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.