, he’s a real mensch!”

For starters, there’s the new airplane. No, I did not discover a 1954 Barndoor rotting in the woods in Sweden, rescue same vehicle with a helicopter, restore it in my driveway, auction it at Barrett-Jackson for an amount that would make a lobbyist blush, and buy myself a P-51 Mustang with the proceeds. I’m talking about my job.

Yes, contrary to all appearances of luxury and leisure, I have one of those, as well as other “adult responsibilities”. There are adult worries, too: I closely monitor my skin for moles that may be changing shape or color. I am concerned about moisture in my crawlspace. I wonder about my legacy.

Dreams have given way to regrets. Opinions have hardened. Grudges are harbored. I must take my victories where I can find them.

So when, after six months of flying the new jet, I am starting to achieve a level of confidence that my peers seem to have had after three simulator sessions, perhaps I can be forgiven for allowing myself a single small serving of satisfaction.

Reservations were cancelled and airline stocks hiccuped the day word got out that I am now trained to fly four different versions of the same airliner, a very common Boeing that is the mainstay of many airlines’ fleet. The newer versions are almost as advanced (but not quite) as my previous jet.  The automation level of the airplane to which I was accustomed, and which I’d been flying for fourteen years, was such that I must admit that any real stick-and-rudder flying skills I apparently once had were allowed — encouraged, even — to atrophy to the point where I was little more than a systems monitor, presiding over a bank of flat-panel displays. To be sure, the automation itself was quite complex. But any kid with an iPad could figure out most of that in an afternoon. He too could learn to be a very proficient (efficient?) button-pusher.

The stage was thereby set. To learn anything new — especially since it was not really by choice, and my attitude going in was somewhere short of enthusiastic — would have been tough. But it was the oldest version of the jet (we call it the “Classic”) that really kicked my ass.

I can look back, now, on my first simulator period in the Classic with a laugh. My instructor may have seen the humor in it too.

“Okay, you’re doing fine. Level off at six for me.”

“Huh?” I said. I heard him perfectly, in spite of a thick, lazy Texas drawl. But I was apparently cast into a mesmerized state by all of those needles spinning around in mad, random fashion.

“Six thousand feet.”

“Okay,” I said, searching frantically for the dial that I vaguely remembered as something called an “altimeter”. Finding it I was none the wiser. It didn’t seem to be providing me any useful information. Panic started to set in.

“Easy, now. You’re almost there,” said the voice behind the curtain.

“Um, like,” I stammered, floundering. “Okay, whoa. The needle. Help me out, here. Is that hundreds, or thousands?”


“Sorry. It’s been a while.”

“Needle’s hundreds. Window’s thousands.” He yawned loudly. He’d explained this to others. I wasn’t the only one.


“The ‘odometer’,” he said, following up with a low, gravelly guffaw honed by years of cigarettes and wee-hour simulator sessions.

I caught on just in time, nudged the nose over, and leveled off at exactly six thousand feet. In the real thing, we would have been peeling flight attendants from the ceiling. But in these early simulator sessions, there are few points for style. Thankfully.

I took a deep breath, all aglow with feeling like a real pilot again, when the voice chimed in.

“Watch the speed.”

I did exactly as Tex asked. I watched the speed. I watched it accelerate rapidly from two-fifty to two-sixty, two-seventy, two-eighty. I watched it rocket past three hundred with no end in sight. Soon Chewbacca would grunt and the hyperdrive would kick in, leaving a swarm of dismayed TIE-fighters in our wake. Which would be kind of cool, except this fantasy was doing me no good in complying with the speed limit, which is two-fifty when under ten thousand feet.

I wondered why the autothrottles weren’t doing their job. Were they in the right mode? I looked up at the mode control panel, and was thereupon reminded that the Classic does not have autothrottles.

I reached out, grabbed the two sticks and yanked them back to the stops.

More giggling from the peanut gallery. “Bet you won’t do that again.”

He was right. I didn’t. Of course there were myriad other offenses I committed in re-learning how to fly a “real” airplane again. It simply required a higher state of “situational awareness”, to a degree that I had not practiced in quite some time. It requires one to literally sit up and pay attention, as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

It amazes me how quickly one can learn under those conditions. I think of late-night documentaries: hyper-alert meerkats stand in rows, scanning the savanna for predators; oryx suddenly bolt from the watering hole for reasons unseen and unknown to the observer; a battle-scarred and sickly lion lunges and takes down an impala in a mercifully quick flash of violence, all according to the brutal and unforgiving law of the veld.



The training occupied the bulk of my springtime. I was away for two months. For two months, the Beetle sat untouched. Aside from a handful of small, secondary tasks, all that remained was the engine. The newly machined, yet original VW case halves, heads, and crank sat bagged and boxed, waiting for assembly. A box containing a brand new set of four 83-millimeter pistons and cylinders sat under my workbench, coated in cosmoline, individually wrapped and nested in their respective cardboard compartments. Other boxes contained a new a doghouse-style oil cooler (with the all-important “Hoover bit”), clutch, pressure plate, camshaft, and lifters. An overhauled (by me) Solex 28-PICT carburetor. An overhauled (also by me) Pierburg fuel pump. An overhauled (by a local wizard) original Bosch distributor. A set of original, re-bushed VW connecting rods. Pushrods, pushrod tubes, balanced flywheel, rebuilt generator, oil pump, rocker assemblies, a 40-horse gasket kit, miscellaneous hardware, and many other things I’m probably forgetting. It was all ready for me. Yet when I returned, humbled and nearly defeated, I wasn’t quite ready for it.

I needed some decompression time, some “me time”. I tried to make up for a season’s worth of lost cycling opportunities by riding every chance I got. More weekends than not I was in the mountains, attacking the climbs and bombing the descents like a fresh parolee with faulty frontal lobes and a case of Four Loko. At night I taught myself the art of building a bicycle wheel — a pursuit that is one part physics, one part magic. These things imbued me with their very own flavor of mensch-itude.

I rejoined Facebook. Once more my life was imbued with texture and meaning. At long last, I was a complete man again. A classic Joseph Campbell case. A hero.

Then the weather turned cooler. Rodents infested the attic and crawlspace, chewed through some wiring, and disabled the heating system. We spent Thanksgiving in a cold, rat-infested house. These things were bothersome but the only actual work required of me was cleanup. (A respirator and Tyvec suit, I’m pleased to report, detracts nothing from my mensch-itude.) The rest was handled with a couple of phone calls, and planning my day so I could be around when the HVAC and/or pest control guys felt like showing up. I told them to come around back. I’d be in the garage — which was never heated in the first place, and (thankfully) rat-free.

Marissa, our next-door neighbor, recently adopted a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. She’s a cute little thing (the pig, I mean) — seems good-natured, intelligent, and is already house-trained. It’s owner walks “Jolene” on a leash. The one thing that seems off, however, is that Marissa is introverted in the extreme. She comes and she goes but I have no idea what her life is about at all. Of course, coming and going is common in the townhouse next door, it being a rental and this being a college town. I generally don’t give it much thought. But it occurs to me that taking your pig for a walk is probably a lot like taking your classic car out for a spin to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the bank, wherever. Want to be left the hell alone? Forget it!

This is true even with the car stationary in my garage. At first, when the car was obviously a work in progress — basically a shell in primer, with sections being cut out, welded in, or left in a precarious state while I figured out how to rectify what I had just bungled — the most common reaction from visitors would be wonder. What year was it? What color was I going to paint it? When will it be done?

Then I’d get the stories. The heretofore unmet neighbor who had a Beetle in college, until he rolled it. The termite inspector whose uncle had several of them, and kept his favorite one running by harvesting parts from the others. The mail carrier who learned to drive — in Alaska — in a Beetle, recounting the patched floorpans and the reserve lever for the fuel tank.

I still get the stories. Really, if I wasn’t such an unmitigated prick sometimes, I’d stop whatever urgently important task I’m doing and try really listening for a change, practicing some journalistic investigation. Maybe I’d even compile the stories, in greater detail, for posterity. It would make for great reading, if I did it right.

Now that the car appears drivable (from the street at least), the most common reaction I get is praise. “Wow,” the UPS guy said one day recently as he stepped out of his brown van. “I haven’t seen one that nice for a long time.”

I’d never seen this guy before. A new route for him, I supposed. He seemed personable enough though, so I let him gawk while I explained what I was doing. The partially-built engine was on the stand, and I was fussing with my cheap-ass Harbor Freight clamping dial-indicator setup, trying to measure my deck height. I’m not sure if he understood my explanation (it’s all new to me, too), but he seemed impressed. If I’m honest, though, praise from someone on the outside — that is, someone who’s not a raging maniac for air-cooled Volkswagens — is of little value. Nice, and appreciated — but I don’t let it get to my head.

I cannot express how much fun I’m having right now, building this engine. It’s funny, really, the way my mind works: my anxiety level about the whole project increases in proportion to the amount of time I’ve spent away from it. To paraphrase a popular bumpersticker about fishing, a bad day in the garage is indeed better than a good day at work. Even if I’m enjoying other pursuits — say, cycling along a remote river in the Blue Ridge Mountains — there’s a low level of anxiety about the car that vaporizes the second my hands start to get greasy.

Maybe you have noticed I’ve been silent for a while. Maybe you didn’t. I’m not sure that I have a coherent reason why I shut the blog down, and quit writing about the thing. Maybe I just needed a break. But I’m back now. Lucky you.

So, to get us all on the same page: the interior is done. The exterior, though covered in two springtimes’ worth of pine pollen, is done. It has all-new brakes, dual-circuit. A new wiring harness, stem to stern. All-new rubber. Original Sekurit glass, except for the new windshield. Original, “wide five” steelies, blasted, powder-coated, and painted, wearing brand new Firestone F-560’s (including the spare). I de-crudded, sealed, and painted the original gas tank. While that was out, I rebuilt the leaky steering box.

Some things will wait. The last time I drove it, the car rolled buttery smooth and perfectly straight, and steering was spot on. My only immediate concern was the leaky gearbox. Aside from that, I installed new front wheel bearings when I did the brakes, and cleaned up the rest of the steering system from spindle to spindle, injecting grease into the specified fittings. I did notice that the tie-rod boots look a little worn, as do the bumper stops. But since I’ll need to have the car drivable so I can assess, diagnose, adjust, and/or take the car in for professional alignment, these things will wait. It’s on the already-started list of things to do on a rainy weekend.

Not on the list: the transaxle. These are known to be incredibly complex little buggers — almost exclusively the realm of professionals — but are also quite robust. It was functioning nicely when last driven. So I’m taking a bit of a calculated risk here. Worst case, at some point I’ll have to drop the engine, figure out how to get the transaxle out, box it up, and send it to somewhere in California for an overhaul. Not the end of the world.

As of this writing, I’ve about finished the long block. To wit, the case halves are joined around the crank and camshaft. The oil pump is installed. The pistons and cylinders are on (the latter each with .020-inch shims, to set the deck height for a compression ratio of about 7.7:1). The heads are installed and torqued, in the proper sequence, to 23 foot-pounds. The disassembled, cleaned, and lubed rocker assemblies are bolted on. The oil cooler is installed. The fuel pump is installed, as is the distributor and its drive shaft.


And this is where my latest dilemma started.

Having never done this before, I have two main sources of guidance. The first is Wilson’s How to Rebuild Your Volkswagen Air-Cooled Engine, a.k.a., “The Red Book”. Although it was written back in the 1980’s, I find it concise and easy to follow, with clear, helpful photographs. There is enough information to challenge the first-timer without being overwhelming. With the possible exception of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, “The Red Book” is the most dog-eared book I own. At this point, it is grease-stained and held together with packing tape.

My other main source is the “Bug Me” video, Volume #3, “Complete Engine Rebuild”. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this video, but I can now quote from it with the same alacrity that Monty Python fans quote lines from “The Holy Grail”. At idle times I find myself wondering what Chad and Wade are up to these days, and hoping Rick is well. His dog, too.

Sometimes there are differences in sequence or technique between the video and the book; in those cases I cross-reference with other sources in my ever-expanding library (John Muir’s “Idiot” book; the Aircooled VW Engine Interchange Manual by Keith Seume; How to Hot Rod Volkswagen Engines by Bill Fisher (although I’m not “Hot Rod”-ing, this is still a useful source); and, of course, the Bentley manual.

Okay, there’s a third source as well — “Howard”, my machinist. One of the problems, though, is that he’s really not just my machinist. I tend to forget that. I tend to forget Howard has a job (two jobs, actually), a family, and a life. And many other customers. But he’s such a helpful, personable guy that sometimes, regardless of the day or time, if I’m absolutely stuck, it’s very hard not to speed-dial Howard for some answers. I don’t mind doing this so much if my questions are directly related to parts I’ve bought from him, or work he’s done. But for all of those other times, it requires great effort not to cry for Howard to set me straight.

So far, I have not called Howard for marital counseling, legal advice, a medical opinion, fashion suggestions, wine pairing recommendations, hot stock tips, or my daily horoscope. But you never know.

I am proud to say, however, that I solved my latest Volks-calamity sans Howard, in a completely Howard-less state. Unless he’s an avid follower of the forums on — which, busy as he is, seems unlikely — as far as Howard knows I’m only a minor moron.

Last week I worked on the engine for four days in a row, a virtually unprecedented flurry of activity. To be sure, I didn’t work on the engine all day on each of those days. I can’t do that. My preference is to dedicate a morning, or an afternoon, or a couple of hours here and there. Anything longer than that I risk getting careless, unfocused, or too excited about any apparent progress. Over the years I have developed a pretty good sense of knowing when to say when.

The fourth session was on Saturday morning. Having to head out that afternoon for a three-day work trip, my goal of setting the valve gap and installing the valve covers on before leaving was, I thought, quite reasonable. It would have been a natural place to pause, satisfied to be finished building out, mentally preparing to build down (exhaust, tinware), up (intake manifold, carburetor, generator, fan shroud, more tinware), and forward (flywheel, clutch, pressure plate). But for strange and frustrating reasons, I found myself unable to set the valve gap.

Before I elaborate, hear this: I know how to set the valve gap.


I know how to set the valve gap.

I approached it the way I’d done many times before, both when tuning up the Beetle I had when I was sixteen, and in maintaining the current Beetle (before, that is, I decided to take it apart). Pop the cap off the distributor, pull the engine through to the #1 firing position, verify that the mark on the pulley is at the case split, gap #1 valves, pull counter-clockwise 180 degrees, gap #2 . . . and so on. Before we go any further, I’m using the same crankshaft (professionally inspected and polished) as well as the same pulley (which I’ve left unpainted, not only because of the already-verified timing marks, but also because I decided that I like the patina on it). But for some reason, when I went back to check my work, valves seemed to be inexplicably tightening and loosening on their own. It made no sense.

Remember: I know how to set the valve gap.

I had enough sense to recognize that something was wrong, something I wasn’t going to solve while feeling pressured for time. I put down my tools, slipped the black hefty bag over the engine, hit the shower and drove to work, all the while thinking about it, wondering where I went wrong.

If you have the benefit of engine-building experience, you’ve probably got it figured out by now, or at least can make some educated guesses. I had done enough reading that I had some ideas as well. Some things I could all but rule out. I was 99.9 percent sure that the dots on the cam gears were in sync. I was 99.9 percent sure that I had bolted the cam gear itself to the camshaft in the correct orientation (it’s a very mild — but not quite stock — cam recommended by an experienced friend). And having the whole shebang 180 degrees off? Well, that’s such a common rookie mistake that only a complete moron would do something like that . . . .

Waiting for my plane to arrive I did two things. The first was to text Howard. Not for help, mind, but for parts. Did he have a new set of adjusting screws and jam nuts in stock? Sure, he said. He named his price — cheaper than I could have gotten online, with shipping — and we arranged a time I could swing by and pick them up. I figured the old ones might simply be worn out, and this was a cheap and easy thing to do. I didn’t want to deal with the possible shimming and shaving that the popular swivel-ball adjusters might require, and decided to keep this stock.

The second thing I did was to post a description of my dilemma on, under the thread title of “Setting valve gap on new engine build” or something like that. This turned out to be an unfortunate choice of words on my part, because:

I know how to set the valve gap.

By the time I landed there were several hits. Most of the suggestions were helpful and relevant; things I had already considered, but thought unlikely. Others seemed to imply nah, don’t worry about it — just press on and hope for the best. One or two took the complete opposite extreme, and were sorry to report that I’d probably have to tear it all down and start over — which, if that’s what it takes, okay fine; but that’s also a pretty drastic solution to casually make without double-checking the simple things first. Still, their intention was to help, so I have no qualms.

There was one, though, that really got me steamed. It began with “In my 41 years as a VW mechanic . . .” and said that anyone who doesn’t know how to set their valve gap has no business rebuilding an engine. The funny thing is, I completely agree, because:

I know how to set the valve gap!!!

But I have to pause here to give myself a pat on the back. I’ve come to believe that, in addition to being able to hide behind an anonymous user name, a large part of the uncivilized behavior associated with online commentary stems from the temptation to fire back immediately with everything you’ve got, no holds barred. Of course I was angry. Of course I was insulted. In one or two sentences, that bitter old geezer had made a number of assumptions that were neither helpful nor considerate. I asked for help and got flamed. I had done nothing wrong. So — at first — I did not respond. Just like I knew when to put down the tools, I recognized a good time to step away from the keyboard.

When I checked it again several hours later, several posters, I’m heartened to say, rose to my defense. I had cooled down a bit by then, too, and felt confident enough that I could respond without a reciprocating ad hominem. I simply stated that I wished I had his experience, but I do not, and that is why I was asking these questions. Perhaps he could offer something constructive?

Next, Mister Grouchy apologized, without really apologizing. To be honest, since I only glanced at his subsequent postings, I don’t recall the exact wording. Basically he rephrased what he’d said in a (slightly) less abrasive way, following up with a detailed explanation of how to set the valve gap, which I didn’t really need because . . .


I feel sorry for him, really. I figure, if he really has forty-one years of Volkswagen wrenching under his belt, he’s probably pushing sixty, at least. If this old man has nothing better to do in his golden years than to troll the Internet and anonymously belittle beginners, that’s just really sad. And to the one or two posters who suggested that we should tolerate cranks like him simply because of their overflowing founts of wisdom, I say bullshit. I’ll settle for a decent human being with only twenty-one years of experience any day, thank you very much.

On my way back into town I picked up the new adjusters from Howard. He runs the business out of his garage, in the evening and on weekends, and does the show circuits as well. Judging from the apparent steady stream of customers, I’ve often thought he could quit his day job and open up an actual store front, California-style. There always seem to be a cluster of Beetles and Buses and Karmann Ghias in his driveway, in widely varying states of repair.

Howard was already busy with a customer when I pulled up, so I waited while the customer read from a list of things he needed and Howard darted around the garage, pulling labeled bins from high shelves, entering part numbers in his laptop, offering installation tips and advice. His own project sat in the middle of the garage: a Ruby Red 1963 sedan. This was the first time I’d seen it in paint, and I was completely aghast.

I happened to know that the price tag for this paint job was about what I paid for mine (it’s been so long, though, that I’m wondering if this needs to be inflation-adjusted). Yet the deep, smooth, mirror-like finish I spied from twenty feet only got more impressive as I moved closer. I couldn’t help but to reach out and touch it. While the color was almost identical to mine, the surface was like glass. It didn’t look like steel that had been painted red; it seemed the metal itself was colored, that if you cut it open it would bleed Ruby.

“I’ll be with you in just a sec,” Howard said over the gleaming dome of the roof. My whimpering must have gotten his attention.

When it was my turn I commented on the paint job. Like every aficionado that I know, he thanked me but then pointed out some minor faults, which I would have never noticed. He retrieved the adjusters from a bin while I pulled some cash out of my wallet. I casually mentioned that I was having some trouble setting the valve gap, and thought the old adjusters might be worn. I didn’t go into any more detail than that. Since he didn’t comment, I figured I was on the right track. I could have pressed him for more advice, and he would have gladly offered it, but I wanted to figure this one out on my own for a change.

The new adjusters and jam nuts took ten minutes to install, and of course they didn’t help.

Options, at that point, as I saw them, were limited. Maybe the cam-gear dots weren’t aligned after all? Maybe I really did bolt the cam-gear on the camshaft in the wrong orientation? Either way, I had all but resigned myself to the fact that it all had to come apart, as more than one poster had suggested.

But then I remembered something one of the other helpful Samba-dudes posted, describing his own method for setting the valve gap. Basically, he went from back to front, or front to back. Doesn’t even matter. Just crank the engine through until the first valve is at full lift, then adjust its opposite valve. Then move to the next one. No need to mess with the pulley marks or worry about where the rotor is pointing. Simple.

I figured what the heck. There was nothing to lose, right? So I did a round of valve adjusting in this way, and when I rotated the engine back around to #1, with the rotor pointing to the mark on the distributor housing, the result was . . . the same damn thing. Which, if I’d assembled everything correctly, would be impossible. Okay, I figured. It’s coming apart.

Then, on a complete lark, and with #1 still on (what I thought was) top dead center, unknown forces compelled me to reach over and have a feel of the #3 rocker arms. They both clicked, both off their valves. Then I grabbed my .006-inch feeler gauge, which slid right in with just a little bit of drag. Both valve gaps were perfectly set.

There was nothing wrong with my valve gapping method, per se, on a perfectly assembled engine. But using this other method, which pretty much guarantees that the gap is correct, no matter where the rotor is pointing, isolated my problem. This was the Aha! moment. I had been attempting to adjust the valves at the top of the exhaust stroke, during the “overlap” period, that short span of time when both valves are partially open. Of course, if I hadn’t been doing one of the few things I’ve actually done before by rote, if I’d just stopped and thought about it, I might have caught this sooner. But the good news was that the engine could stay together. The distributor drive shaft was simply 180-degrees off. The thing that only a moron would do was exactly the thing I did.

In trying to piece this back together, I’m still not sure how I screwed that up. I’m thinking I must have had the crank 180-degrees off from the moment I lowered it into the case half and lined up the dots on the gears. From that point on, I assumed that #1 was at TDC, and set the drive shaft in this position — when, all along, it was #3 at TDC.

Anyhow, of all my screw-ups, this one was relatively easy to remedy. Starting with the engine in at TDC #3 (which I had mistaken for #1) I removed the fuel pump, drive pin, and pedestal. I removed the distributor and tension spring. Having the engine on the stand, I then rotated the whole thing counter-clockwise on its side. Next, using a technique from the Muir book, I jammed an unsharpened pencil into the divot on top of the drive shaft, where the spring normally goes, and gently pulled the shaft out while giving it a little bit of counter-clockwise pressure to allow it to work its way free of the drive gear. The crux move here is to not lose the two shims at the bottom into the case. With a flashlight I could see them, still held in place with the assembly lube I’d used. They were easily retrievable with a telescoping magnet, though I could have just as easily left them there.

Next I cleaned and re-lubed everything, rotated the pulley through 360-degrees, and reinstalled everything. Again, mindful of the shims, I let them ride to the bottom of the drive shaft on my longest screwdriver, making sure with a flashlight that they were indeed seated at the bottom. This whole thing took me maybe an hour, even at my glacial pace of working. And this time, when I went to set the valve gap, I could immediately see the effect. It was just right. Actually, using the new-for-me procedure outlined above, the valves were pretty much already gapped correctly. The difference was that now they were doing what I expected them to do. Which was a good thing.

In retrospect, the extreme opinions could have been discounted (maybe there’s a “life-lesson” here?) Surely, I would have been sorely disappointed if I’d torn the engine back down only to find out it was a complete waste of time. On the other hand, continuing as if nothing were amiss would have been a bad plan, too. The problem would have made itself known on initial startup, and then — assuming I diagnosed the problem correctly — I would have had to re-set the distributor drive shaft anyway, but now with the engine in situ. Which can be done, but is, like most things, more fiddly with the engine installed. As an aside, as one or two posters pointed out, one could simply switch the ignition wires around and set the timing accordingly, and the car will run just fine. But anyone who knows me, knows that this ain’t how I roll. It would be wrong, and it would bug me.

Next up is sorting my tinware, and getting my hands on a decent stock exhaust system. In the meantime, on to the next dilemma!



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