Welcome to this blog post: how to restore a VW Beetle. The fact that you are reading this, tells us that you’ve been infected with the Aircooled fever. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and unfortunately there’s no cure.The aircooled way of life, is an addiction. You’ll start seeing classic VWs while you’re walking around in the streets. You’ll find yourself parking next to them just to get a closer look. You may start spending the occasional hot summer night strolling the streets of towns that host car shows, taking pictures and trying not to drool on the vintage steel there. You may even find yourself traveling ridiculous distances to attend VW car shows, just so you can add to your mental file of “someday” ideas.
Before you know it, you’ll own your own VW Beetle, also called VW Bug. Next thing you will do is open Google and search for “how to restore a VW Beetle’. Many restore a VW Beelte books have already been written about it, but we hope we can guide you with this blog post.
Nothing to be ashamed of course, one of the first lessons in taking on a project of this size is to do lots of research. You’ve probably got a massive learning curve ahead of you, and you’ll want all the help you can get to keep the project from going sideways on you.
A VW Beetle is a good restoration project
The VW Bug is the most popular car in the history of mankind. The Beetle was the highest production model of all Volkswagens (aircooled production running from 1938 – 2003), and ranks second highest worldwide for production of any car. Finding air cooled VW Beetle replacement parts and aftermarket parts is very easy.
In addition to that, you probably have an emotional attachment to the Beetle – maybe a childhood memory (last car of your grandfather), maybe you’ve just always appreciated their curly look, feel, and smell. Having a connection like that will help you.
The Beetle is a great car for customizing. Every Beetle has his own story to tell. You have the slammed VW Bug, the Cal look (California Looker), the Rat look (they look used and abused on the outside, but really are monsters with high performance engines), you can pimp a Bug with stickers, roof racks, hubcaps and rims,…
However you’ve probably got some (reasonable) concerns now that you’re about to get the project started.
Obstacles that may delay the Beetle restoration process
- It’s a big project, which is a little overwhelming. It’s not like your daily job, you probably have little experience in restoring a VW Beetle.
- You may still not be sure of the scope of your project, meaning what you want to do to the car. You know you’ll need to make some decisions – not everyone’s favorite task.
- You’ll need (or pick up!) a pretty significant skill set. You’re going to be cutting metal, sourcing replacement parts, welding, grinding (yeah, not that kind), hammer and dolly work, and moving steel. Plus, doing mechanical and electrical work (download the VW Beetle wiring diagram). Oh, and paint. Maybe even some upholstery.
- In all your enthusiasm you may stumble upon some nasty things that you had not anticipated: rotten floorboards, rust in the bottom of the A-pillar where it attaches to channel, rust in wheel wells, badly repaired damaged from collisions, and a lot more. It’s a little unsettling knowing you could easily get in over your head.
- You’ll probably also find some creative electrical hacks in your project. Remember, these are typically 40+ year old cars. Somewhere along the chain of owners, someone probably added some sort of ‘enhancement’ that screwed up the electrical system. The wiring is the nervous system of your car and makes everything work (or not), including trivial functions like headlights, horn, and ignition. You’ll most likely be best off just getting an entirely new wiring harness to install (VW Beetle wiring diagram).
- How do the brakes work? Or the transmission? Does the car hit the inspection?
- Last but not least, there’s the VW Beetle engine. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a running, driving car that has a good engine only needing a tune-up. Or, it might be toast. In that case, you’re looking at replacing the VW Beetle engine.
If you’re still determined to do a VW restoration, it’ll probably help you to have some guidance. This article is just a report – But it should be helpful in getting you off to a good start at least.
Step 1: find yourself a VW Beetle to restore
In this first step, you will have to find a car, if you don’t already have one (discover Beetle specs). Buying a project is very difficult and depends on your goals for the VW Beetle restoration. Are you hoping to build an award-winning show car? Do you want a VW Beetle or bug as a daily driver? Something else maybe?
What you want to end up with will help you determine what to look for from the start. You can potentially find some extremely good deals if you look for cars someone else started for a restoration project and then abandoned. Maybe they got in over their head. Maybe they lost interest. Maybe their wife (or husband – hey, there are some very talented classic VW owners out there who work on their own projects) gave the ultimatum, “Get that car out of my garage or…”
Maybe you will be able to buy a VW Bug that’s already got some of the work done. Be careful, you don’t know what they did and how they did it. However, if the car is running and driving and doesn’t have a ton of rust, you may be able to get a good project. Or you can spend less on a car that’s been sitting somewhere all neglected and rusty.
Here is some advice: if this is the first Beetle you will restore, start with a good, running, driving car that’s mostly complete. Always test drive and have a qualified mechanic test it before you buy. The investment is minimal, maybe $65-125 for a thorough inspection.
Where can you find a solid VW Beetle to restore?
Often you will find a VW Beetle for sale on Facebook. There are many groups with VW enthusiasts. Another good source are second hand websites.
Autumn and winter are the best times for getting good cars at good prices. People are cleaning out their garages, maybe looking for extra money for the holidays, and possibly catching flak for how long their project’s been taking up space and not moving forward.
A few tips:
- Once you find a Bug that interests you, it helps to have a VW person with you who’s familiar with that model and year or at least with VW’s in general.
- Try to get any records from the car owner that are available. Ask about receipt binders, any original paperwork (a bonus), and spare parts that may be laying around.
- Always put your core care on a trailer rather than driving it home. You’re not familiar with the car and its quirks. There will be issues unless it’s in pristine condition… in which case you don’t need to do a restoration.
Step 2: disassemble the Beetle, tag, bag, and inventory
In this step, you’ll probably discover a lot about your Beetle’s past life. You’ll find where a prior owner took ‘interesting’ measures to repair or restore a VW Beetle. You’ll discover innovative replacement parts that should probably never have been used. You’ll find places where the Dub had close encounters with curbs, trees, poles, and all sorts of immovable objects. Hopefully you don’t find anything like that as you disassemble your Beetle.
The disassembly step gives you your first real opportunity to assess your vehicle and start your list of parts that need replacing. You’ll be taking notes on what you’ve got on hand so you don’t double-buy or forget to buy what you need.
Tools are importand when disassembling a VW Beetle. Use screw drivers, wrenches and whatever other mechnic’s tools you need for the job. You will probably use your 13mm followed by the 10mm wrenches and sockets the most during thise phase of the restoration.
Be systematic in your disassembly. It’s best if you’ve got lots of space to work with in your garage so you don’t lose pieces and parts as you go. Even better if you’re the only one using that space so you’re not always getting yelled at about the piles of pieces and parts you’re about to start stacking up all over the place.
Follow this order when you disassemble the body of the VW Bug
Take first door off and break it down as far as it goes….
- Window glass
- Door latch
- Check rods
- Lock mechanism
- Door stop
- Quarter window
Then go at the body panels.
Next, separate the body from the pan. This will give you access to the heater channels and lower quarters.
Time to work on disassembly of your wiring – maybe. If you’re changing to a new harness, which is almost always necessary, save this step until the end of the project. If you’re keeping the wiring harness as is because it’s in good shape, put all loose ends into a plastic bag, tie it up, and label the bag. If you don’t label, you are guaranteed to end up asking, “What is this blue wire with a red stripe on it?”
Your engine is next. You can leave it on the chassis attached to transmission or take it off and store it until you’re ready to deal with it.
Leave your tires on if you want to roll the chassis around.
So, how long will disassembly take?
A professional VW restoration shop typically schedules about 13 hours for this step. For you, it might take a couple of full weekends.
- Don’t try to pull the body off of the chassis by yourself. It’s heavy. You risk getting crushed. Schedule this for a time when you can enlist the help of some friends. Pizza and beer are a lot cheaper than traction and rehab.
- Be meticulous about tagging, bagging, and labeling.
- Keep a running log of the nuts and bolts you take off, where they came from, in which order, and any that are missing. It will seem silly at the time, like it’s an exercise in being completely anal retentive – but do it anyway. If you take apart a door, bag those nuts and bolts with it. It will be tempting to put all those bits into a coffee can, but if you do that, how do you know what you need and where it came from?
- Label accurately.
- Better to take the nuts and bolts bagging as small scale as you can. The more bags you go through, the better. Go micro with this: window regulator attachment bolts, lock mechanism and hardware, striker plate and screws – that’s much better than throwing it all into one bag that says “Door”. Of course, you can put smaller component bags into one bigger bag – just label everything.
- Ditch the butane torch and get map gas.
Step 3: Strip the paint, use epoxy and paint the Beetle
This step is about removing the multiple years’ worth of paint found on most Bugs. Stripping is not necessarily required. If the conditions are right and you’re painting over original factory paint after doing your repairs, and if it’s a good paint job to start with, you may not need to strip it. But if there are problems under the paint, dents you want to repair, welding that’s needed, and especially if there’s rust, you’ll want to take your car’s body back to bare metal so you know what you’re working on. That’s the only way you can be sure you don’t miss problems that got hidden under layers of paint.
You’ve got three options here. You can send your Beetle out to blast, or you can strip it yourself. Let’s look at these choices.
If you send it out to blast, this means you either haul your Beetle to a sandblasting shop or they come and get it. You can do individual pieces to get it done gradually, or do it all at once. Here is a video to illustrate how sandblasting works:
The second option is doing it yourself with chemicals. We really don’t recommend chemical stripping. The process is involved and you’ve got to neutralize the residual acids or you’ll have serious adhesion problems once you begin the sealer and paint process.
There’s also a third option. You can sand your Beetle by hand. Hand sanding will take a couple hundred hours, unless you are super aggressive, but then you can easily damage the body or burn through the metal. If you choose this method, be prepared to stock up on face masks and sandpaper. You might also buy a hand sanding block. Here are some tips for hand sanding:
Now that the sanding or blasting is behind us, you can seal the VW Bug. To restore a VW Beelte is a long process, but you are almost there.
You’ll find throughout your restoration project that you’ve got some good stopping places and some that are really bad places to pause the process. This is one of those bad places. Once you’ve got your Beetle stripped down to bare metal, you’ve got to get it sealed immediately. Otherwise, you can almost watch the body rust right before your eyes.
So, while it’s off at blast, you’ve got two jobs to do:
- Get a painter lined up to seal the body as soon as it’s back from blast.
- Work on getting all those replacement parts on the list you made during disassembly.
Seal and paint the VW Beetle
The VW shop that does your blast may be able to seal your body for you. That would be the fastest and easiest way to get it done.
Whatever you do, don’t seal or paint your car in your garage. You’ll piss off your neighbors and possibly blow up your house and yourself, too – definitely not what we’d call a successful restoration project.
Sealing your Beetle body
The whole goal of sealer is to protect the metal from rust. It’s an epoxy, a surface protector that will keep the metal intact as you work on the rest of your project before you paint it. Sealing your Beetle body is not hard; you just need proper facilities and tools to do it safely. You will probably have runs and sags to fix later, but you can do this.
Now that the sealing is done, you can paint the body. Don’t use spray paint! A good guideline: If the can rattles, it doesn’t belong on your car.
OK, those are the first three crucial steps to restore a VW Beetle. There’s a lot more to be done, and you’re going to learn a lot along the way. In fact, you should be prepared to do a ton of research for every phase of your restoration.