In our previous two posts we discussed some basics about the VW Vanagon, buying one and what to consider when outfitting for liveability. In this post, we want to go over what sorts of minimal and not-so-minimal upgrades you can do to your van. We are going to rate these upgrades on a scale of 1 to 5. The 5 being something you should really do and 1 being totally unnecessary. As always, please note that these are our opinions based on over a 3 years of experience with our Vanagon. This is by no means comprehensive and will differ depending on the Vanagon you buy and what you want to do with it. So without further adieu, let us begin.
TIRES AND RIMS — 5
The first thing we’d recommend you do to your Vanagon, assuming the fuel lines have been replaced and the head gaskets are fine, is to look at your wheels and tires. The Vanagon comes with 14” rims which are the same size rims (and tires I believe) that come on the VW Beetle. Driving at highway speeds on the stock wheels and tires feels pretty damn unsafe especially when a tractor trailer passes you. The wind they create makes the van feel wobbly and shaky, almost like you’re about to be blown off the road. We’d recommend getting at a minimum 15” rims and either All Weather or All Terrain tires. The additional size of the rims and tires will give you more contact with road and more stability.
Falkor had 15” rims combined with 215/75/15 BF Goodrich All Terrains and Ripley has 16” rims with 225/75/16 Goodyear Duratrac All Terrains. We love both of these combos though we believe the Goodyears are a better tire in the snow and mud than the BFGs. They’re also quieter on tarmac. Having all-terrains are great because we go into sand quite a bit and have been on some pretty wet, muddy roads in the mountains. But we know people who use all weathers and seem to get by fine. Make sure you remember to buy a spare tire/rim as well. Rims and tires will probably run you between $1100-$1600.
BIGGER BRAKES — 4
You may also notice that the stock brakes seem woefully ill prepared to take on the task of stopping your 5,000lb van. Now imagine you’re weighted down with all your gear for full time road life and you’re driving down an 8% grade mountain pass. Yeah, no fun. So after you get your rims, buy a big brake kit. Big brakes will make your van stop like it should.
GoWesty sells a Big Brake kit as does Van Cafe. We use the Big Brake kit from NorthWesty. Their kit is based on Audi A6 brakes so finding replacement parts is easy. Buy from NorthWesty at your own risk.
Please note that the big brake kits do not fit with most steel 15” rims. We found some rims off of a donor van that just so happened to fit. Do your research on this before buying your rims/brake package. Here are some resources: The Samba Wheel Post / Go Westy Wheel article.
With those bigger rims, bigger tires and bigger brakes, you’re pretty much set. Remember to buy a full size spare tire and rim too, and think about where that spare tire will go as a bigger rim doesn’t fit in the spare tire compartment under the Vanagon. The following are available: Rocky Mountain Westy Tire Carrier / Burley Motorsports Tire Carrier / Gary’s Tire Carrier / GoWesty. On our Syncro we opted for a custom solution. You can also mount the spare on the roof which isn’t a bad spot either.
If you want a trail ready 2wd Vanagon, some other upgrades may be beneficial. On Falkor, we did nearly as much as we could to be able to take our van off road. Some van-lifers haven’t gone to these lengths which seems to work for them. For us, we wanted the van to be as trouble free as possible and to be able to do what we want without worrying too much about mechanical mishaps.
SPRINGS AND SHOCKS — 3
Depending on the year of your Vanagon (pre 1989), the springs in your van may provide a pretty decent lift and a great ride. However, as the Vanagon went through minor updates in the latter years of production, the factory began installing springs that brought the van lower and lower. Falkor was such a van. With 16” rims and tires (initially we had the 16s), our van looked like a low rider and we were unable to turn into an incline without scraping our tires on our wheel arches. We upgraded our springs to the Schwenk springs that VanCafe sells in addition to replacing our shocks to the Re-valved Bilstein HDs. It was the best ride we’d ever had in the van and they provided a nice lift. The van felt sturdy, capable and handled better than we’d ever felt before or since. Regretfully, with the added weight of our new Subaru motor, hightop and bumpers, the springs soon began to sag and we had the same scraping issues on the wheel arches as before.
If you aren’t going to have the amount of weight we carry (around 6000lbs) then this Bilstein Shocks/Schwenk Springs combo are great. In Falkor, we ended up running the same Bilstein shocks combined with the GoWesty 2wd lift springs, and the ride really sucked as the springs were way too bouncy. In our Syncro we run Trailmaster springs with the adjustable Fox Shocks from GoWesty. The ride is pretty good though it still needs some finessing. Off road the set up works well.
Keep in mind that lifting your van can cause issues. More on that below.
POSITRACTION DIFFERENTIAL — 2
We added a positraction differential to our 2wd Vanagon transmission. Simply put, this differential allows our transmission to shift power to either one of our rear wheels in situations where there are slick conditions or uneven terrain. This is helpful in that it keeps us moving in the event one wheel gets stuck. This isn’t to be confused with a locker where both rear tires spin. Often times in back wood trails we have felt the positraction kick in and straighten us out or get us out of potentially sticky situations. The differential is an upgrade that made our 2wd van more capable off road, allowing us to tackle anything that isn’t deep mud/deep snow/deep sand or rock crawling. This upgrade cost us $1700 for parts and labor.
Our Syncro doesn’t have a positraction though we’ve considered upgrading to one. We do however have rear lockers and four-wheel drive. This combination has worked very well on some intense trails we’ve taken. The positraction upgrade would be nice just for everyday driving in wet environments.
SUSPENSION PARTS — 2
Vanagons squeak. It happens to all of them. This is due to factory parts made of rubber that dry out over time and begin to squeak in a way that is more annoying than an excited Hillary Clinton. The squeaking comes from the upper and lower control arm bushings. Continually replacing them with Volkswagen stock parts will not alleviate the squeaking for very long (3,000 miles in our case). We replaced these parts twice (totaling $1000 to eliminate the squeaking) only for the sound to continue. We then replaced them, again, with poly bushings from T3 Technique. We drove Falkor 35,000 miles and had no squeaking. We have been told by some Vanagon gurus that even these urethane bushing will eventually squeak but we have yet to experience that. For the parts and labor we paid around $800 for these upgraded parts.
We run these poly bushing on our Syncro and they work quite well. We installed these ourselves saving ourselves the cost of labor. Not really a very difficult job.
Lifting our 2wd van came with a host of issues we were not ready for as no one told us what issues may happen by changing the stock suspension geometry so much. After getting the GoWesty lift, our rear CV Joints began to click rather loudly. Why this happens is hard for me to explain but it has to do with the CV Joints being at a new, more steep angle. So, when this clicking happens (or before) you’ll need to change the CV Joints. Let me point out here that you should not buy the EMPI CVs as replacements. We went this route and within 80 miles one of them broke clean off. I can’t say the boys at Rocky Mountain Westy, Green Syncro and Mountain Bus Werks didn’t warn me. These CVs are super cheap and the price is what made us buy them. The whole ordeal ended up costing us a long tow, double the labor and triple the parts cost. Get the high grade GKN/LoBros or go with the ultra beefy 930 Porsche axles from Burley (you’ll need four of these I believe). In Falkor we went with the GKN/LoBros. After 35,000 miles of hard driving, we only had to replace one of the CVs. Parts and labor here is around $850. Do it right. Pay the money….or do it yourself. In the Syncro, we run the 930s and had some issues after only 4k miles. The issues are due to buying the kit from the wrong vendor.
MOTOR — 2
Chances are any van you buy will have the stock water cooled motor in it. Brand new, the 2.1L motor had 90hp and now your new-to-you Vanagon is at best 25 years old and you’re lucky if it’s generating close 80hp. At this point you might ask yourself whether you keep the stock motor with all of its attendant issues, syndromes, gremlins, and whatever else it wants to throw at you or do you upgrade to a new motor? Our decision to upgrade Falkor’s engine came after seeing that our van could not go up mountain passes at more than 20mph, some breakdowns that left us stranded, and overheating issues we had in Texas and New Mexico. Not to mention, merging onto a highway going uphill was like playing Russian Roulette with highway traffic. After enough break downs, continually trying our patience driving up mountain passes, and highway scares, we decided to get a 2.5L 165HP Subaru motor installed.
Our 2.5 Subaru engine is not California legal. Some other motors you can install are the 2.2L Subaru, the Volkswagen 1.8L T, a Subaru EE20 Diesel, a VW 1.9L TDi PD / ALH / AHU, Tiico motor, Bostig Ford motor, the Vanistan Performance VW Waterboxer, the GoWesty Waterboxer variants and many others. The 2.5L Subaru we went with is, I believe, the most common conversion. It has plenty of support nationwide, the motor fits like a glove in the engine compartment and it gives the van a good amount of power. In addition, ours came with a 2yr 24,000 mile warranty. The engine conversion kit we used was the Rocky Mountain Westy conversion kit.
We opted against the other engine swaps at the time due to cost or reduced power or additional modifications that would be needed. The 1.8L T VW is around $20k, the Subaru Diesel and VW 1.9L TDi PD are around $20k, the Bostig hangs much too low and has 40 less horse power and torque, and we were advised against the Tiico and the GoWesty motors for a number of reasons. All in all our Subaru conversion cost us $13k. In hindsight, the Subaru may have been priced right and common but it failed us after 25,000 miles and the one in our Syncro failed us 600 miles after buying the van. We may be outliers but we know 4 other people out there that have had devastating issues with their Subaru motors.
In our Syncro, we went with the VW 1.9L TDi PD. The jury is still out on this conversion though 12,000 miles in we aren’t terribly happy with our decision and installer.
We recommend you do your own research and feel free to ask us anything about our experience with our engine swap. We’re happy to put you in touch with people who have done the other swaps.
Last thing: Your radiator will typically be replaced at the same time as your motor. Go ahead and get new stainless steel coolant pipes at this point. Your stock ones are definitely in need of replacement and you may as well get that upgrade while everything is getting redone. And definitely rebuild your transmission at this point as well. If you have an automatic transmission, make sure to get a tranny cooler that you can install in front of your radiator.
TRANSMISSION — 2 (WITH ENGINE CONVERSION — 4)
Because we drive a lot in the mountains and because an upgraded motor puts out nearly double the power of the stock motor, it can cause the transmission to overheat or in the case of the diesel, the torque can literally snap parts inside the transmission. In Falkor we didn’t have the transmission rebuilt at the same time the motor went in and we didn’t put the tranny oil cooler in the best spot. Within 10,000 miles we fried that automatic transmission and had to get a rebuild. The rebuild cost us $2.5k and the oil cooler and install in the front of the van was around $500. From that point forward we never saw our tranny temps exceed 180ºF
As mentioned before, we added a positraction differential to our transmission. It would have been great to rebuild the tranny at the same time we did this but alas, we did not. If you rebuild your tranny, think about getting what is called a Turbo Upgrade to the tranny. This will create more space in the gearing, shave the governor and make the marriage between your new Subaru motor and tranny that much better.
With our Syncro, we had to a do a lot of custom things to get the tranny to handle the added torque of the diesel engine. For more details on that, visit our build page.
With the upgrades listed thus far, every major component in your van will be brand new and ready for mostly trouble free adventuring. You’ll also potentially be about $25k into your van, but if you’re full timing, you don’t have rent or a car payment or the other expenses that come with home ownership. And again, you don’t need to do most of these upgrades. You can, and a lot of people do, get by with much less. Those people also often times tend to be mechanically inclined and able to fix or diagnose most issues.
INTERIOR — 4
Because we live in the van full-time, our interior is pretty well set up for the kind of traveling we do. We had our interior in Falkor custom built, however this is not necessary at all. If you buy a full camper Westy it should come with the sink, stove, cabinetry, fridge, water tank and propane tank. We lived out of Falkor with this style of interior for a year and it worked fine (minus the propane and water tanks). At a minimum, you could use rubbermaid containers for your clothes and gear. We’ve seen some folks do it that way and it seems to work. Or you can make your own if you’re handy like that. Regardless, you should definitely consider some kind of interior storage system.
AUXILIARY POWER — 5
Power was an ongoing issue for a while. In Falkor we used two 6v 224 amp hour golf cart batteries and when combined with 130w in solar panels, our setup was ready for primetime. Those batteries however weigh in at 150lbs. In our Syncro we opted to go with a 200ah lithium battery system and couldn’t be happier with how well they work. This set up weighs 60lbs and , has more usable power than lead acid, and lithium batteries have twice the life span. We bought our set up from Larry at Starlight Solar. Super nice guy but beware, the system is not easy to install. Other systems exist that are a piece of cake to install but we dealt with one of these companies (Stark Power) and we advise that you stay as far away from them as NorthWesty…which is to say don’t touch them with a “39 and a half foot pole.”
WATER — 5
You never really think about finding water when you live in a house. You just go to your sink and like magic, there it is. Van life is different, though. Finding water and staying stocked has been a little more challenging than we expected. Sure, you can buy gallons of water at stores but that gets expensive. We have found that laundromats usually have those big sinks where you can refill your water jugs. In Falkor, we didn’t have the large water tank that comes with the Westies in order to use that space for storage, and for a while we used a mix of this jerry can from Front Runner, a road shower, and some gallon sized water jugs. This combination also meant we never used the sink either…mostly because it was useless. In our Syncro, however, we use the Westy water tank and carry that same 5 gallon jug from Front Runner.
REFRIGERATOR — 4
If you were to ask us what is the single best upgrade we have made to our van it wouldn’t be the high top or the motor or the cabinets. It would be the fridge. Instant game changer. The TF49 Truckfridge is an awesome solution over any ice chest/yeti cooler out there. The fridge fits perfectly into the Westy interior (with some slight modifications). If you want to use the old fridge spot in your Westy for storage, using an ARB or Engel floor fridge is also a good solution. The point here is that coolers suck, get a fridge. Plus one for progress, modernity and capitalism.
PROPANE — 2
For our first year on the road, we had a stock Westy interior (one we got from a donor van) and we cooked on a camp stove as we didn’t have a propane tank hooked up. This works for a lot of people, and if you don’t end up getting a cabinet system, it really isn’t a bad way to do things. Just get the little green propane tanks and go to town. Works great and it’s pretty cheap. If you want a stove integrated into your cabinet system, then get a hose that can hook up to your stove on one end and connect to a 1lb propane bottle on the other. This set up save about 40lbs of weight over installing a large propane tank under the vehicle. Or you can do like the overland guys do and attach a big propane bottle to the rear of your van.
AWNING — 1
We love our awning, and the more time we spend with other van owners it seems they love their awnings too. Is it necessary? No. Does it make the van run better? No. Is it a nice to have thing for those times you’re camping and want to have a nice place to sit in the shade? Hell yes. We have the ARB 2500 awning and we absolutely love it. I think I said we love it already. Point is, we love it.
So, there you have it. Remember, these our opinions and how we like things. We’re always open to hearing suggestions and happy to chat if you have any more questions!
These are at best 25-year-old vehicles and they’re going to have issues. The price range for one that will be reasonably reliable, will have all of the essentials taken care of: new fuel lines, upper/lower control arm bushings, new upper A-arms, rebuilt stock motor, new clutch (for the manual versions), bigger tires, new coolant pipes, fuel system upgrades, shocks and springs, bigger breaks and…you get the picture could be around $20-25k on the Samba. Others that don’t have all of these fixes are less, somewhere in the $7k to $15k range. If you go for one of those—which is what we did with Falkor—just make sure the motor has been rebuilt and the fuel lines replaced. You can do the other work over time as you go on your adventure. The last option would be to buy a cheap one (an old air cooled or diesel) and have the all work done, new motor, new suspension, new etc. We put a lot into Falkor and Ripley and they still break down though less and less now that nearly every major system has been overhauled. So, at best it’s a labor of love and at worst, it’s a money pit. But for us, it’s worth it. We don’t pay rent. We don’t have a mortgage. We just buy Vanagon parts. Things could be worse.
Or try a different platform altogether. We’ve considered that on numerous occasions. Maybe this: