Cars Of A Lifetime: 1982 VW Vanagon Diesel – Slower Than A Brown Turtle On Valium

In a previous episode about about my slow Peugeot 504 diesel wagon,  I mentioned at the end that I managed to trade it straight across for what was undoubtedly the slowest (legally licensed) vehicle sold on an unsuspecting American public in semi-modern history. Well, this is that vehicle: a Vanagon diesel.

I saw an advertisement for it; it was in Portland. So on a whim I called and talked to the woman who owned it. She said she wanted to downsize, as she had been living in the van but now had a place to stay. I told her I had a Peugeot wagon and right away she was interested. I had always wanted a diesel Vanagon as I figured it was bigger than my previous bus and got better fuel mileage. So I took a (leisurely) drive up to Portland in the Peugeot.

The owner was living with another woman on a sort of rural estate. She was of the typical hippie persuasion associated with tall, square VW products. That was cemented in my mind when she showed me her Toyota truck, which had the words Dance Like No One Is Watching and Love Like You Have Never Been Hurt spray painted on the sides in large letters. Yes indeed, she was a perfect candidate for Peugeot ownership!

We test drove our prospective vehicles. She instantly loved the Peugeot like she had never been hurt, which is a bit surprising given how loud and rough the brown and tan Vanagon was. I had been hurt, so my love for the Vanagon came on a bit slower. But it had the big sun roof that actually worked and the interior was pretty decent. Besides, where else could I find a Vanagon diesel? For the less informed, the 48 hp diesel Vanagon was sold in the US  only in 1982. There are good reasons for that, although it makes them cult objects to its devotees, who invariable swap in turbo-diesels. At the time, it never really occurred to me that I was trading in a mangy dog for a rabid cat. Some things come the hard way.

The Vanagon had one immediate problem though. The shift linkage was knackered so it would only go into first and third gears. I didn’t want to fix it in her field, and my recent experience helping her fix the brakes on her Toyota (sucker, I know) had left me wanting to see quite a lot less of her (long story there).  So I decided I would drive it home to Salem on the back roads (about 70 miles). It was a long, loud, and shaky drive in third gear the whole way back (maybe forty tops). Ever driven a tractor from one harvest to another across the county? It was worse.

But I was not dissuaded in my diesel dreams. I set about getting to work on it. I fixed the shifter mechanism, and took on the rattling exhaust system. The down pipe from the manifold (a J shaped pipe) was broken from all the engine vibration. There was no where to get a new one in the world but from Volkswagen. I checked on the price: $750. Yes indeed, a single J shaped pipe, 750 dollars! Suddenly the pipe didn’t seem so bad.

This particular Vanagon also had the auxiliary fuel fired heater, a rare option. Of course it didn’t work, so I decided to get a quick education on its workings. It was made by a big aerospace company, and no other vehicles used this particular model. It was basically a mini turbine engine complete with two or three computer control boxes, a glow plug, a motor, a primary turbine, etc. So of course the long and short of it is, it never worked.

By some sort of miracle (or curse) I found a Vanagon diesel being parted out at a local junk yard. I obtained the exhaust parts along with the many other little bits needed. And when I got it all up and running good I found that it was the worst dog of a vehicle that I had ever owned. It had a four speed transmission, but it felt like it needed six. On a slight downhill grade, with the wind at one’s back, in fourth gear the engine would be screaming, the van would be shaking, and you might, might achieve 60mph.

Oh and lord forbid that you should happen upon a small slope of any sort. Semi trucks were passing me routinely, angry drivers shook their fists at me as they passed, and I shook my fist at it, too. One time I actually did crack the dash hitting it in frustration. The idea of putting a 1.6 liter diesel engine with four speeds in a nearly three ton vehicle that was shaped like a cupboard was sounding less and less brilliant, and more and more insane.

And then the sliding door handle decided to fall off. Take a look at Vanagons and you will notice that many of them are missing this handle. Next to go was the front sway bar mount, which simply sheered in two. This was a far cry from my rugged old bus! And just to add insult to injury, the transmission went tits-up next. Only Volkswagen could make a transmission so weak that a 48 horsepower diesel motor could break it! I was through with it. But of course to sell it I had to get a transmission.

Shortly after installing the new transmission I was driving by a garage sale and noticed a 1957 International S120 4×4 pickup on the side of the road. I stopped at the sale and asked about it. Turns out the owner really wanted a van…………..