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 trailersâ€¦none of them have been right for me. Then I discovered the Volkswagen Westfalia Syncro van. Forget everything you know about VW vansâ€”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 TulÃºm in the YucatÃ¡n 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.