Even The Tiniest Repair Makes Your Car Yours

Illustration for article titled Even The Tiniest Repair Makes Your Car Yours
Photo: Raphael Orlove

I’ve been having a hard time with my Volkswagen lately. A few months back the engine decided to relieve itself of all of its oil, and my efforts to fix the problem have been unsatisfactory. It felt like the car was getting away from me. Then I fixed the trunk release cable.

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Let me say that the trunk release cable has been bothering me for years on this car. Volkswagen Beetles, of course, have the engine in the back and a trunk in the front. A frunk. You open it up by pulling a little lever in your glovebox, revealing a pretty decent amount of storage. The gas tank and spare tire are up there, but you still have room to fit a week’s worth of groceries, or weekend luggage for two or three people. Not that I used it, because the ancient cable that runs from the hood to the glove box had stretched. Every time I pulled the release in the glove box, I could head the lock in the trunk straining to open. With each passing year, I had to pull harder, until if eventually became not worth it. I kept all my shit in the back of the car, made easier since I tore the back seats out for storage anyway.

It was never really anything critical. It was just one thing that made it feel like the car was always just a little bit broken. Never quite broken enough for me to figure out how to fix, just broken enough to bother me. In one fit of late-night frustration, I ordered a replacement cable without realizing I didn’t know how to install it. Only recently did I look up that you can adjust the cable by reaching into a little access hole within the trunk, loosening a screw, and pulling the stretched cable tight again. I boldly walked out to my car with a screwdriver and pair of pliers in hand.

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And I quickly discovered that the trunk release cable had stretched to the point that it wouldn’t just not want to open, it wouldn’t open at all. I rolled under the car but couldn’t see any place to get access to it. I looked up a guide online that recommended taking a hacksaw and slicing into the trunk handle in three precise locations. I despaired. I yanked at the little release cable. I pulled. I pleaded. I cursed. I managed to bruise my fingers prying at it. Then, like passing into the eye of a storm, I entered a new calm.

My first Bug, the Baja, never had a trunk release cable in part because it had no glovebox, and no hood release at all, just hood pins. This little guy lives in my glovebox and was new to me. Pull down on the lever, which is attached to the cable, and you pull the cable forward, theoretically releasing the trunk.
My first Bug, the Baja, never had a trunk release cable in part because it had no glovebox, and no hood release at all, just hood pins. This little guy lives in my glovebox and was new to me. Pull down on the lever, which is attached to the cable, and you pull the cable forward, theoretically releasing the trunk.
Photo: Raphael Orlove

I looked and saw that I’d torn a small hole in my glovebox yanking at the release. I reached in and tore at it more. I pulled the 46-year-old cardboard apart, chunk by chunk, until the entire release mechanism was unmoored. I grabbed the whole thing with my hand, pulled, and heard the chunk release that had not visited my ears in quite some time. The frunk was free. A quick adjustment (detailed here) and it now works fine.

This is what giving up looks like. It is beautiful.
This is what giving up looks like. It is beautiful.
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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All of my toolboxes that had been hiding behind my seats found a new home in the frunk. All my spare oil. My tire iron, my spare fan belt, and throttle cable, and clutch cable. All made their way out of the cabin and out of the way.

Illustration for article titled Even The Tiniest Repair Makes Your Car Yours
Photo: Raphael Orlove
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My car looked cleaner than it had in ages. Not necessarily less dirty—more orderly. I had done something to the car, something small, but something meaningful. A feeling returned to my heart: ownership.

I had been spending the days idly dreaming about replacing the car. A Squareback, maybe, or one of those manual Toyotas I keep dreaming would be the second car in a fantasy two-car garage.

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This is how the trunk release works, taken with the magic of cameraphones. Looking from beneath you can see the latch in the center, with the quarter-moon like latch extending into its hole to hold the trunk lid in place. The cable reaches through along the bottom and is secured on the left with a screw coming in from above. Pull the cable and it slides the latch back. The return spring pulls everything to its original location. Pull it over and over and the cable stretches, so unscrew the lock screw, pull the cable tight, and crank that screw back down.
This is how the trunk release works, taken with the magic of cameraphones. Looking from beneath you can see the latch in the center, with the quarter-moon like latch extending into its hole to hold the trunk lid in place. The cable reaches through along the bottom and is secured on the left with a screw coming in from above. Pull the cable and it slides the latch back. The return spring pulls everything to its original location. Pull it over and over and the cable stretches, so unscrew the lock screw, pull the cable tight, and crank that screw back down.
Photo: Raphael Orlove

My Bug had become something of a wicked presence, mysterious and ominous. It was incomprehensible, too many little problems that cascaded into a general sense of hopelessness.

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Even this little, tiny victory-a trunk release cable!—revitalized me. The car isn’t a labyrinth. It’s a machine with a few different systems, each of which has some small problems. Take them on one by one, no matter how many there are, and you come to an end at some point. I felt like I was in some position of control. The car felt mine in a way it hadn’t in ages.

As to why it barfed out all its oil and why I still don’t feel completely comfortable taking it back on drives outside of my AAA range, that is more than a step or two away. But even that feels manageable now. First a compression test, and then we’ll see what’s up.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

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Mercedes Streeter

And even the tiniest repair can reignite your passion for working on your car.

Last year into this year I felt like everything was slipping from me. My dead reliable smart fortwo broke a major part, then my rally car lost its brakes. My fall motorcycle had seized up brakes, my winter beater motorcycle snapped its cables. My replacement rally car killed its diff. Everywhere I looked I had crap breaking on me and a lot of the stuff was either big money or big labor to repair. I felt down on myself and just didn’t fix anything. For whatever reason I was stuck in a pit of not being confident I could fix anything, even if I knew what was wrong.

Then a very broken Ford Ranger that sat in a field for years landed in my lap. It needed brakes, bearings, a power steering line, and a radius arm. My girlfriend and I did DIY everything except the radius arm and gosh, it reignited why I loved doing DIY in the first place and now I’m back to buying tools and looking for excuses to use them. And that Ford Ranger? Just completed a 5,000+ mile trek across the USA.

(Snowstorm on Crater Lake)