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Thread: Air Cooled vs. Water Cooled engine

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2011

    Default Air Cooled vs. Water Cooled engine

    I am in the market for a 80s era westy, and have been going back and fourth about whether I should get a early 80s with the air cooled engine, or hold out for 83 and later to get one with a water cooled engine.
    I am do not know a whole lot about cars and have just started to drive a manual, what I have heard is that the air cooled can be better, but you really have to know how to work with them and drive them right.
    can anyone lend advice or give information to help me make my decision?

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2010
    Snohomish, WA


    Here's my approach. You need to determine whether you want a 'Bay window' or a Vanagon as both were available in the 80's. All Bay windows were air cooled so liquid cooled is not an option there. Assuming you're in for a Vanagon (and the choice between air cooled and liquid cooled comes up) I would not worry too much about either. Both air cooled and water cooled are not endowed with an abundance of horsepower (air cooled~70 bhp / liquid cooled~80-95 bhp depending on displacement) so driving either requires the correct approach. I would encourage you to look in your local area and see what is available. No point in setting your heart on a particular vehicle only to find out it is unavailable.

    I would make sure you are comfortable with vehicle repair; You are looking at purchasing a 20+ year old vehicle and repairs are inevitable. This purchase may tax your will to own as much as your pocket book so think carefully as I've found that driving a VW this old is a choice. There are other vehicles out there that will do the same as a Vanagon so make sure it's what you want. I have the choice and a Vanagon is what I drive and own. I'll walk you through my decision process and you can take what you can out of that.

    I really liked the look of the old style buses. I'm a mechanic by trade so fixing either was not a big deal. The lack of a liquid cooling system can be an attraction but can also be a drawback. I thought about how I would use the vehicle and came to the conclusion that a Vanagon was better in age (newer and less repairs?) and horsepower (most I could get in standard form). I was willing to be flexible in most things except it had to have a manual gearbox as I feel like a better driver when I'm monitoring the road ahead, choosing the right gear etc. I looked around my local area and found a 1991 Vanagon in my price range. It has 250k on it but runs well. At some point I know I'll need to spend $$ on it but it was the correct vehicle / price combination for me.

    I think you also need to think about the area you live in. If you live in the South and regularly get high ambient temperatures combined with slow traffic flow, I would encourage a liquid cooled vehicle as these would be more reliable (in my opinion) under these circumstances. Air cooled vehicles require air flow over the engine to keep them within proper operating range so the higher the ambient temperature the more air flow that is needed to reject the same amount of heat. Having said all of that, a properly maintained vehicle will operate in all conditions so that is a consideration. Air cooled vehicles put more stress on their oil so I would suggest the use of Synthetic oil (and they have come a long way since the basic air cooled engine was designed) so regular replacement is a must.

    Think carefully of what you want and balance that with what is available. Those will narrow your choices considerably. Happy hunting.

  4. #3


    i had a bay window which is great,but my 85 westy has heat.i remmber scraping ice off the inside of my windshield on the bay window while coming down from MT.Hood
    85 westy auto with tiico conversion

  5. #4
    Join Date
    Sep 2011


    Im quite happy with my 82 air-cooled (really they are oil cooled) Westy. As mentioned in an earlier post, were driving a vehicle thats over 20+ years. Chances are that the vehicle your interested in has had many previous owners. The question I would ask myself is "how well did those previous owners maintain the vehicle". If your lucky, the previous owners kept up with tune ups, oil changes, and fluid changes on a regular basis. Lots of past owners have basterdized the FI system and replaced it with carbs. Many of the FI parts have been and are being obsoleted by VW so they can be difficult to locate. Stuff like the cold start valve and fuel enrichment switch are real difficult to locate and therefor are rather expensive when you do locate them. Computers and air flow meters can be rebuilt by FIC Corporation. I believe this is the same company that Bus Depot and Go-Westy use.

    I have not owned a water cooled Vanagon but from what I understand, the heads like to leak and thats a costly job should it need one. A skilled VW mechanic that really knows Vanagons are few and far between so if you locate one, treat them with the respect they deserve....in the long run,they will save you $$$$$.

    !0 years ago I bought my 82. I got it from a teacher who bought it from a Dr.who bought it from a couple who were going to retire. I knew the history of the vehicle and that these past owners maintained the vehicle on a regular basis. During the 10 years of ownership, I went ahead and replaced every part and piece imaginable because my intentions were to retire and travel and fish and camp all throughout the great USA. I wanted to start off my retirement with a fresh engine and tranny and completely new FI system.

    Fast forward to 2011....the stock market exploded, the pension plan crashed, the 401 became a 210 BUT...my 82 runs perfectly and Im holding off on retirement until Im feeling more comfortable.

    Good luck to you on whatever you decide to purchase, the tea leaves indicate many a happy and exciting trail awaites you.


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