A couple of months ago, some of us were having a VW photo shoot. As my wife, Neva, drove away in our ’67 Beetle, someone exclaimed that one of the brake lights wasn’t functioning.
“Again?”, I thought and remarked to those present that I had serviced the offending brake light on more than one occasion. I added that to my list of VW Things To Do.
A couple of weeks later, I had a moment to work on the problem. But, in the intervening time, I had thought of a possible solution. It derived from something having nothing to do with VWs. In fact, this possible solution had nothing to do with anything automotive!
I removed the car’s cover, removed the lens and the offending bulb. I tested it to be sure that it was a functioning unit. Sure was. Sigh. Not as easy a fix as I had hoped. Wouldn’t it have been nice to just replace a burnt bulb?
Usually what I have done in the past is to remove the bulbs, then to remove the bulb holder itself. This is an easy operation requiring the removal of the lens, then the use of a Phillips head screwdriver to remove one short screw at the bottom of the bulb holder. The holder lifts out of its slot and there it is.
On the backside are brass contact strips that touch the tips of the bulbs. Since brass isn’t especially suitable for springing, each is backed by a steel springing strip. With the bulbs removed, my usual “fix” is to press the steel spring tensioner towards the bulb hole to over-tense it so that it will make sooner contact with the tip of the bulb.
But, I had done this not so long ago and here I was again.
No…I would take a different tack this time. I would try what I had done to my neighbor’s old refrigerator. My neighbor could not get her refrigerator bulbs to come on when the door was opened. We tried several new bulbs until I discovered that the new bulbs were not quite long enough to touch the contact at the bottom of the socket—a combination of old socket contact and short (?) new bulbs, perhaps. At any rate, my experiment proved successful. Now to test it upon “Baby”, our precious 1967 Beetle.
First, I used a fine wire bristled brush to diligently clean the bulb base and tip contact. Studying the bulb, I noted that over time, vibration and pressure had flattened the soft “lead” tip.
I keep a small 12 volt battery on my workbench for testing bulbs. My bulb tested good. Second hurdle passed.
I cut a rectangular piece of cardboard from a shipping box. I creased and bent it in the middle so that I had more or less equal halves. In the middle of one half, I cut an X through the cardboard and pushed the bulb socket through.
Then, I folded the cardboard until it squeezed the glass bulb between the halves—a bulb sandwich! Using some masking tape, I secured the ends so that they would hold the bulb tightly. Now, I could work with both hands on a stabilized bulb.
I retrieved resin core solder and my electric soldering gun from the workbench drawer. I held the trigger until I could see that the gun’s tip was good and hot. There was some slag on the tip—I wiped it off on the workbench towel and applied the tip of the fresh soldering wire to the hot gun tip. This produced a nice glob of solder hanging on the tip of the gun.
It took only a quick touch of the hot solder to the bulb tip and the solder bonded to the bulb contact tip. (love that solder smoke odor!) If you’re good at soldering, the bonded solder will be nice and rounded. But, sometimes there will be a little peak. This can be removed easily by using some fine sandpaper. Smooth the end and you are done.
This procedure will work with the single-tipped (single filament bulbs) as well as the double tipped bulbs (double filament bulbs).
While you are at this point, before reinstalling the bulbs, clean the bulb holder brass contacts to ensure good conductivity. You can use very fine wet-dry sandpaper or other means.
Use some Dielectric Compound, if you have it. If you don’t have Dielectric, then use lithium grease. Lightly coat the bulb base and tip with the “grease” to seal out moisture and to resist tarnishing of the brass contacts and thus to maintain conductivity over time.
Reinstall the bulbs and test. Get a companion to watch while you turn the key to the on position to test brake lights, turn signal bulbs and running filaments. Then reinstall the lens. Use care when tightening the lens screws—don’t over-tighten. That will crack the lens.
Hopefully, you will have trouble-free lighting for a long while to come.
PS: you may wonder why I didn’t just replace the old bulb with a fresh new one. Are you kiddin’? I didn’t come through the VW School of Hard Knocks by replacing everything with new parts. No siree! I am a member of that long line of Users-of-Original-Parts. It’s such a challenge to get that original part to function again.