So there I was, standing in the engine bay and staring at the empty bell housing. The bad torque converter was on the garage floor nearby, and the new-to-me replacement was next to it. Just sitting there, you could not tell the difference, but one was useless and the other was….well…hopefully not. I glanced over at the engine sitting on the furniture dolly. I had adjusted the valves, cleaned it up while waiting for the torque converter, and painted most of the engine Tin with high heat satin black. It looked good, and seemed to be saying “its not my fault, I would have been happy with a regular gearbox” . The engine was right. As good as the Karmann Ghia looked, it was the first vintage vehicle I owned with something other than a manual gearbox. And this was not even a “real” automatic. It was the hybrid Sportomatic, which was essentially a clutch-less manual. You still had to shift. A good idea, that has returned in modern cars, but relatively fragile back then. And associating the word sport with the Karmann Ghia was beyond oxymoronic, it was libelous. But I digress….
I set about the work of installing the torque converter and putting the engine back in the car over a weekend. There are not a lot of cars where this can be a one man job, but air-cooled VWs are one of them. I slid the engine back under the car and used high precision elevation elements (patio paving blocks) and 2X4s to lever it into mating position (…actively working to avoid a bad sophomoric joke here..). I reconnected everything, adjusted the throttle cable, and headed for the drivers seat. I don’t know about you, but there is always a pause before I even attempt to start an engine that has been out of the car, or worked on significantly. It is in part a mental (or physical) checklist. Fluid filled, check, fuel lines, check, timing set, check, torque the transaxle bolts, check, did you retrieve that 13mm socket you dropped? check, etc. It is also a moment to invoke the automotive Gods. No matter how good a job I believe I have done, I ask them to overlook the abuse I heeped upon countless vehicles in my youth, and to please allow this one to start. Then I take a deep breath (I don’t know why). Then I turn the key.
Sputter, sputter, vvvrrrrooooooommm ! I am elated. I keep it running for a few minutes and then release the throttle. It stumbles and dies. I start it again without all the ritual, and it fires to life immediately. The idle adjustment must be off. I shut it off and acted like I won the Dakar. Fist pumps, opened a bottle of Stella Artois (the organizers had failed to provide champagne), and grinned. I stood on the Podium (those pavers are multi-purpose), and accepted my virtual trophy. Then I remembered, it needs to drive and shift, that is why it was apart. I cleared up the jackstands and the pavers, turned up the idle a little, and put the air cleaner on. It started right up, and I backed out of the garage. So far, so good, but reverse worked before I took it apart. I put it in first and there was a satisfying clunk. I went down the block and it shifted to second perfectly. Great. I went around the block and it shifted into third perfectly. It even idled at the stop sign. I returned to base. More fist pumping, a virtual interview with the world press, kisses from the supermodels, and another Stella. Following the theory of concentric circles, confidence grows in the following days. 5 miles, 10 miles, 30 miles. And then, there was the event.
It was a big annual VW meet at the Englishtown Dragstrip in NJ. Some where around 50 miles each way. It was the weekend after I had been standing in the engine bay. The car was running fine, but it felt a bit too soon. I have no idea why time had anything to do with it, but it just felt that way. I pondered. I looked at the car and asked it. It said, “I did not go through your ham-fisted invasive procedure to sit and have my seals dry-rot”. Allrighty then. The path from the Garage to the event was a torturous one if you did not use at least a little bit of interstate. The minimum speed for the slow lane was 40mph, well within the capabilities of the Ghia. No problem. And off I went on B roads and then onto the interstate, where 50 MPH felt dangerously slow and 60 was just about adequate. Did I mention that the motor was bone stock, and there were two of us in the car? It slowed a little going uphill, but made it the 15 miles of highway without incident. I was very happy to get off, issue a fist pump, and pat the dashboard. The car was perfect all the way to the venue, and once there, I took the option to park in the VW parking, rather than the $5 regular parking. The option came with a raffle ticket too.
The event was great, with a huge variety of air-cooled VWs, including a drag Bus that did wheelies and spat fire. It is always amazing to see the level of effort that people put into air-cooled VWs, from zero to insanity. I met a few folks I knew from other events, and we chatted about how entertaining the event was regardless of your particular interest. The conversation continued while we waited for the raffle drawing. Suddenly, Rick ran over and said “dude, they just called your name, and you need to go up to the stage” . “What for?” “You won something”. We made our way over to the stage and while I was thinking we won a six pack of towels or a bottle of Rain-X, we actually won third place in the Ghia class! It turns out that I had parked on the showfield, and In the wrong spot for my class. Never-the-less, the originality garnered enough votes to get third, even though I did not enter. I had some good natured ribbing to endure, as there were nicer Ghias in the parking lot, and there was obviously no attempt to “present”the car given the bottle of Castrol, the roll of duct tape, and the pliers on the backseat. This made the trophy seem even larger, and it traveled back to the garage in the back seat at an angle, because it could not stand upright back there. The car was flawless on the way home, and the interstate section included brief stints at…wait for it….70MPH. The car was obviously doing its own fist pumps and basking in the glow of a well earned victory.