Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Work in Progress, Chapter 1

Front View at the Beginning

You'll sometimes hear an artist describe one of his or her creations as "A Work in Progress." To me this means that, though the artist might know what the finished work should look like, he/she hasn't quite gotten the thing to that point yet. My cars fit this definition, both the dune buggy and my Baja bug are, if nothing else, Works in Progress. The Baja bug is the best example of that concept as far as my cars are concerned. The dune buggy could be consider finished, Though there are a number of things I still want to do with the buggy, it is quite useable in its present state of completion.

A few years after I got the dune buggy into the semi-completed condition in which it has existed ever since, I felt the need for another project. I must have forgotten how much time, effort, blood and sweat had gone into the dune buggy build to have even considered starting to build another car. It was either that or some unsatisfied creative need that resides deep inside my psyche which occasionally forces its way to the surface, there to dwell until a sufficient quantity of the aforementioned time, effort, blood and sweat have been invested to cause it to subside to a point where I can return to my otherwise rather sedate life. It's not that my life isn't interesting, it's not that at all. It's just that I have always been driven to be creative in some way or another, and there's nothing that challenges one's creative abilities more than taking an old rusted-out shell of a car and turning it into a safe, reliable vehicle.

In the case of the Baja bug, when I first saw the shell that would someday be restored to a car-like state of existence, I felt as if I was rescuing the poor abused thing just moments from its being send to the scrapheap to be cut up, crushed into a cube and melted down. It was what was left of a 1967 Beetle, after all, and legend has it that 1967 was one of the best years for the old air-cooled VW Beetles. It was also a perfect candidate for transformation into a Baja-style bug, since both the front and rear of the car were in rather poor shape, and the fenders all missing, while the middle of the body was in relatively good condition, or so it appeared. Having successfully built a dune buggy, I thought I knew was I was getting into when I hooked up the barely rolling hulk to the back of my pick-up truck. Of course, I was wrong, but then, I usually am when it comes to this sort of thing.

Once I got the hideous wreck installed in the parking space behind my basement door, I began to realize the magnitude of the project I had just begun. This thing needed everything: window glass, seats, a steering wheel, gauges, a hood, fenders, door handles, interior door panels, an engine, a transaxle, brake lines, electrical wiring, headlights, turn signals, windshield wipers, tail lights, bumpers, a gas tank, fuel lines, brake lines, brake shoes, brake backing plates, brake springs, a brake master cylinder, brake wheel cylinders, brake drums, wheel bearings, wheels, tires, a fuel pump, carburetors, an alternator, a battery, a battery box, battery cables, and a wide variety of other parts and hardware. When I bought the dune buggy, at least it had a body, fenders, a front windshield, a steering wheel, seats and front tires, wheels and brakes. For the dune buggy, I didn't have to worry about doors, side windows, rear windows or body parts. This project would need all those things, plus a bit of body work on the middle part of the car. It was all a bit overwhelming. I know how to handle "overwhelming," though, and I began making a list. If you make a list of what you need, you can begin to get the project organized. As you make your list, parts fall into categories and that lets you break the project down into sections and from there into individual tasks. Once you begin to understand what needs to be done, you can start to figure out when in the sequence of the build each step has to occur. The first parts that have to be installed are the transaxle and the engine. Before that can be done, the old transaxle must be removed. If you are going to install a new transaxle, you'll want to install new mounting hardware at the same time and while you're under there, after you've got the new transaxle installed, you might want to take care of replacing the rear brake lines, since it's a lot easier to work in that space without the engine in place. Since this is a Baja bug project, you'll want to do your cutting off of the rear part of the car before you install the engine, too. And here, once again, we run into the problem that there is no real instruction manual available for Baja bug building. Planning, it's all about planning.

Before you can even start buying parts for your Baja bug project, it might be a good idea to have some idea what the final product should look like, what performance level you are trying to achieve, and, perhaps, how much money you are willing to spend. I knew I wanted a one-piece fiberglass front end and some rather wide rear fenders, all of which were offered for sale at one of my favorite on-line suppliers, J.C. Whitney. Not only did they offer the parts I wanted, but their price was about what I wanted to pay. So, I placed my order. In the meantime, I started sanding and repairing the middle part of the car's body. At about the same time, I ordered the engine and transaxle and most of the other parts I would need to move forward once I had the fiberglass parts in hand. For the first time in a great many years of buying and receiving parts from J.C. Whitney, they let me down. The fiberglass parts that they offered were not going to be available for months, if ever, so I was forced to cancel my order and find another source for what I needed. After a bit of on-line research, I found Mark V Fiberglass. They had what I needed, or at least would have it a whole lot sooner than J.C. Whitney, so I placed my order and went back to sanding and pounding out dents in the body while I waited.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Diagnosis and Repair

Assessing the Damage

It's not only important to have the data you need to diagnose and solve a problem, you must also be able to evaluate and apply that data with regard to its relevance and its magnitude of importance in achieving the desired end result. Yeah, right.

Okay, so you've got a mechanical malfunction of some sort, say your engine sometimes won't idle. How do you fix that? The first thing you need to do is gather data. Why doesn't it always idle correctly? What is the variable that causes the problem to only occur "sometimes?" What systems are involved in regulating the idle speed? What moving parts are involved? Once you have gathered your data, you can then proceed to identify and fix the problem . . . or, you can do it the way I do.

What I usually do is to simply cope with the problem for as long as possible until it becomes so annoying, or the car becomes so completely undriveable, that I am forced to do something about it. For most problems, this method works quite well. It forces me to think about the problem every time I drive the car, since I am constantly working around it, or having to overcome it in some way just to operate the vehicle. Take the idle problem I mentioned above. Sure I could have spent a morning figuring out why the car wouldn't hold its idle speed, and then fixed it so that it would. Instead, I've been driving around for a couple of years mostly ignoring the problem, or at most, cursing the carburetor for its inability to function properly. I reached my annoyance threshold the other day and was finally forced to figure it out.

Turned out it was a pretty simple fix. I had suspected for some time that the problem had something to do with the automatic choke. This made sense to me because the choke and its linkage is designed to kick the idle up when the engine is cold and then let the idle drop back down once it gets warmed up. On my old Ford truck, the automatic choke used the heat from the coolant inside a heater hose to regulate how much choke to apply and when to open itself back up. On my VW carburetor, there is an electric coil that starts heating up as soon as you turn the ignition key to the "on" position. Once that coil reaches a certain temperature it causes the choke to open and allows the idle to return to a nice, moderate speed, unless, of course, it's not working properly, or is not adjusted correctly.

I had an errand I was running over on the west side of Hollywood when I finally decided to solve the problem. I always carry a multi-tool on my belt, just in case I might need to perform some sort of MacGyver style repair whilst on the road. Every time I stopped and parked, I would attempt to adjust the carburetor to get the consistent idle speed which I was seeking. Eventually, after a number of stops, I got the choke adjustment right and the idle speed dialed in so that it works pretty much like it should at this point.

It's not as if I don't know how to diagnose a problem, or how to repair it once I know what is causing it. It's just that sometimes the problem is so minor, that I put off fixing it until I just can't put up with it anymore. I suppose that if I was in a situation where I was not the only driver of this car, I would be more motivated to fix the minor rattles and squeaks and such that crop up from time to time, but since it's just me, I tend to let them go for as long as possible. Major stuff, safety stuff, I always fix right away, but minor tweaks always seem to get put down at the bottom of my to-do list, right down there with gauges and interior amenities. Someday I'm going to install a working fuel gauge. Someday. But after not having one for the last ten years or so, it's just not much of a priority.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Big Bear Bash 2010


It was Friday morning when we packed our camping gear into and onto our old dune buggy and hit the road for Big Bear Lake, California. On the way out of town we stopped to fill the gas tank and then it was a non-stop drive to Camp Tanda where we unpacked the buggy, set up our new tent, unfolded the chairs, walked over to the registration table and signed in for the 2010 Manx Dune Buggy Club's Big Bear Bash. There we collected our information packet, our event t-shirts and our Saturday night catered-dinner wrist bands. The weather was perfect, we were in our preferred campsite near the bathrooms, and we anticipated a weekend of fun playing and talking with old and new friends during the off-road runs and around camp. At the end, it proved to be all that and more.

When I think about it now, sitting at my desk in front of a computer monitor, I feel a sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction, for a task well performed. Neither my wife, nor I could be considered young people, and the dune buggy we drive is based on a 1957 Volkswagen chassis. The previous owner of the car began his dune buggy project back in the early 70s and never finished. I acquired the car somewhere around the year 2000, took six months to turn it into a safe, reliable vehicle, and have been driving it nearly every day since. So, here you have two old people loading up their old car and heading off into the mountains for a weekend of banging around on bumpy, rocky, dusty, narrow trails, fully expecting to have a great time with no mechanical or physical difficulties. Seem like a rather lofty goal, doesn't it? But, that's just what we did.

I attribute our success in equal parts to a positive attitude, good vehicle maintenance, and sheer luck. We've been attending this event for eleven years now, and have never had a bad experience. We've driven the trails in rain, hail, sleet, blazing heat, and deep, deep dust. I've put four different engines in the car over the years, not because they wore out or broke down, but because I was seeking the perfect combination of reliability and performance. The current set-up is probably about as close as I'm ever going to get, given my budget and my level of expertise. But, hey, it works, I know how to fix it when it breaks, and I'm usually able to anticipate problems and do what it takes to prevent them from manifesting while we're out in the middle of nowhere sliding down a steep, rocky road. Of course, there is always something new to learn, and this year's run had its very own teachable moment.

As learning experiences go, this one was inexpensive, easily figured out and only moderately inconvenient. The problem started when I changed the intake air-filtering system on the car. I had always admired and envied those cars that made use of foam pre-filters. These are porous foam wraps that fit around the conventional air filters on the carburetors. It looked to me as if these were a great way to keep a lot more of the fine dust that the tires churn up out of the engine. On Sunday, I discovered for myself that these filters are very good at what they do, but that they are not at all self-cleaning. I had finally gotten around to getting the proper sized pre-filter for my car a week before the Big Bear weekend. I installed it immediately and gave it no more thought, confident that it was doing its job.

The day starts at 6:00 a.m. in Camp Tanda, for us at least. It starts much earlier for the heroic folks who rise much earlier, make the coffee and set out the doughnuts. After brief morning ablutions, I walked down to the meeting area, poured two cups of coffee, one black for me, and one with cream for my wife, Carol, took them back to our campsite and got the car ready for the day's adventure while I waited for her to complete her morning routine. Once she arrived back at the camp site, we grabbed our cameras and our coffee cups and walked the short distance down the camp road to where most of the cars were lining up for the Show and Shine. The first few times we went to the Big Bear Bash, I would dutifully shine up my car and park it in the row with all the others, hoping to bask in the admiration I felt certain I would receive for my efforts at building and maintaining such a unique, beautiful car. Eventually, I came to realize that most dune buggy owners spend a lot more money on paint, and interior amenities, and a lot more time cleaning and polishing their cars than I do, and that, if I was ever going to win any prizes in the Show and Shine, I would have to do the same. Being a guy who favors function and reliability over sheer physical beauty, I chose to devote my limited financial resources to keeping the car running well instead of making it look good. Of course, it's possible to have both a great looking car and one that runs well, too, but my priority is always for the latter. So, while I don't have the best looking car in the club, I have always managed to make it back to camp after the day's run with only minor problems. Having made my choice and, thus, realized that I'll never win "Best of Show" at the Show and Shine, I just leave my car parked in front of our tent and enjoy everyone else's magnificent dune buggies, all the while keeping my eyes open for ideas that I can use to make my car better.

After the Show and Shine, there is a driver's meeting where we learn what C.B. channel we should monitor for the group we are in, plus instructions, cautions and advice needed for the days off-roading. Then it's time for one last stop at the restroom before we line up with our group for Saturday's run. We had signed up for the Holcomb Valley run. Advertised as a "no skid plate required" trail, I decided it would be just the thing for us, since there was little chance of tearing up the car but lots of potential for a some good off-road fun. Of course, I always install a skid plate before taking the car off the road, but I don't mind if we don't really need it. Our group set off toward the trail at a little after 9:00 a.m. After we got off the highway, a couple of the cars started having trouble, one of them just wasn't running right (turned out the ignition coil was mounted incorrectly), another discovered a broken transaxle mounting. Both cars turned back quite early in the run and made it safely back to camp. A bit further along the trail, the car in front of us pulled off to the side of the road and stopped. We were at the tail end of the group, so the rest of us pulled up behind them to see what the problem was. They had broken the clutch cable on the car and didn't have a replacement. Lucky for them, I did. Being that this was our tenth year at the Big Bear Bash, I had learned the weak points on these mostly Volkswagen-based cars and always packed spares of the most likely parts to break or wear out. In just a few minutes, a new clutch cable installed, we were back on the road. There were other problems with other cars as we drove along, so from time to time the group would stop and wait for everyone to catch up. When we were all back together, we would set off again until the next car broke down. In this way, we made our way to an abandoned mine, high above Baldwin Lake which is mostly dry this time of year. This spot turned out to be a decision point for the run. Duran, our group leader, offered those drivers who would feel uncomfortable crawling over some medium sized rocks where a skid-plate would be necessary an alternate route down the mountain. All but seven of the cars opted for the easier way down to the paved road which would take them home. I decided not to let a few rocks scare me off from what sounded like some good bumpy fun, so I opted to take the hard way down. It was great!! I was sure glad I had the skid plate on the car, though, as we slid across a goodly number of fair sized rocks on our way down the road. When the Intrepid Seven reached the bottom we stopped, got out of our cars and congratulated each other on making it through the gauntlet relatively unscathed. Everyone was smiling and, though most of the cars had bounced a few rocks off their skid plates, all of them were undamaged. It was the perfect ending to the run. We all made our way back to Camp Tanda where our catered dinner was being set up.

After a delicious dinner, Carol and I drove into Big Bear Village and topped off the gas tank. After all that driving around all day, it only took two and a half gallons of gas. I looked over and under the car and could find nothing to worry about. We parked the car and walked around the village for awhile, bought a couple of souvenirs, a cup of coffee for Carol, took a few photos and drove back to camp. I fell right to sleep after we climbed into our sleeping bags, tired out from all the fun we had that day.

At 6:00 a.m. Sunday, our alarm went off and we went through the same routine as the day before, except on this day, the run started a 7:00 a.m. We were scheduled to drive up on Skyline Drive which features a great scenic overlook at the top of the run as well as some beautiful scenery on the way up and down. We were so taken with one of the views across the valley where there was still snow left on the north side of the mountains that at one point I stopped the car so that Carol could get a better photo. As I slowed to a stop and disengaged the clutch the engine idled down and died. When I went to restart it, the engine would crank and crank but it just wouldn't start. I used the starter to move the car off the road and proceeded to open up the engine cover to see what I need to do to get us back on the road. Meanwhile, the cars behind us pulled up and the drivers got out to see if they could help. One of the guys said, "Knock the dust out of your air filter." I did that and discovered that my pre-filter was so clogged that it was keeping the carburetor from getting enough air for the engine to run properly. I removed the distributor cap to see if dust had invaded the ignition points, blew out the cap and reinstalled it. I got back in the car, turned the ignition key and the car started right up. Problem solved. I closed the engine cover, restarted the car and we were off again with a lesson learned: Always knock the dust out of your air filter after driving all day on extremely dusty roads. That's my kind of lesson, cheap, quick and easy. The rest of the run was without incident and we made it back to camp in time for the awards presentations and raffle.

I didn't receive any awards and we didn't win anything in the raffle, but we had another great weekend with a wonderful group of caring, helpful people and that, in itself, is more than enough to make us determined to come back next year. Maybe, we'll even try to do the Mammoth Lake run in September. Why not? We're not getting any younger, you know.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Annual Dune Buggy Vacation

Packing the Car

Every year for the past 11 years, we have loaded up the Dune Buggy with our camping gear, luggage and a few spare parts and driven to Big Bear Lake, California for the Manx Dune Buggy Club's "Big Bear Bash." This is not only our favorite event of the year, it is also, usually, our only vacation of the year. The Big Bear Bash is a three day event, starting Friday at 2:00 p.m. and ending the following Sunday at around noon. In those few hours, we set up camp, go out to dinner, take in a movie, do some shopping, drive around on the back roads above Big Bear Lake, talk to other buggy enthusiasts, have an awards presentation and raffle, go for a walk, enjoy the mountains, breathe the fresh air, breathe the dusty air (when we're on the back roads), tear down camp, repack the buggy and drive back down the hill. We always have fun.

Part of what makes this a fun weekend, is that I have almost always succeeded in making the car mechanically reliable for the trip. To do that, I change the oil, check the wheel bearings, give it a tune-up, install the skid plate, replace the fuel filter, clean out the crankcase breather system, and try to anticipate whatever else might become a problem and fix it before that can happen. As I said, I almost always succeed. One year, the rear brake shoes where too thin and I ended up doing some serious damage to the brake drums before I got back home. Another year, as we were driving up a washboard road, the muffler fell off of the car. I quickly stopped, ran back and grabbed it, threw it into the car and kept going. During the lunch stop that day, I reinstalled the muffler. Most years, though, we've not had any mechanical problems at all.

We also have to get our camping gear ready for the trip. For the first 9 years of this annual event, we took along an old tent that has been in my family for 40 years or more. It was a great tent in its time and served us well, but by now it has seen its better days. So, for the last two years we've been trying out some new tents. Last year's purchase, an inexpensive dome-shaped model proved to be too small for the air mattresses we bought at the same time. Oh, they fit inside the tent alright, but that's all that would fit inside. We had wall-to-wall air mattresses last year with no room inside for anything else, which meant that all our other gear had to be stored inside the car for the night. Since we don't trailer the dune buggy, but instead load all our gear onto the car and drive it up to Big Bear, this meant lots of transferring back of forth of all our stuff. This year, we found a bigger tent at just about the right price and we're going to give that a try. I set it up in the yard the other day and it looks like it'll be just the right size.

We always take lots of pictures at dune buggy events, so we pack cameras, too. Two years ago, we learned that the trail dust can somehow find its way inside of the expensive camera lenses, so we use the good camera for shots around camp and when we're not moving, and a less expensive camera for shots on the trail. My wife, Carol, takes action shots from the passenger seat while I drive. We've gotten some really great shots in years past. Those years where there had been recent rains gave us especially good shots of the cars splashing through puddles and shallow creeks. We don't mind getting the car muddy, but we do try to keep the photography equipment dry if we can. Last year, we got some nice, if short, videos from the trail with our FlipVideo camera. Unfortunately, the batteries went dead on the trail. This year I will be sure to pack lots of extra batteries for the video camera so that we don't have a repeat of that problem.

The weather for the Big Bear weekend this year is predicted to be sunny and mild with no rain in the forecast, but you never know when it might rain in the mountains. Sometimes an afternoon shower shows up and wets down the dust. We always pack a couple of fold-up plastic rain ponchos, just in case. They've come in handy a couple of times and we were glad we had them when they did. So far, the upcoming weekend is shaping up to be one of the best ever. We're looking forward to seeing old friends, making some new ones, getting the car dirty, and having lots of fun in the mountains. I'll let you know how it went when we get back.