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Article: OK, I Bought a Beetle,
Last updated: 11/1/01
One of my car buddies who I have a "timeshare" on a MIG welder with, said something really funny once, based on his own personal experience. He said "I'm not sure when is the best time to tell your wife about the new 'project' car you just bought, but it's definitely not when the flatbed is driving down your street on a misty night with the revolving yellow beacons on."
Despite all the pre-purchase research, questions
and crawling around a seller's car, there are always surprises once you
get it home. I still find myself going "oooohhh!" (pleasant surprise) and/or
"ohhh!" (disappointing surprise) right after drag something home. But having
gone through it numerous times, I thought I would offer some sort of framework
of where you might start when you get a "new" Beetle.
I think we can loosely bucket that newly purchased Beetle into three classes:
Your approach may be a bit different depending on what your intentions are, so I'll address where to start for each....
Another good book (and actually a very nice
compliment to the Muir book) is the Robert Bentley manual. These books
are very technical and have excellent procedures. They can be a bit pricey
though, especially for the older ones if you can find them, but they are
well worth the investment. Try Auto Bound for these too.
Clean it out! Yes, gut the car, take the seats out and pull up all of the carpet. Empty the glovebox and look down into the A-pillars (under the hood hinges in front). This can be bit of a treasure hunt sometimes, like exploring an old abandoned dwelling. You will likely find some money (coins), maybe an old tool or two, and some old paperwork that may give you some insight into the previous owners lives. Hunting/fishing licenses, receipts for service, old maintenance logs, magazines, etc. are some of my discoveries.
But your objective is to make sure you know what is (or is not) there so there are no surprises later. You may be required to do some emergency repair work, but at a minimum it will tell you what your car is going to need down the road. Start making a list.
Do you know where the black hole(s) in the
Beetle are? They are those bottomless pits accessible from inside the hood,
on either side, just under the hood hinges. Below is an excerpt from the
With Rust article about dealing with those holes:
Then drive it down to your local high pressure/self serve car wash if possible and blast all of the crud off underneath it. You might want to wear some old clothes and bring some eye protectors to do this. Get down on your knees and spray away underneath. Lots of the crud can come back at you pretty fast. Clean up the engine (top and bottom), tranny and axle areas and the front beam/bulkhead area. Then.....
Crawl under! Yeah, I know you did this before you bought it, but do it again and spend some time under there. Even if you really don't know the Beetle all that well mechanically, you should be able to spot things broken, rusted, rotting, dangling, etc. Jack up the car safely and scoot under. Make a list.
The "Immediate Driver"- Safety concerns
Find the main front to back metal brake line in the car. It comes into the passenger cabin just to the left of the pedal cluster (presuming a left hand drive car) and then follows the floor right next to the tunnel along, under the back seat and out. In really filthy, wet-interior cars, these lines can eventually corrode to the point of leaking. It should be a solid line with no "couplers" inside the car. If you do see one, it is an indication that the line was replaced with a "2 piece" kit. Not necessarily bad, but look for any signs of leaks. If it is badly corroded, pinched or kinked, plan on replacing it.
Pull off all four drums and inspect the shoe linings (release the emergency brake for the rears, and back off the adjusting stars for all 4 wheels). This may seem a bit difficult if you are a "newbie" mechanic, follow the instructions in the Muir book (you did buy it, right!?) for inspection. Look for leaks around the wheel cylinders, both inside the drum areas and on the backs where the hose connects. Also, on the rears, look for the common leaking rear wheel seal. This allows 90 weight gear oil to lube up the brakes and make them totally useless. A leaky seal should be pretty obvious, everything will look "wet".
Your brakes, even if minimally safe should be firm and not require any "pumping up" (indicates air in the lines). Push the pedal hard and hold it for 10-15 seconds. It should not slowly sink to the floor, if it does, the master cylinder is bad, or you have a huge leak somewhere. See "Fluid Refreshment" below for tips on bleeding the brakes.
Brake components for the mainstream years
are inexpensive and the skill required to service them is minimal. The
Muir book has excellent procedures for this. If they seem operational,
I would still plan on total refurb of the system anyway if you plan on
keeping the car for a while. "As new" brakes on Beetle will stop the car
That Front Suspension Read my "What to Look for When Buying" article, if you haven't already, under "Mechanical Stuff- Transmission, suspension". See the scary scenario about worn ball joint front ends ('66 and newer in the U.S.). If the front suspension on these cars is badly worn, they are unsafe to drive. The earlier link pin front ends do not have such catastrophic failure modes, but can be unsafe as well.
Muir has some good techniques for assessing the front end. These involve grabbing the front wheel(s) at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions and feeling for play while the car is on the ground. Be aware that as the front end is jacked up in the air the suspension geometry changes and things that are loose may not be loose while with is up in the air (wheels off the ground). Follow Muir's method for checking for loose front bearings, loose or worn ball joints or king/link pins, loose tie rods and worn or inoperative steering damper. These all perform important functions.
And lastly, check out the balance and alignment
of the front wheels. I have been meaning to write a new article on my "rough"
front alignment (toe and camber) method, but I haven't yet. Take it down
to an alignment shop, it is worth the money. And make sure the wheels (all
4) are balanced. This is often over looked. Not really an immediate safety
issue, but you can't really trouble shoot your front suspension with out
of balance wheels.
The Exhaust System You may know by now that the VW engine is air cooled and that the heat for interior of the car is provided by heat exchangers that are part of the exhaust system (see the "Heating your Beetle" article for a description of how it is supposed to work). If certain gaskets are loose, exhaust fumes can be ducted into the passenger compartment. And if the heat exchanger flaps are defective, fumes can enter even when you think the heat is off.
Learn the system first, then inspect it.
A rusty, perforated muffler and poor engine to body seal can allow exhaust
fumes to enter the fan intake and end up inside the car as well. Most notorious
are the "doughnut" seals between the muffler and the heat exchangers.
The Fuel System The final urgent safety concern. It is not normal to smell any gas fumes in or around the car. See my "Fuel Path" article for a more in depth discussion of the fuel system in the Beetle. Of particular note, the rubber hose under the gas tank that connects the tank to the main front-to-back line, the rubber hose that connects the main line to the fuel pump (there are usually two, one under the car next to the tranny and one inside the engine compartment) and the rubber hose from the pump to the carburetor. These hose must all be in perfect condition (replacements are dirt cheap) and well clamped.
And also check the connection of the brass
nipple to the carb (see the Fuel article).
Ok, you will be driving the car soon after you bought it and you have already done all of the safety checks above and fixed anything that needed fixing there. There are still some things that you should do right away, but are not safety issues.
Set those valves Refer to Muir, I'm not tellin' you how to do it here. And get used to it, you will do it often (see my "Maintenance" article for why).
Wiring Do a thorough visual inspection of all the wiring. Look for loose, corroded or frayed connections and wires and fix them. It much easier to do it at home on your own time than on the side of the road by the light of match on the way to dinner one cold night.
Fluid Refreshment Ok, quiz time. How many kinds of fluid does your Beetle need? (Need, not necessarily contain) Gas, brake fluid, oil, tranny oil and maybe washer fluid. We already talked about changing the oil; washer fluid I'll leave up to you, gas you will use up and replace in time. So that leaves brake fluid and trans oil. You should change both of these and bleed the brakes after. Again, refer to Muir, I'm not going into any details here. But I will give some quick tips:
Longer Term Stuff My only real advice here is keep your eyes and ears open, become one with your new Beetle. You will find stuff broken. Make a realistic plan. Fix the most critical stuff first. Don't spend Saturday putting new speakers in the doors if 2 of the 3 rear windows leak.
And don't be overwhelmed if you are new at
this. I had a friend at work tell me (when I was ragging on him about not
trying to replace the struts on his Jetta himself) "Yeah, but you know
how to do that stuff, I don't." Do you think I was born knowing how to
do all this stuff!? No! I just had the courage (testicular fortitude) to
try it. I bought some tools, failed more than a few times, cussed a lot,
skinned many a knuckle, but I eventually became confident that I could
do it. Grease under my nails never bothered me.
I am presuming that the reader who gets the most out of this article is very new to Beetles. And they got this Bug for "a steal" and told their wife/girlfriend/husband/whatever "oh sure I can put an engine in it, these things are like tinker toys!". Then they realized they really don't know anything about the car nor did they ever have tinker toys. You need a plan.
First you have to immerse yourself in VW.
Read books, newsgroups, visit web sites, go to VW shows. And explore your
car. Look beyond the obvious. If you find rust in one place, look everywhere
else. Make a list of what is broken, missing and/or wrong. Then decide
what you really want to do with the car. If you want to get it together
and start driving it as soon as possible, put your list in order of what
to be done, then what you want to get done. Safety should always
be your first concern. Performance and aesthetics come second. And especially
if your car is tired and old and of questionable operationable ability,
plan to replace stuff that is convenient while you are doing other stuff.
Here's what I mean:
[I read a story once about a super cheap
bus owner who was telling his friend about his last engine rebuild. The
friend asked of the rebuild on the 130k mi. engine "Did you replace the
rings?" to which frugal Freddie replied "just the ones that needed it"]
My goal here is not to explain to you how to do a full resto but rather to give some guidelines on how to scope, plan and, on a high level, execute that mother-of-all restorations. As I write this, I'm on "turn four" of my full resto of my '57. I've learned a lot; I have a lot yet to learn.
Now my nature is that "taking apart" is just
as fun as "putting back together", but I find the latter most often more
challenging. I had my 4th Beetle before I really had the opportunity to
do a total "take it ALL apart" restoration. Previous to that, restoration
efforts often led to me bumming a ride to work the next day. But if you
are so inclined, do it. It's fun. The idea is to take the car apart a piece
at a time, inspect each piece, clean it, strip it, paint it, replace it,
whatever; then put it all back together again. Sounds simple right? Well
the Beetle is simple. But in spite, it still takes 45 years to do
this. Some have done it a few years quicker, but you really should plan
as though it will take you this long. How do you plan to do something that
takes 45 years you say? Simple, you make absolutely no assumptions that
rely on a predictable periods of time passing between events in the restoration.
For example, these means:
This is especially true for interiors (headliners, B pillar coverings, tar boards, padding, etc.). Don't destroy something in haste to remove it, take your time and just find a big box and save everything.
And God forbid, don't let the wife or kids
start "storing" stuff in it.
So, after you turn off the PC, go out and
look over that car again. Sit in it. If it runs, start it up and listen.
Breath in and smell the car (there was a thread over at the newsgroup
this past summer concluding that Beetle did, in fact, have its own unique
"odor"). Slide your hands down the curve of the fender. It is tinker
toys. It is erector set. It's just a lot more expensive and you
will need a shower after you play with it.
Copyright© 1999; John S. Henry