Good friends of ours just bought a VW Westfalia Vanagon. I would have never guessed they would, but after camping together a few times – they in a tent and we in our ’87 – they became van curious and started scanning the classifieds.
When a cherry red ’88 popped up nearby, they asked me to check it out.
I’m not so mechanically inclined, but after years of owning a Volkswagen Westfalia Camper, or Westy, as they’re known, I had some wisdom to share.
Understanding what it’s like to own one of these quirky, lovable, old vans can be as helpful as a Carfax report when considering a purchase. After all, this isn’t an ordinary vehicle.
Is it worth it to buy a Vanagon?
Buying a Vanagon is like entering a relationship … a very passionate one, like your first boyfriend or girlfriend in high school who was both super exciting and hard to read.
Highs and lows. Love, frustration, adventure, betrayal. Expense.
These are the things that come with a Westy purchase, no matter how many miles are on the odometer.
Like with any relationship, if you are willing to do the work, you will reap the benefits of owning one of the most enjoyable, iconic vehicles out there. If not … consider yourself warned. 😉
The market for Vanagons is hot
I wanted a Westy because I played in one as a kid in our next-door neighbor’s driveway and had some serious nostalgia about them. But you don’t have to have a personal connection to fall for the charms of these special vans that are soaring in popularity.
Demand has changed the market for Vanagons, which landed a spot on this year’s top ten list of cars appreciating in value according to Hagerty, an insurance company specializing in classic cars.
Now about those charms …
The best way for me to explain why I go through the work of keeping a 34-year-old van running is because going anywhere in my Westy is automatically special. And each time I make it to my destination, I feel a tinge of amazement that I got there and have kept something special alive and kicking.
That goes for a road trip or a drive to the corner store.
We get smiles, waves, and stares wherever we go in our Westy, even just driving around town in Philly.
I grew up in the Midwest, where stranger smiles and waves come cheap. Not so on the East Coast. A friendly wave here is a serious expenditure of goodwill. Like it actually means something. 🙂
Westies make people feel good.
They’re also great for creating amazing vacations and memories.
Whatever you want to see or do, you can experience it with a comfortable place to rest, dine and shelter waiting for you wherever you can park it, which is just about anywhere. Good times are included with a Westy purchase.
One of my fondest Westy memories is of a baseball tournament in New Jersey where we cooked up a meal for the team inside the van in a parking lot, not far from a sign that warned: “No grilling allowed.”
We weren’t technically grilling. But we did cook burgers, make nachos, and mix margaritas in the van while the tournament went on around us.
Then there was the time we put the Westy on the Amtrak Auto Train and rode in a sleeper car after camping at Disney World for a week. Most campers are just too big to fit, but not the Westy. (This video proves it!)
Another benefit that comes with having a Westy is becoming part of a group of Vanagon owners who will welcome you with open arms, helpful advice, and perhaps a strong opinion or two, on how to tackle a repair challenge.
Owners call it the VW family.
There are many types of people in the VW family: you don’t have to be a hippie to love these old hippy vans. And that means if you own one, you get to meet all kinds of neat people who despite differences will assume you’re a decent person by virtue of ownership. How cool is that?
You get the benefit of the doubt in the VW family. And instant common ground.
Okay, now that I have you dreaming, let’s go back to reality for the rest of the story of what it’s like to own a VW bus. First up: the ride.
What’s it like to ride in a Vanagon?
Loud, hot and surprisingly comfortable
These vehicles are iconic, but they aren’t the best vans ever made – and certainly aren’t luxurious. They are loud, hard to drive, and rough to ride in. They are old vehicles. They are not aerodynamic. Passengers in the rear will feel a sway. On windy days, so will those in the front.
Vanagons have rear-wheel drive and don’t go fast. The highest-powered stock engine, with four cylinders and 90 horsepower, accelerates slowly and struggles on hills.
Breaking down is a part of Westy life. That’s an important thing to note. Even a good condition Westy has old, tired parts. There is no such thing as a perfect condition Westy; peace of mind isn’t included in the purchase.
The vast majority of Vanagons don’t have air conditioning and come with standard transmissions. Automatic transmission models are out there, but they are harder to find.
If you have the rare Westy with air conditioning, as we do, please know that Volkswagen air conditioning is not regular air conditioning: on a really hot day, you are honestly better sweating it out with the windows open.
That’s right: your body’s cooling system will do a better job than Volkswagen’s.
And speaking of windows … the visibility Westy windows give you is great. But the radiant heat from the sunlight streaming into the van quickly heats it up. On a hot, sunny day – even just a warm, sunny day, actually – you will feel like you’re in a hot tin can rolling down the road.
Want more clever camping ideas?
Did I mention these vans are loud?
You will have to raise your voice to communicate with passengers in the rear seat, usually while craning your neck to project your voice backward.
This can be both a blessing and a curse: your kids can be in their own little world back there, while you have an adult conversation in the front. These vans are really that loud.
But they aren’t uncomfortable.
The seats in our ’87 are a dream.
I’m short, about 5′ 3″, and my husband is 6′ 5″ tall, and we both find Westies comfortable for hours and hours of road time.
The adjustable armrests, which flip completely up and can be raised or lowered to one’s exact desired height, are amazingly awesome. Every car should have them!
Turns on a dime and fits in the garage
The visibility in a Vanagon is divine. You will be sitting high above the traffic and can easily see every direction with all those windows. And people can see you, too! Which is where all those friendly waves come in. 🙂
When the top is popped, Westies are best-in-class when it comes to headroom: a whopping 101 inches at the highest point, tapering down to 95 inches in the middle of the van.
That’s taller than some of the tallest new vans on the road: the Ford Transit High Roof has 81 inches of interior height. The luxurious Mercedes Sprinter high roof model clocks in at 79 inches.
We couldn’t park either of those vans in our small garage. But the Westy is a perfect fit.
By the way, not all Vanagons have pop-tops. “Tin top” models have a fixed roof and are more like regular vans.
The footprint of a Westy is about the size of a Honda Civic. They are a dream to park, and they turn on a dime. The power steering, which doesn’t come in all models, isn’t great. It definitely takes more muscle to turn the wheel than what you are used to.
My friend Monica who used to have a Vanagon (which is how we became friends!) now has a Ford Transit she had converted into a fancy campervan.
While she loves her new camper, she misses the nimbleness of her old van and says the Transit feels more like driving a truck.
What’s it like Camping in a Westy?
OG off-grid vans
Westies were made to be off-grid vehicles before going off-grid was such a thing. And here’s the cool part: you don’t even need solar because you don’t need much power to camp in one.
The Vanagon’s stove and refrigerator are powered by propane. The only equipment in the van requiring battery power when parked is the sink pump and the interior lights. The pump draws very little voltage; if we are camping off-grid, we try to use lanterns and flashlights instead of the van’s lights to save on power.
We can camp off-grid this way for days. The water tank holds 13 gallons and the fridge will run for weeks on end without needing a propane refill. In fact, we have filled the tank just once a season since we’ve owned our Westy!
Where it gets more complicated is charging up devices.
You have the option of plugging your phones into the dashboard, but you want to be careful not to use up all the battery power so your van will start. For this reason, we added an extra battery under the driver’s seat. Westies were made to accommodate this setup, so the auxiliary battery is hidden and doesn’t eat up any space in the van.
We initially thought we might have to add solar, but we haven’t needed to, especially since we kept the original fridge.
Many owners are dissatisfied with the stock Dometic fridge and think we’re crazy for putting up with it. I definitely see their point: these fridges are small, underpowered and a hassle to turn on. If you’re interested in the blow-by-blow of our family’s fridge-lighting ritual, I lay out the details in this post.
In addition to propane, these fridges can also run on electric or battery and go for weeks without needing a power source.
We have found the Westy fridge works well enough for our needs and keeps our setup super simple. Replacing the original fridge typically involves using a portable cooler or adding a power set-up, both of which take up space.
Traveling with two large dogs and a growing-like-a-weed son, we value every inch of available space in the van!
I think Westy layouts are super well-designed. There are only about 90 square feet of interior space, but if you organize well and pare your belongings down to the necessities, you’ll find you can make it work.
The backseat folds down to join the rear cushion and form a bed that perfectly fits two sleeping bags. The other bed is located in the pop top. When the top is popped, you simply unfold it into a loft bed. Setting up the beds couldn’t be easier – each one takes about two seconds.
The Westy’s kitchen has a two-burner stove (#1), sink (#2), fridge (#3), a large cabinet for dishes (#4), a utensil drawer (#5), and a pantry (#6) for food storage.
There is a large storage space under the backseat (#7) where we keep all of the gear to set up our campsite: this includes chairs, lanterns, dog tie-out equipment, portable potty, and camping table. (To see a few of my favorite items, go here.)
There is a hanging closet the Vanagon manual refers to as the “linen closet” (#8) just beside the backseat that holds our towels, extra jackets, and dirty clothes. Two storage wells (#9) provide more space under the movable table in the backseat. These hold string lights, games, a first aid kit, canteen, binoculars, bug spray, sunscreen, and my homemade shower kit.
Another cabinet in the back (not pictured) is accessible from outside the Westy. This is our spot for tools and campsite prep equipment – an ax, hose, engine oil, stakes, firestarters, electrical cord, and an outdoor cooking stove.
Behind the backseat is a large space where we put the camping items that aren’t permanently stored in the van – our clothes, sleeping bags, pillows, and wood if we are camping close by (best not to bring wood if traveling out of your area).
The front seats swivel around to face the cabin, and there are two tables that mount on swinging arms that you can configure to suit your needs. These tables – one next to the back seat (#10) and the other just behind the front seats (#11) – can also be raised to your preferred height. The front one makes an excellent prep space for working in the kitchen and doubles as our paper towel holder. The one of the back is my son’s desk and dining table when we’re traveling.
Below this well-appointed cargo space is a generous amount of floor space to use as your heart desires. This is where our dogs, Toso and Holly, ride and sleep.
Camping where the tents are
One thing to love about camping in a Westy is you can camp in more places than bigger campers. Because it’s the size of a car, you won’t be excluded from campsites by vehicle size limits. You also don’t need to hook up to electricity and water like RVs.
Before we got our Vanagon, I mostly tent camped but also had the experience of going cross-country in an RV. The van is the sweet spot for me because the set-up and break down are quick and easy, while the comfort and protection from the elements are greater than a tent without being as complicated as an RV.
This means you can camp at tent campsites, which are lower-impact and often more wooded, providing shade, calm, and privacy.
Many Westy owners, especially those who live in the Western US, don’t even bother with campgrounds. They boondock their Westies by camping on free spots on government land or other out-of-the-way areas. The Westy’s size and stealth are a clear advantage here: basically, wherever you can drive your van, you can camp for the night.
How to buy a Vanagon
Now for the tricky (but exciting!) bits. If you’ve read this far and have fallen in love with the charms of these old buses, I apologize in advance!
No, seriously. Bravo, you. A very warm welcome to the family.
So, let’s talk about sealing the deal: finding a good Westy and paying a fair price for it.
How to find a Vanagon
The best places to Westy watch are:
- The Samba
- Facebook Marketplace
- Craigstlist and eBay
- On the street in your own neighborhood
1. The Samba
Start with the Samba. It’s the biggest Westy marketplace and also functions as an enormous library of all things Vanagon. You can use filters to set a radius that will limit your search to a reasonable distance.
You might not end up finding your Westy on the Samba, but you will learn a lot just by reading the ads, and you can do a lot of research about them in the forums.
2. Facebook Marketplace
It’s always better to buy local if you can because you should definitely check any van out in person before buying it.
Facebook Marketplace seems to be overtaking Craigslist for Westy ads. I like it because listings are linked to a seller’s profile, so you can get to know a bit about the owner – and you may even find you have mutual Facebook friends in common. Anything that builds trust is helpful in this decision.
3. Craiglist and eBay
Craigslist and eBay are worth a look but be prepared to sort through many spam listings that aren’t Westies – the keywords are misleadingly used to grab your attention.
Quick search trick!
I have a tip if you want to look for vans outside of your local Craiglist without doing tons of separate searches. You can find all the Vanagons listed on Craigslist in Google by typing the following into Google search:
Each search result will show you all the Vanagons listed by city so you can see multiple cities on one page. Click on the city you want and you’ll go directly to all the Vanagon listings.
Another way to turn up nationwide listings is by using SearchTempest, which searches eBay and Craigslist together.
4. Your own neighborhood
The guy we bought our Westy from shared that he got his van by slipping a note under the windshield wiper, asking for a call if the owner wanted to sell. He didn’t hear for months. Then out of the blue got a call … and the rest is history.
That story isn’t uncommon. While these windshield notes annoy some owners, this is a proven tactic and is worth a shot because there is no better way to buy a Vanagon than right in your own neighborhood.
What is the best model year of Vanagon to buy?
The newest Westies produced from 1986 to 1991 are the best Westies to buy for most people. They are easy to identify because they have square instead of round headlights.
These later models have engines that are water-cooled (actually cooled by liquid coolant.) The older, air-cooled models are known to overheat, have less power, and lack improvements that made newer models more reliable. Air-cooled vans are identifiable by their round headlights, although some mid-80s vans were manufactured with water-cooled engines.
During this late period, VW introduced all-wheel-drive Vanagons called Syncros. Syncros are coveted by die-hard Vanagon fans and sell for a premium. Neither of my mechanics recommends them. They are more complicated and expensive to repair, so unless you plan on driving through riverbeds and rocky dirt roads to go camping, two-wheel drive is the way to go.
Something else to note: not all Vanagons are Westies. Westy is short for Westfalia, which is the company that converted the Volkswagen Vanagon into a camper by adding the kitchen and built-in propane and water tanks. Other companies did conversions, too, but Westfalia is the best-known and most iconic.
Also, you don’t have to have the full camper to camp in a Vanagon: there are plenty of folks who prefer to camp in their Weekender models that lack a kitchen but offer more usable interior space – including a bigger backseat. Some Weekenders have pop-tops and some don’t.
If you think you will do most of your cooking outside, consider getting a Weekender. They are usually less expensive.
For more on models of VW campervans, check out this article by Go Westy, a leading Vanagon parts supplier.
How much does it cost to buy a Vanagon?
The saying “the cheapest vans are the most expensive to own” really rings true with Westies.
Asking prices vary wildly.
You can find Vanagons for cheap, but you will likely be spending lots and lots of money getting those sweet deals in good shape. So, instead of sticker price, it’s helpful to think about the real cost of owning a road-ready Vanagon.
In order to come up with this number, I polled Westy owners and researched classifieds. After sifting through dozens of replies, I pegged the cost to be around $30,000-$35,000 – a figure that matches up with the replacement value my insurance company set for our Westy.
Vanagon owners were careful to note that maintenance costs should be taken into consideration as well. Those come in at around $2,000 a year.
These are ballpark numbers, of course, as each van has had a different life. Many have been modified with newer engines, solar panels, or other modifications like new refrigerators, custom cabinets, new upholstery, carrying racks, etc.
On the whole, stock vans tend to claim higher prices, especially those in pristine condition with low miles. Good vans with new engines can sell for more, but the wear and tear on older, high-mileage vans that needed new engines will factor into the sale price.
The most popular type of replacement engine is Subaru. A “Subie swap” averages about $17,000, with some being higher and others lower depending on the project, according to Kevin Mayer of Vanagon Repair in Philadelphia. Mayer has been converting Vanagon engines since 1989 and did his first Subie swap in 2013.
He said the price includes rebuilding the engine (these engines are not new – they are removed from retired Subarus), accessories needed for the work, and testing/replacing fuel lines and hoses.
Another factor affecting the cost of ownership is the person who buys it. There are two main kinds of Westy owners: those who work on their Westies and those who don’t.
If you fall into the latter camp, please please please make sure you find a good mechanic before you buy a Vanagon. Not all Volkswagen mechanics will work on Westies … look for recommendations on the Samba and Facebook groups.
If you do have some mechanical know-how, your skills will definitely save you some cash, and your work will be guided by thousands of videos, articles, and forum posts showing you how to perform those repairs.
Questions to ask when buying a Vanagon
Remember, this isn’t an ordinary vehicle. In addition to questions you’d ask about any used car – like how old are the tires and breaks and has it been in accidents – there are some extra questions to ask.
Are there vehicle records available?
It’s customary to include maintenance and repair records in the sale of a Vanagon. Our van also came with the original sales manual with handwritten notes in the margin!
Don’t be shy about sharing records with your mechanic – they can be very helpful in understanding the life your particular van has lived as it relates to repairs.
How many owners has the Vanagon had?
In general, the fewer, the better. You will see listings touting “third owner” or even “original owner”. This affects value like a painting’s provenance. Understanding details about the van’s history adds value to the sale because you’ll know more about what you’re getting for your money.
Have the fuel lines been replaced?
Original Vanagon fuel lines contained cheap plastic parts that are prone to wearing out and catching fire. This is the #1 repair to do on a Vanagon. You definitely want to make sure you’re not driving around with original fuel lines.
Has the van ever been painted?
New paint jobs – especially those right before a van is put up for sale – are a red flag. Good paint jobs are expensive and you have to wonder why someone would spend thousands of dollars for a van they want to sell. Cheap paint jobs, on the other hand, are a way to hide rust – if only temporarily.
Has rust been repaired on the van?
Be sure to check for rust underneath a Vanagon as well as on the outside. Ask about it, too. The saying “rust never sleeps” just might have been coined by a Vanagon owner …
Even the best rust repair jobs can’t guarantee rust won’t return.
Of particular concern is seam rust. Vanagon bodies are made up of panels welded together. When rust shows up in these seams, it’s usually worse on the inside of the panels, which you can’t see and is hard to get to and expensive to repair.
Window frames are another place to check for rust, where the seals can disguise it.
Rust is one of the most expensive repairs on a Vanagon – especially if you want a perfect, rust-free van with new paint. Extensive bodywork and all-new paint easily cost $20,000 or more.
Are the headlights LED?
Stock Vanagon headlights are so dim they represent a safety hazard. Headlights should be upgraded to LEDs for improved visibility.
Does the stove work? The fridge?
It’s kind of hard to believe, but not all Vanagon owners camp in their Westies. The guy we purchased ours from used it as his daily driver but never took it camping.
He honestly didn’t know if the kitchen appliances worked. So we had to test them out. (Luckily for us, they did)!
Campers are worth much more with working appliances – even if they are never used. Even if you never plan to use them, find out if they work.
Does the odometer work?
Most odometers crap out at some point, so an odometer reading might not give you the original miles.
Be sure you know the answer to this question, as it can lead to important follow-up questions about how many miles the current owner and previous owner drove. Vehicles records and annual inspections can offer mileage clues, too.
What’s wrong with it? Why are you selling it?
Chances are you will not be buying a van that’s 100 percent problem-free.
Here is where buying directly from the owner gives you a huge advantage: if the answer to those questions is “I don’t know,” keep your van search going.
I’ve found most owners to be very transparent. Most of them have mixed emotions about giving their baby up and tears are not uncommon when titles change hands. In addition to details about the history of the Vanagon, you’re likely to learn a few things about the owner’s life.
That brings to mind another popular saying among Vanagon owners.
The best days of owning a Vanagon are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.