1991 VW T3 Syncro Conversion – The Beginning

This is a saga.

I’ve got a really nice 1991 VW Vanagon Westfalia Campmobile. I got a good deal on it and it was in really nice cosmetic condition – particularly the interior. As such, I ended up with an automatic transmission and 2WD. The 2WD didn’t really phase me for the first year of ownership, however I really can’t put aside my disdain for automatic transmissions. I’m not going to go there beyond making that statement. The more I used the van for adventuring and camping, the more I wanted to explore the forests and deserts of CA. I’ve lifted my van and fitted 16″ wheels with off-road tires. These have been great on relatively tame fire roads, however I nearly got stuck on a dirt “road” in Mojave and it scared and annoyed me. I’d stopped in some soft silt and the “one wheel drive” system just dug a hole and it took some creativity to get the van unstuck. I very quickly talked myself out of having talked myself into not needing a 4WD van.

My 1991 VW Vanagon Westfalia Campmobile

Last August I tracked down a pretty physically beat up 1987 Vanagon Syncro (4WD) equipped with the optional locking rear differential that would serve as a donor vehicle for converting my Westfalia to a Syncro. The van was, unfortunately, located in Maine. I spent a fair amount of time speaking with the owner and discussing how I’d get it to CA. Ultimately, he convinced me it was in “excellent” mechanical condition and I decided to fly there and drive it home.

I spent the week or so prior to my flight being extremely anxious about the trip — my anxiety turned out to be justified. Upon pulling away from the parking lot, after exchanging the remaining balance of the purchase price, I knew I was in for an interesting trip. The throttle stuck and the van would idle at 2500 RPM and there was a driveline vibration the likes of which I’d never experienced before.

At least it’s a Syncro

I headed out of Maine and was pretty surprised by how well the beast drove, save for the vibrations. It hustled right along and I was enjoying myself. I had observed the entire back of the van was coated in a layer of gear oil during a fuel stop and decided when I was in the city again I’d have the level checked. I had just crossed the Ohio state line when I noted something in my rearview mirror and the tone of the van change drastically. I focused on the mirror and to my horror my “new” muffler (that had been installed with safety wire) was making a beeline for a motorcycle. Fortunately, it was rolling in an arc and careened off the road sparing what would have been a disaster. The van now sounded like a pack of Harley Davidsons. I stopped at a lube shop and the gearbox was empty. I had it filled and continued on my way. Some time later, the van shut down after paying my toll at a toll plaza. I managed to get it into the toll worker’s parking lot and fussed. I changed the fuel pump relay (I’d brought a spare) and the van fired up again (crazy, as I’m typing this I now recall the previous owner mentioning some nonsense of having to goose the electrical connection to the fuel pump to get the van started the morning he met me to hand it over). I was blowing along when the van suddenly got crazy insane louder. I stopped and discovered the #1/#3 exhaust manifold had blown itself to pieces and I was now running with open cylinder heads on those two cylinders. The Vanagon has a 4 cylinder boxer engine, so the #1 & #3 cylinder’s exhaust ports face the passenger compartment and, as such, I was being blasted by the full bore of the exhaust’s fury. I’m incapable of conjuring up the vocabulary needed to describe the decibel level in the van at that point. I don’t recall how many hours I drove it that way before finally stopping for earplugs. When I did finally stop and shutdown the madness, I discovered I was audio hallucinating Jimi Hendrix wailing away with Dizzy Gillespie soloing on his horn in the most psychedelic kaleidoscope cacophony of crazy I’d ever heard. My nerves were wrecked.

My favorite part of the entire trip – petrol bliss!

I hammered on and just outside of Denver der Thunderwagen shutdown again. I sat on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and pondered my fate. I tried starting the van again and it fired. I continued on my way and little while later it shutdown again. It continued this way — shutting down, waiting, restarting — for many a mile until it simply would not start again. The fuel pump was done. I’d gotten significantly closer to Denver and called AAA. During my wait I had some help securing a fuel pump at an Auto Zone in Denver. I had the van towed there and after a ridiculously long wait there, I had a pump. I proceeded to change it in the parking lot only to discover the hose from the tank to the pump would not fit on this new pump. The worst of it was the deluge of fuel pouring from the tank directly out of that hose. I threw the original pump back in and bought a length of hose that I thought I could make work. What happened next was a nightmare. I had to wrestle this new hose/pump arrangement into the van and while doing so I had an open artery of gasoline pouring out of the tank and onto the asphalt where I lay. I was lying on my side in gasoline from hair to thigh and it burned my skin, melting the asphalt in the process. I was having visions of self-immolation, however I was without a worthy cause. I threw my fuel and melted-asphalt soaked shirt into the trash and headed to the refueling station reeking of gasoline. I got fueled up and jumped on the highway. Within mere moments of getting up to speed, I noted the charging system light was on and the water temp gauge light blinking at me with the temperature climbing. I pulled to the shoulder and looked. The “new” alternator had sheared both of its mounts off. I can only assume this was due to the vibrations sustained during my epic crossing.

I was done. I gave in. I ordered an expensive U-Haul truck and trailer and made the rest of the journey in air conditioned peace and quiet.

der Thunderwagen tamed