How can I fix up an old VW Beetle on an almost non-existent budget?
September 26, 2013 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I don't have a lot of money, or experience, or tools, and about a year ago I asked about fixing up an old Fiat. Most people told me that wasn't a great idea, and that I should look into Volkswagens, and since then I've fallen in love with the VW Beetle. My question is this: what are some ways I can (1) find a VW Beetle that is a good candidate to wrench on that probably won't need everything but the chassis replaced and (2) get into the "old Beetle enthusiast" community without having a ton of disposable income?

I'm probably going to need to work on the smallest imaginable budget to make this work.

I know about How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and plan on buying and reading the book before I even think about buying a VW.

The previous newest question along these lines was from 2006, so I figured the landscape might have changed a little in the intervening years.

Has anyone here gotten a busted-ass old Beetle running on a shoestring budget and only Saturdays to work on the thing? Was it fun enough to be rewarding, or did you wish you could just buy a nice Beetle and be done with it?
posted by epilnivek to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I did it 20 years ago in high school/early univeristy, when old wrecked beetles were more common. I built up a 1973 super beetle from complete basics. Pretty well everything except for the transmission was dismantled to component parts. Basically, I did it through lots and lots of scrounging of parts from wrecks on farms, in backyards, and old junkyards. You have to be unafraid of knocking on doors when you see one sitting around and following leads.

I got to know the guys at the local air-cooled VW shop really well. Biggest problem in Canada was finding one where the body wasn't completely rotted out. If you start with a decent shell and pan, no rot in the heater channels etc, you are good to go. I don't advise getting a super beetle. Parts for a standard beetle are easier to come by and cheaper. You also have to decide . . . pre '67 or post '67, as there were some major changes. Body part availability isn't the same for all years. Engines and whatnot are basically interchangeable between all beetles.

I learned a lot from building that thing, it was fun and rewarding. A real pain in the arse too. The biggest mistake I made was starting with a car with a bunch of rot in it. Made for a lot of extra work, time, and money and in the end all the parts I replaced rotted out again and killed the car.

Air cooled VWs are super easy to work on, but I had a lot of help from my father and great-uncle, and years of personal experience with working on cars and old VWs before I started on one myself. You don't need much in the way of tools, and the few specialty ones you can borrow pretty easily. There probably isn't an easier or cheaper classic car to mess around with.

Get a subscription to something like Hot VWs Magazine -- specialty magazines are excellent resource for parts, tips, and ideas.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:52 PM on September 26, 2013

The truth of the matter is, if you're willing to get dirty, greasy, and do all the wrench work and labor yourself, working on old cars can be made *cheaper*, but parts still have costs, and volkswagens and VW parts are actually scarcer and more expensive than they have been in the past. Long story short, working on cars is not an inexpensive hobby.
posted by stenseng at 2:00 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Was it fun enough to be rewarding, or did you wish you could just buy a nice Beetle and be done with it?

If you don't really, really like fixing things, you won't find this fun.

It helps if you have friends that find hanging out with you while you are working on your car fun. Even more so if they find it fun to hand you things, or maybe even crawl under there with you and hold a wrench on something while you turn the other end.
posted by yohko at 4:23 PM on September 26, 2013

The big ticket expensive things on a bug to fix (in no particular order and subject to the vagaries of my memory):

* Rust, especially on the frame, pan, rocker panels. Just forget trying to use the stock jack.
* Suspension, steering - repairing this requires a lot of specialized tools, not just a wrench (spring compressors, ball joint pullers, etc). You can probably find most of these problems with a push-pull test
* Compression - if it's not even, you're looking at a rebuild - you can test this quickly by pulling the center tap from the distributor and while holding it with a stout rag with the connector close to a good ground like the fan shroud, have a friend turn the engine over in neutral. Listen carefully. You should hear a solid, even DA-DA-DA-DA, DA-DA-DA-DA, DA-DA-DA-DA. If you hear DA-Da-da-da, DA-Da,da,da or DA-DA-DA-da, DA-DA-DA-da, then one (or more) cylinders is weak. Best way to be sure is to measure. While you're at it, look at the spark that's jumping from the ignition coil wire to ground: if it's anything but bright blue, you'll need to replace the coil (but that's easy).
Brakes - while these are doable and fairly straight-forward, getting the brake drums open (on right right side IIRC), it a real solid pain in the ass - like 4-foot cheater pipe pain in the ass.

I had a bug when I was in college. I repaired what I could. Up until I had a wrecker haul it away (with about 250K miles on it), it always started somehow. But it never ran right for more than a few days. I'd get eveything fixed and then something else would go. For example, at one point while I was saving up for a rebuild, the car wouldn't start on its own power on cold mornings. Fortunately, I lived on a hill and would use gravity to push start it.
posted by plinth at 5:40 PM on September 26, 2013

Best answer: One thing that goes on apace, despite human desire, is metallic corrosion. Unless you're somehow getting a vehicle made in Mexico, or Brazil, after the cessation of production in the rest of the world, any VW classic Beetle, of any era, is a time capsule of what is, by today's standards, crap metallurgy. And they were, by today's design standards, lightweight, cheap structural designs, with minimal crush zones or other reasonable occupant protection schemes.

In short, if you come across an apparently nice 1973 Super Beetle, with a good paint job, and a recently rebuilt drivetrain, think twice. And then, think again. There are so many later model cars with better construction, better metal, and better safety, that you shouldn't sanely think about becoming a classic Beetle owner, especially if you intend to use it as a daily driver, on a very restricted budget. Leave the remaining stock of rapidly rusting classic Beetles to those of greater means, as possible restoration targets to the future automotive museums and collectors that can afford to remake them appropriately.

Get yourself an unloved, but 40 model year later Nissan or Mazda or Chevy, and pour your love and limited bankroll into something that will at least reward you with reliable transport, and decent safety, as long as your affair continues.
posted by paulsc at 11:28 PM on September 26, 2013

I had dreams of working on my ride late into a summer Saturday evening, some classic rock on the radio, wiping my hands on an old oily rag, and slowly adjusting the throttle to get things just right. With a dog laying in the driveway, kids playing baseball in the backyard, wife chatting with the neighbors.....

But let me tell you the combination of learning how to repair something, figuring out what tool to use, then driving to the store to buy a magno-cranko-meter (in metric, to be overnighted from Germany) then actually fixing it, takes a lot of time. A. Lot. Of. Time. More than just Saturdays might afford you. And everyone else says they are busy when you need a second set of hands. But who am I kidding, I love it!

I suggest you join the local VW car club message board, (and always use the search function before posting a repair question,) hit up a couple local VW car shows, and you will find that the local VW community can be a good time saver and a massive help. Maybe do all this before buying the Bug.
posted by lstanley at 7:57 AM on September 27, 2013

Best answer: I'm a little late to the game, but I will post up my perspective. I have had a number of old air cooled German cars. I love them.

I think there was a time when the Bug was a fairly cheap abundant ride. The clock of time has been ticking though, and they are starting to be a lot less common. Books like How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive are great, but they come from a perspective that these cars are relatively new. Most of the affordable Bugs are going to be rusted out, and need extensive restoration to be drivable. Part of that restoration is going to include welding and paint. You will need more extensive tools than what is outlined in the book mentioned.

You might expand your search for a car to include all air cooled German cars including the Type 3s which I see fairly cheap at times. Also you might consider a Porsche 914 as they sometimes fly under the radar, but have similar mechanics.

In the meantime join a VW club. Build some trust, and try to get invited over to wrench on a car. Make sure they understand you are a novice, but interested in learning. There were times that I would gladly welcome a friend to drink beer with while I work just for the company. My wife was never big for hanging in the garage with me.

If you are just looking for a cheap car to drive that is easy to keep running I would consider something more modern. There are quite a few Japanese cars that are extremely easy to work on with great communities for support. The Civic and Miata come to mind. Most do not have the style of an old VW, but they are abundant and cheap.
posted by ohjonboy at 9:10 AM on September 30, 2013

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