1986 Vanagon
1986 Vanagon. Photos courtesy Volkswagan USA. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

After building a “Squareback” that looked to most people like a station wagon, and a station wagon that looked like a modern-day minivan, Volkswagen replaced the familiar rounded lines of its micro-bus for the sharp-edged lines of the Vanagon (designated the Type 2 in Europe) in 1980.

However, the familiar flat-four, air-cooled engine remained until 1983, when Volkswagen transformed the motor into a water-cooled version, known as the “Wasserboxer,” or “waterboxer”.

Because of this, the Vanagon’s engine varies by model year: there was a 67 hp, 2.0-litre air-cooled engine from 1980 to 1982; an 82 hp, 1.9-litre Wasserboxer in 1984 and 1985; and a 90 hp, 2.1-litre Wasserboxer from 1986 to 1991. All engines came with either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.

There is a 1.6-litre diesel version, but it is very rare, and even less powerful than the gasoline-powered Vanagons. Additionally, as with the 1.9-litre gasoline engine, parts for them are no longer available from Volkswagen.

In all cases, power is sufficient at best to move the 1,587 kg (3,500 lb) vehicles, their passengers and their luggage. Consequently, the 1986-1991 models are most sought after (although buyers may find that earlier-year models have been retrofitted with newer engines, which is not a bad thing unless you are a stickler for originality). Owners report they often drive their Vanagons flat-out, especially the campers, in order to keep up with traffic. The automatic transmission, while convenient, further robs power.

1986 Vanagon
1986 Vanagon. Click image to enlarge

All these vehicles are rear-wheel drive, with the engine located at the rear, below the floor. In 1985, a four-wheel drive version called the Synchro became available. Heavier than the RWD Vanagons, these challenge the small engines even more.

Vanagons can be purchased as passenger vans, Transporters (a pickup-type configuration with a club cab and small box), and Westfalia camper vans. The Westfalia versions are still popular, although most of them have odometers that read well over 300,000 kilometres (hence the rebuilt or new engines).

Westfalias come with full galley kitchen and a “pop-top” camper roof, or as Weekenders or Multivans that have interiors that convert into beds, but don’t have the fridge and stove. Not all Weekenders have the pop-top roof, and those that do are called Westfalia Weekenders.

1990 Vanagon Westfalia
1990 Vanagon Westfalia. Click image to enlarge

The engines and exhaust systems can be troublesome on these vehicles. Head gaskets blow, and exhaust systems rust and are very expensive to replace. Rust is a common problem, and any along the body seams is an indication of serious trouble within. You’ll typically find rust on the passenger side of Westfalias, for example, corresponding to the location of the fridge. Between the back of the fridge and the inside of the body panel are the refrigerator condensers; these create water, which rusts the body panel from the inside.

Nonetheless, these vehicles remain sought after, and many clubs and suppliers cater to the needs of owners. In Canada, Frank Condelli and Associates offers an entire re-engineered stainless steel exhaust system, along with a range of services for Vanagon owners.

1990 Vanagon Westfalia
1990 Vanagon Westfalia. Click image to enlarge

It’s not unusual to see Vanagons, many now over 20 years old, commanding high prices if they have been well maintained or properly reconditioned. Westfalias have a particularly strong following, although rust-free examples are hard to find for a low price, despite their age.

Several Vanagon trim levels were introduced over the years, including the Carat, Wolfsburg and Multivan. The Vanagon GL featured desirable options like power mirrors, power door locks, power windows, cruise control, tachometer, air conditioning, alloy wheels and fibreglass side molding.

Now becoming “classic” vehicles in their own right, Vanagons offer the charm of a hobby vehicle, with the practicality of accommodation on wheels.

Vanagons were replaced by the front-wheel-drive Eurovan for 1992.

Connect with Autos.ca