The Fine Art of Field Repair

by David Helland - Member #50

Perhaps another title for this article could be "If you didn't break anything, you can't be having any fun!". I have always enjoyed camping and driving in the desert with my buggy. It provides the perfect weekend getaway to relieve the tensions of a high tech, high pressure engineering job. When I go to the desert, I usually go with some of my engineer pals (the Y.B.D.B.'s) who are also in need of the same type of relief. We all love the desert for its austere beauty...and peace and quiet. However, we all are the sort of person who loves to solve a problem. Now, normal folks might think that being broken down 100 miles from nowhere as an event that would ruin an outing. However, for our group, the opportunity to dream up an off-the-wall fix for an unexpected equipment failure is the spice that makes our adventures memorable. So, here is a sampling of the field repairs that we have managed to implement along the trail.


Have you ever bent your buggy's tie rods? If you haven't done it yet, its just a matter of time. It is pretty easy to do...just run into something that doesn't move. (For example, get your buggy airborne and land head-on into the next dune.) The end result is that the long steering tie rod bar gets bent; and if you did a good job of it, the car is not front wheel points hard left, the other hard right..."wall-eyed". This is where we learned the value of a "pickle fork". The first time this happens you get out your hammer (if you are smart enough to have brought one along), loosen the tie rod end nuts, and proceed to bash on the tie rod end for an hour or more in the hot sun. The first tie rod eventually pops out of the socket. Now, its time to do the same thing on the other end. (A "pickle fork" will pry the tie rod ends out of their sockets in about a minute, so now I won't leave home without one.)

With the tie rod free, it's now time to straighten it. Straightening a tie rod can also be an adventure. You need two immovable objects about a foot apart to allow the rod to be hammered back in shape. The bumpers of a jeep will do the trick. Unfortunately, there aren't many spots on a fiberglass buggy that have the necessary rigidity. If all else fails, you can get your pals to suspend the tie rod between two rocks while you beat on the middle of the tie rod with another large rock.

Bruce Lightner (member #300) told me who he got a "wall-eyed" buggy drivable by using a hand-winch ("come-along") strung through the forward spokes of the front wheels' rims. Not-so-gentle pressure (mostly) straightened out the bent tie- rod by pulling the wheels back into camber. To make things more interesting, in this particular case, the bent tie rod had contacted the fuel tank drain hose and tore it off. Quick action was needed to save the buggy's fuel.


Hose clamps are indispensable for feld repairs. Hose clamps are made of stainless steel and are incredibly strong for their size. We always carry several of varying sizes. On one trip to Baja one of the buggies we were with stripped the splines out of the right rear brake drum. This is where you find out that VW's are not two-wheel drive, but really only one-wheel drive vehicles. When one axle loses traction and spins, the differential sends all the power to the spinning axle. The net result is that the tire with the traction gets no power. (Check out Doug Meyers article in the January VW Trends magazine about a locking differential kit for VW's). I don't carry a spare rear brake drum, so we had to think of something to get the car going. We hit upon the idea of using hose clamps to fasten the axle nut to the tire's rim using a wrench. We were sure that as the axle and nut turned, it would tighten onto the drum, turn the wrench, and the hose clamps would turn the rim. We were quickly disappointed after making this "fix" and applying power. On the right side of the buggy, the axle nut unscrews! The fix for this to either drive everywhere in reverse, or remove both rear brake drums from the buggy and put them back on the opposite sides. With the stripped drum on the left side, when (forward) power is applied the axle tightens the nut that is held in place by the wrench and hose clamps. We've had to make this fix on two separate trips, so based on our experience, stripped brake drums (usually the cheaper ones from Brazil) are not that uncommon. The moral of the story is always carry hose clamps and an axle nut wrench (the impact type that you hit with a hammer).

Hose clamps have been used for numerous other fixes. Little ones fix leaky gas lines. Medium sized ones can be used to reattach all sorts of things that fall off our buggies. Skid plates take a lot of abuse and the bolts that hold them on seem to disappear at inopportune moments. On a recent trip the skid plate fell off one of our cars and was quickly reattached with hose clamps. On another trip we bent a tie rod and could only loosen one end (no pickle fork available!), so I extended the tie rod with a piece of tubing using hose clamps. I have even used part of a hose clamp to fashion a new hinge for the float in my carburetor.

My most memorable use of hose clamps involves another raw material that is readily available on our desert cans. It seems that one of our members had failed replace his rusty exhaust pipes after several warnings of imminent total failure. The very next trip the exhaust pipes split in half and were dangling off the rear of his car. The fix was to cut open a couple beer cans, wrap the aluminum around the exhaust pipes, and fasten them in place with hose clamps. The only problem was that there more weak spots on the exhaust that kept breaking open over the course of the day's trip. This is the only trip that I can remember being forced to stop and drink beer so that we would have material to repair the buggy and continue on. Near the end of the day it was touch and go as to whether we would first run out of hose clamps, or beer, before we reached our destination.


Brake lines can fail in ways that don't seem to make sense. The rubber hoses that go between the brake cylinders and the steel brake lines can fail. The funny thing is that they don't always fail by leaking, as you might expect. They often fail internally by deteriorating in the presence of the brake fluid and a piece of rubber ends up plugging the hose. When this happens, more likely than not, the brake drum will seize and the wheel will lock up. It turns out that the pressure from the master cylinder will go past the blockage and expand the slave cylinder. The little piece of rubber will prevent the brake fluid from going back the other direction, so the brake stays on. To fix this you need to disconnect the rubber hose from the slave cylinder. To keep the brake line from leaking brake fluid you must pinch off the steel brake line with large pliers (vice-grip pliers are best). If you squeeze the steel tubing flat for an inch or so and then fold it back a couple of times, the line will not leak. (We now carry spare brake fluid and VW brake hoses.)


If you have never run out of spare tires on a long trip, you probably have not mastered the art of flat tire repair in the field. We always carry flat repair kits, inner tubes, and tire pumps (both 12 volt and human-powered), as well as spare tires. Tires can be punctured easily on rough roads by sharp rocks, nails, and even cactus spines. After the first flat tire, you put on the spare, and you are supposed to drive a little more gingerly to avoid another flat. On one trip up Coyote Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park we used all of our spare tires. The canyon had been washed out by a large storm in 1993 and there was nothing left but rocks. This provided an opportunity to fix a flat tire in the field. The tire could not be repaired with a tubeless repair kit (sidewall puncture) so we pulled the rim off the car and tried to pry tire off the rim. You can't do it with hand tools. These days all tires are designed to be tubeless, which means that the tire bead (edge) fits very tightly on the rim. To get the tire off the rim takes a lot of force, which is which is normally done with a pneumatic tire machine. To get the tire off the rim in the field you must use gravity instead. Place the flat tire on the ground and under the car. Put your tire jack on the edge of the tire and then jack up the car. The weight of the car will push the tire bead off the rim. Once the tire is loose on the rim, the inner tube can be removed and repaired with a patch kit. We almost always use inner tubes. They provide extra protection from punctures, are easily repaired, and allow lower operating pressures in the sand. They also avoid problems that occur when flat tubeless tires need to be re- seated on their rims in the field.


A tube of silicone sealer (a.k.a. RTV) can be indispensable at times. Silicone sealer can be used to replace gaskets and stop all sorts of leaks. A good example of its use occurred one day while we were at the top end of Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park (now closed off) when I discovered I was leaking a lot of oil. My old skid plate extended out only to the width of my valve covers. A rock had managed to jump up (I'm sure I didn't hit it) and sneak a blow to the exposed part of the cylinder head where it meets the valve cover. The head casting is very thin there and the rock bashed it in real good. The pieces were still there but oil was running out through the cracks. I pulled the valve cover off and was certain I would need a tow back to camp...a rough 25+ mile trip. My cohorts convinced me that if we cleaned off the oil and gooped on enough silicone sealer, I could drive it out of the canyon. Luckily we had a can of brake cleaner to remove every bit of oil from the damaged head. After sealing the cracks we glued the valve cover on with a little more silicone and waited a couple or hours for it to set up. (Luckily we had plenty of beer to occupy our time.) We added more oil and headed for home without losing a single drop.

I could go on and on... I have not even gotten to the "duct tape stories" yet. Oh well, I hope some of the tips I have described will be useful when you next find yourself broken down in need of a field repair.