Note: This engine failed inside of its warranty. The builder, Randy, did not honor his warranty and we were out $5,000. I would not recommend him.
This is where the adventure begins, the heart and soul of the aircooled bus. 1979 was the final year for the aircooled engine and last year of the “hippy” body style of the bus. Afterward, the buses went to a watercooled design with more angular bodies and a black, recessed front grill.
One would think that by 1979, VW would have had the engine design down, that it would be flawless, a machine whose errors had been honed into negligible glitches. One would be wrong.
The aircooled engine, from my understanding (and I am certainly no mechanic) is run mostly on gas, air, luck, and a decent amount of curse words. When I bought Adie she ran (which was a major selling point). But she ran ragged. I took her to my mechanic, Norm. He made repairs and she ran less raggedly. Then she stalled out a lot. He repaired and she limped along. Finally, he had the talk with me that any good mechanic has with a starry-eyed VW Bus owner. He said, “You can keep bringing her in and we can keep making repairs, but at some point you should consider a new engine.”
I considered it. Actually, to be honest, I obsessed over it. My normal mode of consideration is to research the shit out of any investment over $50 (over $4 if he’s being honest). And these engines, let me tell you are several dollars over that amount.
I called around and spoke with auto shops who specialized in VWs. One fella out in California spoke with me for a half-hour, outlining the pratfalls of different engines. I made spreadsheets and a list of questions. I trolled the forums on Samba.com. Then I came across Randy.
To be fair, I can’t recall what exactly inspired me to contact Randy. His ad on TheSamba was not particularly striking and at the time he didn’t have that many reviews. But I ended up calling him all the same. In his ad he said he is a former marine, therefore often gruff and a bit irritable. I found him charming, though our conversations were often unwieldy.
“You know anything about VW engines?” he asked.
Now, I come from a long line of suspicious minds, so when asked this question I immediately assumed Randy was trying to find out how deep my pockets were and how much change he could shake out of me.
“A bit, yeah,” I lied.
Then he asked me a question, a string of numbers and machinery parts, something I would surely know if I had a bit of knowledge.
“That sounds good,” I said.
“You don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
“Square or round ports.”
“They could be either, I suppose.”
He chuffed. “You got a mechanic?’
“Yeah. His name’s Norm.”
“Good. Sounds like you need one.”
Then he told me that he died once.
I suppose dying is a major event in one’s life, especially if you live to tell about it later. Randy would mention his mortal break to me nearly every phone call, sometimes merely mentioning it in passing (pun intended) or drawing out some of the details: how he was shopping at the grocery and his heart went out, how it was lucky there were paramedics there at the time doing their shopping, how he was lucky, blessed even, to be in the right place at the right time.
“I mean, you’re doing the same thing for my bus,” I said.
“No, not the same,” he said, perhaps gruff for the first time.
I guess when you don’t know what it is like to die, you don’t get to make the comparison, no matter how well you think it fits with the lengthy blog post about breathing new life into a vehicle and giving it a second chance.
Randy sent me videos of the rebuilt engine. He told me how he was the only one around who would linebore the engine. I pretended to know what that meant. He said the plastic plugs on the block—12 in all—were notorious for failing, so he made his own metal plugs and installed them with JB weld. Oh, I said as I Googled this. “I use the aircraft machine shop nearby,” he told me. “I have the best equipment.”
By April the engine was ready. By April most of the country was shut down.
We weighed the options. Freighting the engine would cost an extra $600 on the low end, using some budget carrier who couldn’t guarantee the engine’s safety or arrival. But with covid in full swing, states had travel restrictions and quarantines.
At the time Miracle and I were fortunate enough to have an employer who still handed us full paychecks while we stayed safely at home.
“We can make it down there and back without seeing anyone other than Randy,” Miracle said. “We can stay in AirBnBs and pack our own food, pay at the pump, wear masks and gloves.”
At that point in time, we were both living with Neil and he volunteered to drive, which meant only he would drive. The three of us took off in his Durango, heading south and west.