Monday, November 28, 2011

Vanagon Seat Belt Installation/Upgrade: Part I

A few weeks ago, I predicted that my next Vanagon project would be the installation of shoulder belts (three-point retracting seat belts) in the rear. I completed the rear passenger side over the long holiday weekend and I'm very pleased with the results.

All Vanagons, 1980-1991, are equipped with a factory-threaded hole to mount the seat belt reel, so no drilling of the frame or welding is required. The hole, however, is hidden behind the rear paneling/upholstery.

the new retracting seat belt reel mounted on the rear panel
Remove the three small screws that hold the rear panel to the wall of the van. Peel back the edge of the panel and locate the mounting hole for the reel, which in my vehicle was occupied by a plastic screw/cap. Remove that screw. Note the location of the hole (you can measure, or just eye it, as I did) and mark where you plan to drill through the upholstery panel. Using a 3/4" or larger bit, drill through the panel to access the factory-threaded mounting hole.

The reel comes with the installation bolt and a spacer. Remove the spacer from the bolt, place it behind the upholstery/panel, and then feed the bolt through the reel, then the panel, then the spacer, and finally into the threaded hole. In other words, the panel is sandwiched between the reel and the spacer. Use a ratchet to tighten down the bolt, but before applying the final turns (to 40-50lbs of pressure), orient the reel to face the rear seat at 90 degrees. That's it for the reel. Secure the panel with the three small screws.

new lap portion of the belt mounted with
the original bolt
Next, lift up the bench seat to gain better access the mounting point of the old lap belt. The hardest part of the whole project is the removal of this mounting bolt from the original male seat belt anchor point (not because it's physically hard to turn, but because it's extremely difficult to reach with hands and tools). I briefly contemplated removing the whole bench, but finally found a way to contort my hands and fingers to apply the ratchet. Remove the bolt and set it aside.

Discard the old seat belt or keep it as a memory of your less safe travels. Mine was secured with an overhand knot! My friends' excitement for traveling in the Vanagon was always taken down a notch when they saw that particular "safety" feature. Using that same bolt, thread it through the mounting hardware of  your new belt, make sure there are no twists in the belt webbing, and tighten down the bolt in that same factory-threaded hole. Congratulations!  You just upgraded your seat belt!

These new seat belts use the same female piece, so as long as that third anchor point and seat belt hardware are in fine condition, safer travels lie ahead for your family and friends.

Part II will detail the installation of the driver's side rear three-point retracting seat belt, a process that will involve cutting through the cabinetry of my Westfalia.

To be continued...

Ample justification for an upgrade?
Feeling secure and satisfied


  1. I'm commenting on this post just b/c it's the most recent but I want to say thanks for blogging about your vanagon adventures!
    It's great seeing another couple take to the road in a vw. My wife and I are leaving in May for two months to do the same with our 1 1/2 year old. We'll be doing it in a vanagon, too.
    And then I got more excited when I that you (Jeff) climb! I've been wanting to get back to climbing for way too long. Hoorah for road tripping, and good food, and climbing and dogs and babies!

    Congrats on your little one, too!

    Erik (and Jamie and Eliot)

  2. Hi Jeff
    Did you do the three point seat belt upgrade only because the existing belts were worn out or also because the child seat required a three point belt vs. a lap belt?

    1. Hi Chris,

      I wanted to upgrade for safety purposed in general. But the fact that the lap buckle was fastened only with an overhand knot definitely provided extra motivation.

      I imagined using the new three-point belt to secure the child seat, but it turns out that I can get a much tighter and more secure connection with the lap belt. There's a stopper on the new safety belt (it's like a little button in the nylon belt that prevents the belt for fully coiling up) that interferes with the securing of the child seat. I think I can simply pop off the plastic button to solve the problem, but haven't tried it yet.

      It's a nice, relatively simply and cheap upgrade. I still recommend it.

      Good luck!

  3. Did you ever put in the other side through the cabinet? I'm tackling that soon and was trying to find pictures from some other brave soul first.

    BTW, I have the same exact Multivan as you and have all the same projects on my list. Love the blog!

    1. Update: I installed the driver side through the cabinet yesterday, and the diagram provided with the part is not accurate. The pattern they provide had me cut a hole a few inches too low, so I had to cut an even bigger one. Sucks!

      Overall it was pretty easy though, and basically the same process as the passenger side.

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