Welcome to the BugShop FAQ

The text following is part of a series of articles written by John S. Henry on the restoration and maintenance of air-cooled Volkswagens. While his experience is exclusively with the Beetle, many of the techniques can be applied to other models.

This text is copyrighted and duplication, re-distribution or publication is prohibited without consent of the author.

Article: BugMods!
Last updated: 2/6/02



{Targets!  We got targets!!  I have made all the subjects in the intro below hot linkable to the appropriate text below, and you get a link at each target to jump back up to the index.....!!}

Tim Allen (from TV's "Home Improvement") once said something that fits me well: "If it ain't broke, you can probably still fix it.". While my Beetles kept me pretty busy with regular maintenance and repair, I began to spend more and more time trying to "make it better" or modify this because "that's the way I like it". I am an engineer, genetically I'm sure, and by schooling and profession too.

I thought I would write about all the modifications I had made, successful and not, to my Beetles over the years. Making a list of them was easy, trying to "sort" them to make the article read better was a little harder. In the end I decided to categorize in the way listed below, and I'll include them under these categories so you can decide if you really want to go reading through all (or some) of this stuff. This file is quite long.

How this (long) article is assembled

Mandatory modifications. All of my bugs, save for my "vintage/correct or die" '57, had these. My last Beetle had them "installed" within weeks of me getting it.

General Improvements

True "Custom" stuff that made my car stand out

Stuff I did 'cause I was bored and am a nerdy engineer

Stuff I did that failed (well, just wasn't "practical")

So the text below details each of these mods, some at length, some are very brief. The cars I did all this too were:

So there in a moment in history, immortalized in the photo in the "misc" gallery here, I actually owned 3 Beetles. Sitting there with my dogs, I have told people that that picture is all of the things important to me. Of course my wife had to take the picture and we didn't have any kids then.

Mandatory modifications

Manual Choke (using heater lever)
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Call me a control freak, but I never liked the "automatic" choke used on the Beetle (and most other cars from that era) because it was too stupid. See, the choke richens the air/fuel mixture by closing a butterfly in the throat of the carb. This restricts the airflow into the intake and causes more gas to get sucked in, thereby richening the fuel mixture. This is just what is needed when the engine is cold. As the engine warms up, it requires less richening.

The stock "automatic choke" really works OK, but it is, let's say, pretty dumb. The choke butterfly (really just a disk) in the carb throat is controlled by a bi-metallic spring. This spring is a coiled up strip of metal that as it is heated, unwinds. When it cools back down, it winds up again. In the "automatic" choke this spring is captive in a little housing and shares that space with a small heating element (that's what that "choke wire" is for). When your engine is cold, the spring is relaxed and the choke is closed all the way. You start the engine and the heating element starts warming the spring and it slowly opens the choke. In about 3-4 mins, the choke is fully open.

Here's the biggest problem I have with this "automatic" choke. That spring, which directly determines the mixture by how hot it is, really has no idea how warm the engine is. Yes, the whole engine compartment warms up and that will influence the spring somewhat, but engine heat alone will not make it open fully. Two problems stem from this 1) less likely, but common in "neglected" Beetles. The voltage to the coil doesn't get there either because of a blown fuse or broken wire. Then engine starts fine but runs too rich when fully warmed up because the spring has not opened the choke all the way. This makes the engine run poorly (low power, especially at higher RPMs) and makes for terrible gas mileage. 2) More common: You drive your car on the highway for a long time on a really cold day. The engine warms up fully. Then you park the car to pop into MacDonalds and grab a #2 combo "to go". You car sits quietly in the cold parking lot while you are inside for about 10 mins. The temperature at the carb (and spring) drops much faster than the heavy metal mass of the engine block. When you come back out to your car, the carb has cooled enough that the choke is completely or almost closed, but the engine block has really not lost much heat. So when you start the car, the engine has to run on a richer mixture than it really needs to for a few minutes (and usually will idle really fast).

Don't get me wrong. That automatic choke is much better than NO choke. Keep the wire on it and adjust it (see the Muir book) and will do OK. But in extreme climates I have always liked the manual choke. I remember taking my '67 up to New Hampshire to ski when the high for the day was 3 degrees. I could jump in pull the choke all the way and depress the clutch (A good trick for starting VWs in REALLY cold weather. Even with the tranny in neutral, the super cold gear oil in the tranny makes for some pretty significant load on the starter. Keep it in neutral but push in the clutch to keep the starter from having to spin that sticky mainshaft too.) and the engine would suck raw gas and fire up every time. I might get out on the highway in a couple minutes and even though the engine wasn't close to warmed up, I could open the choke all the way once at highway speed. I just like the control.

So how did I do it? Well, you can buy lots of manual choke "conversion" kits at auto parts and department stores. Problem is, the cable is only about 6-7 feet long. A beetle is 13 ft long, and as you know, that engine is in the opposite end from that which the driver sits. In my first implementation, I ordered a kit from JC Whitney that was made for the Beetle and it came with a 12 ft cable. But that big plastic knob sticking out under the dash really look like crap. And the bend this cable had to make to get pointing toward the back of the car make the sliding action of this heavy wire cable to stiff. The other problem was that since the "spiral" metal of the outer cable was not sheathed with anything, moisture eventually got inside and gunked the cable up to the point that it was inoperable.

If you read my "Heater" article, you know that my solution there is to eliminate the "Y" ducting under the back seat along with the vents under the seat. This, as it turns out, makes available the heater control lever ('65 and up) which would normally pull the flaps under the back seat open, AND, as it turns out, this cable already runs to the rear of the car.

Now without pictures, it will be difficult to describe this. But let's start back at the carb. If you remove the three screws that hold the little retainer ring and automatic choke mechanism from the right side of the carb, you can remove the whole choke, heater coil, spring and all. Make sure you remove the wire and disconnect it from it's source as it is "hot" when the ignition is on. I think it comes from the ignition coil. Don't just leave it hanging.

I used a lot of soldering to do this. And instead of a "conversion" cable I used a long bicycle caliper brake cable. It needs to be just about the linear distance between the back of your emergency brake cable and the carb. This worked well because 1) the cable was sheathed and "weatherproof" and 2) since the force needed to actuate the choke was minimal, the very flexible cable make for smooth and easy action. Here's the steps:

  1. Snip one end off the braided internal cable and remove it from the sleeve. Strip the vinyl jacket from about 3/4" from one end of the cable. Get a flat washer that has a hole about 3/16" in the middle and is about 3/8" around. Hold the washer upright, on edge, perpendicular to the table (or whatever), with your finger. Now lay the end of the cable sleeve on the table next to the washer with it's end just past the centerline of the washer. (I can't think of any other way to describe this). Sort of like a "Q" with a really long tail going sharp off to one side. Now that you see how it should go, lay the whole thing down flat and lay the cable sleeve across the washer the same way it was standing up (whew!) You will need to solder the metal spiral jacket to the side of the washer. You might be able to do this with a really big soldering iron, but I would (and did) use a torch. One of those re-fillable "pencil" torches works well. You will need to be familiar with basic soldering techniques to do this.

  3. Now run the cable into the car. You will have to do some engineering to do this. In some of my cars, I remember having to drill holes in the front and back of the fan housing very near the hole for the accelerator cable; in others, there was already a hole there. The washer on the end of the cable sleeve will attach to the side of the carb where the automatic choke that you removed was, on the threaded hole closest to the ground and the front of the car. You need to get the other end into the car, under the back seat. So you have to go through the rear engine tin, into the passenger compartment in front of the tranny nose and under the seat. Obviously you don't want the kink the cable in any way, and whatever you use, make sure that it is sheathed ("waterproof") well, especially outside the passenger compartment.

  5. Now you need to solder a small "barrel" shaped piece of metal over

If you look where the automatic choke used to be, you will see a little arm on a pivot that goes into the throat of the carb. That little arm has a bend in it an ends by making a "pin" that comes outward from the carb. If you push the down, the choke closes, up and it opens. Solder a about a 1" piece of coat hanger wire on this brass pin.

[This section is incomplete. I got a headache trying to describe this and quit for now]

Heater mod/Windshield defroster mod
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These modification is detailed in a separate article in the FAQ called "Heating the Beetle".

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It became clear to me very early on that Beetles just didn't run well without stereos in them. The better the stereo, the better the car ran. I funded part of my college "tour" by working a local stereo store in the mall in South Carolina. I was hired to install car stereos, although they didn't sell much. The first stereo in my first bug (MY first car) was, get this, a "sale" brand of "boom box" and a pair of Radio Shack 4" full range speakers in boxes made out of thick corrugated cardboard and Elmers glue. Suffice to say that I have come a long way since then.

While working in night clubs as a disc jockey in college, I developed an appreciation for "thump" that still lives with me today. (my wife says "You're 35 years old, you're not supposed to have speaker like that in your car!") As it turns out that space behind the back seat is a perfect place for a bass cabinet. In my first designs, the back seat rest was always down to accommodate optimal acoustics. Then it was removed altogether on the premise that I rarely carried any back-seat passengers and if I did, they certainly would not mind leaning against a speaker cabinet. I build a box with 8" woofers and cone tweets that I used for a long time. Then I sold it and built a bigger one with a pair of 12" Pyle drivers and 1" dome tweets. My ultimate system now resides in my water-cooled '85 Cabrio, but since this is about Beetles I won't discuss it here (Ok, just a teaser: 7 channels, 3 amps 7 speakers, 450 watts, EQ, electronic crossover, JBL DVC sub and CD)

But some general guidelines about the Beetle and stereos:

Sway-Away Camber Compensator (rear)
Sway-Away 3/4" front sway bar
(with some stuff about tires)
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[NOTE: This is applicable to swingaxle Beetles only. That's '68 and older in the US models]

When your first car is Beetle, and you drive it all the time, you usually think it handles pretty good. Until one day when you make an "emergency" maneuver, and scrape one of the door handles on the road. All my bugs were swingaxles. No matter what you do, these cars will always be prone to oversteer. (oversteer is that tendency for the back of the car to want to be the front of the car) The rear ends are also prone to what is called "jacking" (outer rear wheel in a turn) and "wheel hop" (inner rear wheel in a turn) But some simple and relatively inexpensive after-market suspension modifications can make the car feel much safer. But before, we talk about those, we need to talk about tires.

The stock tire for the Beetle was (is) a 5.60-15. This is the old "bias ply" type tire size (5.6 inch wide tread on a 15 inch rim). You should never put these tires on you Beetle (Ok, one exception, my vintage '57 will have them, with big, fat whitewalls. But I will drive s l o w l y and carefully with them) Radial tires (refers to the way the "cord" in the tire is wound) are far superior and their superiority over bias tires is much needed by the Beetle. But don't worry, it is unlikely that you could "accidentally" buy bias tires today, they are all but gone. The stock radial size is a 165/70/15. This means a 165 mm tread width, a "profile", or distance from the rim edge to the tread, of 70% of the tread width, on a 15 inch rim. This size tire is actually a bit difficult to find sometimes (when you go into a tire store and ask to see what they have in this size you will get one of three answers 1) "huh?!" 2) "WHAT does that go on!? or 3) "Aahhh, a Beetle tire!"

But the bottom line is that you are wasting good money doing any suspension mods if you haven't first put good tires on the car first. (see my "Maintenance" article for some important thoughts about rotating tires on the Beetle)

Now, about those suspension shortcomings. The swingaxle rear suspension is actually 2 "half" axles that pivot at the longitudinal (side to side) center of the car. As the car goes into a turn and the body rolls on the suspension, the outside axle end is inclined to go up into the fender well, while the inner one drops down out of the fender well. But in hard cornering, another dynamic is in effect. The center of the car can actually raise up (imagine just tilting a toy car on two wheels one side) and a heavy lateral force is applied to the outside rear wheel (trying to push it under the car). As this happens, the outer axle is inclined to "fold under" the car. This is called "jacking" and can sometimes influence the car to roll over.

"Wheel hop" occurs in hard cornering on the inside wheel, usually when trying to accelerate. With little pressure holding that wheel on the ground while it tries to accelerate the car, it will hop. You will not miss this when it happens, it will make the whole car shudder.

VW attempted to address these problems in the late '67 and '68 models with what is called an "equalizer bar". This is a torsional spring (rod) that spans the top of the tranny and axles, at a slight angle. Basically, it is right underneath your "luggage" space under the back window. The rod has a lever at each end, one side points toward the front, the other to the back. At the end of the levers is a big "eyelet" type hole. Two "pushrods" connect the ends of these levers to special brackets bolted to the axle tube ends via the same bolts that hold the tube ends to the springplates. The ends of the torsion spring sit in rubber bushings visible at the top of the inner wheel arch under the fender. While it seemed like a good design, the effect of this bar was minimal. In '69, the IRS rear suspension came out and all of these problems went away. Incidentally, "IRS" stands for Independent Rear Suspension; but the swingaxle was also a completely independent rear suspension also.

The camber compensator alleviates both of these problems well. The compensator is quite simple a single layer leaf spring which spans the width of the car and "cradles" the ends of the axle tubes, just behind the brake plates. It pivots in the center of the car via a bracket that is bolted to the under side of the tranny. In a turn, as the body starts to roll and the inner wheel moves down out of the fenderwell, it pushes on the equalizer bar and transmits force to the end of the other axle tube. Basically, it limits the total positive camber (angle) between the two wheels. It is very much like a traditional sway bar in that it limits the movement of the two rear wheels relative to each other. Unlike the sway bar, however, it has an effect on downward wheel travel when both wheels travel downward at the same time (like going over a narrow dip in the road). This effect helps to eliminate wheel hop.

The camber compensator is very easy to install. You loosen the lower two differential cover nuts on either side of the tranny, slip the carrier bracket up under them and tighten. You then place the spring under the car on a jack, insure the rubber "cradles" are positioned under the axle tubes and push the spring up into the bracket. A single pivot bolt through the bracket and a bushing in the spring hold it in place. The whole install can be done in about 30 minutes. I always applied some grease to the area where the spring cradles contacted the bottom of the axle tubes.

2 things to note: If you have a late '67 or '68 Beetle, you will have to remove the stock equalizer bar to install the camber compensator. This is because the pushrods on either side will interfere with the ends of the compensator spring. And, the camber compensator will decrease you ground clearance by about 2 inches, making the lower spring edge the lowest part of the undercarriage. I DID lose one on one of my '68s. I was never sure exactly where or when, but I'm pretty sure my practice of curb climbing was involved.

The 3/4" front sway bar was just a beefier replacement for the stock one of less than 1/2" that was used on the '59 and up Beetles with non MacPherson front ends (Supers). It comes with a complete set of bushings and brackets. These brackets can be a bear to install. You will need a good set of beefy channel lock pliers and a pair of vice grips. CUT your old ones off, if you can, with a Dremel. It is much easier than trying to bend the tabs up and slide them out (go look, you'll see what I mean; it would take me 8 pages to describe these clamps with just words). Installation time is about an hour, barring any unforeseen metal bonding.

In summary, a good set of tires (around $300) and these two products from Sway-a-Way (around $120 for both at this writing), will vastly improve the handling of your swingaxle Beetle and none of the mods are irreversible should ever decide you want to go vintage.

General Improvements

Additional Gauges
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The simplicity of the Beetle, its instrumentation included, certainly has been one of its biggest features. Simplicity that worked. But being an engineer and usually not completely confident of my engine maintenance and rebuilding skills, I felt that any additional information that I could get from my engine would be beneficial. Here are the gauges I added to my cars over the years in order of importance, in my opinion.

Hi performance Headlights
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More and more, my cars became "extreme" in every dimension, and headlights were no exception. I have become a big fan of "eurospec", H4, 7" round headlights with lead crystal lenses. These are "drop in" replacements for whatever you have in you Beetle. Bosch and Hella make some really nice units, usually in the $70-$100 range per pair including bulbs. I have also used a Polish made headlight that JC Whitney sells for around $24 ea with a bulb. These are very nice for the money. Most of these type of lights have a flat face which gives a nice look to your car.

The "std." style H4 bulb contains the filaments for both the high and low beams. The standard size is 55/60 watts (low/high) and may be the "legal" maximum in the US. Even this is vast improvement over the standard sealed beam light. Then there are 55/100, 80/100 and 90/130 watt bulbs. I have seen from time to time a 100/160 watt bulb but I have been told that the heat is too intense and they don't last long. I run the 90/130s in my car and they usually last at least 2-3 years.

Then there are driving lights. This lights are usually aimed straight ahead and penetrate far down the road. Most of these lights will use a single filament bulb like an H1 or H3. The H3 is probably the most common and is available in 55, 100, 130 and 160 watt versions. But like the H4s the 160s don't last long. Most driving lights have no "cap" over the bulb. Unlike the most H4 lights which have some sort of small cover over the bulb (then all of the light is reflected off the reflector), the H3 driving lights have no cover which allows light to directly radiate off of the filament. The result is a bright white "wash" in front of the car as well as a penetrating beam far down the road from the reflected light. These lights are poor in heavier rain as droplets reflect the directly radiated light back at you; and are totally worthless in snow. In addition to my H4s, I run Bosch 6 3/8" round driving lights with 130 watt H3 bulbs (That's 520 watts total with high beams and driving lights on. Quite impressive). When I drove the '68, I had the driving lights mounted on brackets just above the bumper and just inside of the fender headlights.

Made sure your connections to your headlights are good and clean, especially if you are upping the wattage. A relay might be a good idea (although I have been switching my 90/130 in my water-cooled '85 Cabrio with the stock relay for 4 years now with no problem). In line, blade type fuse holders with rubber caps are available at some autoparts stores which will handle up to 30 amps of current (to get current draw, divide you TOTAL wattage by 12 Ex.: 2, 130 watt lights is 260 watts 260/12= 21.67 amps). The standard Beetle "bullet" type fuse and fuse box will NOT handle any thing higher than a 55/60 well. In fact, I would not use it even for those. Lastly, make sure you headlights are aimed properly and never use highbeams or driving lights when traffic is coming at you or when you are close behind other cars.

Wiper delays
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This was another JC Whitney addition that worked quite well. You can pick up a variable time unit for around $10. You can be creative about integrating it into the dash board. In my '68, it was behind the "speaker" panel to the left of the speedometer. The little module was behind the dash with only the knob protruding through.

As for wiring, you wiper motor, if 2 speed ('67 and up) needs 4 connections. Two are the hi/lo speed connections to the switch. One is an unswitched power lead which allows the wipers to "park" after you turn them off. And the last is a ground. Ground may be via a wire on a terminal or by the mounting bracket. The wiper delay usually goes in line with the "low" wiper speed wire. Most of these delay unit come with adequate instructions for wiring.

Under dash interior lights
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I don't remember whose car I saw this in first, but it was in high school. It was used when you needed light in your car for certain clandestine operations in dark parking lots, but didn't want people outside the car to see you face brightly illuminated. The first kid I saw with them had put two "bolt on" taillights under his dash. Red light in the car. Cool.

But I did find them useful though (mine were not red) when I dropped something on the floor and the normal overhead light would not have illuminated the footwells anyway. I had a small 12 volt light (actually a panel indicator light without the colored cover in holes drilled into the trunk floor, one on each side) Be creative and rig up some clever switch in your dash. I had a small bank of push-on/push-off switches to the right of the speedometer that controlled these lights among other things.

Rear window defrost
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When I lived in South Carolina this was nice to have. In New England, it was a requirement. Starting in '69, an electric rear defroster was standard on the Beetle, but I don't know of anyone who has one that is still working. The metal foil tends to deteriorate and "open" electrically. In more modern cars, the defroster elements are impregnated in the glass and corrosion/deterioration is greatly reduced. I was browsing a "Rocky Mountain Motorworks" catalog last night and noticed that they sell new rear windows with defrosters for $300.

Barring that, you are left with various "after-market" solutions. Once again, I went to JC Whitney and had some LIMITED success with an after-market defroster (about $20, I think). The one I ordered had two brass strips about 1/4" wide and some of that famous JC Whitney "two sided tape" to stick it to the sides of the window. Then it had a thin (about 1/8") element foil "tape" that you used to make connection between the copper strips. It was not that ugly 1/4" wide silver tape that you zig zag all over the window. The trick was to make the window absolutely clean prior to sticking anything on it. I used a solvent first, then a mild abrasive like "Soft Scrub" or Brasso, then Windex. When it was done, it really looked pretty "stock". There were black plastic cover strips to stick (more 2 sided tape) over the brass strips on the inside to make it look nicer. The instructions said to, after you had installed it, to turn it on for 15 min so that the adhesive on the foil strips would "set" to the window. I did, and then my battery was dead. These things can (and usually do) draw hoards of power. The power consumed is a function of the distance between the side strips and the number of strips that you use. For you electronic basics folks, you are building a big resistor network on your back window. So use a heavy (12+ gauge) wire down to under your back seat. Use a relay there, connected directly to you battery via an in-line fuse, and switch the relay from the front of the car.

It worked for at least a year but then that 2 sided foam "tape" started letting go, the strips peeled away and pulled the ends of the thin element foils with it. I'm convinced that the heating and cooling and sunlight will eventually destroy any adhesive tape (this car saw 100 degree temperature swings within the year). I'm not sure I would do that again, I would now seriously consider dropping 3 big ones and getting a new window. But I think that window only fits in a narrow range of years, I have been told that there were subtle changes in the rear window size between '58 and '78. I checked my reference documentation and I couldn't find them identified anywhere, but my gut tells me that the '69 defroster window will only fit '68-'71.

Horns (loud)
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Apart from being wimpy, the problem with the stock Beetle horn to me was that everybody knew it was a Beetle without even looking. This was not acceptable. I used to (shoot, still) love to go "yardin'" and pick parts off of cars. My first "after-market" horn came from some kind of dump truck. I made a custom bracket, wired it via relay, and mounted it in the stock location. It was loud and got a lot of attention. Sometimes people would look all around for the "truck" as I passed. Then one day, this heavy horn broke it's bracket and fell off. I promptly ran over it and make a split second decision not to stop and pick it up. It might still be out on I-290 in Worcester Massachusetts for all I know.

Next, I picked up two horns off of a '40-something Plymouth. Each horn was at least as big as the old truck horn. One was a high, the other a low tone. They were cool because they were completely disassemble-able and tunable. In fact they were 6 volt, but worked quite nicely at 12 volts. So I wired some 10 gauge to each forward fenderwell and, having learned a lesson in the past, built some reinforced brackets. These horns were great, there had a big, loud but very "pure" sound as they were hi/lo tone.

 I should digress and say that one of my goals in life is to get one of those fire truck horns. This year past, I took my kids to the Labor Day parade in my town. We were standing on the sidewalk when one of those really big fire trucks came by, sirens on. 10 feet away from me he blew this horn which was embedded in the front bumper. My son must have jumped a foot off the ground. Anyone who has heard these horns knows what I am talking about. It is an incredibly "raspy" blast. I remember thinking "Now THAT'S a horn. I've GOT to have one". No, I haven't completely figured out how to get 175 psi at 11.2 CFM in my car yet, but I'm working on that.

Rear storage area
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The back seat in my Bugs was quickly, and without forethought, sacrificed for speakers. When I bought my last '68 from my older brother, he had removed the back seat completely and replaced the lower section with a carpet covered "deck" the same height as the floor of the luggage space under the rear window. I thought this was pretty cool. The deck was split in half and the two sides were hinged at the back to allow access to the space (battery) underneath. I didn't like his design though, I rebuilt it with a frame to make is stronger. Some 1 by 2 was bolted to the sides on the "flanges" that normally the interior panels snap into. The interior panels were then made shorter and upholstered. Basically I made an internal frame out of 1 by 2 and new "skirt" panels from the top forward edge down to the floor. Eventually I wired a light on a switch in there so I could see when it was dark. I kept a toolbox, quart of oil, spare fan belt, etc. in there. I once carried 600 lbs of powdered lime back there. It was strong enough for someone to sit on for short trips if I had to transport an extra passenger.

True "Custom" stuff that made my car stand out

Door panels
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I have actually started another article on "Door restoration" as the doors are some times grossly neglected and/or their internals are shrouded in mystery. But just replacing the door panels can make a big difference. If you have a '66 or older Beetle you will need to remove the window crank and release lever by driving out the pins on the back side of them. A finishing nail about 2" long works well for this. If you bug is '67 or newer, pry the little black plastic plate from behind the release lever to expose a single phillips head screw that holds the metal frame around the lever. Pry the plastic cover off of the window crank and remove the phillips head screw there to remove the crank.

The panel is held to the door by little "snaps" all around it's perimeter. Get a big flat screwdriver or a stiff putty knife and start prying around the panel between it and the door. If you are concerned about the paint around the inside of the door, insert a piece of cardboard between the prying tool and the painted door to prevent scratching, you will hear a confirming "pop" every time a snap pops out. Take you time and go all the way around.

Now here is the (somewhat) trick part. The panel "hooks" onto the door via a metal bracket behind the armrest and a shallow "hook" on the door metal inside. The panel must be lifted up about 2" before it will come off. IF you have really nice paint on the inside of your door (around the sides and the top, the part you can see with the panel on) that you absolutely don't want to scratch, get some 2" or so wide masking tape and put a couple layers along the painted surface along the top of the panel. Otherwise you may scratch this paint with the snaps on the back of the upper edge of the panel when you pull it up. Now, put a hand on the top center of the panel and one on the bottom center and "bow" the panel from the top and bottom a little and pull it up. It should come right off. If you bow it right and go straight up you shouldn't scratch anything.

You can make door panels from 1/8" masonite. It is available in a 4x8' sheet (enough to make all 4 panels) for about $7. It cut easily with a jig saw, a sharp, fine tooth blade is best. Use your old panel as a template to trace onto the sheet of masonite. Use a very sharp 1/2" drill bit for the holes that hold the clips and make them in exactly the same place as on the old panel. New clips and rubber seals are available from VW supplies and they are cheap. Cover you new panels with whatever you want, but be aware that the color in many "fabric store" materials will fade quickly when repeatedly exposed to sunlight. You might want to check an auto upholstery shop. I have purchased big rolls of "auto grade" fabric and carpet from those shops for cheap. It will not fade.

You may also want to use some thin (3/16" or so) foam padding between the panel cover and the masonite to give it some "plush" feel. Spray adhesives work very well for attaching the fabric and padding. Trim the edges to within about 1" of the panel edges, apply some contact cement to the backside of the fabric and the back edge of the panel and fold over the edge and glue in place after the contact cement dries. On the rounded corners, you will need to make slits about 1" apart in the fabric prior to folding it over an gluing it so the fabric won't bunch up on the backside.

Here are some cool custom things to consider when making new door panels:

From a cost and effort standpoint, making new panels is easy and rewarding, even for the novice.

Shaved turn signals, alternate lights
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I'm tempted to say that I thought of doing this long before it was the rage, but I won't [;-)]. But if you have even considered some outside metal body modification, and you like this look, you should try this. To me this mod is irresistible to the novice bodyman. It requires a little welding, but the finishing work is very easy as the top of the fender is rounded and ultra-precise finishing techniques are not needed. Basically you remove you existing turnsignal/parking lights and weld metal into the exposed holes (welding IS required). I have done it with brazing, bit a quick MIG is the best. Then you grind down the weld and with minimal body filler, smooth the crown of the fender. Of course repainting of the fender is needed also. But to me, the look of those smooth, "bald" front fenders really sets off the Beetle.

Then you have to decide where to put your turn signals. A popular method is to purchase "Rossi" headlights if you have a '66 or older Beetle. These headlight assemblies basically replace the existing "bubble" headlights and have a light for the parking and turnsignal bulb built into the lower "fat" edge of the bezel around the headlights. They are pretty inexpensive, about $35 ea., last time I checked. Be aware that some cheap plastic "simulated chrome" ones are out there for as little as $15. You get what you pay for. I have never used Rossis, but I must admit they are way cool. No such thing exists that I am aware of for the '67 and newer Bugs.

If you prefer to "invent your own", here are some ideas:

One piece windows
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Even though these are far from uncommon, like the shaved turn signals, I think these windows really streamline and simplify the shape of the car. I won't go into great detail about their installation as I expect to cover it in my "Doors" article. The window kits are still quite cheap (around $70) and are fairly simple to install. You will have to remove your stock door stop (that metal rod that keeps the door from flying all the way open and hitting the front fender) as it would (will) slide into the door when it is closed and break the one piece window if it is rolled down.

The installation requires you to remove your existing windows in each door. It's actually not that hard. But you will need to have a window regulator (that mechanism that makes the window go up and down when you turn the crank) from a '67 to a '71 Beetle. This is because the other regulators only "push" the window from one point, in the middle of the bottom edge of the window. The earliest regulators had a big "clock spring" in them. The latest ones, '72-up, were very similar to the '67-'71 type, but were simplified and only lifted the window at one point instead of two. These worked fine for the stock windows which are guided by felt channels on both sides, but the one piece window only rides on a felt channel on its back edge; the single point regulator will not stabilize it enough, it will wobble badly. Most complete part sellers sell the required regulators, but they are around $45 apiece last time I checked.

On the high level, the installation goes like this:

The only real trick that I remember was curving the ends of the outside scrapers to match the curvature of the window opening at the front of the door where the vent wing window frame used to be. I used to see custom cars at the show with impeccable custom touches and detail and yet these scrapers were not bent up at the front. It just looks like a real misfit to me. It has been many years since I ordered a kit, I don't know if curved seals (scrapers) are now available. I used to slit the underside of mine (the part that is below the door sill and glued to the door) with a carbide disc on a Dremel tool (they have a steel core) about every 1/2" on the last 4" or so of the scraper. This allows you to bend the end up. Takes a lot of patience and judicious use of a good silicone rubber. A picture would be great.

And one last, strong suggestion if you are going to install one piece windows; you will completely gut you door to do this, take the time to do a door "resto" if you are in there. Plan on a full day, replace seals, make new panels if you ever even considered it, put new plastic weather proofing maybe even paint the door inside. It makes no sense to me to go that far into the door and put back "ratty" seals and components when you are done.

Electric antenna
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This was one of those things that I saw in a VW magazine and immediately said "I gotta have it". Not so much an electric antenna, but where it was installed. I put one in the right, rear fender, behind the taillight. The antenna raises and lowers out of the top of the taillight housing (did this on a '67). You have to fabricate some brackets under the fender to hold the antenna. You need to make a long oval hole in the fender behind the taillight in order for the mast to be perfectly vertical. You need a long antenna "extension " cable. The hole on top of the housing is small, about 1/2" with the antenna I used, and the antenna sat down very flush when it was down. I got the antenna from JC Whitney for around $40; make sure you get a fully automatic one (means it goes all the way up when you turn on your radio and all the way down when you turn it off). Also, this location will get pummeled by road gunk unless you only drive on clear dry days and on roads with no dirt on them. For this reason, you will want to either build a plastic shield around the antenna mechanism under the fender, or "paint" it with roof tar or sealer (like I did, but in hindsight, I think a shield would have worked better).

Decklid standoffs
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This mod treads on some of the purist theories about the cooling of the engine. But it made sense to me. These standoffs are simply a pair of metal plates which move the position of the decklid hinges about 4 inches back. This, in effect, makes the decklid act as a big scoop to bring air in down to the engine compartment. I made my own out of a couple pieces of 12 gauge steel and jut welded some 6mm nuts to them, but the reality is I have seen them for as little as $10 a pair, it probably ain't worth it to make them (but I did get to use a welder; arrrr, aAARR!). I had my oil temp gauge installed when I put these standoffs on and quite honestly can't say I noticed a cooler running engine. But it does look kinda cool. Some folks who put huge dual carbs on their motors have clearance problems with the lid and have to do this.

Never had a problem with rain either. Rain water did nothing to my engine in the 2 or so years I used these (but I took them off for the winter).

But, before you go doing this trying to fix a hot engine problem, make sure that all of you engine seals are good and that all of your cooling tin is in place. This is not a Band-Aid for a neglected engine.

Stuff I did 'cause I was bored and am a nerdy engineer

Terminal strip for engine compartment wiring
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No big deal, just went down to Radio Shack and got an 8 position terminal strip and mounted it to the upper left hand corner of the fan housing. Being an electrical engineer, I have a peeve about "neat' wiring. Ignition coil, couple of senders, and some other wires I can't remember right now, passed through it. I soldered "fork" lugs on the end of each wire with some heat shrink over the soldered "neck" on the lug. Made de-wiring for engine removal a cinch.

Welded oil temp sensor in sump plate
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See "Additional Gauges, Oil temp"

3rd brake light, not like you are used to
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Let me say first, that I always thought the 3rd brakelights were kind of stupid. Yeah, I guess they eliminate some accidents, but let's face it, they only get (got) your attention because you weren't used to seeing a brakelight there (They are actually called CHMSLs or "chimsels" for Center High Mounted Stop Lights). The effect, I think, has long ago worn off for me. They are no more noticeable now than the regular right and left ones. What's next, big arms sticking out of the sides of the car with green strobes or something? Ok, enough editorial comment.

I preferred to think of mine as what the aviation industry calls a "CAS", or Collision Avoidance System, instead of a CHMSL. It was different in two ways, 1) it was wired on a three way switch: off, on, on with brake lights. And 2) it was rectangular driving light with a 55 watt halogen H3 bulb and a piece of red "gel" paper (that high temp stuff they put in front of spotlights in theaters) inside the lens. It pointed straight behind me at eye level for most drivers.

This was in the "modify anything" beater '68 I had. Cringe if you must, but I cut, oh, probably 7-9 of those vertical bars out of the center of that vent that is just under the back window. Liberal use of silicone from the caulking gun and it was glued in place.

I actually didn't use it that much, but when driving in the heavy snow or rain on the highway, basically anytime the visibility was very bad, I had it coupled to my brake light. But I was in the habit of quickly turning it off if I got on the brakes and it was on. It was NOT pleasant to look into from behind, but it did get your attention. It was also useful to switch on without the brakes when somebody was coming up behind with their high beams on. 9 times out of 10 they got the message.

The same type light now resides on my water cooled Cabrio under the left rear bumper.

Christmas lights
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Really. While I have since heard of others doing this, I swear it was my idea when I thought of it. I'm pretty sure that we were decorating the house one Christmas and I was looking at all of these strings of lights and thought "hey!....". I have since seen discussions about re-wiring 110 volt strings to run on 12 volts on the newsgroup.

The very small indoor/outdoor strings of lights that we have tons of, have something like 5 volt bulbs, if I remember correctly. I tested the bulbs individually first. One bulb on 12 volts, bang! They don't last long (had plenty, didn't have any idea what voltage they were at the start). 2 bulbs in series (6 volts each), worked, but painfully bright, wouldn't last the whole Christmas season, I'm sure. 3 in series, 4 volts each, nice. Just a tad dimmer than normal. I think I figured out that the 50 light string I had was two series circuits of 25 bulbs each.

(God, I dread the thought of trying to describe this without pictures). Ok, draw two parallel lines at the top and bottom of the page. The power is applied on these two "rails". The 110 volt string was two lines between these 110v voltage "rails" of 25 bulbs each. What I did to make my 12 volt string was to make 16 lines of 3 bulbs each between the rails (didn't use 2 bulbs). You really need to untwist one of these strings to see how it is wired. That's about all the detail that I can go into here. The strings ARE different, there are some 2.5 volt bulbs too. Get your basic electric circuits book out and experiment.

Anyway, on my beater '68, I had a string of lights long enough to wind around the front bumper, follow the hood up to the windshield, follow the drip rail up over the roof and down the back, then following the decklid edge down to the rear apron. All the way back up to the front the same way on the other side. How did I attach them to the car? Hot glue gun of course! This was my "beater" remember. I also put this string of lights on my Cabrio a couple years ago. I followed the edge of the convertible top and used those small metal binder clips you can get at the office along the vinyl edge all the way around. Problem is they rusted and little and stained the top some.

But in the "there's something you don't see everyday" category, this rates very high....

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When I got my first Beetle in the early 80's, I was working at a stereo store at the mall. The owner had bought out a Radio Shack like store to establish his business. The loft in the back was full of switches and stuff. I found this little flush mount key switch and decided that I must find a use for it. So a made a latching relay and hooked it to my door switches and horn. Mounted the key switch in the front quarter. That's all. Real high tech, huh?

Although I have since never installed an alarm on a car, I have always believed that the most effective thing to keep someone from stealing your car would not be some fancy wailing "Python" alarm, but instead a fuel and or ignition system disabling device. For the creative, the possibilities are endless when it comes to finding some wire or circuit to interrupt with a hidden switch. I just can't imagine that a thief would bring along his Bentley manual and sit on the pavement next your car trying to read those damn current flow diagrams when you car didn't start.

To me though, the best security is to have a car that nobody wants to steal. At least the one you have to drive to those bad sections in town. Beaters are the way to go.

Tail pipes (non fweeming)
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Someone I "chatted' with on the air-cooled VW newsgroup from Canada, I think, was surprised that I had never heard of the term "fweeming". He said it was well known in his lifetime that that was the sound the Beetle engine made, especially with a fresh muffler and tailpipes. I always thought of it as a special "chirpyness" that you didn't hear in any other car. But we all know that sound regardless of what we call it.

In my first '68 I had in my college years, I was trying to find a way to eliminate all of the chrome on the car in favor of "flat black" (remember the 80s?). While the "fweeming" was nice and a shiny pair of new tailpipes could be had for around $2, that chrome HAD to go. I tried painting them with black paint. It burned off in seconds. So I bought some of that hi temp paint. That lasted a couple minutes; probably due more to it's inability to stick to smooth chrome. Then I got the wild idea to just use some cast iron gas pipe that I had laying around. It was just a sixteenth or so smaller in diameter than the chrome pipes and the hi temp paint stuck to it nice. I had removed the rear bumper on my '68 in favor of those "nerf" bars that were the rage; in flat black of course. So I made the pipes really short so they just cleared the apron by about 1.5". Cool looking, but fweem they did not.

And the other problem was that no matter how much I tightened the clamps, inevitably one would fall out on the highway and I either would hear the sudden change in exhaust noise and stop and pick it up (s%#t that's hot!!) or loose it and have to go find another. Eventually I came to the conclusion that they would never stay in and went back to chrome and fweemed like all the rest. But I did find that if I roughed up the chrome on the pipes with a fine grit emery cloth and wiped down the metal with solvent before painting the paint would last a few months.

Keyless ignition
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This was done more out of laziness than out of intention (although it did add some real convenience). In the final months of ownership of my "ultimate" beater '68, I started having some intermittent trouble with the ignition switch. So instead of replacing it, I just put a push-button under the dash, just to the left of the steering column, to actuate the starter. You activated the ignition circuit by flipping a rocker switch in the dash above the radio. Some of my close friends knew this and were granted authorization to use the car anytime they wanted as long as they put some gas in it.

Stuff I did that failed (well, just wasn't "practical")

Fans in engine compartment
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In spite of my satisfaction with my documented heater improvements, I was always searching for ways to improve it further. The flow of air in the stock system works well when the engine is running at mid-hi revs, but at idle it may be less than adequate, even with my prescribed modifications. I was exploring ways to add electric fans to system to improve air flow. I had been "collecting" squirrel cage fans from Super Beetles for a few years, and had 4-5 of them. I first experimented with putting them under the back seat to "draw" air from the heater boxes when the RPMs were low. But that didn't work as the heat was pretty intense and these fans are made mostly out of plastic. This concept could work (and some parts companies sell such kits) if a metal squirrel cage fan were used and the motor was completely external to the fan and airflow. So I began exploring the idea of putting fans on the "cold" side of the heater box, invariably in the engine compartment.

[I am aware that there is a company that does something similar with a kit that installs fans on the interior, under the back window and pushes air via hoses into the heater boxes. I didn't like this because 1) You were required to cut 2 big holes in the firewall behind the rear seat 2) the engine noise in the interior would increase 3) the fans are noisy on the inside of the car and 4) your system would always "recirc" the air and never bring fresh air in the car. Sometimes good, but not always]

 I mounted a fan on either side of the firewall, high up in the corners, and connected them to the input side of the heater boxes via a custom made "Y" pipes, so the fan housing could still contribute to the airflow when the engine was running. They are 2 speed fans and draw about 5 amps each on high.

Did it work? Well, a little. Stuck in traffic in a snowstorm at idle, with the fans switched on high, I could feel a small increase in airflow if I put my hand in front of the hose end. But I took them out after a month or two. Not worth it, in my opinion.

Electric windows
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Yes, I know kits are available but they are expensive. On one of my junkyard Saturday mornings I got the idea to try and put electric windows in my '67. I got two mechs out of an Audi 5000 if I remember correctly. They were very nicely self contained, small and I got them pretty cheap. But the problem with using them "as is" was the same as using a post '71 or pre '65 window regulator on the 1 piece windows that I had in my car. In the Audi, they only pushed the window up at one point on the bottom edge of the glass. So I decided to re-engineer the "two-point" VW regulator that is required for the 1 piece windows. I can't possibly get into all of the details here, but I'll give you the basic idea.

Basically, I relocated the pinion that the window crank normally connects to, to a position lower on the regulator , down near the lower front of the door. I did this by drilling out the rivets in the plates that form the pinion housing. Then, where I was going to relocate the pinion, I had to cut some of the "sleeve" away to expose that spiral thing inside so the pinion gear could move it (just like there is an opening in the "stock" position). I used a Dremel with a thin carbide disc for this. To replace the rivets I used short 1/4" bolts and made an adapter plate out of some 3/16" aluminum plate to hold the motor assembly. But I reversed the pinion so that the splined end (the end that the window crank normally goes on) pointed back into the door. To couple the pinion to the motor screw and gear drive, I removed the mainshaft from the gear that the Audi mech used, by heating it some and pulling it out of the plastic gear. Then (this is the part I am most proud of) I heated up the pinion to good old "blister skin" hot and pressed it into the gear. It melted it's spline pattern into the hole in the gear.

The next challenge was to mount a "limit" switch that would catch the bottom edge of the window and stop the motor when the window was all the way down. This was done with a small levered micro switch. I won't try to discuss the wiring circuit here.

I successfully installed one of the regulators in my '67, and it worked quite nicely. The motor had plenty of power and drew about 7-8 amps while operating. But this was around the time when was "garaging" the '68 and ultimately buying my '57. I never pursued an elegant switch solution or finished the through the door wiring, which, by the way, was a real challenge. You need to get a good hefty, high current wire into the door via the A-pillar. There is serious flexion there and if you want to be able to control the passenger side window from the driver's side, you will need 4-5 wires into each door. I did snatch some nice rocker switches out of a Mercedes door at the junkyard though.

I eventually completed the mod on the second regulator, made up a wiring harness for it and took both of them to the swap meet at the bug show and sold them for $85. I put the stock system back in the '67 door before I sold it. In hindsight, had I pursued it, I really think it could have worked nicely, but the wiring would have been difficult. If you mounted only two switches, on for each door, in a console, or on the tunnel or something, you would only have to run 2 wires into each door.

Copyright© 1998; John S. Henry 

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