Vanagon 101 - VW Vanagon (T3)

The VW Vanagon (aka T3 in Europe, aka T25 in the UK and Ireland) was the third generation of the VW Transporter, which was produced in Germany from 1979 until 1992 and was the last VW Transporter generation with the engine in the rear of the vehicle. It was marketed under different names worldwide, e.g. “Transporter” or “Caravelle” in Europe, Microbus in South Africa, and Vanagon in North and South America. VW Vanagons were sold in the US between 1980 and 1991.

The earlier Vanagon models (1979-1982) were the last VW Transporters with a newly designed air cooled engine in the rear. From 1982 on all Vanagon models were equipped with a water-cooled engine. The successor model, the VW Eurovan (aka T4) was introduced by VW in 1990 with a water cooled engine in the front.

Vanagon Engines and Modifications

While VW still utilized for the first generation of the Transporter (aka T1) in 1950 the engine from the VW beetle and while the second generation of the Transporter (aka T2) in 1967 was a refined version of the T1 with an enlarged body, the Vanagon was the first newly and independently designed Transporter model by VW. Besides the larger and more square body design, the Vanagon also included several technical advancements, such as rack-and-pinion vs. worm and roller steering and a front suspension with double triangle wishbones and coil springs vs. a torsion spring suspension. The spare tire was mounted in a tray underneath the front of the vehicle instead of being stored inside in the back. Other changes included a more spacious interior, an 60mm enlarged wheel base, a 125mm wider body and a weight increase of 65kg. Even with all of these changes, the initial air-cooled pancake engines had the same capacities (1.6L and 2.0L) and power levels (50hp and 70hp) as used before in the T2 Transporter. In 1981 a water-cooled 1.6L/50hp diesel engine was introduced, followed by the 1.9L water-cooled “Wasserboxer” (WBX) engine in 1982 and the 2.1L WBX engine in 1984. Towards the end of the T3 production run in South Africa, more exotic factory installed engine models became available. The 2.1 WBX was replaced there with 5 cylinder Audi engines with 2.3L, 2.4L and 2.6L displacements and power levels ranging from 120hp to 136hp. In Germany Porsche created a limited edition T3 called B32, based on the luxurious Carat model, but equipped with the 231hp/3.2L Carrera engine with a top speed of 135mph. Only ten of these were ever built:

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Vanagon engine bay with factory installed Porsche 3.2L Carrera engine

The German engine tuning company Oettinger Technik GmbH developed a 6-cylinder version of the WBX engine with 3.2L and 3.7L displacement. These engines could produce 180hp with 226lbs. of torque and their design was derived from the 4-cylinder WBX and had many common parts with it. Its development was originally contracted to Oettinger by VW and Oettinger bought the rights when VW decided not to use it:

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Vanagon engine bay with Oettinger 6 cylinder WBX engine

Vanagons were offered in a variety of body styles

  • Single Cab: Passenger cabin for 2 or 3 people with an open truck bed:

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Vanagon Single Cab

  • Crew Cab: Passenger cabin for 5 or 6 people with a shortened truck bed:

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Vanagon Crew Cab

  • Transporter: Passenger cabin for 2 or 3 people with enclosed truck bed (Panel Van):

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Vanagon Transporter (Panel Van)

  • Vanagon Transporter with side and rear windows and with up to 9 seats in 3 rows:

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Vanagon Transporter

  • Vanagon Westfalia Camper with pop-top:

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Vanagon Westfalia Camper

Specialty body styles for particular applications were also produced

  • Ambulance:

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Vanagon Ambulance

  • Fire truck:

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Vanagon Fire Truck

  • “Jagdwagen” hunting edition with all-wheel drive (Syncro):

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Vanagon "Jagdwagen"

  • German military version:

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Vanagon Military Version

  • Vanagon Single Cab with hydraulic truck bed:

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Single Cab with hydraulic truck bed

  • Vanagon Syncro Safari Version:

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Vanagon Safari Version (Syncro)

  • Vanagon Trakka -  Camper conversion made in Australia:

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Vanagon Trakka Camper

VW added in the 1980’s a variety of add-on equipment options for the different Vanagon models, such as power steering, power windows, power and heated outside mirrors, power locks, tachometer, rear window wiper, heated seats and starting in 1985 a version with all-wheel drive, called “Syncro”. Airbags only became available in the successor of the Vanagon, the Eurovan (aka T4).

Vanagon Syncro

VW developed already for the predecessor of the Vanagon prototypes with all-wheel drive, which were able to drive inclines of 74 to 94%. This know-how culminated in the development of the Vanagon Syncro with permanent all-wheel drive. Production of the Syncro took place at Steyr Daimler Puch AG in Graz/Austria. Models with 2-wheel drive could manage inclines from 28 to 50%, while Syncros were able to climb inclines from 54 to 70%. The 16” wheel option allowed adding another 3 to 6% to reach a maximum of 73% incline. The implementation of the all-wheel drive feature required major changes to the drive train and body layout. The enlarged fuel tank was positioned above the transmission, since the power axle to the front differential was taking up space underneath. Only 14” spare tires could be stored inside the tray underneath the front of the vehicle. 16” spare tires were too large for that and had to be stored either inside in the back or on a mounting rack outside the rear hatch. A fifth gear was added to the transmission and a mechanical differential lock for the front and rear axle was available as an option.

For improved off-road capabilities of the Syncro, 16” instead of the standard 14” wheels were offered, which required additional modifications to the car body, brake system (enlarged disc brakes) and drive train. Only 2,138 units of the Syncro with 16” wheels were produced, out of a total of 45,478 units with all-wheel drive.

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Vanagon Syncro Crew Cab

The following body styles were produced as Syncros with all-wheel drive: - Crew Cab – Westfalia Camper – Vanagon Transporter.

Gerhard Plattner and Rudi Lins, two professional drivers from Austria, demonstrated in 1985 the off-road capabilities of the VW Syncro by driving around the world through all five continents in only 51 days. Even a collision with a kangaroo with subsequent rolling of the vehicle in Australia could not stop this undertaking, which earned them an entry into the Guinness Book of Records.

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Gerhard Plattner and Rudi Lins in their Vanagon Syncro in Australia on their way around the world

A Syncro Camper (camper conversion by Trakka/Australia) and a Syncro Crew Cab (with custom modifications by Trakka/Australia) participated successfully in the 1990 edition of the Sydney to Darwin Australian Safari, with both vehicles winning their respective classes of 4WD vehicles with less than 2.5L displacement. This rally takes 9 days to complete and is being described as “9 days of hell on earth……The ultimate testing ground for man and machine”.

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Syncro Trakka Camper participating in the 1990 Sydney to Darwin rally

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Syncro Trakka Crew Cab in the 1990 Sydney to Darwin rally

Vanagon Production Sites

In the three decades up to 1979, about 5.5 Mio VW Transporters (T1 and T2’s) had come off the VW assembly lines, all with either a split window or an oval shaped “bay-window” in the front. The Vanagon (T3) with a more rectangular front window was produced between 1979 and 1990 at the VW plant in Hannover/Germany, between 1984 and 1992 also at the Steyr Daimler Puch plant in Graz/Austria and until summer 2003 also in South Africa exclusively for African markets. The South African models were called Microbus and Caravelle with enlarged side windows and different air intakes. All in all, about 1.3 Mio VW Vanagons (T3’s) were produced worldwide, with about 130,000 units in Uitenhage/South Africa and about 45,500 units with all-wheel drive in Graz/Austria.

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