Very comfortable, steady on its feet, economical, and reliable... also rather gutsy
Not too many issues with this van. A few major things that were already there when I got it, and a few minor problems, which don't worry me.
I bought the vehicle in the knowledge that it suffered zero compression in no. 3 cylinder, denoting either a burnt valve or cracked head, the latter of which turned out to be the case, evidently caused by overheating of the cylinder due to a buildup of grime in the cooling fins. At this time, it was found that the exhaust valve had also warped. This was rectified by purchasing a good condition second hand head from a friend for $60 with new gaskets and two new bonded rubber engine mounts (these were found to be broken also).
Also, I found the gearbox oil seal to be worn out, allowing oil into the bell housing, so this was also replaced, costing $15.
Now the small issues...
The brake lights only function when the pedal is put hard to the floor.
The windscreen washer bottle will not maintain air pressure.
The air horn is less than satisfactory.
The fuel pump leaks slightly, evidently from the gasket.
The right-hand carby seems to weep a minute amount of fuel from around the seal between the body and the inlet manifold.
The engine leaks some oil from a poorly-sealed pushrod tube under cylinder no.3.
The heaters do not function correctly... one ceases to function at all and one only opens part-way.
I bought "Buttercup", my 1976 VW Kombi Trakkavan camper last year for AU$2000 from a recently retired VW mechanic, in the knowledge that it required engine work. Since then it has had the necessary partial engine rebuild to correct a cracked head, and is running like a Swiss watch... and it actually still ran reasonably well, even with no compression in one cylinder.
I have adored Kombi's since I was old enough to know what they were, and after my friend bought Lucy, a poor, but nonetheless lovable example of a Swagman camper last year in our final year of high school (to replace the Mitsubishi Express van that he all but destroyed engine-wise), I decided to put my mind towards getting one myself.
It was at this stage that I put my beloved, but sadly neglected (not by me, but my uncle, the previous owner, who used it as a farm bush-basher) Mini Moke project up for sale and started looking at my prospects Kombi-wise... A few came and went on eBay, whilst I waited patiently for a buyer, with various tyre-kickers also coming and going. A glimmer of hope came when a guy from a local pub offered to swap a Kombi for my Moke... score!... or not... Upon inspecting the bus... it was neglected as much if not more than my Moke, bogged to the eyeballs, freshly repainted in house paint, tatty interior, and unregistered, as well as having chassis damage underneath. So we went home... and deciding to visit some friends, happened to turn into a street only to find a beautiful shining yellow Kombi camper with a for sale sign parked on the road... "Enquire within, open for negotiation" it said. Well... I leapt out of the car and was on the doorstep in a blink, and was given a detailed rundown by the recently retired VW mechanic who owned her... and after inspecting in detail, I fell in love, and it was agreed that if I could turn out 2 grand, I could drive it away.
Well... anyway, I finally found a buyer for the Moke, so needless to say, after the sale was finalised, a week later I had a nice shiny yellow Kombi in my driveway.
And thus far, after a partial engine rebuild, as mentioned before, it runs like a train.
This van is a March 1976 model, and has a rather rare camper fit out by Trakkavan, a company who started out from humble beginnings in 1973 as a family-run competitor to the Sopru and Swagman companies, designing high quality innovative camping packages to be fitted to Volkswagen's legendary van.
The Trakkavan package is characterised by a 2/3 length fiberglass poptop roof, similar to that of the Sopru, but lower in profile, and hence, at least in my opinion, rather more elegant looking. This roof raises approximately 1.5-2ft above its resting position, allowing an adult to stand comfortably without crouching when it is extended. This poptop's canvas surround has zip-down flaps backed by flyscreens, which allow for improved ventilation. There is also a secondary hatch in the roof of the poptop, which can be raised for ventilation like an emergency exit in the roof of a modern coach. These hatches however are prone to leaking during heavy rain, so my bus has had it sealed closed with fiberglass.
Interior wise, the bus is very well laid out and unbelievably comfortable. It has very good quality marine-ply cupboards along the length of the right hand side, including a small clothing cupboard with a hanging rail at the very rear. There is generous bench space across the top of these cupboards, and a plastic sink unit with a hand operated water pump is placed in the top of it behind the drivers seat, with a rather advanced for its time Electrolux 3-way fridge directly underneath. This fridge can be powered off either propane gas, the car's own 12V electrical system, or the 240V auxiliary power circuit, which is enabled by effectively plugging an extension power lead from a power-socket into the passive male socket in the left rear corner of the van under the gutter. The water supply is stored in a plastic jerry-can like vessel between the fridge and the drivers seat, which is removed for replenishing via a thin cupboard door.
The van's gas plumbing also supplies a stove behind the passengers seat, which can be slid out for cooking and stowed again into the wooden unit, which then becomes further bench space when not in use. Under this stove is... yep... you guessed it... MORE CUPBOARD SPACE!!! In my case... it's filled with spare fuel lines, spark plugs, touch up paint, fuses etc.
The floor is covered with what appears to be vinyl, which appears to be very hard wearing indeed!
The rear seat seats two, and folds out into a bed, which then sleeps two... and I'll add that it is a very comfortable bed indeed, as well as a very comfortable seat. Further berthing is provided by a set of "bed-boards", a series of connected ply boards, covered in a material matching the bus's factory roof lining, which fold out into a bed for two in the roof when the poptop is raised, with two mattresses that go on top. These evidently were very adequate when first conceived, however at least now, the ones provided in my bus appear rather flimsy, so it is doubtful whether I would risk sleeping on them now, 30 years after they were made. I just don't think the timber is really able to support an adult anymore.
Up front, everything is just as cushy... the factory high-back seats are the most comfortable I've experienced in any car so far, particularly with good sheepskin covers (the low-back seats on pre-1975 model buses however are really quite terrible). The cabin is rather spartan compared to most vehicles, with two heater control levers and a vent lever in the dash beside the instrument cluster, an indicator/high beam stalk on the left, a simple wiper stalk on the right, a headlight and fan knob side by side to the right of the steering column below the instrument cluster, and a hazard light knob to the left of the column... and that's about all. Although it seems primitive, it is very effective and well laid-out.
The instrument cluster itself is even relatively simple... a kph speedo in the center, various easy to comprehend warning lights and a fuel gauge in a round cavity to the left, and a metal blanking plate to the right where an optional clock or radio speaker was sometimes installed from the factory on demand. One feature that I would perhaps complain about is the lack of an adequate oil pressure gauge as standard, and possibly the lack of a tachometer. The cluster does have an oil-pressure warning light, but in most cases if the pressure is low enough to ignite this light, then chances are the engine is already sustaining damage. I have rectified my own lack of a tachometer by installing a third party unit on top of the steering column, which works well enough for my purposes.
One other interior complaint I have is that the original radio only had a speaker in the instrument cluster. Needless to say, one speaker is just appalling, therefore one usually must cut into the door cards or the front dress-panel in the footwell... in many cases somebody has already done this... but in my case... it hadn't been done. I decided to get around it by placing two 100W Technics home stereo speaker boxes face-up in the footwell... and believe me... it actually sounds better than most specialised car setups. Many Kombi's didn't actually come with a radio for whatever reason... and some are still devoid of one. Ones that did come with one were usually fitted with a Blaupunkt unit if they were built in Europe or the US. Australian buses had all manner of third party radios installed... mine originally being a very good Concorde unit. Good as these units are however, they generally have a faulty tape player mechanism by now, so if you like to listen to anything other than the radio, be prepared to put in a new unit.
Now for the actual driving experience... VW summed it up in one word... "FAHRVERGNUGEN"... "Driving pleasure" in English... and they are pretty damn close to the mark.
The driving position itself looks rather unnatural, more like that of a bus or truck... rather uncomfortable one would think. However surprisingly, any Kombi driver will tell you such is not the case... in my opinion, it is easily the most comfortable car I've driven so far. The almost horizontal steering wheel actually seems to make driving less tiring, as it allows one to simply rest your arms upon the wheel and then only make small corrections as necessary, and the size of the wheel allows for good leverage and ease of steering.
The floor mounted shifter is usually slanted towards the driver, meaning one only has to lean forward ever so slightly to operate it. The shifting action itself on a well-maintained bus is quite smooth and easy, however it takes some getting used to. Due to the long linkage train to the actual gearbox, which is mounted at the rear, and the rather long stick itself, there is a fair bit of play, so the shifting action is nowhere near as positive as some other vehicles... so to an inexperienced Kombi-driver, finding the gears at first can be a bit tricky... but it comes quickly with little practice. The bus uses basically a standard H-gate with a twist... to select reverse, the stick is presses down into the floor, then left and backwards. A general rule of thumb is ignore the sticker on the ashtray... as to the uneducated, it can easily be interpreted to mean that reverse is in the normal second position, and that you shift to second diagonally to the right etc... such is not the case, but a lot of people end up wondering why they still go forwards in reverse at first until they twig... so forewarned is forearmed. And don't worry, I thought the same myself! LOL.
Being a relatively sloppy affair, and a slow gearbox, it is a good idea to think a fair way ahead, and shifting a little early when coming to a stop or a corner is a good idea.
Another interesting feature of the Kombi is that all the pedals push down into the floor... Again, this takes some practice to operate smoothly, but you'll grow to love it. the throttle response is crisp, but does not seem oversensitive like some vehicles such as the early Mini's. The clutch action is somewhat stiff compared to a number of other cars, but not enough to be taxing.
The brakes on the Kombi comprise disc brakes in front and drums at the rear. These pull the car up quite adequately, but like the gears, require forethought... begin braking a fair distance before you need to stop and apply the brakes slowly... as they need time to stop you. If you wait till the last minute, you will probably overshoot or lock the wheels. Most of the braking effect is at the end of the pedal's travel.
With respect to handling... the Kombi is marvelous. In tight spaces, it can be a little frightening and difficult to manoeuvre, as the van is rather bulky and lacks any power-assisted steering. It helps to have strong arms if you are turning the wheel at a standstill.. better still though is to let the bus creep backwards or forwards slowly whilst turning the wheel if you have the space to do so safely. This makes it far easier to steer, and causes less wear and tear on the steering gear... and this applies to other cars too. If you drive a camper van, it can be difficult to park, as curtains, jalousie windows, the clothes cupboard, etc. create some rather large blind spots. It's a good idea to perhaps invest in a widened rear view mirror, which clips over the existing unit. Given the negatives however, one thing that can be said to the Kombis credit is that it can turn on a 5c piece.
Handling on the road more than makes up for its shortcomings in tight spaces. The steering is firm and responsive, but not touchy or nervous, and the car will almost drive itself (but that isn't legal, so don't get any ideas :P). The totally unpowered steering means that there is plenty of feel to the steering of the car also. One interesting point to note is that due to the nature of the steering gear, free-play at the steering wheel becomes apparent at near full lock... this is normal. Freeplay with the wheels centered indicates a worn worn steering box, which will require replacement, as if left unchecked, it can cause damage to other components in the front suspension and steering assemblies.
Body roll is surprisingly very minimal, and the Kombi feels very steady on its feet in most conditions, with the rear mounted engine and rear wheel drive providing excellent road holding and traction. However it is advised that when cornering in any rear-engine vehicle such as the VW, the driver should avoid any sudden increase in torque at the wheels, such as that associated with downshifting at high revs, otherwise they can come "unstuck", losing all traction ad causing the rear of the vehicle to swing out violently due to the concentration of weight in the rear.
And on the subject of torque, what review is complete without the take on performance?
The 2L twin-carburetted engine in this Kombi provides an amazing amount of torque for such a small-low revving engine, particularly at the low end. This van will climb almost any hill in 3rd gear and still be accelerating ever so slowly. It can even tackle some rather steep hills in 4th gear given enough momentum... whereas I've see 4WD's struggle in 4th. This awesome low-end means that it accelerates very well... however I am inclined to complain about the rather short first gear ratio. Acceleration is very snappy, however one is lucky to reach 20kph in 1st gear... one has to shift up within about a second or the engine screams its little head off. This seems like not a great problem... however when pulling out across a highway, it is very hairy. One either has to shift halfway thru turning into the lane, or let the motor scream. In any case, it's rather unpleasant. However, once past the wretched 1st gear, they perform very nicely.
The top speed of a new Kombi from the factory was stated by Volkswagen as being 128kph... I have never attempted to push that kind of speed in my bus, but on its original engine, it cruises very nicely on 90kph, with very good fuel economy. It is capable of 100kph pretty easily also, however for that extra 10k's per hour, fuel economy noticeably suffers. The bus can pull 110kph with a little effort, but I would not recommend running the engine that hard for any prolonged period of time. Handling also begins to suffer above 100k's, and the Kombi will chew through a disgusting amount of fuel.
On a note about overworking the engine, VW states that optimum power output is provided at 4200 RPM on a new Kombi motor... Myself and a lot of others would not recommend exceeding 4000 RPM on an old motor. It may just be capable of it, but it is not achieving anything useful and is not doing the engine any favours... so it's a good idea to shift around 3800 RPM... cos there really is no need too go higher anyway.
Maintenance wise... they are a very reliable car, however they are higher maintenance in some areas than other cars. They will run neglected and abused for quite a while, being the tough engine they are, but to keep your engine running WELL, and for a long time without a rebuild, they require frequent oil changes, regular valve check and adjustment (once a month is good), and a regular tune-up every six months is good. The engine bay needs to be kept clean to prolong engine life, as being air cooled, crud will reduce cooling efficiency and lead to premature failures, usually of difficult parts such as valves or heads. If a thermostat is fitted (you really should have one, but I don't), it has to be kept correctly adjusted or overheating could result.
Check oil level at least weekly, as some VW's can leak a fair bit of it onto your driveway. Make sure all engine tinware (the black sheet metal) and the foam engine bay seal are in place and that the seal is in good repair. If any piece of the same is missing or the seal is damaged and doesn't seal well, it will dramatically hamper cooling.
One unfortunate fact of Kombi life is, many problems, particularly relating to the top-end, require the engine to be removed from the vehicle. It is cheapest to do it yourself if you are willing to properly educate yourself first, however for convenience, you may just like to get a VW specialist to fix the issue. Engine removal and installation is usually done with a couple of trolly jacks... I got the engine roughly into position however using a 40 year old Fiat tractor with a slashing deck, before doing the delicate manoeuvring with the jack. In short... do it whichever way suits you best; if it works and you don't break anything, it's the right way.
One final point to make, check fuel plumbing carefully at least once every week and replace all fuel lines annually with VW spec high quality cotton braided fuel hose... not the cheap nasty stuff that happens to fit anyway. It may be a bit more expensive to use good fuel hose, but it's more expensive still to replace a bus that has burnt up from a split fuel line. When checking fuel lines, ensure that they are soft and free of any cracks, splits or bulges. Make sure also that every fuel hose is clamped at either end using decent screw-type hose-clamps, and it is also a good idea to firmly wind wire around the clamp, hose and then around the fuel pump or carby body, depending upon which fuel line it is, as the actually fitting can sometimes fall out of the carby or pump with age. Wiring reduces strain on it and keeps it in place if it does stray from its moorings. Never put a fuel filter after the fuel pump either... always ensure any fuel filter is placed in the hose between the tank and pump.
Follow these precautions and your Kombi should never burn up... but just in case... always, ALWAYS CARRY A FIRE EXTINGUISHER!!!
OK... with all that needs to be said having been said, if you decide to buy a Kombi any time... enjoy!
They are a bit of a learning curve.. but well worth it. Happy Kombi-ing!
Oh, and if you pass another Kombi, don't forget to wave... it's considered very bad manners among Kombi drivers not to wave to fellow Kombi drivers on the road... :D.
PS. You can find me on the Aussieveedubbers and Volkswagens Downunder forums if anybody would like to get in contact with me at any stage.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 18th May, 2006