Buyers Guide to Buses/Vans/Campers
This "novice's guide" lists differences between various years, and common problems you should check for when looking at one.
Most of the camper information, where included, relates only to the Westfalia conversions (or in the case of Eurovans, Winnebago conversions). There were many other conversion companies in the U.S. and England, including Country Homes, Sportsmobile, ASI/Riviera, Devon, Dormobile, and more. Those interiors differed, but the mechanicals are basically the same. Also, the information noted below is based on what was offered in the United States. These vehicles were made in multiple countries and for multiple markets, and features and specifications could vary greatly elsewhere. Finally, this is only a brief overview, and there are many differing opinions as to which are the best. Try some of the links found elsewhere on this page for additional information. See the end for links to some buying/selling resources.
In 1949 the first Volkswagen Bus was produced, based on Dutch importer Ben Pon's sketch of a Beetle-engined cart to be used for hauling parts around the factory. The split-window bus (so called because of its two front windshields) was a work in progress, and there were many, many changes from year to year. While there are too many to list them all here, you can find an excellent write up of year to year changes and other f.a.q.'s at vintagebus.com. 1950 saw the first year of full production, and the introduction of the Microbus, an upgraded passenger version of the original cargo van. 1951 saw the introduction of the two more models: the Deluxe Microbus (with skylight windows and a big canvas sunroof), and the first VW camper to be outfitted by an independent coach building company located in Westfalia, Germany. In the same year, the engine was also increased in horsepower from 25 to 36. In 1952, the VW bus was first officially sold in the United States, with a new transmission that was synchronized in 2nd through 4th gears. (A synchronized 1st gear would not be added until 1959.) Also in 1952, Volkswagen introduced the Single Cab pickup truck (with dropgates). In 1955, the wheels were reduced from 16" to 15", and walk-through front seating was offfered as an alternative to a front bench seat In 1958 a 3-door Crew Cab was added to the pickup truck range. In late 1960, engine output was once again increased, to 40 horsepower.
A major event in 1963, which would forever change the marketing of VW busses and vans in the U.S., was the imposition of a 25% tariff on German made trucks (later expanded to include all imported trucks), due to a dispute with Germany over U.S. chicken exports. That tariff exists to this day. To avoid paying the tariff, Volkswagen reclassified the Bus as a "Station Wagon," and eventually (in 1971) discontinued U.S. sales of single-cabs and crew-cabs (which are still sold in Germany to this day). 1963 and later busses can be easier to get parts for than earlier busses, and also feature many upgrades over earlier years, such as a new 1500cc engine, front axle, rear axle, brakes, and rear suspension. In 1964 the tires were once again decreased in size to 14", and the curved corner windows were eliminated from the Microbus (turning the 13-window Microbus and 23-window Deluxe Microbus into 11 and 21 window models, respectively). An improved transmission and clutch were introduced in 1965. 1967 saw the last year of the "splitty," and the only one to feature a factory-installed 12-volt electrical system. By the time the first generation of the Bus was discontinued, dozens of versions had been made, from the simple Bulli and the Kombi work vans to the Microbus people movers, as well as ambulances, campers, and dozens of specialty versions. The original Bus earned its place as a true classic in automotive history. Even to this day, when you say "Volkswagen Bus," the original Splitty is what many people picture.
Shopping Tips for 1949-1967 Bus
Because of their age, it has become increasingly difficult to find clean busses of this vintage in good condition at a low price. Unrestored original busses in good condition are extremely rare, so many split-screen busses fall into one of two categories: those that are restored, and those that need to be. At the high end, completely restored busses (particularly Deluxe Microbusses, the most desireable model) can sell for as much as $30,000, due partially to an increase in sales to Japanese and European buyers who export them. Hardtop models and campers are generally cheaper, and base models cheaper still. Relative bargains can be had if you can do some work on them yourself. But if you have to pay to have restoration work professionally done, this may cost more than you would pay to buy a bus that didn't need the work. A good place to start is to ask yourself what you are looking for in a bus. For example, are you looking for a genuine show-quality "antique" where all of the parts are correct for the year, or is it more important that everything work properly even if not original? While the majority of commonly needed parts for split-window busses (at least from the early 1960's on) are available rather inexpensively, from a "purist" point of view they may not be exactly correct for the year of your bus. Many split-window busses already contain a hodgepodge of earlier and later parts that were installed at various times. Locating and buying precise year-correct replacements can take you to a whole new price level, and it may be worth seeking a bus that is largely unmolested to begin with if this is what you want. Perhaps the most important consideration is body condition, as rust can be much more difficult to repair than mechanical problems. Unless the bus has spent its life in a desert climate, most likely it either has, or had, rust problems. If rust work was already done, was new metal welded in to replace old, or was filler used? (Beware of fresh paint jobs, which can hide poor body work.) Unlike the Beetle, the Bus has a unibody design, so replacing a rusted section actually means cutting and welding, not just unbolting the old panel. Fortunately, replacement panels are available rather inexpensively, if you have the ability to install them.
1968-1971 Bus & Westfalia Camper
The second generation of the Bus was introduced in 1968, and included a long list of mechanical and ergonomic improvements over the older Splitty (along with a new nose, which some people liked more and others less). The early years of the "bay window" bus used a Beetle drivetrain (1600cc upright motor, also referred to as Type 1). The advantage of this motor is that parts are very cheap and easily available. The drawback is that it's somewhat underpowered for such a heavy vehicle as a Westfalia camper, resulting in a slower top speed and reduced engine life as compared to later models. Of these years, '71 is the most desired because it has a more-powerful dual-port motor and power front disc brakes (although many earlier models get upgraded to dual-port along the way). The camper interior for these years was very functional, but basic compared to later models. It included an icebox, sink (with manual hand pump), a sofabed, a rear-facing passenger seat, and plenty of cabinetry. Options like stove and fridge were not yet available, and sleeping facilities were limited to two adults and two children (as opposed to the later models, which slept two adults in the poptop area rather than just one child). This interior layout was used until 1974 with only minor changes.
1972-1973 Bus & Westfalia Camper
These were the first years for VW's new "pancake" engine, originally developed for the commercially ill-fated Type 4 sedan and also used on the Porsche 914. (Outside of the U.S., the old Beetle engine remained an option until the early 1980's.) The Type 4 engine is considered by many to be VW's finest air-cooled motor, more powerful than the bug motor with no sacrifice in reliability or gas mileage. Also, many items can be serviced without removing the motor (heads, alternator, pushrod tubes, etc.) The new Type 4 drivetrain was to be refined over the years; these early versions had smaller engines (1700cc) and clutches than later versions, so the improvement over the earlier 1600cc versions was minimal.. The '72 lacks an engine hatch, making access to the new, larger motor difficult.
1974-1975 Bus & Westfalia Camper
By now VW was starting to optimize their Type 4 motor. Displacement was increased to 1800cc, and in '75, fuel injection and a larger clutch were fitted. The Westfalia interior, too, became more modern. The poptop was redesigned to fit a full double-bed up top rather than just a child's cot (now 4 adults could sleep comfortably). The front seats got headrests, the sink got a convenient electric pump, and more options were offered (fridge, gas stove, dual battery, etc.) These were the first years for the brightly colored plaid upholstery.
1976-1979 Bus & Westfalia Camper
These last years of the bus were its most modern. The motor was now at 2 liters, the biggest it would ever get (although horsepower stayed roughly the same as the 1.8). Also, in '78, it got hydraulic lifters, eliminating the need for valve adjustments. The camper interior was redesigned, and in fact resembles the version that would stay around straight through 1991. A much roomier layout was achieved by placing all the cabinetry behind the driver's seat, leaving open space behind the passenger seat (which now swiveled to face rear).
Shopping Tips for 1968-1979 Bus & Camper
Rust is the big problem with campers of this era, especially in snow prone areas (due to the use of road salt). Think very carefully before buying a rusty bus. Unlike a Bug, floor pans, fenders, etc. are not easily replaceable. Rust at the front axle beam is a common, and very expensive, problem. Also look for rust under the sliding door (can cause the door to fall off), inside the wheel wells, on the rocker panels, front floors, and steps by the front doors. Rust under the windshield seal is also common, but can be repaired without too much difficulty unless severe (although the windshield must be removed). The Type 4 motors tend toward valve seat failure if overheated. Make sure all four cylinders are running strong; take a closer look if one is weak. (One tight valve can also be a sign of a dropped seat.) Minor oil leaks are the norm; on a Type 4 motor, most can be repaired with the engine in place. Other common (but relatively minor) problems are horn, four-way flasher switch, gas guage, and electric sink pump failures. Also, be warned that the heater in a Bus is only marginally functional in below freezing weather (unless equipped with a gas heater).
1980-1983 Vanagon & Camper
The new, squarish Vanagon body style had many advantages over the Bus, and a few drawbacks. On the plus side, the Vanagon has noticably more interior room and more modern handling (particularly in heavy winds). However, some parts can be pricier, and the bus was better on rough terrain or ice. The '80-83 models used the same air-cooled motor as the late bus, although they were notably more sluggish due to increased body weight. (Also a Rabbit-Diesel powered version was offered. Drive it before you buy it. Very lethargic, but great gas mileage.) The camper interior was by now very modern, and stayed largely the same thru 1991. Now both front seats swiveled, and could face each other with a table in between to form a second dining area. Also, a larger, front loading fridge was offered, which ran on LP gas as well as AC/DC. (Fridge and stove remained optional.) Gone was the 70's walnut and plaid look, replaced with more conventional fabric and formica.
19831/2 - 1984 Vanagon & Camper
In perhaps the biggest mid-year model change in auto history, VW switched from air to water cooling in mid-83. (This change occurred in the beginning of '83 in Europe.) The new "wasserboxer" motor (basically a Beetle engine with a water jacket) is more complicated to work on than the old "bus" motor, and parts can cost more, but it 's smoother, quieter, and has more horsepower than the air-cooled version. Plus you get real heat!!
1985-1992 Vanagon & Camper
By now, power steering and air conditioning were the norm in the U.S., along with a rear wiper on most models. Also, in '86, the motor was upgraded from 1.9 liters to 2.1. The "deluxe" package with stove and fridge was now standard on most Westies, along with an upgraded GL interior (plush captains chairs with armrests, velour upholstery, etc.) Also a different poptop model was offered, with no sink, or stove, but with extra seating, a pop-out table, and a removeable "electric icebox." By 1985-1987 you could also get cruise control, power windows and locks, heated mirrors, and even four-wheel-drive (the exceptional but expensive Syncro). The Westfalia Camper was now a luxury vehicle compared to the utilitarian models of old... but was, alas, far less affordable.
Shopping Tips for Vanagon & Camper
Unlike the busses, rust is rarely structural. It tends to form on the seams between the body panels, and around the camper utility inlets on the drivers side. The air-cooled motors (thru '83) are the same as used on the '72-up Bus (see the Bus section) and have the same issues. The diesels tend toward CV joint failure. The Syncros have many unique parts (i.e. front drivetrain, driveshaft, fuel tank) that can be incredibly expensive to replace if bad. All watercooled Vanagons tend to develop cooling system and/or head gasket problems at high mileage, which can be expensive to repair if it has not been done already. Beware of coolant leaks or overheating! Let the van idle for a good half hour. The temp guage should stay under 2/3, and the radiator fan should turn on as the van heats up. Otherwise you may need anything from a flush & fill to new heads or head gaskets. Also, look for leaks at the power steering rack and at the rear heater core (run it and sniff for the sweet smell of coolant).
The Eurovan was introduced as the T4 in Germany in 1992, and first made its way to the States in 1993. Unlike previous Volkswagen vans, which evolved gradually over the years, the Eurovan was a complete redesign from the ground up. Most notably, it was front wheel drive and front engined (a switch which still maintained Volkswagen's philosphy that the engine should be over the drive wheels). The personality of the Eurovan is completely different from that of the Bus and Vanagon. It is more like a modern minivan in handling, appearance, and ammenities, with more power and such options as cruise control, antilock brakes, airbags, and improved air conditioning. On the downside, it lacks the ground clearance and tight turning radius of the Bus and Vanagon, and some detractors would say that it also lacks the older vehicles' personality or "quirkiness" (although others would call that an improvement). Unfortunately, while the Eurovan was a commercial success in Europe, it was a rather poor seller here in the States. With comparatively few Eurovans on the road, this leads to higher prices for parts due to less competition among manufacturers.
1993-1994 Eurovan CL, GL, & MV
In the United States, the '93 Eurovan was available as either a passenger van (in CL or upgraded GL versions) or a MultiVan (Eurovan MV). The latter, available with a Westfalia poptop, had a rear sofabed, two rear facing captains chairs with a slide-out electric icebox, and a pop-out table, but no sink or stove. All versions are powered by a 2.5 liter, 5-cylinder 140 hp engine borrowed from the Audi 5000, and were available with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. In Canada, a full Westfalia camper was also offered at this time (with sink and stove), but Volkswagen chose not to offer it in the United States.
1995-1996 Eurovan Camper
Not long after their 1993 introduction, VW stopped importing the aforementioned Eurovan models to the U.S. for a few years, instead rolling out a fully equipped poptop camper, complete with sink, stove, and fridge. This was a Winnebago conversion, not a Westfalia, and was built on an extended-wheelbase Eurovan which was about a foot longer than the passenger van and MV. The interior layout that was largely similar to that of the Vanagon Westfalia camper. In many ways Winnebago improved upon Westfalia's design, including a better fridge and an additional faucet on a flexible hose at the rear of the van. The lack of a rear engine bay also allowed for lots of additonal storage under the rear bed. However, some felt that Winnebago's build quality did not compare to Westfalia's. Also, because these vans were built on delivery van bodies, they do not have as many windows as the passenger Eurovans (and all Vanagons) have, which makes the interior a bit darker for rear passengers. Winnebago also introduced the Rialta motorhome, a large Class C motorhome that was built on a Eurovan chassis. While the poptop Winnebago was sold through select Volkswagen dealers, the Rialta was sold only through Winnebago's dealer network.
1997-2003 Eurovan GL, MV, and Camper
In 1997, Volkswagen replaced the 5 cylinder engine with a 2.8 liter, 180-horsepower VR6 engine, a change which also necessitated a slightly longer nose. At the same time, the manual transmission was discontinued in the U.S. The GL passenger van and MV Multivan, which had previously disappeared from U.S. dealerships, were reintroduced, while both Winnebagos were also offered. In 1999, dual airbags and low-speed traction control became standard, along with daytime running lights. In 2001, bigger brakes and wheels (16" as opposed to 15") were introduced. Also in that year, the horsepower of the VR6 engine was increased to 201, although this did not make a huge difference in driveability. In 2004, Volkswagen discontinued the Eurovan, and opted not to import its replacement (called the T5 in Europe) to the U.S. Word has it that the T5 will surface here as the Microbus in a few years, with some cosmetic modifications as compared to the European version. (It will not be the same as the Microbus concept vehicle that Volkswagen showed here for a while, which they decided not to produce.)
Shopping Tips for Eurovan & Camper
Resale prices for used Eurovan campers have been holding steady or even rising, due to the fact that they are now discontinued and no new replacement is available. Eurovans are known for automatic transmission failure, so unless the van has very low mileage or has had the transmission serviced (or is not an automatic!), allow for the risk of this expense, which can easily be a few thousand dollars. The air conditioning compressors also have a relatively high failure rate. The engines are generally robust and can easily last 150,000 miles or much longer without major problems, as long as required scheduled maintenance (i.e. timing belt replacement) is performed. As noted above, parts prices tend to be higher for Eurovans than for Busses or Vanagons, so it may be worth checking prices in advance on any parts that you feel your prospective purchase may need. The Bus Depot carries a full range of Eurovan parts.
Resources for buying or Selling a VW Bus, Vanagon, Eurovan, or Camper
Web Resources: Many of the sites listed above have buy/sell posts and links. (Or try a Google search for more.)
Classifieds: Epage and autotrader are online classifieds. Paperboy.com links to newspaper websites worldwide, many of which have classifieds. And there's also Ebay. Of course, it is very risky buying any car unseen. Be careful!
Blue Books: Kelley Blue Book, NADA, and Edmunds list the wholesale, trade-in, and retail values. (NADA goes all the way back to 1951.) Take the values with a grain of salt. You'll notice that no two books list the same value!