There’s a Volkswagen microbus parked along the curb on Midvale Avenue, the street we drive every morning when I take My Darling B to work. It’s got a fresh coat of toothpaste-green paint and For Sale a sign in the back window and each time I passed by I became even more powerfully convinced that it was a ‘69 model. Then, day before yesterday, the bus wasn’t there, and it was missing again yesterday morning. I figured the owner had finally found a buyer, but when I drove B to work this morning it was back.
I stopped to have a look after dropping her off, peeking in all the windows. The owner had done some work inside, putting new liners in the doors and overhead, and cutting some foam to fit across the rear platform, presumably so he could stretch out back there in a sleeping bag. Squatting next to the passenger-side tire, I found the plate fixed to the side of the bus by Westfalia: it was stamped with the date 1969.
My very first car was a ‘69 Volkswagen microbus. Nicknamed “Warbaby” by my friends because it was in pretty sad shape, I bought it for five hundred bucks from a guy who threw in a vintage copy of John Muir’s book, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.” When it came to auto mechanics, I was definately a “compleat” idiot; I added lots of grease to the pages of that book.
Here’s my favorite Volkswagen fix-it story: I stopped for gas near Kingman, Arizona, on a cross-country trip to California in my second Volkswagen, a lemon-yellow 69 bus named Maria. It’s been my experience that all old Volkswagens have names. The previous owner will usually tell you what it is when they’re sure you’re the one who will take good care of their baby.
I have no idea what Kingman, Arizona, is like. It may be a lovely place, but the gas station I stopped at was out on the interstate, surrounded by desert. I’d been driving across the desert for more than twenty-four hours without a break and still had a long haul across the Mojave Desert to look forward to, so after gassing up you can imagine how far my heart sank when I climbed into the bus, turned the ignition key and all I could get from the engine in response was a click.
I stared in disbelief at the dashboard dials, as if that would tell me anything, then did what everybody does after they turn the key to their car and the engine doesn’t turn over: I turned the key again. Why do we even do that? It’s like we’re thinking, Maybe it just wasn’t paying attention the first time. Now that it knows I’m back it’ll turn right over. But I got the same response the second time that I got the first time: Click.
I was too tired to panic, and I had lots of time on my hands, so I dug out my “Compleat Idiot” book out from under the back seat, I opened it to Chapter VII, Engine Stops or Won’t Start and began to flip through the pages, considering each possibility. The dashboard warning lights came on when I turned the key, so the battery was connected and the electrical system seemed to be short-free and in good working order. “Step 5. Check the Solenoid, Starter and Switch” seemed to hold some promise, so I read it a bit more carefully:
Slide under the right side of the car so your head is forward of the axle. Coming out of the engine will be a round thing that looks like an electric motor and the smaller round thing attached to it is the solenoid. At the end of the solenoid there’s a contact that connects the battery to the starter. Check all three connections on the solenoid and tighten them if they’re loose. Take a screwdriver and hold it across the two big connections. The motor should whirr into action but not turn over the engine. If it doesn’t, then your starter is shot.
I spent a lot of time on my back underneath this particular car, flashlight in one hand, screwdriver in the other. So much time that I kept a heavy denim coverall rolled up in a ball next to my tool chest under the back seat. I pulled on the coveralls and skootched under the back of the car with a screwdriver. No need for a flashlight, there was plenty of daylight left.
I easily found the starter. The Volkswagen is not a complicated machine. I’m pretty sure I could keep one running even now that so many of my brain cells have died that I have trouble remembering my age. After experimentally touching the bare metal shaft of a screwdriver across the contacts of the starter, it did indeed whirr into action. Breathing a great big sigh of relief, I scooted out from under the car to see what the book recommended I do to fix the problem:
If the starter whirrs satisfactorily, without untoward noises, then you can assume the starter motor is OK, so check the solenoid. Make sure the car’s out of gear and the key’s off. Connect your screwdriver across from the battery terminal to the small terminal and see what happens. If the engine gaily starts to turn over, then you have either a dirty solenoid or trouble with the ignition switch in the car. Take a small hammer and tap the solenoid with it wherever you can reach, except where the wire connections are.
Seriously? “Hit it with a hammer?” That’s how to fix this?
I had my doubts, but I was, as I said, going nowhere fast with plenty of time on my hands, so I wormed my way underneath the car once again to try it out. Touching the screwdriver to the connections did make the engine turn over. And, I have to add, causing a Volkswagen engine just inches from my face to jump to life while I was lying on my back underneath it is an experience that damned near made me shit my pants, even though I was expecting it.
Since the solenoid seemed to be the problem, I tapped it three or four times, front and back, with the round end of the ball peen hammer I kept in my tool box, just as the book suggested. Then I crawled out from under the car, climbed into the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, let it out again, and turned the key. Fired right up.
Huh. “Hit it with a hammer” works. How about that?
John Muir explains:
You have a dirty, rusty solenoid that doesn’t want to operate all the time. I had one in the old Bus and it’s a drag but when it didn’t want to work, I just rolled under the Bus with the screwdriver and hammer, made it work a few times and bounded it around a little. It’ll work for a long time before you need to do it again.
As it turned out, I had to crawl under the bus to hit the solenoid with a hammer again after pulling over to nap at a rest stop in Paso Robles, California. By the time I got to Pacific Grove, though, I learned that I could skip the step where I hit it and go straight to the part where I danced the screwdriver across the contacts. From there I figured out that, if all I had to do was give the solenoid an electrical jolt, I could connected a length of wire from the positive contact, run it to the engine compartment where I could easily get at it, and when the problem recurred I could just touch the end of the wire to an exposed bolt. Worked like a charm. I eventually replaced the solenoid, but in the meantime I didn’t have to crawl under the bus.
Every time I see a bus I want one again, in spite of all the work, and they do require a lot of tinkering and patience. The one for sale on Midvale gave me the itch to own one again, but I just don’t see it happening, given the way things are now. Also, we don’t have any place to park it. But it was nice to peek in the windows and remember again.