What I Wish I Knew Before I Bought a 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia

It’s not all #vanlife dreams and road trips with this classic camper van, but it’s fun for the right driver

July 19, 2021 9:01 am
My 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper van. Here's what you need to know before buying one yourself.
It's a thing of beauty, to be sure, but following #vanlife on Instagram and owning one are two very different things.
Photo courtesy of Fred Mercier

The #vanlife craze has thrust the Volkswagen Vanagon into the spotlight, in particular the Westfalia camper version that has popped its top in a million Instagram posts about life on the road. The Westfalia isn’t just popular among social-media influencers, however. The Vanagon has long enjoyed a thriving community of enthusiasts dedicated to restoring, modifying and otherwise keeping these beloved square vans healthy. 

Nearly 100,000 water-cooled Vanagons were sold in the United States between 1983 and 1991, and a large portion of them were Westfalias. Their promise of helping owners get away from it all in a compact and affordable package has proven irresistible to fans of a van that is now entering its third decade post-production. The camper’s popularity has surged to the point where Hagerty included it on its 2021 Bull Market List of vehicles predicted to continue to rise in value, with “excellent” condition examples currently trading hands in the $27,000 to $36,000 range.

We recently caught up with Fred Mercier, auto journalist and editor in chief of Le Guide de l’auto (The Car Guide) in Quebec. Fred is a gearhead who also has a strong affinity for the great outdoors, and he’s owned his 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia since the summer of 2016. The best of the breed, these final-stage Vanagons had the most desirable engines and improved cooling systems, and are easily identified by their square headlights (versus the round ones found on previous versions). He was all too happy to share the unvarnished truth about what it’s like to own — and love — a living legend.

A photo of a 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia with the pop-top tent extended. Here's a guide to buying your own camper van.
There’s no wasted space in this iconic camper van.
Photo courtesy of Fred Mercier

InsideHook: What made you seek out a Westfalia?

Fred Mercier: I wanted a car that I could enjoy summer in and go camping with and everything, but still drive something that is not very common that you don’t see every day. Although they’re there, actually; you can see them if you look around, because they’re quite popular. It always amazes me how many Vanagons there are. 

I really wanted this particular model because it’s kind of an icon and I really liked the idea that you can sleep in your vehicle wherever you are. I try not to sleep in campgrounds. I try to sleep in places where I’m not supposed to sleep or where I can sleep for free. I don’t like the idea of paying to sleep in a campground. So I’ve done it many, many times. You can be kind of incognito. If I want to be under the radar, I just don’t bump the top, I sleep with the top down and nobody sees us. It’s just a parked vehicle.

I already had a Porsche [944] back then, and probably the reason why I still have those two cars is they’re so different. When I want to have fun driving, I take the Porsche. But the van meets two passions of mine: automobiles and travel, [especially] camping. I really like the outdoors. So this was a good combination.

How long did it take for you to find this one?

I was really looking for a Westfalia for a year before I bought mine. They were already expensive when I bought it. They’ve gained a lot of value since then, so I’m lucky I guess. But they were already expensive and back then I was what 26, 27, so maybe my budget wasn’t so high. 

I took my time to really try to find something that was within my budget, but also in good condition. I was looking especially for something with a good body, because there are a few places where they tend to rust a little bit. I didn’t mind doing work on it, I knew it would happen, but I didn’t want a project. I wanted a van that I could enjoy and take on weekend trips and stuff like that.

It’s a little bit like the housing market. What I found really hard is, when there was one for sale, you really needed to act quick because they were in high demand. When you saw one for sale that was reasonably priced, for sure you weren’t the only one calling. So you had to act quick, and if you wanted to do a mechanical inspection before buying, the buyer was like, “Well, you know what, I have five other people calling me for it so maybe just take it or leave it.” That’s what I found hard, and I wasn’t so much in a hurry. I think maybe I saw three or four vans before buying mine.

What made you choose this one in particular?

I found this guy in Saint-Hyacinthe, he’s a well-known guy in the Westfalia community in Quebec and he buys and sells vans that he finds. He knows people. I met him the first time looking at a van he had for sale and he told me, “You know what, this van, there’s a lot of work to do on it. There are water leaks and everything, so I don’t think you should buy this one, but give me your number, I’ll keep your name and if I find something interesting for you at your price range, I’ll let you know.” So I went back home and I a month or two after that he gave me a call and he said, “Hey, I found a really nice van, the body is really good and everything, I think you should come see it.” It’s the van that I bought.

It’s super rare that a seller tells you not to buy their vehicle.

Yeah. I found it really awkward and I really liked that first van. So I was like, “Well, I appreciate your honesty but I really feel like I should buy this, I really like it.” And he said, “No, I don’t feel comfortable selling it to you.” He was like, “It’s your first van, it’s not a good fit for you,” like he was a tailor or something.

The rear end of a 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia. We spoke with someone who owns the camper van to get some insight into buying one.
The ladder and roof rack sure look good, even if they don’t see much use.
Photo courtesy of Fred Mercier

What condition was the van in when you bought it, and what upgrades and repairs did you make?

The body was really, really nice. Still is. Actually, now it’s better than it was because I have a cousin that does body work, and he did a few things on it. But the body was really good, [and] it was running well.

I’ve swapped the original 14-inch wheels for 16-inch wheels, steel wheels with the BFGoodrich KO2 off-road tires, because I really wanted that kind of off-roady vibe, even if, let’s be honest, I never go off-road with this. But I liked the idea that it looks a little more badass. I’ve also added some HELLA fog lights at the front.

I changed the material of the tent. There’s a pop-top and then there’s the tent over it. It was all crap when I bought it, it actually came with a replacement one, so I changed that. It was a really big hassle to do that, a really complicated job. I added a ladder at the back just to get to the roof rack on top. Honestly, it’s more to look good than anything because I rarely use the roof rack, as I have a bike rack as well on the back.

That’s basically it. I like the idea of keeping cars as original as possible, so besides those wheels [and the ladder], I haven’t changed much on the vehicle.

What’s the most underrated aspect of the Vanagon Westfalia?

I think people don’t understand how intelligent these vehicles are, because the way that space is used still blows my mind. Everything is thought through for a reason and every inch of space that it could use for storage is not wasted. It’s really, really smart how these things are done and if you look at modern Volkswagen California [camper vans] in Europe, they are [modeled after] the Westfalias, even vehicles from some companies that modify bigger vans. But the ideas that the Westfalia had, the way that everything is made, like where the counters are, is still respected today because it was just so smart and there’s not much you can improve.

What’s the most overrated aspect of the Vanagon Westfalia?

Probably the mini fridge. I mean, all of that unit actually. There’s this unit with the fridge, the stove, etc. You can have a portable stove next to it and it works just fine, and I don’t really use the fridge, I just have a cooler next to it. I actually enjoy the sink more but the rest of it I don’t really use it so much. They have a version of the Westfalia — it was called the Weekender — it’s a Vanagon with the pop-top, but with no water tank, no stove, no fridge and they go for cheaper. 

That’s another good story — my propane tank is not working anymore, it had a leak. The day after I filled the tank for a weekend of camping I went in the van to just check something and I smelled propane. So I went under the vehicle and saw that it was leaking, and [since] the tank was full I didn’t know what to do. It was parked in the street, so I was thinking, well, if someone drives by and throws a cigarette butt at the wrong place maybe it will all explode, so I started going crazy.

I called 911 and I was like, “Hey guys, there’s this problem, I have a propane leak.” The firefighters came and they didn’t know what to do. They have a sensor that says the concentration of propane in the air. So they went in the van with it and said, “Okay, you can light up a lighter and it’s not going to explode, you’re fine. What you should do is just open your stove [and] burn your propane.” So I spent a night, a complete evening, burning my propane, just being in the van and just looking at the flame waiting for it to be over. It took hours, it was so long.

A bike rack on the back of a 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia. That's just one of the tips we got from someone who owns the camper van.
Bike rack > ladder access
Photo courtesy of Fred Mercier

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had in it so far?

I’ve had some really good times with the van, don’t get me wrong, but the biggest anecdote that I have is this time I broke down on my way to Tennessee. I wanted to go to Chattanooga and then come back, but broke down in Virginia. So I never made it there.

There’s some good that came out of it. I got towed to a little Volkswagen shop in the middle of nowhere in Southern Pennsylvania with AAA. There was this really weird dude there and he was kind of the neighbor of the garage. He was bringing me food, he gave me a key to his house if I needed to use the facilities, he was so nice. But his relationship with the garage was not really good. Anyway, it was really weird because I slept in the van in the garage parking lot for a few nights. Then the garage guys said it was the flex plate for the automatic transmission that was broken, and that I needed to find another way to get back home while they waited for the part.

So I booked a flight. They actually drove me to the airport an hour and a half away (the closest airport was D.C.). I flew back home and I think maybe a month and a half later I drove back with my dad. My dad has a Touareg TDI, and even though the van was fixed I didn’t feel comfortable driving it back, so we put the van on a trailer and we brought it back to Quebec with the Touareg. That was a big turning point for me. Since then I’m like, yeah, it’s a cool van, but it’s a cool van for a weekend trip. I’m not going further than that.

What type of person should absolutely not own this car?

You definitely can’t have a Vanagon if you’re not a car enthusiast, and if you don’t have a thing for mechanics and older vehicles, because sooner or later you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and work on the van.

I always say that these are old vehicles. If you just buy this to go on camping trips and not worry, you shouldn’t buy this because you are going to worry. There’s always something in the back of my mind when I drive this car. What’s this little noise and is this going to happen; I don’t really have peace of mind when I go camping. Honestly, [if I ever sell it], it’s because I’ll be tired of never knowing if anything is going to happen.

I know they have this reputation of not being reliable, but what I think people don’t realize is that these vans, the youngest ones are 30 years old. They’re not “reliable” because people go on long trips and expect them to be reliable when they are old vehicles with lots of mileage on them. It all comes down to how they are maintained. I’ve had my fair share of problems with it. I still have some starter issues on it right now that I hope won’t come back again, I just got back from the garage. They do have reliability problems, but I don’t think it’s because they are Vanagons. 

What else do you wish you knew before you bought it?

Maybe I should have bought a Weekender instead of a Westfalia because they’re as cool but they go for less money, just because they don’t have the full camping set that I don’t really use anyway.

For someone who has never been in one, can you describe the driving experience?

Man, it’s so different. I think the first thing you notice when you drive it is how slow it is, that’s for sure. And the driving position is weird because you’re sitting on the front tires. So when you turn, it’s not a huge difference compared to a regular car but you kind of have to start your turn a little later than you would usually. So it’s a little thing that you need to keep in mind when you drive it. And the brakes obviously are not as strong as a modern vehicle, so you have to slow down progressively and not go too fast. Anyway, you can’t really go too fast.

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