Saturday, November 25, 2006

AV - VW Reliability


When the Volkswagen first arrived on American shores it was a mechanical curiosity, having a suspension system far in advance of anything we'd ever seen, thanks to Ferdinand Porsche, and a cute little engine designed by Xavier Reimspiess that was the cutting edge of 1930's technology.

With a VW dealer in nearly every town and a superbly planned propaganda comapaign run by the ad agency of Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, it wasn't long before the bug enjoyed an enviable reputation for reliability. That wasn't true but in the modern world perception is reality.

The truth is, the Volkswagen is a high-maintenance vehicle, as were all vehicles from the 1930's. It required approximately ten times the amount of skilled periodic maintenance as a modern vehicle. Which was okay when the dealers had a waiting list of factory-trained German mechanics willing to come to America and work for seventy cents an hour.

To the owner of a bug or bus all of this was invisible. They merely took their bug into the dealer and got it back four to six hours later, ready to deliver another three thousand miles of trouble-free operation. They were unaware of the 128 items on the check-off list, nor the 12 different lubricants, nor the average seven years of factory-trained experience in each of the three mechanics and one inspector who performed their periodic maintenance, which the owner thought was a simple oil change.

(Ever own a VW? Back then there was a block in the lower-left corner of the job-ticket labled 'OTHER MAINTENANCE (AS REQUIRED).' Often times when you'd pick up your bug or bus there would be a part number in the box along with a charge; never very much. But the part number might be for a rebuilt head, fuel pump, carburetor or other major component, installed at the discretion of the service-manager. Many VW owners liked to brag their vehicle had never needed any repair when in fact it had been virtually rebuilt, one component at a time. )

Fortunately, the engine was such a simple, robust design that it wasn't too difficult to retro-fit modern-day technology, which is what professional mechanics did in order to develop a powerplant that could not only survive a thousand-mile race over unpaved desert trails but do so at speeds as high as 120mph.

The Myth continued, of course. Indeed, it has even grown through the years: Volkswagens were stone-reliable. Such claims are hilarious bullshit to any professional mechanic but modern-day America has never had a very firm grip on reality.

The HVX mods are a compilation of some of the durability-related retro-fits. Nothing very exotic; every modern engine incorporates the same features. The tricky bit -- and the reason for all the drawings -- is showing how those modern-day features can be retro-fitted to the early VW air cooled engines, which even Volkswagen did, starting with the aluminum-cased 1700. Although occasionally mentioned in the literature most of these mods have never appeared in any of the VW-specific magazines because they are hard-ball engineering, things that must be built-in rather than bolted on. Most shade-tree types have never even heard of them and if they have, pass them off as being unnecessary. Their dune buggy runs just fine, until it doesn't. Even then, it's not too hard to fix. So long as it is loud enough and has enough chrome, they're happy; long-term durability isn't even in the equation.

Unfortunately, a lot of those shade-tree types put a fan on the pulley hub and call it an aircraft engine. And that's when the fun begins. It doesn't do any good to point out that the piece of shit they're flying behind wouldn't make a pimple on a real engine's ass since every successful flight says otherwise. I know I wasn't impressed with the opinion of professional mechanics back when I was in my teens. (And my dad was a card-carrying A&E.) After all, I built an engine and the thing actually flew! What could be better proof than that? An' besides, I'd done everything all the 'experts' said I should do.

It took two lost props and six off-field landings to convince me most VW experts of that era didn't know their ass from their elbow. Indeed, in researching the literature I discovered that none of those experts had actually converted a VW engine for flight and only one had ever flown behind one! (I'm talking the late 1950's here, guys.)

That was the beginning of a long and often difficult education. Which is still going on. But it has turned into a largely personal journey. According to the current crop of experts I put the prop on the wrong end of the crankshaft and do all manner of other things deemed unnecessary, according to the conventional wisdom of dune buggies.

So be it. After leading the horse to water the rest of the job is up to the horse.


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