Ultimate Adventure Rig: The 4-Wheel-Drive VW Camper Van

Ultimate Adventure Rig: The 4-Wheel-Drive VW Camper Van

I have been searching for the perfect adventure vehicle for years. Pickup trucks with camper shells, SUVs, Sportsmobiles, pop-up trailers…none of them have been right for me. Then I discovered the Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro van. Forget everything you know about VW vans—this extremely rare model has a military-inspired chassis and full-time four-wheel-drive with locking differential. It sleeps four, has a fridge, sink, and stove, fits in the driveway, and will go anywhere.

I have been searching for the perfect adventure vehicle for years. Pickup trucks with camper shells, SUVs, Sportsmobiles, pop-up trailers…none of them have been right for me. Then I discovered the Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro van. Forget everything you know about VW vans-this extremely rare model has a military-inspired chassis and full-time four-wheel-drive with locking differential. It sleeps four, has a fridge, sink, and stove, fits in the driveway, and will go anywhere.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been made since 1991. And it was only available for six years, with just 1,500 sold. However, after 18 months of searching, I finally found the right one and last week I pulled the trigger and dropped a big pile of cash on a beautiful 1990 model. With a new Subaru engine, it cruises the freeway at 75 and, though I’ve only used one tank of gas, gets 24 mpg. I couldn’t be happier.

My guide for the last year and half was Chris Dixon, a writer, photographer, and former editor of Surfer Magazine, who is as passionate about Syncros as he is about surfing. He’s on his third Westfalia at the moment and has restored a gorgeous one for his friend Jimmy Buffet, which appears above in a fresh coat of sea-foam paint. Chris wrote what remains the definitive piece on Westy Syncros, which ran six years ago in the New York Times. It’s every bit as relevant today, and Chris has generally let Adventure Journal present it here.

Bounding and bouncing through the dusty backcountry of the Hollister Hills in central California, Ron Lussier demonstrated a rugged bravado that would do the steeliest off-roader proud. “You know,” he said, ”roads like this are really the only valid reason for owning a Humvee. They’re completely silly in cities or even driving down the freeway. But get back here in one, and you can have some serious fun.”

After easily clearing a three-foot berm on Bonanza Gulch Road, Lussier headed for an alarmingly steep route, marked by a sign with a single black diamond, indicating a particularly tough off-road drive. Not convinced that his vehicle would make the ascent, I climbed out of the passenger seat and clambered up the road, occasionally on hands and knees, to watch his attempt. He released his clutch and lurched upward. Four knobby tires clawed the ground, and in about 20 seconds he made it, leaving several hooting onlookers, including me, astounded.

But Lussier wasn’t driving a Hummer; he was in a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Syncro camper.

That’s right: camper. After this grueling backcountry jaunt, the Syncro converted into a well-equipped R.V. — a trick no Hummer has ever mastered. And Lussier, a photographer from San Francisco, settled in for the night.

Produced in Germany and sold in America from 1986 to 1991, the Syncro Vanagon, a four-wheel-drive version of the standard, boxy 1980’s Vanagon, is now exceedingly rare, and rarer still are the camper models — the fully outfitted pop-top version made by Westfalia in Germany and the hardwood-trimmed models modified by Adventurewagen or Country Homes in the United States. The Syncro has a military-inspired undercarriage and a jacked-up drive train with a special gear for climbing hills; on the camper models attachments fold out, slide out and pop up to create sleeping space.

More than 50 Syncro owners, who had largely met through Syncro.org or an Internet mailing list, gathered a few weeks ago in an oak-shaded campground in the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area to compare notes and put their vans through the paces on challenging and beautiful backcountry roads. The vans are an anomaly amid the Jeeps, Land Rovers and four-wheel-drive pickup trucks that usually ride this terrain. ”People do get pretty surprised when they see us back here,” Lussier said as he rolled back into camp after our white-knuckle ride.

No one, not even Volkswagen, seems to know for sure, but hard-core Syncronauts estimate that only about 5,000 Syncros — 1,500 campers and 3,500 passenger vans — were sold in the United States. Well-preserved camper models now sell for almost their original sticker price of around $18,000 and are appreciating in value.

The couple — a married former Roman Catholic priest and a former nun — who sold Lussier his Syncro told him they had driven it from California to Alaska, where they lived in it. Lussier once shipped it to Venezuela and drove it through Brazil. Now, with upgraded shocks, wheels and a gleaming paint job, it is in superb condition. ”I don’t believe in mollycoddling it,” he said. ”You’ve got to use it. Otherwise, what’s the point in having it?”

Brian Smith, 44, of Oceanside, Calif., has a 1987 Syncro camper that he has customized with a microwave, toaster oven, camp heater and external generator. ”I swear to God if someone offered me $50,000 for this car,” he said, ”I wouldn’t sell it.” He added: ”I drove it down to Tulúm in the Yucatán and camped right on the beach. I went through Chiapas and saw the waterfalls and rain forests. You can go and camp 10 feet from the water, completely self-contained.”

These Syncro enthusiasts were preaching to the converted. Last year I purchased my own 1986 Syncro camper, paying $12,000 to a family in Los Angeles who had named it Cecilia. For me, Cecilia represented the ultimate journalist’s tool. In it, I could get nearly anywhere to cover a story, and I wouldn’t need a hotel. I could fix a cup of hot coffee, plug in a power inverter to run my cellphone-connected laptop and type away.

Of course, there was also the promise of camping adventures with my wife, Quinn, which we have pursued with abandon across California’s outback. And like many other Syncro converts, we soon began to wonder why there weren’t more of these versatile vehicles on the roads.

As Christian Bokich, a brand marketing strategist at Volkswagen, and Thomas Niksch, a mechanical engineer who runs a German Syncro enthusiasts’ Web site (www.syncro16.de), tell the story, the Syncro was both behind and ahead of its time. At $18,000, the camper model was expensive for 1986, yet it had only a 90-horsepower engine, better suited to a Beetle than a 4,000-pound van. It was complicated to manufacture, and Volkswagen was concentrating at that time on building a new minivan. The company was loath even to promote the Syncro, though magazines like Car and Driver gave it glowing reviews.

”I’ve had a lot of contact with managers from that time,” Bokich said. ”They said that the biggest challenge was that people weren’t getting the message about the Syncro.”

The Syncro’s origins go back to the late 1970’s when two Volkswagen engineers, dreaming of a vehicle they could use to camp and travel to remote places like the Sahara desert, built some prototypes. In the mid-1980’s, Steyr-Daimler-Puch, manufacturer of a legendary military off-road vehicle called the Pinzgauer, teamed up with Volkswagen to design and manufacture the Syncro.

IN many ways, it was a groundbreaking ground pounder. An independently suspended four-wheel-drive system gave it excellent ground clearance and kept all four wheels planted in challenging terrain. A locking system gave it tanklike traction by preventing any one wheel from breaking free and spinning. A viscous coupler, now a common device, automatically engaged the four-wheel-drive in response to any slippage in the rear wheels. Many of the inventions found in the Syncro have since made their way into vehicles like the Subaru Outback and Volkswagen’s own new S.U.V., the Touareg.

But it was the camper model that truly distinguished the Syncro. In it you could keep food fresh in a small refrigerator, cook it on a two-burner stove, wash the dishes in a stainless-steel sink with water from a 13-gallon tank, store gear in a series of cabinets and sleep four people comfortably. The little-known Syncro camper was a backcountry mobile home, the ultimate expression of a sport utility vehicle before the term was even coined.

At the Hollister camp, Brent Christensen, a director of product development for a software company in Santa Barbara, Calif., described a family trip ”all the way up the coast, close to Seattle, then through the Sierras” with stops at out-of-the-way campsites. ”We’ll say, ‘There’s a neat-looking site, but it’s right over that big berm and down between those two trees,’ ” he said. ” ‘Let’s see if we can get down there.’ The next morning we wake up with the creek outside our front door.”

Eric Ching, 35, a lifeguard from Huntington Beach, California, and his wife, Tina Om, have taken their 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, around California with them, charging in their 1990 Syncro through the soft sand dunes of Pismo Beach and the deep snow of Mammoth Mountain and up the punishing hills at Hollister (where Zoe snoozed in her car seat the whole way). ”We like going places you don’t see people,” Ching said.

Brian Smith’s Syncro traveled the world even before he and his family began taking it on trips to Mexico. ”The guy who owned it before me was a diplomat,” Smith said. ”They shipped him out to Africa to work and he shipped the van. He was with his wife and two kids camping in the van and they woke up one morning and thought there was an earthquake. They look out the window and there’s an elephant running at them. He just jumped down from his bed with the pop-top up and started driving. The elephant collapsed the back hatch but they got away.”

The Internet has not only coalesced the thinly spread community of Syncro zealots, but created a viable market for Syncro parts. Today, you can buy any Syncro part online, including oversized South African VW wheels and improved suspension components from Australia. You can even swap the engine for a more powerful VW turbodiesel or a Subaru Outback powerplant.

Lussier said he was already wondering how to put an electric engine in his Syncro in the distant future, when he expects petroleum use to be banned.

Like several owners at Hollister, he said flatly that he would never sell his Syncro.

I think I’ll hang on to mine, too.

See more of Chris Dixon’s work at his website. Photos from GoWesty, Chris Dixon, and The Samba.

Volkswagen Westfalias are kept alive by an incredibly passionate tribe of enthusiasts, and there’s no shortage of online beta. Here are a few sites to get you started:

Syncro.org Clearing house for everything Syncro.

Westfalia.org Much more than Syncros

Gowesty.com The number one Westfalia candy store on the planet. GoWesty rebuilds and restores vans to better than new, complete with five-year warranty. But you’ll pay for reliability, oh, you’ll pay. Still, GoWesty has parts galore and one of the best online resource libraries available.

The Samba Bookmarked on my toolbar, I visited the Samba almost every day for the last 18 months. Forums, classifieds, and more. This is where I found my Syncro–wanna know what’s for sale right now? Here you go.

Vanagon vs. Eurovan, what’s the diff? A great primer from GoWesty.

Van Cafe Another candy store. GoWesty without the hoopla.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
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Showing 78 comments
  • Jeb

    “Van Cafe Another candy store. GoWesty without the hoopla.”

    More like without the high prices and BS of HoWesty!

  • Nate Rogers

    I have a 90 Adventurewagon, 19K original miles, with all original stuff, except new tires and clutch. has no blems, is white and everything works. Has been maintained by me, ASE Certified Mechanic and Volkswagon, original keys, all 4, original paperwork, every option and some add ons. Synco of course. Tent for front, Awning used once, no rust whatsoever, pristine and runs great. third gear syncro is a bit testy but not a drop of fluid on the garage EVER. Looking for interested party. Will consider all REASONABLLE offers. Pics available on request. Serious inquiries only. Forced air thermostatically controlled, water system, led lighting upgrades, AGM batteries and HID lighting. One owner before me and he kept even the original window sticker. this is a jewel of a jewel. Manual 5 speed with granny gear.

  • Evan

    I think this post just convinced me to keep our 87 syncro and convert it to a camper….

  • Linda

    Nat Rogers. VERY interested in a syncro camper. Either westfalia.org, samba.com, van cafe,com or go westy.com sites that may have a camper by VW.

  • April Humphrey

    Wow, where do we get these and what are the price ranges? I have to have one.

    Thank you.

  • laura

    hello: anybody know specifics about bringing a syncro from canada into us??? thanks so much

  • Vince

    I have a white 1989 Syncro Westfalia, powerd by a 2.0 jetta motor that I purchased used from Chris (Overland Eurospec conversion, he said it powered Mr. Buffets Syncro for a while). Ive had it for 12 years, and Im thinking its time to sell it, hoping to find a good home for a clean syncro =)

    • Jane Borish

      What are you looking at as an asking price for your syncro? The big question I need answered is, how mechanically reliable are these compared to the Vanagon? Do I need to be a VW mechanic in order to own one? Thanks for your time. Jane

  • Brendan

    I’ve been pretty obsessed with the Syncro since I first saw them a few years back. I live on the coast of northern california, where there are many areas without roads that are passable by normal automobiles. As a result, we have quite a few Syncros in this area. I’ve seen at least 5 (and there are only about 30,000 people in this area) so there appears to be a large concentration of Syncros in this area.

    I hope to own my own Syncro at some point. Great post, and I hope you enjoy your Syncro.

  • stiv

    Casimiro has air conditioning! Tender foot!

  • transporterwerks

    We Love Vanagon’s. there is nothing better than going deep into wilderness with a trusty Syncro.
    Check us out. We are the Vanagon shop of the East. Raleigh NC.
    My personal van is a 1991 Multi van Syncro DTI. Lots of available power and 26mpg. You get power and efficiency. The go anywhere van.
    I built it my self. Its a conversion from a 2wd automatic.

  • Andrew

    I have my Westy Syncro apart in my garage and need to replace my front lower ball joints Need HELP!! what do I need to do to remove old ones ??

  • Alfons

    Syncros are nice until you discover a Mitsubishi Delica l300 4×4 Diesel.

  • patrick begley

    I want one for christmas…where can I get one…..please find one for me…..thanks patrick begley

  • Curt Johnson

    I am leaving the insane practice of law after a quarter century. Next career is traveling my beloved Baja and writing and chilling. Does anyone have a Syncro camper that has a relatively low mile engine and needs some upgrades to prepare it for the next life adventure? I am in Northern California. Thanks. Curt

  • Kaki L.M Muniafu

    Wonderful write up,thanks for sharing all the info and wonderful pictures.My involvement with VWs goes back to the early ’70’s in Kenya when my dad(R.I.P) owned a basic VW Kombi(with a manual sliding sunroof) and we took many family trips across the African landscape.I remember seeing different widlife as we traversed the countryside.Of course,I am much older now and have recently rekindled my interest in VW’s(Subarus are my first love thanks to my eldest brother Joe…but thats a story for another day)…currently have an eye on a Vanagon Syncro project.I hope that one day I can organize a decent and safe African overland expedition with the help of my fellow VW enthusiasts.

  • Jeffrey

    I have a really nice 89 Westfalia Syncro for sale. How can I reach you?

  • Wali

    Sweeet! That would be the greatest vehicle ever sold,,
    if it had an engine.
    I had “Miles”my ’86 Westy for 10 years (nine of which it was not running) and drooled over the 4WD for years.
    Alas, I’ve given up on my Syncro dreams and gone over to the “other” side. I just acquired an ’94Chevy Astrovan AWD that I am planning to westify. I was sucked in by the reliability and cheap parts.

    Still, the Syncro is waaaay cooler. (Especially with the Subaru mill)

  • menchu

    Sounds right up my alley…am looking to use it for my grey nomad years. Anyone know if they were imported into Australia, particularly Melbourne where I am? Would appreciate some feedback, or maybe I can just get in touch with VW Australia…thanks, cheers!

  • The Dude

    Mitsubishi Delica L300 are nice until you discover a Mitsubishi Delica L400.

  • Jake

    Mitsubishi Delica l300 and L400 are both nice, then you get a westfalia syncro with a chargecooled mechanical VW 1.9tdi… And you realise you have the ultimate small platform adventure rig…

    See campervanculture.com

  • The Dude

    More like ultimate repair bills. Seriously VW buses are the worst things ever built. There like Communism. Good on paper, the craps in practice.

  • Jake

    Haha, Well your obviousy doing something wrong with your maintenance or believing all the horror stories. 😉
    Mine drove to the Sahara and back with nothing but a slight split in a hose, and returned 34mpg (UK).

    The Delicas don’t look as they’d have much in the way of internal space? We had 4 Adults seated comfortably and cooked dinner inside a van the weekend..

  • The Dude

    Haha. I had 7 Adults seated very comfortably and 1 dog…and we ate a restaurant.

  • Caitlin

    Hi there! My friend and I are planning on doing a 2 1/2 month road trip from Alberta to Florida in the summer time and I think one of these would be perfect. Anyone selling? cartercaitlin at hotmail dot com !

  • vicki

    I’m new to this site…I just discovered it! I am searching for a Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon Syncro. I just missed one today in Santa Fe and I’m disappinted!!! It was a very good price too. If anyone can help me out I would appreciate it!

  • Bobo

    If you want to get a first hand look at syncros in action, come to Syncro de Mayo, May 5-8, 2011 in Hollister CA.


    Syncro de Mania!

  • sourdough

    If you off-road any tall, narrow vehicle watch out for tip overs. I just saw an article where a VW syncro did just that in Holister Hills, Ca.

  • Suzanne Hill

    How much do these VW syncros sell for? I can’t find it on the Internet anywhere.

  • Vans

    I know some people would think that paying $12K for a 20 year old VW is high… but when you compare it to what is on the market in a Class B of the same age it’s a no brainer. A Chev or Ford with a Fiberglass top may have more room, but won’t get you anywhere. And the engineering of the interiors of typical Class B’s of that era was non existent. You roll down the road and everything rattles and creaks, and a small side wind has you blowing off the road. I always have my eyes open for one of these with a pop top that will fit in the garage but my chances of ever finding one are slim and none. Class 2’s that are beat beyond belief are still fetching $2,500 and they look like they belong in the wrecking yard. I’m also very envious of Unicats and Earth Roamers but they are way out of my price range and hardly garageable. Excellent article and write up. :).

  • Tyson Hall

    I’m doing a Westy conversion on a ’87 Syncro I shipped down to Seattle from Alaska. It has the Subaru conversion already. Here is the blog if you are interested: http://syncrorevival.wordpress.com/

    The adventure has just started…

  • Dr. Frank R. Douglas

    I wrote before but do not know if you ever loaned out your camper or sold it.

  • Gordon Kaye

    In mid 1990s, I used a VW Syncro passenger vehicle off road in Southern Africa. Many of the roads were steps in rock about a foot high. The Syncro would go anywhere the front bumper could cross. Locking front and rear diffs helped when wheels in opposite corners were off the ground.The 4×4 Mazda and Toyota competition were virtually useless with only one wheel off the ground Crossing 45 deg slopes was a little uncomfortable, especially for the passengers.

  • Puu

    l am looking for a westfalia camper syncro and if anybody knows please contact at
    alohapuu (at) yahoo (dot) com


  • Tony

    I picked up my first Syncro in Germany in 1987. Drove it around europe for 6 weeks b4 shipping it home to San Clemente. My ex got that one. Bought a used 87 syncro which was destroyed by a drunk driver. I was going 70 on the freeway, he was going about 90, took off the entire left rear corner including the left tire. I’m told the van rolled several times (there was both asphalt and weeds from the slope I landed on stuck to the roof). FYI, the roof stayed on! In fact it smashed the rain gutters down which made it impossible to open the doors. Somehow I walked away, but Hilda was killed as there wasn’t a part that wasn’t damaged. Never could find a decent replacement.

  • antonio malave

    I remember the sixties before the Toyota.Great times had alot of free fun and love. those were the days young dumb and full of ya Now I,m old an would like to do my bucket list .that ,s to ride these United states of America, state roads 1 tank of gas at at time if GOD is willing.I am looking for a V.W. Westfalia Syncro camper van 1991 or > .tip top shape only. that means only the best of the bests, no junks or rip offers need apply.thank you and GOD BLESS antonio

  • Carlisle

    Those are amazing rigs! Too pricey for me right now, but I’m loving ski and roadtrips in my 95 all wheel drive astro van I picked up for 2 grand. The cabinet and bed systems in the Westy make me so envious though!

  • Joe in NH

    I am looking for a Syncro GL, running or not. Planning on a TDI swap, located in NH. Email if you have or know of one that is for sale.

    Thanks, Joe in NH

  • Joe in NH

    Should include my email address: joe18d at aol.com.

    Thanks, Joe

  • Shanti Nelson

    I have a 1989 Adventurewagon, syncro, 4wd located in Alameda, CA…white, in good condition. I am looking to sell it…

  • Corey

    Hi, I am the new owner of the brown one (with the pics of front and rear with the bike rack) half way down!

    Kinda weird to see it somewhere besides my driveway!

  • Tom

    And I am the owner of a 1990 Syncro Westy that has a lot of service records under the name Corey…… Mine has a 173hp 2007 Subaru motor.

  • prem robiie

    aloha everyone , i have a 1990 vw westfalia and got in a wreck i wonder about people who have insights into re creating this epic dream machine am in central california . . .

  • Mike

    ok, i’m sold on so many levels… don’t know how many times i’ve been back to this and many other syncro pages daydreaming! but where to start for a climber living in the north east with little car experience? any syncro heads here in the north east willing to give some first hand guidance… syncro mentorship? heymikehong [at] gmail

  • Stu Phillips

    Love your site! Do you happen to know where I could buy a Volkswagon Vanagon Adventurer top or cap for my ’84 Van. It can be either new or (preferably) used. Thanks. Stu.

  • Ricardo Farinha

    The orange one is mine, amazing vehicle, selling it as there is nowhere I can park it in Vancouver;too tall. Originally a US vehicle so it should be easy to bring back there. Weekender config with new VW engine.

  • Oyvind Henningsen

    hi Ricardo,

    could you contact me at telemarkski at comcast dot net if your vehicle is still for sale


    • Dhymitruy Bouryiotis

      Anthony Ricardo Farinha of Vancouver—owner of that orange syncro—is being extradited from Canada by the U.S. Government to face criminal charges for importation of illegal drugs (this is public information though there is a press ban on the details.) I would avoid having ANY kind of commercial transaction with him, especially involving cross-border—it will put you on the Feds radar and you DON’T want that.

  • Marc Lawrence

    Having dreamed of camping + hiking + photo around USA (or NZ…) – I was always disappointed with the latest ‘converted minibuses’ – so was pleased to find this site and information. Does anyone know where to get information for one of these in Switzerland / Europe? Or are there more recent innovations in this market area?

  • Bruce A.

    I am within 1 month of retiring and excited at the prospect of finally having time to explore America.

    If anyone has a VW Westy 4 wheel drive Syncro Camper for sale, I’d like to hear from you !

    manatee (at) spsp (dot) net

  • Justin Gewandter

    I’m located in Massachusetts and have begun to search for a Syncro Camper. If you have one for sale, please email me at jgewandter at gmail dot com. Thanks!!

  • Jake

    Awesome article, all I have driven since I passed my test is a Syncro of some kind. I am lucky enough to own a Westfalia Syncro – I am not sure there is any vehicle out there that offers so much versatility in such a small space. I can comfortably camp with my family, prepare food, have running water etc etc yet it still fits in the parking space of a volvo estate. Not only that, a properly kitted out Syncro can keep up with most Land Rover / Land Cruiser style vehicles when the road ends. If you love these vans, watch some of our videos at campervanculture!

  • Carl Oldham

    Looking for a 1994 Volkswagen van and up 1902 -679-7702

  • Nalaka Dekumpitiya

    Hi everybody, i m new to this site and looking for steering rack and clutch kit for volkswagen T2 syncro.
    please let me know from where i could find them. Nalaka

  • heidi clifford

    hello I love my 89 syncho camper – I however live in Alaska and the tiny itsy bitsy tires at 14 inch rim makes it look like a mouse I want it to look like a tiger. What is the max I can do to beef up this little mouse. I am willing to buy new rims if it is possible, new tires that have more tread, more height etc. not like a bubba machine on main street but a beach, fishing machine in Alaska- Please help although we are predicting snow this weekend 3rd week of May yes I am in the market and want to make a good purchase. Thank you in advance adventurers!

  • SYinc (@SYincTravel)

    Our 1987 Syncro (Subaru engine) is taking us down the Oregon Coast as of this Friday! So excited.

    Follow along with us (and teach us your Syncro tricks) on Twitter or Instagram via the hashtag #SYincOR… as in ‘sink or swim’ 😉

  • Kim

    WOW!! All I did was ask the Google what the function of the syncro on a VW Wesfalia was, and I get a picture of Jimmy Buffet’s van!!!!!! LIFE IS GOOD!

    Long story short, which you know is BS, 3ish years ago, my husband and I spent 2 weeks on the Big Island. 1 week with friends and family getting married, 1 week driving around it in a Westfalia on our honeymoon. So awesome. And, neither one of us is any spring chicken. It was incredible.

    The people that live there were exactly as you would expect them to be. No one anywhere else on this planet has a heart as big as the Hawaiians do.

    We went counter clockwise around the island. Starting in Kapoho. Just fabulous I can’t even tell you the experience. That was when we made 2 decisions, 1 to retire to the east side (Hilo) of the Orchid Island, and 2 to buy a Westfalia to drive around and see everything else. What more perfect place to own such a vehicle. There are NO humungous RV’s or, KOA parks on this island. you get to stay at county parks, where the locals go for all night family parties or Wednesday night pot luck music parties.

    The last night we were on the Big Island we wanted to stay close to the airport. We had an early flight to Maui. 🙁 (could’ve easily stayed on the big Island longer). We were planning on parking in front of a beach park with a police station in it, when we ran into a guy on a bike. He was so jazzed to see us in this van, having owned one, he invited us back to his house to park in the front yard and use his bathroom if needed. He told us it probably wasn’t a good idea to park on the street in front of the police station. It was his pool night and we were honored to watch him and his friends play pool and engage in a lot of jovial banter.

    We would have never had this and many more experiences if we weren’t in the Westfalia. Staying in some hotel would have been just staying in some hotel. BORING

    We want to recreate this experience before it’s too late!! A Westy now and take it to Hawaii later. I love the stories on this blog, you all are great. And, yes there was a beer or 2 down my gullet before I wrote this.

  • Bruce Landon


  • Ross

    I own a 1991 Adventurewagen Syncro with a Subaru engine. Its expensive to keep up, I spent $7,000 on transmission rebuilds over last two years and had to pull it out three times. New transmissions and many other parts are now obsolete. The van has 350,000 miles and I would rather have a new and a more dependable camper, except there are none!!!. My question is: could someone seriously explain to me why are there no 4×4 small campervans or any small campervans made in or even imported into USA, while there is such a choice of them in Europe? US offers so much more for campers to visit and see and no rigs. US camper equipment stores look like a relic from 1970’s. Just visit http://www.reimo.com and compare it to campmore – the only such store in US! Is there any economic sense to it? Or is it all about protectionism?

    • JamesInSeattle

      Google “chicken tax wiki” for the answer.

  • Paul

    I’ve owned four Westfalias.
    1974, 1976, 1987Syncro,1987(2wd), and 1990 w 2.0 Jetta engine (much better motor than stock).

    If you’re looking to buy, get a ’87 – ’91. They are appreciating in value, so buy the best one you can afford- you’ll get your money back -and more- when you sell it. It took me seven months to find my latest, there is a lot of junk/rust out there. Consider that the Syncros are quite a bit heavier than the standard Westy, and much more expensive to service and repair. With the stock engine, it is vastly underpowered. The engines have quite a reputation for head gasket leaks. My 2 wheel drive Westys can go nearly anywhere, the Syncro is not needed unless you are on ice or hard-core offroading. In that case, the Syncro is UNSTOPPABLE! Again, the good ones are being snapped up and if you are serious, have cash ready and be the first one there. I lost three good ones due to being there second in line. Limited numbers of garage-kept low mileage Westys = more valuable than Porsche 911 Carreras of the same year, believe it or not!

    • steve casimiro

      Good info, mostly, Paul. 2WDs won’t go nearly anywhere, and Syncros aren’t unstoppable. The approach and exit angles, even when lifted, can be a problem. A loaded Syncro with stock gearing can definitely be stymied by ledgy climbs. But they’re still among the most capable rigs you can image — I worry more about the reliability of the mechanics of mine that its ability to get in or out of things.

      • Paul

        The 2WD Westys can certainly perform well in the common offroad situations, good traction and ground clearance. Approach and Exit angles = rockclimbing and serious offroading.
        For general dirt, mud & gravel roads, the 2wd can be surprisingly versatile. I’m not climbing any rock ledges on doing the Rubicon Trail !

        The reliability is certainly an issue – my ’87 it had a porous engine block, and mimic’d a head gasket leak. VW created a nightmarish ‘mickey mouse’ coolant system when they converted old tech air cooled engines to water cooling, and it always left me anxious when one of the 47 factory special coolant hoses would burst and leave me stranded. Most mechanics have no clue or experience with these engines, therefore it is stressful to travel to the boondocks. H*ll, in Michigan, the VW dealer was completely baffled by the Syncro Westy (in 1989)- they had never seen one, and failed to diagnose the common ‘engine cutting out when turning left in the rain’ syndrome. (good luck finding anyone these days who knows wasserboxer diagnosis and repair).

        Solution: Dump the old problematic engine.

        My #5 Westy has an inline 4 cylinder 2.0 Audi engine. (CARB approved for Calif.) It has more power, better gas mileage and eliminates all the weak points of the original water cooled VW engine. I love it. Embrace modern engine updates – these Westys are like DC3’s – they can be rebuilt forever and modernized to provide decades of reliable use.

        Now, if I could have the Subaru H6 engine (boxer 6 cyl), or the Porsche 3.2 911 engine,
        I would be smiling all day.

        • steve casimiro

          Mine has the Subaru EJ22. The engine is reliable, for the most part. There’s a head gasket leak that needs attending. Most of the issues come from other things wearing out (ignition, starter) or the complexities of putting a Subi in a VW. When this conversion was done, it was the early days and things have been much improved since then.

  • Nirav V. Patel

    Surprised no one has mentioned the http://www.bostig.com engine conversion. I say find yourself a nice 2×2 or 4×4 vw camper and convert the engine to something more reliable (when the original dies). These are great vehicles.

    • Paul

      Keep in mind that any engine conversion that does NOT have ARB sticker for Calif. will seriously limit the potential pool of buyers- you cannot smog/register a non-compliant engine in CA, (except for the few rural counties that have relaxed smog rules). Therefore, you will be unable to sell your westy to the biggest pool of buyers (in urban areas) = value is greatly diminished.

      I looked at three ‘engine conversions’ and not one was legal in the eyes of CA smog Nazis.
      After several months of searching, I found a CARB legal conversion that was professionally installed, and bought it. ( saving me considerable $$$ over doing the conversion myself).

      Take a look at this conversion-
      Stephans Autohaus in Sacramento, Ca has a legal 1.8 Turbo conversion that rocks.

  • Ken Achenbach

    I had the first Syncro in North America, I bought it from Northlands VW for $21,000 and put 600,000 k on it in 8 years, spending I’m sure close to the same amount to keep it going. It was the van shipped over from Germany for all the press to get excited about before they were released for the public in North America. According to the dealer, the down tuned 911 engine it had in it, they needed to replace… without asking. I think the word came from Germany on that one… Yeah, it was a little slower after that. Driving it in California and Colorado was something else. Watching people loose their shit on a 4×4 VW van was pretty funny. Towing Jeeps out of snowbanks and mud was always entertaining.

    When the engine caught fire due to a shoddy repair at the Kamloops VW dealer and was stolen from the tow yard before I could get back from Europe, that was the first hint that it might have been a little collectible. To say I was pissed was an understatement. I wanted to make the million.

    I could tell you the cost of every part on it because as everyone who’s had one knows, if it isn’t broken yet it will break soon. I was too sentimental to ditch it. Maybe it getting stolen was the way to go… kind of like a cat that knows it’s going to die and runs away to die on it’s own.

  • D Boyle

    If you are interested in finding a premiere VW Westy and Subaru conversion garage you have to check out The Buslab in Berkeley, CA… Go see or call Marco or Steve and find out more… This place rocks!!!

    – D. Boyle, Newtown, CT

  • Joe Tommaney

    The Vanagon is the ultimate utility vehicle, sport or otherwise. With all seats in place, it sits seven adults with considerable luggage volume. with the middle seat removed and the back seat folded down, you can load many 4 X 8 foot sheets of material and still have room to loaded additional materials ( in Germany, it is rated as a 1-ton truck) It is easy to drive in traffic and parks like a sedan. Be it in the city or in the country, it is a great vehicle. We have had our tin top syncro since the 1986 model year was introduced in August, 1985. I anticipate that one of our daughters will inherit it when we are no longer able to drive it.

  • Leon Z

    Cool vans but no towing capacity…give me an American vehicle with a v8 engine.

  • Mina

    I’m still looking for a fully self-contained (that means shower/toilet) Westy. Didn’t they come with a walk-in shower at some point? Help…anybody?

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