Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Keynote Presentation: What VW bus/van is right for me?

Editor's note. This week, I had a tweet from @ArtBeatnik who asked, "I'm a non-mechanically inclined guy VW Van lover, looking to become an owner one as well. Any suggested starting points?" At first I thought I would hand him over to the wolves on and watch him get eaten for calling a "bus" a "van", and then watch the vultures move in and pick at him until he decided to stick to his Saturn because the VW guys are all jerks.

The only issue I have with the VW community is if you haven't wrenched on VWs for years, you are considered one of the folks bringing the whole scene down and making it too cliche and what not. But, everyone starts somewhere and, because I once thought the washer fluid reservoir was the brake fluid reservoir, I will go ahead and put my opinion out there. First warning, @ArtBeatnik; everyone in the VW community has an opinion.

What follows is an actual transcription from the 56th Annual Symposium on Volkswagen Culture held in Eschede, Germany, where I was invited to present my latest publication, Fünf-ions! The 5 Questions of Entry into the VW World.

{original, unedited transcript}

Hello, my friends. It is, um, an honor to be here. Certainly, I traveled far to be part of this conference and since I only had 4 months to get here, I left my Kafer in Berlin and took the train!...

{light laughter}

Okay. Well, thanks to the Langenhagen Transaxle Society for inviting me to speak today. And special thanks to the Burgwedel crew for making sure I found my room last night and the great Brötchen this morning. Whew! Nothing keeps it down like Brötchen!

Okay. Very well then.

I am here today to speak on the 5 questions of entry into the world of VW transporter ownership Now, these are just opinions. But I'm the one on the stage, so that makes me the expert, right? Slide 1, my Bruder!

Here are the 5 questions you must answer...

1. How often do you plan to drive this VW
2. How far do you plan to drive it?
3. How much money do you have?
4. Do you want to maintain the VW yourself?
5. Do you have extra time on your hands and are you looking to get wrapped into a culture that leads to excessive opinion-sharing, forum-stalking, Facebook posts and that drunk feeling when you realize that you know someone who is good friends with the son of Ben Pon? In other words, is it important that your bus have style and personality?

Ha! Just threw that last one in there as a joke. Good thing that doesn't happen to any of us in this room, huh?

{As much laughter as a crowd of Germans can create}

Let's run through a scenario. Let's assume you are a non-mechanically inclined guy VW Van lover, looking to become an owner of one as well. You want to travel to & from work, in the neighborhood, go on road trips. You want to learn the engine. And you work odd hours and are free during the day a lot. You need a hobby and would love for it to be restoring/maintaining a VW van or bus. Let's play this out, shall we?

First question.  How often do you plan to drive this VW?
All VWs can be daily drivers. I mean, some guy is driving a 1930 Model A around Michigan right now to prove a point. What point? That Darwin was wrong. Look, some cars aren't meant to be daily drivers. If it's a daily driver, stay away from 6-volt cars. And stay away from drum brakes. Of course, my daily driver was both of those for 4 years, so do as I say, not as I do. When I drive through a rain storm in the dark, I sometimes pull over to let a car by that I can follow by their taillights! See! Darwin was wrong!

So this leaves you with a 71 or newer bus.

Second question.  How far do you plan to drive this VW?
For the sake of making the answer hard, let's focus on "want to do a little of both, travel to & from work, in the neighborhood, go on road trips". VW owners will tell you their bus will go 65 or 70. And it will. But it will not cruise at 65 or 70 and, if a bus driver manages to get it going that fast and maintain that speed, one can assume they are hyped up on some sort of common-sense blocking drug like pot or Redbull or Metallica. 

If you want to take 6 days to travel a few hundred miles tasting ice cream and picking apples the whole time, take any VW you want. You want to make it to Buses by the Bridge and be back in time for work on Monday morning? You are are going to need something relatively new.

If you want to go far distances fast without stress, newer is better. Let's assume you've left the bus category (1979 and below) and entered the van category (1980 Vanagon and up).

Third question.  How much money do you have?
Because my bill is still to come and Brötchen isn't cheap. Ha!


Seriously, though. If you want to do some of the work to both save money and, as a wise man once put it," come to kindly terms with your ass, for it bears you", then you want to stay away from the Eurovan. Volks have called this the $2000 van for 2 reasons; first it costs $2000 to fix anything and second, its resale value is right around that figure. Let's assume you also haven't just won a bet with Mitt Romney and walked away with $10,000. This leaves you in the early 80s.

Fourth question.  Do you want to maintain the VW yourself?
This is good. This is part of the VW experience. BUT - rememeber, each learning experience is a potential failure. If your goal is to camp, then pay someone to get your beast up and running so you can enjoy it. These buses were made to be used. Too may buses across America are sitting without engines. Too many buses are half done. Get it out there and use it. Then, when something breaks, try fixing it but don't be afraid or ashamed to get help if you fail. Let's try to keep you driving the VW, not looking at it wishing you could. Focus on maintenance for the first year. After that, be more brave. Early 80s aircooled is still good for this.

LAST question. Is it important that your bus have style and personality?
Okay, so here's the lifestyle angle. There's something to be said for a unique car representing the personality of the driver. And every era of VW has this option if you dig for it. In fact, I think I have found the perfect bus for someone like this. I present to you, "the suggestion": An early 80s aircooled Vanagon Hightop. Style, grace, cruise and distance. Get one with the original size black wheels. Like this:

Whatever VW you choose, do not get discouraged working on your VW. Four years ago I couldn't figure out how to take the brake drum off and last month I replaced the whole front brake system. Time and breakdowns are your teacher. 

Now, my Freundin and I are of to Edelweiss for some skiing. Schlaf gut!

{Standing ovation, cheers all around!}

VW friends and freaks. I've never asked you your opinion before, but I am asking this time; offer your own opinion below. And, should @ArtBeatnik decide to buy a VW bus/van something or other, let's agree to give him a chance and help him and give him a break when he leaves a socket on his spark plug and tries to start his bus...


Ludwig's Drivers

1. But still, excepting some details, Darwin was right.

2. Big Blue's Primary Driver is doing 1960s VW engineers (the guys who'd know) a slight disservice here. An up-to-spec 1972 or later VW bus will, mountain passes and traffic excepted, cruise quite happily at 75 mph all day long. It's my hobby horse and I like to ride it, but it's true. Those engineers didn't just make up numbers to list as "Maximum and Cruising Speed" in the owner's manuals. Drive as slow as you want and pick all the apples you want, by all means. Just know that if your bus can't go 78mph (1972+) or 65mph (from the mid-1960s), then something is wrong with it. Early early buses--the ones you'll never be able to afford, no offense--are the only ones whose truly glacially slow speeds are a matter of fact, and not of legend.

3.-5. I'm not sure why BB's D is touting air-cooled Vanagons here, but much learned opinion (not mine, mind you; I'm an unabashed late bay window guy all the way) holds that air-cooled Vanagons (1980-1983.5) are the worst of the bunch. See:

All that said, I really think you (or your wallet) have to be a bit of a masochist to own an air-cooled VW. If you buy it thinking you'll be reliving some fairytale past that never existed, I'll give you two frustrating years in the scene.




I started a comment, but it got really long, so please see my response at

Brett, that was so nice of you not to feed him to the sharks. The Samba is invaluable, but those guys can be brutal!


I can relate to having a love for VWs but not being all that mechanically inclined. My advice would be to take your time deciding what it is you want. The one regret I have is when I see a Bus that seems to be in much better physical condition than my own, but is the same price I originally paid to obtain The Pig. I love The Pig though, my daughter and her fellow 2 year old compadrre have already grown an affinity for it as well. Penelope has recently started begging me to take her on rides around the lake all the time! I always resolve myself to never be in a hurry when I'm in the bus. The first few extended trips through the Rocky Mountains I was filled with anxiety about the long lines of vehicles forming behind me as The Pig slowly traversed the steep grades. My anxiety was eventually replaced with apathy. Who cares if they are riding my ass, I'll just take it that much easier. I have a 76 and it has definitely cruised at 75, but I never have had the courage to do it for more than a couple of minutes. I'm just more comfy at 65 or below. High winds really push you around driving the highways in my part of the world, and I just cherish life a little too much than to take unnecessary risks. The Vans look appealing to me, I like the interior set up, and its slightly bigger in there than my bay window. That high top looks sweet by the way. I dont regret my decision to buy the bus at all, I have gotten everything I expected out of it and more. If your an introvert or wish to be left alone, start working on your communications skills, and get ready to have your bubble invaded, because these things attract attention. There is just something about them. I found a great mechanic that keeps my bus rolling, and I can say mine has not been all that expensive to maintain.

Steve aka Gus's Owner

First of all, great post!

And strange, in my first post on the Samba five years ago was entitled: "Which VW is for me?"

My recommendation to ArtBeatnik, and anyone else considering owning a vintage car, is to assess your interest/ability to learn mechanical concepts. If for whatever reason you aren't interested one bit in how to maintain your vintage car, then you definitely will need to have a local mechanic who knows the type of car you are purchasing. If you are in a smaller area, it may be hard to find someone who knows how to work on air-cooled VWs. Like others have said, it's not like jumping in your newer car and driving off all the time, never worrying about the mechanics of the vehicle. Who ever really thinks about replacing the fuel lines in a newer car? Well, as a lot of us know, if you don't do it in your air-cooled bus/beetle, you may end up with a smoldering pile of German engineering. Of course (and I think we will see this quite a bit more in the future) there is the option of getting a vintage ACVW, and having someone put a modern engine in it, like the Vanagon Subaru conversions that are growing in popularity. You are right, a lot of folks on The Samba can be jerks...especially if you haven't done a search or misspell a word. But there are some good people on there, and especially on I personally prefer the later Bay Window buses because of the fuel injection. I also wouldn't mind a Vanagon, but I'd probably want a Subaru conversion one, because of all the horror stories I read about the water-cooled ones, and the early air-cooled ones.


Great article! I am in the same position as Art.. trying to decide which bus is for me. I had a '77 in my late teens and traveled all over the US in it.

I am leaning toward 76 - 79 westfalia but mostly because i like how the interior is arranged. Does anyone have thoughts about purchasing an early 70's vs late 70's?

I am only mildly mechanically inclined so any insight from the pros would be more than welcome!



Big Blue's Driver

Jahmikes - early bays have the early engine until '72. I dog the early engine, but it's what I learned. I will say I have dreamed of top engine access for Big Blue (a '68) which is available on the '72 and newer. Might be worth it.

There's a strong argument to be made that the best bay window is a '71.

Big Blue's Driver

Jahmikes - If you are in California, consider smog inspection. Older is better in that case!

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