When I woke up the morning after I purchased this 1981 VW Westfalia, I had only one thought: What the hell had I done? What kind of a fix had I just gotten myself into?
I watched the rain fall outside onto this alien, decrepit looking bus now parked in front of my house and again wondered what the neighbors thought. Did they think it was a buddy of mine overstaying his welcome? A vagabond? An abandoned vehicle? Inside my warm house, glancing down at the meager folder of service records, I realized I had taken a huge leap of faith with this vehicle. Apart from a receipt for a rebuilt engine over 15 years earlier, there was very little provenance. Over the past year, the former owner had driven the bus less than 200 miles, having paid out the nose to put in a new clutch, master cylinder, and battery. God knew how much money this thing might cost me over the next year. Buyer’s remorse crept in. What had I done???
I still had yet to learn how to drive a stick shift. That afternoon, I fired the engine up, shifted into neutral, and the van started slipping down the graded driveway. Down to the bottom of the driveway I went, and when I shifted back into first, trying to feather out the clutch like in the videos I’d seen, the van died immediately. I tried this probably 15 times, looking the complete ass, as neighbors stopped midstride to gawk. One lady walking a dog stopped in her tracks and watched amusedly, hands on her hips; this was more interesting than whatever soap opera was on TV, I guess. I tried to engage first gear (I know now that I was actually shifting into third) two or three more times before Jeddy upped and quit on me: He died and stopped cranking. With his nose in the driveway and his ass hanging out into the narrow street, I started to panic. I began waving passing cars around him, wondering what the hell I was going to do. Luckily, my neighbor came around the bend, saw my dilemma, and helped me push Jeddy back into the driveway. Jeddy’s battery had died, which was odd because it was less than a year old. Oh boy. Jeddy and I were not making fast friends.
I thought: Let me start with things I know I can fix. The previous owner was clearly not mechanically minded at all, and had basically been driving the bus into the ground. He did, though, pass on a few parts that he had failed to install, like the bumper endcaps, a new window crank, a door grab handle, etc. On those went, and little things like that put a smile on my face. I changed the oil and filter, degreased the underside of the van, tried to take stock of where my leaks were coming from. I narrowed it down to the taco plate gasket and the flywheel seal. Why that seal wasn’t replaced with the clutch, I have no idea.
One nice afternoon, I pulled out the buffer to see what Jeddy’s paint looked like beneath all the oxidization. The results were encouraging! Underneath the chalky buildup was the van’s handsome original paint job.
The color is “Assuan Brown”, which actually looks more orange than brown to me, and in my mind, is the quintessential color for the early Vanagons. I believe VW used this paint on Vanagons from ’80-85. The poptop shell also cleaned up nicely with Simple Green and a bristle brush.
And after I removed the rear bumper and pounded it straight, the van didn’t look half bad from the rear. I brightened at the illusion that it looked more like a classic and less like a junker to passerbyers coming down my street.
I hauled the battery into a local shop who replaced it on warranty (it was less than a year old, so I got a new one gratis), and I next got to work on the van’s horn. Some searching on forums pointed me in the direction of the van needing a new horn contact ring, so one was sourced from Go Westy for about ten bucks. I had to do a little filing to get it to seat properly so that it didn’t make a scraping noise every time I turned the huge captain’s wheel, but once it was dialed in, I was able to hook the horn back up without further problems. Jeddy was toot-tooting once again.
All classic VW owners must go through a rite of passage where they purchase or are handed down a copy of the Bentley manual (the frustratingly opaque but utterly necessary guide to understanding and fixing an old bus) and John Muir’s “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive Forever,” the stylized step-by step-guide “for the ‘compleat’ idiot,” couched heavily in 1960s hippie argot and fabulous R. Crumb-like illustrations.
I was quite taken by Muir’s philosophical musings and guidance. In Chapter Ten, he waxes on the virtues of properly warming up a VW aircooled engine: “I warm up my engine for the two or three minutes it takes me to roll a cigarette, light it and get it drawing well…” (and I think you know what kind of cigarette he means, haha.)
One thing I really wanted to get sorted was tunes.
Jeddy came with a really ugly, space-age jellybean-looking tape player from the 90s. It clashed badly with the interior aesthetic of the van, and tapes sounded horribly muffled when they did play, which was seldom. Because music is near and dear to my heart, I wanted a good tape deck in the van (and yes, it had to be tapes. CDs or mp3s just wouldn’t be right in an ’81 van), so I found myself a vintage Blaupunkt deck. These were yuppie status symbols in the 80s, and I recall that my family had a high end one in their ’85 Audi 4000. After dropping the cash for the deck and a new wiring harness, the day finally came where I got all the parts together to install it.
The wiring in the dash was a bloody mess, but I thought I had it sorted well enough when I started making my splices. Putting down the soldering iron and reaching for a beer, I looked away for just a second…and I smelled something burning. The exposed power wire to the amplifier had touched metal on the cutaway in the dash, and it immediately sparked its way into an electrical fire! “Fire! Fire!” I yelled, bolting out of the van while the cab filled with smoke. I called to the neighbor (outside working on his own car), and he hustled over. By this time, the fire had gone out on its own, but the damage was done. I hung my head, deflated, and thought, “well, there’s one more host of issues I’ll have to deal with”. But when I got it all sorted, I realized I really had dodged a bullet.
The power wire had gone up and taken a ground wire with it, frying itself all the way across the dash back to the main board. I lost the aftermarket gauges, and the blower fan, but hey, I could rewire those. If the whole bundle of wires in the dash had gone up…oh god, I don’t even want to think about that.
After a couple of weeks, I felt relatively comfortable rowing the van around my neighborhood. It definitely took some getting used to. First of all, the early air-cooled Vanagons have the very same 2000cc EFI engine used in the last of the 70s bay-window buses, but the Vanagon is about seven or eight hundred pounds heavier. So it’s slow and underpowered, the least desirable Westy apart from the automatic diesels. These old air-cooled engines can overheat pretty easily, and while they are simple, they’re also slow as molasses. I live in a subdivision just off of a major highway, and making a right turn (or – heaven forbid – a left one) into fast moving traffic is a nightmare. It probably takes the van about 25 seconds to hit 65 mph. Once it gets there, it’ll cruise all day long, but it’s not in any hurry to reach that kind of speed, and everyone else in the world is. My van also lacks both power steering and A/C, which are very important conveniences. Trying to park without power steering takes a lot of wrestling, and driving without A/C can get real uncomfortable, fast.
It took about a month before I was bold enough to venture out onto the highway. With my wife riding shotgun, our first ride was to the local beach. It felt great to get out of my immediate neighborhood and ride somewhere new. The beach is one of my all-time favorite spots, and I’ll frequently go there, sit on the bench in the back of the van, kick up my feet, and chill with a good book as the sun shines down on the Pacific Ocean. You can’t beat that.
Some of you may be disappointed in me, but I have no plans to take this van to Moab or Burning Man or whatever; at 162k miles, Jeddy gets to live out his golden years mostly as a townie. There’s a car show in my town called “Dream Machines,” and maybe this year or next, I’ll take Jeddy down to it and talk some turkey with all the gearheads. Maybe some of you will be there too, you never know 😉 But for now, easy does it for this old van.
In the third and last installment of this series (for now), I’m looking forward to sharing the journey I took in learning the art of bodywork. And there was also that finicky issue of the van cutting out at startup. Who wants to sit holding down the gas pedal for three minutes before you go anywhere? The old bus is still a project, but you know what? He’s never seen a shop under my ownership, and when I go puttering about town in Jeddy…no car – not a Porsche, not a ‘Vette, not a Ferrari – brings more smiles to people’s faces than this friendly old bus does.