Since I was a teenager growing up in New England, I've been fascinated by Volkswagen busses, especially the Westfalia models. (Westfalia is a german company which added the camping equipment to VW busses, Vanagons, and some EuroVans.) They were like clubhouses. You could drive them around, park, and then have a slumber party!
As I grew up, I learned more about the VW busses, especially the Volkswagen Vanagons, made from 1980-1991. Unlike the busses, Vanagons were square and boxy... I liked this, because they seemed more elegant than the busses with their hippy connotations.
Unfortunately I could never afford a new Vanagon. I vividly remember looking at a Vanagon Westfalia camper at the dealer's lot in 1991, knowing that these were the last of the model, and not having a prayer of paying the $21,000 asking price. I felt like Vanagon ownership was forever out of reach.
Of course, I graduated from college, started a company, and this year I was finally able to afford a 1991 Vanagon Westfalia Syncro. Remarkably, they're currently selling for approximately what they originally sold for on the lot. There are several reasons for this. First, while there are lots of 'minivans' on the market, very few have the distinctive style of the Vanagon. This isn't a 'minivan', it's a VAN, and it's got lots of room inside. The passenger models seat 7-9 easily. The camper seats 4, or 5 with an optional jumpseat, with plenty of room for a few dogs. Secondly, there *are* no van to camper conversions that are as well-integrated as the pop-top Westfalia conversion. Thirdly, there are no four-wheel drive van-to-camper conversions on the market. All of this makes the Vanagon pretty unique, and it is rapidly turning into a collector's car.
The Westfalia features include a sink, fresh water tank, and 2-burner propane stove. There is also a 3-way refridgerator, which works on either battery (when the engine is running), propane, or external 120V power. The van comes with an extension cord, as well as two internal outlets which are active when the van is plugged in.) The rear bench seat folds down into a standard double-sized bed (you can use off-the-shelf sheets.)
The top of the camper easily pops up, allowing more head room within the camper. In addition, the pop-up area includes a second double bed, increasing the sleeping space to 4. (Though the top area is a standard-sized bed, it may be more difficult to put on fitted sheets, as the roof line angles down to about 12 inches high at the foot of the bed.)
In addition, the Westfalia conversion includes an assortment of extras that make the Vanagon a very comfortable vacation home. These include a linen closet, a clothing closet with dressing mirror, and several bins for storage. There is one light in the camper area. Most Westfalia owners end up adding several more. A reading light over the bed is an especially nice addition. The front passenger seat swivels around to face backwards, and the drivers seat can be swiveled 90 degrees to face inwards, making for a cozy seating area for 4 on a rainy day. There are two stowable tables for dining. (Practically, you will usually eat and cook outside the van, providing the weather is nice. For four people, 'cozy' is a nice euphemism for the interior of the van. For two people, however, it's comfortable for extended periods of time.)
A Syncro vanagon is different from a standard Vanagon in several ways. The Syncro Vanagon includes a driveshaft, connecting the front and rear wheels. A limited-slip differential is used to ensure that the front wheels are synchronized with the rear wheels. If one set of wheels begins spinning, the other set will attempt to take up the slack. The addition of the driveshaft caused the gasoline tank was moved to the rear of the van. The Syncro Vanagon also has additional ground clearance and skid plates built into the rear of the van.
Some Syncro Vanagon models include a rear differential lock, which allows the two rear wheels to be locked together. This is very handy when driving off-road over loose materials, such as in sand.
The end-result of the Syncro modifications is a vehicle which handles extremely well as an off-road vehicle. Members of the Vanagon Mailing list (http://gerry.vanagon.com/) report that their Syncros handle much better in snow than more modern SUVs and 4X4 trucks, and often test their Syncros in difficult off-road conditions.
The one achilles heal of the Vanagon is the engine. The Waserboxer engine of the 1991 Vanagon is a 2.1 liter water-cooled horizontally-opposed engine. Unfortunately, the aluminum heads are prone to corrosion, and the heads are prone to leakage. Many owners report that they need a head replacement at 60,000-100,000 miles. Some owners never needs this done, however. For a while, VW admitted that there was a problem with the gaskets, and would pay for part of the replacement cost. This program seems to have expired, however. One thing that seems to help is a yearly coolant change, something that every water-cooled Vanagon owner should have done.
The bottom line is that I love my Vanagon. I've spent a month solid in my Van, driving from San Francisco to the arctic ocean. At the end of the month I was still perfectly comfortable. Next year I will be spending 8 months driving to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Syncro handles the Amazon Basin.
For more Vanagon information, check out http://www.vanagon.com/
If you're interested in renting a Vanagon, there are several companies that provide camper rentals. See http://www.vanagon.com/vendors/#rentals