The air-cooled Volkswagen Kombi is an icon of motorsport. It’s a classic van packed with character, and many young men (and women) still aspire to owning one as their daily driver. But are they going a bit long now to make a practical vehicle for everyday use?
I drive my 1976 2 liter hatchback every day, and my experience gives a good indication of what you need to do to make your unrestored Kombi safe and comfortable to drive as your primary car.
Volkswagen Kombis are over 30 years old now and it shows. I’ve spent a lot of time and money over the years to get mine back to reasonable condition, and if you buy a cheap Kombi you should be prepared to do the same. Even a more expensive Kombi will probably need some repairs and TLC.
The 1800cc 2-litre models are the most practical because they have more starting and going than models with smaller engines, although the engines cost more to rebuild.
Kombis are cool, they’re iconic, they have character and they’re definitely not boring.
They are fun to drive and when in good shape are comfortable and handle well with good steering. The late-model bay windows keep up with the traffic ticket and can cruise at 60 mph all day, though they slow down on bigger hills.
And they are practical. There is a lot of space in a Kombi. Maybe not as good as a modern van due to the rear engine hump, but they still make a great camper or 8 seater van with room for luggage or groceries. Ground clearance is good and the engine over the rear wheels provides good traction for a two-wheel drive if you want to get off the beaten track a bit.
Now here’s what to look out for if you plan on having one of these as your daily driver.
Rust, of course, is the biggest killer of Kombis or any vintage car. You’re much better off spending a little more money and getting a reasonably rust-free Kombi. However, since you find a rust-free Kombi, there are still plenty of things to eat up your money before it’s practical to use your van on a daily basis.
The motor may be worn. I rebuilt mine a couple years ago with new barrels and pistons, all new bearings, reconditioned crankshaft and camshaft and rebuilt heads. The heads were converted for use with unleaded gasoline at the same time. All this costs money.
Steering and suspension are safety related and must be correct.
On the suspension, I replaced the four main ball joints and the shock absorbers. With the steering, I have replaced all of the tie rod ends and the main center pin. The steering damper is next on the replacement list, and that should see the correct steering for my Kombi. It’s always possible that yours needs a new steering box too.
The brakes on your Kombi also need to be correct. The brake linings are something that needs regular replacement, but I also replaced the rear brake drums because they were worn beyond limits, and the front discs will need to be replaced next time the front brake pads run out.
I replaced all the flexible brake hoses because they are now over thirty years old and getting brittle and I 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.
There are four CV joints on the rear drivetrain, and the ones on my bay window were very sad. They were replaced along with the rear wheel bearings.
A very important area to consider is the fuel lines of the engine. The kombis burn, and it is caused by the gasoline that splashes all over the engine. Check the fuel lines carefully and if they look old and cracked, replace them with a quality fuel line. Make sure they don’t rub against the tinplate and that the lines to the carburetor and fuel pump are not loose. This is important!
In addition to the things that you know may need fixing, there is always something unexpected. A spray nozzle came loose from the carb on my bay window and went through the engine. It’s just a little thin brass tube, but it sounded like there were marbles rattling around in the engine. Luckily there was no damage, but that meant pulling the engine out and removing the cylinder heads to check everything out and remove debris from the spray nozzle. And just this week I had to change the alternator.
In addition to mechanical wear, you have to think about cosmetics. Your cheap Kombi may need a paint job, new carpets, new upholstery, and even the front seats may need some attention.
On the comfort side, new door and window seals may be needed to stop rattles and drafts. The heater may need some attention. On my Kombi, the heater wires were seized. That didn’t bother me until I moved from a hot part of the country to a much cooler area where temperatures drop below freezing in the winter.
In most of the side parts they are readily available. For my Kombi, a 1976 2-litre model, I was able to buy all the parts I needed except the carb spray nozzles, and even then I was able to get by with parts from a different VW model.
My opinion is that despite all the repairs and restorations, Volkswagen Kombis can still be a practical daily driver. You must accept the fact that the purchase price is only part of the story, and that you will have to spend time and money to get your Classic Kombi back to a safe and comfortable condition.