Vanagon Front Suspension

Capt. Mike

OK: Here's a preliminary report on the front suspension overhaul of a '90 Syncro Vanagon Westy.

First, whatever your dealer charges, it's a bargain. Sell your 1st-born; mortgage the house, but don't attempt it at home unless a masochist.

The Vanagons are notorious for alignment problems and running out of alignment adjustment. The Syncros are worse and the RF is the orphan stepchild. There is insufficient camber adjustment and it's just a matter of time before the inner tire ribs are worn bald.

Among the things we noticed besides out of camber specs, was the lower control arm bushings had recessed into the arms at one end and were shearing off the bushing lip. I was also plagued with squeaks.

Before starting some suspension modifications, we decided to change all the bushings. Since I had 130K on her original shocks, we changed them as well. Believe it or not, disassembly was easy. Nothing frozen on side 1, the RF. On a Syncro, one faces the added inconvenience of the front drive axles. I removed the tie rod ends, sway bar ends and calipers. Then I removed the axle nuts, unbolted the upper control arm and popped the lower control arm ball joint out (special tool). One hernia later, I had the front upright out and on the bench.

Then we compressed the front springs; removed the front seats (only a German engineer would invent such a diabolical scheme), and finally the front strut & spring assemblies together. Hernia #2. Sitting on the bench, the spring compressors decided they were lonely on opposite sides so slipped around for a little necking. We spent the next hour or two trying to get them back in place. When the spring is compressed in an arc, nothing fits or moves! VW conveniently placed a housing barricade in the strut tower to prevent the compressors from fitting balanced on either side.

After unbolting the radius arm and control arm, both popped right out -- onto my foot. Outsmarted the fiends. I had my safety toe boots on.

The upper control arm came out way too easy. Something must be wrong.

The lower control arm bushing had worked its way back into the arm until the end was flush and shearing off pieces of rubber. We helped it along with a razor knife and it pressed out of the housing, leaving only several charley horses from holding a 40 lb. casting in the hydraulic press with one hand, the holder with the other, and jacking the press with one's eyebrows.

The upper control arms popped right out. Of course, they were fine and didn't need replacement after I'd dropped a fortune on 4 new ones. It only took a variety of adaptors on the press since we didn't have VW's special punch set and holders.

Step one in reassembly seemed to be the struts & springs. I was putting in new OEM Boges as the others had 130K on them. Although they passed the "jounce test," out of the car, there were air pockets and some rattle when moving the pistons. Together they weigh slightly less than a '48 Beetle, so bent over trying to lift them in required only 3 hands, a jack and the sacrifice of several fingers guiding the strut rod into the housing hole. I fabricated a strut rod wrench to hold it from turning while I put on the nut. Once together we discovered "left over parts" and got to practice it again.

Inserting new lower control arm bushings was the greatest comedy since Red Skelton's Clem Kaddidlehopper routines. Again lacking VW's special little holder & punch, we tried brute force. With several smears of lube, I would line up the bushing and start pressing. Just as it was 98% in, with only a tiny lip of the flange left, it would suddenly squirt out of the press sideways. OK, put it a little more this way next time. Sproing! Pop out the other side. I pressed the Admiral into service on the jack handle and about 30 presses later, it decided it was tired of this game and went on in.

By now I'm into day 2 of a 1-day job and popping Advil like M&M's. But it all went back together. Too good to be true -- which it turned out it was.

Now, with all of this new-found experience, I attacked the LF. That's when things took a nasty turn. Again, it came apart without too many requests to the Supreme Architect for assistance. And minimal medical afflictions & injuries. We again played the press games with the new bushings, with similar results.

As day 4 broke, I started reassembly of side 2. The front strut & coil spring remembered how they had failed to halt progress and redoubled their efforts. By now the spring had perfected its quick shift at maximum compression and enlisted the aid of the spring compressors in driving me batty. The compressors, with all their strain, had decided to thread themselves so now wouldn't release except to back out 8" of threaded rod, about ¼ turn at a time. After 2 hours of this, I fabricated a retainer to keep them apart. Too soon old, too late smart. Remounting the strut assembly was only marginally harder than the building the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Now came the real fun. The LF control arm decided it was no longer going to fit. It came out, but it's not going back in. If you get the radius rod in, the control arm is not square to the mount bracket so one can only put the bolt in halfway. Now the strut doesn't want to fit in its hole either. All three take the power of a 6' crowbar at the same time -- yet there is only room for an 18" screwdriver. Taking the Normandy beaches on D-Day now sounded like a better deal.

I finally declared all-out war and enlisted the aid of a double-pulley come-along. This finally got the lousy 1/8" the control arm lacked from dropping straight into place. All of this maneuvering had popped out the front radius arm bushing, which we now discover had eaten itself half away overnight. Back to the RF, we discovered the same affliction. Emergency order to VW!

The next day, we picked up a full set of radius arm bushings, only to discover there was no way to replace the rear bushings without removing the whole control arm again. NO WAY! Fortunately, the rears were still good and didn't have the metal bushing sleeves to eat away, so they were left in and the new ones turned into $40 worth of paperweight to prop open the shop manual. The bad ones were the outers, and they actually surrendered without a hitch.

With everything tightened, torqued and lubricated, including the mechanic, I put Volksrat back on the ground. I couldn't decide if she was bowlegged or pleasure-bent. Toe-in was so far out, it took an eighth of a turn of the steering wheel to line up one side or the other. Camber looked like an old swing axle bus coming in for a landing on Runway 8.

I torqued the lug nuts and axle nut, then headed down my steep hill only once trying to remember if I had put the brake caliper bolts in. I fully expected it to drive like a one-legged dog chasing its tail. But a quick run around the neighborhood got me back in one piece and, except for the still obvious toe-out, the wheels now pointed roughly parallel to the body. I made an appointment for the alignment the following Monday to allow the weekend for a serious & lengthy course of Uncle Elmer's medicinal wine.

Monday I took my mechanic and parts man to lunch. I wanted all the sympathy I could muster. After lunch, he started on the alignment. The machine registered "Tilt" and had so many flashing red lights I got depressed and went to look at the Hyundais in the showroom. By the time I’ve decided to trade Volksrat for a Hyundai SUV, Jimmy informs me everything is OK except he had to use ALL the RF camber adjustment.

We did a high-level conference and decided we would modify the RF lower control arm mount to gain back that adjustment range. I paid my bill, went home for another course of medical treatment by Uncle Elmer's elixir, and dropped an email to my fabricating genius friend. Offered him all he could eat of my best road-kill stew and cornbread if he would please come weld in a new mount on the RF. My thoughts, profusely muddled as they may be, is that I'd rather take the RF apart again now while it's at least clean, than after hunting season when several pounds of mud & muck had been added to the undercarriage.

I'll keep you posted on the modifications; send contributions for my medicinal needs to John, care of this website.


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Capt. Mike

OK, the verdict is in. It worked!

My fabricating genius friend was over a couple of weeks ago. For the bargain price of an 'Anniversary Venison' tenderloin dinner and a couple of brewskis, he whipped out two lower control arm brackets, had them installed and welded in with new holes drilled in less than 3 hours, including dinner. Must be nice to know what the hell you're doing. From a chunk of flat plate and 2 cardboard templates to modified 4x4 suspension in one evening.

I've posted a picture on my pic post site linked from the home page. Look in the tech diagrams folder or try I have now primed & painted them; will add undercoating later.

As mentioned, Vanagons in general and Syncros in particular do not have adequate suspension adjustment for camber. The RF seem more susceptible than the LF. Since bushings will wear & set, the vehicle soon runs out of camber adjustment. Most of them come from the factory with huge chunks of camber adjustment already used, and in a few score thousand miles you're eating up the inside of those expensive & scarce reinforced tires.

After the overhaul, the RF suspension was just barely back into specs with ALL of the camber used up. Thus the decision to modify the suspension for some permanent relief. I could say something about that's the wife's side but my health is more important. LF was OK.

Camber is adjusted by moving the entire UPPER control arm in or out. In the usual case, there is too much negative camber so you move it out. It's a concentric bolt type adjustment with a range of travel only about 3/4", so limits out quickly.

Too complex to change -- the upper is a casting with dual bushings -- we went for the easy one, the lower.

The lower control arm mounts into a pair of flanges sticking out of the frame. If you can't move the top out anymore, than the next alternative is to move the lower IN.

Rather than risk any sort of shift by just elongating the hole, we chose a doubler. Using .090" chrome molly (thicker mild steel would work fine but connections at a race shop help), Norm quickly cut out and finished off the doubler plates. We scribed the original holes, measured in 3/8", and drilled the new ones. We then put the plates in place temporarily, scribed the new hole on the old plate, and then opened them them out by elognating the original hole. The new plate now holds bolt position but the up/down direction strength of the old remains.

That was probably the hardest since there is no room to grind on the back plate. We used an extension on a die grinder and carbide bits to work through the front hole.

We put the plates in, an old bushing and bolt, and Norm tacked the new plate in place. Then removed the bolt and did the final full weld. The rear gets a little tight with my wire-welder but we were able to get a full weld. Norm says "next one" he'll make the plate slightly oversize in a couple of places so it has a lip to weld on from the front. Welding must be like bicycle riding; he made a few practices passes on some scrap and the job itself was so neat there wasn't even need to grind out globs & splatter. And this with a little MIG Lincoln 100 on 115v AC.

Putting the control arm back in next day was a lot more challenging. Now the natural fit with what's basically a 4-point mount isn't lined up anymore. I had removed the strut bolt, but still had to have the strut in its opening. I loosened the castor adjustment on the radius rod all the way. But it still required a small come-a-long to get it lined up for the back hole.

A side note, the original bolt is 12-1.5x110mm. Since you are adding doublers, you may need a longer bolt. With the .090" chrome molly, I didn't, but using 3/16" mild plate would. And nobody carries them! VW has a couple in their standard parts inventory, but they went on back-order. Since you want to stay with the original grade 10.9, get your bolts IN HAND first. You'll need a a new 12mm wavy spring washer on the nut end, which aren't particularly easy to find, either.

Finishing up over the weekend, Murphy's Law struck Monday as my mechanic, Jimmy, had decided to take a week's vacation -- probably saw me coming. Thus Volksrat sat for another week because I wasn't going to drive too far on wheels that pointed in several direction like a Tonka Toy truck. This Monday, we did the realignment and voila! It's fully in specs and I have about ½ the camber adjustment range left.

I'll save the templates!


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Capt. Mike

Transferred from other posts to consolidate similar topics.

Front suspension squeaks

SteveS Junior Member # 12 posted 06-22-2001 04:39 PM

The suspension on my '85 has developed squeaks in the front. Just rocking the van by hand sounds like a flock of angry geese. Could this just be suspension components that need lubrication? If so, how to lubricate and with what?
Moderator note: Rear suspension questions cut; see Forum Guidelines.

Capt. Mike Moderator Member # 11 posted 06-23-2001 06:01 AM

There are NO grease or lubrication fittings in the Vanagon front suspension. The most common cause of squeeks is worn bushings. There are two upper bushings in the front suspension and one large steel-in-bonded-rubber bushing in the lower control arm. The latter is the more common and, fortunately, the cheapest.

A back-yard check is to spray the control arm and radius rod busings with WD-40; if they quiet temporarily, that's a good clue. Also, if your alignment is running out of adjustment range, it indicates the bushings are worn or have developed a set.

The control arm must be removed and it takes special tools and a hydraulic press to change the bushings. The vehicle will then require a full alignment. This is normally a shop job.

Usually, at the same time, you will change the front radius arm bushings. They are typically worn and/or rusted out. See the post, "Overhauling front supsension." The same squeeks existed until the overhaul; are now gone.

With the suspension torn apart, you may want to change the front struts to avoid duplicate labor & alignment charges later. Especially if over 60K miles -- about half normal service life.

Capt. Mike

Transferred from another post to consolidate same topic.

Clunking in front end?

potami Junior Member # 2241 posted 10-26-2001 03:16 PM

Hi -

My '91 Westy is fairly new to me still. I am hearing (and feeling) a clunk in the front end when I release te brake pedal after a complete stop. I sometimes get it when I am turning my wheels as I am backing out of my parking space in the morning.

I have visually inspected the front end and see nothing that looks suspicious.

Please offer your thoughts on what this might be and how I could troubleshoot it.

Thanks a ton!

Nick Garbis
Minneapolis, MN

Capt. Mike

Clunkng as you describe can be from several sources and you need to isolate which. First of all, since the Vanagon is new to you, have you had an alignment and suspension check. Vanagon alignment is very important to tire wear so a full alignment at purchase and every set of tires is a must. That will also quickly -- assuming a competent technician -- let you know if the swing or radius arm bushings are good.

These three sets of bushings do wear and can account for a clunking as slack from acceleration or deceleration is taken up.

Worn shocks will do the same thing. They develop air-pockets in the hyrdaulics when worn and will behave fairly normal except at the extremes of their movement -- again at the end of deceleration.

Other causes could be brake related. And, though it may sound like the front, it could be motor/transmission mounts. These 'clunks' have a habit of transmitting along the frame and being heard or felt as if up front.
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New member
Heavy duty shocks for Campervans?

I've got an 87 Westy and replaced the front shocks with some cheap ones I bought at Checker auto parts. Now when I hit the brakes the front end drops about 4-5 inches. Plus I get a lot of sway in the corners. I had an 83 Westy that had the front suspension fixed in a shop and it seemed to be a lot more solid. Does the brand or type of shock make that much difference? Can fix this problem with a 'heavy duty' shock?

Capt. Mike

You got what you paid for. Go back to the OEM Boge and it will work fine. You don't need "HD"; that was built into the design of the correct shock. In fact, mismatched shocks can add to handling problems.


New member
In regards to a "clunking" sound in the front suspension, I had one of those after suffering a momentary lapse of sanity and having a "nation'wide" chain replace the shocks on my '90 Westy. Turned out the "mechanic" forgot to replace the spacer on the lower shock mounting bolt. This resulted in a clunking sound from the shock moving in its mount whenever an irregularity was encountered in the pavement. Does anyone know a part # for the sleeve/spacer? My local VW dealer couldn't find it and assumes it comes with the factory shock package.

Capt. Mike

You're right, the spacer is part of the shock and not sold as a separate part. However, the bolt size, 14mm is quite generic to the shock industry and so close to 9/16" I doubt it would make any difference. You'd probably find a stack of old shocks outside any muffler & shock shop, just dig through until you find one that fits your bushing and is long enough to be cut down to the right length. In a pinch, it's really just a piece of 9/16" ID pipe and a machine shop could fabricate you a pair cheaper than a new set of front struts. Real patient? Just get the pipe too thick and file or sandpaper it down -- I'd chuck it up in a drill. Since the spacer doesn't rotate, slight imperfections won't hurt.


New member
Dirving over harsh bumps on city streets I feel a clunk on the passengers side. Turning-ok,no sound.
How do I determine what is worn. The van has had 2 speedo's and the PO said it had 80,000 miles. The shocks are monroe, installed by a tire dealer and were changed by PO at 40M miles.Note the VW dealer put a note on a later service ticket that the the shocks were incorrect. I want to find out what the clunk is and correct it.

Capt. Mike

Start with correct shocks. If not specifically for your model of VW, the bushings may be different sizes. In many cases, aftermarket shocks are "what fits", not necessarily correct. I've seen several instances where the aftermarket shocks required moving the bushings, spacers and other hardware from the OE units. OE Boge's are reasonable priced; you get what you pay for when trying discount lines.

You should also check all of the suspension bushings. Worn bushings, common to the Vanagon with time, will do the same clunking. See above re overhauling the front suspension -- the bushing comments are the same.


New member
Doing some research i have decided to not purchase a syncro but rather the vanagon 2wd model. I do have clearance concerns. Are there any after market lift kits or heavier suspension to get over some areas where the current clearance will not allow travel?


New member

I have two professional opinions telling me that I need a new uca bushing on the LF of my 87 Vanagon. It's very noisy. If I read the posts correctly, I should have the struts replaced at the same time? My van has very high miles. Should I do the bushings on both sides at the same time, or is it ok to do only one side? Many thanks.

Capt. Mike

If you were sure that one bushing had a single fracture (they have nylon component), the single replacement would make sense, but if they are worn, no. On a high mileage vehicle, since the suspension & struts get very similar use, loading and wear, I strongly recommend you rebush the entire front at the same time, including radius arms.

VW's original Westy struts were very good and already HD. They typically last well over 100k. However, at any point above that, if the rest of the suspension is being done, change BOTH struts. VW does allow replacing a single strut but that's on the presumption of a failure or damage, not general wear over time. When I pulled mine, at 120,000, they 'passed' the on-vehicle 'bounce test.' But once removed, I found each exhibited a small collapse as it started the stroke. i.e. It would jump a tiny fraction, maybe 1/16 or 1/8" before developing what routine resistence through the rest of the stroke. But the new ones gave a noticeable improvement of ride & handling. That little bit of undamped movement can contribute to tire & suspension wear.

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.

darkroast1 Member posted April 02, 2004 07:44 PM

The stabilizing link on the passenger side of my 1984 westy has broke at the shoulder where the threads meet the body on the lower portion of the link. I received a new link as well as a new bushing for the top "banjo".
My trouble, as I expected when I first surveyed the job, is how to pull the old link off the stabilizing bar on the top. Is there a special technique for pulling off the link, does the link come off with the bushing or seperately? I tried simply pulling on it (since its in two pieces the bottom threads offer no interferance) and I've tried a puller but the jaws want to grab both the bushing and the link so it still won't make it over the bump on the end of the stabilizing bar on top., but rather it just compresses the bushing.
The bently manual does little but offer a pictoral which is of little help. I'm also expecting issues fitting the new one on both the top where the bushing is while pushing the threads through the bottom bushing.
Any insights anyone has on this problem would be greatly appreciated.

Capt. Mike

The link is meant to be pressed on & off in a hydraulic press similar to the procedures shown for control arm bushings. You can sometimes get away with a large vise. The usual procedure is to remove the stabilizer bar completely. Once you've unhooked from the frame at the two middle brackets, it get's easier. It adds work, but you should replace all of your bushings as long as you have to replace the one. Don't try to reuse a 20 year-old bushing -- it's hardened beyond saving. Since you'll replace the bushing, you can pull the two together.


New member
No, you are wrong on several points in this write-up. Few will start this kind of work, so I shall not go on.
Anyone thinking of starting this job please contact me first.
Capt. Jim

Actually, I will go on, because I hare just re-read your story of Front End Extreme efforts. At the present I am half way the same job. You are absolutely correct, that the lower arm rubber bushings are a bear to replace. I have been fortunate enough to obtain the VW 3053 sleeve for the job. What is not clear in the Bentley manual, is that the sleeve compresses the rubber portion of the bushing as it moves down the sleeve under pressure so that it arrives at the lower arm socket in the correct size. EVEN so, it is a tricky job. All is under great pressure...go too far and you will ruin a bushing (don't ask how I know) .. too little and you start over. Still,with the VW sleve, it is not so bad.
The really nasty job in the front end department, the one that I expect experienced mechs send to the appretince every time, is the lower ball joint. I would like to know of ANYONE who has ever found the tools to render this job to be easy. With the VW 3051 press tool, it is possible. I know though, it is not easy. Pressing out the old joint is straight forward, but requires probably 10+ tons. Pressing in the new part is stricly touch-and-go, and requires almost equal pressure. The difficulty is that on press-in, the ball joint sholder available for pressing will tend to give way before than the joint is fully seated, with the result that the fit is imperfect, and doesn't permit full seating of the snap ring.. I ask whether any other member has different experience? The only relief is the fact that the snap-ring is unneccessary anyway, as it prevents the unit from pulling out in rebound.........Never going to happen, so I have accepted the condition of partial snap-ring seating. Otherwise, the front end overhaul, including all rubber bushings, and all ball joints is a reasonable weekend job. The wheel alignment is relatively easy, in that the camber can be set with the weight still on the car (the only problem is that the adjustment available does not quite reach ideal settings...but within specifications. Camber is easy, and toe-in is standard.

Regards, and happy New Year to Cap'n Mike,
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Capt. Mike

Since the lower ball joint is retained by the circlip, you can polish & dress the opening in the knuckle and the new ball joint itself to reduce the amount of 'press' required, much along the lines of what is described in the CV joint topic. By the time a ball joint requires replacement the casting has gone through thousands of heat/cool cycles and probably exprienced some bangs and perhaps slight distortion from pressing the old out. New ball joint bases tend to be 'old original' full size -- even fudged towards oversize because the supplier doesn't want rejects for loose fit. A .001" or two doesn't seem like much but shows up when you are attempting to mate old & new parts. The press fit is meant to provide enough friction so the ball joint nuts can be brought to torque, not to weld the units together in an immoveable mass. Prior to installting the new joint, use a good polishing wheel on both, filing any rough spots until you are close to a fit.

Then -- and this is one of those instances where only the right tool works -- you should be able to press in without damage using assembly lube.


New member
Thanks Mike,
And you are right again. It would be best to dress the opening in the knuckle before pressing in the new ball unit. Actually the ball joint itself is a serrated edge, not really suitable for dressing down. Still, the only reason I replaced them in the first instance, was because the suspension was in overhaul and best do it while things are accessable. The boots on both upper balls were torn while neither of the lower rubbers were suspect. Still after just over 20 years old and easy to get at...this was the time.
The reason for suspension overhaul was the squeeking sound at slow speeds, and when getting in and out of the car. The cause, I believe was the upper sets of rubber arm bushings. I also replaced the lower rubbers but also doubt that that was needed. Both lower bushings looked just about as fine as the new ones. The upper arms are much shorter and therefore swing through a far greater arc. They also have a lesser rubber thickness to absorb that travel. One might expect then, that the upper rubbers will always be the first to go, and always fail at the inner sleeves, with much less surface contact. That is my story, and I will stick with it.
Whatever the truth, I have stopped the squeeks. And if the new parts last as long as the originals, it will be my last time at this job. Next time they need changing, someone will have to dig the old bus up from its/our grave.

Regards Capt. Mike

Capt. Mike

I know the edges of the ball joint housing are serrated -- the friction to keep them from rotating in the housing -- but most serrations are swagged into the housing, i.e. stamped in under great pressure. But this also often leaves rough edges, sprue or die marks and some unevenness, thus even a little checking and dressing of those, without removing the serations or trying to grind them own for a free fit, can help. A burr left from the original swagging can be the difference between smooth fit and jambing or cocking.