1991 VW Vanagon Syncro — Update

Since I completed the conversion process, I discovered that my gearbox was in unhappy shape. In the interest of keeping the spiraling costs of the project in check (ha!), I decided to forgo having the gearbox gone through. I did this for two reasons: 1. I’d driven the donor from Maine to Colorado and aside from leaks, the gearbox seemed to be fine and 2. I had no experience with how the van was going to perform with stock gearing combined with the taller 215/70R16 off-road tires it was now going to be spinning. I knew I’d want custom gearing, at some point, but I wanted a baseline to make an intelligent decision when the time came to alter the gears.

I’d replaced the input shaft seal and the drive flange seals prior to installing the gearbox into the van, but after putting some miles on it, it revealed it had leaks in a number of other places. Mostly at gasket flanges and the reverse idler gear shaft. I was also starting to find it hard to come out of 4th gear. On top of it, it had horrible road performance. The overall gearing was too tall, but the worst was the jump from 2nd to 3rd. I’d have to rev it high in 2nd, but so much momentum would be lost by the time I got to 3rd (particularly uphill) that it would fall out of the power band and was pretty unhappy about getting up to speed in 3rd.

My first proper off-road “excursion” in it was in Joshua Tree, CA while driving around after visiting the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum. I’d found this really steep loose-dirt hill while driving around on unpaved roads in the desert. As many a photographer will caveat, the picture doesn’t do it justice. This was it. I’d built this van to do precisely this sort of thing and all I’d done with it so far was highway and paved road miles. I used to ride and race off-road enduro-class motorcycles, but I had zero experience off-roading 4WD vehicles. I looked at my lovely assistant and she gave me the nod of approval. I reached down pulled the center knob to engage 4WD and pulled the right knob to engage the rear locker. I selected 1st gear and started up the hill. Very quickly it was clear that 1st was a rookie-move wrong choice. I stopped and engaged the special Syncro low gear aka “Gelände” and up we crawled giggling the whole way to the top. It can actually moto up crazy terrain! We were ecstatic and hooked.

The Syncro’s First Hill Climb

The decision was made upon returning home from the desert to make the huge investment in the gearbox, gearing and adding a front differential lock. After several emails with Mike at GoWesty, the decision was made to go with the 27% lower 6.17 ring and pinion gears, custom 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear ratios, two Peloquin limited slip differentials, a front differential lock and, lastly, a solid shaft to eliminate the viscous coupler. My gads, sir, this was an expensive endeavor. Given the significantly lower gearing, my 215 tires were too short. To add to the financial excitement, I needed to get larger tires and selected 235/70R16 BF Goodrich All Terrain TA KO2 tires. These are a much more aggressive tire than the original KO I had prior.

Somewhere in between all this happening I’d also sourced a fifth Mercedes CLK wheel for a spare, had all five powder coated black, added an ARB on-board air compressor for airing up tires, added a GoWesty front skid plate, rear swing away tire carrier and their front hitch mount and Hi-Lift jack mount to the front. The rear swing away mount was upgraded again to accept two RotoPax 2 gallon jerrycans in addition to the tire carrier.

Clad with 235/70R16 BF Goodrich KO2 Tires

The gearing has made a massive difference in drivability. As I bonus, I’ve gained much needed acceleration. The only negative is I’m spinning the engine higher at freeway speeds, but that is a compromise that is part of the package. Off-highway, the van has more gears to use for traversing technical terrain. Eliminating the viscous coupling has made the 4WD system, when engaged, 100% locked front-to-rear. The LSDs improve traction when my differential locks aren’t set and the front and rear lockers pretty much make this beast as capable as can be.

Driving over Hi Mountain Road between Pozo and Arroyo Grande, CA the Syncro made short work of the recently rained upon, severely rutted dirt roads. I dunked it in a couple of bottom-of-door deep, vehicle-sized puddles and descending into and climbing up and out of the mud was nothing.

Heading into a Mud Hole

A couple of young men in a Subaru wagon heading the opposite way encountered us coming downhill and they began bowing “We’re not worthy!” style at the sight of us. That was kinda awesome and produced wide grins all around.

I’m extremely proud of this build and cannot wait to continue my expedition-grade outfitting. Lighting and a winch is up next and, possibly, a roof mounted safari basket for additional gear. Recaro seating will be a welcome addition, too.

The Gargantuan on TV Tower Road