Posted on

Forward Into The Past With John Muir’s “Idiot’s Guide”

The Idiot’s Guide. Classic VW owners know and love this well. A great blog post reproduced here from Samuel John Klein.

Back in the 60’s, see, the VW was more truly lived up to its name “the People’s Car”, becoming a badge to the hippie culture as much as owning a Subaru strongly suggests one lives in Portland. Being an automobile, of course, the array of end-user maintenance options are more or less like they are today … take it to a mechanic, take it to the dealer.

You could also fix it yourself, if you knew how. Not so much today; the engine in the modern car is more like a computer center; sometimes you feel if you so much as look at it, you void the warranty. But back then, the shade-tree mechanic was a valid functionality, and if you knew enough about your beast, you too could fix your own prime mover. And nowhere was this more true or accessible than with the classic VWs of the 60s and 70s, before the brand went uptown and yupscale.

The ‘hippie’ ethic deserves a close, hard look. One side of it was the casual, come-as-you-are-lifestyle, which may or may not have something to teach the individual assayer; the other side was a quick-witted, nimble DIY intelligence that coped with maintenance and repair with a cool, fierce aplomb that MacGyver would value. The properly-enlightened hippie only looked like a generally feckless will’o’the wisp; inside, he or she hid a savvy systems thinker that would slog courageously through lows that would leave most of the rest of us curled up in a foetal ball, crying softly over the wreck of our life.

This brings us to John Muir, who is a legend amongst classic VW lovers. And thence hangs our tale.

The legend of John Muir, 60s counter culture auto mechanic, runs something along these lines; a distant relative of the namesake American naturalist, he worked in the American defense industry during the Fail Safe/Dr. Strangelove days of the Cold War, until he’d had enough of it and decided to drop out. In the late 1960s, he moved to Taos, New Mexico and became a VW mechanic. I don’t know if he intended to become the best there ever was, but his legacy certainly suggests that.

In 1969, Muir, Tosh Gregg, and artist Peter Aschwanden collaborated to create a timeless and valuable bit of 60s magic and a book for the ages. Fully titled How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual Of Step by Step Procedures For The Compleat Idiot, and known by lovers of the book and the car as simply The Idiot’s Guide, the book is indeed a timeless gem. Right, the reader will find the cover of the copy I own. It is as compleat a manual of how-to-maintain it as the idiot it is intended for, but an idiot, it will not treat you as. As you are not an idiot. It will not treat you. It won’t make fun of you, is what I’m saying.

It’s so steeped in the 60s self-reliant hippie-esque counterculture, it’s surprising it doesn’t come tie-dyed and with scratch’n’sniff patchouli. The impression is that of a crunchy friend guiding you through a difficult subject with love. At the top of the section “ENGINE OVERHAUL”, for example, I find this tale of wisdom:

“Back in the Red Dog Saloon era, there was a garage in Carson City run by a sympathetic super mechanic named Muldoon. When you were pushed into Muldoon’s, he looked and listened to your sick engine, asked how far you needed to go and how much bread you had, then he nodded and showed you where you could work on your engine out back. When you ran into problems, he left his profitable highway trade to give you a hand. You made it to where you needed to go, but God help you if you tried to go fifty miles further. We tell you about Muldoon because he has the type of genius an indigent VW owner needs when it comes to emergency time – the ability to balance the available bread and labor agains the immediate mileage requirement.

In an emergency, the Volkswagen reacts well to any scrambling on your part to keep it going, but you really have to keep your promises to it. Muldoon’s last words as you drove away where, “Don’t forget to get that fixed right when you get there.” You’re on the road from New York to L.A., seventy-five bucks is all you got, you’re near Santa Fe running on three cylinders with an engine that’s overheating badly – like that. Don’t give up and thumb, but do a compression check. 95 pounds in three cylinders, but No. 3 tests zero? Sounds like a burned valve, so find a place and go to work. Pull the engine, take off the tin, remove the heads and carry them to the machine shop (do both heads even if you go hungry the rest of the trip). Have the valves ground and a new valve put in. Reassemble and install the engine and you can probably make it to L.A. I figure a little over a penny a mile for the Bug and a cent and a helf for the Bus for gas and oil.”

Adjusting the costs in the narrative for inflation to the current day is an exercise left to the reader, and I wish you well. But do you see what the above did there? Not only is it a capsule of a time, but it’s casual-yet-witty prose both evoke that time, provide you with a single memorable character, and deliver a bit of technical know-how, illustrating what I meant when I said that the core of a hippie is a systems-oriented DIY problem-solver.

It’s hard not to kind of fall in love with this book, whether or not you actually have or hope to have a classic VW, it’s fun to read, and enlightens as it takes you under its kindly wing.

That’s not to say it’s all laid back tale-reeling. Muir was trained as an engineer, and the procedures, while warmly worded, are actually quite precise and methodical. Reading this book will teach you many of the fundamentals of how works a VW, but it focuses on two essential functions that every mechanic must fulfill: diagnosis and cure. The book is organized into sections simply titled by manifest symptom (RED LIGHT ON! (Generator or alternator), GREEN LIGHT ON! (Oil Red light), VOLKSWAGEN DOESN’T STOP (Brakes), and SLIPS AND JERKS (Clutch) are just a few), and each procedure identifies itself to you in language that is accessible to the tyro.

What really pops in this book is art, though. Peter Aschwanden illustrated technical details with whimsy and seems straight out of the Underground Comix school; he’s what R. Crumb would have been if he did illos for auto manuals. The art (excerpted here and there in this article) are gorgeous, witty things, clearly drawn. I’ve used this book to diagnose electrical problems in the late Red Beetle, and I’m, if anything, mechancially declined. There’s clarity and humor there, and the satisfaction that is naturally derived from seeing the work of an artist who was in solid command of his medium and his tools, and who loved his work and his subject. If Muir and Tosh got the 60s DIY ideal of owning a VW, Aschwanden (credited at one point in the book with his nom-de-guerre, Amanda B. Reckonedwith) similarly got the gestalt idea of the serious whimsy which comes with the ownership of the classic VW (which wasn’t actually a classic in the full sense, yet).

You can still come by this book; sadly, both Aschwanden and Muir are no longer with us (Muir died of a brain tumor in 1977 at age 58, Aschwanden made it to 2005, and died aged 63. Even John Muir Publications is a thing of the past, his works still being published but The Idiot’s Guide now belonging to Avalon Travel Publishers and The Velvet Monkeywrench, his socio-political manifesto and proposal, being published by Oceantree Books.

My particular copy is the 1981 edition, and was given to my by the legendary east Portland VW mechanic, Bill Trafton. If you knew Trafton and his generosity and his gift with VWs, you’d know that he was the equal of Muldoon, and why I consider the book such a treasure.

Even in a 35-year-old copy, it’s as current as it needs to be.

It’s a love letter to the best car every made, a book that everyone who loves a classic VW should have – even if you don’t plan on touching the insides. It’ll make you an enlightened owner, and is just damned good fun to read.

Author: Samuel John Klein