Streetwalking: Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro

It's not "beige", it's "dirty". Either way, most other minivans would be ashamed. This one can stand proud.

If you started telling most car guys about the tech specs on these little vans, they’d start salivating — provided, of course, you didn’t tell them what vehicle the specs belonged to. For obvious reasons, these little trucks don’t have the best reputation. But let’s take a closer look.
Not only is it a Syncro, it's a Syncro Westfalia with the pop-top.

Imagine, for a moment, we’re not looking at a T3 Transporter. Imagine I was describing to you a vehicle with a rear-engined water-cooled flat-four, available in either a gas or diesel; imagine I was telling you about an engine tuned for as much low-end torque as possible; imagine I told you it was hooked to a proper four-wheel-drive system with actual locking differentials; imagine I told you it was available with a manual, a semi-automatic, an automatic, or even a rare sequential-shift manual.
These are pretty good credentials. They’re actually even better when you get further into it. The differentials are selectable on the dashboard, and can be locked or unlocked individually, front or rear. The transmission itself serves as the center differential; while this might be a weak point in a larger vehicle, the Transporter Syncro was designed to be light, flexible and versatile. Adding a heavy center differential would serve little purpose with the limited power, and the viscous clutching system in the transmission works just as well.
The Transporter Syncro (or Vanagon, or T25, or Kombi) was developed out of a rivalry between the different divisions of Volkswagen. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a need in the German armed forces for a replacement for their light off-road vehicles; Volkswagen management sent the mission to their Audi department, hoping they could develop something appropriate out of their “quattro” technology. Audi, of course, began developing the Iltis.
Off in an unloved back laboratory somewhere, however, the department that would eventually become Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles was offended by this choice. They felt that they should be responsible for the project, and quietly set out to prove it.
Equipment racks, a camper, a four-wheel-drive system and paint that hides the dirt. What more do you need? Now get out there.

With no budget and only the spare parts in the Volkswagen parts bin to draw on, they put together Transporter Syncros in several different varieties, including one using a four-wheel drive system sourced from the Jensen FF, legendarily purchased “off the books”, using various office-supply budgets. When the Iltis was completed, and sent to the German military for testing, the Commercial Vehicles department also sent along one of their Transporter Syncros. Simply put, the Transporter ran circles around the Iltis in the off-road trials; unfortunately, it didn’t meet several of the basic requirements for configurability, and was set aside.
Volkswagen senior management was impressed however, and when the next generation of Transporter came out, the Syncro was added to the lineup; Volkswagen even purchased the technology behind the Ferguson 4WD system they had “borrowed”, and shared it with Steyr-Daimler-Puch for use in some of their military vehicles. In short, it was one of those rare instances when a back-office laboratory said that they were capable of making a vehicle better, proved it, despite orders to the contrary, and senior management listened and rewarded their efforts. Perhaps with more examples of management like this, we wouldn’t end up in situations where legendary companies like, say, Saab end up being sold off piecemeal in disgrace due to years of neglect and lack of direction.

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  1. TXuser Avatar
    TXuser

    check out http://www.syncrosafari.com. Shocking where they take these things every year.

  2. jjd241 Avatar
    jjd241

    Not syncrolisious but still a cool van i came across today… http://www.youdrivewhat.com/?p=782

  3. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

    Well, it's a monocoque. So it has sort of sporting pretensions.

  4. Sparky_Pete Avatar

    I present to you, das T3 stampede….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWLFGPl1Kdk

  5. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    I appreciate and admire Synchros…but have absolutely no desire to ever own one.
    Or even live near someone who owns one, lest the proximity to it cause me and my nicely functional cars to be sucked into into its vortex of maintenance hopelessness.

  6. CptSevere Avatar

    Yeah, I kinda like the idea of these but I already have an RV that could follow these into most places, or could tow a Jeep that could go further. The Road Condo could beat it in a drag race, too.

  7. Age_of_Aerostar Avatar

    You can flame me all you want for maybe not being as true a "car guy" as many others, but…..
    you listed these features:
    a rear-engined water-cooled flat-four, available in either a gas or diesel;
    an engine tuned for as much low-end torque as possible
    a proper four-wheel-drive system with actual locking differentials
    available with a manual, a semi-automatic, an automatic, or even a rare sequential-shift manual.
    But while reading, I was thinking you forgot some important features:
    The roof pops up
    It can sleep 5
    It has a sink
    It has a refrigerator
    It comes ready to hook up to an external power supply

    1. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

      Yep… the Jeep doesn't even have locking diffs (yet.)

  8. discontinuuity Avatar
    discontinuuity

    Pretty damn cool. I've seen one or two of these around Golden, one with a log for a front bumper, in that great Colorado tradition (it fits in with the steer-horn-equipped Subarus and trucks with homemade brush guards).

  9. 77171 Avatar
    77171

    I used to sell parts for these things. We sold A LOT of cylinder heads for the waterboxers because of pitting problems. Aside from that problem they didn't seem too needy.
    If I had space in my driveway and spare cash I'd buy one.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5qgKRvF0Ks

  10. JeepyJayhawk Avatar

    Needs BFG KTO and I'm in love.

  11. engineerd Avatar

    I'm an engineer and we often make assumptions in order to make our calculations and designs easier. Usually these are things like ignoring friction in small pipe runs or assuming an elephant is actually a cube.
    In order to like this, I have made an engineering judgment to just assume it will be reliable. Now, I am in lust.

  12. Reuven Avatar
    Reuven

    My family had one of these as a kid. It was wonderful, able to go onto the beach, offroad and go through snow up to it's belly. Sadly it developed blownheadgasketitis like all of it's kin and passed on. If I still had it today, I'd squeeze in one of VWs fab diesel 4-bangers and re-gear the tranny.

  13. Mary Mack Avatar

    I never imagined how much stuff there was online on this! Thanks for making it all easy to take in

  14. Jason Avatar
    Jason

    Nice looking van. I've always liked rear-engined VW vans. It's too bad that VW Vanagon Syncros were only sold in limited numbers, at least in relations to the rear-wheel drive

  15. Jason Carpp Avatar
    Jason Carpp

    I can imagine a vehicle like this being powered by a boxer diesel engine. It's too bad that Volkswagen discontinued the Vanagon when they did.

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