The Little Engine That Couldn't: Three Breakdowns On Day One

Waiting for my car to cool down outside of Sacramento. My engine fan had lunched a handful of wires. I still don’t know how. Photo by author.

I don’t have a lot to contextualize just how horribly my cross country drive in my new 1974 Volkswagen Beetle started. Hell, I don’t think anyone has ever driven to their own tow truck before.


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.

My first major overheating event of the trip, barely outside of Sacramento. Photo by author.

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.


I then set off again, only to hear two clunks and watch sparks shoot out from my front driver’s side wheel a few miles down the road from there. The two bolts holding the caliper on to my new front disc brake had both backed out. I scavenged a bolt from my other caliper and drove with basically no brakes until I made it to the nearest town.


I ended up in Drytown, California—population 167—and pulled into a little motel where a local mechanic named Mike took pity on me. He offered to help me find a matching bolt in his garage on site. Sadly he didn’t have a match, but he offered to drive me to a parts store in the morning where I could get a proper replacement and keep up my cross-country drive.

In all, I traveled less than 60 miles on my first day of a planned 3,200 mile route.


That I didn’t give up then and there is something I can only attribute to complete and blind stupidity on my part. I didn’t even make it out of town on my first drive with my new car. I had been through one repair shop, had needed new parts once and was on my way to get more in the morning. And this was after I had spent five days straight working on my car after I bought it.

I’d forget to eat, even. I’d wrench in the morning, drive to Sacramento for parts, drive back, and wrench until it was too dark to work any more. It was momentum, thinking every day that once I fixed just this one thing, I’d be able to get on the road in the morning.


Getting the engine out, getting the engine in, getting the brakes done, getting the idle right. They all kept my head down, never seeing the size of the drive ahead of me.

Minutes later, my front left caliper would fall off. Photo by author.

Again, in those five days after buying my Bug, I had taken the engine out and put it back in with a new clutch, flywheel, pressure plate, throwout bearing, and engine main seal. I’d changed the front drums to front discs, too, which I had thought was the most benign change of all, but was the first to leave me stranded on the side of the road.

It all sounds funny now. It almost sounded funny then.

A few miles from nowhere with no brakes. Photo by author.

Going to bed in that tiny motel in Drytown, California on that first night, I halfway thought that everything that could have gone wrong, had already. A little voice in my head told me that once I replaced the bolts that fell off of my caliper, once I fixed just this one thing, I’d be able to get on the road in the morning.

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!


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About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.