Vanagon Sunset

Vanagon Sunset

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Modernization of a 35 year old box on wheels

I have a decent job and I make decent money, but newer cars mostly bore me and I'd rather put my money into an older car that is appreciating in value.  Yes, it would sometimes be nice to have a new car that just "goes" when you want it to and is comfortable and safe.  But I also like tinkering on cars and I love driving something that is different.  I find immense satisfaction when someone pulls up along side of me and gives me a thumbs up or a "nice van" comment.  It's a feeling of accomplishment, plus it's a hobby that I enjoy.

My daily driver has almost always been "different".  I've had old Landcruisers, and newer ones that were modified, old VW busses, Bajas, etc. and I've enjoyed every one of them. Even when I've had more modern cars, they were always different in some way.  My current van is my baby and I plan on keeping him for a long time, but I'm also constantly looking for ways to extend his life and make him more comfortable, modern and safe.

"Ferdinand" is an 1982 Westfalia camper van that I've converted from diesel to Subaru power.  I wanted something that would keep up with traffic and not bog down in the hills when loaded up and traveling.  Now that the motor is done, I'm looking at other things that will make him look younger.  He had many parts missing when I got him, so I've had the opportunity to upgrade things in the process of making him whole.
The day I brought him home
He is 35 years old, but there are many options and aftermarket add-ons out there that will take years off his appearance.  These are simply ideas on things you can do to help enhance the look of your van or simply bring it up to par with regards to age.  Vanagon were only made until 1991, but many things changed between 1980 and 1991.

I love my '82, but I also love looking for ways to hide his age. I've done a few things to my van, but here are some other ideas.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be a Vanagon expert by any means and am learning new things about these vans everyday.  There are tons of resources out there and lots of folks who know way more than I do about these wonderful creatures.


Potential Westy facelift ideas:

-Wheel Upgrades:
Not only can you get a more modern appearance, but upgrading to a larger rim and tire can sometimes add stability or even reduce rolling weight of the wheel (steel vs aluminum).  I have an older set of Ronal R9's on my van, which are kinda vintage, but kinda more stylish than stock. I also run a Yokohama Geolandar A/T tire for more offroad durability and traction.  Watch the load ratings, especially if you have a full Westy camper.
Ronals with new Yokohamas

-Upgraded Grill:
Lots of folks upgrade to the South African (SA) grills, which give the van a more modern appearance.  I personally am not a fan of the square headlights so much, and my older van has the round 7" lamps.  I'm choosing to stick with this look for now because it seems like everyone is running the SA grills and I like to be different, but I have upgraded to LED lamps, which make a huge difference.
South African Grill

I mentioned LED headlamps, but you might consider going through all your lights and upgrading to LED bulbs.  Not only do they last longer, but they are a crisp bright light and will give your van a more modern look.  The LED dash bulbs are a great upgrade and they help you see things a bit better, plus you can get them in different colors. There are lots of cheap options out there now for LED driving lamps, flood lights and even decorative lighting for the interior.  A couple battery powered puck lights placed throughout the van make a big difference when you're trying to find that one "thing" while your significant other is sound asleep.

Upgrading to a power mirror assembly from a newer van is a great way to decrease the "mirror flop" that has plagued so many older vans over the years.  It's no my list of things to do, OR upgrade to a truck mirror.  The power mirrors need not be color matched, just paint them black or use an undercoating paint for a more durable finish. I'm leaning towards the power mirror upgrade myself.

Newer vans have a vented rear quarter window.  It was supposed to help create a vacuum affect which helps with ventilation, but it also helps create less of an air pocket and allows your doors to close more easily... so I've heard.  You can also find sliding rear quarter windows if you prefer more ventilation, but be expected to pay a pretty penny.  Some manufacturers also have metal window inserts should you want to eliminate your window entirely.  See Rocky Mountain Westy for examples.
Tinted windows give a nice look to the van, decreasing temperature inside the van as well as privacy to boot.  I prefer a 20-25% tint all the way around.  Sometimes the 5% tint is too dark to see out of at night when you hear things rattling around in camp.

Lots of options out there.  I'm currently looking to upgrade my rear bumper so that I can move my spare tire to the back of the van and add some add-ons like Rotopax jugs, bike rack, ladder, etc.  Give the van a more rugged look, while adding functionality and even more protection. Pictured below is a Rocky Mountain Rear bumper with dual swing-away add-ons for spare tire or storage.  There are many options out there.  I'm leaning towards a setup like this on my van.
RMW Rear bumper and swing-away setup.

I like the look of having the rocker panels painted black.  I think it breaks up the huge body panels a little and makes the van look a little taller than it actually is.  Not only does it change the appearance, but it also protects the lower part of the body from nicks and chips.  I like the Rustoleum spray can product because if it gets chipped or scraped, I can touch it up in seconds.

Chances are, that your van will someday need new pop top canvas.  Mine did and I wanted something that would make him look younger, so I chose a grey canvas.  Most early vans had tan canvas, so I figured what the heck, he'll look younger when his top is up.  My interior is still mostly tan... for now. I opted for the inexpensive cotton Bus Depot special for $249.  I love it and it works great.  I thought about paying for a custom color or Acrylic, but I figured for the price, I could afford to swap it out every few years if need be.  Installed pretty easy and took about 4 total hours of work. I added silicone spray water-repellant for extra protection against rain.  Works great!

Canvas after install

If your van is showing his or her age and needing paint, why not go with a more modern color?  Sometimes the standard VW palette indicates a certain age of the van.  I like all the stock colors, but why not mix it up a little and stand out.  Mine is white, but has been repainted to a brighter more modern white and I like it.  A full window-out paint job will be costly, but worth the investment.  These vans aren't going down in price, so why not add to your investment with a fancy new color.

Let's face it, that old upholstery design definitely corresponded to an era.  VW made some good upgrades over the 11 year span of the Vanagon, especially with regards to interiors.  I'm currently on a hunt to find cushions from a newer van to give more modern look to the van and add a bit more cush at the same time.  I've already upgraded the front seats and that made a HUGE difference in comfort...  the arm rests alone were worth the money.  Drapes can be swapped out to something a bit more modern as well and you might consider implementing a black-out fabric for the day-time naps. Upgrade to a Sewfine interior and trick it all out, or make your own.  I'm currently in the process of replacing all my interior panels and adding new fabric... cheap, yet time consuming.
Potential new fabric.  Stapled on temporarily for now to see if we like it.  Note old nasty fabric. yuck.

Stock Vanagon brakes CAN be pretty decent if dialed in properly.  Mine work great, but I replaced every single aspect of the system from the master, booster, cylinders, pads, shoes and had my original drums and rotors turned.  However, you can upgrade to a "big brake" kit which gives you better stopping power now that we are loading our vans down with all kinds of cool stuff.  You can also opt to upgrade your brake booster to a BMW E30 booster, which will give you more power, but I still recommend making sure everything else in your system is functioning perfectly before you start adding more power to the system.
Also, remember that if you decide to upgrade your engine, you'll be averaging higher speeds and therefore needing more braking forces.  On that note, take a look at my other post on Van Weight.  It plays in closely with the topic of brakes. See "Braking me Bad" for the troubles I went through to make my brakes work.

There are lots of things that add comfort to your Vanagon experience. Cold beer for instance can be something that makes those long hot days behind the wheel more tolerable.  I'm not talking about "DURING" the drive, but something to look forward to upon arrival at your destination.  The stock Vanagon fridge in a camper just doesn't cut it. I highly recommend ditching the fridge and opting for a portable fridge like an Engel, ARB, or some other brand.  My wife bought an Engel MT45 and it's amazing.  We still carry a small ice chest for ice, but it's nice knowing that your produce isn't swimming around in water after day 2 of a trip.  If you're adding a fridge, consider upping your battery system or aux system so that you can stay parked for a while and keep that beer cold.  See my post on Aux system upgrades.
LOVE LOVE LOVE this fridge.  Don't forget to secure it in place so that it stay put in an emergency

Add a memory foam topper to your bed.  These 35 year old cushions are "ok", but why not wake up feeling like a million bucks and less like a wadded up $50 dollar bill.

I completely took apart the inside of my van and added various layers of sound dampening and insulation to make it quieter, warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.  It's not hard, but it takes time.  Read my write up here.

Sun and Rain... both of which can be a pain in larger quantities.  Get an awning!  I've had a few different types of awnings on my vans and have been researching a new one for "Ferdinand".  Basically, the 2 most popular are the ARB 2500 and the Fiamma F45s.  The ARB is simpler, less expensive and requires a little more effort to put it up, but still easily deployed.  The Fiamma is about 3x the cost and super simple to deploy... just crank it out.  I like lightweight stuff and probably won't be needing the awning very often, so I'm leaning towards the ARB.  They are both nice, but I'm a simple person. :-)  Don't forget brackets... most awnings don't include them.

-Center Console:
Do something.  Buy a box and cut some holes, or pick up something fancy from Rhino Designs, but definitely get something to hold your cup, your phone, your whatever.  I took a lightweight wine box, (the type that holds three wine bottles from the winery and has the sliding lid), and then cut 2 holes in it as a quick fix before a road trip.  Well, guess what?  it's still in there.  Granted, I have plans to build a nice console between the seats, but I simply haven't set aside the time yet to do it.  There are some fancy steel designs out there, but you'll pay a pretty penny.  Get creative and see what you can come with.

On the topic of creativity, look around.  These vans have little hidden spots here and there for storing and/or hiding things.  In the door, under the seat, within the panels in the back.  There's even a couple spots in the back cabinet (Westy's) that if you make a few jigsaw cuts, you can add a nice little hiding spot for tools, weapons, valuables, etc.  There's a nice spot for an umbrella or machete in both front doors.  I'll let you find it.  Take a look at the area just about the rear cabinet door in your Westy.  A jigsaw would open up a nice little spot for hiding things, but you'll need to pull the cabinet to do so.
IF you don't have a battery under each from seat, set up a way to use that space for something.  I keep a bottle jack, tow strap and jumper cables under mine because my car battery is now located under the rear seat.  Organize your spaces.  The container store is a great place to find little containers and things to help organize the cabinets, nooks and crannies.  Bring a tape measure (and the van).
5 minutes with my jigsaw, allows me to slide a tray under here with tools and other quick engine needs.

Before our last road trip, I spent the money for a 3 point seatbelt for the back.  It's not a super-simple upgrade because you will have to modify your panels for the retractor access, but well worth the safety factor for your passengers, in my case, our son. Everything bolts right up, but the retractor goes behind the panel, therefore you need a small hole/slit for the belt to pass through.  The driver's side requires cutting a hole in the cabinetry if you have a Westy, but again, worth the time and effort.  GW sells the kit, or hit up your local wrecking yard and see what they might have.

After install. New panels awaiting fabric

-Air Conditioning/Heaters:
If you don't already have A/C, you can add it.  It's a complicated addition, but well worth it.  I will add it at some point, but for now, we are A/C-less.   I will also be adding a Propex heater as well for those winter trips.  A bit easier than an A/C install, but again, well worth the investment depending on your part of the world. SmallCar makes a kit for the install.

So, that give's you some things to gnaw on.  I'll probably add more as I think of it.  Enjoy and hopefully there was something there that was helpful.

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