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1988 VW Vanagon

The Penthouse

Classic Velocity

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Compared to a Westy, the tintop is lacking the nice loft for sleeping and or storage. It is also missing the cabinets. The solution was a top box. This was courtesy of Craigslist and it is a Yakima SpaceCadet which is no longer produced. It works perfectly for this application, as it allows us to ad a narrow basket as well in the future. It holds a vast amount of stuff even though it is not 100% waterproof. For now we threw the folding chairs and tools and the outdoor rug in there. Since the picture it has been moved closer to the passenger side so that it is an easy reach from the sliding door.

The 30 Hour Roller Coaster

Classic Velocity

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We have seen a lot of strange and scary things with regard to vintage iron. We have also seen a number of very pleasant surprises. We can’t recall a roller coaster ride of highs and lows quite like this recent Vanagon episode.

It all started with the conclusion of the major interior work. This meant that the van was ready for a test ride. I filled it with AV Gas and some Sea Foam as always on a new-to-me vehicle just to get a good starting point. In this case, the gas tank and fuel lines were new as well, so the injectors and the cylinders would get the good stuff. So here we go:

Sat 7am - Start and runs fine after a month of sitting while interior work was done. It is filled up with AV Gas. Take it for a run over a couple of highway exits. 35 miles. Runs great. Back to the garage.

Sat 2pm - Decide to finally install the new injectors from Marco. These are higher performance injectors and very well regarded for improved spray pattern, solving running issues and delivering superior fuel mileage. Installed them and then did a brief startup and idle. Starts fine and idles, no noticeable difference, but was not expecting any either.

Sun 7am - 24 hours after the first run, we decide to go for a more extended run. Starts fine but there is immediately a knock. A loud and clearly mechanical knock. It does idle even with the knock. I shut down and check things hoping that I have somehow done something stupid the day before. Nothing obvious. Oil levels are fine. Scratch head. Look some more. Brief start and listen again. Sounds bad. What could I have possibly done in changing injectors? Scratch head. Knowing these machines, I fear the worst. I pay a visit to The Samba, source of all VDub knowledge. There is a real mix of threads from plug wire mixup to catastrophic engine failure. I upload a brief video and post a new topic.

Sun 10am - 6 replies to the topic, and none of them suggest catastrophic failure. Most point to the hydraulic valve lifters getting stuck. Several say “mine does that sometimes”, and several say to just drive the thing for a while and it will go away! I am not convinced. To me it sounds worse than just a valve, and driving it more as a remedy is the opposite of all my instincts. The initial video does not do the sound and vibration full justice, it is deeper and more forceful than it appears.

Sun 12noon - I finally decide that if this is rod knock, or some other major failure, an engine swap is on the cards. With some major apprehension, I decide to drive it gently as was suggested. 5 minutes, same. 10 minutes, same. I start the return loop, and then suddenly sometime between 15 and 20 minutes, it is gone! I get out and open the engine compartment to check. There is the same engine, purring like a content kitten. It seems even smoother than I recall before all of the drama. I keep driving, wanting to see if it returned. I stopped to top up with regular gas. I stopped and got some marvel mystery oil. I drove an exit on the highway. I drove around town. Nothing but smooth quiet running. The second video here is only 20 minutes of running time later than the first, with no other intervention of any kind.

Clearly, the collective experience of The Samba was correct. As disturbed as I am about a vehicle sounding that bad and then that good, I have to now update the mental database with another entry. Of course I need to address the root cause, but this was a class in comparative valve train dynamics. Lesson one. In this particular case, the sound, vibration, and harshness of a stuck lifter on a Vanagon, is equal to something much more catastrophic on most other vehicles I have owned. Lesson two. An amazing coincidence of timing will seriously mislead your diagnostics. Lesson three. Being laid back and rolling with what seem like serious knockout punches is a critical VW Bus owner attribute. I should know this by now. Lesson four. The collective wisdom is collectively wise.

Washer Bottle Woes

Classic Velocity

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There is really no excuse for this. The Vanagon windshield washer bottle is located beneath the driver side pedal area in a triangular space between frame rails with plastic mounting tabs on two different horizontal planes. It is filled from said floor area by way of an S tube filler neck with a conical grommet into the actual reservoir. WHY !!!!????

The previous Bay window put a much simpler setup in the passenger foot area. The Splitty put it on the parcel shelf on the driver side. What is it with the bus and the washer reservoir? Of all the vehicles in the world, the VW Bus has to be one of the easiest to package and find space. And under the van, it is exposed to the elements and damage. It is no wonder that many buses have broken tabs (like mine) or leaking bottles (like mine) or some rigged solution. A new bottle is $100 and they are scarce.

Anyway, enough of a rant. I bought one in the hope that it will last 30 years. I installed rubber washers on the mounting tabs hoping to quell vibration and lengthen life.

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DIY Cabinetry

Classic Velocity

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I thought about this for a while. The choices were many.

  1. Purchase a set of Westy cabinets from a european source. Very expensive, lengthy lead time. Way beyond the level of this quick weekender conversion.

  2. Install a piece of household quality furniture. Difficult to find a 30” piece, and most household furniture wastes a lot of potential storage space.

  3. Build something yourself. It will never be high quality, but it would be inexpensive and fast.

  4. Find some used Westy cabinets. Fairly rare, and not that cheap.

Of course we chose option 3. Since the preference would be for a rustic look anyway, it was 2x4 and plywood time. The key issue was establishing a secure attachment point for the cabinet. The long wall has an interior sheet metal skin. A stud and some sheet metal screws created a level and secure starting point. The rest flowed fairly easily. The new plywood floor helped, when combined with some liquid nails and a few drywall screws. The shore power 110 outlet was mounted under the counter top toward the rear seat. The main theme was whatever was on sale at Home Depot. 1/4 plywood and a blemished Formica counter top. A salad bowl sink, a plastic storage drawer unit, 6 gallon water storage containers, and a vacuum-powered faucet.

The end result is basic and certainly rustic. However, it is completely functional for the intended purpose.

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Shore Power

Classic Velocity

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One of the scariest actions you can contemplate on a perfectly good bus, is to cut the body. Whether it is for a sunroof or a bolt hole, it just seems wrong to make a hole in perfectly good sheet metal. It is compounded by the fact that it introduces another place for rust to attack. This explains the procrastination that resulted in the parts for the shore power modification sitting around for a few weeks. I also wanted to know where the cabinetry would layout, but that was a flimsy excuse. The location chosen is on the long wall right about where the kitchen would be if this were a Westy. Once taped, the hole saw came out and after measuring for the 7th time, I fan ally drilled the hole and dressed it with some POR-15.

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The mounting then required four small holes like satellites around the main one. The connector and a small punch were used for the template. Once mounted, attention turned to the interior. Wire from a 240v dryer cord was used to exceed any possible usage. It was routed through the original ashtray, which avoided another hole in the interior panel. This is a bit moot, since it will all be in the back of the cabinetry, eventually ending in a GFCI outlet. In the end, mission accomplished.

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Wheel Enhancement

Classic Velocity

The black wheels were new, but looked like they needed something to finish them. After looking at trim rings and VW hubcaps, I came across this great deal on some hubcaps. Nondescript, but the wheels now appear silver which is more to my liking. The hubcaps have a retention ring which helps keep them attached. We shall see, but for the minimal price, there can be no complaints.

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Cool and Quiet

Classic Velocity

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The floor of the bus is corrugated, so in order to put down a floor, the valleys need to be addressed. In this case, some Kilmat sound deadening was applied first. Then strips of Thermoply to bring the valleys even with the tops. Lastly, another layer of Thermoply covers the top before a layer of plywood flooring. The right side of the bus is also insulated with R Max to complete the insulation work. A ton of work, but the end product is a cool and quiet floor, and the walls of the cabin are in good shape to better mitigate the outside temperature.

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Cooling the caBin part 2

Classic Velocity

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With the windows tinted, the next step was the interior insulation. First was the walls and sliding door. After a lot of research I decided to use R-Max. This is not a live-in van so it seemed appropriate. It is only somewhat flexible, so a lot of cuts had to be made in order to fit the cavities. Most of the pieces were wedged, but smaller sections were taped to keep them in place.

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The floor got a combination of sound deadening and insulation. I had a bunch of leftover Kilmat from a prior project so strips were placed in the corrugated channels. Then Thermo Ply insulating sheathing was placed on top. That will be covered by 1/8 plywood and Vinyl laminate flooring. The idea was to have minimal impact on height overall. The combination of materials will be just 1/2” total above the upper corrugations, so I was pleased with the result.

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Cooling the cabin part 1

Classic Velocity

The easiest summer cooling mechanism is to reduce the impact of the magnifying glasses called windows, that surround the Vanagon. A local tint specialist did an excellent job, and it is cooler by 10 or more degrees in the bus. It is surprising how much more tolerable it is when ambient is above 90 degrees! Step 1 complete.

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Smoked Amber

Classic Velocity

A very quick garage session saw the front turn signal lenses removed, cleaned up, and spray-tinted. They were aging and weather-beaten, so the other choice was new signals. The spray-tint was a $12 attempt to rescue the originals. It significantly improved the appearance by making them smoke-colored and more consistent with the black trim up front. Second, it conceals the flaws in the lenses and makes them look like a new aftermarket lens. Mission accomplished.

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Floor Cleanup

Classic Velocity

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The floor was the first part of the interior needing attention. It had a few spots with minor surface corrosion,and the carpet was trash. Once the carpet was gone, the whole area was treated with a rust converter. It was my first time using this product, but it worked quickly as advertised and turned corrosion to a black hardened color.  A thorough cleaning ensued and the main cabin floor is now ready for part two where the seat bolt holes get sealed and some insulation goes down....

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Roof Storage

Classic Velocity

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A combination of craigslist finds, a little fabrication, and an amazon deal provided a Yakima roof rack (actually 2 of them) and storage box for a total investment of $120. The risers needed a spacer hence the fabrication part. With a tin top rather than a Westy, Storage is even more of a premium. However the need to store items outside the van is universal and this solution is very practical. The only downside is that the van will not be able to go into a regular garage with the roof box on top.

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Working the Body

Classic Velocity

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As previously mentioned, the body needed a fair amount of work in a number of places. None of the work was extensive, as it was mostly shallow dents in deep scratches and faded paint. However, the number of small places added up to a significant amount of hammer and dolly work, and sanding.  Paint was practically gone from the roof. It was an easy decision to return the bus to its original flash silver color, which looks more like a very light beige metallic to me.  I was not a fan of the two tone blue scheme. This decision reduced costs, and also reduced turnaround time for getting the job done. The end result will not win any awards at shows, but the bus looks significantly better as a starting point. 

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Body Flaws

Classic Velocity

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The bus has a number of issues with the body, but compared to most 30 year old VWs, they are relatively minor. Dings, dents, and scratches. The worst is a rust hole in the driver foot wells area, but it is not the usual area around the accelerator pedal, but behind your heels. It is strange because the rest of the undercarriage is in very good shape with minimal corrosion, much less deep rust. Besides that, the roof is sun-burned down to metal in places, and there are a number of scratches. The right rear has a deeper dent on the corner below the belt line. The two-tone blue paint is not bad, but I have never really like two-tone on the Vanagon body. It was natural and brilliant on the splitties, very good on the Bay windows in certain combinations, but seems contrived on the Vanagon. IMHO. 

Back to the body. There are some deep scratches on the right front and in a few other areas. The remainder are minor scratches and paint chips on door edges. Easily remedied and then ready for paint.  

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Generations

Classic Velocity

A 1966 15 Window, a 1975 Westy, and ___________. The next logical vehicle in the sequence would be a 1980s bus. In this case a 1988 Vanagon GL. Why not a Westy or a Synchro Westy ? Because (a) they are much more expensive and (b) a weekender is the more likely scenario. It is how the Westy is used anyway. But wait you say, this is not even a weekender! Very astute. This is the proverbial blank canvas. The PO has done a lot of the drivetrain and suspension work needed. The entire fuel system is new, and the entire cooling system is new except for the radiator itself. New brake lines and calipers. For once, the PO has concentrated on the less visible but more important parts for operating the bus. This leaves us free to concentrate on a minor running issue, the body, and the interior. 

It is incredibly rust free except for one point in the driver footwell which will need a patch. The body has two areas than need the hammer and dolly, and then a bunch of little dings. The roof is faded and peeling (as usual) but a repaint is on the cards anyway. Given the price, it is a great starting point.

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