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The Learning Experience

My first associations and rememberances of Volkswagens are of sore arms and shoulders after being perpetually punched by my older cousin as we were driven around town by our families. The game of "Slug Bug" was a favorite game of ours as we sat in the rear facing seat of the station wagon, and back in the late 1970's and early 1980's VWs were literally everywhere. So we punched each other a lot. As I grew closer to legal driving age I began to decide what kind of car I wanted to drive. I had older friends who drove Baywindows and a few who had Beetles and I can remember going to the insurance office with my Dad and asking how much a VW Bus would cost me a month in insurance fees. My father talked me out of buying a bus and instead I was "suggested" towards a little mid '80s sports car that was more "reliable". A friend of the family had a mid '70's Squareback and when it came time to learn how to drive a manual, his Squareback was offered up. I can remember grinding gears and having a hell of time finding reverse but that little Squareback was resilient and put up with all of my inexperience. I drove that car for a week or so when I was 17 until I was proficient at working a manual transmission. When it was time to move out of my parent's house and go to college, my buddy and I drove from Sacramento to Santa Barbara in his green '74 Westfalia. Driving south down I-5 at 55 mph while other cars and semis whizzed by us was quite the harrowing experience. We made it without breaking down but we had to take the normal "cool down" stops and I can remember thinking that the trip was taking forever. We lived and slept in that Westy for two weeks in parking lots and on the streets of Santa Barbara while we searched for place to rent. I have a lot of fun memories of that time and also over the next few years in that camper. Fast forward 25 or so years. Married with kids. My wife's first car was a '72 Beetle and our 10 year anniversary was coming up. I found myself living vicariously through Craigslist looking at MGs, Triumphs, Datsuns, VWs, etc, you know the "affordable classics". I thought it would be fun to surprise my wife with VW Beetle for our anniversary. I set about looking through Craigslist and the ads for Beetles. I knew less than nothing at that time about aircooled engines or even the differences between the years. I didn't even know there was a difference between a standard and a Super Beetle. I was completely and blissfully naive. I was looking for something that was pretty much done and already put together that my wife and I could drive around town for fun.

Enter the '74 1303. I saw the Craigslist ad and she was within the price range I was willing to spend. I went and drove her and looked at her and, mind you, I had no idea what I was doing or what I should be looking for when buying an aircooled VW Beetle. She seemed to drive fine and the guy I bought her from had just finished "restoring" her. I loved the color, wheels, and the interior was redone. She looked great to me. There were a "few things" he said that needed to be finished but those things were really easy (famous last words). I bought her for $5,500 and brought her home to our family. My wife was completely surprised and named her Molly. It was just that my wife wouldn't drive her because the speedometer didn't work and neither did the horn and that fuel vapor smell in the interior was just a little too strong, and, and, and. You get the idea. So I set about trying to fix these "little things" with my non existent knowledge. I went to the library and checked out a Chilton's and a Bentley's and the Muir VW manuals. I watched a lot of Youtube videos trying to educate myself.

I ended up replacing the speedometer cable first which was relatively simple even for newbie like me. I took her for a test drive and lo and behold the speedometer worked (hooray!) but why was the brake pedal suddenly so spongy? Huh, that's weird. I got back home and looked at the nearly empty brake fluid reservoir. I filled the reservoir back up and the brakes worked better but became spongy very quickly again after a test drive. Back home again the reservoir was this time completely empty. What the hell? There wasn't any brake fluid on the floor of my garage or behind any of the drums. What was going on? Maybe my master cylinder was bad? I went about replacing the master cylinder and as I was inside the cabin down by the pedals I wondered why the carpet was all wet and sticky? I soon found the problem as I pulled up the interior carpet and realized the brake line was completely rusted through at the point where it is closest to the gas pedal. Brake fluid was under all of the carpet and had pooled under the passenger seat. Good Lord that was a hell of a mess. I ended up schooling myself in the art of brake lines and pulled out the old line and ran a new line through the cabin. I had to replace the carpet too on the driver's side. But, hey, after bleeding the system the brakes held pedal pressure. Job done. Now for the fuel smell in the cabin. I jacked up the front of the car and got under, looked around, and once again found myself wondering, "Why was a soft fuel line going through the cabin on the passenger side?" Huh. That's weird. From what I had read the hard line ran through the tunnel. Why wasn't mine hooked up that way? I drained the gas and pulled the tank and all of the old fuel lines out. The original tank was completely rusted on the inside so I locally sourced an original tank that wasn't rusted and was clean inside. I decided I would try and figure out why they PO had run the fuel line through the cabin and not through the orginal tunnel line. I bought a spool of heavy gauge wire the same diameter as the tunnel line and fed it through the tunnel line trying to clean it out. I couldn't get the wire past a certain point (from the front or the rear) and found that the original tunnel line was somehow pinched. Now I knew why they had run the line inside the cabin. I didn't think running a braided fuel line through the cabin was the safest thing to do so I bought a 25' length of steel line and ran it next to the tunnel under the carpet on the passenger side and out the rear where the brake line also ran. I put the "new" tank in and realized the PO had not vented the old tank correctly either. I schooled myself on fuel tank venting and replaced all of the lines and vented it correctly. I took her for a test drive and, lo and behold, no fuel smell! Job done.

After a few months of driving here and there I started to lose power and suddenly the original AE DP 1600 wouldn't get me over 30 mph. Huh? That's weird. Maybe I should do a compression test. Why am I only getting 55 psi on every cylinder? I guess I need to pull the motor. I had never done that before so I enlisted the help of a friend who used to own a Baywindow and we pulled it out. I had no experience with AC engines so I thought I should at least find a runner while I went through the original one. I found a SP 1600 for $600, bought it, and brought it home. I broke down the top end of my "new" SP and started cleaning it up. I bought some shiny new cylinder tin and a new chrome fan shroud, well you know, just because. After I cleaned it up and replaced some things I took it to my local AC shop to have them bench test it. To my dismay, when they started it up it rattled and shook and they shut it off quickly. Huh. That's weird. The shop broke the engine down over the next couple days and found a washer that had inadvertently fell into the intake on the #3 and #4 side because I stupidly had not plugged the intake while I was cleaning it up. It ruined #3. Darn. Lesson learned. The shop had another SP AE case they had rebuilt recently and I ended up trading my old original engine from the car plus some cash and they put the "new" engine in for me. Two years later it still runs strong and I maintain it myself. As I drove it around during this time I found that after longer drives of over 20 or so miles it wouldn't start after turning it off. I had no power to anything when I turned the key. I could push start it and it would start and run fine. Huh. That's weird. Maybe it's my ignition switch? I schooled myself in the art of ignition switches and replaced it. I took her for a longer drive and shut her off and still the same issue occured. I got under the back seat and checked out the battery area. Why is my ground strap so greasy and tired looking and shouldn't there be insulation around the heater junction pipe next to the battery? I replaced the ground strap and insulated the heater junction pipe and a year later I haven't had an issue.

A year or so ago I got home after a drive and parked her in the driveway. I came back out later and turned the key a lo and behold something "popped". A large wisp of smoke started emanating from behind the dash. Huh. That's weird. I turned the key off quickly and got the fire extinguisher ready. After I was sure there wasn't a fire I pushed her back into the garage. I had no power to anything when I turned the key. Maybe it's my ignition switch again? I replaced the switch again to no avail. I then schooled myself on the art of 1303 wiring diagrams (which are a total pain) and pulled apart the dash and the fuse panel (which is also a total pain). I went through the dash and fuse box wiring trying to run down the problem. My test light and multimeter got quite a workout. After a month or so working on it here and there, I found that the license plate light wire had shorted out on the air cleaner and had fried and melted the wire from the coil to the fuse box and also the wire from the coil to the carb. I replaced and ran a new ignition wire and a new wire to the carb. Problem solved. I put the dash and all the switches back together and 6 months later I haven't had an issue. Three months ago I went to open the bonnet and it wouldn't open. Huh, that's weird. I pulled the handle in the glove box and tried again and it still wouldn't open. I schooled myself on the art of bonnet latches and decided I wasn't going to cut the handle so I tried to figure out a different way to get the latch unstuck. I realized that if I pulled the radio out I could gain access to the cable. A pair of vice grips on the cable and a swift tug finally undid the latch. I haven't replaced the latch or the cable yet because... I just haven't yet. I will soon. And let's not talk about that passenger seat that won't stay in position. So, after 5 years of owning Molly, she has been quite the learning experience. She has filled my life with fun, faults, and frustrations. She has taught me a hell of a lot and has given me a new passion for VWs that had been lurking undiscovered for years. Today, as I write this, I realize, honestly, how little I knew and how naive I was in so many regards. I bought Molly for her looks and came to understand that looks ain't everything. She does have good bones and I still love driving her around town. And my wife? She still won't drive her. Huh? That's weird.


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