Monday, December 18, 2006

VW - TULZ Part One

TULZ – Part One

A good mechanic gets up to $70 an hour. Most folks think that's outrageous and immediately start figuring out what they get per hour, which can be kinda embarrassing if you're flippin burgers for a living.

Why so high? Because the price reflects more than the sweat of his brow. For seventy bucks you buy an hour of his labor but along with it you get to rent his experience and his tools and his shop and the legally binding assurance that whatever the task, it will be performed in a competent manner; the implied 'good craftsmanship' warranty that applies to all who declare themselves to be professionals and solicit your business on that basis. (The definition of 'good craftsmanship' varies from state to state; check with your local consumer advocacy group.)

To properly maintain your Volkswagen requires about twenty-five hours of skilled maintenance per year. You can verify this by comparing the maintenance schedule in your owner's handbook against the time estimates in the Flat Rate Manual, being sure to use the figures of antique, aircooled Volkswagens.

While you're doing this, compare it to any modern vehicle. The first thing you'll notice is that modern cars don't even list many of the VW Maintenance items, such as adjusting the front wheel bearings… or even adjusting the brakes. The second thing you'll notice is that when the task is listed, veedubs take more time, such as .3 m/hr to adjust the fan belt vs .1 m/hr on a modern car. Even changing the oil takes five times as much labor because of the need to remove & replace the sump plate, hopefully torqued to spec. The bottom line is that on an annual basis, your antique Volkswagen requires approximately ten times more maintenance man-hours compared to a modern vehicle.

At seventy bucks an hour that's about $1750 per year. Ain't reality a bitch?

Okay, sure… you can find mechanics who'll work for less. But you gotta ask yourself 'Why?' I mean, if the guy has got his shit together he doesn't even have to look for work, the dealers and good garages come looking for him.

And of course you don't absolutely have to do all the items on the maintenance list, like oiling the wiper shafts and door hinges and crawling under and checking the hose from the tank to the tunnel… lotsa little things you can sorta overlook. And the record clearly shows, most do.

But unqualified mechanics often do more harm than good. And letting those 'unimportant' chores slide will eventually lead to engine fires and catastrophic mechanical failures which in the long run, cost more than if you'd done the job right to begin with.

The bottom line is that when it comes to maintenance, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Your air cooled Volkswagen was designed in the 1930's and is a high-maintenance vehicle because that's how they did things back then. So whatcha going to do?

For most of the people reading this, the only practical option is to perform most of the maintenance yourself. That means you need a place to work, certain skills and the proper tools. That's the Holy Trinity of Maintenance – Shop, Skills & Tools.

The shop part is pretty easy. Wherever you are, that's your shop. So long as you don't make a mess and aren't there too long, the world is literally filled with 'shop space' :-)

(Ed.Note: When this article was first posted one of the many Instant Experts on the internet took the trouble to point out that he was in Massachusetts, that Massachusetts was not California, and that my comments about ‘shop space’ were therefore meaningless. In fact, all he proved was that he’d failed to get the message. The Yukon isn’t California either but I’ve broken down there and been forced to turn a muddy patch of Yukon Territory into my shop-space. Ditto for the rolling hills of western Iowa and a frigid mountain pass in Oregon. The point here is that wherever you happen to break down automatically becomes your ‘shop space.’ That’s when you put your brain to work and turn wherever you are in the best possible ‘shop’ you can.)

The skill part is the easiest of the three because all humans have the capacity to learn. Some learn quick and never forget, others don't learn as fast and need a refresher course now and then. Some humans have innate talents as tool-users and others don't. Where you fit into that scale doesn't matter. Not when it comes to Volkswagen maintenance. Early model bugs and buses are in fact war machines in civilian dress. And as war machines their maintenance is designed in phases. The most frequently required maintenance items, called 'Field Level' can be performed with a minimum of skills and tooling. Above that you have Depot Level and above that, Factory Level. Although this is an oversimplification, the Factory Level is where major components such as the engine, tranny and front axle would be overhauled. Depot Level is where those components are swapped out.

But the realities of life, or war for that matter, often makes it impossible for a vehicle in the field (that's you) to return to the depot (that's the dealer) for depot-level maintenance such as a brake job. So there is an approved Field Level repair procedure for doing your brakes. Or your clutch. Or whatever. And there is nothing to prevent you from learning those procedures.

(Ed.Note: When this article was first posted in the year 2000, Volkswagen had already discontinued providing any meaningful support for the 22,000,000 air cooled vehicles it had produced. This makes any reference to dealer or factory support little more than a bad joke. Today, if you own an air cooled Volkswagen, the odds of finding a qualified mechanic to properly maintain your vehicle are about the same as for finding lips on a chicken.)

In a similar vein, the Depot may have to rebuild an engine or tranny now and then so there are procedures that explain how to do this. More importantly, the procedures explain how to make the tools needed to do this. And there is nothing to prevent you learning all of this, either. Nor prevent you from making such tools.

Now lemme give you a couple of examples. First, let's change a tire. (Awright, stop laughing. You wouldn't believe the mail I get on this subject.)

See the jack? Notice how the lug wrench fits down inside the jack standard? (Ed. Note: This refers to the early tube-style jack.) That's soz you can use the jack as a cheater. Go on, try it. Put the lug wrench on the lug bolt, which some idiot at the Depot Level has torqued to some ridiculously high number (and damaged the lug bolt, rim and brake drum in the process). Now slide the jack onto the lug wrench. You now have a lug wrench with a handle nearly four feet long, giving you enough leverage to loosen those gorilla-tight lug-bolts. (For those of you who've never changed a tire, you loosen the lug-bolts before you raise the vehicle, which is why the jack is available for use as a cheater.)

Using your jack as a cheater is an example of field-level maintenance tools… stuff you always have with you. Depot-level tools are things that are too large to toss in the boot.

To do a brake job, for example, you need to remove the large nut on the rear drums. The tools for that job are the sort of thing you don't carry with you. What are they? One of them is a piece of angle iron about five feet long. The other is a piece of pipe the same length. Plus the wrench, of course.

The angle iron should be 2'x2" by a quarter-inch thick. Down on one end you drill two holes to match the lug-bolt spacing on your brake drum. This is called an 'Anti-Torque Tool'. You bolt it to the brake drum and let the free end rest against the ground when you unbolt the big nut. (You'll also use the anti-torque tool when installing or removing your flywheel.)

To unbolt the big nut you'd normally use a six-point socket of the appropriate size, 36mm for bugs and early buses or 46mm for later buses. That's a 3/4" drive socket, by the way. And you'd turn it with a breaker-bar (not a flex-handle nor a ratchet). Harbor Freight can sell you a full set of 3/4" drive metric sockets for less than fifty bucks… which is about what you pay for the socket alone if you bought it at an auto-parts store.

But you don't really need the socket.

Go buy a slug-wrench. You've seen them advertised in the magazines. They tell you to put the slug-wrench over the nut then hit it with a hammer. DON'T DO IT. You should NEVER hammer on a shaft supported by ball- or roller-bearings. It causes premature failure of the bearings (which explains why the magazines tell you to do it :-)

(Ed.Note: The process is called 'Brinelling' after Johann A. Brinell, the Swedish engineer who first explained the failure mode, as was reported in the Journal of the SAE and other sources.)

Take the slug-wrench to a weldor and have a handle welded on. I used a steel bar, three inches wide by half an inch thick by five feet long. Works like a champ.

The metal pipe is for those of you who have a breaker-bar & socket (or who weld a bar-type handle to their slug-wrench). Select the ID of the pipe to fit over your breaker-bar.

You may now remove your rear wheel nuts with elegance and ease. And tighten them, too. Torque spec is something like 215 ft/lbs, plus turned to the next crenelation of the castle-nut to align the hole for the Cotter key. So how much is 215 ft/lbs? Your bathroom scale will tell you. Just measure out four feet from the hub, stand on the scale and push down (or pull up, if you wanna) until your weight changes by one-quarter of 215.

Your Depot Level tool kit should also include a floor jack and a pair of jack stands. Again, see the Harbor Freight catalog (or go get lost on Bad web page but it'll get you a catalog.)

If you're serious about owning & driving an antique Volkswagen you're going to have to pony-up about five hundred bucks for tools, build up a small reserve of ready-issue spare parts and spend about 1300 hours of study over a two-year span to acquire the needed skills. That will cover all of the basic mechanical stuff up to engine & tranny rebuilding but will not cover body & fender work, painting or upholstery work.

It's your decision. You're the Mechanic-in-Charge of your vehicle. And your life.

-Bob Hoover
-5 April 2K