I bought my 84 Westy Camper in Nov 05. I blew the water boxer almost immediately. I just had it replaced with a TIICO 135 hp engine from South Africa (think Jetta engine). I was a bit pricey, but, given the quality of the balance of this vehicle, it was 2well worth it. Try it. You can pass at will, drive up hill and never worry about all of the water boxer nightmares again!
I bought an '86 Vanagon for $4,000 with 99,000 miles on her. I drove it for 5 years; I replaced one head, then at 164,000 it threw a rod through the block and I'm still looking for an engine, or even a rebuildable core. I loved that Van; it averaged 20mpg. I also had trouble with hydraulic clutch and alternator, but that's about it.
We live in Texas and have 8 Vanagons. My husband and I have "saved" all but 1 (Subaru conversion) of them from driveway death over the years. Most PO's do not take the time to find out what is wrong or how easy they can be to fix, and just let them sit in their driveway to rot or continue to drive them until something major goes wrong.
Yes, we have had a few coolant leaks and fuel leaks, but mostly the problem is clogged fuel injectors, a bad fuel pump or clogged fuel filters, which are a 10 minute fix if you have spare parts. Seafoam (fuel additive) Seafoam (Tranny additive) and Lucas oil (fuel and oil additives) are your friends. You also have to know how to bleed the cooling system of all air bubbles or they will overheat.
We have bought most for under $800. If you have one, get a Bentley manual, search the Internet for forums to join (we learned a lot from http://gerry.vanagon.com/), learn to search the Internet or eBay for parts and do the work yourself (you will save a lot of money by not having to take them to a dealer or garage for the work), get involved with your van.
Problems are pretty basic when you get to know how they run and what the little quirks are.
Watch your temperature gauge; if it is running hot, pull to the side of the road and let it cool down, or you will blow the head gasket. If you are the kind of person who doesn't have time to stop and let the van cool down - don't drive it that day. Have a backup car.
The red coolant light flashing means that your coolant is low, it is not an indicator that the van is overheating. Don't wait for the light to flash - that's too late. The only way you will know your van's temp is to watch the temp gauge. Make it a habit. I'm not saying they have a terrible overheating problem (we live in Texas and summer's are HOT here). I'm saying watch the temp gauge and you WON'T have a temp problem...
Make sure BOTH coolant tanks are full. There is the overflow under the license plate and the main tank inside the engine compartment to the left of the license plate. They BOTH need to be full.
The 86 and up have the fold down bed in the back, unless you buy a weekender or Westphalia of an earlier model. 86 and up have the 2.1 engine instead of the 1.9. We do have 2 85's that seem to have the same power with the 1.9 than our 86, 88, 89, or 91 with the 2.1. Don't know why; one is a basic bare bones model, and the other is a Weekender.
We love them, we have moved children in and out of college dorms too many times to mention with 1 or 2 vans, made 1500 mile trips, sleep in WalMart parking lots on small and long trips. We love them, they're great. It is a passion! You can't buy one and expect a 20-30 year old vehicle to be perfect, that is what gives them their character. That's why we give them names!!!
Love our Westy Camper- but these are NOT economical vehicles. NO WAY. My 1972 Pinto went 240,000 with almost no extra expenses, and I ran a Fiat Spider to 215,000 with also practically no problems. My 1987 Dodge Dakota was a total money pit, and very unreliable otherwise. I'll NEVER buy another Dodge... so here I am with an old VW camper :-)
3/19/2008 Recent engine install. Total cost $8500.
I planned on about $6000 based on quotes from several shops. WOW, was I wrong.
Here is the van story:
1990 Westy GL auto tranny. got from a friend with 132,000. Drove it to 217,336. Got new Engine from Boston Bob. Nice. Added lots of parts, radiator, hoses, stainless pipes feed-return to radiator, water pump, AFM, belts, tranny/oil cooler, tranny service, another gas tank seal kit, tank feed hose, etc. total = $9100-$600 core charge = $8500.. Engine, $2750. + 'my' parts = $5535. Shop install = $2596 (30.5 hours at $85/hr) plus $711 for 'their' parts, and tax = $300. Total shop charge $3600. ($WOW, but they did a lot of stuff)
Original purchase price $8000. Repairs between purchase and new engine = about $6000. This includes 2 alternators, gas tank seal, window tracks, window seals, tranny seals, door locks, windshields (three) dash wiring, lights, total brakes front and rear (cylinders, drums, wheel bearings, calipers, etc).
Fridge repair, AC rebuild, rear heater core, new radio antenna, dash control knobs, fuse link repairs, new skylight, removed and repainted cab roof under luggage rack, re-finished and did body work on seam rust, as well as other body work and paint, sink and plumbing repair, water tank sender units replaced, leaks fixed, propane copper tube connectors repaired ("friend" said he could smell a little propane, but would turn off tank, or drive with window open. wow!) and- new ground wire system, 3 water pumps, along with sundry plugs/wires/distributor parts. cleaned up/repaired/rebuild cabinetry, carpets, seat armrests, re-hung front doors on hinges so they close, now. Wow.
Total? $8000 + $6000 + $3600 = $17,600. Actually, this may be a bit low- as I have senior moments. I also went through 10 michelin tires (blew up- not high enough load rated) and now use 102 rated Haakapelittas (sp?)
I just wish there was something else to compete on the market.. this van beats living under a bridge overpass... I should get a job, maybe. Being retired/old/artificial hips/ankles/etc on a limited income ain't no way to afford one of these. Love it, but $$$$$ wow.
My buddy is moving to WA state and wants to sell me his 1988 with a blown head gasket and his 1985 with a blown tranny. The 88 is mint inside and out other than a chalky roof. Total price? $500. USD.
Am I a fool to BUY or a fool to PASS up?
I am wondering about the drip of death mentioned above... I have some drips.. How do I see if it is gasket? Is there oil coming from the heads area? Just bought the thing... ah oh.
I have owned a total of 8 Vanagons over the last 11 years.
Some of the heating problems are due to a clogged radiator. I have on 2 occasions very, very, carefully removed the upper tank of the radiator by bending up the aluminum tabs, and then taking a long thin stiff flat wire to rod out each tube chamber, and then rinsed out all the debris with a water house. Remove the radiator first, but you don't have to remove the lower tank to rod it out. You have to carefully bend the aluminum tabs down when replacing the top tank. One Vanagon mechanic I know, wants to just install a new radiator, but if you have a lot of time on your hands and want to save some money, you can rod it out yourself. It took me about 4-5 hours to do the job.
Another trick that I credit to the Lord for giving me the idea is putting on a new rubber head gasket without having to pull the head off, it's so simple of a concept, yet I don't think many are aware of it. Here it goes: Just loosen the head nuts and carefully slide the head back about an inch or less, just enough to pry loose the old gasket and then cut or stretch it off. Clean off any old gasket sealant from the surfaces of the block and head. Then take the new gasket and apply sealant to it, and carefully place one end of the rubber gasket on, and slightly stretching and little by little, working the other end on while at the same time being careful not to disrupt your sealant, or maybe you can put the head side sealant on after the gasket is seated on the block side. It has been awhile since I have done it, it's not hard, just be careful and take your time. It worked fine and didn't leak. It will save you paying someone else a thousand bucks to do the job. You just need to pay for your gasket set and supply the labor. I did one head in about 3-4 hours time.
I told a VW aftermarket parts guy that had been in the business for over 20 years about the technique, and he had never heard of such a thing, and said he would tell his mechanic about it. Remember, just because your rubber head gasket or both gaskets might be leaking, that doesn't always mean that your heads need to be rebuilt. Be careful when you do this job, only slide the head off a small amount, so that your pistons rings don't pop outside of the piston sleeves, and also so the piston sleeves don't come out far enough to lose your lower piston sleeve's round thin metal gasket. The upper piston sleeve will usually be stuck to the head, so you're okay there.
Also, when I buy a used Vanagon, I remove the air conditioning system completely. It gives you less weight, frees up a little engine power, gives you easier access to service other parts of your motor, and gives you more headroom and cargo room in your van. Your van also becomes less top heavy in the rear, and you'll have a little more road stability while driving. I'm a skinny guy and don't really like air conditioning, unless maybe if I lived in Phoenix AZ.
I think the waterboxer is a decent motor, but it requires specialized attention, it's not complicated, just somewhat different. I like the idea of not having to deal with replacing a timing belt. Yes they have there quirks, but they also have a lot of benefits. Don't buy one if you can't do mechanical work or don't know someone who can do your work for you that is very reasonable and knows what they are doing, because you will otherwise pay a small fortune keeping it on the road.
Don't be in a hurry, I drive at 60 - 63 mph maximum on the freeway, yes it will go faster, but your engine will last longer at these speeds. I hope this will be of some help to those that read this!
Hi, I am living in Port Angeles, WA and am looking into buying a 1984 Vanagon GL. I know absolutely nothing about the vehicle, other than it currently has no engine. What are some of the pros and cons of owning this kind of vehicle? How much maintenance does it need? How much is a new engine? What do I need to ask the mechanic who would be working on it? Thanks so much for any help you can offer.
"Thanks so much for any help you can offer."
It's a 1984 without an engine. Sounds like a restoration project to me. If you'll be paying others to do all the work, repair costs will add up fast!