The engine quit with a sudden un-dramatic snap, and the little Golf TDI began to slough off speed. Reflexively, I bumped the gearshift lever into neutral, flicked on my signal and began moving towards the left edge of the expressway. My exit was less than a mile away and, rather than stop alongside the highway, I used my momentum to coast up the off-ramp and over the small knoll that stood between the expressway and the toll plaza. I stopped there, on the back side of the hill where the road widened on the approach to the toll booths, to avoid blocking traffic and dug out my cell phone to call for a tow truck. I didn’t know it then, but it was the last time that I would ever sit behind the wheel of the little car, never mind the fact that it would follow me again around half of the globe.
I had purchased the dark blue VW diesel new before heading to Jamaica and the car had carried me faithfully, but not entirely without drama, during the two years I lived there. The problems were always small, window regulators, the brake like switch, an air bag light, and a check engine light among other things. They were more of a nuisance than anything else. There was a VW dealership in Kingston and they were quite professional but since I had purchased the car in the States, and then imported it to the island, none of these issues were handled under warranty. It was OK though, I really liked the car and so long as nothing big happened, I reasoned, I could foot the bill.
After two years in the Caribbean, I moved to Japan, and the Volkswagen, after a delay that stretched into several months, followed me. It arrived in sorry shape, covered in filth and spattered with baked-on dead bugs from a trip across the USA on a car carrier. After so long apart, I was glad to see it and after a thorough cleaning, an oil change and a new set of tires, the car was road worthy. It was, I was told, the only Golf TDI in the country, and I enjoyed running around the Kansai region trailing a cloud of smelly black exhaust wherever I went. Unremarkable as it may have been in the USA, the car was a hit in Japan. VW fans often worked up the courage to bridge the cultural gulf to ask about it.
Times were good, for the most part. I had another broken window regulator, three out of the four VW logos spun off the center caps and I soon found out that there were no correct replacement batteries to be had, but I let these things slide. The car was unusual and quirky, after all, and inconvenience is the price you sometimes pay for cars like that.
Later when I transferred to Yokohama, I used the car to its best advantage to make the 5 hour drive down the Tomei and Meishin expressways almost every weekend to visit my wife who was at her parents’ house in Kyoto awaiting the birth of our first child. My little VW was not especially fast, but it ran well on the smooth high speed expressways of Japan. For once, it finally seemed to be just where it belonged.
The car followed me to Okinawa in 2006 and, once again, it was put to work on my daily commute, a 20 minute drive that included surface streets and a bit of expressway. For the first few months, it seemed to be fine, but then, on one of my regular forays under the hood, I noticed that the coolant was low. Okinawa is hot, so I thought nothing of it and added some more coolant. A week later I got a low water alarm and, sure enough, the coolant was low again. Thus it began.
I have had to replace head gaskets before so I know what the signs are. I looked in all the usual places. There was no leaking water under the car, no sudden increase in my oil level, no oil floating on top of the coolant and no white plume out the back, so the signs were not obvious. It could be a weeping gasket, I thought, a leak small enough to suck the coolant slowly from the radiator without leaving a tell-tale trail of white smoke, so I took it to my local VW of Japan dealership to have them perform a test to see if I had combustion gases in my coolant.
It is a testament to my Japanese ability that I was able to use the language to berate the local VW technician well enough that he actually helped me. When first I arrived, he took one wide eyed look at the car and started to wave his hands. “We won’t service this.” He announced. But I wasn’t having any excuses and, after an ass chewing for the ages, he finally he agreed to perform the simple test I wanted. From the way he sucked air through his teeth as he worked, I knew it was bad news before he spoke. “It’s a head gasket,” He said sadly, “and there is no way I can fix it. We never sold these cars and we don’t have any training on them. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” This time I didn’t give him any static, his words had the ring of truth.
At home that night I got out the rebuild manual I habitually carried and looked at the job. It was nothing I wanted to tangle with, honestly, but I felt confident I could do the work if I had to. The first step was parts so I got on-line and ordered everything the manual said I would need. It took weeks for everything to arrive and, in the mean time, I made sure the coolant levels stayed high and limited my trips as much as I could. Still, unwilling to commit myself to a project of that magnitude, I continued to examine my options.
Most Japanese mechanics are excellent and I was confident that, if I could find one who was willing to work on the car, they could fix it. The problem was none of them wanted to touch it. It was an unknown, and no one was willing to take the risk. There were no Japanese rebuild manuals for the car, and since mine was written in English it was useless to them. Eventually, I learned that my local Marine Corps Base had an auto shop, so I went down to see if they had a mechanic who could work on the car. Fortunately, or so I thought at the time, there was someone.
The kid looked like a typical grease monkey. He told his boss he knew all about VW diesels and that he had worked on them when he was based in Germany. His boss seemed convinced they could handle the job and agreed to take it ,so I gave them the little car, the parts and went off confident that my worries were over.
A month later the car had not been completed and I found myself back down at the shop looking around. The kid was nowhere in sight but my car was over in the corner with its hood ajar so I went to look at it. I raised the hood and found myself looking at the shop floor – the engine was gone and my blood pressure jumped. Unhappily I tracked down the ship manager and asked what the hell was going on.
The kid, it turned out, didn’t have the experience he had claimed and there had been a problem. The manager told me that they had already ordered new parts and the work would be handed over to the lead tech who, with my rebuild manual, would put the car back together correctly. Until then I could use a small Mazda loaner and was assured that when the car was ready I would not have to pay a dime for the work. Free is good, but it wasn’t like I could do much anyhow, so I accepted their offer as graciously as I could and left them to it.
Two months later the Volkswagen came home. There were still a few issues with it, most notably a couple of the vacuum lines had been misrouted, but at least it ran. It did OK on the highway but seemed a little down on power. It didn’t matter, I told myself, I was slated to rotate home in another two months and when I got back stateside, I could get the car sorted and decide then whether or not I wanted to keep it. My plan worked for three weeks.
After an uncomfortably long wait, the tow truck arrived, carried the car home and dropped it in my driveway. The VW remained there for the rest of my time in Okinawa and, a day or two before I headed back to the States, another truck came to haul it to the port. While I completed my move and enjoyed a vacation back at home in Washington State before heading on to Buffalo, the little car was put into a container, sent across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and up the east coast to a port in New Jersey. The first I heard of its arrival was when the shipper called to inform me that one of the world’s best traveled car had arrived with a major case of mold on the interior.
Although I offered to sell the car to the shipper for a reasonable cost, they elected to clean it prior to delivery and three weeks later the Golf rolled off a ramp truck at my apartment in Buffalo. It looked pretty good for all the trouble it had been through and, together, the tow truck driver and I pushed it into a parking spot. The next day, I took some photos and prepared a brief Craigslist ad explaining that the car had a blown engine and was being sold “as is.” I figured it was a long shot, but I asked $3,500.
Long shot or not, my phone rang off the hook all day long and a guy named Hank was waiting for me when I got home from work. He looked the car over quite thoroughly and offered me $2,500. We dickered for a while and then met in the middle at $3,000. The next day he came back, laid down the cash and put it on a trailer. As he rolled away, I realized that the car had become just another unhappy part of my personal history. I was happy to be rid of it.
Hank called again in mid-December. My exportation and subsequent re-importation of the little car and wreaked havoc on the title process but since I had given him the Certificate of Origin we could sort it out with just a couple of signatures. We met at a local bank and while we waited for the notary he told me the rest of the story.
The un-dramatic snapping sound I had heard had been the catastrophic destruction of the engine. One of the valves, which had probably been damaged when one of the Marine Corps’ mechanics had turned the engine over without ensuring the timing was perfect, had broken off and fallen into the cylinder bore. Once there, it had wreaked all kinds of havoc. It gouged the cylinder walls, ruined the head, broke the piston into pieces and sent metal shards out the exhaust port and into the turbo where they destroyed that part as well. According to Hank, the engine was in such poor shape he had purchased a replacement drive train for the car.
The process had been expensive, Hank told me, but the little car, with less than 30,000 miles on it, would bring good money when he went to resell it. Someone, he explained happily as we shook hands on parting, would pay good money for it. Too true, I thought, and if they have the same kind of luck I had with it, they will keep on paying for a long, long time. I hope they like lemonade.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.