Our First Vanagon
When the decision was made to start traveling full time and working from the road, the next question asked was what kind of van should be used.
Jessica has always had a special love for Volkswagen Buses and I have always loved the Vanagon although at the time I didn’t know what they were called. As a youngster, I was carpooled to school for a time in an old brown Vanagon that some neighbors owned. It smelled of rotten carpets and water damage. The middle seats were taken out and the kids all rode sitting on the floor in the middle. That van, stinky as it was, always reminded me of the shuttles that were used in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
So when the discussion was started Jessica thought getting an old bus would be cool, and I said “What about one of those space vans that has pop-top? The VW ones.” Jessica knew what I meant: a Vanagon.
After some preliminary research it was clear that the VW Vanagon was probably not a good choice. It comes with an underpowered motor, many used Vanagons suffer from bad rust, and are prone to every kind of mechanical issue known to man. In fact, it is said that Volkswagen’s claim to fame, besides their quirky vehicles, is that they turn owners into mechanics. Because I nor Jess had ever changed the oil in one of our vehicles much less knew how to deal with all the Vanagon issues we were reading about on the internet, we discussed other options: Ford Econoline, Chevy Cargo Vans, Dodge or Mercedes Sprinter. All more reliable, all have more modern parts, all have more power, more space and cheaper parts. They are the rational choice.
But I couldn’t shake the romance of the VW. Sure I didn’t know anything about vehicles and how to assess much less repair anything that went wrong. But how could anyone say no to the boxy frame, the angled nose,, the sound and the feel, the community around these vans, the nostalgia of reliving childhood memories in a VW Vanagon? I lobbied Jessica hard, she relented. Next up, searching Craigslist and the Samba for just the right van.
We found a few Vanagon Westfalia vans that were in our budget of $7000 but they were much too far away to make purchasing them a terribly economical choice. We looked around in Texas and there weren’t any Westies fo sale. That was when we decided to start looking not just at Westfalia models (the Vanagons with the pop-top and camper interior) but also at their tin top counter parts. There was one an hour away in San Antonio. The seller wanted $5000 for his white 7 passenger Vanagon GL. We thought, “Well it isn’t a Westy but we could make it into a Westy.” We called the seller and set up to meet with him on a Saturday afternoon.
That Saturday we drove down to San Antonio where a dumpy little white Volkswagen Vangon was sitting parked in the cul-de-sac. His name at the time was El Gringo and he had us the moment we slid the key in and heard the Vanagon chime. We turned the key and he came to life. Puttering, spitting, gulping, gasping, growling. The owner let us take El Gringo out for a spin and to say that we were ear to ear smiles and giggles doesn’t quite capture our excitement. It was like driving the happiest vehicle ever made. The huge steering wheel in our hands, the squishy brakes, the squeaking and creaking whenever we hit a bump. It accelerated like a battery operated wheelchair only the batteries were near death. Vehicles are just hunks of steel, aluminum, copper, plastic, and rubber but this van had a soul and it made us part of its life that very minute.
The seller was asking $5000 for it. Our “budget” was $7000 even though we didn’t actually have that amount of money on hand or in the bank or on the way. Our “budget” was more based on what we knew we’d could earn in the near future. You know, counting–our–eggs–before–they– hatch budgeting. What could go wrong?
Even though we didn’t have the money we had a plan. We knew the owner was selling us his daily driver, what would he use as his new car? Here was our plan. We had a Subaru Outback worth about $6500. It needed a head gasket job that runs around $1500. Maybe the owner of the van would trade us straight up: our Outback for his Vanagon? Regretfully, he answered no. He needed the cash more. So with our tails tucked deeply between our legs, we drove back up to Austin empty-handed and sad hearted.
The next morning we set about to scour the Internet for another van. We had been bitten and smitten. Some time before 10am my phone rang, it was the San Antonio Vanagon owner.
What?! He changed his mind and wanted to do the trade!
We ran around the house putting clothes on and hurried out the door lest he changes mind. We climbed in our Outback, title in hand, hands shaking with excitement. We could feel the start of something new, something big, some thing.
That afternoon we drove north to Austin from San Antonio on I 35 barely going 60 mph, in our new to us little VW Vanagon. We were tossed about on the interstate by the Texas wind and by passing tractor trailers. El Gringo was not the right name. Any vehicle that was to be our steed in the wild needed to a name befitting his task:
Year, Make And Model
NORTH AMERICAN HIGHTOP
We went back and forth a number of times on whether to do a Westy top or a North American High Top. After some debate and weighing pros and cons we decided that even though AHT is really goofy looking, it was the best decision given what we were planning on doing in and with the van. So Joel at Green Syncro set about to cut a hole in our roof. The whole job cost around $5000 and it was one of the best upgrades we ever made.
Joel was great to work with. He answered all of our questions, he was fairly priced and he regularly sent us photos of the progress. When he sent us the photo of the hole in the roof Jess turned to me and said “There’s no going back now!” Indeed. We were all in. Seeing the hightop on for the first time was a little jarring since in our opinion the hightop just doesn’t look very good on the van. Nevertheless, function over form is what we were after.
In addition to adding the hightop, Joel also fabricated a mount for our road shower (a piece of gear we no longer have on board) and he also created a custom mount for our Aluminess box. The Aluminess box was a great addition in that it allowed us to have a “garage” where we could keep filthy items like oil, additives, and other fluids along with tools and spare parts. With hightop mounted, the road shower secured and the Aluminess in place, it was time move on to replacing the stock Wasserboxer with an EJ25 Subaru Waterboxer.
2.5L SUBARU WATERBOXER
The stock motor in our Vanagon was strong. It had no leaks and had been rebuilt by the previous owner within the last 30k miles. However, being a 2.1L motor, it simply didn’t have enough power to move our close to 6,000lbs home up hills much less mountains. So after hearing about these motors and how well they fit in the van, we decided that this was the way to go. For this project we turned to Stephen Sunkel of Mountain Bus Werks.
In addition to converting from the VW motor to the Subaru, we also had Stephen pull the transmission and have a Peloquin Differential installed. Later on down the road, our transmission needed an overhaul and that’s when we had the gearbox upgraded to a turbo geared transmission from German Transaxle.
The motor delivered a wonderful growl and plenty of power to get us up and over mountain passes. With the new motor and transmission the van felt like a totally different vehicle. Both Joel and Stephen did a fantastic job on the build and we were very pleased with how everything turned out. They even delivered on schedule and Stephen had the van driven out to us from Colorado Springs, Co to Atlanta, Ga.
In addition to the motor and the hightop, we had Joel and Stephen add a few other things to Falkor that we thought would be cool to have and/or improve our quality of life in the van. From offroad lights to bigger mirrors, we set out to build the most capable 2WD Vanagon in the #vanlife game.
After they completed their work we took delivery of the van and hit the road. A few months after all the work was done we decided to scrap the Westy style interior that didn’t match the van interior and opted to have Louis Warfield at Rhino Design Studio build us a custom cabinet set that would be optimal for how we wanted to organize all of our stuff. And he did an absolutely incredible job. The workmanship was top notch. The color of the cabinets isn’t our favorite but that isn’t his fault. We opted to compromise on a color and got something we both hated. Lesson learned. Never compromise.
Honest to Goodness Thoughts
It’s been about 40k miles since all of the initial big work was done to our van. In that time we have learned as much about our van as we have about the beautiful country we live in. There are a lot of things we did that we regret, others that we would recommend to anyone without a moment’s hesitation and still others that we could have done without. For the sake of keeping this a shorter than the length of an entire book I’ll mention a few thoughts we have regarding some of these upgrades.
Firstly, I would recommend to anyone trying to build a van that can go overseas without worry, i.e. can do serious overlanding in third world countries, I would advise to not start with a 2WD automatic trans platform. Can it be done? People have overlanded in VW Beetles so yes, it can be. But the amount of work we have put into making our 2WD the most capable overland van on this platform could have been spent doing the same to a 4WD Syncro Vanagon. And while it may be cool and fun to show what this van and others like it can do on social media, I believe the fact remains that if overseas overland travel is in the plans, start with a 4WD van.
After using the Subaru motor for more than 35k miles it is our opinion that this motor is simply not the right fit for what we want to do. From the day we got our van back from Stephen, the motor had serious oil consumption issues. For the first 20k miles we wrote it off as just it being a common Subaru problem (Subaru motors chew through a lot of oil), But somewhere after 25k miles and inside of a year of having the motor, we started going through a quart of oil every 200 miles or so. Thankfully the motor was still under warranty and we had it replaced in early 2016. Turns out our motor was pretty much destroyed. The builder who warrantied the motor made it clear more than once that he’d never seen a motor so beat up after so few miles. Maybe we had a bad motor with bad parts? Maybe we drove it too hard? Who knows. However, we have another Vanagon that we purchased that came with Subaru motor that developed rod knock (a devastating condition requiring a new motor or rebuild) after only 600 miles. So, we are staying away from Subaru motors on any future build. Others have had similar luck with theirs and still others have been just fine. That kind of track record is not comforting when our van is our home.
The hightop is incredible. Having the extra space for storage is a godsend when you live in such a small space. Also, being able to stand up should not be underestimated. Though we had the hightop installed to created a bed space “upstairs” we soon learned that sleeping up top was like sleeping in a coffin. Truly panic attack inducing. So we converted the upper area into storage and it was an instant game-changer.
Another instant game-changer was the TF49 fridge. We can’t recommend this upgrade enough. Even if we didn’t have the more powerful motor or the hightop, this fridge alone would make #vanlife much more tolerable. We used to have a cooler but never again. This fridge is our #1 favorite upgrade.
The automatic transmission in this rig has been our long suffering red headed step child. When we got the Subaru installed the trans was sent to a transmission shop in Colorado Springs to have a Peloquin Differential installed. We should have had the trans rebuilt at that time but for whatever reason it didn’t occur to us to have that done. Big mistake number one. Big mistake number two was locating the transmission oil cooler underneath the van. This is the standard way that everyone mounts an oil cooler. This was how our was mounted. Within 10k miles our transmission pretty much cooked itself to death and that’s when we had German Transaxle rebuild our transmission. They advised that we attach a fan to our cooler. So after installing the rebuilt transmission we added a thermostatically controlled fan to the oil cooler. Another 10k miles passed and we had a transmission flush done by NorthWesty in Seattle. The transmission fluid was burnt which meant we were still running way too hot. We installed trans temp gauge and a diff temp gauge to see where the temperature was and sure enough we were boiling our transmission and differential fluids. They reading north of 250º each. For reference, 220º is the max “safe” operating temperature. We then moved the trans cooler from under the vehicle to in front of the radiator and haven’t seen temps in the transmission above 180o once in 20k miles, and we started using AMSOil in the diff and temperatures have stayed well under 220º.
As I said above, if you’re looking at doing serious overseas overlanding, I recommend starting with a 4WD platform. However, if that just isn’t in the budget, then make some room in that budget for a Peloquin Differential. I can’t think of how many times this upgrade has come in handy on slippery roads, muddy trails, snowy passes and icy tarmac. I can feel the diff kick in and help steady the van when the back end begins to drift around. It’s been a pretty huge safety related upgrade that has also made the van way more capable off-road.
An upgrade we didn’t mention above is our sway bar from T3 Techniques. With the hightop and a lifted van, we have been a little wobbly going around bends at speed. Often times we’d have to slow down to under 30mph to feel safe going around some turns. After installing the sway bar, Falkor chews up turns and spits them out. We now can take most turns above 30mph without hitting the brakes and the van feels stable. Definitely a good upgrade.
Something that wasn’t really a good upgrade are the GoWesty 1.5” lift springs. They are horribly bouncy, do not perform very well off road as it seems we would bottom out more often than seemed normal and the ride they provide on tarmac is just downright unpleasant. The Bilstein HDs that GoWesty sells, however, have been great. When paired with the 2WD springs from syncro.org, the ride is the best we’ve ever had. Regretfully though, those springs don’t work very well with our current weight so we are trying different spring combos now.
An upgrade that seems to get a lot of attention are our LED lights. The Vision X 52” light bar is truly incredible and wholly unecessary. Let’s call it a “my balls are bigger than yours” upgrade. Not necessary at all as the light canons from Vision X work well enough to not require spending the additional $1000 light bar for bragging rights. Probably wouldn’t do it again… who am I kidding. Having the biggest balls counts for something somewhere.
The bumpers and swing aways have been good additions. However, the swing aways are, it seems to me, poorly conceived. The tire sits much too far away from the cross bar which causes vibration and vibration causes stress in the metal where the swing away attaches. It would be better if the tire attachment could have its length adjusted by using a tension bolt or something similar. The bumpers are nice and heavy duty however the front bumper doesn’t fit quite as nicely as Rocky Mountain Westy leads on. Some modification is necessary. Also, one gripe I have about these bumpers (and GoWesty’s) is that there isn’t a good way to mount a hilift jack without occupying a receiver hitch. Burley makes a bumper that has a hi-lift jack carrier integrated into the design and leaves open the hitch receiver for…hitching something other than a hi-lift jack. Also, aesthetically I think the bumpers should come with black hardware rather than the silver hardware they come with now. Besides that, the bumpers are solid and mean looking. Definitely a worthwhile purchase.
Other items I won’t spend too much time: The Aluminess box is awesome. Love having a place to keep filthy car related things. The LT Series Truck Mirrors are an aesthetic upgrade and I love them like I love my first born child I havent had yet. The 2500 series ARB awning is a must have. Don’t blow your money on a Fiamma. The ARB is so good and so reasonably priced that it makes my face hurt from smiling everytime we open it up. We upgraded our headlights to the LED bulbs that VanCafe has now. Super awesome and not expensive at all. We added some ABS plastic skirts around the engine cradle to prevent rocks from jumping up into our engine compartment. NorthWesty charged me $400 for this upgrade. Don’t know why it was so ridiculously expensive for ABS plastic and some drilled holes but I recommend doing this. If you have a modicum of DIY-ness you should be able to do this yourself for less than $100. The Webasto furnace is iffy at high elevations even with the high elevation kit installed. Big brakes, get them but only in the front. We run 15” rims because 16” seemed to make the transmission run hotter.