westy guts, part III

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I’ve saved the best for last. The final task in this project is to replace the heater fan. This is not for the faint-of-heart, as the fan is deep inside a sealed heater box, bolted to the front of the body, buried under wiring, hot water hoses, and the dashboard. I started the process more than two weeks ago, by removing the instrument panel, the steering wheel and glove compartment, unbolting the steering column, then disconnecting all the various switches, the radio, lighter, heater controls and lighting controls in the dash. Six screws and four bolts later, with by a lot of tugging and cursing, I have the dash panel up and out.

This is scary work. I’ve never done it, I don’t know what headaches I will find, I hope I don’t break anything, and I hope I can get it all back together without paying someone $$$ to fix something I messed up. I’m driven by the fact that I can take the time to do a good thorough job. I can clean things, replace worn bits that would otherwise never see the light of day. I’m also driven by cost: it would probably cost me over a thousand dollars to have a mechanic replace the heater fan.

I’ve worked on the mysterious guts of cars before. I know some tricks, I have a lot of tools, and I have all the time I need. So in I go. For example, I label the wires and control cables as they are disconnected, so I have a hope of getting them back in the right place. This is methodical work, one cannot hurry, for the penalty of error will almost certainly be painfully expensive. So I took a couple of days to extract the heater box, working for an hour or two at a time, then taking a break and contemplating the next steps. It all went well. Voila, the heater box is out (photo below), drooling radiator fluid on the driveway.

I’m going to explain the next week of work, not so much to torture you, but to remind myself of the journey. After all, the climb to the top of Mount Everest is more interesting if you include the weeks of planning, preparation, travel and trekking in order to get to the base camp! Also, the information may be of use to other intrepid Westfalia owners; probably all old Westys will eventually require this job.

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Now that I’m this deep into the innards of Mz. P, a place I never want to venture again, I’m fixing everything I can. The fan has arrived, ready for transplant. I have a new heater core coming, along with a wiper motor and new control cables. I’m cleaning everything I can reach — you can see how much playa dust is all over the black heater box — and the inside of the dash is a tangled mess of decades of wiring bodges. Upon pulling the box, I had my first unpleasant surprise: under a layer of ancient duct tape, is a big melted hole on the cover. Apparently some time perhaps 20 years ago, a prior owner burned something in the ash tray positioned right over the top of the box, destroying the ash tray, melted the top of the box and making a hole right through. I cannot imagine how they did this without causing a major fire!

My first task is to separate the two halves with a putty knife and sharp blade, clean the box, and fabricate a patch for the hole out of steel plate (a standard electrical junction box cover) and JB Weld epoxy. This takes all morning. The afternoon is spent installing the new fan and heater core into the heater box, with foam tape sealing the parts into place. All the sealing foam on the control vents in the box are crumbling from old age, so another few hours are spent scraping off old foam, and replacing it with new foam tape. This heater has always leaked hot air — unpleasant on a summer day in the central valley — so hopefully the rebuilt box will work better. I got custom whizbang $3.95 clips from the VW dealer to hold the heater box back together. I’m now well past the halfway point on the project.

There is another day of detail work. The new wiper motor arrives, so I spent a few hours disassembling the wiper mechanism, greasing all pivots, and replacing the motor. I also cleaned up some of the wiring for the radio, re-routing speaker wires in an attempt to get rid of the persistent buzzing sound in the rear speakers. When I temporarily plugged the radio in, the noise was gone! Thank god, that was an annoying problem. And I replaced the panel lights for the heater controls, lighter, and rear heater fan. I’m hoping we will be able to see the controls at night now.

IMG_2894-2018-10-17-10-16.jpgOh, speaking of lighting, I also ordered LED headlight bulbs, LED tail light bulbs, turn signals and backup lights, and new smoke-colored lenses to replace the cracked rear lights. After three hours of work they are all installed, and the rear of the van looks a bit more modern. Also, the LED headlights are hella bright!

Reassembly is the reverse of disassembly, as they say, and my methodological approach pays off. The heater box bolts back in place without a hitch, hoses reconnect easily (I used a watering can to pre-fill the heater core so I wouldn’t have to burp air out of the cooling system), and control cables reattached with only a little cursing. I had to spend some time adjusting them into the right positions, so that the control levers worked properly. Next time (hopefully never happening) I will mark the cable locations to make it easier 🙂

A long strap looped over the top of the cab helps me suspend the dashboard and move it gradually into place. As I proceed, I make sure all heater vent hoses and electrical switches are connected, fished the radio wiring out through the hole in the dash where the radio goes, and pulling instrument cluster wiring up through the appropriate holes. The heater control panel screws right into place. Lowering the dash with the strap, I am able to reinstall it by myself without pinching anything.

The reassembly takes all day, but by sunset, I have it all buttoned up, with the steering column bolted back into place and the steering wheel aligned and bolted properly (I remembered to mark THAT one before removing it, fortunately!)

The heater works! The dash lights work! Today, I am driving down to Santa Barbara for a little adventure of my own, and — other than one vent that needs the hose reattached — I’ve had no problems at all. In fact, it all looks like nothing happened.

But I know better. I have confronted my fear, spent more than two weeks inside mysterious, seldom-seen parts of Mz. P, and fixed everything. Plus I have a deep, deep sense of satisfaction, knowing her more intimately, reminding myself that I have patience, skill and experience, and saving a bucket of money.

This is actually a lot more fun than my career ever was.

westy guts, part II

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The Westy resurrection includes fixing a fuel problem. At highway speeds and full throttle (occasionally, she gets going fast enough to pass someone!) the engine will hesitate like there is fuel starvation. Our fuel pressure gauge confirms a big pressure drop, so when we got home, I did my research. It turns out that the original design of the system (fixed the year AFTER our girl was built) was flawed. I can just replace the fuel filter until it happens again, but the real fix is to swap in parts for a later model year. There is another problem too — when we fill the tank full, some fuel drips out of an inaccessible vent hose, so the rubber hoses have degraded. You see, vehicles in 1985 were not built for gasoline that contains ethanol, and modern gas corrodes the original hoses. Knowing she has the original tank, almost certainly rusty, and a fuel level sender that has, let us say, a lot of character, I’m replacing the whole thing with new parts that avoid both of these problems permanently.

It’s always a moral and ethical dilemma for a mechanic: is the quick fix good enough, or do I take the time and money to really resolve the problem? Sometimes I go one way, sometimes the other. I know I have to drop the tank to fix the vent hoses, I want the fuel system to be utterly reliable, and I don’t want to change the fuel filter every few months because it gets clogged with rust from the tank. And I don’t want to have to ever work on this part of her again — one has to drain the tank before removing it, and there is no way to do this job without smelling like gasoline for a day.

I’ve become the nexus for parts packages from all over the country (see Part I: heater fan, tail light parts, LED bulbs), and the first to arrive are the fuel system parts. A shiny new gas tank, fuel sender, vent hoses, gaskets, fuel filter and clamps to put it all together. So I don my mechanic’s one-piece pullover, rubber gloves, and wade into the fray. The partially-disassembled dash can wait.

After about two hours, the front of my modern house is looking quite out of place for Fairfax. The front of Mz. Parker is up on ramps. Tools and parts, a pan of gasoline and rags and a jack are strewn about, and the first half of the transplant is complete. I am grimy, looking and smelling like The Dud from the game Mystery Date, if you are old enough to remember that. The filthy rusty tank with rotting hoses is lying in my driveway.

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Installation of the shiny new bits was not too bad, perhaps 2 hours start to finish. There was one moment when I’m lying on my back under the new fuel tank, supporting it with my knees and chest, as I reached as far as I could over the top of the tank to plug the overflow balance hose into grommets on either side. The hose has to go OVER a bunch of stuff in the middle of the chassis, running down through the indent in the top of the tank. It took all my strength, ten minutes of wrestling and a healthy array of curses in multiple languages to get the little fucker plugged in. As I read long ago in an ancient E. E. Smith Lensman sci-fi novel, “I could eat a handful of iron filings and puke a better design than that!” .

There is a place where channeled fury and sheer determination makes all the difference between success and failure. I was about ready to give up on the hose installation at one point. However, one more all-out attempt, reaching into the 2-inch space with snarling sound effects and bruised knuckles leveraging off the grimy underside of the body, and the connector popped into place. Once I had the tank bolted up, I finished the plumbing with a series of short hose pieces connecting the tank, fuel pump, fuel filter, fuel pressure sensor andima line going to the engine. I cleaned and replaced the filler tube, plugged in and clamped the (five!) vent hoses, dumped in a bit of gas, and she fired right up with nary a leak. My First Major Accomplishment on this adventure is done.

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The new fuel tank gleams in the bottom of the photo, and new fuel line links the pump, filter and fuel pressure sensor.