Curbside Classic: 1990 VW LT 4×4 Westfalia Camper – The Vanagon Syncro’s Gnarly Globe-Trotting Big Brother


(first posted 6/20/2012. Since I’m out working on my van, this one comes to mind)    The VW Vanagon, especially the Syncro AWD version, represents an ideal that no other vehicle can quite match: the maximum amount of utility, interior living space and vagabonding capability in the smallest practical package, a vehicle that can be driven to the store as well as a remote hidden lake. Its multi-functionality might well be compared to a Swiss Army knife; no wonder it has such a cult following. But for some jobs, something a bit bigger and gnarlier is called for: a Leatherman, for instance. Or even a machete. And here’s the automotive equivalent: the VW LT 4×4. Everything to make the world a smaller place, all wrapped up in one tidy box.

Finding this globe-trotter sitting here in Eugene is anything but likely, but then I’ve given up being surprised. The LT was never imported, and this one ended up here when a genuine German globe-trotter decided to sell it in the US before heading back home. How do I know? A VW LT google search led me to this posting, where there is a reference to it being offered for sale at in March of 2011. The asking price was $38k. Well, looks like someone bit, and an Oregonian at that. It’s a small world after all. Here it is in its country of origin before it set sail for the New World.

Lest you think that the LT is some sort of Vanagon/Transporter on steroids, it’s not. The LT was VW’s first serious truck, designed in the early seventies when they realized that the classic VW rear-engine format was not going to scale up. The LT has a conventional front engine and rear wheel drive (heresy!); the only VW to ever have that configuration, except perhaps the current Amarok pickup. It first arrived in 1975, and was built until 1996, with some upgrades and refreshes along that long way.

The second generation LT was a joint venture with Mercedes, and the two shared development of what was sold as the Sprinter by Mercedes (and Dodge/Freightliner in the US). But the VW version was built in its own factories, and had its own engines, along with a 2.8 L diesel by Brazilian MWM.

The current version is called the Crafter, and is essentially a badge-engineered current-generation Sprinter, built by Mercedes. Apparently, VW’s LT hasn’t been all that successful in recent years. Butt-ugly.

The LT first arrived with short (2500 mm), and long (2950 mm, as in our featured van) wheelbase versions. Later, an even longer 3650 mm wheelbase was added. Its configuration is the classic forward control van, with the engine between the front seats. But it had a very capable independent front suspension, and developed a rep for being a better handling and riding van than average. This is not a German Dodge A1oo.

Given that VW wasn’t exactly in the business of building rwd-compatible engines, it had to get creative. The original gas engine was the 2.0 L four that originated in the Audi 100, as also used in the Porsche 924, and which eventually was sold off to AMC, where it ended its days in Gremlins and such. Yes, it is a small world indeed.

Lacking a diesel engine back then, VW purchased Perkins units, a rough number indeed. But by 1979, VW had created a six cylinder version of its new EA-827 based diesel, an engine that also found its way under the hood of the Volvo 240 (I won’t repeat that mesmerizing Disneyland line again). Early versions of the 2.4 six diesel made 75 hp, but it evolved along with the rest of the VW/Audi diesel line, first getting a turbo (90/102 hp), and eventually direct injection (TDI). A gas version of the 2.4 six replaced the 2.0 after it was sold to AMC. You didn’t know VW made inline sixes?

Needless to say, the LT came in wide variety of body styles and variations, from passenger vans, motor home chassis, and trucks of all sorts. The numbering system of the LT designates its maximum vehicle weight, which ranges from the 2.8 ton LT 28 (6100 lbs) to the 5.6 ton LT 56 (12,320 lbs). All the LTs from the 35 up have a leaf-sprung beam front axle.

 But the most interesting version is of course the 4×4. This is not a Steyr-Puch conversion, but VW’s own development. It has a central transfer case, and solid axles front and rear. The 4×4 was available only in LT 40 and LT 45 versions. Our featured van is an LT 40 (8800 lbs max vehicle weight). This orange one is an early version, as evidenced by the round headlights.

The reduction gearing and locking differentials results in a climbing ability of 45 degrees. Serious stuff indeed. Just the ticket to make molehills out of mountains.

Love those wheels, axles and tires. Made in Germany (and Korea). It’s a….

From their website, it appears that the former owners were planning a trip through both North and South America, but called it quits on the southern portion after venturing as far as south as Honduras, and ended the trip in Arizona after an extensive tour of North America. That’s where the van was put up for sale. Maybe globe-trotting wasn’t quite their thing after all.

Westfalia made various versions of the LT, with their usual Swiss-Army Leatherman efficiency and fold-out-ability of beds and other accoutrements. This one has a rear galley and bathroom.

The main seating area obviously folds down for the primary bed. There’s quite likely another one that folds out in the tall roof too.

In that Teutonic fashion, there’s a place for everything, unlike the much more cramped Vanagon.

Here one has the world at one’s fingertips. Can I see myself here? I’m purposely spending all my energy on the LT’s dry facts and history, because if I were to let my emotions flow, it might get embarrassing. Let’s just say this solves all the problems I have ever considered in combining all the desired features into one reasonable-sized package. And a bathroom for Stephanie as well. The ultimate Niedermeyer-mobile? Maybe, although its off-road capabilities are probably beyond my actual needs, and that probably doesn’t help the ride. Still…

It didn’t help that I heard today about a former acquaintance who retired, sold everything, and hit the road in a VW bus. And is very happy indeed. Maybe this is his?


CC: VW Vanagon (T3) Syncro – So Misunderstood