The air-cooled Volkswagen Kombi is a motoring icon. It’s a classic van that is chock full of character, and a lot of young guys (and girls) still aspire to own one as their daily driver. But are they getting a bit long in the tooth now to make a practical vehicle for daily use?
I drive my 1976 2 liter bay window every day, and my experience gives a good indication of what you may have to do to make your unrestored Kombi safe and comfortable to drive as your main car.
Volkswagen Kombis are well over 30 years old now and it shows. I’ve spent a lot of time and money over the last few years getting mine back to a reasonable condition, and if you buy a cheap Kombi you have to be prepared to do the same. Even a more expensive Kombi will most likely need some repairs and TLC.
The 1800cc and 2 liter models are the most practical because they have more get up and go than the models with smaller engines, though it does cost more to rebuild the engines.
First the upside.
Kombis are cool, they’re iconic, they have character and they are definitely not boring.
They are fun to drive and when they are in good nick they are comfortable and handle well with good steering. The later model bay windows keep up with the traffic fine and can cruise on 60 mph all day, though they do slow down on bigger hills.
And they are practical. There’s lots of room in a Kombi. Maybe it’s not as good as a modern van because of the hump for the rear engine, but they still make a great camper or an 8 seater van with room for luggage or groceries. Ground clearance is good and the engine over the rear wheels gives good traction for a two wheel drive if you want to get off the beaten track a bit.
Now, here’s what to be aware of if you plan on owning one of these as your daily driver.
Rust of course is the biggest killer of Kombis or any old car. You’re much better off spending a bit more money and getting a reasonably rust free Kombi. Given that you do find a rust free Kombi though, there are still a lot of things to eat up your money before it’s even practical to use your van on a daily basis.
The engine may be worn out. I rebuilt mine a couple of years ago with new barrels and pistons, all new bearings, reground crankshaft and camshaft, and rebuilt heads. The heads were converted for use with unleaded petrol at the same time. This all costs money.
The steering and suspension are safety related and have to be right.
On the suspension I’ve replaced the four main ball joints and the shockies. With the steering I’ve replaced all the tierrod ends and the main center pin. The steering damper is next on the replacement list, and that should see the steering right for my Kombi. It’s always possible that yours may need a new steering box as well.
Your Kombi’s brakes also need to be right. Brake linings are something that do need regular replacing, but I’ve also replaced the rear brake drums because they were worn beyond limits, and the front discs will need replacing next time the front brake pads are done.
I’ve replaced all the flexible brake hoses because they are well over thirty years old now and they do get brittle and I’ve replaced some of the metal brake lines because they were corroded. The rear brake cylinders were replaced a few years ago and the front brake calipers were rebuilt with new seals.
On the rear drive train there are four cv joints, and the ones on my bay window were very sad. They were replaced along with the rear wheel bearings.
One very important area to look at is the fuel lines for the engine. Kombis do burn, and it’s caused by petrol spraying all over the engine. Check the fuel lines carefully and if they look old and cracked replace them with quality fuel line. Make sure that they are not rubbing on the tinware and that the pipes going into the carby and fuel pump are not loose. This is important!
As well as things that you know may need fixing, there is always the unexpected. A spray nozzle came loose from the carby in my bay window and went through the engine. It’s only a small thin brass tube but it sounded as though there were marbles rattling around in the engine. Luckily there was no damage, but it did mean pulling out the engine and taking off the cylinder heads to check everything and to remove the remains of the spray nozzle. And just this week I’ve had to replace the alternator.
As well as mechanical wear and tear there are the cosmetics to think about. Your cheap Kombi may need a paint job, new carpets, new upholstery, and even the front seats may need attention.
On the comfort side new door seals and window seals may be needed to stop rattles and drafts. The heater may need some attention. On my Kombi the heater cables had seized. That didn’t worry me until I moved from a hot part of the country to a much colder area where temperatures get below freezing in the winter.
On the plus side parts are readily available. For my Kombi, a 1976 2 liter model, I have been able to buy every part I have needed apart from the carby spray nozzles, and even then I was able to get by with parts of a different model VW.
My opinion is that despite all the repairs and restoration, Volkswagen Kombis can still be a practical daily driver. You do need to accept the fact that your purchase price is only part of the story, and that you will have to spend time and money bringing your classic Kombi back to a safe and comfortable condition.