No Punch Backs
Whether by inclination or of necessity, gearheads are alive and well in Mexico! There are a lot of beautifully restored old cars and trucks here, some up to 50 years old. A few of the pickups are even badged ‘Datsun’, so that tells you how old they are. Some months ago, our mechanic needed to keep our car overnight and gave us a 1985 Mercury Sable as a loaner. It ran great! There are a variety of car clubs around for aficionados of different types of vehicles.
Shortly after arriving, I decided I wanted a classic VW. They are everywhere! The old style Beetle was manufactured here until 2004 and is called a Vocho. The mini-bus is also popular and is called a Combi. At some point in the distant past, when Volkswagen ceased production in Germany, the Beetle was re-engineered for manufacture in Mexico and Brazil. They were even given fuel-injection in 1993!
There are several common themes in VW restoration. Some are finished full stock, sometimes with vintage details like roof-top luggage racks or flower decals. Others have the fenders cut back and big tires installed as off-road ‘Baja’ buggies. Still others are lowered and performance modified and a few are customized as mini pickup trucks, hot rods or sports cars.
Often the work is beautifully executed; other times it is much more crudely done. In fairness, many are simply affordable transportation for people who otherwise couldn’t afford a car. As time goes on with no more being produced, they are becoming more scarce and prices are rising. At present, they range from about $3000 for a beater to $30,000 or more for an impeccably restored 1950’s vintage classic (all figures in Cdn$).
Arriving at my present circumstance has been an education process. I knew from the outset that I didn’t want a completely stock configuration or anything cute like flower decals or a ‘Herbie’ (the love bug) paint job. Initially, I thought I wanted an off-road buggy style based on an orange one I had seen in the next town that was spectacularly done.
The simplest way to update the appearance of the Vocho is to cut back the fenders and add bigger tires; the result is more aggressive looking and less cute. Trouble is, many of them look like they were done with tin-snips after 3 or 4 tequilas! It’s actually difficult to get it visually right. Over time, my appreciation for the basic form grew and the list of modifications I wanted to make became shorter.
I was told upfront that I should be able to get a dependable vehicle that looked good for about $5000. Since it was only intended as a second car to drive back and forth between Joco and Chapala, that seemed about right. I had seen one where the back seat had been removed and a platform built for the owner’s dogs and that appealed to me. I spent several months looking online, talking to local mechanics, leaving notes on cars in town that I liked and otherwise running down leads.
At one point, I visited a mechanic in Chapala who specializes in building them from the ground up. He showed me pictures of a couple of recent projects and they looked great, but the cost was almost double my budget at the time. He pointed to a hulk of a body outside his shop with weeds growing up through it and said that was his typical starting point. I looked at it and thought, “That pile of junk is never going to be a car!”. I wasn’t making very much progress.
Eventually, I went to a used car marketplace in Guadalajara where private sellers and small dealers display their vehicles for sale. There were 8 or 10 Beetles there ranging in price from about $3000 to $8000. In the end, I purchased a 1997 that appeared to be in good shape for $4000. On the way back to Joco, it broke down and had to be towed to our mechanic! I got it back about 10 days later and another $1000 lighter.
Over the next six months, I made some minor changes. I removed the back seat and built the dog platform. I had the running boards removed to streamline the appearance. I found a picture of the ‘whale tail’ rear spoiler from an old Porsche 911 and tried to find someone to fabricate one. I also took it back to the mechanic monthly for a litany of problems.
The trips to the mechanic were not expensive, but the problems weren’t getting solved. On a couple of occasions, it had to be towed in. It got to the point where, if I went to town, I wasn’t sure I would get home. Not great to be stuck on the side of the road with 2 dogs in 90 degree heat waiting an hour for a tow truck. Something had to give!
A friend told me that he knew of two people who had similar problems that were resolved by replacing the distributor with electronic ignition. When my general mechanic was unable to find the parts for the conversion, I contacted the VW specialist in Chapala. On the way in to his shop, it broke down again and he came out to tow me! He said he would do a full diagnostic and let me know what was required.
That evening, I received a two page email outlining the bad news in excruciating detail. At some point, the engine had been replaced by a lemon and one that was only designed for use with a carburetor, therefore the fuel injection wasn’t working. Engine compression was poor, the main engine bearings were loose, the oxygen sensor in the exhaust system was inoperable, the engine showed signs of serious overheating in the past and the fuel lines were shot and leaking. The only decent thing about the entire car was the body and even that had been rear-ended and the frame bent. The technical term for the overall condition was ‘piece of shit’!
The bottom line was that it could all be fixed, but it would cost an additional $8000 leaving me all in at about $13,000 for a car that would run well but still not be customized as I would like. The alternative was to try and sell it for about $2500, ideally without an engine so the buyer wouldn’t come back on me repeatedly with ongoing mechanical problems. I swallowed hard and said, “OK, fix it!”.
A couple of days later, he emailed me to say that the owner of one of his prior restorations wanted to do another one and was willing to take my vehicle in trade, plus cash, on favorable terms. While it was more than I had previously wanted to spend, the car was perfect. It felt like getting a ‘do-over’ and those don’t happen often!
The new one is a 1993, silver in color, and completely restored. It has custom over-sized rims and tires without the fenders needing to be trimmed back. The interior has been redone and it has a sunroof. Mechanically, it is an order of magnitude better than the old one. It is an optimal combination of stock and custom restoration and I love it. It is truly show car quality and should fulfill my needs for many years to come. Sometimes you just have to say, “WTF!”.
Last week, the mechanic and I went to the license office in the nearby town to change the registration of the old car into his name for the upcoming restoration and the new car into my name from the previous owner. This was a surprisingly complicated undertaking and I was extremely glad he was there. I could not have accomplished it myself, especially with my limited Spanish. Bureaucracy can truly be a full contact sport in Mexico!
My Ontario driver’s license is set to expire on my birthday in June. I had been trying to get a handle on the process to get a Mexican license and was finding it rather daunting. A friend told me I could renew my Canadian one online, thereby kicking the problem down the road.
When I went online to check, however, I determined that I needed to change my address of record in Canada first and then couldn’t renew the actual license for a further 90 days. That would have been after my current license expires. Who thinks this stuff up! As a result, I will be taking the test for my Mexican license next week. Wish me luck!
Alan Rivas is the Vocho Maestro Extraordinaire who built my current car. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a completely unrelated matter, a couple of months ago in the post titled A Balanced Perspective, I wrote about how some of the ‘helping types’ that I moved down here to escape from seemed to have followed me. My wife recently found this clever online post on the subject that I thought I would share;
Welcome to Mexico
You came here from there because you didn’t like there, and now you want to change here to be like there. We are not racist, phobic or anti whatever-you-are, we simply like here the way it is and most of us actually came here because it is not like there, wherever there was. You are welcome here, but please stop trying to make here like there. If you want here to be like there, you should not have left there to come here and you are invited to leave here and go back there at your earliest convenience.