My 1963 Bug Restoration Project

Folks like me are crazy about restoring an old Bug (or maybe just plain crazy). You wanna see just how bad it can get? Then read here the chronicles of one man's twisted obsession...

WWJD if He Were an Aging Hippy? (October 2003)

Like many people, I had a Beetle once. So, I bought another old VW Beetle last weekend. Not that I don't particularly care for the new ones. They're fine, although they're way more expensive than a Beetle ought to be. I mean, you can't really call them the People's Car when the people who can buy them are generally in the SUV income bracket. I'm sure New Beetle owners think they're worth it but the price simply runs counter to Bug philosophy, in my opinion. Besides, I'm not in the market for another big car payment.

Oh, yeah, you're smirking. Bug Philosophy, he says? Consider this:

Old Beetle - Low priced, simply engineered, minimalist luxuries, manufactured in mass (more than 21 million when the last one rolled off the line in Mexico on July 30th).

21 Million! If you're keeping score, 21,529,464 to be exact. There's not 21 million of anything, except McDonald's hamburgers and little kids with funny-sounding Yuppie names.

New Beetle - Limited manufacture, high-end accessories and options, state-of-the-art engineering, high price. Directly counter to the Bug Philosophy. You might even call it the Anti-Beetle.

Yes, there's a Bug Philosophy. Right-thinking ex-hippies know this, and live it.

Anyway, I bought an old one. A '63, in fact. Why, you ax? Well, for a number of reasons -

- The older the better, as far as I'm concerned. At least pre-'67, and it's not like I'll be able to find nor even afford a '50's model anytime soon. That, and a fully restored old Beetle, regardless of age, can be a little pricey.

- Mrs. Bugmundo just got her driver's license, and is now hell-bent on driving all over town for every conceivable reason and celebrating her new-found mobility and

- as a result, a second car would come in handy and

- I wanted a project car and I happen to be crazy 'bout them old Beetles.

But there is the murky little thought somewhere in the recesses of my cranium which suggests that maybe, just maybe this might be some sort of midlife crisis kinda thing. So, I decided to take stock of life's assets to see if a crisis were in order:

Job - good.

Home - ditto.

Bank account - not bad, so I will deplete it with a restoration project. Check.

Marriage - married 15 months, honeymoon is still on. No complaints there.

Looked to me like all was going swell. So good, in fact, that I have been tempted to do something to take the edge off of it a little. I toyed with the notion of taking up smoking, but when I was reading the cigarette package looking for instructions on how to operate them I discovered that the Surgeon General states that they're bad for you!

Get out! Who knew?

So I figured I'd go for the next best thing, a full-on automotive restoration project. I chose this particular plan of action because I'm too faithful for an affair and I figured that this can't be any harder than anything else that requires time or attention, like raising kids. And although it could be just as expensive as either the affair or the kids there are advantages: the car does not have to be nagged into doing homework and when I get tired of the car I can sell it. This is something that is generally considered to be poor form with respect to children, and, I am told, may actually be illegal.

So Mrs. Bugmundo and I drove out with The Dog on the first chilly Saturday morning of autumn to inspect this one. I had put up flyers offering a $50 finder's fee, and it worked. Someone had called me the previous day with a tip, and off we went.

I saw. I drove. I liked. The kid wanted more than I wanted to pay, so we split the diff and made the deal. This was gonna be his restoration project, but he was liquidating it to finish his VW Bus restoration. Jerry Garcia would have been proud to see that the Youth of America still hold true to traditional transportation values.

I'll skip the technical stuff. Suffice to say that although the Bug is quite ugly the rust level is extremely low, making this project a bit easier than I had anticipated. I say that now, but only time will tell if I am so chipper when I am up to my ass in repairs. In the meantime I expect to pass a chilly winter gathering the stuff I will need to prepare to paint the lil' bugger in the Spring.

More to follow (natch), but I will at least leave you with a photo of my baby, a 1963 Deluxe Beetle. Notice the artistically hand-painted spiral on the left rear hubcap.

Groovy, man!

Man, it sure got cold! (November)

Just 10 days ago (no exaggeration) it was mojitos in the garden with Mrs. Bugmundo. Now, it's suddenly cold. Chilly, autumn weather with no end in sight. Yeah, sure, you folks in colder climes are thoroughly disgusted with my wussiness regarding our low of 38 degrees. But here, that's kinda chilly.

So the other morning I went forth to my daily grind, and was I ever surprised to see my breath on a chilly Texas Panhandle morn. Thought I was gonna freeze big-time on the way to work, since I am now driving the Bug on a daily basis. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Beetle's heating was working, or at least it was working more or less as it was designed to work. That is to say, the air-to-air heat exchanger was exchanging heat and the heater channels are neither rusted out nor blocked, so when I obtained some forward airspeed I also got some airflow, combined with a flurry of rust, dust and dead insect wings.

Apart from the barrage of crap, it was rather nice to have at least a little warm air to make the ride a bit more pleasant. Little surprises and simple pleasures. Those are the things that make life worth living.

Everything I Know About Car Restoration Up To This Point (or ... My First Expensive Mistake)

Did I happen to mention that I am restoring an old Beetle? Well, I am now within weeks of doing the paint job. Woulda done it earlier, but a couple of things got in the way, not the least of which was a job transfer to Miami. The other speed bump was a blown engine just before Christmas and since the budget was already stressed with holiday shopping, a new engine wasn't really in the plan just then.

But as soon as I received notification of my impending move, I got off my duff and ordered the engine I needed, another 40HP flat four. This is where it got more expensive than it should have been, and I'll tell you why.

When I first got the car it had its original motor, and since it was pretty old I considered rebuilding the mill although it was running fine. I had been working with a shop in Texas, and when I told the guy what I had in mind he recommended against it. "Just wait until it blows and put in another one." he advised. Well, it blew all right; threw a rod right through the case.

I suppose in the era of plentiful VW motors his advice would have been reasonable, but now each passing day makes bug parts more rare and thus more expensive. A rebuild might have cost me $500, but a new 40HP cost a grand, plus shipping. And it was kinda hard to find, too. Besides, now the vehicle is not original, and I'm a little angry at myself since I know this little mark against my total restoration could have been prevented.

Looking back, I can understand that guy's perspective. He makes money selling new 1600s, and he's not a restorer. He's a mechanic. A fixer. He earns his daily bread by making Beetles go, not by making them show. And why not? For every guy who's willing to shell out for a pan-off resto there are 100 who just need brakes or a tune-up or whatever. For him, there's no money in a restoration, so his head is simply not in the game.

I shoulda listened to my gut. Aside from shelling out more clams than required, I strayed from the restoration standard. And what is that standard, you may ask? It's simple. Make the car just like it was when it left the factory. Period.

Not that I have anything against the California look, or a hot rod, or a sand rail or any other automotive genre. I recognize that people like these things, and most of these require as a basic ingredient a vintage car. But if you are restoring a vehicle you have to be true to both the letter and spirit of the original design, and deviations should be in the form of correct accessories that do not functionally change the auto. If further modifications are made, then they must be made for a good reason and with the understanding that the end result will never be anything other than a modified stock vehicle.

Now maybe you are thinking "Who cares? It's not that important." Well, you're right, if all you want to do is fix up an old ride (and there's nothing wrong with that). But this is one of those things in which the total is greater than the sum of its parts. The combination of myriad details will have an effect on the end result that is difficult to define and impossible to duplicate except through meticulous attention to detail.

Allow me to illustrate.

Perhaps you have marveled at a beautiful old piece of furniture in a museum, but when you look at what is supposed to be a quality reproduction in a high-end furniture store it just doesn't seem to be as nice. Why is that?

I'll tell you why is that. It's called attention to detail, from the choices of parts and materials all the way down to techniques and even the craftsman's attitude. All of these things combine, just like ingredients in a recipe, to make something extraordinary that is a product of rather than a mere reflection of its elements.

Consider the furniture. Sure, the historical craftsman was limited by the technology and the materials of his day, but he was not limited by the technology nor the materials of the present day. If his plan called for wood one inch thick, then it's an inch. Not 3/4" kiln-dried. The table top was made flat with hand tools, the finish was mixed from the raw ingredients in the shop using a traditional formula (not purchased by the gallon at Home Depot) and applied and polished by hand (not sprayed on). Holes drilled by hand. Nails, screws, pegs and other hardware made by hand with tools he also made by hand. These things don't necessarily make the furniture better, but they do make the furniture different. And this subtle difference is perceptible, albeit indefinable, and even the untrained eye can recognize which is authentic and which is reproduction. Or more accurately speaking, your soul knows the difference, because the craftsman's spirit transcends the materials and the form.

You've experienced this yourself, I'm sure. It's like eating a great meal. It's more than the food. It's a combination of the food, the way it's prepared, everything that goes with it, the drinks, the location, the company you keep, your appetite, the conversation - all of these make for the total experience and define the difference between a fine meal and a drive-through burger.

Having waxed philosophic, let me offer some advice. If you are restoring (or building) something - a car, a house, a life, whatever - learn from my mistakes:

Be true to the genre. If it's a hot rod, then do it right. If it's a restoration, get the right stuff and build it like you know you should.

Listen to your gut. Anyone who uses the phrase "That's really not necessary" is probably not in the right frame of mind to help you do a really first-rate job. There is no shortcut to excellence.

If you change something make it for your reasons, not anyone else's. Just because some bonehead mechanic says he won't work on 6 volt cars doesn't mean you need to convert to 12 volts unless that's what you want (that was my other mistake).

If you buy well in the first place, you won't have to replace. Replace things only if restoration is not feasible. Rechromed original door handles will always be better quality than inexpensive reproductions. You will maintain the original feel by using original parts. Remember - the details matter.

Make your decision, then stay the course. If you decide to restore, restore. If you're going to build a show car, then do it. But don't be afraid to get advice, make a mistake, get a second opinion or spend money. You will do all of these things often, not just in this project but also in life.

That's all I got. I feel much better now. And even without my saying all of this, you already knew what needs to be done. Now go and do it.

A Birth Certificate for My Baby

The other day I received a nice surprise in the mail. Wasn't really a surprise, since it was something I had asked for, but it was a pleasant thing to receive amongst all the bills and junk mail I usually get. That nice surprise was my beetle's birth certificate.

For those of you just tuning in, we're talking about a classic car. I don't know if anything like this is available for your old Ford or Packard, but the VW Museum in Germany offers this neat little service. I went to the VW AutoMuseum site (click on the little British flag unless you read German), clicked on the "Contacts" link and just told them what I was looking for. Here's the response I got back ....

Dear Sir or Madam,

We are pleased to research data of your Volkswagen and to draw up a birth certificate with the recorded data regarding original engine, colour, date of manufacture, port of destination.

The price for this service is 15 euros / dollars which you have to pay "cash with order", please. Our terms of payment are by cash or via Visa / Mastercard - card number and expiry date.

Please do not forget to inform us about the chassis number of your vehicle, the name of the vehicle's owner and the complete address where we should send the certificate to.

We need 4 to 5 weeks for the research.

We are looking forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully,

Christine Neefe

AutoMuseum Wolfsburg

And that's exactly what happened. Just about the time that I was thinking that 4 weeks or so had passed, I opened the mailbox and there was a nifty certificate, which I'm thinking will look pretty good in a frame on the garage wall.

If you're like me, you can think of about a million parts you need to buy with that 15 bucks. But once in a while it's OK to buy something unnecessary that makes you feel a little extravagant and reminds you that you've got something with history and class in the garage.