It didn’t occur to me at the time quite how ridiculous it was. I was staring at my new car, its engine out and sitting on the driveway, and I planned on driving it across the country to New York City the next day.
The idea sounded simple. My ’73 Volkswagen in New York had gotten so rusty that for what it would cost to fix it up, I could just buy a rust-free VW in California and drive it back home. This proved to be easier said than done.
The first challenge was buying the car. I knew I was going to buy another Volkswagen Bug, I just didn’t know which one I was going to get. I figured I would fly to California, check the local Craigslist and buy whatever was good. And that’s exactly what I did.
I emailed a couple listings while I was in the airport and by the time my old friend and mechanic Tirey had picked me up, I had lined up two cars for us to look at. The first was a blue ’74 Bug in Sacramento for $2750 with a mysterious carburetor issue, and the second was a blue ’70 Bug in the Bay Area for $5000 with no issues at all.
It should come as no surprise that I ended up buying the one with the problems.
We found the ’74 parked under an oak tree in a leafy Sacramento neighborhood, owned by a teacher named Star and her very sweet husband who went by Crawdad. The car wasn’t perfect, with a few dings and an engine that refused to idle, but it was a real survivor car. It hadn’t been restored, it hadn’t been fucked with, it was just one of those particular cars you only seem to find in California—just an ordinary car that happens to be over 40 years old and still living like a daily driver.
The 1970 car, by contrast, had been fixed and re-fixed, changed and restored here and there. It was perfect, but it never felt like it could really be mine. I talked Star down to $2500 and towed the car back to my buddy’s house in Davis, the next town over, where I grew up as a kid.
I couldn’t really believe the car was mine. It still felt like it belonged in some way to Crawdad and Star. That feeling didn’t last long.
The first time I took the car around the block, the clutch started slipping like crazy. Anything over a few thousand revs and the engine would gain speed but the car wouldn’t. I thought it was the clutch cable, but the clutch was slipping even when I took the cable out and drove rev-matching without the pedal. Either the engine main seal was bad, leaking oil onto the clutch itself, or something else was busted inside the guts of the car. It was immediately apparent that the engine would have to come out.
So it did. I spent a day buying parts and labeling wires, and the next day Tirey and I undid the four bolts (only four!) that hold the engine into the car, dropped it down on a jack, and used an engine hoist to lift the car up and out of the way.
I swapped the clutch, the flywheel, the pressure plate (that was what was broken and making the car slip), the throwout bearing, and the engine main seal. I only dropped the engine on the ground once! We buttoned the car back up the next day, which is about when I started to lose my mind.
I lost one day when I bought the wrong kit for changing the front drum brakes to discs and needed to drive back to Sacramento to get the right parts. I lost another two trying in vain to get the car to idle.
I changed the spark plugs. I changed the timing. I adjusted the valves. I took the carb apart and cleaned it. I found a guy with a sleeper ’67 who happened to live down the street to help me, but even he couldn’t get the engine to stay running on its own. I resigned myself to never having an idle, and I took the car out for another run around the block.
Now, I have spent the last few years trying to kill my sense of nostalgia. I don’t like to dream of where I grew up, imagining it better than it was. I don’t like the hollow feeling in my chest.
But driving my own car, one that I had put together with my own hands, running the engine out on ag roads on the edge of town, the sun setting over the Coast Range in the distance, it was hard not to let sentimentality take over. It was like I had finally realized some old teenage dream of mine, like I might have answered a half-formed question rattling around in my head for years, like I might have achieved something. I took a few photos of my new car. It looked kind.
Then the engine blew its oil cap off and showered itself in oil, turning my car into a rolling smoke machine.
I had spent five days under this car and I was running out of time to get back to work in New York. I decided, fuck it, I’ll just drive the thing across the country as it was. Fuck the idle. Fuck whatever other problems came up. I’ll get a new oil cap, I’ll get a new carb and I’ll just work it out.
I didn’t even make it out of town.
What happened to his car this time? Will he make it across the country? How many tows will he need? Stay tuned for more of the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his New Blue Bug!