As a former Volkswagen owner and fan of the iconic VW campers, I was surprised to learn that December 31, 2013 marked the last day the Kombi would be manufactured. I had no idea they were still making them in Brazil.
Known by many different names (Kombi, Transporter, Bus, Microbus, Minibus, Type II — depending on the country) the VW Bus (U.S. name) is a cultural icon. Perhaps you had one or lusted for one back in your youth. I did.
Here’s a dirty little secret you might not expect from a Volkswagen aficionado: They kinda sucked. VW Buses were — like so many things in life — better in theory than in practice.
It begins with romance
My first introduction to the Volkswagen Bus was by a good friend of mine, who was (and is) very outdoorsy, independent, smart, mechanically inclined and loves a good challenge. He’s a DIYer and a frequent hirer of German automobile mechanics. In other words, Pete was ideally suited for Volkswagen Bus ownership.
Pete introduced us to the wonders of the Volkswagen Westfalia Bus during our college years. At first sight, they are promising machines — with a long list of imperfections. Their best selling point, initially, is their great versatility: affordable, economical, camping-ready (two beds, sink, fridge, stove, cabinets). They are an instant campground anywhere you travel on the highway. Put on the brakes, pop up the top and you’re camping. The VW Westfalia Bus is an invitation for fun and adventure.
They can also be charitably described as unreliable as hell. If Pete was going somewhere, we would ask, “Is he taking the Bus?” If the answer was “yes,” odds were usually about 50/50 that he would actually make it there and back, if it required anything beyond a short commute distance. Arrangements to assist with ferrying him and his skis or mountain bikes, and/or getting him to or from a tow truck, were the norm.
A common aspect of Bus owners is that they always own other vehicles. This should be a telling sign. Unreliability is a major factor, of course. The other major factor for VW Bus owners is that they are not fun to drive. They’re sloooooow — way underpowered. They’re noisy — squeaky, rattly, filled with engine noise and road noise. They are basically an oversized VW Bug, in terms of driving experience. Both are cute as hell. Both suck to drive.
Later model VW Buses didn’t improve much. The VW Bus design remained pretty standard, with a few mechanical tweaks here and there over the years. The next generation of VW campers, the Type III or the Vanagon, were a significant step up in automotive technology. They were the same thing, essentially, just newer and boxier. And they still sucked.
Welcome to VW hell
I bought a used Vanagon (the only kind). I finally acquired a brown 1984 Westfalia pop-top Vanagon (kind of a bucket list item) about 13 years ago. I loved it. I’m not sure it loved me back. On the first camping trip I took with it, the alternator failed. It was the first of many return trips by tow truck we experienced together.
All of the outdoorsy opportunities suggested by a VW Bus are similarly suggested by a Vanagon, with many of the same features, but (theoretically, at least) with improved technology: bigger engine, improved suspension, better transmissions, interior trim options and a few other goodies.
If you’re going to dive into the Vanagon waters later in the game (like I did) the great appeal of the Vanagon, apart from its simple, outdoorsy proclivities, is that they are essentially a blank slate. Vanagons owners view their vans as pieces of clay on wheels to mold into new creations. You can re-make them into anything. This is the secret to their enduring popularity.
For the Vanagoners out there, Vanagons are ripe for re-making the vehicle into anything you want — from shy and modest to monster truck-worthy 4WD beasts. Even though they are mechanically superior to Buses, the engines (initially a 1.6 liter air-cooled; later a 1.9 liter water-cooled and a 2.1 liter water-cooled) were woefully underpowered. I would still like to know why zee Germans made such a sucky engine for their next-generation vans. Most Vanagon owners of any length of time are confronted with the crisis of having to rebuild or replace their engines. Add me to that sorry list.
My other Vanagon, a modified 1987 GL Wagon with automatic transmission, was my commuter vehicle for a number of years. A second Vanagon, you say? Uh, yeah. I’m not known for my brains and apparently, I’m allergic to my own money. Mechanics love me. When we finally bid it adieu last year, it had blown up its fourth engine. But as dumb as that sounds, that’s the pull of the cult of Vanagon. If you own one, you keep wanting to believe in it. Don’t ask me why. They don’t even get that good of gas mileage. And yes, there is a Vanagon wave between Vanagon drivers as they pass by each other on the road. Seriously.
Fortunately for me, with some counseling, I made the smart choice when I had to decide what to do with my Westfalia’s blown engine. I invested in a Subaru engine conversion. This is a pretty common upgrade many Vanagon owners make. As it turns out, the flat-4 motors of 1980s and 1990s-era Subaru Legacy cars fit nicely in the hole that used to be your Vanagon engine.
If you’re scoring at home, that means the Japanese out-engineered the Germans on this important mechanical front. There are kits you can buy that make the engine swap fairly simple (I’m told — I’m not a mechanic, so it’s way over my head) to put the cheaper and superior Subaru motor in your Vanagon. Even bigger and more recent Subaru motors can fit into your Vanagon, too.
It’s worth it, although it is really expensive. You have to really love your Vanagon to invest in a new motor set up. The payoff is improved power and reliability. After years of dealing with these scenarios:
- I’m stuck on the side of the road; call a tow truck and cancel my plans.
- Look to the left; look to the right, if there is a car anywhere on the horizon, do not pull out into traffic.
Many Vanagon owners take the Subaru conversion plunge and bind themselves to their Vanagons for untold additional years. The expensive part is the conversion. Once you’ve done that, you can cheaply swap in a new Subaru motor if the old one fails. Because yeah, that happens too.
Come sail away
Vanagons and Buses are essentially, big boxes on wheels that can carry a lot of stuff and people. They’re vans, in other words. Driving one is also sometimes akin to driving a great big sailboard on a highway. I was once surprise-pummeled by a side wind on a road trip to Moab that suddenly pushed me one whole lane over to the left. That was about 150 feet after I had just putt-puttted by an oncoming semi in that same lane. That makes you think a little bit about life, van ownership and why the hell there is no nose or engine on the front of this infernal vehicle that could protect me a smidge in the event of a head-on collision with a normal-sized vehicle.
So you do tend to get a little philosophical, thoughtful and skittish when you drive a Vanagon or Bus out in the world.
Another downside is that they’re old. There are none that are not old. (The last model year for the Vanagon in the U.S. was 1991.) To make them reliable for your much-needed camping road trip, you need to modernize. The good news / bad news is that you can upgrade Vanagons and Buses with all kinds of aftermarket goodies and clever mechanical upgrades. It’ll cost ya. And every VW van/bus is probably about to fail in some major capacity: cooling system, transmission, powertrain, suspension, electrical, steering — it’s coming. When you need it most.
That’s driving a Vanagon. It’s true, I never owned a Bus, but I considered getting one (don’t ask me why.) I drove my Vanaru/Subagon (clever, right?) to test out a VW Bus one time. I drove the mechanical relic around and quickly came to the conclusion that my Vanagon was, in fact, a Cadillac by comparison.
Let me tell you — my Vanagon was not a Cadillac.
I ended up getting rid of my beloved Westfalia Vanagon a few years ago because I needed more. Pete got rid of his last Vanagon — a monster Westfalia Syncro with more upgrades than can be counted — around the same time. I began to lust after such posh amenities as automatic transmission, air conditioning, electric windows, all-wheel drive, cruise control, functioning windshield fluid sprayers, ABS, smooth riding, quiet riding, comfortable seats, headlights that actually light the road and more. I got old, in other words. I sold it — wistfully, with regrets — and acquired a modern vehicle with all those doohickeys.
So now we’re totally out of the VW van business. We have better vehicles. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss it. I know I do. I see one on the road and crane my neck to get a better view. Then I remember, I’m not one of you anymore.
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Julian Rogers is a writer, editor, community manager and marketing communications consultant for high-achieving businesses — from solo entrepreneurs to large private companies. As principal of Juju Eye Communications, his focus is on your results. Find out what he’s thinking about on his blog: mrturophile.com, or connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
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