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1988 VW Vanagon Westfalia Syncro

John Schommer
Thursday, September 25, 2014

This week’s edition of Heavy Metal Affliction is told by the lucky owner of this 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Syncro. Marius Strom – Gamertag Shuttle Pilot -- told me the story of his love of VWs and Westfalia Syncro models in particular. While all Vanagon Westfalia Syncros are highly desirable, many going for upwards of $50,000 in the U.S. these days, Strom’s is special, in part, because it did not start out as a Syncro; he had it converted and at no small cost.


Here is Strom telling you the whys and wherefores of his love of “Westy’s” and the “Otto” the Syncro in particular. Take it away Marius!


My name is Marius and I’m a Volkswagen addict. My first car in any Forza game is always one from the Volkswagen group: GTI in Forza Motorsport 4, a Corrado VR6 in Forza Horizon, an Audi A3 in Forza Motorsport 5. In the VW world, there are several sub-classes of fanatic. There’s the old-school, air-cooled crowd: you know, the folks with their old split-window buses or oval-window Bugs. Then there’s the modern water-cooled crowd: kids putting Mk1 Jettas and Sciroccos on BBS rims and such. Further still, there’s the Stance crowd: those who employ air-ride suspensions and put stretched tires on the new CC or Golf’s. Something all of these VW sub-cultures have in common is that we often show up to work on Monday morning with grease and dirt under our fingernails because we love working on our cars. There is also a common smile shared when the talk of VWs comes up.



Outside these more common VW lovers, there’s the few of us that don’t really fit well into any of these buckets. I present the drivers of the Vanagon Westfalia. The Vanagon is Volkswagen’s third take on the venerable Type 2 chassis – the Vanagon’s predecessors are the split-window bus (“splittie”) and the bay-window bus (“loaf”).


The Vanagon was produced at a time of huge change for Volkswagen and the auto industry – the industry was picking up on the success of the minivan concept, and Volkswagen was in the midst of shifting from underpowered air-cooled engines to still underpowered water-cooled engines. The Vanagon engine actually shares a lot with the original 1950s Beetle engine: a horizontally-opposed (“boxer”) engine with four-cylinders. The block is nearly the same – you still see vestiges of the port that the Beetle’s mechanical fuel pump could bolt onto on my 1988 Vanagon engine – it’s now just covered with a bolted on plate. Even though it was transformational, the Vanagon was the end of an era for Volkswagen – it would be the last of the cab-over designs, with the excellent handling characteristics of the rear-engined/RWD design. In the fourth, and sadly fina,l iteration of the Type 2 (the Eurovan), VW would move the engine and drivetrain to the front.


There are further distinct subcultures within the Vanagon world. The Vanagon was such an amazing platform that it was used for many purposes. The classic “tin-top” Vanagon was just that – a metal-topped Van. Often filled with seating for seven, the tintop was a very popular model. Another company in Germany partnered with Volkswagen and produced the Westfalia camper. These Vanagons are known for their fiberglass tops that are able to pop up, allowing for full standing height for an adult, and sleeping capabilities for up to four people. Westfalias were sold in two editions in the United States: Weekenders (bench seats, jump seats, and a fold-out table) and Campers (bench seat, camping cabinets, refrigerator, water tanks, and a sink). Finally, in 1986, Volkswagen released the Syncro Vanagon. They took the already excellent handling characteristics of the Vanagon and turned it into a 4WD beast. The Syncro Vanagons are 4WD through a novel viscous coupling system that directs power to the front wheels only when slippage occurs and was often equipped with rear locking differentials. In Europe, front locking differentials were available as well. From 1986 to 1991, Volkswagen/Westfalia sent to the U.S. market only around 2,500 Syncro Vanagons that had been converted to a Westfalia camping platform.


Hear Otto start up, rev up and drive off

This brings me to my baby: the 1988 Vanagon Syncro Westfalia. In 1988 Volkswagen actually didn’t export any Syncro Vanagons to the U.S. at all, much less the rare Syncro Westfalia. How’d I get mine? Well, it’s a long story.


A few years back, my wife and I bought our first VW, a 1988 Vanagon Westfalia. Like most VW owners we know, we promptly gave the car a name: Otto – a play on his German heritage and a nod to his automatic (“auto -> Otto”) transmission. For a few years, Otto brought us all over the northwest – we camped in much of Washington state, parts of northern Oregon, and took a multi-week road trip through the Montana backroads. We love Otto. In 2011, since Otto was starting to show his age a little bit, I decided it was time to take on a full restoration. One of the first things to replace was Otto’s tired old 2.1-liter Waterboxer engine. I had a guy in New Mexico blueprint and build me a 2.2-liter Waterboxer, and installed it. The second thing that I wanted to do was clean up some bad prior owner body work and repairs.


I directed a Seattle-area Vanagon specialty shop to take the body down to bare metal, fix all the old Bondo, and restore Otto’s luster to the factory finish. Around the time of planning for this, I had also caught the Syncro bug pretty heavily. I had heard stories from friends of them rolling their Syncros through Jeep roads, parking in the middle of nowhere, and setting up camp in minutes. The Jeep/Land Rover guys were always baffled to see an old, underpowered Volkswagen tearing through the backwoods and then be obviously jealous when someone would pull a cold drink out of the refrigerator built in to the vehicle! I had to have one.



In talking with the shop that was doing the body work, I found out that Syncro conversions were possible. All we had to do was find a wrecked/totaled Syncro chassis, and the 4WD sub-frame, suspension, and driveline components could be moved over to Otto. So, the paint job went from a simple restore to a full Syncro conversion.


A few months later, I had Otto back. Otto is now bigger and badder than ever. Not only is Otto now a full Syncro but he now has a five-speed manual with granny gear as well as all the markings, badges and bodywork of a true Syncro. I left no stone unturned in Otto’s transformation and rebirth. While Otto’s probably not your usual Forza fanatic type of car (Turn 10,please bring the Vanagon to Forza!), he serves a great purpose of letting my wife, our new son, and I see the outdoors.


Otto served as a gateway to the world of old Volkswagens. I’m now firmly a member of the Vanagon subculture, and have also since joined the air-cooled subculture with the acquisition of a 1967 Beetle. When Forza Horizon released with a 1967 Beetle, I was obviously stoked.



Thanks Shuttle Pilot, we feel ya! With the release of Forza Horizon 2 in just five days and the announcement of the 1963 Volkswagen Type 2 De Luxe as part of the game, I’m confident Strom will find hours of fun just cruising around in that air-cooled sweetheart. In fact we plan to go cruising together soon after launch.


In just a couple weeks “Otto” goes under the knife again. This time for a conversion to a flat-four Subaru EJ25 motor. This will bring the horsepower up to around 165 from its current 115. Strom also has 330W of solar panels being installed for what he calls “indefinite boondocking.” You can follow Otto on Facebook too.


Take a look at the HMA spec sheet and the photos I captured for the story.