The following write-up is designed to clarify the years and terminology associated with Volkswagen camper vans from 1968-2003. Included are some basic descriptions of their body styles, interior layouts, power plants, and when VW made major changes. This is meant to be a helpful guide. These vehicles can be tricky, so don't take this article as the official gospel on your particular vehicle. Also, please note that this article pertains to vehicles sold in the U.S.A. only (not Canadian models).
Volkswagen BUS CAMPERS
1968-1979 VW vans are called Type II Buses: These models were also referred to as the "Bay Window Bus," or “Bread-Loaf Bus," or simply “VW Bus." They are also referred to as “T2s” because they are they second generation Bus (the first being the really old “Grateful Dead, hippy” Bus that had a 2-piece, flat glass windshields, which is why they are called “Splitty’s”). The ones with a pop-top that tilt forward or rearward are Westfalia campers.
1968-1971: These are VW Buses fitted with a 1600cc VW "upright" Type I engine. Year models 1968-1970 were basically the same. The 1971 is special because it has a "dual port" engine (about a whopping 58 hp instead of about 50 hp) and front power assisted disc brakes. You can spot this year right off the bat because they have the more common narrow 112mm bolt-pattern road wheel used all the way through 1991. The earlier Buses (1955-1970) have the old VW wide-pattern 5-bolt wheel with a "baby moon" hubcap. Other than that, the '71 looks pretty much the same as the '68-'70.
1972-1979: You can spot a 1972 and newer Bus easily by the larger, tall narrow tail lights, as opposed to the small oval-like tail lights used from about 1960 to 1971. The '72-'79 Buses are fitted with the VW "pancake" Type 4 engine. These Buses are commonly referred to as the "Porsche-powered" Buses because they have the same engine that was used in the Porsche 914 from 1970-1976, and in the 1976 Porsche 912E. However, the truth is that the Porsches were VW powered, not the other way around. Funny how rumors get started... The 1972 and 1973 models were 1700cc with dual carburetors, the 1974 was 1800cc with dual carbs, the 1975 was 1800cc with "EFI" (Electronic Fuel Injection), and the 1976-1979 were 2000cc EFIs. The pop-top on the Westy Bus changed in 1974 from a front-tipping roof to a rear-flipping roof (like all Vanagon and Eurovan pop-tops open). As a rule of thumb, the newer the Bus, the better. The 1979 model is the newest and the best one. It is the only Bus that came with electronic fuel injection with Lambda (oxygen sensor) controlled mixture, electronic ignition, and hydraulic valves all in the same vehicle (California models only). That particular model, the '79 California-only Bus, was the only year that DID NOT have EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) smog control device, which is a VERY good thing NOT to have on one of these early, air-cooled engines. My personal Westy Bus is a California '79 model I bought in 1986 from the original owners. Yea, I'm all that...
Volkswagen VANAGON CAMPERS
1980-1991 VW vans are called Vanagons. They are commonly referred to as “T3s” because they are the “third type” of VW Bus. They are easier to work on, roomier, and handle way better than a Bus. Simple put: they are a bigger, better Bus!
The interior layouts in the various pop-top versions of the Vanagon, unlike the VW Bus which changed many times, stayed essentially the same throughout the years. The cabinets of the earliest Vanagon pop-tops were fake wood-grain, the seats were a funky striped design, and all the wall and ceiling covering was a thin contact paper-like material that would fall off. Starting with the 1984 Wolfsburg Edition campers, and all '85 and newer campers, the cabinet finish changed to a soft tan color, the fabric changed to a more subdued and extremely durable tan velour fabric, and the funky and unreliable contact paper was replaced with a much more attractive and durable material. This interior scheme stayed in effect through 1986, and in 1987 the interior color changed to gray and remained a very high quality. All '87-'91 full camper interiors are gray and are almost identical. In 1989, the closet door was shortened so it could be opened with the rear table in the stowed position. In 1990, the refrigerator was changed to an electric-start type, and late '90 and '91 models had an inside release for the rear hatch, but that’s about it. In 1985, 1986, and 1987, there was a special Westfalia Wolfsburg Weekender offered. These models have the same pop-top as the full camper, but instead of the fridge/stove/sink assembly, they have a flip-up table and one rear-facing seat behind the driver, and a small all-electric, quick release cooler behind the passenger seat (that does not work very well). The interior color of the '85 and '86 was tan, and the fabric used on the seats and door panels was a tan corduroy that is almost always shredded. The '87 model was available in either tan or blue & gray, and the corduroy was dropped in favor of a much more durable fabric. A very similar model was offered again in 1990 and 1991 and was called the Westfalia Multivan (later offered on the Eurovan platform, as well). The interior color of all of the MV models was gray, and the layout was almost identical to the Wolfsburg Weekender, except it had two rear-facing seats behind each of the front seats, both of which were quick-release for easy removal. The '90/'91 Multivans (MVs) are essentially a Carat seven-passenger, non-pop-top Vanagon model with the Westfalia pop-top, and are probably the most sought-after and valuable two wheel drive Vanagons ever made. Whereas the appearance of the Vanagon changed very little over the 12 years it was offered, mechanically they changed profoundly.
1980-1983: The Vanagon was introduced in 1980 with the same air-cooled, 2000cc EFI engine that was used in the last of the Buses. The engine was simply not up to the task of pushing around an even bigger, heavier box. Typical engine life is about 90,000 miles. Additionally, the first stab at the 4-speed shifter system was a complete failure and was totally re-designed with the introduction of the gasoline water-cooled model in late 1983. While this is still a very cool vehicle, it is not as desirable as the later water-cooled models.
1982-1983 diesel-powered Vanagon: VW offered the Vanagon with the VW Rabbit water-cooled diesel engine for two (thank god) short years. Now, we at GoWesty love diesel-powered vehicles. Don’t get me wrong. I have owned as many as eight diesel-powered vehicles at one time, seven of them VWs. However, what the hell was VW thinking when they put a 48hp 1600cc non-turbo diesel engine into this vehicle? It is simply amazing. You can convert these vehicles to the larger, stouter 1900cc turbo-diesel power plants. They are strong running, and produce about 30% better fuel economy than a typical gasoline-powered Vanagon. However, these vehicles have many of the shortcomings of all the older Vanagons and the cost and trouble of converting one of these to the newer turbo diesel power plant is formidable, and the transaxle has a relatively short lifespan on account of the way-too-much torque of these 1900CC TD engines. Additionally, these are pretty stripped down models: no power steering, mirrors, or AC.
1983-1985: The Vanagon was introduced in year model 1983 with a water-cooled “Wasserboxer” or “Waterboxer” (for all of us English-speaking folk) engine in North America. These first Waterboxer engines were 1900cc and had “Digijet” engine management. The basic design of the Waterboxer is solid. It was the culmination of some 50 years of experience VW had with the horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine design. The Waterboxer is basically made in the same external dimensions as a VW Type I “bug” engine, with the internal displacement and #1 main bearing design of the Type 4 engine, and water (instead of air) cooled. The first Waterboxer powered Vanagons had many problems with the cooling system. First of all, VW didn’t realize until about two years into production that there was a problem with the phosphate and minerals in the coolant they were using. The wrong coolant formula caused the cylinder heads to corrode rapidly at the area where the water-jacket rubber seal (often incorrectly referred to as the “head gasket”) and cylinder head come into contact. Most engines were leaking coolant within the first couple of years, or about 40,000 miles. This stigma has plagued the Waterboxer design ever since, even though the problem was essentially solved early on. With care given to using a non-phosphate coolant and distilled water, and regular 2-year flushing of the system, there is absolutely no problem whatsoever. We have seen Waterboxer Vanagons with up to 295,000 miles come into our shop completely original, the engines never having been disassembled. The rest of the problems with the cooling system were solved with the introduction of the 1986 2100cc Vanagon.
1986-1991: These were the best of the Vanagons, mechanically speaking. They were easily identified by their rectangular (instead of round) headlights. The ‘86 and ‘87s had smaller thin steel "bumpers," and the ‘88-‘91s had larger fiberglass "bumpers" and an added ventilation duct at the rear of each of the rear side windows. I put "bumpers" in quotations because neither the original thin steel or plastic "bumpers" were much of a bumper. They were more of a "might as well not have any bumper" kind of bumper. Many people think that these Vanagons were better because of the increase in displacement from 1900cc to 2100cc, but in fact this was the least important change. Indeed, the two engines are essentially identical in construction and design, with the exception of a longer throw crankshaft (74mm instead of 69mm, increasing displacement from 1915cc to 2110cc), and a more modern main bearing design. The more important changes were: improved exhaust, ignition, engine management (Digifant), brakes, electrical, and (most importantly) COOLING systems. The cooling system was COMPLETELY re-worked for 1986 and stayed basically unchanged through the end of 1991 production. The new cooling system had fewer parts, was much better at keeping air out, and was an easier system to maintain. Furthermore, the newer engine block with the better main bearing design was also slightly bigger inside, enabling the displacement to be increased above 2300cc.
1986-1991 Syncro (4WD) Vanagon: VW offered the Vanagon in a full time all wheel drive version called the Syncro. It was offered in passenger van, Weekender (86-87 Wolfsburg model, not the 90-91 MV), and full camper versions. These all wheel drive Vanagons are way cool, but way expensive not only to purchase, but to restore and maintain, as well. They typically cost about double the exact same non-Syncro Vanagon. The general rule of thumb is to stay away from the Syncro unless you REALLY want all wheel drive, and the word "budget" is NOT part of your vocabulary, OR you just gotta have one!
Which one should you get?
I used to tell folks to stay away from Vanagons older than 1986. But nowadays, all Vanagons are worthy, regardless year model. The bodies are practically identical from 1980-1991, and they are so modular in design—you can build a nice Vanagon out of any Vanagon (not-rusty or crashed) body! It really just boils down to how handy you are, and what you want to do with it.
Volkswagen EUROVAN CAMPERS
1993-2003 VW vans are called Eurovans. This was a complete departure from previous VW van models, most notably in that the engine was moved to the FRONT. Eurovan production started in 1992 in Europe. The vehicle was introduced in the USA as a 1993 year-model, non-pop-top GL passenger van (with all forward-facing seats) and the MultiVan (MV) model (with two rear-facing seats behind the front seats and a flip-up table). This was the model most similar to the Vanagon Carat. They also offered pop-top version with "Weekender package.” These were the ones with the Westfalia-installed pop-top, the Westfalia Weekender Multi-Van. The full camper version of the Eurovan was introduced in the USA in 1995. All Eurovan full campers sold in the USA are Winnebago conversions, not Westfalia.
1993-1994: The only VW pop-top models offered in the USA in 1993 and 1994 was the Westfalia Weekender Multi-Van (MV). These vehicles were the same as the regular hard-top MV passenger vans, except they had an interior and pop-top installed by Westfalia. However, these were weekenders, without sink, fridge, or stove. They had two rear-facing seats, one fixed seat behind the driver with a slide-out electric cooler under it (pop-top versions only), and the other behind the passenger seat that is quick-release (both that way on the non-pop-top version of the MV). The venerable VW/Audi in-line 5-cylinder, 2.5 liter, 130 hp engine powered all the 1993-1996 models. This is the same engine that was used in the Audi 5000 since about 1977. They were available in either 5-speed manual or 4 speed electronically controlled automatic. This MV Eurovan was discontinued in 1995 and re-introduced in 1999 with a 2.8 liter “VR6” six cylinder engine and stayed basically unchanged through end of production in 2003. If a Eurovan weekender model is what you want; the 2001-2003 model is by far the better choice, all things considered.
1995-1996: The first full-campers were available in the USA starting in 1995, and were Winnebago camper conversions, converted in Indiana by the Winnebago company. They are not Westy's. The Eurovan Winnebago full camper is based on an extended delivery-van version that is 15-1/2 inches longer than the regular Eurovan. They were delivered to Winnebago basically bare inside, but fully loaded with all creature comfort options (AC, cruise, power everything) pre-installed by VW. Winnebago then cut the hole in the top, added the pop-top, and added the sink, stove, fridge, cabinets, furnace, and side windows. All Eurovan Winnebago campers have gray interiors. These early 95-96 Winnie campers had the same power plant as the 93/94 regular Eurovan models, 5-cylinder in-line engine with 5-speed or AT. Although not as underpowered as a Vanagon, they were certainly no rocket ships. If a Eurovan Winnebago full camper is what you want; the later 97-03 models are by far the better choice, all things considered.
1997-2000: In 1997 VW switched to the “VR6”, which is a 2.8 liter, 15 degree V6. It is called a "VR" instead of just "V" because, unlike regular V6 engines that have two cylinder heads, the VR6 has only one. But, it is not a regular in-line 6 cylinder engine either, where the cylinders are all in a line. The cylinders in a VR6 are staggered making for a shorter, but wider engine—but still narrow enough to need only one cylinder head. The 5-speed manual transaxle option was dropped, all VR6 Eurovans are fitted with 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transaxles. This new engine was just as if not more reliable as the 5-cylinder it replaced, but WAY smoother, more powerful, and more efficient. The interior color was still gray, but the fabric used on the seats changed from a thin-stripped design to little triangles. In late 1999 it changed again from the little triangles to a circular pattern. Some other minor interior refinements were made, like better interior lighting for example. One significant addition starting in 1997 was the introduction of dual air bags as standard equipment. With them came a more ergonomic steering wheel/driver orientation. However, the glove box disappeared.
2001-2003: In 2001 the VR6 jumped in HP to 204 and is even more reliable as the one it replaced. It should be noted that the engine SIZE did not change; it remained a 2.8 liter engine. The cylinder head was re-designed to include 24 valves instead of only 12, and the camshaft timing became variable and computer controlled. The engine management system was also improved, and switched to a true "drive by wire" system (no actual physical connection between your right foot and the engine), and multiple coil-on-plug ignition. But even though the HP jumped 64HP (46%), the torque went up only 8 ft-lbs to 188 ft-lbs (4%). The bottom line is that all VR6 powered Eurovans have plenty of oomph. Other changes in 2001: The 15-inch road wheel was replaced with a 16-inch wheel, a rear sway bar was added, the rear suspension was raised about 1inch, and the brakes were improved. Other than that, it didn’t change noticeably. The interior was identical to the late 1999 model.
There are two potential big-ticket repairs that are common with the Eurovan: 1) automatic transmission failure and 2) timing chain failure.
1. The Achilles heel of all Eurovans is the automatic transaxle. All years of the Eurovan automatic transmission have proven to be potentially problematic. Almost all automatic transmissions, foreign and domestic, became electronically controlled after about 1990, and the Eurovan is no exception. The term “electronically controlled” means that a computer, wiring, and electric solenoids are all involved in telling the transmission when to shift and which gear to shift into. Because of their complicated design, quality control is extremely critical. It is pitifully common to have the AT on a Eurovan completely fail in the first 50k miles. The lowest mileage failure we experienced occurred at only 16,341 miles! The design of the Eurovan AT is basically very solid. All of the failures that we have seen have been quality control related. A bad connection, a loose roll pin—something seemingly inconsequential brings the whole deck of cards down. Failures are sometimes preceded by the transaxle going into "limp mode," which means it stays in 3rd gear all the time just to get you home. But failures can also come without warning, leaving folks stranded. We have taken Eurovan automatic transmissions apart with over 100k miles that were working fine as a preemptive measure, only to find they were less than 50% worn! We had a "loaner" 1997 EVC that went over 220k miles on the original transaxle before giving up the ghost. A transmission failure is often preceded by debris in the oil pan, which is clearly evident during an oil change. VW does not recommend that the transaxle be serviced, EVER. We strongly disagree; GoWesty recommends transmission oil changes every 30k miles. Regular servicing, and adding a GoWesty External Oil Cooler Kit really helps extend the life of these transaxles.
2. The timing chain system in Eurovans fitted with the VR6 engine has proven to be problematic. Eurovans up to 1996 were fitted with the 5-cylinder engine. These engines have an external, polymer timing belt that requires regularly scheduled maintenance. In 1997, the Eurovan was fitted with the VR6, which has an all-metal timing chain system instead of a timing belt. As with all timing chain design engines, this system is supposed to last the life of the engine without any scheduled maintenance. The VR6 design is a two-chain system, lower and upper. As with all 4-cycle engines, the camshaft spins at exactly 1/2 the speed of the crankshaft. In the VR6 design, this speed reduction occurs at a combination sprocket. In 2001, the VR6 was fitted with a different cylinder head with 24 valves instead of 12, which is how VW was able to extract 46% more horsepower without increasing the displacement beyond 2.8 liters. Over time we have seen timing chains in the VR6 design begin to make noise at around 100k miles. In contrast to the 12 valve engine wherein the noise typically does not lead to any more serious consequence, in the 24 valve design we have seen a complete failure of the combination sprocket . The failure is probably due to the added load created by the more complex 24 valve, multiple camshaft system. We have seen complete failures at mileage figures as low as around 70k miles. The best way to extend the life of the timing chain system is to use top-quality, full synthetic coil an change it every 5000 miles.