Reader Question: Buggery?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Nunz asks: Found me a ’72 Super Beetle for sale locally that I can get for $2,500 – 1600cc, 4-spd manual. Has a few minor ‘lectrical issues (turn signals, etc.) Other than the obvious, like rust, any quick pointers at what I might look for? (I don’t know anything about these Hitler-mobiles- never even really liked ’em all that much- but for the price, I figger it’d be neat to have an old throwback to hippy days to futz with, and of course, the ode that they are to utter simplicity and function is to me what a Tesla is to a virtue-signaling greenazi! (Plus I was salivating while reading your stories about your protégé’s VW- BTW, how’s he/that coming along?).

My reply: Rust is, indeed, the major money worry with these cars because it’s the most expensive thing to fix – and it’s one of the few things that requires specialized tools/skills (welding ability, a welding rig) to fix. But, the rust you need to worry about is structural rot – the parts of the unibody which support the suspension/engine – not floorpans or external body panels.

Pans are actually not hard to fix, either.

One area where Bugs are very prone to rust that’s not fatal but is aggravating is under the battery – which is under the back seat. Lift the seat and have a look there. You may find you need to stitch in a patch panel to keep the battery from falling onto the road!

Bu not a big deal, much less a deal killer.

The mechanicals of these cars are very simple; if you can service a Briggs& Stratton lawn mower engine, you can deal with a Beetle engine. If it starts, runs and drives well it is probably sound.

Make sure the transmission shifts easily through all four gears; sometimes, a “transmission” problem can be as simple as the vinyl bushing in the shifter on the floor console being worn (or missing) but make sure the transmission (transaxle, technically) is operating normally.

You can do a compression check/vacuum check on the engine to establish basic soundness. Check that the little red oil pressure light in the main gauge (speedometer) comes on with the ignition hot and goes out within a 2-3 seconds of engine start. Also the “generator” light.

I would not worry about the electrics as the entire VW harness is incredibly simple and – if you have to do it  – can easily be replaced. No worries at all getting parts, for pretty much anything.

Probably, the heater cables/vents will not be working or will be working kinda-sorta. The tinwork/shroud around the engine probably need adjustment. All not tough – and basically free; just elbow grease. You’ll be surprised how well the heat works, actually – once you get the system (and car) tight.

If you buy this car, I would immediately: Drain and change the oil, check valve clearance/adjust (too tight is not good) check/adjust the points and drain and refill the transaxle (likely low, probably old and dirty fluid) with fresh lube.

I would pull all four wheels and check all four drums; get PB Blaster and be prepared for some tight/rusty fittings – but it’s not a technically challenging job. Bleed the entire hydraulic system and refill with fresh fluid.

Change the fan belt unless you know it’s new or nearly; make sure it is tensioned correctly. The Beetle depends on the belt for cooling and charging.

This will assure critical maintenance has been done.

The car may need shocks/struts; again, not a big deal.

I recommend buying a copy of Muir’s VW repair manual for the Compleat Idiot (see here). It’s better than the VW shop manual – though it’s good to have one of those, too!

The price is very fair – assuming the car is solid. The value of old Beetles continues to rise, so I’d snap this one up if it’s solid. You can’t lose – because if you decide you don’t like it, selling it for what you paid will be no problem.

These are great – and fun – cars! My protege loves his; he drives it to school and is the envy of his friends!

Keep us posted!

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Still haven’t gotten to see that Bug…. Two numbers for the seller- but he ain’t answering nor returning calls. Even tried calling from a different phone, just to see if he was just avoiding my calls. Nope.

    So rare to see anything decent for sale around here…and when ya do…it’s unobtanium!

    Been looking up stuff about these cars- really interesting; and the SIMPLICITY! I really wanna fart around with one…and ya rarely see a decent one here, much less at a fair price. (Of course, who knows what it might be like in person…)

    And the beauty is, a Bug is something I could sell quick when I vamoose….and likely make some money on.

  2. “minor ‘lectrical issues” is the definition of VW Bugs!

    The super beetle is probably much better than the older ones. I could never keep the turn signal bulbs in their “sockets” which were nothing more than the reflective backing cut and bent into tabs for the bulbs to fit into.

    They are great in the snow and on back roads, better than a jeep until it gets really steep and they run out of power.

    But you’ve got to know how to take control when the rear end starts to steer! I did it instinctively once (didn’t even know what was going on at the time) and saved myself and the car, but about a month later my fiancé rolled it off a bluff. She was okay, and we actually tipped the bug back on its wheels, added some oil, and I drove it home.

    After buying another one and finally making one out of two, I got fed up with always fixing it and traded it off to another logger for logs that I could haul and sell.

    • Ha, yeah- my dopey sister used to date this stinking pig who was 6’4″ and drove a bug…. Funny, but just out of the blue, talking to her a week or so ago about weather and snow, she mentioned that car, and how the pig just dusted it off, and drove it right out of a pile of snow in the blizzard of ’77 !

      • After the wreck, we removed the remaining glass and both doors and used it for a mountain buggy. One time that fall it was parked blocking the woodshed where some hunters had hung their deer, so they asked for it to be moved.

        The bug was half full of snow, but I brushed it out and drove halfway up a steep bank to park it out of the way. The hunters were astonished that it even started!

      • Street parking in the city? He sounds like the kind of person that caused ‘dibs’ to be invented. The kind that drives out without shoveling out the spot and then parks in a clean one upon return.

        • No, much worse than that, Brent, my sister matter-of-factly said “….that time we had all that snow, [pig]’s VW was buried in snow, and he drove it right out of the back yard” [I guess his wife was on to him- either that, or he was really blasted when he parked it- which wouldn’t be unusual, as he used to drive the 60 miles from NYC after getting off work plastered out his mind- off-duty sergeants can do that, apparently….)

  3. There are some detailed buyers guides out there than can be helpful as well. This one looks pretty complete, and there are others:

    Make sure heater boxes are not rusted out. Also the air-cooled VW engine runs hot, and it is critical to regularly check and adjust valve clearance. Heat is the worst enemy of these engines:

    (As I recall the #3 cylinder is particularly prone to overheating because airflow is partially blocked by the oil cooler.)

    Also if you buy the car be sure to get the following book which is a must for any VW owner. For that matter it can put one in the right frame of mind when wrenching on anything:

    I did a lot of wrenching on these back when they were an everyday sight and sound on the road. They are simple machines but you need to be aware of their idiosyncrasies.

    • Jason, even though I’d never been into VWs, I’ve been hearing about that book for the last 35 years! I’ll be GLAD if I finally have occasion to get a copy and read it!

    • Oh, and good point about the valve lash adjustment. I’m usually a nut about that- on my mowers and tractors and small engines…always check it when I get a something new to me, ’cause 95% of the time, other people don’t do it- but it’s something I normally wouldn’t have thought of on a car engine…..

        • Hi Anonymous,

          I’ve owned four old, air-cooled VWs and never had that problem. I checked clearance once a year as part of normal maintenance and adjusted as necessary. I drove one of these – a ’74 Super Beetle – to work and back every day, from the DC suburbs into the belly of the beast…

          • Possibly the later models didn’t need as much TLC in that area, or maybe the valves were serviced with more modern components. However when these cars were common as dirt it was common knowledge that you needed to keep an eye on the valve lash. Back in the day we usually would check valve adjustment at every oil change, which would generally be 2000-3000 miles.

            Of course at that time we didn’t have modern synthetic oil formulations that could resist thermal breakdown the way they do today and coupled with having just a strainer rather than a filter, frequent oil changes were the norm. In fact the usual recommendation was to run straight-weight oils in the bugs since the multi-viscosity stuff couldn’t take the heat.

            I used to have a ’65 bug that I kept on the road for years, and also worked on many of them for friends. That was with the materials available 40-50 years ago though. Have not dealt with one in a very long time now.

    • The floorpan isn’t much of a frame. It relies on the body shell, or a fabricated dune buggy roll cage if you decide to convert it, for stiffness.

      I made two out of one 30+++ years ago. One had been rolled and the other one the floorpan was so rusted that it wouldn’t hold the bolts that hold the front axle anymore, despite using longer bolts and a stack of gradually bigger washers. So I took all 900 or so (ha!) bolts out of both of them, jacked up the good body shell, and the rolled out the bad floorpan/axles and rolled the good floorpan/axles under the good body shell and bolted it all back together.

    • Great vidjayo, Jason. Thanks. That really lays everything out and ‘splains it. I’m kinda expecting similar to what the guy is dealing with in the vid- as the one I’m gonna look at has a sunroof[yuck]….so I can only imagine (What happened to my original reply here, thanking Eric?!).

      We shall see…..

  4. Thanks, Eric!

    This really sounds encouraging. If she’s structurally sound, and the engine and tranny aren’t toast, I’ll most likely buy her! Only thing I don’t like, is that someone put a sunroof in ‘er…..and not only don’t I like sunroofs, but I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that it probably leaks! (But the car lives on a farm, so is probably kept in a barn)

    It’ll be something fun to fart around with; a link to the time when it was common to see them on the road, with everyone from school teachers to hippies driving them. And it’ll be neat having a car that is simpler than my diesel Grasshopper mower!

    I will definitely keep you abreast…with pics if I get her!

      • Ha, Eric! These things just BEG to be mildly modded, don’t they?!

        I want it to look bone stock (as it does now- with the plain-jain hub caps and all)…but a li’l added ooommph! and cooler sound in the injun compartment would definitely be in order.

        Even though I love the old-school simplicity, the first thing I’d probably do is get rid of the points! Points and i do not get along!

        I’m not holding my breath on this though- tried calling the seller earlier, hoping I might be able to run down and see it today…no answer on his cell or home phone, and no call back as of yet. When I spoke to him the other day, he mentioned that the only real rust was one spot in the “trunk”. Asked him about the floor pans, and he said he never really looked, so didn’t know.

        Ah well…we shall see. My window of opportunity for seeing it today is just about over- so I’ll shoot for Sunday- but it’s gonna be COLD Sunday!(Hopefully it’ll still be available- The seller is out in the middle of nowhere, kinda hard to get to- so that’ll help) If it hadn’t been raing the last few days….


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