Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Used Car, Chapter 4

The Little Red Bug

After doing all the previous work on our '65 Beetle, I decided that I ought to drive it for a few days just to be sure everything was okay, before turning it back over to Carol. I really didn't want her to have to experience another disaster. It was a very good thing that I made that decision.

One afternoon, I hopped in the car, started the engine and headed off to work. I was half way there, about five miles from home, and all of a sudden, when I pushed in the clutch pedal so I could shift gears, the pedal went right to the floor and there it stayed. Of course I was on the freeway, three lanes over from the right and in the middle of lots and lots of afternoon traffic. I maneuvered my way over to the right lane and took the next exit off of the freeway. As I coasted to a stop and eased the transmission out of gear, I breathed a sigh of relief that at least I was off the freeway and out of the traffic stream.

I knew that, in theory, I should be able to shut off the engine, slip the car into gear and then crank the starter. If the engine is tuned properly, again in theory, I ought to be able to start the car in gear and get it going down the street. Once the engine was running and the car was moving, it should be possible to ease the transmission into a higher gear without using the clutch. In this way, I might just be able to cripple the car home, get it parked and use another of my cars to get to work. At the next stop, I pulled over to the side of the street and called in to work to let them know that I was having car trouble and would be a little late. After a bit of experimentation, I developed a technique of coming to a stop, shutting off the engine, shifting into first gear, starting the engine, getting the car moving, easing the shifter into third gear, driving to the next stop and repeating the process. I made it home, transferred my gear to another of my VWs and got to work only about a half hour late. I was glad that the clutch failure hadn't happened to Carol.

The most common part to fail in the VW clutch system is the cable which extends from the pedal cross-shaft back to the transaxle at the rear of the car. The next day I picked up new cable from the parts store. The shop where I buy my parts is one with which I been doing business for over 20 years, so a "parts run" is quite often as much a social event as a shopping trip. This run was no exception and, after swapping a few stories, including my adventure of the day before, I paid for my parts and headed home.

The next day, I backed up the car onto a couple of ramps and began taking it apart so that I could replace the broken cable. Oddly, when I removed the pedal set from under the dash, it turned out that the cable was sound and that it was the pedal cross-shaft that had failed. You see, when you push the clutch pedal down, the shaft to which it is attached rotates and causes the hook on the other end of that shaft to pull the cable forward which in turn disengages the clutch and allows you to change gears. In the 30 plus years during which I've owned and maintained air-cooled Volkswagens, this was only the second time I'd seen this type of failure. I had the wrong part for the repair, of course, so it would take another parts run and another day or two to get the car fixed and back on the road.

Here is a bit of advice for you from someone who has learned nearly everything the hard way: If you can, take the old part with you when you go to the parts store. That way you'll nearly always end up bringing the correct part home with you. You'll notice that I said "nearly always." Sometimes the part that you took off the car and brought with you was the wrong part and was installed in error by the last person who worked on your car, so the other bit of advice I would offer you is to know as much as possible about the parts that are attached to your car. With old air-cooled Volkswagens of any year, many parts are interchangeable. That being the case, many of the parts on the car you are dealing with may already have been interchanged. Taking photos and measurements can help you identify parts that seem to be different than what was originally intended to be attached to your car. This mixing and matching of parts is not a bad thing, but when the substitution is not documented, it may take you awhile to figure out what year vehicle any given part was originally intended to be attached to. This will matter when it comes to replacing brake shoes and brake system parts, ignition parts, fuel system parts, and cables to name a few. Once you figure it all out, you might want to create a written record of some sort in which to document your findings so that you can pass them along to the next person who owns the car. They'll thank you for it, believe me.

Now that I had fixed all the major systems on this car, it was time to start working on the luxury items like the heater and the glove box door.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Used Car, Chapter 3

Torsion Arms

One evening not too long ago, I got a call from my wife, Carol. She was on her way home from work, driving the little red 1965 Beetle again. As she was exiting the parking garage at her office, she had noticed that there was a squeaking noise coming from the front of the car and that it was pulling to the right. She wanted to know what to do. Should she call the auto club and have the car towed home or should she try to drive it?

Over the years that I have been married to Carol, I have from time to time received phone calls from her wherein she described to me various mechanical failures and symptoms that had occurred while she was driving one of the many cars we have owned over the years. Often, I am able to diagnose the problem correctly from her description of it. I have usually them proceed to load my car with the tools and parts I think I'll need to fix the car and have quite often succeeded in making the needed repairs and rendering the car drivable. This car, this 1965 VW Beetle, has stumped me again and again. The failures that happen to this car are unlike any I have ever seen or even heard about. I am continually surprised and amazed at the level of incompetence displayed in the previous work done on this car.

I had just replaced the brake master cylinder and adjusted the brakes on this car. Doing that requires one to jack up the car and turn the wheels by hand, so I couldn't imagine what would all of a sudden cause it to squeak and pull to the right. I figured it might be a bad wheel bearing, or a sticking brake shoe on the right front wheel. I told Carol to try to drive the car home, but cautioned her to take it slow and drive the back roads and not try to take the freeway.

Amazing woman that she is, Carol once again made it home in a car that should have been impossible to drive. Not only that, but she maneuvered it into its parking space which also should have been impossible, given the fact that the right front wheel and most of its supporting parts where trying to slide off of the front axle beams.

When I looked at the car the next day, it truly did appear that the car was undrivable. It should have been. Either that, or Carol had, once again, decided that she would make it home in the car and, then, once she has arrived, the car was free to collapse, which it did.

In the world of auto mechanics, there are a few people who seem to have an innate ability to fix just about anything. The person or persons who had previously done work on this car and not among them. No, the person or persons who previously did work on this car are among the least competent people in existence. In this particular instance, the previous work done had actually rendered the car dangerous to drive, potentially fatal to drive.

Let me explain a bit about how the front suspension of a 1965 VW is supposed to work. Bolted to the front of the car are a pair of tubes, one above the other. Inside each of these tubes are six flat bars, on each end of these sets of bars and in the middle a small dimple has been drilled into which a set screw is driven. The set screw in the middle keeps the bars from sliding side to side, the set screws on either end keep the arms, to which are attached the tire and wheels, from sliding off the ends of the bars. The bars and the arms, along with the shock absorbers, all work together to keep the tires in contact with the road, thereby allowing the car to steered and stopped.

What I discovered when I started repairing the front suspension was that some of the bars where missing and one set was installed so as to turn the dimple 90 degrees away from the set screw, allowing the arms and the tire and wheel to slide off the end of the bars. When Carol finally stopped the car in its parking space, the arms had slid about 4 or 5 inches off the end of the bars. Had that occurred at freeway speed it would have cause the car to veer sharply to the right, likely flipping it over. At least she had taken to heart my advice about taking it show and staying off the freeway.

I replaced all the bars and put everything back the way it was supposed to be. After that, the car drove just fine -- straight down the road with no problems. About a week later, while I was on my way to work in the car, I got to experience driving an undrivable car for myself, but I'll save that story for the next chapter in this seemingly unending saga.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Used Car, Chapter 2

Master Cylinder

My wife, Carol, has an unmatched ability to cope with adversity, especially when it comes to automobiles. When I first met her, she was driving a Datsun 510 station wagon. That poor little car was, I'm sure, worn out when she got it. She did the best she could to keep the car running with the help of friends and local mechanics, but time takes its toll from all things mechanical and this car had paid more than its share into that account. All the rubber seals on the side windows had deteriorated to the point where the windows were loose it their frames and rattled constantly as you drove along. By the time that I met Carol, the car has started to develop electrical problems, which are often the hardest to diagnose, especially intermittent electrical problems. There was one nearly legendary occasion when, as she was driving over a mountain pass, the engine just stopped running. Now, this was back in the days before cell phones, so she was alone near the top of a mountain and the only way to summon help was to stand at the side of the road and wave at whichever passing motorist might drive by. Did she panic? Did she jump out of the car and starting trying to flag down a rescuer? No, not Carol. Instead, when the engine stopped, she coasted off onto the shoulder of the road, shut off the ignition and, completely convinced that if she just parked the car and waited awhile it would eventually start, proceeded to settle back in her seat and read a book. Lucky for her, two kindhearted and more mechanically savvy gentlemen from the nearby town stopped and asked her if there was a problem. Carol smiled and told them, with great conviction, that the car would start after awhile and that she would just wait. These fine gentlemen took an more pragmatic approach to the situation, raised the hood on the Datsun, proceeded to jiggle a few loose wires, got the car running and followed her down the mountain to be sure she made it to town.

Who knows whether the two gentlemen actually fixed the car, or if, instead, Carol's simple act of faith caused it to run again. I'm not willing to completely discount the power of Carol's decision that the car would be in running condition about the time that she needed it to be that way. Heck, I fixed a clothes dryer once by just touching it. Laugh, if you will, but it wasn't working before I touched it, and, yet, after I touched it, it worked quite well. I'm thoroughly convinced that there is more to this world than simply nuts and bolts and mechanical engineering. Carol, herself is living proof that there is more to driving a car than physics. I know this because she's driven cars in a condition that should have made them physically impossible to drive.

Take, for example, the incident of the brake master cylinder on her VW Beetle. Normally, when a master cylinder goes bad, it does so gradually, so that there are some warning signs of its imminent failure such as fluid leaking from the seals, or a mushy brake pedal. Not this time. Carol got in the car one evening to drive home from work and, upon application of her foot, the brake pedal went straight to the floor. Most people would have called for a tow truck or would have gotten someone to give them are ride home, but not Carol. No, she just drove home with no working brake pedal. Aside from the engine, the manual transmission and friction with the road, she had only the hand brake to use to slow and stop the car. I found out later, that not only wasn't the hand brake working properly, it wasn't even the proper part for that car. When I got home and she told me what had happened, I thought she had exaggerated the extent of the brake failure and that there must have been some pedal left in the system. In reality, I discovered that she had exactly described the problem. There are few people who would ever have attempted to do what she did, let alone have been able to do it successfully. There's obviously, more to driving cars than your mechanics and engineers have ever thought about.

My part in the story was a bit simpler, though not without some adversity. I checked over the brake system and narrowed the problem down to a faulty master cylinder. Even after I bought a new one and replaced the old one, the brakes wouldn't work. As it turned out, the part I purchased was defective and I had to do the whole job over again before I had restored the braking system to proper working order.

With all the other work I'd done on this car, I figured that, at this point, I was done with it for awhile, except for routine maintenance. I was wrong again, as wrong as I was on the day I bought this car.