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.

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Article: Having sex in a VW (VW maintenance)
Last updated: 10/31/01

Having sex in a VW (VW maintenance)

Symptom: Uuuh.... Naah, have to keep this clean. Read on.

This section has nothing to do with having sex (made you look!!). In writing up this FAQ, I realized how fervently I believed in certain maintenance aspects of the VW that I wanted to include them and make sure that you read them. Devious trick, but it worked, right?

 I am such a stickler for car maintenance that I scowl at people I see on the road in newer VWs who have brake dust covered front rims and clean rear rims. They are lower life forms for 2 reasons: 1) they are not washing their cars and/or using the proper rim cleaning products and 2) they are not rotating their tires. I can't think of anything else that a huge population of people will spend tens of thousands of dollars on and then refuse to do the most basic of maintenance and just watch their brand new cars wheeze and die to a worthless heap in 3-5 years. I still remember a girl in college who was having engine problems with her 2 year old, 55K mi Toyota. After describing the hesitating, smoking car, I asked "did you ever put oil in it?" to which she said "Oh no. It came with some when I bought it."

With respect to the Beetle, there are just a few things, that almost anybody can do, that will make the difference between a 150k mi. car and a 50k mi car. And if you don't know this already, a Beetle requires much more maintenance than a car that is 10 or fewer years old today. As I have said many times, no matter what year the Beetle is, it is basically 40 year old technology. Hydraulic valves, fuel injection, self adjusting brakes, etc. are not part of these cars (yes, I know that some Beetles have FI). This is not meant to scare you, the maintenance tasks on the Beetle are simple and easy if you do them regularly, but it is a car with special needs and it will not survive neglect well.

 I have listed my maintenance schedule below and it is valid for any car, with the exception of setting the valve clearances (most newer cars have hydraulic valves or cam drivetrains that almost never need adjustment). Following that, some text on each maintenance task.

Every..... ....Do:
3000-4000 mi. Change the oil and filter if paper
6000-8000 mi. Clean the oil strainer on air-cooleds with oil change
Set the exhaust and intake valve clearances
Replace oil in air filter if oil bath type
10000 mi. Rotate the tires, (but not on swingaxle VWs!!)
20000 mi. Complete tune up- points, rotor, dist. cap, plugs; check timing
40000 mi. Replace all brake shoes/pads
80000 mi. Replace all brake drums/disks

My rap on oil

All auto enthusiasts agree on the importance of changing the oil. But there are raging debates on oil types, filters, etc though. But this is MY FAQ, so expect me to tell you what I think.

Up until about a year ago, I always used Castrol GTX in my cars. I used 10W40 in the winter (Nov-Apr, in New England) and 20W50 in the summer. This a slightly thicker viscosity than some would say is optimal, but that is what I used. I don't have graphs and pie charts to support this, but I have never had a problem and this is what I would recommend to any one who asked. I felt that a heavier oil would buy me more protection in the hot summer months. I also added 4 oz. of Marvel Mystery Oil with every change. I think that idea came to me in a dream.

But after doing much reading on newsgroups on the 'net, I finally switched to Castol Syntec (full synthetic) last year, on my daily driver '85 Cabrio (now with 191,000 mi.). I immediately noticed a difference. Smoother running, no oil leaks, and a 1 mpg or so increase. I had thwarted synthetics for many years on this theory:

Oil goes "bad" for 2 reasons

  1. It breaks down chemically and its ability to lubricate is compromised or
  2. It gets contaminated from debris and/or gasoline in your engine then its ability to lubricate is compromised.
$3 a quart oil is much better in retaining it's lubrosity (I always liked that word) under demanding conditions, but it cannot thwart off debris and gasoline in a 100k mi. engine. You change your oil every 3-4k mi. to keep it CLEAN, not to restore it's lubricating ability. But with extensive reading and (reading) testing results, I became convinced that synthetics could thwart off contaminants better than conventional oil. And I gave it a try.

But that is my water-cooled VW, would I use synthetic on my air-cooleds? I don't know, I'm still thinking about that.

If you read this article before it was revised, you would know that I had said "I wouldn't recommend synthetics", but now I have some experience and I like it. I feel comfortable saying that I wouldn't recommend switching over to synth on a med-hi mi Beetle engine, but a fresh one? Maybe. Hate to be vague. You decide, but no matter what, change your oil religiously every 3-4k mi.

In case you are new to Beetles and are STILL looking for the oil filter, stop looking. The stock air-cooled engine doesn't have an oil filter. It has a mesh screen at the bottom of the sump that would catch a small rodent or maybe a really large insect. For this reason it is even MORE IMPORTANT to change your oil every 3-4k mi. I have never installed one of those external oil filter setups on any of my Beetles but they sound like a good idea. I did use a magnetic oil plug though. They may not be that effective, but they are cheap and I did wipe off crud that was stuck to mine at each oil change that would otherwise be floating around in the engine. So strongly recommend removing the strainer and cleaning it in solvent or fresh gasoline every other oil change. Use new gaskets when you re-install and DON'T over tighten the nuts that hold the plate to the bottom of the engine. You will warp the plate easily (and your engine will leak MORE oil) and/or ruin the case threads. Just "snug and a tug" with you standard 3/8" drive ratchet handle.

Setting valve clearances

I'm not going to tell you how (look in your Muir book that you just bought, there is a great description there), I'm going to tell you why. Valve clearances are important to the valves because they insure that the valves will "seat" (close) completely when the plug fires, and do this under all engine operating temperatures. I can't explain why, but the guys who made the engine determined that if the clearance were about 4-6 thousands of an inch when the engine was stone cold, the valves would seat no matter what the engine temperature and also stay open for as long as they could to optimize flow. Some books say 4 for the intake, 6 for the exhaust, some say 6 and 6, depends on the year, etc. A safe bet is always 6 thousands (.006") for both. But let me help you understand what the bad side of mis-adjusted valves is.

If the clearance is to too great your valves will: 1) "chatter" more. (you can always hear that sewing machine sound even with properly adjusted valves, but it will be louder if the clearance is too great.) 2) close too early in the cycle. They won't be open the maximum amount of time that they can be to allow the exhaust gas to escape and/or the fuel mixture to enter the cylinder. This is not likely to cause any major problems unless they are way off, but in any case your engine is not running at its best.

If the clearances are too small (or none), then your exhaust valve will never close completely and allow a small amount of gas out into the manifold during ignition when they are supposed to be shut tight. As this super hot gas violently rips past the smooth sealing surfaces of the valves, it will cause deterioration of the seating surfaces in the head and on the valve and may cause your engine to overheat and run poorly. Additionally, if the exhaust valve doesn't get its due time to rest firmly against the head casting, it can't transfer all the heat built up in it to the head.  Hot valve = burnt valve.  In any case, your heads will not last long. On the intake side, this will compromise the compression of the fuel mixture and cause the car to run poorly as well as the deterioration effect of "open during ignition" for the exhaust valves.

This valve adjusting is the "fine tuning" of the whole 4 cycle internal combustion process. Too tight (ie.: not enough clearance) is far worse than too much. Keep the valves adjusted and the engine will run at it's best all time and your heads will last a lot longer.

The first time you try to adjust your valves, you may get frustrated or at least a big cramp in your neck, but stick it out. All good VW owners had a horrible first experience but will tell you that they can now do it with their eyes closed. It gets easier. It may seem tedious the first time you do it, but the good thing about doing it every 6-8k mi. is that you will get pretty good at it. Make sure that the engine is "overnight" cold when you make the adjustment.

And lastly, about those valve cover gaskets. I recommend replacing them every 2-3 adjustments or as needed. Buy a big handful at the next VW show or mail-order a pile, they are pretty cheap. Scrape out the old gaskets and thoroughly clean the valve cover gasket surfaces with a non-petroleum solvent (not gas, see the article "Dealing with rust"; search "petroleum") and use a quality (I like G.E.) brand 100% silicone to glue the new ones in. Clean the head mating surface well and make sure that there are not burrs on it. Then apply a thin coat of grease to the head surface and place the cover on. Kind of slide the cover around on the head as you press it on so you can feel good about it. Those "wire" valve cover retainers aren't as bad as they look. If yours seem really loose, get some new "wires" at the bone yard or get after-market "bolt on" covers, but I have never had a problem with the wire clips. You CAN put the cover back on before the silicone is dry, but I wouldn't drive the car until it has set for 12-18 hours. Do not use silicone between the gasket and the head, it will just make removing it a lot harder next time.

Rotating the tires

This is easy. If you have a swingaxle Beetle ('68 and older) DON'T DO IT!. The geometry and tire travel of the front suspension vs. the rear on a swingaxle Beetle is completely different, therefore the "wear patterns" on the tires is different. See, vertical travel in a suspension usually is not perfectly vertical. In the front, as the wheels travel up and down, they also move front to back slightly, as they follow the arc determined by the trailing arm as a radius. This movement has little effect an tire wear but my be significant in the way your car handles.

It's that swingaxle rear suspension that is weird, and particularly harsh on tires. Here, as the tires travel up and down, they must follow an arc defined by the swingaxles as a radius AND remain perpendicular to the axles at all times. This creates 2 undesirable effects for the tires. First, the tires are seldom perfectly perpendicular to the road. You may have seen those "lowered" swingaxle bugs at the shows with the tires "squatting out" at the bottom. I once carried 660 lbs of powdered lime in the back of my '68, it was lowered for that trip and it rode like a Cadillac. Anyway, the second effect is that as the wheels move through this arc (as viewed from the front or rear of the car) when traveling up and down, they must move in and out a little too (farther and closer to the tranny). Tires weren't meant to go that way.

These differences in suspension geometry's create drastically different wear patterns on the front and rear tires, and also drastically different tread life. Yes, tread life is the REASON you rotate tires, but I (an many others more qualified than me) firmly believe that rotating tires front to rear on swingaxle Beetles creates DANGEROUS handling while the tires (wear pattern) desperately try to re-adjust to the new wheel travel. When I swapped the same (brand and size) tires front to rear I could feel it when I drove the car.

For swingaxle Beetles, just keep the backs on the back and the fronts on the front, and expect to replace the rear tires about 2.5 times as often as the front. The IRS rear suspension ('69 and later in the U.S.) did alleviate the problem with perpendicularity with the road surface, and the lateral position of the wheel is fixed. I have never owned an IRS Beetle, and I know that some manuals recommend rotating tires on these cars (some recommend it on the swingaxle Beetles too- bad!), so I have to decline making any recommendation about those cars. Seek qualified advice.

Complete tune up

I'm don't really have much to say on this, just do it regularly and use common sense. LOOK at stuff. Read Muir. Is the distributor cap cracked? are the contacts badly pitted? I admit to sandpapering and sometimes filing cap and rotor contacts; some schools frown on this. But use common sense, if the contact is not badly pitted or deformed, just clean it up, and make a note to replace it next time.

Pay attention to your spark plugs. They can tell you a lot about the health of your engine. Are they oily? carbon fouled? burned or melted? I would recommend taking them out every 10k mi. and looking at them. A don't replace them if they look fine. Just clamp them in the vise, wire brush them, including the threads, fold a piece of sand paper, rough side out, and gently pass it through the gap a few times, check the gap and re-install. I have had plugs last 40k+ mi. on a good clean engine.

Don't overtighten your plugs. I can't give you a torque wrench setting (see Muir), but "snug then a tug" on the old (short) ratchet handle is good. I always put a little WD-40 on the threads before I put them in, but I don't think that has any long term effects (actually I put WD-40 on everything I re-assemble with threads).

Check your ignition timing often, and don't be afraid to "tweak" a little left or right to find where the engine runs best. I was always so confused by the different timing marks on all the different crank pulleys used (you never know if the one on your engine came from somewhere else), that I just marked my own at TDC went from there. To find true TDC, take out your plug in the #1 cylinder, and stick a BIC pen (or whatever, but CLEAN) down in and rotate the engine and "feel" the piston rise and then fall. TDC is the "highest point" that the piston attains but note that it will reside there for a few degrees before falling back down. At the mid point of the piston "float" at TDC, take the pen out and notch the edge of the crank pulley even with the case seam at the top (if there is not one there already) . Now you have a reference timing mark.

Brake maintenance

Again, I'm not going to tell you "how to" anything, just why and when. The brakes on the Beetle are as easy to work on as any car. Keep in mind the following:

  1. Brakes provide their function through surface-to-surface friction.
  2. The surface-to-surface friction in your brakes is sacrificial asbestos media (shoes) against metal (drums)
  3. Use of your brakes creates wear of the brake linings.
  4. When the brake linings wear away, you have metal-to-metal friction
  5. Metal-to-metal friction does not stop cars worth a damn
  6. You rely on your brakes to save your, and others, lives
Get it? May sound basic, but many driver's behaviors would indicate a basic ignorance of these braking principles. At a minimum, I recommend replacing front shoes every 40k mi. rears every 80k. If the inside edge of your drums have a lip higher than half a dime's thickness, replace them. Forget having your drum's "turned". That enlarges the inside diameter of the drum, and for new shoes to work effectively in them, they need to be "oversize" shoes; you'll likely never find "oversize" shoes for a Beetle. Drums for the mainstream years of the Beetle were available for about $25 last I checked.

Once you get your drums off, make sure all of the hardware is in good shape. Replacement hardware sets (springs, stars, clips, etc.) are available cheap (cheap, cheap parts, that's why we drive these cars, right?) If your brakes are cruddy and old, chances are your adjusting stars are frozen. Hammer them a little, but you may have to destroy the shoes inside to get the drums off if they are really stuck. For rears, RELEASE THE EMERGENCY BRAKE and loosen the E-brake cable at the handle (Dduuuuhhh!). You should be using new shoes anyway.

Important to make life easier later: With the drums and shoes off, remove the stars from their carriers (steel blocks with holes in either ends, welded to the backing plate), you may need a little WD-40, hammer and screwdriver action. Put the "star" in a vice. Unscrew the bolt part from the star, and clean the parts in solvent or brake cleaner if they are really cruddy. Now get your wire brush on the drill out and clean the threads on the bolt and the outside surface of the star that goes in the carrier. Put a tiny bit of hi-temp grease on the outside of the star (surface that goes into the carrier), put some on the bolt threads and thread it all the way into the star. Now put the star into the carrier and make sure it turns easily, if not, go wire brush it some more. You would really like to be able to adjust your shoes next time. Once it turns easily, check the little "fingers" on the carrier block that ride over and between the star "points". Make sure that they keep the star from turning all by itself when it is inserted. If they are bent outward, gently bend them in a little with the star removed. If they are broken off (or you break them off), either MIG tack them back on with a MIG welder, or locate another backing plate, otherwise you shoes may adjust themselves.

Bleed your brakes and adjust them every 20k mi. The Muir book has excellent procedures for this. A Beetle with air-free lines, fresh shoes, new drums and properly adjusted shoes will surprise you how quickly it can stop. Remember that your brakes need periodic attention to keep working properly.

Keeping the car clean

Ok, I don't want to sound like you mother, but please don't overlook this one. In 1996, I sold my wife's '89 Jetta, with 99k mi. on the OD, to a used care salesman for $4300 cash- because it was clean. Yes, it was a high resale VW, but this car looked good and sounded good. There was no smoke, no rattles, no clunks. The car interior was spotless (I'll admit that I had the luxury of taking the car off the road, spending an entire day cleaning it and then storing it indoors, under cover while I was trying to sell it), all of the plastic and padding inside was armor-alled, the carpet was spotless. The engine was steam cleaned and even the radiator hoses were armor-alled. The windows were cleaned inside an out, I had a completely documented maintenance record from the day this $12K car was bought new. Yes, there were pits and scratches on the body, but they were carefully waxed. Sound ridiculous? Well, I am convinced that all this effort, plus meticulous maintenance, got me $500-$1000 more for the car.

Never mind resale value, a clean car will outlast a dirty one hands down. Dirt, grime and neglect breed rust, corrosion and clunks and rattles.

Take care of it!!!!

Copyright© 1998; John S. Henry 

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