VW Vanagon Westfalia / Dometic Fridge Maintenance

VW Vanagon Westfalia / Dometic Fridge Maintenance

By Frank Condelli

      The Dometic fridge that’s installed in your VW Vanagon Westfalia camper needs some maintenance now and then to keep it working well.  This article will address this issue.

       Some symptoms that indicate the need for this maintenance are no or hard starting on the propane setting, improper cooling, ventilating fan noisy or inoperative, and the LED run indicator not working.  To execute the needed maintenance requires that the fridge be removed from its location in the camper cabinet.

Step 1.     Begin by making sure the propane valve is shut on the propane tank.  You can test to make sure it is by trying to light the stove after you have shut the valve off.  If the stove does not light then the valve is shut properly.  

Step 2.    Remove the fridge flue vent on the side of the van by removing the three screws holding the outer most vent ring.  Then remove the five other screws you will find underneath this ring.  Remove the all the pieces including the gasket.  If there is any rusting around the opening in the wall of the van now is a good time to look after this situation.  Keep track of the order in which the parts come off, as it is very important they go back in the same order.  All these parts must be cleaned of any corrosion before re-installing them.  The rubber parts should be coated with Krown rust proofing oil or a similar product.  Use the Krown on the metal side of the van, all the metal plates and screws unless replacing the screws with stainless steel ones, which is a good upgrade.  If the metal plate that goes onto the rubber gasket has the two holes that hold it to the side of the van enlarged to the pint the screws do not hold you can use soft metal washers behind the screws. 

Step 3.   Go to the front of the fridge and remove the door by sliding it upwards on the hinges, remove the front panel of the cabinet by removing the plastic screw caps by prying them off with a sharp object like a penknife blade and remove the screws. Remove the small screw in the metal part of the cabinet at the upper left hand corner of the panel.  The panel can now be slide to the right to disengage it from it slot in the cabinet and pulled forward.  Now there are four more screws on the sides.  Two can be located by opening the door of the storage compartment below the sink and looking on the wall next to the fridge you will find two small holes in the wood paneling and recessed in these holes you will find the two screws.  Then on the other side in the storage compartment next to the fridge beneath the swing out table you will find one more and then in the lower compartment next to the fridge you will find the last one.   Remove the metal vent on the side of the cabinet so that you can access the exhaust tubes and help them not get hung up as they come through the wall of the van and the interior panelling. 

Step 4.     Disconnect the propane line. Removing the drawer under the sink and reaching in behind the fridge to access this fitting can accomplish this.

Step 5.     Disconnect the 110-volt plug from the fridge from its receptacle in the cabinet underneath the sink.  Disconnect the two 12 volt electrical connectors, one with three wires and one with one black wire.  All these wires should be held to the back of the cabinet by a strap that has a snap connector.  To undo the snap, you man need to pry it open with a small screwdriver.

Step 6.     Remove the fridge by sliding it out toward the middle of the van, slowly.  You should now be able to slide the fridge all the way out.  The exhaust pipe will most likely get hung up as it tries to clear the opening in the wall of the van so watch that it clears this point.  You will have to tip the fridge at an angle to allow the exhaust pipe to duck under the cabinetwork and let the fridge come all the way out.  

Step 7.     Once the fridge is free standing in the middle of your van take it to a workbench to complete the following maintenance.  The fridge must be blocked to level for all these operations to be done correctly.

Step 8.     Turn the fridge upside down and block so that it is level.  Let stand in that position for a minimum of 24 hours.  This will dissolve any of the crystals that “MAY” have formed in the chemicals that are inside the cooling system.   Some of the work described below can be done with fridge in this position.  For others, you will have to wait until you can turn the fridge right side up.

Step 9.     Around the backside of the fridge you will see the ventilating fan, cooling fins and propane burner and more than likely you will find this area full of dirt, cobwebs, and all kinds of goodies that have accumulated there over the years.  Clean this area and the top of the fridge using a vacuum and or compressed air.  

Step 10.     Open up the combustion chamber of the burner by removing the six screws that hold the bottom of the burner in place.  Before removing these screws undo the fitting to the propane line and remove the screw holding the sparking starter and remove the starter. Now remove the six screws and remove the bottom cover and see how much dirt has accumulated in there. Clean this out and also check to see if the air intake going to the front of the fridge, with the small screw cap, is not blocked.  If it is blocked which is highly likely, take a length of wire and slide it down the tube until air can pass then blow it out with compressed air. Check the propane lines are clear.  Remove the jet and place it in a small jar with Lacquer thinner so that it is submerged for 15 ~ 30 minutes, then blow it out with compressed air.  You can use a small copper wire to pass through it to aid in cleaning it.  Do not force the wire, as you do not want to damage or enlarge the jet.  You should be able to see light through the jet when holding it up to a strong light source.  Before re-installing the jet, blow air through the propane line by using compressed air from a compressor source, input with a blow gun at the main line connection at the top rear right hand corner of the fridge.  Open the main propane valve, set the thermostat to MAX, push in and hold the bypass/safety valve, then blow for a few minutes to make sure the lines and valves are clear.  Now you can re-install the jet and burner pipe once your satisfied the lines, jet and burner pipe are clear and clean.    

Step 11.     Check the exhaust and air intake stack tubes. They need to be free and clear of any and all obstructions. Use compressed air here again.  Check the exhaust pipe for cracks especially in the corrugated flex section. If it is cracked you will need to repair or replace it.  Small cracks can be repaired successfully with muffler cement and or muffler tape.  

Step 12.     Check the gasket between the bottom cover and burner pot and if it is bad you can make a new one from a piece of inner tube or similar material or you can use Loctite, Ultra Copper High Temperature RTV Silicone sealant on the old gasket. 

Step 13.     After your confident that everything is nice and clean, check that the spark starter is working by pressing on the starting button on the front of the fridge. You should see a nice healthy blue spark. If the spark starter is not working then you will need to find out why.  The wire may be broken or the spark is no longer any good in either case it will need to be replaced.

Step 14.     Once your confident the combustion chamber, exhaust pipe and air intake pipes are clean and the starter is functioning you can replace the cover of the combustion chamber, the spark starter and the propane line.  

Step 15.     Now you want to test the burner.  This can be done by taking the propane tank and the feed line to the burner from your backyard barbecue and connecting to the propane connector on the back of your fridge. Open the tank valve and start the fridge as per the instructions on the fridge door.   If all goes well the fridge should start up relatively easily.  You can check to see what the flame looks like by removing the Piezo starter from the firebox and peering into that hole.  The flame should be blue and even over the whole run of the burner pipe.  Turn the thermostat up and down and the flame should vary, if not the thermostat valve may be faulty.  Now let it run for awhile so that your sure it’s working well.  You can shut it down and restart it a few time to insure that it fires right up consistently, if not the Piezo may not be in the proper location and you should try to reposition it.  You can check the operation of the cooling system now if you wish by taking the door of the fridge and placing it on the fridge and block it somehow to seal as best you can.  After an hour or so of operation the temperature of the cooling pipe behind the cooling fins inside the fridge can be checked with an infrared thermometer or just place an ordinary thermometer on the lower ice cube tray.  The temperature on the rivet to the far left is the coldest, it should reach -7 Celsius.   

Step 16.     While the fridge is running you need to verify that the black wire leading away from the small start valve which is located at the end of the push-in starter valve on the front of the fridge is providing 25 ~ 35 millivolts.  That wire is connected to a Thermocouple at the end of that valve.   See the explanation of how this works here > Thermocouple.   This Thermocouple is what turns on the LED on the control panel telling you that the fridge is running.  

Step 17.     Turn the fridge off, wait awhile then re-start the fridge again.  It should start right up.

Step 18.     Now that your fridge is working perfectly on propane.  You should also check the electric ventilating fan.  Connect a source of 12-volt power to the Brown and Blue wires at the fridges 12-volt power plug, the Blue is the negative and the Brown is the positive.  Using a heat source such as hair dryer or heat gun heat the thermocouple, the small disc device attached to the cooling fins and wired in series to the fan, just until the fan starts up.  The fan should come on and go off as the thermocouple cools.  If the fan does not come on then either the thermocouple or the fan is defective.  Bypass the thermocouple to check.  Replace the defective parts.  A good suitable replacement for the fan is a 2″ computer muffin fan.  

Step 19.      Check the cooling fins inside the fridge.  The cooling fins/ice cube tray holder assembly is clipped to the cooling tube behind it and uses Thermal Mastic on the mating surfaces to provide proper transfer from the cooling pipe to the fin assembly.  If this unit is loose then the cooling system will not function properly and the Thermal Mastic will have to be renewed.  Remove the cooling fin assembly by pulling it forward.  Clean the mating surfaces and coat the inner surface on the cooing fin unit with Thermal Mastic and reinstall the unit by pushing it back onto the cooling tube and set it level.  Once the Thermal Mastic has dried the cooling fin assembly will stay in place.

Step 20.     Check the 110-volt operation plug in the 110-volt plug into a working 110 volt household outlet and turn the appropriate switches on the front of the fridge. It will take awhile for it to get cool; the only way you can tell it’s working, so be patient.  You can do the same thing for the 12volt operation by supplying 12 volt power to the 12 volt electrical connector, Black is the positive and Blue is the negative, then turn the appropriate switch on the fridge.  The two heating elements are retained in metal tubes welded to the exhaust stack.  They are retained in these tubes by setscrews at the bottom of the tubes.  They need to be tight for the heat transfer to work properly so check them.  You can slide the metal cover over the insulation of the exhaust stack up wards to access these setscrews.  Now once you’re satisfied the fridge is working well your ready to re-install it.

Step 21.     Check the air pump.  The air pump, operated by the control knob on the far left of the control panel, is there to introduce fresh air into the firebox.  Since the firebox and its intake and exhaust tracks are completely sealed, a way of getting fresh air, oxygen more precisely, to allow the propane to light, is needed.  Remove the end of the plastic hose from the pump where it connects to the metal tube and put it into a vessel containing water.  Actuate the pump and you should see bubbles.  No bubbles, the pump is not working and will have to be repaired or replaced.  There was a modification service bulletin issued to perform on the air pump to make it work better.  Check to see if this modification has been done.  If not you should do it now.  Remove the pump, remove the original plastic air supply line and check valve and disassemble the pump.  Drill out the exit port where the plastic tube connects with a #40, 3.5mm, 9/64″ drill bit.  Disassemble the pump piston assembly.  Install an O-ring between the metal plate on the side of the circlip and the piston.  This O-ring needs to fit tightly on the rod.  You should be able to find a suitable O-ring at your local auto parts or building supply.  Discard the original plastic air supply line and check valve.  Obtain a new check valve, Volkswagen P/N 055 131 101 or equivalent, drill out the two ports with the same drill bit used above, install this new check valve using two lengths of 4mm, (5/32″) ID x 65mm (2.5″) long surgical tubing or equivalent.  Be sure the one-way valve is installed in the proper direction, air to fire box when pump is actuated.  Secure the check valve to the ignitor with a tie wrap.

Step 22.     Before you re-install the fridge you should take the opportunity to clean up the space in the van behind the fridge.  Upon close examination you may find rust and debris there that needs to be cleaned up.  The Fiberglas insulating material that was used to insulate the walls of the Westfalia tends to soak up and hold any humidity that collects in there and I found that removing this insulation and replacing it with 2″closed cell Styrofoam that will not absorb moisture will be to your vans benefit.  If your van is a Canadian model with the electrical outlet below the water tank and city water outlets then you will need to remove that electrical outlet and push the electrical cord into the storage compartment before trying to remove the Fiberglas.  If it’s an American model then there is no need for this operation.  Once the Fiberglas has been removed use a shop vac to clean all the debris from behind the cabinets.  If the floor is still intact with no rust holes, remove the two rubber plugs from the drain holes in the floor so that any moisture that gets in there can drain out.  Once all is clean spray the floor area between the cabinet and van wall, the wall and the wall support brace with a good rust preventive like KROWN or RUST CHECK.  This will help stop any rusting already in progress and prevent further rusting.  Now cut three 15″ x 16″ rectangles of the Styrofoam , insert them through the opening behind where the fridge was pushing them as far to the sides as you can then cut another 15″ x  whatever is missing and jam it in-between  the pieces already installed to make up a complete wall covering.  Tape the visible joints with house wrap tape.   Now go to where you removed the electrical box and cut a hole in the Styrofoam so that the electrical box can be fitted trying to keep the Styrofoam as close to the electrical box tube as you can.  You will need to make space for the hose clamp screw to fit also.  Once the electrical box is back in place and the area cleaned up you can go about putting the fridge back in place.  See pictures of this area by clicking > here.  One last thing should be checked before re-installing the fridge.  The City Water outlet connection where the brass fitting is screwed into the plastic housing tends to crack and leak.  Whenever you turn on your sink water using the water from the water tank this city water line is pressurize right up to this fitting as there is a check valve in the plastic housing to keep the water from going out through the City Water inlet.  This is a major source of water behind the cabinet that helps to cause the rusting away of that panel behind the cabinets.  If this connection is leaking then it needs to be repaired.

Step 23.  Replace the fridge by reversing all the steps you did in removing it making sure the electrical connectors are plugged together properly and the propane fitting is secure and then your ready to test it in the van.  Turn on the switch on the electrical LED panel on the front of the sink~stove~fridge cabinet so that when the fridge lights on propane the green LED at the left bottom of the panel will light telling you the propane has lit.  It may take a few minutes to light up on propane as the propane will need to make its way up the line from the tank to the fridge burner.  Let it run for 15 ~ 30 minutes, shut it down and restart.  Go for a drive with the propane service running, making sure the drain at the bottom of the fridge is closed, to see if the fridge stays lit while driving, it should with no problem.  If it goes out then there is a leak in the intake~exhaust track to the burner pot and you will need to find it. Check the 110 volt and 12 volt services.  If all went well then your fridge is once again ready for camping and cold beer. 


     If your sure the fridge is running, a simple method is to touch the exhaust plate on the side of the van, it should be hot so be careful, and the LED is not working you need to check the single black wire, the same one we checked before, to the control panel and if your sure that is correct then you need to check the board on which the LED is located.  It could be the board; LED, resistor or the LM324 control chip is bad.  The control chip is at the far right side of the board, Radio Shack part #276-1711; this chip controls the LED on the control panel board. The LED, resistor and chip can be replaced by obtaining them from Radio Shack or other electronics supply shops, then un-soldering and removing the defective piece and soldering in the new one.  

     The drain at the bottom LEFT HAND corner of the fridge can also be used to clean out the burner pot periodically between major servicing by using air from an air compressor through a blowgun.  The higher the air pressure the better.  You can also use this drain to get air into the firebox to make it easier to light the propane if it is being difficult to light, which sometimes is because of a lack of oxygen in the firebox.  This is why Dometic installed the air pump on the front of the fridge control panel.  That air pump I find is not sufficient and blowing air in there through a small plastic hose using air from your mouth will in most circumstances get the fridge to start up on propane.  Keep this small plastic hose in the van as a tool to get your fridge lit.

     There are two good upgrades that you can do while you have your fridge is out for service.  One is to add a small, 2″, 12 volt, computer muffin fan inside the fridge to circulate the air which will provide more uniform temperature circulation when the fridge is full.  The fan can be attached to the top of the cooling fins with tie wraps so that it blows air downwards.  The wires from that fan can be brought to the rear of the fridge through the same hole as the thermostat’s capillary tube.  The fan wires can then be connected to the 12 volt constant power to the LED panel through a small switch you can mount on the sink~stove~fridge cabinet front next to the LED panel.  The second upgrade is to install a 3″, 12 volt, computer muffin fan in the City Water service port, which most of us do not use.  The City Water service port is located appropriately directly in front of the fins that must dispel their heat.  If you do not want to loose your City Water service then you can make a new hole in the side of the van next to the City Water service port to mount the fan.  This fan can then draw out the heat from behind the fridge to the outside and will allow the fridge to operate properly on hot days.  The heat from behind the fridge was designed to rise up into the van through the grillwork behind the top of the sink~stove~fridge cabinet and then out the skylight.  Once the interior of the van reached 80 degrees F, the fridge will cease to transfer heat and will stop to cool properly.  To proceed with this project, remove the City Water service port, cut off the rear of it so you have a housing with a flat surface to mount the muffin fan.  Choose a muffin fan that will have at least two of its mounting holes line up with two opposing mounting screw hole of the City Water service port.  Using spring clip type screw clips on the muffing fan will allow you to screw longer screws through the outlet, through the body of the van and into the spring clip attached to the fan thereby holding the whole unit in place.  Run the wires from the fan up to where the LED panel is on the sink~stove~fridge cabinet and wire in to the 12 volt constant power found there through a switch you can mount next to the LED panel.  If you want to be really creative find a small micro switch than can be mounted on the City Water service box so that the fan operates when the flap door is open.  The flap door can be propped open with a Popsicle stick cut to the appropriate length and stored behind the flap against the fan when the flap is closed.  I have done this but it does take some dexterity to accomplish.

Westy Kitchen Top Strut Mod


I have the older type kitchen lid ( because I used 82 westy kitchen unit in my Syncro tin top to westy conversion), I think it changed post ’88 but not sure. The change was to the leading edge of the kitchen unit, lowering it which allowed a little more reclining of the driver’s seat […]

via Vanagon – kitchen unit lid strut support  — shooftie

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What is happening under my valve cover?

By Bob Donalds

There is no substitute for experience so I thought that I would share a few of those experiences which can bring you up short. In other words,some lessons are well learned. I have made most of the mistakes one can make under the valve cover and I have reviewed the remains of other people’s mistakes for instance, rubber mounted rockers when the wrong rocker gaskets are used by mistake. Do you have any oil leaks?

What is so complex about the stuff under valve cover? Looking at it you see a metal cover, the clips (bails) that hold it on, some bolts the gasket the rocker arms and the often fooled-with adjusters.

I have made some expensive mistakes with the valve covers that I have installed. One such example comes from my racing days. One day at the track just before the race,and after adjusting the valves I reinstalled the valve covers on a Formula Vee engine. I had done that many times before. No big deal, right. I found out the hard way that the valve cover was leaking it. The car was smoking to beat the band in the hard right turns. I had not checked the covers for leaks. I lost the race, the crankshaft, and the connecting rods. However I gained experience which has lasted 20 plus years; check your valve cover for leaks every time you reinstall them. That means let it run and look to see that it is dry. It may take a few minutes for the oil to get up to the cylinder head. This effort is well worth the wait. When installing the valve cover always I put a fresh gasket on! I do not glue them on so I can’t get them off later. If it still leaks try a new bail . They are less that two dollars at the dealer and they hold the cover tight against the head. You may find that the valve cover is just too old, rusty or bent. Try a new one.

So your heater box is wet with oil and your’e sure the cover isn’t leaking. Push rod tube gaskets and lower head studs can be responsible. There are expandable push rod tubes to repair any leaks that come from the tubes or tube seals. When rebuilding air cooled engines I seal the studs inside the valve cover with silicone (non- corrosive kind). This could also be done at any time if the parts are free of oil. By the way, on some of the early 36 hp and 25 hp engines the lower cylinder head nuts had an o-ring which seals the lower stud holes.

Adjusting those valves must the simple part right? So you just adjusted your valves but they sound like the Hammers of Hell’. What gives? The answer may be the head temperature. The valve lash increases with temperature on all but the oldest stale air engines with long rocker studs. Anytime the oil temp goes over 200F degrees the cylinder heads can over-heat and that can show up as a noisy valve train.

Perhaps the engine is not too hot but one or two valves are ticking away. You’ve gone back and tried adjusting them again and you are sure that the valves are set correct but the ticking noises remain! What to do? One possible answer is that the valve is not adjusted to the clearance of the feeler gauge you’ve used. The gauge simply bridged the dish in the end of the valve stem.

Since the tip of the valve stem wears over time, it’s possible the feeler gauge can not flex enough to accurately reflect the lash the rocker will have and thus the ticking noise. Try adjusting it by feel with no feeler gauge. The rocker needs to move about the thickness of a dollar bill (.004ths).

Lash caps are one way to deal with valve stem wear These go over the stem and give you a flat surface. The rocker stands may need to be shimmed to make room for adjustments. I shim the rockers on every engine I build to set the geometry. Every manual covers geometry but its rarely paid atten valve guide.

Also repeated loss of valve clearance on the exhaust valve indicates stretching valve stems or valve seat erosion. It is then time to remove the heads for inspection and a proper valve job.

I hope sharing my experiece’s under the valve cover helps you avoid some of the problems I’ve incountered. As a famous guy once said “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”.

Low Oil Pressure in 2.1l Waterboxer?

By Bob Donalds

I have had more than one 2.1 water boxer engine brought in for rebuilding with symptoms of low oil pressure. Despite having put in the longest spring the customer could find for the pressure relief and adding thicker oil, the engine still had low oil pressure at a warm idle. These findings had been confirmed with a gauge. So as I disassembled these engines I was very careful to check for excessive clearances. It turns out the clearance between the rod bearing and the crankshaft rod journal had gotten to the point that it allowed the oil light to come on at warm idle. Unfortunately the more common results of this problem in the 2.1 is that the rod winds up hanging out of a new vent hole its has created in the top of the crankcase. The 1.9 on the other hand is not known for throwing rods unless it was run low of coolant or oil.

The one thing that has been consistent in all the 2.1 engines I have stripped and measured is that the large end of the connecting rods are no longer round. With this problem in mind I started paying more attention to the big ends of all the water boxer con rods that came into the shop. The first thing I found was that the 1.9 and the 2.1 con rods are the same size and length. In fact they are the same rods. My inspections showed the 2.1 rods had consistently more distortion at the big end. What is the difference between the two applications of the same con rod? The stroke is longer in the 2.1 engine so the rod angle is greater, plus the 2.1 make more power witch puts more strain on the rods. Itâs clear to me from my days at the race track that nothing distorts con rods faster than exceeding the power curve but the fuel injection has a nifty rev limiter built right in. This doesnât explain why we see rod distortion in one engine and not the other. Next I went to the Bentley book to compare the torque specs. The 1.9 rod has a reusable rod bolt that call for a torque of 33-ft. lb. and the 2.1 has torque of 22-ft. lb. plus ¸ turn. The manual also says not to reuse bolts on the 2.1 engines.

The conclusions:
1) Never reuse the rods without having the big ends rebuilt ever!
2) Never rely on Plastagauge alone it does not always show if it’s out of round
or if the cap is shifted.
3) Consider rebuilding the engine when the heads start to leak if it has got a hundred thousand
or more miles on it. Keep in mind the core may not be rebuildable if you wait longer. There is
no doubt the rods are the major reason for the catastrophic engine failures.

More than one person that has told me that they only got six thousand mile from a rebuilt 2.1 long block before a rod blew through the case. They also told me the big ends of the rods had not been measured or rebuilt. The facts speak for themselves. I see this problem on a daily basis and thought I should pass on my observations.

Rebuilding 2.0l Air Cooled Engine

By Bob Donalds

Air-Cooled What?
As anyone with any experience with air-cooled engines will tell you, this is a much different beast from the water-cooled  engines that drive most cars today. Because these engines are no longer being put in new cars, it can be very difficult to find mechanics who are knowledgeable about the idiosyncrasies of these machines. Furthermore, the Bosch fuel injection system that delivers fuel to many of these engines is not always understood or properly maintained.

The main distinguishing characteristic, and cause of many of the problems associated with air-cooled engines, is heat. Because there is no water jacket, the heads on these engines run at a much higher temperature then their water-cooled cousins, and thus there is a much smaller margin of error in which these engines operate.

Because air-cooled engines do not have water jackets around the cylinder heads to keep the temperatures lower and more uniform, it is easy for hot spots to form and for cylinder head temperature to become a problem. Because air-cooled engines have only the air moving over the fins and oil to keep them cool, they run at a much higher temperature then a water-cooled engine,  leaving a much smaller margin of error for sustained engine performance. Adding to this challenge is that these engines were designed in a time of much higher fuel octane, so today’s fuels force engines to work harder to produce the same power. One common condition caused by the lower fuel octane is pre-ignition, which occurs when the head temperature gets high enough to ignite the fuel before the spark plug fires. This can result in a snowball effect in which pre-ignition causes higher head temps, which in turn cause more pre-ignition, etc. Also adding to the heat problem is that most of these engines are pushing around heavy vans with a lot of wind resistance, which puts a heavy load on the engine. All of this can result in blown head gaskets, seats falling out, valves burning, poor performance and shortened engine life. Another common problem with these engines is oil leaks. Since  we normally are rebuilding used engine blocks, it is easy for a small fracture or oil leak not to appear until the engine is assembled and running. There are several steps that can be taken to minimize the chance of a surprise oil leak when the engine is finished and in the car.

Disassembly and Inspection
Its time. Your engine is dead or in need of a serious overhaul, and you’re ready to get that sucker out of the car and breath some new life into this tired old horse. You can learn a lot about your engine’s life from this part of the process, and a good diagnosis of what killed your car will determine the best way to heal it. I’m not going to cover exactly how to get your engine out or take it apart, because that is all covered in any decent manual and would require pages of instruction, but I will highlight the things you should be looking for as you go.

Before you remove anything from the car, take a look in the engine compartment and make sure all of the cooling tin is in place. Many people think this is unnecessary, but it is absolutely essential in keeping the air moving over your engine to prevent it from overheating. If ANY of the tin is missing, put it on your parts list because its got to be in there. Its not so easy to find anymore, either, so expect to hunt around a little.
Pull the engine from the car and remove the cooling tin and intake and exhaust system, keeping a list of what is missing or no longer serviceable. For instance, injector seals become brittle and are a common source of vacuum leak. Fuel lines become brittle and crack, and I replace them with every job. They are typically original parts, and fuel isn’t something to mess around with. A fuel leak can cost you your vehicle.
Check out the flaps in the fan shroud, and make sure they are still in place and moving easily. I replace the thermostat, but if you don’t have the cash, you want to at least inspect it. They are designed to fail in the open position,. so if it is not expanded, its okay. This is another essential feature, because it allows your engine to warm up on cold days and stay cool on hot days. A working thermostat and flaps will increase the life of your engine, and too often people simply leave it out. If you opt to leave the old thermostat in the engine, check it periodically after you drop in the new engine, because the new engine will create higher temperatures then the old one while its breaking in, so if its going to go, its going to go then. The cylinder heads will tell you how hot your motor has been. In most cases, they are cracked and have experienced some valve recession. This means the valve is lower in the valve seat and it tells me the seat is soft. Black, sooty burnt oil around the exhaust valve springs indicate valve failure. New seats, valves, and guides are a must if you plan on having this engine last. You probably can’t do this work yourself, but a specialty shop such as Boston Engine can rebuild your heads or exchange them for new ones. This job requires a lot of skill and attention. This is not the place to save money, so make sure that these are done well and the correct parts are used.

Inspect the pistons for burns and the rings for wear. This can tell you about the life the motor has lead. Piston rings that are worn to nothing with extremely sharp edges are the result of unburned gas washing the lubrication off of the cylinder walls. Burnt or scored pistons tell you that the motor has been too hot. We’re not looking to reuse these pistons, even with new rings. This is just your engine’s autopsy. New rings on old pistons will not prevent oil consumption.

Before you split the case, make sure every last nut and bolt has been removed. There are nuts and bolts hidden all over the place on this block. Don’t forget the one on the flywheel side of the case.  Never force the case apart. This requires some patience, and I would recheck it several times. When you think you’ve got them all, take a break and then recheck. Once you’ve got her open, its time to inspect the crankshaft for wear. Some indication of crankshaft wear can be seen from the bearing surfaces. If the copper color is showing on the main or rod bearings, there was a lack of lubrication. This is probably because of  gasoline diluting the oil, or lack of oil changes. Remove the connecting rods and have the crank measured and the gears pulled by a somebody who does this all the time. Its not wise to go past the first undersize, because you go past the surface hardening. Make sure to find out if you need a new crank or simply a regrinding.

Any grooves or pitting in the camshaft lobes means it needs to be replaced or reground. Again, a machine shop should be able to tell you which of these options is right for you. There are two different styles of camshafts, one is made of cast iron, and is forged. Each of these require a different type of valve lifters, so this is the time to figure out what type you need to order. Only the original forged steel camshaft will have a gear riveted on. If the gear is bolted on, its most likely cast iron.  Bob from Boston Engine wrote an article that explains this in detail, and he will gladly send you a copy if you mail a SASE.

Cleanin’ and Machinin’
Once you’ve got everything out of the case, including the dowel pins (save ’em!), the oil pressure relief valve, and the oil galley plugs (if you’re swapping them). pack up your case, heads, crank, cam, rods, and anything you want to clean, and head for the machine shop.

First thing to do is to degrease the case. They’ll have big chemical cleaning tanks to do this in. You also want to clean your crankshaft, camshaft, connecting rods, rocker assemblies, heads, oil cooler, tin work, and hardware at this point. Unless you are a real expert, you probably just want to hand your crank, cam, heads, rods, flywheel, and case over to someone who does this all the time. I already told you what has to be done to the cam, crank, and heads. In addition, you need to get your rods balanced, rebushed, and checked for size and straightness, your case checked for crank shaft bore size, and your flywheel resurfaced. Depending on the condition of your engine, you could be told you need to replace any or all of these parts. Don’t try using parts that don’t meet specs, because you’ll just end up wasting a lot of money on an engine that won’t last, and you’ll lose all the money you put into this rebuild. Remember that the aspects that make a successful rebuild are proper clearances and good parts.

At this point you should decide what you want to do with your engine sheet metal. Depending on its condition, you may want to derust and seal it with a zinc paint or some primer. I like a nice semi-gloss Krylon paint. It ads a nice shine to the project, and can protect hard to find tin work.

Selecting the right person to help you with your machine is vital. You don’t want somebody learning on your motor, so find someone who has been doing air-cooled  you are in over your head. Volkswagens for a long time and knows what to look for and how to handle the job. Bob Donalds at Boston engine has been doing exclusively Volkswagen machine work since 1968, and he will machine or exchange any parts that need it. He also does a complete long block assembly if you think you are in over your head.

Get It Together!
Again with this section, I’m not going to tell you exactly how to reassemble your  engine. Rather, I’m going to describe the changes I make and the points I’ve found that need special attention. Any good manual will walk you through reassembly. I recommend the Bentley manuals for this.

Before you put anything back in the case, you may want to drill and tap out the oil galley plugs behind the flywheel. These are push-in aluminum inserts, and they can pop out. To deal with this problem before it happens, I replace them with threaded brass inserts and then seal them with 3M weather-strip adhesive. The brass expands at about the same rate as aluminum, so it makes for a good combo. This is a lot easier to do now then on that cold morning when your engine starts gushing oil. If you’re going to do this, you might want to get them out and do the tapping before you degrease the case to get those aluminum shavings out of the oil passages.

When I’m ready to put the case halves back together for good, I seal them up with a thin layer of Permatex #3D form-a-gasket. I’ve found this helps form a good seal that will not crack with heat. I use the 3M weather-strip adhesive to seal the 6 large case bolts at the washers.

There is a technical bulletin published by Volkswagen in 1990 that describes a few changes they make upon reassembly. First, eliminate the head gasket and replace it with a 1.6mm aluminum shim (#071 101 34), or a steel one,  at the base of the cylinder between the cylinder and crankcase.  Increase the piston / cylinder clearance to .045mm +/- .005mm. Cut a 1.5mm deep oil groove in the large end of the connecting rods into the thrust surface on both sides to splash oil on the bottom of the pistons. For a more detailed description of these modifications, send an SASE to Bob Donalds, and he’ll give you a copy of the bulletin.

There are some parts that I replace on every rebuild, because I have found that they need to be new for the engine to run reliably. Remember that a system is only as strong as its weakest link. I replace: pilot bearing,  pistons & cylinders (not just rings!), bearings, hydraulic lifters, valves and guides, redone or new heads with  upgraded seats, OEM valve cover clip, oil pressure switch, FI head temp sensor, FI seals, valve adjusting screws, cylinder shims, gaskets, push rod tubes, flywheel seal, crank noise seal.  Make a parts list and begin getting the parts as soon as you can, because it can take a while to get them all and you don’t want this project to be put on hold while you wait for parts.

In order to get the pistons into the cylinders, you’re going to need a collapsible type ring compressor. The solid type won’t do it, so don’t get surprised.

When reassembling, I use silicone at the base of the cylinders and on the four head nuts in each valve cover under the washer.  I also use silicone to seal up the oil drain plate. This plate, if overtightened, will break off and turn your entire case to junk. In the life of you’re engine, you shouldn’t ever have to touch this, and its too risky to mess with it.

Final Touches
If you have the resources, you can save yourself some time and aggravation by performing an oil pressure check with the engine out of the car. Bolt up the bell housing to the long block and install a starter motor. Crank it until oil pressure is achieved, and you can spot any oil leaks and compression leaks.  I use soapy water around the cylinder heads to see if the cylinders are sealing. This also gives the lifters a chance to pump up.

You need to let the engine run at around 1500 rpm for about 20 minutes in the car before you drive it, to get everything seated and happening and check for leaks. Remember that this engine needs to be broken in just like a new engine, so keep it at 55 or under for the first thousand miles and change the oil at least twice in that time. I do the oil at 300 miles and again at 1000 miles total. Oil breaks down quickly, and a lot of contaminants tend to be suspended in the oil, such as residues from the cleaning solvents we used.

The finishing touches to the job are the timing, and a full inspection of the fuel injection system. No engine will last with a bad air/fuel mixture. First, do the timing with a strobe. Make sure to do the timing throughout acceleration and not just at an idle. Inspect the air flow sensor door and the centrifugal weights on the distributor and make sure they’re working correctly. Also lubricate the pad under the rotor with a single drop of three in one oil while the distributor is open (this should be done twice a year). Check your vacuum advance. A skilled technician can do a more thorough test of your fuel injection system if you suspect problems. When you think you’re done, take your car for an emissions test. Test it before the catalytic converter. This will assure you that everything is working correctly and your engine is running efficiently. You’ll sleep better knowing the job was done right.