Zen and the Art of Vanagon Maintenance

Getting towed by CAA from Mono Mills to Barrie, ON

“One day someone will fall in love with you despite all your flaws! Then magic will happen in your life!” ― Avijeet Das

Not unlike a bricks and mortar home, a home-on-wheels requires regular maintenance. When you own a home there is always something to be done … from replacing batteries in smoke detectors to a new roof or furnace. Depending on the age of the home you might have to replace old wiring and plumbing. If you’re lucky the list includes primarily cosmetic changes. And so, with a 28-year-old vehicle you can certainly expect not only regular maintenance but also replacement of key components of the machine. And if you have an aesthetic bone in your body you will want to also make some cosmetic changes too.

Looking at the underbelly of the Vanagon with mechanic, Chris Melo.

When we bought our then twenty-four-year-old Volkswagen campervan four years ago we had a few minor maintenance issues taken care of before we hit the road. We also made cosmetic changes like new curtains and a new linoleum floor and added some storage solutions like baskets, a roof rack and Thule box.

It wasn’t until two months later when we reached the northern tip of Newfoundland that we had our first breakdown. It wasn’t that it was major – it was just a water pump. The hitch was that we were in a remote part of Canada where it took a week to receive the replacement water pump. In the end it was an incredible place to spend a week. We met awesome people – locals and travellers – some with whom we are still in touch. If you are not on a schedule, and we were not, breakdowns can be a blessing. For one thing you may end up exploring a place you had only meant to pass through quickly. And the memories of your time there may end up becoming some of your favourites. This first breakdown definitely set the tone for future breakdowns.

This breakdown / maintenance formula has worked well for us as we’ve travelled from coast to coast in Canada and the USA and into Mexico in our van:

  1. We have used two websites to help us find Vanagon mechanics all over North America: Vanagon Rescue Squad and Road Haus. These resources have been super helpful. We’ve also referenced forums on the The Samba and available articles and video on the GoWesty site.
  2. Remain calm. Don’t stress over the time it might take to receive a part or how long the repair will take.
  3. Trust those willing to help you. And be grateful! But also be informed yourself. Research, research, research.
  4. Make the most of being in the place in which you are ‘stranded.’
  5. Try not to make plans. Be flexible. Adapt.
  6. Use the experience as a learning opportunity.
  7. Trust your intuition. Learn to know the sounds your van makes and when they change you will recognize there is a potential problem.

We half jokingly say that we have replaced almost all of the parts in this Volkswagen van. In truth we have replaced a good number and some of them more than once.

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.”― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

We have visited mechanics all over Canada and the USA. We do have our favourites! One of the challenging issues of dealing with maintenance and breakdowns when you are living and travelling around the continent in your home-on-wheels is the lack of continuity in mechanical care. Sometimes we wish we could visit a favourite mechanic in Sarasota or San Diego but the distance is too great and the issue at hand needs a mechanic that is far closer and immediate.

We know this van so well now. We know every sound and smell intimately. It has, after all, been our home for the past four years. We’ve loved it despite it’s weaknesses and sometimes because of them. Just because something is old you don’t necessarily discard it. You cherish it, treat it with respect, love it. It is, after all, in many ways no different than we are…. aging, tired sometimes, parts are wearing and in need of a break. We have pushed this old van to many corners of this continent and for the most part it has been uncomplaining and we are so grateful. We have after all experienced magic these past four years. Thank you Van Morrison and Gibb!

Sea of Cortez, Mexico.