Dave Tobin-Vanagon-Westfalia

Adventure, Love, Loss and Redemption in VW Bus: How I was Reunited with my Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia 12 Years After Selling It

Dave Tobin-Vanagon-Westfalia

You might ask yourself, ‘What does this post have to do with Mercedes-Benz vehicles?’ The short answer is, nothing at all, but this is a story worth telling.

This blog post isn’t about Mercedes-Benz cars or SUVs, it’s not about ‘great deals’ or 1.99% APR financing. This is about experience, human experience and adventure on the open road of America. It’s about deciding to do something you’ve always wanted to do and doing it… but of course, like all things on the Dave Knows Cars Blog… it revolves around a vehicle, a very special vehicle… a 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Camper. For those who aren’t familiar with this VW, the Westfalia is a standard Vanagon that has had a camper conversion done by the German company, Westfalia. Each VW Westfalia is equipped with a pop up camper top, two queen sized beds (one in the top, one in the bottom), a two burner gas stove with propane tank mounted under the van, a sink with electric faucet and 13 gallon water tank, a refrigerator, two fold out tables, swiveling front seats (so you can turn them around and hang out in the back), cabinets, drawers, a closet with rod for hanging clothes and vanity mirror, power inverter with 110V electrical wall outlet as well as exterior electrical and water ‘hook ups’… essentially a small house on wheels.

It has an air cooled engine, not unlike the engines in Volkswagen Beetles of the late 1970s, this van weighs about 4,000 pounds and has a whopping 67 Horsepower (not a joke), I was passed by a hay truck in Pennsylvania once, going up a hill (that’s not a joke either). It has a 4 speed manual transmission.

Dave Tobin, 25 years old in 2000... just beginning the great AdVANture.

You might want to go to the bathroom and grab a beverage, and maybe a box of Kleenex if you’re the sentimental type (like me) then start reading…

It was 1999, I was 24 years old, living in downtown Chicago. After just a couple of years at my first job out of college, I realized I was in a soul crushing, dead end, corporate black hole. I started squirreling away money with the intention of buying a Westfalia, quitting my job and going on the road… with no particular destination in mind, the roads I would travel, back roads only, were to be my destination…

After looking around and making some calls, all over the country, I found an ’82 Westfalia in Greeley Colorado on AutoTrader for $4,600. It looked completely original and intact in the photos. I called the guy, a college professor, and liked what I heard. I always thought I’d get a later wasserboxer model, but this example just seemed to speak to me. I booked a one way ticket to Denver, took a wad of hundred dollar bills and flew away.

My brother was living in Vail, CO at the time, so he had come down to pick me up at the airport to take me out to see this van in Greeley. I didn’t have much of a backup plan, if the van was bad or rusty or not what I wanted, I would have to buy another plane ticket, but when I got there, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Original white paint, ZERO rust, everything worked (except maybe the heat), all the accessories and screens were intact… the only thing missing was the front table top… not a big deal. I gave the guy his full $4,600 asking price, which seemed completely fair at the time. I got in and headed back to Chicago. It was late February or early March if I recall so it was a cold ride home but I was smiling and giggling to myself most of the way, I couldn’t believe it… I couldn’t believe I was driving this thing. I had never driven one in my life, in fact, it was the first one I had ever really been in.

Back in Chicago I prepared for the trip for about the next year… saving money, going through the van to make sure it was really ready for months on the open road. In March of 2000 I walked into my boss’s office with a piece of paper, my resignation, and put it in front of him. It really caught him off guard, he had spent a lot of time mentoring me, showing me the ropes of the international import export business. I was on the fast track in the organization and he just couldn’t understand why I’d ever want to leave. “Dave, if you play your cards right you’ll have your own branch in a couple of years, why are you doing this?”

I didn’t have a good answer, “It just isn’t what I want to do” is all I could come up with. I told him I was going to travel the country in a VW bus and then maybe go to graduate school… the truth is, I didn’t know what I’d do after the trip… if it ever ended, I was kind of hoping I’d figure it out on my way.

I left in mid-April of 2000… equipped with a lap top, digital camera (1.5 mega pixels!) and a 56k cellular modem I could hook up to my cell phone. I planned to take pictures and write a new web page entry at the end of each day’s travels, upload it to my website so friends, family and former colleagues could follow along (this was before the days of blogs… at least I had never heard of a blog at this point). Of course, everyone thought I was insane. ‘Why is he doing this?’ they chattered amongst themselves.

I turned 26 years old about a week into the trip. It was a big birthday… because it was the year 2000. All my life I remember thinking… in the year 2000 I’ll be 26, man, that’s a long way off, that’s old, etc. I spent the next 6 months traveling the country… on state routes, East, West, all over. Route 66 to L.A., PCH up the CA coast, all over.

People followed updates on the website to see what I was doing, where I was. I met all sorts of people and did all sorts of things, from planting corn on an Amish farm in Pennsylvania with a team of Belgian horses to boiling crabs for dinner on a California beach with a crab fisherman, I visited the ‘Largest Totem Pole it the World’ in Foyil, OK, I excavated Anasazi ruins in Arizona, I drove 17 Mile Drive in Monterey, CA and attended the 50th Anniversary Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance… all sorts of things. See all the details of the vehicle, what was packed into it and the trip itself by visiting the Official AdVanture USA website.

Tobin-Volkswagen Westfalia Amish-Farm
Planting corn with a team of Amish mules, Lancaster County, PA, May 2000.
Oklahoma Route 66, 'World's Largest Totem Pole' June 2000.
Westfalia at an IN-N-OUT Burger, Los Angeles, CA, July 2000.
Rubbing elbows with the beautiful people, Ralph Lauren in his 1936 Bugatti Type 57 Atlantique, Pebble Beach, CA August 2000.

I dubbed the trip “The AdVANture, an adventure in a van”. The newest version of the website and travelogue can be found here: Check out the AdVANture Travelogue: 12,000 miles on the back roads of America in a VW Westfalia
Although this newest iteration isn’t totally complete at this point.

In mid-September I was back in Colorado… in Vail, high altitude for an air cooled VW. After a few days with my brother I went out to start the van… it turned over, but wouldn’t fire. So with the help of his neighbor, an Australian VW mechanic, and a timing light… we reset the ignition timing to run at high altitude. I was to set it back to normal, sea level timing that evening once I reached Western Kansas.

Things didn’t go well that day… I was too low, too fast and to make a long story short, the oil light went on, my rear view mirror filled with blue / white smoke… I had blown the engine.

Towing it away, blown engine and all... I wouldn't drive the Westfalia again for almost 12 years.

Luckily I wasn’t far from my parents’ house in Kansas, about three hours away. A tow truck came to get me and we towed the Westy back to my parents’ house. My dad had the nicest 1991 Vanagon Westfalia I had ever seen at the time, it had about 20,000 miles on it, he had purchased it because he thought we’d go camping together in our vans, but we never did. He ended up selling it. I can only think what someone would pay for that van today.

Anyway… I sold the van to my father, sort of a ‘mercy sale’. It had a blown engine and he was generous enough to give me $2000 for it and a plane ticket back to Chicago… I got on with my life.

The AdVANture was a wonderful experience, the people I met, the things I saw. It all felt like a dream in the end.

My father ordered a GEX engine for the Westy, had it installed and eventually sold it, in 2002, to a young kid in his 20s not far from my folk’s home in Kansas.

So ten years went by… life happened, I moved to Minneapolis, got married, bought a house, started working for Mercedes-Benz (something I wish I would have done years earlier). I’ve owned some vintage cars since… mostly vintage Mercedes, an Alfa Romeo… but in the back of my mind VW campers always lurk… and so do I , on VW forums like ‘the Samba’ discussion boards, the classifieds. I’ve always been impressed with ‘the Sambas’ execution, content, it is a great VW resource… I’d comb the classifieds just seeing what was out there. The market blows me away, the money Westfalias pull these days, even the old ones with lots of miles, they have a cult following.

So, a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine from high school called me because he was interested in buying a Westfalia. We haven’t seen each other in years, but we talk a couple of times a year… he lives in Cincinnati, I’m in Minneapolis. It’s one of those friends you can go months and months without talking to but when you finally get on the phone, it’s like you were never apart. He wanted a Type II, something from the late 70s and wanted my help finding one.

That night about midnight I hopped on carsabi.com, a nationwide Craigslist aggregator that allows you to search Craigslist nationally. I was looking around for a van for my friend in Cincinnati and a white Vanagon Westfalia caught my eye, listed for sale in Kansas.

The ad said something like this: 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia. Camper. Approximately 144,000 miles, new engine installed in 2001, only 7,000 miles on new engine. $4,300.

Wow, I thought… I ended my trip with about 136,000 miles on my van, my van got a new engine about that time and my parents live about 2 hours from the town in Kansas where this van was. Could it be? Could this be my old van? I kept looking at the ad.

There were the usual 4 poor quality Craigslist photos, all bad angles, bad lighting, it was a rainy day when the photos were taken and kind of dark… really bad photos and they were driving me nuts.

It had black steel wheels and chrome hub caps, like my van, but it was listed as an ’84 model.

Mine was an ’82 and I don’t think chrome hub caps were stock equipment for an ’84, I’ve seen later Vanagons with the old school chrome hub caps, but someone would have had to go out of their way to put them on.

This van had a black bra on the front… I had put a black bra on the front of my van.

The pictures were so dark I couldn’t tell if there was a lower grille for a wasserboxer radiator peeking through the bra.. the whole front just looked like black bra… could it be an air cooled ’82 with no radiator grille, I just couldn’t tell.

All of this was happening in like 15 seconds, my heart began to race. There was a photo of the stove and camper area, stickers were plastered all over the cabinets, but the interior color was right.

I finally noticed, a 3/4 shot of the passenger’s rear… through the closed van I could see that the head rests were different on the front seats. Oh my god… I thought.

Early Vanagons came with front seats without arm rests and solid head rests, later Vanagons got head rests with a ‘cut out’ in them and seats with arm rests. I always wanted later seats in my ’82 so I could have the arm rests on my long trip. After about 5 and a half months of my 6 month road trip I was in Utah and passed a junk yard as I was driving up a hill, I could see down into the junk yard and saw a row of old Vanagons. I pulled in there and bought a blue seat out of about an ’86 Vanagon… it had arm rests and that head rest with the cut out.

I looked at the interior photo of the stove and camping area of the van and could just see the back edge of a blue seat on the driver’s side… that was the seat I bought at that junkyard in Utah in September of 2000. OH MY GAWD! This must be my van, mistakenly listed as a 1984 model, not two hours from my folks place in Kansas.

I couldn’t call the guy that night as it was past midnight. I figured I’d call when I got to work in the morning. I could hardly sleep that night… All these questions were ripping through my mind. Is this really my old van? Could I buy this thing? Could I really do this, I already have a ’73 Mercedes coupe in the garage, what will my wife say? All the things that go through your mind.

I got to work in the morning and the phone just started ringing, I was busy all morning and finally called the number in the Craigslist ad at about noon.

“Hi, I’m calling about the Volkswagen Westfalia on Craigslist” I said when the guy answered the phone.
“Oh, yeah, you just missed it, I just sold it” he replied
My heart sank, I felt sick.
“Oh no” I said
“Well, I didn’t sell it, I traded it in for a Corvair this morning at a dealership”
“Really? I saw it was listed as a 1984 model, is it really an ’84?” trying to make sure it wasn’t an ’84.
“You know, I’m not sure” he said “I bought it from my buddy in March and I thought I was going to keep it and fix it up, but I just don’t have the time so I traded it in”
Seriously? Who doesn’t know what year their car is?
“Okay, can you tell me the name of the dealership where you traded it in? I think this might be my old van and I’d really like to buy it back” I blurted this out… then realized it was probably best if I didn’t let anyone know about my history with the van… if the dealer found out they may smell desperate blood in the water and raise the price.

The guy told me where he traded it in and I called them right away.

“Hi there, I hear you just got an old Volkswagen camper in on trade this morning” I said to the guy who answered.

“Uh, yeah, we did, how did you find out about that so quick?” the guy asked me… it was a little dealership in North central Kansas.

I told him I just called the guy who had it on Craigslist.

“I’ve got a quick question” I continued “what year is it? The Craigslist ad said it was an ’84.”
“Well, I’ve got the title right here, let me see…. it looks like it’s an ’82”


“Okay… so, I think I might be able to take that off your hands” I said real confident like “it will be a quick sale for you”.

“Well,” the guy started, “there was a guy here when it was being traded in who is interested in it, he put some money down on it and is working on getting his financing lined up.”

Are you kidding? I thought… you can’t finance an old $4000 VW Vanagon with a non-original engine that needs work.

“Really?” I said “I’ll give you $500 more than whatever that guy is paying you, let me give you my name and number so if his deal falls through you can call me. I have a stack of hundred dollar bills sitting next to me and I’m ready to buy it now.” I was desperate and didn’t frankly care if he knew… I’m sure he smelled blood in the water, but it’s important, especially if you’re out of town, to be very clear about your interest if you want to be taken seriously by the dealer on the other end of the phone. I waste hours a month with potential out of town buyers who find a car on the internet, but I’m smart enough to treat each one as if they’re dead serious, until I learn otherwise, as a result, I sell a lot of cars out of state and ship cars all over the world… the web has changed everything in that regard.

1982 Volkswagen Westfalia
Camping in the Redwood Forests of Northern, CA - August 2000.

Ultimately, it took a couple of days… but the other guy’s deal fell apart (of course), my dad drove up two hours to look at the van and to confirm what I suspected, that this was the van I lived in while traveling the country 12 years ago. My dad test drove it and said it drove really well, the engine is great, suspension was still good (I had installed KYB gas adjust shocks on it and new Michelins right before my trip, they were still on the van). I paid $4,500 for it… which was certainly full retail, but my dad paid almost that much for the engine and install from GEX.

Apparently it’s been sitting out in a Kansas field for the better part of 8 or 9 years so the fiberglass pop top is really faded and all mildewed, the paint is dull and chalky, but still no rust anywhere. The pop top canvas is ripped all over, the ash trays were full of cigarette butts, but the van doesn’t smell, amazingly. There were Grateful Dead and Phish stickers all over it… so it certainly served someone else well for their travels. The cabinets still had food and junk in them, but no mice or bugs. Some cosmetic TLC and it will be just like it was, mechanically it’s awesome and still… no rust… but the seams are starting to crack here and there, so it’s good I got to it when I did.

I sent the money to the dealer and had a transporter pick it up. It was delivered to me here in Minnesota, in the parking lot of Sears Imports, about two weeks ago. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at when it rolled out of the transporter. I just couldn’t believe it. I even got tears in my eyes, which I tried to hide from all the guys at work who had come out to see this thing. I had been talking about it for the past week while I was Fed-Exing paperwork back and forth and waiting for the transporter, everyone at work knew about it. Most of them think I’m nuts… “You paid how much for that piece of junk?” I would have paid $10,000 if I had to… it didn’t matter, it was fate.

It’s sitting in my driveway and I still can’t believe it. My wife has fully embraced the Westfalia and my enthusiasm for it (God I love her). While I was cleaning the outside she took the shop vac to the inside and went through the whole thing with 409, twice. She asked if they made new carpets for Westfalias and I said yes… you can get just about everything for these, she’s all about a new carpet kits, all the way around, and new pop top canvas and on and on.

So… what was once lost is now found… through the years I have thought about that trip, often, and thought about the wonderful vehicle that made it all possible. So many people don’t understand the fascination… it’s just an old VW van, ‘You’re driving that thing across the country?” people would ask. Hell yeah I am.

I always wondered… “Would I ever own another?”… I figured I would at some point, but I never imagined I’d own the same one, the exact vehicle, but here I am and it’s sitting in the driveway.

I probably won’t quit my job and take off again, but I will certainly have some adventures, new and different adventures, in this wonderful vehicle again. This time, with my wife, with our kids when we have them, new adventures in a new stage of life, but the same vehicle, a vehicle that transcends so many things and has the ability to bring so many different kinds of people together. Just a vehicle? No Way… it’s a Volkswagen Westfalia.

May 2012, the day it rolled off the transporter... needs some TLC, but it's all there.

2 thoughts on “Adventure, Love, Loss and Redemption in VW Bus: How I was Reunited with my Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia 12 Years After Selling It”

  1. Great article. I look forward to the day I find one for myself, and stories such as this are why I feel such a strong gravitation towards purchasing a Westy rather than using my new car.

  2. Great story. Searching for one myself. I can’t explain why; I’ve just always wanted one! Thanks for sharing.

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