TECH TIP Technical Index

Buying Your 1st VW

By Mike C.

This one is a pretty broad subject that sounds simple at first, but can turn into a pain in the royal keester in the end. To start the article, Iíll tell you how I went about doing this when I first got into the VW scene. Back in 1994, a really good friend had one and wanted me to drive it for him since he and another buddy wanted to sip some beer one night. This poor bug had holes in the rear of the floorpan (as it turned out, the usual battery tray area), brakes that only worked when you pumped them, about three inches of play in the steering in either direction, and a bad miss or cut-out problem in the engine if you really tried to step in it. I was hooked from that point on! My search didnít start by looking for a bug immediately, but by getting books and magazines and doing a lot of research about what I really wanted and/or needed. That was in late August of í94. By October, I had started actually looking for the real deal. I went through many prospects and traveled miles of city streets before I found the one I wanted. The final deal was made in March of í95. Does that give you some idea of what it could take? Let me give you the details of whatís involved.

If it is going to be your first VW ever, especially the air-cooled models, remember this if you donít remember anything else. VWís are not maintenance-free vehicles even when they were new or are fully restored. They can be very reliable if kept well-maintained. That doesnít mean that youíll be opening the rear decklid every day to work on it. It just means that you need to keep good records of maintenance and pay particular attention to the way it drives, handles, sounds, and even smells. VWís do have a particularly bad rust potential. If the car came from the drier climate of the desert southwest, you might not have as bad a problem here. If you search in the Northwest U.S., the North (Kentucky and above), or the humid Southeast, your search is going to be a lot harder to find a perfectly rust-free car unless the car is fully and properly restored or the owner has been really particular about the way he or she keeps it clean. Just having a rust-free body or one with little rust is a pretty good way to start, even if the rest of the car is a "diamond-in-the-rough".

How picky are you?

Do start your search by doing lots of research. Get some VW magazines and books, ask people who own them, even drive them some more if the opportunity arises. Know what to expect before you ever talk to a seller, or you could be taken to the cleaners unnecessarily. Are you looking for something to restore and show, just something to drive around without doing much to it (an "as-is" car)? If you are in the hunt to restore the VW you buy, your search could be a bit easier, as you may not be looking for that pristine model. Personally, when I hunted for mine, I wanted one in a condition that I would be restoring everything exactly the way I intended, not having to undo what someone else accomplished. Not that there would have been anything wrong with that, mind you, just a personal preference. Do buy what your budget allows. If you can go for replacing some fenders and maybe a bent front or rear apron, find one that has a straight body shell that has all the interior pieces and running gear intact (engine running or not). This car will be your most inexpensive, only around $400 for non-running to maybe $1000 to $1500 running, keeping in mind that most of the VWís in this price range will be fairly rough. If you want one where every body panel is straight and would need very little or no bodywork and the interior is in fair shape, expect to pay anywhere from $1500 to $2500 depending on whether it will take you home. If you want one that is ready to jump in and enjoy, with straight body, shiny new paint, and good running gear and nice interior, expect to pay a minimum of $3000, and possibly more depending on the amount of detail present.


When you look in the newspaper, often times you will see stuff like "rust-free car" or "very little rust". I donít want to say donít trust people, but you need to see the car before you can actually believe those words. One personís interpretation of "rust-free" or "very little rust" can mean that there is plenty of rust where they canít see, or the seller just plain doesnít know himself where the rust can be. Bring along a magnet to check for the thickness of any body filler that might be on there, covering up significant rust holes or major damage. Youíd be surprised at what folks can do with a few gallons of plastic body filler. When you look at a potential buy, look underneath. If the floorpan has holes or just a little rust where the battery sits, chances are that the rest of the pan and car is in pretty decent shape. If the floorpan has a lot of rust holes on both sides, question the rest of the car. Do the heater channels also show signs of rust? Are the inner fender panels rusted through or starting to do so? Do you see rust at the bottoms of the doors or rear quarter panels? I remember nearly buying one that was so rusted on every panel, I felt that the center tunnel was probably the only part of the car that held everything together! If the shock towers are rusted through, I would consider another car. These can be repaired, but you would spend a lot of money and effort just to get the car sound before you could drive it with peace-of-mind. Since VWís are hard enough to find with a 100% straight, truly rust-free body, I would be willing to leave a running engine (not a missing engine) out of the picture and deal with it after I bought the car.


How picky are you about what model you want? Thatís not a silly question, but a question that has a lot of bearing on how easy or difficult your search will be. If you are pretty open-minded and donít really care what year it is as long as it is straight, your search will be quite a bit easier than, say, you want that í73 Super Beetle or a í63 Deluxe 23-Window Microbus. Narrowing your search down to a specific year and model will make things more difficult. But, if that is what you want, by all means do it.

Check it out

If you have found what you wanted and it is in good running condition, drive it if at all possible. Before driving it, check the brakes, lights, signals, clutch operation, and engine responsiveness. It should pull pretty well through all gears, even if the engine is a 1200 or 1300 cc. All gears should shift smoothly and remain in the selected gear until another gear is needed. Listen for excessive gear noise in the transaxle and clutch chatter. Is the engine blowing blue smoke (oil burning) or black smoke (something wrong with the carburetor)? Are the tires new or old and worn? Are they worn evenly or does one tire show excessive wear on the inside tread (a sure sign of a suspension problem)? Do the brakes stop the car with confidence? Has the interior seen better days or is it showroom fresh? Do you see fresh paint all over the engine (a sign the owner might be trying to hide something)? All these things are things to ask yourself and the owner from which you are attempting to make the deal. If any of the above problems are there, use them as a bargaining point, since that would be dollars out of your pocket to fix once you bought the car. Donít let the seller push you in any way to buy a car you question. If you have any doubts, even the slightest, about what you might be buying, go off for awhile and reconsider it when the car is out of sight. Chances are, if you have doubts, then that car wasnít for you. I think it is safe to say that when you find the right VW, youíll know it. After all, itís your hard-earned money that you are about to dish out. Take your time and spend it wisely, and youíll have no regrets from start to finish.

If you know of someone who is new in the VW scene and would like to know kinda what to do about buying one, pass this article along to them. Whew! All that thinking makes me want a bratwurst burger again.

Your VW Maniac And Tech Specialist,
Mike C.