'Boston Bob' Donalds, VW repair expert

Karen Donalds said her husband's work was widely admired, but not very lucrative.''He was kind of like an artist,'' she said. Karen Donalds said her husband's work was widely admired, but not very lucrative.''He was kind of like an artist,'' she said.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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For the past 30 years, if the engine in your vintage Volkswagen camper was on the fritz and you had questions, the best answer was usually two words: Boston Bob.

With skills honed since he was barely a teenager, Bob Donalds took ailing engines into his garage and returned them to owners in pristine condition.

"That's what he was known for: building an engine that was even better than the factory did it," said Stan Wohlfarth of Bentley Publishers in Cambridge, which specializes in repair and transportation titles. "I have three of them in three Volkswagen buses that I own."

Mr. Donalds, who in recent years ran his Boston Engine Exchange company out of the garage of his Wayland home, died Oct. 23 in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 55 and was being treated for cancer that had metastasized, but kept running his business by cellphone from his hospital bed as long as his health allowed. And when he could get home, he went back into the garage.

"He would work on valve jobs from his wheelchair," said his wife, Karen.

Largely by word of mouth, Volkswagen owners throughout New England and across the country heard about Mr. Donalds, who was known simply as Boston Bob, and his ability to breathe new life into engines. His technical prowess was all the more impressive, friends and family say, because schooling played little role in his education.

"Basically, [he] never made it through high school," said his brother David, of Wayland. "He graduated from ninth grade, then went off and kept rebuilding engines and fixing Volkswagens."

No one who listened to Mr. Donalds would guess that he left school that young, however.

"I write automotive service books, and I would sit down with Bob and he would talk about things that were beyond anything I had a grasp of," Wohlfarth said. "I'm a car guy and that's my field, and he would amaze me. If I ever had a problem with anything, Bob was the first person I called. He always had an answer."

Although "he had a very technical vocabulary," his wife said, "it was kind of poetic. He had a great way with words."

Friends and customers have collected what they call "Bobisms" and posted them on Internet tributes to Mr. Donalds.

"I'm an air-cooled dude in a way cool mood," he liked to say when things were going well.

A stickler for precision, he cautioned impatient owners who wanted to put the speed of a repair before quality: "Remember who is going to push this thing when it doesn't work."

And for those who could not grasp the technical specifications of an engine he had rebuilt, Mr. Donalds would grin and say: "It's the high-performance, heavy-duty version of the standard unit, guaranteed not to crack, rust, or chip, and if it breaks in two, you get to keep both pieces!"

The engines rarely broke, though, in part because Mr. Donalds took innovative approaches to his work.

"I think he was always willing to take a chance and try something out, not just the same old, same old," Wohlfarth said. "He was always looking for new solutions."

Robert E. Donalds grew up in Newton and started rebuilding engines in the basement of his family's home. At 18, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, and he owed his survival in part to his passion for engines.

"The Volkswagens saved his life," his brother said. "He went into the hospital when he was 18 with a hernia, and the reason he had a hernia was because he was picking up engines. When he went into the hospital, they found the Hodgkin's."

Mr. Donalds treated the next 37 years after his successful treatment as a gift, his brother said.

"That was a real life-changer for him," he said, "and maybe made life more precious for him than for the rest of us."

Generous with his expertise, Mr. Donalds would offer to lend a hand if he saw a Volkswagen owner in need of help.

"There's more than one story of some guy broken down with a Volkswagen bus on the side of the road," his brother said. "Bob would stop and say, 'What's the problem?' He'd help out, and they'd be on their way. That's how Bob was. He wasn't stopping to get their business; he stopped because he cared about people. He was a very kind man."

After leaving his family's home, Mr. Donalds set up shop in various places in Boston's western suburbs: a garage in Waltham, another garage in Dedham, or the cellar of another auto shop, before working out of his Wayland home.

His work was widely admired, but never terribly lucrative.

"He was kind of like an artist and he had this niche," said his wife, whom Mr. Donalds married 23 years ago. "It was all for love and never for money, and he was like this folk figure."

In addition to his wife and brother David, Mr. Donalds leaves two daughters, Samantha and Julia, both of Wayland; a son, Christopher of Wayland; his mother, Jacqueline (Collicut) Mackey of Dedham; and three other brothers, William of Attleboro, James of Lunenburg, and Richard of Sherborn.

A service has been held.

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