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HOW TO RESTORE A VINTAGE VW OR , LEARN TO ENJOY CREATIVE STRESS WHILE HAVING FUN AND SLOWLY GOING INSANE AT GREAT PERSONAL EXPENSE
Story by Lois Grace


Lots of people restore cars. Not lots of women, but lots of people. I happen to be a woman AND a vintage Volkswagen freak, so I guess it's only natural in view of this that my vintage truck would eventually be restored. When I mention how much fun I had doing this, I still get the funny looks, the eyebrows-off-the-forehead reaction from some. (Mostly men, I might add) What follows are a few of the trials, tribulations, and fun times I had with this project.

Inn the March/April Autoist, most of you met my 1959 single cab transporter, Vernon. This story begins with his near-death, and chronicles his rise to glory. It does have a happy ending, so never fear! Read on, and discover how you, too, can experience great joy and satisfaction while spending astronomical amounts of money and undergoing severe tests of will and faith........................................

In May, 1973, Vernon met an Oldsmobile Toronado. Read that to say, MET, in capitals, as in high-speed impact. The Toronado decided that its nose would look much better imbedded in Vernon's drivers side - the resulting damage was so bad that we all feared poor Vern had finally slipped off the mortal (ignition) coil. After almost 14 years of faithful service, during which time he'd become literally a part of the family, it was hard to believe this truck was now to be just a fond memory. Many sleepless nights were spent and many tears were shed till Vernon was healed enough to spend another 14 years on the road, still looking as though he'd lost that fight with the Toronado. The Point of No Return was reached a couple years ago when I decided that Vern had waited long enough - he was due for that restoration. I had just had enough of watching him slowly rot (and rust) away and felt he deserved better. In the beginning, this was just a way of "making him look better" rather than a full-on trophy winner. Now that this project is 85% completed (already?) I can safely say that it has been a restoration, in every sense of the word. And I do not use that word lightly - this was a full-scale rebuild, even though it didn't start out that way. Having never undertaken something like this before, I was in for an education and believe me, I went back to school on this!!

I began by searching for and saving every bit of encouragement I could find. This meant reading publications I would never even have glanced at a year before. Magazines like Hot VW's and VW Trends began appearing in our mailbox. i went to the local bookstore and bought copies of Hemmings Motor News. I read with new-found interest articles on rebuilding carburetors and dealing with rust removal. My husband was bewildered, to say the least, but rapidly found this heightened awareness of mine encouraging. After all, if I learned the basics of auto repair and maintenance, maybe I could take over in the garage and he'd be off the hook! I clipped madly from the newspaper. Articles with titles like "7 Steps for Accomplishing Your Goals" and "You Can Succeed at Anything" began to cover our refrigerator door. These buoyed my confidence enough to send me off on my first safari into the wilds of the Body Shop Jungle, seeking that rare and mysterious item, THE ESTIMATE. Lord only knows how they do this. Sure, it's time to them and time is money, but.....................I was expecting a healthy shock from this, given the extent of Vernon's injuries. What I was not prepared for was the response I got: (asked with an equal amount of disbelief and incredulity) "Why on earth do you want to spend this much money on a truck that's worth maybe $100?" These estimates ranged from $300 (for just the work under the windshields) to well into the thousands. Yes, I was willing to part with my money, but I wasn't willing to stand there and listen to insults. Different shops, different masters of the craft, but always the same response. Couldn't they see that I was determined? Couldn't they see that Vernon was still ALIVE? I quickly realized (with some help from my positive thinking clippings) that I had been talking to the wrong people. These folks were in business to make money, not spend countless hours for little pay at a labor of love. I needed someone who would accept this dream as his own and find the work itself was its own reward. Who would be crazy enough to do that? In a last ditch effort to find that person, I pulled out all the stops and joined the Vintage Volkswagen Club, Golden Gate Chapter. I went to my first meeting in November, 1986, expecting to find a lot of folks interested in VW's. The friends I made that night were a strange and wonderful bunch - they were just like me! They spoke MY language! They loved parts hunting and swap meets! They dressed in all manner of VW attire and sported VW wristwatches above hands grubby with telltale VW dirt! Thrilling indeed, for one like me who is a slight outcast in her own family because of this, who entire family now refers to the object of my obsession as "THE V WORD". My beloved and I had found our niche.

Another member of this club was a man named Garland Rush - he would be the artist that would accomplish the impossible and resurrect Vernon. This was a man who amused himself dailiy by breathing new life into dead and dying VW's. A man truly blessed with this power is not common, but then neither was Vern so the two got along famously and my dream finally began in April, 1987. Garland says now that he knew Vernon was special right from the start; he maintains Vern had a certain aura about him, a life-force, if you will. Strange, you say? Maybe so, but just the kind of guy I needed for this job. He loved them the way I did, so I thought him perfect. The first "inspection" took place at our Spring Meet car show. Garland walked all around Vern, looking hard at him, and muttering things like "I just love stuff like this" and "what a challenge". Now, as you can well imagine, this was music to my ears, for all the negative responses I'd gotten were beginning to take a toll on my enthusiasm. Garland renewed my hope, and we made a deal to begin the following week. Just getting Vernon to the shop was a bit of a problem. His shop was located in Daly City, baout 5 miles south of San Francisco, nearly 55 miles north of my home and the only reasonable way to get there was on the freeway. Vern had not seen the high side of 40MPH since my college days and I was not looking forward to a drive on the freeway in him. I ended up fretting myself into a stew over this - my mind kept telling me that Vern would not do anything foolish to me or himself, but common sense was telling me a different story. Nevertheless, on April 11th we started out with my husband in tow (for transportation home), a full bottle of Pepto Bismol, and the camera. Once at the show, I couldn't believe I had ever worried. He had behaved like any other perfectly normal 29-year-old VW truck - no sillies and no cause for concern. After all, the mechanics had already been done - rebuilt front end, new brakes, trustworthy 36hp engine and all. Silly me.

A week later, I went up to check progress. Vernon was already well on his way to his former debonair self - the entire driver's side panel had been removed and replaced with another side from a '63 bus. This huge endeavor was just a tiny part of what Garland ended up doing. As the weeks went by, he would clalme with new parts-needed lists and ideas for making Vern better and better. All told, he replaced the passenger side panel as well as the driver's side, straightened and smoothed the punched-in rear corner sections, smoothed out the nose, replaced two sections under the doors that had rusted completely through, and primered and painted him his original Dove Blue color. The engine door and cargo door are both NOS, so needed only to be painted with the rest of the truck. The painting took the longest - he ended up with 10 coats of lacquer, hand-sanded between each coat. I sanded several of these coats myself on Saturdays when I could go up to help out. It was a little bit of a shock seeing Vernon in his new blue suit for the first time - he didn't look like Vern at all. But he really was still IN THERE, as I found out after staring at him for a while. He was indeed, the same guy he'd been before, although minus the nasty dents and holes.

Something I haven't addressed at all is the prohibitive cost of a project like this. NEVER do this thinking you will make a profit when you sell the vehicle! That line of thinking will only serve to depress you mightily when you at last total your expenditures and find that your calculator doesn't compute that far to the left. And, you will most likely become so attached to the New Being that you won't be able to part with it anyway. If the part (s) can be had at all, it is usually only for a huge sum, and after weeks, or months of endless searching. Double this advice for a pre-1957 vehicle and triple this for a convertible. If you happen to be doing a pre-1957, convertible GHIA, better to buy the finished product. That way you will have no reciepts at all and nothing to remind you of how much you've spent.

My creative stress entered the picture when Garland lost the lease on his shop and Vernon had to come home in early August, 1987 with a few things still left undone. This time, from all the friends I'd made in the club, it was relatively easy to find another interested party to complete the work. Better still, Darin's shop was close to my home - no more freeway driving. Just a month ago Darin finished a lot of the welding, and sandblasted and painted the bed. The side gates were removed and are being restored right now.

Am I permitted a touch of sentimentality here? I'll make it brief. I've already said many times how much this truck means to me - we grew up together. Even that fact didn't prepare me for my reaction when it came time to drive him home from Daly City. Here he was, after 4 months of inactivity and numerous surgeries, in brand new full-dress paint, ready to go. I made it all the way to the freeway on ramp before the tears hit. And, hit they did, in buckets - given the fact that Vernon still had no glass (other than the windshields) they ran straight out my eyes and blew back into my ears. There I was, careening on down the freeway in my brand new (29 year old) truck, blubbering like a fool about how beautiful he was, and wasn't it just TOO MUCH? I soon recovered myself as a more sensible (if not much calmer) head prevailed. After all, I still had 50 miles to go and I was rapidly running out of Kleenex!

If you look at Vernon now, you might have a hard time telling that there is still work to be done. The floor in the cab will be replaced, and the engine will be removed for cleaning and painting soon. And what will be his Sunday best - the interior - will be done this summer. How far we've come and how much I've learned! I've learned things about myself too. For instance, it's really not that hard to install your freshly painted front bumper, and much more fun, if a couple friends help. Ever stripped, sanded and painted a 36hp air cleaner before? I've now done two, owing to the fact that I got the wrong one to begin with. No matter, practice makes perfect. Just a few years ago, it would have been second nature for me to seek out someone to do this for me, or wheedle and cajole until my husband reluctantly offered. Now, with all my newfound knowledge, I'm not sure these folks really know what they're doing and would much rather tackle it myself. All of this is really very easy and fascinating once you get the hang of it. And Vern is such a good sport that I don't mind trying. Anyone ever done any re-wiring? Anyone ever wanted to try? I do, and am anxious for input on this. If you know something you think I should about re-wiring a 6-volt system, send me a note. Perhaps I could clear off the refrigerator door. Then, when I get enough of these suggestions tacked up there, I'll trot off to the garage and tackle the wire maze. Whaddya say? Wanna help?

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, Vernon's engine has indeed been removed and restored. The bed now sports solid oak wood strips, cut exactly to original specifications, and finished and installed by ME, with help from my husband. Alas, the old 6-volt wiring system was not replaced but continues to spark with vigor - when it feels up to it. The interior was completed and came out every bit as grand as I'd imagined it would. Vernon has had a second set of new brakes since the beginning, due to a leaky rear axle seal that drooled all over everything and ruined what was in there. Garland and I are still good pals, but he lives even further away now and is no longer in the VW Revival business. And, Vernon? Well, he's the same old fella, working on the 400,000-mile mark and brightening my life with his serene, trucklike presence.


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