Jun 7, 2013

Going Downhill

When I was a 19-year-old kid and was barely into ownership of my first car, I didn't know an open end wrench from a socket from an Allen wrench. Right after getting married, I bought an early-60's Opel station wagon (that probably looks a lot like the one at right, if it hasn't been crushed into a little rusty square). It was a great car that served us well and didn't cause any irritating problems, but it was destroyed by a lady who ran a light crushed my little station wagon with her damn Cadillac. She claimed I'd run the light and the cop decided to believe the well-dressed bitch rather than the long-haired hippy kid and I walked home $500 poorer and without a vehicle.

I went from good to bad. My next vehicle was a barely-used 1959 MGA convertible. It had been left in storage by a guy who went overseas for several years. My independent euro-trash mechanic/friend thought he was doing me a great favor in scoring this car for $500. In Dallas, an MGA is pretty much a 100-miles-between-major-repairs vehicle. The MGA's postage stamp radiator didn't even get close to dealing with Dallas' 100+ days and the car blew a head gasket about every other day. I sold it a year later and several thousand dollars poorer for $300 and it rolled away smoking like a "clean coal" power plant. I have had nothing by sympathy for sports car owners ever since.

A couple of unreliable but cheap vehicles came next, but the first one that mattered was my 1967 VW convertible. I loved that car, but less than 10,000 miles after I bought it (for $1600 with 15,000 miles on the odometer) the engine tossed a rod. I took it back to the dealership where I'd bought it and the in-house, real German mechanic rebuilt it for $500 (that number just kept coming up). I learned a few things from watching him work on the motor. I learned a lot more from John Muir's handy book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.

When I decided my growing family needed more room, I traded my beautiful convertible for a 1971 Westfalia Vanagon. That was my next-to-the-last experience with a car dealer. The VW dealer had spun the mileage back about 60,000 miles and the motor and transmission were held together with banana peels and bailing wire. After a brief moment in court, I walked away with some cash and a bad taste in my mouth regarding VW dealers. The company didn't do much for me, either, and I have never forgotten that. Over the years, I've learned to be wary of dealers. I hear pretty much nothing but horror stories from bikers who trust their rides to the place where the bike came from. Hardly anyone has anything good to say about the people hired to work on vehicles in dealerships.

But I don't usually think about that stuff much. I mostly do my own work and muddle through slowly but eventually. In looking at a how-to PDF on installing a transmission modification to my "new" motorhome, I ran across this statement, "Most VW dealerships have no idea that the ATF needs to be changed every 40,000 miles minimum (as per the shop manual fine print). Most dealerships have never done this job and have no idea how to do it properly. Additionally, most will tell you that the automatic transmission is a "sealed unit" and is never to be opened or changed. This is utter nonsense. Do not listen to them! In fact, my blanket advice is to never go to a VW dealership for any reason, if you can help it!"

Some things are, apparently, universal.

I was sort of thinking that when my two-wheel days are done, I'd graduate to a new front wheel drive Beetle convertible. Maybe not.


  1. I used to work at a car dealer back in the early '70s and the used car manager was all about maximizing profit to the detriment of the customer. After working there, I generally avoid ever taking my car to the dealer. My wife's Prius is another story. I don't think that there is a single user serviceable part in the entire car.

    We don't have a VW dealer anymore after the combo Toyota/VW/Audi/Volvo/BMW dealer decided to just sell Toyotas.

    BTW, on another note, I've been enjoying the old columns you have been posting.

  2. I've learned with motorcycles, get the shop manual and do most of your own work. UNDERSTAND what needs to be done and find a good mechanic who LOVES the bike you ride (found one!), then make sure you ONLY let that tech work on your bike for the stuff you don't wanna tackle (fork seals are a PITA IMHO), and TIP the mechanic (6-pack of fav beer often works well as cash). And yeah - your comment about using the web for maintenance guides is spot on. You can find forums that will help you diagnose the problem, find the right parts at the right price, and do the work efficiently. Videos from the web help me out a whole lot too. Chances are, if you've found a bike awesome enough to really LOVE, others feel the same way, and someone will put up a forum all about that bike and lots of people (some good, some not so) will post lots of info (some good, some not so) about everything from mods to repairs. If you're willing to sift through some crap, you'll get GREAT info.

  3. Thanks for your articles. They provide me with a deep emotional connection with truth the way I love having it expressed. You have been blessed with many gifts. Thank you for sharing.

  4. It sounds as though you might be better off thinking of a Fiat 500 convertible or a not so mini anymore Mini Cooper convertible when your two wheels days are done.

    I've never owned a VW and the only one I can think of I've ever ridden in was a rental of Bobskoot's in CA in January.

    Good food for thought though.

  5. I still really like the new VW Beetle, but I'd buy a used one and deal with the maintenance myself. They are surprisingly easy to work on, still. I'm really enjoying fooling with my VW Eurovan-based Winnebago because of the great motor access and well-thought-out maintenance scheme. I still haven't driven or ridden in one, though. I might not like it at all once I get behind the wheel for a few miles. No big deal, I'm still fine on two wheels.


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