A Vanagon suspension has always been rated for one ton of load capacity. For that matter, every VW van built since the 50’s has been rated 1 ton. This means certain components have proved very hardy. Rear suspension bushings are the rarest repair, only requiring replacement from accident damage or because of extreme rust. Front suspensions are durable. The most common work is replacing the upper balljoints and upper control arm bushings. Steering rack boots break, and occasionally power steering racks seep and leak. Tie rod ends and inner sockets wear out, but much of that is from having crappy and out of balance tires. Even before one can feel the vibration in the steering wheel, an out of balance tire can be wearing out your Vanagon suspension.
The original shocks on a Vanagon rarely fail. We often see early 80’s vans with the stock shocks still doing fine. Shops that use Asian shocks for replacements are not doing any favors, as that breed is definitely substandard. Even and especially KYB’s will be clunking in a couple of years. A quick visual evaluation will tell you that the valves are way smaller in Asian shocks as well. At Karmakanix, we used to put on factory shocks, Sachs and Boge. Bilsteins have gotten less expensive than factory shocks and are superior. Bilsteins have progressive damping, meaning the bigger the bump, the more they damp. This really helps control vehicle sway in bumpy curves, but also keeps your head from hitting the ceiling over speed bumps and rain gutters.
The GoWesty exclusive heavy duty Bilsteins work well for the fully loaded camper. One may very well find they are too stiff for ones tastes in lighter vehicles or constitutions.
Billy shocks are fantastic, but for those who do more extreme driving, we suggest going with Fox Shocks. We have seen Bilstein failure due to prolonged rough road usage. We even had one exuberant customer who ‘smoothed out’ the ride by driving 55 mph on a kidney rattling washboard road. Somewhere around an hour into the venture, one front shock had lost most of the fluid, got screaming hot, and lit on fire. Just one. Fox shocks are a larger diameter and carry more oil, which helps them deal with extreme driving.
Upper control arm bushing replacement is not a particularly difficult job, but there are a few twists. The bushings are tack welded to the arms to prevent rotation, and the weld must be carefully cut, then professionally welded when done. Too much welding or too high a heat will damage the new bushings. The allen head bolts for the balljoints can be stubbornly frozen, and may take some convincing to remove. Those bolts are a hardened grade and not to be replaced with normal grade steel bolts. Another boo boo we come across about once per year is one the Syncros. A 2WD van has symmetrical control arms. The Syncro has the top balljoint offset front to rear, and must be installed correctly to get proper camber. Sometimes we find one or both sides with the arm symmetry reversed.
One tip is for those who use the taller lift springs. To maintain the proper upper control arm angle, one must use a spacer between the upper control arm and the upper balljoint, and some longer bolts. This allows the control to operate at the proper angle in relation to the chassis. Failure to use these spacers ends up causing the van to wander somewhat, especially on bumpy roads. Often, this is accompanied by long term tire wear. These spacers are available at GoWesty.
Lifting the vehicle effectively changes the axle lengths. Those going up an inch or more should really consider swapping their axles from side to side. This allows the twisting force to push on the surface which previously was used when backing up, i.e.; a fresh surface without the tiny wear grooves of age. Vanagons with automatics transmissions and Eurovan will need to remove the CV joints from the axles to accomplish this process. This is far more labor intensive, and may need new CV joints.
One long term bane of the Vanagon suspension are the lower control arm bushings. Brand new, they sagged towards the front of the van. Decades later, we try to recommend replacing the bushings before the steel control arm hits the frame and gouges it out. Several times per year, we have to repair said gouges with welding and reshaping the frame sockets for the lower control arms. Takes some extra time, but retains all the frame strength the van was born with. High quality Delrin bushings are available to replace the original rubber design. We use them exclusively, partly because they don’t sag at all immediately like the rubber bushings, partly because of the labor time required to replace those bushings. We feel that most customers only want to do that job once.
We find that steering racks that are beginning to seep may be saved by changing the power steering fluid and filter. That’s right, there is a filter. The power steering fluid, which is Dexron ATF, looses its ability to lubricate and soften the seals, leading to leakage. Changing the power steering fluid every 5 years can save your Vanagon from ever getting a leaky steering rack. These power steering systems are known for seepage. Seems like once every ten years or so, they need to have all the hose clamps tightened. Check your power steering pressure switch. They rarely leak, but seepage is common just before they do. And the wires better have an insulated cover. In the last version of the fuel system, if the red power wire to the switch comes off and grounds out, it will melt your fuel injection harness!
Vanagons have two steering gearboxes. The front is called the L box, because it changes the direction of the steering shaft from downward to rearward back towards the second box, which is the steering rack. The two boxes are connected by a steering shaft with rubber coupler at the front and a U joint at the steering rack. Rarely we find the U joint loose or damaged. Commonly we find the rubber coupler cracked or even crumbling. The newest ’92 van is over two decades old, and so is the rubber coupler. We replace about a dozen per year. And we replace them before they break and cause loose steering. Just one of the many things we inspect when we inspect your van at Karmakanix.