It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

My old Beetle's sure been through a lot this year, but this past weekend, for the first time since it was recovered, I drove it again. And while it still looks a bit battered, it's going to be better than ever.

Like all big projects, there's lots of unplanned things that happen to keep you from hitting your ideal result. In my case, there was an emergency dog surgery that probably will mean I'll have to wait on much of the bodywork, but despite that I think the mechanical resuscitation of the Beetle is turning out great. The drooling crap-satchels that stole the car abused it in all manner of ways, and I'm still sorting through all of that, and likely will be for quite a while.

Still, the biggest issue, the lack of any oily spinning bits to make the car go, is now solved. I settled on a twin-carb 1600cc engine with headers and electronic ignition from Kaddie Shack in Pasadena, CA, and the engine they built for me was a beauty. It should be good for about 20% more power than before and I was very excited to finally get it back in the car. Here's how I (with the help of friends) did it.

Beetle engine installation isn't exactly rocket brain surgery science, but there's still a bit of trickiness involved, and much of that trickiness is probably common to any engine installation. So hopefully there'll be something in my experience here that'll at least help your own projects in some small way.

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

Step 1: Get the engine bay ready

After spending a nice chunk of cash of a shiny new engine, it just doesn't feel right to cram it in the same filthy old engine bay. So I cleaned it up, scrubbing and degreaser-ing away road grime and worn-out insulation that probably still has opinons about the Carter administration.

More importantly, I needed to replace two key rubber seals in the engine compartment. Since a Beetle engine, like a Porsche 356 or 911 or Tatra engine, is cooled by air, the way that air flows in and around the engine is very important. On a Beetle (and air-cooled Porsche) the big division of air is between the upper part of the engine bay, where the air is sucked in, and the lower part, where the air blown over the hot, finned cylinders is blown out the bottom of the car.

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

The key is to keep these two chambers of air, upper cool and lower hot, separate. And that's the job of the two big rubber seals. The ones in my car were old, brittle, and carbonized into something like black, sticky diamonds. Getting all of this old rubber out was in some ways the hardest part of the whole installation, requiring me to get in the filthy engine bay (I did this before cleaning it) and chiseling and chipping and poking and swearing the miserable stuff out of the retaining channels. It was hot, slow, and brutal.

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

But, eventually, we did it. Getting the new rubber in the little slots was no picnic either, as the rubber had to be cut into manageable sections and inched through the channel at a glacial pace. Still, it had to be done, so it was. And I now know why the old stuff had never been changed out.

Step 2: Prep the engine

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

There's actually not too much that really had to be done to the engine, save for removing the twin carbs and taping up the intake manifold holes to prevent anything falling in there and making me want to swallow a barbell. Luckily, the engine's a pretty compact unit (and only weighs about 250 lbs or so), and we ended up using a skateboard to wheel it around. The skateboard proved very nimble and stable as an engine dolly. I'm not sure I'd suggest it for really big engines, but it worked great for us.

Step 3: Lift the car

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

Most cars get their engines installed by staying on the ground and having the engine dropped into them from above. Not the Beetle. To put an engine in a Beetle, the engine sits low on the ground, and the car is lifted over the engine. We were installing the engine in my friend Tom's backyard, and while he didn't have a lift, he did have a nice engine hoist he uses for his many interesting Rambler projects. So, we gave the engine hoist a bit of variety in its life, and had it lift the car instead of the engine.

We lifted by the rear bumper brackets, and it worked just fine; without an engine, the rear of a Volkswagen just isn't that heavy. Once we got the car high enough to clear the engine safely, we stacked some of the many, many wheels and tires that were in Tom's driveway and used those to brace the car from underneath. It doesn't sound like it, but it was really quite stable and safe.

Step 4: Get the everything in position

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

With the car's ass up in the air, now's the time to get the engine into position under the open engine bay and make sure everything's lined up nicely and get a feel of where the connecting hardware goes.

On a Beetle, there's four main mounting bolts to connect the engine to the transaxle, and, of course, there's the splined shaft coming from the transaxle and going into the engine. This is where you really want to take your time. Make sure everything is in rough alignment, make sure the inside of the tranny is nice and clean, make sure the clutch pressure plate is on right, and get any wires or hoses or any other obstructions out of the way. Because that engine's going in.

Step 5: Lift the engine into place

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

There's two main ways to accomplish this: lift from below or pull from above. our floor jack wasn't really up to the task, so we decided to put that engine hoist back to work, this time in its natural habitat: lifting an engine. We looped the strap around the cylinder heads at the sides and below the skateboard under the engine (to protect and stabilize the engine while on the strap, and used the hoist to lift the engine into place.

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

By getting other helpers (like Jack and Sam, who showed up to help and stand around looking like they're helping) we were able to carefully maneuver the engine into position to get the transmission and engine to meet and mate perfectly, and get the engine mounting bolts lined up. The lower two engine mounting nuts and bolts were easy to access and tighten. The upper passenger's side one could be tightened from inside the engine bay while Tom put tension on the bolt head with a wrench from below, and the fourth bolt, on the upper driver's side, must have been put in place with a specially liquified arm, or maybe some sort of trained python. Because I could not get to that stupid bolt. We got it in, barely, but couldn't tighten it.

Eventually, I learned that this bolt is often ignored by many VW engine installers, which isn't great, but is totally understandable. I had it tightened by the Kaddy Shack guys after I got the car mobile again, and they used a crazy-looking combination of extensions on a socket. Get help for this part.

Step 6: Realize something's wrong

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

I'm pretty sure any major project has this step in it somewhere. In my case, it was the realization that the personifications of anal leakage that stole my car in the first place didn't know what they were doing, and removed two crucial bolts that hold the entire drivetrain to the frame fork. These bolts don't need to be removed to get the engine out — this was just ignorance.

The lack of the bolts also explained why the engine was hanging about an inch and a half too low in the engine bay.

So, I had to pause everything to order the special fat, stubby bolts. That's okay, I can fake patience for a little while when I have to.

Step 7: Button it all up!

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

Once we got the transaxle bolts in place (by jacking the engine up from below), the mechanical side of things was about done. The carbs went back on (with a bit of profanity, since one of the bolts is in a pretty tight spot), and then it came time to do the wiring.

The wiring harness to the engine was just hacked off, which, in turn, hacked me off, since I wasn't really sure what wire went where. Would it kill engine thieves to label the damn wires?

Luckily, there were only four wires needed to get the engine going, so it wasn't too difficult to find the proper wires to the alternator and coil. I did have to get some help to get the warning lights working again, but that proved pretty minor. I replaced the old battery ground strap, put in a new battery, and cleaned out the under-seat battery tray. Because may as well.

Pretty soon, it was ready to start up, and, happily, it did, right on the first try. Gotta love electronic ignition! It died soon after that, again thanks to the thieves, who siphoned almost all the gas out of the tank, apparently. I got some gas back in the car and was rewarded with the beautiful sound of a clattery flat-four.

The drive home was wildly satisfying — the culmination of so many different events. It felt so good to have the car back on the road, and that extra little bit of power feels great so far, even while I'm keeping easy on the engine while it breaks in. There's still an awful lot to do — headlights, ignition switch, body damage repair, new radio, some form of security system— but my Beetle's back on the road, and, while still a little more battered-looking than before, is mechanically better than ever.

It's Back In The Back: How To Put An Engine In A Vintage Beetle

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