How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
April 24, 2017 7:57 PM   Subscribe

John Muir, not the naturalist but a descendent, was the bestselling self-published hippie author of the ultimate guide for VW bus repair. The book was part R. Crumb comic, part auto manual, and part philosophical musing that detailed in simple terms how to fix VW microbuses for the mechanically uninformed. His publishing company produced a similar book for Subarus and the format may have inspired the line of For Dummies and For Idiots books of later years. He also penned a treatise on societal justice called The Velvet Monkeywrench
posted by destro (69 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
My love the VW Beetle came in part because of this book, and it has always been a dream of mine to own both an old Beetle and the guide.

That is all.
posted by ashbury at 8:04 PM on April 24, 2017

What brand of chips did he endorse?
posted by thelonius at 8:09 PM on April 24, 2017

I had a 1972 standard Beetle and this book (which was actually titled How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.) I used its very clear instructions to change the oil and adjust the valves. My Beetle lasted to 212,000 miles, so I must have been doing something right.
posted by blob at 8:15 PM on April 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Out of curiosity, blob, how did your Beetle finally come to its end?
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:17 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

it has always been a dream of mine to own both an old Beetle and the guide.

I have both! While the latter in no way predicates success with the former I'm wiling to bet a decent chunk of cash that it helped foster the birth of the amazing community spirit that comes with owning a vintage VW.

Seriously, it's scary how amazing my experience has been.

I'll keep it brief but in the time I've owned the bug I've had people go from complete stranger to Good Samaritan Like You Wouldn't Believe in 2.4 seconds flat. The first time was a few months after buying our VW Beetle (in good shape, not a beater but we fully expected to have to put in various amounts of blood, sweat, and motor oil to keep her alive) when she ran like hell and then, well, wouldn't. After borrowing a compression tester from a buddy, I posted my results (no compression in 1 cylinder, shit) to a VW forum (Samba, a mainstay for VW resources) and, within hours had an offer from an actual person across town to come by and diagnose further. After that visit and a bit of chit chat we proceeded down the road whereby he basically held my hands through a complete pull (easy on a VW) and rebuild of the upper parts of the engine (pistons, cylinders, and all that jazz) over the course of the next weeks. He also took me out to the local bug graveyard (not that I even knew a thing existed) and mentored me until a move took us out of town.

The second time is in our latest locale where we met, long story but basically another stranger, a bug aficionado local who, upon learning we had our in storage in my parent's garage in the adjacent state, offered (completely seriously) to, anytime we could make it work, drive overnight one weekend and use his VW specific towing equipment AND truck to 'get that baby over here for ya'.

It's unreal to me. And the book, the book, while not exactly right on a few points here and there (as any hardcore mechanic of the genre will tell you) is certainly enough to get you through troubleshooting a broken throttle cable, missing engine shrouding, distributor woes, or fixing a door that won't stay shut. It'll also help you conquer more intense things like engine rebuilds but you'll certainly want a dedicated technical manual for those as well, plus experienced hands help but the VW engine is as simple as it gets. I can't wait to get ours here and convert it to electric for the missus. Gimme a year, that's the deadline she's set, well see.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:19 PM on April 24, 2017 [18 favorites]

Back in '98ish I helped a boyfriend buy a '71 Superbeetle that he worked on based on this book. That car was ten kinds of trouble (seller fucked up the transfer paperwork, it needed a lot of work, eventually I think it just got towed by the city from in front of our house) and most of its running time was in a dank wet cold Texas winter and it had no heater so you had to bundle up, but it was sort of a thrill when it actually started and you went somewhere and got back home again.

My heart's car is a VW bus. Every year, Volkswagen floats some kind of Lyn-killing concept bus revival - usually a camper-conversion-friendly electric thing, the past few years, and people who mean well send me links and every single one of them breaks my goddamn heart. Oh, I know. I know. I have crawled around inside them at car shows, and now I know better to even go see one. It'll never happen. All I want is a sweet little VW Bus as a mobile writer's cabin, as a little overnighter perfect for a childless couple living on the West Coast, a little getaway bugbus for a middle-aged lady who likes to fall asleep in damp marine layer air.

In college, in the 90s, I met my fraternity (long story) grandfather (my pledgefather's pledgefather) in the (surprisingly immaculate) VW bus he took to NYC and lived in for eight months while he did an IBM internship. I don't think I have ever coveted anything the way I did (and still do) long for that bus. Avocado outside, a sort of red and cream plaid Triscuit-textured upholstery inside.

I drive a Prius. I don't even know where the oil goes.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:22 PM on April 24, 2017 [24 favorites]

Bringer Tom I sold the VW Beetle to a friend's younger brother to acquire a Honda CRX. I used to see it around the area for a couple of years after that, but I haven't seen it in many, many years. Many.
posted by blob at 8:23 PM on April 24, 2017

And I had no idea there was a companion piece for Subarus! Where's the one for our 2017 Outback? *crickets*

Oh well, at least we hit the Yuppie Bingo Pick 6 if not the megamillions.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:23 PM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

My 2nd car was a 1963 VW bug with a canvas sunroof. I bought it from a friend of a friend for $75. My dad and I replaced the floor plans with sheet metal from an old road sign, the accelerator pedal was patched with a strap hinge. Then he helped me track the guy down to a flophouse in Muskegon to get him to sign the title. My big brother gave me this book, my grandpa gave me some metric tools, and I had it running in no time. My grandpa said it was "...ticking like a dollar watch." Which, though faint, was praise nonetheless. I painted it with gloss house paint, with a brush, drove it for 3 years, then sold it for $200. This book launched my passion for cars and all things mechanical. It is the manual by which I judge all manuals. I may never own another VW, but the memory of dropping the engine and doing a complete rebuild in a weekend while following "step by step procedures for the compleat idiot" is an essential experience that informs my life to this day.
posted by Floydd at 8:35 PM on April 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

I had both a 66 and a 67 bug, restored a friend's 66 from the ground up and we did the entire engine rebuild with the help of that book. Very fun cars at the time but they got a bit heavy and complicated later on. They were dirty, inefficient and dangerous by todays standards.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:37 PM on April 24, 2017

This is a book I remember clearly from my childhood. The book I remember fondly, but VW less so, with all the breakdowns and sitting in parking lots while my father fixed things. It's cool how well the book explains how to do the repairs, but I'm happy to not be doing all those repairs on a routine basis, too.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:37 PM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

There was also a Rabbit book by Richard Seeley. I have a copy somewhere.

Three take-aways. The exploded diagrams are amazing pieces of art, and remind me how wonderful commercial illustration used to be.

Oh and, "Don't buy ripped off tools. Their Karma is tragic." is something I use to this day when I see someone at work not buy a license for something.
posted by mikelieman at 8:38 PM on April 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

I've owned four classic beetles, and three buses over the years... so many memories and smiles when I think about those. I looked long and hard at a bus a few years ago, but couldn't come to terms with the dealer that held it.

What fun those were.... Thanks for the post
posted by HuronBob at 8:38 PM on April 24, 2017

It's cool how well the book explains how to do the repairs, but I'm happy to not be doing all those repairs on a routine basis, too.
That's the thing, they're easy to fix, but you have to keep fixing 'em.
posted by Floydd at 8:40 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh and the Bow-Wow VW shop was >the< place for parts and service in the 70's and 80's in Seattle. You don't see those doggy stickers too much any more.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:41 PM on April 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I own the latest version of this book, even though I've never owned any VW. Part of it is that it's just a very well written book--I love how he explains things--part of it is nostalgia for the old VW that my uncle owned, and part of it is nostalgia for a car that I could have had but turned down (please don't hate me), a VW that a former co-worker offered to give me that I didn't take in part because I was afraid that it was a stealth lemon that would cost me more than one I paid for, and in part because I'd been through a bad patch of being let down and/or screwed over by people at that point in my life and I didn't trust his generosity. Believe me, even though I've got more than a few missed opportunities under my belt, I don't know that I've regretted anything more than not taking that car.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:46 PM on April 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've had a 70 and 72 bug. And a 71 bus. I used this book doing major work on the 70 bug and the 71 bus. Any book that tells you half way through the engine rebuild procedure to put down your tools and then kick back and enjoy the intoxicant of your choice (heavily suggestive of smoking a joint) is my idea of a repair manual. I no longer have those cars but I still have the book.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:50 PM on April 24, 2017

My first car was a 1972 Superbeetle, green with a hand cranked sun roof and I absolutely had a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot by John Muir.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:50 PM on April 24, 2017

Oh, probably the best take away from that book is that it taught my wife how to take a long handled screwdriver to short the starter/solenoid directly when baby won't crank sometimes. I knew I had a keeper then.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I never had a bug, but I was a member of a similar fraternity, having owned a 1971 Ford F100 pickup truck which I acquired in the late 1980's. It had 3 on the tree manual transmission, manual everything, and holes in the floorboards that I patched with bits from a discarded swimming pool and pop riveter. It was built like a tank and the simplicity was intoxicating. Unfortunately it got terrible gas mileage and there was a period when I really couldn't afford to drive it or pay for insurance for it. But I drove it all over the country when there weren't cellphones and it never stranded me anywhere. I still miss that damn truck.
posted by Bringer Tom at 9:06 PM on April 24, 2017

My high school library had a copy of The Velvet Monkeywrench. Can't say as I really remember anything from it beyond a general granola-eatin' hippyish utopianism. Same library also had the complete (as of 1987) works of Carlos Castaneda, and those got a lot more of my attention way back when...
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:25 PM on April 24, 2017

My first car was a '73 bus. Such a total pain the ass to work on. Two carbs to produce a mighty 40 horsepower. In a tailwind these would ice up into solid blocks. Pretty much needed to drop the engine out to change the sparkplugs. Everything was done at arms-length and finger tips. Only thing between you and crushed tibiae was a piece of sheet metal.

TL;DR: would have as first car again.
posted by Rumple at 9:27 PM on April 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I used to have a '71 Ghia that was held together by the rust and the terrific bumper sticker. It was the worst car on the road - ever.

I was fairly mechanically inclined and that book helped me get through the repairs that I couldn't afford to have Bob at Lord Of The Rings (the greatest VW shop ever) in Dallas do for me.

That book was empowering, man. I felt like I could begin building the Ghia of my dreams because of that book. And I loved how it took the snobbery out of wrenching on a car and turned it into a Thing That You Could Do.

Blew out both rear tires and spun it across the LBJ freeway one fine Sunday. Ran out of money and eventually got rid of it. But the experience of learning it, getting intimate with it, was worth it all.
posted by Thistledown at 9:36 PM on April 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Turn key, check that the engine light comes on. If the light does not work, you cannot drive.

Wow, memories. This book accompanied me and my bus through Europe in '92. Can't remember the model year but it was mid 70s I guess.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:37 PM on April 24, 2017


In the late 90's I used the Compleat Idiot, a Haynes manual and a Bentley manual laid out on the workbench side by side to successfully rebuild the motor on a '71 Westfalia (looked not quite as bad as the one on the right) from the ground up when the main bearing seized up about 8k miles after a "rebuild" by a shade-tree mechanic (originally needed because the previous owner had tried to pull a boat and trailer at highway speeds without keeping an eye on the oil level, resulting in a hole in the engine block I could stick my fist through with ease). What one manual didn't illuminate, one of the others did. While I was at it I added an aftermarket exhaust sytem, which made it sound nicer, and an oil filter/external oil cooler, along with a dash-mounted oil temp gauge, that made it possible to keep up with Interstate traffic without having to stop every hour or so to give the poor thing a breather.

About 5 years later I sold it because after rebuilding the engine I didn't have the $1-1.5k the rest of the bus needed to be truly reliable - i.e. no longer a constant maintenance hassle. And if I'd had another $1k or so on top of that I'd have hot-rodded the engine to take it from the stock 60 HP to 100-120. Badass bus!

It was a sweet ride. I had a great view all around me through all that glass and the seats were comfy. With a good sound system I could cruise along - not fast, but perfectly comfortable - for hundreds of miles. I camped happily in it at many a bluegrass festival.

Now I miss it... On the other hand, my '08 GTI is a total blast to drive, so I'm okay for now I guess.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:52 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, I would drink a Velvet Monkeywrench cocktail.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:39 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

And after actually reading the thread - Lyn Never, I am right there with you in spirit!
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:52 PM on April 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I worked for JMP for a little over a year or so before they were sold to Avalon Travel out in Berkley, CA. They had an office at the Railyard of Santa Fe, NM (where I worked the last years they were there).

Peter Ashwanden was the illustrator of the VW Alive and several other auto repair books. He owned a farm North of Santa Fe until he passed away in 2005. I think he raised goats so the first John Muir logo featured a goat.

I was hired to help with accounting, work in the warehouse (the basement of the Gross-Kelly Building) and I answered the phones. The best calls were always from Rick Steves who has a long history with JMP.

The second best were from folks asking us to help fix their Bug. John Muir was long gone and there wasn’t anyone who knew anything cars who worked there. Still… the callers were always pretty cool about it.
posted by jabo at 11:34 PM on April 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

I love this book so much. My copy is still around here somewhere, dogeared and grease-stained even though I haven't owned a VW since 1984. It served me well through my series of three buses (1969, 1965, 1963 -- every time I got another one, it was an earlier vintage than its predecessor.) I loved how EMPOWERING this book was -- it was really written for the "Compleat Idiot". Going from a total no-nothing as far as auto mechanics was concerned, just learning how to change oil, adjust the valve lifters, set the point gap and timing (using a homemade timing light made from an alligator clip and turn signal bulb) was amazing -- and the essential components of keeping the VW alive, to boot. Eventually I got a chance to use almost all of the procedures in the book, including a total split-the-case overhaul on my '65. The day I got smashed by a drunk (driving a stolen car, no less) that totaled it was a sad one indeed. I sold my last bus in 1984 -- I wasn't using it much at the time and needed the money. I thought I'd get another later -- little did I know what they would be going for in a few years.

Muir's book was a product of a simpler time before electronic ignitions, fuel injectors and dozens of arcane sensors wired up in a CAN bus became the norm, back when cars opened and closed real no-shit metal points inside an honest-to-god distributor to light up their spark plugs and sucked their gas in through carburators, and all of those things needed to be tweaked from time to time to keep everything running right. When I stepped on the gas in my old bus, it worked by literally pulling a metal wire through a hollow tube that ran back from under the pedal to the lever on the side of the carb, opening its butterfly valve to let in more air. These days it's all sensors and network modules and servos and stuff that is probably much more fuel efficient and lower maintenance, but at the cost of taking control over repair and maintenance away from the driver. All of which, I realize, is just fine for almost everyone.

By the way, I've always suspected that the popular "Idiot's Guide to xxx" series of books ripped off the idea from Muir and wondered if he received anything in return other than the sincerest form of flattery.
posted by TwoToneRow at 12:12 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

My first car was a third-hand '69 Beetle semi-automatic, and while I never did much more than change-the-oil-level stuff myself, John Muir probably prevented a few mechanics from ripping me off, as well as ensuring I recognized the good guys. Reading The Compleat Idiot (with that amazing Peter Ashwanden art!) taught me to pay attention to what was happening to my car; and was also just a fun, thoughtful read from a dude who obviously cared about his subject, warts an all.

Those "Idiot's Guide" books ripped off his basic idea, and yeah they've got a lot of useful info, but they've never had the plain old CHARM of Muir's original.
posted by easily confused at 1:39 AM on April 25, 2017

My first car was a '75 Honda Civic (bought at a time when they were no longer cool), and I happily discovered there was a Muir guide for that car as well. I never had much mechanical experience, but using the book, and a friend who grew up in a small town buying and crashing old cars, I was able to change the oil and spark plugs, and run compression tests. This was a big deal in my family, all experienced yellow pages users when it came time to getting something fixed.

And what never gets mentioned is that the Honda book, covering some six years of Civics and CVCCs, was maybe half the size and much simpler than the Bug and Rabbit books.
posted by morspin at 2:26 AM on April 25, 2017

Don't have the '71 Squareback anymore, still have this book.
posted by padraigin at 4:54 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a 72 super that I bought in 86 and a friend of mine gave me his copy of Muir. I drove the car up to 250K miles, doing my own oil changes and tune-ups before it had enough. The things that were failing were beyond my time/abilities/money so I let it go. I later gave away my copy to someone who needed it. I still have my old tach/dwell meter it someone wants it.

Except for the day the wrecker came to tow it away, I could say that it never ran right, but it always ran.

At one point, I saved up enough for a rebuild and took it to Egenton's in Plainfield, a garage run by an Irish family who specialized in VW's. They did the work and I drove it home. On the way home, I heard this loud knocking sound from the driver's side rear wheel. I turned around and brought it back. I described what was going on to Eddie and he said, in a wonderful Irish lilt, "did it sound like a wee little man sitting on your rear axle hitting it with a hammer?" Yes. "Ah, that would be your constant velocity joint. I hope you're not going on any long trips." Actually, I need to drive to Ohio in 2 days. "Ah, then we'll be getting to it right away."
A few minutes later, he comes into the office and said, "I don't know how you did it, but you got a golf ball stuck under the rear axle boot. You'll be on your way, now." Heading home, shortly before I heard the noise, I passed a golf course. Likely, I half ran over a ball in the road and it shot out like a watermelon seed and wedged in the boot.

Once, I locked the keys in the ignition while I was gassing it up. I realized my mistake and asked for help from the attendant. He got out a slim jim and totally failed to undo the lock. I knew that my trunk lock had never worked so I opened it up, asked to borrow a screwdriver and took apart the glove compartment, which let me reach far enough through to open the door. Ta-da!
posted by plinth at 6:43 AM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

My air cooled Volkswagens are long gone. But my oily copy of Muir is still on my shelf.
posted by billcicletta at 6:45 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a '62 VW cargo van and a '73 Super Beetle. This book was my go-to for keeping those beasts alive.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:54 AM on April 25, 2017

I don't have time this morning, but I will say: 1992, San Francisco, horrible relationship breakup --> her half of the security deposit went to a 68 Bus which, using this book and a couple of cool hippie mechanics that probably don't even exist in SF anymore I fixed up over the next 6 months. Before starting school on the east coast in the fall (which had neatly been arranged in the home town of horrible relationship break up girl), I spent the summer driving across the country, again with the help of this book. Lost compression in a cylinder after stupidly driving through Death Valley in the middle of the summer. Almost met the man himself in Grand Junction where I stopped because my brakes felt soft (turned out I left the cover on the vacuum assist when I replaced it). There were many adventures along the way, but I remember hitting the continental divide high in Colorado and feeling such a sense of independence and release. Pulled into the parking lot of the Collegiate Range and parked next to another VW bus with a guy whose story basically mirrored mine, driving from Philadelphia to Berkeley for school. We played hacky sack on top of the middle of America before moving on in opposite directions.

About 6 months after arriving in DC, someone left a note on my bus offering to buy it. I needed a more reliable car for Med school and ended up selling the car I bought for $800 to a D.C. Lobbyist who had sold his soul years ago. He gave me $6000.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:15 AM on April 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

My first car was a '74 VW Rabbit named Rusty and I had the Rabbit version of the repair manual, which was awesome. Using that book, my brother helped me rebuild the carburetor one summer. And it worked. There's no way two kids with essentially no car repair experience could have managed that feat with a regular repair manual.

Another time (maybe it was earlier that summer), I was driving home from college with a couple of random guys found through the college ride share bulletin board and, after dropping one of them off in Chicago and having some of his grandma's excellent chicken soup, the other guy and I got stuck in Iowa when the timing belt broke. We hitched a ride to a town and found a garage and the mechanic found Poor Richard's Rabbit Book in my car and used the instructions to replace the belt, remarking afterwards that the author had an interesting sense of humor.
posted by Redstart at 7:24 AM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

63' bug, 66' bus..70' bus. Drove the 66' bus around the perimeter of the US. Even big engine hot roders loved my bus...somehow the antithesis of muscle and ultra cool at the same time.
posted by judson at 7:33 AM on April 25, 2017

Grew up with a 69 Bug (after birth, came home from the hospital in it) and a 76 Bus (how I learned to drive). You can be darn tootin' that there was a very dog-eared copy of Compleat in our house (actually two, we got the fancy reprint edition too for posterity). And parts catalogs. And Bentley books. And oil leaks. There were always oil leaks. I had the luxury of living through the period where our family's Bus went from terminally HIP to terminally UNCOOL back to terminally HIP.
posted by readyfreddy at 7:40 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had my dad's Super Beetle in college, but had to get something modern in order to be able to go to work without a sweat soaked shirt in the summer. Always planned to get another some day and I thought I would be an air cooled VW person forever, but the prices around the DC area are just nonsensical. All I want is a solidish floor, clear glass, brakes, and an engine that usually functions but people are making them really really nice. It's just so impractical. I'll probably keep going to Bug Outs and looking for cheap runners, but I can't afford or understand a luxury Beetle.
posted by mattamatic at 7:52 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I definitely took Muir's statement that "If we all constantly drive as if we were strapped to the front of the car like Aztec sacrifices, so we'd be the first thing hit, there would be a helluva lot less accidents." to heart when driving my '62 van. Nothing but a thin piece of metal between you and whatever is in front of you on the road, a big horizontal steering wheel to cut you in half, and barely adequate brakes to stop the damn thing.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:03 AM on April 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

As a teenager around 2000 my parents were cool enough to let me drive a 1970 Karmann Ghia cabriolet (convertible). Provided, of course, I learn to fix it myself. Which I did mostly with the help of the Compleat Idiot. It was my daily driver for almost ten years, and the experience of inhabiting that car was formative in some real ways.

The car was passed to a real restoration-type VW guy, but I still have that torn up and greasy book on my shelf.
posted by cmoj at 8:07 AM on April 25, 2017

Karmann Ghia

Or, as a friend of mine liked to call them, Kar-mangy-a.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:12 AM on April 25, 2017

Got this book when I got my ratty '72 Autostick Beetle back in the eighties and I would never, ever, ever want to own, drive, or ride in another wretched aircooled VW (they're nice to sit in while parked as a place to read a book, provided you're not sitting in the back seat and setting the car on fire with the mere act of sitting on the seat in which brilliant German engineering dictated that the metal seat springs could be easily compressed into the terminals of the battery whilst holding up the fluffy jute of the seat padding that would immediately go up in flames), but I still reread Muir's book from time to time because it's just a delight to read and a perfect primer in being engaged with mechanical things. It's inspiring, funny, and comprehensive, and a delight, even if the actual subject of the book is a destination of perpetual woe.
posted by sonascope at 9:13 AM on April 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Damn tell us how you really feel sonascope.

I feel you, I do.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:24 AM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Autostick Beetle

Was that the thing where it was semi-automatic, like it operated the clutch for you as you shifted? A girl in my high school had one of those.
posted by thelonius at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2017

Was that the thing where it was semi-automatic, like it operated the clutch for you as you shifted?

That was what it was supposed to do, and occasionally did…if you were lucky.

It was no Citromatic, to be sure.
posted by sonascope at 11:31 AM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Velvet Monkey Wrench. This was quite the thing back in the day. In a way, it outlined a philosophy of governance that resembled the "fix your own car" notions. The VW, you remember, was the ironic twist to a vehicle that was originally designed to serve one of the most vile dictatorships in recent history--iconic, as the transportation of the love generation.

One idea proffered in the book was a system by which every enfranchised citizen could vote (via something like our present-day ATM card), one person, one vote; no regulation gets passed without a 51% approval--not a simple majority of those who vote, but 51% all registered voters.

Seems like he wasn't a big fan of political partisanship. Or the electoral college. He thought that our country could move from a representative democracy to a true democracy by reducing the power we invest in our legislators. This was in the early 170's, mind you, before we realized that we could display everything about anything on a system available to everyone, so that everybody got to say something about it, and the sum of their views would make the plot bones of our democracy.

I'm pretty sure that's where I first heard the term "Cosmic Muffin."
posted by mule98J at 11:48 AM on April 25, 2017

Someone sold me a 1962 (not sure) VW bus for a quarter, yes, twenty-five cents in late 1969. It ran. the floor had rusted out from winters in an icy climate where roads were salted, the sunroof was missing too. We got some plywood and fixed those. A few months later, after rigging it up for camping, we took off an a cross-country trip, me, my boyfriend, and our young baby. First we headed to LA to visit his sisters. We got as far as Atascadero when the engine blew up. We ended up camping for days by the side of the road as we rebuilt the engine using that book. It was hot and dusty and we were covered with grease all the time. The good thing was that two averagely strong adults could lift the engine out without help. Made it to LA, then made it New York, and then Vermont. It had endless problems. I used to have to crawl under it every few months to mess with the clutch cable. I used a turnbuckle to pull the two broken ends together. I don't remember if that was in the book, but maybe it was. The other repairs I did myself were, I think, but it was a long time ago.

It finally died somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike and I'd had enough, I left it there and vowed never to own another stupid VW again. I left the very greasy John Muir book in the car.
posted by mareli at 12:13 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

...and vowed never to own another stupid VW again.

The ending of many a Volkswagen story.
posted by madajb at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2017

I had a 73 Beetle that I bought sometime in the mid 90s along with this book

The book gave me the knowledge and confidence to do basic work on almost every other car I owned.

It's a fantastic book. I should get another copy.
posted by Gev at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2017

Sonascope, you have given me the likely explanation for why my moms Beetle burst into flames one day on the way from the grocery store.
She would let me drive that car to work when I was 18, and I loved the auto-stick. However we lived in New England and I hated getting off work at 11pm and getting into a car with no heat! I remember driving down the road with one hand out the window trying to scrape frost from the windshield...
When I was 12 my family brought a VW bus and loaded 2 parents, a family friend and 5 kids into for a trip through southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chili. My Dad built two big wooden boxes and strapped them to the top to hold all our gear. In my family now when you mention the word "coffin" that's what everyone thinks of first. We got stopped at the Brazilian border and the guards let us through because I could name the towns of the Triangulo Mineiro...I would love to do that trip again.
posted by SyraCarol at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

To be clear, I'd never buy another VW. I've owned 4 in my lifetime from Rabbit --> other Rabbit (diesel) --> bus --> GTI and I'm done. It's a myth that the old air cooled engines are "easy" to work on, a myth helped along by Muir's amazing book, but for a mid 60s engine, things were hard to reach and had to be set up just so. I mean, setting the valves every 3000 miles? Muir made it conceptually simple, the Germans made it physically difficult.

Maybe I'd like a hobby car one day to work on with my kids, but it will probably be a BMW 2002 and even then I'm a little freaked out about another German car.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:40 PM on April 25, 2017

Well, the thing is it was a 1930's engine, so it isn't fair to compare it to a '60s one. I found it easy to work on, even though the engine compartment was a tight squeeze and it required fairly regular maintenance. It got to the point where I could pull, completely rebuild, and reinstall a VW engine in a day. Very few basic tools were required to keep old VWs going. I built my '73 from parts --- it was a frankenwagen made up of the remains of about 7 other cars, but in doing so I got to know literally every single nut, bolt, and wire in the thing.

Mind you if I was driving something newer and more reliable I probably never would have to develop those kind of skills.
posted by fimbulvetr at 2:05 PM on April 25, 2017

Setting the valves was about 15 or 20 minutes work in the driveway under the car. Pop the covers and go at it with the feeler gauges.
posted by fimbulvetr at 2:10 PM on April 25, 2017

Subarus had the simplicity of the VW engine design without being air cooled. But it's all electronic these days.
posted by destro at 2:23 PM on April 25, 2017

My first car was a '74 VW Rabbit named Rusty and I had the Rabbit version of the repair manual, which was awesome. Using that book, my brother helped me rebuild the carburetor one summer. And it worked. There's no way two kids with essentially no car repair experience could have managed that feat with a regular repair manual.

I posted a couple of images from that book upthread, and I won't say that the difference between these manuals and others is Acid, but man, I spent a lot of time 'studying' that 'exploded Rabbit' full page, and it's accurate. Period.
posted by mikelieman at 2:29 PM on April 25, 2017

Well, the thing is it was a 1930's engine, so it isn't fair to compare it to a '60s one.

The air-cooled boxer twin in a Citroën 2CV is virtually the same age, development-wise, as the post-WWII VW Type I Sedan's boxer four, but does not require the seemingly constant fidgeting a VW engine required.

Mind you, one good thing in the midst of the usual German murkgeneering was that it was super-easy to drop the engine out of a Beetle, so you could do the mid-range work with the engine sitting on a picnic table like a dirty toaster oven instead of trying to work in that miserable engine compartment. Heaven help you if you were trying to work in the claustrophobic horror of a notchback, though.
posted by sonascope at 2:59 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

P.S. I'm still irritated that none of Muir's people ever did a book for A-series Citroëns, which had the hippie street-cred in Europe that VWs had in the US, and would have made for hilarious asides and commentary in the periphery. That said, I had the Rabbit one for my '81 Scirocco and the Subaru one for working on my ex-boyfriend's wagon, and they weren't quite as fun, so you really can't beat the original.
posted by sonascope at 3:04 PM on April 25, 2017

Oh, hey! I forgot all about that book, man. It was highly-rated in Whole Earth, man. And saved my cookies a few times, too!

Sadly, someone drove my khaki-green buggy, ignoring the red oil-light warning, and I just gave the book away. I miss them both.
posted by Twang at 6:16 PM on April 25, 2017

A picked up a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive in the late 1970s, but my VW history predates that purchase.
  • I learned to drive in a 1968 Beetle.
  • Shortly after, met a boyfriend who drove a ~1960 Beetle, which didn't have a gas gauge. It had a reserve tank, which held a gallon of gas (abt $.35-.40 worth), so when the car started sputtering because it was running out of fuel, you kicked over the lever to the right of the gas pedal to open that tank.
  • Briefly owned a VW bus that had, unfortunately, been mistreated by a prior owner. Never ran worth a damn.
  • Bought a used 1974 Karmann Ghia ~'78, which is when I picked up the book. Only car I have ever loved. It was totaled a couple of years later by my 1st husband, who was otherwise a pretty good guy.
  • Bought my 1st new car in 1980, a Rabbit that had a sunroof. Took my grandma for a ride and she said "well look at that—a window in the roof". I still like sunroofs, but I admit that ever since that day, they've seemed inherently silly.
I just added The Velvet Monkey Wrench to my reading list. I'm sure I'm a charter member of his target audience.
posted by she's not there at 7:27 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I wasn't aware of this book, but now reading this thread, as a current owner of a 73 Superbeetle, I feel like I need to get a copy. We used to take it to one place to get various repairs done, but then their Beetle guy retired so we have to go to another place where another old white-haired guy works on it. I've been thinking we need to learn to be self-sufficient because that guy's a lot older than me and he's not gonna last forever.

Everywhere we go in it we get smiles and purchase offers and so many people telling us that was their first car. When I came back from 3 years working abroad the first thing most people who were still around from before asked me was if I still had my old Beetle.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 9:22 AM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

My first car was a white, 1970 Type 1 Beetle. I bought it for $1500 in 1987 from a guy who owned a big farm in the next county over. He had bought it new, and had kept in in good condition, but didn't have a place to keep it any more. I named it Marilyn. I drove it until the engine blew in 1992. I loved it so much, I couldn't part with it, even if it was no longer a feasible mode of transport for me. My stepfather kept it covered up with a tarp in one of his barns. One of these days, I vowed, I was going to get a new engine and fix it up, just to have and drive occasionally. But I never had the money.

About four years ago, my mother got a call from the guy who sold me the car. He wanted to know who we had sold it to. She said we still had it, and he got emotional. He said a lot of things had gone badly wrong in his life, and when he looked back, it all started when he sold me the car. He offered me $2000. That's right—not only did the car not lose value, it increased in value, despite the fact it had a blown motor.

Mom called and told me the story and asked if I wanted to sell. She knew what the car meant to me, but he seemed like he needed it worse than I did. How could I say no to that? I said yes. Tell him her name is Marilyn.
posted by vibrotronica at 3:42 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

vibrotronica - Have you seen the prices old Beetles get nowadays? He got it back for a steal!!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:52 PM on April 27, 2017

Oh man I totally forgot about the Velvet Monkeyrrench; one of those weird things I ran into as a kid that made an impression mostly because it was just . . . different than anything else I had seen. Among other things I seem to recall it predicted a handheld payment system kinda like what you can do with smartphones now.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:18 PM on April 30, 2017

What? Yes, setting the valves is a ungodly easy job for anyone with a driveway, a screwdriver, wrench, and feeler gauges. I don't get the woe is me theme for that sort of thing when it's nearly impossible, by literal design, to work on modern cars at all, lest they throw some sort of error code and/or need a specific tool to get the job done.

I'm not getting into the weeds on that debate but at least you didn't have to have a fully fleshed professional garage to work on the car yourself nor did you have to pull the radiator to replace a headlight assembly (not that these cars had radiators per se) nor did a slight fenderbender cause you to be out a small fortune at the body shop because the panels, nay entire car, are made to be thrown away rather than actually repaired (when needed). But, of course safety in general was far worse...

Bah, I'm getting into the weeds I promised I'd stay out of so I'll stop and say that I'm really looking forward to converting our beetle to electric drive and that's something I doubt many folks with a 2007 Corolla or Camry or something could even begin to contemplate, because simplicity.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:18 PM on May 1, 2017

I went out to go on errands. As I was driving off I noticed a bright blue piece of odd shaped paper under my windshield wiper. This Westfalia van of mine gets some attention in Bako. I have had a half dozen long conversations out of nowhere with strangers about this van. Later in the errand process I remember the paper and get it, and it is a handwritten invitation to visit a certain Vanagon mechanic in town, with phone and email. Then there is an event called Synchro Fest, and I am told I can google it. The paper is school cardboard, random cut. I had to go to a little town named Mexia, in Texas near Dallas-Fort Worth. I bought the Westy on Ebay, and picked it up there, and had it checked out. I drove it 100 miles, to pick up my Mom and her dogs, who were moving back to Utah. It was a long drive, but it was my second chance to visit the Hubble Trading Post, somewhat near Canyon de Chelly, and so I went that way. This was 2006, and this van is still my car, for everyday driving, and extraordinary venturing, out into the whatever I want to look at. I have spent many a night up top. Mechanics are hard to come by, I get buy as best I can.
posted by Oyéah at 5:45 PM on May 2, 2017

As a kid we had a VW bus for awhile. Rear engine, air cooled is no way to haul around a family of five in a place with hills.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 12:05 PM on May 21, 2017

« Older Goodbye, Phaedrus   |   Wikitribune, evidence-based journalism and... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments