These Volkswagen Vanagon gear boxes have never been known for being hardy and stout. They share many of the same components and bearings as the ’68 Type 2 VW Bus with a dinky air cooled motor. They really need to have the fluid changed regularly, and should all be converted to synthetic fluid. Our transmission rebuilder specifies synthetic for his rebuilt units because the original regular fluid is just not good enough to support a long and healthy transmission life. Converting to synthetic is ofttimes a two step process. Simply changing right over to synthetic after decades of regular fluid is an invitation for leakage at the final drive, input shaft and shifter seals. The volatile constituents of the two types of fluid are different, and the seals are long since impregnated with old and nasty regular fluid. Unless your Vanagon transmission already has synthetic, Karmakanix generally recommends that you change first to a 50/50 blend of regular and synthetic. Then after a couple of years, change it again to full synthetic.
The 1982 and 83 Volkswagen Diesel Vanagons that have been converted to 1.9 engines have a tendency to loose their transmissions due to the extra power. Most diesel vans get 1.9 replacement motors when the original 1.6 goes south. When we perform an engine swap to install a Tdi diesel, transmission rebuilding is mandatory, and part of our standard task. The 1.9 engine has a lower redline rpm due to its longer stroke, and driving above 65 mph will surely damage the motor. One option is to increase the tire size, but that does lead to mild instability, as well as significant loss of mileage. Replacing the ring and pinion gear set with a different ratio is the answer. Vans with larger motors can also benefit from a ring and pinion upgrade with higher speed capability and better mileage. Any Vanagon transmission that receives a pile of extra power MUST have synthetic transmission fluid, it simply will not survive without on regular transmission oil. We use Amsoil GL4 synthetic transmission fluid, as it is the top rated fluid by Consumer Reports. FYI, Syncro front differentials use a different gear oil, GL5 rated.
Vanagon Transmission Rebuild
During our test drives, we hear occasional failing Vanagon transmissions, but just a few per year. We check transmission fluid during any major service or inspection. But we sometimes find we are the first shop ever to do so in the entire life of the van. Almost always, we are the first to pull the fill plug this century. When we drain and fill, we often find the drain plug magnet looks like a silver teddy bear, and sometimes the bear is gripping chunks of bearings and/or gears. Rebuild time is eminent. There are three common failures. The mainshaft bearing, as it is the highest up in the transmission, and low oil level will starve it for lubrication. The pinion bearing, as the unique nut likes to come loose, and some shops fail to tighten it properly. And the third / forth gear synchromesh slider, by design a weak part from the factory.
Our main source for transmission rebuilds is Ron Jones of Ron’s Transaxles in San Pablo, California. He has almost 40 years of experience, as is in demand for all VW, Porsche and Audi manual transmissions and front differentials, as well as the early 3 speed automatic transmissions and differentials. Ron specializes in older Porsche 356, 911 and 912’s, and many restorers seek him out. And you might be surprised how many 50’s and 60’s swing axle bugs and buses are still around and still breaking transmissions. Even the original old Auto Stick, the first Volkswagen semi-automatic transmission, is no stranger to Ron’s Transaxles. My last visit, he had two transmissions and a front differential from the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, the 4WD amphibious vehicle from the German Army during the Second World War (WWII). It was not the first transmission sent from a museum. Shown are the parts from the front differential, note the original Volkswagen emblem. I have known Ron since way before he opened Ron’s Transaxles. Don’t bother looking for a website. And I think he has the same email address as Santa Claus, and they could be twins. By the way, the Schwimmwagen still holds the record for angle of entry and departure from water.
Ron does a great job. He goes way over the top with a Vanagon transmission. The gear carrier that holds the mainshaft bearing gets a steel bushing machined in to hold the bearing. Shift forks get reinforced. Really, the best thing I can say is that Ron is a perfectionist, and nothing seems to get past his inspections. He has a 6000 sq ft building full of parts, and can supply many of the hard parts that are not a part of regular rebuilding with good used parts. Best prices, best work, best friend. And he seems to fast track our rebuilds, as we have done business with him for decades. Check your options, but Karmakanix believes in Ron’s Transaxles.