In June of 2014, Moby developed a flat front tire on the driver side while en route to to Maryland. The cause, as it turned out, was a faulty valve stem that cracked where it passed through the tire rim. Then last summer, on the way home from Assateague, MD, the front passenger tire lost its air less than 15 miles from home on our return journey. The cause? Again, a faulty valve stem that broke in the same place as the first. I never encountered valve stem failure before, not even heard of it in fact, but I certainly understand that all parts fail sometimes, even those that seem to encounter so little stress. The first flat I chalked up to this type of failure; just a possible defect in the part, perhaps something struck the valve, or I was a little overzealous in cleaning around it when washing the bus. But to have two fail on the same vehicle? That seemed a bit odd.
The guy at the tire shop informed me that in many cases, when new tires are installed, the stems never get changed and eventually succumb to dry rot. It is possible that this scenario might include Moby as, although she has new tires, I do not know if the stems were ever replaced. In my early VW days, I swapped tires all the time, never giving the valve stems much thought. My guess is that I am not alone in my ignorance. Of course, this raised the question of the two remaining valve stems on the rear tires and how much life might remain in them.
Having spent enough time changing tires on the side of the road, replacing the remaining stems BEFORE they failed seemed like the best course of action. Although taking a tire off and on is usually a straight forward job (as long as the lug nuts are not frozen or rounded), I figured it would make for a good post because dealing with flats is often a task not thought about until required. Plus, there are some problems that may arise while on the road that one does not encounter in the comfort of a flat garage or driveway which, unless one is ready for them, can be a challenge to overcome with limited resources. The side of the road is a very dangerous place to hang out, especially on roads with narrow or absent shoulders, and that means being prepared to deal with such emergencies is a smart move. While I tackled this job in the relative security of my driveway, I want to highlight some of the issues that might complicate the job when done on the side of the road in the hopes of preventing a few headaches among my fellow VW pilots. One such issue I will make note of now is the spare tire. Very often we forget to check the air pressure in the spare when we check the other four tires and then find we have a flat spare to replace a flat tire – don’t forget to check the spare tire pressure as part of routine maintenance!! (some beetles (post ’67 I think) were notorious for flat spares because the windshield washer fluid reservoir used the tire’s air to pressurize the washing system – and the system always leaked air. Luckily, buses do not have that issue.)
Lists of needed emergency supplies vary greatly depending on preference, distance traveling, expected parts availability, individual skill level, and a willingness to wrench on a bus by the side of the road. In my experience, the following items came in handy multiple times. I am also a member of a roadside assistance club that saved my bacon on many occasions (even in newer vehicles) and highly recommend such memberships. In addition, there are several air-cooled rescue sites out there whose members offer anything from a phone or tools to a place to work and a couch on which to sleep.
If you have an addition to the following list, please feel free to let me know in the comment section at the end of the post.
set of standard and phillips screwdrivers
needle nose and standard pliers (with wire cutting ability)
metric socket set – or at least a wrench with the commonly used socket sizes
medium size box wrench
small flashlight with spare batteries
flares (3 or 4)
reflective emergency triangle
3-4 scraps of wood (2×4 or 2×6) about a foot long (if 2×6, these can double for use in leveling the bus when camping)
1 4×4 about a foot long
about 6 feet of spare wire
a few fuses of appropriate amps for the vehicle
spare fuel filter
one or two rags
small tarp or piece of plastic to help keep clothes clean/dry if you need to wriggle under the bus, kneel down, or shelter in the rain (a small umbrella would work for the latter too)
I also keep a pair of coveralls in the bus.
For long journeys, I beef up my list with:
spare spark plugs and wire set
spare fuel pump
spare fuel line (and clamps)
spare voltage regulator (yes, I’ve killed one by mistake)
small voltage meter
my VW tool box (I once had to rebuild my engine 3000 miles from home)
In all honesty, I keep all the above items from both lists nicely stuffed in the rear-facing jump seat behind the driver seat, but I know many who think the additional items in the second list are overkill. However, they all proved handy for me over the years. The spare parts do not need to be new, just in known working order.
**Safety note: Always mark your car with flares or a reflective triangle placed several car lengths behind the vehicle towards oncoming traffic. It is very helpful when a traveling companion can keep an eye on traffic for you, but when solo always pull as far off the road as possible and, if able, work facing the back of the vehicle to keep an eye on incoming traffic. I have read many accounts over the years of people getting seriously hurt or killed after some nut side-swiped or directly hit their disabled vehicle. Flares, markers, and even the flashing lights of a police car are no guarantee of safety. Safety always comes first, so if need be, call the tow truck or roadside assistance people and get to a safer environment.
Volkswagens have 4 jack points (2 on each side of the car) designed to match the stock jack. These points should be used, even when using a non-stock jack such as a hydraulic jack, to keep from putting excess stress on the frame.
Often these points get bent when using a non-stock jack. To prevent this, I usually use a piece of wood between the jack and jack point. Since this post is somewhat representing a roadside emergency, I decided to use the stock jack because it is really easy to travel with and does the job very well.
Chocking the wheels is a must, even if the terrain is flat. The emergency brake can be used to lock the back wheels, but I don’t trust the brake to hold the vehicle in place, particularly on inclines. In this case, the driveway slopped slightly towards the back of the vehicle so I put the chocks on the backside of the wheels. For an opposite slope, I’d do the reverse. For flat ground, I’d place the back wheel chocks on the backside and the front wheel chocks on the front side of the wheels.
The stock jack clips into its out-of-the-way home under the front passenger seat.
The seat flips up and removes easily for quick access to the jack (assuming your passenger agrees to get out of the way).
A little preventative maintenance goes a long way. Keep the threads clean and greased for smooth and easy action in an emergency.
Although not required, the VW hubcap removal tool makes removing said caps easy.
Insert the tool into the two holes in the hubcap with a long screwdriver positioned between the legs of the tool and the tip on the edge of the rim. With a quick movement of the screwdriver handle away from the wheel, pop the hubcap off. If the hubcap removal tool is not available, a large-headed screwdriver placed between the hubcap and wheel rim will pop the hubcap off with a twist of the hand (but be careful not to dent the hubcap or chip/scratch the paint or chrome).
One hub cap removed.
With the hubcap off, break the lug nuts loose (not too loose, just enough so you can turn them without a lot of effort).
Insert the jack arm into the jack point (yes, I know the hubcap mysteriously installed itself, but bear with me).
Slide the jack arm in until it stops; roughly where the red arrows are in this picture. I normally keep the arm in the middle of the jack so I don’t waste a lot of time adjusting it during an emergency.
Place a block of wood under the jack. The wood serves two purposes: First, it takes up space so you don’t have to crank the jack as much and, second, it will keep the jack from sinking into a soft shoulder or mud. 2x4s are usually fine, but if the ground is very soft or wet, a 2×6 works better (2x6s are also more stable if stacking is necessary). If the road is severely crowned or severely sloped, I’ll place a 4×4 piece of wood on top of a 2×6. Using the tire iron, screw the jack nut clockwise until the jack is firmly held in place between the wood and frame. Make sure the jack is vertical before lifting the car! An angled jack will cause the car to move around, possibly twisting the jack (causing damage) or worse, falling off the jack (almost happened to me once).
Turn the jack nut (at the top of the jack in this picture) clockwise until the tire lifts off the ground.
No need to lift the tire very high, just enough to clear the ground (with a flat tire, you might need to lift the bus a bit higher when installing the inflated spare – you did keep the spare inflated right!?!?).
With the wheel up, spin off the lug nuts. I always place the hubcap out of the way (usually just under the bus) so I don’t trip over it and then put the nuts in the cap to keep them safe. Nothing is worse then trying to hunt down lost lug nuts, especially in the dark or rain.
Pull the flat tire, put on the spare and reinstall the lug nuts.
Spin the nuts on until they are snug and lower the bus by turning the jack nut counter-clockwise. Remove the jack and put it somewhere in the bus (you can put it where it belongs after you driven to a safer location).
With the wheel on the ground, get ready to tighten the lug nuts. I first tighten one of the top nuts (number 1 in the photo) and then move to the nut on the opposite side of the wheel (number 2) and tighten that one. Then I proceed to nut number 3, then 4, and finally 5. Usually I will do a second round in alternating fashion until I am satisfied that they are all tight. Lastly, I do a final check by testing the nuts in a clockwise pattern around the wheel (in this case nut 1, then 3, 5, 2, and finally 4) to be sure none were skipped.
With the lug nuts tight, pop the hubcap back on with the palm of your hand. If changing a rear tire, make sure to chock both front tires on both sides of the tire (no help from the e-brake with these tires).
Using the jack to change a rear flat is the same as before except now use the rear jack points – make sure the jack is straight up and down.
Warning!! On the passenger side, the jack will prevent the sliding door from opening (I gently demonstrate why in the above picture). The jack will damage the door if opened or, worse, the door will twist the jack and possibly cause the bus to fall. I’ve seen a lot of buses with a running dent on the backside of the sliding door because someone made this mistake. Make sure all the needed tools are out of the bus and lock the door to keep this issue from occurring.
This step isn’t necessary for a road repair, but since I was working on both rear wheels at home, I put the bus up on jack stands (one for each side) so I could pull both wheels for the trip to the tire store. I never rely on just a jack to hold a vehicle up, especially when I’m crawling underneath. Can’t be fun to have a bus fall on you!
With the wheel off, it’s a good time to inspect what lies behind (though I don’t recommend doing this by the side of the road).
Seems like Moby is in pretty good shape for her age.
No rust needing attention on this day!
After changing tires I always go for a short drive to make sure the lug nuts are tight, wheels are balanced, and the bus handles as she should. Take the tire iron with you! If this were an emergency repair, I would take it easy on the speed for a few miles just to be safe. Once, with my beetle, I forgot to do the final torquing of the lug nuts (oops!), a problem I quickly discovered on the test drive.