Since we bought our van, I've been spending quite a bit of my free time either reading documentation about it and restoring (when not "going camping"). I've shared our adventures, breakdowns, wood splinters and oil stains with friends and family. Up to the point that now and then people reach out to me and ask "I'm considering buying a VW Camper van? You seem to be an expert, do you have any advice?".
Upfront, I have no pretention to claim myself and expert about these ladies (for some reason, these vans are usually given poetic feminine names). I've entered this world about 3 years ago and loved the vehicle as much as the community. I feel I was able to avoid the biggest mistakes but it's been more luck than science so here's my experience. For the record, we own a 1989 Syncro AdventureWagen (in other words a hightop Vanagon) so you'll be able to spot the obvious bias.
What Model? What year?
VW Campervans come in 3 main lines: the Buses (1968-1979), the Vanagons (1980-1991) and the Eurovans (1993-2003). If you plan to go camping I recommend against the Buses. They definitely look the coolest but they are not fantastic on the highway when it comes to drive more than a few hundred miles. Vanagons still have some of the cool factor (admittedly, they're a bit of an acquired taste) but are actually capable of long hauls. When it comes to the year, the 1986-1991 are the best choice (diesels and air-cooled have the reputation of being quite unreliable). Finally Eurovans… Objectively they are superior to the Vanagons in every aspect. BUT they are "modern" vehicles with an A/C that works, a front engine, power everything etc… So they lost some of that original spirit.
Syncro or not Syncro?
One of the awesome "options" of the Vanagons is the "Syncro", i.e. 4WD. Possibly the only feature better on Vanagons than Eurovans is their ground clearance so you can actually take them off road. They are very capable vehicles when it comes to leave the asphalt behind BUT that option comes with a (hefty) price. I saw very few Syncros advertised for less than $20K. If you add the camper package, prices can become very high (not uncommon to see $50K for a fully restored Westy Syncro). Add on top that these ladies are divas when it comes to maintenance. So if you're on a budget and just want to enjoy the campgrounds, stay with the 2WD. Now if you are looking for an exclusive ride (word on the street is that less than 5000 syncros were imported to the US, of which only a fraction are campers) that will probably beat your saving account in terms of interest rate, start looking around and be patient for the right opportunity!
Westfalia or AdventureWagen?
There is ample documentation on the internet about Vanagons but the AdventureWagen is even a rarer specie than syncros. Yet for some reason they are cheaper than Westfalias while being better equipped. The upside of the Westies is the community support (on the AW there's a good yahoo group but that's pretty much it if you need help). Admittedly the "pop-top" feature is the "signature" of the van which makes them hold their value. On the other hand, the hard-top comes with 2 advantages: it's makes the camping possible any time of the year and if you're into "stealth overnight", the pop top screams "I'm sleeping here" which may trigger a neighborhood watch call. Finally, when it comes to the interior, Westies have that "RV" style whereas AW have and all wood interior which gives them an old yacht style.
What to upgrade?
The options to spend money on your Vanagon are endless. It's a matter of personal taste as everything is not useful but there are a few things that you should definitely plan for budget wise.
- The engine: let's be clear, Vanagons are way underpowered for a 2 ton vehicle. Climbing up a hill on a highway can end up strolling at 30 mph. Also, if your plan to buy a van that has 200K miles on it and the original waterboxer, chances are that you will need to get a new engine pretty soon (there's a long list of things that can break, our head gasket blew on a road trip). We choose the Subaru 2.1 liter engine as it's the only Subaru that's legal in California. There are as many opinions on what conversion as there are owners and they all have their pro and cons. Do your homework, talk to mechanics, choose a good shop and it'll be the best investment you'll ever make.
- The tires: Originally, the vanagon rides on 14" wheels. We upgraded to the 16" BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO02 and it makes a great deal of difference when it comes to driveability on and off road (not to mention the looks). Once you upgrade, you will have the question of the spare tire location (usually on the back) which requires a bumper upgrade. We recycled our original spare-tire carrier to a BBQ carrier, will do a specific post on that :)
- Headlights: Seriously, driving at night with the original "lamps" is anywhere between challenging to plain dangerous. There's a $100 kit to upgrade the bulbs (with a relay) or you can go for the "South African Grill" option.
We did many other upgrades on ours, mostly on the interior. I will share the journal of the restoration when I have time during our trip.
The community of Vanagons owners is helpful and dynamic and it's hard to put a price on that. We bump to each other all the time and so far I've met only awesome people. Do your homework, read articles, post questions talk to owners… and I hope the bug will bite you. Now putting that amount of money in a 30 yr. old van is not for everybody and that's fine: the road is an expression for diversity also.