Cars of a Lifetime: 1980 Volkswagen Vanagon -Vanagonagian Or Some People Never Learn

(Picture by Gary Nolan)

Well here we are again in another Vanagon. Remember how I said I hated them? I did hate them after my diesel Vanagon experience. But then one day my friend Reginald comes over and tells me that there is a van I just have to see. I had been thinking how nice it would be to have something to just drive up and camp in. At the time I had my Toyota pickup but I thought maybe he would want to trade…..

Long story short, he traded straight across. The van was a 1980 (still air cooled) ASI Riviera camper. It was pretty beat up on the outside but the interior was very nice. It seemed to run just fine with the usual loose and sloppy transmission shifter. I knew from experience that the shifter sloppiness was caused by the little plastic coupling above the gas tank being worn out. But the important thing to me here was that all of the appliances worked and the pop-top was not significantly torn.

I did notice that a piece of the cooling tin was missing and the thermostat was stuck open (better open than closed I thought). There were no oil drips, and it wasn’t empty; on an air cooled engine, if it doesn’t drip, it’s probably empty. I knew that the truck I was trading him was worth more than the van, but I had decided that I really had to have the van, oh how love works.

The man that owned it had gotten it in trade for some work. Everything about this van screamed “don’t buy me,” but I paid no mind to my tingling used-car-sense and was the new victim owner of the van.

So what would possess me to trade a perfectly good little truck for this brick? It’s a dream, a long-lived dream shared by many a hippie, boon-docker, and otherwise alternative-lifestyle sorts. Here’s how the reasoning goes; with a camper van you can go anywhere you want and set up your home. If anyone gives you any shit, you just pop it down and take off. And if it’s a Volkswagen this is accompanied by decent miles per gallon, and decent unimproved road access.

But like I say, that’s the dream. The reality often works out slightly different. After I got the van home I started noticing an oil leak. No big deal, they all leak. But then it started getting bad. I looked around and found that it was coming from under the tin on the drivers side. I knew what that meant, oil cooler O-rings. That also meant pulling the engine. Sure, it’s not to hard to pull, but it sucks just the same. I went ahead and changed the oil, which I had been meaning to do and put in a good Mahle or Mann filter and cleaned the pickup screen and sump.  The leak stopped. It just quit one hundred percent. The oil was not thinned out from gas so I wondered why, and I still don’t know, but I was very happy about it.

I don’t know why it said Magnuson on the front or why the previous owners had cut a square out of the grill. But it was obvious that someone couldn’t park worth a damn.

The first trip it took was to take Michelle and me up into the woods for a nice day out with the top up and the windows open. Vans with fold out beds lend themselves to certain activities which the owners are most happy to partake in.  The only problem is the thought of previous owners upon the the same bed and principle. But it provided for an enjoyable day doing what a van like this is supposed to do.

The van became my only vehicle for a little while. Such a vehicle is really not suited to daily use. It is cumbersome, cold, noisy, and not to good on gas in the city. But we did get something else, which allowed me to take Reginald on a fishing/camping trip for his birthday.

It was a lot of fun and a great way to relax. We also took it on several scouting trips during the summer in preparation for hunting season. On our last trip the weather was very hot and the logging roads we were on were extremely steep. We got to the top of a mountain and down the other side but when we got to the bottom I noticed that the engine was starting to make a small tapping noise. I knew that was a bad thing.

Remember that missing cooling tin? I had bought a new piece but had never installed it. That is a mortal sin in a VW air cooled. I knew that too, but somehow never got around to it. Well that tapping noise was a direct result of that piece of tin. Warning, technical mumbo-jumbo to follow; skip this bit if you don’t care.

The cooling tin seals in and directs the air from the fan around the finned cylinders and heads. The thermostat is a bi-metallic bellows that pulls a wire connected to a bell crank and flap. The flap has a spring on it that holds it open normally. When the engine is cool the thermostatic bellows contracts, pulling on the cable, thus closing the flap and cutting off the exit for air from fan. This helps the engine get up to temp quickly, which is more important than people might think.

Most engine wear happens at start up and just after. Thick cold oil does not flow well. Wisely VW made the thermostat to default to off, so that if it does not work your motor will not burn up. But without all of the cooling tin, none of that matters because the air from the fan will not be directed around all of the engine parts, especially the all important oil cooler. So one of two things is going to happen first, either the connecting rods will start to wear out due to overheated oil, or a valve will crack. That was the tapping noise.

I contemplated buying a rebuilt engine, but the van was so beat up that I didn’t contemplate it for long. I put it up on Craigslist as a running project but nobody wants an air cooled Vanagon. Eventually some guy from Eugene told me he wanted it but didn’t have the nine hundred dollars I was asking for it.  A month or so went by and he called back and offered six hundred. I told him I would take no less than seven (but I really didn’t care, I was losing big anyways).  He said he could give me six now and the other hundred in a month. I said OK knowing that I might never get the other hundred. I didn’t, and I still have the title. Most likely he is living in someones back yard in it. I do have a bill of sale so the DMV can’t blame me if he does something stupid with it though!

Oh well, lessons learned. I really can’t blame the van here, it was clapped out when I got it, I beat the hell out of it, and it had a tone of miles on it. I guess it did what it was made to do for about a year for me and that’s OK, it was worth the adventures it took us on.