Proceeding with John Muir

In 1969, I bought a 1966 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.

The cover of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive�

This past week, I bought a copy of the sixth printing (June 1971) through 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.

1963 VW 1300, photo by Martin Kussler

This picture isn’t my 1966 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.

7 thoughts on “Proceeding with John Muir

  1. I had this very same book! What a whiff of nostalgia. I had two 1967 beetles in succession, beginning in 1973 and ending in 2001. The ’67 was aurguably the best they ever made. In 1969 they started complicating the engine and it was never the same. This book helped me change oil, fix brakes, and yes, even replace fan belts. Even a girl could work on a Vee-Dub easily!

  2. Linda, for my new copy, which I can see just by turning my head as I typed, I paid close to five times the original price ($5.50, I think). It’s worth every cent, and I’d love to find a plexiglas case to keep it in.

    I remember my mechanic, Gunnar, grumbling about the changes after 1968 or so. Three German guys on Detroit’s west side, with fanatically loyal customers (except the cheap buggers whose bounced checks were prominently displayed in the waiting area).

  3. Google sent me here. My dad used to have an old orange VW Beetle and I happened to see one in the parking lot of the grocery store today. That set my mind to the manual my dad kept in a light lime-green colored cabinet in the garage.

    To this day I can still remember thumbing through that manual at age 8 or 9 just looking at it, “inspecting” the inside of our car.

    Though I was too young to actually use the book, I remember it always being around when my dad was working on the bug. Thanks for posting this and the picture of the book, brought back some amazing memories from my childhood!

  4. Seth, you might not be surprised to learn that I get quite a few visitors by chance, like you. I see it as just another form of connection. Back when How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive came out, it could be hard to find other people who shared your interests. I was the only person I knew in college who drove a Beetle (perhaps living in Detroit had something to do with that). The Whole Earth Catalog introduced me to John Muir, and you see the result.

    I just check, and skimming down the results, I see there are a few 1970-era copies of the book available, some in pretty fair condition. Just for the kind of memories you mention, I don’t regret for an instant buying mine.

  5. got my bus 9 years ago (2005) and realised thou experienced in vehicle repair ,I had no clue what it was ,engine wise ! problem solved by Mr Muir and his worthy tombe ! saved my ass many a time and still my 1st reference when servicing/repairing!>>>I love that guy !

  6. I love this book! it helped me through simple maintenance, brakes, broken clutch cable – how to both drive AND repair, and the dreaded stripped spark plug – which required engine removal, half the motor it seemed to be taken apart, then put back together once Head had a new helicoil put in – thank you John for doing this and for the legacy that will continue as long as someone owns an aircooled VW somewhere on the planet and can read this wonderful guide :-)

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