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Tracking Down Engine and Other Fluid Leaks

How to find and identify leaking oil, coolant, fuel, and other automotive fluids.

We’ve all been there. You move your van to a new spot in the driveway and discover a new stain. Or, you just get settled in your campsite when your partner asks, “Dear, what is this colorful puddle under the van?”

Once, on the way home from a solo camping trip, I stopped for fuel and went inside to pay. As I stepped back outside, I spied a trickle of a mysterious fluid on the pavement, an inch wide and fifty feet long, leading me back to my van.

Even old Vanagons should never drip their lifeblood on the road or driveway. The loss of vital fluids can lead to severe engine or transaxle wear, overheating, failed brakes, or a catastrophic vehicle fire. Repairing such leaks is important, but determining their source is often difficult.

Here’s how.

Keep Looking Up

Most automotive fluid leaks generally stem from a single source, a root, if you will. Gravity being what it is, this source will usually be higher than the drip or stain. So, start by carefully following the leak upwards towards the highest part of the stain. In all likelihood, its initial source will be somewhere near here.

This is much easier if you make a habit of maintaining a clean and tidy engine compartment, which makes such leaks and their sources more glaringly obvious. Sometimes however, gravity, engine vibration, and air flow all conspire to divide and disperse the leak, so that by the time you notice the first alarming drip, half the engine is stained and there is no obvious culprit.

A Clean Engine Room is a Happy Engine Room

If you don’t typically keep things clean down there, or the engine has been leaking for awhile, it’s probably a real mess, and tracing the leak in a logical and rational fashion may be impossible. So, clean it now. Get some good spray-on engine degreaser and either use a garden hose in the driveway, or drive to an automated car wash with an underbody spray. Following the directions on the degreaser, spray the dirty bits, let it soak for awhile, scrub with a stiff brush or scraper to loosen as much oil and other gunk on the engine or gearbox as possible, then rinse. Repeat if necessary.

Let it air dry, or run the engine a little bit to evaporate the water, or towel it down with some clean rags, so it’s clean and dry. If there are any lingering stains, spot-clean those by hand until it’s clean-clean!

Now, if you jump in and drive it twenty miles, it will probably start leaking and flinging fluid all around and you’ll have to start all over again. Instead, run or drive it only long enough to create a small traceable leak, and not long enough to thoroughly flood the area again. Then pull over somewhere safe and inspect again with a bright light and a few rags and maybe a flexible inspection mirror. (Be careful to avoid burns, as the engine and exhaust is probably starting to get hot.) If you did a thorough cleaning job, any small leaks should now be much easier to spot on that shiny-clean engine. Take a good look around the area of the original leak.

Find It, and Fix It

What do you see? Any new leaks? If so, wipe them down with your rags until clean. Again, be sure to look a little higher than you might expect.

Either way, drive another mile or two and pull over and look again. If the leak has returned, you’ve found your problem. And you now know where to focus your attention, and to apply your talents, and perhaps a bit of sealant. If not, then drive a couple more miles and repeat. You know it’s gonna leak again, you just need to catch it in the act.

Assumptions, Inferences, and Conjectural Postulations

When you first discover it, avoid the mistake of presuming to know what the leaking fluid IS. The hydraulic fluid used in the Vanagon braking and manual-clutch systems, for example, can look like clean motor oil. Diluted yellow-green anti-freeze coolant looks an awful lot like the yellow-gold color of diesel fuel.

Coolant and hydraulic fluid can feel somewhat ‘sticky’ between your fingers; the coolant may smell sweet. Transaxle gear oil usually has a high sulfur content, smelling like rotten eggs. Before barking up the wrong tree, try to determine by feel or odor exactly what the leaking fluid is.

Once you’ve narrowed down the area of the source, look for the actual leak. Hose clamps, broken fittings, seals and gaskets between mated parts, fill & drain plugs, are all common culprits. Once you’ve confirmed the source, you can proceed with confidence and begin remedying the problem.

Of course, though we’ve been focusing here on the engine compartment, all of the above also applies to leaks elsewhere on the van: brakes, CV drive axles, radiator and coolant pipes & hoses, and more.

Now that the engine is clean and dry, make some ongoing effort to keep it that way. A tidy engine and drivetrain will alert you to future leaks early on, before they become a bigger problem, and will help you identify their causes.

Keep on vannin’

What’s Your Van Plan for This Year?

The New Year is a great time for a fresh start.

Never mind the resolutions to spend more time at the gym and less time watching cat videos (we both know that’s not gonna happen). The real question is, what are your plans to get your campervan in tip top shape, and enjoy some great traveling this year?

Most vans (and van owners) are inactive this time of year, so now’s your chance to set some goals, make some plans, and resolve to make this year even better than last.


Some aspects of traveling and camping in a decades-old camper van are necessarily mechanical, and require ongoing maintenance. Reliability is of the utmost importance, especially if you want to avoid breakdowns while far from home. Regardless whether you hire out your van’s mechanical work, or turn the wrenches yourself, here are some items to ensure are in top form.

Fuel Lines

The VW Bus and Vanagon Transporters certainly have their quirks, but the fuel system is perhaps the most potentially dangerous and deadly. Too many vans have been lost to fire due to neglected fuel systems. Old and brittle plastic connectors, rusty clamps, and rubber hoses deteriorated by modern ethanol-laced gasoline can all cause leaks. Gasoline injected into a hot engine compartment is a recipe for disaster for you and your family.

So, if you don’t know when these parts were last replaced, inspect and replace them before embarking on summer road trips. Use fuel line rated for use with ethanol fuels, and the correct pressure rating for your electronic fuel injection system, with quality fuel injection clamps. Here’s a good write-up >

The Big List

Most Vanagon owners keep a running to-do list of needed mechanical repairs, fixes, and other maintenance. These often get lost in the heady days of summer when the highway and the forest call, so start working on those procrastinated loose ends now when you have no impending trips.

If you have not been religious in your maintenance, or the van is new to you and of unknown provenance, a good place to start is the 15k, 30k, and 90k-mile maintenance items on the lists found in the back pages of the Bentley manual. Just start at the top and begin working your way down. You won’t get it all done in one day, of course, but in pretty short order you’ll be able to inspect, adjust, or replace everything needed to get your ride ready.

These will include the following, and a whole lot more:

  • Fluids: oil, coolant, brake and clutch, windshield washer
  • Filters: oil, fuel, air
  • Belts & hoses
  • Lights: all interior & exterior
  • Wires: battery, starter, alternator, grounds, etc.
  • Battery: clean, inspect, charge, and test
  • Tires: inspect for wear and cracks, rotate, treat with UV protectant
  • Jack: factory jack or aftermarket, plywood support plate for use on rough ground

Record everything you do in a simple logbook, with date, mileage, and any notes, so that you can look back later for reference. Once you’ve got caught up on all this delayed maintenance, it will be a simple matter to keep up on the recommended intervals.

Outfit for Travel

If you’ll be spending a lot of time driving and living in your campervan, you’ll want to make it as comfortable as possible for you and your companions. Organize the cab, kitchen, and other living areas so you’re always ready to roll!

  • Charging jacks & cords: USB, phone, cameras, etc.
  • Maps, gazetteers, guidebooks
  • Logbook to track fuel & oil usage
  • Beverage bottles & travel mugs
  • Kitchen kit: all pots & pans, plates, utensils, containers
  • Food staples: your favorite non- or semi-perishable pastas, rice, spices, canned goods. Store in hard plastic containers to prevent spoilage and pests.
  • Bedding: sleeping bags, blankets, pillows
  • Heaters (electric or LP), cooling fans
  • Emergency tools & parts, fire extinguisher
  • Vehicle Recovery & Extraction: folding shovel, 12-volt air compressor, traction boards or tire chains, recovery & tow straps

Check & Test all Camping Equipment:

Other Activities

Sometimes the campervan is the means to another end—biking, hiking, paddling, skiing, fishing, etc.. Make sure your other equipment is ready for the season:

  • Roof or trunk racks, cargo boxes
  • Trekking poles
  • Binoculars
  • Gear bags or boxes

Travel Plans

The entire purpose of all this preparation is going places! Now, in the doldrums of winter, is a great time to start thinking about sunnier days and destinations close and far. In fact, poring over maps and planning a getaway is often the only thing that gets me through a dreary winter.

You and your travel mates no doubt already have some destination ideas, what season to go, and what sights and other activities to take in. How long will it take you to get there and back? How long to stay in each place?

One you’ve discussed and have a rough idea, start collecting info to make your goal a reality:

  • Travel guide websites
  • Maps, gazetteers, guidebooks
  • Relevant apps for navigation, finding attractions and sites, camping, etc.

Shakedown Cruises

Once you’ve attended to most of the points above, start taking your campervan on short trips close to home, then progressively longer and longer trips. This will give you opportunities to inspect your work, and to ensure your van is up to all those big miles and long days you have planned.

Traveling and camping in a vintage campervan, whether close to home or far afield, should bring plenty of adventures. But not mechanical misadventures. Once you’re reasonably confident in the reliability and comfort of your ride, hit the road!

Making the Most of Stay-at-Home Orders, for Van-Campers

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have chosen to self-quarantine in our homes for the next several weeks. Cancelled trip plans, indefinite isolation, travel restrictions, Spring fever, and information overload can all be a recipe for anxiety and boredom.

We are van-campers, damn it! We are not homebodies, and we crave the hills, forests, seashores, and deserts!

Still, few are perhaps as well suited to such home confinement as those of us who travel and live for weeks on end in a rectangular steel box barely larger than the Eagle lunar lander. We can do this!

Here are a few ideas to help you maintain and improve yourself, your home, and your Vanagon!

First, Protect Yourself

Just as the airline flight attendants explain, in case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, first don your OWN oxygen mask, before attempting to assist others with theirs. Making sure you’ve got oxygen first is crucial if you want to be alert enough to help others.

The same is true while living under the COVID-19 health crisis; keep yourself healthy and sane so you can assist those around you.

Care for Family & Neighbors

Current health protocols suggest that, unless a member of your household is exhibiting early symptoms, or you have reason to believe someone has recently introduced the virus into your home, you can live your life as usual while under Stay-at-Home orders. So, you don’t need to practice ‘safe-distancing’ with healthy household members.

Feed and clothe your kids, enjoy meals with your partner, watch movies and play games with the whole fam together.

But beyond that, check in with neighbors or relatives near and far, especially the elderly or those who live alone (from a safe distance, of course). Ask if they need anything: food, medications, their dog walked, the trash bins taken out to the street, etc..

Use phone, email, or neighbor-to-neighbor online communities to communicate and coordinate with others to ensure that everyone in your area is getting the support they need.

Care for Your Home

A lot of people are using time confined at home to … take care of the home!

Clean the basement or garage, rake the lawn, weed the garden, clean the gutters (well, maybe that one can be procrastinated a little longer). But do be extra careful when doing these neglected household projects: an urgent-care physician friend recently reminded me that slicing your foot open with the lawn mower is always bad; but doing so now, when ER staff are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, is an especially dumb idea. They don’t want you now, and you don’t want to be there!

You might also consider preparing a room in your home in case someone does get sick. Ideally, plan to set aside a separate room with a bed or couch, preferably with it’s own attached bathroom, where a household member could rest and recuperate in isolation from other family.

In advance, collect some supplies to help care for any ill family members:

  • Extra bedsheets & blankets
  • Gatorade, juices, or other fluids for proper hydration
  • Acetaminophen fever reducers
  • Over-the-counter medicines may help with other symptoms
  • Digital thermometer to monitor fever
  • Room humidifier to help ease a sore throat and cough

More information on caring for a sick household member:

Use the Internet

Unlike previous epidemics requiring social isolation, we now have far more ways to keep in contact.

Phone calling & text messaging, social media, email, video chat, and a plethora of apps now allow us to easily communicate with friends and strangers around the globe. Please use them, to take care of loved ones near and far, to educate and entertain yourself, and to share your thoughts and plans.

We’re all stronger when we stick together, even when we’re apart.

Preserve Our Economy

The other crucial front on which we must fight this threat is the broader economy.

For better or worse, most every citizen of the world is an active participant in some way of the wider financial world, and this pandemic has thrown it right off the rails. To put it back on track will require the efforts of everyone doing what they can.

To the extent that you can, support local small businesses, especially those most impacted by this pandemic:

  • restaurants, bars & pubs
  • brick-and-mortar retailers
  • providers of goods or services with elastic demand that are not seen as necessities

Consider ‘buying it forward’ by purchasing online gift cards from those businesses that you care about and want to help preserve. Think of it as an investment in a vibrant and thriving future economy, populated by the kind of businesses you believe benefit your community.

Of particular interest to those of us who love old Vanagons & Transporters, please consider ordering parts and supplies from your favorite Vanagon vendors, local or distant. Most of these are surprisingly small businesses, serving a narrow specialty niche that can be especially hard hit by larger economic contractions. Help keep them afloat by ordering Vanagon parts for your next big project, or just stock up on consumables you know you’ll be needing in the future anyway: filters, belts, brake shoes & pads, etc.. Your support now may help determine whether they are still able to serve you tomorrow.

Organize Your Stuff

A bit of down time at home is a good opportunity to clean and organize your camping gear, tools and parts, workshop area, etc.

But don’t stop there; if you continue cleaning out the garage of all that old scrap wood, leaky garden hoses, and that treadmill you never use anymore, you just might be able to fit the car or van in there again!

Start Planning Your Road Trips

Eventually, we’ll be able to ‘flatten the curve,’ travel restrictions will be eased, and we’ll all head screaming for the wide open spaces. Start working out some possible destinations and time frames, camping spots, and sights to see along the way.

Planning a Road Trip

Or, get inspired, get educated, and get handy with a good travel or Vanagon book:

Your Van Plan

As the weather improves, take the time to start working out any big mechanical repairs or upgrades you’ve been putting off. Organize your work space, collect the tools and parts, and start getting your van ready to go!

What’s Your Van Plan?

Get Cooking

Now, while you’re stuck at home all day and eating in, is a great time to try out some new camping recipes.

Experimentation is always best done on familiar ground, like your home kitchen, where you have a pantry full of backup options. So, find some new recipes (or create your own) that might be easily made in the campervan and practice them at home.

Get Out

If conditions and local health officials allow, get outside.

Rake the lawn, trim the hedge, walk the dog, ride the bike, work on the van, but go outside. The sunshine, the fresh air, the wave from your neighbor, all contribute to a healthier and happier you.

We Can Do This

Together, we can “flatten the curve” and begin to resume our lives.

Remember to reach out to friends and family for help and support when needed, and make the most of your time at home.

Watch for an upcoming article on proper and safe hygiene while traveling and camping. And stay in touch with Camp Westfalia on Facebook, or get Crosswinds, the free newsletter!


World Health Organization, Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Government of Canada, Public Health, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Replacing the Vanagon Engine Cover Insulation

Remove the old rotted and crumbling insulation beneath your engine cover and replace with this slick modern upgrade.

The Vanagon’s engine, as you undoubtedly know, is located in the rear of the vehicle, and is accessed via a large opening in the rear deck, covered by a lid. The underside of this lid is covered with a sound-deadening heat insulation. The older metal deck lids use a synthetic batting, while the later fiberglass lids utilize a foam rubber.

Regardless the type, after 30-40 years the insulation has usually disintegrated, and absorbed dirt and oil, no longer providing sound-damping, and creating a potential fire hazard.

I replaced mine with two 1/2″ layers of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam, intended as flooring in home fitness rooms. EVA is resistant to chemical, oil, and fuel spills, and provides thermal insulation and acoustical damping properties.

Easy to cut and shape, this modern lightweight, closed-cell foam comes in 24 x 24″ (60 x 60 cm) interlocking tiles, is affordable, easy to apply, and should last for many years.

Get it here!

We’ll start by removing the original sagging insulation, cleaning the engine lid, then apply the new foam!


Optional Materials:

  • rigid polystyrene foam insulation scraps, 2 x 3′
  • acetone
  • silicone sealant
  • FatMat, a self-adhesive acoustical insulation, 8 square feet


Optional Tools:

  • pressure washer
  • green abrasive scouring pad

Step 1: Remove the old insulation

Lay the engine deck lid upside-down on a workbench or sawhorses. Take some photos or measurements of any depressions molded into the original foam; these provide clearance for various engine components and you’ll want to include these in your new insulation later.

Begin working loose the old foam using a utility knife and a sharp 1.5″-wide putty knife or paint scraper. An even narrower scraper may be helpful in removing the foam from the corners and recesses of the lid.

On certain model years of the Vanagon, this foam insulation is embedded with a chicken-wire-like mesh; remove this as well.

Remove as much of the old foam bits as possible, to ensure a good clean bonding surface. A home pressure washer is effective for stripping and cleaning the engine cover. Pay particular attention to the raised areas of the corrugations, as this is where the new foam will be glued.

If necessary, scrub the surface with an abrasive scouring pad dipped in acetone or other solvent to remove as much of the old adhesive as possible.

NOTE: Two layers of 1/2″ foam will be 1″ thick, of course, and this may be somewhat thicker than your original foam. In addition, I had recently installed a different engine which was a little taller than the original power plant, necessitating different clearance areas in the new deck lid insulation.

Just to keep it all straight, I rigged up some scraps of rigid polystyrene foam insulation at exactly the same final depth of the new deck lid insulation, so that I could visualize where I needed to cut relief areas (cardboard will work too). I then used these scraps as a pattern to make matching relief cutouts on the new foam. Remember to label the Top and Bottom sides of your template to avoid errors!

Step 2: Cut new foam to size

Starting in one corner, measure for your first section of the new foam. There are two lateral reinforcing ribs running across the decklid, which you’ll need to work around.

The EVA foam tiles feature interlocking ‘jigsaw’ edges, so snap a couple of tiles together into one piece before cutting. Focus your attention only on the first layer for the moment; you can use this as a pattern for the second layer.

The foam is easily cut with a utility knife and a metal straightedge. Cut a piece to fit the main center area first, then the narrower sections at top and bottom. Remember to provide clearance areas for the latch mechanisms. From your scraps, cut smaller pieces to fit any remaining bits.

Repeat to make the second layer, staggering the jigsaw seam with the first layer, and adding any relief areas.

Step 3: Glue foam into place

My first attempt to glue the foam tiles into position using a spray adhesive did not work well, and soon came loose. I’ve had good long term results using a good contact adhesive instead.

Following the maker’s directions, use a brush or small roller to apply contact adhesive first to the raised corrugations on the deck lid, then across the entire porous underside of the first foam layer. Allow both to dry about 15 minutes, then carefully fit the foam and press into place.

NOTE: this dry-fit method provides a much stronger bond, but allows NO time for repositioning your work pieces, so you must get it right on your first try.

Repeat for the smaller areas, then for the entire second layer.

Consider using silicone sealant or other caulk to seal the ‘jigsaw’ seams.

The outer groove running around the perimeter of the deck lid should be likewise sealed using 3/4″-wide closed-cell foam weatherstripping.


For additional sound-damping, you may consider adding a final layer of FatMat, a self-adhesive acoustical insulation, over the EVA foam.

Finally …

Test-fit your deck lid to check for any clearance issues, then apply some Armor-All or other protectant to help keep it clean.

This new foam is fuel-, oil-, and heat-resistant, and will provide effective sound and heat insulation for many years to come.

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below!

Vanagon Cooling System Overview

New owners often find themselves mystified by the cooling system of the Vanagon. Which is understandable, considering that it’s kind of an oddball setup.

A little historical context and a quick tour should help ‘splain things.

Most water-cooled cars, including the one you probably use as a grocery-getter, has the engine up front, right behind the radiator. So, the entire drivetrain is in one compact package.

Like all previous Volkswagen vans, the Vanagon/Transporter’s engine is located in the rear of the vehicle. But, unlike all previous Volkswagen vans, the 1983-and-later Vanagons are water-cooled.

A water-cooled engine relies on a radiator to dissipate heat, and the best location for a radiator is out front in the stream of fresh, cool air. To connect this rear-mounted engine to this front-mounted radiator there is a pair of long steel or plastic pipes running the length of the Vanagon’s underside.

In this regard the Vanagon/Transporter is indeed an odd duck, but at least it’s in good company; other notable production vehicles to utilize this unusual arrangement are post-1998 Porsches and the DeLorean DMC-12.

This design also calls for a separate coolant expansion tank and a coolant reservoir located near the engine in the rear, and here is where much of the confusion commences …


Let’s take a quick lap through the Vanagon cooling system.

When you fire up that little waterboxer or diesel and hit the road, excess heat from the cylinder heads is immediately transferred to the liquid coolant, which the water pump circulates back through the cylinder jackets & heads again, in a short closed loop. This prevents over-cooling and helps the engine quickly warm up to proper operating temperature.

Once the coolant reaches about 190˚F (87˚C), the thermostat opens and begins routing coolant via the long coolant pipe way up to the radiator. Here, fresh air draws away the excess heat, and the now-relatively-cool coolant goes back to the water pump and engine via the return pipe, completing its circuit.

Expansion Tank

Like any liquid, engine coolant expands as it is heated. As the name implies, the Expansion Tank manages this expansion; a pressure-sensitive valve built into the tank cap allows excess coolant to vent via a small hose to the Refill Tank. In a well-functioning closed system, the Expansion Tank will always be completely full of coolant, with no air space.

The Expansion Tank also has a built-in coolant level sensor, which detects a low fluid level and triggers a flashing red warning light in the dashboard temperature gauge. This same warning light may also be triggered by separate coolant temperature sensors, located elsewhere.

Refill Tank

This excess coolant flows to the Refill Tank, located just inside the license-plate access door, and which serves as a coolant reservoir. When the engine is turned off and begins to cool, the coolant in the system now contracts, and an equal amount is drawn back into the Expansion Tank from the Refill Tank. The Refill Tank’s volume will rise and fall with coolant temperature, between the MAX and MIN marks.

NOTE: These tanks are often and variously referred to by owners and even by the vaunted Bentley Workshop Manual as the reservoir, pressure, overflow, or burp tanks, sometimes interchangeably, which certainly doesn’t help matters. Expansion and Refill tanks are the terms most consistently used in both the Owners Manuals and the Bentley.

Heater Circuit

In addition to these basic system components, there is also a heat exchanger located inside the dashboard, with standard controls on the front dash panel, as well as a secondary heating element beneath the rear bench seat.

When the dash temperature control is set to “Warm,” a valve is opened, directing hot coolant from the engine to the heat exchangers to provide warm air for the cabin. This coolant is then routed back to the Expansion Tank for re-distribution.

Self-Bleeding Basics

In a later article I’ll cover how to properly bleed the cooling system of all air bubbles after a coolant change or other work. But, it may be helpful here to understand the interaction of the Expansion and Refill Tanks in daily operation.

Though in theory a closed loop, the Vanagon’s cooling system can sometimes develop bubbles or pockets of air, caused by incomplete bleeding following a coolant replacement, a leaking hose or clamp, or by a failing cylinder head gasket allowing exhaust gases into the cooling system.

These air bubbles will tend to (but not always) make their way to the coolant Expansion Tank, where normal operating heat and pressure will usually expel them to the Refill Tank.

As any child with poor table manners knows, a drinking straw in a glass of chocolate milk allows bubbles to be blown into the glass, but only liquid can be drawn back up. This is exactly how the Vanagon Refill Tank functions; it accepts both coolant and errant air bubbles from the Expansion Tank when hot, but sends back only liquid coolant as the system cools. In this regard, the Refill Tank functions as a sort of one-way valve, serving to ‘self-bleed’ air bubbles out of the system to a great degree.

I hope this clears up some of the common questions about the Vanagon cooling system!

In future articles, we’ll look at proper cooling system care and maintenance, how to bleed the system, common symptoms and problems, and more!

Vanagon Coolant Pipe Mounting Bracket Set

Replacing your Vanagon/Transporter’s leaky old steel or plastic coolant pipes with new aftermarket stainless steel pipes?

These brackets securely anchor your new coolant pipes and heater hoses, keeping them snug and out of the way.

Easily attached to the bottom of a chassis member with the included stainless steel hardware, the slick one-piece brackets replace your old rusted thin wire brackets or broken plastic zip-ties to mount your new pipes and heater hoses.

Includes TWO brackets to mount pipes and heater hoses, with stainless steel mounting hardware.


1.25″ Brackets: 1983 to early 1985 Vanagons equipped with 1.25”-diameter STEEL coolant pipes.
1.50″ Brackets: Late 1985 thru 1991 Vanagons equipped with 1.50”-diameter PLASTIC coolant pipes.

(Simply order the bracket size to match the size of the new aftermarket pipes you intend to use.)

FREE SHIPPING to lower 48 states. For an estimate for international destinations, please use the Contact form on this page to provide your shipping info.

Choose Bracket Size

Evolution of the Vanagon/Transporter

Do you consider yourself a Van-Fan?

Do you enjoy “Vanagon-spotting”, identifying various years and types of VW vans while on a road trip?

Or have you just begun shopping for your own Westfalia, and find yourself a bit baffled by the features of each variant?

Here’s a quick guide to the Vanagons/Transporters offered in North America between 1980 and 1991. Obviously, some of the component specifications of each model are more detailed than can be outlined here, but it should help in your own on-the-road “Vanagon-spotting” ventures!

Feel free to grab the graphic or share the article with friends or on your own blog or website!

If you’re interested in exploring the very early developmental ‘genealogy’ of the T3 Vanagon & Transporter, check out this thorough and fascinating read!

For more detailed info on the model history of the Vanagon & Transporter, please visit

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!

Making Custom Rigid Hydraulic Brake Lines

Replace the old, rusty, unsafe steel brake lines on your Vanagon (or any other vehicle, for that matter).

After 30 or 40 years, the original steel brake lines on your Vanagon/Transporter may well be past their reasonable service life, especially if you live in a wet region where corrosive road salt may be used on roadways.

Pre-bent, direct replacements are no longer available for the Vanagon, though one can purchase complete sets of straight sections of the correct lengths with the flare nuts already installed; these must then be bent to shape.

An alternative is to fabricate new lines from stock off-the-shelf materials. When I recently replaced a few brake lines on a Vanagon, the new Cunifer or copper-nickel line seemed a good solution, and is quite popular among do-it-yourself auto enthusiasts, so I purchased a big roll of the stuff and a decent flaring tool.

But I had trouble making satisfactory flares with a few different sub-$100 tools. Many others have had great success with the copper-nickel lines, so the problem was either with my consumer-level flaring tools or my technique.

In any case, brakes are no place for questionable results, so I saved that particular skill for another day, and decided to use conventional poly-coated steel brake lines with pre-formed flares and nuts already installed. These are readily available, affordable, and should last another 30 years.

NOTE: throughout North America these rigid, hard brake lines are commonly known simply as ‘lines’, while the Bentley Workshop Manual and most of Europe refers to them as ‘brake pipes’. Tomatoe, tomato.

These ready-made brake lines are available in a variety of diameters, lengths, and flare-fitting types. The Vanagon requires 3/16″ (5mm) diameter with 10mm x 1.0mm DIN/ISO bubble flares. You’ll simply need to bend to shape and install.

In short, you’ll remove the original brake line(s) from the vehicle, measure their total lengths and save them as patterns, then bend new steel lines to fit, and install. Finish by bleeding the brake system as usual.





  • Stiff wire for making patterns, several feet

Bending Basics

A hand-held tubing-bender tool like this one is quite versatile for bending a variety of curves in brake lines, and usually includes a few different sizes of roller dies for various diameters of tubing.

I generally start by marking the tubing to indicate the first tangent—the beginning of the intended curve or bend. Set the tubing into the bending tool with this mark adjacent to the die, then carefully begin bending, making sure the curve is applied beyond the tangent mark.

For smooth, continuous curves, bend the tubing a little at a time, working your way along the length of the curve a few times, bending it a little tighter each time until it matches the original.

  1. Remove the old brake line from the vehicle, being careful to avoid bending it too badly out of shape. Add a label to indicate its location and orientation, to prevent confusion.
  2. Measure the total linear length of the old line, including bends and curves; a tailor’s measuring tape is useful for this, either on or off the vehicle.
  3. Select a length of new brake line slightly longer than your original. Off-the-shelf brake lines are typically available in increments of approximately 10″ (20″, 30″, 40″, etc.), so you’ll need to buy pieces slightly longer than needed. ISO/DIN Bubble flare couplers can be used to join two shorter sections.
  4. Before beginning to bend, make sure the flare nuts are each at their respective ends of the line, and use a bit of tape to keep them in position and prevent the intrusion of dirt or other contaminants. Find a clean, flat work surface.
  5. The extra length of the lines must somehow be accounted for in order to fit your intended use. So, if the new piece is, say, 6″ too long, you’ll need to add a 6″-circumference (NOT DIAMETER) loop somewhere in the run, in order to take up this ‘slack’. Choose a final location someplace out of the way, where it will not interfere with adjacent hoses or wires once installed, or be damaged by road debris.
    NOTE: If necessary, the additional length can be spread out over two smaller loops.
  6. After choosing roughly where in the line you plan to add this loop later, begin making the other bends in the new line, starting at the nearest end. Using the old brake line as a pattern, use the bending tool to make the first bend.
  7. After making the first bend, begin paying attention to the third dimension and the axial orientation of the new line when comparing to the old, to ensure you’re making an accurate replacement that will fit properly. Add the next bend, and so on, until you come to the intended location of your loop.


NOTE: You may want to practice this technique on an extra piece or scrap of brake line. You can even use a length of stiff wire to make a pattern and to test-fit before beginning to bend, as shown above.

  1. Mark the loop’s location “A” on the chosen section of line.
  2. Determine the required circumference of the loop; Ex.: 6″. Make an additional Mark “B”, located 6″ PAST Mark “A”. These two tangent marks indicate the beginning and end of the loop.
  3. Starting at Mark “A”, use the bending tool to ‘loop’ around 360 degrees until Mark “A” comes around full circle to align with Mark “B”, creating a 6″-circumference loop.
    NOTE: I prefer to make such loops oriented horizontally to avoid the collection of air bubbles when bleeding, and I coil them in a direction that will encourage air bubbles to migrate downstream toward the bleeders.
  4. Continue making the remaining bends to the end of the line, comparing to the old brake line as you go.
  5. Once you have a faithful copy of the original brake line, you can install it on your van! Replace any broken or missing retaining springs or clips along the way.

Finally …

This bending and looping technique allows you to use readily available, affordable, conventional poly-coated steel brake lines, and should last for many more years of vintage motoring!

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!

Cleaning and Waterproofing your Westfalia Canvas Tent

How to clean and waterproof your Westy canvas tent to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable!

Westfalia Canvas Tent Overview

The canvas tent walls are an integral part of the Volkswagen Westfalia Camper’s popup roof system, keeping out wind, rain, snow, and even bugs. Every part of a three-decades-old camper van will benefit from frequent care and maintenance, but the tent canvas is perhaps the softest and most fragile component. Rain can soak the fibers and allow water to intrude into your cozy abode. Worse, if left untended, this same moisture can rot holes in the canvas fabric, requiring patches or an expensive replacement.

But with a little proper care, you can keep your original Westy canvas supple, dry, and working well for many more years.

The Westfalia Camper tent is made of a medium-weight cotton canvas, which is not inherently waterproof, but which instead relies on the swelling of the natural fibers to create a water-resistant barrier when wetted. The canvas should be periodically cleaned and then treated with a silicone water-repellent product like Kiwi Camp Dry Heavy Duty Water Repellent. This forms a moisture-resistant layer which repels rain but which also allows interior moisture to escape. Such treatments eventually wear out due to simple use, UV from sunlight, dirt, etc.. If using your Camper regularly, you should re-treat your tent every 1-2 years.

NOTE: Always test any product on an unobtrusive part of your tent before proceeding. The following is for the stock original Westfalia canvas tent. Aftermarket replacement tents may require their own cleaning and treating products; see the instructions from the supplier.

Parts & Supplies



  • Short ladder or step stool
  • Garden hose
  • Wash bucket
  • Brushes: soft-bristle, long-handled; small firm hand-held
  • Plastic sheeting, magnets or spring clamps


  • Household clothes iron

Washing the Westfalia Popup Roof Canvas

  1. On a warm, dry day, park your van somewhere out of direct sunlight and raise the popup roof. Close the front and/or side tent windows. Use a garden hose to gently wet the entire canvas tent.
  2. Allow the tent canvas fibers to absorb the water for a few minutes. Meanwhile, mix up about a gallon of water with Woolite Extra Delicates Care gentle liquid detergent. Use a soft long-handled brush to apply the sudsy Woolite to one wall of the canvas tent. Soak a few minutes to allow the detergent to work, then rinse thoroughly with the garden hose.
  3. If stubborn dirty spots or stains remain, use a stiffer handheld brush to apply Woolite full strength to the stains and gently work it into the fabric. Work the brush in a circular pattern over and around the stain to ‘feather’ the detergent into surrounding areas, to avoid leaving an obvious brighter clean spot. Let the detergent work for five minutes, then rinse well with the hose. Repeat this for all four sides of the canvas, rinsing well.
    NOTE: to remove especially stubborn stains, use OxiClean Laundry Stain Remover to pre-treat these problem areas.
  4. If needed, the tent interior can be washed similarly, but using the soft brush for applying both the wash water and rinse water; this may require two rinses to thoroughly remove all traces of detergent. Use large towels to protect the interior from excess water.
  5. Allow the tent to completely air-dry, perhaps even overnight. If possible, open the tent’s window(s) to help dry the canvas.

Repairing the Canvas

Now would be a good opportunity to repair any punctures, tears, or other damage to the canvas or window screen.

  1. Once thoroughly dry, trim the loose edges of any holes or tears. Cut iron-on fabric-repair patches at least an inch larger than the hole, and round the patch corners to prevent peeling. Follow the directions to apply the patches to the canvas tent exterior, using a household clothing iron.
  2. For a firm bond, have a helper stand inside the tent and press a small wooden board wrapped in a towel against the back of the repair, while you firmly iron the patch in place.

Water-Repellent Treatment

  1. As above, treat your Westfalia tent on a warm, dry, calm day out of direct sunlight.
  2. Most suitable canvas waterproof treatments contain silicone, which will leave a slippery mess on the rest of your van. So, cover your paint and other bodywork with plastic sheeting held in place with magnets or spring clamps. I use an old vinyl shower curtain.
  3. Follow the directions on the can of Camp Dry or similar silicone canvas treatment, to spray the entire exterior surface of the tent from 7 to 10 inches away with a light, even coat. Work on one wall of the tent at a time, then proceed to the next. Camp Dry suggests applying a second coat after four hours for maximum protection, and I usually use horizontal strokes for the first cost, and vertical strokes for the second.
  4. Avoid thoroughly soaking the canvas with water repellent, but be sure to fully treat the seams and bottom edges of the tent.
  5. Allow the treatment to completely dry (24-48 hours) before closing the Westfalia roof. You may experience lingering odors from the waterproof treatment on your next few camping trips, but these will fade with time.


The detergent will have stripped the protective wax from your bodywork, so give your van a good washing and waxing now, along with a fiberglass wax for the popup roof; apply an anti-UV protectant to all the rubber seals.


With proper care, your Westfalia popup canvas should not require frequent washings as outlined above, but will benefit from a simple rinsing with a garden hose after especially dusty or dirty camping trips. The waterproof treatment can be reapplied every one to two years for maximum protection, and will keep you and your family dry and comfy!

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!

Fire Extinguishers for Your Camper Van

How to Choose (and Hopefully Never Use) a Fire Extinguisher in Your Camper Van


“Kidde Recalls Fire Extinguishers with Plastic Handles Due to Failure to Discharge and Nozzle Detachment”

Hazard: Certain Kidde fire extinguishers can become clogged or require excessive force to discharge and can fail to activate during a fire emergency. In addition, the nozzle can detach with enough force to pose an impact hazard.

Learn how to identify whether your extinguisher is included in this recall, and more, here:

A few hours into a recent month-long Westfalia road trip, we came upon a nicely restored classic 1960’s sedan pulled over on the side of the road, hood up and smoke rolling from the open engine compartment.

I stopped hard on the shoulder a safe distance back, grabbed our fire extinguisher as I went out the sliding door, and rushed ahead to find the owner peering into the open engine compartment.

“I think I’ve got it …” he announced, having just emptied his economy-sized extinguisher. But a moment later sparks erupted again and the carburetor was engulfed in flames. I quickly handed him my larger, fresh extinguisher and he put it out for good.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had come along just five minutes later, or if our extinguisher was old and expired. And of course it really got me thinking about my own fire-response equipment for my family.

And for my beloved Westfalia, which is in fact like another member of the family …


Small handheld extinguishers are available in a variety of types and sizes, each designed for a particular purpose, specified by a series of numbers & letter designations. Fortunately, you can use these numbers to choose an extinguisher for your VW Westfalia, camper van, or other small RV.

What do the letters and numbers on the fire extinguisher mean?

Fire extinguishers are marked with at least one of the following classification letters on the label: A, B, C, D, or K; and a number ranging from 1 to 120.

The letters indicate the types of fire the extinguisher is designed for:

  • Class A is designed for fighting fires involving common combustibles like paper, fiberglass, wood, 12-volt wiring and many other items typically found in a home, auto, RV, or boat.
  • Class B is effective for extinguishing fires involving flammable & combustible liquids such as gasoline and diesel fuel, as well as flammable gasses like propane.
  • Class C should be used for fires involving energized 120-volt electrical equipment such as shore power, and including wiring, circuit breakers, machinery and appliances. The only sure way to extinguish a Class C (electrical) fire is to turn the power Off. The C designation indicates that the extinguisher material is non-conductive.
  • Class D is effective in extinguishing fires involving combustible metals like magnesium, sodium, potassium, sodium-potassium alloy uranium and powdered aluminum.
  • Class K is designed for putting out fires involving kitchen and cooking grease.

The numbers on the label represent the area the extinguisher will cover:

  • Class A is measured in cubic feet (where 1A equals 8 cubic feet).
  • Class B is measured in square feet (where 10B equals 10 square feet).
  • Class C has no area measurement.

Generally speaking, a small RV or camper van like a VW Westfalia may experience a fire requiring Classes A, B, C, or K.

Types of Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguishers best suited for use in RVs use a variety of chemical agents:

ABC Dry Chemical

Perhaps the most common type of extinguisher, the material used in these is Monoammonium Phosphate, which is a toxic Hazardous Material. These extinguishers have limited ability to extinguish Class A fires (common combustibles, paper, fiberglass, wood, 12v wiring and most of the materials used in RVs or boats), so it often requires a larger ABC extinguisher to extinguish a relatively small Class A fire.

This chemical agent becomes very corrosive when heated, and is very difficult to clean up because it adheres to the surfaces it comes in contact with. The aftermath of an interior or engine fire will require immediate and extensive cleanup. In storage, the powder tends to become compacted in the bottom of the cylinder over time (especially when carried in a vehicle), perhaps rendering it useless when needed. They can also can lose their pressure over time, though some can be recharged by a local fire-safety service.

Pros: common; affordable;
Cons: can lose their pressure over time; the powder tends to become compacted in the bottom of the cylinder over time; limited ability to combat Class A fires;

BC Dry Powder

The agent used in this type of extinguisher is non-toxic Sodium Bicarbonate. As the Class designation indicates, this type is suitable for combatting fires involving flammable liquids and gasses, and 120-volt electrical fires.

Pros: common; affordable;
Cons: can lose their pressure over time; the powder tends to become compacted in the bottom of the cylinder over time;

ABC Halotron I Clean Agent Gas

Halotron is a clean, non-conductive gaseous agent suitable for use on Class B and C fires; larger units can also be used on Class A fires. Though much more expensive than dry extinguishers, Halotron extinguishers leave no residue after discharge so there’s no toxic cleanup, the cost of which would easily exceed that of the extinguisher. Unlike powder and dry chemical extinguishers, Halotron does not compact in the cylinder, though they can lose pressure over time and may need to be periodically refilled.

Pros: clean; non-toxic; does not compact;
Cons: can lose pressure over time; more expensive; larger capacity required for Class A use;

ACK Potassium Lactate & Nitrogen Gas Aerosol

This type of compact extinguisher works on household fires including those involving paper, fabric, wood, cooking oils, electrical appliances and equipment.

One brand, First Alert Tundra, claims this type of extinguisher, “… discharges four times longer than regular extinguishers, making it ideal for fighting common household fires and allowing you to ensure the fire is completely out. The nozzle sprays a wide area, giving you greater control to put out a fire faster. … The portable extinguisher spray is ideal for the kitchen, boats, RVs, and travel. The biodegradable formula of this foam fire extinguisher spray wipes away with a damp cloth for easy cleanup.”

Pros: compact; affordable; effective on multiple types of fires including cooking oils; longer discharge time; clean; non-toxic;
Cons: small size may not be sufficient for larger fires;

Size Matters

I will never forget the expression of despair and helplessness of the unfortunate motorist mentioned above whose compact extinguisher petered out with his engine still ablaze. Nor the look of relief and hope when I stepped forward and handed him my larger, fresh extinguisher …

After choosing the correct type of extinguisher, the next most important aspect is sufficient volume. And when it comes to the safety of your family, and your beloved camper van and belongings, well, more is better.

As mentioned above, the rated capacity of an extinguisher is indicated by the number, in square or cubic feet, depending on the Type. The stock extinguisher which came with most Westfalia Campers was a compact 5-B:C, but this may be barely adequate for a medium-sized fire, and a larger unit will provide better protection.

In general, select the largest extinguisher your space and budget allow, weighed against the value you place on your family and vehicle.

Choosing and Packing

For most fires found in a small RV like a camper van, the ABC Halotron I extinguisher is perhaps the most effective, as it will suppress most types of blazes and will not damage your camper’s interior with toxic and corrosive agents. A unit containing 2.5 lbs of agent may be sufficient, though a 5-lb. unit can be had for only a few dollars more.

As a backup, add a couple of compact and affordable ACK Potassium Lactate & Nitrogen Gas Aerosol extinguishers, distributed throughout your van so one is always close at hand. Note that this is the only type specifically rated for cooking oil & grease fires, so keep one near the kitchen or camp stove.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends your primary extinguisher be located within 24 inches of the main exit of an RV, and the stock Westfalia location on the lower part of the B pillar certainly meets this recommendation. Another suitable spot may be beneath the rear bench seat, on the passenger side, though accessing the extinguisher here may be hampered by child seats or other luggage on the seat.

Most medium-sized extinguishers include a mounting bracket of some sort, usually to attach the extinguisher to a wall. If your new extinguisher does not fit in the stock Westfalia bracket, remove it and install the included bracket according to the instructions. Simply set the new bracket in your intended spot, mark the locations of the screws, and drill 2-3 pilot holes for the mounting screws.

When you need a fire extinguisher, you need it fast, so make sure the extinguisher can be quickly and easily removed from the bracket in an emergency. Do not allow your extinguishers to merely roll around loosely in your vehicle; they can become a dangerous projectile in an accident, or can be damaged beyond use by jostling. Keep extinguishers close at hand; if they are buried away beneath bulky luggage or heavy tools, the delay in retrieving it may render it useless.

Just as at home, your first line of defense against a devastating fire is awareness, so install a smoke alarm in your camper van, too.

Using an Extinguisher

Should you ever find yourself in urgent need of a fire extinguisher, you’ll want to make the most of what precious little suppressant you have by deploying it for maximum effectiveness.


Firefighting professionals recommend the P.A.S.S. technique for best use of an extinguisher:

P: Pull the pin. The pin prevents accidental discharge, but must be removed to use the extinguisher
A: Aim low at the base of the fire, where the fuel source is.
S: Squeeze the lever above the handle. Release to stop the flow. Note that some extinguishers have a button instead of a lever.
S: Sweep from side to side at the base of the fire, until all flames are extinguished. Watch the area. If the fire re-ignites, repeat steps 2 – 4.

Don’t make the common mistake of aiming the extinguisher directly at the main body of the flames, as this will be far less effective than aiming at the base of the flames.

Engine fires are a particularly dangerous and catastrophic type of blaze, because of the presence of fuel, electrical batteries and wiring, and rubber and plastics. Worse, because the engine is hidden away inside the Bus, Vanagon, or large RV, often in the rear, you may not even notice an engine fire until it is well underway.

First, avoid opening the upper engine cover or lid. Doing so will quickly allow fresh air in to feed the fire, and allow flames to escape and ignite the camper interior.

Instead, keep the engine fire contained to help suffocate the flames, and aim your extinguisher at the lowest flames from beneath the vehicle while maintaining a safe distance. If the fire is not too large and hot, you can even carefully open the license-plate access panel and aim your extinguisher in here, remembering to sweep from side to side at the base of the fire.

Even after the fire is out, keep an eye on the long fuel lines which run the length of the vehicle to the fuel tank, to make sure they are not burning.

You may also consider something like the BlazeCut Automatic Fire Suppression System, which mounts permanently inside your van’s engine compartment to automatically release extinguishing agent in case of an engine fire.

All adults in your camper van should know where the extinguishers are located, and should periodically practice quickly grabbing an extinguisher and preparing to use it. Kids, even if they’re not charged with using extinguishers, should at least know where they are and how to retrieve them for an adult in an emergency. The entire family should exercise how to quickly and smoothly exit the vehicle, staying a safe distance away from the vehicle and surrounding traffic.

Care and Maintenance

Inspect the extinguishers in your camper van twice a year during your Spring and Fall maintenance, and before each long trip:

  • Be sure the extinguisher is accessible, and not blocked by coolers, luggage, or other cargo that could hinder access in an emergency.
  • Check the integrated pressure gauge to ensure it is at the recommended level; the needle should be in the green zone – not too high and not too low.
  • Ensure that the nozzle or other parts are not obstructed by dirt or debris, and that the pin and tamper seal (if it has one) are intact.
  • Check the main body for dents, leaks, rust, chemical deposits and/or other signs of abuse/wear.
  • The active agent in dry powder extinguishers has a tendency to compact in the bottom of the cylinder over time, so this type of extinguisher should be periodically removed from its mounting bracket, inverted, and rapped sharply with a plastic mallet or a heavy block of wood, then shaken up and down, to loosen the compacted powder.
  • Look for any expiration dates on your extinguishers and replace any that are too old. If in doubt, take them to a Fire Extinguisher Service center for inspection or refilling.

Finally …

Knowing how to select and use an appropriate fire extinguisher can protect your family and your prized vehicle from damage, or worse …

Safe travels!

Additional Resources:

“RV fire extinguisher use and maintenance”

“What kind of fire extinguisher would be most useful in a RV situation?”

“Fire Extinguisher Maintenance and Inspection”

Got any Westfalia fire-safety advice or tips? Leave a suggestion or question below, and use the social links to share with friends!