Grease monkeys give old VW new life (photos)

In this installment of Crave's DIY Weekend, three generations of one family tackle the restoration of a 1969 Volkswagen squareback. See how the Kohler clan saved the vintage car from the scrap heap.

Edward Moyer
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
Edward Moyer
1 of 12 Jared Kohler

Newest family member

Our very own Jared Kohler, a video editor for CNET, has a long history with Volkswagens. His family has owned a flock of them, with some being passed from one family member to another. That makes for a strong connection to VWs--a bond that's part of the family bond itself.

So when longtime grease monkey Jared recently plunked down $500 for a battered old squareback to fix up and sell, it's not too surprising that brother Jason clairvoyantly called out of the blue to say he himself was looking to buy a squareback. When dad Scot heard his two sons had busted out the coveralls for a little restoration project, he insisted on joining in the fun as well.

Jared's 4-year-old son, Marshall, has also signed up for the effort, which kicked off recently with a marathon Friday-to-Sunday "thrashing session."

Here we see the 1969 squareback arriving at Jared's home in Moss Beach, Calif., which is just over the hill from Silicon Valley. As you can see, the car needs a little TLC. But it's nothing that, oh, say, three generations can't fix.
2 of 12 Jared Kohler

Panels removed

Jared and fellow members of the Kohler clan decided to focus on three main tasks during the first weekend-long banzai work session. You can see evidence of two of the three here.

"The body had been introduced to several trees in its day," Jared says, and the driver's side fender needed to be completely replaced. One of the rear quarter panels, too, needed some love: it had a huge dent--"almost like a horse put its hip" into the side of the car.
3 of 12 Jared Kohler

Great Scot

Jared's 65-year-old father, Scot, enthusiastically signed on for quarter-panel duty. A longtime grease monkey himself, with a love for not only VWs but also Model Ts and Model As (he owns a few), Scot is a whiz with the hammer and dolly used in body work. "That's what my dad is great at," Jared says proudly.

Jared sings the praises of the Volkswagen's removable body panels. "That's the great thing about these cars," he says. A lot of guys will use a slide hammer, and drill holes into the dent to pull it out. "But then you've got a lot of holes to fill. We were lucky to be able to take this off, pound it out on our two sawhorses in the garage, and then really, really finesse it and make it look really nice."
4 of 12 Jared Kohler

One word: Rust

Perhaps the biggest job was dealing with the squareback's rather ancient-looking floors. As you can see here, they were a bit rusty. Jared took the lead on this part of the project, and his first challenge was to try to find metal patch panels he could use to replace the crumbling, four-decades-old metal.

Parts for VW "Type 3s"--squarebacks, fastbacks, and notchbacks--aren't as easy to find as parts for Beetles and buses, but the Internet handled the assignment with aplomb. Jared discovered a "rabbit hole of endless Volkswagen knowledge" called TheSamba.com, and through that site hooked up with a company called ISP West in Southern California that had just what he was looking for.

It wasn't always so easy. The 35-year-old Jared reminisces about the many weekends of his youth spent "scouring the pick-and-pulls all up and down the East Bay here, just hoping you picked the right one on the right day and there'd be that right car and it would have what you needed."

He also recalls the old-school method of buying a copy of Hot VWs magazine and combing through the ads to find parts companies and catalogs. Then you'd start cold calling:

"You know, call Airheads VWs in Texas, and then Bob at the counter will say, 'Yeah, buuuuut how 'bout you try Joe's Vanagon and Squareback Parts in Miami?' Doing all that could take weeks back in the day. Now you've got all that sort of work done in a few hours. There's almost too much information now."
5 of 12 Jared Kohler

Firing up the grinder

Once Jared had received the patch panels, or floor pans (which cost him $150 apiece--one for the driver's side, one for the passenger's side), he dropped them into the car to check the fit. Then, satisfied that they'd work, he lifted them out again and cut out the rusted part of the floor with a hand grinder. (Here's our adrenaline-pumping first-person-shooter take on that. Can't you just hear the metal screaming?)
6 of 12 Jared Kohler

Jacked up

The floor pans required some customization, so Jared made some adjustments (note the cut metal to the left). Then he propped the pans roughly in place from beneath the car, using a jack.
7 of 12 Kohler

Measure twice, weld once

More fiddling went on, with Jared screwing the pans into position with self-tapping screws and lining things up and roughing them in with a hammer. He also used his MIG welder to tack weld the patches into place (so he could still reposition them relatively easily if need be).

Some of the rust went up higher than the patch panel would reach, so Jared cut little slivers of metal to make patches on the patch panel itself, to fill those gaps. Once everything was mocked into place, he went all around the floor pan with the MIG welder.
8 of 12 Jared Kohler

Prime time

Voila: new floors. After securely welding the floor pans in place, Jared used the hand grinder with a flat disc to tidy things up a bit.

"The goal in welding is to try to make your weld as pretty as possible," he says. "But there are those welds in those tight-to-reach corners that don't look so great. So, yeah, I went around with my hand grinder and cleaned up what needed to be cleaned up on both sides."

He then primed both the inside and outside surfaces. Finally, he applied a rubberized undercoat, which was stock, to the car's undercarriage.

Jared loves to restore a car from the ground up like this. It's like an archaeological dig--and you get to know the car in a way you couldn't otherwise. "You find all the old fossilized French fries under the front seat," he says, "or, you know, quarters from 1935. Just all the old stuff--you really get to know every nook and cranny."
9 of 12 Jared Kohler

Like father, like son

It wasn't long before Jared's 4-year-old son Marshall got into the act with his dad, granddad, and uncle, turning things into a bit of a male-bonding session.

"He would check in with us," Jared recalls, with a smile in his voice. "He'd say, 'Mom, I'm gonna go down and see what the big guys are doing. And I'm gonna go by myself; I don't want you coming with me.'"

Jared and the other big guys would get Marshall going on a little project he could handle--setting him up with a push broom or the shop vac and putting him to work on a light cleanup task.

"We tried to get him involved," says Jared, "so, you know: three generations."

Male-bonding aside, Jared's wife, Erinn, fits right in with the VW-loving crowd. That's her 1970 fastback Marshall is standing in front of.
10 of 12 Jared Kohler

Sibling sanding

Here's Jared's brother, Jason, going over dad's handiwork with an angle grinder and a sanding disc.

"Once the floors were in and solid," Jared says, "then it was sorting out the body and getting it straight. And there wasn't a panel on the car, aside from the roof, that didn't have some type of dent and wasn't untrue in some way. So it was a big task, getting the car--all four quarters--straight again."
11 of 12 Jared Kohler

Patch job

Here's dad and Jason before the quarter-panel was bolted back on.

This shot shows the newly replaced front fender. Rather than buy a new fender for $300, Jared paid $80 for a '67 fender and "converted it" into a '69. The two different years of squarebacks had different styles of turn signals--thus the mounting holes in the fenders were different sizes, with the '67's being bigger. So Jared had to adjust the hole on the fender he'd bought.

He traced through the '67 hole onto a piece of cardboard; then cut the cardboard into a template that fit perfectly into the hole. Then he placed the cardboard template onto a piece of metal salvaged from the old, smashed-up fender and cut around it to create a metal patch. He welded that into the hole on the '67 fender, then used the undamaged passenger-side fender to create a map for drilling mounting holes into the newly patched fender.

You can see the circular welding mark here, beneath the hole for the headlamp.
12 of 12 Jared Kohler

Body of work

This first "thrashing session" left the squareback with a new floor, a new fender, and a newly smooth body (more or less). The Kohlers also topped off all the work with a bit of engine tinkering--because Jason couldn't resist the idea of a little drive.

"This thing had mice living in it once," Jared says, "and a lot of the insulation on the wires had been chewed. So we had to go through and solder a few things and then just by knocking on wood, crossing our fingers and toes, it started just enough--really rough--but just enough to drive it."

The expedition to the mailboxes and back revealed three things: 1) the car ran, 2) the brakes worked, and 3) the transmission shifted. It also recalled Jared's boyhood memories of sitting on his dad's lap in the family's sky-blue squareback and steering down the street. This time, though, dad watched his two sons drive from a distance--the backseat, you see, had not yet been reinstalled.

Jared figures it'll take another two to three thrashing sessions to get the car in good enough shape for his brother to drive it back home to Seattle. More engine work, seat belts, and the installation of sound-deadening material to the floors ("so we don't rattle our fillings out") are a few of the items on the agenda. All in all, the project should cost about $2,300. Brother Jason will spend additional money later, when he puts in new carpet, gets the car painted, and fixes up the interior.

So how does it all feel?

"Amazing," Jared says. "Building anything, there's that sense of pride, the satisfaction. When you talk about it you really realize, 'Oh my gosh, I really have done this much work.'" And saving an old car is especially gratifying--it allows one to pass on the good feelings. Jared says that when he's done projects like this in the past, it never fails--someone, at the gas station, say, or the beach, will come up to share fond memories: "There's always a guy: 'My mom used to have one of those!'"

"It's a warm, fuzzy feeling," Jared says, "to bring a car like this back to life."

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