Final Parking Space: 1981 Volkswagen Vanagon

Murilee Martin

When you spend enough time crawling around in car graveyards, as I do, you learn that plenty of seemingly restorable examples of much-sought-after vehicles end up getting discarded and crushed. The Volkswagen Transporter is one of the most vivid examples of this; enthusiasts love them passionately, resale values keep on climbing… and yet here’s another solid Transporter, found in a Denver-area self-service yard. What gives?

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon badge
Murilee Martin

This one is a Vanagon, the name Volkswagen used for the third-generation (known as the T3) Transporter in North America. The Vanagon first went on sale here as a 1980 model, replacing the beloved T2.

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon rear junkyard
Murilee Martin

Volkswagen began selling air-cooled Transporter vans and pickups in the United States in the early 1950s, stubbornly referring to the passenger-van version as a station wagon for many years (to be fair, the Detroit manufacturers took the same approach when marketing their small passenger vans). The first-generation, T1 Transporters were sold in the United States through the 1967 model year, after which the T2 took over here for the 1968 through 1979 model years.

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon radiator cooling
Murilee Martin

The Vanagon still had its engine in the back, but it was bigger and wore more angular styling than its predecessors. The 1980–82 models were powered by air-cooled engines, just as their 1938 kDf-Wagen ancestor had done, but water-cooled engines began showing up in Vanagons during 1983. This van has a radiator in the front, so it must be an ’83-up Wasserboxer, nein?

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon info plate
Murilee Martin

Well, VW’s build tag shows a March 1981 date of manufacture, so this van’s (presumable) final owner must have become weary of the original air-cooled mill overheating in Colorado’s hot, thin air and decided to upgrade to a newer, water-cooled rig. The VIN shows that it started out with gasoline power, so at least its original owner didn’t have to tolerate Malaise-Era VW Diesel Misery (actually, the dangerously slow 48-horse Vanagon Diesel was available in the United States for just the 1982 and 1983 model years).

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon parts
Murilee Martin

Was the swap ever completed? Engine parts, including a pair of Wasserboxer cylinder heads, are scattered around the rear cargo area but the engine case is missing. Either the project faltered and never drove with water coursing through its veins or the water-cooled engine blew up and didn’t get repaired.

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon interior seats
Murilee Martin

This van isn’t at all rusty and the interior looks to have been decent enough when it arrived here, so how did it meet this fate?

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon interior stripped
Murilee Martin

First of all, Front Range Colorado (the part of the state just to the east of the Rocky Mountains) is isolated from America’s other major population centers by the vast distances of the American West. That’s great for automotive enthusiasts who live here (as I do), because the dry climate discourages corrosion and great project vehicles are easy to find at good prices. However, it’s a grueling two- or three-day tow from here to the big cities of the Midwest, and it’s an even more grueling two- or three-day tow over two triple-digit-elevation mountain ranges to the big cities of the West Coast.

A 1961 Transporter in this shape would find an out-of-state rescuer for sure, even if no local air-cooled VW enthusiast had space for it (most of us have all the projects we can handle and then some), but that proved not to be the case for a Transporter two decades newer. Solid Vanagons go to the crusher here on a regular basis, as I’ve shown in the past (and if you think Vanagon Westfalias are immune from the cold steel jaws of the Colorado Crusher, think again).

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon interior rear
Murilee Martin

How about T2 Transporters in Colorado junkyards? They’re a bit harder to find in the boneyards here, but they do show up now and again. I documented a ’78 with the ultra-rare automatic transmission just last summer, plus a ’71 Kombi and a beige-over-brown ’78 with period-correct pinstriping in recent years.

1981 Volkswagen Vanagon front three quarter
Murilee Martin

The Vanagon was sold in the United States through the 1991 model year, with the very last T3 Transporters rolling off the assembly line in South Africa in 2002. Volkswagen of America brought over the T4 Transporter as the EuroVan for the 1993 through 2003 model years, but sales numbers here never approached those of the T1-T3 vans. After that, VWoA took a shot at selling Chrysler-built minivans with Routan badges here for the 2009–14 period, with results about as grim as everyone predicted. Now the Volkswagen Van has returned to the United States, powered by electrons and showing design influences from three-quarters of a century of Transporters.




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    Considering the condition I am surprised to see this thing waiting to die in a yard. Surprised someone has not rescued it yet.

    When my family wanted a minivan in the late ’80s, I was a VW enthusiast, so we first looked at a navy blue Vanagon. Unfortunately, its a/c wasn’t up to the Texas heat, so we ended up buying a Plymouth Grand Voyager, which Chrysler had engineered to fall apart immediately after the warranty expired. If only the Vanagon had had decent a/c….

    Retired my T2 Bus (purchased new) for a new ’84 Vanagon. Was impressed by its increased comfort, and the addition of air conditioning. Unfortunately, the A/C kept going out regularly, as the vibration of the engine kept breaking the connection from the compressor to the flex hose going forward to the condenser in the cabin. Tried multiple fixes with different connectors and such, but each was unsuccessful, and we just put up with the heat (Arizona). The “final straw” for this car was the engine developing water leaks in the cooling system. The magnesium case, and the aluminum heads with only the O-ring “head gasket”, demonstrated the effects of dielectric corrosion, where the case would disintegrate the magnesium case through the O-ring and leak coolant. After a couple of times of this happening over the course of our ownership, with dealer repairs, and my repairs with JB Weld on the case, the decision was made to replace the car. It would be a wonderful candidate for a replacement Suzuki boxer engine, which would give it more power in addition. This example in the breaker’s yard would be an excellent start for one spectacular machine!

    I had a 1968 and 1976 T2 Campmobiles. I still wax nostalgic about them when I see articles like this. But then I remember how, out on the interstate, they could switch lanes with no input from me, because of a side wind or wind tumbling off of an 18-wheeler. And on a trip from my home on the east coast to the west, the starter died. Every place I stopped for a new one I was told that they could get me one in three days. Finished the trip with my passengers push-starting me. No thanks. Okay for local low speed trips, but not a long-distance highway machine.

    shociked to see this in a yard too. the body looks in very good shape – so many of these on the road are suffering from ‘skin cancer’ and this would make a good donor for one with a good interior and drivetrain

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