Overhauling the Distributor
Replacing broken things on the Beetle is fun and all, but sometimes I get daring and replace things that aren't actually broken yet. Such is the case with the distributor - the one that was in the car when we got it was working pretty well, but I had no idea how long it had been in there. Since the layer of rust on the internal pieces and the pitting on the points implied it was pretty old, I decided to do a preemptive overhaul during the summer of 2009.
Here's what the distributor normally looks like: the red thing in the middle of the picture is its cap, and the cylinder below it is the distributor itself. The five strands of wild black hair coming out of the top send the spark off to the four spark plugs (the fifth one brings the spark in from the coil), while the silver UFO stuck to the front of the contraption is part of the vacuum advance system. Not too scary now, is it?
And this is what you get when you pop the top off by sliding a screwdriver under the spring clips on either side of the cap: another little red piece. This one is the rotor, which decides which sparkplug gets to fire next. It slides on and off of the post in the center of the distributor. Give it a steady pull and it should come right off. Don't worry - it only fits on one way, so it is easy to put back. These two red parts (the rotor and the cap) will both be replaced by the time we are done. Don't take the fat wires off of the cap yet. You'll want them in their original places so you can easily move them one-by-one over to the new cap.
Below the distributor itself is a clamp that holds it in place, and that clamp attaches to the engine case via a stud in front (front is front!) of the distributor itself. Here's a shot of what it looks like when you take the nut off that stud and pull the distributor out. The empty stud next to the circular hole in the middle of this picture is the one we're talking about.
This is the distributor after being pulled out. More evidence of not having been worked on recently: look at all of that grime! The first thing I did was make an attempt to clean it up a little.
Had I planned ahead, I would have also gotten a new rubber gasket to replace the worn one seen here. The black ring on the distributor shaft keeps oil from splashing up into the engine compartment, and it looks like this one has met its limit. I'll be adding a replacement to my next order of parts.
In this shot we can see the other two parts we're going to replace: the condensor (the round cylinder above the junction between the distributor and the vacuum advance housing thingy) and the points (the doodad with the screw and the black wire inside the distributor). This is the meat of the exercise - just take things off one by one and replace them like John Muir says and everything will go fine.
Success! After putting the new parts in place, I put the distributor back in its hole and admired my work. The new shiny parts definitely look nicer (if you can find them among the other, non-shiny parts).
The final step was to adjust the points and set the timing, both of which are covered elsewhere better than I could do here. Don't forget to put the distributor cap cables back in the right places on the new cap!