Road trips are one of the quintessential life experiences. Breaking down on the road, however character building it may be, is always a concern, and even more so for vintage VW drivers.
In this guide, we look at steps you can take to help minimize your time on the side of the road.
10. Prepare yourself
Classic Volkswagens are old machines, and just like any old machine, they need maintenance. I highly recommend starting with a Bentley manual for your particular model, and a copy of the “Idiot” manual. Even if you pay someone to work on your bus, it’s nice to have a basic understanding of the way your VW works.
The Bentley has all the techical information like torque values, fluid capacities and maintenance tables, supplied by Volkswagen. The “Idiot” manual was written by a hippie in language a lay-person can understand, full of diagrams, drawings and humor. It’s the only manual I have ever read because I wanted to.
I get it, tires are expensive, but they are what connects your VW to the road. As a tire ages it hardens. Even if the tread looks great, old tires can skid or lose traction much sooner than a fresh set.
According to tirerack.com, “Since 2000, the week and year the tire was produced has been provided by the last four digits of the Tire Identification Number with the 2 digits being used to identify the week immediately preceding the 2 digits used to identify the year.”
From the date-code we can determine the tire in the example above was manufactured on the 51st week of 2007. If you inspect your tire and cannot find a date code, it’s likely they were manufactured prior to 2000, making them at least 18 years old. Time for a new set!
Condition varies based on use, but the industry standard is somewhere between 6 to 10 years. For an in-depth article about tire safety, check out the National Safety and Transportation Board study on tire age.
Who cares if you can go if you can’t stop? In our classic VW’s, theres not a lot of crumple zone to speak of, so it’s a good idea to make sure your brakes are up to the job.
The brake shoes wear slightly every time you press the brakes, and as such, require periodic adjustment.
In the diagram above, #8 is one of two adjusting stars per rear wheel. The other is directly opposite it. They hold the shoes and can be adjusted by locating them through the inspection hole and spinning them outward until the brake drums slightly drag.
The process for the front drums is similar, but one of the adjusters is on top, one is on bottom.
You can also inspect the brake shoe thickness through the inspection hole with a small flashlight.
Inspect the brake hoses and wheels for evidence of leaking. If any leaks are found, take care of them immediately!
Because it’s imperative to have your brakes in good working order, if there’s any question, consult a professional.
Fluids are the life-blood of your VW. If they’re low, out, or in bad condition, you’re going to have a bad day.
Everyone knows to check the engine oil, but when was the last time you checked your brake or transmission fluids?
Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water, and is recommended to flush every two years.
The transmission fluid needs a special tool to remove the plug to inspect / fill / drain. Your local VW shop should have them in stock. I got mine from Doug’s Buggs-n-Bunnies.
Consult the aforementioned Bentley manuals for fluid capacities and fill-locations of your particular model.
Just like tires, hoses get worse with age. Fuel lines and brake lines crack over time, and can cause a really bad day when they fail.
Check your hoses frequently and replace if questionable.
Belts are made of rubber. Guess what… they get old and fail.
In most VW Buses, there is only one belt, and it spins the generator / alternator.
In Type 1 (beetle engine) powered buses, the belt also spins the cooling fan. If the belt breaks, you lose the charging system, and in the case of the type 1 engines, the cooling system as well. That can spell instant doom for your engine.
Visually inspect your belt at every oil change. Replace when dry-cracks appear.
It’s not uncommon to break a clutch or throttle cable. They can break at the most inopportune times I.e. stop and go traffic, construction zones, etc.
It’s worth inspecting and lubricating them before you leave on a trip. Clutch cables will generally fray before breaking completely, giving you a visual warning.
It’s a good idea to shoot some spray-lube into all the pivot points and pedal linkage components to keep it functioning smoothly.
Both spare parts and spare tires can save your hide.
It’s a good idea to keep at least the common parts with you and inform yourself how to replace them. At minimum I carry a spare V-belt, clutch cable, throttle cable (complete with their specific attachment hardware) a fully inflated, good condition spare tire, a set of points and condenser, and a quart of engine oil.
On longer trips or off-road journeys I generally carry a fuel pump, a complete distributor and an igntition coil. If anything more intense than that breaks I generally call the tow tuck.
2. Towing Insurance.
Speaking of tow trucks, sometimes that’s the only option. Some insurance companies offer towing as part of your policy. I prefer towing insurance through AAA.
They different levels of coverage and it changes state-to-state, so check with your local office for specifics. My coverage gets me two 100 mile tows and one 200 mile tow per year, which easily pays for itself if you end up needing it.
1. Plan for Contingencies.
Driving old cars can be unpredictable. Sometimes they don’t start. Sometimes they break down. Have a plan A, plan B, and plan C.
Some basic tools, parts and an understanding on how to use them will get you back on the road in most situations.
Take your time and enjoy the ride, because, after all, you’re driving a classic VW!