It has always been my intention to make money from my endeavors. It may be a false hope and might never happen but that is my intention. That does not mean that I don’t want to bring value and a sense of happiness or fulfillment along for the ride. I have been down this road before, as I am about to tell you, so building project cars is not going to be completely new to me. However, finishing one might be. After re-hashing my experience with my first “real” project I may try and be a little less ambitious with my next one!
On to the Failure!…..Oh I mean project….
A lot of thought goes into choosing which car will be a good fit for you and the goals that you are trying to accomplish. If you read my about page you will realize why I chose a 1974 VW Super Beetle as my first project. I wasn’t going out for that specific year or model, I just thought that a Beetle would be a good first project, easy to work on and I kind of knew what to expect because of all the issues my dad had with them in the past. I also know that they are a semi-sought after vehicle with a pretty dedicated following. Nice examples of such cars go for a couple of grand. This fits right in with what I’m all about. I will buy this car, fix it up, and sell it. The worst thing that can happen is I’ll end up with a nice car that no one want but me……right?
My search started with Craigslist, as do all of my fantasy builds. I browsed the classifieds until I came across a vehicle I could afford and was in the kind of shape that I thought I wanted. I found this yellow sun roofed 74 Super Beetle that looked like it was in decent condition. It wasn’t running but all the pieces were there and intact. Of course that was from 20 feet away! As I got closer I could see that the floors would need to be replaced and some minor body work would need to be done. This was going to be a project and the car was less than $500 so I was not dissuaded. I decided to purchase the car since it looked decent and didn’t appear to have many issues that I was not already expecting.
The car didn’t run and wasn’t road worthy so I had to get it towed. It cost me about half as much as the car to have it transported to my house but it was something that I was incapable of accomplishing on my own. It arrived at my house and I backed it into my driveway. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was to have a project car in my possession and to have a goal that I was completely dedicated to accomplishing. I started by washing the car as best I could, this was just so that I could get a good sense of exactly what I was dealing with. Then I cleared out as much space as possible in my 1 car garage and put the car in.
I tore it apart, ripped the seats out, the interior, the engine, everything! I had the hood, fenders, and trunk off the car and it was down to a shell. From this point I could really see all the repairs that needed to be done. The biggest surprise was that the bottom of the frame head was completely rusted out. I did not notice this issue when I first purchased the car but as I moved forward with the repairs I could see that the bottom of the frame head was not complete. I wish I had a picture to show you, but the metal that went from the frame head to the tunnel on the Super Beetle was missing! That can’t be safe to drive! Damn IT! I’m going to have to fix that too! I wasn’t planning on that! This was a serious structural issue and I didn’t think I was ready for that. Being that I didn’t even know what that part was called at the time I needed to do a lot of research. Originally I thought that I was going to have to replace the entire frame head, actually cut the frame head off of the tunnel and replace it. I didn’t really have the equipment to do that so I thought my project was going to end there. However, I was able to find that I could replace the bottom plate without having to cut the entire frame head off. I was saved!
For those of you who don’t know, Beetles are bolted to the floorboards with a whole bunch of bolts that are screwed into the body around the heater channels, frame head, and rear deck. It is super easy to separate the body from the floor and I decided to do just that. I built two wooded horses that would support the weight of the body so that I could lift the body off the floors while I replaced them. I unbolted the body and lifted the back off the body on my own while my wife slid a piece of wood onto the horse that I was building. As soon as she got it into place, it was screwed all together to be as safe as possible. The front end was much heavier! That same trick was not going to work, I couldn’t lift it more than a couple of inches without help. So I purchased an engine hoist! I wrapped a chain around the strut towers and lifted the front end high enough to replicate the same horse setup I had on the back. Now I was in business and ready to start the repairs.
I ordered a ton of stuff! I ordered an engine rebuild kit, 1641 so that I could get more power! I ordered a hopped up cam, an alternator and bracket, a Stinger exhaust system, and all the hardware to go with it. I ordered both of the floors as well as the Frame Head mentioned above and new heater channels. I also went ahead and ordered a spare sheet of sheet metal for any other repairs that I may need to make. All this cost me around $1500 and brought my total cost to $2000 so far. I also purchased a welder, because I was going to do the work myself, and I purchased a handful of specialty tools that were needed as well. I was never really planning on doing this post so I don’t have exact numbers, but $2000 sounds about right.
VW’s are so easy to work on! There are 4 giant bolts that hold the motor to the transmission, un-bolt these and with a little coercion, the motor comes right off the back. I was even able to do it laying on the floor in tight quarter in my garage! I pulled the heads off and put them in an acid bath to clean them. That did clean them but they became brittle and I cracked off a cooling fin or two while re-assembling. I’m not sure if it would have been detrimental to the functionality of the engine or not, but it was an issue that I faced and have learned my lesson about giving VW heads and acid bath. I replaced the valves and valve springs (of course I ordered the High Performance ones to go with the cam that I also purchased!) I had the valve spring tool to help me with this and it went smooth as silk! I split the case with the case splitting tool I had to purchase and removed the internals. I re-used the rods but replaced the pistons, rings, crank bearings, and cam bearings. It took me a little while because I’ve never done it before but it was fairly straight forward. Popping the gears off the crank was the hardest part, I just don’t think I had the right tools for the job, but I did get them off and replaced. After putting everything back together it was a rotating assembly, everything turned freely so I was hoping it was correct.
With the motor rebuilt, it was time to tackle the large body repairs. I cut out both floors and welded in the new ones. I am not a welder so I had a friend of mine check them and he told me they were fine. He let me know that welding is like gluing with metal, once the bond is made it is not going anywhere! I cut out the old bottom plate of the frame head and replace it with the new one. There was a lot of grinding and sanding involved with this but it got done! Next came the heater channels, but wait they are on the body which is suspended in midair…….This is where I think the mistake was made!
So I had a plan, it may or may not have been a good one, but I had one. I was going to keep the doors closed and locked on the body, cut the heater channels off, and lower the body onto the new heater channels that were already bolted to the new floors. With the doors closed I was hoping that the body would stay straight when the bottom supports were cut off. When the body was set on the heater channels I was going to weld the channels in place to make everything solid. I’ve read a little bit on the internet and this seemed like it was a viable option. I went for it. I did not go well! Nothing catastrophic happened and I can’t even be completely sure that this was the issue (but I think it was if I’m being honest with myself) but the body did not align properly with all the connecting points. I could never get all the bolts to connect up to the body, the car was crooked. I attempted to push and pull and finagle as best I could but it would not line up. I didn’t even need to get the heater channels lining up correctly because they were already connected, but the rest of the bolts on the rear shelf and in the front would not line up. When I did get them close, none of the other connecting points were correct. I was screwed! All that work, all that time! That sucks! I put that body back in the air and checked the measurements and welding points of all the other repairs that I have done and they seemed correct, the body was just crooked.
I was now faced with a decision, what do I do with this project? There were two options, get rid of it or buy another crappy Beetle with a good body and swap the bodies. Since my wife would be very unhappy with a half assembled car in the driveway, I opted for option one. It was a painful decision but I’m ok with it (I guess). I ended up selling the motor to someone for $300, I was unsure of the condition of the heads so I threw in the stinger exhaust as well. Then I sold the dash pad to another party for $75 and a couple of the fenders to someone else. I don’t remember how much I got for the fenders but they are inexpensive new so it wasn’t much. I was then surprised to find someone to take the entire car away (what was left of it) for $175. This guy seemed to be a VW enthusiast and was happy to get a repaired rolling chassis. He took a look at the body and confirmed my suspicions of it being shot, but he also confirmed my welding friend’s assessment of the quality of the floor repairs. That at least made me feel a little better. So in the end I lost about $1500 but I did at least learn the basics of welding. It was back to the drawing board, and not another project has been started since.