Project Little Van - Daily Vanagon/Adventure Rig


Ok back to the build.
Last time I updated I had just purchased all of my air suspension parts.
I then began all the machine work necessary to build my front shock/air bag mounts.
I was slowly making progress on that but with time running out and the air suspension taking up too much time I decided to bail on that for the time being.
It can be built and installed at a later date so for now I am just going to run some springs that will lift the van a couple of inches and I can hopefully be finished by my deadline.

Generally when you lift one of these vanagons you run into some suspension geometry issues in the front.
For starters, after the lift, the upper control arm is pointing down at such an angle that there is not enough adjustment left to get the camber back into spec.
Also, generally people lift them a bit too high and they are nearing the end of their suspension droop.
This limit is usually on account of their shocks.

So, how was I going to address the camber issue?
Most Vanagon people just run a spacer in between the upper ball joint and the control arm.
This reduced the angle of the control arm just enough to get the camber back in spec but does nothing to actually correct any of the real issues in the suspension geometry.

To properly fix this I wanted to raise the upper pivot point for the spindle.
The best way I could sort out to do this was to go back to my circle track days and build me some control arms.
Ok I did not really build new arms but I modified my stock arms to accept one of the typical GM truck ball joints that are available in various extended lengths to raise the pivot point.
I bought some ball joint plates and a stock GM truck ball joint for mock up purposes.

I then got to building.
The new plate will go here-ish once the old parts are cut out of the way

I then cut some stuff so I could locate the new plate.

With the plate where I wanted I whipped up a quick and dirty jig to keep the plate in place while I removed more of the old control arm.

A couple of not so awesome welds and a plate later and the BJ plate was located.

I added a couple gussets to bring the arm back to its former glory.

Some new bushings, a little paint and some new taller ball joints and they are ready to bolt back on the van

Over all I raised the upper ball joint pivot point by nearly an inch just in the control arm alone.

I am waiting on a friend to machine a tapered bushing that I designed that will be mounted in the spindle.
It looks a bit like the bushing in this pic but is a little taller so raise the pivot just a little bit more.

The plan is to drill the existing tapered hole in the spindle and press the new bushing in and weld it in place.
That should sort out my camber curve and adjustment issue and allow me lift the suspension 1.5-2 inches without any issue.

Now to sort out that lack of droop thing with the lifted suspension.

This seemed easy enough.
Just get some shocks with more travel
As you may have seen I did get some new shocks with longer travel that were and still are going to be mounted with my air bag set up.
However, now, with the coil spring set up they will be mounted where the stock shocks were.
My air bag set up required that I lower the lower shock mount on the control arm as not to limit upward travel too much.
I started with some early model stamped steel arms to replace my later cast arms so that I could weld on them.

I know they aren't pretty but here are the modified arms.

It turns out that that lower mount may actually be useful for the new shock set up all by themselves.
I will likely bind the stock suspension before I run out of shock travel and it should also sacrifice very little in the way up upward travel.
More or less I should have 2 or 3 more inches of suspension travel over stock.

I know neither the upper nor the lower arms are particularly pretty but the plan is to get the set up together, tested and, more importantly, finished by my deadline.
I will then make any necessary mods and build a proper fixture to make some more adjustable new arms from scratch that will work with my hopefully then finished air bag set up.

Ok I need to stop here for a minute.
More in a little bit.


So after the suspension work I needed to proceed with the daunting task of removing most of the crap from under the van so I can clean it all up, take care of some rust, add some new seam sealer and undercoat the whole thing.
After this, reassembly can begin.

I started with removing most of the stuff from the engine bay.

I dropped the gas tank and of course it's wrecked.

I also managed to get the stock coolant pipes out that run from the radiator up front to the engine out back.

I suppose I am no engineer but I still can not sort out how VW decided that this was the best option.
I mean I guess these are still functional and may actually have 230,000 miles on them but something about them just rubs me the wrong way.

Also discovered that this taillight has seen some heat at some point in the past.

Oh well.
Add yet another part to the long list of things that need replaced on a van that has seen nearly a quarter of a million miles.

I then moved on to the radiator.
I did not get any pics of this mess because at this point I was done caring about all that.
I beat and blew dust and corrosion out of the fins for nearly 10 minutes hoping that it might be salvageable.
After this I realized that the lower 3 rows of fins were corroded nearly all the way through the radiator.
I could only assume that the tubes were nearly ready to pop.
Then I tipped the rad up on its side and all this black junk poured out.

That was the last straw as far as the radiator was concerned.
Took 5 minutes and ordered a new one.

As you can imagine trying to drain 10 feet of rad hoses, heater hoses and power steering lines leaves a big mess everywhere.

This is after "draining" everything.
Not a fun job.

Along with the radiator I ordered a new fuel tank.

I will be brazing or welding in some new fittings to eliminate the stupid, failure prone rubber grommets and plastic fittings that VW also decided was a good idea for the tank venting/expansion system.

I hope to wrap up the undercarriage resto this week and everything can start going back together.

Ooo I almost forgot.
I did manage to find a decent used trans that a friend scooped up while on a trip in Michigan that I will be rebuilding as soon as I have a spare moment.

Geesh. I think thats all I have for now.
I am waiting on a bunch of fittings and hoses for my fuel tank vent system and the cooling systems.
I also ordered some new Porsche 944 CV joints after being shafted on some used stuff.

Still tons to do and no time to do it.
I may actually take some time off work so I can get this thing road worthy.

Until then....


Hmm yes.
More updates are in order.
So I tore into my new transmission only to find a wee bit O'carnage.
Ok its not that bad but its not good either.
I noticed, while cleaning my trans before tear down, that the diff would not turn.
This is not normal.
I popped it open and the diff still would not turn.
I remove the bolts that hold the pinion shaft retainer/seal holder and it would then spin.

Assuming a bearing preload issue I started to tighten the bolts on the retainer until it would stop moving.
However, while spinning and tightening it made a weird crunchy pop and I was able to tighten the bolts all the way and still turn the diff.

I then noticed a lot of play between the pinion and the pinion shaft.
This is also not normal.
So I tore it down more only to find this.
Pretty much the splines on the shaft and in the pinion are nearly totally wiped off.

In the second pic you can see what the splines are supposed to look like and what they actually look like.
My assumption is that there was enough play between the pinion and pinion shaft that, under power, it got cocked sideways and locked in place.
This was causing binding in between the ring and pinion making the diff not move.

More or less I need a replacement gear set and pinion shaft
I decided I would just take the set from my old trans and use those.

I had noticed previously that there was a lot of slop in the spider gears in the carrier of my old diff section.
Figured I would give that a closer look before carrying on too much further.
I then discovered this.

I have a few ideas how this would have happened but can not say for sure.
More or less the spider gear shaft has turned it's hole into a slot.
The good news is I have enough parts between the two diffs I have to build a rebuildable core.
This is exactly what I did.
I was not confident that I could get the diff set up properly with my limited tools for such things so I shipped it off to Matt Steedle Transmissions for a rebuild and set up.

With the trans in limbo status I moved onto the nasty task or cleaning, doing some rust prevention and undercoating the underside and fender wells.
I did not get any pics of this because it was messy and pretty boring.
I will eventually get a pic of the finished product and post it up for fun.
I did find some rust that will need sorted at some point but for now I just did some half assery to slow the rust down.
I want to focus on the mechanicals for the time being so I can just drive this thing.
Realistically it would be years before it's at the point that the rust makes it not drivable so I may never get to it.
Or, as this project evolves maybe I will deem it necessary and do the work to make it solid again.
For now it is what it is.

Moving on.
I finally machined my brake rotors to turn them into hubs.


I need some wheel spacers in order to fit my wheel over the new brakes so I am going to incorporate a hubcentric spacer into all of that to insure that the rotors is centered on the hub.

While I was on the lathe I machined some fittings to replace the rubber grommet and plastic fitting arrangement on the gas tank.

I will be brazing them into the tank and will never have to think about it again.

A friend of mine whipped up the tapered bushings that I needed to mount my new ball joints in my spindles.

After a little drilling they fit like so.

They will be welding in place but they work like they should so far.

This is a much more effective solution to the lifted Vanagon camber issue than the ball joint spacers that a lot of people use.
Was it as easy as a ball joint spacer?
Nope but it fixes a lot more issues and honestly cost about the same price.

I also got a few more parts in.
New Radiator.

New rad hose.

New trans mount that I am going to fill a bit with some two part polyurethane foam.

New Porsche 944 CV joints that can handle a few more degrees for a bit more suspension travel.

Also got a few parts that I want to tinker with on this van.
Electric power steering and an adjustable assist controller.

Well there might be a few other things I am forgetting but that's good for now.

I am going to finish cleaning a few more things and start bolting the front suspension back together.
With the trans issue I am never going to make it for this thing I was doing at the end of july so I have decided to carry on with my air suspension install as well as my rear disk breaks.
Probably get back to working on a lot of those parts soon.

More next time...
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Engineer In Residence
Hmm, thats some diff carnage there. Makes one wonder if it was a botched overhaul at some point? Not to late to switch to a reversed 1.8T and passat? 5 speed combo.


Yes I totally think it was an overhaul by someone who maybe did not know what they were doing.
The fellow I bought it from said it was rebuilt recently.
He also went on to say that it slipped between shifts for the first two or three runs through the gears when it was cold outside but stopped once it was warmed up.
He also mentioned that it did not do it when it was warm.
My guess is the bearing preload was totally overlooked and set too tight.
When it was cold it was probably crazy tight and the trans would slip.
When it was warm it was probably still tight but it would at least spin.

No matter.
The diff is in good hands and I have all the parts to upgrade/rebuild the auto section of the trans.
Hopefully there is not too much damage to the trans section.


Not to late to switch to a reversed 1.8T and passat? 5 speed combo.
Man you would not believe the combinations I have come up with so I could bail on the stock Vanagon transmissions.
I started looking at Porsche stuff and even contemplated swapping to a mid engine set up so I could use a bunch of available transmissions.
If I did not have so much time and money tied up in this 2.0 ABA swap I might have gone another route.
I looked at a 3.3 liter flat six from a Subaru SVX because there are parts available to run a Subaru 5 or 6 speed speed backwards in the van.
With the reversed Subaru trans I could even have run an LS engine because there are adapters to mate an LS to the Subaru stuff.
Honestly I probably could have put together a reversed Subaru 5 or 6 speed and LS combo for what I am going to have in my beefed up 2.0 and slightly upgraded 3 speed auto.

It's still not out of the question. 🤔🤪🥴🤑

Recommended books for Overlanding


Yeah sorry about the updates.
I've fallen victim to too-many-irons-in-the-fire syndrome which has made the updates slow to roll in.

Things are progressing a little bit.
So I think in the last update I was dealing with a differential issue that I did not anticipate.
I have since pieced together a rebuildable core and shipped it off to one of the better vanagon trans builders, in my opinion, (Matt Steedle transmissions for anyone that wants to know) and received my refurbed diff section.

This was a budget rebuild so there would be no blasting and painting by Matt himself.
This job was left up to me.
A little work with the needle scaler and some brake parts cleaner and it was ready for paint.

I have a diff pan all painted up but I will wait to put that on until after I am done dragging it all over the floor to install the engine and trans.
I am also going to install a trans pan drain plug in another trans pan I have and put that in after the install.

I have also debated as to whether or not to install some fittings so I can extend the diff vents a little higher on the chassis.
This is only a 2wd so it might not be necessary to do such things but I also know that I have had other 2wd vehicles in water deeper than I should have.
Since this is an adventure van build it only seems appropriate.
I am going to look into it more.

Since getting the diff section back it made sense to start the rebuild on the actual trans section of my transaxle.

Scary isn't it?
What you are actually looking at is the vanagon trans as well as the internals from an Audi trans from which I will be stealing some upgrade bits.

After tearing into the Audi trans I found some of the clutch frictions that I was hoping to reuse were wrecked.
Here is a pic of a decent one.

Here's what two of the four frictions looked like.

Of course the steels did not look much better (sorry no pic)

Naturally nothing about this build has been easy (have I mentioned that already?)
It seemed only fitting that these are the hardest frictions and steels to track down for the Audi trans.

A quick text to Matt again and I would have new frictions and steels in my hand in less than a week.

That makes twice now that Matt has saved my butt.

So with all the parts I needed in hand it seemed only fitting that I clean up my trans case and make it more presentable for my van build.

I also wanted to sort out some new fittings for my new trans cooler.

I was kind of shocked to see how small the opening was in the stock bolts that held the stock liquid cooled trans cooler on the back of the trans.
I received a trans cooler set up with the used trans that I bought and those fittings were even worse.
The hunt was on for some new stuff and Bel Metric delivered with some of their high flow banjo bolts and fittings.

Here is the new banjo bolt compared to the stock bolt.

Here is the banjo bolt compared to the fittings that came with the used trans.

Here is the actual banjo fitting.

As you can hopefully see these fittings should help reduce any restrictions in my new trans cooler set up.
This will become especially important since I am adding longer lines, a huge oil cooler and double a remote filter to my trans cooler system.

In other news, since I have a pile of upgrades that may prove to be quite taxing on my stock charging system, I decided an alternator upgrade was in order.

This baby puts out 170 amps at idle and peaks at somewhere north of 250 amps.
This unit will primarily be responsible for my electric AC system that I am planning on running.
It will probably help with a couple other things but I am also running a stock upgraded 120 amp unit to cover things like my electric power steering some lighting upgrades and maybe a winch.

I will cover a lot of that when the time comes.

About the only other thing I have done lately is see what it is going to take to fit my Audi S4 brakes under my 16 inch Mercedes steel wheels.
As you can see here I need a bit more room before I can bolt the wheel all the way down.

This is where the caliper hits.

If I felt like it I could profile the caliper a bit but it also appears that I just need a 5 to 7mm spacer to make this all work without doing too much with the caliper.
I will probably roll with a 7mm spacer just to be on the safe side.
I will be contacting a company soon that has a basic spacer already designed for the vanagons and also has the ability to make changes as needed for customs applications.

That's about as far as I have made it lately.
Now that I have all the trans parts that will be my focus this weeks once I wrap up some deck ramp mods so our elderly English bull dog can get on and off the deck for the bathroom breaks.

Until next time.....


Well I set myself up with another deadline and am back at the van build.
It took some time to come up with a game plan but I think I have it sorted.

Pretty sure I mentioned that I am swapping to an electric power steering set up so I wanted to get some parts of that sorted out before I started slapping other things on and covered up all the parts I need to get to.

I won't get into too many details but more or less I needed to join the Vanagon parts with some Saturn Vue parts and eliminate a couple rag joints in the process.
I started by mating the electric power steering (EPS) assembly to the Vanagon column

This also needed to join the internal steering shafts so I machined a couple pieces to make all that work.

With that out of the way I needed to connect the lower Vanagon bracket to the EPS unit.

I cobbled a bracket together that seemed to work so I rolled with it.

From there out I needed to do a bunch of cutting and welding on all sorts of joints and couplers.
This involved some van bits and some saturn bits, cutting a part from one thing and welding it to another and some machining but I managed to get it all joined up from the EPS to the steering rack.
As I mentioned I won't get too detailed but the following pics show some of the work.

You may notice my quick and dirty and possibly not super accurate centering tool (the bolt with its head removed and wrapped with a little tape)
Yeah I could have machined a thing that did the same thing that might have been a lot more accurate but I think this worked.
I feel no binding in the steering so I'm gonna roll with it.

As far as this rag joint is concerned...

There is some adjustment in the Vanagon reverser box that more or less allows me to just join these two parts directly.
I whipped up a spacer from some leftover 7075 aluminum I had in the garage and with the reverser loose I joined the two and tightened everything down.

I messed with the stock power steering rack for a minute in order to convert it to non power but I was just not happy with how it was working out.
A new manual rack was only $160 so I just got a new one.

I also made the upgrade to some Poly bushings for it as well

In anticipation of a lot of work in the next two months I decided to sort out a few things and get some parts so they are here when I need them.
I shipped my torque converter off for a rebuild and had it back in less than a week.

After the steering stuff is sorted I plan to install the radiator so parts for that were in order.
Before I get to that, I noticed, while I was all up in the dash working on steering, that my brake master cylinder was leaking so I got one of those.

OK back to the radiator bits.
My factory rad baffles were virtually nonexistent.
Rather than spend time and money to fab some garbage that I have not really seen I decided to just buy some.

I have always been a fan of the MK4 vw coolant overflow tanks for custom projects so I figured I would round up one of those as well.

These things go for less than $6.50 brand new all day long on rock auto.
Granted you will probably have 7 or 8 bux in shipping but still...

Vanagon coolant systems are notorious for being tricky to bleed.
There are all sorts of tricks out there and I will probably use every one of them but I decided to whip up a little thing so I do not have to take the grill off to open the bleeder on the radiator.
I have only started to get the parts for it but here is the start.
I will be swapping the bleeder screw out for a banjo fitting.

I don't have all the parts yet but this will mate to a tube and run down under the van to a needle valve that can be opened to bleed air from the system.

I have a few more parts but they have nothing to do with what I am working on at the moment.
I will wait until I get to that point to show you whats going on so things don't get confusing.

Anyway if everything goes as planned I hope to have this thing on the road sometime in early April so expect more updates on a more regular basis.

Until then...


Been slowly whittling away at things the last couple weeks.
Everything is probably taking as long as it's supposed to but it still seems way longer than I would like.

Either way things are getting done and that's a good thing.
I got my fittings welded into the top of the gas tank.
The two threaded bungs will accept some banjo fittings as to eliminate the more failure prone rubber grommets with push in fittings.
The barbed fitting also eliminates a grommet and plastic push in fitting and run to the fuel filler vent hose.
I debated between welding and brazing but since I have been playing with the tig welder lately and I don't actually have a torch to braze the fittings in then I chose to weld.
Still pretty new to the tig so they are not super pretty but they will work.

Strangely enough I did not get any real pics of the completed vent system
I will have to get some pics before I install the tank so it's more clear how it all works.
The fuel filler also has a stupid grommet that I wanted to get rid of so I welded on a little neck and cut up a stock filler neck to make it all work.

In order to ditch the factory grommet I had to also ditch the factory one way valve in the filler neck.
I found a suitable replacement and spliced it into my filler neck mod so all should be good.

Might be tough to tell but the valve is in the middle of the rubber bit at the tank that joins everything together.

Before installing the tank I needed to install the radiator and hoses as they would be pretty tough to get to with the tank in place.

Silicone hose is not particularly abrasion resistant so I needed to sort a way to protect them anywhere that they might touch something else.
My solution was some carefully placed lengths of heavy duty heat shrink.

You can see at work here.

I got my rad bleeder vent tube all fabbed up as well.
The banjo is not welded on in these pics but it is now.

I also refurbed my shifter linkage so it can be installed before the tank goes in.
This involved disassembly, descaling and painting everything then putting it all back together with new boots at each end to keep the crud out.
I also cleaned the cable as best I could and hosed it down thoroughly with some cable lube.

Of course I can't put the tank in without the tank straps so I cleaned those up too.

Well too many pics for one post so check out the other half in the next post.


In order to keep busy while I wait on parts I figured I would tackle some suspension bits.
I pressed the lower ball joints out of my spindles and needed to get my upper ball joint adapter bushings welded in place.
More work with the tig and they are in.

I will press the new ball joints in at work on monday and give the whole mess some new paint.

I took a little time to sort through the mess of parts in the van to make sure I had all the bushings and hardware get to work on the front suspension once the fuel tank is installed.
It appears I have all the lower control arm bits.
New bushings and hardware ready to roll.

I've got new trailing arm bushings for the rear as well so I decided it was time to tackle the arduous task of removing the old bushings.

Because the bolts were seized in the bushings requiring that they be cut out I could not use the home built tool that I made to remove the front control arm bushings.
Fortunately a loaner tool from the local parts store made short work of it.

I will get the arms cleaned up and get a little paint on those as well before install but that can wait until later.

With a little time to spare today I managed to get my axles all cleaned up and ready to go as well.

The joints still seemed pretty tight but I swapped over to 944 CV joints as they afford a few more degrees of motion before running into a binding situation.
I do regret not keeping the CV parts separated as I could probably have put together a decent spare.
I probably can still make a spare to get me out of a pickle but ideally the balls should have been kept with the inner and outer parts they were removed from.

Anyway here are my "new" axles ready to go once I get some clamps of some sort for the boots.

Honestly with the design of these particular boots and how tight they actually fit on the axles I wonder if they are supposed to have clamps.
I have not a purchased a replacement CV boot in sometime but I would imagine they would come with clamps if they needed them.
I will do a little asking around and get to the bottom of that.

I think that's about all I have for now.
As always I have some more parts coming and will carry on with what I have.
The plan for tomorrow is to get the tank in and probably start on the front suspension and brakes.

More later...
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It seems exactly as I stated in my last post.
I got the tank in.
It looks like a gas tank in a van so I didn't worry too much about pics.
As is tradition with Vanagon fuel tanks, it was a pain in the bootay to install.
What's crazy is that it was likely easier with my tank vent system but it still sucked.
My filler neck worked fine and, for the most part, it all went together as expected.
I just ended up doing more head scratching to think through every thing so I did not have to put things in and take things out repeatedly.

With that out of the way I could move on to the suspension install.

This part would not go off with out a hitch.
For the most part all the difficulties circled around this stupid valve.

I kind of overlooked the fact that this shock even had this valve when I was speaking with the rep at Bilstein.
Little did I know the grief it would cause me.
My initial and, eventually final plans for this van involved an air suspension set up.
I had to add much complexity to my set up because of this valve.

As of now I am running without the air bags but still using the same shocks.
Of course this valve got in the way in the upper mount area and needed some clearancing.

Yay! I have it all sorted out... NOT!
I went to put the front suspension together and realized that the the spring has to go in first.
Then the shock feeds in from the bottom.
Of course this is the opening that I needed to feed the shock through.

You might imagine that this stupid valve is not going to fit through this space.

I had to take the lower arm off so I could modify it as such.

Of course I made the opening as small as I could for no good reason.
By the time I got some zip ties on the shock to hold it in the collapsed position so I could actually fit it under the control arm for installation there was only just enough room to feed the shock into the opening.
The zip ties got hung up sometime during this process and broke free but, fortunately, I had the shock mostly fed into place and all was well.

I think I am going to see how my custom valving works on this set up and order up some new shocks without the schrader valve for my air set up to simplify things considerably.

Beyond the fitment issues with the stupid valve, it seems that my plan to get a bit more travel from the stock-ish Vanagon suspension design seems to have worked.

More or less the suspension travels downward until the ball joint stud hits the spindle.

It would take a bit more precise measurement and a pile more mods to get more travel.
I have no real need for this in a street driven Vanagon that will probably see a little off road but it's fun to think about the possibilities.
As it is right now I should probably put a limiting strap in place to make sure this BJ stud to spindle contact does not happen when I take this thing off of any sweet jumps.

Not sure if I mentioned it before but it turns out that my van came with the lamest of the the anti-roll bars ever installed on the Vanagon just short of no bar at all.
My stock bar measured up at 19mm.
Perhaps the weenie bar is because my van was one of the lowest and had some of the stiffest springs offered on a van

Either way this would not work for me.
Since I was lifting the van and hopefully making it a little more plush in the process, it made sense to step up the anti-roll bar game a bit.
I ended up picking up a 25mm bar to hopefully keep roll in check.

I also bought some parts to hopefully build me a stout end link system to make the most of the fat bar.
Those should be here tomorrow and I can see what it's going to take to make that clear everything.

I also just got started on fitting up my big brake set up.

I probably blabbed on about this set up a while ago.
More or less I stepped up from the stock 10 inch solid rotor to a 12.6 inch vented rotor.

I went from a lame 2 piston fixed caliper to a floating 2 piston set up that came on one of the Audi S4s.

I reworked my caliper mount over the last couple of days and hope to have that that sorted in the next day or two.

In anticipation of getting to the rear suspension and brakes I took care of a couple of things.
I... A friend of mine machined my rear hubs so I could start working out the rear brake set up.

I also got some taller van springs that I plan to use with some spacers to get the rear height to match up with the fronts.

I will get into more of the rear set up once I sort out the fronts and actually start working on the rear.

Lastly I picked up a starter adapter so I can run a more powerful starter on my beefed up ABA set up.

I have a starter on the way as well but, as is tradition, I will get to all that when the time comes.

I think that gets us up to date on any of the significant progress.

I really hope to get the front end sorted tomrrow so I can move onto the rear suspension and brakes and maybe make a little progress on the engine and trans install.

Until then.....

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This is all sorts of inspiring/intimidating to read through. Your skills are top-notch, man! Thanks for taking the time to post these updates!