Q: "My van pulls to the right or left, and I want to know what part is likely causing the problem and if I need to get an alignment."
We get this question a lot. The first thing to consider, especially for newcomers, is that we are talking about a VW van here, not your typical, modern sedan. These vehicles are relatively top-heavy, have relatively small tires for their relatively large size, and are fairly antiquated when it comes to front suspension and steering design. This isn't just Vanagon-specific; it also includes, although to a lesser degree, the Eurovan. The second thing to consider is roads are not perfectly level side to side. All roads have a slight crown so the rain water can run off. Put this all together, and you end up with a situation in a VW van unlike a typical modern sedan: it just takes more steering effort to keep it going straight down the road. So, how much is too much steering effort, and how do you really know if something is wrong and what to do about it?
The first thing to check is the tires. Make absolutely sure the tires have the same pressure from side to side. The pressure front/rear does not have to be the same—but even a very low rear tire on one side can make your van pull to that side. So check your tire pressure and make sure it is not the issue. Read our tire pressure article for more details on the right tire pressure to use and why. Also, if you have a different type or size tire on one side—all bets are off. If your pull is minor and your tires are not the same side to side—just finish wearing out the tires, get a matching pair, and come back to this article if the vehicle pull is still present.
If you are certain the tires are not the issue, the next step is to figure out if you really have a pull, or if it is just the crown in the road. Find yourself a nice, straight stretch of highway with one lane in each direction. Get up to highway speed and, when it is safe, straddle the very center of the road so as to place the vehicle right at the top of the crown. If your van doesn't want to pull to one side: you do not have a pull. All you have is a VW van that requires more effort than most vehicles to counteract the natural crown in the road.
If your VW van still pulls to right and it is a full camper, this could be perfectly normal, too. The reason for this, even when everything is perfect, is that the left side of the vehicle is typically more laden than the right due to the camper equipment. We have another article on the topic of camper lean—please read it here. The uneven weight not only causes the vehicle to lean to the left, but it can also cause the vehicle to drift away from the weight and create a pull in the steering wheel you have to counteract. The best way to explain this phenomenon is to think about what it is like to learn how to ski. If you have ever tried this, or seen folks do it—the typical starting point is to employ the “plow” method. This is where you point the front of the ski tips toward each other “toe in.” While doing this, when you lean on the right ski, you turn left. When weight is shifted to the left ski, you turn right. The wheels in all automobiles are set up that way: “toe in.” This is done intentionally to enhance stability at high speeds. If you load the left side of a VW van, it will want to turn (pull) to the right. So, the best thing you can do is add your load to the right side of the camper to even it out—that will help with the pull.
If your VW van is not a full camper and uneven loading is definitely not an issue, but your van still pulls to one side on the “top of crown” test above, it could be an alignment issue possibly caused by a worn or damaged part. The most common part of the steering that is blamed is one of the tie rods or tie rod ends. These parts are responsible for keeping the “toe in” of the front wheels relative to each other just right. But, contrary to popular belief, pulling to one side or the other cannot be caused by a worn tie rod or tie rod end. This is because these items simply position the front wheels relative to each other, and if one is worn it affects both front wheels in exactly the same way, thus creating a net-zero effect to direction of the vehicle. On the “top of crown” test you might experience a tendency for the vehicle to wander back and forth (lack of stability), but not a constant pull to one side. Indeed, a little bit of play in tie rod ends is not a big deal—it can just be accounted for during a regular alignment, which any alignment tech worth their weight in wheel weights knows how to do.
The moral of the story is this: Before you go spending money on replacing steering or front suspension parts or getting an alignment: Make sure you have an actual problem by first checking the obvious.