Classic vw Beetle -- get a new or rebuilt engine?

I have a '74 Beetle that I had towed a week ago. The mechanic said it was about to throw a rod. I’ve never dealt with him before, but other vw owners reccommended him, and it’s slim pickins for air-cooled engines around here. He told me that if he rebuilds the engine that it would be better than if I buy a new one, because he didn’t like the quality of the new engines from Mexico. This sounds bogus to me, but what do you think? And If i get a new engine, any reccommendations as to which company to deal with? Midamerica Motorworks sells new engines for $2500 or so (not including installation). He will rebuild for $1700. Money is not really an issue. We plan to keep the car forever, so want what’s best for the long run.

I can’t make any recommedations on which company to purchase a new engine from. A rebuild will certainly be as good as a new engine with one caveat; and that’s if it’s rebuilt PROPERLY.

There are a few quirks involved in rebuilding these engines and if the gentleman in question is really an air-cooled pro he should know all about them. This involves line boring the block (a necessity), inspection of the main bearing thrust saddle, inspection of cylinder and head studs, replacement of cylinder head valves (NO regrinding of exhaust valves, period) lapping in the heads to the cylinders with compound (they use no head gaskets), and PROPER torque of the cylinder head nuts (which is very low).

I have no way of telling you how to go about verifying if the guy knows this stuff or if he will even follow through with it; just pointing out some MUSTS that have to be done. Maybe in a casual manner ask to look at his line bore cutter and ask if he can “regrind” all of the valves. If he does not have a line bore cutter (and can’t farm this out) and if he says he can regrind all of the valves then maybe you should consider a complete new engine from elsewhere because this could? mean that the rebuilds are halfway in nature.
(Exhaust valves are NEVER ground on an air-cooled. The excessive heat can cause valve stem stretch and since metal will only stretch so far, eventually the head is going to pop off the valve and this means instant engine destruction; and it’s happened many times.)

And the starter armature bushing in the transaxle is always replaced with an engine build too. Hope some of that helps in your decision.

This is really a great question for the air-cooled VW boards out there. I would go the rebuilt route myself if there’s a great builder involved, as you will certainly have a superior engine if it is done correctly, or taken to the next level and balanced, etc.

I’d probably take the chance while the engine is being rebuilt to upgrade it though from a 1600CC to a 1776CC engine, which will give you better driveability and power without a loss of reliability. You can also just buy a turn-key motor from a VW specialist around the country like this:

I’d also upgrade to maintenance free electronic ignition when you’re putting it back together. Good luck.

thanks so much for the advice. I just don’t know if my mechanic is good at rebuilds. I’ll ask him the questions that you mentioned. He’s worked on VWs for 30 years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows what he’s doing. I had no idea the sound that it was making meant the end of the engine!

Actually, the problem with the exhaust valves will not make a sound. One worries when it becomes quieter. The exhaust valve problems is easily preventable though. The valve lash (adjustment) should be inspected about every 6k miles since these engines use mechanical lifters.

During the inspection of the valve lash if the exhaust valves appear to be tight, and they were known to be correctly adjusted 6k miles before, then this is a sign that you should worry. Other than that, don’t fret too much over this. A swallowed valve is not something that abruptyly happens except in a fluke circumstance.

This is why that exhaust valves on a VW are never reused. They’re always replaced (NO exceptions) and then you won’t have to worry.

For what it’s worth, I worked for VW for many years and I love the air-cooled Bugs and Beetles; especially the 73/74 models. These cars would hold the road well, handle decent, and actually go uphill without wheezing!
In 75 VW went to fuel injection, not out of choice, and this complicated things a bit.

(Just an FYI here. To verify, at least partially, that an engine is “correct” when it has been rebuilt do this. With the engine off, grasp the crankshaft pulley and pull it towards you firmly. Now, shove it forward. You may feel a tiny bit of movement if the engine is right. If you hear a “thunk”, or even worse, a solid “clunk” sound then someone has not done their job. This means the main bearing thrust saddle is beaten out of the engine block and someone has done a shoddy rebuild. This is why main bearings are available with oversized thrust surfaces.) Hope that helps.

They still made and sold air-cooled Bugs in Mexico until 2005…If you buy a new LONG BLOCK (complete engine) from Mexico, you will get a high quality unit with all the latest improvements and upgrades. Do some research before you decide. Engines rebuilt in a small shop seldom match the quality and reliability of a new factory unit. But be sure you are getting a new factory unit and not a Mexican rebuild!!

The problem with procuring a “new” or rebuilt engine is that one may never really know the quality of the rebuild until it’s too late.
Some years ago a guy bought a “totally rebuilt” air-cooled for a VW Bus. I installed it, no big deal, and it ran like a top; for a few hundred miles. At this point on the open road it shucked a couple of pistons.

An examination showed the problem was caused by sucking air between the new cylinders and the rebuilt cylinder heads, which led to a very lean condition on an air-cooled; and this is fatal. The air-cools, as I’ve mentioned, use no head gaskets and must be lapped in with compound. Obviously the rebuilder used no compound or even cared.

After tracing down the “reputable” engine builder and having a pretty serious discussion with him he admitted (with a foot in the mouth) that many of his rebuilds were coming back with problems. In one case, he stated that he had shipped 75 engines to Tulsa, OK and EVERY single one of them quit with major problems within a few thousand miles. Of course, he went into “Cover his xxx” mode real quick by stating that “the guy who did the rebuilds doens’t work here anymore”.

If you get a NEW engine make sure it’s a new engine; not rebuilt, reman, refurbished, recyled, done-over, etc. because that can mean anything.
I’m not trying to scare you away from a rebuilt by this guy at all; just make SURE that it’s properly rebuilt and a guarantee is in writing.

For a somewhat humorous story (not to the ones affected though) consider a guy I used to work with. He was a VW tech of shall we say foreign descent and used to stockpile worn out VW Beetle engine parts. He would put together engines out of used (WELL used) parts) with the only investment being what was at the time a 10 dollar gasket set. He sold these engines ONLY to other like nationalities on an exchange basis of about 350 bucks a pop! Needless to say, they would make noise, puke oil, etc. and when someone came back he would blame it on something else going wrong and hit them for another 350. They would gladly buy into this BS and smile big time while being raked across the coals again. Ingenious, huh? :frowning:

(Matter of fact, many of those “well used” parts were on their way to the dump when he intercepted them!)

One thing about internal engine work on the air-colled engines,even the smallest mistake,overlooked procedure spells death for these engines.


I really appreciate your input and have a few questions. This is getting wayy more technical that I’m able to comprehend. I appreciate the sneaky questions I can ask my mechanic, and I plan to do so. (He has a couple rebuilds ahead of mine, so I have a little time.) We live in hickville North Carolina where the most exciting thing is the weekly cattle sale. So I automatically don’t trust this mechanic. I’ve looked for vw discussion boards without success. He guarantees a rebuild for 10,000 miles or 1 year-- that didn’t seem like very many miles to me. What do you think?

And can I upgrade to any size engine? or will some engines not ‘fit’ properly. Midamerica motorworks only has a new 1600cc longblock. Everything else is rebuilt.

Since this is getting ‘wayy more technical’ than you’re comfortable with, how about a VW club in your area? Google it, I imagine there are. They’ll have folks that can help you find a good engine. has one of the better VW boards out there.

The warranty time period is about normal for a rebuilt engine so I would consider the 10k miles/1 year time frame fair enough.

I would advise staying with the same type of engine the car came with. It’s actually one of the better, more powerful ones. A stock engine can be modified to increase the power and performance but if one goes overboard a bit with this then extra stress will be placed on other areas such as the transmission, clutch, CV joints, etc.

If you don’t mind spending the extra money then a new longblock is the way to go as this could rule out any problems caused by a local mechanic.

There are a few problem areas to consider when going to a rebuilt or new engine and these should never be overlooked.
ALways replace the starter armature bushing in the transaxle case. Easy and dirt cheap.
Always replace the braided fuel lines. (Many VWs have burnt to the ground because of old, rotted lines.)
Always replace the generator or alternator drive belt. (Many VWs have suffered roasted engines due to a broken or out of adjustment fan belt.

Lastly, a decision should be made in regards to the thermostatic flaps inside the fan shroud (that large upright sheet metal part that the alternator is attached to.
These flaps can become inoperative and if stuck in the closed position can roast an engine. This is something you may not find out about until it’s too late. When the engine is replaced the flap mechanism and thermostat should be carefully examined to make sure it’s moving freely, OR as many do - remove the flaps or wire them open. The engine takes a bit longer to warm up with the flaps removed but it prevents the engine from roasting due to stuck flaps.

That’s a judgement call and depends on how picky you are as to originality and if you don’t mind waiting a few extra minutes to get heat going into the passenger compartment; or as much heat as an air-cooled will put out anyway.
Hope that helps.

If you don’t mind my asking . . . in what part of the country are you located? I have a VW/Porsche mechanic friend, with hundreds of cars (mostly air-cooled stuff) and his own machine shop . . . close to my place. I live in the Poconos in Pennsylvania and would be glad to introduce you to him. He built a few engines for me and builds stock through full-race motors. Let me know. Rocketman

Just re-read my post . . . the hundreds of cars are in his own junkyard . . . can’t tell you how much fun it is to visit his place. Rocketman

I’m in western North Carolina, not far from Virginia, and 2 hours from Asheville. This mechanic I found by accosting other classic bug owners in my area. I’ve Googled and found no VW clubs nearby. There’s one in Greensboro, but they work on their own cars, unlike me. And they’re a couple hours away too. If I’m ever in Pennsylvania again, I’ll make sure to visit that guy! I used to live in Bedford, pa, a small town. I think we’re just going to try the rebuild. I’m the picky one, so I plan to set aside some time to ask the mechanic a thousand questions. I’m writing down all the stuff mentioned. And I really appreciate the input. Can’t wait to put my upright bass back in my bug again and traipse off to old-time jams.

Well, you could verify a few things by doing the following. Ask if he has a cylinder head fly-cutter and a special tool for line boring the engine cases. If you get a momentary blank look… :frowning:

Just curious. If this is a full size upright bass how in the world have you managed to cram that thing into a Beetle? I’m having a hard time figuring out how or where it’s being crammed unless the neck is sticking out the passenger side window.
Slightly off-topic I suppose but what kind of music do you play? Jazz, based on the upright?
(Frustrated bassist myself (electrics) and love all types of music but generally dwell on my favorite; 12 bar blues.)

He does have a line borer thingie.

It is a 3/4 size, as most of them are.

I slide the passenger seat all the way back and put it in scroll first which sits over the very back. I can’t get my back seat to lay down at all, but that would be easier. depending how much other stuff I have, I take out the passenger seat. Its about 74 inches long with the end-pin in, but rather difficult to measure exactly.

I’m classically trained, like to play at blue-grass old timey contradance type slow jams, and mostly I don’t have a group to play with. I like to dance more than play. So I keep up my chops with Bach solos, and practice my chords. I love good old blues, like muddy waters. Also, our local favorite, Doc Watson. Amazing musician. I really live in hickville, so don’t find many folks to play with in any genre.

I talked to the mechanic for a half hour, asked all the tricky questions I could. He’s seems okay, so we’re going for the rebuilt. If you’re ever in town, I’ll buy you a beer. Thanks

When you mentioned he had a line boring tool I kind of thought he was on the up and up. He would not have that tool if he was halfwaying things.

Thank you for the cold beer offer but I don’t get back east very often. I’d certainly like to get back that way though if nothing else to see the beautiful country and say hi to a life long friend who lives in the Asheville area and whom I’ve not talked to in about 15 years.

Thanks for clarifying the bass thing. I was having a hard time picturing a full size floor bass crammed into a Beetle! And I’m somewhat familiar with Doc Watson; he’s been around a long time.
Sorry for the slow response back. I’m on a little R and R up here in Colorado and managed to hit a great concert at Red Rock last night. James Hunter, Buddy Guy, and George Thorogood. A bit of everything and Buddy as per the usual was beyond outstanding slthough he did dis Eric Clapton a tiny bit. Whether it was seriously or in humor I have no idea.

The valve lash (adjustment) should be inspected about every 6k miles since these engines use mechanical lifters.

I got to the point where it only took about 5-10 minutes to do the job, start to finish. I did it every oil change. Watch out for #3 especially.