Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Curse of the Little Red Car

Airing Out the Engine
Once again, my ’65 VW Beetle has developed a problem.

I’ve been having some sewer pipe work done at my house which has made the driveway inaccessible. I needed to move a car out of the driveway just in case I needed one. With three cars to choose from, I figured that the ’65 Beetle with its locking engine compartment would be the hardest to steal. I moved it out into the neighbor’s driveway where it was only occasionally blocked by all the construction equipment. I used it a couple of times during the week and it ran and drove just fine.

On Friday, my neighbor needed to get his own car out of his driveway, so I moved the Beetle out onto the street. We live on a rather steep hill. Since the gas tank was full, I parked the car nose uphill in the morning so the gas wouldn’t leak out of the tank. In the afternoon of that same day, I went out to start it up and head off to a meeting. I turned the key in the ignition and only got a “click.” I thought, “Okay, the battery has gone dead. I’ll deal with that after I get back home.” I fired up the dune buggy and backed out of the driveway over the top of the wooden and metal covers on the three holes where the repair guys had been working earlier in the day. That was fine and I made it to my appointment only a few minutes late.

When I returned home, I went out to Beetle to see if I could figure out exactly what was wrong with it. When I tried to start it, I still only got this “click.” It sounded very similar to the sound I’d heard before when the battery didn’t have enough charge left to turn the starter. It wasn’t exactly the same sound though and the dashboard lights didn’t really indicate to me that the battery was dead. Still, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and took the battery out and put in on the charger in the basement.

A few hours later, the battery was showing that it now had a fair amount of charge available. Certainly enough to get the car started so that I could move it off the street. I put the battery back into the car and hooked it up. Still just a “click.” Okay, maybe something is locked up and I can bump the engine by popping the clutch with the transaxle in reverse and get it turning. I let it roll back a bit and engaged the clutch. Wham! A dead stop. I tried it again. Same result. Okay, the engine won’t turn over at all. The problem was now increased in magnitude from the simple dead battery to a possible seized engine. I still need to get it off of the street, though I was beginning to be less concerned about someone stealing it. In fact, I had momentary thoughts of encouraging someone to take it away and put me out of its misery. Instead, I let it roll down the hill and got it partly into the driveway. With our driveway, first you have to go up the driveway before you can go down. With the help of some very kind passers-by, we got it into the driveway and down to where it wasn’t going to be in the way. I left it there for the night.

The next morning, when I went out to see what was wrong, I had the benefit of several hours of pushing all the evidence around in my mind. As I approached the car I could smell a strong odor of raw gasoline. With the fact that it had started and run just fine when I backed it out onto the street and parked it; and the fact that the starter couldn’t make the engine turn; plus the fact that bumping the engine by popping the clutch hadn’t worked; I suspected that the engine was filled with gasoline – all of the engine including the manifold, the cylinders and the crankcase. I opened up the engine compartment and, indeed, there was gasoline dripping out of the bottom of the carburetor. It was full of gasoline all the way up the bottom of the carburetor. I didn’t have time to do anything about it at that point so I just moved it farther down the driveway where it would sit more level and left it there.

Today, after the car sat for a day in a level spot, there was no more gasoline dripping out of the bottom of the carburetor. So, on the level, there was no more fuel running into the engine. I pulled the oil dipstick. The crankcase was full to the top. I grabbed a drain pan from the basement, put it under the car, loosened the drain plug and watched the result. First, the nice clean, thick oil drained into the pan, it was immediately followed by about a half a gallon of gasoline. My diagnosis was confirmed. While I let the gasoline drain out of the crankcase, I removed the spark plugs. They were all soaked in fuel. I turned on the ignition switch to activate the electric fuel pump and peered into carburetor. Gas was entering the carburetor and the float valve inside was not shutting off the flow when the float chamber was full. In a nose-up position, gravity was causing the fuel to continually run into the engine. Problem identified.

I’m left the spark plugs out and the crankcase drain plug out so the engine will dry out a bit before I go any further. The next step will be repairing the carburetor, putting new oil in the engine, putting the spark plugs back in and starting the engine. At that point I’ll probably be able to tell if there is any other damage. I’m hoping that there are not bent piston rods or valve stems. I did rotate the engine by hand and it seems okay. I’ll have to wait a couple of days for the parts stores to open before I can get parts and continue the repair before I’ll know for sure. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the engine has severe damage. That would be just typical of how things have gone ever since I bought this car.

I’m beginning to believe that this car is cursed. Maybe I need an exorcist.

Friday, May 10, 2013

High Maintenance

The Fleet
Up until recently, I hadn’t been doing too much driving, once a week, perhaps, at the most, and even then I would drive our Mitsubishi Galant. I’d been writing, working on finishing a book and starting another. No need to go anywhere by car when your job is at home.

A few of weeks ago, a friend called me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He needed some help renovating a building he had purchased and I agreed to help. It was an interesting project and I knew I would like doing the work. The only thing I didn’t find attractive about the job was the twenty-three mile commute each way on the Los Angeles freeways. It takes at least an hour to drive that distance and you don’t go twenty-three miles an hour, instead you go seventy miles an hour and then you stop and then you creep along like an inch worm and then you go fifty miles an hour and then you stop and then it’s back to inching along. It’s a frustrating way to travel and it’s very hard on your car. It proved especially hard on my old Volkswagens.

The first day was a federal holiday so traffic was light and the drive took about thirty minutes. Every day after that it took at least an hour, usually longer. That first day, I drove the ’65 Beetle, the little red car. That was fine and it ran well. By the end of that week, the weather warmed up and I thought I decided to drive the dune buggy. I went to start it and the battery was dead. Not dead like you leave the lights on and the battery is dead. No, dead like this was the battery that got fried when the alternator on the ’65 shorted out and started pumping huge amounts of voltage into this battery to the point where the acid began to boil and blow the caps off the battery. That kind of dead. Dead as in time to buy a new battery. So I did, a nice Sears Diehard. The car started right up.

I did the commute for about a week in the dune buggy. It was a Thursday, I think, when the brakes failed. On the freeway. In stop and go traffic. Fun. You can operate the car by not following anyone too closely, using the gears to slow the car down, downshifting and using the engine as a brake, and using the emergency brake when you have to actually come to a complete stop. You can do it, but it isn’t easy. Or safe. Or fun. I made it home. Okay, I thought, I have two other cars that I can drive, so no problem. Then, when I was driving the ’65 Beetle to run an errand, I noticed that the clutch pedal was sticking. This is a bad sign. Okay, I can still drive the Baja bug.

The Baja bug was drivable, but only barely. When I built it, I equipped it with dual carburetors because I thought that with the 1,776 cc motor, the duals would give me lots of power. They did indeed, but they also dumped enormous amounts of excess fuel into the engine, fouling the spark plugs and causing the engine to misfire and backfire through the carburetors. When it ran right, it was great fun to drive. Most of the time, though, it ran rough, backfired, and required me to drive very carefully so as not to foul the spark plugs. It did run, though, and it was all I had to drive at that point, so I drove it. And then I got stuck in traffic. The freeway was completely stopped ahead of me. I was able to exit just before the stoppage. I know my way around Los Angeles so I decided to go through town to get home. The Baja bug, in its current configuration was not the ideal car for driving across the city during rush hour. It sputtered and coughed and lurched its way through Beverly Hills traffic. It never stopped, but it was a driving experience I didn’t every with to repeat. Something had to be done. It was time to solve all these car problems before I had nothing to drive and was forced to give up this job opportunity because I just couldn’t get there from here.

I took at day and a half off from work and began the process of getting all the cars back in shape. I began by consulting my friends a BCE, the parts store I’ve been depending upon for the last twenty-five years. We came up with a way to make the Baja bug drivable. I’d replace the dual carburetors with a big single barrel. I ordered the parts and they promised to have them by the afternoon of the next day. I drove home to begin diagnosing the problems with the other two cars.

I started with the dune buggy. After I adjusted the brakes, I discovered that the brake master cylinder was leaking. I would need to replace it to get the brakes working again. Next I took apart the clutch linkage on the ’65 Beetle. The front end of the cable was worn paper thin and needed to be replaced. The actuating lever on the pedal was also damaged and needed to be replaced. I recalled an article I had read on the internet about an innovative solution to a long-term VW clutch problem and searched around the web until I found the part that had been highlighted in the article. I like what I saw and the reviews were one hundred percent positive, so I ordered the part.

The company is called Unique Parts and it appeared to be a one-man operation. When I placed the order I made the required Pay-Pal transfer and figured, since it was a Friday, I’d receive the part sometime the next week. I didn’t receive any shipping information that day, so I guessed I’d hear something by Monday. If not I’d follow up and see when I could expect it. The part actually arrived via U.S. Mail the very next day, Saturday. Amazing. Impressive.

My Friday wasn’t over yet, though. I called BCE and learned that they had received all the parts I needed for the Baja bug. I drove over, picked them up, drove back home and began the conversion process. It took the entire rest of the day to finish the project. I checked everything over twice to make sure I’d gotten the new carburetor installed correctly. It seemed to be perfect. I got behind the wheel and keyed the started. It took a while for the fuel pump to fill the new carburetor with gasoline, but once it did, the engine started right up. I took it out for a test drive and it worked very well. The engine was idling a bit too fast, but once I adjusted it down I was satisfied. I almost had a drivable car. The only thing it needed to be perfect was a stereo. I picked one up at Best Buy, found a speaker box at Pep Boys and hooked it up. Now I had one car ready for commuting.

Next step was to repair the clutch cable on the ’65 Beetle. I did that over the course of a few evenings after I got back from the jobsite on the other side of town, an hour at a time. The new clutch linkage installed easily. Not only did it give the cable to actuator lever connection a superior method of operation, but it moved the clutch pedal three-fourths of an inch to the left, making the car much easier to drive. Once I got everything put back in place, I took it out for a drive. The clutch action is smoother and easier. I am confident that it will also be longer lasting. Now, I had two cars up and running.

Since I was making a bit of extra money on this job, I decided that it was time to put and interior into the Baja bug. Up until now, it has just been bare metal inside. From the beginning of the Baja bug project, I had wanted to put rubber mats on the floor instead of carpet. Rubber mats in a Volkswagen is very “old school.” I ordered some, along with sound insulation for the floor and a carpet kit for the back. The carpet kit is designed to fit a car with the back seat removed, which is how I have it set up. I put the rubber mats in and they looked great. To make the carpet kit for the rear of the car work right, I had to make a wooden floor where the back seat would normally mount. Once I did that, the carpet get went in nicely with just a little glue.

Next project was to get the brakes working on the dune buggy. I replaced the master cylinder, bled the air out of the brake lines and tested the brakes. They worked just fine. Three cars running, again.

Sure, my old VWs are high-maintenance, but I like working on them. It is very satisfying to be driving a car that I built and repaired myself and have it work so well. After all the work I’ve done on all the cars, when something goes wrong, I usually know right away what it is and how to fix it. There is nothing arcane or mysterious about malfunctions of cars you’ve built from the ground up. I know every inch of them, I know when they don’t sound right, or feel right. They’re fun to drive and they’re all different. Plus, you meet some very interesting people when you drive vintage VWs. I often get stopped in parking lots and gas stations by people who want to talk about the Volkswagens they used to own. Most people wish they still had theirs. I’m happy to share stories with them and don’t mind being envied for still having mine.