In 1969, I bought a 1963 VW Beetle. It was black, and its running boards no longer had anything to do with the front fenders, but it ran well.
One reason it did — the primary reason — was a classic of the times: John Muir’s incomparable How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.
This past week, I bought a copy of the sixth printing (June 1971) through Abebooks.com. As I browse through, I’m struck (as I was in college) by the strength and clarity of his writing.
In these days of gaps — credulity, intelligence, information, and many others — it’s tough to locate the exact gap one can fill. This book has been designed, in addition to making me some bread, to fill the gap between “What to” and “How to.”
Nice distinction between theory and practice, that.
Muir’s book has three kinds of procedures: diagnostic (“determine what is wrong with your car”), maintenance (“what to do to keep your VW in proper working order”), and repair.
He groups repairs into three phases, and lists a Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III tool kit. If you have all the Phase I tools, you can do any Phase I repair. To underscore the thoroughness of the book and the thought that went into his organization, I’ll tell you that removing the engine is a Phase II job.
If you’re developing on-the-job guides, Muir sets an effective, pragmatic standard on page 6 with his Procedure on How to Run Procedures. Here’s Muir at work:
Step 1: Analysis
Read the procedure all the way through before you start. This will familiarize you with the problems and prepare your head for the operations that will be required.
Step 2: Preparation
Get all the tools and materials needed for the procedure together, prepare the location by maybe sweeping the area… Have the blocks and safety equipment ready. Make sure there is hand soap and rags, things like that. If the procedure calls for help, make arrangements with your chick or some other friend… ( “Your chick?” Well, it was 1969. )
Step 3: Miscellaneous Instructions
Get someone to read the steps to you the first time you do a procedure… There’s nothing worse than trying to turn pages with greasy hands, or trying to read while lying under the car…Double check everything! In other words, do the step then have it read again so you can see if you did everything right. Equip the reader with a pencil so notes can be taken while you are down there looking at the thing…Wear the right clothes. There’s no better way to keep peace in the family than to wear car clothes to work on the car.
Step 4: Goof-ups
When you strip a thread, twist off a stud, drop a bolt into the engine and like that, don’t freak out — turn to Chapter XVI, written for these contingencies.
Step 5: Cleanliness
Keep everything clean as you go along. Clean parts so they shine… When you are through, clean your tools and put them away before you take your coveralls off, then clean yourself and change your clothes before you drive the car, or at least cover the seat with something so you don’t get the inside greasy.
Step 6: Love
This is the tough one, and will make or break you. You must do this work with love, or you fail. You don’t have to think, but you must love. This is one of the reasons I have nice tools. If I get hung up with maybe a busted knuckle or a busted stud, I feel my tools, like art objects or lovely feelies, until the rage subsides and sense and love return…
At the time, I thought I learned a lot about working on my car. I didn’t realize I was also learning about learning.
Many, many people have written about how John Muir’s book empowered them — helped them achieve success and competence they didn’t expect to achieve. Muir managed in print to be not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side.
I thought I was just taking a mental break, remembering how Muir’s book helped me set valve clearances and install a new fan belt. Instead I’m surprised how instructions written by a man who died nearly 30 years ago are so clear, cogent, and, yes, enjoyable to read.
This picture isn’t my 1963 Beetle. It’s a photo of a 1965, taken by Martin Kussler and used here under a Creative Commons license. This one’s over 40 years old, and looks at least as good as mine ever did.