Piece by piece

If you need a reliable mechanic, stop here—not at a chain.

There’s a Johnny Cash song about a guy who steals parts from his automobile assembly plant job and builds his car one piece at a time at home. (The song was actually written by Wayne Kemp.) The song is fun and farcical and it ends by the narrator saying that the car is a vintage 1949 through 1970. People who hear it probably think it is ridiculous. Friends, I am here to tell you that it is not. 

I should preface what I am about to write by saying that I own a 1979 bus—a dreaded year for buses. VW knew production on this body style and engine was coming to an end, so instead of manufacturing new parts, the brand new buses would often roll off the assembly line with yesteryear’s pieces in it, making ‘79s somewhat of a crapshoot. Whenever something goes wrong, we have no idea how deep the rabbit hole will go. Thankfully, the VW community is willing to jump down the rabbit hole with you. We had been searching for a master cylinder, which was slowly and certainly failing. The problem in this part of Mississippi was that none of the usual parts stores (Napa, O’Reilly’s, Auto Whatever) could get parts in a timely manner, leaving us with the store where we stopped. They quoted me $900 for the cylinder—a part that in its most perfect, German crafted state vends for $220. So I called Norm, our trusty hometown mechanic because I figured he would need a good laugh. He howled. The store owners did not look so pleased and I took him off speakerphone. Norm found one that could be shipped in three days, but that meant we were running into the weekend and I was ready to move on. I turned to the VW Campers Group on Facebook and asked if anyone in the Mississippi Gulf Coast area had one lying around. 

I was met with one particular jack wagon who told me to check Napa, O’Reilly’s, etc. Thanks, bud. But then, one of our hopefully-future-interviewees, Jaye, told us to check out Ed’s Foreign Car Parts in Gadsden, Alabama. I called them and was met with the friendliest, most helpful person I have ever spoken to. For real. She pulled the part, priced it out for shipping and had it overnighted. She also got a good laugh out of the $900 cylinder deal the mechanic was pushing and she asked if it was made out of gold and came with an eternal warranty. (I also took her off speakerphone since the other customers who were presumably being overcharged could hear all of this.) 

In the meantime, Norm called me back and said he checked with his book and the labor on installing the cylinder should run around $80. This particular shop quoted $300 and they soon corrected their estimate.

The cylinder arrived and I pumped the brakes to the shop where they took the better part of the day to install the cylinder. Then we were on the road. (Note: In the future, I would definitely do the repair myself as Colin Kellogg of Itinerant Air-cooled fame advises us to do. I thought the shop would save time and since it was an easy repair that it would not actually cost more. I was wrong and Colin is right. I should have done this one myself at the campground.)

Well, we got to New Orleans and when I turned off the engine, it shuddered. I shuddered. Last time I heard that noise, it was the ill-fated poorly-built and thusly overpriced motor built by Randy that left us stranded in Wisconsin. I stuffed my panic down and checked out the engine compartment. The air filter for the carb was filthy. Like jet black. Add in the horrendous roads of NOLA and a filter should be the fix. 

I called Napa and O’Reilly’s and Auto What Have You and none of them had the filter. At this point I really just wanted to leave NOLA too. Miracle loves it, but being the driver in New Orleans take away 95% of the city’s charm. So we called a VW shop west of us called VW Plus in Lafayette. They ordered the filter and had it shipped to meet us when we got there. And the family who ran the place were nice as could be.

One piece at a time, my friends. I’m not sure how much of this bus is what we left with and what will be new when we make it back to Ohio, but our VW community keeps us going.

*You might be wondering what string of events led us to such an unscrupulous shop. It started when we were cruising down SR 90 and a stoplight went red and we blasted right through it. I pumped the brakes and we stopped for the next light. As luck would have it, there was a Goodyear in the shopping center right there. Hoping it was no more than some air in the brake lines, I pulled in. The guy at the counter said he couldn’t get me in today, but if I came back in the morning, yeah, he could pressure bleed it for me. 

The next morning we gingerly made our way back to the Goodyear where the same gentleman told us that he couldn’t work on our vehicle because he didn’t have the equipment. But the assistant manager had a nephew with a shop across town that could get us in. I asked several times if they meant today and if this nephew mechanic was expecting us. Affirmative on all accounts. 

We pump brakes across town and get to this shop. As soon as I walk in the door nephew mechanic starts griping about his uncle and says he will need our vehicle for a full day—8 hours—and he couldn’t possibly get us in today. 

Back to the drawing board. We call around and can hardly find anyone who will just flipping bleed the brakes. Then we found the unscrupulous shop (which, for what it is worth, is attached to the Napa). We deal with them and they tell us when the part comes in the next day, they will call us. 

I had tracking on the part so when it came in, I knew it. Forty-five minutes pass and Miracle calls them and the guy interrupts her to say the part just arrived like literally five minutes ago. Fine fine. We ask if we can head over and he says yeah. We’ll be there in forty-five minutes. Sure thing; we’ll be here. 

They were not there. They had gone to lunch. The guy at the counter tells us to run some errands and we pump brakes around town, running our errands. Then begins the three and a half hours of waiting to have the cylinder swapped out. 

The lesson here, as I mentioned, is that I saved nothing in dealing with a shop. I should have crawled under the bus at my campsite and blundered my way through this one because it would have been cheaper, more competently done, and all around safer. 

One thought on “Piece by piece

  1. Wow! What a trip, and what an almost ripoff! 900 simolians…outrageous. Yes, as Colin says, “You are your own best mechanic.” With the human resources that you have acquired on your journey, on a future repair you might need to perform, you’ll have plenty of help. Good luck, guys!

    Liked by 1 person

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