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Top End Overhaul

I bought my beetle in the summer of 2006 in Illinois, just before we moved to Kentucky. Before putting the money down, I had a mechanic I trusted give it a once-over and prepare it for the hundreds of miles ferry to the new house. I asked him to take care of anything that needed to be checked/adjusted, and specifically to adjust the valves.

I drove it a lot (to and from flying lessons, particularly) through 2006 and 2007. I was accumulating tools, knowledge, and manuals as I went, as I tracked down and fixed various minor running problems. Sometime in there, I had to do my first tune-up, begging with adjusting the valves. The #1 exhaust valve was so tight I couldn't even get a .0015 feeler gauge into the gap (the spec is .006). Since that was the first valve I did, I thought I must be doing it wrong, until I went to the other valves. And I got rather annoyed at the mechanic who i'd specifically asked to set the valves correctly.

Now come summer of 2007, I was sorting out some stuff running issues; probably related to the fact that the car sat for over three months over the winter while I put the outer parts of the engine back together. So I decided to do a tune-up; less than a thousand miles on the car since I'd done the last one. #1 exhaust valve had no clearance; less than .0015. Oh crap. As i'd read later, generally valve adjustments get looser with time and wear; the only reasons they get tighter are because either a valve sinking into the head or a seat coming loose. Both are portents of major, catastrophic problems.

So...I realized that the engine was on borrowed time. Since September 2007, I've driven it just a hair over 300 miles total; up to that date I would have thought nothing of driving it on a 200 mile round trip. I started trying to track the problem down in 2007. Then one day, I lost all the brake fluid in the rear circuit and spent the winter 2007-2008 fixing that. Once I had the car driving in 2008, I tried to track down the problem again. Finally, at the end of the summer of 2008, I was forced to admit that there was something terribly wrong with the right side of the engine, and that I wouldn't know until I pulled the engine out and looked to see what was going on.

I'll just list a chronology of some of the things I did and why. Each item is listed as a date and a milage or milage range in parentheses, if known. Each time I mention a valve measurement, I go through and check the valve clearance and then SET it back to .006 inches which is the spec.

  • August 6, 2006 (78963 - 79170): checked valves. All valves on right side below proper clearance, #1 exhaust clearance too small to measure (less than .0015 inches). I curse at my mechanic who I asked specifically to set the valves in July before I bought the car.
  • April 21, 2007 (80226) found timing was way too advanced. fixed that and did tune-up, starting with valves. #1 exhaust clearance too small to measure again. Crap.
  • June 9, 2007 (80372) check and set valves. #1 exhaust is at .004. For those of you keeping score at home, that's dropping .002 in 150 miles. Ouchie.
  • June 25, 2007 (80855) set valves on right side. didn't record what they were before setting (Dr. Henry would be so disappointed in me)
  • August 18, 2007 (81487) checked and set right side valves. #1 exhaust at .005, the rest at .006
  • July 19, 2008 (81970) (car was up on blocks for the winter fixing brake system) set valves. Didn't record what they had been

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