atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#6563: The VW 412

Let's talk about the air-cooled VW I owned.

In early 1989, wanting an air-cooled VW, I started to comb the want ads. Because this was 1989 there was no Craigslist; that was before Al Gore invented the Internet, so we had to go to the store and buy a physical copy of something to get them.

I can't remember for certain, now, the name of the publication, but I think it was the Weekly Shopper or something like that. It was about 1/2" of the cheapest newsprint you could find, crammed full of ads for everything.

Including cars.

I would buy one every so often just to peruse these ads, for cars, for recreational vehicles (motorcycles, go karts, etc) and whatever else caught my fancy. Not because I was in the market for anything, but because it was the late 1980s and it was cheap entertainment.

But after getting my first real job, I--who'd been into air-cooled VWs for a while--wanted to get a Bug and start fixing it up, and so off I went. The problem was, even then, people in this area thought that their junk was made of platinum-plated gold. Any time you came across a Beetle in any reasonable shape--meaning that you wouldn't have to do $3,000 worth of bodywork just to have floors in it--the seller wanted a premium for the thing. "Runs, some rust, $2,000" at a time when you could buy a brand new Hyundai for $6,000. And "some rust" meaning, "Hey, Fred Flintstone! Your car's ready!"

The car that I was looking for--and which didn't exist--would have a generally sound body but be in need of mechanical work. I did not have a welder, and because it did not occur to me that I could learn to weld, I had no plans to get one. Body work would require too much of an outlay--but I could do engine work like no one's business, and Bugs are so simple anyone with half a brain can fix one with basic tools and a reasonable supply of parts.

Ideally, the car would look good from twenty feet but not move under its own power. I could have fixed that.

But, as I said, those were rather thin on the ground. I could have had any number of half-finished "baja Bug" projects, cars that were missing major drivetrain components and had been ripped apart, but that wasn't what I wanted. Returning it to regular Beetle configuration meant body work; finishing someone's half-assed baja conversion did not appeal to me. Any cars that came with all--or even a majority--of their parts were overpriced. "Hey, buy my half-finished project car. It's only $1,000 minus engine!"

I did find, at a dealership, a powder-blue Beetle which ran beautifully and they wanted a reasonable price for it, $1,500. A few dings and scrapes, but totally solid. I took it for a test drive and it was a good car. But how does a 21-year-old with no credit and $300 to his name afford that? *sigh*

The ads yielded no fruit until I found an ad from a used car lot for a Volkswagen 412, $450. "Some rust, runs and drives."

It was several days before some friends and I could get out that way to look it over. One of my friends, EM, had offered to loan me the difference between what I had and what the car cost, provided that I included him in all the major repair work (engine rebuild or what-have-you) so he could learn how to do those things. I agreed.

The car had a hole in the driver's side floor, and the driver's side door sill was not in great shape--but for all that, the car was completely solid. No flex in the body. It had an oil leak, not a big one. There was cardboard separating the driver's seat from the battery (which was underneath it) and it was a weird-looking car--but it was an air-cooled VW and it drove okay and the price was right.

We went out there on our next day off. He talked turkey with the salesman and we left there with the car for $350. My friend just wrote a check for the amount, and off we went.

First stop was another friend's house. DB lived in the country and had space in his garage where we could get a good look at the car and do a little fiddling, so we convened there; and then after all was said and done we got on with the rest of our weekend.

Over the next few days I learned a few things about the car. First, the battery was just weak enough that when it was cold it needed a jump to start the car the first time every day. Only when it was cold and only the first time. A battery charger did it handily. Second, the cardboard was superfluous if you just used the frigging seat support that was right there, you car lot idiots.

Once it was insured, though, I was able to drive it, and drive it I did. The coldest night of the year in 1989 was a Friday and my group of friends all went bowling as we usually did on those nights, and inside that car it was toasty warm.

Things happened and life progressed.

My friend said, about a month after the purchase, "You know, they haven't cashed my check yet."

There were some problems getting the plates, but I did get them before the temporary permit expired.

When it warmed up outside, that was when I started digging into the thing in earnest. In our first investigative session I'd discovered a disconnected hose, and plugged it into the obvious place, and then the car--formerly reasonably zippy--turned into a slug. In the intervening time I'd bought the Haynes manual for the car, and one fine spring day I went through the engine compartment with the vacuum diagram in hand, and fixed all the misrouted hoses. I also made something like 3-4 trips to Trax Auto (remember them?) trying to get the right friggin' distributor cap and rotor, and did a complete tune-up on the thing. After all that? 27 MPG, neat as you please, with plenty of pep for a 1974 4-banger.

The hole in the driver's side was still a problem, but I covered it with cardboard and the floor mat. The door sill separated from the A-pillar--it had not been hanging on by much when we bought the thing--but everything was still solid, so I didn't worry about it. I mean, the driver's side door closed like it was a Rolls Royce, needing no force--pull it closed and click-click it was shut. Solid.

The car ran like a top. I almost overheated it once; I removed the cold-air intake from the hood thinking the engine would get more cold air without it, but no, that didn't work. When you're buzzing along at 60 MPH and your oil pressure light comes on--but it was just the fact that the oil was too hot and therefore too thin. Limped her home, put the cooling duct back on, never had another problem.

The oil leak--the dealer had thought it was the rear main seal, but it turned out to be one of the pushrod tubes was loose. I could put it in place, but it wouldn't stay; it'd be fine for a while but eventually it would work loose, and the next time I made a left turn bloosh and my oil pressure light would flicker on.

That took a single O-ring. Because the Porsche 914 used the same parts, that O-ring was $5. I jacked up the car, took the left side valve cover off, removed the rocker assembly, pulled out the tube, put the new O-ring on, snapped it into place, reassembled everything else--and never had another problem with it. I didn't even need to reset the valve lash.

Being that the car was 15 years old, it had other problems. The front tires were radials but the rears--one was a bias-ply snow tire, the other one a radial tire. I used my tax refund to buy two brand-new 165R15 tires and have them mounted on those rims; they went on the front. This was back when you could get two of those tires, mounted and balanced, for under $70 if you shopped carefully. I think the tires themselves were $25 apiece.

It developed a fuel leak: the tank was in the front, of course, and there was rubber tubing that connected it to the hard line that went to the fuel pump in back. That was leaking. I ended up laying in a puddle of gasoline on the driveway, and cracking my head on the corner of a gas can, before I got that one sorted out. It ended up being easiest just to replace all the rubber fuel lines up there but I had no way to stop the gas coming out. That was a mess.

There was the problem with the leaking fuel injector, too, of course. It connected to the fuel rail with a 2" piece of "high pressure" hose which was permanently crimped to the injector, and it went drip-drip-drip when the engine was running. $90 for a replacement. Reasoning that I had nothing to lose, I bought two hose clamps and a foot of "high-pressure" fuel line. Getting the crimp collar off was difficult and I cut myself in the process, but shortly I had the injector free of the leaking line. Clamped on 2" of hose, reinstalled it, crossed my fingers and started the engine...and it didn't leak at all, not so much as a single drop. Ever again.

I learned something important that day: sometimes, when designing something, the engineer goes overkill on it. That fuel injector did not need the kind of crimp fitting it had, which was made for hydraulic hoses. The fuel rail in that thing ran somewhere around 30 PSI and--for fuck's sake!--the injector was secured to the fuel rail with a radiator clamp. I don't know what the original hose was rated for, but I'd bet it was something like 60 or 100 PSI--which is ridiculous.

Another friend got a new high-zoot stereo in his car and let me have the factory head unit. I installed it in the glove compartment and put a pair of speakers on the package shelf and ran wires. Now I could listen to music.

And that August, EM told me something: the dealership had never cashed the check he wrote. It had been six months since that day and the check had staledated--it was no longer valid--so even if they tried to cash it, it would be rejected. So, other than the money I'd put into fixing it up, I'd gotten a free car.

I drove the thing a lot, and even drove to a store in the NW suburbs as part of a job I had then. A week of that put over 500 miles on the car and it was 100% reliable and never missed a beat and got 27 MPG the whole time.

But then, one night, pow.

It really wasn't so much a "pow" as it was a "brmbrmBRMBRMBRM", actually. It had never been very quiet, having a hole in the muffler and some other exhaust leaks, but it was now much louder. Later investigation showed that the left-side exhaust manifold flange had broken. That could be welded, I reasoned, but I'd have to get it off the muffler first...and that didn't look like it would be possible without totally scrapping the muffler. I was right.

A new muffler for a VW 412 was something like $400. Because the Porsche 914 used the same parts.

I seem to recall taking the manifold off the car and getting the flange welded back on, but I'm not sure I did. I can't really remember. But I do recall trying to make a muffler for it.

I cringe thinking about it: I reasoned that a muffler was just a can with baffles in it, so I got a coffee can, mounted it to the flange, stuffed it with fiberglas, and then took a big radiator clamp and clamped some screen over the open end. It worked.

...until I stepped on the gas. And then BLAT it blew fiberglas all over the back yard.

Realizing that I would have to find another solution, the entire project fell by the wayside. Other things happened, and I started going to school in March of 1990, so the 412 just ended up sitting in our back yard. The friend who'd put the stereo in his car, he wanted to sell the car, so he reposessed the head unit, and that didn't bother me. That possibility had been in the background.

But I was a student, and had a social life, and the poor 412 was a beater with a huge hole in the floor that needed overly expensive parts just to be drivable. It languished.

Sometime after the summer of 1991, the car got sold to one of my brother's friends. He had a big lot south of town and ran his car repair business there, and his brother wanted to build a dune buggy.

The last time I saw the 412, it had been used by the fire department for "jaws of life" training. What an ignominious ending for a faithful car. I never heard about the dune buggy, whether the engine got used for that or not.

I think I have only ever seen two other Type IV Volkswagens with my own eyes. They were not popular cars. They were peculiar, they were weird, their parts cost too much, and Volkswagen came out with them at a time when the Beetle was still selling extremely well.

More than anything else, my 412 was basically the backdrop for 1989. A lot of things happened, and I learned a lot about cars (and life) during that year.

But what I have learned since--with what I now know about cars, I could take a car in the shape that one was in and repair it properly. I now know how to build a muffler; I'm confident I could make one that would work fine and cost a hell of a lot less than the $465 for a manufactured one.

Still, parts for the thing are in $YEECH! territory. A rebuild kit for a Beetle engine, including a new cam and crank, is about $650. A similar kit for a 412 engine is FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. And that's just for the parts. That's not a complete engine. That's the kit to rebuild an engine.

So, while I might now be able to fix a 412 in the same shape mine was in, I don't think I would try. Not if it needed anything more than sheet metal work, I think.

How things change.
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