Vanagon Syndrome in a VW Wesfalia

Vanagon Syndrome: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

No one ever said owning a “late model” Vanagon Westfalia was easy, but for the first years we owned our ’87, it was.

Our Westy’s maiden voyage was an eight-hour trip from its home in Durham, N.C., which its previous owner feared wouldn’t end at our home in Philadelphia.

“Text me along the way,” he said with concern as we started our Vanagon adventure.

But the Westy made the trip flawlessly, and every trip after that, for the next four years.

Two years ago, our luck ran out.

The curse of the 1986-1991 Vanagon – a collection of vague, tricky-to-diagnose issues known as “Intermittent Vanagon Syndrome” – began with a terrifying jolt, followed by a loss of power, as we cruised through our neighborhood. This bucking and stuttering and sputtering happened in low gear and lasted for a few terrifying seconds before it regained power.

But, perplexingly, only sometimes.

There never seemed to be rhyme or reason to when the Westy would act up, save for one constant: he always behaved perfectly for our mechanic.

During these years, we took lots of camping trips without a hiccup and almost (almost!) forgot about the Syndrome. And we also sweated bullets as we drove our son to baseball practice, bucking down the narrow streets of Philadelphia, hoping we’d make it to the game.

We never knew what kind of trip it would be: a blissfully ignorant trip cruising in 3,000 pounds of nostalgia? Or a tense, nerve-wracking drive locked in debate over conditions that may have triggered it.

We found ourselves fluctuating from denial to detective: just when we thought we’d identified a cause, the pattern would disappear. We’d then either refocus our efforts on fixing him or decide, screw it, let’s get out of the city and go camping for the weekend.

We had Vanagon Denial Syndrome. But, of course, only intermittently.

Our long, hair-pulling and hilarious journey to pin down the source of our Westy’s troubles has been quite a trip.

For a good year-long stretch, we didn’t accelerate on right turns. We only traveled when the gas tank was above half full, and made our son sit on the right side of the backseat, theorizing the weight distribution may have had something to do with it.

During this period, we took him to the shop for a series of repairs. Each visit was proceeded by a phone call spent detailing our latest experience as our mechanic patiently listened.

I swear I could hear his eyes roll over the phone as he attempted to steer my fruitless explanations with pointed questions.

“Is there a smell when this happens?”

“Are you backfiring?”

“Are you losing power only when you accelerate?”

No matter the question, my answer was always the same.

“Sometimes.”

The next part of the phone call would be spent going over a menu of possible causes, leaving me to choose my repair at a restaurant where I couldn’t read the menu.

“What would you recommend?” I’d ask my mechanic, lamely ordering the special of the day.

My choices of culprits included a bad ignition switch, faulty wiring harness, faulty starter wiring, mass airflow meter in need of adjustment, faulty relay wiring and my all-time favorite:

“Your van doesn’t like you.”

Ha!

If only it were that simple.

I should add that during this time, the Westy always, ALWAYS started up like a champ, firing up on the first twist of the key. Only once did he actually stall out while we were driving.

This happened when we were at the Jersey Shore over Labor Day weekend. I thought, “I’ve had it with this Vanagon!” as we pushed him to a parking lot.

But, true to form, guess what happened next?

After resting for about 10 minutes (spent discussing what could have caused it to stall), he started right back up again. And proceeded to make the three-hour trip home in heavy, start-and-stop traffic without a hiccup.

Of course he did.

Firmly planted in our state of denial, we threw caution to the wind and went to a Vanagon rally the next weekend.

But there is no avoidance of Vanagon repairs at a rally, where the stories about awesome Vanagon adventures go from zero to 60, coming to a screeching halt at the intersection of fun and repair bills.

Vanagon troubles are just one of the many ways Vanagon owners bond. There is nothing quite like the iconic Vanagon, and having to deal with so many ongoing repairs is part of it. A big part of it.

As vehicle owners, we are truly in a class by ourselves.

Fresh off the rally, I returned home and called my mechanic, reinvigorated by a new slew of possible problems that could be causing Vanagon Syndrome.

We agreed on pursuing a new strategy that involved swapping out my fuel injection box with a reconditioned one he had in the shop. I’d drive the van around for a while and see if it made a difference.

I didn’t want to jinx it, but I had a feeling driving home from the shop that something was different this time

.

The ride was smooth. My faith was high. My fingers were crossed. I hit the gas while making a turn, the first time in years.

A double rainbow appeared in front of me.

Okay, so the rainbow part didn’t really happen. But that gives you an idea of how joyous I felt.

Our Westy had finally been cured. And he’s been driving like a new man ever since.

Hallelujah.

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4 thoughts on “Vanagon Syndrome: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been”

  1. We have a really light and small when folded up toilet . It takes a powder and after you’ve done your business it turns solid and you just toss the bag away light at the dog park . It’s only 5” tall and fits where our upper bunk used to be . I’ve removed it now that we have s queen down below . Otherwise thanks for the story, great entertainment on a cold winter afternoon . These vans are living beings . Enjoy and thanks .

  2. oh man can i ever relate to the glorious feeling of curing my own Vanagon bucking syndrome back in 2012. mine was also cured by swapping the ECU. the mechanic whose ECU i tried flatly told me “it’s never the ECU.” i insisted, took it for a test spin and was on top of the world. that’s how often my van had been bucking. it was a 1985 van with a 1.9 engine. my next vanagon, a 1987 2.0, never bucked in six years of driving it all over hell every day. i just swapped a new engine into it and, sadly, it is bucking. but while it sat on ramps for five years with no engine I was cannibalizing it for parts, so I can’t be sure which ECU is which, which airflow meter is which, etc. Let the fun begin!

    1. Oh man! Fun times, indeed 😟
      My mehanic told me the same thing, that it’s the last thing he tries because it’s not usually the culprit. In the end it was such an easy fix .. plug and play – one of the few things I could have do ne myself, had I known how.

      I can say that since I wrote this post we’ve had many trips and the Syndrome hasn’t returned. Just knocked on wood after I wrote that.

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