The Greatest Car Ever Built

Why the intrepid Vanagon has once again earned its place as the ultimate outdoor vehicle

    Photo: Chris Mueller

The cube with pop-top camper roof up.

The Vanagon has plenty of space for man and his best friend.

Numerous vendors upgrades have transformed the Vanagon to be state-of-the-art and retro.

The classic pop-top roof.

Like a lot of Vanagonauts, I joined the tribe thanks to a wayward ski, surf, and climbing bum. This guy was from Crested Butte, Colorado, and everyone referred to him as Turtle, in part because of the white pop-top camper shell that covered his back at night. Turtle’s van had an equally befitting nickname: the Cube. Bound to a desk at the time, I lusted for the freedom the Cube afforded. It had two beds, rotating front seats, and a cabin with swing-out tables, a portable toilet, a stove, a refrigerator, and an electric sink. Before long I offered Turtle $1,700 for the Cube, then spent the next two years in it, crisscrossing the country to chase waves. After some significant renovations, I sold it for $6,000. Like all former and soon-to-be Vanagonauts, we were simply trading freedoms.

That was ten years ago. I have since lived in and driven five Vanagon campers, including the greatest VW ever built: the 1986 4x4 Syncro Westfalia. I’ve convinced my brother, sister, and five friends to buy Vanagons. Sure, the engines blow through head gaskets like a top fuel dragster. But it’s now easier than ever to own a rig that truly functions. In the past two years, obsessive vendors have conceived radical upgrades (heavy-duty shocks, lift kits, on-the-fly drive decouplers) and have even managed to shoehorn modern engines into the rigs—­state-of-the-art and retro. Everyone from pro snowboarder Jussi Oksanen to Maverick’s surfing legend Grant Washburn to actor Tom Hanks, who calls his Syncro addiction “a rare dementia,” has succumbed to the Vanagon. The only drawback: production ceased in 1992, and there are only so many of these babies left (maybe as few as 5,000), so the vehicles are appreciating in value. Then again, freedom, as they say, has never been free.

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