“We rented one of your vans and now we want to buy one…they are so cool and we see them on Craigslist for not much money” here is the real truth about owning one of these great pieces of German engineering!
These vans are cool but are the vans as “road ready” as their owners say? This actually depends on your tolerance for surprises on the road and what the phrase “road ready” means to you. Here are some things to look for before you buy your own Westfalia Van.
Age-Most of these vans are at least 30 years old. We think that the best age van to purchase is a gas powered Westfalia Vanagon from 1986-1990. These vans have larger front suspensions and will accommodate brake upgrades without searching for new front spindles. They also came with a larger stock engine a 2.1 Liter (95 hp) rather than the old 1.9 Liter (83 hp). We know that the difference in horsepower is small but every little bit helps. The water cooled version built since 1984 has several advantages not the least of which being that the windshield defroster actually works which is a plus in the Northwest. Any van you buy will have a “rebuilt engine with um……20,000-60,000 miles on the new engine…..” Sometimes you are good for many miles with these exchanges but it all depends on who did the build and how honest the seller is. We have a savings account for an engine exchange for each van and I will probably build a Subaru over the winter to put in VanGogh.
Power Train-We own one van with a manual transmission and one with an automatic. The advantage of the manual transmission is gas mileage and simplicity. Our manual transmission van with a standard engine gets 20mpg up hill and down. Shifting the van is like rowing a boat but once you learn where the power curve is you won’t find yourself to be the slowest vehicle on a hill climb….usually. Our friend has an automatic transmission on a similar van and only gets 14-16mpg. In addition, his van is dependably last up the hill. Our other van has an automatic transmission paired with a Subaru engine and a modified transmission. The power curve is significantly different for a Subaru than a Wasserboxer (the standard VW engine) and stepping up to 175 horsepower requires several expensive modifications to keep the transmission running cool and the engine RPM below 3000 when cruising. The powertrain combination for this van is amazing….but the transmission alone was $4000 and unless you do the conversion yourself the engine replacement is in the area of $18000 by the time you are finished. (see NorthWesty of Small Car Performance) That van is a dream to drive and with a low slip torque converter, 3:27 rear end and Peloquin limited slip rear end it will go anywhere…..sorry I got carried away…. What to avoid? Do not buy a diesel Westfalia, don’t even take one for free. They came stock with a 48 hp. Engine and have been described as “slower than a turtle on Valium”. Can you imagine pushing a fully loaded 5000 lb. vehicle with a 48hp engine? Guess what….they have a following and the previous sentence will certainly offend someone.
Cooling– Vanagons came with either steel or fiberglass cooling lines that run the length of the van from the engine up to the radiator and back. After 30 years these lines can become the source of a catastrophic leak causing an engine melt down. We replaced our cooling lines with stainless, replaced the radiator, front and rear heater core and controls and our vans are truly “road ready”.
Fuel-Guess What? Vanagons catch on fire! They do it all the time! The fuel lines run right over the top of the hot engine and add to that a nasty little fitting on the firewall that is made of 30 year old plastic and can fail sets you up for trouble. Every couple of years we replace the fuel lines using a kit available from GoWesty. Now while you are working on the fuel you should replace the fuel filter, CLEAN THE GROUND TO THE FUEL PUMP, and drop and either re-seal or replace the fuel tank and maybe even the fuel sensor. It is a nasty job the first time but you will not be stuck on the side of the road because you sucked up rust into your fuel injection system. VanCafe and GoWesty both sell re-seal kits and also tanks. There is information on VanagonFAQ to help you with the install.
Suspension-I will never forget the drive up the freeway after we purchased our first Westfalia Van. A truck passed me and our van literally changed lanes without warning. The suspension was extremely worn, the previous owner had replaced the tires with trailer tires (no lateral stability) and the sum of these suspension problems made the van terrifying to drive. We have replaced all of the bushings in our front suspensions with polyurethane, we have installed larger Audi front brakes, Koni adjustable shocks, new springs, larger 16” SUV rated tires and have the vans aligned by a company in Seattle who know how to align these vans. They handle better in a wind than any other Westfalia van on the road and they still are not a pleasure in a strong crosswind.
Refrigerator-we removed the Dometic that came with our van and put in a Truck Fridge from the company that supplies Peterbilt Trucks. Dependable, makes ice and is energy efficient.
Camper Wiring– It seems like the only people who work on Westfalia wiring do so with a roll of electrical tape and a pair of wire cutters. One of our vans had been so poorly modified by the previous owner that I just started over with a new camper fuse box from Blue Seas. That van does not have voltage leaks and the installation of a house battery under the rear seat saves on kitchen space. Many vans have auxiliary batteries installed under the sink and that takes valuable storage space and the battery components are not compatible with cooking supplies. Our batteries are under the rear seat, closer to the engine and alternator. We remove radio power amplifiers and also power inverters because they suck power and will kill your auxiliary house battery. A friends van did not come with an auxiliary battery set up and he needs a jumpstart to leave the campgrounds after two days. We only buy AGM (glass matt batteries) because they can be located in any position and last longer. We also install LED lighting because that type of lighting is brighter and does not drain the battery. We buy our stereo equipment from Crutchfield and install it ourselves. Our first stereo was professionally installed and cost over $1000.
Sink and Water Tank-Plan on replacing everything but the tank. Both of our vans have required new drains, new water pumps and we decided to replace the water lines after we looked at them.
Solar Panels-We buy rigid panels that are portable from GoWesty. You can move them to follow the sun and unlike the new flexible ones they will stay in place in a wind.
Damage and Rust-All vans have some rust but how much is too much? Look under the van to see if suspension parts are rusty. Avoid buying a van from the east coast because of the salt used on roads during the last 20 years. A small rust seam needs to be carefully inspected before you buy. Avoid buying a van that has been painted unless it was a full window out paint job. Lift up the window rubber and look for a paint line. A vanagon paint job is about $14000 because of the rust issues on windows and the number of flat panels that need to be carefully faired.
Social Media is full of “Van Lifers” who live on a shoe string and it looks like their life is just one big campground. If you look carefully, nearly every one of these individuals really knows their way around a toolbox and has a tolerance for breaking down on the side of the road. Everyone who owns a Westfalia Van has a subscription to AAA premium.
Let us know if you are considering a van purchase and would like us to help you do an evaluation. It might be money well spent….or you can do it the way we did…..go in blind and learn as you go….and as you watch your bank balance go….
We love Westfalia Vans and would love to own a third. They are amazing vehicles, the best for camping, always bring a nostalgic comment from people you meet and are just plain cool. We spent over 100 nights in one van or the other last year and they can’t be beat!
See you out there,