It all started with a bent pushrod tube a few months back.
The Baja was doing duty as a practice/recon car for the New England Forest Rally and some big rock smacked the underside of its engine, denting one of the tubes that houses the pushrods running from the cam to the valves. The dent in the tube wasn't deep enough to damage the pushrod, but it was enough to fatigue a little pinhole in the metal, leaking oil.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
I patched it in an Autozone parking lot around the New Hampshire/Vermont border using a tube of gasket sealant. That was part of what became a marathon nine-hour drive, constantly stopping to check my oil level, since the person who had this car before me elected to remove the oil pressure warning light so vital to an air-cooled engine.
In any case, the patch held, hardly leaking any oil.
Now, there are two ways to fix this pushrod tube problem. I can pull the head off the engine and put in new pushrod tubes.
The other solution is to put in a temporary pushrod tube replacement. Again, this is relatively cheap and easy. All I have to do is yank out the old pushrod tube (remembering to safely extract the pushrod itself first), then press in an adjustable pushrod tube. That gets held in by two locking nuts, and doesn't require me to pull the head.
The thing is, this temporary tube will leak oil, possibly more than is currently leaking. Pulling heads for proper replacements wouldn't be too much more difficult in theory, but access to my heads appears to be blocked by my exhaust. And that looks like it's rusted right onto the engine.
So at the moment I sort of have a question: should I bother replacing the sort-of bent, sort-of fixed pushrod tube? I got a skidplate to protect the engine from any other rocks, so many I just shouldn't bother screwing around with what isn't terribly broken.
This is the conversation I had with my old coworker and Jalopnik graduate Ben Preston. There he is above, with his survivor Oldsmobile awaiting a crate motor swap. He used to write our Parking Lot Mechanic segment, and he argued I should leave the pushrod as is. The car is running fine, it's not leaking oil, and there's no good reason to start messing with stuff.
Things spiraled from there.
I brought up other little fixes I wanted to do on the car. I don't like the worn out front suspension, cracked and permanently tweaked from when I put the car on its door two winters ago. A whole replacement is relatively cheap, at $500 from wheel to wheel.
I would love to rebuild the engine, but Ben noted these old magnesium blocks can only take so many rebuilds before they start to develop spiderweb cracks. Might as well get a new one, or build up a new one yourself as a project.
While we were poking around under the car, Ben grimaced at all the rust he saw. The framehead up front is good, because it was replaced a year or so back, but the rest is a mishmash of rust and old patches on that rust. There are pockmarks all over the body, and a worrying hole in the three-quarter panel, right in between the rear window and the one behind the driver.
I could buy an entire new floor pan for the car. Again, it's relatively cheap and easy — bolts run along the bottom of the car, and if you undo them, the pan detaches from the body. Just wheel in a new one from the healthy aftermarket and you're good to go. I could also cut and weld the hole in the body. I could bolt on a new front and do the engine and do every other little problem in the car. Hell, I could even rewire the car, or maybe spend another couple weekends tracing and retracing dust-stained wires in the rat's nest under the hood.
Or, you know, I could just buy a new old Bug.
A Baja Bug in much better condition than mine is still only a few grand. Once I start adding up the costs of everything I want to do to my Baja, it starts to equal the price of something already sorted and significantly less rusty. Head out of the salt-clogged Northeast and Bajas flicker up on local Craigslists, fresh, clean, and straight. Mexico is just a flash of the passport away, too. How sweet it would be to run down there and pick up a Vocho, built as new as I can get my hands on. Those Mexican Bugs are all based off VW's 1973 design, as well. It'd be like my own car, but new and nice and wonderful.
It's the smart thing to do. It's what everyone else does. Whenever you meet somebody with an old Bug, they will quickly tell you about their first VW. And they'll tell you about all the hopelessly ill-executed fixes they inflicted on the car, and how many VWs stand between it and their current ride. To own a good old car means going through many old cars, working on them, breaking them, learning on them.
As I'm having this conversation with Ben, he's wrenching on his umpteenth old Subaru GL. Assuredly he had a first one, but that was many GLs ago. His newest one seems better than all those before. He's replacing the axles, reveling in doing away with electric windows for simpler wind-ups, and rebuilding the carburetor. Maybe he'll put a Weber he poached from his last Scoobie on there. Maybe he'll go with an engine swap pulled from yet another past purchase.
Endless cheapo wrenching was my dream as a car-longing college kid. I'm older now, though. Maybe I need to grow up and tell myself not to sink more money into my Baja. Maybe I need to say I'll nurse it along until something critical goes and then move onto a more stable platform.
But dammit, I'm sentimental. No other car will be my first Baja, let alone my first car. It's moronic to commit any more hundreds to its lost cause, but then again I'm a bit of a moron myself. I spent two days planning on replacing that pushrod tube and installing that skidplate, but I only managed adjust the valves, change the oil and fix a busted headlight. That was at the expense of a beleaguered headlight dimmer relay, even. I drove home on Sunday night, grinning, stinking of oil and pointless accomplishment, The engine I'd just worked on sang to five grand. I'm not sure I want it any other way.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove