Our family had been doing road trips in our trusted but admittedly boring Honda Odyssey and tent camping for a couple of years before we purchased our Vanagon.
In 2014, we took one final road trip to Shenandoah National Park in our Odyssey and on the way home from that trip picked up our Vanagon in Philadelphia. The day we picked up our Vanagon was a milestone for our family, and we’ve been taking advantage of all of the traveling freedom that the Vanagon brings ever since.
We looked for about a year before purchasing our Vanagon, and by “we” I mostly mean “I” since my wife and kids just knew they wanted a VW camper and didn’t really care too much about the specifics. After spending months on thesamba.com forums (a very active and helpful internet community of Volkswagen owners), we had a pretty good idea of what we were looking for.
The particular model that we ended up buying is a 1986 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Weekender Wolfsburg Edition. That’s a mouthful but after a lot of research we decided it was the perfect model, so let’s unpack it:
- 1986 Vanagon: water cooled engine, later generation cooling system, 2100cc engine. Heat!
- Westfalia: Poptop Camper with an upper and lower fold-out bed, easily sleeping four of us
- Weekender: No kitchen/cabinets. A rear-facing jump seat and fold out table instead.
- Wolfsburg Edition: No idea but sounds fancy and comes with a nice emblem on side of van.
If you’re new to VW campers or are just starting to look for one, here is how we decided which model/year/type best matched our family’s needs:
Bus vs. Vanagon vs. Eurovan
When I was in college, I used to own a 1977 VW camper and it was the best vehicle for that time in my life and I of course wish that I never sold it! I logged countless (mostly trouble-free) miles camping up and down the east coast in my camper.
As much as I think the pre-Vanagon “bus” campers look much better than the more chunky and square Vanagons, I decided that now that I am traveling with my family (wife +2 boys), it might be a better idea to go with a 1986 or newer Vanagon, mostly for reliability reasons. The later year Vanagons have a water-cooled engine making it less prone to overheating and the van would actually have heat in the winter time — two of the bigger drawbacks of my ’77 camper.
I also knew I didn’t really want a Eurovan because the upright driving position shared by the bus and vanagon and the huge cinematic windshield were really important to me and with the Eurovan, Volkswagen completely changed the shape of the vehicle and abandoned the upright driving position. So, anyway, we decided on a Vanagon.
The Vanagon design replaced the older bus design in 1979 but VW didn’t add the water-cooled engine until 1983. Then, in 1986, Volkswagen added a slightly larger water-cooled engine in the Vanagon (and made a few other upgrades/refinements). As such, because of these updates in the 1986-1991 Vanagons, we were able to narrowed our focus to those years.
Camper vs. Weekender
Both the Camper and the Weekender Westfalias have pop-tops that open and allow for upper and lower, large fold out beds. Both the camper and the Weekender would pretty easily accommodate sleeping for the four of us. The biggest difference between the two models is the full camper has a fridge and a stove built-in whereas the Weekender doesn’t have a stove or the cabinetry it requires and as such on the Weekender model the fold-out bed is wider and there is an additional rear-facing jump seat.
My 1977 was a full camper and I very rarely used the sink and the cabinetry just became general storage. For me, the accessories of the full camper were more novelty than practical. Especially since as far as camping was concerned, we do most of our cooking outside at the campsite and I preferred the larger interior and extra seating of the Weekender over the full camper.
The full camper would probably be great for just two people traveling, but with a family of four, I think it would be too cramped for our family.
With this in mind, we narrowed our focus on the Weekender. I’ll add that after our first summer and fall seasons of camping, the Weekender configuration works great for us and I’m really glad we held out to find the right model.
For more details about the different models, years and types of VW campers, GoWesty.com (a popular though pricey VW Vanagon restoration company on the west coast) has a good overview on their website.
Finding Our Vanagon
After casually looking for about six months, I had a pretty good idea of what our Vanagon would cost. I was looking for an ’86-91 Westfalia Weekender that I could take on long trips without having to do a lot of work to it before taking our first trip. I wanted it to be as safe and reliable as one could expect a 30 year-old vehicle to be.
As you can see from the price list from GoWesty of Weekenders that they have sold, there are people who are willing to spend an outrageous amount of money on Vanagons. These GoWesty prices reflect Vanagons that have undergone a lot of restoration and the prices aren’t necessarily typical of the ones you’ll find for sale from individual sellers.
Still, if you are patient and keep your eyes opened, there are deals to be had. There is a great thread on The Samba forums called “Good Deals on Nice Vans” that is worth keeping an eye on when you start to lose hope and see a lot of vans selling for way beyond your budget. After watching the “Good Deals” forum and setting up some automated searches on eBay and Craigslist and the very helpful Westfalia’s For Sale website, I hit on a target budget of $10-14k for our dream machine.
We could have budgeted much lower and found something that required some elbow grease to get on the road but I wanted something that we could start camping in as soon as possible. My rationale here being that there are only so many more years where my boys will actually want to cram into the camper and go camping with mom and dad. I didn’t want to blow an entire camping season or more having the van worked on so that I could possibly (but not necessarily) save a few thousand dollars. I’m not sure how you put a price tag on missing a season of camping with your kids but after watching a bunch of build/restore threads on different forums and websites and seeing how long some of these restorations take, my advice would be to buy the most mechanically reliable van you can afford.
It took about six months of Craigslist and eBay watching but one day in February of last year, a Vanagon came up for sale in California. There are ways to orchestrate the purchasing of a vehicle in California from New Jersey, so if your dream machine shows up across the country, know that there are ways to have it evaluated by a local mechanic and get it shipped. In the end through because of hoops and logistics involved in a long-distance deal, I ended up losing that first find to a buyer in California.
A couple of weeks later though, our current van showed up on eBay from a Philadelphia dealer. It looked to be in mint shape with no rust, a real rarity for an east coast van. The Carfax report didn’t raise any red flags however there was very little documentation of maintenance and that scared the hell out of me. The odometer reading of 144k seemed to be accurate and accounted for but aside from an encouraging recent compression test result, there was very little historical data available for the van.
As I was way out of my depth here, I tracked down a very highly-regarded VW mechanic named Kevin Mayer via the RoadHaus (an online directory and review of VW mechancis) in Philadelphia. I called him on his “Vana-phone” (seriously, that’s what his voicemail says) and he agreed to go out and look at the van and test drive it for me for a nominal fee.
Kevin went out and looked at it and after driving and inspecting it, he called me to tell me to buy it before someone else did. And so a couple of days later I drove out to a warehouse in Philadelphia and paid for the van. I didn’t drive it home though. Instead, I handed it off to Kevin for him to do some basic new-owner type work that you’d want to do on any Vanagon you purchase, such as:
- flush coolant system
- new brake fluid, check pads, front rotors resurfaced
- check and replace fuel lines
I also had some new larger wheels from GoWesty sent over to his shop to be installed and ordered a kit of new window seals for him to install as the original ones looked a bit cracked and brittle.
And so, while we were out on our Spring Break road trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park in our Honda Odyssey, our new Vanagon was getting prepped for a summer of camping. On our way home from our spring break trip we stopped at his garage and picked up our Vanagon. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this was truly one of the happiest days of my life.
Already the Vanagon has paid for itself in smiles and good times with the family. It’s the best investment we’ve ever made in something that we can all do together as a family and I’d do it all over again in a second.
Tips For Buying A VW CAMPER
- Determine which type you want: Bus, Vanagon, Eurovan. If possible drive one of each version. They all drive differently. I think the bus and vanagon are hands-down the most enjoyable to drive vehicles ever made. The power steering of the later Vanagons is a real treat, too.
- Be patient! Especially on the East Coast I’ve noticed that there is a seasonality to the pricing. Vans get cheaper in the winter time and more expensive in the summer months.
- Determine how much time you’re willing to spend restoring or fixing up a beater versus buying something that’s road ready.
- Be absolutely prepared to do some work on your own and get your hands dirty. I was a driveway oil change type “mechanic” before I got my Vanagon but already have undertaken projects on the van that I would have previously felt way out of my depth on.
Since purchasing the van we’ve done some work to it. I’ll log these projects and provide some details over at our Vanagon Projects page.