There is no question that buying a VW Westfalia is pretty dreamy, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t caught up in the dream. It didn’t take long for me to awaken from that dream.

Starting in the late winter 2014/15 I started browsing classified ads for Westy’s all over Ontario and Quebec. I realized I really had no clue what I was looking at. I grew up in a GM family. North American cars is all I knew. The oldest vehicle I had owned up until now, was a 1995 Jeep Cherokee, in which I lived in and traveled to many corners of North America with. That big, old, 4L motor never let me down. Unlike the Jeep, this Westy has been a headache since day one.


We thought #vanlife was as simple as buying a Westy.

1 – Do Your Research

I started by researching VW camper vans. Which model should we go with? Bus, Vanagon, Eurovan? What year, what motor? There are so many motor options. And those motors, no matter what option you go with, just didn’t seem to be as reliable as that trusty inline 6 I had in my Jeep. I narrowed it down to wanting a 87 to 91 Vanagon with the 2.1L, 4 speed manual transmission.

The 2.1L seemed to be the engine that had the most parts available. Many of the upgraded parts GoWesty makes are for the 2.1L. I figured there was a reason for that, and if you are going to invest into a stock drivetrain, it’s the way to go.

I wanted the 4 speed manual because that 2.1L is already working hard. I couldn’t imagine trying to drive an automatic one (I have never had the chance) but from my experience already, I am happy with the 4 speed.

I went Vanagon as I liked the camper/interior layout the most. This thing was going to be home for us for the next 2+ years, so it had to be functional with our gear. And I narrowed it down to 87-91 simply because I liked the white/grey colour pallet more than the brown/beige interior of older models. I also figured more recent years would be in better shape and have a few more of the bugs worked out.

The engine and tranaxle on the shop floor... not where it belongs.

The engine and tranaxle on the shop floor… not where it belongs.

2 – Choose Wisely

I looked at so many Vanagon’s before springing for one. The search stretched to all over Ontario and Quebec and they are not as common as Honda Civics in the local classifieds. This meant lots of driving, and lots of disappointment on arrival. I knew there was some work and upgrades I wanted to do. I kept finding Vanagon’s that either seemed beyond repair or in amazing shape but very expensive (looking at it now, they were a pretty good deal). I ended up going with a 1991 I found in Montreal after about 6 months of looking. I still don’t know if it was the right or wrong choice, but it is what we have now, so we have to make it work. Our Vanagon wasn’t in as good of shape as I thought it was, and I may have bought it more out of frustration from looking than anything. Being patient is key. I got caught up in the Vanagon lust and just bought her.

3 – Plan a Year of Work (Or More)

This is another thing I didn’t bid on. I thought I’d buy the van, take it to the local WV mechanic for a day then be on the road. I did end up taking it to the local VW mechanic after buying. He did take it for the day. He then came back with two pages of work to be done and a quote for between $10,000 and $30,000 in labour, just to get the van “safe”. That was the moment the rose coloured lenses fell off my glasses. I had to think of a new plan. I was lucky enough to have a great friend that specializes in keeping old trucks running. I headed straight out to see him. Adam from Diesel Rover gave me the thumbs up to help with the work on the van and use his shop.

We started working on that list of “safety” items from the previous mechanic. We started tearing apart the front end and quickly realized the van needed much more than the two pages of work if we wanted to call it home for the next two years. Between all the mechanical work, camper accessories, and everything else we wanted, it was pretty clear this was going to take almost a year of work to get her fully ready. Not to mention a lot of money.

Tracy takes a break from ripping out the original carpet and painting the floor.

Tracy takes a break from ripping out the original carpet and painting the floor.

4 – 3-times More Expensive Than You Think

I blew my planned budget for parts on my first order from GoWesty. Not a good start. What we discovered is when we were in to replace the springs and shocks, we might as well replace the control arm bushings. It’s a job where the part is pretty cheap, but the labour is expensive because you have to take apart the front end to change them. This happened with everything we got into until eventually that van was stripped of EVERY MECHANICAL PART! At that point, we decided to change the coolant lines, which you pretty much need to strip the underbelly of the van down to nothing to install. It really didn’t take long to strip the van down. All these unplanned for parts and time really added up. Number 3 and 4 are really pair in pair.

5 – Get An Importers Number

Although there are so many great local VW parts suppliers in Canada, when it comes down to it, a majority of your parts will be coming from the USA. We are so lucky living in Ottawa that we can drive down to Ogdenburg NY to pick up parts. But you can’t just stroll across the boarder back into Canada with a truck load of parts. You need to get an Importers Number and learn how to self-broker your items into Canada. It is frustrating, time consumer and a hassle. But once you get the processed figured out you will save a lot of money in importing and brokerage fees. Totally worth it.

6 – Get Dirty

If you want to live in an old van and travel everywhere, you better know it well. I would consider myself to have pretty basic mechanical knowledge. After almost a year of working with Adam, I am feeling pretty comfortable about turning nuts and bolts on the van. The truth is, we pretty much turned everything single one on the thing. The process of removing parts from a dirty, rusty, oily van is disgusting. No matter how hard you try, there will be grease everywhere, rust bits in your hair and dust in your eyes. There was days I had to change my coveralls by lunch time because they had been soaked in coolant and oil.

7 – Get Frustrated

I can’t begin to count the amount of times tools, old parts and swear words were flung across the shop. We fought bolts for hours before taking the grinder to them. We spent a week just trying to press in new rear control arm bushings to no avail. We almost tore our entire drivetrain system out last week as we couldn’t get the motor running right. The process of restoring a VW van is pretty cool and an amazing experience, but I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights it caused, or the number of times I said to both Adam and Tracy that we should just give up.

After 8 months of hard work, we couldn't get the motor running rights. Turns out a miss ECU ground was the issue.

After 8 months of hard work, we couldn’t get the motor running rights. Turns out a miss ECU ground was the issue.

8 – Prioritize Your Accessories

When the van life dream began, we had all these big plans for accessories and what we wanted to do to the van. The budget quickly went into more important mechanical parts. You start to realize that every thing you buy now, cuts into your travel budget later. Sit-down and really figure out what you can and can not live with. Do you really need that awning? How badly do you want a propane heater? Those Recaro seats sure are nice… but do you really need them? If you put down the money for them, it may very well mean sitting in them, while going no where as you are out of gas money.

John installs the ARB awning. It is one of the least expensive awnings on the market, but it is still pricey for a bit of shade.

John installs the ARB awning. It is one of the least expensive awnings on the market, but it is still pricey for a bit of shade.

9 – Get Your Van’s Value Re-Assessed

After all that work. Your $9000 beat up Vanagon, is likely worth a little more. Make sure you have the value re-assessed and inform your insurance company, or if you van gets wrecked or stolen, it will be replaced with another $9000 Vanagon. I recommend the GoWesty Opinion of Value Report.

10 – Live The Van Life

Finally. After 1 year of work, 3000 lbs of parts shipped from California, countless 20 hour work days, infinite amount of swear words yelled, we are finally ready to live the van life! I’m sure it is not the end of our frustrations, but we are happy to have the van almost ready and move on to the next step.

We are excited to officially launch Searching For Sero and share inspiring stories of how others enrich their lives with outdoor adventure. We thank you for joining us on the ride so far and keeping us motivated through all these repairs and struggles with the van. We owe all our faithful readers huge hugs for all the support so far. Hugs all around.

Ready for adventure. Almost...

Ready for adventure. Almost…

This entire last year wouldn’t be possible without the help of everyone who did their part in getting the van on the road and to where we are now. Diesel Rover, GoWesty, Hunt Club Volkswagen, Mike Cuff and K6Media. Please take the time to head to Facebook and give them all a thumbs up.



1 comment

  1. glogadget Reply March 3, 2018 at 8:37 pm

    Wow, that is a really impressive set up. I had a friend that did a custom set up like this for his canoe, but I haven’t seen one like this on a kayak. It’s awesome.

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