The Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia is slow, not particularly fun to drive, handles like an intoxicated dullard and isn’t even all that reliable. Yet, it’s one of the most popular vehicular fashion statements on this Earth. Why?
Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by these things, but never had a chance to drive one.
Sure, I get the whole bring-your-home-along appeal, but I never understood why people spend a fortune on a VW Westfalia over the more comfortable, powerful and fuel efficient campers available out there. Wouldn’t you have just as much fun in a second-hand Safari Condo travel trailer?
I had to find out what the hype was all about, so I took a Westfalia out for a spin. Doing so completely altered my perception of what it means to have a good time driving.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a VW Westfalia came from the same Jalopnik reader who let us review his Porsche 944. This is his daily driver.)
What Is It?
I’ll avoid digging into the history of the Volkswagen Bus/Type 2/Kombi/Transporter/Hippie Van, because it’s a long and convoluted one, but what you need to know is that these things appeared some time in the early 1950s.
The basic formula for the VW van is rather simple. Out in the back sits a boxer-type flat-four. Inside, you don’t get much luxury besides a set of captain chairs up front, a steering wheel, a hard, flat dashboard, and a pair of windshield wipers.
The idea behind the VW bus was always to build a straightforward panel van that could be converted into different types of vehicles.
The model you see here is a 1990 Vanagon Westfalia. It’s one of the last iterations of the original Type 2 bus before it evolved into the Eurovan. The Westfalia was a bespoke model that focused on the art of camping.
The 2.1-liter, water-cooled engine you see here is one of the largest flat-fours to have ever powered these vans.
Horsepower is rated in the vicinity of 90, with torque hanging around 117 lb-ft. All that furious might is sent straight to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic. My tester had the latter, baby.
Why Does It Matter?
The VW Transporter (these things have so many names) is the best-selling van in history with over 12 million units roaming the globe. It’s starred in a gazillion movies and have been owned by the likes of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld.
You might say the original Westfalia helped inspire an entire generation of kids to drive off to wherever, smoke weed, and take part in crazy unprotected sex. Or at least, it paired nicely with a summer of ’69 kind of soundtrack. This is the official car of “let’s get the fuck out.”
Today we’re in the middle of a new version of the hippie trend, further increasing the popularity of these flat-nosed contraptions. Millennial hipsters are leaving behind stable, well-paying office jobs and dropping their expensive urban condos in favor of the #vanlife, heading west in their Westfalia on the virtues of their Instagram accounts.
As for the hipsters still living in mom’s basement, they have some saving to do first, since you have to shell out silly money to buy a decent-looking Westfalia today.
Did I Just Hear Dishes Breaking?
There’s something appealing about carrying your home inside of your car, and the Westfalia is a surprisingly spacious little rolling house in which you’ll find all the basic necessities to remain alive.
It has a propane-powered stove and propane-powered fridge. One of the beds is stowed in the roof. There’s a sink to wash your face in the morning, and plenty of available storage areas for dishes, utensils or a few board games.
What impressed me the most about the Westfalia is that even if this is a 27-year old vehicle with rather tiny dimensions by today’s van standards, it’s tremendously cavernous inside. You can actually walk around in it, and there’s no waste of space. Everything is intelligently stowed and well put-together.
Fred, the hero who owns this bad boy, popped up at my place for shots one hot summer morning. He daily drives this thing when he’s not ripping through the gears of his Porsche 944 on weekends.
His Westfalia is fitted with a set of blacked 16-inch steel wheels on off-road tires, which adds to the vehicle’s air of adventure. Vanagons usually ride on 14s, but our man Fred was looking for a smoother ride. Plus he liked the way the wheels contrasted the Flash Silver Metallic paint job, giving his Volks a proper German-industrial look.
He threw me the keys. I climbed aboard the driver’s seat, sitting on top of the front wheels, no hood in sight. I buckled-up the extra-long, Chevy Express Van-style seatbelt. In front of me laid one of the most spartan and simplistic airbag-less dashboards I’ve ever seen fitted to a car.
After a few turns of the old, tired starter, the camper puttered to life in a typically-worrying old Volkswagen manner - chugger pout pout chuggervvvrooooom!
The beast was awake.
I got the Vdub into gear using the long, skinny, communist-style automatic shifter. A worrying clunk was heard in the transmission out the back. The van was creeping forward.
“Will she hold, Fred?” - I interrogated my passenger.
“I hope so, man. I hope so.”
Off we went in one of the most iconic machines known to mankind, with sounds of plates and forks hitting against each other over the slightest road imperfections, confident we could make it to Tofino.
Ironically, I did not find much to be disappointed about with the Westfalia. That’s because I was expecting this thing to be a piece of shit to drive, and it is!
I knew the Westfalia would be slow, but not that slow. As we merged onto the highway, right foot held to the floor, cars behind us impatiently waiting for us to move over, tiny engine hustling out the rear, window curtains flocking in the wind, suspension bobbing and weaving front, rear, and sideways... Fred warned me that 60 mph would probably be the fastest we’d ever go.
He also made sure to inform me that the engine’s water temperature could suddenly spike, forcing us to eventually pull over to give the poor thing a break.
How does any of this make sense in a car that was designed to drive as far away as possible?
The Westfalia is a very comfortable car to spend some time in. Those front bucket seats are supportive, cushy, and the entire ride is soft, so you instantly feel like you’re on vacation when driving it. Except for some intense cabin noise coming out of the squeaking old body and - ahem - an entire kitchen set sitting behind you, it’s all quite tolerable in there.
To nobody’s surprise, cargo capacity isn’t a problem. Even with all the camping gear, there’s 93 cubic feet of available cargo space, that’s more than any seven-passenger crossover on the market today. And none of those will cook you eggs and bacon in the morning.
Fred confirms that as a daily driver, all the toys work. His does get the occasional German mechanical issues, but says since the drivetrain is rather simple and parts are plentiful, problems are solved quickly and at a decent buck.
The only big downer is fuel economy. With an average of 17 combined mpg, the four-cylinder Westfalia is in the same ballpark as a 450-horsepower Ford F-150 Raptor.
Shyeah, you can forget about that. Acceleration is subzero, as in, glacial. This thing will hit 60 mph in about 20 seconds. Handling equals over-the top bodyroll, and don’t you dare enter a corner too fast, or the entire thing will tip over in a jiffy.
The large, school-bus style flat steering wheel is vague, slow to react, and this particular example emitted a worrying grinding sound as I’d turn the steering wheel left and right. The brake pedal is smooshy and it takes forever to get the entire van to a complete stop.
So if you need to pull off a panic maneuver, you’re screwed.
If you do dare brake too hard, the entire passenger area will quickly fill up with the intoxicating stench of burnt brake pads. And if you give it too much throttle you’ll either kill the engine or blow the transmission.
The Volkswagen Westfalia still goes for quite a handful, and because it retains such a good market value, it’s one of best automotive investments out there at the moment.
Fred paid $13,500 CAN for 250,000 km (155,000 miles), some engine cooling issues and a bit of surface rust. That seems to be where the prices hang for examples that are in okay condition like his.
Ultra-clean, well-maintained vintage models with low mileage will climb all the way to the vicinity of $40,000.
I mentioned the Safari Condo earlier because you can get a clean second-hand one for under 10 grand.
So if you’re just looking for a cheap camper, don’t buy the VW. There are better bargains out there. But if you’re seeking an automotive icon that you’ll be able to flip and make a decent buck on, all while being able to live in it, then yes, the Westfalia is worth a shot.
It’s true, the moment you’ll get behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia, you’ll want to drive off to wherever and leave your problems behind.
As a car, the Volkswagen van is rather useless. It’s loud, slow, smells funny and will probably kill you if you dare drive it through hazardous winter conditions.
But everyone loves the Westfalia. It makes people smile and dream, more than any other camper can, and its resale value is bulletproof.
Besides, any car, no matter how bad it is, that instantly makes you happy and stress-free behind the wheel; a car that makes you realize that all the tiny, insignificant worries of your stressful life are nothing more than cosmic dust is worth every penny in my book.
Westfalia owners like Fred have understood that the day shit hits the fan in their current lives, they can just hop into their car, drive off, and jumpstart a better world for themselves in another part of the planet.
There aren’t many cars left that deliver this kind of freedom.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.