July / August 2019

Emotional rescue

By Cliff Leppke

1983 Scirocco is an automotive sanctuary, aged like a fine wine, in an annual trek south Would you grab the keys to a now 36-year-old VW Scirocco and trek 3,000 miles over two weeks? And enjoy it? 

I did.

For the most part, no one notices you. One exception was a twenty-something woman who asked whether I was driving a Ford Pinto. And then there was the guy whizzing by in a Mercedes who rolled down his window and gave me a thumbs up. 

My Mars Red VW sports coupe is a sanctuary, a chrysalis where I make an annual transformation from winter misery to springtime fun. Driving it is mediation. It transports me to a mechanical/mental otherworldly experience. This car became part of accidental tourism, if you will, because my TV station employer always laid me off around the same time as college spring break. This scheme let the station “rehire” me at base pay and cut labor costs. I used the opportunity to escape to warmer climes such as Albuquerque, N.M. 

New Mexico sunlight is like a doctor’s prescription to perk up your mood. Especially when you live in gloomy by-the-lake Milwaukee. An arid climate almost always guarantees good bicycling weather. Thus, every spring I wedged my bespoke British-made Holdsworth Special bike into the VW’s trunk and went south. I bought the Holdsworth frame set when working at a bike shop. Then, I tailored this velo-treat using a combination of French, British, Italian, American and Japanese components. I laced the four-cross wheels using high-flange Campagnolo hubs, DT spokes and Araya aero rims — sturdy, but so 1970s. My custom-made touring machine has a relatively tight 40-inch wheelbase.

This year’s end-of-April Scirocco excursion, my physical and emotional rescue, began with a trip to Nashville. That’s where my brother, Gary, and his wife, Lisa, live. Gary invited me to join him for half of a century bike ride — about 50 miles. This tour raised money for Tennessee parks. One bonus was riding the Natchez Trace. It’s a national park roadway near the old paths people used to move their goods from Nashville to Mississippi.

Ten speed dinosaur

You might ask whether my car or my body was up to the task. I haven’t ridden bikes much for several years. I put myself through college working at bike shops. I had a penchant for peddling and pedaling two-wheeled adventures. One of them was the now vintage Holdsworth bike frame  — about the same age as my Scirocco. Today, I’m called a retro grouch — a 10-speed dinosaur. That’s how trendy cyclists describe those of us who haven’t updated our gear and gears to reflect current cycling tastes for carbon fiber frames, aerodynamic spokes and 20-speeds. Heck, I still wear shoes with cleats snapped into pedals with clips and straps,

No cruise control

The VW performed well. There was one hiccup, which I’ll discuss later. My VW coupe’s 90-hp mill, once the vanguard of peppy econo speedsters, could be dusted by a wheezy Prius. Yet, the engine, which clocked 339,000 miles, is charming. Originally mated to a close-ratio five-speed manual, I installed for a taller fifth gear for highway cruising. This means the car’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder wonder hums at roughly 3,000 rpm at 72 mph instead of nearly 4,000 rpm. It’s smooth; easy on the ears. It calmly racks up mile after mile. Throttle response is good too. When I want it quieter, foam ear plugs cut wind rush.

The car’s large four-spoke leather clad steering wheel with whimsical round horn buttons is amusingly dated. It’s about two inches larger in diameter than today’s cars. This eases the manual rack-and-pinion steering effort. Nevertheless, parking this bitty rig would send Popeye in search of spinach. 

Dialing this hoop on expressways reveals the car’s delicious side. You feel road texture. It has tactile sensations largely missing from late-model cars. It doesn’t have a microprocessor and electric motor to keep it steady or blunt braille like road codes. Instead, VW’s steering geometry aids stability via negative roll radius. And the manual steering’s gearing feels right at 70 mph. 

Cruise control? My right foot! I wear firm Piloti shoes, which make pedal work more rewarding; the Ro’s clutch pedal effort rivals a gym’s StairMaster. Because the Scirocco’s under-dash spaghetti is covered, my long feet are pampered. Seating is VW’s famous bolstered buckets with leather cladding. My only complaint is me — a back injury causes some shooting pains through my left leg. 

At this place in an automotive travelogue, the author would offer clever words about wending his way through distant inky black voids guided by wimpy halogen lamps, or regale you with tales of purple mountains or the glare of roadside attractions. Instead, I spend my time surveying a blurred landscape through a sandblasted windshield with three starburst blemishes — battle scars from previous trips. 

I prop my right elbow on a block of gray foam placed atop the center tunnel’s hand brake. The center console’s triple gauges reveal oil pressure, oil temperature and alternator voltage. Sometimes I break the VW trance by tuning in NPR on the Heidelberg cassette radio, which causes the power antenna motor to buzz into action. I take swigs from a water bottle placed behind the front seat. Trail mix keeps me going. The Ro’s 10.6-gallon fuel tank lets you roll for about length of network TV’s nightly primetime lineup before pulling into a gas station. 

I arrived at my brother’s place on a Wednesday after a long backup in Indiana. The next day, I checked out Nissan’s mile-long Tennessee plant and witnessed its amazing flow. Nissan produces six different vehicles on two separate lines. It stamps its own metal and forms black bumper fascia, which are hand-taped masking the black bits that aren’t painted.

Afterword, my brother and I checked whether I was up to the 50-plus-mile ride planned for Saturday. We rode the Natchez but didn’t get very far when a downpour doused this ride. Soaked! I discovered several glitches — my footwear needed adjustment. Also, my bike wasn’t built for rain.

Friday was sunnier. Gary suggested we cycle 25 miles — smart idea, but not what you’re thinking. Natchez deserves its reputation as a bike-friendly roadway. Motorists give cyclists plenty of clearance and moderate their speed. Park cops pull over offenders. Lots of friendly bikers greet you as you ride past them or they pass you. 

And they’ll come to your aid. For example, my old bike quickly protested with a flat front tire. The tire rotted below the rim, causing its carcass to grind into the tube. Several bicyclists offered to help, but Gary and I subbed another tube. He declared I’ll need better tires for the next day’s ride. We installed different tires that night.

Saturday’s main event was awesome — fantastic cycling weather. 

Gary warned me about the rolling Tennessee hills. They are a lot like the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin. You’re at a higher altitude in Tennessee. I discovered I’m not the steady ready rider. I wobble a bit and find standing up to gain extra step-down grunt a challenge.

I climbed all hills in the Holdsworth’s low gear, often pulling in alongside my brother while letting him work while a drafted. We finished 53 miles; I wanted to keep riding. But my bike’s back tire went flat in a parking lot near Gary’s truck. Boo! This deflation was due to old rim strips. The elastic-types I installed in the 1980s were supposed to prevent the inner tube from chafing on a rim’s spoke holes. They don’t. Reinforced cloth tape is the remedy.

Gary uses new gadgetry. For example, he employs GPS for mapping. His fuel gauge — a bike computer — estimates our energy consumption. It calculated the number of calories we needed to keep riding — a boon to those of us who are so absorbed in bicycling fever that we forget to eat. You’ll hit the “wall” if you don’t nosh. 

A scary crash 

While in Nashville, I received startling news: my 80-year-old mother discovered her Toyota Camry cannot fly. She went airborne in the car, departing from a North Dakota interstate and crashing into a ditch. Mom says she doesn’t recall what happened — with the exception of them extricating her from the car’s windshield opening. The Toy’s occupant protection features worked well. Front and side air bags deployed as designed. The shoulder belt clinched, too. So, Mom took a licking but is still ticking. She won’t wear low-cut Fargo fashion frocks for a while, but Dad says he’s happy she’s alive. 

From Nashville I headed back to Milwaukee where I backtracked to Chicago for Honda’s regional Passport press luncheon. While motoring through Kentucky, I pulled into a rest area. I planned to join the VWCA’s teleconference, but cellphone coverage wasn’t good. Thus, I turned the Scirocco’s key to start. The engine cranked, fired twice but refused to run.

I suspected the fuel pump. I put my left hand on the pump, which is ahead of the right rear wheel, and with the other hand reaching through the right front door opening turned the ignition switch to start. The pump didn’t vibrate. 

My next step required thought. I knew there was a fuel pump relay. If you jump the relay’s electrical terminals, you send electrical energy to the pump. In turn, the pump should whir. Upon further inspection, I made a clever observation — the fuel pump relay and air conditioner relays use the same basic pin configuration. The chief difference is the one for fuel has an extra connection, which provides a signal from the ignition coil. If the coil isn’t creating spark, the relay shuts off the pump. The A/C relay, therefore, fits into fuel pump’s socket.

Inside the pump’s relay is a Texas Instruments NE555 timer integrated circuit. This nifty device is the backbone for many electronic switches. In this application, the 555 energizes the relay’s coil, which in turn powers the fuel pump. It shuts off the fuel pump if the ignition coil’s pulse isn’t seen. This reduces the possibility of an engine fire, say, after a serious vehicle crash. The A/C relay doesn’t have this circuit.

Well, troubleshooting the relay’s circuitry at a rest area isn’t easy. Car Talk advised Honda drivers to carry spare fuel pump relays because their relays got hot and failed. Air-conditioned VW’s with Bosch K Jetronic fuel injection have an impromptu spare relay — the previously mentioned A/C relay. A smart person would put the A/C relay into the pump relay’s spot. It should supply current to the pump whenever the ignition is on. If the pump buzzes when ignition is “on,” move the ignition to “start.” If the engine starts, chances are the fuel pump relay is faulty. 

After plugging the A/C relay into the fuel pump socket, the car started. The Sunday drive home went smoothly until another major backup in Indiana. I returned to Milwaukee, searched my inventory of VW relays and promptly installed a different one into the ’83 Scirocco. 

Honda Passport

The next day, I drove to Chicago for Honda’s Passport press opportunity. It began with a surprising talk by Cox Automotive’s executive analyst Michelle Krebs. She discussed cars at an SUV/crossover debut. Research shows a trend. Cars will slide to about 30 percent of new motor vehicle sales. 

This figure is still millions of vehicles. Brands with good reputations are likely to fare well despite further drops in car sales — especially sedans. These firms will become the go-to companies for car buyers. And the next generation of motor-vehicle buyers (younger than the millennials), according to Krebs, is likely to shop cars because SUVs, trucks and crossovers are too expensive. Cars, she says, are the gateways to a brand’s other products. In sum, Honda, Toyota and maybe even VW could benefit from Ford, GM and Chrysler exiting traditional car making. 

Honda shifted the presentation toward its Passport. Honda reintroduced the nameplate formerly used for its version of the Isuzu SUV. Honda created the new Passport by shortening its Pilot’s rear overhang. It also raised the vehicle. This makes it better suited for off-road use. Scribes applauded when Honda announced it brought back volume knobs. 

According to Honda’s press materials many families want crossovers or SUVs because they want more people and stowage room. That’s what they think. Facts vary. I can put an eight-foot ladder in my subcompact hatchback. A Mazda CX-9 midsize crossover, however, cannot; its sloped tail reduces cargo length. I asked a question, “Why don’t people seek hatchback cars or station wagons? Gee, a Golf offers more useful interior space than many larger-on-the-outside crossovers. The reaction was shift. A chorus of vehicle reps and journalists retorted, “You don’t sit high.” Highchairs win. People want tall station wagons! 

Next stop, Minneapolis 

After the Honda press event, I returned home and prepped for a drive to Minneapolis. My sister, Barb, her husband, Tom, and their kids live there. So, I drove to the Twin Cities and played Hungry Hippos with my niece and nephew. This game has four hippo-like gadgets with levers, springs and a cam-action mouths. Push their levers and the hippos extend their heads and open their “jaws.” They gobble little balls, which are pulled into trays. I suspect the game teaches physical and social coordination. The kids quickly shunned the game’s rules, setting up slam-crazy cacophony, spewing hordes of errant spheres.

The next day, I drove to my folks’ Carrington, N.D., farm. It’s smack dab in the middle of that state, a 140-mile slog west of Fargo. My Scirocco, which has worn steering column bearings, doesn’t like the final leg of this journey — the unpaved road off a state highway. 

Mom, who was sore, served several Scandinavian-style dishes including soups and casseroles provided by church ladies. The meals were very good, although I miss Mom’s country-woman zesty cooking. She adds spicy zing to many of her kitchen masterpieces. Mom’s recipe books are time-travel treasures. They’re full details about when she prepared dishes and the tweaks she uses to make them kick.

Like the movie “Shane,” the Leppke farm needed tree service. In this case an ash tree split, which endangered a barn. A nearby farm crew arrived with a lift and power saw. They removed the tree’s crown and expertly felled the tree’s trunk. I spent two days pulling out branches and cutting limbs. Dad pushed my pile with a front loader.

The Leppke farm is a car, truck, tractor, radio and household appliance museum. I headed toward the barn’s hayloft in search of VW Type 3 engine tin. I need the left lower piece, below the push-rod tubes. I scored one. It’s rusty but the mounting tabs are intact. That’s a start.

Mom introduced an interesting problem: a jigsaw puzzle featuring a German castle my brother, Mark, toured. Mom, whose glasses were trashed in the crash, found puzzle-solving difficult — although she finished most of the edge work. I went for the castle’s fascinating architectural tropes. It combined Roman, Italianate and Baroque motifs. I sorted pieces placing arches, windows and corbeling according to their styles — a good thing because their colors sometimes looked similar.

Several days later, I said goodbye. I started the 1983 Scirocco and drove 12 peaceful hours to Milwaukee. This is my 31st spring fling in this sports coupe. I respect the Scirocco’s mechanical longevity. No other car has given me this much motoring mileage without major mechanical repairs. Yes, the auto went through a teething period. Fuel injection, transmission and engine seals failed too early. The sculpted dashboard cracked. VW’s official replacement parts often solved problems. Sometimes VW’s new pieces didn’t fit correctly or died young. I understand your pain! If you’re an aggressive driver, you’ll discover more driveline woes. Some pieces aren’t robust. For me, this thing keeps on rolling. It’s my four-wheeled sanctuary. 

On two wheels, it’s the Holdsworth. VWCA

By Cliff Leppke | leppke.cliff@gmail.com


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  • ANNUAL MEETING: Club members are invited to attend the annual VWCA meeting in August in suburban Chicago.
  • FUNFEST: Mid America Motorworks’ 21st annual event offers something for every VW enthusiast.


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  • Retro Autoist – From the VWCA archives
  • Parting Shot – Photo feature
  • Local Volks Scene – A snapshot of local chapter activities
  • VW Toon-ups – Cartoon feature by Tom Janiszewski