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Pushing Through the Hard Parts

My First Big DIY Project Was Rebuilding The Engine In This 1981 VW Beetle.

In the summer of 1981, my grandparents gave me a 1961 Volkswagen Bug. I had just gone through my sophomore year at Centenary College of Louisiana without having a car and really wanted to have one for my junior year. The only trouble with this purple car is that it had a blown engine. And I didn’t even know what that meant.

So I took on the project of getting it running again. I got myself a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot by John Muir.* Pap-paw let me use his shop, which we called the warehouse because it was part shop and part storage of dusty old fun stuff. I pulled the engine out of the back of the car and tore into it.

That’s when I learned how engines work and what it meant to have a blown engine. In this case, there was a bulge and a hole in the crankcase. When I opened it up I saw that it had thrown a rod…and I learned what a rod actually was. And a crankshaft and a flywheel and valves and all the rest.

I found a really nice VW mechanic in town who ordered parts for me and helped me understand exactly what I needed to do. Without him, this project would have been a lot harder.

Once the parts came in, I set to work putting everything together again. Then the real trouble began. I ran into several setbacks, each of which seemed insurmountable at the time. On one particular occasion, I was so deflated I just had to walk away. I went inside, took a shower, and put some music on my stereo.

My grandmother saw how dejected I was and tried to comfort me. One thing she suggested was to give up and they could help me buy a car that worked.

I told her I just couldn’t do that. I was too far into rebuilding this engine to let it defeat me. So I picked up my tools the next day and got to work again. After about four weeks of working in the hot muggy July weather of Louisiana, I finally got it all put back together.

Then came the moment of truth. I put the key in the ignition, turned it on, and…wanh wanh wanh wanh wanh… It wouldn’t start. I went back to the engine compartment and checked everything I could think of. That’s when I discovered I’d mixed up the spark plug wires and put a couple of them in the wrong places.

Going back to the driver’s seat, I turned the key… I’ve never heard an engine sound as sweet as my newly rebuilt, 40 horsepower, 1200 cc engine did that day.

I was ecstatic! I spent four weeks working on rebuilding that engine and it came to life in my hands. It was beautiful.

I learned a lot of lessons from that experience:

  • It helps to have mentors. My grandfather, a consummate tradesman, was a great help. The local VW mechanic was critical to my success too.
  • Setbacks happen. Parts break. Things don’t fit right. You make mistakes.
  • Pushing through the hard parts is the key. It doesn’t lead to success on every project, but you’ll never know how far you can go if you don’t push through.

I’ve used those lessons many other times in my life — finishing my PhD, building a house, sticking with Energy Vanguard through some lean, difficult times. It’s always been worth it.

Are you pushing through the hard parts?


Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and founder of Energy Vanguard. He is also the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog and is writing a book. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


* This is an Amazon Associate link. You pay the same price you would pay normally, but Energy Vanguard makes a small commission if you buy after using the link.


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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Wonderful story, Allison.
    Wonderful story, Allison. Great lessons!

  2. Excellent way to start the
    Excellent way to start the day. Thanks Allison.

  3. I remember that book, made
    I remember that book, made great use of it. Got a ’67 VW between college graduation and going into the army in ’72 (Vietnam still going). Great cars, easy to work on, inexpensive and fun.

  4. Great story. My first car was
    Great story. My first car was a 1966 Beetle. I was given a $100 bill and this car for my 17th birthday. I was told I could keep one or the other, of course I took the car! I was already pretty good at mechanics, but with this car I got to learn body work and painting.

    Love your blog btw. Cars, buildings, computers -> they all share something. They are logical constructions and the more you learn the more you can troubleshoot.

  5. You hadn’t really hit your
    You hadn’t really hit your growth by that time either.

  6. Good story, as with most
    Good story, as with most things in life….There is no way out but through.

  7. When I came home from the
    When I came home from the army I purchased an old bug for $400. With Muir’s book in hand I did the same. Alas the bug guru I sought out for help was a bit of a curmudgeon and had no good will or wisdom to share. I had to learn it all the hard way.

  8. A very pleasant read. Thanks,
    A very pleasant read. Thanks, Allison.

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