Monday, April 1, 2013

When Painting is Not Like Painting: The VW Beetle Project

Most of us have heard the expression, "Be careful what you wish for..." When the Beetle saga first started, I was excited about the project and seeing the transformation of something that had been discarded coming back to life. It's not a bike, but for a motorized vehicle it's probably about as close to a bicycle as one can get. Who are we kidding? A 60-horsepower engine isn't putting out much power, and while it is still a consumer of gas/oil/resources/etc, if I'm going to have a car, I'd rather it be a small one, that gets decent mileage. Of course, there was the added bonus of my history with the Beetle which helped initiate and move this project along. As much as I don't want to love a car, this is one I am definitely drawn to (and always have been). I can't seem to help myself. It is simply unique. Maybe not in numbers (goodness knows there were a buzzillion of them produced and there are still plenty out on the roads), but certainly there has never been another car that quite rivals the exterior of the Beetle. Everything from its shape to its unmistakable muffler/idle noise brings a smile to my face, and for most people who have ever owned one there is always a story (or several) to go along with their bug.
The Beetle prepares to be transported to the farm/work space
As I was saying, at the start of all of this, I was excited to see what was going to happen. I had grand illusions (delusions) of a couple of weeks of working on the hunk of metal and suddenly having a beautiful, perfectly painted and running car. It didn't help matters that Sam had set a maximum 3-to-4-week timeline from "start to finish." Ha, ha! I should know better. HE should know better. I had never worked on a project like this, so I really do claim some ignorance here. In fact, let there be no mistake about it, when it comes to cars, my experience with them is about as grand as putting gas in, or in an absolute "crisis," changing the air filter. I've been fortunate to have mechanically-capable folks around me most of my life, so when something goes wrong I attempt to explain the problem/noise by making strange gurgling sounds to imitate the malfunction. They laugh. I laugh. The whole problem gets resolved fairly easily. It is a great system.
The pan/truck of the Beetle in its received condition - certainly not nearly as bad as some I've seen, but not great
From the start of this project, Sam stated that I didn't have to be involved with it at all. He presumed (as I have to admit I did as well) that I would come out at some point near the end and purr and coo over the lovely "new" car; or maybe, at most be there to add a few finishing details. As I pondered the idea more though, I couldn't help but remember all the times I had begged my dad to do a project like this with me in my teenage years. He'd always said he would end up doing all the work, and he wasn't going to take on the bulk of the responsibility for such a project. {sigh} The resto-project never happened in my youth, nor at any point in adulthood - that is, until this project presented itself. I couldn't help but ask myself if it was fair to expect Sam to do exactly what my dad hadn't wanted to do in the past. Sure, it was Sam's bright idea (this specific car, anyway), and this was supposed to be a gift and all, but {sigh}, I couldn't help but feel responsible for putting the idea in his head. So, I offered up my assistance, which was quite quickly and vehemently declined.

Sheesh! I'm not completely incompetent. I don't know anything about putting a car together (nor taking it apart for that matter), but I can follow simple instructions (sometimes). After a day to think it over, Sam decided that there may be a "few things" I could do to help out, so we went for our first visit to "the farm" (our name for Sam's fathers' place as it's on 40 acres in the middle of nowhere - though there's actually no farm on the property) to assess the damage. Ah, the damage. I'd already had the opportunity to view a few photos Sam had shot of the car being transported to the farm. I believe my comment at first view was something like, "Hmm... rusty, isn't it." It was a statement - not a question. I'm sure my nose wrinkled up and I likely made some sort of face at the sight of something so unfinished. I do love rust (not when it comes to keeping things in one piece, but I simply find something fascinating about the rusting process itself), but was not thrilled with the idea of something I'd be working on having so much of it. I was assured that it was all "surface rust" and that the body was actually in "good shape." I would soon learn otherwise.
Look, "surface" rust
It's not that I think Sam nor his father were lying to me. I want to believe they genuinely thought it was in good shape, but the reality soon sunk in as all of the paint was stripped off the parts that still had a bit on them (that was the good news - at least paint didn't need to be removed from the body of the car). There were plenty of rusty spots - as in, completely rusted through, and lots of surface rust as well. In addition, there were, of course, lots of dings and larger dents - places on the body that had somehow been tweaked out of shape over the years - and now it was time to fix these as best we could.
Sam's dad "supervising" my sanding off the hood paint - Yes, I'm wearing an Oscar the Grouch shirt - believe me, it was appropriate (as well as 5 layers of clothing because it was freakin' freezing!).
I won't bore you with the long and drawn out details of the several rounds of scraping, sanding, filling, sanding, filling, scraping, etc, nor the "fun" surprises discovered as we went along, but I will say that it took a good seven weeks to actually get paint on the car. When I tried to estimate man hours, I figured it somewhere between 250-300 hours of just getting the body to a point of being able to primer the car. Those aren't all my hours, but I had a fair chunk of the time. It's funny how the mind wanders when one is engaged in such a task. It's also amazing how quickly the day goes by when all I wanted to do was get to an end point, and just couldn't quite get there.
Beetle pieces sanded - sort of
When this project started, I imagined the paint process being similar to a painting I would produce in every day life. I have no idea why I thought this, but it seemed like a similar idea. I have to build the surface, prime it, and then when the surface is finally to my liking, I can go ahead and start painting. One of the biggest differences is obviously size, but there is also the reality that a painting is generally done on a flat, smaller surface. The surface also isn't sitting out in the elements for several decades getting pounded by rain, hail, snow, nor is it being moved around in the universe at 50+ mph having things fly at it with little regard. In the end, painting a car has similarities to a piece of art, but there is a lot more labor time that goes into the process, certainly (perhaps not for an expert, but for the novice/weekend restoration types, it takes time).
One of many, many rounds of bondo and sanding
One of the biggest hurdles for me personally to get over was choosing a paint color. Typically, an individual goes to a dealer or a private party and the car is the hue that it is. There's no changing it unless you want to special order or take it in for an expensive paint job after purchase. I realized that my mind ran wild very, very quickly across the spectrum of color. What did I want to see on this Beetle anyway? In order to limit things down a bit, I decided to stick to classic VW paint colors. One would think this would do the job as far as thinning the selection, but there are so many different options from the late 40s through the 70s that it was almost as bad as choosing a color at random from the world. Then there are those who think that the color should be from the year the car was made, and those who think it should be the original color of that specific car, and still others who believe that any color out there is perfectly acceptable. I found myself spinning. Each day I had a set of 5-6 colors that the car could be, and they changed almost daily. I would research the colors online, looking for a representation on an actual Beetle. Every photo would look different for each color I was researching, and in the end, I realized I was just going to have to choose a color and hope for the best. I was able to get it down to a few choices, but ultimately decided on the VW color L351, or as most would refer to it, Coral Red.
Yep, this is the paint color - though it's not even the same here as it is on the Beetle
Even after I chose (and had purchased) the paint, I was changing my mind. What if it looked weird? What if it wasn't like any of the colors I'd viewed online? Maybe it was too bright or too in-your-face? Perhaps I should go with a more muted choice? I knew it was only paint (although this phrase has new meaning for me from this point forward - "only paint" means something completely different than it would've meant a few months prior), and I wanted it to be something a little different, but not so different that I'd end up hating it in a few months to a year.
The start of the paint job (though I didn't see this photo until later)
The weekend of painting I wasn't able to be at the farm. We were taking the dogs with us each visit, and having them there for this portion would mean extra work to keep them out of the painting space, and more importantly we had to keep their hair away from the paint/car. Since we couldn't leave them for two days unattended, Sam went to help his dad and brother with the work, while I was fidgety the entire weekend. All I wanted to know was how it looked, what had happened, and was I going to like the color. I imagine it's what an expectant father in the 50's hospital waiting room must've felt like. Okay, perhaps it's not that dramatic (nor as important as bringing a life into this world), but I was a wreck. I was promised photos - that's plural - but finally received one fuzzy photo late in the evening. It wasn't a great photo, and the car looked pink. Pink? I really didn't want a pink car. I know there are a lot of lovers of pink, and I don't hate the color, but it wasn't what I had in mind. Sam had sent an email indicating that the color "looked great" and that he thought I would like it, but from what I'd seen, I wasn't impressed. More photos followed at a later time and I could see that the color was different in each one. So, which one was accurate? It was as bad as doing the research online.
The fuzzy photo I received to indicate the color of the Beetle
Finally, I was able to go up and take a look at the paint job for myself. I was easily able to see that nearly every photo I had viewed of this color was accurate. How was that possible? In some lighting it appears to be a pale salmon color, and in others it looks to be more of a rusty orange color. It really is interesting that it changes so much.

After the excitement of seeing the color with my own eyes had worn off, it was time to get to work on the rest of the car. I was less involved with this portion (at least for a time) because a lot of it required mechanical aptitude, and as most are aware (and as pointed out earlier), this is not my forte. Instead, I worked on grinding rust off of wheels, hammering and buffing bumpers and other such tasks. Sam was feverishly working to get the engine in the car (which ended up taking longer than expected) and getting all the wiring in place for both the front and rear items (such as lights/turn signals, etc).
The pieces were all getting painted - now it had to be put together
At some point during week 9 of the project, my mind began to wander yet again. This time, it had nothing to do with paint, but rather questioning whether or not we should be doing this at all. The project, which seemed like a great, cost-efficient idea in the beginning, was now sucking the life out of both of us. We hadn't had a weekend off since November (and even worked through the holidays to try to get some momentum going) and it was taking its toll. I found myself just wanting the project to be over and done so we could go back to normal weekend activities - even if that meant cleaning, running the dogs, etc. This wasn't my idea of "fun" anymore, and I had definitely had enough of it. I started looking at newer cars, thinking that maybe we should just find an older model vehicle that runs well so this could all come to an end. We could sell the Beetle off as a project to someone else. At least it was in far better shape than when we bought it.

The frustration level for Sam had increased tremendously as well. His dad wasn't helping matters by continuously telling him to just give it up. "Why are you in such a hurry to get this done?" was a regular question he was plagued with responding to from both his father and his dad's friends. The truth is, neither one of us are good with super long-term projects, and getting this wrapped up soon was a necessity or it wasn't ever going to be finished. It would end up like most long projects we start: in a pile somewhere that gets forgotten until years later, and then eventually gets sold or donated to someone else.
The wheels were getting put on the car so it could stand on its own,and the engine had
at least been dropped into the car.  As a side note, how cool would this car look with cream tires? Man, I wish someone made those (not the white-walls, but actual, all cream tires... drool!).
Time really seemed to be wearing on, and although in truth this project was getting completed incredibly quickly (particularly in comparison to most vehicle restoration projects), it was difficult to maintain interest and enthusiasm. I believe we both felt that once the paint was on the car, the rest of the project would be done soon thereafter. It didn't exactly work that way. Every little piece seemed to take two to four times longer than expected and the most difficult thing was knowing we had reached a point at which there wasn't much I could do to contribute to the project. This left Sam with the bulk of the work and I have no doubt it put a strain on him. It didn't help that I was constantly upset about both the time being spent working on the project and the fact that it seemed to be taking so much longer than the initial time frame.

The outside of the car still wasn't completed yet either (despite what I had believed). I had gone over the entire car buffing out the paint, but there were a lot of bumps and spots that just didn't look right, so it was determined that I would need to wet-sand the entire car and then buff it again to get the paint job to the best it could be for a home-done project. I had accepted that the car wouldn't be perfect, but I still wanted it to be its best.

When I arrived one Saturday morning to set to work on this task, I discovered a few decent sized scratches over one of the rear fenders. "What the &$@# happened?!" came screeching out of my mouth. I couldn't help myself. All of this work, and it already had scratches. It hadn't even been on the road yet. Sam shared that while attaching the fender he'd scratched the side of the car, but that it wasn't down to the metal. Trying to calm myself down, I repeated silently that in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn't a big deal. Again, this is a 40+ year old vehicle, and it isn't going to be perfect, but I was so beside myself seeing what had happened that I couldn't control my annoyance. I was assured that touch up paint could be used, and that there were other spots that needed to be fixed anyway.
Beetle bumpers had to be replaced - these aren't perfect, but I cleaned them up as best I could for now
I decided it was pointless to wet sand the car on this particular trip out because there was still work being done to the outside of the vehicle, so I opted to wait until later when it was almost finished to do this task. In the meantime, insulation was something I might be able to handle doing, so I went about that process, while Sam continued to work on getting the details on the front end correct and getting the final tire mounted to the front wheel (which had become a huge issue at this point). The inside of the Beetle was still a wreck for the most part, but the interior had been saved as one of the later projects to keep the new light colored upholstery and headliner from turning brown while exposed to the dirt and grime in any working garage. Pieces seemed to be everywhere, and while we probably should've organized them in a somewhat logical fashion, that just doesn't seem to be the way we do things.

Now, at 12 weeks into the project, I was told that there was one week left. Of course, I no longer believed Sam's timelines, so I presumed we had at least another month left to work on the Beetle. Sam feverishly worked on installing the carpet and getting interior pieces put in to the dash. He even bought the roof rack I'd been wanting; I'm sure, in an attempt to keep me motivated about the project. It wasn't that I had lost faith in him, but I was mentally and physically done with the constant trips to the farm and the seemingly never-changing outcome of this car. It had to be finished at some point, right?
The Beetle interior, slowly coming together. Getting that steering wheel to fit was like magic, too. It wasn't supposed to fit this year of Beetle (and didn't, as I can attest), but the wonder of Sam made it happen. 
The weekend that followed, we attempted to put in the headliner, thinking that this would be a simple, though perhaps slightly time-consuming portion of the project. Unfortunately, we couldn't figure out what we were doing wrong in the process of putting it in, so we had to do some research before we could go any further. It also meant that we couldn't move forward with the interior because the headliner had to be in so that we could put the window rubber and glass in to the car.

By the middle of the following week, a video had arrived to help us understand what we'd been doing wrong with the headliner, and because I was in freak-out mode, Sam said he would go up that weekend alone to work on the headliner and to get the windows put in. The headliner was still quite a difficult task and still isn't quite right (we've discussed possibly having a professional redo this at some point in the future, or possibly if/when a ragtop is installed later). It doesn't look too horrible, and for people who don't do this sort of thing on a regular basis, it is satisfactory for the time being.
Most of the windows had been installed at this point... very exciting... and a bit of the insulation work is visible too!
The windshield turned out to be yet another headache. Sam and his dads' friend tried for over 8 hours to attempt to get it in with no luck. No matter what they did, the windshield refused to cooperate. Finally, Sam's dad said he would take it into a shop during the week and have it shaved down a bit; however, we learned quickly that it was actually the rubber purchased for the windshield that was creating the problem. After the correct rubber was found, the windshield went in pretty quickly (in about an hour). The lesson? Don't spend 8 hours attempting to install something that doesn't fit. The rest of the windows went in as expected, for the most part, and the addition of rear pop-out windows will be much appreciated when both defrosting the rear window becomes necessary, and when the temperatures heat up to allow for extra air circulation.

Hey wait, no A/C?! I don't remember agreeing to that.

At this point, we knew that the end was in sight, but of course, there were small things discovered that were missing. Items such as a missing taillight lens, and a screw for the front turn signal were becoming a nuisance. They were items we couldn't find locally, so the internet was the only resource that made sense. This, of course, created some additional delays (although we became experts at ordering on Sunday evening in order to receive parts on Friday, so as to not delay the process further). On the up side, the engine had turned over at this point - and from the actual ignition switch, rather than needing to be jumped - so we were excited that things were finally starting to come together. "One more weekend" became a regular saying in our house, but every weekend it really did feel as though we only needed one more.

Eventually, that one more weekend would have to be a reality, but it wasn't time for that just yet. As the project moved toward an end point, Sam became frustrated with wiring the turn signals. When the Beetle had been disassembled by its prior owner, he had removed all the wiring, so it was incredibly frustrating attempting to understand where everything was supposed to go. With our wish to finish this project sooner than later, Sam was beyond annoyed that he'd spent endless hours attempting to decipher a "mapping" of the wiring he'd found online. In the end, it made more sense to spend our time elsewhere on other items, and Sam asked his dad for help with this piece, since this is what he does for a living after all.
Sam got the headlights to work, and fashioned a system to utilize these older style bumpers... he's a handy fella!
It was time to start getting more of the little things done to the Beetle. Things such as installing seat belts, mirrors, trim, and the like were getting closer to actually being attempted. The last weekend of this project there were a multitude of seemingly small things that needed to get done, but some of them would require creativity. For example, we'd had to purchase new taillight lens/covers, and they just wouldn't fit, so figuring out a way to "make" them work was a head-scratcher. Sam also wanted to fashion a hitch for a trailer (goodness knows I'll look like a lunatic towing anything behind this baby, but hey, I'm game to give it a try!), which needed to be fabricated and installed. All the trim still needed to be put on the car, as well as side-view mirrors, door panels, and the seat heater (that's right people... I get a driver's side heated seat in this little beauty - believe me, it will be necessary in the cold of winter). The stereo needed to be connected, the back seat needed to be properly installed... oh, and there was this pesky little business with an oil leak that needed to be fixed.

The "final" weekend (otherwise known as week 19), I was not present at the farm. Sam decided to take a long weekend and just get everything wrapped up. I had work to do at home, and he does better without distractions, so he went to town attempting to get everything completed on his own (I think he secretly wanted the pleasure of proving he could finish the car, and being able to drive it home to "officially" give it to me). There was quite a list of items to be done though, even if they were seemingly small things. I had high hopes that this was the final push and the project would come to an end, so I held on, waiting to hear how all was going.  The emails were few and short, but I received the photo below with a note that the car is "a trip to drive."
Finally, in the outdoors, she is starting to seem like a "real" car.
The Beetle arrived home on Sunday - my very own little Easter basket. It wasn't exactly finished, but the things that are still missing will be done during short stints at home, rather than attempting to travel the distance to the farm each weekend. I happened to be working in my studio when Sam arrived home, and I have a view to the street. As I saw the car drive up and park just in view from my window, I couldn't help but feel absolute joy. Oh, what a happy day! I'm sure I was grinning ear to ear like some ridiculous Cheshire cat. Even the neighbors popped over for a quick look at the newest addition. It's hard not to notice it, I think. Even during a quick drive to remove the filth that had built up and to put gas in we received several glances - even a, "Nice car!" from the guy filling up next to us. It's funny to see people smiling at a car. I think there really are so many memories for those who had experiences in a Beetle.
Kind of strange to see the same car in a different state of existence
Okay, so the dash isn't finished yet, and the air flow unit isn't exactly working, it's missing side mirrors, it's leaking water in a few spots, there is a piece of rubber missing, and a few other items to be resolved, but I was so, so, so excited just to be able to get behind the wheel of this project that seemed as though it would never come to an end. True, it isn't exactly over, but I am elated that it is here and usable while we finish up.
The dash isn't quite wrapped up, but certainly better than it was prior
There are several modifications on this Beetle from its original state (some that are perhaps more apparent, and others that are likely only noticeable to a VW enthusiast), but it is definitely, uniquely my car (okay, it's our car... but believe me when I say my personal aesthetic choices are everywhere). We even nicknamed it, "Frankenbeetle" for a time because of all the seemingly bizarre choices that probably shouldn't work, but somehow came together in the end.
Through all of this, I have learned that vehicle restoration is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those with little patience (myself included). Whatever the budget may be, it needs to be doubled (or maybe even tripled, depending on the base of the original budget), and if it's a vehicle that is older, more than likely sending away for parts is the only way to obtain what is needed - and that, of course, adds to the time frame needed to complete the project.  I have learned that we (as a couple) have the ability to do almost anything together, and even if we bicker about the little things sometimes, we can find solutions that work. I have witnessed the fact that we are both capable of sacrifice for one another, and it isn't something that will be lorded over the other at some point down the line.

While Sam quite frequently gives in to my requests, I am thankful he didn't let me give up on this car. Yes, it's just a vehicle and a means of transportation, and it is certainly replaceable (though the exact car is not, as it contains quite a mix of parts throughout the Beetle decades of manufacture), I don't think the experience of this project is something that could be duplicated. I believe we both learned that we can motivate each other when we don't necessarily want to continue on, just as we can be each others' doom when in the wrong frame of mind; but in the end, we can depend on each other when it's really needed...and who doesn't want to know that in a relationship?
Although the Beetle isn't entirely finished at this point, it is to a state that it is now drive-able and usable. While I wouldn't want to start over on this particular project, I am so very grateful for the experience - and for the adorable, fun vehicle to get us to where we need to go. So, to all who have endured this written tale and/or heard the constant statement, "We're working on a project. It should be done soon," here you go... the Beetle saga, somewhat at its end point. Oh, and if you're wondering, she does have a name:  Gidget Francis (any mid-century era So Cal surfers will likely get the Gidget reference, and Francis to stick with the "Frankenbeetle" idea). My thanks to Sam for his patience with me and this project, as well as kudos to his mighty talents, which never cease to amaze me. Now, I just have to test out a theory - am I actually faster on my bike than in this VW? :O)

**Note: If like me you just can't get enough of the photos, there are a few more to be seen here of the project through various stages of progress.


  1. Thank you for the kind works, and kudos in the "near end". I realize there are still a few things to straighten out, but I can't help but feel a certain level of pride, even further than when I did this 20 years ago. I imagine that's because it was collaborative this time, and about 70% more difficult because it's 20 years later, I have a job, etc. I'm certainly glad you didn't give up on this, as i think it was well worth it.

    I see it now, and it's hard to imagine it ever being that basket case I pulled off of Craigslist in October!

    I have said this many times, and people think I'm kidding. You have no idea what we can do, really, no idea.

    1. Definitely difficult to imagine it the way it started, and so glad it's home. :O). The rest will get done...never fear!

  2. You two are amazing - great story and a magnificent creation!

    1. Thanks, Pati! Maybe I need to race you on your bike while I'm in the VW...I'm fairly certain you'd win! :O)

  3. I love this story. I am soo jealous. No wonder people ask so much for these, even when it's done by enthusiasts. Great job guys, way to stick with it. It looks like it was worth all the sweat,tears, and profanities! :-)

    1. Do you remember my "smurfmobile?" LOL So much fun!

      They are definitely not inexpensive these days, and yes, I can definitely understand why after doing this...but, for a $250 project (okay, a lot more than that after we got our hands on everything), I think it came out pretty great. :O) Thanks!

  4. Wow! You guys are amazing! Such a great story and the car is beautiful! It takes really special people to see such beauty in what you started off with, have the courage to start the project and finish it (mostly). You both should be so proud! Oh and I love her name, it's so perfect!

    1. Thanks, Joey! If you aren't afraid of getting stranded somewhere, we'll have to go for a ride one of these days. :O)

  5. Wonderful post. Hope you give a 'ride' review soon.

  6. It's gorgeous inside and out! Y'all did a fantastic job and the tale of the restoration is both inspiring and exhausting. :) Well done!

    1. It's gettin' there, Melanie. Thank you so much! :O)

  7. Looks like a fun little bug! And you are such an amazing writer. I could tell you of many projects I have worked on, but could not write it down in a way you would want to sit and read about it. You have a way with telling a story.. Good work you two!!

    1. Thank you, are very kind. I'm glad it wasn't too boring to read! :O) I probably could've written a novel about this...but that would certainly be excessive!


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