Curbside Classic: 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia – Slow, Expensive, And Loved The World Over

The VW Vanagon was one of the last vestiges of the old VW, the VW that emerged from the ashes of World War II and, against all odds, became a going concern. Starting with the 1974 VW Golf/Rabbit, the new VW started to take over, with a water-cooled front-mounted engine and front wheel drive. The Vanagon, introduced for the 1980 model year, was the last new rear-engined VW design, if not the last one in production. VW vans sold well in the 1950s through the 1970s, but how could such a weird van last into the 1990s in the US with competition like the Chrysler minivans? Two things kept it going: strong European sales, and plain old stubbornness.

The Vanagon, like most rear-engined VWs, was one polarizing vehicle. You loved it or hated it. VW didn’t care to play it safe with a conventional design. Well, it was a conventional design for VW, but compared to the competition, it was anything but! Volkswagen vans owned the market in the 1950s and 1960s, (some years were won by default, as there was no real competition for a while, at least in the States) as conventional vans were either bigger, thirstier, or less passenger friendly. Starting in the early 1960s, small vans like the Dodge A100, Ford Econoline and Corvair Greenbrier attempted to cash in on the VW’s trim packaging, but by 1970 all those vans were either gone or due to be replaced with upsized versions.

The second generation “bay window” VW Bus had been around since 1968, and while 1978 US sales of 23,322 was not too bad for a ten year old design, 1979 sales tanked, to the tune of 15,990. Sales in other countries were still good, but it was time for a new model. VW was not about to rest on their laurels. They wanted their vans to remain competitive, which meant not falling behind in features or styling. Thus, the Vanagon came on the scene in 1980, as it was called in the US market (it was still called Transporter in Europe).

The 1980 Vanagon was an all new design, save powerplants. When compared to the outgoing 1979 model, the wheelbase was increased a bit (to 96.8″) and width was up by three inches. The fuel tank was newly relocated to beneath the front seats, and underneath, the tried and true torsion bar suspension was no longer on board. Vanagons now used unequal-length A-arms, coil springs and tube shocks up front, while the rear used a semi-trailing arm design, again with coil springs and tube shocks.

Early versions of the Vanagon were true to their roots, featuring air cooled engines, and readily identifiable by the lack of the lower radiator grille. That snappy black plastic upper grille was fake! Oh, the subterfuge. A 2.0 L horizontally opposed (naturally) four cylinder was hiding out back, producing 67 horsepower. A four speed manual was standard, with automatic optional.

As had been the case with the original Type 2 Transporter and Microbus, these things were slow! Slow then, maybe dangerous today, at least on the highway. Zero to sixty was about 21 seconds with the manual transmission. Despite the easygoing pace, all Vanagons had 50/50 weight distribution and were much improved handling-wise. However, the best handling in the world would not get me to pass a car on a two lane in one of these.

While the rest of the world got a wide variety of single and double cab pickups, panel vans and passenger vans, the US received only seven and nine seat passenger vans, a two seater Kombi van, and of course, the flossy Westfalia camper. Vanagons were much more carlike than their immediate predecessor, with standard carpeting and fancier trim. This extra comfort came at a higher price though, at about $9500 in 1980 ($26,000 adjusted).

Volkswagen and Westfalia go way back to the original VW Transporter. Of course, there was a Vanagon version. If anything, these campers were even more luxurious than previous versions. If you had the cash, this was a pretty cool vehicle to take camping (as I’m sure Michael Freeman will agree). You got a refrigerator, countertop stove, electrical connectors on the outside, loads of storage and “upstairs” and “downstairs” sleeping areas. These vans were a marvel of space efficiency. Let those Caravan and Voyager drivers laugh, you weren’t going to see them camping in their van!

Interestingly, Westfalia Vanagons were not called such in literature and advertising, they were simply the Vanagon Camper, though Westfalia (the Winnebago of Germany; i.e., very well known) badging was evident on them.

Those early Vanagons were a little lacking, however. The air cooled engine, being boxed up in the back, was rather prone to overheating, and naturally, the heater was less than impressive. It had been thirty years since American customers had first experienced the “mouse breathing on your foot” efficiency of the Volkswagen heating system. But with air cooling, there’s not much room for improvement, so for 1983, a 1.9 L “Wasserboxer” water cooled four replaced the air cooled engine. An additional grille was added below the fake grille that contained an actual radiator. Naturally, heating was much improved on cold morning drives. Power was also slightly up, to 82 hp. All the improvements were great, but you were still not going to be drag racing one of these things. You could, however, be secure in the knowledge that you could blow the doors off a 1950 VW van.

1986 brought additional changes, the most visible change being a new grille with rectangular headlights. Also new was a 2.1L (2109 cc, 129 cubic inch) Wasserboxer. It produced 95 horsepower at 4800 rpm, and while not a hot rod, was very good for a VW van. Vanagons were even more civilized this year, as power windows, power locks and power heated mirrors were added to the option list.

Perhaps the biggest news was the addition of an all wheel drive model, the Syncro. It was the first AWD passenger van in the US, and was available in both standard Vanagon and Camper models. In normal operation, 95% power went to the rear wheels. When the speed between the front and rear wheels exceeded 6%, power was added to the front wheels as well. Syncros also rode 1.2″ higher than regular Vanagons.

For someone who really wanted to get away from it all, a Syncro Camper may have been just the ticket – assuming you had deep pockets. Rear wheel drive ’86 Vanagons were at approximately the same price level, inflation adjusted, as in 1980 at $13,140, but the Syncro option alone cost $2,175. And if you wanted a Camper Syncro, you were going to need $19,335 – over $40K in 2012 dollars.

For comparison, you could have gotten a new ’86 Plymouth Voyager LE for $10,528 – and that was for the top of the line version. Yes, you’re not going to do any serious camping or go off road in one, but there was an optional second and third row that folded into a bed, you had a little more get up and go power-wise, and you’d blend right into mid-1980s suburbia. It was a safe choice.

I’ll go even further. A 1986 Volvo 740 Turbo wagon was $20,710. Yes, I know that one of those Turbo bricks was a very different vehicle from a Synchro Camper, and $1375 was a lot more money then than it is today. But it does serve as an example of what else you could get for twenty grand in 1986.

By the mid ’80s, Vanagons were having their lunch eaten by the now-ubiquitous Chrysler minivans, not to mention the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari and the Ford Aerostar. Those vans were more modern, less finicky, and you didn’t have to deal with the sometimes less than grand VW dealer experience. As a result, only 12,669 Vanagons sold in ’86, and by 1988 were down to 5,416. Sales stayed in the 5,000 range through the end of production in 1991. You could most likely still get a new Vanagon in 1992 though, as dealers had lots of leftover ’91s.

I found our featured Vanagon Camper in almost the exact same spot as the ’72 MGB GT, while in Clinton for lunch in late April. You just don’t see these much anymore, and this one was in very good shape. It looks to be a late model, as it has the new grille and five spoke alloy wheels. It appeared to be in for service at the import car shop it was parked in front of, as the instrument cluster was partially disassembled. Bad speedometer, maybe?

The Vanagon was replaced by the front engine, front wheel drive Eurovan, which was much more in the mold of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, but did not exactly set the world on fire saleswise, at least in the US. The Vanagon did live on in South Africa, however, all the way to 2002. These were neat, quirky vans, but as VW and other European makes found out, sometimes quirky is an acquired taste.