Friday, November 8, 2013

Back on the Road

Ruby the Vanagon was out of commission for most of the summer. We experienced catastrophic transaxle failure just outside of Portland, ME and had the van towed up to FAS in Harpswell while we figured out what to do.  It didn't take long to conclude that Ruby was a keeper, and that she was worth the continued investments.

On the road with the boys
The first step was dealing with the transmission. We wanted to get the van up and running again, but we weren't prepared to shell out the minimum of $2500-$2800 (but almost certainly more with unavoidable ancillary extras and related labor) for a fully rebuilt transaxle from FAS. We went with the much cheaper, but more risky, route of sourcing a used transaxle to drop in. My local Vanagon expert mechanic, Greg at Greg's Repair Service in Natick, happened to have a good used transaxle from one of his very own vans that he assured me was in excellent, smooth-shifting condition. I took his word and drove back up to FAS in Maine with the used tranny. Between the combined cost of the used transaxle and the labor and extra parts needed to install it, we spent less than half of what it would have cost to have a fully rebuilt transaxle installed. I feel good about the decision right now, but if this transaxle fails after 500 miles, I'll surely regret not spending the extra cash on the rebuilt trans. So far, so good.

While the van was in the talented hands of Jon and crew at FAS, we decided to have them also take care of our most concerning safety issue. Every Vanagon owner probably has a long list of things that could be done, should be done, or need to be done, and we felt our deteriorating braking power fell into that last category. The work required an overhaul of both front and rear brakes: new brake lines, hoses, cylinders, front calipers, front rotors, rear shoes, rear drums, and parking brake cable. Whew. Costly, yes, but the difference in stopping power is wonderful. I can't feel bad about spending that money, especially with the little toddler joining us on the road these days. The guys at FAS also addressed some leaky seals (valve cover gasket, oil breather tower). No more oil drips!

With all the searching—of the soul and parts varietiesand repairs, we unfortunately didn't get to use the Vanagon all that much this summer, but it's great to have her back in excellent running condition. She's part of the family for the foreseeable future, and the money we recently dropped is great motivation to plan some trips. Jay Peak overnights perhaps?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Major Problems in Maine

towing vanagon
Last weekend we loaded the family into Ruby the Vanagon and headed up the coast for a few days in Maine. We enjoyed a beautiful weekend in Camden exploring the farmer's markets, artist's markets, and coastal waters. In that blistering summer heat, Parker would have swum for two days straight if we'd let him.

Ruby was cruising along and shifting wonderfully throughout the return trip on Sunday afternoon. As we approached Portland the traffic slowed and I pressed the clutch to downshift. To my great surprise and disappointment, I was unable to shift into third. Damn. I tried to put it back into fourth. Nope. How about second? Barely. So in second gear I limped off I-295 S into downtown Portland.

We definitely weren't going to make it back to Boston in second gear, so we had the Vanagon towed 35 miles north to Foreign Auto & Supply, Inc. in seaside Harpswell, Maine. Fortunately these guys are some of the best Vanagon specialists in the business, so Ruby is in good hands.

FAS, Inc. Harpswell ,Maine
The next day FAS called to deliver the news. The shifting problems weren't simply caused by a bad linkage or low gear oil as I'd hoped. Ruby has a failed transmission. We're now facing a very expensive repair bill and some serious decision-making. Ruby's fate is unknown...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Vanagon Road Trip: West River Westies X, Bald Mountain Campground Townsend, VT. July 12-14

We made a last-minute decision to jump in the Vanagon and head north to Townsend, VT for the 10th annual West River Westies gathering at Bald Mountain Campground.  We rolled in on Saturday afternoon and were clearly among the very last to arrive. After circling the campground's Westfalia acreage a few times, we settled down next to some kind neighbors from New York on one side, and Maine and Vermont on the other. Coincidentally, we were also parked next to this very same NY Vanagon at the 2011 Transporterfest in Brookline. It's a small VW world.

The weekend was a bit rainy and the weather may have dampened our pop-top tents but it certainly didn't dampen any spirits. There was record-setting attendance at this gathering of over 60 Buses and Vanagons, with the award for oldest going to a 1962 split window, gloriously rusty.

The vehicles were of every color and variety, old school and new school, some original to the smallest detail and others wildly updated with modern looks and comforts. "Young" and old, the vans were accompanied by an equally diverse bunch of VW-loving owners. Jacob even found some new toddler buddies.  

Summer Dreams of Vanagon AC

At this time of year my thoughts always turn to air conditioning in the Vanagon. Not too long ago we completed a 10,000 mile cross-country road trip in June and July without AC. We crossed badlands and farmlands, mountains and valleys, coasts and plains. We survived. We've traveled in the driest and dustiest of heats, and the most oppressively humid. It has always been part of the adventure and strangely, part of the charm.

I'm certain at one stage in its near-antique existence our late model '90 Multivan had a functioning AC system. We, unfortunately, have never experienced a cool blast of Freon-chilled air from the now dust-filled ceiling vents. Does our AC work? No. Could it work? Maybe. Will I ever try to fix it? Hopefully one day. I don't know exactly what's wrong, but I do know that it is pretty much guaranteed to be a costly fix.

Now that there's a toddler in the picture, our threshold for heat tolerance--both for our sake and his--is much lower. I don't think Jacob would have tolerated the sweaty hauls that we've endured and I wouldn't want to subject him to that misery.

I'm considering this mostly DIY Red Tek approach as detailed on the Samba:

  1. buy a new receiver drier & expansion valve 
  2. buy the R134a kit from van cafe (for the fittings, o-rings, and oil) 
  3. buy brake air line anti-freeze 
  4. buy Red-tek (5 cans) 
  5. buy Red-tek pro seal (1 can) 
  6. have system professionally evac'ed of R12 
  7. clean evaporator by blowing dust off 
  8. remove old receiver drier 
  9. remove mineral oil from compressor and lines (blow through) 
  10. use brake line anit-freeze and blow lines in both directions making sure to blow where receiver drier was connected as well. 
  11. install new receiver drier & expansion valve, and o-rings 
  12. remove old fittings on compressor and replace with new 
  13. evacuate lines (use cheapo harbor freight version) 
  14. add oil (2oz - low pressure side) 
  15. add some red tek (~ 5 oz low pressure side) 
  16. add pro-seal (low pressure side) 
  17. run a/c to get oil and pro-seal throughout the system 
  18. hook up gauge (low side) - the gauge I have fits between the a/c fittings on the compressor and the can of coolant 
  19. add remaining red tek (low pressure side) while compressor is running until the pressure is about 30psi (low side). Float cans of red tek in warm water to help get all the contents out. 
  20. check pressure: At idle - 30psi low side, 200psi high side. At 1500rpms – 25psi low side, 200psi high side.

Or, we could just forget about having AC while on the road and opt for the shore-powered window unit!

Monday, February 11, 2013

1962 VW Bus: Regular Feature in the Comics!

My dad recently mailed me a comic that he clipped from the local newspaper. After a little digging, I learned that the Zits writer/illustrator duo Jerry Scott and John Borgman regularly feature a very well-worn VW bus in the series. Zits centers around the life of Jeremy Duncan, a 16-year old high school sophomore and proud owner of a problem-laden (is there any other type?) 1962 split-window bus.

Here are a bunch of comics that I pulled from the Zits archive featuring the bus-related trials, tribulations, and bliss of young Jeremy. I can identify with many of them, from stuck windows and looming concerns of undercarriage rust to that new-owner excitement to get out drive for any ol' reason. In fact, I still have that any-excuse-is-a-good-excuse-to-go-for-a-drive mentality! Click the comics to enlarge:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Vanagon Honeymoon Disaster

1984 Westfalia Camper after a Bighorn Mountains rollover
My local NPR news station, 90.9 WBUR Boston, recently launched what they're calling an "online experiment that celebrates the kindness in strangers and the profound impact one human can have on another." Kind World shared a story of Vanagon despair and the resulting act of stranger kindness.

Steve Brykman and his wife were enjoying a cross-country honeymoon adventure in their 1984 VW Vanagon Camper. When they reached the lovely Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming (a highlight of our own cross-country Vanagon road trip), unexpectedly snowy and icy conditions on the scenic mountain pass resulted in near disaster. Thanks to the help of a kind passerby, the Brykmans can recount their tale with enthusiasm.

May their lovely Westy rest in peace...