Our Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
A Vanagon. It was the vehicle we wanted from the very start. When we began researching them we discovered that Volkswagen had released a four-wheel drive model called the Syncro, and they had a diesel version to boot. Oh man! This seemed to us to be the Holy Grail. Regretfully the prices for them were utterly outrageous for our budget at the time so we put our desire for one on hold.
Fast forward a couple years. We’ve been traveling the US in our 2WD Vanagon Falkor but we are seriously considering taking our travels around the world. After meeting up with several other overlanders who had previously made the journey in their rigs, we were pretty set on the fact that we would need 4WD if we wanted to experience all the remote places we hoped to in our coming journey.
Around the time we had made this decision we were visiting with our dear friends Dai and Heidi in Ft. Collins, CO. It was intended as a short stop on our way east to visit family for the holidays. While we were there a 7 passenger Syncro came up for sale in Durango. It caught our attention because it seemed pretty much ready to go. We’d just need to put an interior in, tint the windows, and go over the suspension to make sure all was well. It had a Subaru engine, rebuilt transmission, new CVs all the way around, upgraded brakes, and no visible rust except for a few seams that needed resealing. It even had a pop top already installed!
Durango. It was a short 6 hour drive from where we were and all our checks from a major project we had worked on all summer had just cleared. What was the harm in going to check it out? If nothing else it would be a beautiful road trip through the rockies in Autumn. Everything checked out and the seller had all the documentation on the installs and the service records. After a test drive and some deliberation we decided to take the plunge and acquire ourselves a Syncro. 600 miles later the engine was toast.
That catastrophic failure right at the beginning of our build set the tone for the entire experience that turned from a quick build-out to an entire restoration project. It took about a year and a small fortune to get back on the road after countless set backs and horrible experiences with vendors. That being said, we have touched, installed, or repaired nearly every system on this rig ourselves and have gained an immeasurable amount of knowledge about how she ticks. That knowledge will come in handy no matter what rig we end up taking around the world, or around the corner for that matter. Read on to see some of the upgrades and changes we made along the way.
Photo by Sean Grimes
Year, Make And Model
The Syncro features a Volkswagen 1.9L TDi Pumpe Düse BVK. The engine was a brand new crate motor. VW used this particular engine in the VW Sharan. It has conservative tune from Kerma TDi that it is close to stock. It has an air-to-water intercooler and a Borg Warner S7 turbo which is larger than stock.
The engine is supposed to get close to 30mpg although something is wrong with our setup and it barely gets 21mpg at the moment. We are attempting to get this all squared away.
4.86 ring and pinion with 3rd gear at 1.18 and 4th gear at .77. We did everything we knew to do to the gearbox to make it sturdy enough to handle the torque of the diesel engine. We aren’t sure yet whether what we did will be enough as the gearbox has been rebuilt twice in the span of a few months. We think maybe the initial rebuild got a few things wrong necessitating the second rebuild as the first rebuild only lasted 500 miles. It’s been 12,000 miles since the last rebuild and so far, we’ve had no issues.
The gearbox has a decoupler and a rear locker. We rebuilt the front diff to have a solid shaft rather than a viscous coupling in order to have more power going to the front when four-wheel drive is engaged. In addition, we switched out the gearbox casing from a magnesium to an aluminum case for more strength. All gears in the transmission are from Weddle Industries.
In order to keep the gearbox cool we also installed a Weddle pump and filter that feeds warm tranny fluid up to a front radiator that then sends cool fluid back into the gearbox that sprays directly onto fourth gear. We use MoTool 75-90w. It seems to work quite well in warm weather though we’ve noticed some trouble with second and third gear in colder weather.
The gearbox in a Syncro is the weakest link in the entire system. We believe the battle with this gearbox will be ongoing until the day when someone finally designs and produces a Syncro tranny that can stand up to the power and pressure exerted by the modern engines that have become popular in these vehicles.
Initially we went with the heavy duty Trailmaster shocks and springs but the shocks proved to be incapable of handling the weight of our rig. We then upgraded to the adjustable Fox Shocks from GoWesty. These shocks are incredible. The CV joints and axles are Porsche 930’s in the rear and 944’s in the front. We have the T3 Technique heavy duty sway bar and it has proved up to the task of better managing our van’s body roll in the corners. We run powerflex bushings all the way around.
We use the Gravity Pro 6 from KC HiLites on the front as our light bar. We’ve never really liked how the rectangular light bars look and when we were shown this product we immediately fell in love. We also have IPF 7” rectangular driving lights on the front which we use as fog lights.
On the rear we have attached a Vision X Dura Mini light to help us when reversing in dark woods or when we need an extra light in the rear when we are outside at night.
All of our accessories are run by a SwitchPro SP-8100-8. It makes wiring in all these accessories a piece of cake.
We decided to use the ARB Twin Air Compressor because the smaller one didn’t cut the mustard on our previous rig and because on this Syncro we are running larger tires. We also have a one gallon tank for the air compressor to help us run an impact driver as well as help the compressor when we are filling up more tires than just our own. To air down we use the Staun tire deflators.
We commissioned to have a custom rear bumper made because all the available bumper setups on the market from GoWesty or Rocky Mountain Westy just didn’t live up to our needs. We wanted something lightweight, functional and long lasting. We’d had the RMW swing aways on the previous rig and were not happy with those for a number of reasons, and the GoWesty setup didn’t meet our lightweight requirement. We wanted a setup where the swing aways tied into the bumper system and didn’t use any body mounting points. To stay lightweight we wanted the bumper and swing aways to be aluminum. We had the bumper fabricated and couldn’t have been happier with the results even if the builder stiffed us a number of other components he promised to have made for the price we paid him.
The front bumper shown in most of the photos here is Rocky Mountain Westy’s Twin Peaks bumper and full grill guard. We think the build quality on these is exceptional, however, we are removing the grill guard in an effort to save weight. In three plus years on the road, we’ve found having bumpers this beefy isn’t necessary although we do plan on keeping the bumper setup because it has a great place to mount the high lift jack, and the shackles on the front may come in handy for recovery purposes in the future.
Photo by Sean Grimes
Rims and Tires
The van came with Eurovan wheels that had the center hole bored out (part #7D0-601-027-E-091). We have 5 of these rims and are considering adding a 6th in the event we need more rubber in foreign countries. We mounted Goodyear Duratrac L225/75/r16 tires on the rims and absolutely adore these tires. We have had General ATs, BFG ATs, and Cooper ATs and these Duratracs absolutely blow all of those away from road noise to rock retention to grip on sand and mud. They are E-load range tires at 10-ply and we have beat the shit out of them. We couldn’t be happier with these tires. Now if only they came with white lettering.
We run two 12v 100ah lithium batteries run in parallel providing 200ah of lithium power. These batteries have served us incredibly well thus far. Our only gripe is that the setup is very complex and should we have any issues with them in the future, we’re probably going to be SOL. Seriously, they are complex but goodness do they give us a ton of juice. The batteries come with a computer that shuts the batteries off if they get too hot, cold or low thus giving us a nearly fool proof management system.
The batteries are kept charged by either 2 100w Renogy solar panels mounted to SKB 4719 boxes, the alternator, or our shore power plug. The solar panels do an exceptional job of keeping the batteries topped off provided there is ample sun and we aren’t pulling more that 18 amps an hour. But even if we are pulling that, the batteries have enough juice to last quite a while before we are searching for a way to get power.
We sourced a gray Westfalia interior from a van in Pennsylvania. The cabinet system is pretty stock except for the spice rack and sliding doors for the rear wardrobe both of which we had made by Rhino Design Studios in Sacramento, Ca. We use small green propane bottles to power our stove and they seem to last quite a while. We are considering switching to a 10lbs propane tank.
The van also has a diesel Webasto heater with a thermostat controller. This thing works great. We’ve slept in 10º F temps and stayed warm and toasty inside. And the heater sips diesel which is an added benefit. We haven’t yet used it at high elevation. We’ll see how that goes in the coming months when we find ourselves in the Rockies again.
Photo by Sean Grimes
To make our space feel more like home we’ve added a few touches that we didn’t have in the previous rigs. For one, Jessica drew a map of the world on a 3/8” thick piece of cork. She drew it. By hand. The point of this map is (1) it looks cool as hell and (2) for us to pin where we’ve been and have a sort of interactive display of our travels right above heads. Super fun.
We also attached a piece of cork to the front of the headbanger cabinet and there we pin up photos of friends, post cards friends and family send us and any other mementos of our travels that can be pinned up.
Photos by Sean Grimes
In front of our headbanger we’ve made a place to stick patches. We like patches quite a lot and having a spot for them makes us smile and reminds us of some of our favorite places we’ve been and some of our favorite companies we do business with.
We have a vacuum cleaner. Yep. After 3 years of living on the road we’ve tired of always sweeping our house like a Bulgarian babushka with a dirt floor hut. So we bought a little Dyson that sucks up all the sand, dirt and grit that gets dragged in by us and the dogs.
Lastly, we have an underfloor storage box that houses all of our tools. We had it welded to fit in between the frame rails on the passenger side and the job that was done is spectacular not to mention that the function and utility of this mod has been clutch. We’ve used nearly every tool we keep in that box at least once and having a full tool kit on board leaves us more confident that we can get ourselves up and running should something fail. Now if we could find a place to store a full-time VW mechanic, we’d be solid.
As always with any rig there will be changes, mods, and adjustments made to the vehicle as time in the cockpit is logged. Everything detailed here is accurate as of January 1, 2017. More changes will be made as we are always trying to find ways to cut weight or be more efficient with our space.