Posts Tagged 'Volkswagen Bug'

“A straight little car” Part II

[Part I is here]

My parents did not say “I told you so”. That was not their way. My dad having done his best to discourage me from buying a Volkswagen, and my mom having put the frown on, and I having done what I would do, they moved on. They must have figured that being a quarter of a century old I was entitled to make my own blunders. The news that my new purchase was overheating and the engine had to be pulled just to find out whether or not anything could be done about it, and at what astronomical cost, came as no shock to them.

But my parents are not cynics, and they are generous people in all ways, and where family is concerned there is never a question of not helping. And too, Little Nemo was a car everyone loved. It was impossible to not love Little Nemo. My parents loved Little Nemo already, not yet even a full season in the family. My dad appreciated the simplicity of the thing, and the fact that you could reach everything on the engine without dental mirrors and a ten-foot wrench. My mom loved it because it was mine, and because it made a crickety sound when I came up the steep hill of SE 18th Street after my late shift at the Mini Mart, a sound that was both reassuring and unmistakeably Nemo’s.

Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

I was cloistered in a small room with eleven angry men who were cloistered in a small room with Henry Fonda. Lee J. Cobb argues his point.

My parents parked their cars in the street and lower driveway that week so that I could get Nemo into the driveway’s only flat spot, up next to the house. The plan was, I would jack up the car high enough to drop the engine and pull it out from underneath, then wrestle it into my dad’s shop around the back of the house to work on it. I would put the screws and nuts from every piece of shroud in a plastic baggie and label the baggie with a black Sharpie, and put the baggies in a large cardboard box. I would clean all the engine parts by hand and hopefully find something to replace that was broken.

Really, now that I think about it, it was a fool’s errand. I think my dad sensed disaster; he had to work days so he would not be able to offer much real-time help, but he cleared his piano workings from the center table in the shop so that I would have maximum space to spread out and gave me leave to use all of his tools. Mom let me take an extra black-and-white TV they had out there, because I was going to be holed up for a long time. I don’t recall why it was thought this would be a help, but I remember watching old classic movies every day on channel 13 while I carefully keyed out and executed, step by step, the engine disassembly procedures for my particular year in the book.

Muir’s guide, colloquially known as the Idiot Book, walked you through every preparation and every detail, even reminding long-haired readers to put their hair in a pony tail before addressing a running engine or it was liable to “yank you hankless”. Here is how one blogger, eulogizing the illustrator of Muir’s book, Peter Aschwanden, summarized what the Idiot Book meant to Volkswagen owners:

“I was living on Canyon Road in Santa Fe in 1970, sharing a house with 3 women and another guy. One day he decided to rebuild the engine of his VW bus. He was sort of a small guy, maybe weighed 120 pounds…but this didn’t stop him from taking the engine out of his bus by himself. The bus was backed up against a wall. He got in there behind the bus, undid 4 bolts, grabbed the engine with both hands, and pushed the bus away from the wall with his foot. He was left holding the engine, which he carried into the house and set on the kitchen table. He opened up his Muir book and rebuilt the engine right there.”

I would think this description unbelievable except that my own experience was similar. I removed the nuts (only three on the Bug) and lowered the engine onto a little hydraulic jack on wheels, then wrestled it onto a handtruck and pulled it around to the back yard. It was about as cumbersome to dolly along in this way, I imagine, as if it had been an Aldabra tortoise. I manoeuvered the thing through the door of the shop and then wiggled it off the handtruck and onto the bottom of a makeshift ramp — a plank of 2×10 that my dad had lying around — and then pushed it up the board and onto the table, where I began the slow process of taking it apart piece by interconnected piece.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book.

Peter Aschwanden's illustration of the VW engine was worth the price of the book. Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

The trip into the heart of a VW engine is a marvelous journey, and you begin to see how the engineers were thinking. These were German engineers from the early 1930s, the Chancellor’s people. You know who. The design had not changed significantly since then, and I could begin to see how everything had been thought out. It was so simple, so sensible and efficient. So Deutsch. And yet at the same time there was give. The VW engine is designed to leak a tiny bit of oil. When it’s cold, the seams are a little sloppy; when it gets up to running speed, the heat expands the case and other parts to an optimal tightness. I had never studied anything like this before, never cared. But the logic and beauty of it gripped me now as I peeled back each layer and finally got to the center. It made me wonder what advances might have been if these minds had been engaged by Roosevelt’s WPA instead of the quest for Lebensraum.

The camshaft had extra holes in it. A mechanic took one look at it when I brought it in and said “Yeah, somebody tried to make a race car out of it and bored these extra holes. Also, that’s a ’66 camshaft, not a ’67.” I don’t recall where I found this mechanic, but he also rebored the whatchamacallits for the camshaft bearings — the places in the crankcase where the bearings sit. I’ve forgotten the word now. They were worn to an odd shape. But the real problem — finally! — was that someone had put the wrong oil pump in it. The thing couldn’t keep oil moving through the engine at a sufficient rate.

None of these things was a horribly expensive problem now that I had the engine out and disassembled. I took the rebored crankcase and new camshaft bearings and new oil pump and new camshaft and went back to my dad’s shop, and after scrubbing the char off of the pistons, reversed the disassembly process according to Muir’s book.

It is a well-known and commented-on phenomenon of Bugdom that each time you R&R the engine, you end up with parts left over, no matter how carefully you work. There will be extra bolts, shroud screws, nuts and washers, maybe even a cotter pin. It’s a mystery no one has ever satisfactorily explained. You keep them forever because you know they came off the car and belong with the car, but you’ll never use them, and there will be more the next time. These parts are like the basketfuls of fish and bread that Jesus and his desciples gathered up after feeding the throngs.

Once I had put the last shroud on and boxed up my extra parts, I put the engine back in the car. It was Sunday evening, the day before school started. Dad helped me slide the engine down the 2×10 and onto the handtruck, steadied it with me as we pushed it back out to the front of the house, lowered it onto the jack, and slid the jack underneath the car, which had been sitting with its back wheels absurdly cambered three feet in the air for seven days. I lowered the car and raised the engine until the three studs in the chassis met the three holes in the engine case, nutted them down, and started hooking up the accelerator cable and electrical wiring, which I had taken care to code with tape. Oil had to be put in. It was almost dark.

Little Nemo back when the road was wide open.

The trip to Umatilla. Little did we know that disaster was less than a micrometer of aging rubber away.

Mom was calling us in to dinner, and dark had descended, but Dad stayed outside while I grunted underneath the car, fir needles imprinting themselves against the skin of my arms. Dad did not ask if he could go now, bless his large and forgiving heart. He was curious. I was too. The moment of truth came when I sat on the front seat, half in and half out, and put the key in the ignition. Dad stood near the open engine compartment, a few feet out of the way of potential harm.

I paused. It dawned on me suddenly what a fool I was to expect anything to happen when I turned the key. What was I thinking? A million things could have gone wrong. All those procedures, all those tight fits, all those parts. All those leftover parts! Most of Nemo’s cardio-pulmonary system had been reduced to a cardboard box full of plastic bags. But I had done all that I could do. I had done what the book said. I pressed the gas pedal once, then let it up and turned the key.

The engined turned over and fired up immediately. Vigorously. Happily, even. Its cheerful chatter sounded as though it had merely been interrupted in the middle of a convivial conversation. My dad and I whooped and hollared.

I’m not sure that what it says about my life is flattering, but this was one of its proudest days. There have not been many times when I have gone into something with only willingness and wits and what leverage I could generate with my own limbs and emerged utterly triumphant. The experience was a validating high that stayed with me for years. And Nemo responded well to my ministrations. It became de rigeur, when changing Nemo’s oil, for me to slide under and give the valves a tweek, and during the nine years I owned the car I pulled the engine at least four or five times — to replace the clutch, the transmission boots, even once a tiny, 50-cent clip. I replaced one of the rear axles after it sheared off while I was driving up the parking donut at SeaTac Airport (an airport my grandfather was convinced was “designed by an idiot and built by a committee”, though that’s neither here nor there), a terrifying event that stopped my forward motion immediately and forced me to back down the spiralled ramp with cars blindly hurling upwards behind me. 

I took care of Nemo, and it must be said, Nemo took care of me. Once my buddy Jeff and I decided to drive to the other corner of the state to see what the Umatilla National Forest was all about. We camped on Misery Mountain (no lie, and my half of the tent flooded so I ended up sleeping in Little Nemo most of that miserable night) and the next day, after we had driven back over the Cascades and I had pulled up in the driveway and stopped, a popping hiss issued from underneath the car and the brake pedal oozed to the floor; a sharp cotter pin had slowly, over the years, been scraping away at the rubber casing of the brake line, but Nemo had managed to hold his arteries together long enough to get us safely back home in the driveway before succombing to the most dangerous malfunction a car can have. 

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

The winter we spent in Ohio, Nemo turned 25, but in Bug years, that's middle age. I had to send to Seattle's Bow Wow Auto Parts for a few gaskets.

In 1989 or so I gave Little Nemo a new paint job. “Medium Cabernet Solid”. I once said those three words to a police officer who was writing me a ticket during what by nightfall had already come to be called the Inauguration Day Storm of 1993. Nemo’s windshield wiper motor had chosen that auspicious, rainy and windy day — the day of President Clinton’s swearing in — to give up the ghost as I drove from my mountain redoubt in Snoqualmie to Seattle to interview the owner of Beall’s Roses. The officer paused in his scritching, stepped a pace back, wrinkled his nose up and looked from side to side to assess the Color of the Vehicle. “What is this, maroon?” he said, and continued writing. It was not really a question, but I answered, “Actually, it’s Medium Cabernet Solid.” I suppose I was lucky that he did not even seem to hear this correction.

Nemo and I spent most of our time together knocking around Washington State. This was back when Regular was regular and regular was cheap. In 1991 we braved several mountain ranges and Wyoming’s High Plains in the snowy dead of winter to travel to a children’s ranch camp in Ohio, where I volunteered as a farmhand and wrangler for a year. Little Nemo immediately won the affection of many of the campers and several of the counselors, one of whom regularly occupied her campers during the summer by setting them to work making daisy chains and festooning the car with them from front to back. It was fitting livery for a car hatched during the Summer of Love. A hoof pick that I used at the ranch and once tossed on the floor of the car remained there on the passenger side for years after I had returned from Ohio.

It may have been there when I eventually sold the car to a kid named Corey. He needed a car badly and loved Nemo at first sight, even though the aging Bug had nearly bald tires, suffered from chronic electrical issues, no longer jumped out of the gate when you stepped on the gas, and was rusting in many places. I had replaced almost every working part on the car, and I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I couldn’t keep up.

My dad had been right. I was always underneath that car. So had my mom. I didn’t know anything about fixing cars. But I proved myself able to learn, and one of the best things about my whole adventure with Little Nemo was hearing my dad, more than once, say in conversations where the subject happened to touch upon Volkswagen Bugs, “Those are neat little cars. You know my son has one. Does all the work on it himself.”  


“A straight little car” Part I

The 1967 Volkswagen Sedan represented, for many fans of the “Beetle Bug”, the meeting point of the best of the old and the best of the new. Among other things, it was the first year that the Bug had a 12-volt battery and the last year that it had a metal dashboard. Up until 1966 the car had had to get by with just 6-volts, and in 1968 the metal dash was replaced with vinyl, which faded and cracked with a few years in the sun (and didn’t hold magnets). The ’67 was the pinnacle of that car’s engineering and design.

My first car was a 1967 Bug that I christened Little Nemo after Winsor McCay‘s cartoon character. After classes during my college years, Nemo and I often went out and beat up the old highways that ran through the little Snoqualmie Valley towns of Fall City, Stillwater, Carnation, Duvall and Monroe, turning off to explore little backroads where whim dictated. I had not yet grown up, and as many young men do I thought of my car as an animate object. Since my human friends had all moved away to colleges elsewhere, Nemo became the buddy that went everywhere with me. In fact, I was like the the cartoon boy Nemo and my car was like his bed, which was the vehicle that carried him on most of his adventures.

Bound for adventure. Image used according to Wikipedia Commons.


I was 24 and living at home again, working my way through my second sprint of college years, when I announced at the dinner table that I wanted to buy a VW Bug. Both of my parents had the same reflex.

“Those things are always breaking down,” said my dad, upon hearing of my plan. “You’ll always be underneath it.”

“You don’t know anything about fixing cars,” worried my mom, her face darkened by a frown.

To my knowledge, my dad did not hold any particular loyalty to Ford over Chevrolet, or vice versa, but he was decidedly unfond of things made offshore; distrusted them and preferred to buy American, especially if we were talking about cars. (I see an irony in the fact that I now make a point of buying “local” whenever possible.) Dad’s older brothers had fought in World War II to help beat back the Hun and Emperor Hirohito, and we had been magnanimous enough as a world power to help the defeated nations get their economies started again, which was the right thing to do perhaps, but we didn’t have to buy their cars. And besides, they were bound to be inferior. Growing up, I had ridden in the back seats of a 1957 Chevy Station Wagon, a 1964 Chevy Impala, a Ford van of some species, a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500, and a 1976 Chrysler Volare station wagon, all (excepting of the last, which had been bought expressly for my mother to use) with my dad behind the wheel as the proud beneficiary of American automotive engineering superiority. All, too, were periodically pulled up close to the house with their hoods open and my dad bent over their engines.

Memories of standing in the rain holding a wrench for my dad while wishing I was over at my friend’s house were as painful for me as I imagine the disappointment at not having been able to instill in me a sense of responsibility about cars was for my dad. I didn’t understand that he got real satisfaction out of repairing and maintaining these marvelous machines, and in saving money that way; that it gave him a sense of agency that I now recognize as a hunger in my own present life, a sense of engaging the physical, tangible world and altering it, mastering it. I was a daydreaming teenager as yet unoppressed by the routine of a workaday world and saw nothing compelling about that activity. I also didn’t recognize an opportunity to bond with my father in silent (or at least non-verbal — there was plenty of grunting) side-by-side combat against the absurdities of Detroit. Standing next to the driveway twiddling the needlenose pliars while my dad slew unseen dragons under the hood felt like a chore, just like taking out the garbage and cleaning the cat box. I’m sure my feelings on the matter were patent to all (“Dad, can I go now?”). After a time, he only asked me to come out for specific momentary needs, to step on the break or the gas, or to help him lift something heavy.

There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself while standing in the road, but I am curiously absent in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

Little Nemo in the Snoqualmie Valley, the year after I fixed the engine. There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself, but even at high-res I cannot find myself in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

The double vote of no confidence felt terrible, but it was not like my folks were vowing to disown me if I bought a VW. In fact, despite their reservations they cosigned my first loan from a bank. I don’t remember exactly what the loan was, maybe two thou, but I believe the car was $1450.00. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to establish credit. At 24, I had never bought anything more expensive than a Bell and Howell Super 8 sound movie projector, which was the matter of not more than three hundred dollars. I took out a loan, which I paid on monthly for the next three years.

I responded to an ad for a car for sale by a young man named Eric S–. I remember loving its curves immediately as I pulled up in my folks’ Volare and saw Little Nemo sitting against the curb in the street outside Eric’s parents’ house. The exterior had four different colors: basically tan with a blue hood, a primer-colored front apron, and one rust-colored fender. The sleek back fenders looked like the haunches of a cat. It had running boards. (Running boards!) Eric and I drove it around and he told me a little about the car. I remember nothing of what he said. He then let me drive it away to have a mechanic look at it before I made up my mind.

The mechanic I took it to ran a small garage on the Eastside called Motorworks. I forget his name. He looked the car over approvingly, poked around and under it, measured and inspected.

“Straight little car,” he said. Then I gave him the keys and we got in. He brodied around through back alleys along Bel-Red Road, putting the transmission through its paces and listening to the engine.

“Yup,” he repeated. “Straight little car.”

I was to hear this exact phrase many more times over the years. It was the kind of statement said among people who could appreciate, under the rough exterior, a reliable machine that had been designed well and well cared for. It signified that in choosing this car, I had showed good sense. I probably overpaid for a 19-year-old box of tin, but everybody who knew Bugs who ever looked at it said it was “a straight little car.” It wasn’t pretty, but the interior had been redone with plush, fur-like seats. And really, what mattered to me was that I’d be able to drive across the lake to my classes at the University of Washington instead of catching two buses with a long wait between, or walking a mile and catch one bus) and I would not have to borrow the Volare to go to work at the Mini Mart, also in the University District. The car meant independence. It was a bonus that when you stepped on the gas, the whole car lifted up and WENT. It looked like an old dog, but it acted like a young horse.

The first month I drove it that hot summer of 1986, I kept seeing the little orange oil light on the dashboard flickering on. That couldn’t be good. I added oil, but that didn’t help. Something was wrong. Initial probes by a mechanic suggested I would have to submit the car to an R&R (it stood for “remove and replace” or “remove and repair” — mechanic’s lingo for “in order to find out what’s wrong we’ll have to take the engine completely out of the car, and even if we don’t find anything wrong we’ll have to put the engine back into the car”), a round trip for the engine that would cost an estimated thousand dollars by the time all was said and done. I was stricken. School started in a week. If I ignored this problem, my engine could blow up on the Evergreen Floating Bridge, and I’d be that guy.

Would it really be this easy? Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

Would it really be this easy? Illustration from Muir's book lifted from Amazon and used without permission.

I didn’t have a thousand dollars. I had a copy of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I had fearlessness, being young, and a notion that taking apart a meticulously designed and precisely manufactured piece of mid-20th-century machinery should not present insurmountable obstacles for a person who was willing to get his hands dirty. I had parents who would let me park my disabled car in their driveway.

And I had one week…



The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt