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VW van in the family

2006-07-28 21:28:13.598655+00 by Diane Reese 26 comments

Well, it's finally happened: The Kid made good on his intention, expressed a full 4 years ago, and bought a VW van this week. It's a '78 VW Transporter van, complete with no heater, no radio, no interior, and an oriental rug on the floor. It seems to be in decent condition and he got an excellent deal on it. His plan is to fix it up a bit and drive it cross-country at the end of the summer. I recall some expertise here on old VW vans, clubs one could join for solidarity and practical repair help (especially on cross-country trips), etc. -- anyone have anything to suggest? He's also searching online for a manual. Any suggestions happily passed along!

(PS: This weekend I get to play mommy and make curtains for the windows. In paisley print, of course. He hasn't yet decided if he'll be painting on the outside of the van... Check back in a few months and we'll see.)

[ related topics: Interactive Drama Dave Winer Microsoft Race ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 22:16:38.987841+00 by: Dan Lyke

It's gotta be polka dots and flowers! Did that version come with factory installed patchouli?

Eric was the source of the expertise, although I think we can all pony up some encouragement.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 22:33:57.315472+00 by: Diane Reese

Oh PS: It has a 1991 Burning Man sticker on it. :-) Kid says in another year or two, it will go back. Presuming it lives that long...

(And I've discovered AIRS (Air-cooled Interstate Rescue Squad), which I think is a must-connect-with before he leaves on his lengthy journey! Also, Kid has this weird idea that since the front windshield is vertical it won't need a heater for de-icing or defrosting in the winter of New England. He claims it should be enough for the driver to bundle in blankets and for others to cuddle in the bench seat in back. Now, normally he's a smart kid, but I'm thinking this is just a bit on the stupid-person side. (Or maybe he's pulling his mother's chain, heh.) Any advice on getting him to think this through a little deeper before he has to scrape 2" of not-needed off his windshield some evening? Maybe the best teacher is the School of Hard Knocks for things like this....)

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 23:03:15.393601+00 by: Dan Lyke

Uhhh... Got any single pane windows in your house? Want to point out to him where the condensation collects?

Heck, he's a smart guy, you could just do this in theory: Point out that warm air holds more vapor than cold air. Inside of the vehicle will be warmer because clothed humans put out about the same amount of heat as a 100 watt bulb, and full of moisture because lungs are great at putting moisture into warm air. Windshield will be cold.

Designing experiments to test what will happen in this situation is left as an exercise to the reader, but coming up with a couple of 12v fans seems like a good idea.

12v fans aren't that hard to come by, I'd at least make sure he can blow air across the inside...

(Using phrases that indicate that his friends will "cuddle on the bench seat in the back [of his VW van]" without breaking down into wibbling jelly indicates that you have a certain maturity that many mothers lack... [grin]).

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 23:20:17.534104+00 by: ebradway

Hah! I'll have a longer post in the near future. Running out to dinner now...

On the heat, I used a Coleman PowerCat catylytic heater sitting on the passenger area floor. I also, in the fall, would take off the front air-intake screen and line it with heavy-duty trashbag material. The biggest problem with keeping warm in a bus is that they are VERY drafty. The problem with the PowerCat is that it creates moisture. I'd have to scrape the INSIDE of the windshield at times...

And AIRS is a must... As are the Full Moon Bus Club campouts.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 23:31:14.539684+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oh, and he should read William Least Heat Moon[Wiki]'s Blue Highways[Wiki].

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-28 23:34:15.964799+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oh, and lack-of-radio wise: Meuon, how much current does that nifty stackable speaker system you've got draw? Something you can plug a guitar into run off an inverter seems like totally the right direction for this vehicle.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 04:14:09.421881+00 by: meuon

The Fender PD250 Will run on a 350 watt inverter (I've done it) but will also run off of 12v DV (done that also). If'n you want to make your own cheaper, it's just a good quality car audio amp and an input mixer.

But all you really need in that thing is some drums.. Kum-by-ya my lord... Kum-by-yahhhhh

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 08:00:10.28078+00 by: ebradway

Ok... Got a little more time now... Some terms you need to learn:

Type 1: VW Bug Type 2: Bus/Transporter Dog-house: the more upright engine in the bug and early buses (pre-72) Pancake: the horizontally-opposed flat-four in your kid's bus - also used in the VW 411 fastback and staton wagon, the Porsche 912E (1976) and the Porsche 914 (except the 914-6). It's also used in some experimental airplanes.

I copied your pic to my Flickr account and made some notes:

Diane's Kid's

From the pic, I can tell the bus at least got some good attention to the body. It looks sharp - no apparent rust. That's good. Check the tires - make sure they are light truck tires. The bus weighs more than car tires are rated for and you're asking for trouble if you overload them.

It's a '78, so that means it came with fuel injection. For most mechanics in the 70's, fuel injection was rocket-science and carbeurators were the way to go. If it still has the fuel injection, count your lucky stars. When working properly, the FI will give much better fuel economy and power. If it's been replaced, you probably have one of these:

A Weber progressive single-carb. These are great carbeurators for almost everything EXCEPT the pancake engine. The reason is that carbeurators really need a warm environment in order to function well and the long intake manifolds tend to get some icing going on, especially in cold, damp areas (like New England). The design of the pancake puts the carb in a very cold spot. Before FI, the bus had dual carbs that sat over directly over the intake manifold, which is directly over the exhaust manifold - nice and toasty. In Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, these things worked great. In New England - well - you'll have some fun learning to heal-toe brake while tweaking the throttle to keep it running. Recommendation - watch the Type2 list for a used FI system and restore it!

On the heat issues - I really recommend investing the time and effort to get the real heat working. I say this for a number of reasons. First, after driving a bus in the Southeast for two years, I found that I would have enjoyed a little more warmth. Second, you are right in that a little heat will go a long ways toward clearing the windshield of ice. Third, and most importantly, another common mistake in the '70s was to remove the "flaps" from the air-intake system. This was a huge mistake unless you lived in SoCal, Nevada or Arizona. The flaps work like the thermostat in a radiator. The restrict the flow of air across the exhaust manifold so that the engine can reach operating temperature. As the engine increases in temp, they open gradually to allow proper airflow. In a cold environment, it's possible the engine will never reach proper operating temp and bad things can happen - like seals splitting and oil going everywhere. So, it's better for you AND the bus to make sure the heating system is functioning properly.

And that leads to the next bit... It's not yet August, so I assume the kid has a few weeks left before school starts. You need to learn to take the engine out and put it back in. You need to carry the necessary implements for this procedure with you at all times. The first time will be scary and I suggest enlisting some local VW club members for some reassurance. But once you've done it a couple times, you won't think twice about it. Taking the engine out will also give you a chance to get intimate with the fuel line.


It will also give you a chance to get to know the starter and how the charging/starting system is wired. You WILL get lots of chances to work on these. The most important rule is that every ground-point must be sanded shiny to make a perfect connection. Rust = Resistance. And starting the bus with too much resistance is futile...

I always carried with me in my bus:

  1. A sleeping bag and pillow.
  2. A ratty change of clothes.
  3. Enough emergency food for two days.
  4. A floor-jack.
  5. A battery charger.
  6. Jump-start cables.
  7. A full toolkit with both metric and SAE wrenches and sockets.
  8. Three cans of "Fix-a-Flat"
  9. Several pieces of 2x4 cut to the appropriate lengths to assist in removing the engine.
  10. A complete electical kit.
  11. Two flashlights.
  12. The Coleman PowerCat heater.
  13. An AIRS phone list.

And most importantly:

  1. A Grateful Dead bootleg cassette tape - mostly to use the cover for scraping ice off the windshield.

For reading material and manuals, skip the Haynes. It's crap. Get these instead:

Mostly about the bug, but it has some good advice (and some to ignore) but it's written in a user-friendly way. At the very least, it's nice to read while

This is the original service manual. It has everything - except for accurate wiring diagrams. But that doesn't matter because the wiring's probably been redone anyhow...

Here's the backend of my old bus (on the left):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 08:03:16.016668+00 by: ebradway

And here's an aerial shot of my bus:

It's the one in the upper-left with the green tarp between it and the bus next door.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 12:37:59.479671+00 by: DaveP

What he said. All of it.

I'll also add:

1 - Get intimate with oil. Changing the oil regularly in these beasts is essential, and LOOKING at the oil that comes out is one of the best diagnostics of the health of the engine. Encourage the kid to do it himself and when taking the used oil in for recycling, don't be afraid to ask a mechanic to look at the oil and explain what he sees.

2 - Thoroughly wash the non-moving windows and Rain-X them. Inside and out. Outside will mean that the water sheets off even if the wipers quit working (it happens). Inside, Rain-X means that condensation will bead up and run off, rather than spreading into a thin layer that will turn to frost in cold weather. Also Rain-X on windows makes frost and ice much easier to remove (1/2 inch thick sheets come off in a single piece after an ice-storm if there's Rain-X underneath - everyone else is chipping for hours or running the defrosters that your kid won't have). Reapply whenever it quits working well.

I'll second the recommendation to learn to pull the engine. I'm sure I'm well off my "half-hour to pull the engine and put it back" time now, but there was many a weekend adventure where the ability to swap out an engine kept the fun rolling, rather than spending all weekend waiting in a small-town hotel or parking lot for the mechanic to show up to work on Monday. And knowing that he can swap out an engine makes for a confidence that will help him tackle any lesser repair job.

I've still got my oil-stained, and battery-acid chewed "Compleat Idiot" here somewhere. It's invaluable, especially in the talks on how to gap your valves (a regular maintenance task) and tune multi-carb or fuel-injection systems "by ear".

And to Eric's kit, I'll add the following (mostly cold-weather) items: 15 - small shovel - the military folding entrenching tool is a good one - it'll just rattle around in the back somewhere until he needs to dig out of somewhere or chop some wood for a fire, and then it'll take a place of honor. 16 - small multi-fuel stove - the ability to boil some water for coffee, tea or cocoa can raise spirits when stuck in the cold - pack hot beverage or choice and instant (dried) soup or ramen with the stove. 17 - a tarp - it's miserable having to lay in mud to work on an engine - the tarp can either go under him, or be used as a rain-fly or sun-shade when he's just taking a break somewhere. 18 - enough spare oil for a complete oil-change. On a cross-country trip, it can be tempting to keep driving, but a long climb (e.g. Salt Lake to Wyoming) will heat the oil to the point that it's breaking down and no longer protecting the engine. Take the time to change the oil after such a climb, and the VW will continue on much more happily, rather than killing the engine from heat.

It's not that VWs are unreliable - they're pretty darned good vehicles when properly maintained, but without being proactive on the maintenance, things do break down. Having to call someone else to fix them means that much less money for gas and other essential supplies. Fixing it yourself means more miles per dollar in the long-run.

That's all that comes to mind this morning.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 13:26:58.806837+00 by: meuon

I'm remembering days (late 70's, early 80's) where most of that advice applied to ANY car. Other than oil changes and flat tires, my trucks got almost 80k miles on it, the Subaru over 20k.. and although I carry some basic tools, I rarely need them. While in some ways, cars have barely changed, they sure have been refined.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 19:39:18.052202+00 by: Diane Reese

WOW, thanks folks, you're the greatest! Excellent thoughts from everyone: he's going to practice changing the oil this weekend if he can make time. I've encouraged Greg to sign up here and comment himself from now on, rather than me playing intermediary, so you may hear from the owner himself before long.

Eric, I'd love to see pictures of your bus, but nothing is showing up....?

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 21:55:24.678037+00 by: ebradway

Hmmm... Let me look into that later. I'm also digging around for my archive of bus pics. You can also find my bus on pages 84-85 of VW Bus

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-29 23:26:58.654753+00 by: ebradway

I really "learned" how to set the valves when my father and I had the engine apart. It all made much more sense when I could see the parts moving.

Oil: Before my bus, I had a Porsche 911. The 911 uses essentially the same drivetrain (larger 6-cylinder engine, 5-speed transmission) but air-cooled, none-the-less. The 911 had a huge oil reservior and an external oil cooler (in addition to the little one "in" the engine. I was planning to add an external oil cooler to the bus before I sold it. It would have had two effects: 1. cooler engine operating temps and 2. a larger volume of oil. Less oil breakdown...

I changed my oil and set my valves every 5K miles in the bus. I had a fresh rebuild on the engine and I also learned to keep the pedal away from the floor. You get used to being passed by semis and school buses after a while.

Oh, another tip: If the bus doesn't already have a tachometer and oil temp gauge, buy them and install them. Spend the extra bucks on the VDO guages. You'll drop about $140 for the two gauges plus mounting hardware (check out the BusDepot.com). Don't dive the thing entirely by ear. You don't want to over-rev and you don't want to under-rev (lug). And you definitely don't want to overheat.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 14:16:07.923571+00 by: ziffle [edit history]

I drove my 78 VW Camper through 37 states in 1985 -- I recall it had hydraulic lifters and did not need to be adjusted.

My abnormal pyschology professor said to buy an old VW bus and put your girlfriend in it and drive across the country, preferably breaking down a few times - if you are still speaking after the trip - marry her - he said. Problem is it didn't work. (she was still not happy until she got her lithium).

I'll stick with a nice watercooled RV from now on :)


#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 19:00:08.841744+00 by: ebradway [edit history]

I think ziffle is right... You'll want to check into it...

Of course, hydraulic lifters were up there with fuel injection in terms of stuff mechanics in the 70s tended to rip out first excuse they got... So a sanity check is in order...

My bus was a '74, which was supposed to have a 1.8l engine in it. It had the fan-shroud and other bits from the 1.8l (with the right serial #s and all) but the block itself was a 1.7l. This caused a major headache when I purchased a rebuild gasket set for a 1.8l, only to find out upon further disassembly that I needed a 1.7l gasket set.

If you really have a '78 with working fuel injection and hydraulic lifters and the air-flow flaps and tin are all their and working, then you have a real gem! The epitome of the bread-loaf pancake engine. Much less maintenance and much better performance. Count your lucky stars and go ahead and invest the $$ in getting the heating working!

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 20:56:44.328574+00 by: Diane Reese

They checked over the weekend and found it did still have the fuel injection. Now to figure out how to determine whether "hydraulic lifters" are part of the package. And the air-flow flaps... but those may have to wait until the manuals arrive so everyone can see what they're talking about.

(PS: I finished the curtains this weekend. They're only put up temporarily to see how they'll look, but the slider-door set, along with the rear window and back-of-front-seats set, will spend its life rolled in a bag under the seat until needed. In theory, anyway. Please note the nifty ties I sewed into each curtain, to allow for tie-backs and to avoid lossage. Am I a mom, or what.)

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 22:08:09.110472+00 by: baylink

Someone mentioned the 914-6. IIRC, that was not the same engine as the 911-6, but that 914-6 engine can be (and has been) put in SuperBeetles (a friend of mine owned one; I learned to drive a stick in it), so it might go in the van, too, if the installer is motivated enough and the factory engine isn't up to the task.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-07-31 22:26:19.78157+00 by: Dan Lyke

Wow, Diane, now he's got to paint it to match the curtains!

#Comment Good advice all around... made: 2006-08-03 00:53:13.70786+00 by: skrubly

Regarding shoving a 914-6 engine into a bus, they aren't terribly common and are incredibly expensive, and not as powerful as the 911 sixes of similar years. They can be put into the bus with some modification, but I think it does involve some fabrication work.

I just did a rebuild on my 914 2.0 liter 4cyl, and it's a great little engine - but again, the parts for it are getting harder to find. Luckily type iv 1.7 engines for the bus are still pretty common (compared to other things).

If you're interested in performance type iv's, Jake Raby's website is the way to go... he did a great type iv (to be installed in a beetle) buildup over the last couple months in Hot VW's magazine.


1971 Standard Beetle 1973 Porsche 914 2.0

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-17 23:17:45.864912+00 by: Diane Reese [edit history]

Update, for those who are interested:

Sent an email to 4 locals on the AIRS list who didn't list themselves as "emergency only" or "I know nothing about mechanical stuff I just like the company", seeing if anyone would be available for a once-over or engine diagnosis help. Got 2 enthusiastic responses within an hour!

C came over (on his antique BMW motorcycle, scoring points with "Little" Brother who worships motorcycles) Tues. night and did a look-see and point-out. He declared the engine in very good shape for its age, and says all the original parts are there except for one piece of missing engine tin (?). Which left everyone excited for Wed. when...

R came over at 6pm for a nice dinner and an Engine Pulling Party. Friend Q showed up also, and Dad was there to help; "Little" arrived from water polo practice around 8:30.

Short version of LOOOOOOONG story: the engine finally made it to the door on the cinder blocks at the top of the driveway... at... 3am. Suffice it to say it helps to have the correct tools and a jack the right size, and that if you have to improvise the first time, or really bang the shit out of bolts that should have been hand-tight but were torqued out the wazoo, it's better to have done it the first time at home in the driveway, with task lighting and family support and iced tea and a hot shower afterwards, than in the dark alone on the side of a road in some national forest somewhere. I shant go into details, but the long night (9 hours total) involved a fuel spill, an improvised jack, a stripped vice grips, a screwdriver hammered through the old oil filter, many improvised tools, and a surprisingly upbeat demeanor on most everyone's parts. (Including R who stayed until the bitter end! What a guy. The fact that he even offered to come back to help get the engine back in was, well... astounding to me. Or maybe he just really liked my chicken cacciatore and chocolate fudge pie....)

Upon seeing some of the photos of the ordeal (which I dutifully photographed, staying up for moral support the whole time), G's girlfriend commented that this one looked as if we'd slid a starving Ethiopian child with a clown wig under the car.

Next steps: clean it out, do a compression test, fix something about a broken heat exchanger, do something with push rods, replace hoses and bolts, and attend to the 3 other things they found as it was being removed. Those Who Know still seem to be saying it's in remarkably good shape, and that assuming it gets back together, I shouldn't worry (much) about it making the journey to Boston. For this alone, I am grateful.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-17 23:27:33.795091+00 by: Dan Lyke

Cool update! Having been through several situations recently where I didn't take enough pictures, keep that documentation going, he'll thank you for it some day.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-20 03:28:59.355743+00 by: ebradway

Just notice the update! What you experienced from AIRS is typical. Everyone in the VW community is great. I miss being a part of it... sometimes... Maybe not at 3am...

Good thing you pulled the engine when you did. Now you'll be able to assemble the toolkit and keep it in the bus. I used to use a cheap floor jack from K-Mart (I think it was $20). While I didn't use it to lift the entire bus for any length of time (floor stands are crucial there), I did use it to raise and lower the engine. The other key ingredient, which I'm sure you are aware of now, is a selection of specially cut pieces of 2x4 wood. You'd be amazed at how good you get with levers!

Missing tin: Good call! Go to the nearest bus grave yard and get a new one. It might take a couple tries to get just the right piece, but it's worth it. The tin keeps the hot side of the engine (bottom) separate from the cool side (top). This is especially important when the vehicle is idling.

You can frequently have the heat exchanger repaired as they are expensive to replace. But if you want working heat inside, that's where you have to start. The heat exchangers work kind of like the small radiator (heater core) in a water-cooled engine except that it uses heat off the exhaust system. Of course, this creates a potential problem if exhaust is leaking and you're running the heat - it gets pumped right into the cabin...

#Comment Re: made: 2006-08-29 17:15:05.721571+00 by: Diane Reese [edit history]

Well, it's over. For now. Long story which I'll blog soon... They took off on Sun. but after a day's drive, a camping overnight, and 3 further breakdowns, they returned to park the van in the driveway. It won't be attempting the cross-country drive this summer. Disappointing after all that work, but there just isn't the time now to get there before registration day.

Thanks for all the help, folks... and be aware, the AIRS directory is over 50% outdated; the Type2 mailing list, however, still bristles with life.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-09-01 17:07:01.339676+00 by: ebradway

Wow... Three breakdowns!

I put about 45K miles on my bus in a year and a half and only experienced three breakdowns in the entire time. Once the cotterpin holding the rear wheel hub broke and my wheel just about came off (through some higher guidance, I had just gotten off I-75 to take to the older US highways). The other two breakdowns were the same problem - after rebuilding the engine with my father, we had put the rear main seal in backwards. Of course, it came loose and all the oil was on the ground in seconds. Soon after, a "plug" popped out and meuon and I got to jury-rig a fix for it (thanks again, Mike!).

Of course, it would got through regular fits of not starting. The fuel gauge didn't work for the first 20K miles and I occasionally ran out of gas. And before Dad and I did the rebuild, the cam gears were off by a tooth and the timing was perpetually off. Oh yeah, there were exhaust leaks as well...

BTW (and I should have mentioned this sooner), Toyota made a great mid-engine van in the 1980s (prior to the Previa) that many VW bus fans have migrated to. Less character but greater reliability.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-09-01 17:14:10.668261+00 by: Dan Lyke

Funny you should mention that, Eric... I was talking with Charlie the evening they were trying to get the compression test to work and in the process said something like: "You buy a bus if you want an adventure. If he wanted to get from point A to B, he should have bought a Toyota."