The history of how-to

A tour of old technology user manuals. Highlight: A Volkswagen repair guide that urges you to bond spiritually with your vehicle.


  1. I still have a copy of Muir’s book in a box.. it’s genuinely the best maintenance manual ever written. Maybe not technically perfect, some of his advice hasn’t survived the test of time and most VW owners love to point those spots out, but that doesn’t change the quality of the book.

    It’s entertaining enough that even someone who doesn’t care at all about car maintenance could enjoy reading it. 

    Or even just look at the pictures. Everything is hand drawn and a joy to observe.

    If you decide to dig up a copy (Powell’s should have it available) make sure to get the spiral bound version. Nothing worse than attempting your first valve adjustment and the book won’t stay turned to the correct page. 

    1. Agreed, “How to keep your volkswagen alive” is one of the greatest repair manuals ever written. Sure he isn’t an engineer, but he has the street cred and the miles in his tires, to be sure. The stories are funny, the information highly practical, and at every step you sense the real joy of repair and working with your hands (even when it can be frustrating).

      To this day I still think back to his instructions on how long you should let a motor warm up before driving off in cold weather, “as long as it takes to roll a cigarette and get it drawing nicely.” I don’t smoke, but I imagine myself doing it when warming up an older engine…

      1. Muir actually was an engineer, for Lockheed in the 1950s.  But his advice was utterly practical and pragmatic for the garden-variety non-engineer flower child who disliked breaking down as much as anyone else did.  I love the fact that despite his engineering background, he understood that getting the job done today with the tools and materials readily on-hand rather than ordering the specialized single-use tools from Germany was the only realistic way forward for all the tens of thousands of American and European hippies who made the colorful Bug and Bus ubiquitous on the roads of the Seventies.  He’d regularly tell you to employ a solid whack with an ordinary hammer on some jobs, remind you that the front of the engine is actually the part that’s hardest to see and reach, rather than the bit with the belts that’s right in front of your nose, and always recommend you wear a stocking cap so your pinko commie long hair won’t get pulled out by a spinning pulley.

  2. Those schematic diagrams remind me of the teeny tiny schematic diagram glued inside the case of my first transistor radio, a Jade 8-transistor job. It was so small that it was hard to make out the individual parts, and  there was no way to correlate it with the actual circuitry on the board.

    But at least their hearts were in the right place.

  3. A Volkswagen repair guide that urges you to bond spiritually with your vehicle.
    It’s a VW. You either bond with it, or it will reduce you to tears. There is no in-between.

  4. I remember that Canon FTb manual! At my favorite camera shop, back in the day, the staff would ask one or two questions to determine if you were aiming for “serious” 35mm photography and put a copy of The New Zone System Manual by White, Zakia and Lorenz up on the counter while your invoice was being written…

    (Best car manual I ever had was a novel by Vonnegut — can’t recall which one — where Kurt made the case to always wear a good hat. That way, if you ever needed to make an emergency gasket, you had a ready source in the hat band. Sure enough, when my Ford Fiesta blew a water pump gasket in Canada…)

  5. It’s actually better than that.  Not only is it the greatest VW manual ever written (I wore out a couple copies and still have one in the garage) but I seem to recall the part where Muir discusses buying a used VW features an illustration of the prospective buyer sitting in full lotus on top of the car – you guessed it – spiritually bonding with the vehicle.

    It’s all completely tongue in cheek, and completely awesome.  And if John Muir tells you you need the real VW tool (crankshaft end play adjustment anyone?) you really need the real tool – otherwise he’d explain how to do it with a couple of ping pong balls and some old orange juice cans.

    1. I tell ya, if more automotive manuals put their emphasis on the importance of balling and working around the shortage of one’s bread, the world would be a merrier place.

      As it is, Chilton’s manual for late-90s Volvos makes me weep for the future of the species.

  6. My brother in-law had the VW manual and bought me the Toyota Pickup manual from the same publisher and written along the same lines…brilliant. It encouraged really understanding exactly what the parts did rather than just blindly replacing them, developing “intuitive hands” (doing things by feel), and developing a relationship with the vehicle. 480,000 miles and only went to a professional mechanic twice. I’m now a decent mechanic despite having no hands-on mentor (bro-in-law lived across the country) largely because of this book.

  7. According to wikipedia, John Muir, the mechanic is a descendant of John Muir, the naturalist. No citation is given, however. Favorite Muir quote from the Idiot book, and the one that really stands out for me after all these years; “come to kindly terms with your ass, for it bears you.” Indeed.

  8. Like xzzy, I still have my Muir book in a box somewhere, from the 70s when I owned a VW bus.  On a trip cross-country I was having trouble with the bus and I happened to be in Golden, NM (outside of Albuquerque) and ran into a whole commune of Muir-nik VW people.  They could not solve the mystery of why the bus would suddenly go from its top speed of 55 to about 40 for about half an hour on the interstate, then back to 55 again.  When I got to SF – mystery solved!  (The parking brake was sticking.  When you’re in SF with a burned-out parking brake, you notice.)

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