Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'How to keep your Volkswagen Alive'. A Counter Culture classic

Over the years I have owned probably over 50 motor vehicles. Most of them bangers which started with the ubiquitous Mini-I’ve had five of those, the first two were written off in accidents. I’ve had Land Rovers, 2cv’s, all manner of boring Euro boxes etc. However, the only vehicles which really captured my imagination were aircooled VW Beetles and Camper Vans. There was something about that growly engine sound, the unique flat boxer engine with opposing horizontal cylinders. The strange heating system that either didn’t work or melted your shoes! It was a vehicle that even a mechanical dork like myself could work on. Yes...I too have removed a 1600 engine from a Type 2 Camper.

Ironically, in all the years I’ve owned aircooled V Dubs-four Beetles and four Campers- I never owned THE Bible. John Muir’s ‘How to KeepYour Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by step procedures for the compleat (sic) Idiot’. The irony being that now I own a modern-ish watercooled diesel VW Camper and Muir’s book is all but useless as a workshop manual. However, ‘How to etc’ is more than just a boring car manual. It is a genuine piece of US 1960‘s Counter Culture art. From the laid back writing style of Muir to the Crumb like Peter Aschwanden illustrations. The book which first came out in 1969 reeks of tie dye grandad vested, bandana wearing hippies, driving their vans, Beetles and combis across the states to the soundtrack of The Grateful Dead.

Given the fact that these old aircooled vans where somewhat underpowered given their 1600cc engines, and given the regularity they broke down-overheating was a problem in hot regions like Muir’s New Mexico- then an impoverished hippy really did need to tackle problems head on themselves without recall to using expensive garages.
This is where John Muir-the great grease guru came in.He was a structural aeronautical engineer who in the time honoured manner of the day 'Turned on, Tuned in and Dropped Out’. Muir left the world of the souless corporation behind to become a writer and car mechanic. Opening a garage in Taos, New Mexico which specialised in  aircooled V Dubs. Somewhat surreally, John Muir was related to THE John Muir-the Scottish born, US conservationist.

Flicking through the book last night, it was clear the lasting impression Muir’s book had made on millions of people the world over. In my 30th anniversary edition, various people now middle aged like myself, recalled how in their youth the book had become more than just an oil thumbed manual but a book which was part philosophical tract, part good Samaritan text and part love letter from a dear friend.

Unlike the common or garden car workshop manuals which are dry as dust and impossible for lay people to understand, Muir uniquely treated his reader as an enlightened teacher would a child who is keen to learn but so far limited in their understanding of the subject. Jobs were described in an easy to understand-non jargonised way, with simple illustrations and avuncular advice when things didn’t quite work out the first time.

Uniquely, ‘How to keep your Volkswagen alive’ is the one manual people keep as a work of literature as they would a favourite novel. Often long after they’ve actually owned an aircooled VW. It has inspired affection and reverance, stimulated pride and satisfaction and has been used by teachers to demonstrate good writing. It is as much a ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance’ cult classic as a technical manual.

It certainly makes me want to own an original aircooled V Dub again although prices these days have skyrocketed in the UK to classic car levels. Hopefully one day, I’ll adjust my vinyl seat and set the controls for the heart of the sun...until then.

Illustrations from the original book.

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