COAL #11: 1987 VW Vanagon Westfalia – The Leatherman Multi-Tool Of Curbside Classics

The Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper has gained a special set of supporters and detractors over the years.  No vehicle is perfect, but the Vanagon seems to bring out a particular breed of critics, a few that have owned one, but far more who got their view from their best friend’s cousin’s ex-babysitter’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle.  I am not one of those critics, and I’ll confess that I am a 16 year card carrying member of the Westfalia Addict (WA) fan club.

“If everyone could grab their coffee and take a seat, we’ll get this meeting started.”

“All good?  Ok, Good morning everyone.  My name’s Ed and I’m a Westfalia addict”

“Good morning Ed!”

The Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia was imported for 11 years into the US, from 1980 to 1991.  The Vanagon didn’t play in the same horsepower sandbox as the other cars on the playground, offering four engines over the years ranging from a 1.6 liter diesel (49 hp), an air cooled 2 liter (70 hp), a 1.9 liter wasserboxer  (83 hp) to a final rip snorting 2.1 liter (95 hp) wasserboxer.  Although the later models will cruise at 75 mph, to view that as their purpose is to miss the point entirely.

Are you familiar with the Leatherman Multi-tool?  Timothy Leatherman patented his first multi-tool, “The PST” (Pocket Survival Tool) also in 1980, and most of his tools are built around a set of pliers with up to 21 additional tools in the handles.  Like the Vanagon Westfalia, its job is to do many things well in a compact package, and both have their strong adherents.  But the multi-tool will never be a sledgehammer, so the key is to appreciate and use it for what it is, not what it isn’t.

The year was 2004, and my 23 year marriage had ended a few months prior.  As a probable 45% of you know from personal experience, divorces are painful, but at least we were both committed to being good parents for our kids.  Here I was, single and free for the first time in 27 years, so what should I do?  Hit the bars and make up for lost time?  Pour myself into a bottle and contemplate things that went wrong?  Reconnect with that camping/outdoorsy stuff that I used to like to do?  Hmm…given those choices, I decided to take door number 3 – the road less traveled.

Growing up in Southern California, I was well aware of the virtues and vices of the VW Bus and its Westfalia versions.  Awesome freedom but limited power and a heating system whose effectiveness was likened to mice breathing on your feet.  Fine for sea level beaches, not so good for snow-capped Rocky Mountains.  What about a Vanagon then?

Vanagons of all types never exactly set sales records, and Westfalias were far less common.  If I wanted one, I’d need to do a nationwide search and be patient.  Rust can be an issue, particularly in salt country, so I limited my search to the more sunny locales.  I’d also decided to stick to the later, larger engine models, as they had a number of improvements in addition to an increase of 12 earth shaking horsepower over the previous wasserboxer (water cooled boxer).  A four wheel drive Syncro would have been nice, but also cost almost twice as much as a two wheel drive model.  Did I mention that I had just been divorced?

Eventually I found what looked like a good example in Salt Lake City, talked with the seller, and flew out with a backpack and a sleeping bag for the drive home.  Unfortunately, the vehicle was not exactly as advertised and the seller wouldn’t budge on the price.  I asked him to take me back to the airport as this wasn’t a game that I was going to play.  Half-way to the airport, the seller reconsidered and we agreed on $6,500.  My drive back to Denver was a bit “directionally challenged” by the inadequate tires and suspension, but I eventually got home and stepped back to see what I really had.

How it looks now, not as it did when purchased!

It was a 1987 Westfalia GL Camper, which means that it has a full kitchen with sink, two burner stove and three way refrigerator (propane, DC & AC).  The top pops up enough to make even NBA players comfortable, and there’s room for two people to sleep in the upstairs suite and two downstairs.  The driver’s seat swings 90 degrees, and the passenger seat 180 degrees to make a surprisingly spacious living area.  Two tables are available to accommodate diners on either end of the living area.

One of the curious things about the Westfalia is that all of this room is contained in a vehicle only 15 feet long – about the size of a Honda Civic.  It’s like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat – then also pulling out a dresser, a couch, a refrigerator and bed.  Where did all this stuff come from?!??  It can also swallow 10 foot long lumber inside and still close the hatch, something a little tougher to do in a Civic or a pickup.  And, unlike even a small motorhome, it also fits inside a standard garage – with the top down of course!

Once I got home, one of the first orders of business was to name the vehicle.  Now, I’ve never named any of the vehicles that I’ve owned, but this one was begging for it, so the kids and I reviewed the possibilities while sitting at the dinner table one night.  After brainstorms, false starts and assorted laughter, we finally narrowed it down to the Vanaconda or the Vanimal.  Vanimal won in a landslide vote, and it’s really the only way that it’s referred to around our house.

Westfalias tend to be pretty personalized by their owners, and, after 16 years, the Vanimal is no exception.  Vanagons and Westfalias have an extensive parts and owner support system.  Parts are readily available from several reputable vendors and I find that parts are actually easier to find today than they were 16 years ago as the cult following has become even stronger.  The internet has also allowed small vendors to thrive, marketing their one or two great ideas that fill certain owner’s needs.  Cult members are also terrific in sharing their passion, expertise and lessons on various forums, including and various Facebook groups.  They’re generally a friendly bunch, willing to help or criticize as the situation warrants.  And a couple of those cult members frequent Curbside Classic as well, as we’ll probably see in the comments.

So what’s so great about the Vanimal for us, and why won’t we be replacing it anytime soon?  Let me count the ways and the personalizations…

Used in its proper role, the Vanimal is just plain fun.  You sit up high in captain’s chairs looking out through more unobstructed glass than the average 3 bedroom house, which is equivalent to about 27 modern day Camaro’s.  There are movie theaters that have smaller screens than the front windshield here, so why be in a hurry when there’s so much to see?  I’ve replaced our original seats with later versions from a Eurovan, which have all day comfort and still retain adjustable armrests on each side.  And unless you’re taller than 6’ 7”, you’ll fit just fine and won’t be brushing the headliner.  NFL and NBA players are welcome.

The Vanimal sits about as high as a modern 4X4 pickup, so you can see 14 cars ahead of you and plan your acceleration and braking, a valuable feature that you learn to take advantage of.

Although you sit over the front wheels, this isn’t like an older VW Bus where your knees were designed as an integral part of the crash protection system.  Vanagons have a surprisingly robust crash structure, and even tests with multiple rollovers barely faze it.  Hit up the link below if you like your crash tests set to “Hit Me Baby One More Time”.

And for gosh sakes kids, don’t try these tests at home in your Chevy Astro!

Three traits that I generally look for in vehicles are that they be practical, have good performance and good economy.  So how does the Vanimal score on those criteria?

For practicality, the Vanimal scores high, as it can swallow a huge amount of stuff.  It’s rated at 201 cubic feet inside, but subtract a bit from that for the cabinetry.  The doors are large and allow easy loading.  I tow a small open trailer somewhat regularly, and it’s a great combination for moving kids to and from colleges, apartments, picking up oversized furniture or hauling mulch.  There are cabinets galore, enough so we can travel for ten days and carry everything we need stored neatly away.

Five adults, one dog and lots of luggage headed up to Crested Butte

I added a removable rear facing jump seat from a Vanagon Multivan model, which gives full size comfort and makes a nice conversation pit for passengers.  The Vanimal can transport five full size people and all the luggage that they can use – perfect for family trips with adult kids.  When not being used, the seat pops out and is stored in the garage.  I also added a third seatbelt to the rear bench for tight six passenger seating when necessary.

For performance, well, here it’s important to have some perspective.  The Vanimal is a tad bit slower than the Audi 200 20V or 2.7T, but faster than the C-60 dump truck (powered by a 292 six) that I used to drive.   It can keep up with traffic and can cruise at 75 if necessary, but it’s really more comfortable at 50-60 mph on back roads.  Top speed is right about 85, but I wouldn’t want to stay at that speed for long periods.  That’s just not what this tool is designed for, kind of like using your screwdriver as a chisel.  You can do it, but that’s not its purpose and you may not be happy with the result.

In one of those ironies of life, I’ve been stopped just once for speeding in the past 35 years – and, of course, it was in the Vanimal.  My wife and I were headed to camp up in South Dakota, cruising the Nebraska back roads, seeing the sights and listening to tunes.

Suddenly, I see flashing lights in the mirror, look down and realize that I’m doing 68 in a 60 mph zone – oops!  The officer was great and only gave me a warning.  But I still keep that warning ticket in the van as a reminder of what could have been one of life’s ultimate ironies – a speeding ticket in the slowest vehicle that I’ve ever owned.

All normally aspirated vehicles are affected by density altitude, losing about 3% of their power for every 1000 feet of altitude.  I live in the foothills above Denver at 6,500 ft, which means that a standard Vanagon is down from 95 ground pounding horsepower on a good day to about 76 gerbil power at my house.  By the time we get up the 7% grade to Monarch Pass at 11,312 ft, we’re down to 63 asthmatic gerbils and 35 mph.  Slow for sure, but that’s what big windows are for and we just have more time to enjoy the scenery.  And we’re still faster than the tractor-trailer trucks that drive the same route, and they do OK.

I still have the wasserboxer engine, but have added a stainless steel high performance exhaust system, which gives a significant power bump and really broadens the torque curve.  Better matched and higher flowing fuel injectors help, as do larger wheels and tires which change the effective gearing.  Other owners swap out their engines with variations of VW turbo & non-turbo gas and diesels, Subaru four and six cylinders, Ford Zetec, Audi five cylinders and others.

Feel a need for speed?  Porsche took about a dozen Vanagons, tossed in a Carrera engine and other goodies, then used them as support vehicles for their racing teams – good for an actual 132 mph top speed, (but rated for only 116 mph when holding nine people and luggage)!  The biggest weakness for Vanagon performance is the gearbox, as too much torque makes things go boom.  Now, if I could have a six speed transmission plus a granny gear, well, now you’re talking!  In the meantime, a short shift kit helps tighten up the long throw shifter, but even so a Vanagon’s shifter will never be confused for a Miata’s.

Yellowstone National Park – snow, mud, and my new wife Jeanie as an enthusiastic travel partner

Handling is another aspect of performance, and this is an area where Vanagons with their 50/50 weight distribution shine.  There’s a four wheel independent suspension to soak up the bumps, and to that I’ve added larger wheels & tires, Koni shocks and a larger front stabilizer bar to help with mountain roads.  Higher tire pressure helps handling in the mountains, while airing down helps with off road activities.  The Vanimal has a very tight turning radius, with good clearance and short overhangs for good approach angles and maneuverability.

Crested Butte CO – Jeanie is also a pretty decent photographer

Did I mention maneuverability?  One of our favorite areas is the Crested Butte region in Colorado, a gorgeous area of summer wildflowers and mountain biking at 9,500 feet.  On this particular trip we were following a narrow dirt road so we could cross a river and get to some deserted backcountry.  As we got down the road, it became obvious that the river was running far too high to risk crossing.  The river had also flooded the area to turn the van around in, and we certainly weren’t going to back up hill on two miles of narrow road.  What could we do?

This picture shows exactly what backroad maneuverability looks like.  We were able to turn a 15 foot vehicle around on an 12 foot wide road cut into the side of a mountain, my wife graciously playing spotter and screaming when I got too close to the edge for her comfort.  Happily, we lived to tell the tale and motored back up for more adventures.

Speaking of adventures, when was the last time that you checked your spare tire?

Another trip found us exploring a different valley above Crested Butte on a single track trail of rough rock.  We had crossed a river and were part way up the road when a piece of granite punctured the tire’s sidewall.  Crap – no patching that one.

I put on the spare and turned around as exploring without a spare could make for a long walk.  We trundled down the trail so we could again pass through the river to get to our camping spot.  Now the “road” through the river was rocks and boulders, and, apparently, one large hidden hole.  With our luck, we put that newly installed spare tire into that hole and popped the tire seal off rim.  The suddenly flat tire stopped us six feet later, as the rear tire ended up in the hole as well – we were stuck and unable to move.  In the middle of the river.  With no one around.

An hour later we saw a Land Rover Defender coming down from another trail and flagged him down.  He was kind enough to come and check out why we were camping in the middle of the river.  Eventually he towed us out and we were able to air up the tire and make it back home.  Moral of the story?  It’s not enough to have a compressor and tire patch kit.  Checking your tire pressure may be the best insurance you can get!

Camping next to the Frying Pan River

On the economy front, I normally plan for 19-20 mpg, but it can range from 17-22 mpg, which isn’t bad for a 5,000 pound escape vehicle.  The MPG variation is mainly dependent on speed and wind direction, as the Vanagon is about as aerodynamic as a brick.  This kind of economy means that we don’t have to consult with a financial advisor or check oil prices every time we want to take a trip.  We camp either on public lands or state or National Park campgrounds, as private campgrounds with campers stacked on top of each other running their AC just isn’t our style.

On another note about economy, Westfalia’s continue to appreciate, and the Vanimal is worth over three times what I paid for it 16 years ago.  We have no intention of selling it, but whenever that day comes, this appreciation means that we can concentrate on good memories rather looking back on it as a money pit.  Not bad economics for a curbside classic!

Inside, we’ve replaced the refrigerator with an upgraded DC model that has much better temperature control than the standard propane fridge.  We’ve added two additional batteries for our “house” needs, so the starting battery is isolated and never in danger of being run down.  Additional LED lighting illuminates things at night, and the upgraded stereo, speakers, amp and sub-woofer keep us entertained.  We’ve added a three window tent for the top, and an awning on the passenger side to relax in sunny or rainy weather.

Whereas some people complain about having to put things away just to move when you camp, we don’t find it a problem and we’ve had a real life example of some of the benefits as well.  2013 was a bad year for wildfires in Colorado, and Jeanie and I were camping in a remote campground located in a beautiful valley.  As evening fell, a Forest Ranger sped into the campground, warning everyone that a wildfire had started over the hill and everyone was to evacuate NOW!  It literally took us six minutes to decamp and get moving out of there – the first ones out of what would be a long line of campers and residents.

As an additional bonus, when we were far enough away we simply drove up a fire road until we found a flat spot to camp.  Pop the top, put out the chairs, start a fire and we were in home sweet home.  More than once we’ve pulled into a campsite when it’s been actively raining or snowing.  In those cases, we just pop the top, swivel the passenger seat, and we’re good for the evening.

Feeling musically inclined?  Like all great automobiles, the Vanagon has its own soundtrack.  But fair warning, this one is definitely catchy but NSFW (Not Safe For Work).

OK, so maybe it’s not as popular as Mustang Sally or Little GTO, but it does express a certain aspect of the Vanagon vibe…

Although critics spin tales about a Vanagon’s expense and “legendary” unreliability, the truth is, these are all 30+ years old and require maintenance.  In addition to the normal care, you need to regularly change the fuel lines, coolant, transmission oil, power steering and brake fluid.  The Vanagon was designed during the early age of electronics, and maintenance of multiple electrical grounds can prevent mysterious gremlins that could leave one stranded on the side of the road.

There’s nothing surprising about this for a vehicle this age, but most people aren’t used to owning 33 year old vehicles.  Reasonably maintained, Westfalias aren’t that different than other 33 year old vehicles.  But try telling that to your best friend’s cousin’s ex-babysitter’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle.

VW’s Teutonic Wunderkind Engineers also had a particularly perverse sense of humor in some areas.  As a 33 year old vehicle, rubber hoses tend to deteriorate, so being proactive is the way to go.  Want to replace your cooling hoses?  Bring your checkbook and limber up those wrists because those oh so funny engineers put 19 cooling hoses on this thing.  And no, that’s not hyperbole – 19 blessed hoses with 38 opportunities er, connections, to leak.

They had even more fun with the fuel system, as it takes 22 feet of fuel line – literally –  to replace everything.  But that’s not just one line, oh no, you get to cut that into multiple pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, replacing some pieces as small as four inches long.  Add in another seven feet or so for the fuel tank vent system, and you’re in for a whole weekend of fun!

Fortunately, not my van

All these lines make it easy to just avoid the job, which threatens to turn your beautiful camper into a barbecue that sleeps four.  It’s just one of those things that you’ve got to do before it gets too late, kind of like overdue dental work.  The longer you wait, the worse it is.

In addition to keeping our fuel lines fresh, I’ve installed a Blazecut automatic fire suppression system above the engine – just in case.  With the engine behind you, by the time that you’re aware of a fire it’s probably too late.

Don’t like to think about turning a wrench on your portable home?  Grab that $130,000 of loose change you have sitting around and buy a new Mercedes Sprinter conversion.  Of course, you still have compromises on where you can go and you do get the added benefit of paying for service at Mercedes Benz dealers, but at least you don’t have to do any wrenching.

Another option is to follow the footsteps of our Brother Paul, buy a Promaster and roll your own on outfitting for a camper.  But then you’re back to wrenching, so pay your money and choose your option.

The Bentley Official Factory Repair Manual is considered one of the holy books around here, and, remembering my lesson with the Datsun Roadster, I tend to refer to it prior to any major repairs.

No Curbside Classic is perfect of course, and the Westfalia’s compact size precludes a bath or shower – which means choosing the right traveling companion is particularly important.

One of the things that I appreciate about the Vanimal is how it elicits a smile wherever we go.  It isn’t unusual for people to pull out their phone and take a picture.  Sometimes they nudge their partner, point their finger – and they smile.  Encountering other Vanagon owners on the road means that you’re bound to get a Peace sign or a wave – it’s just that kind of community.

We all make choices in the vehicles that we drive, each for our own reasons.  Frankly, if I had to choose between driving a jacked up bro’ dozer with an aggressive grill, ready to consume small cars and terrified children, or driving a vehicle that causes people to smile, then I’ll pick the latter every time.  The world already has enough pain and seriousness in it, and smiles can sometimes be the thing that helps people get through their day.  I’m not out to prove anything to anyone by the vehicle that I drive, and I’m good with that.  For this and all the other reasons, the Vanimal has earned a place in my personal Top 5 as well as a place in my garage, and won’t be going away anytime soon.

This isn’t the end of our COAL series though, so come back next week and discover the adventures of another vehicle that shared six years of garage space with the mighty Vanimal…