Roadtrip Misery in the Red Bug, or Why I Reenlisted
August 31, 2015 by Larry Grinnell
I was the proud owner of a bright red 1972 VW Super Beetle, which replaced my beloved 1968 Plymouth Valiant Signet. The Bug had dealer-installed air conditioning (I lived in South Florida), but from what I could tell, the electrical system was not beefed up to deal with this additional load. I was used to replacing voltage regulators every few months, as the contacts kept pitting and welding themselves shut. I also added a CB radio (oh, did I mention this was about 1976?). To keep the electrical noise to a minimum (moving the antenna as far away from the engine as possible), I attached a long whip antenna to my front bumper, which meant the optimum radiation pattern was behind me. Appropriately, my handle was Redbug. The “Redbug” got a lot of unwanted attention, as it had one of those extractor exhaust systems, from which the fiberglass packing had long since blown out. It was loud. Amazingly, I was never stopped for noise pollution.
I was in the US Air Force, stationed at Homestead AFB, just sixty miles south of my parents’ place in suburban Fort Lauderdale. I would travel home most weekends, and with few exceptions, the Redbug ran flawlessly (other than the voltage regulators which, by then, I could replace in my sleep). I kept it serviced regularly, including a valve adjustment every 3,000 miles.
In the early summer of 1976, I was given orders to attend a special electronics course at my Air Force tech school alma mater, Keesler AFB, in Biloxi, Mississippi (one of my least favorite places on the planet, the least, least favorite being an old Soviet-era air base near Wadi Abu Shihat, smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian desert, about 100 miles from anything). If memory serves, the training course ran about a month. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take several weeks’ leave to visit my brother and his family. He was also in the Air Force, stationed at Bergstrom AFB in Austin, Texas (now the location of Austin’s fine international airport), and I figured, “why not,” as I was already halfway there.
With my Certificate of Completion in hand, I headed west on I-10 to Austin. Somewhere near Beaumont, Texas, the Redbug’s generator warning light began flickering. I found a mechanic who knew VWs. “Brushes,” is what he told me. He replaced them for what seemed to be a fair price and I was back on the road. I arrived in Austin much later that evening and had a fun time with my family.
About a week into my visit, one of the rear brakes began making grinding noises, so it was off to a local chain, called Brake Check. They determined the rear linings were shot. The mechanics at Brake Check replaced them for what, again, seemed to be a fair price. A few days later, I finished my visit with my brother and his family and hopped on Interstate 10 heading east. Later that same day, near the little town of Vidor, Texas, the VW’s rear end suddenly got real loosey goosey. The next thing I knew, I saw a tire—my tire—flying past me along the breakdown lane, just as the backing plate of my passenger side rear brake settled (crunched) down on the pavement, accompanied by a sick grinding noise and probably some sparks (I didn’t see that part). I got the car safely off the road, and after checking my underwear, I began looking for the escaped tire. Some construction workers told me they saw it go into a thicket of thorny-like plants. Scratched and bloody, I recovered the tire after a few minutes, and brought it back to the car.
One of the construction workers went to a nearby business and called one of the local garages for me. A wrecker was dispatched, which brought the VW and me to their shop. As noted by the mechanic, what apparently happened was that the mechanic at Brake Check did not realize that the nut that held the brake drum/wheel assembly to the axle halfshaft needed to be torqued down to about 250 ft-lbs, and torqued it down to an amount much less than the proscribed 250 ft-lbs. The mere act of driving caused the insufficiently torqued nut to loosen, and it eventually unscrewed itself. That nut was long gone. If the hubcap had stayed on the wheel, I might have had a fighting chance to save the nut. but that was not to be. The de-wheeling event even sheared off the cotter pin that was there to keep the nut from flying off. Fortunately for me, the garage had a junked VW Bug on the property which sacrificed its nut and the missing hubcap, both of which fit perfectly. The only other issue was the bent backing plate. I had two choices: remove the old backing plate and take the matching one off that same wrecked Bug, which would take most of the rest of the day, or with the aid of a cutting torch, they could cut away the bent part of the plate with the only potential problem being that it might have some stopping issues in a heavy downpour, as more water would be let into the brake drum.
Pressed for time, I chose the latter and was on my way out of Vidor in less than an hour. I crossed into Louisiana just in time for the generator warning light to start flickering again. I figured brushes weren’t going to do it this time, so I stopped just outside Baton Rouge took it to the nearest garage. The mechanic looked things over and determined the generator was shot. It took a couple of hours to get a replacement, along with a moment of drama when one of the key mounting screws fell into the blower shroud (remember, VWs were air-cooled, and the shroud directed cooling air to the engine), which took nearly an hour to retrieve. but by about 4PM, I was ready to get back on the road. I noticed a squeak in the rear end, so I turned around and went back to the garage that had just replaced the generator. I get a feeling the mechanic didn’t want to see me again–he referred me to a Volkswagen dealer just down the street (I hadn’t noticed the dealership before).
To digress for a moment (as if this tome wasn’t already a large series of digressions), this was starting to cost me serious money—as a young Buck Sergeant in the Air Force, I really didn’t have a whole lot of financial reserves. I called my brother, twice (collect), to beg him to wire money to my checking account, so I didn’t have bouncing checks following me all the way back to Florida. I did the same with my credit union at Homestead AFB, negotiating a personal loan over the phone (something they told me was only done on extremely rare occasions), charging the call to my parents’ phone.
The VW dealer’s service shop was just getting ready to close, but they told me to come back first thing in the morning and they’d take me ahead of their scheduled work to get me back on the road. I found an inexpensive motel and hit the sack. Next morning, I brought it in, and the dealer found a bad front wheel bearing, which was quickly replaced. Once again, I was sent on my way. I got back onto I-10 and almost immediately heard that same squeaking in the rear end. I took the next exit, turned around, and hightailed it back to the dealer. Good thing I did. When they put it up on the rack, they pulled the rear hubcaps and discovered the same nut that caused me so much grief the previous day, on the opposite side of the car, was ALSO LOOSE. They tightened it to spec, replaced the cotter key, and did a more thorough inspection of the rest of the car. Finding no further issues, they again sent me on my way, and I once again bade farewell to Baton Rouge. I made it to Gainesville, FL, without further issues, and stayed the night at a cheap* motel.
The next morning, I got into the car, fired it up, and headed out of the parking lot, which is when I discovered some fairly serious clutch slippage. After expressing some really creative language, some learned in the Air Force, and others learned at my mother’s knee (she had a superb vocabulary, much learned from her equally profane father, or so I was told), I babied the car onto I-75 heading south, where it blended into Florida’s Turnpike. I passed by the exit for my parents’ house a few hundred miles later, and headed straight to Homestead AFB before something ELSE happened. Every time I tried to overtake someone during that scary drive, I had to back off because even with the VW’s meager torque, it was still enough to overcome the limited friction holding the clutch to the flywheel. This was truly a white-knuckled adventure.
I owed so much money because of that trip that I felt obliged to re-enlist for another four year hitch, as I needed the re-up bonus to reimburse my brother as well as the Homestead AFB Federal Credit Union, not to mention paying for a clutch job (due to a leaky rear seal, so they told me). As it turned out, that additional four years (plus one year’s extension) were the best thing to happen to me, but that’s yet another story. To be fair, I really wasn’t ready to compete in the civilian world quite yet, either.
Once I paid everyone off, I decided it was time buy a new car, my first. I tried to order a new Dodge Aspen with a slant 6 and a 4-speed, but the dealer couldn’t be bothered—besides, it was too close to model year changeover. They were much more interested in selling me something from their own bulging inventory. Instead, I made a deal for a brand spanking new Firecracker Red 1976 AMC Pacer X with a 3-on-the-floor (4-speeds weren’t available until 1977). As it turned out, those early Aspens and Volares were real hangar queens (and serious rust buckets). The Pacer actually turned out to be a better choice. Really. It served me well for another three years before I sold it prior to being transferred to Germany (I didn’t bring it with me, as I was concerned for parts availability), which is yet another story for another time.
In spite of this really horrible experience with a Volkswagen Beetle, by 2001 I decided all was forgiven and I leased a gorgeous white VW Passat Wagon (I liked the lines better than the sedan, plus it had utility to spare) with the same V-6 engine that was also used in the far more expensive Audi A4 and A6 models. When my job changed from a nine mile commute to a nearly 50 mile one (one way!), I went back to the VW dealer on bent knees and negotiated a deal to dump the lease (which, with the nearly 100 mile per day commute would have incurred severe over-mileage penalties) and purchased a new VW. That was my silver 2003 VW Jetta TDI (turbo diesel) station wagon. I drove it a little over 100,000 miles, and traded for a Toyota RAV-4 (VW wasn’t offering diesel engined vehicles for several years while they figured out how to de-smog them). I drove it for about 120,000 miles before I bought my next VW, a white Jetta TDI station wagon. Lovely car. Around the time it hit 75,000 miles, I was contacted by the dealer who wanted it for the used car lot. An acceptable deal was struck, and I’m now on my fifth VW, a lovely Tornado Red Golf TDI (again with the turbo diesel). I’ve had this one for about 18 months and already have 42,000 miles on it. Aside from the excellent fuel economy (I regularly get 45-47 MPG), it’s supremely comfortable, and the doors close like bank vaults.
* A note about cheap motels. Years later, after completing nine years in the Air Force, I went on to a really nice civilian job with Motorola in South Florida. As my career advanced and as my job morphed from a bench technician to a technical writer, I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. Corporate travel spoiled me for all time as it related to accommodations. Never again would I hunt down cheap digs (Days Inn is dead to me). Today, I proudly and perhaps snobbishly state that if it isn’t at least a Courtyard Marriott (or equivalent), I ain’t going!