VW Camper Van

My van is a big part of my life, and I get many questions about it. For those of you similarly van curious, here’s a quick tour.

If you’re interested in buying a Vanagon yourself, my buying guide has tips for purchasing a Vanagon and describes what it’s like owning one of these lovable old vans.

Camping with wild horses at Assateague
Camping on the beach with wild horses in Assateague Island National Seashore.

Our camper van is a 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia, which is often referred to as a “Westy”, the Type 2, the T2, the “Swiss Army knife of vehicles” or just, “bus”.

It is a conversion van, meaning it wasn’t made this way by Volkswagen. VW produced the van, then Westfalia added the camper bits, converting it into a camper van. Westfalia wasn’t the only company to do conversions, but it’s certainly the most iconic.

Another thing to know about the Westies of this era is their engines are either air- or water-cooled, depending on the build year. While the air-cooled crowd would beg to differ, the move to water-cooled brought an important improvement: the water (actually coolant) prevents the engines from catching on fire! Volkswagen started producing water-cooled Westies in the mid-1980s and continued until the last of these vans rolled off the assembly line in the U.S. in 1991.

Vanagon Interior

Our Westy is a camper model, meaning it comes with a kitchen. Some Westies are Weekenders, which have the pop-top but not the kitchen. Other versions have neither. Those, just the bare van, are known as “tin tops.”

The pop-top is dual-purpose. It creates headroom for hanging out in the van (my 6-foot 5″ husband has over a foot of clearance) and converts to a loft bed, where our son sleeps. The backseat is the other bed, for my husband and me. His feet dangle off the edge, but that can be said for anywhere he sleeps!

There are two tables that swivel on arms, one on each side of the kitchen. The front passenger seat also swivels. Depending on how you configure it, you can create extra countertop space for kitchen prep; a separate dining “room” upfront so the adults can have a, eh-hem, private dinner; a card/games table – super fun for rainy evenings – or a dining room. Or, you can forget about the tables and show a movie on top of the kitchen bank, viewing from the backseat couch.

The versatility is amazing, considering the van’s footprint is smaller than a Honda Civic.
VW Westie Jacknife

Westies fit handily in a garage, parking spot, or on the side of the road in a boondocking situation. On hot summer nights, we leave the slider door open and the rear hatch lifted, snap on cloth screens, and sleep among chirps, cooling breezes and, one time, raccoons feasting on dog food (actually, we didn’t sleep at all that night!)

A 34-year-old refrigerator

Our van is nearly stock. It has its original engine, integrated propane tank, original interior, dash, canvas tent and kitchen, with the original propane-powered refrigerator that still works.

We added a backup battery so we can charge our phones when we are camping off-grid, but Westies from the 80s have a spot designed just for this purpose under the seat, so it doesn’t alter the appearance. Lots of owners have added solar setups, but we find we don’t need one.

Buying a VW Vanagon Camper

I found our van on the website The Samba. I’d wanted one for years. When I was a girl, I played in a green Westy that belonged to my best friend who lived next door. I tried to buy that one when I was in college, but my friend’s father wouldn’t sell it to me because he didn’t want me to get stranded.

Navigating the purchase of an old Westy isn’t for the faint of heart. You can pick them up on the cheap, but that is where the expense begins. Nothing you will buy will come with a warranty and, over time, you will systematically need to replace all the systems.

The journey is part of the adventure.

You have to be OK with knowing that peace of mind isn’t included in this purchase. That’s why it’s important not to buy a Westy sight-unseen. Check out the van, and the seller, in person. If the location is an issue, pay a mechanic to check it out, or invest in a plane ticket. Buying local, through Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, is the best option but will take patience and persistence.

Buying Parts for a Vanagon Camper

A great place to start familiarizing yourself with all things Westy are the forums on the Samba and the GoWesty parts supplier website.

The silver lining of buying an old VW camper is that all of the parts (and then some) are available today, thanks to the cottage industry dedicated to keeping them alive and ever-more utilitarian. There are cutting boards made to nestle perfectly in the sink that doubles your counter space; hanging tool organizers that drape perfectly on the rear cabinet; and lockboxes laser cut to fit between the front seats.

As luck would have it, our Westy was located in Durham, N.C., the same town where my best friend from childhood (and still today!) now lives. Crazy, right? It felt like it was meant to be mine.

I put my bestie in touch with the owners, and she went to see the van with her dad guiding her line of questioning over the phone. In addition to its condition, one of the most important questions I had about the van was: Did you like the owner?

She did. We wired money, got license plates, and bought one-way tickets to Durham, where our three families shared a BBQ dinner at my friend’s house.

We’ve been riding that good karma ever since.

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