I Can't Bring Myself To Rewire My Crusty 1974 VW Beetle

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Photo: Raphael Orlove

I knew it just a few days into owning my 1974 VW Bug: This car should almost certainly be fully rewired. Four years later and I still haven’t done it, even with everything I need right in front of me.

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I still remember it. I still keep a memento of it, actually. It was my first day on the road with my ’74 Bug, driving it back from Sacramento, California, to New York City. I was filled with apprehension and optimism, which was immediately dashed with three breakdowns in a row. I gave a brief description of the events at the time:

First, the brakes seized on the six mile drive to the parts store to replace the oil cap that kept blowing off my engine.

In a turn of events I still can’t quite explain, I then drove to my own tow truck, which took my Bug to a repair shop that replaced a too-tight rod in my master cylinder and got me back on the road.

Then I replaced my oil cap and put on a new carburetor in a nearby parking lot, and the car promptly overheated an hour down the road from there. It turned out that a fist-sized wad of wires got caught in my cooling fan and shut my engine down. I pulled those out, wiped off the oil dripping all over my engine bay, and waited until sunset for everything to cool down.

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I still have that fist-sized wad of wires, and I keep it in the car’s frunk. It’s like the opposite of a good-luck charm, a reminder of the car’s tireless forward progress. It blows up, it gets fixed, it slowly makes its way down the road.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove

Factoring in the time it took for the car to get a replacement engine built and installed, it took about a calendar year for the car to make it cross-country, after all that. That averages out to around a third of a mile an hour for the 3,400-mile trip down to I-40 and back up.

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This is all to say that the car made it, and continues to make it out and about here in New York. It bops around the city, it journeys upstate, it does it all, with headlights and turn signals and even a working horn.

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But I always think of that fistful of wires and wonder how the car manages to survive without them. After all, there’s not all that much wiring in this car in the first place. That’s kind of what I like about it. When something mysterious goes wrong with the car, it’s usually not hard to find the one wire that came loose off the coil or whatever the problem ends up being.

In these brief diagnostic inspections, I usually zero in on another issue with the car: There is at least one spare wiring loom in the car as it sits. Tucked up on the driver’s side of the engine compartment, you’ll find two thick clusters of wiring cut dead next to the one correct and complete loom that does power the engine as it is. I don’t know why these wires are there. I do not know why they were not ripped out by the previous owner.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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Well, I do know that the last guy to maintain the car, a guy who went by Crawdad, did do some hacky wiring with it. He hooked up a third brake light for no clear reason (perhaps to pass California’s more rigorous inspection) and there was some sort of wiring cluster that ran to the starter. It might have been some kind of anti-theft device, I don’t know. I yanked that out a long time ago.

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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This is all to say that what I should do is rewire the car in full and banish any and all electrical gremlins out of the thing. I could get the dash lights working again! I could forever leave those mystery harnesses in the past!

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Photo: Raphael Orlove
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I even went so far as to buy a complete wiring harness for the car, front to back, for about $340. I watched and re-watched JBugs’ video how-tos on running these looms. It looked easy! It looked achievable!

And yet I still haven’t done it, primarily because of the gulf between something I should do and something I must do. I don’t have to rewire the car because it will still stop and go and pass inspection. Ripping out wiring that works so that I can put in my own wiring is more than I can bring myself to do. I am left almost hoping that something will go wrong, catastrophically wrong, and I’ll be compelled to do the full deed. I’ll tear my wiring harness out of its packaging, I’ll rip my 1-3 wiring looms out of my own VW, and refresh this old car in a way it has long deserved. Until then, I am leaving my laziness justified as practicality.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

markbt73
Mark Tucker

Do it! I just rewired my MGB GT, using one of those “universal” kits. Best thing I’ve done to the car so far. I’m not finished yet; the wipers and the heater blower motor still don’t work, but eveything else just works, no fuss, no flickering lights. It’s absolutely worth it.

Plus, neat and tidy wiring just makes the whole car feel better. Go to Harbor Freight and get a bunch of different sizes of wire loom and some electrical tape before you start, and bundle and route everything neatly as you go. Take out every bit of the old wiring that you can, especially if you don’t know what it does. Attack all the grounding surfaces on the body with a wire brush, and bolt the ground wires down with shiny new bolts. You can just about feel the electrons zipping happily about.

A couple other suggestions: get LEDs for the dash lights. It makes a huge difference driving at night. And I don’t know if VWs have relays for the headlights and horn stock, but if not, add them. It helps a lot with brightness and loudness.

But get to it. It will make an immediate and noticeable improvement to life with the car. Besides, the amount of tearing into a car needed to fully re-wire it makes it “yours” in a way that few other projects (short of a full restoration) can.