Can you spot what’s ever-so-slightly out of place in this photo? It took me about an hour, but you should be faster. You’re not standing on the side of the West Side Highway in Manhattan with your 1974 VW Beetle refusing to start beside you.
My first assumption was that I had ran out of gas. My somewhat siren-like ‘74 Bug had just stuttered at a red light at 42nd Street, right along the middle of Manhattan, and then died. I got one or two puffs from the engine, enough to get out of the middle lane, and then I hopped out and pushed the rest of the way off the road.
The last time this happened, incidentally just a few blocks up on the same road, I had just ran out of gas. This time I’d gotten the car back from Freccia Brothers Garage, an old family-run VW shop in Greenwich, Connecticut, and they’d fixed the wonky gas gauge I never bothered with, so I was somewhat incredulous that gas was the problem, but I figured it was worth checking. I jogged to a gas station a few blocks away, skipped back, and put the little gallon in. I expectantly turned the car over and got... nothing.
My next thought was that something must have come loose. I’d already done a cursory check if any wires had come off the coil, robbing the engine of any spark, and hadn’t seen anything amiss. Maybe all of my spark plugs, at the same time, had all come loose? Nah, they were all on there. Maybe a vacuum line, one of the two or three on this pretty simple air-cooled engine, had come off? Again, no, they were all visibly present and accounted for. All the fuel lines were snug, too, and nothing smelled like gas.
I was mystified. Maybe some wiring had gone bad where I couldn’t see it. Maybe my alternator had died.
Miffed, I called AAA for a tow and figured I would appraise the situation at a later and more comfortable time. I could have it towed home and, say, replace the alternator myself if I felt like it. Alternatively, I could have it towed to a little old VW shop not far from me in Brooklyn, and they could figure out what’s wrong. I have replaced an alternator before, but it’s not a job I was rushing to do on the street, lying in the gutter. I prepared myself for the wait, and was happy when a tow showed up after only a few minutes.
Perhaps overly optimistic, I had the guy hook up a battery charger to the car, and it cranked with gusto, but I was getting absolutely zilch from the engine. It wasn’t even trying to cough into life. I knew, in my heart, that something wasn’t exactly wrong; something was off. It wasn’t like the car was running poorly, or struggling to run. All systems seemed in fine order, except for one, which was giving nothing in the slightest.
The tow truck guy spent some time poking around the car seeing if and how we could hook it up to the flatbed and we finally agreed to give a kind of half-OK compromise a try when I figured I would take one last look at the engine bay to quadruple check if something was clearly, visibly wrong. Then I saw this little extrusion.
I could hear the winch starting on the flatbed, pulling the cable taut as I hastily scrolled through old pictures on my phone. Surely I had some other picture of the engine I could look at, something that would tell me if this was a little forgotten nub that’s supposed to stick out. Then I saw it, a little video of the car idling a few weeks back, and I froze a frame. The nub was flush.
I called out to the tow truck guy and told him I might have found something. I grabbed something, anything, to knock it back into place. A tire iron did the trick. A tap. A second. The little nub slipped back into place, with a satisfying click. There was a circlip holding it in place on the back side of the engine, where I could see it. On the front side, the circlip must have popped off. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the little groove it was meant for with my finger.
And after a few cranks, the car started right up! I had to google around to figure out what the errant part even was. This parts diagram has the answer. It’s little number 12 here:
It’s a pin on which a rocker arm pivots. As my buddy Bill Petrow described it, “no rocking, no pumping” without the rocker arm, the rather simple mechanical fuel pump on this VW engine was sending no fuel, so the car was not running.
Sometimes you know something is not right with your car. You might not know what, but it’s important to just, well, stare at it, look at it until you can spot the one thing wrong. That is the charm and the curse of a Volkswagen all in one. Everything will go wrong with the car at some point. It’s just simple enough and everything is accessible enough that you could fix it with a rock if you needed to. You’ll just be reaching for that rock in times when you don’t expect.