How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

Adjusting your own valves will not only change your relationship with your car, it will change your  relationship with yourself.

Muir Volkswagen - 1 - CoverThis book kind of changed my life. In the early 90s, I spent all my money in the world on a 1974 air-cooled VW Squareback, similar to the one I grew up in. A few weeks later, cylinder #3 seized up (cyl. 3 was famous for that). While I was kind of freaking out, my Harley-riding/building housemate calmly urged me to “Quit complaining. Drop the engine and fix the damn thing.”

That sounded impossible at the time, but what choice did I have? Went and got a copy of John Muir’s classic How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot and got lost in its pages for a week. With its Robert Crumb-style drawings and groovy prose style, it sucked me into a world of mechanical competence I previously couldn’t have imagined for myself.

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What astounded me about the process was the power of incremental demystification. It’s not until you remove the valve cover and see for yourself how the throw rods connect to the rocker arms connect to the valve springs that you have that “Ah ha!” moment, and all of the mystery of internal combustion suddenly starts to make sense. Every part you remove strips away one more layer of skin from the onion, revealing previous mysteries as simple mechanical truths. It’s an amazing experience.

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The process of fixing that car ushered in a few years of wrenching around for fun – first on the Squareback, and later on a 1964 bus that became the love of my life. I don’t do that anymore – I never took it beyond the simple mechanics of the air-cooled engine and into modern computer-controlled stuff. But the sense of empowerment that came from having gone through it lasted my entire life.

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For my 50th birthday, bought myself a used copy of the original book, and have been leafing through it at random, reliving great memories from that period of my life. So grateful.

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4 Replies to “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive”

  1. This book was a special part of my early life too!

    When I was 18, i bought my first car – a little brown 1974 Honda. Little did I know it had been “rolled.” Soon it started yakking like hell, about to throw a rod. I parked it in dismay but a friend suggested I rebuild the engine myself. I found the coolest book – THIS book (actually, the companion book for Hondas) and fell in love with the presentation.

    I had some experience working on my dad’s Corvairs, but this book – along with many calls to my annoyed mechanic and another technical book – got me through a complete engine overhaul, a carburetor overhaul, new fuel pump and other repairs.

    I’ll never forget the day I cranked that new engine over that hot summer night in Georgia. That Honda ran like a charm – although the “special vinyl roof” started peeling and revealing its secret – underneath was bondo, hiding the damage from the accident.

    I still have fond memories of this book. I am going to find another copy just to thumb through it and smile. Great artwork… and great HUMOR! The humor got me through the tough times.

    God bless its creators, they did a good thing.

  2. @dave b, It’s a true gem – they don’t make books like this anymore. Sounds like we had some parallel experiences there. Had to laugh at “the bondo reveal” there :)

  3. Your blog was so great, I went and bought a copy of the old Honda book today. Can’t wait to get it in the mail. I told my gf I was excited to “read” an auto repair manual again! She will be too as she is an artist and loves Aschwanden’s work (I believe that’s the name of the artist and Muir was the writer, correct)?

  4. You are correct, the illustrations are by Peter Aschwanden. His style is *so* close to Robert Crumb’s, it’s uncanny! Oh wow, just discovered that some of Aschwanden’s illustrations are available as t-shirts here:

    I just ordered the “Dream” shirt for myself. Too cool.

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