1991 VANAGON WESTFALIA GL
Our 1991 Vanagon Westfalia - Columbia, SC
My personalized license plate reflects my interest in Swiss Railways. For many years, Swiss locomotives and passenger cars were marked SBB + CFF on one side and SBB + FFS on the other. SBB is the German abbreviation for Swiss Federal Railways, and CFF and FFS the French and Italian abbreviations respectively. The Zia sun symbol that has long been a feature of New Mexico's plates seemed a perfect stand-in for the Swiss white cross shield found between the letters of the railway's logotype.
Accessorizing the Westfalia
Roof Vent Replacement
Dometic 182B Fridge Improvements
Bye-bye Wasserboxer - Hello 2.0L Inline 4!
Sink Pump Repair
Deluxe Side Skirting
Jetta Radio and PhatBox Installation
Upgrading the Dash Lighting to Mk IV Standard Blue and Red
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Here's a brief list of the minor accessories I've added (and the rough cost of each):
When I purchased the Vanagon, the clock had a broken area in the crystal (evidenced by an ugly black blob along the bottom edge of the display), and would not respond to any pressure on the "buttons" to set the time (though it seemed to be keeping time in some parallel universe).
As I also owned an `86 Golf, it occurred to me that the clock module from the Golf II might work; it looked to be the same size and the setting buttons appeared to be in the same place. Well, after much travail, I finally was able to disassemble the instrument cluster from a Golf (not mine!) to see if the modules were interchangeable. They are! So, if you're having trouble with your clock, never mind scrounging the Vanagon section at your Friendly Local Auto Dismantler. Head over to the Golf II/Jetta II aisle and start your shopping there. There's plenty!
Wandering around my FLADs, it became apparent that there is some secret "gold" hidden in the dash of most Golf IIs and Jetta IIs; most of them have the instrument cluster dangling or even sitting on a seat in the car. Better for your needs. At this point, I'll point out that Karma dictates a "do no damage" approach to extracting a component at the yard, and that flexible circuit on the back of the cluster is probably the most valuable component to the FLADs guys (and your fellow Vee Dub owners). Finally, ask before you take stuff apart, and it goes without saying, pay for what you get.
So armed with an assortment of small screwdrivers and a wrench, remove the nuts and screws which hold the flexible circuit to the back of the cluster. Note that there are several plugs embedded in the circuit which have to be carefully pulled from the instruments. Once the circuit is safely out of the way, it's a relatively simple and obvious procedure to separate the center section holding the clock, LEDs and, upshift indicator from the speedo on the left and the tachometer on the right. Remove the two small screws on the front side of the clock, and you should be able to work it loose.
Returning to the Vanagon, remove the instrument cluster cover (you better know how to do this - it's the only way to check your brake fluid level). Remove the four screws that hold the cluster to the top of the dash and open the brake fluid reservoir so you can remove and set aside the plastic cover that protects the wiring from random fluid spills; replace the cap. Disconnect the speedo cable, and unplug the wiring to the brake/seatbelt indicators, headlight switch, rear window defogger switch, and emergency flasher switch (and fog light switch if you have one). Lift the assembly up and disconnect the big wiring harness below the tach and the smaller two wire connector behind the speedo.
Turn the cluster over and you will see two screws which hold the clock assembly to the panel. Remove them, all the while being careful of your own flexible printed circuit. Lift the assembly out of position and carefully expose the face. See the two screws holding it in place? Note that there's also a clear plastic face piece. Remove the two screws and the face piece and set them aside. Holding the backing plate between the index finger and thumb of one hand, pull the clock module straight out with the other hand. Install the new clock (making sure to fit the two pins in the socket) and the clear face piece, and screw it in place. Reassemble the cluster up to and including the step where you reinstall the two-wire plug and the large harness. Check and set the clock to make sure it's a good one, then finish the reassembly.
When the clock powers up, don't fret if it appears to be trying to communicate to you in Klingon; just push the buttons to set it, and it should clear up. The one difference seems to be the color of the filter that passes the dash lighting to the clock face; my clock now has a green tinge when the lights are on, but it's not at all objectionable.
(By the way, the "L" board which controls the oil "idiot" light on my '91 wasserboxer is the same part as used on the Golf II; if you need one of those, it's hiding inside the Golf's tachometer housing.)
New Roof Vent
When I bought the Vanagon, it already had almost 130,000 miles on it, yet it was in remarkably good condition (except for a dent just ahead of the left rear wheel well). The one non-stock item was the roof vent, visible in the photo above. Westfalia owners have come to realize that the stock vent is maybe a bit fragile; I suspect that more than one owner has pulled his or her vehicle into the garage with the vent open only to hear that sickening $150 crack of plastic saying 'goodbye!'
Well, whatever happened to the vent on this car, a previous owner must have decided that the cost of replacing the stock plastic was way outta line (it is) and instead installed a standard RV vent in its place. Doing so involved enlarging the hole, making restoration almost impossible. But the device worked okay, it just had a tendency to rattle when open with the car driving on the freeway.
New Skylight Installed
With the fantasy of someday cleaning out my "California Garage (basement for folks who don't have basements)" and parking the Vanagon inside, I started to keep my eyes open for another solution. The easiest thing would have been another, more compact, RV vent, but nothing seemed usable. While wandering around Pep Boys one afternoon, I ran across a display of SunStar pop-up sun roofs. There were three to choose from, and the clerk agreed that I could take one of the display models out to the Vanagon to check its curvature against the roof shape. It turned out to be an almost perfect match.
My next thought was to find out if anyone else had attempted a similar installation. First and foremost, I was concerned that installing a larger unit might compromise the strength and structural integrity of the roof. The pop-top seemed strong enough and well reinforced at all the necessary points, but I wanted a second opinion, so I went to the Vanagon email list and asked. Well, no one had ever done this, but they were sure interested in my results!
The New Opening - Ohmygosh, that's big!
Having made the purchase, I let everything sit for several weeks; I usually do this with any project that bears the warning "measure twice - cut once." On the Big Day I cut out the paper template and laid it out on the roof just aft of the existing vent to get an idea of how big the hole would be. Next came the drill to remove the pop rivets holding the RV vent in place. After cleaning up the caulk residue, I ran wide masking tape around the perimeter of the new opening to help prevent chips during the cutting process and drew the outline of the hole on with a felt-tip marker
Getting out the saber saw, I installed a metal-cutting blade, plugged it in and took a deep breath - Banzai!! The surgery went well and I managed to get myself and the inside of the car dusted with fiberglas (note to self: next time, tape a plastic trash bag to the inside of the roof-use low tack masking tape to avoid messing up the felt flocking). I test fitted the unit, then applied the caulk to the underside of the lip and seated it in place. The whole thing is held in place with a ring that mounts on the underside of the roof.
As the sunroof was intended for use on a typical sheet steel roof, I had to modify the inner ring by cutting it narrower to compensate for the greater thickness of the fiberglas. I also had to modify it a great deal on the short sides where it met the recessed roof rib. All in all it went together quite well. I finished up topside by caulking the gap over the recessed roof rib. I also had to fill in a couple of screw holes from the RV vent that were not covered by the new unit. As of this writing (June 2002) the new sunroof has been in place for four years and has not given any problems.
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I had a scary situation which rendered my fridge partially inoperative. I was pre-cooling it on propane, parked the car in front of the house, came out 10 minutes later and opened the sliding door, and was greeted by a rush of smokey air (like someone had smoked a cigar or two inside with the windows shut). Anyway, the 8A fuse (behind the driver's seat) was blown and the circuit was shorted. In reviewing the wiring diagram, I surmised that the fan motor had shorted out. In order to run the fridge on 12V and 110V, I pulled the one wire from the three-prong plug (though of course I would be running without the fan, and wouldn't have the propane ignitor).
Well, I pulled the fridge and here's what I found:
Why the whole vehicle did not go up in smoke, I don't know!
I was never too happy with the fan motor circuit having power all the time, even when the fridge was not operating (it gets hot enough here in New Mexico to kick the fan on when the car is sitting in the parking lot), and since there didn't seem to be an "automatic" way, I decided to install a switch. And while I'm at it, a secondary fuse (with a lower rating, to be sure).
I had already purchased one muffin fan (cigarette pack size in Derek Drew's "fridge manual" - click 'Problems' and follow the links to the fridge section) to add to the back. I returned to Radio Shack and bought another one, part # 273-243 (to make it two), plus:
Fridge Additions (Click to see a larger view)
Examining the "control" panel atop the fridge, I found that there was space for the rocker switch right were the Dometic logo was, and that the fuse holder could be installed between the pump and the thermocouple hold-down button. I drilled the two appropriately-sized holes using wood-boring "spade" bits at low speed in an electric drill (this is THE way to drill plastic; twist drills don't cut perfectly round holes).
After determining the proper orientation for the fans, I tie wrapped them together through their mounting holes, and then tie wrapped them to the bottom of the lower set of fins. I connected the wire pairs from the fans and after slipping shrink tubing on the wires, soldered the BLUE fan wires to the fridge's BLUE wire, and the RED fan wires to the fridge's YELLOW wire which comes from the thermo switch. Slid the shrink tubing over the solder joints and shrank it.
I opened up the cover over the terminal block and found the yellow wire that goes to the thermo switch and removed it. I then installed a new wire from the terminal block to the "in" side of the fuse, a wire from the "out" side of the fuse to the two center terminals on the rocker switch, and a wire from one of the "on" terminals of the rocker switch back to the yellow wire that leads to the thermo switch (again insulated with shrink wrap). I made sure to run the wires along with others, wire-tying them as needed and keeping them away from moving parts. I now have a fused and switched circuit to control the fans. I also installed the small fan inside the fridge with silicon, drilled a small hole in the top for the wires to pass through, grounded the BLUE wire at one of the grounding terminals, and extended the RED wire to run to the second available "on" terminal on the rocker switch. Now the switch will also control the inside fan.
I squeezed silicon all around the hole where the wires go to the inside fan to seal the hole and protect the wires. I also reinstalled the terminal cover. Before reinstalling the fridge, I lined the rear "floor" and lower back wall of the opening with some of the aluminum sheet. After four years, the fridge is still running fine, and no more fires!
Note that since performing the above modifications, the small muffin fan (RS #273-240 installed inside the fridge on the cooling fins) has died twice. I don't know what caused this, but I have since replaced it with a slightly larger 'squirrel cage' fan.
I've got a 'theory' about the DANGER of using Teflon plumbers tape on the fridge's propane fittings.
Recently, I did Todd Last's Blue LED Conversion on the Fridge monitor - a very useful modification!
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"Eurospec" Golf 2.0L Conversion
In Mexico and South Africa, VW has been stuffing versions of the Golf inline-4 into Type II vehicles for years. The diesel variety of the engine (normally aspirated and turbo) was also a factory option on German-built Vanagons (I don't believe the Turbo Diesel was ever officially offered in the US - but I did have an Air Force buddy who brought one back from Italy). So why the Wasserboxer? Who knows? It seemed like a good idea, even to me! After all, one can typically get more horsepower out of a water-cooled engine - and there's the prospect of having actual heat in the car during the winter! If VW had just gone ahead with the 6-cylinder engine that Oettinger built as a test bed!
The stock Waterboxer 2.1L Engine
But most Hydro-Vanagon owners will agree that the WBX engine can be a nightmare. Stories of leaky heads abound and parts might as well be gold plated given the cost. For this reason alone, when my '91 started having problems at 160,000 miles (and given that the pressure in one cylinder would only reach 30 PSI), a complete replacement seemed to be the better choice.
During the year preceeding my Vanagon's meltdown, Overland Co. started marketing their Eurospec Inline-4 conversion. I became familiar with it through an article in European Car magazine and had decided to consider it if my WBX ever died; I got my chance a few months later.
The kit was a marvel! It included a factory new, German-built 2.0L high-compression engine complete with fuel injection system installed. To fit the powerplant in the Vanagon, new OEM diesel mounting bits-and-pieces were also included as were the diesel oil pan and oil pump pickup. To mate the engine to the automatic transmission, Overland included a bell housing adaptor, torque converter drive plate, and modified transmission servo. The auto tranny parts were an extra cost item as were the kits for power steering, air conditioning, and cruise control.
The new 2.0L inline bolted up and ready to go up
The whole kit was $5,000 US - the down side was Overland's policies dictated that only authorized resellers could do the installation - that added another Grand to the bill (but it turned out to be money well spent as I will show later). Overland has since stopped production of these kits, but others have taken up the slack; you can now do the job yourself and if you wish, just buy the special parts to install an engine that you already have.
Well, it took Foreign Aide about a week to do the install and setup. First impression was that the car had a noticeable increase in power (HP numbers significantly higher, torque up just a bit). Best of all, I had little doubt that reliability of the engine would be much better!
Over the intervening years, there have been a few problems:
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Fresh Water Pump Fix
When I first purchased my 1991 Westfalia in the summer of 1997, I discovered that the pump that delivers fresh water to the sink was not working even though I could hear the pump motor running. I was able to fix the pump (it's still working after five years - knock on wood). Turns out the impeller had come disconnected from the shaft (I could tell it was flopping around in the housing).
Reasoning that I could do it little further harm (the worst that could happen is I would have to buy a new pump - the only other alternative anyway), I got a hold of the bottom of the housing with a pair of channel lock pliers, and popped it off. The hole in the impeller (where it fits on the shaft) looked melted - did it jam? Was it run dry, heated up, and the plastic and metal separated?
Well, I cleaned up the enlarged hole with a drill bit held by hand, all the while trying to keep it centered. I inserted a piece of Evergreen brand styrene tube (I "play" with trains and usually have a lot of plastic goodies around), glued it in place with Testor's liquid cement, cut off the excess, and reinstalled it on the shaft.
Once I got the impeller positioned on the shaft at the correct depth, I placed the housing back on the pump and flowed more Testor's cement around the joint. Let it set up for a few hours, then tested and reinstalled the pump. Water almost immediately! Sure beats dropping several dozen bucks for a complete replacement!
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Deluxe Side Skirting
For a guy who used to be able to differentiate between almost every year of Bug through 1970, I'm not really up on the Vanagon styling options over the years. As the top-of-page photo shows, my GL Westfalia came with the fiberglass wrap-around bumpers, which seems to be a common feature of all the '91s imported to the U.S.
Unlike most of the 7-passenger Vanagons (and, I believe the Weekender campers, which didn't have the sink-stove-fridge), the Westfalia did not have the side skirt molding that matched the bumper contour. Instead, it came equipped with a single mudflap behind the left front wheel well whose primary purpose is to protect the propane tank from rocks. Early on, I was able to find the matching mudflap for the right side - asymmetry offends my sensibilities; even the lop-sided layout of the inline-4 engine bothers me!
Having replaced the two bumpers as a result of a couple of collisions, I started looking for a set of skirts. Serendipitously, an otherwise great-looking white 1990 GL turned up at the local wrecking yard; a catastrophic engine fire had rendered it not suitable for repair. Armed with a 10mm socket/ratchet and a cordless drill with 3/8" bit, I soon had the four panels and their mounting brackets up at the check-out counter.
After a bit of repair and a light sanding, I painted the pieces using the same black bumper paint used on the front and rear bumpers. Fortunately, Bentley's Official Vanagon Repair Manual has detailed diagrams and measurements describing where to drill holes to mount the brackets.
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Premium IV Radio/Phatbox Install
After a less than wonderful experience with a used CD changer in the wife's Jetta, we purchased a PhatBox 20GB MP3 unit as a replacement (after the price came down to the $300 range from $799). I know all you 'young ones' are hooking up your IPODs or satellite radios, and this probably explains the lack of interest in the PhatBox (by April 2005, prices had fallen to $120!!). Radio being the vast wasteland that it is, I really wanted one for the Vanagon, but the old stock Vanagon pull-out radio has no provision for controlling a remote deck.
For $50 the local wrecking yard provided me with a stock 'head' unit out of a '98 something, probably a Passat (complete with the car's VIN and the unlocking code - you need the VIN and likely the receipt from the wrecking yard if you screw up down the road and have to pay VW to unlock the radio) - and allowed me to extract various bits and pieces of wiring from a totally crunched MkIV Golf. In the Golf and Jetta, the CD Changer or PhatBox mounts in the trunk and the 8 wire harness that connects it to the head unit is wrapped together with every other wire that goes to the rear of the vehicle. I was able to free the needed wires all the way up to the A-pillar, but beyond that point the dash and damage got in the way, so I cut the wires there and also cut as much of the harness as I could at the radio opening. I also grabbed the black plug (power/control wiring) and brown plug (speakers) and as much of the connected wire as I could.
The first task was to splice the Changer Harness back together. This I did as close as possible to the multicolor plug as some of the wires are twisted and shielded. The best approach is to solder these splices and insulate them with shrink tubing (slipped on the wire before splicing, of course). This done, I rewrapped the long harness in black cloth friction tape. I was all set to remove the stock radio and splice the other two plugs in.
I slipped the stock Vanagon radio out and removed the cage that cradles it in the dash. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the wires coming out of the back were connected to a pair of plugs just like the ones I had salvaged. A quick check of the Vanagon and Jetta Bentley books confirmed that the speaker wiring (brown plug) was wired exactly the same, even though the colors weren't 100% equal. The Vanagon power/control plug didn't have as many wires as the Jetta, but the three connections that were there (power, ground, and lighting) were in the right slots! BTW, after comparing the various year wiring diagrams, I believe that VW started putting these plugs on the Vanagon starting with the 1988 model year.
I plugged everything in and pressed the power button, but nothing happened. Referring again to the Jetta wiring diagram, I proceded to install the second power wire as well as the wire that comes from the key switch (the 'X' contact). I used 'suitcase' connectors to connect the second power wire to the first, to connect the 'key' wire to the black/yellow wire on the AC switch, and to connect the ground wire from the changer harness to the radio ground. This time it all worked! The new head unit is a snap fit in the Vanagon dash, but it's a tight fit front to back. It's necessary to reach through the ash tray hole to hold the wires out of the way while pushing the unit in. The plastic face plate is a bit fragile and not really the best surface to push against. To get the right-hand clip to click, I slipped a screwdriver behind the face plate so that I could push against the head unit's metal chassis.
I was happy to note that the lighting on the '98 head unit is all green, whereas the MkIV lighting is red and blue - to my eye the green is more compatible with the other Vanagon dash lighting. As for mounting the PhatBox, I had considered mounting it under the driver's seat, but that would have involved some metal removal due to the Westfalia rotating seats. And besides, it's kinda dusty down there. I settled for mounting it on the 'kitchen' bulkhead behind the driver's seat with the cartridge slot pointing toward the left side of the vehicle.
Given the new low price, Daughter #1 decided she wanted a Phatbox in her '99 Eurovan. Her's is an early 1999 with the older dash green dash lighting, so I decided to move the Premium IV head unit I had acquired to her car and get another (with the red and blue lighting) for myself. I then started investigating methods to change the rest of my Vanagon dash lighting to match.
If the thought of soldering scares you and you've got plenty of $$, you can purchase the $110 Phatbox/Eurovan installation kit, VW part 000 051 324. The kit includes the complete wiring harness between the Phatbox and head unit plus mounting brackets and screws for the Phatbox. The harness is long enough that you could literally put the Phatbox anywhere inside the vehicle.
LED Dashboard Lighting
After installing the new MkIV Premium IV radio head unit, I drove around for about a year not really caring that the red and blue lighting did not match the lighting in the rest of the dash. I did some research and found that in much of the rest of the world it is possible to purchase direct replacement dash light bulbs in LED versions and in a variety of colors. But I could find no North American supplier.
Recently, my son purchased a set of Audi center console gauges to install in his MkII Jetta Coupe because the font used on the gauge faces is a match for that used on the Jetta speedo, whereas the gauges from a Cabrio look different. Imagine his surprise to find that the Audi lighting is orange. Rather than attempt to remove the orange filters from the gauges, he decided to change the rest of his dash lighting to match. He found a supplier of high-intensity orange LEDs, determined which voltage dropping resistors he needed, and spent the better part of a weekend doing the installation.
This got me motivated to work on my own swap. I decided that in order to maintain the pattern set by the Premium IV radio I would make the following changes:
I might also check into redoing the illumination in the rear window defogger switch.
In order to do this correctly, you need high-intensity LEDs; the regular ones just won't do. They need to be in the 1500-3000 millicandela (mcd) range. And you need to figure out the correct current dropping resistor for each type of LED. An easy way to make the computation is to use this handy online calculator.
One issue is that the regular rheostat dash light dial does not correctly dim the LED lighting; we're thinking about how to do this with some sort of electronics device; more later.
Is a Vanagon Tough?
Two incidents (one my fault but the other not) really impressed me as to the capability of the Vanagon to take a bit of 'road rash' and not be the worse off for it.
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