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Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia

VanagonwestfaliaChris Hafner: The Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia doesn't have much to offer the enthusiast. Even the normal Vanagon was a slow, lumbering, ponderous, wheezing vehicle; only comparison to the original VW bus--a legend of slow motoring--would make the Vanagon look fast or agile. The Westfalia camper package, with added weight and higher center of gravity thanks to its tiny kitchen applicances and a pop-up sleeper tent roof, was even less athletic. The best thing that could be said about a Vanagon Westfalia on a twisty mountain road was that it was slightly racier than an RV.

What the Vanagon Westfalia offered was a dream. Like a turtle that moved slowly but carried its shelter on its back, the Westfalia's self-contained habitat offered the driver some real options. Heading down to the supermarket to grab some groceries? Fine, but if you feel like continuing your trip to, say, the Rocky Mountains, you've got a built-in camping spot. Why drop the kids off at school when you could just keep rolling up to the Yukon Territory to do a little fishing and hiking with the family?

VanagonwestfaliainteriorNever mind the fact that you'll probably sleep uncomfortably in the claustrophobic sleeping space, have a difficult time cooking anything on the tiny stove, and if the weather traps you inside with a few people for any length of time, you'll develop a nearly lethal strain of cabin fever. The point is, with the Vanagon Westfalia, you can do these things.

I mean, how cool is it when your everyday transportation can double as an apartment? No other everyday vehicle carries as much potential for adventure--albeit slow, ponderous, relatively uncomfortable adventure--as the Westfalia line of Volkswagen camper vans.

Big Chris: Allow me to regale you with a brief rebuttal of our deluded leader's fondness for the Vanagon. The time was 1984 and I found myself, along with my family, trapped in my aunt's air-cooled 1980 Vanagon. It was at that tender age of 10 that my hatred for the Vanagon was cultivated, and then repeatedly reinforced in subsequent years. We were traveling up the mountain from Loveland to Estes Park in Colorado. For those unfamiliar with this drive, it's a road you want to test drive the Ariel Atom on--steep and endlessly winding. You should know that when I was younger, I was prone to car-induced motion sickness. Every time I was in the mountains until the age of 14, I would get car sick. The Vanagon was unable to induce my car sickness.

Vanagonwestfalia3 To call it a slow vehicle would insult the Amish horse carriages which lumber along with the bright orange triangles on the back. Three-toed sloths move so slowly that moss grows on their backs, and the Vanagon moves only slightly more quickly. The Vanagon was an inadequate design for flat land usage. How my aunt thought it was a good idea to load it to the hilt with her relatives and then attempt to wheeze our way up the mountain is beyond me.

We had to stop at every curio shop on the way up. Not because we wanted something, or needed to go to the bathroom, or because there was something there of interest--no, that would be too reasonable. We had to stop four times on what would otherwise be a one-hour trip to allow the POS air-cooled engine to cool down to generate enough horsepower to keep on going. I imagined at one point traffic was backed up behind us to Denver. The only advantage to a car this underpowered is that you always have a clear path in front of you. Three hours later we made it to our destination.

Vanagonwestfalia5Years later this Vanagon met an untimely death with an engine fire that immolated the rear end as it once again chugged its way up to Estes State Park. Why couldn't it have died before being inflicted upon poor innocent me? Unfortunately, I wasn't along that day to revel in the glory of its death.

My secondary dislike for this vehicle stems from the fact that they are only slightly stronger than a balsa wood airplane. There is nothing to them (the earlier ones) to give you peace of mind that you'd survive an accident with anything larger than your average teenager on a bicycle. So when Chris wants to take you camping in a Vanagon, know that all the bears are looking at you like you are a Slim Jim in a cardboard canister on the store shelf.

Chris Hafner: You were in an air-cooled Vanagon? Ooh, ouch. Yes, those ran slower than molasses at the South Pole. The water-cooled Vanagon was excruciatingly slow, but the air-cooled Vanagons and VW Buses were among the slowest passenger cars ever made--like comparing a healthy but slow tortoise with a rotting animal carcass. Those vehicles established a level of slowness that wasn't simply sedate and conservative but was overtly unsafe. Has there ever been another vehicle as criminally underpowered?

Vanagonwestfalia2I could be insultingly glib here by saying something like, "Well, we've established that the Vanagon isn't exactly a race car." It's definitely worse than that brush-off would indicate, but I think it's true that the Vanagon doesn't exactly inspire visions of opposite-lock adventures. There's not an expectation of speed here. At the same time, I think you're ignoring everything that makes the Vanagon special and wonderful--especially the Westfalia camper. After you and your family eventually struggled up to Estes Park, annoyed and hot under the collar, did you all unwind by singing campfire songs while popping a package of Jiffy-Pop on the Vanagon's delightful miniature stove top? I'm betting you did, and you enjoyed every minute of it. Admit it!

Even if you had been stranded at one of those curio shops, the Vanagon Westfalia makes everything okay. I am convinced there's no better converter of road-trip lemons to lemonade. The Ford Taurus traveler, confronted with an immobile vehicle and fading daylight, would be nearly frantic to find lodging and safety. He would be willing to pay any amount of money for a terrible room at a frightening roadside inn.

Not so in the Vanagon--the world is your campground. Say you were stranded in a curio shop parking lot, you pop the top, fire up some dinner, and hit that curio shop the moment it opens its doors the next morning. Take that, curio fans--if you want to beat Big Chris to the carved novelties, maybe you should get a Vanagon Westfalia too.

Vanagonwestfalia4Big Chris: I think the only thing we might have been willing to do with the stove was burn the Vanagon down!

David Colborne: Has there been another vehicle as criminally underpowered? Yes--it was called the Renault Dauphine. Of course, that you can mention a Vanagon in the same space as the biggest waste of Marshall Plan funds imaginable does not bode well for its performance pedigree. ...

Mochi Mochi: What was the 0-60 time? My old Squareback's time was about 16 or 18 seconds.

Big Chris: I'm not sure the air-cooled Vanagon could hit 60 going downhill with a tail wind--a hurricane-forced tail wind. It would have a hard time hitting 60 falling off a cliff. It is a brick-shaped vehicle with only slightly more power than your neighbor kid's moped. VW should've offered The "Barney Rubble" option with holes in the floor boards to use your feet to push.

David Colborne: The Renault Dauphine could do 0-60 in a mind-blowing 32 seconds. The car was so bad, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 50 worst cars of all time. I still want one. :-)

Vanagonwestfalia6Chris Hafner: Yeah, I want a Dauphine too. But of course we stray from the topic. If you're not comfortable loafing along in a stock Vanagon Westfalia singing 2,678 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to fill the time on what would otherwise be a one-hour drive, I'd investigate whether a Porsche or Subaru boxer engine might fit. Maybe an all-wheel-drive Vanagon Synchro with the Forester XT's torquey turbo four might be a slightly spicier dish?

Probably a bad idea, though--you wouldn't want to subject your happy campers to excessive G forces. There's nothing worse than making s'mores with fragmented chocolate bars and graham crackers.

There are lots of great Vanagon and Westfalia resources on the web. is a great resource, and many of the advertisers on that site specialize in selling VW Westfalia fans of all vintages as well as Westfalia-specific accessories. The top image of the white Westfalia overlooking the Pacific Ocean is from Aloha, which rents VW Westfalia campers to tourists in Hawaii--a fantastic concept that makes me want to visit Hawaii and cruise around it in a Westfalia as soon as possible.

The interior shot is from a personal page that describes the joys of living with a Westfalia--an interesting read. All of the other pictures come from, another dedicated Westfalia site. In order, the Vanagons were contributed by Paul Rogers, Jean-Guy Bernier, Heather McCauley, Brian Clifford, and Tom Kirk.

The video is "a genre criticism of contemporary car commercials," but it works just fine at illustrating the Vanagon Westfalia's innate charm. Interesting music choice.


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That video is . . . is . . . I don't know what it is, but whatever it is, it's unique. "Ruby, don't drive your air-cooled Vanagon Westfalia to town." Whassupwiddat?

Chris, you win the debate on the design issue: the Westfalia is an amazing bit of space-efficient engineering. Big Chris wins on the issue of driving dynamics: I'd rather be sentenced to twenty years behind the wheel of the '78 Monza than have to wrestle that brick around the curves.

Chris: "I'd investigate whether a Porsche or Subaru boxer engine might fit."

I think the Subaru swap is fairly popular. Various VW four-cylinders are also pretty common, and I've seen a couple with VR6 swaps, although I think the VR6 probably takes more motivation to "fit."

Anyway, can't say I'm really a Vanagon guy, but I love VWs, so . . . close enough.

"I mean, how cool is it when your everyday transportation can double as an apartment?"

Motel room is more like it. The fact that it has an engine, and is putatively mobile, is secondary.

My college roommate and I took one of these on a great road trip 10 years ago. From Denver, we went up through Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, through the Calgary Stampede and Banff and Jasper parks in Canada. From there, we went west to Victoria Island (16% grade!), then down to Seattle (Pearl Jam concert) and Portland. By then, we were sick of each other and went for the marathon return home.

The water-cooled engine decided not to cooperate in Utah, so we spent several hours hanging out at a closed gas station which, while less scenic than the rest of the trip, wasn't bad when we had sleeping and eating facilities with us. When the engine decided to turn over again, we headed back to Denver. We managed 15 mph over Vail pass (I-70).

That trip was the only time that I made it to Montana in the "reasonable and prudent" speed limit era. And even though we had a Westfalia, we made it go 80 mph downhill. In that vehicle, 55 wasn't prudent.

The minifridge didn't work, so we used it for extra storage. Which was awkward when the customs inspector asked the tie-died 21 year old males driving the vehicle why there were large zip-lock baggies of white powder stashed in the fridge. (It was pancake mix.)

I think there should be a support group or special kind of therapy for dealing with childhood trauma brought on by our parent's/family's car choices and experiences. Imagine some kind of regression therapy for Big Chris and his Vestfalia issues. Or post traumatic stress treatments - we need this ! Why are these serious mental health issues falling through the cracks. It's criminal I tell you.

The music is just strange. There is no reason I can find for the selection. It's wrong and it must be founded in a weird kind of sarcasm or perhaps that's just the director's favorite song... which again is wrong. I suppose it could be some sort of Citizen Kane Rosebud kind of thing. But who cares.

Big Chris is right, the car is worse than Dog slow. But I'm with Cookie in awarding Chris the design issue medal.

When these came out I thought they were kind of cool but not terribly interesting. The styling was not bad. Now, based on Chris' argument, I'm sold on this car. I want one. But I don't think of this as a car any more. This is architecture on wheels. That's why I want one. It is only slightly smaller than my apartment. I've been thinking that an AirStream would be a good future home. This thing is perfect. As far as performance - fuggedaboudit ! Would you expect a house or small building to go fast or handle well? NO!!! of course not. It's a house. If it moved you'd be concerned. So to have tiny mobile architecture? That's just too cool no matter how fast it does not go;)

Buy a couple of these, park them in a circle and you have the makings of a larger modular living condition. My background in architecture predisposes me to being attracted to completely impractical building solutions. These Vanagon Westfalias could be arranged to form some kind of hive. The could be rearranged and reordered. One could build structures into which they were an integral component. This is the essence of the Deconstruction movement that Derrida and Eisenman were after. Tschumi in the Parc de la Villette juxtaposed competing programatic ideas to unsettle the notion of otherwise fixed programs for buildings. Does this work and does it make sense? Hell no! Just a lot of impractical academic architectural navel gazing. But that means that I have the makings of a great dissertation.

A building based on Westfalias would be awesome. In an academic setting I could make a case for it being related to Marcel DuChamps' ready-mades. But I just think it would be cool.

Should more than 2 people inhabit a Vanagon? No way. But with the right chemistry it could be wonderful for 2, and fine for 1.

I love the idea of a WRX engine in this mix. But we have to add hub spacers, dropped suspension, incredibly stiff anti-sway bars, and a portable deck with lounge chairs.

When I moved to L.A. I came close to renting a tiny apartment atop a hill in Echo Park. it was attached to a larger house. It was 10 feet wide and 19 feet long. The "living room" was an outdoor patio under an overhanging roof. It would have been a very quirky place to live, but it would have been cool too. This Vanagon thing is not too much different. I'm going to check Craigslist - these things can't be particularly expensive. Think of all the money I could save on rent!

A group of Vanagon Westfalias as a modular, hive-like home. I love it! You'd have more kitchens than you'd know what to do with.

each of the many tiny kitchens could be used to cook a different small dish simultaneously.

BTW it is very chic in architectural circles to build structures and homes off of shipping containers. You put the building materials in the container, ship it to the site. Use it as a work space. Build off of it. The finish it and move in. The same could be done with a Vanagon!

Found one in my area for a decent price:

Needs engine work, but to get decent performance they all do anyways. Saves you a few thousand on the price up front, then you just drop in something with more power.

SillyPickle - the blue one you found is very nice. I'm seeing a lot of these - they range from $600 - $18000.

$8000 Green

$18000 - restored and very clean.

$5000 Synchro - ALL WHEEL DRIVE :

$600 - needs work

I think I saw that green one too...

Heh. Cool van. And for the record, lots of subaru engines fit, but only one really rocks: the SVX's Eg33!!!! Yep. 230hp and 230ftlbs can be stuffed into a vanagon with this conversion kit:

Check out the site. They offer a ton of kits to cure the vanagon of it's wimpy engine. :)

@Rob: an SVX engine in a Vanagon Westfalia? Talk about your "sleepers!"

I remember when the first VW “bugs” hit these shores. A co-worker had one and it was OK for basic transportation. The basic VWs, and the succeeding Microbus and Kombi (I have an original sales brochure for these models with stick figures loading the Kombi) became the icons of the counterculture, and I have never understood why. Possibly, they were imports and therefore not related to the “nasty” domestic corporate entities. As the microbus became more popular, I heard owners mention the lack of acceleration, while they overlooked the fact that it was underpowered. What else do you expect when the same engine from the basic automotive frame was put in a cargo or people van with a much bigger load? The next point, which surprised me was how the engine was tough on valves. A low horsepower engine pushing a blunt front end into a lot of wind resistance is going to tax the engine components. I don’t know what the HP rating of the Westfalia was, but going by the commentary, it wasn’t enough. Then in the early 70’s, I briefly spoke with some members of a kit car group, who used mainly VW engines to power their cars. A complaint was how exhaust manifold bolts break off and are extremely difficult to remove.
Of all the early models, the only one that appealed to me was the Karmann Ghia, specifically the convert. I saw one once that had the same lines as the original, but was larger. I assume that it was imported from Europe by an individual. After that the only one that I cared for was the Scirocco.

They became counterculture icons because they weren't 4,000lb 23-ft long chrome plated symbols of excess. They were basic transportation. As in, designed around what most people really need.

Photos 3 & 5 from the top wouldn't happen to be Granite Falls park in washington, would they?

According to Wikipedia (, the Vanagon came with a variety of engine options, which, in the US, ranged from 67 HP (the air-cooled beater) to 95 HP (water cooled, fuel injected). To put that into perspective, the weakest engine you could throw in the first Dodge Caravan was the 99 HP 2.2.

I could be wrong, but I think it would be easier to retrofit a Caravan into a mini-RV than it would be to shoehorn a real engine into a Vanagon. Alternatively, if you really like the Vanagon shape, take an old Toyota Van (same shape, a little more power) and convert that.

Beautiful. Form follows function. I've always dreamed of having a Westy, but underpowered or not I'm more smitten with the 2nd gen (bay window) buses. Like most older VW's, folks either love 'em or hate 'em. Count me in the former group.

I remember reading years and years ago in one of the car rags that some Porsche engineers doing development on a vehicle (I can't remember if it was a race car or prototype production car or what) shoehorned a Porsche 6 into a vanagon they were using for a gofer-mobile. Said they got the funniest looks on the autobahn when people realized it was a vanagon PASSING them. I wonder why...

This probably deserves it's own carlust post...but Jeff, here you go:

Youtube video here:

Westy' or hate them, seems to be no in between. I tell people that driving my air cooled vanagon is like riding a harley..if I have to explain you wouldn't understand. I just got back from elk hunting and had a great time...cruised the freeway @70 slowing to 50 going uphill..If I am in a hrry I drive something else. When I am putting in my westy I am in no hurry and ejoying the sights.

Wow. All this talk about how underpowered the Vanagon is... it's like buying an M5 and complaining about the mileage!

My Vanagon goes plenty fast. It'll cruise at 75 on flat roads. It struggles going up steep hills, but that will be cured with a gowesty 2.3L motor soon.

My advice to all of those who whine about the underpower of Vanagon, do what I did: get a badass second car. My second is a 540i Sport with about 300 horsepower.

Alternatively, buy a Sportsmobile. Same basic layout as a Vanagon, but with American muscle (or German in the case of the Dodge Sprinter) under the hood. The American power gets you American (read: bad) mileage. But who cares??? Gas is down under $3.00 a gallon (I only put top brand unleaded in all my cars).

I've always loved the VW Vanagon. I've never owned one, I'm sorry to say, but I've always liked its boxy look. It may be quirky, but that's why I love the vehicle. Microbus or Westfalia, gas or diesel, they're my favourites. I'd buy one if I could find one that I like. I'm sure there are plenty of them. guys.....I've never laughed so hard in my life. Guess a half bottle of wine doesn't hurt either. The story and the comments are priceless...for everything else..??
Buy a Vanagon and enjoy life, one day at a time.


Okay some stuff has to be said about this. First of all tell me of any vehicle that is truly multipurpose these days? Second of all show me a vehicle which can be worked on by the common man these days? Their aren't many if you really look around. If you want muscle, which is not too much to ask in your car, then put in a subaru engine. The ej22 engine is rated at 135 hp and is a much better engine than the original wasserboxer was and is cleaner environmentally. Plus your gas mileage is about the same or slightly better also.
The reason why most people think that it is painfully slow is the fact that they either had a diesal (which had 47 hp by the way) or have grown too accustomed to fast cars and ridiculous notions of what is acceptable for speed. These cars were designed when the speed limit was 55 mph.

Besides show me a vehicle where you can boff your significant other anywhere in reasonable comfort anywhere at almost anytime. Try that in a honda crx. ;-)

Has anyone fitted a TDI engine into a synchro? the 2-0 16valve ones come with 170bhp and HUGE torque..(140 and 170 atre the Euro version outputs ..and can be 'chipped' for mroe) the lame 1900cc 90bhp one sold here in US still puts out substantially more power than the w/cooled sychro 4 .can it be done ?. is it a practical copnversion ?

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