9 Things You Should Know Before Rebuilding A VW Bug

Filed in Restoring The Bug by on January 29, 2014 7 Comments


In May of 2013, when I chose to write about car culture in America and restore a Volkswagen Bug for my senior project, I thought I was more than prepared for the challenge. The idea came on the heels of having just helped to covert a 1980 Volkswagen Dasher to run on veggie oil.

It did not occur to me until after I bought the Bug and it was parked in the carport that I had especially designed for her, that I knew nothing about restoring a car. Sure, I’m good with my hands and mechanically inclined, but rebuilding a car took a special kind of mechanical expertise that fell under the heading of “Have Some Idea of What You are Supposed to Do” when you open the hood and peer inside.

By the end of summer, the truth had sunk in and I knew that my fantasy of working alongside other car guys, throwing back a beer or two, tweaking a plug, changing a filter, and putting the Bug back together was not going to happen. The reality was that I didn’t even really know any car guys. And while a therapist might connect my car fantasy back to the death of my dearly departed dad and my need for male bonding (sound of beating on chest), my Mom pointed out that my dad never so much as changed the oil in his car or expressed any interest in rebuilding a car, and, in fact, his dream car was beautiful, luxurious, and had a long term warranty

Clearly I had stolen more Bug than I could swim with, but quitting was not an option. With a $1,200 dollar, 1800 pound Bug that we had towed home from Minnesota staring back at me from my bedroom windows, I wondered why didn’t I come from a normal family where the mother says, “No way!” and tells me to start an ant farm for my senior project. Why wasn’t my dad alive to just say, “Cole, rebuilding a car is gonna be hard, real hard. Learn to make pasta” But, alas, I was cursed with a supportive mom and a dad who had died, so it was up to me to show the world I could transform the piece of metal in the carport into something that was more than a push toy.

I found the manual for the 1973 Bug on Amazon, tracked down a Bug expert to spend time with, and went to work restoring the June Bug. Nine months and countless hours later and over budget, the Bug runs more often than not. I wouldn’t say we have joined each other’s fan clubs, I don’t have that “I could never sell you” feeling, and I’m still anxious every time I put the key in the ignition, but I do feel a sense of satisfaction that she runs about as well as she will ever run. Bugs were never known for their dependability, even during their heyday. And now, the fun part of finishing the inside has begun. At least, I hope it’s fun. Please, let it be fun!

9 Things You Should Know Before Rebuilding A VW Bug.

  • It’s common for car enthusiasts to say “anyone can rebuild a Volkswagen bug.” This is true only if you already have experience rebuilding a car or have reliable access to knowledgeable people who can answer car-related questions and show you how and what needs to be done. You’ll need more than the book “Rebuilding a Volkswagen for Dummies.”
  • If you are a 17 year old with a dream of replacing your Bug’s engine with a faster engine and turning it into a fast Bug you’ll have to wait until you have years of experience and buckets of money.
  • Everyone knows someone who has restored a Bug or about someone who has restored a bug. That doesn’t mean that they know anything at all about rebuilding a Bug.
  • When men-boys stand around a car and start talking about tools, it means they have no idea what is wrong with your car or how to fix it; they just want to escape to Sears.
  • Listen to your Grandmother. Bugs are not inexpensive to work on. Sure, they’re less expensive than other cars, but the rebuild is far from cheap.
  • Take a quick test to see if you are a “car guy.” Let’s say that your car dies at a green light. If you immediately start thinking about what went wrong under the hood, oblivious to the line of traffic honking behind you, then you’re a car guy. If you worry about the traffic, curse the car, or panic, don’t rebuild a car (I curse).
  • Accept that every time you turn the ignition off, you will wonder if the Bug will start the next time. Rebuilding a car brings with it a constant will-it-start-or-not anxiety
  • A road assistance request from Triple A that does not fall during non-peak traffic hours, on days where the temperatures are higher than 64 and lower than 80, and when the sun is shining and snow has not been present for at least two weeks, will take at least eight hours, starting with a promise to be there in 90 minutes.
  • Don’t be a quitter. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it more than likely won’t be a manly chest-beating bonding experience, but if you stick with it, find help where you can, and devote hours to it, your Bug will eventually run, and you’ll be able to count on it—sometimes

There a are a lot more than 9 things you should know but we will save those for later.

When the interior is done we’ll go for a ride.

Cole live



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  1. Sue says:

    Good for you for hanging in there..nothing that is worth anything is easy.

  2. Ben says:

    if you had known everything involved you might not have gone for it.
    Kiddo, at your age go for it. Thats the important piece. Not how great the Bug turns out but that you gave it your best shot and hung in there and learned something along the way.
    And good for your Mom for letting you get in over your head. Sounds like you are a good team.
    Sue is right ^ nothing worth anything is easy

  3. Mary Alice says:

    I imagine with a project like this the process is every bit a important as the end result and clearly you are making the most of the process. And yes always listen to your grandmother. They are very wise.
    Good job Cole!

  4. Millie says:

    Triple A the bane of my existence. I’ve never had a good or timely experience with them but I’ve had the membership for years because who else is there to call.
    If you can make the Bug hum–the most important skill you’ve learned is negotiation. Bugs can’t be bossed they have to be coaxed.

  5. irene says:

    You’ve learned your lessons well. Way to dig in there!

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