COAL: 1971 VW 1302 (Super Beetle) – Thinking With Your Dipstick

'71 VW 1302 Utrecht

This is the only good picture of my ’71 VW 1302.

(first posted 8/6/2016)   Another Beetle! But after totaling the Peugeot 304 I had no car at all and had no money to buy one. So let’s take a break from cars for a minute.


Department store 10 speed bike “Kurpflaz” with cottered crankset

Frat brother Frank was offering his 10 speed bike and I took him up on it. This bike became my main mode of transportation. I ratcheted up my studies and joined a study group that had the goal to take the State Exam in one year. We met regularly at the home of student in a town nearby. Studying with them I realized just how far behind I was.

It was also time to leave the frat house. So I moved into a furnished room in the “Altstadt” (old town) near the famous bridge. In addition BAFöG eligibility was running out. BAFöG is the Federal Education Assistance Act that provided cost of living expenses for students whose parents’ income falls below a certain threshold. There was no denying the fact anymore that I was spending way to much time socializing, traveling and staying in hospitals to succeed now. It was building up for a long time, and now I was stressing out. Existential fear overcame me, and I was hiding in my hole of a furnished room, mentally paralyzed.

Then one morning I woke up and the joints on my fingers would not move. The joints were swollen and painful, very painful. I did not need a doctor to tell me what was going on. The raging psoriasis was creeping into my joints. At the hospital in Mannheim I met a guy who was in the wheel chair and being spoon fed because his psoriatic arthritis physically immobilized him. That’s my future, I thought. Hell, was I scared.

I took the damn law book and thew it at the wall. It left a dent. I got up and said to myself: “No way will I end up like this!” My studies ended right then and there. I jumped on my bike and rode. I rode nowhere in particular, just trying to clear my mind, just doing something with my body. In Dossenheim I steered to the ascent to the Weiβer Stein mountain and I was exhausted on the steepest part right at the beginning. Like Don Quixote fighting windmills I was attacking this mountain day after day. The arthritis receded. And wouldn’t you believe, after 2 weeks I managed to ride all the way up that mountain without taking a break. Two more weeks and I had enough reserve to even sprint the flat part at the top of the mountain. I had become stronger, both physically and mentally.

I was looking for work but the economy took a steep dive and no one hired. I helped Peter whom I met in the hospital renovating rooms in his dad’s furnished-room rental property. And I helped Sepp (true identity withheld) putting his Jaguar S-Type back together after he had the engine overhauled. Sepp became my mentor. Peter and a few others became important influences as well.

Sepp realized that I had varied mechanical aptitudes and he knew a scientist at the Anatomical Institute who could use a jack of all trades in his lab. This guy hired me for a trial period. After dabbling in his lab for a month I realized that I had to do it right or not at all. I told him I am all in. I increased my input from 6 hours to 10 a day and more if needed, including weekends and burning the midnight oil. Learning and developing new procedures, then even teaching them to others who participated in workshops boosted my self-confidence like nothing else before. What also helped was a new medication that controlled my symptoms to some degree.

What did we do in that lab? Well, I spare you the details, you might spill your Morning Joe otherwise. This guy was on a mission to bring the Anatomical Theater from the 17th century into the 3rd millennium.

plastinated poker players

If you like James Bond you probably enjoyed “Casino Royale”. There is some strange poker party going on and Bond gets into a fist fight right there. The players at the poker table are very lifelike anatomical models with muscles, nerves and vessels clearly displayed and in poses that are quite natural. These muscles once moved, the nerves once fired and the vessels carried blood. These “models” where living, breathing, maybe poker playing individual human beings not too long before this transformation. My boss and his team, including myself, were developing the methods of preservation for these exhibitions back in the 80’s. I moved on and my former boss created the famous “Bodyworlds” exhibitions.

He paid me enough to move out of my furnished room into an efficiency. I even could afford to buy a new bike. Biking became an important part of my life at that time. And then I even could think of owning a car again.

SU carburettors

SU carburettors for Jaguar S-Type

Between disassembling Sepp’s Jaguar’s two SU carburettors and figuring out why the 3.8L 6 cylinder engine misfired we discussed my next set of wheels. Actually, it was not much of a discussion.  An opportunity was lining up: an American scientist on sabbatical was about to return to the US and needed to find a buyer for his blue 1971 VW1302. About a year prior my mentor was selecting this car for the American colleague and it was now to become mine.


The 1302 is the early Super Beetle with the flat windshield. VW updated the beetle with McPherson strut front suspension and a more bulging lid to increase stowing capacity and to improve the ride. In the back there was the 1300 cc boxer mill producing now 44 (DIN) hp. The car was in very nice shape. There was some padding on the dashboard and there were buttons that supposed to direct the air one way or the other but truly had no effect at all. Instrumentation was limited to a single speedometer with fuel gauge and idiot lights for oil pressure and battery voltage.

Beetle with Rally wheels

I mounted rally wheels like these.

I needed a fridge for my efficiency. To bring it home I pulled the passenger seat off the track and put it on the rear seat upside down. The apartment size fridge fit perfectly in the space vacated by the passenger seat. If the doors would not open 90 degrees it would have been a no-go. I suppose this was one of the very few Beetles that ever had a fridge.


Galtür, Austria

One early trip went to the Paznauntal in Tyrolia for a week or two of skiing. I put my cross country skis on a roof rack and hit the autobahn. About 100 km later I felt the engine getting stronger and more responsive. That was not pure imagination. The previous owner was a timid driver. He probably never went faster than 90 km/h because he was used to the 55 mph speed limit in the US. As a result the engine must have been coated with carbon deposits that were now gone.


Peter was already there near there with his VW 1303 Super Beetle, the one with the curved windshield. His engine was the 1600 cc version generating 50 hp making his car a little faster than mine. He chose his beetle because it was one of the very few economical cars that would accommodate his 2 meter tall frame. Our Beetles did well on snow. He had winter tires, I had all seasons. Those large diameter tires and the weight on the driven wheels made a big difference and were one reason why people still liked their Beetles even though they were so far behind the times.

More trips followed that underscored the qualities of this car. I had no issues other than noise and relatively high fuel consumption. I took it to West Berlin and Utrecht, NL and of course to visit my family in the Black Forest.

For the trip to West Berlin I had two pals come along but money was real tight and I needed a third passenger to chip in for the fuel. I used the bulletin board at the University to advertise a “MFG für BGB nach Berlin”. That means: “Ride opportunity to Berlin for share of fuel expense”.


A student of medicine called and we set up the deal. He was worried though that there would not be enough space for all our luggage and his beloved Apple MacIntosh and Imagewriter. He was about to pull out the night before departure. But I was determined: “I need your money! Be ready! It will fit!” Next morning he was waiting on the parking lot of the University in the old town of Heidelberg. Next to him was one suitcase, one book bag, one box with a printer and one box with a computer. I spent about 30 minutes just to figure out how to get all that stuff and 3 passengers in the Beetle. In the end I put it behind the rear seat. However there was no way to bring the seat back up all the way in it’s proper location. That meant the poor guys in the back had to hunch forward for all 7 hours of driving.


Vacationers going through Checkpoint Bravo.

Traveling to West Berlin was quite eerie in this time of the cold war. We needed passports in our own country and stay on specified transit routes inside the German Democratic Republic (GDR): from Helmstedt to Zehlendorf, West Berlin. There were perfectly camouflaged speed traps all along that GDR stretch of the autobahn. The speed limit was 100 km/h and the VoPo (People’s Police) were milking the Westerners for “West Marks” whenever possible. It was best to stay slightly below 100 km/h.

10-transit-VoPo radarfalle

VoPo speed trap, perfectly hidden from oncoming traffic.

Of course we encountered many Trabant, Wartburg, Skoda and Lada. I found that their owners were very proud of their vehicles and enjoyed them as much if not more so than the Westerners. I in particular recall a Skoda coupe, white with rally stripes parked at a rest stop. There was a pair of driving gloves on the dash board and the whole thing looked really well taken care of.


West Berlin itself was strange. There were lots of young people in their 20’s and lots of of people in their retirement years and very few in between. Many of the young men came from West Germany because West Berliners were not subject to the draft. They became Berliners until they were too old to be drafted for the Bundeswehr. My friend Peter was one of them. He started driving Taxi there and still does. Apartments were cheap to rent and he made enough money to afford extensive travels. He also knew which pub had the beer special for each day of the week.


There crawls a Beetle in the Black Forest

When I visited my brother near Pforzheim I got into a fender bender. It was on an ice covered road in town that made a slight curve to the left. This Ford Fiesta came towards me too fast for the icy road. I couldn’t do anything about it. Touching the brakes would have sent me into the house wall that was only 2 ft to the right. When she hit the brakes her car slid straight into my left rear fender and wheel. No injuries. Financially it was a nice boost because her insurance paid about DM 900.00 and it took me only DM 200.00 to get it back in decent shape.

The Head of the Department clipped the left front as he tried to park in front of the Super Beetle. He paid for the repairs out of pocket. He was infamous for such incidents and using insurance would have taken his premiums through the roof.

Over time the body developed a tear in the right shock tower that needed welding. Another time I was unable to open the front lid. I went back to the shop that did the welding. The master technician held the handle in a particular way, pushed the button and the trunk was open. He did in 5 seconds what I couldn’t do in an hour. Then he pulled a wrench out of his coat and tightened a bolt. Done. I asked: “how much?” He looked at me and said: “Nix.” I still appreciate that.

I don’t recall any other trouble with this car.

Hold, this is Germany and there is the TüV. I had a green VW once and they found a huge number of diddly faults. I was scared of taking this car as nice as it looked and ran to the inspection. It had one problem I knew of: a transmission oil leak at the drive shaft. Peter, the exile Berliner, happened  to be in Heidelberg and I asked him if he could take the car to the inspection for me. That way I would not have to take time off work as well. I took the car to a garage to clean the engine compartment and the transmission the day before in order to hide the oil leak.


Peter came back from the TüV. He put his left leg on the rear bumper striking a Captain Morgan pose. With triumphant grin on his face he pointed at the stamp of approval on my license plate! I bet to this day if I had taken it in myself they would have found something to send me to the mechanic. I know it was Peter’s gregarious personality and imposing physical frame that made all the difference. He reported the inspector asked him to come down under the car to look at something that could turn into a problem in a year or two. But Peter paid him little attention. He looked up at the transmission and saw some oil coming down. He leaned slightly against the inspector to take away his line of view and squeeze him away from there.

VDO Oel Thermometer

An oil thermometer must be better than an idiot light.

I still had a VDO clock from my previous beetle. On a flea market I found a matching VDO oil temperature gauge. I thought it would look nice if they were placed stacked and to the right of the speedometer. I pulled the filler panel out and added the instruments. It certainly looked nicer when I was finished, even a bit sporty.

I planned to do a bike tour in the Pyrenees this summer. Unfortunately I could not find any partners. Maybe I sounded too ambitious. The plan was to drive there, park the car and get rolling on the bikes. I did find a couple who wanted to go to Montpelier in the Camargue but without bikes. I gave them a ride for share of fuel cost. I pulled the wheels off the bike and stuffed them and the frame in the back behind the rear bench. I could park the car in the court of the abbey were they stayed and I went on my solo bike tour.

I came back to the abbey and the couple and I went on a day trip in the Massif Central. On that tour the oil pressure light flickered a few times. I checked the oil level, it was good. The next day we returned to Heidelberg without incidents other than the flickering oil pressure light. Back in Germany on the autobahn the flicker turned from an occasionally “on” to and occasionally “off”. I checked the oil level several times. It was good enough. I was worried though. Close to home it was solid “on” and the engine did not sound too well. It became obvious it sustained major damage, later confirmed by a compression test.

I found an engine some 100 km away. The guy was a mechanic and he was willing to put the engine in my car right in his yard. It was a great deal. He even gave me the transmission that was going with the engine. We put it in the trunk.

Watching this guy I learned quite a bit. In air cooled VW you have to make sure the rubber seals that surround the engine and all the little parts that seal the cooling air in the ducts are present and in good shape. Without these pieces there would be significant loss of airflow and the air could be too warm when air from under the engine makes it past the rubber surround up into the engine bay. He also explained to me how the engine oil deteriorates over time while an engine is sitting around. The proper way of reviving an engine is to disassemble it and washing all the parts and oil passages. The shortcut is to run the engine with fresh oil for 10 minutes, then replace the oil, then make an oil change at 100km, 250km and again at 500km and never rev it up until then. If he did not tell me about this right then I would have killed this engine too. He ran the engine on the bench for me. He started it by wrapping a leather belt over the flywheel and then pulling it. After the run he changed the oil. It was black.


Thermistor dipstick

But why did my original engine die in the first place if the oil was fresh and at the proper level? It all had to do with the DM 20.00 oil temperature gauge from the flea market. It came with a thermistor dipstick. As the temperature rises the electrical resistance goes up and that moves the needle at the gauge. It really is an ohmmeter on a temperature scale. You took your original dipstick and transferred the marks to the thermistor dipstick. The previous owner of the gauge transferred the marks faithfully. I checked them before I installed it and I checked them again for use in the replacement engine. I put the dip sticks side by side on a table and the marks matched. Then it occurred me: the original dipstick is much shorter and you must match up the tops of them to get the marks at the correct height! The marks were matching when measured from the bottom! As a result the “low” mark was extending below the oil intake. That’s were the oil pump started sucking air!



Boy, did I feel stupid and sick to the stomach. Idiot lights are called that for a reason.


Paul Pietsch Klassik” participants with a modified 1302 in the Black Forest

But the new engine seemed to be less powerful than the original; maybe it was the 40hp low-compression version. Anyway, the fun was gone. The Beetle morphed into a slug. I could have replaced the transmission as well but meanwhile I was thinking of getting another car. I was already set on searching for an Opel Kadett D Caravan when a career opportunity came about. Soon I was going to leave Germany for the USA and I had to dissolve my house hold. Upon leaving I gave the blue VW 1302 to my brother to sell it on my behalf.

Rent-a-Beetle, Hanonver

Beetles for hire