Shifter Systems: Why the '80-'82 Vanagon System is Terrible!

When VW first introduced the Vanagon in 1980, one of the things that was celebrated far and wide among professional and shade-tree mechanics alike was the “new style” shifter system. All VW and Porsche rear-engine vehicles—prior to the 1980 Vanagon—had a single shaft coming out of the front of the transaxle onto which a Rube Goldberg design shifter linkage attached. It was through this single piece of solid steel, about 5/8” in diameter and 6” long, that you would tell the transaxle what gear your hand on the shift knob wanted. This shaft was referred to as the “hockey stick” for some mysterious reason. Those of us with enough VW or Porsche rear-engine driving experience have probably lived to see this part fail—in my case three times over the last 30 years. Wind out first, grab the shift knob and pull back for second and… air. While laying on my back under the vehicle on the side of road, with a straight piece of steel in my hand, I wondered, “Why is this referred to as a hockey stick?” Then, several hours and beers later, in the garage of some old, old friends I had just met, who were nice enough to pull over and help (and had a tow rope), with the transaxle in pieces on their (previously spotless) garage floor, I had in hand the OTHER end of that steel shaft. It is one of those experiences I will never forget, putting the two pieces together where they broke apart, staring at it, and saying to myself: “Wow, that looks just like a hockey stick…"

Anyway, the 1980 Vanagon does not have a hockey stick. Instead, the shift linkage attaches to the front-most section of the transaxle like before, but comes out of the side. It was VW’s first stab at a non-hockey stick design, but internally the transaxle was very much like the earlier hockey stick type. This “first stab” at it, although better than the hockey stick system, was lacking in many other ways. It only took VW three years to realize this, and a complete redesign appeared for the 1983 and 1984 year models and remained unchanged through the end of production model 1991. The new design was WAY better. The shift shaft now passed through the middle section of the transaxle, making a more direct connection to the inner shift forks, and creating more space in the front section where the shift shaft mechanism was located. A completely redesigned reverse gear system was moved into that section, eliminating the next-worst weak point of the old design: a weak-ass reverse gear (I can tell you more stories about THAT part, having grown up in San Francisco where having an operational reverse gear is a matter of life and death…). With this change in '84 came many other internal improvements to the transaxle, and even the introduction of a 5-speed version.

If you have one of these early (80-82) 4-speed manual shift Vanagons, and it is time for a fresh transaxle, it is NOT in your best interests to just replace the transaxle with a rebuilt one of the same early shifter type. VW stopped making them that way for a good reason. And since they only sold three model years with that system, many of the internal parts of the transaxle, and parts of the shifter linkage, are no longer available new. The parts that are still available to rebuild the transaxle on the inside are not nearly as common as for the later design. If you need a transaxle for one of these early Vanagons, it is time to bite the bullet and update to the later shifter system and transaxle design.

At GoWesty we have a policy: We don’t sell straight replacement transaxles for the '80-'82 Vanagon. It just does not make any sense. Here is what would happen: We ship out a freshly rebuilt early-style transaxle, with all the esoteric parts unique to '80-'82 Vanagons, and ship it to the eagerly awaiting owner. He spends good money to have it installed, and sends his old one back. We take his old one all apart only to find out some of the “hard parts” not normally covered in a rebuild are no good, some of which are just not available in good used form. So, we have to ding the customer HEAVILY on his core deposit. So, already, he is lots of $$ in the hole. Six months later, he calls to say, “It ain’t shift’n right." Then, two hours later on the phone, and two hours labor spent at another shop that does not know Vanagons too well, it is determined that it is not the transaxle that is the problem at all, it is just that stupid little shift shaft bushing above the fuel tank. No problem, just replace it, and all is well. Only one thing: That little bushing has not been available for about five years. Now what? Hey, GoWesty: Why the hell did you sell me an obsolete transaxle when you knew full well I would not be able to find the obsolete parts for the obsolete and inferior shifter system? Good question. Answer: We don’t sell straight replacement transaxles for the '80-'82 transaxles.

Instead, if we get a call for an early Vanagon transaxle, we fill the order with a fresh '83-'91 transaxle at the regular price, which is the same as what we used to charge to rebuild the early transaxle. On top of that, we add the cost of a good used late-type transaxle and a GoWesty custom front transaxle mount bracket so it all bolts in nicely. You will also need a good used late-type shifter system, which must be sourced through salvage. All said and done, the whole thing might end up costing more, or maybe not. It is really hard to tell since the old one never had to be sent back (savings on shipping) and disassembled (possible nightmarish core charges).

Updating is simply THE WAY TO GO.

Do it right, and only cry about it once!