Monday, June 29, 2009



I don't know if kit cars come with instructions. I suppose they must. If there ever were instructions for the car that I bought, they had long since been lost by the time it arrived in my back yard. There were a few things I already knew how to do, such as remove and install the engine, fix the braking system, replace the worn parts in the suspension systems, and, of course, sand away the rust and repaint the bare metal surfaces. Those are all important things to know, and I was glad I had learned them over the years, but I had never started a project that was quite this much of a blank canvas.

The first thing to do was to make a list of what it would take to make a car out of this thing I had bought. What are the components of a safe, dependable automobile? There are some systems that you just can't do without: brakes, suspension and steering, fuel, oil and electrical. In addition, you'll need something to sit on while you drive and a windshield to keep the bugs out of your teeth. There are some items your family car came with that you can do without when you're building a simple dune buggy: heater, air conditioner, radio, windows, carpet, cup holders, interior lights, and a glove box. After a quick evaluation of what I had to work with, I made my list: engine, carburetor, distributor, ignition wires, oil cooler, engine sheet metal, generator, voltage regulator, fuse box, transaxle, rear brake drums, shock absorbers, tires, wheels, speedometer, battery, headlights, tail lights, turn signals, brake master cylinder, wheel cylinders, brake shoes, brake springs, emergency brake cables, clutch cable, accelerator cable, hoses, and wires, lots and lots of wires.

The next step was to get the basic components ordered, so it was off to B.C.E. with my list. I ordered parts, got lots of advice and went back to sanding and painting. I also sent the wheels off to be powder coated. Since the body of the car was yellow, I thought black wheels would contrast nicely and make it look at bit less "cute" and a little more aggressive. Plus, the powder coating is very, very hard, which means it resists scratches and keeps the underlying metal part from rusting, an important consideration for a car that was destined to spend most of it's life outdoors in all sorts of weather. The wheels that came with the car seemed to be sound, so those are the ones I sent to the powder coater.

I kept thinking that this project was just too easy. All I had to do was wait for the parts to come in and then just put it together. I didn't realize then, how much I had yet to learn.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Relying upon Past Experience

Patched and Painted Floor Pan

When I was fifteen years old, I lived with my family in Peoria, Illinois. One of the most exciting aspects of being fifteen is the prospect of driving a car when you turn sixteen. My high school had an exceptional driver's education class that included not just classroom theory, but actually driving in cars donated for that purpose by local dealerships. I managed to get through the class without destroying any of the cars, which, at the time, was surprising to me and my instructor. Sometime during that year, my father acquired a 1950 Willys Jeepster which he gave to me as a first car. I was excited, of course, and, since I didn't have my license yet, I spent hours backing it up and turning it around in our two car driveway. The poor old Jeepster had not been well cared for and I was expected to fix it up and make it more drivable. I was given a shop manual for the car and was turned loose to figure things out for myself. I wasn't told about the cracked engine block, which would eventually be the death of that car.

One of the first things I discovered about that Jeepster was that the floorboards at the front of the car were mostly rusted away. There was nothing in the manual about rusted floorboards, so I was on my own as to how to fix them. I dug up some sand paper from the garage and found a wire brush that I could attach to my dad's electric drill and started removing rust. The more I sanded and brushed, the worse the floorboards looked. It seemed like the rust was the only thing holding the car together. Once I had removed the rust down to somewhat sound bare metal, I scrounged some spray paint from friends, whatever color I could get, and painted the metal to keep the rust from returning. Now I had to figure out what to do with the foot sized holes in the floorboards. There were some scraps of galvanized sheet metal in the garage left over from some project my dad had worked on and I figured those would work just fine to cover up the holes. The scraps weren't very big so I had to piece them together to make a patch large enough for each of the holes. I attached the scraps to the floor with various sizes of sheet metal screws and then painted the whole mess with more scrounged spray paint. It wasn't an elegant solution, nor, ultimately, did it work very well, but it did keep my feet from dragging on the ground while I drove the car. I didn't quite get the floor completely sealed, though, and so whenever I drove it in the rain, water would shoot up through the floor as I splashed through the puddles on the street.

As I think back on that car and my feeble efforts at restoration, I see that I was adrift on a stormy sea with no compass and no charts. None of my very limited number of friends knew anything about automobile repair. My father knew less than I about the subject, plus, in those days, he was away on business a great deal of the time, and my mother never encouraged me to do anything but be quiet and stay out of trouble. The only thing that kept me going was that potential status I would achieve by being one of the elite few who had his own car. It turned out that hardly anyone was impressed by my old rusty car with the leaking floorboards. The car eventually died when the crack in the block got so large that the cooling system and the engine oil system began exchanging fluids at a rate which allowed neither system to function. So, with no resources, no encouragement and no support for my restoration project, I gave up. My dad sold the car. He told me he was disappointed that I hadn't taken more of an interest in fixing up the car. Later in life I learned that when one is given a project, it is always good to find out what the expected outcome is. At the time, I had no idea that my dad was trying to encourage me to learn about car repair. There needed to be a stated goal for the project and there never was. I just figured I was supposed to try to keep the thing running so I'd have something to drive and wouldn't have to borrow the family car. None of us had any idea what it would take, or how much it would cost, to restore that car, and we never did sit down and discuss the project. Of course, we rarely sat down and discussed anything except the latest instance of unacceptable behavior I had exhibited.

A hard-won piece of wisdom that I have acquired is that if you perform an action which has as it's only purpose to please someone else, you will rarely follow through and succeed in that action. So, if your sole purpose in building a car is to impress other people, don't even bother to start the project. No one will ever be as impressed as you believe they should, and you will eventually give up and have to sell it, or you will end up paying someone else to finish it. However, if you start your car project with the idea that, upon completion, it will bring you the joy and satisfaction of a job well done, and give you a sense of accomplishment, then go for it! If you consider the project a worthwhile task in and of itself, you'll most likely succeed. If you think of the whole project as a learning experience, you will approach the problems that arise as a challenge, rather than a roadblock on your journey, and you'll not be as likely to give up just because it is more difficult that you expected it to be.

I suspect that this is part of what motivated me to start my dune buggy project. I really did want to take it on as a challenge, to prove to myself that I could do it. Most of all, I wanted a dune buggy to drive. I thought it would be fun to drive around in a unique little car that I had built myself. That's why, when I saw all the rust on the floor pan after I removed all the dead leaves from the inside of the car, I was not discouraged. I had seen worse, and I knew I could repair the damage. I moved the car into the garage, got out my sandpaper and the drill with the wire brush attached and got to work.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Day One

If I have a Volkswagen related question, the first place I go to seek an answer is to my friends at B.C.E. in Eagle Rock, California. I have learned over many years and with many different cars that, as a used car owner, you will be more satisfied with the help and advice you get from a small privately-owned shop than that which you will receive at a dealership. With a new car, this advice doesn't hold true, and in that case you should find a dealership which you feel will treat you fairly and honestly and stick with them until your warranty runs out. But, if you're looking to build a dune buggy, you had better find yourself a local shop and make lots of friends because you're definitely going to need them.

When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, we travelled in our own caravan. I drove the twenty-two foot Ryder truck and my wife drove our Jeep Wagoneer towing the 1966 VW Squareback. The truck was packed high and tight, and so were both cars. By the time we arrived in L.A., the constant velocity joint in the Jeep's drive train was within minutes of disintegrating, you could hear it squeaking blocks away, so one of the first things we needed to do was unhook the little VW and go find some parts for the Jeep. It started right up, of course, but as it had bounced along behind the Jeep on the journey from Steamboat Springs to Los Angeles, the bolt holding the cooling fan onto the engine had worked itself loose. I knew what the horrible scraping sound was right away, so I unpacked my tools, tightened up the bolt and we were mobile again. That's what I like about Volkswagens, they're simple and, mostly, pretty easy to fix. All you need is a source of parts and advice and you can make them last a very, very long time.

I don't know exactly when I discovered B.C.E., but I know that it wasn't very long after our arrival in Los Angeles, probably sometime in late 1984 or early 1985. From my first experience with them, I knew I had found the shop I needed to help me keep that old Squareback running. The B.C. of the B.C.E. was Bob Costa, and until his death just a year and a half ago, he was my VW guru. I always planned on spending at least two hours at his shop, no matter what the reason was for my visit. Often I just stopped by to pick up a part or two, but there were always so many interesting things going on there that small errands always took much longer than anticipated. In between innumerable phone calls which he'd have to take, Bob and I would talk about Volkswagens, we'd talk about life, and we'd go over what I needed to do to fix whatever problem I came to him about. It was wonderful. I learned a lot from Bob Costa in the almost 25 years I knew him. His wife runs the shop now and does a credible job of taking over where he left off, but she and I and all his other long-time customers miss him.

When I decided I wanted to build a VW dune buggy, obviously, the first person I needed to talk to was Bob Costa. I went to his shop that day just to find out if there might be someone, somewhere who was still making a kit to convert an old VW into a dune buggy. As we were discussing the various aspects of this proposed project, one of his other customers said that his dad had a dune buggy in his driveway and might be willing to sell it. Well, now this was intriguing and so I arranged to go look at this alleged dune buggy.

When my wife, Carol, and I arrived in Mt. Washington where the dune buggy was supposed to be, we parked in front of a house with a long and very steep driveway filled with cars. As we walked up the driveway there was this yellow thing that looked like it might be a dune buggy buried underneath some plastic tarps. We looked underneath the weathered and leaf-covered plastic and there it was, this yellow fiberglass boat-like thing filled with dirt and dead leaves. The fiberglass was dirty, what metal parts we could see were rusted and corroded, there were loose wires hanging from underneath the body and it had no engine. My wife had this horrified look on her face. All she could see was the dirt and decay. I, on the other had, saw potential. There's a car under there, I thought, if I can recover it from the neglect that it has been subject to over the last few years. After some discussion, Carol agreed to let me try to salvage this mess and make a car out of it. At the time, she didn't really believe it was possible. I was determined to prove her wrong.

First Bath in Twenty Years

A week later, after the former owner had moved all the other cars in his driveway out of the way, I went back to Mt. Washington, hooked up the little car and towed it home. We parked it off to the side of the driveway and gave it it's first bath in nearly 20 years. Underneath the filth, dead leaves and spider webs were all the basics of a good-looking little yellow car. It had no engine, no electrical wiring, no brakes, and rust holes in the floor pan, but it appeared to be fundamentally sound. My job would be to resurrect it from the rust and decay and transform it into the safe, reliable and fun little car that it was intended to be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My First Volkswagen

1966 VW Type III

I don't know exactly when, but at some point when I was much younger, maybe nine or 10 years old, my dad had sent for and received an information package about some sort of kit car. As I recall, he was quite enthusiastic about it. It was a new concept for me at the time, this building your own car from a kit, and rather intriguing. That memory stay with me, lying dormant for many years until one day I was struck with the urge to build my own car. I'm not sure why I wanted to build a car, second childhood, perhaps. Like many of my ideas, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I've owned a lot of cars over the years, some good, some not so good. One of my favorites, and the one that I hung onto the longest was a 1966 Volkswagen Station Wagon, a.k.a. Squareback or Type III. I first saw it when I was asked by an employer to move the car out of a parking lot so that the lot could have the accumulated snow and ice removed down to solid ground. When I walked up to the car, it was barely visible, having spent the first part of the winter parked in that spot while the owner was at his home in Texas. He only owned the car so that he could have it available to him when he visited his condominium there in Steamboat Springs, Colorado where he occasionally came to ski or enjoy the mountain scenery. The rest of the year the car just sat there and the condominium was available for rent to tourists.

The first thing I had to do was uncover the car, including digging out the snow alongside the driver's side door so that I could get it open. Have done that, I crawled inside, found the ignition switch, inserted the key and gave it a turn. To my surprise, when I turned the key, the started growled and the engine cranked. That in itself was impressive, given that the temperature was well below freezing and had been for several weeks, along with the fact that the car had not been started or driven for months. The engine didn't start right up, but it did turn, so I pumped the accelerator pedal a few times and tried again. After a few more tries, the engine caught and began to run. It made a horrible sound, as if the whole thing was grinding itself to pieces, but, amazingly, it kept running. I let it run, hoping the horrible sounds would stop once the engine warmed up. Eventually they did, after a few minutes, and so I was ready to try to back the thing out of the hole where it sat. I grabbed the gearshift lever, pushed in the clutch pedal and put the transmission in reverse gear. When I was digging the show out from around the car, I had noticed that the rear tires where rather worn, with almost no tread left on them, so I had little hope that the car would actually be able to move itself over the ice and snow. I was so very wrong. As I gently engaged the clutch, the little car crawled right out of the hole. I moved it to clear spot in the parking lot, shut if off and returned the keys to my employer's office. I was impressed with this little car and I decided that if it ever came up for sale, I would put in a bid for it.

Later that year, the owner of the car decided to sell his condo. When I found out about the pending sale, I asked my boss if he was going to sell the car as well. The answer was, "Yes." I offered him $400 for the little white car and he accepted. I now owned my first Volkswagen.

One of the things I always do when I purchase a car is to acquire a shop manual for it so that I can do some of the minor work, such as tune-ups and oil changes, myself. I discovered that there was a unique manual available for Volkswagens called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, A Manual of Step-by-step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot by John Muir. I bought one. I still have it. I still refer to it occasionally. I learned a lot about Volkswagens from that manual, and a lot about auto mechanics in general. It's a great book, well written, easy to understand and follow, and a valuable resource for someone like me. That book helped me keep that car alive until just a few years ago when I passed it along to someone else, sans engine. After over 30 years, I still own parts of that engine.

When the urge to build my own car welled up within me, it was natural to think of using Volkswagen parts to build it. VW parts are modestly priced, readily available, and well suited for incorporation into a kit car project. So, I decided to build a Dune Buggy. I knew that, at some time in the past, there had been kits available for such a project, all I had to do was find one.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Once Upon a Time

Dead Eye's Car 3

When I was a kid, I used to take things apart to see how they worked. It wasn't until later in life that I learned to pay attention to how the things came apart so that I could put them back together again. It was a lesson learned the hard way. Just like the lesson I learned about reading instructions. I'm not sure when I started reading instructions. It was probably about the same time that I realized that no one I knew was going to explain to me how anything worked. By anything, I mean everything. By everything I mean cars, clocks, airplanes, plants, people, mathematics, language, spelling, history, philosophy, sex, human relations, personal hygiene, nutrition, plumbing, heating, electronics, carpentry and telephone etiquette. Lucky for me, the Boy Scouts of American came along and taught me a bit about personal hygiene, cooking, camping, tying knots, American history, canoeing, leadership, human relations and wilderness survival. Almost everything else I know, I learned by trial and error or by reading instructions.

It's a damned shame that we have to come into this life and learn everything the hard way. By "the hard way" I mean the hard and painful way. The first time you try to stand up and walk across the room, you fall on your butt. If you're a male of the species, the first time you try to talk seriously to a female of the species, you mess it up and nearly perish from embarrassment, or at least, most of us do. And that's another thing for which I've never been given a satisfactory explanation. Are female and male humans actually the same species? I'm not too sure about it. There are unexplained fundamental differences between males and females, and not just the obvious ones either, that, to this day, very often leave me wondering.

The problem is, you see, there is no instruction manual issued to us at birth. Why is that? You would think, after thousands of years and uncountable libraries' worth of writings, that someone would have written up a simple, easily understood operator's manual for human life. Oh sure, we've got shelves and shelves of philosophy and religion to read, but those subjects require years of study to be comprehensible. We've got medical books, cookbooks, encyclopedias, textbooks, and novels. But where is the simple fifty-page operators manual for being a human being? Where is the book entitled "Welcome to Earth, Human. (An operators manual for living.)" with a glossary of commonly used words and a index so that you can quickly find what you need to know?

If you think I going to write one for you, you'd better think again. What I would like to do, though, is to share with you a bit of what I've learned about life and how it works, or, at least, how it works for me. I don't claim to be any shining example of human virtue, or the best mankind has to offer, nothing like that at all. I'm just the guy next door who might lend you a wrench, or help you patch your tire, or give you a hand loading your old couch into your pickup, or take care of your cat while you're on vacation. Maybe you'll find something useful in my stories, or something amusing. I'm hoping you'll find some of both, but we'll see how it goes as we roll long here.