Editor’s Note: We love scouring the internet for reasons to spend money we don’t have on cars we daydream about owning, and these are our picks this week. All prices listed are bid amounts at the time of publishing.
When it first hit the road in the late ’50s, the Volkswagen Westfalia Camper immediately stood out for aggressively going after the adventurous and outdoors-loving customer base. Today, that market has absolutely exploded into an entire industry centered around light off-roading and camping. (Do a quick search for #vanlife and Westfalias will be your top hit.) However, like a lot of classic and vintage off-roaders, an old Westfalia can seem appealing but can give any new owner a rude awakening after just a few miles.
Throughout the years, Westfalias did a lot of things wonderfully. VW saw fit to give later models bigger tires, taller suspension and optional Audi-derived 4WD on top the fully kitted-out interiors but the vans were always short on power. Brand-new, top-of-the-line Vanagons were making just over 100 horsepower and featured torque figures more common in the motorcycle industry. For that reason, you’ll see a lot of old Westfalias with engine swaps. When you daydream of an overlanding van camper, this is the one you picture: it has the power and few other necessary modifications to make life easier.
What We Like: Most vintage off-roaders like Defenders and Scouts, although decently adept in the dirt, make terrible everyday cars. After all, they were originally built for farm work and are subsequently very spartan (making them easy to work on when they break down). This Westfalia, on the other hand, can not only tackle a fire service road or two but is essentially a mobile campsite. The original Westfalia’s biggest problem was the engine and lack of power — this example fixes that and then some.
Pushing this Vanagon is the 3.3-liter flat-six engine from a Subaru SVX sports car, which, at 230 horsepower, more than doubles the VW’s original output. In addition to the engine, the previous owner also bolted in Fox Racing shocks, lifting springs, differential locks and bigger-than-stock BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires. You can take off your vintage rose-tinted glasses now; this is the real deal.
From the Seller: “Westfalia full camper amenities include a kitchenette, tables, curtains, sleeping room for four, cabinetry and more. An aftermarket mini-fridge was installed in 2016 place of the propane-powered original. Electrical work included installation of a GoWesty solar charging system with a fourth outside access panel, power inverter, Megatron battery, voltage monitor and battery selector.”
Watch Out For: When it comes to Westfalias, rust generally isn’t a massive concern, but this particular model has 250,000 miles on the chassis. Regardless, always check the frame rails, under the floor mats and where the pop-up roof meets the rest of the body. Furthermore, make sure whichever Westfalia catches your eye comes with extensive service records (like this one). Due to the layout of the vehicle, the cooling system can develop small issues over time and the fueling system tends to erode with age as well.
Original Review: “The Vanagon was never intended to be a Rubicon-runner, but VW engineers ensured it could at least tackle the deeper snow and rutted roads that customers might encounter in the Black Forest or the Black Hills. ” — Motortrend
Alternatives: As far as vehicles that came from the factory, built and marketed towards camping and outdoor activities, the VW Vanagon Westfalia was in a league of its own back in the day. You might be able to make the argument for the Ford Transit or the Toyota Motorhome which was a big player in the market but was nowhere near as compact, subtle or stylish as the VW. Today, there are third-party companies that will make excellent decked-out vans and trucks to go camping and off-roading. If you’re looking for a simple, modern-day van you can live in and tackle rough dirt roads with, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 is your best bet. It’s also incredibly well-equipped to receive tons of mods to make it a true mobile campsite.