Radiator replacement questions


New member
Blew my radiator on a '84 vanagon during a trip home from Amsterdam. Coolant warning light worked like a charm. Kept adding water to the expansion tank becuase it would drain very slowly, yet it never took water from the reserve tank? The light would also come on and off even after the tank was freshly filled. Can I be sure any water is actually getting back to my engine? Ordering new radiator today and need tips on getting the old one out and vice versa. How do I flush the whole system? I'm worried the lines are clogged. Any ideas on my lights behavior?

[ 09-30-2001: Message edited by: Capt. Mike ]

Capt. Mike

Since the water from the reserve tank requires a vacuum from the system (as it cools and the liquid contracts) which is supplied by the leak, the reserve tank can't function fully. Your expansion tank will feed the pump more directly.

The light has two functions -- besides overheating, it also tells you the expansion tank is low. Obviously, if you're consuming from that tank, it will come back on as soon as the level drops.

No real hints on removing the radiator expect you must remove the grill and spare tire carrier brackets. The Bentley is rather remiss in details. Don't forget to check section 19.20 (I presume the number is the same in a German edition.) for the hot footwell kit, which if your vehicle is so equipped, will have to be cleared before the radiator is dropped.

Flushing & light questions have their own topics; do not mix. See the Message Board Guidelines.


New member
Replacement went well and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Not difficult, but definately a lot of stuff in the way. Works great and then there's my fan- Westys rule


New member
hello westyheads,

I finally got around to getting my newly acquired '85 Westy, 1.9L up and running. When i bought it, the engine was toast. So, i put a reman in and replaced the rear temp sensor, water pump, hoses, etc. among many other things.

I have two problems, one I am new to the vanagon instrument cluster and am a little worried by the the temp gauge. Its orientation confuses me. there is no real obvious way to know what is hot or cold. Mine has a single line up higher on the gauge. To me this should be the redline (overheat line)...am i right? When i start the beast up, the temp guage spikes and keeps trying to go up. The red light is blinking also (even when the resevoir is full). Where do i start? Does the bread board in the instrument cluster need resoldering? I didn't replace the front temp sensor b/c i didn't know it existed until i took the radiator out. Could this be bad?

Secondly, i'm getting coolant up to the radiator, but it isn't flowing out the outflow at all. I took it out and ran some water in...when the pressure built up, water started coming out the outflow. Is this radiator shot? Since my temp gauge isn't working, i'm skeptical to let the beast run long enough to build the pressure up in the radiator to get a return flow. Oh yeah, nothing is coming out of either of the bleeder valves.

Thanks fellas,


Capt. Mike

Since this is the 'radiator replacement' topic, I won't answer any questions that belong on other forums; please read the Message Board Guidelines about mixing topics.

The radiator of an '85 does not have an "overflow" only the bleeder. If yours has a cap and overflow, it's an aftermarket from a previous owner. The expansion overflow is built into the expansion & refill tank system in the rear. The radiator does have a bleeder -- top right.

Obviously, a pressurized system like the VW's can only have the overflow at a pressure relief valve, usually the cap. Since pressure varies throught the system, having more than one could create problems.

Presuming you did a full flush with a flush agent or cleaner and a pressure test during the earlier work, if your bleeders are clogged, you can assume the rest of the radiator is probably worse. [Did you read the bleeding tips under the Coolant thread?] I'd suggest removing the radiator and having it professionally flushed and serviced. They will also allow them to check flow and hot spots. The better shops can run a heated fluid through the radiator and check for 'hot spots' or cold areas that aren't getting flow.

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.

Life span of a radiator?

mavericks Junior Member # 2929 posted 12-13-2001 11:44 PM


Capt. Mike

There is no 'life span' or benchmark on radiator life. It is purely a function of condition, maintenance and the coolant used. 50 & 75 year-old radiators in perfect condition are common amongst the antique car crowd. I'm driving a 51 year-old now. 123K, IF regular flushing, coolant changes and the proper coolant, is not high.

Replace based on an examination of the radiator only. Does the inside still show signs of corrosion, scale, build-up? Is it holding a proper pressure test per the Bentley? And is it working, i.e. no overheating and seeing the proper amount of temperature drop between in & out flows? After having it throughly and professionally flushed, are there any non-repairable leaks? (Minor leaks of the core can be safely repaired.)

Coolant 'smell' is a difficult thing to diagnose. Most radiators will have had some leakage at the hoses & overflow on the outside that is the usual source. A thorough washing should remove the smell if it's actually coming from the radiator, then look for fresh leaks if it returns. If the coolant smell is inside the car, it's probably heater core related.


New member
I have an 87 vanagon westfalia, 2.1L engine, auto transmission, 125k miles on it. Now my question is: Would it be okay to replace the whole radiator with the copper tanks on both sides instead of the plastic ones? If not, why? The information I get will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

[ 02-19-2002: Message edited by: jazzy ]

Capt. Mike

There is no physical reason why a conventional radiator with copper feed & collection tanks can't be used. VW & most others switched to plastic purely to cut costs. I wasn't aware anyone made the Vanagon radiator in the older style. Since it is going to be an aftermarket vendor, do check up on their quality, warranty and be sure they are using compatible materials. Is it copper or a copper alloy? Some steels can be made to look like copper or brass and certain alloys could become a source for electolysis type reactions.


New member
Thank you for the advice. I will discuss the details(quality, warranty, etc) about the radiatior with the shop who is selling the item to me. I will give an update as soon as I get the information from them. Thanks again Capt. Mike


New member

We need help regarding a decision we have to make about a radiator replacement and coolant flush.

We own a 1988 Westfalia and tried recently to flush the coolant - last time it was done was in 1997... Ouch! Unfortunately we weren't able to do it - the bleed valve is stuck to the "sleeve" inside and they both turn together when we try to unscrew it.

First question: we've been told that the valve can't be replaced and we have to replace the whole radiator. Is this right?

Also, the mechanics told us that since the coolant was not changed in a long time, a lot of gunk must have accumulated in there. By replacing the radiator and flushing all that collant and gunk, we could do a lot of damage - many leaks could appear just a few days later, the heads could leak, etc.

His suggestion was to replace the radiator by lifting the front of the van and flushing just a small amount of coolant - only what will be necessary to put in a new radiator. The presence of some new coolant would help the engine and delay the need to replace the heads gaskets - but he did say that we WILL have to replace those very soon anyway since it hasn't been done already (he said it has to be done every 4 or 5 years on a Vanagon).
We got a second opinion and this person said all that wasn't true. In his opinion, we should replace the radiator and all of the coolant. If the heads don't leak already there is no problem, and flushing the old coolant can't do any harm. He said the problem with the heads come from corrosion from the exterior, not from the coolant. Old coolant can create acidity, which will "eat" the heads, but if they don't leak already there is no problem and it's better to change that coolant as soon as we can to prevent new problems.

Two experts, two opinions. Pretty confusing. We don't know much about those things and don't know who to believe... Can somebody help us make a decision???? Thanks a lot!

Julie Tremblay
Westfalia 1988
Montreal, Quebec


New member
Salut Julie,

>>The bleed valve is stuck to the "sleeve" inside and they both turn together when we try to unscrew it.<<

Changing the front radiator is a good thing if this one is original or very old, if it is corroded on the outside this is a good sign that it is probably beginning to corrode in the inside so a new rad will be needed soon, but!

The screw and sleeve can probably be replace by any good mechanic or any radiator shop. Metal is metal, so the way to go is to see if a radiator shop or any good engine rebuilder or any metal shop can re-thread / re-insert the sleeve. For sure I don't think that this can be done with the rad in the van.
Yes the rad will need to be remove.

>>Also, the mechanics told us that since the coolant was not changed in a long time, a lot of gunk must have accumulated in there.

Yea, did this guys looked inside with a microscopic camera!!!, don't believe a commercial mechanic. A ""lot"" of gunk, that a good one!

>>By replacing the radiator and flushing all that coolant and gunk, we could do a lot of damage - many leaks could appear just a few days later, the heads could leak, etc.

Ho my god, please get a new mechanic, THIS IS NOT TRUE AT ALL...
The way to go is to flush the rad by it self with a garden hose but not with full pressure, you will see right away if the rad is clogged or partially clogged. You will also see if A LOT OF GUNK is coming out, NOT! Remember one thing, the portion of the coolant system that can become clogged are mostly the front radiator and the 2 heaters core (small conduct), all flexible parts are not subject to clogging. Second of all, I never seen a clogged rad in my mechanical life!!!, what I have seen is small rusted metal particle inside the rad that can cause some leaking WITH TIME!!! Not in a few days. When those metal particle detach form the rad or cores they go around the system until get get stuck some place, with time, those particle are accumulating and blocking the system resulting in an overheating engine.
When you flush the front rad at medium water pressure (from your garden hose) the same amount of water that enters should be the same exiting.

Doing a flushing and refill is the best thing you can do to your cooling system, it's like new blood. The chemical propriety of the coolant deteriorates with time. The best way to get the most of the coolant out is to unplug one of the big plastic hose under the van and to drain at both drain plug under the engine.
At the same time the water pump should be double check also. The rear heater core can be also carefully inspected. The front one is something else!!

Pleaseeee, forget the head gasket problem for now. Wait until they start leaking, that could happen only in a few years.

>>>He said the problem with the heads come from corrosion from the exterior, not from the coolant.<<<

Not exactly true, what happen is that with time the outer flexible head gasket dries up, so coolant slowly makes its way between the head itself and the gasket. So before it leaks, the coolant was stuck in between and it is then that the corrosion occurs. Most of the time when leak occur the corrosion as already begun. BUT!
Last year I had a very small leak, I should say some humidity on one head, when I remove the head they where fine, no pitting at all so don't worry to much about that problem for now. A good way to see the condition of the outer head gasket is to put your nail into it, if you feel that they are very hard it is not good, they should be somewhat soft. (You can see the gasket from the rear hatch)

You can see on my personal Westy engine web page all the stuff I just explain at: http://www3.sympatico.ca/huotx/engine1.htm
There is many section on the cooling system.

Best regards, Ben from Montreal (au plaisir Julie)

Ps.: I tried to e-mail you direct so you can call me but your e-mail is not working, so e-mail me at huotx@videotron.ca and I will give you my phone #. I will be please to give you a hand and some advice. If you want you can come to my home and I will take a look at your beast.. (he he he)

Capt. Mike

I'll concur with what Ben said and suggest you read the post under the TIPS forum on Coolants. It has detailed information of coolants, types and effects.

Do a thorough flush with a 'safe for all metals' commercial cleaner in accordance with the steps given there. This is a long process -- not difficult, just time consuming -- because after the flush, you will have to fill & drain several times to get the flush out until you are left with near pure water. The same TIPS post will describe the math and measurements necessary to get to the desired 50% solution.

Finally, since it's been so long, I'd do a follow-up drain and refill next year before settling into a two-year change schedule. The additives in the new coolant will help with cleaing and preserving.

Most modern coolants have a useful service life of 5 years. We change more often because we want to remove contaminants and refresh our freeze protection. It also refreshes our aluminum protection in a VW. Coolants will consume additives and also loose freeze protection with time and we just like to stay on the front half of the curve.

Capt. Mike

Mike Robinson

New member
I have just had to replace my radiator - it started to leak.

After 22 years of service the mechanic said when he took it out it weighted much more than expected - all the junk in it he guessed.

Diesel rad replacements are $1200 CDN from VW - ouch. I got the old radiator rebuilt - basically a brand new radiator for $450 CDN.

The result (apart from not having a leak!) is the temp is noticably lower on the gauge - from on the right side of the led to on top of the led.

'82 diesel

Capt. Mike

Radiator rebuild is a viable alternative to replacement. Properly done!

A true radiator rebuild means they will 'recore' the radiator. This involves removing the original feed and exit tanks and installing an all-new heat dissapation core. IF the new core is of equal size, efficiency and design (water passage size, fin area), you have all the cooling functions of a new radiator.

The concern is that the tanks, especially the plastic tanks of the VW radiator, are difficult to remove without damage and to reinstall without leak. They are, in effect, gluing plastic tanks to a metal core. This typically takes special equipment not available in the corner radiator shop. So check the process if done in house, or source of his rebuilt radiators but there are a number of shops quite capable of this process. For a source, check the antique car services market -- it's an everyday requirement in restoring old vehicles.

campbell ingram

New member
This may be a novice question but I just got my 83.5 Westy back from the shop where they replaced my radiator. Looking through the front grill I see what looks like an old radiator (full of bugs) and then can see the edges of a shiny new radiator behind it. Are there two radiators? Why would you replace one but not the other and why are the stacked one in front of the other.


Mike Robinson

New member
A new or even recored radiator should look new and black and shinny.

I would recommend taking out your spare tire and looking at the radiator from the back.

'82 diesel (with recored rad)


Does your vanagon have a/c? If so you are probably seeing the a/c condensor in front of the radiator. If not I've never seen a second radiatior in a vanagon.


jim gerry

New member
Perhaps a bit tardy but "Happy New Year" to all and thanks in advance for welcoming me to the site for VW fanatics.
Just ran into a problem that had been manifesting itself slowly but surely over the course of the last six months. I have in the last year aquired an '85 Westfalia (1.9) which in order to be road worthy needed the rear heater core(blew up on the previous owner)to complete the cooling system. After running without mishap (steady cooling from temps between 15 and 80)for about six months I started to notice erratic cooling trends in the temp guage which i thought to be a result of low oil (which i understand plays an integral part of the engine cooling) seemed as though keeping an eye on the oil level solved the problem until just recently when in the course of a couple of trips I got a temp warning light when stuck in traffic. Afraid of coolant leaks I checked resevoirs in the rear only to find I'ld lost no coolant (at least none that i could measure) and found no evidence of leaks on the ground. Immediately after my last oil change she overheated and spewed coolant out of the reseviors in back after 5 min of idling in the drive. After a trip to the mechanic a couple of leaks were found; one under the spare tire hanger in the front and at the water pump...not enough to see on the ground but enough to allow air into the lines which would interfere with cooling. A new water pump, thermostat, and front leak repair, All the leaks are sealed, rubber hoses and vacuume tube between the resevoirs all in proper condition...but still won't cool at idle...new fan sensors in the front (to turn the auxilliar fan on at a lower temp) still doesn't do the trick. Greg says (from greg's repair in Mass) time for a new radiator as this one is plugged and only working at about 50%. Also says a flush won't solve the problem.
To my question...I'm dubious, after reading all the radiator posts, about the replacement, Don't have the dollars right now and need to run in periodically for short distances. What's my danger of hurting it further if i run it until I can afford a new radiater as long as I don't allow it to overheat...i.e. the blinking temp light.
Thanks for any advice...looks like a bently man. is in the works.