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