Aircooled Toolbox Talk
“This one is a passionate subject, and one which should not be taken lightly..”
It’s no secret that keeping any aircooled VW on the road is no mean feat, as these rides demand a level of dedication and commitment, unprecedented with any modern whip. The infamous question of “what spares and tools should I carry with me?” is as old as the hills, and invariably, you ask 100 people you will, no doubt, get close to 100 different answers.
We are not here to provide you with a concrete, bulletproof answer, but what we hope to achieve is a solid foundation from which you can reach an informed decision on what trusty bits of kit to keep close by, heaven forbid you’re faced with a breakdown.
With any form of incident where safety becomes a factor, the very first control measure is to avoid placing yourself in unnecessary danger. Inevitably, breakdowns are never convenient and can throw up some very nasty situations, which if you let it, can really get the better of you, possibly endangering yourself and your family. Ask yourself if it’s really worth tackling a wheel change on the side of a busy motorway in gale force winds, sideways rain and in the pitch black, or would you rather be transported out of harm’s way and have a pro deal with your ride?
The most trusty piece of kit you can carry is simply an AA card, or have your insurance package include roadside assistance, which is often cheaper and nearly always includes Europe-wide cover. (do check with your policy holder and often they require notice of an European trip from the mainland UK)
Right then, that’s the heavier side of the subject dealt with, now we can move onto the much more common, simple hiccups that often occur during air-cooled ownership.
The first step really is getting to know your VW. There are many subtle, yet vital differences between models and indeed model years, which greatly affect the kinds of tools you should be carrying with you ‘just in case’.
My toolkit has been built up over a number of years, based on experience of breakdowns, following solid advice and also from carrying out routine maintenance on the bug myself. Knowing what size bolts do what job can be a godsend when it comes to selecting tools. It’s all too easy to pick up multi-set sockets, spanners, allen keys and god-knows-what, when put simply half of the tools there are unnecessary. I know full well that carrying 10mm, 11,13,15,17 and 19mm spanners is going to cover pretty much most fixings on that bug of mine, so having each and every size under the sun on board is pointless. Double these up with the respective socket sizes, and we’re already well on the way to making up a pretty dependable tool kit. Screwdrivers are another thing that every hardware store seems to sell by the million, again in every conceivable size, shape and length in one ‘handy’ kit. No. Just no. I treated myself to a kit from Aldi (yep that shop again) which comprises a set of screw driver ‘bits’ to go into the ratchet driver included in the neat carry case. Job done. Easy to carry, and with every available screw head fastening, including torx type heads, you really can’t go far wrong with a simple kit like this. This, along with my Bergen 1/2” socket set, sits nicely in the bottom of my toolbox, leaving ample room in the top tray to stash more tools and spares.
Electrical gremlins have often cut a good ride out short, but there’s no reason for that to totally ruin your day if a simple, quick, fix by the side of the road can get you going again. I wedge a nice cheap Laser brand multimeter alongside my socket set, with a pair of wire cutters and a rather handy electricians’ tool for stripping insulation from wire, and crimping on new connections. A bag of cable ties (zip-ties, call them what you will) complete a little this section of my toolbox, along with some electrical tape, and a short section of wire, to re-route a bad earth for example.
Often it’s something as annoying and simple as a flat tyre which ruins your journey, so carrying an adequate spare wheel can mean the difference between a short delay or cancelling your jaunt out. We covered trolley jacks in a previous feature so we won’t re-tread old ground, but carrying the appropriate hardware to swap out a wheel can be a godsend when stuck in the back of beyond. I carry an extendable breaker bar (for taking out the initial torque from your wheel bolts before jacking the vehicle up) which comes complete with a 17mm and 19mm reversible socket which, incidentally, is the required sizes for most VW wheel nuts and/or bolts. Again only change a wheel if it’s safe to do so, and you’re completely happy with what you’re doing. A can of Flat Mate lives in my toolbox, for mending a simple puncture without having to remove the wheel, if I’m not happy. A get-you-home fix, for sure, and the tyre dealer is going to hate you for all the gunk inside the wheel but “c’est la vie”.
There are myriad hand tools which we could list from here on in, which might come in useful, but I tend to carry a simple kit based on what I’ve had breakdown on me in the past. A set of metric feeler gauges have proven very useful for problematic contact points in the distributor. A small craft knife is handy for cutting out pierced lines ready to redo a fresh connection, for example. And I always carry a notebook, pen and pencil – you never know if you may have to take down insurance details in an accident, or need to make a note of a quick fix repair you’ve just made so as to redo it properly once back home. A set of surgical gloves means that a quick fix doesn’t need to result in messy hands, and a ground mat protects your clothes from dirt when kneeling down for repairs. Just a few basic bits of kit.
My message here is that you don’t need an artic tuck full of all the tools in the world to keep your humble VW up and running.
The Parts Department
Really, unless you’re planning a cross-continental, round-the-world voyage in your aircooled VW, there is honestly no need for back-up support vehicles and a list of parts to make parts specialists jealous! No VW is unreliable. Fact. The only unreliable part is human intervention. (I’ve included a handy flow chart which covers this..!) All joking aside, an aircooled VW will serve you very well indeed if properly looked after and maintained. To quote the British Army – Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Put simply, a lot of mechanical breakdowns can be prevented rather than needing to be cured, later! There are a few aspects of the aircooled engine which are more vulnerable than others, so preparing to protect against their failure can make the world of difference. Perhaps ‘pre-flight checks’ could make another article? I will focus on the essential spare parts here that I feel no self-respecting dubber should be without!
First off – cables! Yes you’d be amazed how many journeys have ended on flatbeds due to a simple cable failure. These things are relatively cheap, and widely available in the vast network of aircooled parts specialists, so be sure to keep an accelerator cable and clutch cable on board. A speedo cable is simply not necessary, as this failure won’t stop you from reaching your destination, and I’d bet a fair chunk that you’ve got a satnav on board anyway which indicates your speed.
Electrical parts – one of the simplest ways of repairing a fault here is to simply replace the suspect item. Often, electrical issues leave no visible trace of the failure, so swapping out the part in its entirety is the only way to go. I do keep a spare coil and a couple of condensers on board, as these are items that I’ve had fail on me in the past, and I refuse to let it ruin another trip. Basics like fuses are a sure thing to keep on board, and check that you have the correct type and rating for your vehicle requirements. My bug, for example, uses the original style Continental fuses, and I have spares for each specific rating in my toolbox. Many VW’s have been upgraded to modern ‘Blade’ style fuse boards, so do check that you are carrying the correct spares for your needs – the wrong spare mean no spares at all! Other basic electrical consumables such as bulbs are a definite item for the tool box – it’s not fun limping home with one headlight let me assure you. My bulbs are organised to OCD levels, with each bulb type labelled up on a piece of card, and bubble wrapped inside a tin, to ensure that if I need a bulb I’m not welcomed by a bunch of broken spares.
The cooling system on an aircooled VW is vital to ensure engine longevity, and also charges the battery – in case you haven’t already guessed where this is going and seen that the weak link in the system is the humble fan belt, here comes the lecture on keeping a fresh one on board along with a set of new shims for the top pulley! Probably the single most important spare parts, be sure to keep the belt and shims in a safe place where they can’t be damaged. You’ll need that 19mm spanner for the top pulley if you’re ever faced with a snapped belt, and a flat blade screwdriver to stop the puller from turning.
And that pretty much concludes the contents of my basic toolkit, which lives nice and compactly under the front hood of my beetle. (in fact the pre-show cleaning kit takes up more room but that’s another story!) By sharing this, I do hope it may have cleared the fog a little around the question of what you should be carrying on board for many miles of air-cooled bliss. I again emphasise that this is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, but an insight based on my vehicle and my past experiences of sitting roadside wishing I’d packed this, that and the other, inevitably waiting for a good friend with a Caddy truck and a tow bar, having given him ‘that call’ . A good conclusion really, I guess, would be to tell you to make sure that pretty little smartphone of yours isn’t on 1% battery from Instagram-ing selfies, when you need it most!