Ah…it’s nice to be back in the saddle again. Please excuse my absence. Long time readers will recall that my dad was living with Lewy Body Dementia and that my mom and I were caring for him at home. He passed in late June after a six-year battle with the disease.
So, now it’s time to get back into the swing of things. Since my dad was a newspaper reporter, as well as a DIYer, I think he’d be pleased to see me DIYing and blogging.
Jef and his van, Wanda, have been staying with me and my mom for the last month or so. As Jef was driving around town one day, he heard a loud CLUNK and Wanda suddenly started pulling hard to the left. Jef was able to drive it home, but something was definitely wrong. Check out the left front wheel.
We took the wheel off and found the culprit: the nut for the upper control arm had fallen off and now the bolt was trying to jump ship as well.
At first glance, it seemed like an easy repair, and one that we could do ourselves. We picked up the necessary parts from The Buslab in Berkeley.
Then, doubt started to creep in. How could we be sure that we did the repair correctly? And if we didn’t do the repair correctly, what’s the worst that could happen? Jef: “If something breaks, I’ll just pull over and call a tow truck.” Me: “If something breaks, you could go careening in another car, killing yourself everyone around you.”
We decided to err on the side of caution and have a pro do the repair. $270 later ($170 for a tow to the shop, $100 for the repair), Wanda was back on her feet. Hooray!
Now, I wish I could say this was the only thing that went wrong with Wanda during Jef’s visit. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. A few weeks ago, Wanda’s emergency brake got stuck in the “on” position. We discovered that the brake itself was fine, but Jef had pulled the lever up so far that the button mechanism inside the handle had come out of alignment.
While it wasn’t a big, expensive repair to dismantle the brake lever, disengage the brake, and then reinstall the lever; it certainly was an unexpected, time-sucking challenge. The 100 degree weather didn’t help.
So, all of this begs the question:
Are Westies prone to breaking down? Are they a good choice for van dwellers?
In my opinion, it’s hard to say because every Westy has a different history. I will say this: the recent problems that have arisen with Wanda appear to be highly unusual. The fellow who fixed Wanda’s upper control arm bolt said that in 20 years he’d never seen that specific nut fall off before.
If you’re thinking about van dwelling in a Westy, here are a few thoughts to chew on.
1. It’s hard to find a mechanic who knows how to work on VW vans.
With my Chevy Express, I’m fairly confident that no matter where my van breaks down, there will be a mechanic nearby who can fix it. Jef had to do quite a lot of research to find a mechanic who could work on VW vans. The Buslab had a 2-week waitlist, so he chose to go to Valley Wagonworks in San Rafael, which was much farther away.
2. It’s hard to find a smog test station.
When Jef brought Wanda in for a smog test, the first guy he brought it to literally scratched his head and said, “I don’t know how to test these.” He tried looking up instructions in a book, but still couldn’t figure it out.
3. They don’t drive like modern vans.
In terms of driving comfort, my Chevy Express feels much nicer to drive than Jef’s Westfalia. Wanda feels bumpy and underpowered. In fact, she kind of feels like she might fall apart while we’re driving. Despite these drawbacks, I have to admit that Wanda has a certain charm. Just like old houses “have character”, so does Wanda.
If you’re considering getting a Westfalia for your van dwelling adventure, my personal feeling is that you’ll be just fine as long as you have expectations commensurate with the condition and age of the vehicle. Oh, and a AAA membership doesn’t hurt.