It’s exciting to dream about living a nomadic life and to romanticize about your new Vanagon home. We’ve been there. Living in a Vanagon comes with an entire set of challenges. Chief among those is the ever present risk of breaking down. Constantly towing and fixing your rig can not only put a dent in your adventure time, it can also put you in a position where life on the road could become financially unsustainable.
We’ve been asked by people why we chose the Volkswagen Vanagon and what we would recommend for people setting off on their own series of adventures. There isn’t an easy answer to this, but, given our experience, we do have some thoughts on the subject that could be of help to folks who are trying to figure out whether to buy a Vanagon.
What follows here are some facts about the Vanagon and our opinions regarding their worthiness as your campmobile of choice. These opinions are informed by 3 years on the road in a Vanagon.
Let’s start with some basics. Vanagons come in either an air-cooled, diesel, or water-cooled engine. The air-cooled vans utilize an old technology that is terribly unreliable, and the stock diesel Vanagons are very slow. The only reasons to consider buying one is because you found one that is super cheap ($2-4k) and you want to upgrade the engine, or because air-cooled/old diesels are your jam. If you buy one because you plan to replace the engine, remember to consider a transmission overhaul in your budget as well.
Vanagons are severely underpowered and not terribly safe.
The water-cooled vans are the best option if you don’t plan on replacing the engine. Prices for these generally start around $7k on the Samba and go up from there. However, make sure that the engine has been rebuilt; otherwise you may be facing a head gasket failure in the near future. Fortunately, most Vanagons that we’ve run across on the Samba in the $7k price range have rebuilt engines.
Any way you slice it, Vanagons are severely underpowered and not terribly safe. Driving uphill is an exercise in patience and merging onto the highway can be pretty damn scary. In addition, you sit over the front wheels and there is little in front of you to protect the driver and passenger in the event of a head on collision.
Two-wheel Drive: The 2wd versions come with either an automatic or manual transmission. Most vans you’ll come across will be 2wd and are considerably less expensive than their 4wd Syncro counterparts. The suspension and drive train components are more cost effective in a 2wd and you’ll most likely spend much less on the drive train overall. The 2wd models also weigh many hundreds of pounds less than the Syncro.
Four-Wheel Drive Syncro: The VW Vanagon Syncro is the holy grail of Vanagons. They’re sexy, go anywhere vehicles that take an already amazing, Swiss-army-like van to another level. That next level comes at a price premium. Any functional Syncro you find will be at least $5k-10k more expensive than their 2wd counterparts. They are also fairly rare in the States further increasing their price. Typically the people selling Syncros have done a good bit of work to get them road/off road ready. So if the Syncro is calling you, be ready to spend a mint. We’ve rarely seen even the most basic Syncro for less than $15k.
All Syncros are manual transmission, so if you don’t know how to drive stick, then learn or go with the 2wd automatic. Also, we can’t be friends.
Vanagons come with multiple trim levels and with different roofs depending on the style of the van you get. The three most popular styles are the Tin-Top, Pop-Up and High-Tops. Below is a brief rundown of your options:
Tin-Top: Tin-Tops are just Vanagons with a solid metal top, meaning the roof does not pop up. Pretty easy.
Pop-Up: Most commonly known as a Westy or Westfalia, the top of this Vanagon literally pops up creating an additional bed and more space within the cabin. Often times, these will come with a full cabinet set, stove and sink. People refer to those as “full campers.” There are other variations of the pop-up style as well that delete the cabinets or that have a variation on how the top pops up.
High Top: The high-top is a solid shell that permanently raises the over all height of the van. There were a number of variations on the high-top in Europe and Canada. Very few were imported into the States. Some high-tops even popped up like the Westy top! Currently there are only two models of high-top that can be purchased after market in the US.
Vanagons came in a number of interior configurations. Some had seating for seven passengers while others were outfitted with full camper interiors. Interestingly, all models have the ability to accept a Westfalia camper system. The floor of any Vanagon after 1985 (I believe) has the notches in the floor to show where to drill a hole for the water drain and the sink drain. What you end up doing with your interior is, obviously, up to you, but just remember there are plenty of examples out there showing custom builds and how people have modded the stock Westy interior as well.
Any Vanagon you choose will break down. Accept it. Breakdowns are going to happen whether it has a Subaru, Bostig, stock motor… any of them. The front heater will go out or the rear heater will spill coolant or the expansion tanks will leak fuel, the list could go on for days. The most important thing is to know your van. You take care of the van, and the van will take care of you. But, get AAA or Good Sam or both in addition to what your regular insurance offers by way of roadside assistance. Be ready for anything and everything. And if you are mechanically inclined, even better.
That concludes our Vanagon 101. Of course, there is ton more to know about these vehicles which we’ll cover in Parts Two and Three of this piece and in other articles, but this level of detail should suffice for now.
In the next post we’ll go over what kinds of things we’ve done to our Vanagon to make it feel more like home.