westy guts, part I

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I like fixing things, especially vehicles. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we own a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper, a vehicle known throughout mechanic-dom as a labor of love. “Mz. Parker”, as she is know, is not an unreliable vehicle, she’s simply a self-contained mobile living space with plumbing and electrical issues. Westfalia ownership requires as much inner journey as outer journey — and by inner journey, I mean exploring both her innards, and my own. Why do I enjoy working on her so much? For there seems to be a Law of Westy Conservation:

For every mile traveled, you shall spend either $1 or 1 minute of your time working on your Westfalia.

First, the journey into her innards. Mz Parker carried us well to Burning Man, however, several “issues” became apparent on the trip. The worst was the taillights, which…just went out. Knowing law enforcement at Burning Man, we carefully traveled only by day, and when we were forced to arrive after dark, we sneakily drove internal roads through Black Rock City to avoid the overabundance of Nevada sheriffs patrolling the outer road. They are well known for pulling you over for any slight infraction, and inspecting your vehicle with dog-sniffing exhaustive thoroughness.

There’s more. At freeway speeds, she started misfiring at full throttle, and would lose fuel pressure (thank you, extra gauges!) Plus, the left speaker went out, there is a constant buzzing in the rear speakers, the heater fan blows a fuse whenever we try to use it, and part of the dashboard illumination isn’t.

ScreenShot2018-09-27at1.32.09PM-2018-09-30-15-22.pngGiven our experience with her, it’s remarkable that the German’s ever figured out how to make reliable vehicles. Granted, this particular 33-year-old has been bastardized by several generations of prior owners. For the fuel problem, I did a full day of research, sighed at the results, then ordered a pile of parts which will arrive tomorrow (I’ll write about that adventure in Part II). Meanwhile, I’m googling wiring diagrams, and indeed, some kind soul has posted them.

The reality of the dashboard is nothing like this neat diagram, as shown in the top photo. After two hours, I have:

  • mostly disassembled the dashboard
  • performed surgery to remove 20 pounds of unneeded electronics
  • found and fixed the cause of the speaker outage
  • found the source of noise in the rear speakers, they run by the fuel pump, harder to fix
  • found and fixed a broken connection to the driving lights, disassemblling the front grill & dropping the spare tire to get under the car
  • become certain I need to replace the heater fan
  • come nowhere closer to figuring out the taillight problem

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The surgical extraction was interesting. Our Westy came with a DVD player mounted in the roof of the cabin, apparently wired into the stereo to provide four-way sound. In 1998, this was a pretty cool thing, but these days, it’s about as handy as kerosene running lights. The amount of electrical plumbing was astounding, so I decided to simplify our lives before proceeding deeper into the tangle of smoke-filled wiring. One DVD player, THREE control boxes and about ten yards of cable later, the DVDectomy is complete. By the way, we never could get the thing to work in the first place.

The heater fan replacement will require me to completely disassemble the dashboard, and remove the heater box. There is a great YouTube video by a professional mechanic, where he does the entire removal in 40 minutes. It’s gonna take me longer. This is a Serious Operation, so I’m putting it off for the moment…and ordering a replacement fan.

 

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Having no other option for the tail light problem, I did what I probably should have done first, and took the tail lights apart. Eureka! I mean, Ick! Cracks in the lens let in water, there is a ton of corrosion in the light sockets, and sure enough, both tail lights had bad connections. One of them was so rusted into place I had to remove the bulb in pieces with penetrating oil and pliers, just to find the socket was irreparable. Off to Ebay, to buy a used replacement. In fact, I’m getting all new parts and bulbs. And super-bright LED backup bulbs, which should make it a lot easier to back into a camp site. And LED headlights. The technology has come a long way since 1985. Of course, so have I 🙂

Or have I? Ah, the other inner journey…why do i think this is fun and fulfilling? There is a clue in how I feel about different vehicles. When I was young and limitlessly enthusiastic, I owned Austin Healy Sprites, and did everything for them — frequent carburetor adjustment, electrical repairs, an engine rebuild — with joy and abandon. These tiny sports cars represented fun and freedom, and I gleefully went on trips all over California with a backpack full of camping gear stuffed behind the seats (and 50 lbs of tools and parts in the trunk!) Working on other cars isn’t the same, they are transportation with character, not quite the same projection screen as my early adventure-mobiles. To be honest, our 2001 Jeep Cherokee is a pleasure to maintain, as it is a tough, solid, go-anywhere truck, both comfortable and reliable. But the Westy (and my motorcycles) get most of my attention, and now I know why.

A Westfalia is one of the smallest self-contained living spaces in existence, and it’s mobile. I have friends from our Burning Man camp who travel for weeks and months and even years in their Westy, in some mystical symbiotic relationship. I love being able to take off in Mz. Parker, with Jen or solo, ready to eat and sleep in comfort pretty much anywhere we end up. The thrills of variety and exploration truly nourish my soul.

Motorcycles do it too, as I went on many long trips on my BMWs, with full camping gear, all over the US in my 30’s and 40’s. Since damaging my wrist by logging far too much time on computers, I haven’t been able to spend long days in the saddle like I used to. However, I can now see travel and adventure are a theme in my life, and I’ve always found ways to explore new places.

Mz. Parker is the latest vehicle for exploration. So it’s not all about “fixing things” for me. It’s about enabling the journey. I love working on vehicles I have adventures in. Good to know. I have some vehicles to get rid of. Why not just focus on what I love?

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