Can you spot what’s a little out of place in this photo? It took me about an hour, but you should be faster. You’re not standing on the side of the West Side Highway in Manhattan with your 1974 VW Beetle refuse to start next to you.
My first guess was that I had run out of gas. My 1974 Bug, which looked a bit like a mermaid, had just stuttered at a red light on 42nd Street, right in the middle of Manhattan, and then died. I had a puff or two of engine, enough to get out of the mid lane, then I jumped up and pushed the rest of the way off the road.
The last time this happened, incidentally a few blocks down the same road, I had just run out of gas. This time I had picked up the car from Freccia Brothers Garage, an old family VW store in Greenwich, Connecticut, and they had fixed the wobbly gas gauge that I had never bothered with, so I was somewhat in disbelief that the gas was the problem, but thought it was worth checking out. I ran to a gas station a few blocks away, jumped back and put the small gallon in it. I returned the waiting car and got… nothing.
My next thought was that something must have come loose. I had already quickly checked to see if any wires had come out of the coil, depriving the engine of any spark, and I hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. Maybe all my spark plugs, at the same time, had all loosened? Nah, they were all on it. Maybe a vacuum line, one of two or three on this fairly simple air-cooled engine, had come loose? Again, no, they were all visibly present and accounted for. All fuel lines were also snug and nothing smelled of gas.
I was mystified. Maybe some wiring had gone bad where I couldn’t see it. Maybe my alternator was dead.
Vexed, I called AAA for a tow and thought I’d assess the situation later and more comfortably. I could have it towed home and, say, replace the alternator myself if I felt like it. Alternatively, I could have it towed to a little old VW store not far from my home in Brooklyn, and they could figure out what’s wrong. I’ve replaced an alternator before, but it’s not a job I rushed out to do on the street, lying in the gutter. I braced myself for the wait and was happy when a tow showed up after just a few minutes.
Perhaps overly optimistic, I asked the guy to hook up a battery charger to the car, and he started off enthusiastically, but I was getting absolutely sucked from the engine. He wasn’t even trying to cough in life. I knew in my heart that something wasn’t exactly wrong; something was disabled. It wasn’t like the car was malfunctioning or struggling to run. All the systems seemed to be in good condition, except one, which did nothing at all.
The tow truck guy spent some time snooping around the car to see if and how we could hook it up to the tray and we finally agreed to try some sort of half-ok compromise when I thought I’d take one last look in the engine bay to double-check to see if something was clearly wrong. Then I saw this little extrusion.
I could hear the winch starting on the set, pulling the cable taught as I hastily scrolled through old photos on my phone. Surely I had another photo of the motor I could look at, something that would tell me if it was a small forgotten knot that is supposed to stick out. Then I saw this, a little video of the car in slow motion a few weeks ago, and I froze an image. The knot was flush.
I called the tow guy and told him I might have found something. I grabbed something, anything, to put it back in place. A tire iron did the trick. A tap. A second. The little knot snapped back into place, with a satisfying click. There was a circlip holding it in place at the rear of the engine, where I could see it. On the front side, the circlip must have jumped out. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the little groove it was meant for with my finger.
And after a few cranks, the car started off on the right foot! I had to google to figure out what even the wandering part was. This parts diagram has the answer. It’s the little number 12 here:
It is an axis on which a rocker arm pivots. As my buddy Bill Petrow described it, “no rocking, no pumping” without the rocker arm, the rather simple mechanical fuel pump in this VW engine wasn’t sending fuel, so the car wouldn’t run.
Sometimes you know something is wrong with your car. You might not know what, but it’s important to just, well, watch it, watch it until you can spot the one thing that’s wrong. It’s the charm and curse of an all-in-one Volkswagen. Everything will go wrong with the car at some point. It’s just simple enough and everything is accessible enough that you can fix it with a rock if you need to. You’ll just hit that rock at times when you don’t expect it.