My Stupid Baja Bug Shoots Flames Now

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

The good news is that my Baja Bug is up and running again. The bad news is that it shoots fireballs.

I’ll say this before I get started—cars are so different when you can no longer rely on them to get you “from A to B,” as the saying goes.

After fixing the car up, I drove it to Floyd Bennett Field to run it out and tune the carb. I may have driven over a small tree. Photo: Raphael Orlove

A couple of weeks ago, a couple of old friends came into town for our buddy’s wedding about an hour away in New Jersey. “You’ve got a car, right?” they asked. I told them I did, or at least, I thought I did.

The car coughed and died the moment we left the city, and I was halfway able to get it restarted so we didn’t get run over in the middle of Staten Island traffic. I tried the instant carb cleaner trick, and was sort of able to hobble the car to the wedding.

Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove

(The instant carb cleaner trick, if you’re curious, constitutes running the engine to redline, clapping your hand over the top of the carb, and letting the instant vacuum suck any gunk out of the jets that supply fuel to the system. I learned this from an old Volkswagen dude at a rallycross a couple of winters ago.)


Before the wedding, I concluded that the timing sounded off, so I decided to attempt to reset it. I did not have a timing light, but I figured I could do it by ear.

This was not the case.

Obviously I got the timing all kinds of screwed up, but I also stripped the bolt that holds the distributor in place. I wasted an afternoon wandering around an industrial park on foot trying to find a place that could sell me a replacement nut and bolt. I failed. I decided to try to just pop and bang my way back to the city the next day, but after the car stuttered out on the highway, I limped the car to an auto parts store to replace the plugs, the points, the coil, and the distributor cap, the orange plastic of which had charred black on the inside.


Had I ever adjusted points before? Did I know what points even looked like? No. But I was sure I could figure it out.

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

My friends waited while I swapped the parts out in the parking lot, the sun high in the mid afternoon. My eyes stung every time I tried to wipe sweat away with greasy hands. They were very diplomatic when I asked them how they were doing. They really didn’t have much of a choice. If I didn’t get the car fixed, they weren’t making it back to the city. I was pretty calm. I always am when I’m working on my car. If a part breaks, you replace it. If another problem crops up, you fix it. If you don’t know how, you pull out the repair manual and figure it out. You repeat that until you’re home. My friends must think I’m crazy.

Those new spark-related parts fixed the highway death problem, but the car wasn’t running right, so I bought a static timing light, reset the timing as properly as I could, then unbolted my carb and cleaned it on my apartment balcony.


Only this weekend did I finally have time to remount my carburetor, adjust my valves, and put the car back on the road. It all sounded pretty straightforward.

Then I nearly stripped another bolt, broke a doorhandle, forgot a retaining clip, got too hot, and went home.


I resolved to deal with it again in the morning, and with a cooler head, I got everything I needed done. The carb went on right, the new throttle cable I bought fit perfectly, and adjusting the valves was pretty easy.

On my little test drive, I only needed to fiddle with the carb a little bit before it settled into a very steady idle and a happy drive to the top of the rev range. the only thing was that it popped and banged like a motherfucker. I walked around to the back of the car to check it out.

Yep, it spits flames.

Here’s another little video I shot on my phone when I made it back to my parking garage.


If you looks at these videos and sheepishly whisper at your screen “Is a healthy car...supposed to do that?” The answer is, for the most part, no, and almost certainly not in my case. Something is definitely weird with how the car is timed, or how the valves are being held open letting so much air and fuel combust in the exhaust and not inside the engine. A turbocharged car running some kind of anti-lag looks good doing this. My car makes it a bit more troubling.

After some inspection, it turns out that my rusted exhaust pipes finally rusted all the way clear around where it meets the number one cylinder. That explains the clattery noise when driving.


But I think the flames are down to me somehow screwing up my valve adjustment on the number one cylinder. The rocker arms normally don’t have any travel when I adjust the valves, and cylinders two, three and four were all like that. Number one was the only cylinder that had travel in the rockers.

I can only assume I screwed something up.

The Baja standing somewhat proud. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

But I’m disinclined to track down the problem and redo the timing and the valves again. Or at least not immediately. Shooting flames in traffic is worth enjoying, at least for a little while.

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About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.