The front pads looked near new and there were no leaks, so I skipped over those and dove into the dash to take a look around at the hydraulic system.
If you are new to Vanagons, you'll soon realized that the master cylinder, brake booster and fill reservoir are underneath the instrument console. You simply pop off the console to fill your brake fluid. It's kinda weird pouring fluid into your dash between the speedo and the clock, but it works.
Upon inspection of the booster and MC (master cylinder), I noticed a fair amount of rust underneath the MC and what appeared to be brake fluid leaking slowly from the booster so, I began researching parts, namely the brake booster itself.
My braking symptoms seemed more booster related because the brakes would work great on the first press of the pedal, and then they would be full manual (no power) on the 2 press of the pedal, so I assumed at this point that the booster was bad or that I had a vacuum line leaking air somewhere.
I checked my check valve in the engine compartment and it seemed fine as well as the line leading all the way forward to the booster. So, I picked up a "newer" booster from my Vanagon parts friend and began tearing apart the dash.
You can upgrade your stock booster to that from a BMW (E30 booster), but it requires a little adaptation that I didn't want to mess with right now. That and having a bigger booster on a 35 year old braking system seemed like trouble waiting to happen. I might eventually go that route, but I'll want to upgrade other components before I do so.
The stock booster is big and hard to remove. You have to pretty much disassemble the drivers side of the dash to get at it. After removing the steering wheel, steering column, upper console, master cylinder and the 2 dash supports, I was able to squeak it out of there. It's a pain and I don't recommend it for the non-mechanical person. In the process, I also pulled the clutch master and checked it over for leaks as well, tried to clean up the seals in the process.
After getting the booster out, I did everything in reverse putting in the newer one, starting with the pedal assembly and clutch master, then the booster, followed by the MC, all of it's lines plugs and dash supports. I then re-assembed the steering column and steering wheel.
I then had to re-bleed the system because I had taken the clutch master off the pedal assembly to get the booster free. In retrospect, I shouldn't have done that because it added a great deal of extra time because of the bleed job, but it seemed like the only way to get the pedal assembly and booster out of the dash.
The clutch bleeding didn't go well and I ended up hitting up Harbor Freight to get a pressure bleeder which helped a great deal. Best $30 I've ever spent. The problem was because I didn't bench bleed the clutch master before re-installing, but the pressure bleeder took care of that.
All said and done, the brakes were "better", but still fading on the boost after the first press of the pedal. I was bummed. I went back online and did some research and decided that the MC was bad and ended up ordering a new one from Van Cafe (because I can get stuff overnight from them PLUS a chocolate chip cookie!) and planned to swap out the MC the next day.
Today, I dove into it, bench bled the MC and installed it without a hitch. I then bled the entire system and voila! brakes are feeling awesome. I'm pretty sure the MC was the culprit all along, but my booster was looking pretty bad as well and it was probably just a matter of time before it gave up the good fight.
The best part of the day, happened while I was under the engine bleeding my rear brakes and decided to investigate my ongoing oil leak a little further. upon inspection, I found that the oil was leaking from a bolt hole in the block that was somehow missing its bolt. Not sure why or where, but I found a bolt, filled the hole and my oil leak is gone. bam! Happy camper... literally.
Took him out into traffic (something I've been afraid to do until now) this evening and hit up Trader Joes, but not without admiring him the evening sun.