An Unforgettable Night

What Fun

I love projects and learning how to rebuild a four cylinder VW engine in my basement is one I will never forget.

A Night I'll Never Forget

When I was young, I would always do my own maintenance. I didn't do it for enjoyment. I did it to save money. Actually I hated to repair appliances. Too often I would obtain the wrong part or curse the sheet metal, and hoses that had rusted out. Auto repair also has its share of bad memories. Replacing a "Y" pipe on a twenty year old V8, in the middle of winter, breaking rusted bolts with freezing hands, ugh. But there is one fond, yet frightening, memory I still cherish.

It all started in 1971, when my 1964 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible began to lose power. The 36-horse power engine, which had 85,000 miles on it, had not been treated well. I very rarely changed my oil, and now that it was burning it, I just kept adding oil. There was even a time I had run it dry of oil. I decided to rebuild the engine.

Rebuilding an engine can be a dangerous project. This is especially true if you are a total novice, as I was. Fortunately, I had a consultant; my very good friend, Gerry. Gerry was a master mechanic. He had rebuilt hot rod engines, and race prepared an Alpha Romeo, which he himself raced at Lime Rock. Gerry gave me a list of parts that I would need for the job, such as rings, bearings, gaskets etc. I ordered them from either a Sears Roebuck or Whitney's catalog and waited for them to arrive. This was exciting. I really love projects and here would be one that I could accomplish in comfort. The plan was to remove the entire engine and place it in the basement playroom of the house. Here I would disassemble the engine and clean all the parts in tubs of gunk in the laundry room.

On one Friday after work, Gerry came over and helped me remove the engine and carry it into the basement. We placed it on a drop cloth in the center of the floor. The VW engine was an opposed four-cylinder air-cooled engine. It was enclosed in a shroud, which contained a fan, driven by a pulley on the crankshaft. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche had designed the basic engine in the late 30s and little in the design had been changed, except an increase in power (from 25-36HP). The reputation the engine had for reliability was legend. Here in my basement was this classic engine design, about to be opened for examination.

I started to disassemble the engine, the shroud, the carburetor, the muffler, the manifolds, cylinder head covers, distributor, coil and all associated wires, clips etc. Soon I had the engine reduced to a pile of parts. The parts were in terrible shape. I could not move the valve lifters. They appeared to be frozen in old oil. I wondered how the push rods were able to move them. We would have to replace all the push rods and the cam. As I took the engine apart, I was careful to mark which piston and valve went with which cylinder.

On Monday, I went to a local machine shop and dropped off the cylinder heads and valves to be seated. I bought a new set of push rods and a cam. During the week I cleaned all the engine parts, rebuilt the distributor and carburetor, and prepared for Gerry's arrival. The next night Gerry came over and helped me with the final assembly. We inserted the pistons with their new rings. Gerry set the new bearings in the block. We continued to assemble the rest of the engine. Now it was starting to get exciting. Would it really work? Gerry supervised as the cylinder heads were torqued down in the correct sequence. He also instructed me as to how to apply gaskets and gasket cement as we bolted the two engine cases and pan on. Next came a compression test. All cylinders had good compression. Before we put the spark plugs in we poured oil into each cylinder. Gerry explained that the oil would prevent scraping as the engine first started. We decided to test the engine before the final assembly of the starter, the fan, shroud, manifolds and muffler. I went to the car, took the battery out, and siphoned a coffee can of gasoline from the car's gas tank.

Soon we were ready to see if the engine would run. The room was not a large one and the ceiling was low, with one small florescent light fixture in the center. We put gasoline into the carburetor float, and then I took a length of rubber hose and connected it to the fuel pump input. The other end of the hose was placed in the coffee can of gasoline.

Show time came. Gerry placed a couple of clip leads on the battery and connected them to the ignition system. While I stood holding the rubber hose in the can of gasoline, Gerry took a breaker bar with a large socket on it and turned the engine over. What happened next is what I always will remember about this project.

The engine started right up. The room went black as the burning oil in the cylinders exited through the exhaust valve openings. We could not see anything except for flames, which were shooting out of the cylinders (the manifolds were not mounted yet). The sound from the engine was also frightening as each cylinder explosion filled the room. Gerry and I were frozen in a state of both delight and fear. We couldn't see each other, flames were reaching out to our legs, I am holding a can of gasoline and Gerry is holding a breaker bar. The sound is deafening. After about 30 seconds, Gerry cut the ignition and we both ran out of the basement in order to breathe.

We went to the kitchen and celebrated with a beer. Later we returned and mounted the rest of the engine components. We carried the engine into the driveway, reconnected the battery and gasoline, started it and let it idle for the rest of the night. Of course it now had an exhaust manifold and muffler, so it was quiet and well behaved.

I ran the car for another year before I sold it. I was proud that the little engine had truly been restored to health. Now I change my oil every three to five thousand miles on my cars. The project was a success, but the memory of the 30 seconds of both elation and fear is one I will cherish for the rest of my life. I also must thank Gerry for the assistance he gave me then and in many of the projects I have been involved in over the years.

Frank Greenhalgh
April 29, 2000