It was almost 2 years ago today I exchanged my entire savings account for our 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfaila. I was stoked. I hopped in with a giant smile on my face and made the drive from Montreal to Ottawa problem free thinking “woo, I’m the lucky one that got a good reliable Westy!”

Pretty much every mechanical part stripped from the van.

Until I got her up on the hoist for the first time. Here are 10 things I have learnt so far.

  1. These things are finicky. They have their own personality. There is a learning curve to keeping it running well. Everything from learning you need to use the black Bosch oil filters or the oil sensor buzzer won’t shut off, to how to use the climate control system (no really, good luck figuring it out without spending an hour reading about it… here.)
  2. Don’t plan your first camping trip the day after buying the van… or in our case a year. Yup, that’s right. The first year of Westy ownership the van didn’t go far. It pretty much could only go up and down thanks to the power of the hoist. A Westy is essentially a classic car that doesn’t get classic car treatment for most of its life. So unless you are willing to put big money into a fully restored van, you will likely have some work to do. What we found out, is that it was hard to limit that work to the basics. We ended up stripping everything from the van and rebuilding. It just became a process of “well, we are here now and its easy to do so might as well do it”.
  3. Don’t expect the van to run perfect even after a year of work. As with any restoration project, a shakedown is needed. You find out things you missed. You find out things that just don’t work. Some parts you can’t get and custom options need to be fabricated. All these little systems need to be shaken down and improved. It takes time, and breakdowns.
  4. If you are running the stock 2.1L motor, you need to run it on premium gas. There are no knock sensors. Running hard on regular means you may start breaking stuff. We learned this the hard way…
  5. Check your oil (and all other fluids) regularly. And I mean super regularly. Like every few times you fill up with gas. And run 20W50. Your engine will thank you.
  6. Easy does it. Honestly, the van is the shape of a brick. Do you think it’s designed to go fast? The stock 2.1L puts out 90 horsepower so going fast (over 100km/h) means driving with the pedal to the floor. With any any vehicle, if you drive with the pedal to the floor all the time, your engine is not going to like it. Find the speed your van likes and respect her limits.
  7. Invest in upgraded aftermarket parts. We can debate rather the Westy had design flaws or not for all of internality, but it doesn’t matter. That fact is we can build better parts now, so upgrade them, rather its the thermostat housing to the transaxle.
  8. Be prepared for all new lines. The most common advice is replace your fuel lines to prevent the dreaded fire. But you need to check all your lines and be prepared to replace them. This includes your brake, steering and cooling lines (which are plastic… think about the stainless upgrade) . The cost can add up, but its if any of the lines fail, it could mean game over.
  9. Learn the sounds. I mean every sound. Listen to how the motor, transmission, all the pumps, the front and, the CV’s and everything sound. Know what the “everything is running right” sound is and the “something isn’t right sound” is. This takes some time and a good ear, but always be listening to what your van is telling you.
  10. Enjoy it. You can stress all you want about your next breakdown or not starting, but in the end, you need to do your best to prepare your Westy then just go enjoy it. When something fails, it fails and you make your plan to get it running again from their. It may mean a road side repair or a costly tow truck, but if all you are is worried about breaking down, then you aren’t going to truly enjoy your van.

So get out there. Have an epic adventure. Enjoy the open road. Find you spot and lastly, love your Westy. She will love you back.

Special thanks to GoWesty for keeping us moving with the best parts!


1 comment

  1. Trevor Reply August 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Hi John,

    I thought of your well written article last weekend as I was driving from Vancouver Island to Kamloops and back, especially as I experienced yet another appearance of a mechanical gremlin. I’ve had my ’91-2.1L Westy GL for 8 years now and have almost completely rebuilt it over the years. Not many parts have not been replaced and/or upgraded including a complete engine overhaul last year. Yet I still have various running issues such as the latest breakdown on the Trans Canada Hwy in 32degree C temps; Something in my engine bay is not liking the hot temps at slow speeds such as grid lock traffic. Thanks for the reminder that these are finicky cars and need the respect that they deserve.

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