baja bug

The Pandemic Bug: An Arizona family catches Baja fever

If you’re looking for the definition of insanity, put a husband with the same boyish tendencies as his two sons under the age of eight in a “shelter in place” scenario, add an extensive home renovation, and then throw a project car into the mix. But insanity is bliss in the Blinson house because 13 months ago, we found ourselves on the hunt for our perfect project vehicle.

Requirements: it had to be something cheap with lots of readily available parts. I wanted an introduction to engine work, so air-cooled seemed logical. Doug, my hard-working law enforcement husband, wanted it to have an off-road component. The boys wanted something fun, naturally, since they’d mostly be terrorizing the front yard, unloading water guns on Doug and me while squealing on scooters. 

Solution: a nicely priced Baja-styled VW Bug joined the family in our wind-blown and forgotten corner of southern Arizona. In the mid-summer heat, my boys’ water guns would be a key component to this automotive restoration.  

Hilda, our newly purchased Bug, was not, let’s say, pretty. I wish I could tell you that her non-show stopper looks didn’t bother me, but they did. Sitting in the poorly rattle canned interior while watching chunks of paint peel away from the hood did not match the vision I had of an adorable bug that would be the envy of the neighborhood with its’ pop of color and bubbly personality. Hilda drew attention but not for her glowing good looks. 

baja bug

The rumbling hiccups from the unrestricted exhaust turned the heads of the evening walkers as we made our way into the neighborhood. Hilda choked and coughed as we turned onto our street. I slinked lower in my seat, avoiding eye contact. She was such an attention seeker, for all the wrong reason; in fact, she earned us a note from the city rudely, but accurately, calling her “an inoperable project vehicle” only forty-eight hours after having her in the driveway. Come on; she was just rough around the edges. It’s okay for me to point out her misgivings, but the city? I think not. My disappointment notwithstanding, maybe we were already starting to bond. 

To circumnavigate Hild’a eyesore status, we tried our hand at bodywork first—disguise the project in an inviting bright array of colors, we conspired.

Doug and I lifted the body off the pan ourselves. I cursed that we didn’t have more friends close enough as I hoisted my end of a 2×4 protruding from underneath the body onto the well-balanced sawhorse. Who’s idea was this?

Covering every inch of VW’s bulbous body, Doug laid on a thick layer of the goopy paint stripper. We watched as each previous color curled and bubbled into a scrapable blob of rainbowed hues. Just as our neighbors were getting comfortable with the new quiet version of this project, Doug started a garage band of hammers and dollies. With every clamorous hit that reverberated through the street came satisfying knowledge that Hilda was becoming dent-free. 

baja bug

When it came to picking Hilda’s colors, the whole family scoured the web for inspirational images that would make our own case to the others. Our eldest boy voted all red. The youngest felt rainbow was the obvious way to go. I was hoping for a sparkly blue, and Doug immediately envisioned a Bug reminiscent of a puffy vest straight from the ’70s. With his “but I’m the one painting it” argument, Doug ultimately won. We landed on the retro stripe design that gave each family member a color they wanted with a splash of Arizona copper on the wheels. 

We went as cost-effective and accessible with our paint choice as possible, buying tractor paint straight from the local feed store. Each new layer of paint we added had even the UPS guy shouting kudos from behind his mask as he passed us the latest order of Bug parts. 

Bodywork is finicky and highly detailed (especially when Doug is involved), but I wasn’t into it. So, in between coats of paint, Doug introduced me to Hilda’s mechanical workings, and we set a game plan for my part of the project. We would replace the necessary parts and clean up everything still in okay(ish) working order. Doug would work on one side of the car, and I would mirror him on the other.

Fortunately, on Bugs, nothing is heavy enough to require heavy equipment. It’s just substantial enough to create a sitcom-worthy scene as a husband and wife of 12 years try to move them while not heading to divorce court. We huffed and puffed and screamed and laughed and undoubtedly threw in some bleep-worthy words while lifting the engine to the garage workbench. 

Finally, I got into the mechanical nitty-gritty. Taking apart the engine and learning its inner workings proved to be the therapy I needed. It was fun to discover the modified 1641 cc engine—exploring why someone chose this modification over some other. In my head, I reverse engineered Hilda’s story and loved every minute of it. In the same way my preschooler explains his drawings, Hilda came to life for me with each new piece I painstakingly removed.   

It didn’t take us long into the cleaning and rebuilding stage that we realized how Frankensteined Hilda was. Beneath her 18 layers of paint, the title and body sport a year of 1963, but the 1641 CC engine is converted from a 1971 Type 3. She has an IRS transaxle retrofitted to an “unsafe-at-any-speed” swing axle, most likely from a previous owner that got a killer deal on it. Look at enough Bug builds LEGO-constructed together and you realize that’s the beauty of the things. You can muddle them up to give yourself whatever kind of Bug you desire.

We removed the VW’s heads, pushrods, and cylinder barrels and got a full-on look at the workings of an air-cooled engine. As I disassembled and cleaned the axle shaft, elbow-deep in grease and cleaner, I was caught between the feelings of pride and excitement and loathing Doug for somehow talking me into spending our money on this. Relatable, right couples?  But, watching my children imitate us with their Tonka trucks on jack stands, as Doug and I worked, I fell in love with my husband all over again. This was my Blinson family insanity. 

baja bug

Like a well-oiled machine (Yeah, I said it!) we worked our way through reassembly. Getting to finally lower the body from its’ side yard perch back onto the pan was the turning point on the journey to finish. Doug sighed in relief that the bodywork was down to touch-up work. My excitement was about to bubbly over as we bolted the engine back on.  

Finally, with a turn of the key, okay many turns, and what felt like a decade of sweat, Hilda’s engine boomed back to life. It oddly shot the same excitement through me as when I watch my boys climb to the top of a tree, proud but still hovering close just in case. Hilda had become part of my family. 

Her sublime exterior and running status don’t stop us from messing around with the timing or adding a perfect Baja-inspired headliner the vibrant colors of a beach sunset in Mexico. Even as we take Instagram-worthy pictures of Hilda, the carburetor decides it is tired and needs replacing. A year later, our girl Hilda might be back on the road, but she’s still a project. If you’ve got a spare rear seat for a 1963 Beetle let me know. 

If the success of this project were based on bang for the buck, then the Blinsons won the cheapskate lottery. Bug included, we are all in for $3700. For that bargain price, Hilda got a new paint job, a complete electrical and light overhaul, and new tires that we won in a raffle with a single $10 ticket. All the rubber is new, and the side mirrors and gaskets are replaced. 

baja bug

Pandemic aside, my family got everything they wanted. While I’m not yet MacGyver with a coat hanger and chewing gum to get it running, I improved my mechanical skills. My boys watched their parents work on a project with only minimal swearing involved and no prenup invoked, and my hard-working husband got his off-road capable fun toy. Nope, this one won’t be conquering the Baja 1000, but a family trip to some sand dunes is on the books, where no doubt more Blinson insanity will ensue.

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6 responses to “The Pandemic Bug: An Arizona family catches Baja fever”

  1. Shelby Lutrey Avatar

    I love this article! It’s refreshing, exciting, and real!

  2. Zentropy Avatar

    Great read! And a great project! I really like the fun 70s deco you chose.

  3.  Avatar

    What an adventure! Way to keep your sanity during otherwise insane times. You describe the components of a family dynamic during major projects so well!

  4. GTXcellent Avatar

    That awesome paint job is very reminiscent of the old Walker Evans Dodge trucks. Love it!

  5. OA5599 Avatar

    That’s a nice end result and a fantastically colorful writeup.

    I’m curious to know how an “inoperable vehicle” nastygram on Day 2 reconciles with a 13-month, down-to-the-bodyshell finished project, though.

  6. Mike up North Avatar

    What a lovely and inspiring article. I’d own a beetle in a heartbeat if there were any left here in New England that are not rotted out shells or ones costing $$,$$$. Perhaps I need to tow one back from Arizona!

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