The term “airhead” certainly carries less-than-endearing connotations. It’s one of those things I’ve always shied away from. Pity never moved me to commiseration, and thankfully, my level head kept me out of their camp.

But in the fall of 2009 I bought a car, and in so doing became an airhead. I didn’t realize it at the time; quite to the contrary, I thought myself exquisitely fortunate. This is probably typical of airheads. The very thing in which they exult is but proof of their foolishness.

Today I know, as I did not when buying my car, that Volkswagen enthusiasts call themselves airheads. The stereotypical classic Volkswagen needs near-constant mechanical work, so the owner must be somewhat of a gear-head or motor-head. And since vintage Volkswagens sport air-cooled motors (rather than common water cooled motors) Volkswagen enthusiasts found a way to differentiate between common motor-heads and special ones who drive classic Volkswagens: Airhead. In the motoring sense, there is nothing derogatory about the term. So, being the proud owner of a classic VW, I gladly embraced the name.

After owning my Volkswagen for some time, and getting to know it better, I began to worry that I might be the silly kind of airhead. Silly because I’d been blind to a vast number of maladies afflicting my car. It made me think of the French queen’s quote in Ever After. “Choose wisely, Henry. Divorce is only something they do in England.” I wasn’t married to my car, but the saying rang true anyhow. I’d messed up on the “choose wisely” part. My car and I were in it for the long haul, since finding a buyer for my car in its current state would certainly be a miracle. Divorce was out of the question unless I could really pull the wool over a buyer’s eyes.

And now I could describe the car, but I have given you photos instead. That allows me to indulge in listing specifications: something I love doing.

The car is as follows:
1966 Volkswagen Type III Fastback
Passenger Capacity: 5 (I added a seatbelt)
Air-cooled 1600cc 4-cylinder single port engine producing 53 horsepower
Top Speed: 65-75ish. The speedometer needle tends to bounce between those numbers at high speed.
Transmission: 4-speed manual, rear wheel drive.
Special options: Sunroof (rare-ish, I’m told), custom Porsche headlight grilles, custom rear air intake, working dome light.

The things I didn’t discover until later were along the lines of rusted floor pans, bent frame-head, bad window seals, and so on. But despite these, the car has been just great, and I’ve embarked on an adventure unlike any in my personal history. Its an adventure where the “get out” part means getting out to the garage. Its an entirely new kind of getting out which I have come to enjoy thoroughly. I didn’t fully realize this until last week when Dane made a comment along the lines of, “Yeah, but once you get it all back together you won’t want to tear it apart again…” I thought about this for a moment, but wasn’t sure he was right.

Rusted floor pans, not surprising but still unfortunate.

Before I started tearing anything apart, though, I drove the car for a while and accustomed myself to it. Most fortunate was my engine, which worked fine and needed little or no help. That helped me to forgive other problems, because engine work scares me more than most things. It’s like messing with someone’s heart. I’d much rather be the doctor who deals with hangnails – there is so much less to go wrong. And since my car’s healthy little heart had no trouble pumping me about town, like a little oxygen molecule in the blood-red shell of my car, I remained happy. I would deal with the hangnails as they came.

Stowaways don't actually fit in the cargo compartment.

In the first eighteen months I owned the car, I managed to make good progress on pesky ailments, adjusting a crooked hood panel, tightening loose bolts, replacing a bad battery terminal, and finally, removing all the carpets so that my rusted floor pans could be replaced. Certainly, this was more than a hangnail, but a senior surgeon handled the cut and paste operation of removing and renewing the damaged floor. Volkswagens are unibody vehicles, meaning that they have no frame or chassis, like most autos, but instead rely on the combined strength of the body and floorpan assembly to maintain their structural integrity. This being the case, it is important that patch panels in the floor pans retain the strength the original floorpans had.

With so many repair jobs behind me, I figured I could cruise for a while. In preparation I replaced the bald, low profile tires with a set of tall, narrow tires like the car had when it rolled off the assembly line. Though different tires changed the look of the car, I had heard they were far safer than the fat “hotrod” tires I’d been driving on. As I drove out of the tire shop, I discovered that my car would turn right, but not left. To make a long and painful story short, this was because the left arm of the frame head had been bent back – about 1.5 inches – and as a result the left front tire had been pushed back a corresponding 1.5 inches and now rubbed on the wheel well.

I said earlier that Volkswagens don’t have a frame. While this is true, the front of the floor pan has an appendage with two arms which hold the front beam. This is known as the frame head. Mounted on the front of the frame head is the front beam. And mounted on each end of the front beam are the two front wheels.

Crunched! My car's version of a broken arm.

The frame head issue led to four months of pre-surgery research. Suffice it to say that after consulting half a dozen skilled mechanics, reading hundreds of pages of online VW forums, and jacking the car up too many times to count, I decided to pull the body off the floor pans. Someone who has done this before will tell you its really not that hard. Remove 32 pan-to-body bolts, four wires on the engine, seats, carpet, gas tank, steering column, speedometer cable and hood panel. Thats it! Oh yeah, and make sure to take the shifter out. Otherwise you must lift the car an extra 15 inches.

The simplicity of the information, however, did little to bolster my confidence in pulling the car apart. Seeing as I had little choice whether or not to remove the body, I went ahead with the process. As I dug in, my confidence grew until I felt something akin to enthusiasm about the project.

The Type III's removable fenders were designed to simplify fender-bender repairs.

Molten Gasoline

Bent frame-head revealed! Notice how far back the driver's side tire sits.

The actual raising went swimmingly. Two comealongs slung over the beam in our garage provided the mechanical advantage necessary, and once the handful of bolts and wires were removed, I ratcheted the comealongs up. The body did not separate, and some inspection revealed welds in two places holding the body and pans together. Some past owner, ignorant of basic VW anatomy, had provided a great opportunity to break out the angle grinder – one of my all time favorite tools.

Welds aside, the body lifted right off. Now it’s sitting on a stand, the disembodied pans rolled off to the side. I’ve taken a breather to accustom myself to the next task which, as usual, seems scarier than any before it. I’m to remove the tie-rods and all the other “stuff” from the front beam. Most difficult will be the metal brake line, which must be bent and pulled back through a hole in the frame head. Cutting and replacing a section of the fuel line rates pretty high on the scary list, too.

But, what must be done must be done. My collection of parts won’t be a car again until after I get the frame head fixed, and my car won’t drive again until it’s no longer a pile of parts. That said, I’m going to stop writing and get out – to the garage.

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141 thoughts on “Airheads

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. I’m hoping to complete the transformation very shortly… and quite eager to get the car on the road again!

  1. Great piece. Great car (tho the overhead shot of it without the 2 front wings (sorry fenders, is just weird). Superbly entertaining piece of writing, I enjoyed it immensely. Take care πŸ˜‰

    • The earlier beetles are such beautiful cars… I’m constantly amazed how many people have owned an classic VW at one time or another.
      Thanks for the congratulations. Being Fresh Pressed came as a total surprise.

  2. Pretty cool. Better you than me. Body work is definitely not something I’d want to tackle. I’d much prefer to work on the chassis and engine.

    Eventually I’d like to get my own vehicle that requires near daily – if at least weekly – mechanical attention; a pre-74 MGB.

    • Before buying my car I was scared to tackle more than an oil change. Fortunately, most of my restoration work has turned out to be easier than I expected.

      MGBs are charming little cars, real head-turners if you can keep them on the road πŸ™‚ I’ve heard a lot about MGB maintenance requirements, but perhaps that is part of the charm.

      • The guy in the poncho is actually my brother, but I look good in a poncho, too πŸ™‚ The car is to be my daily driver, so you’ll probably see me on the roads around Whitefish. Cheers!

      • Sweet, Juest so you know I’m not a psycho if I am standing next to our car, but I stick out my thumb when you go by. πŸ™‚

  3. A friend of mine drove her dad’s VW wagon when we were teens. She named the car Louie, and unfortunately, the VW like so many pumped out gas fumes, which would cause me to feel queasy. Oh, but my friend loved that little car.

    • I’d be pretty worried to ride around in a car full of gas fumes. But I can relate to your friend’s love for her VW… even problematic VWs are hard to dislike.

    • My dad was also an airhead… he still owns his first vehicle – a 1970 VW bus. I think that’s what infected me with the VW “bug” (no pun intended). I’ve wanted a classic VW for as long as I can remember.

  4. It is refreshing to hear a young man speak of his adventures with the total remake of a car. Nice job with the photos and the narrative too. You are a multi-talented mechanic.
    Greeeaaat post, and a nice car that will morph into a beautiful car.

  5. You may be interested in our blog: We drove our 1987 air-cooled VW Beetle in the 2011 World Rally, 14.000 miles west from NY to Paris. Crossing China, Russia, Kazakhstan and 8 countries in Europe. That was last April. We are about to depart on a NY to Alaska rally with another group of antique cars in May. You can follow these driving adventures on our blog. I will subscribe to yours.
    J&E Howle

    • Brilliant! I love to hear of VWs making long trips… it dispels the myth that old air cooled VWs are too delicate to make long trips. I’ll definitely follow your blog, though I wish I could follow you down the road as part of the rally!

  6. Congratulations on being freshly pressed…
    The type 3 VW fastbacks are very cool cars and have allot of character (which your car has – a great color and proper stance), and obviously you are enjoying your experiences. Nothing like rolling up your sleeves and diving in to make the necessary repairs and learn about your car and yourself. Those skills will serve you well on any future automotive projects you encounter. Nice photos and commentary; keep up the good work.



    • I agree with you about the low stance. Unfortunately, when lowered, the car really eats tires. But buying my car cured me of mechanic-phobia and brought me to love restoration work. I’m excited to find out what the next big repair job will be.
      Thanks for the kind words!

  7. NICE – Being an airhead in this case is something to be proud of. An air-cooled boxer engine, that’s where it’s at. In this day and time, I think, it is a great character building tool to own a air-cooled VW. Mechanically, they are pretty simple and you can do everything by yourself with simple tools. No need for an electronics lab. Simple, well working German mechanics. I love it.

    • You hit the nail on the head. Had I tried to restore a car full of electronics, sensors, and modern “innovations” I’d have given up long ago. The simplicity of VWs is beautiful. Last week I adjusted the valves for the first time… turns out engine work isn’t as scary as I expected.

    • Classic VWs have such personality… I can’t imagine parting with mine.
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate the interest everyone has shown.

  8. “Restoration”. That’s a great theme. Love to see more Blogs on subject. (I used to own a Austin Healey Sprite – ‘Frog-eye’ Sprite!) Not only cars but how about peoples lives Restored.

    • I agree. When I began working on my car, I discovered a vibrant community of auto restorers… but the internet/blog world doesn’t reflect much of that. Austin Healeys are cool little cars. I really like classic British sports cars.

  9. Great restoration story! And it’s looks fantastic! You’re hard work paid off! And being the gear head that I am (I do like VW’s, but I’ll never be an Airhead) I can appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that went into it (I own two vintage Mustangs)! Here’s to many happy trails with your car!

  10. Oh those rusted floor pans! That very phrase brings back memories of being a little girl and how I always wanted rides in my aunt’s ‘bug’, because looking down to see road racing under my feet was almost as much fun as a trip to the amusement park.

  11. Seriously, I love every red and yellow cars. They’re sort of, very attractive. I love this blog entry. Great job.

  12. What a great post. Makes me feel like I need to wash the grease from under my nails. I am looking forward to your further air-headed exploits.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I’m currently in the midst of re-assembling the car… trying not to get ahead of myself and make an air-headed mistake!

      • A friend of mine rebuilt a 1962 T-bird from the frame up. I asked him if it frustrated him sometimes. He said yes of course but used a little trick to get him through. He made a list of all the little things needing to be completed that took 30 minutes or less. On a day the rebuild was not going as well or as fast as he wanted, he would make sure to end the day by completing one of the little tasks from the list. This way his day ended on a high note. By the way, the result was one bad-ass car ride. Best of luck to you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Classic cars are even more lovable when you get to know them personally. My VW is quite a character, but fun to drive and fix.

    • VWs are really great… for those willing to do a bit of work, they are a fantastic vehicle. I can’t believe how much fun my Type 3 is, even though it lacks a radio, A/C, and many other modern “innovations” and “improvements.”

  13. These pictures look so awesome! I really have thought about rebuilding cars, and it looks like fun work.
    thanks for sharing

  14. Dude – I spent more than five years working on vdubs. I felt every rusty bolt in you story. You have done your fastback proud. Now you have to find a type III engine for her. Excellent work!

    • Rusty bolts… no kidding. I took the car apart in a bath of PBlaster and WD-40! Even then I broke a couple bolts 😦
      A “pancake” engine would be great. The front cargo area is small, so the extra trunk space would be welcome…

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post – it’s been a joy for me to share it.

  15. Great trip back to memory lane…nice restoration job. At one time or another, I’ve owned (or been a slave to) a ’56 bug, a ’65 fastback like yours, and a truly beautiful ’69 Karmann Ghia. I liked the Ghia the best–it was sporty, had sleek lines, and was fairly easy to repair. However, life interferred (got hitched to a beautiful person who, for some reason, still thinks I’m worth all the trouble) and had to change vehicles to something more practical. Oh, well, indulge yourself in the VW madness…many of us were “airheads” in the past. Good memories all around.
    Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii….Russ

    • You’ve owned a wonderful lineup of VWs. I must admit that Ghias are super nice… I’ve been severely tempted to pick up a project Ghia, but one resto project is enough for now.

  16. Good story, great pics and a really nice car!! Good luck with your projects. We’re “airheads” around here too, only besides having had a split window coupe and two 69 bugs pass through our hands, and of course my daily driver a 79 Westfalia, we’re Porsche folks. a 60 roadster and a 79 911. The Roadster was a full restoration done in house. Now we just work on carburetors!!

  17. You are killing me…stop it!!! The car I drove from Massachusetts to New Orleans in 1974 was the exact same as this one only mine had been painted chocolate brown and it was a good paint job and I had the “Manual Of Step By Step Procedures For The Complete Idiot” and could adjust my valves in 20 minutes flat…loved that car…drove it straight through to Yankeetown Florida in 28 with a little pharaceutic al help of course…had the car in New Orleans for about one year before it finally threw a bearing in Mississippi and I had to leave it and hitchike out…thanks for the memories…what fun to totaly strip one down like this…I had a couple of buses too and a beautiful super beetle with 1600cc motor…my sister had a 1963 window bus with no 4th gear but that didn’t keep us from having fun…great cars…miss all of them….

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  19. Hey awesome,

    welcome to the airhead club. I own a ’69 Westy (more vw jargon you will learn about, Westy short for Westfalia) and a ’65 Vert (convertible) Bug (Beetle). I’m pretty impressed with your do-it-yourself courage, keep on going for it. It’s one of the things I love about my VW, being able to fix it myself.

  20. Great Type III! Glad to see more airheads out there. I’ve not gotten to play with old air-cooled VW’s in a long time. It’s nice to see such a detailed restoration on a not-so-common car.

    • On my low profile tires, I was getting around 28MPG. I have larger diameter tires now, so I’m curious to see what the milage will be this summer. Some beetles can get up to 35 MPG, so I’m hoping for at least 32.

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