Volkswagon Vanagon & Westfalia Camper Information

After owning a 1988 Vanagon Westfalia camper for the past 20 years, people often ask me for information and insights about buying and owning such a vehicle. Below (in no particular order) are some tidbits and (hopefully) helpful resources about the 'Westy'.

Much of this information is available elsewhere and likely more elegantly and thoroughly documented. My purpose here is to provide a starting point for those who have expressed interest in more information.

While much of my ramblings below sound negative, I absolutely love our Westy. If you enter the Vanagon world making what I call 'vehicle based decisions' about price and maintenance, you're probably looking at the wrong vehicle. These things have a certain vibe which either works for you or it doesn't. They look great in the campground, but buying, owning and driving one is an entirely different can of worms.

Model Years:

Volkswagen first produced the Vanagon model (shown above with the OEM pop-top Westfalia camper conversion) in 1980 as a body upgrade from the classic, air-cooled 'hippy bus'. The original Vanagon was essentially the same drive train and motor as the previous bus, but significantly heavier. The Vanagon model was then upgraded to a water-cooled "wasserboxer" engine in 1983 and was built until Volkswagen discontinued production (at least in the US) in 1991 (full camper) and 1994 ("weekender").

The Eurovan, the Vanagon's older brother was then produced from 1993 until 2003.  A more detailed definition of the differences in the different model years can be found here.

In my opinion, the later model years ('86 thru '91) are the best model to own and have the least kinks and bugs. That isn't to say that the Vanagon doesn't have it's share of achilles heel design flaws.

Our 1988 "Westy" is a 2 wheel drive, manual transmission, full camper model. I'm not a Eurovan guy and don't have any information or wisdom to share about that model here.

Head Gasket Leaks:

When the water-cooled Vanagons first hit the market, owners started having problems with head gasket leaks with very low miles. Volkswagon was taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission and required to repair the problem for the original owners. This reputation has plagued the water-cooled Vanagon and to this day, head gasket leaks are an on-going issue for owners with the original 1.9L or 2.1L Volkswagen wasserboxer engine.

Use of non-phosphate VW coolant is a must to help prevent the corrosion of the head gaskets. More on this here.

Bosch Digifant Fuel Injection and Ignition:

The running systems of the water-cooled Vanagon are nearly 25 years old and provide no computerized "on board diagnostics" (OBD). This makes diagnosing problems such as bad idle, poor power, missing and other engine problems somewhat challenging since you can not connect any type of 'code reader' and look at the past behavior of the motor or running characteristics. Such diagnostics are essentially left to a mechanic familiar with which electrical component is likely to cause a particular symptom as it begins failing. These knowledgable mechanics are becoming few and far between. When we broke down in Mt. Shasta, CA a few summers ago, there wasn't a mechanic or shop who could/would work on our Digifant Vanagon within a 200 mile radius. In addition, some new Digifant parts (airflow meter, ECU/main computer, coil, distributor, idle control stabilizer, etc.) are becoming hard to find and can be expensive.

If you have a Vanagon with the original Digifant fuel injection and ignition systems, I highly recommend carrying a variety of spare parts, including but not limited to those mentioned above. A failure of any of these rare electrical components can leave you stranded and auto parts stores aren't likely to have any of these specialty parts in stock. Talk to your mechanic or a knowledgable source to determine which parts to carry. In my experience I only felt comfortable driving a Digifant Vanagon with about $1,000 worth of spare parts in the vehicle at all times.  See the section on engine transplants below.

(stock) Vanagons are Underpowered:

Speak  with anyone who has driven a Vanagon and they'll tell you - even the 2.1L Vanagon with ~95 horsepower is notoriously underpowered; older/tired motors are even worse. Expect to spend a good amount of time in 3rd gear at ~45MPH in any hilly driving environment. Get used to the idea of modern cars passing you going uphill at 65-70MPH. This 20+MPH delta can be nerve wracking at the least, dangerous at the worst. You'll need to learn to be patient and drive about 1/4 mile ahead to keep your momentum up and give yourself enough time to change lanes (back into the slow lane).

Once You Get Them Going, Vanagons Don't Stop (very well):

In addition to being underpowered, these vehicles, particularly the camper model with extra water, propane tank, interior cabinets and all of your toys, don't stop very well. Get used to giving yourself plenty of time to slow down and stop. I recommend any brake system upgrade your mechanic has to offer.

Coolant Pipes, Headlights and Other Known Issues:

As I noted above, there are some design issues you need to be aware of (or you need to find a mechanic who is aware of). What 25+ year old vehicle is perfect? Not the Vanagon - here are a few things to be mindful of (or make sure your mechanic checks for before you purchase a Vanagon):

Coolant Pipes: With the motor in the back and the radiator in the front, there are two long plastic coolant pipes to carry the coolant to and from. The connectors at the ends of the coolant are known to separate from the hoses, causing a massive coolant leak. Avoid this by having the coolant pipes checked.

Headlights: The stock Vanagon headlights are weak. In addition, the switch Volkswagen uses had been known to be under rated for the amperage of the circuit and burn out. I recommend a high-powered headlight upgrade, which usually includes a relay to take the load off the dashboard switch. Any reputable Vanagon parts distributor will carry an after-market headlight kit.

With any used vehicle, it's strongly advisable to have a mechanic who is familiar with the particular quirks of the make/model you're looking at perform a pre-purchase inspection. This is never more true than with the Vanagon. I recommend taking any Vanagon you're looking at purchasing to a Vanagon savvy mechanic - most standard auto houses won't be familiar with the intricacies of the Vanagon and may miss something important and/or expensive.

In addition to the engine and mechanical parts of the Vanagon, there are oodles of extra camping gear to check, including the stove, refridge, sink, pop-top tent, etc, etc,.

Syncro vs. 2 Wheel Drive:

The Vanagon came originally equipped as a 2 wheel drive or all-wheel drive "Syncro" model. The Syncro is a highly capable off-road vehicle and the Westfalia camper Syncro model is the most highly sought after, rare and expensive Vanagon/Wesfalia ever built.

Manual vs. Automatic Transmission:

The 2 wheel drive model is available with a 4-speed manual and 3-speed automatic transmission. I recommend the manual transmission, particularly because the automatic is geared on the low side and therefore makes the engine rev at a high rate at current freeway driving speeds (~70MPH). More on Vanagon transmissions here.

Clean Wesfalia Campers Can Be Pricey

The Westfalia camper is becoming an icon and has been getting all kinds of good press from places like Outside Magazine (who dubbed the Wesffalia camper "the greatest car ever built") and The New York Times. Due to the popularity of these vehicles and the decreasing supply, they're becoming more expensive. Here's a great article on why NOT to buy a cheap Westy.

Motor Conversions:

As of this writing (Spring 2014), it is my understanding that there are currently two non-Digifant Vanagon motor conversions (motor transplants) which are smog legal

Subaru 2.2L (135HP)

VW 1.8L Turbo (180-240HP)

If you live outside of California or in a county where the smog restrictions aren't as tight, you might also look at the Bostig (Ford Zetec engine) conversions, which many do-it-yourselfers have great things to say about.

There are a myriad of reasons to convert a Vanagaon/Westfalia:

1. Horsepower. Driving a suitably powered Vanagon is like a dream come true - especially for anyone who's driven a stock Vanagon with the extra Westy camper weight. No more 45MPH in third gear in the slow lane when driving up hills. You'll be able to keep up with traffic.

2. Reliability. Replacing the 25 year old motor, fuel injection and ignition parts with modern technology is a good thing.

3. Diagnostics. The Subaru motor supports OBD1 and the VW 1.8T supports OBD2, meaning you can diagnose engine issues with a standard engine scanner.

4. Parts availability. Parts are readily available for these modern engines.

Our Westy has a 240HP VW 1.8L Turbo conversion (from a 2005 VW Jetta) which was done by Stephan's Autohaus in Sacramento, CA. It's a dream to drive (yes, passing cars uphill IS a reality!) and Stephan provides the best customer service I could imagine. Contact me directly if you would like more information on the amazing 1.8T conversion.