Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

VW bug engine seized - out of oil

My sister bought a 60’s/70’s VW bug. I noticed from the start it blew blue-ish smoke out the exhaust.

After a few months (no oil changes and she never checked the oil level) the car began to run poorly/died on the freeway. She had it towed to a shop and a “diagnostic” was run. It found nothing.

She drove the VW again and it died immediately in a cloud of smoke. She finally checked the oil and it was dry. She added three quarts (no leaks) but the engine was completely gone.

Is the mechanic at all responsible here? Would an oil check have been standard procedure or is she just an idiot for not doing it herself? I’m going to have to go see if I can get her out of this mess…sigh.

“is she just an idiot for not doing it herself?” in reference to checking the oil level.

It sounds like you answered your own question.

I have no earthy idea what kind of “diagnostic” one runs on a VW beetle from the 60s or 70s.

But it was dead before it got to the shop.

Maybe she’s an idiot - I’ll leave that judgment up to you. At the very least she justneeds to be taught how to look after a car.

Hmmmm…It sounds to me like your negligent sister used a mechanic who is just as negligent as she is.

Although I think that the mechanic should have checked her dipstick as part of his assessment of the engine, it is very possible–bordering on probable–that the engine was already toast at that point.

How about filling in some details, such as:

Was this the original engine, and if so–how many miles on it?
If it was not the original engine, how many miles were on that engine?
Does she have records of the car’s prior maintenance, and if so–how well was that car maintained over the preceding…40 or 50 years?
When “she drove the VW again”–how far did she drive it after leaving the shop before it self-destructed?

I have no earthy idea what kind of “diagnostic” one runs on a VW beetle A compression gauge and an oil pressure gauge.

I doubt if it was the mechanic's fault.  The seller may have known however.  In any case it is too late for her to be able to blame the mechanic or seller. 

Those old air cooled engines were very sensitive to the oil  The oil functioned in part as a coolant. 

 Let's hope the sister learned a lesson about cars.  It's a shame to see another classic VW hit the bone yard.

It’s a good point that the engine may have already been ruined the first time it had to be towed in. Maybe it had just enough life to restart and drive a few more miles before dying completely. The mechanic didn’t find the problem but you’re right…he didn’t cause the initial failure. She did.

Sorry, I don’t have any more specifics about the car/engine. I doubt she knows any of it’s history either. She bought it because it was “cute” and that’s all she wanted to know.

My 1967 Bug only took ~3 qts of oil, so the engine is toast. A Bug is a high maintenance car, for instance, oil changes and valve adjustments every 3k. It may be cute, but by 80s standards it was a death trap. A weekend car yes, a daily driver no. This on your sister for not checking the oil, by the time it got to the mechanic it was probably too late.

Ed B.

Yes Joe - but one doesn’t call this “running a diagnostic”

One nice things about those engines…is they are very easy to rebuild.

An air-cooled VW is not the sort of car for a person who doesn’t check the oil.

Your sister destroyed the engine by not checking the oil. The mechanic who found nothing should never be allowed near an engine again, but it’s not his fault the engine is ruined. The damage was already done.

The only way out of this is to rebuild the engine or buy and install a rebuilt engine.

Then she needs to learn to check the oil. Frequently.

Whenever you buy a used vehicle, the one thing you should be checking for the first several months you own the car is oil level. As the new owner of the car, you should be checking the oil level pretty much after every drive, just to get an idea of what shape the car is in.

What if the car didn’t burn any oil, but leaked oil like a sieve at one of the valve covers.
That’s not something you would know, unless you checked the oil level frequently.

Your sister just learned several expensive lessons.
Luckily, there are a lot of old VW engine rebuilders in the country, some of which are worth the premium price tag they apply to their work. She can choose a simple rebuild, or she can choose a hot replacement motor, with a whole bunch of extra kick built into it.


No matter what kind of car and what kind of shop (be it Dealer,Indy, chain) a mechanic should check the oil on every car that is dispatched to him, it is simply good business. I have had some Dealers require it without pay and some require it and pay .1 (but this included a tire pressure check). Speaking of tire pressure checks, I wonder how the mandantory ones with every visit to a shop is going in CA.

VW engines are simple in some ways to rebuild but they are intolerant of mistakes in the process, you won’t get away with much and have it last very long.

The motor is shot, sister is at fault. It is hard to believe the shop didn’t even check the oil. Yet, by the time it got to the shop the damage was done.

Good news is VW motors are easily switched and easy to rebuild; if you can find a mechanic who knows how to handle the old air cooled VW motor.

If she gets it running again, the VW takes just 3 quarts of oil. Also it has no oil filter. The oil should be checked frequently as in every gas fill up. So little oil in a hot motor can burn off needed frequent topping off. The oil in an old bug should be changed every 3 months or every 3,000 miles whichever is first.

In general the old bugs are high maintenance motors. The values need adjusting every 10K miles. The old carbs are finicky, and V belts can break so it helps to have a spare belt in the trunk, points - rotor - cap - wires - and plugs need frequent adjustment replacement (every 10K miles for the plugs). Your sister needs to study up on maintaining an old classic bug if she fixes it and keeps driving it. The cars are “cool” but require an owner who knows how to care for it.

“Maybe it had just enough life to restart and drive a few more miles before dying completely”

I guess you are telling us indirectly that she drove the car only for a few miles after leaving the mechanic’s shop. If that is the case, then she had already fried the engine before arriving at this shop. As you now realize, SHE is the cause of the problem–not the mechanic.

“I doubt she knows any of it’s history either. She bought it because it was “cute” and that’s all she wanted to know.”

She likely had no idea of the car’s maintenance history, and yet she proceeded to blithely motor along for X months and X miles without once lifting the hood and doing an under-hood check?

This may sound harsh, but I will say it anyway:
Your sister deserves whatever resulted from her negligence.

Hopefully she will learn a lesson from this experience before she destroys another engine.

Along the same lines, I have to ask–does she ever do any proactive maintenance on the brakes of her cars? If she pays as little attention to her brakes as she pays to the car’s ability to move, this does not promise much for the folks who share the highway with her.

Uncle Turbo summed it up nicely. If your sister decides to keep the Bug, I highly recommend she picks up a copy of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by John Muir.

Ed B.

A 60’s/70’s VW bug is a hobby car, needing constant TLC.
It’s not a turnkey daily driver.

Granted, the shop should have checked the oil level but based on the symptoms the engine was toast anyway. She should have checked the oil level when she bought the car.

There are 3 quick things that can be done when inspecting a VW air-cooled before purchase. Run a compression test, make sure there is no excessive movement in the crankshaft, and make sure the bottom of the engine is not coated in engine oil.
Regarding the second thing on the list, excessive movement means the engine block is beaten out. Regarding the excessive oil leaks scenario this means an engine overhaul.

Overhauling an air-cooled is a bit more expensive and time consuming than one would think as to do it properly involves line-boring the engine block, setting it up with the right main bearings to take care of that block problem (if possible), fly cutting the heads, replacing all of the exhaust valves, etc. If the shop does not have a flycutter and a line boring tool then they cannot perform the overhaul correctly.

Your answer isn’t half as harsh as what I’ve been thinking since she told me about this. Such a waste of a vehicle and all for lack of a little care…it’s enough to make you bang your head on the table.

It’s been great to read the advice from everyone. Guess I won’t be going postal on any mechanics today at least.

Oh…my…so many things I could say here… I’ll listen to my Mothers advice about not having anything nice to say…

Circuitsmith…sure did say it right tho…

If your sister needs a job in the winter, have the engine rebuilt in the old VW. The VW is the automobile that snow plow drivers owned so that they could get from home to their snow plows. (At least, that is what the VW bug commercials would have us believe).

If your sister does not need a winter job driving a snow plow, it would probably be best if she sells the VW (at a loss) to someone who is a car nut and has to have a VW. She will be a lot safer in something that meets today’s safety standards. A modern car will have better heating and defrosting as well.