Tuesday, 17 July 2012

VW Story (cont)

Chapter Three

    When we went to live in Bairnsdale in 1984, it wasn't long before we decided a 4-wheel drive vehicle was surplus to requirements and sold the Landcruiser, to be replaced by a Holden Kingswood ex-taxi with front bench seat.  This lasted a couple of months before we could no longer stand it.  It wallowed on the road, causing car sickness, there wasn't really room for six people, and the front bench was worn out and sagging.  

    When we saw an ex-Army khaki green VW Microbus in a local car yard, we couldn't swap the Holden quick enough.  (After the deal, the salesman made a show of being incensed that we hadn't told him the Holden was an ex-taxi!  Incompetence on his part, I thought, and as if he would have told us!).  The Microbus had seating for eight, full headlining and wall lining, and heating to the rear.  It was a 1973 model, same as our new one in 1973, but would have been a bit more expensive than the Kombi.  It had obviously been well maintained by the Army.

    There was plenty of room for the kids to spread out and to carry our gear.  We went camping at Easter time in 1985 to Mt Buffalo and made plenty of trips to Sale and back.

    By this time we had two boats, the larger being a 16' Hartley trailer-sailer with full cabin.  We used the VW to tow it to the Gippsland lakes, sometimes to Paynesville, sometimes Metung.  On one such trip, we were almost home when the motor went bang and emitted a cloud of blue smoke.  We were forced to limp home in low gear still towing the boat.  This resulted in an engine overhaul - from memory, the engine overheated and a welsh plug melted, putting oil where it shouldn't have been.

    However, as the result of having a "new" motor, we decided to make a trip to the Territory.  When we left Areyonga at the end of 1983, we agreed to return by road when sealing of the Stuart Highway was completed, possibly in 1988.  But having a nice touring wagon like the Microbus, with an overhauled motor, was too much of a temptation.

    We spent a few weeks on the trip and went as far north as Ti Tree to stay with Mick and Karen.  The bitumen road was completed north of  the NT border, while in South Australia, Kingoonya and Tarcoola had been bypassed (the upgraded road went through Glendambo) and the new road was being formed up south of Coober Pedy.  We all enjoyed the trip and the Microbus took the corrugations in its stride.

    At around the same time, I'd seen an old VW Beetle for sale outside a house in Bairnsdale for about a hundred dollars, and couldn't resist buying it for a hobby.  This was to become our 1964 Black Beetle.  The car was in running order, and registered for use, but was in need of some TLC.

    By watching used-car ads,  I bought another complete car from a farmer at Mt Taylor for about $60 and a third without a motor from Lakes Entrance for $40.  What this meant was that for a total of $200, I had no need to buy any new spare parts.  The bonnet hinges of the original car were rusted enough to cause problems opening and closing it, so I was able to replace it completely with one from the other cars.  I stripped the body off the Mt Taylor car and stored the detachable panels, lights, glass and other parts behind the shed as spare parts.  The rolling floor pan, in going order, complete with front seats, went to school friends of Jac and Daniel to use as a "bush basher" on their farm.

    I had three sets of brake shoes, drums, cylinders and lines, and was able to set up the car with the best of these.  When it became necessary, I swapped the clutch in the Black Beetle.  It was a simple matter to undo the engine mount bolts, put blocks under the motor and then jack the car up until it was free of the motor, which could then be slid out from under the car.  This meant the clutch was accessible with all the transmission components still in place.

   I learnt a lot about VWs by playing with the Black Beetle.  Everything from windscreen wiper motor to king pins were cleaned, overhauled or replaced.  I came to appreciate what a great design Ferdinand Porsche and his team had come up with, and how simple most things were.  There were the odd annoyances, like the necessity to have one arm and spanner under the car and another arm and spanner in the engine compartment to remove the starter motor - not possible so lateral thinking was required!

    I bought a paint spray gun, pulled the body apart, stripped off all the bright work and lights, masked the glass, and sprayed on undercoats and gloss black.  The only modification I made from the original car was to eliminated the chrome strips along the waist on each side of the body.  The fittings were wrecked by rust and most of the rubber grommets missing.  From the inside of the body I superglued patches of plastic over the holes and then bogged them from the outside to leave a smooth finish.  If I did it again I would restore the strips properly, but it did look good!

    We kept the Black Beetle for quite a few years.  Many times, all six of us crammed into it for short trips around town, sometimes with one child in the luggage compartment behind the back seat, and with a guitar case on the laps of those in the back seat!

    We still had the car when we moved to Wiseleigh in 1994, and for some time Doortje used it to commute to work in Bairnsdale.  Often on weekends we went off exploring the back roads around the district, especially the dirt tracks and fire trails up in the hills behind Bruthen.

    It grieves me to have to report that after we came back from the NT trip in 1985, my neck was so sore from the trip that I was convinced I could no longer drive the Microbus.  It was common practice in the 1970s to travel non-stop from Alice Springs to Papunya, about three hours of concentration on corrugations, washaways, or bulldust and sand.  By the end of the trip, my neck would be stiff and tense.  I now know that the damage was ongoing and permanent and that at least some of this must have been due to the "cab-over" design of the Kombi, with the driver sitting directly over the front wheels and subject to every bump and jolt.  Leaning over the steering wheel which was slightly more horizontally "bus-like" than a normal sedan, probably didn't help either.

    I know this partly because we got rid of the Kombi in 1986 and bought a Chrysler Valiant station wagon, which was much gentler on the body.  We had it for twelve years and made many long trips without the same detriment to my neck. 

    My regret now is that I didn't take proper evasive action during those years which would have enabled us to keep the Microbus without the suffering.  In all respects except the driving position, (and even that gave great visibility) it was a superior versatile vehicle, capable of carrying loads on any terrain and covering large lumps of country.

    As it was, we gave the Microbus away (along with the Hartley boat) to a group in Melbourne who looked after disadvantaged youth and were able to put it to good use.

    When Doortje and I moved back to the NT in 1998 we sold the Black Beetle to someone in Melbourne, along with a trailer load of spare parts, including doors and panels and a gearbox.  I can't remember how much they paid us, but not much.  I only hope it's still going.  Thus the VW story comes to an end.

    In total, I've owned or part-owned, nine Volkswagens - five Beetles, three vans and a type 3.  It would be great to get to double figures.

    I wonder what I could do to achieve that?  Here's a short list, probably in order of desirability:

 1.  1964 Karmann Ghia
 All the same mechanicals as the 1964 Beetle but very nice body.

2.   1985 "Type 3" Kombi camper, 3-speed auto

As I write, this vehicle is for sale for $13,000, and this model is fast becoming a collector's item as earlier models become rarer.

3.  2010 Golf Wagon, TDI with DSG gearbox 

Low mileage versions are about $25,000, very desirable, but hard to justify replacing the Honda!  End of dreaming!

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