🔧'74 Karmann Ghia

Running log of the work I'm doing (and things I'm learning!) with a new-to-me classic air-cooled Volkswagen project.
  • Created by John Bowdre
  • Created on 24 Sep 21
  • 11 Highlights
Sep 11, 2021
Worked on a project car
Learned something
Worked on an air-cooled VW
+ 1
It's been a fairly productive Ghia week!

  • Remember how I don't really know what I'm doing? That was confirmed this week when I realized that I'd basically been doing everything wrong. For some reason, I had (incorrectly) assumed that the single notch on the rear portion of my crank pulley must mark Top Dead Center, when the piston is fully extended inside the cylinder; I then read something that suggested the notch instead indicated 7.5 degrees Before Top Dead Center. To check this, I removed the spark plug from cylinder 1, stuck a plastic straw inside as a feeler, and slowly turned the engine with a 21mm wrench applied to the alternator pulley. That let me feel when the piston stopped moving... and, sure enough, it wasn't when the notch was lined up with the crack on the case. In fact, this position matched with the hard-to-see dimple on the front portion of the pulley. Good to know! 
  • Of course, that also meant that my previous valve adjustments had been performed incorrectly; those are supposed to be done with each piston in its TDC position - not 7.5 degrees before. So I re-did those adjustments, and it only took about fifteen minutes this time! It didn't make a big difference, but there were a couple of cylinders that had just a wee bit (like 0.008" instead of 0.006") too much valve gap. 
  • And I think I've finally figured out what I'm doing with regards to timing the (aftermarket) 009 distributor which was installed in the car at some point. All the specs I found said to time it to ~10 degrees BTDC at idle. Since the 009 isn't equipped with vacuum advance (it just centrifugally advances the timing as it spins faster), it's actually way more important to set the peak advance to about 32 degrees at around 3500 rpm; that should drop to 5-10 degrees BTDC at idle, but the exact timing isn't as important here. I printed out a timing wheel and used that to mark the relevant points around the rim of the crank pulley (TDC, a range covering 5-10 degrees BTDC, and a hash to mark the 32 degree maximum advance).
  • And I discovered that the Innova 3340 tach/dwell (many other functions) meter I'm using seems to do a much better job of reading the RPMs when I use the inductive pickup on the cylinder 1 spark plug wire and put the meter in indistinctly-named "CON" mode rather than attaching the contact probe to the negative terminal on the coil and setting the meter to "RPM" mode. It had previous been pretty tough to read, and often indicated that the car's idle was set way too high. The measurements are much more consistent (and reasonable) when using that inductive pickup.
  • So I combined all of this knowledge to actually get the timing set correctly (finally!), with a maximum of about 30 degrees advance at 3500 rpm and a comfortable idle of 7ish degrees BTDC at ~850 rpm. 
  • And I used the improved RPM measurements to also tweak the carburetor settings a bit, per the Bentley manual: I used the big bypass screw to set the idle to about 850 rpm, turned the smaller volume adjustment screw until the engine ran at its fastest and kept turning clockwise until it dropped off ~30 rpm, and finally used the big bypass screw to reset the idle at about 850. So maybe the car is now tuned correctly?
  • I had intended to drive the Ghia to work on Thursday since the weather was going to be nice, but my pre-flight check that morning revealed that the brake lights weren't working anymore. That evening, I jiggled some wires and got them working again... hardly a proper fix, but enough to take the Ghia to work on Friday - which I did! It drove like a dream.
  • Today, my wife and I spent a few hours cleaning up the electrical connections for the front and rear signal lights. I was a bit surprised to find that each bulb only had a single wire running to it, relying on the light housing itself to provide the connection to ground and complete the circuit. We carefully cleaned the corrosion and grime off of the wiring connections and thoroughly cleaned the bulb sockets as well. Once everything was put back together, all the lights worked again (yay), and some of them even glowed more brightly than before. Hopefully this cleanup will help keep the current flowing better in the future. We plan to revisit the other end of those wires (at the fuse box behind the dashboard) soon.
I feel a bit silly for having been doing things fairly wrong so far, but I'm glad to have finally figured things out. I learned a lot this week, and the Ghia is running beautifully. I think we'll take the Ghia out for more joy rides and trips across town now that the weather is (maybe?) cooling off a bit and we're getting a bit more comfortable and confident with the car's transport abilities. 
Sep 05, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
Now I've got a drain plug!

I noticed that the Ghia had been leaking a bit of oil in the past couple of weeks, probably because I hadn't been adequately prepared for that first tuneup and had reused the existing gaskets for the oil screen and the sump plate. I ordered several sets of gaskets, and also picked up an aftermarket sump plate with a built-in drain plug. That should make future oil changes much easier!

Plus it's shiny so that's +5hp.

I also did a bit of fiddling with the timing and carburetor settings. I realized that my car doesn't have the factory-correct single-vacuum double-advance (SVDA) distributor and instead has an aftermarket Bosch 009 unit with no vacuum advance (centrifugal only). The specs say that I should set the timing for that to ~10BTDC, but the motor really didn't seem to like that. No amount of adjustment on the carburetor would get it to idle correctly. I kicked the timing back to the ~5BTDC I was using previously and I was then able to adjust the idle with the bypass screw and the mixture with the volume screw. It seems happier now.

I'm not sure why the timing would need to be set so far off from what everything I can find suggests the 009 should be, but of course I also don't know what else might not be factory-stock about this motor. 

But hey, I'm learning stuff and enjoying the car along the way!
Aug 28, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
Another lovely weekend day, another couple of hours of wrenching on our 1974 VW Karmann Ghia...

  • We rechecked the toe alignment on the front end, and found that I'm a dumb-dumb and my previous alignment efforts hadn't been accurate since the suspension wasn't loaded. Rather than using a laser pointer held against the hubs, this time I used a pair of yardsticks held up between the inner edges of the rims stretching from one side of the car to the other. I marked where the sticks overlapped with the measurement taken between the front edge of each wheel and again between the rear edge. This revealed the car was actually sitting with about 1/2" toe out, which likely explains why I was having to fight so much to keep it centered on the road. I eventually got it dialed in to about 1/8" toe in.
  • I had to raise the front end again in order to get at the lock nuts on the inner tie rod ends, and along the way I noticed that the passenger side wheel had a little bit of side-to-side play in it. I removed the cap on the center of the hub and tightened the wheel bearing adjustment nut to eliminate the slop. I did the same on the driver side for good measure. 
  • I then lifted up the rear of the car to see about adjusting the drum brakes, which I suspected weren't releasing all the way. It turns out I was right: even with both wheels off the ground, I couldn't turn the left rear wheel on my own. I used a flat-head screw driver to spin the shoe adjustment star wheel things and got the wheel to rotate more freely. I dialed them back down until the wheel started getting some resistance, and backed off just enough to spin freely again. I repeated this for the right drum as well.
  • While I was under the rear of the car, I also identified a disconnected wire that had been dangling beneath the car (and driving me nuts every time I saw it). It's the starter end of the stock ignition circuit - so there's another explanation for why I can't start it up by turning the key and must instead press the button behind the passenger seat. I had hoped that I could just reconnect it to the starter and get back in business (and even confirmed that the wire gets +12VDC when the key is turned to the "start" position) but it still wasn't doing the trick. I reconnected the bypass circuit between the battery, the button, and the starter, and at least used a wire tie to keep the stock wire from dangling in the future.
  • My wife also spent some time removing the black vinyl wrap a previous owner had used to cover up the chrome trim pieces on both sides of the car. The chrome underneath is a little scuffed, but we both think that the lines look a lot better (even if some of the lines aren't completely straight...).
We went for a few short drives along the way to check our progress. The steering feels MUCH better; no more weird oscillation when making minor inputs. Brakes also feel better; the car stops well and it doesn't feel like the brakes are still applied when I lift off the pedal. 

All told we put another 15 miles on the car today, and I'm really enjoying the way it drives now. I can't wait to drive it to work again - once it cools off a bit more.
Aug 23, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
I did it! I drove the Ghia to work!

Perhaps more importantly, I also drove it home! My previous drives had all been little 5-mile circuits around the house, so doing ~30 miles round-trip feels like a great confidence-boosting accomplishment. Now I know that the car (and driver!) is up for cross-town trips.

The longer drive also revealed a few things that I'd like to investigate further. After a bit of hard braking, it felt like the rear drum brakes may not be retracting quite far enough when I lift off the pedal. I'll take a look at adjusting those rear shoes this weekend, and will likely go ahead and replace the fluid as well for good measure.

I also found that, while the car tracks nice and straight with no steering input, if I provide a small input to better center the vehicle in the lane I generally have to deliberately counter that input rather than just letting the steering come back to center, and this is compounded by the well-within-spec inch of free play in the steering wheel. It can wind up taking quite a bit of effort to effectively counter the small initial input without resulting in a nasty bout of pilot-induced oscillation... and that's kind of scary. I'm not sure yet if this is indicative of a problem with the car (alignment? bad steering damper? something else?) or a problem with the driver just not being used to how old cars steer. I'm going to try to do a better driveway alignment and see if I can get the toe dialed in a bit more accurately; if not, I'll get to a shop for a professional alignment and figure out where to go from there.

Overall, I think the drive was a resounding success! That said, 30 miles round-trip in sunny 90°F+ humid Alabama weather without any air conditioning wasn't the most comfortable way to travel. I was pretty ripe by the time I got to the office, and riper still when I finally reached home. I don't think the Ghia will be a regular commuter vehicle for me until outside cools off significantly. I look forward to that happening though!
Aug 22, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
Today my wife and I spent some time doing some tuneup work on our 1974 VW Karmann Ghia:

  • Adjusted valves with a 0.006" feeler gauge
  • Adjusted distributor points to ~49° with a dwell meter
  • Adjusted timing to 5° BTDC with a timing strobe
  • Changed oil
  • Changed spark plugs
The engine already ran pretty well, but it runs even better now! I'm very pleased with that result since this was our first time ever doing the first three items on the list. 

It was really great to learn a bit more about how this engine works in the process. Being able to easily turn the engine with a wrench really helped me to better understand how the pieces fit and work together. And making adjustments on the distributor, observing how the engine changes in response, and also seeing how it compares with the indication from the timing strobe was super cool to me.

The weather looks like it should be nice tomorrow so I'm going to try to drive the Ghia to work. It should be interesting!
Aug 15, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
I fixed the Ghia's somewhat-frightening steering slippage issue!
A friend of mine found a post on a VW forum which seemed to describe the exact symptom I had been experiencing (thanks Jim!). I lifted the front end, removed the driver side wheel, and had my wife turn the steering wheel in each direction as I pushed the opposite direction on the hub. Sure enough, the collar which attaches the hollow steering column to the splined shaft of the steering box was just a teeny bit too loose and was allowing the column to skip a few degrees in each direction.

I applied some elbow grease to the bolt and repeated the test, and it seemed to address the issue. I then went for a quick test drive to confirm - success!

With that, the car feels solid enough that I'd be comfortable driving it to work on nice days. Unfortunately it looks like we'll be having weather for the foreseeable future so I guess that dream will have to wait. I'm getting close though!
Aug 13, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
I had today off from work so I spent a little bit of time wrenching on the Ghia, and I think I figured out why the starter doesn't start when I turn the key to the start position - and probably why the previous owner had hooked up the silly push-button starter setup in the first place.

It seems that the 1974 Ghia includes a seatbelt safety interlock which prevents the car from being started unless everyone is securely buckled into their seat. Since I already had the seats out of the car, it was easy to hook a multimeter up to the connector under each seat and determine that the passenger side seat was registering an occupant (closing the circuit) even when I wasn't sitting on it. I then checked the wires coming off of each seatbelt buckle and found that the passenger side was (of course) thinking that the seatbelt wasn't fastened even when it was.

So the car always thinks someone is in the passenger seat, and never thinks the person there is wearing their seatbelt.

It seems like a pretty complicated system; wiring up the push-button starter was probably significantly easier than correcting the faults with the seat and buckle. I'd still like to have things working the right way but I can at least accept the push-button setup (for now) since I better understand the reasoning for it.

With that mystery solved, I reinstalled the seats in the car and went for a quick spin around the block. It was only about a 5-mile drive, but I drove past three elderly men who each gave me a wave or thumbs-up gesture as I went by. That's pretty cool.

That's the extent of the car work I did today; I also just picked up How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir and have started reading through it. I can already tell that this will be an excellent guide to understanding this new-to-me air-cooled and carbureted engine setup as well as offering practical instructions for keeping it running. I think it will compliment the more technical Bentley manual quite nicely. Thanks again for the recommendation, @timapple!

I do intend to take a closer look at that weird steering issue later this weekend; I just really didn't feel like getting underneath the car while I'm home alone. More soon!
Aug 08, 2021
Worked on a project car
Worked on an air-cooled VW
It was probably overkill, but I yanked out the front seats to get at the inspection panel under the rear bench so I could see what was going on with the shifter linkage. Naturally, once I actually laid eyes on it the shifter started behaving again and would happily move through the gears. My wife said she wiggled the shifter before we pulled the seats so that must have done the trick. One issue down! (for now, at least)

Along the way, I also checked out the wiring for that pesky push-button ignition; it's wired straight to the battery so you could burn up the starter even without the key if you wanted to... gross. (But hey, based on the paint in that area, it looks like this car was originally Ravenna Green. I think we know what color we'll be painting it once we get to that point!)

Disconnecting that button will be easy enough, but I should really get the ignition switch working again first. I went exploring through the wiring behind the dash and found where the red/black ignition wire comes off the switch and into a terminal block... with nothing on the other side of the circuit. There are a bunch of dangling wires so I spent some time trying to identify the right one. I thought I found it and made the connection correctly but turning the key still doesn't make the starter do its thing. I figure I either connected the wrong wire (in which case, what long-dormant circuit did I just energize?) or it's actually disconnected from the starter itself. Further investigation is needed. 

I also removed the cover from the steering wheel so that I could see whether it's slipping at that end or where the column enters the steering gearbox; bad news, it's (naturally) not the easily-accessible one. My plan for next time is to raise the front of the car, remove the driver side wheel, and hope that I can see what's going on at the steering gearbox that way.