1980 Volkswagen Vanagon: Breadbox Sighting

Here’s a blast from the past. From February 2013, to be specific. I had just left the Moline Best Buy and spied this survivor across the parking lot. It was hard to miss with its yellow and beige color combo, especially on such a freaking gloomy day.

Introduced in 1980 to replace the much-loved 1968-79 “T2″ VW van, the Vanagon was much more car-like and was available with many more creature comforts.

Early models were air-cooled just like the previous model, but due to overheating issues in warmer climes and ineffective heating in cold Midwestern areas, water cooling was added in the form of a 1.9L “Wasserboxer” four-cylinder in 1983.

Water-cooled Vanagons can be discerned by the extra grille below the primary faux grille, as shown on this ’84 model. And I mean faux in that it did not provide cooling to the engine, though it did contain the fresh-air intake.

Despite the Vanagon’s clear break from the previous “Widow’s Peak” and “Bay Window” Buses, the driving position was still quite bus-like, with an up-tilted steering wheel and high-rise driver’s seat.

       image: hotwheels.wikia.com

I never knew anyone who owned one of these, but I was fully aware of Vanagons through the “Sunagon” tan and orange Hot Wheels Vanagon I got at an early age. Despite being a favorite of mine, and my destructiveness with my toy cars back then, my Sunagon has survived to the present day in near-mint condition. When we moved in 1995, I actually found the pop-up top for it. It had been missing for years!

The Vanagon hung in all the way to 1991 with little change save a 1986 facelift, upgraded seat trim and available alloys on more expensive versions. It was the last of the original VW-type van, as the ’92 Euro Van was essentially a Chrysler minivan with a German accent, configuration-wise, with FWD and an engine up front.

24 Replies to “1980 Volkswagen Vanagon: Breadbox Sighting”

  1. AvatarStephen

    Yeah, us Eurovan owners don’t get much love from the early transporter crowd. I always remind them that I an cruise at 80 with the AC on, and can keep up with traffic on i-70 climbing to Eisenhower tunnel

    I have the Weekender verision, poptop, rear facing center row, curtains, fridge, lights and a house battery. It is an incredibly versatile vehicle, and I have no idea what I will replace it with.

    –Stephen

    Reply
    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      My ’72 “Bay Window” Type II could do 80 mph all day long, with power to spare. Of course the engine wasn’t stock:
      1648cc
      Dual port heads
      Two barrel Holley-Weber carb
      009 distributor
      hot street cam
      external oil filter and rooftop oil cooler

      During the winter I routed the hot oil to a heater I made with an OEM doghouse oil cooler and a 12v squirrel fan. It wasn’t toasty but it kept the windows clear and our fingers from freezing.

      Reply
  2. Avatargalactagog

    I’ve always wanted one of them

    If I ever get one, first thing I will do is dress up in black leather, dark sunglasses and drive around blasting “Autobahn” by Kraftwork and screaming ” veeerz dee moneee, Lebowski??!!!” out the window

    Reply
  3. Avatarbullnuke

    I bought one new in ’81 – the light blue over dark blue with the brown vinyl interior. I drove my 6 spawn and their mom around in it for 7 years and 110k miles including a long trip to the in-laws in Michoacan, Mexico. Dead reliable, the only issue was the thermostat cable broke causing engine warm-ups to be excessively long (I swiped the brake cable from the broken bicycle of one of my kids and fixed it). I drove the freeways of SoCal without problem (still 55mph in those days), drove over the mountain passes between San Diego and Bremerton, Washington a couple times during my moves with the Navy. The heater really sucked – moving the kid’s tropical fish required placing the tank right adjacent to the rear seat heater outlet behind the step between the front seats which kept them lethargic but alive during the 1200 mile adventure. A good friend of mine purchased a Vanagon identical to mine but with the diesel – interesting vehicle that but made me glad to have my leaping 74-hp gasser.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau

      Not a coincidence, I read his piece the other day and it reminded me of this one I’d photographed. 🙂

      Reply
      • Avatarhank chinaski

        There’s a prime condition T1 in my locale. Tiny by today’s standards, perhaps smaller than a Mazda 5.

        Reply
        • AvatarCJinSD

          I looked up the dimensions. The T1 was a foot shorter in length and a foot taller in height than the Mazda 5. They were the same width. I haven’t paid much attention to a split-screen in over fifteen years, but it is funny how they’ve shrunk since the time when I did see them fairly often.

          Reply
  4. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    A Vanagon without Grateful Dead stickers?

    My ex and I owned two VW Type IIs, a ’67 split window and a ’72 that I slightly hi-po’d. She used to call them the “Bussanagon”.

    Reply
  5. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    A Vanagon without Grateful Dead stickers?

    My ex and I owned two VW Type IIs, a ’67 split window and a ’72 that I slightly hi-po’d. She used to call them the “Bussanagon”.

    Reply
  6. Avatardejal

    Mustie1 on Youtube drove a water-cooled one back to NH from Florida where he traded a Tacoma? with his parents who had the van a few weeks ago. He gave them the van some years ago. Half the trip north was on a U-Haul trailer pulled by a U-Haul van after it gave out. He knows his VWs. He’s tempted to stick a Subaru engine in it. Mostly because that water-cooled engine has so many unique parts in it that can’t be found, it’s probably cheaper to stick a Subaru in it.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      If we could only get our liberal friends to take to heart our Chevy, Dodge, and Ford vans the way they did with all the types of VW Vanagon. Even a full court press from our Japanese friends with their mid engined commercials could not distract. Sammy Johns and his barefoot small town sex object would be disappointed. Was it really all about shitting on America and not just the period lifestyle?

      Reply
      • Avatarhank chinaski

        Shitting on America was the period lifestyle for that political demographic, even when they aged out into consumerist Yuppies. The domestic flip side of that coin would be the airbrushed, corner bubble window domestic van, ‘Rolling Heavy’ style. The compare/contrast of those groups could be an article on its own.
        The japanese vans are appliances with no enthusiasts or culture I’ve observed to those degrees.

        Reply
    • AvatarCJinSD

      You can get a full rebuild of a waterboxer from GEX for dirt cheap. I’ve had to do it for a customer. If you can go through your whole life without owning a Subaru engine, that is what you should do.

      I test drove the Vanagon once it was rebuilt. The appeal is lost on me. I’ve driven some minivans that would be acceptable as cars. It was no surprise to me when Grassroots Motorsport beat a Jaguar E-type and a Porsche 356SC with a stock MK2 Honda Odyssey on all-season tires around an autocross course. The highest development of the Vanagon was not capable enough to keep up with traffic around my town.

      Reply
  7. AvatarJMcG

    I spent many a summer in the American west and Canadian Rockies in a Chevy Astro. That thing was indestructible. It hauled two climbers, a couple of mountain bikes, all of our climbing gear, a cooler, etc. Never missed a beat.
    American vans, like American pickups, were best in class. My good friend is a complete European car guy, Porsche, VW- but he never even considered anything but Chevrolet for hauling things around.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      I think you are right about the Astro. You still see a ton of them earning a living with workmen at 20 + years old while obviously not needing or receiving the investment lavished on VWs. They were even sold in Japan to their equivalent of the rebellious surfer dude. I wonder if theirs had Vortecs or iron dukes?

      It should also be remembered that the plant that cranked them out was perhaps the last outpost of hope for Baltimore, even in to the sad reign of King Elijah.

      Reply
      • AvatarGeorge Denzinger

        I knew a guy about 20 years ago who was an Astro/Safari nut. Our kids were in soccer together, so we saw a lot of each other. By the time our kids graduated high school, he had one for himself, his wife and his two older sons. His daughter didn’t want a van, I wonder why? GM stopped building these in 2015? I think, but I still see these things today running around earning a living for folks.

        IIRC, the first Scion/Toyota xB was modeled on the Astro. Nice to know that US Design can still inspire folks.

        Reply
        • AvatarStephen

          I looked seriously at the Astro before I bought the Eurovan.

          The big advantage of the Astro was the available AWD, the bullet proof drive train and GM air conditioning. The downside was the camper conversion costs.

          Reply
  8. AvatarRick T.

    Fondly remember going to high school debates 1970-71 in our coach’s regular VW van. It was a struggle deciding whether to sit in the back and freeze/sweat or sit up front and have your knees serve as the front end crumple zone. I don’t recall if there were seat belts or not. I do vividly remember it blowing all over the road when a semi went by on the two lane highways. Good times. Really.

    Reply

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