Westy Buying Tips

Here is my list of tips and suggestions for researching and buying a  VW Vanagon Westfalia, especially if you have to drive a considerable distance just to inspect the vehicle yourself.  If you're hunting for the perfect van for your budget, you might have to travel 1,000 miles or more to get it.

First, check out this easy to read definitive guide at Cabby Info in regards to all the US models of Vanagons.

Always do a VIN check in advance if possible, there are many options for this, like Car Fax. If the seller is reluctant to provide the VIN in advance, it's probably a sketchy deal to begin with. When you check the vehicle history...

  • See where the van has lived.  Any states that use salt on the roads?
  • How many owners has it had?
  • Does the mileage look accurate?
  • Any branding / salvage or other notices?

If you're buying and registering a Westy in California or state with other stringent emission requirements, make sure it will pass a smog test and that the current engine is legal.  If the van is already registered in California, the seller is required to smog it before selling to you, and the engine is likely legal.

Pictures!  It's so easy to take numerous, good quality photos with the technology we have today.  Make sure the seller can provide you with extensive photo documentation of the van, especially if you're paying $10k or more.  If not already available, I'd suggest getting pictures of the dash, pop top canvas, engine compartment, undercarriage, wheel wells, metal seams, door jams, window seals, etc.  Sometimes vans will look great on the sides, but then you look underneath and it's rotten from road salt.

Has it been to "the burn"?  I'd suggest casually trying to have this conversation with the seller, rather than outright asking. Tell them you're thinking about taking it to burning man yourself, and see if they say "oh, we've been too". I would suggest never buying a Westy(or any vehicle) that has been to burning man. The salty and alkaline Playa dust will wreak havoc on metal, electronics, etc.  If you detail the vehicle and have it professionally cleaned immediately after leaving the burn, then you might be ok, but most don't go to this extent to deep clean their vehicles.

Test Drive!  If you've never driven a Westy before,  keep an eye out for nice, crisp expensive Westys for sale in your area.  Whether at a dealership, or a private seller, find a way to test drive it for at least a few miles.  Maybe even offer the seller $50 to take for a 15 minute city cruise. This will help you gauge the performance and overall feeling of the next van you're actually considering buying.

How Hot?  Once you get to test drive the vehicle, keep an eye on the engine temp gauge.  Drive it around in stop and go traffic for 15 min.  If the temp gauge goes more than 2/3 of the way up (above the led bubble light, to a point where there is a considerable gap between the gauge arm and the light), it might be running a little hot.  If it's already 90 degrees out, than it could be normal.  Run it with the heater on full and see if you can drop the gauge a bit.  These engines are known for overheating if not serviced properly or regularly.

If possible, get a Compression Test done on the cylinders to see how tight the engine is.  If any of the cylinders have low compression, it could mean at least replacing the head gasket soon, or possibly much more.

Does it have a Trailer Hitch? Ask how much the van can tow, in a round about way to see if they've towed heavy stuff with it.  Hopefully not.  Many folks just use these for hitch mount bike racks, it's a pain to put a bike on top of one of these, let alone the resistance.

Does it have Rack Tabs on the camper portion, like the Yakima Wide Body mounts?  These are pain to install and if they're not done properly, or they've been weighed down, they can crack the fiberglass pop top.  Look for these cracks, make sure the bolts are not too long, and try to find evidence they used silicon or another sealer to intall them.

Has the Fuel Tank ever been resealed? Fuel Lines replaced?  This becomes more of an issue the other they are, and pretty much any Vanagon should have this done if it hasn't been already.

The Bushings in the front suspension system wear out fairly quick.  They're a popular replacement, and even GoWesty sells a full kit so you can do it all at once.  If you hear very loud squeaks over bumps on your test drive, or if any of these look worn out or bulging underneath, this isn't an easy job and will cost a bit at a local VW shop.

Here's some other resources as well....

Vanagonauts - New Vanagon Owner? Things To Do Now. LINK

19 thoughts on “Westy Buying Tips

  1. What do you think of a Ford focus engine replacement? I think they are called Bostigs? Do they have known problems?

  2. This link is not working. can you possibly repost or fix this? Or just send me the link for it?

    First, check out this easy to read definitive guide at Cabby Info in regards to all the US models of Vanagons.

    • Not expensive, but be sure to have ALL service records and VERY nice detailed photos of it in pristine condition, so if something does happen to it you’ve got a better chance at getting the most compensation for it. Many insurance co’s will low ball you.

  3. Hey Mike, great site, thanks.
    Why don’t more Westy’s have Porsche engines? Is this just a myth that they are stronger/faster?
    If you had the option of $10K for a mid-1980’s full camper vs a mid- 1970’s $10K camper, which?? Why? Thanks

    • I’d do a mid 80s camper, they’re more versatile, more ergonomic, safer, etc.

      On the Porsche engine note, I’m not sure. I do know there are some older air cooled Porsche flat 6’s out there in Vanagons.

  4. Hi Mike,
    I am trying to figure out what year the Water cooled Westys became a little more reliable, any advice?
    Ive had bad luck with overheating air cooled VW’s, and want to avoid that deal when camping!
    Kind Regards

    • I honestly don’t know the nuances in regards to the reliability of the water cooleds. There’s more things to break when compared to an air cooled, but when properly cared for and maintained, the water cooled is a much better option. I’ve heard the only years to really steer clear of are the first two, the 1983.5 and the 1984. This will likely differ depending on who you talk to.

  5. Mike,

    I’m in Sacramento, and looking for a Westfalia… I moved here recently, and am unclear on the whole smog sticker issue. With these older vehicles, what are the smog requirements? If someone has pulled the engine and replaced it with another (say a diesel to gas, or from the VW to a different engine), what does this do to the vehicle for smog testing purposes? Is it impossible to get a sticker? depending on the age, can these pass?

    • Great questions, and for a full discussion on this topic I recommend reading up on THIS THREAD on The Samba Forums, as well as other conversations in that forum. However, the high level looks like this. A seller in California with the vehicle registered in California cannot sell to a California resident without a smog certificate. So, if you’re buying a Westy that has already been registered and recently smogged in California, you should be good to go. There would be the odd case of they got it smogged, did the engine swap immediately after, then sold you the vehicle, however I’m not sure if this has ever even happened. The technical rule is, if the engine is swapped, every part from the original engine needs to be used in the swap, everything, supposedly even down to the OEM spark plugs. However, most of the DMV referees don’t take it to the spark plugs. There are only a few gas conversions that seem to pass the DMV referee, these are… Subaru EJ22, Subaru SVX, Audi/VW 1.8T, VW 2.0 TiiCO. There are others(Subaru EJ25, Nissan 3.0L), and I think the TiiCO is even quite difficult. I believe if you are doing a gas to diesel swap, it is a bit easier, however I’m not totally sure on the details. If you’re buying a van from out of state that has had a conversion, do your homework. If you’re buying a van that has already passed smog and has the CARB sticker, you’re probably good to go. Good luck!

      • Thanks Mike.

        I did a little more research and it appears that the Diesel version from 82 does not need a smog sticker, so that vehicle does make it easy to get without worrying (apparently).

        However, they are pretty underpowered, so that may not be an ideal option anyway for driving in the mountains.


      • Hi Mike, I live in San Diego CA and I’m dreaming of getting a westy but my price range goes up to only $15000- do you think it’s possible for me to get one that is safe, runs well, and is in good condition? Thank you for making this website it is helping me a lot- I’m struggling to find the perfect one. I’m nervous about bidding on ebay too because I can’t take the car for a test drive and make sure everything is good, so i could be blowing $15000 on something that doesnt run… do you have any tips? Sorry I know this is a lot!

  6. Thanks! This is a great site. If we had the time to enjoy our Westfalia and some tinkering skills we would keep it. Hope we can find someone who is looking for a great van.

  7. Hi Mike,
    We are in the Southeast and have a great Westy for sale. The Craigslist link is http://bham.craigslist.org/rvs/4433325206.html
    I hope it’s OK that I posted this here. If not, please let me know. It has always been a southern Westy, so no snow or salt. It was my father-in-law’s, so I can assure that it has also never been to Burning Man…

  8. Hey Mike,

    You mention something about towing heavy heavy stuff.
    What would be the problems associated with a Westy that has been used for that purpose?


    • It’s lots of extra work for the motor, clutch and transmission, as well as other parts of the vehicle (shocks, ball joints, brakes, struts, etc). It can wear down these parts a lot quicker.

  9. Hi Mike,

    Thank you for this website — informative AND inspirational.

    I wonder are these comments public? I am in the market for a van for this summer that is functional and road-trip ready. I’m interested in a van on which I would very much appreciate your opinion, and have a number of questions that I would like to send you if you have time.


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