One Lump or Two?
On the left is the engine that came with the car. It’s been in that same exact spot for about three years now. I never did a compression check or anything like that. At the time, I didn’t have the tools and didn’t know how. I still have not learned the esoteric art of assessing it’s worth from the color of the soot in it’s pipes, the condition of the plugs, or the consistency of the oil that has collected in the filler neck. With time I will learn these things, just as I have learned everything else.
Plans include a total overhaul. I will do this in the winter, so as to have her fresh and ready for spring. It is still my intention, in April, to drive the Beetle over the mountains to Bug-a-Palüza 15, up in Tennessee. Maybe then we’ll head down to Savannah, to visit family. I’ll take back roads only, going at my own pace. Schedules will loosen. I will learn to accept help from others. I’m sure there will be rough spots, but this is something I’ll learn how to handle with aplomb.
And once I’ve worked out the kinks, this motor will take me to Maine. One way.
(I did mention that we’re moving to Maine this summer, yes?)
As for the engine on the right, well . . .
I first heard about it a few weeks ago, while browsing the classifieds on the local VW club’s website. To avoid temptation I have had my eBay and TheSamba alerts shut off for quite some time. Well, most of my alerts. Every now and then I get a hit for “1975 Beetle,” hoping for the one-in-a-million chance that my old love will miraculously reappear in the same exact condition as I last saw her, for the same price I got for her those twenty-some-odd years ago. (I do not like to think too much of her far more likely fate.) And of course, I get an alert any time a Bus, of any variety or vintage, is listed anywhere in world. Just to keep an eye on things. Just browsing, you know.
I can’t remember exactly what I was doing in the classifieds on this occasion. Maybe I was looking for knickknacks or knobs. Or perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to find original 1965 seat frames, without resorting to buying them sight-unseen from California — only to have them arrive, disappoint, and get tossed in the storage locker along with the rejected doors, fenders, deck lids, and hoods that were acquired in the same fashion. But one listing caught my eye, as you might imagine. It said: “Parting out 1965 Beetle.” It described a “barn find” that was rolled in 1971 and subsequently parked at the far end of one of those football-field-long chicken houses that dot the rural Georgia landscape. The seller discovered it, along with a 1963 model, just previous to posting the ad.
The accompanying photographs depicted a Bahama Blue Bug that seemed surprisingly intact and complete, except for the pinched roof, dented hood, and misaligned doors. All of the glass except the windshield had survived. The interior was still done in the original, beautiful Windsor blue, and the under-the-hood area was especially clean — including the original spare tire and tool kit. As I perused the photographs, making a mental list of all the goodies I could snag from this special find, I was suddenly struck with something akin to buyer’s remorse, even though I hadn’t even reached for the wallet yet. Being in what I hoped to call the final stretch of my own project, I really didn’t need to part with yet another wad of cash. I was thankful, at least, that I already had most of the major necessities.
I was also relieved when I noticed that the ad had been posted two months prior. Surely, I thought, most of it was gone by now anyhow. It wouldn’t do any harm just to call and ask about it then, would it? Besides, I knew the guy — sort of. I’d seen his posts on the local forum. I’d even met him once or twice, in the beginning, when I was still naive enough to believe I could carry on a normal conversation with the guys at the monthly club meeting without revealing myself to be the complete newbie that I was. He seemed nice enough, like an honest guy. So I found myself dialing.
Almost everything, he told me, was indeed gone. Although I had recently come to terms with the incorrect (by two years) seat frames that I already had — and had already ordered the appropriate upholstery kit from TMI — this was the first item I asked him about. Already sold, he said. He still had the back seats, though, but I didn’t need them. I was surprised to learn that the first thing that went was the body shell. From the photographs, the car looked as though a Volkswagen-hating giant had squeezed the car from the sides, like a pimple, until the middle of the roof folded to create a peak. I couldn’t begin to imagine how one would go about repairing that. Yet, he told me, it was already done. He’d heard that the guy who bought the body cut the roof at the pillars, stretched the body back to its normal proportions, and grafted in a donor roof. Simple as that (gulp!).
Headlight assemblies? Turn signals? Bendix radio?
Gone, gone, and gone.
Most everything, he said, except the engine.
After the seat frames, that was next on my list. But I was afraid to ask. I really didn’t need another engine. Unless there are dirty secrets that reveal themselves when I start the teardown, I already have an engine that, I figure, is a good candidate for an overhaul. Most of the ancillaries have long since been replaced, but it is built around a genuine Volkswagen case (1963 vintage, by the stamped number), sports an original Solex 28 PICT-1 carburetor, and a pair of VW square-boss single-port heads. Of course the fan shroud flaps have been disabled by a previous owner. And that carb was still a little finicky last time I ran it, despite (or because of?) my rebuilding it. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, in my rewiring of the car, I’m tempted to bring it back to its original, 6-volt setup. So I’ll need a new generator anyhow.
From the photographs, I suspected that the guy wasn’t kidding when he said it was all original — carburetor, generator, distributor, coil, fuel pump. Only the muffler was, for unknown reasons, missing. Also, while I had him on the phone, he checked for the thermostat when I asked him about it. It too was gone, but he reported that he could move the shroud flaps by hand. The rest, he said, was complete. I told him thanks, but I’d have to think about it for a few days. His asking price was fair, I thought, but $500 is still $500.
The following Saturday was a “one-and-done” kind of day, the early morning flight from Philadelphia back home. I was in the parking lot by 9:30. I gave him a call. Could I come by and see it?
Sure, he said. C’mon by. Like most VW guys I’ve met, “William” is friendly and enthusiastic — not just about VW’s, but about life in general. He likes to talk, too. Before he gave me directions to his house, he regaled my about having spent much of the previous day — Black Friday — at Walmart. Didn’t buy anything, he said. No, he and his family simply sat on a bench with their ice cream cones, people-watching. Had I ever done that? Ever gone to Walmart to simply people-watch?
No, I confessed, I hadn’t. Never occurred to me. Especially on Black Friday. Usually, the only time I’d even consider patronizing that giant, gaping, cancerous hole of consumption is under extreme duress, usually of the type that involves the furtherance of the Beetle project. Like when I absolutely have to have that can of satin black Krylon and that box of 100-count latex gloves at two o’clock on a Sunday morning.
During normal business hours, usually I get that kind of stuff at Strange Hardware (I’ve changed the name here, but the actual name is about as “strange”). It’s a quaint Mom-and-Pop sort of place about three miles down the road that has miraculously managed to survive the onslaught of one Home Depot, two Lowe’s, two Walmarts, a Harbor Freight, and a Tractor Supply Company within a ten mile radius.
That whole part of town is called Normaltown. It got its name from the state normal school that originally occupied the campus across the street. For most of my time in this town, that campus was home of the Navy Supply Corps School. It took them the better part of fifty years but eventually the Navy discovered, to their great dismay, that Athens, Georgia is nowhere near the sea. So they left, headed for the coast. Now the space has been re-purposed once again as a new medical campus for the ever-expanding behemoth which is simply referred to by locals as The University.
A few doors down from Strange Hardware used to be Allen’s Bar and Grill — immortalized in song by the B-52’s, who got their start here in Athens — but that was torn down a some years ago. The “Love Shack” was also a real place (not in Normaltown, but out in the country, and less than two miles from my house), but it too is gone — burned to the ground, the story goes, under “suspicious circumstances.” The whole shack shimmies no longer. All that remains is the chimney. And the tin roof, still rusted.
In lieu of an actual Mom and a real-life Pop in Strange Hardware, there is a tiny, twitchy white guy and a big, burly black guy, both of whom are always there if the lights are on. Twitchy is usually the first to ask if I need any help when he hears the cowbell jangle and my boots on the creaky planks. Burly seems the more pensive type, usually speaking only when he has something to say. You can get a wide variety of goods there — spray paint, hand tools, plumbing supplies, a rake, a wheelbarrow, a gas drill, nuts, bolts, and washers. They can make keys.
Once I stopped by three times in the same day, each time buying the same exact thing: contact cement. By the third visit I was, admittedly, a little rattled. After taking the very last quart-sized can of DAP Weldwood off the shelf and placing it on the counter, Twitchy and I must have had the same exact thought.
My thought: I wonder if he thinks I’m huffing that shit.
His thought: I think he’s huffing that shit.
Of course, it just wouldn’t do to ask me that directly, so Twitchy came at me sideways. “Man, that stuff adds up, don’t it?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously as I forked over the cash. “Whatchya workin’ on?”
“Carpet,” I said, without further explanation. It was true, but I just didn’t feel like talking about it. I mean, the stuff does add up, and I hated having to stop what I was doing to drive town to Strange three times in the same afternoon. (A note to future Beetle carpet installers: I discovered after the fact that the DAP Weldwood “Gel” works much better than the “Original.”) Burly said nothing. Twitchy shrugged, apparently satisfied by my curt explanation. He handed me my change and gave me the usual, hearty, and very Southern, “Thanks — come back!”
We’ve had our laughs, too. Once I tossed a bag of disposable blue latex gloves on the counter. All they had was the 25-count pack. It would have to do. But I was confused about something.
“Why do you suppose they package these in odd quantities like that?”
Twitchy was a little slow on the uptake. “Huh?”
“I mean, what would I want with twenty-five?” I said, waving both hands in the air like this was a stick-em-up in reverse.
“Well,” Burly began in his slow baritone. For a moment there was nothing but silence and anticipation, Twitchy and I both waiting for Burly to continue. It’s amazing how much attention one can command when one is very choosey about one’s words. “I suppose if you was a proctologist —”
They say that comedy is all about the delivery. I wouldn’t know about that, but I do know that I laughed hard, for a long time. I still think it’s pretty damn funny. Corny as all get-out. But funny.
Something tells me you can’t get that kind of entertainment at Walmart. But maybe that’s like the difference between dry, British humor and American-style slapstick. I wondered if William was a Monty Python fan like me. Probably not. It did occur to me, however, that the main reason I’m not a Walmart people-watcher may very well be because I’m one of the ones being watched.
Daddy — look at that strange man! Why is he covered in black paint? Does he know he’s wearing two different shoes? Who is he talking to? What happened to his eyebrows?
We may not share the same sense of humor, but definitely we share the same passion. As is often the case with air-cooled VW freaks like me, I found William’s house easily. All you have to do is keep an eye out for one of those distinctive shapes, like that of a ladybug (in the case of a Beetle) or a loaf of bread (a bay-window Bus). William’s gorgeous, bone-stock, gulf blue 1963 Deluxe Sedan (which I had the chance to swoon over at one of those club meetings) was at someone’s shop, he explained, getting a front-end alignment. But I knew I had found the place when I saw his late Westfalia parked in his driveway.
On the day of my visit I was in the midst of one of my insomnia marathons, and had not slept a wink for about eighty hours, and counting. This by itself was not unusual. I’m used to it. During those times I try to give myself a little slack, and constantly remind myself that I’m not one-hundred percent. I try to keep to a somewhat-normal (albeit scaled down) exercise regimen, and I try to defer any big “life decisions” until I’ve finally gotten some sleep. I make an effort to pay attention, and to be patient, with varying degrees of success. After a while I slip into a hazy, spacey groove where the desiccated husk of my body might seem to be animated with at least the semblance of a life-force, but the brain may or may not be participating.
Also, I drink coffee. Lots of it. When I’m sleeping well, I cut off my caffeine intake somewhere around lunch time, knowing that I’d otherwise jeopardize my chances for continuing that blissful, rejuvenating trend. Eventually, though — every few weeks or so — things get completely out of whack and I simply stop sleeping. Nothing I do makes any difference. During those times I switch to survival mode, and I reach for the hot, black bean juice with a vicious craving, attempting to wring every ounce of remaining energy from my slowly withering frame.
These two things alone — the chronic lack of sleep, coupled with a severely over-caffeinated state — would make anyone a blathering idiot. To make matters worse, when I arrived at William’s house, I had to pee — badly. I mean like right now. This seems to happen regularly enough that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s some manifestation of a deep-seated social anxiety, and a possible explanation as to why I have a hard time making new friends (as if my general surliness has nothing to do with it). It never happens, say, when I’m going to the dentist, or the bank, or the hardware store. It only (and always) seems to happen when I recognize — subconsciously, at least — that I might actually enjoy, for a change, an easy conversation with a like-minded individual. Somebody who might be a friend.
What to do? To leap out of the car and waddle up to the door like my legs are zip tied at the knees, to pound on the door and greet whichever man, woman, or child that answers with heyI’mBruceheretolookattheenginebutfirstomigodwhere’sthebathroom?!?!?!? — well, that simply wouldn’t do, would it? What is the standard protocol here? Can I Google it? Am I over-analyzing this thing? Because really, I want to know! I need to know!
As it was, the overhead door to the garage was open. The engine in question sat on a dolly in the middle of the spotless floor. Notwithstanding the urinometer being pegged, I noted with envy the well-appointed and orderly space. A large, modern tool chest likely chock full of anything one would need to maintain an air-cooled Volkswagen. A well-lighted bench with a broad work surface. An wheeled cart containing a MIG welder, gas cylinder, regulator, and a space for accessories underneath. In the other corner, and actual desk, complete with a computer terminal, a collection of manuals, and a file cabinet.
Well, I thought with smug satisfaction upon noticing the itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny, decidedly unmanly pancake compressor nestled under the workbench. At least my compressor is bigger!
Still, there was no denying it. This was no newbie duffer’s garage. This was a shop. I never had the chance to even think about setting up a “shop” before I found myself suddenly ass-deep in the unplanned, complete rebuilding of the Beetle. At some point I threw up a most ungraceful assemblage of two-by-fours and plywood. Perhaps it is instructive to reflect that the first thing I attached to said assemblage was a pub-style bottle opener.
Above the cramped and cluttered alcove that serves as a work surface, I installed a single fluorescent fixture — that I have to unplug if I want to plug something else in there, unless I drag the extension cord over from the other half of the garage. Nuts, bolts, washers, and unidentified/unidentifiable small parts reside in coffee cans, empty yogurt containers, pickle jars, baggies. My only actual tool chest — a small, wheeled Craftsman unit — was already insufficient for my bicycle tools. Now the drawers won’t even close. The pegboard I hung is festooned with the most motley collection of crap imaginable: body hammers, screwdrivers, wire brushes, hog ring pliers, scissors, snips, wrenches, rubber bands, punches, calipers, clamps, drifts, scrapers, chisels — and a standby bottle opener (just in case). Every new tool I bring home requires my finding a bare patch of real estate along one of the two-by-fours, so I can hammer some nails and hang it there. I regularly inscribe part numbers, phone numbers, lists, mantras, and reminders into the soft pine.
My compressor isn’t really that big — thirty gallons, if I remember correctly — but it suffices for my purposes. It has a hard time keeping up with the air tools, but since I’m a very slow worker I don’t really mind. But I should have sprung for one of those fancy rubbery air hoses, since on a cold day, the plastic one that I use is so stiff that it’s all but impossible to work with. And any time I need to weld something I have to unload a pile of labeled boxes from the shelf, risk back injury dragging out the MIG setup and placing it somewhere nearby, hook up the gas cylinder, try to remember all the settings, then remember where in that heaping mess my welding helmet might be — only to find it and get all pissy because it’s a cheap-ass model, not one of the auto-darkening ones I find myself drooling over whilst sitting on the john with a tool catalog.
I knocked on the door and was met by William. In all honesty, given my sorry state, I would have been perfectly content to pee, pay, and leave. But with William’s outgoing and friendly nature, it wouldn’t be so easy. First we talked about life in general — family, work, the weather. I commented on William’s nice shop space. He thanked me, but casually mentioned the complete redesign that was in the works. Then he showed me the back seat from the rolled Beetle — the original, one-year-only upholstery was indeed beautiful — for which he was planning to build a wooden frame, to enable its use as a cool couch for the kids. As for the muffler that had been on the engine, he said it was too far gone to be of much use — as a muffler, at least. Inspired by its design — including the über-cool, prominent “VW” logo stamped right between the exhaust pipes — he cut off the back half length-wise, blasted the front, painted it, mounted it on a wooden slab, attached two new cheap-o chrome pea shooters, and voilà! — a super-groovy tie rack! If Martha Stewart were a male, thirty-something Volkswagen freak with a much better personality and a strong Southern accent, that would be William.
When there was a very slight pause in the conversation and I sensed that the time was right for a commercial break, I finally asked for and used the bathroom. When I returned to the garage (wondering vaguely how much eight gallons of coffee-infused urine weighs) one of the kids was in there with his dad.
“Mister Bruce is a pilot,” William explained to his young’un.
Here was go again.
Being childless, I have no idea what impresses kids nowadays. But judging solely from the boy’s response, pilots aren’t one of them. Much to my relief, he really didn’t give a shit. I could have been an accountant for all he cared. Children like that give me hope for the future.
The boy ran off and I approached the engine. As I got down on my knees to have a closer look, William told the story of its history, as he knew it, in more detail than he had over the phone. The threat of having my bladder bursting was no longer there, but I was still jittery and exhausted. It was a warm day, and the hoodie I had slipped over my head to hide all of the garbage festooning my uniform shirt was making me sweat. I was as mimsy as a borogove, and having a very hard time paying attention. But the gist of the story was this: the engine had not run since 1971. That was when So-And-So’s nephew rolled the car, and it was parked in the chicken house. So-And-So (or was it So-And-So’s brother?) had, apparently, been a serial Volkswagen buyer back in the day. He bought one new in ’61, drove it for a couple of years, then traded it in for a ’63. And so forth. But the ’65 he’d kept for his nephew who, in his gratitude, proceeded to drive like a maniac, and rolled it.
End of story — until William and a friend came across it while photographing old barns. It had taken a while to figure out who, exactly, the barn belonged to, and a little while longer to figure out who, exactly, owned the cars therein. But through dint of persistence and an undisclosed outlay of bread, they dragged off both the ’63 (which was forthwith sold whole) and the ’65, whose engine I now beheld.
I might be giving away a potential money-making business concept here, but I’m thinking about creating a product called Bruce’s Barn Dust. It would be available in both aerosol and brush-on varieties. I might even go the route of POR-15, and convince everyone that they need to buy the whole system of products. One would start with Barn Dust Quick Fade, which creates a dull, milky, translucent base. Then comes Barn Dust Honey — which actually is honey, especially formulated to provide the optimal adhesive surface for the next layer. Next (after the proper curing time, under very specific temperature and humidity conditions which are not known to actually exist in any locale on this planet except in one county in eastern Utah, in late autumn, between the hours of three and five in the afternoon) comes the actual Barn Dust. For this step there would be several varieties to choose from, of several different colors and textures. For example, you wouldn’t want to use the “Georgia Red Clay” variety to convince someone of your “barn find” in Vermont (maybe “Dairy Cow Dung Dust”?). Technique could be varied depending upon the type of barn (chicken, cow, hog, hay, tobacco, etc.), as well as the purported time the car spent in said barn. Finally, one would apply Barn Dust Mr. Murky, which would encapsulate the dust particles in a dull resin that would render the removal of all previous layers virtually impossible.
Bruce’s Barn Dust could be used on components, too. This engine would serve as an excellent example of what the genuine article looks like. Yes, the muffler/tie rack was gone, as well as the rearmost piece of tinware. I verified that the thermostat was indeed gone, too. You might say I’m fixated on this last item, mainly because I’ve never actually seen one. It’s the elusive, mythical thermostat, a key component in the simple yet effective system a team of German engineers came up with to ensure that, after starting, the engine would quickly rise to operating temperature, and only start to cool itself when the thermostat-controlled flaps in the shroud opened up. The same system that, by the looks of things, was summarily disabled by millions of shade-tree rednecks, whose engineering expertise went no deeper than:
Cool Air = Good.
Cool Air Always = Gooder.
I pulled the dipstick out. I don’t know why it should have surprised me to find oil in the case, but it did. It was dark brown and thick, but looked pretty much like I’d expect to find in my Subaru when it’s about due for a change. I grabbed the crank pulley and jiggled it, emulating the actions of people who actually know what they’re doing. Finding no play, I went around to the clutch side of the engine, got down on my knees, grasped the flywheel, and started to turn. I could feel the easy rolling of inner works, interspersed with the hard resistance as each piston approached top dead center and the valves closed. I do not have nearly enough experience for such an exercise to provide me with a quantitative assessment of the health of the engine. But I can say that it felt pretty much like my other engine does — the engine which, as I said, ran fine right up until I pulled it.
“Nice,” I said, looking up at William. “Square-boss heads?”
Then something amazing happened: William had no clue what I was talking about. He had no idea, and I’m almost positive it’s not because of any newbie error, misconception, or strange phraseology on my part. For the first time — ever — I seemed to know something that another VW guy did not.
“Mind if we pull of the valve covers?” I asked.
He fetched a rag and a screwdriver and we had the covers off within seconds. I got down real low, pointed to the square bosses, and read the part number stamped on the rocker floor: 113 101 373. Same on both sides. The good ones.
I didn’t explain much beyond that, mainly because I can’t. But William’s a bright, analytical, technically-oriented guy — does computer systems for a living. I’m willing to bet he did some research that night, and probably understands it all a lot better than I do by now. I can also hazard a guess as to the first thing he did once he got his ’63 back from the alignment shop. But it occurred to me then — exhausted as I was — that maybe I did have something to share after all. Maybe I’m ready to start thinking about showing up for the monthly club meetings, without worrying about making a complete ass of myself.
Fortunately, I had already made the decision to buy that engine before I even saw it in person— days previously, after a good night’s sleep. All that remained was to satisfy myself that it was as advertised. I paid him what he was asking, we tossed it in back of the Subaru, and I went home and took a good long nap. The engine rode around in the back of Subaru for a few days, until I could solicit the help of a friend. The two of us easily lowered it onto the waiting dolly. Though this particular friend is far more mechanically inclined than I (indeed, he owns, operates, and maintains several CNC machines for his futon manufacturing business), his eyes usually glaze over when I start rambling on about Volkswagens. But even he had to admit this was a cool find.
I will rebuild the first engine and it will take me to Maine. As for second, I have added it to “the list.” Not the “To Do” list, but another list. In the very back of the notebook I’ve been keeping (currently 125 pages and counting) I have several lists — parts to order, things to remember to do, things that are muy importante but that I can easily see myself forgetting (like putting gear oil in transaxle). As I contemplated what to actually do with this engine I absolutely had to have, a vision began to coalesce: what would it take to restore that engine to the exact condition it was in when it left the factory? Right now, that sounds like something far beyond my experience. Heck, I haven’t even rebuilt the first one yet. But at least I have enough sense to recognize something special, and to not mess with it until I’m better prepared to do so.
So I created a new list, entitled “Projects for a Maine Winter.” These are things that can wait. Things for which I currently haven’t the time (like painting the steering column the correct color), the money (finding original or very nice reproduction bumpers), or the know-how (rebuilding the newly-acquired lump to one-hundred percent original condition). Lucky for me, the winters are long in Maine.