Humbug…

Slowly, ever so slowly the 66 Beetle begins to wake up. The engine runs now, as of this evening. and for the first time in a long time, we are running off generator power rather than just the battery. In this little car, 13.4 volts of charging makes a big difference. The voltage regulator under the back seat ticks and clicks a little while, as if tasting the current, and then settles down to some stability.

I am sitting in the cockpit, with its new paint and its new knobs. O’Hara is under the hood, poking about with the volt meter continuity light beneath the hood. We are communicating through the empty radio and glove box slot between us. Every wire needs to come off, be verified, be reconnected.

Every ground needs to be cleaned with a little bit of fine sand paper. What is funny, though, is that there is always quite a delayed reaction. A new wire joint doesn’t insure an immediate light. The process is not that linear. This is always a little bit of a mystical process.

There is the faintest smell of ozone, and then one orange running light decides to work. A little effort on another wire, and then we have a first passenger side headlamp, opposite side from the previous running light. Although it is itself a little wall eyed; this is obviously a first approximation. A couple of minutes go by—O’Hara is working on the grounds of the other headlight– and then suddenly the little blue high beam light comes on the dash pod. First time in many a year that little blue light has worked.

I fiddle with the key—turn the engine off. First the little green generator light springs to life now…. then after a moment, the red oil light. I restart the engine, and they happily go out. Now O’Hara has electrons to the second headlamp and the running light on that side. Obligingly, the headlight comes on. The running light stubbornly does not.

A little bit more ozone. Slowly, ever so slowly, the background odometer lights are coming into view inside the dash pod. I work the light switch rheostat back and forth a few times and the tiny bulbs brighten considerably. The brake light circuit does not yet work, nor do the flashers or turn-signal. We have 12 volts at the low end of the horn wire, but the horn is not bolted in place.

Another decision, and we decide to order and switch out the fuse block itself– there is enough corrosion of the old one to warrant it. Ross orders it up, along with myriad other pieces parts, body boots and clips. It is twenty bucks from Wolfsburg West, and takes a few days to arrive.

The following weekend is hot as blazes. This reminds me of a summer long ago when barking neighborhood dogs got me into trouble with my previous restoration of this same beetle. I think some about how young I actually was then. So much water under the bridge. Under all of the bridges for that matter. This time we are working with new wires and restoration parts, instead of bits and pieces all scavenged second-hand from boneyard cars. It is a different philosophy somewhat. Those days in Harrisburg seem like a really, really long time ago. Or else mere minutes past.

Switching out the fuse block takes a little time—it is easy to tell which wires O’Hara has pulled off previously and cleaned. They come off the block easily enough. The others are a bit more static– frozen in time and place. Needle nose pliers. Some re-sacrificing of electrical wiring spades. The old ones are trim brass and elegant; the modern Advance Autoparts pinch-and-crimp electrical spades are aluminum and hard plastic instead—they are frustrating and nearly useless. In good humor, we check tosee if they might really be made by Lucas Electric. Nope– made in China. (Ironically, we all suspect that Lucas connectors might just still be made of brass!)

Finally, the wires are all moved across and are in place. Now, for the first test– Throwing the switch.. and nothing. No headlights. Checking continuity at all the right places– no electrons. No running lights. It takes me a lot longer than it has any right to for me to realize that I have put in the new fuse block– but have forgotten to install the fuses into the new block. This could explain much. I roll my eyes, and fret about how much less facile I am now than I was in my twenties, the last time I went thorough this process.

Interestingly, of the block fuses, none of them are blown– they all have their little metal strips down the side intact. But only four of them will actually conduct any electricity according to the volt meter. The other four (the more modern ones, actually), the thin metal has all gone to hidden corrosion and oxidation. Two of the fuses are ceramic ones rather than plastic, and I assume that they might be original to whatever car that fuse block actually might have come from), since it appears that I didn’t replace those two back in 1988. I am going to replace them now anyhow. Maybe I will keep them in the glove compartment as momentos. Ross kindly digs out a set of new fuses from his secret stash.

The grounds on this particular car have always been a little strange. Back in 1988, much of this was remedied simply in the switch-over from 6 volts to 12 volts. The twelve volt system was simply a stronger brand of juice. Even then, though, with the import of the much newer, larger superbeetle engine, this entailed inventing a voltage regulator set-up under the back seat like a superbeetle, instead of the old style on on top of the generator. The grounding strap for the battery was left in place in 1988 and reused– but, to be fair, it hadn’t been nearly so corroded in 1988 as it seems to be now.

In switching out the ground strap Ross and I make an interesting discovery. The strap is not actually hooked to the grounding bolt to the frame of the car. That had been sheared off sometime long ago in the far distant past. What the strap really turns out to be bolted to is actually the floorpan bolt intended to hold the battery in place. No wonder all of the grounding of the car has been a little wonky all these years! Ross extracts the broken bolt and replaces it with a new, well seated one—in the correct place against the actual frame. Suddenly the car takes new life electrically. Now the lamps are bright and the switches are much more decisive.

This car has its original AM Sapphire I radio. Of course that radio was 6-volt, and I confess, I never took the time and energy to put in a converter, so that radio for the past 25 years has only been for show on the dash board. I actually have a slightly later 12 volt equivalent AM/FM equivalent by AudioVox. Still of that general vintage though. I may put that one into the car for awhile, and let O’Hara wire that for modern Bluetooth. I admit that it entertains me a lot to think of my 1966 Beetle radio system hosting Siri and GPS, and acting all 21st Century.

For years I had a little decal in my back window that said “Starfleet Academy.” Somehow, an application of Bluetooth feels like making that come to fruition, especially since I now actually work for Smithsonian Air and Space! I wonder if a Siri channeling through a 1966 Beetle will develop a German accent: if she will tend to preferentially play Kraftwerk through its early little transistors.

It will take some time and thought to put together a couple of iphone play lists pertinent to the car. Ballad of the Green Berets; Winchester Cathedral; The Sound of Silence; I am a Rock; Paint it Black; the Beatles Nowhere Man; Last Train to Clarksville. 1966 was a turbulent time indeed. It will be like driving through a Technicolor movie– maybe a nostalgic road scene from Farenheit 451. Or from the tilted horizon lenses and pop culture “Pows” and “Zowies” of the new Adam West Batman Movie on top of the wave that year.

1967 seems to be fair game as well. With movies like the Graduate, or Barefoot in the Park. And music along the lines of: Penny Lane; Kind of a Hush; Green Green Grass of Home; Snoopy and the Red Baron. Another year would bring Donovan’s Atlantis. And 1969 would bring the moon landing,

and a different future altogether:

“In the year 2525, if man is still alive

If woman can survive, they may find

In the year 3535

Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie

Everything you think, do and say

Is in the pill you took today…

…Now it’s been ten thousand years

Man has cried a billion tears

For what, he never knew, now man’s reign is through

But through eternal night, the twinkling of starlight

So very far away, maybe… it’s only yesterday…”

-Zager and Williams

Different things get lost in history. Individuals like beetles, get swept away. In 1969, my big sister Cathy who was just 16, threatened to run away from home because my parents wouldnt let her go to Woodstock! Now I look back at those photos of a million people standing in the mud in upstate New York. So many Beetles scattered in the crowd. My 66 Beetle actually came from upstate New York originally. Did it make that mythical trek to Woodstock to hear young Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie; Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Jimi Hendrix; Blood, Sweat &Tears, Crosby Stills and Nash? Maybe I am looking at my own Beetle in the photos, and dont even know it.

I remember hearing the mythic tale of young Joan Baez, singing swing low sweet chariot in the drizzling rain of that Friday night. About how, as the last act of the night, the entire crowd was silent, and that her clear voice was heard by everyone, even to the back of the crowd. Like a prophet of old.

It seems that I was teethed on Joan Baez and Pete Seeger music, Johnny Cash and Donovan. Voices of a generation. I suppose that these voices too will have to have their presence on my Bluetooth soundtrack. It doesnt make so much difference, I suppose, if my little car was actually at Woodstock itself. It seems that each individual Beetle is a Volkswagen mundi– car of the people, car of history, car of the world.

A couple of weeks later, and I have made the requisite treks and calls for legal paperwork– insurance, registration, and plates. The lady at DMV is entertained by the beetle, although she insists that the VIN number doesnt have the proper number of digits… It is on my title, however, so she shrugs and puts it into the computer somehow or another. She informs me that I absolutely cannot have HUMBUG on my license plate– but then she smiles and relents somewhat– she says that she does have “6HUMBUG” available– and that it is on special today. So that is what we will go with.

With the temporary tag in place, and the real plate being delivered to faraway Salem, we still have a gap between the time that the beetle begins to function, and the time that it can possibly be inspected, and or have its permanent plate. We take a couple more late afternoon/evenings trying to get the carburetor to idle down and to function properly. That poor carburetor is still the relic that was so crusted and rusted before, and O’Hara has done a yeoman’s work in rebuilding it. Still, the idler jet is clogged– the tiny little ball bearing is frozen into place. O’Hara has about 16 hours logged into fighting with all the little tubes and venturis in this carburetor. Finally, with a major blast of compressed air, the tiny ball bearing flies loose with a sort of ping– and amazingly, when it lets go, it is contained, and so it does not go shooting across the garage space. One more rebuild, and the carb begins to function as advertized. The idle is still a bit wonky—a little high, and a little bit low. But then again, it is early, and hopefully this will improve with a little driving. And maybe with a little fresher gasoline.

The first night drive takes the beetle about seven miles– far enough in a midnight run to get to a nearby all-night Gulf Station there we fill the tank with super high test and a can of Seafoam engine cleaner– help offset any remaining shellac in the tank. In the mean time, however, now suddenly we have developed a generator light– the generator brushes have been sparking some amount, and I admit, they are likely past their prime. We limp the car back to Caledonia in at least a little bit of defeat. During the week, Ross indeed discovers that the graphite brushes are worn all the way down to their little copper clips. He fetches out a couple new brushes from his secret supply, and then the generator light problem is no more.

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