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.
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.
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.
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 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.