Sometimes, you just want to leave everything behind, retreat to the sanctity of your workshop and tinker with one of your projects. Not long ago I made an ill-advised purchase of a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper. VW vans are on the perpetually cool list, even when in their mid-eighties Vanagon guise and Westys are a clever combination of summer cottage and minvan. Unfortunately, buying mine sight-unseen over the Internet resulted in great disappointment. It's rusty, but that was expected as I do live in the Midwest. The previous owner's description of "drivable and needing only a tune-up" eventually has morphed into replacing the entire braking system and the purchase of a rebuilt long-block engine to replace the tired and overheating wasserboxer engine hidden under the Vanagon's tail. I'm sure I've quoted before the definition of insanity as repeating the same activity over and over again, always expecting a different result. When will I learn to stop buying such desperately wretched vehicles?
Still, even if I hadn't been looking for yet another project car, what's another when your life seems destined to be dominated by vehicles that other people are happy to put out to pasture? Actually, that's a description that aptly describes my entire vehicle fleet... Nonetheless, after a brief drive in the Vanagon, shortly after it arrived atop an 18-wheel car hauler, I noticed that the engine smoked, backfired constantly, seemed low on power, and quickly began overheating. Did I mention that it also leaked both coolant and oil? The brake pedal sank to the floor unless it was pumped up before each stop.
Many people would look at this rolling basket case as a bad investment and send it off to some charity for the tax write-off. Not me. Not when I had good money I could spend after bad. Volkswagen parts are both plentiful and, compared to prices one pays for those designed for tractor-like British sports, are actually fairly cheap. A box of new brake parts soon arrived and a couple of afternoon sessions that included bending new steel brake lines to replace the old rusted out ones later and my crusty Vanagon had brakes.
For a fleeting instant I considered rebuilding the original engine in my bus. After all, in the old days hippies would rebuild their microbus engines by the side of the road while stoned on a variety of experimental recreational pharmaceuticals. How hard could it be for a sober engineer working in a well-equipped shop to accomplish the same task? I tallied the costs of pistons, cylinders, bearings, gaskets, and other bits and pieces that live inside an engine and quickly realized that I could buy a rebuilt engine from any one of a number of sources for less. What's more, I could upgrade the 1.9-liter water-cooled engine that came in my 1984 bus to a 2.1-liter engine like the one that come out a few years later. I jumped online, did some surfing and charged it on my credit card-it was just that easy.
I must be getting old. I used to be able to pop an engine out of a car, fix its problems and pop it back in again in one ten to twelve hour session. It took me three days to get the compact engine out from under the Vanagon. My back hurt. My hands hurt. After a while my head hurt-it didn't used to be this hard. Had I really become that much of a wimp or was this VW engine harder to change that that in an MG Midget? Well, it turns out that although there are only four bolts that hold the engine block to the bell-housing of the transmission, and four more that hold the engine cross-member to the body shell, there are literally dozens of hoses, cables, wires, connectors, and lines that must be disconnected and set aside before the engine can come out of its bay. All of this takes a ridiculous amount of time, especially when the bolts are frozen and rusted, the hose clamps broken and the wiring crumbling. I took pictures just so I could remember what went where when it came time to put it all back together. When you replace an engine, it doesn't end just there: you get to replace hoses, and gaskets, and water pumps, and clutches, and engine mounts and-the list is near endless. Each of those replaced parts won't fail anytime soon.
It probably didn't help that every time I looked at the VW, I felt bad. I had been misled (again) into buying it in the first place. I knew better but had made a classic mistake-I thought I was getting a deal. When it comes to vehicles-especially when it comes to buying vehicles sight-unseen over the internet-there are no deals. The idea that you get what you pay for is utopia. More often you get significantly less than you have paid for. I bought my Westy with the idea that I would be able to jump in it and head off to some secluded state campground where I could commune with nature and sleep in the relative comfort designed by the fun-loving Germans who live in Westphalia. Instead, I was spending my free time up to my elbows in grease, breaking rusted bolts, and cursing my stupidity.
As with all things automotive, I eventually learned to adapt my unrealistic expectations to meet the reality I faced. Instead of bemoaning the hours I have left in the installation of the new engine, I have learned to look forward to the time spent communing with the engineers who created this rolling bedroom. I have learned that turning a wrench and threading a nut is beautiful in its own way and worthy of satisfaction. This is all a bunch of crap of course, but if I didn't at least try to justify the joy of rebuilding this wreck, I'd feel even worse.
Right now, the engine is back in the bus and the parts are starting to go from the old worn-out engine onto the shiny new one. Those pictures I took before I ripped everything apart are starting to come in handy, especially as I try to remember which vacuum line attaches to which port on the fuel injection throttle body. I should have it all together and driving by the time you read this. The question is will I like it. Having felt so badly about this mistaken purchase, having put it all more-or-less right, will I learn to forget all that has happened and just enjoy my Westy? I'd like to say yes, but if my previous history is anything to go by, I'd guess that you'll soon be able to buy an old rusty Westy with a new engine and new brakes on the internet. If you buy it, you'll be getting a great deal...