Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Used Car

65 VW

"Buy a used car and you're buying someone else's problem." I've heard that line and said that line many, many times. I suspect the same thing was said about buying a horse in the years before there were cars. Sometimes it's worse than that, though, sometimes you buy a "disaster waiting to happen."

I own one of those. When my wife's 1967 VW Beetle was stolen from in front of our house, I needed to get her another car right away. Rule #1 in buying a used car: Never get in a hurry. Do your research, take your time, have the car checked by a competent mechanic, and don't get pressured into buying. Be willing to let the deal go and know that another car will come along. If you hold firm to Rule #1, you'll minimize the unknowns and likely be aware of potential problems in time to correct them before they become dangerous.

The first thing I did when I bought the replacement car was to violate Rule #1. The car I found looked good sitting there in the lot of the VW shop. The paint was in fair condition and the engine had been cleaned up and looked good. When we started it up it ran well and made no unusual noises. It had custom seats and a custom instrument panel. Heck, the gas gauge even worked. I figured we had a winner and bought the thing.

In my haste to violate Rule #1, I missed several important clues. The first was that any VW shop in the Los Angeles area that does good work should be busy. This place was not. The second clue was that any old VW that is that clean probably has something to hide. It did. Since the car's registration had expired, we weren't able to test drive it and had to take the seller at his word with regard to the safety and road worthiness of the vehicle. It was neither safe nor road worthy. Given the above, it was overpriced as well.

Right away we noticed that the transaxle wouldn't stay in gear when you let off of the gas pedal. My wife discovered this right away as she was driving the car home from the VW shop after we bought it. It was at this time that I violated Rule #2 which states: "Try all the cheap ways to fix a problem before you try the expensive ones." The car came to us with a fancy-looking after market shifter, so obviously that couldn't be the problem, right? No, it had to be the transaxle that was worn out and needed to be replaced. After the newly rebuilt transaxle had been installed, we discovered that the fancy shifter had been the problem all along. I replaced it with an inexpensive, used stock shifter and the problem was solved.

The very next thing I did with this not-so-very-fine used car was to violate Rule #3. Rule #3 applies to all mechanical, electrical and philosophical aspects of the universe and, simply stated, is: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." My justification for ignoring that very important rule was my conflicting belief in the K.I.S.S. rule. "K.I.S.S.", of course, stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. I had been told for years by a variety of Volkswagen car enthusiasts that the simple 009 Bosch centrifugal advance distributor was the ultimate in state-of-the-art simplicity. This belief was in accord with my own belief in the K.I.S.S. rule so I accepted it without question. My blind faith in this consensus of the masses has resulted in all my VWs performing poorly, while I constantly adjusted other systems to make up for the inherit fault in the distributor. So, with all this in mind, and on a car that was running just fine, I purchased and installed a new 009 Bosch distributor. Soon after that, I got a call from my wife who complained that the car was sputtering and losing power. Just as I was ready to get in my car to go rescue her, she called to say that the car was now running fine. I had her bring it home and park it so that I could figure out what was wrong.

Now I violated Rule #4: "Only change one thing at a time." Since the only change I had made to the car so far was installing the new distributor, what I should have done at this point was re-install the old distributor and see if that solved the problem. Instead, I began to carefully and systematically replace every other part and system that might cause hesitation in the engine. This eventually included the fuel pump, the ignition wires, the fuel filters, the carburetor and the ignition coil. Of course none of these replacements had any effect on the problem at hand, but I did discover that this car had an electric fuel pump, which certainly was not the way the car originally had been equipped from the factory. I also discovered, two fuel pumps later, that the fuel system was working perfectly, especially after I replaced the pump that came with the car, which, though it was apparently working just fine, was located in the left rear wheel well and held in place by a couple of lengths of mechanic's wire.

If I may digress for a moment, the proper location for the electric fuel pump is, ideally, close to the fuel tank where it can push the fuel into the carburetor, rather that at the engine (or in the left rear wheel well) where is has to pull the fuel from the tank and then push in into the carburetor. So, not only was the pump at the wrong end of the car, it was hanging precariously near the left rear tire where it was exposed to the possibility of being destroyed by flying debris picked up from the road by said tire and thrown around inside the wheel well. Certainly not the best choice of locations for hoses, a pump and a filter full of flammable liquid. I relocated the fuel pump to its proper spot under the fuel tank at the front of the car and tested the system. It worked exactly as it should.

Believing the problem had been solved, I took the car for a test drive and, at long last, it seemed to run just fine. Sadly, the very next time I drove it, the problem was back - loss of power, sputtering and no acceleration. By this time I knew that there wasn't a problem with the fuel system - all of that was working - so it had to be electrical. It is amazing how far down the wrong road I have to drive sometimes before I realize that I've taken a wrong turn.

I checked over the wiring, replaced connectors, changed spark plug wires and still was unable to resolve the problem. Having now violated all the rules of auto repair, I stepped back from the whole situation and started analyzing it logically. The engine lost power, sputtered, wouldn't accelerate, yet it would start and idle perfectly. The problem was intermittent. Sometimes the thing worked perfectly. I thought about all the parts I had replaced and, at last, realized that there was only one part I hadn't yet replaced - the condenser. the condenser is a $3 part that stores electricity like a little battery and releases it all at once when activated. Could that be the problem? The part in question had come pre-installed on that new distributor which I had replaced at the beginning of this story. How could a brand new condenser not be working? Still, I'd tried everything else, why not try that? I keep several condensers around the work shop, so I found the correct one, removed the possibly defective one, and installed the new one.

Problem solved!! And lesson learned. Learned the hard way, but learned well and thoroughly and at great expense. Of course, this was only the beginning of my problems with this car, but I'll save those stories for the other chapters of this saga.