Monday, February 27, 2012

We Meet The WetWesties

The WetWesties are "A Pacific Northwest VW Camping Society" established in 1996 and currently numbering around 2,100 members.  The majority live in Washington and Oregon, but there are members from other states and Canada as well.  They are an eclectic bunch covering a broad range of age, occupation and economic status.  Most seem to have a Vanagon, Bay or Splitty but  owning a Westy is not a prerequisite to membership. The "organization" has no officers, no rules, and communicate mainly by means of a Yahoo Group.  A glance at their calendar will show camp outs and other events scheduled for every month of the year.
Check out the WetWesties web site
I joined the group, and in late October met with them for the first time at Manchester State Park, across the Puget Sound (and a little behind Bainbridge Island) from Seattle.  Rather than take the ferry across to Southworth,  I drove to Tacoma via I-5 (keeping to the right lante of course), then picked up Highway 16 across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and up to Port Orchard.  By the time I arrived at Manchester late Saturday afternoon, they had already engaged in fun activities such as removing an errant Frisbee from a very high picnic shelter roof (without climbing up on it).  There was a lot of talk about Vanagons, and showing off of rigs.  I learned much there about various maintenance issues and picked up ideas about useful modifications.   A cadre of campers went for a walk on the beach and became temporarily disoriented.  They found their way back to camp by following the distinctive sound of Vanagon sliding doors opening and closing.

The group camp at Manchester is a large parking lot surrounded by grass and trees
Westly is second from left, the oldest van there and the only diesel
Photo by WetWesties member (if it's yours, please let me know for proper credit)
As night fell, the large picnic shelter at the group camp site began filling with platters, bowls, crock pots, and even a large electric roaster, all  filled with gustatory delights which were shared communally.  These folks really know how to eat on a camp out.  When we were all thoroughly sated, we gathered around the fire under a clearing sky for star gazing, talk of dogs, organic gardening, Westy lore, and idle banter.  We spent some time attempting to stump Siri but she made a good showing.

Later that night the cloud cover returned and we had a little rain.  Sunday morning our dampened spirits were revived while being treated to a hearty breakfast by the over-achieving event hosts.  We all pitched in to clean up and dispersed.

I didn't have to report for work until mid afternoon Monday, so directed Westly to Highway 3 through Bremeton and Poulsbo, across the Hood Canal Floating Bridge to State Route 104, and from there to Olympic Highway 101.  I wound around Discovery Bay and Sequim Bay and out to the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.  Camping there was closed for the winter, but  I promised to return soon for further exploration.

I returned to 101 and made my way to Olympic National Park.  The entrance fee for the park is $15, good for seven days.  The sun was far along it's western arc as I left Port Angeles and made for Hurricane Ridge.  It's a rather steep climb - sea level to 5,200 feet in 17 miles.  Westly was a trooper, holding a steady 30 miles per hour in third gear.  There were a few expansive views on the way up, but when I gained the summit the clouds had descended and all but enveloped the Visitor Center there.

Westly takes a well deserved break after making the
climb to Hurricane Ridge without complaint
Nevertheless, it was well worth the climb just to muse for a while in this wild open space.  Twilight was rapidly diminishing so I coasted quietly down the road and crept into Heart O' The Hills Campground.  I found myself quite alone in this small campground carved out of the rain forest.  Once a small campfire (wood courtesy of the WetWesties) was shining cheerily in the mist, I worked out some Neil Young on the guitar, then put out the lights for a peaceful rest.  

Westly in the misty rain forest
I know, I have to start using a better camera than my phone
Next morning Westly and I sadly bid goodbye to the Olympic Peninsula and began our trek home following much the same route, except this time I took Highway 305 across Bainbridge Island and then the ferry to downtown Seattle to save time.  Washington State Ferries require a neon orange tag be attached to your propane tank during the voyage indicating that you have shut off the gas flow.  

During this trip, Westly had a little mechanical issue.  His exhaust system had been somewhat cobbled together, I suppose at the time that his engine was upgraded.  Because a diesel engine tends to vibrate like a bowl of Jello on a card table in East Los Angeles, the entire exhaust should ideally be attached to the engine only, so the engine and exhaust can move in sync.  Westly's down pipe was of course attached to his engine, but his muffler was hanging from the frame.  A flexible joint was inserted in an attempt to dampen the difference in oscillation.  This worked for awhile, but somewhere on this journey, that flexible joint separated.  I always carry a coil of galvanized wire, about the same thickness as a wire coat hanger (used to  be known as baling wire down on the farm) .  I used this to wrap around the muffler and the flex joint, holding them together.  Unfortunately I backed into a log in the dark, thus separating them again, but a few more twists of the wire pulled them into proximity for the trip home.    

Because Westly did not have his original engine, there was no "stock" exhaust to be found.  I checked around with several shops and vendors, but the best they could offer was to "put something together".  So I added a turnbuckle to the wire which held them snugly and continued driving.  

This worked reasonably well, and was barely louder than before it broke apart although it did rattle some.  After about four months, when I could no longer endure the rattling, I stopped in at Sunnydale Muffler and Brake in Burien.  They said they usually don't work on "those things" but could weld it back together and guarantee it for a year.  What else could I do?  

Westly sports a new flexible joint and muffler
It still has the same hangers, so yes, it will likely break apart again.  I'll keep looking for a better solution.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Westly Runs a Fever

After installing a complement of gauges to monitor Westly's vitals, I was stunned to find that driving under a sustained load (like a freeway with hills, or against a headwind) for twenty minutes or so would result in abnormally high operating temperatures.  The water temp would climb to around 250 degrees fahrenheit (the stock water temp gauge barely moved to the hot side, hardly an indicator of any problem) and the oil temp would peg the gauge at 300!  The range I wanted to be in was 185-210 for water and 200-230 for oil.  When I backed off the throttle, the temps would drop soon enough but I could see that this would severely limit our range of exploration.

The usual means of displacing engine heat is by radiator.  Most gasoline powered engines can be cooled sufficiently by a radiator through which water and coolant flow leaving the oil free for lubrication purposes.  Diesel engines produce much more heat which must be displaced by both oil and water.

I called on the Vanagon Online Community and found this was not an uncommon problem with VW diesels.  Various ways of remedying feverish engines were offered, and I embarked upon an aggressive course of action.

First, I removed Westly's radiator.  After 30 years, it had become clogged with scale and was beginning to rot away.  I found a new radiator that would fit which was constructed of aluminum and plastic.  Some say it's a thermodynamic improvement,  but I chose to stay with the original brass/steel component.  I hauled it in to Seattle Radiator Works to be re-cored.  They expertly removed the side tanks and  inserted a new high-efficiency 5/8" dimpled tube core (higher cooling capacity than the original).  When I retrieved it, it was nicely painted in flat black, and my wallet was much lighter.
Westly's newly refurbished radiator
The two holes on the right upper corner are for the auxiliary cooling fan switches.
Because Westly's engine is in the back and the radiator is in the front, there is an amazingly complex system of hoses and tubes traversing the undercarriage of the van and holding over four gallons of coolant. I flushed all these (and the engine block) with a garden hose until the water ran clear (note: as much coolant as possible was drained and bottled for recycling before hand).  I also replaced a few sections of hose that were feeling soft.  While the engine block was drained, I popped out a frost plug and installed a block heater (Kats # 11420).

Block heater installed 
This handy little device is a 400 watt heating element that keeps your coolant (and oil, by conduction) warm during freezing weather for easier starting and quicker interior warming.  I plug it into a timer which activates it around 2 hours before I'll be venturing out into the frozen wasteland or driving to the Handy Mart for the Sunday paper.

While the van is in motion, air flows through the radiator and then out beneath the van.  For those times when additional air flow is needed there is a large two speed electric fan mounted behind the radiator, activated by two thermal switches.  The low speed comes on when the coolant reaches around 167 degrees, the high speed comes on around 216.  I  installed a switch on the dash so I could manually activate the high speed fan if necessary (turned out it never has been) and also connected this to the green LED on the gauge pod.  The LED lights up dim with the low fan speed, full brightness with high speed.  

A decision had to be made about addressing the oil temperature.  Some advocate an external oil cooler (like a small radiator) to be mounted underneath the van (with some type of scoop to direct air over it, or electric fans) or up front ahead of the coolant radiator.  They both involved lots of hose and fittings, each with the potential to loosen or be cut and/or punctured resulting in a loss of oil which is almost always detrimental to an engine. They also complicated the oil change process what with needing to be drained and altering the oil capacity.  

The stock VW diesel engine uses a cleverly designed heat exchanger which allows coolant flow to cool the oil and equalize the temperatures as well.  I found that higher performance (like the turbo-diesel) VW engines used a larger version of this component than Westly's engine had come with.

The new oil cooler (top) is about
25mm thicker than the original 
On the advice of the online community, I searched for and found several of the larger coolers for sale on e-bay, but they didn't come with the corresponding longer mounting tube.  Also, because oil and coolant are both flowing inside, if the lining is compromised at all they mix which is ugly and can lead the hapless mechanic on a wild goose chase, replacing head gaskets, looking for a cracked block and so on.  So I decided a new one would be best and found one with everything necessary to install it.  

Once everything was back in place, it was time to fill and "burp" the cooling system.  There is the official Bentley Manual way to do this, and about as many opinions on other ways as there are Vanagon mechanics.  The issue is (with both diesel and gasoline engine Vanagons) that an air bubble can get in the system (and invariably does) which impedes the flow of coolant and leads to over heating.  I continued to hear air bubbles swishing through the heater core after trying several ways of burping without success.  Then I happened upon plans to build an ingenious device invented by a formerly frustrated (and rightly so) Vanagon owner.  I had to modify the plans slightly because the diesel engine coolant tank is a little different than the gas one.
The coolant tower (aka the Libby Bong)
allows carefree burping of the Vanagon
cooling system
This device attaches to the coolant tank in place of the pressure cap.  It is filled to the top with coolant, (above the level of the radiator - this is key) and you can check the level in the clear plastic tube running along the side.  With the engine running and fully warm, you loosen the bleeder valve on the radiator and keep it open until no more air bubbles emerge.  Check the tower often to make sure it doesn't run out of coolant, because if it does, you get to start over.  When the bubbles stop, close the bleeder valve.  Loosen the clear hose on the side of the tower from its holder on top and lower it to drain any remaining coolant in the tower.  Then, remove the tower and replace the pressure cap.  After a couple of days of driving, top up the coolant overflow tank and you're done.  

Finally, I switched to a synthetic engine oil.  "Dinosaur" oil  (actually from the plants that the dinosaurs didn't get around to eating) has a nasty habit of beginning to break down at around 250 degrees, where synthetic holds its viscosity (thickness) up to much higher temperatures.  Too low of oil viscosity means that bearings and other surfaces don't receive the protection they rely on from the oil and they eventually respond in a horribly nasty manner, like causing your engine to seize on a Saturday night in Tucumcari, New Mexico.  Be aware of the oil viscosity requirements of whatever you are driving, and don't let it get too hot.  Please don't ask how I know all this, just recognize some good advice when you read it.  I selected Mobil 1 5W40 Diesel Truck motor oil for the winter months.  In the summer, I'll likely switch to Redline 15W40.  For more discussion about Westly's oil and other fluids, check out the post Westly's Care and Feeding

The results have been satisfactory so far.  Water temp runs around 190 with the highest observed temp at 210.  Oil runs around 220 with the highest observed temp at 250. 

Keep in mind that I have not yet driven in an ambient air temperature much above 70 degrees, as I just completed this procedure last fall.  I'll report back when I get out to the desert in Eastern Washington this spring, a trip I am very much looking forward to.  

Adventure awaits in Eastern Washington

Update:  Westly traveled to Lake Smokiam in Eastern Washington in mid April, and did very well although it was not yet all that hot there.  On the steepest part of Snoqualmie Pass, the oil temp rose to 260 deg f under full throttle, but dropped back to 240 upon cresting the summit.  Water temp never rose above 210.  See the story about that trip here.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monitoring Westly's Vital Signs

Vintage Volkswagens typically had a speedometer and a fuel level gauge. Within the speedometer face were a warning light for low oil pressure and generator malfunction.  Some models added a clock.  Millions of people happily drove multiple millions of miles with this minimum amount of information about their vehicle.  When the water cooled engines came along, a water temp gauge was added.  Later, depending on the model they might have a tachometer, volt meter, oil pressure , turbo boost, trip computer, and so on.

Westly originally came with a speedometer that topped at 85 and a large analog clock (surprisingly accurate) with a water temperature gauge inset at 12 o'clock and fuel level at 6 o'clock.  The water temperature gauge has a red LED in the center which flashes if the engine overheats (the '83 and later Vanagons which have a water cooled gas engine also activate this light if the coolant level is low).  In between the two gauge faces are five LEDs which show turn signals on (one light covers both directions), high beams on, low oil pressure, battery discharge, and a yellow one for the glow plug timer (to start the diesel you turn the key and wait a few seconds until the yellow light goes off before cranking it over. The glow plugs literary glow red hot in the combustion chamber to start the fuel ignition process).

I like to have a little more information than that so I soon began planning to add additional gauges.  I consulted with the Vanagon online community to see the various ways others had accomplished this.  I wanted to try to keep the gauges together in a cluster rather than in individual pods scattered about the dash.  It didn't turn out quite this way, but close.

At I found a three-gauge pod (GS-WRXD) made to replace the clock in a Subaru Impreza.  The shape was similar to the Vanagon instrument cluster and the angle of the dash was close.  The price was reasonable so I ordered one.
Meanwhile, I began collecting gauges.  I've always liked the clean look of the VDO Cockpit line and they are similar in style to the stock Vanagon instruments. I had a temperature gauge left over from a previous project so I began there. There was an oil pressure gauge for sale by a member of the Vanagon online forum.  I had a small tachometer, but it would work only on a gas engine ignition so I found the diesel version at and also picked up a volmeter, hourmeter (every real industrial diesel has one) and sending units for the temp gauge.  A hundred feet or so of wire was needed (it's a long way from the engine to the dashboard), a plastic loom to protect it on it's way, and miscellaneous connectors and zip ties.

When the pod arrived, I saw that it needed to be modified to fit just right.  I intended to mount the pod directly over the ash tray and speaker grill in the middle of the dash.  There was no longer a speaker there, and I used the ashtray only for collecting used earplugs from my job at the airport.  I pulled out the ashtray so I could run the wiring loom through the hole.  After determining the angle I cut a couple of pieces of galvanized trim, and riveted them onto the pod.  

Bondo was used to fill out the shape and cover the rivets.  After a lot of sanding, shaping and sneezing, the fit was just right.  I covered it with black hammer spray paint and sprayed the stock instrument cover as well to match.  By the way, a small dab of grease on the metal tabs that hold the instrument cover on make it much easier to remove and replace, and the plastic tabs are less likely to break (common Vanagon problem) when you don't have to mess with it so much.   

The temperature, pressure and volt gauges were mounted into the pod.  I added a small switch on the temp side so I could choose between oil and water temperature.  On the volt side, I added a switch to choose between starting and "house" battery (not yet installed, but will be for running accessories while camping so the starting battery doesn't get run down).  Above the switches I added a red and a green LED.

Wiring the pod.  The velcro strips around the edge hold
it in place on the dash
I made up a wiring loom using five 18ga wires, marked at each end with a number.  I ran the loom from the engine compartment, alongside the original VW wire bundle, up beside the radiator and into the body under the dash through a previously unused grommet-ed hole.
Installing the wiring loom
Inside the engine compartment, I began installing the sending units, connecting and tying the wires up and out of the way.
Water temp sending unit at the outlet to radiator
Oil pressure sending unit on the back of the block
One side for the gauge, other side for the warning light
The lower connection is for the stock water temp gauge
Oil temp sending unit on the oil filter mount 
The loom snakes through the engine compartment
terminating at the alternator
I made all the electrical connections and started it up.  The alternator-driven tach doesn't read until the first time the engine reaches about 1500 rpm, then the Alt light goes out and the tach activates.  After that it's ok.   It has some dip switches and a small potentiometer for fine tuning so it takes a little fiddling with to get it spot on.  I wired the red LED to the glow plug circuit.  This will stay lit as long as the glow plug circuit is active, which depends on the engine temp and the ambient air temp, usually about 1-3 minutes.  I use it to time my warm up - when the lamp goes out, it's time to drive.  The green LED I wired into the auxiliary cooling fan circuit which will be described in more detail in a later post.

The hour meter is down below the dash as
readings are needed only for maintenance records

The gauge pod in place
Oil/Water Temp, Oil Pressure, Volts
Gauge installation completed
2" Tachometer is centered between speedometer and clock
for more direct line of sight
Now that I could keep a wary eye on Westly's vital signs, I was stunned by what I learned.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Blue Highway?

William Least Heat-Moon, in the forward of his epic travelogue  Blue Highways - A Journey Into America answers the question:
William Least Heat-Moon sets off on a 13,000 journey
around America and learns what he didn't know he wanted to know
On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue.  Now even the colors are changing.  But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk - times neither day nor night - the old roads return to the sky some of its color.  Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

They are also known as state routes, frontage roads, bypass, truck routes or the old road.  These highways wind around geographical features instead of over, under, through or passing miles away from them.  They typically go right down Main Street of small towns instead of ignoring them as if they hadn't been there already serving the needs of locals and travelers alike for decades. The 2006 Disney/Pixar movie Cars, along with  loud and humorous NASCAR like race scenes is a poignant tale of a small town bypassed by the new freeway and the struggles and relationships there.

Back in the early 1960's there was a Little Golden Book called Make Way for the Thruway by Caroline Emerson. The story was that people in cars were busy and didn't want to have to slow down to get where they are going so the new thruway had to go straight though, no matter the obstacle.  The book pictured forests toppling and woodland creatures running for their lives before the mighty bulldozer's blade.

The builders did eventually allow a curve in the thruway to save an elderly woman's home along with her tall trees, her cat, chickens and roses.  It created a fuss with the Big Boss and the Bigger Boss but "what the bulldozer does, can't be undozed".  And when the new thruway opened, the cars and truck slowed down a little to look at her quaint house and smell the roses.  I guess that book left a deep impression on me.

Like Heat-Moon and his van Ghost Rider, Westly and I prefer the blue highways. Westly is most comfortable cruising along at 45-55 miles per hour (mph) with his engine turning around 3,000 to 3,600 revolutions per minute (rpm); right about where it's producing maximum horsepower and torque.  65 is his top speed, winding out close to red-line at 4,500 rpm - I reserve that for emergencies only and in fact have never yet reached that blinding speed, even downhill.  Taking it easy has other benefits for Westly; less strain on the engine, transmission and other mechanical parts.  Better fuel efficiency - Westly will return close to 30 miles per gallon at 50 mph which you have to admit is pretty good for a two ton refrigerator box on wheels.  OK, so it's a little unnerving to look in my mirror and see the front of a semi tractor right there in my own personal space, but that's just as likely to happen when I'm driving in my Subaru at 70.

I like putting a little distance between myself and the mad rush to get somewhere, anywhere as quickly as possible.  There is so much more to see, hear, smell and experience on the secondary roads, and it's much easier to pull off  to investigate some promising side trip or view.  I'm certainly not as adept as Heat-Moon at drawing strangers into deep personal conversations, but I have met some interesting folk.  I look at the journey itself as being of equal or sometimes even more importance than the final destination.  If it takes three hours instead of two and a half to get to a camp ground, it's all good.  I didn't just decide I could live with driving more slowly when I purchased Westly.  Rather, Westly's speed limitation was not a big drawback to me because I already enjoyed the slower pace (with the exception of a brief period in my late boyhood when I owned a Sunbeam Tiger).

On the road - in the right lane of course.
Sometimes though, the interstate is the best or even the only choice to get from where you've been to where you want to be.  Then, we keep to the right and make sure to pull off the road to allow faster (i.e. - just about everyone else) traffic to pass when necessary. Funny how often we see the same people that flew by earlier again at the next rest area or truck stop.

Robert Waldmire
Robert Waldmire, an artist and environmental & political activist and his 1972 Volkswagen camper were a familiar sight on and around old Route 66 for many years.  You may have seen postcards of detailed sketches he made of sights around the area.  Fillmore, the organic fuel sipping microbus in the movie Cars was inspired by Robert and his van.

Robert passed away December 16, 2009.

Ace Jackalope recollects meeting him on the road in his blog  - The Lope.   It has some great pictures of Robert, his van, and some of the mementos this veteran of the road collected.

This sticker was in the window of Robert's van
Courtesy of  Ace Jackalope 
Thank you Robert.  I couldn't have said it any better.

Westly's Care and Feeding - Diesel Oil, Fuel, Filters

When Westly and I became acquainted, he had a large orange oil filter marked "FRAM".  I've used Fram oil filters for years without any apparent problems because they can be picked up at any FLAPS (friendly local auto parts store) for a low price.  However, a quick internet search on oil filters will return thousands of pages with multiple thousands of opinions about Fram and every other oil filter now (or previously) available.  The general consensus is that the orange filter, while it may have been a quality product at one time, is now (due to revised corporate affiliation, manufacturing locale, etc) to be avoided.  This seems to be a recurring theme with many well known name brands of products across the board.  Survey says the preferred filters were German made: Mann or Mahle.  In a pinch, the NAPA or Wix product would do.
The Mann oil filter
What your Volkswagen diesel really wants
I remembered years ago there was a great little service/parts shop in SeaTac called Auto Sport Imports.  It was still there, and I could purchase the proper Mann filter  (W940/25) for only about 40% more than the corresponding Fram item.  And here's the best part - when I told the nice lady at the counter I needed an oil filter for a VW diesel, she produced the filter right away without looking through several catalogs, making a couple of phone calls, and staring at a computer screen with a glazed look in her eyes. This is always a good sign.

The choice of which oil to use is a hotly debated topic in the VW community.  To see what I mean, just check out the forum on the Samba (see my Vanagon related links) and search for "oil".  If you find you are slipping into a comatose state after reading through all those pages, check out the discussions about tires for some stimulating tete-a-tete.

Diesel engines require a certain classification of motor oil due to many factors such as high operating temperature, extreme duty cycle, soot accumulation, low sulpher fuel, etc.  One doesn't just put passenger car/truck motor oil in and hope for the best.  I chose 4.5 quarts of Chevron Delo 400 LE HD 15W40 for Westly and he chugged it greedily.

Back at Auto Sports Imports, while I had the attention of that sagacious frau, I ordered a fuel filter as well.  This time I was presented with a Bosch product (457.434.106).  I  had installed many Bosch parts in my air-cooled past, so I recognized it to be a quality brand.  I should check online though to see if they have changed corporate affiliation or manufacturing locale.

Diesel engines demand clean fuel.  Any contaminants will result in problems like difficult or no starting, clogged fuel injectors, corrosion, broken internal parts; the equivalent of  a really bad hair day for your engine. Properly maintained and regularly changed, they protect your engine from dirt, rust particles, water, microbes (they feed on diesel fuel) and keep air out of the fuel line.  Diesel fuel filters tend to be large and have water separators with drains.  Some are heated as diesel fuel can gel at very low temperatures.

Westly's fuel filter.  The screw on top is for bleeding air out of the line
Underneath is a fitting for draining water & sediment
Out of curiosity I opened the drain on Westly's fuel filter and about a cup of water, rust and sand particles came out.  Yuck!  But the NAPA filter did its job keeping it out of the engine.  I put on the new Bosch filter, purged the air out of the line and he started right up.

I noticed that the  brown fuel line running from the filter to the injection pump had a small crack and was allowing a few air bubbles in.  A query to the online Vanagon community revealed that it could be replaced with 1/4" id X 3/8" od polyethylene tubing but if I were planning to run used vegetable oil (yes, this can be done) I would need a Viton line which is more expensive.  I chose the poly which was about 25 cents a foot at my friendly Ace Hardware and it was a quick replacement.  Soaking the ends in hot water makes them just pliable enough to easily push over the barbed fittings.  I keep a spare 60" in my "just-in case".

Don't accidentally put gas in a diesel  fuel tank
Westly likes his diesel fuel fresh.  It's never a good idea to use fuel that has been sitting around for months.  In addition, a fuel additive should be used to disperse moisture, add extra lubrication to make up for low sulphur fuels, improve flow at  below freezing temperatures, kill any bio-organisms that may be growing, and so on.  There are many brands of this around, I currently use StaBil Diesel Formula Fuel Stabilizer and Performance Improver.  I put in one ounce every tank full (15.9 gallons) so it works out to about 59 cents per tank.  It's true, some call it snake oil.  I call it cheap insurance.

The 32oz bottle has a handy measuring dispenser - take off the cap and squeeze the bottle until the desired amount flows into the spout, then dump it in the tank.  This is good because if the stuff gets on your hands, you're wearing it like a cheap perfume all day and anyone attracted to you by this scent may not be someone you want to hang with.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Bus Zone

No, not the Volkswagen Bus - we're talking public transportation here.  Every weekday afternoon I drive a bus around the Seattle area.  This is one way I earn money to keep Westly on the road (it also comes in handy for living expenses like food, shelter, clothing and so on).  I did not meet with a career counselor at some point in my life and choose this job.  I had recently closed  an ailing retail business, and was not enthusiastic about my seasonal job at the Camera & Sound counter in Target.  I was (and still am) working for UPS in the mornings, but only part time.  I needed something more, and had a somewhat latent desire to serve the public.  An opening for part time bus drivers came up and I figured one more resume in the pipeline couldn't hurt.  As it happened, I was hired and it has turned out to be a very satisfying job.  Once I got comfortable occupying such a large piece of real estate on the road,  I began to enjoy and look forward to the constant parade of interesting people and the stories they tell, with and without words.

The 60' articulated coach
My preferred ride is the 60 foot articulated (bends in the middle) coach.  This seats about 60 and another 40 or so can stand when necessary (please hold the hand rail and stay behind the yellow line).  It weighs around 60,000 lbs with a full load.

Driving the bus can sometimes be stressful and on rare occasions even dangerous but it's never dull.  Ask any bus driver and they are sure to have plenty of  stories about their time behind the wheel.  I'll share some of mine occasionally in this blog.  Let me assure you, the stories you are about to hear are absolutely true.  Well, at least 99% true.  Sometimes I may add or subtract details here and there to protect the innocent (and my job) or to make it a little more exciting.  If you think you can pick out something I made up, send a comment about it and I'll let you know if you're right.

To get a job driving the bus, you first must submit to a battery of psychological tests.  I guess they figure they can teach most anyone the mechanics of driving a bus, but not everyone can handle the kind of people and situations that turn up in a bus driver's day.  If you can pass that (and many don't) then you have a few weeks of class to learn all the details about keeping on schedule, collecting fares, where to find restrooms, etc.  You must pass a grueling exam and driving test to get your commercial drivers license.  If you get through all that then you drive for a couple of days on an actual route with an experienced driver looking over your shoulder.  Then you start your own route, but still with another driver helping you for the first few days.  And finally, the big day when you're on your own.

On the first day of my initial route, with another driver along, I was feeling like I had everything under control.  I had made it through the busy streets of downtown Seattle and up around the narrow passages on the Magnolia bluff.  Then, on the return trip, disaster struck.  I was cruising slowly along a neighborhood street.  About half way down a block between stop signs, a rider decided to switch seats.  I heard a scuffling noise behind me and a shrill voice calling out to Jesus for help.  I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a lady laying in the aisle, flailing her arms and legs about like an overturned turtle trying to right itself.  I pulled over, we helped her up and inquired if she was injured and needed medical attention but she declined.  It was early December and she was wearing a very large heavy jacket and hat.  I think this provided enough padding so she didn't get hurt.  We started out again and a few blocks later another rider revealed that she had been struck in the eye by a take out container of Chinese food that the falling lady had pitched as she toppled.  She was worried she would get a black eye, but she also declined medical help.

Now I was a little worked up, but made it downtown where another rider told me as he stepped out of the bus that I had driven through a controlled intersection without stopping while back in Magnolia.  The other driver asked him why he didn't say anything at the time, but he scooted down the street yelling over his shoulder that he would surely report us.

When we returned to the base, we filled out two accident reports and one incident report.  The other driver (a 10 year veteran) assured me a combination of events like this was highly unusual and would likely never happen again.  So it was that I learned early on to check my rear view mirror often and be wary of any rider movement inside the coach.

I never saw the falling lady again, but the lady who took the take out in the eye turned out to be a regular rider and she become my bus-buddy.  She had a job provided domestic help in one of the large homes on the bluff and I'll never forget the day she boarded from an avenue of multi-million dollar homes and told me in breathless wonder "I just saw a chicken walking up the street!!".  My last day on that route, she wrote out a page full of wonderful things about me as a commendation, but when I presented it to my supervisor I was told it could not go into my file because she hadn't called or mailed it in.  I placed it in my own file where it remains to this day.

I receive The Awesome Bus Driver Award

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Recalcitrant Vanagon Odometer

Odometer failure is a problem common to Vanagons.  If both the speedometer and the odometer are unresponsive or operating erratically, check the drive cable first.  As with Volkswagens of old, this cable runs from the left front hub grease cap up through the the body, under the dash, and fastens to the rear of the speedometer.  This is a relatively inexpensive part and easy to replace.

If the speedometer is working, but not the odometer, it usually means a tiny plastic gear inside has cracked or moved on the shaft so it's no longer making proper contact, or maybe both.  Important!  Collective internet wisdom says the quickest way to render the Vanagon odometer inoperable it to push the trip reset button while driving.  So, be safe and push only while stopped even if the yahoos behind you at the gas station are honking for you to move out of the way so they can hurry up and get their fill or get out.

Speaking of gas stations, yesterday I was filling up and a little right hand drive car pulled up alongside.  I had never seen one before, so I queried the driver (very friendly, and in a matching outfit). This was a 1985 Honda City that she had imported from Japan.  

1985 Honda City Cabriolet.  The white van in the background later honked at me
when I stopped to reset my trip odometer
Very fuel efficient with a 1200cc engine and transmission with overdrive in 2,3 and 4th gears giving it a range of 7 speeds.  The cabriolet (convertible) body was designed by Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina.  

Choice of red, white or blue
[Photo courtesy of]
An interesting option was this 50cc motorbike. Stuck in extra heavy Tokyo traffic?   Just whip this out of the back and get on your way.  

Anyway, back to the task at hand.  Westly's odometer had been unresponsive through his past couple of owners and I decided it was time it was ticking off the miles again.  I removed the instrument cluster by carefully (30 year old plastic gets brittle) releasing the tabs on the back of the cover and pulling up (Surprise! - The brake and clutch fluid reservoir is under there!  And a tip - a little dab of grease on the metal tabs makes removal and replacement of the cover much easier).  Four screws hold the cluster onto the dash.  Careful with the switches and electrical connector on the back.  Once it's out, a flexible blue foil circuit board must be removed, then the speedometer can come out.  Upon inspection I found the suspect gear to be about 5mm from the corresponding worm drive that it needs to snuggle up to for proper operation.  I pushed it back over and added a drop of epoxy to the shaft to hold it in place.  This innovative fix held for about 1.5 miles.  I removed it again and upon closer inspection I found the gear had a crack halfway through. "A little super glue ought to hold this" I thought, erroneously, to myself as that fix lasted only about 10 miles.

I Googled "vanagon odometer fix" and found several schemes involving brass collars, circlips, JB Weld, vice grips, etc. sells a replacement gear for $25. Or I could send it to Van Cafe (see my list of favorite links), properly packaged so it would not be crushed in the mail and for $58 they would return it in working condition.  I decided to try fixing it myself, figuring that if I somehow destroyed it (entirely within the realm of possibility) I could always buy a new gear.

I removed the gear and carefully (didn't want it to split entirely in two) pried the crack apart.  After dousing with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean the grease off, I filled the crack with super glue then used a pair of locking forceps to clamp it.  While the glue was setting up, I found two 1/4" external circlips and removed the "ears".  I then pried open the circlips (the circlip tool cannot be used because the ears are now gone) and forced them over the collars surrounding the gear on both sides.  The circlip has just enough inward spring (fingers crossed) that they, along with the super glue, will keep the gear collar secure.  Sorry I didn't think to take a picture of any of this, but if you are going to try it yourself it's all pretty plain to see when you are looking at it.
External Circlip
Snip off the two ears (larger area at the top with the holes in the middle)
Before replacing the gear, I used vice-grip pliers to add a little knurl (some roughage) on the shaft to keep the gear from wandering away again.  I lubed the other gears and shafts sparingly with powdered teflon and put it all back together.  It worked, and has continued to do so for close to 4,000 miles now.

Time will tell - I'll keep you informed.

05/13  Update - Working perfectly 15,000 miles later!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Camping at Ocean Shores

Once Westly was all cleaned up and ready to go, we wanted to hit the road for some camping, but decided to try a "dry run" at home first.  I had just cleared tons of junk off a concrete slab beside my shop, so we set up camp there.

Van Kid is psyched about his first night in the Westy 
It was a warm early September evening.  We opened the pop top and snapped in the rear hatch bug screen.  Our portable barrel stove provided the camp fire, and the means to prepare S'mores.  Van Kid's sister decided to join us for the novelty of the event.  After star gazing and running to the house to use the bathroom, we settled down to a peaceful rest - the kids in the top bunk, I was below.  The morning air was cool, but we soon warmed in the sun.  This Westy was not equipped with a skylight vent, although it has a place molded into the top for it.  That's a project for the future, but I did add a battery operated LED light in the pop top and couple of other places around the van.  These are easy to stick on, don't require any wiring and the batteries last a long time.  My eyes are not as comfortable in the harsh LED light, but I'm getting used to them.

Pondering the campfire at Ocean Shores - the trees provide
a little break from the sand blowing off the dunes 
Later in September, Van Kid and I camped at Ocean City State Park in Ocean Shores, WA.  Leaving Seattle, we followed I-5 south to Olympia, then veered off to Hwy 101 by Capitol Lake.  At the south end of Eld Inlet, we took Hwy 8 which winds around through forests and meadows bordering the Capitol State Forest and passes through McCleary before joining  Hwy 12 at Elma.  From there the road ambles along among backwater sloughs, former logging towns, even a nuclear reactor site.  I once saw a complete arc of a brilliant rainbow along this road, ending in a field with a few cows straggling about.  The road meets Gray's Harbor at Aberdeen, and from there you can choose SR 105 to Westport and the south spit of the harbor or SR 109 to Ocean Shores on the north spit.  We chose north, and at Oyehut-Hogans Corner went left on SR 115 to make our destination.

View Larger Map

It was an easy drive, about 268 miles round trip but when we arrived the weather was stormy.  We had a little camp fire, but heavy rain soon doused it.  A previous camper had left behind a little travel game set with cribbage, chess, cards & so on.  Some of the pieces were missing, but all the dominoes were there so after we stuffed ourselves with tortellini, we played a few games then hit the sleeping bags.

Van Kid endorses a hearty breakfast before exploring the coast

Dunes were garbage free thanks to the boy scouts

On the jetty, keeping a wary eye out for rogue waves
Next morning there were a few sun breaks, so we hiked through the dunes, along the beach and clambered around the jetty.  There were few visitors on the beach but a troop of boy scouts was combing the dunes for litter and they had several large bags full.  A sign warned us that we must be careful here of "rogue waves".  Even on a calm day (which this was not) an extra large swell can come up without notice and wash you out to sea.  Something to think about when you're walking on the jetty or laying on the sand by the water's edge.
Van Kid with the giant sea horse
We visited the Ocean Shores Interpretive Center and learned much about the area.  The entire area had been a cattle ranch until 1960 when a group of investors bought it, laid out the city and began selling lots.  The docents at the Center were very attentive and they presented excellent displays of sea creatures, forest animals, geology, weather, history, ship wrecks and so on.

Westly, Van Kid, and my thumb
After a couple of nights at the State Park, it was time to return home for school and work.

Next - Some needed repair

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Westly's Homecoming

Van Kid poses with Westly
I christened the van Westly.  The next morning my wife and son (Van Kid) came with me to fetch him home.  My wife was somewhat ambivalent about the purchase.  She knew that I had wanted one for many years and was happy that my dream was finally fulfilled, but wasn't really all that excited about driving, riding in or especially camping in it.  Then too, though the price was reasonable for a Westy, it probably wasn't the best thing to spend money on at the time as I was working two and sometimes three jobs concurrently. Van Kid however was very excited and loved everything about the van, especially the camping part.

Once home, my wife daughter, son and I set out on Westly's first adventure - to the Des Moines (Washington, not Iowa) marina with side trips to several garage sales.  Evidently, riding in the back seat is not a prime Westfalia experience, and I was still getting used to driving with a clutch, after having sold my last manual transmission vehicle (A 1978 FJ40 Landcruiser) several years prior.  Most of us enjoyed the ride, and at one of the sales I found a necklace of  yellow smiley face beads which fit the character of the van so well, I purchased them for a quarter and hung them on the rear-view mirror.

The previous owner supplied a folder of receipts from Westly's past and a box of spare parts.  Also a Truck Club (to lock the steering wheel) and a wedge shaped foam cushion, important to forestall the debilitating effects of  "Bus Butt" on extended drives (condition named during a cross country drive in a'59 microbus - "Vanagon Butt" just doesn't have the same ring to it).

Bonus: Bentley Repair Manual included!

The Bentley is a large book weighing around five pounds.  It numbers about 1,400 pages with some 2,300 illustrations and diagrams and sells for $50 to $100 depending on where you buy it and how many greasy fingerprints are on the pages.  It is absolutely essential for any Vanagon owner that plans to do their won work on the van  (and most do, as mechanics tend to look at them - both the Vanagons and their owners - askance).

From the receipts and other paper work I had I was able to determine the following approximate dates:

March 1982 - Van was manufactured in Hannover, Germany.
July 1982 - Westfalia camper conversion was completed and then imported to the US.
July 1983 - Van was purchased new at Humphrey Motors in Alameda, CA.
July 1999 - Van was sold to a doctor in Alameda, CA.  License plate # was "SLOOOOW".
2004 - Odometer stopped working sometime during the year.
March 2007 - Van was sold and moved to Carlsbad, CA.
June 2008 - Van moved with new owner to Seattle, WA.
August 2011 - Van was purchased by me.

I repaired the odometer soon after purchase.  I figured by observing the wear and tear on the van, and using dates and mileage recorded on repair orders that the actual mileage was closer to 100,000.

The first few weeks with Westly were spent washing, detailing, changing the oil, cleaning and re-oiling the air filter (a re-usable K&N filter) and going over inside and out tightening fasteners and tidying up wiring.  After filling the propane tank (2.95 gallons) the stove and refrigerator both worked well.  A Bissell machine and Simple Green were used to clean the carpets and upholstery.  All the upholstery by the way was in excellent condition, no rips at all.  The few stains here and there cleaned up nicely.

A few days later, a Craig's List posting for two 1982 Vanagons being parted appeared.  It was nearby so I went to take a look.  One was a diesel, but the engine was in pieces.  If I knew then what I know now about obtaining parts I might have bought them both.  Then again, having three vans in the backyard with only one operating may have been a strain for my familial and neighborly relationships.  Anyway, for $100 I came home with a lot of usable parts such as grills, lights, mirrors, instrument cluster, switches, interior parts, hub caps, etc.  I cleaned up and installed the upper grill as Westly's had some teeth knocked out and glued back in.  Between all eight hubcaps I chose four that were straight and shiny.  Westly's right side mirror had the dreaded "floppy mirror" syndrome, and when I tried to tighten it, the bolt broke.  The box-o-parts provided a suitable replacement.

One of Westly's previous owners had replaced the original radio with an "upgraded" system.  It had lots of features, but was a cheap brand and worked horribly.  In addition, it was longer that the original, so they cut a hole in the heat/defrost mix chamber behind so it would fit all the way into the dash.  This allowed much of the heat destined for the floor or to defrost the windshield to escape into the nether-regions behind the dash while overheating the radio as well.  I put up with it for awhile, but after it ate a new CD borrowed from a friend, I pulled it out, sealed the heater box hole as much as possible, and installed an old Subaru radio I had around.  Still not the greatest sound, but ok for now.

Now it was time to plan for some camping.

Next - Camping with Westly

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unwanted in Fremont

Like many of my purchases, this one began with a Craig's List posting.  I had been watching Vangons on CL off and on for a few years, just to keep up with what was available and the price range.  I found that Vanagons with Westfalia conversions were plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and the west coast in general, with a rather wide range of prices (as low as $1,000 and at the other end of the scale over $100,000) depending on how the vehicle was originally equipped, and how it had been maintained and upgraded.  Odometer mileage seemed to be irrelevant.  Many of the rigs had hundreds of thousands of miles on them, and besides, due to a weak gear, many odometers had long since stopped spinning off the miles.

On the street in Fremont.  Soon to be mine!
I became interested in a particular 1982 Westy with a diesel engine and 82,869 miles on the broken odometer.  The price was reasonable.  The seller was no longer using the van and described it as being in good condition for its age, with some upgrades, new parts and just a few issues - the main one being that top speed was around 45mph.  I made an appointment to get out to Fremont, a funky little Seattle neighborhood.

View Larger Map

Truthfully, I was not very impressed when I first saw it on the street.  It was my least favorite Vanagon color - Assuan Brown (Assuan being a type of Egyptian granite that seems to have some flecks that are similar to this paint color - thanks Siri).  It had orange, yellow and brown stripes that were fading and checked.  The windshield had a couple of daises and a large crack running in two directions.  Inside, the contact paper used to cover the bare wood panels was peeling off.  The propane tank was empty so I could not check the stove or refrigerator but was assured they had worked before.  The pop-top canvas was in decent condition with one tear and a small hole. Tires were ok with a new spare. The battery cable was disconnected because it had been draining while sitting. And of course there was the engine but having had diesel cars and trucks in the past, I was ok with that especially when I learned how much more fuel efficient this diesel is compared to the gas engine.

We connected the battery, warmed up the glow plugs, and it started right up.  There was a little snick shifting into second gear.  We cruised slowly out of Fremont.  The constant velocity joints were rattling a bit.  Brakes were ok, a couple of pumps to get a hard pedal and a little pulsating indicating a warped rotor or drum.  The Fremont Bridge span was the first stretch where we could get some speed up.  Sure enough, at about 45mph it sounded exactly like I needed to shift to a higher gear, only there wasn't another gear to shift into.  Without a tachometer, I couldn't tell just how fast the engine was turning over, but it sounded like it was really winding up.

I had done a little research prior to the test drive and knew that these vans were geared very high (5.86 final drive ratio with 4 speeds) to make up for the ridiculously low 48 horsepower of the 1.6 liter stock engine. This combo evidently worked well making local deliveries around European burgs, but was not ideally suited to the North American Interstate Highway System.  By 1983, a five speed transmission gave it a little better top end, but the diesel option was dropped after only a few thousand units were imported although about 600,000 units were produced for markets in other countries through 1994.  This Westy had been upgraded to a 1.9 liter engine producing 68 horsepower (a whopping 41% increase!) but the rest of the drive train remained stock, limiting its road speed due to engine revolutions. There are various way of getting around this problem such as installing as older air-cooled transmission,  changing the gear ratios in the existing transmission and/or mounting taller wheels and tires.  It was just a matter of how much money you had to throw at it.

But the more I thought about it, the better it starting looking to me.  It definitely was in very good overall condition for being 30 years old. I decided I could fix the minor issues and live with the color.   And I really didn't mind traveling in the slow lane, so I made an offer which was accepted and, leaving a cash deposit, made arrangements to return the following morning with the balance of the cash and take it home.  My first Vanagon - and my first Westy in 29 years.  I was elated.

Next - The first few days

Volkswagen and I Become Aquainted

As far back as I can remember I've loved cars, trucks, motorcycles, pretty much anything with wheels that was self-propelled.  I had a large collection of Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Tonka vehicles which I would play with for hours at a time.  No magazine was safe around my house; I would cut out every car picture I could find and line them up in long ques not unlike the increasingly crowded Southern California freeways around my home.  But my biggest fascination was reserved for the Volkswagen. The ubiquitous Beetle (more that 21 million were produced) was easy to spot on the road, on billboards, and in magazine ads. Their ads were legendary; typical Teutonic efficiency resulted in a big impact with one picture, a pithy headline, and a minimum of text.

    More vintage VW adds here

Some crazy TV commercials from Jack Poet Volkswagen in the '60's
I liked the people who drove Volkswagens.  They always seemed to me to be friendly and sometimes mysterious - like the hippies who's lives were so different from my conservative upbringing.  I was attracted to the sounds VWs made; the put-put of their exhaust in contrast to the guttural growl of the big V8's that were prevalent at the time and their high-pitched single note horns. Always attracted to anything that was multi-purpose, the Type 2  (bus) was high on my list of favorite vehicles.  I would make play buses out of discarded refrigerator boxes. I loved the shape of  the Karmann Ghia, the not so sporty but beautifully curvaceous sports car, and the different look of the practical Squareback and Fastback.   I was ecstatic anytime I could score a ride in a VW.

When it came time for my first car, the VW was a natural choice.  My dad and I found a 1966 Type 1 sedan which had been converted to a "baha" bug.  This involved cutting off the front and back and adding fiberglass components, removing the back seat, mounting farm implement tires for flotation, attaching large driving lights and so on.  We bought it for a few hundred dollars and it proved to be an outstanding off road performer.  Its endurance was tested regularly in empty lots, fire access roads and riverbeds around Southern California.  It eventually broke beyond what was economically feasible to repair, so we stripped it and watched in morbid fascination while the magnetic crane hoisted it and fed it into the crusher.

Over the next few years my brothers and I along with some neighbors and friends bought, sold, traded, fixed up and occasionally totally destroyed just about every type of  air cooled Volkswagen we could get our permanently grimy hands on.  At times our back yard resembled a wrecking yard and I am grateful to my parents for allowing us to indulge in this hobby. I wish I'd thought to take pictures of all the Volkswagens and other vehicles I owned, but it wasn't a high priority at the time.

During those years I had several Type 2s from the '50s, '60s, and '70s including a double cab pickup, a Kombi converted to a camper, a transporter panel, and a Westfalia camper. This was back when they were plentiful and relatively inexpensive; as I recall the most I ever paid for any one was around $1,500.  I sold the last one in 1983 for about $600 - a nice white '71 Westy in which I had installed a rebuilt engine.  One day in 1983 I happened to visit a VW dealer to pick up a part.  In the lot was a new Vanagon Westfalia camper.  I looked inside and was awed by the luxurious appointments (compared to anything I had owned).  And it had a water cooled engine which meant a real heater and defroster.  I was wearing a Scandinavian military surplus jacket with fur collar to keep warm during winter driving so this made a big impression.  The price was $13,000 and the salesman assured me I could make payments as long as I had a steady job.  I was saving to buy a house, so didn't bite.  But I remembered that Westy and I knew that one day I would own one.

Next - Fast Forward 29 years