Recently I heard from a friend that we own nothing: we are merely stewards of our possessions. If you can’t properly care for something, pass it along to someone who can. This was a profound statement for me to contemplate.
I have been stock piling project cars since I was 19 years old. As you can probably guess, not many of them ever got completed. These last few years I have been extremely focused on self improvement. I have been slowly selling off project cars that I knew I would never have the time for. As I thin the herd, it gets harder and harder to sell off cars. The last few cars that I have left are all very much a part of me. As the cliché saying goes: I poured blood, sweat and tears into this 1969 VW Baja Bug.
This photo was taken in March of 2013, and is one of the earliest photos I took after purchase.
That year I took the car to Moses Lake, WA for Memorial Day weekend. It was a yearly tradition among one of my groups of friends and this was the first year that I had a sand toy. Our convoy met up early in the morning and we all rolled out from Maple Valley, WA. The drive typically takes 3 hours, and includes 3 different mountain climbs. The car at this point was powered by a 1600cc air-cooled engine. With the freeway flyer transmission and the worn out 29″ mud tires, the Baja managed to hold steady at 65 mph if the road was flat or down hill.
Most of the mountain passes were climbed at the 25 – 35 mph range, engine screaming in a low gear. It was a long, loud, slow drive and a memory that I will never forget.
I had a lot of fun that year out in the dunes. The air pressure in my tires was lowered to single digits in an effort to gain traction. The tired old VW engine didn’t have much to muster in the loose sand. I spent much of the weekend driving around at 15 mph, pedal to the metal in 1st gear. Despite the car being slow as a snail, I fell in love with the Baja. Everything I had every read about their off road prowess was true. Digging through old photos to include in this blog post brought back a flood of memories. I actually completely forgot until just now that reverse didn’t work in the transmission. I was stuck numerous times in the sand because I was unable to rock myself back and forth out of the obstacles. Luckily my friend Travis followed me around with his 4×4 Toyota to pull me out time and time again. By the end of the weekend, 3 of the 4 mounts for the front bumper had ripped off. Those were the good old days, I tell you.
The car was in pretty sad shape when I first purchased it. There was a tear in the floor pan on the drivers side, right beside the pedals which grew immensely during the weekend. At one point I was taking my friend Bailey for a ride in the Baja. We were driving in tight circles around the edge of a mud pit. My front tire dipped into the water, and we were both covered in muddy water that had come through the hole in the floor pan. I also accumulated quite a lot of sand inside the car during the weekend. On the drive home, I made it less than 1 mile down the freeway before I had to pull over. The wind coming through the hole was kicking up the sand, blasting me in the face. I was basically caught inside a tornado of sand, while driving down the freeway. It was less than pleasant. I scooped as much sand as I could out of the car, and then borrowed a floor mat from my friends truck to cover the hole.
On the return trip, the Baja made it 160 of the 180 miles home. It was making a rather unpleasant noise near the end, and the drive up Snoqualmie Pass was miserably slow. Later analysis showed that the engine had sucked in excessive amounts of sand and tore up the cylinder walls. The engine had an old air cleaner on it when I bought it, and I never thought to replace it before my trip to the sand dunes. Live and learn as they say.
Fast forward to 2014: I was making very good money as a Marine Diesel Technician at the time. After months of research I went on a spending spree and bought all sorts of goodies for the Baja. New floor pans, a better condition body with sunroof, a brand new Rancho transaxle, engine adapter, Subaru EJ25, new gauges, unequal length header, the list goes on.
I planned on keeping this car forever, so I built it to last. The 1967 sunroof body that I purchased to replace the original body wasn’t in as good of shape as I hoped when I took it apart. I took 1/8th inch plate steel and welded new nuts into it for mounting the body. I also made some repairs to the sheet metal for the drivers side heater tube. This work was above and beyond the usual repairs, but I wanted the car to last. To perform this work, I merely installed a roof rack onto the Baja and rolled the body over. No harm, no foul.
I usually build my project cars solo. This was the first project that I have ever had someone help me. I was running out of time to make our Memorial Day weekend trip for the year. I brought in my good friend Brandon who is a Subaru expert and one of the only people that I know who builds and fabricates cars that are even crazier than the stuff I build. I installed the engine and Brandon had a custom wiring harness made in less than 2 days. He casually built a custom harness that mated a 1996 Subaru wiring harness to the original Beetle switches. This man is a wiring genius.
With 4 days to leave for our Memorial Day trip, I fired up the car and took it on its first test drive. The first 20 minutes went great. I hopped onto the freeway on ramp, smashed the gas, and the clutch immediately decided that it had no interest in holding up to the horsepower of a 2.5 liter Subaru engine. The next morning I called a company in California, paid a ridiculous amount for shipping, and had a stage 2 clutch shipped overnight. The night before we were set to leave, my friend Travis and I pulled the engine and swapped out the clutch.
Things did not get easier from there. Driving home that night, the Baja overheated on the freeway. It took some detective work to find out that the radiator hoses were collapsing. I never did make it to sleep that night. I called a friend who towed the Baja to my girlfriends house. I borrowed her car and drove it over an hour to the shop I was building the Baja at. I spent all night at the shop, building custom radiator hoses out of metal poles left over from a tarp shed. I made it back to her house, installed the hoses, bled the coolant, loaded the rest of my camping gear and we left. The drive over to Moses Lake went pretty smoothly. Climbing the mountain passes with 2.5 liters of Subaru power was incredible. Previously I had built a custom slammed trailer for car shows, which I loaded with all of my camping supplies. You can imagine the looks I received while driving this on the freeway. When we got to the dunes I topped off my tank, did some quick math and the Baja returned 32mpg over our 180 mile journey.
The weekend was a blast, yet not without issue. I can’t remember how many junkyard trips I had to make. The Subaru engine already had 180,000 miles on it before I installed it. Hindsight being as it is, I never would have gone with the notoriously bad 1996 – 2001 EJ 25 engines. For this trip, we had to replace a few sensors due to sand intrusion. The stage 2 clutch was also causing issues. With no time to properly test drive/shake down the car before the trip, I didn’t have time to realize that the clutch desperately needs to be converted to a hydraulic setup. The pressure plate was so stiff, that pushing the clutch pedal down caused it to snap in the back where the cable meets the arm. I purchased the only pedal assembly in Moses Lake that I could find in a junkyard. This pedal assembly lasted about a day before its clutch pedal broke as well. I spent the last day of my trip driving the car without a clutch, including the return trip home. Despite the setbacks, we had a blast with the car. Here is my friend Brandon who helped me build the car. (If you are wondering about the writing on my back window, “Bad to the Boner”, that’s a throwback to the previous years trip)
Tune in next time to read about the drive home and the rest of my adventures with the Baja. Thank you for reading my blog!