Bug Tales: Timing Is Everything

I bought my second Beetle, a ’63, knowing its engine was on borrowed time. When the time came, I decided to take the plunge and rebuild it myself, following the directions in John Muir’s classic book. It was going to be a rite of passage: rebuilding my own engine, in the basement of may parents’ house, where I was temporarily bivouacking. Pulling it out, and stripping it of its housing and other accessories was as exciting as when I took apart my first Briggs and Stratton. But when I sat there looking at the bare case, barrels and cylinder heads, I suddenly chickened out and decided to leave it to a pro. Just as well, but I still managed to screw it up.

I plopped the engine into the back of Mom’s Coronet wagon, and took it to one of so many little VW repair shops at the time. There, they talked me into putting big bore cylinders on it, upping capacity from 1200 to 1350 cc, a swell as a bump in compression. You’ll love it, they assured me. I was skeptical, because I wanted maximum reliability for my restless travels. But they talked me into it.

After a week or so, I picked it up the lovely melange of magnesium, cast iron, and steel, and proceeded to re-assemble the accessories. I plopped in the distributor, set the timing with a static light, and after hooking it all up, it started right up and ran like a top. I took it easy the first few weeks, but the increase in power was very obvious, and well beyond even my expectations.

I decided to make one of my frequent dashes to Iowa with it, to hear a friend’s piano recital. I left in the afternoon, and hit the mountains of Western Maryland in the fading light. There’s a very long grade on I-70 that had always slowed my 1200 cc Beetles to some 45 mph. Not now: my Bug felt like it was supercharged; it hammered away up the mountains at a good 60 or so. Wow!

As I rolled downhill into Breezewood, PA to gas up, I hear a disconcerting noise from the back. I got out, slid under the engine, and could clearly make out the sound of exhaust gasses escaping between the head and cylinder barrel. Pulled studs! The curse of so many Type 1 motors. The steel cylinder studs pull out of the soft magnesium-block threads, most typically when the engine is overheated.

I was livid; it’s exactly what I was afraid would happen when they talked me into those big bore barrels. I drove back slowly in the cool night air,  parked in front of the shop around two or three in the morning, and slept in the back seat (yup) until the shop opened. I was full of righteous indignation, and insisted they fix it instantly under warranty so I could make it to my friend’s recital the next day.

The had it apart in a flash, put in stud-saver thread inserts, and reassembled it. By noon or so, the owner handed me the keys, and told me that the ignition timing had been advanced to some ridiculous amount; I can’t remember exactly the number. Or I’ve repressed it out of shame. He didn’t charge me anything, but sure gave me a dirty look as I drove off. And no, the Beetle wasn’t nearly as fast up the grade of I-70 the second time in twenty-four hours.