We’ve all seen or heard the stories of VWs catching on fire and in honor of National Safety Month I wanted to go over some aspects of your VW that ensure you have a safe drive. The fuel system, electrical & wiring system, seat belts and one of the most important features of any car, the braking system, all are crucial to making sure you and your VW have a safe outing!
Starting with the first and probably the most often overlooked items are the seat belts. They aren’t very glamorous and are often an afterthought during most restorations but are probably the most import safety feature in you VW after the brakes. VW prepped the Beetle for 3 point (shoulder and lap) seat belts starting in 1962. This was six years before 3 point seat belts became mandatory in the US for passenger cars, in 1968. 3 point belts are offered in retractable (like today’s modern cars) or in manually adjustable (kind of like those on an airplane today, but with 2 adjustment points) options and can be fit or retro-fitted to most all VW models. If a 3 point seat belt can’t be fit to your VW or you simply prefer the vintage look a lap belt, 2 point lap belts (either manually adjustable or retractable) can be installed. Regardless of what you choose, make sure your VW has properly installed and operating seat belts!
Check your Brakes.
Next, the most important safety feature of any car, are the brakes. So of often the first thing people try and do with a new restoration is to get the engine running so they can go for that first drive. I’ve seen and heard of so many stories of VW owners getting their new project home, getting it running and heading out for a drive only to find out a few moments later they can’t stop, often times with less that preferred consequences! Whether it is a new project you just brought home, or a VW you’ve been driving for years, making sure your braking system is in good shape and operating is the most important aspect of any car. From the brake fluid reservoir, to the master cylinder, to all of the brake hoses and lines, to the wheel cylinders or disc brake calipers, to the brake shoes or pads, to the drums and rotors, to the tires that contact your VW to the road. Regular inspections of your brake system should be a part of every Volkswagen owner’s maintenance schedule.
Additionally, keep in mind the stock VW braking system was designed and intended for an engine that had around 50 horsepower. Most of us find the stock VW engine less than adequate when it comes to performance and will hop up the stock engine or replace it entirely with a high performance engine. Keep in mind that a mildly built 1915cc engine will typically double the horsepower of a stock 1600cc dual port engine. That additional engine performance should be considered when it comes to the braking performance of your VW. Disc brake conversion kits are available for most all VW models and compared to the cost of a high performance engine, very economically priced. Especially when compared to the cost of body work and a new paint job.
Clean up that Wiring!
The old mess of wiring in VWs is what we’ll cover next. Forty to fifty year old original wiring that has been cut apart and patched together by who knows how many owners should all be repaired at least or replaced if at all possible. Complete wiring harnesses are available for most VW models and are relatively simple to install. Most people are daunted by what seems to be an overwhelming task whenever they look at the wiring mess of spaghetti under the hood or dash. Like the old adage “How do you eat an elephant – one bite at a time”, taking the wiring system of your VW one wire at a time turns the job into a much simpler task. If you do nothing else to the electrical system in your VW, install a 50 amp main fuse or circuit breaker on the main power wire, close to the battery. VW did not fuse the main power cable and a short at the front of the car can burn the wiring and whatever is around it (either the headliner or the carpet in most cases) all the way from the battery to the front of the car. A 50 amp fuse or circuit breaker will stop the short from burning your harness or your VW.
VW Fuel System Hazards
Finally, and most commonly the most common cause of burnt VWs is the fuel system. For most VW engines, the stock mechanical fuel pump sits next to the distributor. An old or dried out fuel line can split and spray fuel on the distributor and start a fire; we’ve seen it way too many times. First and foremost, make sure you carry an easily accessible fire extinguisher in your VW. Second, inspect and replace as necessary all of your fuel lines whenever you perform maintenance on your VW. Today’s ethanol blended fuels speed up the deterioration of the fuel hoses so replacing all of the fuel hoses in your VW is recommended whenever you get a new VW. Additionally, carefully routing of the hoses in the engine compartment is important. Make sure that the hose is not near the pulleys, belts or accelerator linkage. Make sure that the fittings both at the fuel pump and at the carburetor are secure and even though the fuel system in VWs is low pressure, hose clamps can be used to ensure the hoses stay put. Just don’t over tighten the clamps as a crimped hose will become weak and deteriorate the hose.
Making sure that your VW is in safe operating order should make your driving experience all the better knowing that you and your VW should make it to and from your destination safely. Enjoy the drive!