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VW Vanagon Gear Shift Linkage

October 26, 2011

[apologies for no pictures. One-man spanning has its drawbacks sometimes plus it was raining and frankly I forgot]

Whatever you do, stay away from this fix. Knock down a sky scrapper and rebuild it, attempt to count the sugars in your sugar dish or do anything else but attempt this fix if you are doing it for recreational purposes. I had some difficulty changing into first gear and after some little research I discovered the problem might lie with the linkage. I had plans for Sunday afternoon so I thought a quick two hour fiddle before I left home would make for a wonderful 1st gear experience later that afternoon.

But lo and behold! At 8pm I was still under the car having gone through a whole range of problems like losing 1st and 2nd gear then gaining 2nd and losing reverse and 1st. My day was ruined, it was raining most of the time that afternoon and I was all alone.

So what the hell was I to do?

First thing: As much as possible, get a helper. You will have fewer trips to the box at the front and the alignment there will be spot-on

But if you are quite literally a one-man spanner like I am then am happy to say there is also a way.

  • Put the shifter in neutral
  • Loosen the pinch bolt midway to the back of the van. After the fuel tank in my case
  • Very important: Where the shifter meets the gearbox, ensure that the final linkage piece is pressed into the gearbox approximately halfway (or if you have good perception of parallels, ensure that the vertical, second last linkage piece is perpendicular to the ground). I made this possible by using a file secured against some suspension part at the back to do the pressing. Anything that will give you the correct alignment is fine. That was just a one-man spanning method
  • Go under where the box is in the front, make sure the right side of the protruding gear stick finger thing is about 20-23 mm from the right side bar thing that reverse goes under. This is observable when you are under the van, where the spare wheel goes, looking into the open side of the box and some form of lighting. I found setting the 20-23mm to be the most difficult bit because each time I left the front to go to the pinch bolt, it would go out of alignment. Solutions? After hours of trying and cursing, I discovered a ‘magic tunnel’. When you are under the van directly under the pinch bolt, raise your head and look towards the front of the van. There’s a ‘tunnel’ beside the fuel tank that gives a direct view of the box at the front and any fiddling at the pinch bolt is observable through it. So I set up light at the box, made an approximation of where 20-23mm was and I did the adjustment through the ‘magic tunnel’

Lighting the box is crucial for the 'magic tunnel' method and for diagnosing need for a nose job

  • Tighten the pinch bolt while making sure nothing goes out of alignment
  • Test drive
  • Favourite beverage
In truth its not such a difficult fix. It is so if just like me, you have no idea what you are doing.

VW Vanagon squeaking A-Arm bushes

September 26, 2011

Any Vanagon owner must rank this as one of the most annoying things with Vanagons. The solution is a cocktail of measures as explained in this wonderful article from the GoWesty website. Followed instructions in it and my van now sounds great. By that I mean it does not sound anymore..

I also recommend that you take a look at the wonderful articles at the SHOOFTIE website. There’s an A-Arm article somewhere in there. SHOOFTIE is a Vanagon legend if you ask me.

VW Vanagon front bearings

June 14, 2011

The tell tale sign of worn front bearings is a grinding sound as you drive along particularly at a slightly high speed like 60kph. There will also be noticeable drifting of the vehicle to one side if you let the steering go (and assuming your camber, caster and toe alignment is correct). Bearings are not some of the things you could afford to avoid for too long because bearing failure as you drive along can be a proper disaster. This post therefore shows how to replace bearings on a 1985 2WD VW Vanagon. My front disc brakes are the 278mm diameter types. Some vanagons have 258mm diameter types.

  • Find the correct replacement parts (bearings, races and seals). In my country I cannot lay my hands on an authentic bearing kit so I make do with a Japan made bearing kit. Works just fine but they usually do not come with the inner bearing seal so I have been re-using it. Not the most ideal, but again I have survived thus far 🙂
  • Jack the van up and support it as safely as possible, remove the tyre and the brake caliper
  • The disc has a securing nut and washer for the outer bearing and these need to be removed carefully.
  • Remove the outer bearing that easily pops out after the removal of the nut and washer and then pop out the rest of the disc
  • Turn it around to access the inner bearing and before anything remove as much grease as possible. This is quite a dirty and greasy job and you will want to have as much rags or paper towels around as are necessary
  • Try to pry out the seal VERY VERY gently with a flat screw driver if you intend to re-use it. The outer bearing will just pop out
  • In the absence of a bearing race removal tool, a good hammer and strong chisel like tool will do the trick
  • To remove the inner bearing races, insert the chisel into the disc via the front (outer side), align it to the grooves on the disc that give you access to the inner bearing races and hammer it. Turn it 180 degrees to the groove opposite and hammer it again. Keep this rotation going so that the bearing race pops out with ease and without damaging the disc. A few hammer blows should pop it out.
  • To remove the outer bearing race, access its grooves from the back (inner side) and repeat the above process. It should be much easier
  • Clean the disc thoroughly with your favourite grease solvent and ensure there is no grit. Grit is a bearing’s biggest enemy
  • Position the new inner bearing races on the clean disc, carefully ensuring that you do it facing the right way. Use the old inner bearing race to help you drive the new race into position. Hammer opposite ends so that the race slides in correctly and keep hammering until there is a change in sound that will tell you the race is properly seated. Please be careful not to hammer the new race directly. Use the old race for that
  • Repeat the above process for the outer bearing race
  • Grease the bearings properly using a bearing greasing tool if available or with your hands that I emphasize must be totally free of grit
  • Grease the inside of the break disc well as well as on the insides of the races
  • Position the inner bearing well and carefully slide back the grease seal if you are reusing it
  • Grease the spindle on the wheel again ensuring no grit ends up on it and then pop back the disc ensuring that it sits correctly and rotates freely
  • Insert the outer bearing followed by the thoroughly cleaned washer and nut
This is Very Important
  • Tighten the nut until it just stops then loosen it again slightly. Rotate the disc so that it feels like it is moving freely. The idea is to tighten it enough to secure the bearings but not too tightly as to cause them to be ground by the movement of the wheel.
  • After the slight loosening I usually hold the disc on 12 and 6 o’clock positions and shaking it then at 3 and 9 o’clock positions and shaking it as well. Make sure you JUST ABOUT do not feel any play in the bearings at those positions
  • Clean the disc of all grease using a good grease solvent
  • I admit these procedures are dark arts but for the DIY mechanic with no torque wrench and Japanese parts they come in handy

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Pierburg 2E3 on a VW Vanagon

June 13, 2011

Please refer to this link for a schematic diagram of the pierburg 2E3 carb. I was too busy learning it to take any pictures. 🙂

Excuses out of the way, this is perhaps the most annoying part of any fix for the DIY mechanic. The Pierburg 2E3 carburetor is a marvel of confusion and complexity that has led most people to switching to more ‘reliable’ carbs such as Webbers. Well the Pierburg 2E3 is not the worst of instruments, with a little patience and lots of knowledge you could get it working like a charm.

Common problems caused by the carb are poor idling (too high or completely non-existent), very poor running during a cold start, fouling of spark plugs due to too rich a mixture or other problems due to too lean a mixture and of course the worst of them all poor fuel efficiency. I shall attempt to guide you on what to do to try and iron out some of these issues assuming everything else that the carb is dependent on such as distributor and engine timing are working well.

Solutions to common problems

Vacuum leaks are common and these occur at gasket points and vacuum lines. Determine a vacuum leak by spraying some carb cleaner on the base of the carburetor where it meets the intake manifold and if there is a change in engine sound then there is a vacuum leak there. Also spray between the upper and lower part of the carburetor and listen for change in engine sound. Examine the vacuum lines especially the one to the distributor and ensure the line is not split  or punctured. This simple test will solve common idling problems however idling problems could also take on larger proportions. Caution: Ensure you have a fire extinguisher at hand when you spray carb cleaner on a hot engine. There could be a fire incident

Most common problems will also be solved with a good cleaning of the carb using carburetor cleaner. Spray the carburetor jets and linkages occasionally and they will run problem free. Frequent fuel filter replacements will also do your carb a world of good.

Cold starting/Choke problems

This is the Pierburg 2E3’s Achilles heel. It has a choke mechanism that has always been misunderstood but this is the theory;

A choke is meant to actually ‘choke’ or starve the carburetor of air when the engine is cold so that the richer mixture is ignited easier. As the engine warms up a bi-metallic strip uncoils as it senses the increasing engine temperature. This sensing of engine temperature happens with the help of coolant that is ran through part of the carburetor’s choke mechanism. The choke works hand in hand with a mechanism called fast idle cam that if well set, keeps idle speed high and reduces it with increasing engine temperature. There is an additional component that helps heat up the bi-metallic strip using electrical energy from the battery. This usually helps open up the choke faster than the water would. From my experience, it is not very important here in the tropics since we hardly have very low temperatures and furthermore, it keeps failing. I’ve totally disabled it in my van and I am running just fine.

Pierburg 2e3 choke mechanism

Image shamefully borrowed from

The aim is to set the choke (butterfly) gap such that when the engine is at its coldest it leaves a gap along the barrel that is only small enough to accommodate a 3mm drill-bit and the fast idle cam can cause idle speed to rise to 2000 +/- 200 rpm.

  • Remove the choke body to reveal the bi-metallic strip
  • Open the throttle and position the fast idle cam screw on the highest step of the cam by turning it
  • Push the pullrod on the choke pull-down diaphragm the furthest it could go and check the gap left when the bi-metallic strip is turned to the ‘start’ position. Turn the screw that manages the pullrod in or out accordingly until pushing the pullrod furthest in will lead to a 3mm gap between the choke butterfly plate and the barrel, when the bi-metallic strip is turned to its ‘start’ position.
  • Refit the choke body ensuring that it remains on the ‘start’ position when coldest.
  • The position of the choke body can always be adjusted depending on seasons so that there is always optimum cold start engine speeds
Fast idle should also be adjusted hand in hand with the choke pull-down diaphragm but when the engine is warm and at normal operating temperature.
  • Position the fast idle cam screw by turning it in or out to the second step of the fast idle cam and check that the fast idle speed is between the specified 2000 +/- 200 rpm for fast idle. Adjust as neccessary
Too Lean or Too Rich
The unseen evils that can shorten the life of your engine significantly are air/fuel mixtures that are either too lean or too rich. Too lean a mixture is one that has an excess of air while too rich a mixture is one that has an excess of fuel. This condition is managed by the mixture screw which under ideal conditions has a tamper proof cap on it. But should your mixture settings be tampered, adjust it using this screw by turning it in for a leaner mixture and outward for a richer mixture. Drive the van for a while preferable over 80kph for some significant distance, remove the spark plugs and examine them to determine the state of your mixture.
Idling Speed
Once there is no vacuum leak or any other carburetor problems and the engine timing is correct, the idling speed can be adjusted. This is done by simply turning the idle speed control screw. However, it might be important to adjust it using the mixture screw as well. This will tell you if your engine is running right.
  • Ensure the engine is running at optimum operating temperature
  • Various engines have various idle speeds but they usually range between 750 and 950 rpm
  • Set your engine to run at the recommended rpm by turning the idle speed control screw
  • Turn the mixture screw in until the engine begins to stumble and then turn it out again until the engine begins to stumble as well. Somewhere in there will be the optimum mixture setting. This will be verifiable over time with the process mentioned above
  • Sometimes turning the mixture screw has no effect on the running of the engine or idle speed cannot go lower than a certain point. If that is the case, check the carburettor barrels to ensure they are clear of any foreign matter and if not then the engine timing is off. I have assumed you have determined that there is no vacuum leak at this point

VW Vanagon Engine Timing

June 13, 2011

Engine timing is absolutely crucial for proper working. Timing is usually done using equipment such as a timing gun but that costs some money and people like me prefer to trawl in the inexpensive waters so I discovered a pretty decent method with inspiration from this guy;

I tried his method but the negative part of my coil kept my test light on unlike in his video. So I tried several variations and this was my discovery;

  • Place a test light on one of the terminals on the negative part of the coil and ground it appropriately. Ensure there is still a line from the negative terminal on the coil to the distributor
  • Loosen the 10mm bolt that secures the distributor and stops it from rotating
  • Pop out spark plug no.1 (right side when you are standing behind the car, closest to flywheel)
  • Put the car on neutral gear and ensure it is well secured so that it does not roll
  • Turn the crankshaft wheel clockwise using a 30mm spanner or any other equipment while you have a finger placed over the spark plug hole
  • You will feel compression building up and that will signify that the piston is moving up just as it would as it compresses the air/fuel mixture
  • Watch the crankshaft wheel as you do this and you will notice two marks on it. A U-shaped mark and a V-shaped mark. The U-shaped mark signifies the position of Top Dead Centre (TDC). That is the point where the piston is at the very top of that cylinder. If you are turning the wheel clockwise, you will observe that the V-shaped mark is to the right of the TDC mark. That is you will get to the V-shaped mark before the U-shaped mark. This V-shaped mark is the ignition timing mark. This signifies the point at which the spark will ignitite the fuel/air mixture in the cylinder.
  • Turn the wheel and align the timing (V-shaped) mark exactly to the centre of the engine (the split line between the two engine block parts). Pull back the number plates and peep from there to get the alignment right
  • As you were turning the wheel you probably noticed that the test light dimmed momentarily. If it did not turn the wheel past the ignition or even the TDC point and you will notice the light flicker. This signifies the point at which the spark would have been introduced into the cylinder. This needs to occur exactly when the crankshaft wheel’s ignition timing mark is aligned to centre of the engine. So return the wheel to this point
  • Turn the distributor clockwise or anti-clockwise until you notice a similar flickering of the light. Once you have determined the approximate point, turn the distributor clockwise until the light dims or goes out and then turn it anti-clockwise just ever so slightly such that you are just on the verge of the flickering. Some practice will help you know how to get it right
  • With the crankshaft wheel at this point and the distributor as described above, you have your engine timing right.
  • Tighten the distributor’s 10mm bolt, return the spark plug and look for your favourite drink
Please  note that this method works well with a cold engine and you do not necessarily need to have the engine at normal operating temperature like it is prescribed when using other methods such as with a timing gun. I would also recommend using a timing gun at some point to refine your tuning but if you do not have one this is a simple but effective method.

How the Vanagon engine works

June 13, 2011

It’s been a while since I updated this blog. While I was away my life was getting ruined by the world famous Pierburg 2E3 carburettor and some iffy engine timing. This is the story;

I had taken my engine to a local mechanic for an overhaul gasket job. I would have done this myself but the van was all leaky and I did not have the time so I bought a gasket kit and let the guy do the job. Driving the van after that I realised there was a very significant drop in fuel efficiency and power. I immediately knew that the guy had got engine timing and carburettor set-up all wrong.

How stuff works

The Vanagon’s ignition system works like any other. If you are not familiar this is how it is; the engine runs by the combustion of an air/fuel mixture. The air/fuel mixture is created by the carburettor in a Vanagon and we are going to discuss this a little later. The spark responsible for the combustion is caused by a spark plug. The spark plug receives the electrical energy that creates this spark from the electrical coil via the distributor that gives this electrical energy to each of the four spark plugs in a pre-determined order also called the firing order. The coil transforms 12V from the battery to a very high voltage (heard somewhere it’s up to 10,000V) before it sends it to the distributor.  All this occurs when the piston compresses the air/fuel mixture in the cylinder and at a pre-determined moment, this compressed mixture is ignited resulting in power. The process of Engine timing is responsible for ensuring the firing occurs at the best possible moment.


500km return trip to Mombasa

March 3, 2011

Sorry I’ve not updated this blog for ages!! Been working on the van and there are lots of one man spanner heroics to report about! Time has been at an absolute premium and even though I am on the internet most of the time I hardly get a chance to do anything outside my web design work. Anyway, this past weekend I made a trip to Mombasa (a wonderful coastal town in Kenya). My friend Eric, whom I’ve mentioned in previous blogs was moving to Mombasa for a new job and we enlisted the services of the vanagon to move his modestly stocked 2 bedroomed house.

Its amazing how much the van can carry!! We had 2 disassembled 4X6 beds with their mattresses, a set of 5 seater seats, a coffee table, fridge, microwave, tv, sound system, massive carpets, water drums, the whole kitchen including a gas cylinder and all manner of things you can imagine are in a house. Check out this not so good picture;

We also had a motorbike to ride and so we had decided to split driving/riding duty. The idea was the van sets the pace at about 100Kph and whoever rides the bike keeps up. I started the first 125km since I needed to feel the van considering the night before we finished servicing it and preparing it for the trip at around midnight! But all was well. I then did the next 250km on the motorbike and in the hot terrestrial radiation of the Taru desert that is no mean feat. The rest of the journey was straight forward, just leaking oil which I shall discuss in my next post once I get to the bottom of it but the issues are I decided to use SAE 10W-40 instead of SAE 20w-50 that I usually work with and i also suspect the problem could be with other things like the flywheel oil seal. Will report on that soon. Well, we got to Mombasa and headed straight for the best restaurant in Kenya in my opinion. Its a wonderful swahili restaurant that specialises in swahili dishes only. Its called Tarboush try it when in Mombasa.

Being us we also decided to head for the beach instead of the house, with a fully loaded van! Having been raised in the mainland, the beach still fascinates me as though I am a small kid. We eventually retired way past midnight and we were quite worn out. Next day, unloaded the van, got the stuff in the house and repeated the previous evening’s activities – Tarboush then the beach, albeit a small detour to the historic neolithic Fort Jesus for some tourist antics!

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I’ll always treasure this picture of the vanagon in the sand just a few meters from the beach. Nothing techy in this article but normal business should resume soon!

Vanagon on the beach in Mombasa, Kenya

Clunking sound while changing gear

October 11, 2010

About 3 weeks ago I purchased new rubber boots for my CV joints and went on to fit them. I was not able to record it because I did not have an assistant and those familiar with it will tell you how much of a messy job it is! But you could look at Tom’s VW pages for the procedure. Since installing the CV joints back I have been hearing a clunking sound while starting to move and while changing gear. I figured it was something related to what I had done with the CV joints and rather stupidly, I just prayed that the van lasts until the weekend so that I could fix it. The weekend came and I was forced to travel out of town (not with the van). On Sunday night when I returned from my trip I got into my van to drive home and the van just did not feel right. There was very low power and the clunking was even more pronounced. So somewhere along the way, in the darkness, I heard a loud snap and watched my rev counter shoot up while the van was in gear and none of that power was being translated to motion. It is then that I knew what had happened – the inner left CV joint had come off!


Inner left CV joint off!


So I managed to roll the van to the nearest place with light, found a great guy to watch over it and called up my friend Eric for a ride home (not a happy man after being woken up!!). Next day I got to assess the damage as you can see in the picture above. Problem was, after servicing the CV joints, I did not torque the Allen keys that fasten the joint to the transmission hard enough. So in the course of driving they were loose and popped off! I also took the opportunity to torque the Allen keys on the right-inner CV joint as well.

Exactly one week later…

While driving in the wilderness of Olepolos, en-route to Magadi, I heard a clunking sound again and before I could find somewhere to stop, a loud racket and loss of power. Guess what? It was the right-outer CV joints that had now come off. So I got down to business, with family watching and cursing my ‘old’ car I wasted 2 hours of their precious weekend pulling out the joint, tightening it and putting it back.

So the moral of the story is, the Allen keys on the CV joints are never too tight! That of course if for those of us with no torque wrench yet!

Replacing a drum brake cylinder

October 1, 2010

Brakes are perhaps the most important part of a vehicle. You want to know that you are able to stop when you want to! Ever since I bought the van the brakes have never been sharp. While I was replacing my rear brake shoes I realised that one of the cylinders was leaking and it was definitely the cause for my poor brakes and the constantly deteriorating level of brake fluid. So before I launch into the procedure I should probably expalin how brakes work.

The only part of the braking system most people know is the pedal! Well just past the pedal is a system of brake fluid that transmits the force you apply on the pedal onto the brakes. When the fluid gets to the wheels, it compresses brake pads (in the case of disc brakes) while it expands brake shoes (in the case of drum brakes). What is the difference? Look at my borrowed picture from the internet.

Picture of a Disc brake. Notice caliper and rotor

Drum brake system. Brake shoes inside the drum

Disc brakes are usually found in the front wheels of most modern vehicles while drum brakes are usually found on the rear wheels. Disc brakes are far more effective because they are able to dissipate heat (a by product of the force applied to stop a vehicle) faster than drum brakes. High end vehicles and performance vehicles usually have disc brakes on the front and rear but their rear brakes also have a secondary braking system involving drum brakes. This is usually for the parking brake (hand brake).

What is a bad cylinder?

So in the case of my van, one of my rear drums had a cylinder leaking. The cylinder helps in expanding the brake shoes. A leaking cylinder means that the fluid does not expand the brakes to the best of its capability. See the diagram below and note how the leaking fluid had accumulated dirt and the area around it was wet. It should always be bone dry.

A close up of the leaking cylinder

Rear braking system with brake shoes in place

Process of replacing the brake cylinder

  • Remove the rear tyre and support the car well and SAFELY (you don’t want to be a car and road sandwich)
  • Remove the drum
  • Take note of the arrangement of the components inside the drum ( I took a picture)
  • Disassemble the drum brake components to leave only the cylinder
  • Remove the cylinder by carefully unbolting the brake fluid line with an 11mm spanner and then the 13mm bolt that holds the cylinder onto the system
  • Put in the new cylinder and replace the brake fluid line and then the 13mm bolt to hold it well onto the system. You need patience here. You do not want to damage the threads on the new cylinder.
  • Reassemble the brake components correctly and replace the drum
  • Fill the entire braking system with brake fluid and bleed the brakes.
  • Adjust the rear brakes as necessary and enjoy your new sharp brakes

This link probably has better pictures and more detail on how to remove the brake shoes. But in my defence my hands were so dirty I could not do proper pictures!

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Shopping for spare parts

September 30, 2010

When I purchased my VW Vanagon in February 2010 I knew absolutely nothing about it! All that I knew was that I liked it and I had this dream of me going on long trips with my friends. I remember driving it to my place for the first time at night. I was with my good friend Eric and we had loaded my motorbike into the van in order to drive it back. After a few kilometers, the van started heating up. All we could hear from the front was the sound of boiling water and hissing steam. We stopped to let it cool three times on the way and the very next day my quest to restore the van began.

The first thing I realized was that there is nothing like a knowledgable and cheap mechanic! This is because I got a mechanic to help me deal with the overheating. His reasons for the van overheating did not make sense to me and I thought I should not allow him to do anything at first while I sought a second opinion. The second opinion was not cheap and it was also concluded in 2 minutes. Mr. Kinuthia, a wise old head in the business of VW Transporter repair only took one look at the expansion bottle pressure cap and told me that was the problem. He then proceeded to procure the part on my behalf and installed it and voila! the problem was gone.

I was happy but the cost really bothered me. I did not think that a plastic cap would be as expensive as Mr. Kinuthia made it out to be. So I started by going to the premier dealer in all Volkswagen vehicles in Kenya, CMC motors and asked for all sorts of spare parts. When I finally found one they did not have, I requested them to recommend where else I would find it and the mentioned Impala Auto Spares just down the road. Since then whenever I do not find a part at a dealer, I always seek reference from those dealers and in Kenya they have a great culture of gladly referring you to competition. As a result I now know a number of places to shop for spare parts in Kenya.

Another important aspect while shopping for spares is knowing your car. Knowing the part and better still offering the part number is a wonderful way of ensuring that the dealers serve you correctly and accurately. You can also shop more aggressively for good deals on parts when you have such information. For my van I always work with VW Heritage Parts and Van Cafe. Their websites breakdown the entire vehicle and give you each spare including the price they sell it at. This usually forms a basis for my search for parts as I always know what price to expect and I can now identify a good deal when I come across one.

So while shopping for spare parts; research, research, research.

vanagon suspension

Vanagon undergoing a suspension check