How The Compleat Idiot Become The Technogeek
A BOOK ABOUT VOLKSWAGENS HELPED CHANGE A GENERATION
“COME TO KINDLY TERMS WITH YOUR ASS for it bears you.” Those words introduced How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot , first published in 1969. Its title might imply that it was the precursor to the current spate of “For Dummies” books, but it was something altogether different. The Idiot Book, as it was called, was more than just a repair manual. It was a manual for a way of life. And its author, John Muir (no relation to the naturalist), imparted the underlying philosophy that in order to keep that beast of burden—the Volkswagen Beetle, Bus, or Karmann Ghia—running, the reader had to enter into a personal, benevolent, even loving relationship with it. Muir published the book himself after commercial publishers all agreed that the idea of such a manual was ridiculous. It immediately became one of the most successful self-published books ever, and it is still in print long after Volkswagen stopped selling in the United States the air-cooled cars that are its subject matter.
In 1998 Volkswagen unveiled its New Beetle, a water-cooled, front-wheel-drive coupe, with pollution controls, air bags, and lots of pep. Its engine can go for hundreds of thousands of miles before needing so much as a valve job; its heater, brakes, and windshield wipers all work as well as those in any new car. The underpowered, lightweight, trouble-prone old Beetle’s familiar lines have been reconfigured in deference to recent improvements in safety and aerodynamics, its head- and taillights flattened, its fenders and hood smoothed. The result is a car that bears the same sort of strange resemblance to its predecessor as do those speculative drawings of what long-missing persons would look like today. Moreover, the New Beetle is a crystallization of American culture’s technological change between the decade that popularized the original car—the 1960s—to our wired era, from the atomic age to the information age. Just as the generation of young people that held sit-ins and ate bean sprouts has evolved into, and given birth to, one that forwards e-mail petitions and eats textured soy protein, and just as the spirit of rebellion against the Establishment once epitomized by growing long hair and burning draft cards today takes the form of computer hacking and Napster, so has the old underpowered, overheating Beetle been given a high-tech face-lift.
The New Beetle’s updated look (and certainly its updated innards) have helped make it a commercial triumph. But nostalgia for the original car, and for the a days of its prime, better explains the success of Volkswagen’s marketing strategy. “If you sold your soul in the ’80s, here’s your chance to buy it back,” ran the TV ads. Of course, you can’t buy back your soul—never mind your youth—at a car dealership. Also, for better or worse, Americans can’t revert to the technical innocence they imagine they had in the 1960s, when computers took up entire buildings and only trained operators knew how to use them and the Internet was the province solely of the Cold War military. How did a generation of technological neophytes come to preside over a new century of mechanized sophistication? Strangely enough, the malfunctioning original Beetle, and the book about how to fix it, helped put them on that road.
Like many Age of Aquarius entrepreneurs, John Muir had the baby boomers to thank for his big success. But he was not one of them, having been born three decades too early, in January 1918 (a “double Capricorn,” according to his widow). He inherited his mechanical knack from his father, a lawyer who mined for gold in the summers with his son as his helper, but dropped out of engineering school in the 1930s. The onset of World War II found him settled on the West Coast with his bride, Irein Hagensen, and their two daughters; an injury kept him out of the service. He worked on the Alaska Highway for a while but eventually decided to give engineering school another try, this time at the University of California at Berkeley. Metalworking skills were in high demand in postwar America, and upon graduating with a degree in civil engineering, Muir found employment with the U.S. space program, for both NASA and the Air Force, as a civilian contractor. At missile sites across the country, he helped build the complex infrastructure of launch facilities.
Perhaps it was the result of the constant travel from one air base to another and to and from Cape Canaveral, but Muir came to prefer a nomadic existence. He got divorced, remarried, and moved to the Mexican village of San Miguel de Allende (a paradise since discovered by a horde of American expatriates, but not well known in those days). The cost of living there was very low, but every once in a while the couple would need more money than they had to get by. They would then pack their things into an old truck and drive north to New Mexico, where Muir would peddle his services as a mechanic and repairman until he had saved enough money to return to San Miguel for another few months.
BY 1965, THE AREA AROUND TAOS, NEW MEXICO, where Muir often set up shop, had begun to change. Young people were moving there in large numbers from the urban regions of the East and West Coasts. Many of them established communes and set out to live lives unencumbered by the gadgetry of 1960s America. The youths, who had by then already been tagged “hippies,” were motivated by, among other things, a distrust of technology, a feeling that its pace disrupted the more natural rhythms of life. They wanted to lead lives of Thoreauvian simplicity, leavened by only a few well-chosen products of up-to-date technology, like a hi-fi stereo system and the geodesic domes that soon began popping up in New Mexico. They had migrated to Taos to escape the bour geois fixtures of their parents’ homes, but they had unfortunately chosen the wrong patch of nature to get back to. Taos, while beautiful, was not an easy place to live simply. Its soil and climate made it difficult to farm, and there was little other employment available in the vicinity. Surviving, in short, required some sort of truce with technology. That’s where Muir stepped in.
Driving around New Mexico in an old school bus, Muir fixed the machines that the settlers needed if they were to live there. He treated them with honesty, respect, and, above all, infinite patience. People asked him for advice and help and came to depend on him to keep their cars and trucks alive. They persuaded him to set up a shop that he called John’s Garage. A woman named Eve Caffall, whose ex-husband was a VW dealer, suggested Muir concentrate solely on Volkswagens. He did, and soon his business was teeming with a Day-Glo fleet of broken-down Beetles. If he was too busy to fix someone’s car, he would tell him to go around the back of the shop, where Muir would lend the car owner some tools and talk him through a repair job. According to Eve, typical conversations would start like this:
MUIR : “Take a wrench and loosen the bolts holding that thing onto the engine.”
CLIENT :“What’s a wrench?”
Muir, unfazed, then began an elementary lesson on the names of tools.
A unique combination of factors made his tutorials work. First, he was eternally patient and trusted that his clients could learn to fix their own cars without ruining them. But perhaps more important was his students’ choice of car. Volkswagens were popular around Taos because the company was outside what the counterculture perceived as the monolithic and faceless Detroit establishment. The cars were also very cheap. But by buying Volkswagens, the hippies had coincidentally opted for a car that was easy to fix: Its light, aircooled engine dropped right out from under the body and was disassembled without the fuss associated with water-cooled cars. There were no radiators, hoses, or coolants to worry about. The car provided the perfect training wheels for green mechanics.
When Muir and Eve decided to get married in the summer of 1968 (he and his second wife had divorced), he closed the garage to prepare for the wedding (among the guests would be the members of the Hog Farm commune, including its leader, Wavy Gravy). In the middle of the preparations, a local weaver named Debbie Benson came to him needing a valve job for her VW. Muir said he didn’t have time, but after some pleading he agreed to write out the instructions that night and give them to Eve, who could read them to Benson the next day as she worked on the car.
With the help of some freeloaders hanging around the shop, Benson took out the engine, replaced the valves, put everything back together, made some adjustments, and turned the ignition key. The car would not start, but after Muir came over and tweaked a few things, it roared back to life. Benson went back to the engine compartment to admire her handiwork—and promptly got a hank of her hair caught in the fan belt. Muir added a section to his instructions on the need to wear a stocking cap when working on an engine, and to the title he had been mulling over in his head he added the phrase “for the Compleat Idiot.”
Eve and Benson persuaded Muir to turn his notes into a book. That fall he was back in Mexico, writing into the night, with Eve editing and a certified VW mechanic checking the copy. The next summer, the manuscript was finished. A local artist named Peter Aschwanden contributed a set of illustrations that complemented Muir’s text perfectly. When no publisher would touch it, the Muirs decided to put it out themselves. The first run of 2,500 books sold out quickly, followed by a succession of printings and revisions. The nineteenth edition was published last year by Avalon Travel Publishing, and it shows no sign of going out of print.
The Idiot Book is, of course, first and foremost, a carrepair manual, yet Muir’s Zen influences shine through on every page. Not many repair manuals ask their readers to assume the lotus position and meditate before deciding whether to purchase a used car, as Muir suggests in the 1972 edition. But as much as that sounds like a tip from the proprietor of a head shop rather than an auto shop, it is good advice. How many people have bought used cars because they let their emotions cloud their judgment and later regretted it? But Muir is also eminently practical. Change out of your good clothes before you start working on the car, he wrote, then change back when you’re finished so you don’t get the seat dirty. And of course, tie your hair back.
Muir’s straightforward, easy-to-follow instructions made the book appealing, but its subject matter cemented its success. The Volkswagen was indeed the kind of car you could keep alive, but you had to work on it all the time to do so. Even though the air-cooled engine made the car mechanically simple, actually keeping the engine cool was complicated. So the decision to buy a VW brought with it responsibility: The owner had to be willing to dive elbow-deep into greasy machinery or else the engine would melt. This raised some conflict for the free-living Taosians. Having a car was one thing, but delving into its innards with a socket wrench was another altogether—exactly the sort of thing the crewcut-sporting squares back in the suburbs would do. In an age when complex technology was the franchise of big business and the builders of the H-bomb, being good with tools seemed uncool. But Muir’s folksy writing—and the counterculture-friendly art that accompanied it—helped turn the tide in reconciling hippies to technology.
The book prepared them for rebuilding the carburetor by the side of the highway (“… you are not to be afraid to take the carburetor apart on the road when it is obviously screwing up”). If they did not need to make major repairs while on the road, they probably would after they got home. A large portion of the book deals with valve adjustment—required as often as every 1,500 miles—and the importance of doing it yourself. If you didn’t, Muir wrote over and over, you would inevitably burn out the exhaust valve in the no. 3 cylinder, and then you would have to refer to the section of the book on how to remove and overhaul the engine. (In an Internet chat room devoted to the Beetle, one contributor suggested that Volkswagen ought to deliberately restrict the flow of coolant to the no. 3 exhaust valve of the New Beetle, so that its owners could get a fuller sense of what it was like to maintain the original.)
Some of Muir’s advice fell into the category of folklore that serious VW mechanics had rejected. He insisted that readers warm up their VWs for about 10 minutes before driving off, and he maintained this view even after Volkswagen stated that it was not necessary. Those who did a lot of work on their cars found it a good idea to supplement the Idiot Book with a more traditional VW manual. But that did not diminish the importance of Muir’s text. What mattered was the confidence the book in spired in people who otherwise would have been totally flustered by the notion of doing anything that involved the actual workings of modern technology.
BY 1980 VOLKSWAGEN HAD COME UP WITH A RADI cal idea: Make the engine reliable enough so that it does not need repairs so often in the first place. In turn, its cars got more expensive and a lot more complicated to fix, rendering Muir’s book at once unnecessary and obsolete. But that didn’t matter, because the book had already achieved its most lasting accomplishment. As merely a repair manual, the Idiot Book wasn’t revolutionary. People have been fixing their own cars and consulting repair manuals since cars were invented; in fact, ease of repair was one of the main reasons for the success of the Model T. But Muir’s book did something unique: It let an entire generation reconcile itself to an activity it saw as fundamentally square and middle-class.
The Idiot Book helped the youth of the 1960s get over the notion of technology as a big, monolithic, malevolent force and understand it as just a set of tools that can be used for good or bad or both. Muir thus helped them turn the corner from seeing technology as the cause of all the world’s ills to seeing it as the solution to, if not all of them, at least many of them.
Muir died in 1977, just as that transformation was beginning, so he never got to see the final effect of his book. But he could have taken consolation in the fact that as a man who said he always hoped to be “in sync with time,” he not only succeeded but also helped an entire generation get in sync with the high-tech times to come.