Vanagon reliability


New member
Good day to you all.
I wish to demystify the Vanagon reliability. (In that case, more specifically the 1.9-2.1 water-cooled engine)
First we are running 10-20 years old vehicles!!! That says it all! In the 90' (and still today) most manufacturer where making car and truck so they could last for about 100.000 miles, no more… (I have my sources) so running a Westy across any country but especially in Americas (long distance) is no different from running a old 86' Honda or whatever. It' an old van and if not properly maintain, you're playing with fire.

I'm an amateur mechanic (maybe not so amateur anymore), I use to rebuilt "engine heads" on motorcycle (air & water cooled) as a hobby (still do sometime) and did over 25 cars, mostly Mazda, Honda & Toyota (4 cyl. Only) for friends (I have many friends now, strange!!!). I only do engine works and mostly "heads jobs!!!" (Gasket, seal, valves and cam). So don't tell me that the heads gasket problem on the 1.9 & 2.1 are VW's problems, it's a common 4 cyl problem from the 90', most of the car I done had their head gasket change (80%), they had about 60-100k miles (100-160k-km). This is not the case of a typical type of driving/driver, all where different drivers / type /condition/women/men/automatic/manual. This is somewhat a normal problem. The Vanagon Water-cooled is no exception. I would even say that it is superior, it is underpowered and it work harder than most small 4-cylinder car (specially the camper version). So for the size of its engine/ weight, it is a very RELIABLE engine. The only special thing about the van it' is cooling system, it' damn complicated for a 4 cyl engine, with so many cooling line, junction and bleeding system. Those need replacement and frequent check-up, and that is the problem!!! Most Westy owner are "non mechanic oriented" people, not to say that they only put gas and run the van. I have an 87 GL and running on original head (heads gasket change for precaution last year, old heads where in good condition) and I did 12.000 miles (+ another 10.000 fooling around) trip across Canada / USA in the last years and I had only minor electrical problem due to our salty road / corrosion here in Canada. Many corroded wire problem. I have to say that the PO (bought the van new) took good care of it, that the key "maintenance".

Note: I have seen many Japanese cars with damaged heads surfaces due to poor coolant mixture (or none in some case), even if the Westy heads gasket system is a bit different (not to say special) the damage head problem is not unique at all to the van. As an example, I just did a VW 89 Golf heads that was leaking for almost a year, the head was so damage that it had to be rebuilt.

Also, the fuel lines are flexible in a Westy compare to hard or intern one on a standard import 4 Cyl. car. That mean that they need to be CHANGE if they are still the original one, this is critical (not to say dangerous - fire hazard), especially the one over the engine, they are close to the exhaust system. (Hot exhaust and fuel don't mix well)

Note: how to check if the head gasket are due or need replacement soon, put your nail on to the outer black gasket, if it's hard like hell they will need replacement soon. They need to be somewhat soft.

Sorry for my poor English guys, trying my best.
Ben from Montreal, Canada

Note: For more advance technical information on the 86 and up (Digifan 2.1L engine) model, visit my personal web page. Including info & maintenance on a few important mechanical known problems. You can also see all different trips I did with the van and you will see that I am not the kind of guys that stay 100 miles around my house.

personal web page

Another note: We are "the city" of import 4 cyl. car in north America, so I know what I am talking about.
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Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate similar topics.

Speed Limits

gvmelissa Junior Member # 3681 posted 03-14-2002 01:19 PM

Hi everyone. I am thinking about buying a 1980-1985 Westie for a 2 week cross country trip this summer. I have read lots of the posts on this web site and am wondering if this is the right vehicle for me. I love the layout and have always wanted one - here's the glitch. I tend to be a bit of a leadfoot while driving and typically go about 75 on the interstates. Seems like the posts here all mention 50-60 mph. Is that really all they'll do without hurting them. Are any particular years/models faster? Or do I really need to slow down if I want to buy one?? I really appreciate the experience and knowledge you all have !! Thanks

Capt. Mike

A steady diet of 70-75 mph will surely lead you to an unsatisfactory trip and probably engine life. There is an excellent thread under the ENGINES forum about breaking in a new engine that includes other driving tips.

The advise you've seen elsewhere on this site is given by members with a cumulative experience of hundreds of years and millions of miles. They didn't pick it out of the air to be contrary. You expect a 20 year-old vehicle to operate outside its designed range with no risk?

That's not to mention what a lousy trip you'll probably have driving. Aerodynamics are such that the vehicle becomes a real handful to drive above the 60 mph bracket and requires so much attention it's no longer a 'fun' trip. A day behind the wheel leaves you feeling like you've been beaten. They don't like trucks and cross-winds at those speeds, though are perfectly comfortable and stable in the 55-60 mph range.

A Westy is not just transportation, it's a life-style. It's not for everybody; if you want speed, there are motorhomes & other campers that will serve you better.


New member
How I must agree with the above statement. Figure 65-70 HP engine, geared to yield some high RPMs, loaded with furniture (quality wood I must say), people, supplies, and officially a 'Golden Girl' in years.

Now take a 6'X 6' piece of birch plywood and try running into a strong wind-gust with it.
Not easy.

That should help you a bit with your decision. I often laugh when I read the back of owners manual's for VW T2's. They list max. cruising speed between 70-80 MPH depending on what year.

I believe they forgot to mention that the speed mentioned, applies only to when being on a flat-bed.

Plus, the yanking of the steering from left to right giving you the appearance of being drunk off your gourd, and the pit in your stomach wondering if something is going to blow, or end up on your side is enough to give you an ulcer in and among itself.

Pretend it's like a tram at Disney, you'll enjoy the view better, get there with a great more deal of safety, and have your VW much longer.

Capt. Mike

A couple of jokes that come to my mind when I read or hear of the folks that want to hot-rod a breadbox:

:D An ancient Dave Gardner (Brother Dave -- a generation or two before Jeff Foxworthy) line in a motorcycle story -- Decal on back of semi truck: "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you."

Seen on the back of several VW buses at camp-ins in several versions. "0 to 55 in 17 . . . minutes."

And one I have on the back of my own Syncro Westy: "If I go any faster I'll burn up my hamster."
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New member
I had a 66 camper many years ago that I loved but it had its difficulties. I actually had to unload all passengers to make it up relatively steep grades on main hiways. Sometimes the gang would be walking for 15 minutes to meet me at the top.

My 84 camper really scoots on the flats. I have to pay attention to the tach and speedometer to keep me under 65-70 on the freeways. Hills are another story altogether. I don't have to unload cargo in this one but I do use the shoulder to allow faster (everyone else) traffic.

I'll take on a Yugo anyday on the straight track but I'd lose on the moguls.

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate similar topics.

jerepowers Junior Member posted September 30, 2002 07:45 PM

Anyone wishing to buy a VW Westfalia should know that owning one is complicated.

Even if you live in a major city, assume that no mechanic knows anything about them and assume every piece of advice you get from a service tech at every aftermarket service center is wrong. Expect to be laughed at, like I was at the Goodyear dealer, who dismissed the Vanagon as "just a mini van" and insisted that regular car tires work just fine.

In six weeks, I have put in the wrong anitfreeze, bought the wrong tires (five of them) had to wait 45 minutes at a Jiffy Lube as the service techs dug out oil filter after oil filter looking for the right one. Add to this things like that VW doesn't mention that the same brake fluid reservoir feeds both the clutch and the brakes and VW doesn't recommend a multi-viscosity oil that anyone sells at a regular gas station. The refrigerators require magic to run. (I have yet to get mine to run on LP and running it on the battery is useless, but at least it's free.)

I have owned, in my 30 years of driving, a Fiat Spider, an Alfa Romeo, a Porsche 928, a Lotus, a weird Honda CVCC, a Ford Taurs SHO and a Mercedes Benz and owning the Westy is by far the most complicated.

When you have the Westy, parked in a snug little spot for the night, it's a lot of fun. Bu I'm a self-employed computer professional who needs less know-how to get through a day of work than I do to get through a day of camping.

jdsola Junior Member posted September 30, 2002 08:21 PM


I'm on my fourth one and found the learning relatively painless. Obviously it's a good idea to read the factory manual and buy the one from Bentley. I, too, have had heartburn with the refer. The DC setting doesn't come on until the car has run for about 20 minutes. The Dometic unit is a bit touchy and benefits from updating (see suggestions in Bentley). The system needs a good airflow though the ingition tubes and exhaust as well. Taking it apart is a great learning eperience,or, you can take it to a Dometic servicer. If it gets dirt in the flue, it just won't start. There are a couple of web sites that explore this in detail if you're interested. The stock shocks suck. I put on KYBs but have learned some prefer the Bilsteins. The heads (wassserboxer) go bad at 60 to 80K but most have been fixed. If you change the oil every 3000, the engines will last to 200+K. Get tires with stiff sidewalls. Use first as a starting gear and don't rev it above 4000. I bought mine new in '87 and have loved every mile of the 100+K on it. It just takes time.
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A. Cooper

New member
jerepowers asserts that the Westy is complicated, to which I must ask: "Compared to what?"

I find the Westy to be the perfect compromise between car-and-tent camping and a land-yacht RV. Having been washed-out and blown-out of many a pup tent -- once while motorcycle camping in gale-force winds on the shore of Lake Superior -- I really value the snug, dry warmth of the Westy, and the convenience of its full galley. All at a fraction of the cost of a big road-condo motor home.

Make no mistake, the big RVs have their own set of complexities, as evidenced by the numerous websites at least as elaborate as With their onboard electrical generators, satellite TV, and hot-and-cold running showers, one could easily spend more time fooling around with the various household systems than enjoying the outdoor experience. And maybe I'm generalizing but I suspect your average RV owner has enough money to pay somebody else to keep his rig in tip-top operating condition for him, whereas cheapskates like me are naturally attracted to the economical Westy, so we tend to do our own maintenance. Every car has its quirks, but neither an Alfa Romeo, Fiat Spyder, or any of the other cars you mention feature a popup tent, two bunks and a fully functional kitchenette.

You also quite correctly lament the overabundance of dumb service techs to be found everywhere from the local auto parts store to a large dealership. And this ubiquitous incompetence is probably the primary reason for doing one's own work. I've been sold so many wrong or inappropriate parts and products by ill-informed parts-store idiots, that I would never allow one of these clowns to change my oil or choose tires for me. And it has nothing to do with the Westy being a 20-year old oddball vehicle -- the same happens with my econobox hatchback daily driver. Most mistakes can be avoided by doing your research BEFORE you buy parts, and by purchasing from reputable, knowledgeable, VW-specific sources -- either locally or via mail order or internet.

Even when I'm not entirely sure what the hell I'm doing, I still figure I'm better off doing the work slowly and methodically, with good tools, following along in the shop manual, than I am handing it over to some kid at Jiffy Lube making $6.25 an hour, with four more cars waiting.

Perhaps you are no better suited to roll up your sleeves and dive into the engine compartment than I am to configure a remote ISP router in conjunction with a LAN line server hub -- in other words, not well-suited at all. My mechanic knows volumes more about VWs than I'll ever know, but can't figure out how to replace the device driver for his desktop printer. We all have different skills and predispositions, but that doesn't mean we cannot learn. So grab a socket wrench and get to work; you're only inexperienced the first time.


New member
Hi there! I couldn't agree more with that last post. Although I have been lucky and found a nearby VW Dealership that (through a series of there own errors) let me talk to there mechanic who was very helpful. I bought my '84 watercooled westy (no name yet) a couple of weeks ago and had the VW dudes give it a full inspection. They recommend replacing tie rod ends and heater core, which to me seems pretty good for such an old vehicle. Unfortunatly there's no way I'm gonna pay the close to $1,000 canadian for the heater core so guess what?? I'm gonna try it myself!! Haa!...haa!! Got me enrolled in a community college course too! (Auto)
I'm a 42 year old computer guy and an idiot when it comes to cars but hell! I'm gonna try! I'm even thinking of fixing up an old bug if I enjoy working on westy. I love these vehicles and buying mine is fulfilling a dream of getting back to my teenage years when I actually did work on cars (until computers came around. :) For all us computer types out there I think there is a strong relationship between automechanics and the computer world (both really tech/physics crowd) we've just never really come together very much in the past...maybe that'll change.
I'll keep you posted on my progress.

P.S. can you say "midlife crises" :)
at least it's not a motorcycle or
skydiving like two other guys i know..

cool baby, cool
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New member
Hi all, i'm currently looking at an '80 westy with about 184 km's on it. really good shape (some rust, especially at the bottom of the sliding door) and had an owner who obviously cared for it - never winter driven, with all the records to prove how much he loved it. what it needs is the heat exchangers (expensive I know) front brakes, rear wheel cylinder and a few boots are sliced. other than that it runs solid according to my VW friend who owns three Beetles.

now i'm a guy who is not buying a toy to play with, this will be my vehicle to drive all northern Ontario at that (i've been told about the crappy heat).

so the question is, whats the reputation of the 1980 Westy? i understand that reliability is on a vanagon by vanagon basis, but an overall generlization would be nice. should i be looking for any thing specific with this year?



New member
I posted, shortly after I bought my Westfalia 10 months ago, that owning these things is complicated and I see that two other people have replied -- half disagreeing with me but admitting the downfalls. I have now owned it for 10 months I still maintain that I have never owned another vehicle with as much bad information out there.

I realize that the Bentley manual is factory authorized, but it is still the worst auto manual I have ever used in my life. It there was an alternative, I would torch the Bently. The processing is frankly wrong as often as right and the diagrams are horrible. As bad as bar napkin drawings. If I followed the straight instructions for either the poptop or the refridgerator, I would have never finished either project.

Tires are still a sore spot. I actually had two shops refuse to sell me Yokahoma truck tires. And VW dealers hold me and my vehcile in complete contempt and have told me that no car dealer can be expected to offer complete service for a 20-year-old specialty vehicle. Two have told me flat out they will not even attempt to fix the dealer-install cruise control. (Compared to my old Mercedes, where, so far, they have had every part I need in stock.)

This is further complicated by the natural tendency (my opinion) that Westfalia owners would rather fashion their own solutions from bailing wire and toaster parts than separate $20 from their wallet. My previous owner used industrial epoxy to glue on a window crank for lack of the right-sized screw. I may have to replace the whole door, or at least the whole crank unit. And reading some of the Rube Goldberg experiments people have put in this site are sometimes frightening.

Having said that, however, this message board and Go Westy have been the only godsends of the whole experience so far. If it wasn't for Capt. Mike and other knowledgeable people here, and some free tech advice from Go Westy, some of the fixes I made wouldn't have been possible.

Again, I enjoy camping in the Westy. None better. But it might be easier to learn German and read the original factory manuals that has been, so far, to keep on top of stuff.

[This message was edited by jerepowers on July 03, 2003 at 12:04 PM.]

Mike Robinson

New member
I agree with your views on the Bently - I hate it. I have worked on cars for 20 years and it is the least friendly book ever. Anyone who loves it, undertands it and uses it is basically a better man/woman than me.

The Vanagon is a very strange beast at best. I think testament to its reliability are the number of early 1980's vehicles still moving. However I wonder how many of them are really safe.

I have always liked VW's - they seem to have 'somewhat' famed reliability, which I have experienced, however I think 'famed reliability' as long as you look after your vehicle with frequent maintenance and proactive fixings may be more true.

I have an '82 Diesel. In the last 3 years it has had $9000 CDN invested into it in the form of repairs (thakfully some of the previous owners investments as well). I think it is getting back to being relaible (touch wood). I have recently invested $1000 in getting the front suspension rebuilt - it did not really need it but it was riding on 21 year old rubber and ball joints. The level to which you want to maintain your vehicle is subjective, personally I would like my '82 to be like new mechanically, it is insurance towards saftey and reliability.

I think some of the repair costs do scare people in doing work themselves and doing work where they may not be competant - this has to be one of the notes on buying a westy - who has done the work - I have had to have owner work redone.

One of the keys to having this oddball vehicle is finding a mechanic that understands them. I feel very confident in the place I take it too, but the cost still kills me! so look around. I am a fan and not a fan of VW dealers. I do not personally use a dealer for my westy. I would do it as a last resort as there are at least 4 shops in Edmonton that know westys well.

I don't undertand the tire thing - the place I buy tires from recommended the Yokahomas.

Good luck, I hope the joy of camping outweighs the insanity!!!

'82 Diesel

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.

tjb Junior Member posted July 30, 2003 10:12 PM

I am considering purchasing a Westfalia.

I now have a 1986 Volvo 740 that I spend about $2,000/year in maintenance. (I take it to a reliable but expensive mechanic and stay ahead of all "mission-critical" issues.)

I have no mechanical expertise. Is there any rule of thumb or expectation about the cost of maintaining a 1986-1990 Syncro in the 100K miles range? I expect to drive it < 6K per year. I realize there are a lot of other variables but wonder if anyone can take a shot at this.

Capt. Mike

AT 6,000 miles per year, you're basically only looking at 2 oil changes, with a full 15K service every 2½ years. The super-big 30K service will thus only come every 5.

Oil change services, at dealers, is still only in the $30-50 range. A few bucks more for the tire rotation every 6K.

A major 15K service should still be in the <$300 bracket -- except the crazy priced places like NYC & CA, depending on how many extras you ask for.

The 30K is the biggie and will typically include CV joint repacks. There it can go $500. Bear in mind, these are middle-of-the-road dealer prices, and do not include any repairs.

Go the the tech drawings link and look at the maintenance schedule posted there for an "over maintained" vehicle. This will give you an idea of what to expect and you can compare it with costs in your area.

Repair but routine services, such as exhaust, brakes, water-pumps, etc., are competatively priced -- probably less than your Volvo.

Even major catastrophic repairs -- blown engine, tranny (except A/T), CV joints and the like are still probably going to beat your Volvo.

However, I can't think of any situation where the costs of a Vanagon get out of line. Probably your Volvo is considerably more in routine maintenance. MILEAGE, AGE AND DRIVING CONDITIONS EQUAL! That's where the difference sometimes comes in. The Vanagon is lower powered and many overload it, flog it to make up for the power/aerodynamics losses, and take it places your Vovlo will never go. We've got a MBenz diesel of that vintage and the maintenance costs of my Vanagon gas are waaaaay less. I'll probably get more miles before an engine overhaul with her diesel, but that's about it.
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New member
Hi very imformative postings. I just got my Westy 1984 1.9 watercooled and should I be concerned with the reliablity vers 2.1 engine? What is the difference in terms of reliability. My Westy has only 37K miles on it being gargaged for 10+ years. And is in excellent shape. The oil was low and so was the anti freeze, we filled both. Any comments? Seems like an excellent van and like others here im not the best car mechanic but I want to learn and the parts are readily availible. (Thank you Go Westy and Bus Depot)


P.S. Thank you for the info regarding the speed. It will stay in the 60 mph range.

Moderator Note: Tech & off topic questions edited out.


On a side note, and I'm sure Capt. Mike will move or delete this as being off topic, but FYI,,,
If the car has been sitting for most of ten years, you should change and flush ALL the fluids, especialy the coolant, and the brake and clutch fluid. Sitting is the worst thing that we can do to our cars. I would suggest that it's overheating problem may be due to it sitting so long, and needing a coolant flush.


Capt. Mike

The only 'reliability' issue with the early 1.9's is the head-bolt torque, which can be brought up to specs with minimal difficulty. See your Bentley 15.21-15.22 (Guideline #2). The torque value was increased to 50 Nm or 37 ft-lb. by service bulletins (updated in newer issues of the Bentley). Cylinder head torque sequence is in Fig. #15-495.

icarus is dead-on about flushing and changing all fluids. Also filters. Post tech questions in their respective forums & topics.


New member
Thank you for the info. was unaware of the tech. sections sorry...did not read down that far. Great site though...excellent information.
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New member
I've owned several VW vans over the years and currently have a 1982 Westfalia. I also have considerable experience as a mechanic. Aside from the engine and drivetain being situated in a slightly more "akward" position than other vehicles (lets face it, NO car is meant to be worked on by "normal" humans) The VW van isn't all that difficult to maintain/repair.
I do have to agree though, there are fewer and fewer places/mechanics that know their way around these wonderful"beasts" or want to spend tie on them. The guys from the VW shop across the street from me have actually come over to pick my brain from time to time. Aside from a few speciality tools they can be maintained with nothing more than a good set of hand tools.