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1976 VW Westfalia

Hello all- so I just purchaced a 1976 VW camper and this is all new to me. I bought it more as a hobby because I have a lot of crappy things going on right now in my life and wanted a pick me up and something to occupy my time and mind. I have always wanted one since I was like 9 years old and I am so excited I finally got one! My problem is that I have no mechanical skills what so ever and do not want to sound sexist but I am a girl and have never done anything with cars. I joined but am having trouble getting help on there because it seems to be for the more experienced person and no one seems to want to answer my “dumb” questions. I took it to a vw mechanic to get inspected, he said it needs new brakes…$600!! And that it is running on 3 cylinders but I do not know what that means. How bad is that? What are the first things I should do to it? Like I said, I got this as a hobby so I’d like to put some work into it myself. I dont mind getting down and dirty, I’d actually love it! but i can obviously only do so much myself. What are some simple things I could do without screwing anything up? It seems to be in pretty good shape, drives ok so far, has some rusted areas, etc. I took off the cover of the pipe where the water drains from the sink on the outside and there are bee hives in there! I got a few out but now I can’t reach anymore and I tried to take apart the plumbing but got to a point that I was nervous to mess with it anymore…so i need a lot of help- anything would be appreciated! Only pleasant to helpful response please…i already got enough of a beating from the samba haha! Thank You!

As for the bees some raid and when the bees are dead snake (mechanical drain cleaning type) would be good. I think a semester of Auto Shop at a community college would be a cool thing for you. You will learn a lot about how to maintain and repair a car safely and properly, have a teacher that can be your instant source of tips and give you the knowledge and confidence you will need for the many hours of repairs and fixes in your future.

For the bees, sprinkle a bit of powdered “Sevin” in the area where the bees land to crawl into their nest. They get the “Sevin” on their feet, take it into the nest, they all eat it, and quickly die. You can get “Sevin” at any local garden supply store.

I agree with waterboy. Unless you are willing to pay serious money to get this 35 year old vehicle repaired, they you should begin with local auto shop courses.

The suggestions from Waterboy and JoeMario are good ones.
To their lists, I will add some grandfatherly advice:

Unless you want to add to your current woes, DO NOT drive this vehicle until the brakes have been replaced.
If you think that $600 is a lot of money for brake repair, it is thousands of times cheaper than the liability that can result from driving a car with bad brakes.

As to the “running on 3 cylinders”, you should be aware that this condition not only reduces engine power (which was not exactly abundant to begin with on this model), but it also results in unburned gasoline being dumped into the engine’s oil supply. If that takes place for longer than a very short period of time, the engine will wind up with severe damage to the bearings and cylinder walls, simply because gasoline (which is not a lubricant) is diluting the motor oil.

Essentially, there are two very compelling reasons for NOT driving this vehicle in its current condition.
In the meantime, admire it, polish it, deal with the rust and the bee infestation, save up the money needed for repairs, and take a course in basic auto maintenance at your local adult evening education program. Once you “have all of your ducks in a row”, then you can begin to enjoy the vehicle.

That still has the air-cooled engine, right? If so, here’s a book on maintaining Beetles that has been around forever, should give you an understanding of some of the basics.

You should also get the Haynes manual for your Westy, which is a modified Vanagon (or ‘Transporter’ in VW lingo):

Good luck!

p.s. - definitely take a course on car maintenance, and don’t drive it until the brakes are fixed and the engine is running right.

Did The Previous Owner(s) Give ny Indication Of Why It’s Running On Only 3 Of 4 Cylinders ?

That’s where I’d start. Determine why. It could be relatively minor like an ignition or fuel problem. It could be relatively major (not major, sorry, but “more involved” like low compression), but I am limited to helpful, pleasant comments so let’s not go there.

The “bad” (not bad, sorry, “ill”) cylinder has to be checked for ignition and fuel first (because this should be the easiest for you) and then compression. The compression should be checked and then the valves checked and adjusted before a second compression test. Then the next action plan can be formed from there.

After it’s running well and before putting it on the road, the brakes will need to be repaired as necessary. I’d do the rust last.

Looking at the bright side . . . as a hobby, this rates right up there ! Do you have a place to camp in your yard ?


I had a VW camper, '71, but it was an American conversion so not exactly equipped like the Westfalia version which was produced in Germany. The '76 had a bigger motor which was good for more power, but more expensive to repair since it had more Porsche parts in it. One cylinder, #3 I think, had a tendency to run hot and was the one that usually broke down sooner than the other 3. If your running on 3 cylinders can be solved with new ignition parts (plugs, cap, rotor, condensor), or work on the carburator(s) then you won’t need an engine rebuild. You need to get it running on all 4 cylinders and you’ll need to have a mechanic handle that for you. Save your money for a brake job and get them fixed ASAP too. These issues need to be addressed before you drive any distance in your camper.

What you can do is clean it up. The sink unit should be detachable so you can find the “clips” that secure it in place and take it out for a real good cleaning. Pop the top up and check out the condition of the canvas.

Your VW has what is refered to as either the Type IV engine or “the Porsche engine” no need to quibble over this. One good thing is that these engine variants have more reasons to drop a cylinder that the old “burned number 3 exhaust valve” condition common with the earlier engines. These engines have a terrible habit of the push rods getting out of alignment with the rest of the valve train, sounds serious? well not really it is a 10 min. fix.

As with all VW’s of this era pull the spark plugs and do a compression check. Not to be dismissive of your talents but this is a tough vehicle for a new person to both remove and replace plugs and get the compression gague in for testing. If compression is low remove the valve covers (there are tricks to do this) and inspect the valve train that you now can see,perhaps you see a pushrod jammed in a incorrect angle, or perhaps a valve adjustment is required (I will not scare you with the results of driving a VW that needs a valve adjustment). First things first, verify engine condition. Even in 1979 I was getting 1500.00 or more too overhaul these engines and that could be the fix for “low compresion”.

In short you may have a Westfalia with a worn out engine or just and engine that needs some work. Don’t spend any money on brakes yet.

I would love to have one of those, if I had another garage bay. Is my memory right that this one had a radiator in the front and it cooled the engine in the back? It is water cooled is it not? If not, then get the latest copy of “How to Keep Your VW Alive” Heck, it is good reading for someone who was never in a VW, great reading for someone working on one. It even has very very good information.

Good Luck with the car and everything else going on.

No Joseph, your memory does not serve you right.

A few years off, the ‘wasserboxer’ came out in '82.

Wikipedia gives it 1984,myself I can’t remember but I was sure it was not 1976, I was still dropping sparkplugs down that sheet metal in 1976.

Let me re-check the Wiki date, it was just a footnote and they do get things wrong

Down at the end of the article, Wiki says 1984

The Haynes manuals are better than nothing for most cars, but for old VW’s the vastly superior Bentley manuals are available:

Every old VW owner should own the Muir book (for a semi-serious chuckle) but have the Bentley manual as the final word. Plus the contrast between the two is fun-- compare the Muir book’s psychedelic cartoons to the somewhat sinister-looking VW mechanics in trenchcoats in the Bentley book!

OK, no response yet, so let’s start here, are you talking front brakes, rear brakes or both? Are they disk or drum?
Running on 3 cylinders pretty much rules out the carb, so we are down to in order of probability, spark plug, plug wire, distributor cap, rotor, then point gap or dwell angle, possibly even a condenser, anyone else besides me have a dwell meter? Be sure if you change the plug wires grab by the boots, the fat end, replace them one at a time putting them back in the same place they came from, you may also wish to check the gap of the spark plug, ask if you need help.

You know what also rules out the carb? the vehicle is fuel injected.I provided a link for those that don’t know these engines to read up on and get a feel for what was being used in 1976.

This is going to be more of a “Project” than a hobby. These are peculiar little beasties with all kinds of quirks.

One of them is the tires. They take “C” type tires - which are the European equivalent of “LT” tires. These are hard to find and folks routinely try to replace these with regular passenger car tires with bad results!

But it appears you are willing to work and learn so this might be good therapy! Just be patient and seek advice frequently - oh, and join

Then we should definitely put a fuel injector on the list.

Strange, I got '82 from a different wiki article:

But it appears you are willing to work and learn so this might be good therapy!

The OP can be like the injured policeman who became a private detective named Harry Orwell on the television series some years back called Harry-O. Harry Orwell was played by the late David Janssen. Orwell had an Austin Healy Sprite that seldom ran and a boat that he worked on that he never got in the water. However, he claimed it was good therapy. Most of the time he rode the city bus around to solve crimes.

Since you state the engine is running on 3 cylinders your first step should be a compression check. You need to make sure that things are mechanically in order with the engine internals before doing one single thing to this beast.

The compression on VW air cools runs lower than most engines so 130ish or so is not out of line, although it means serious issues for anything else.

If the compression is good on all cylinders then consider a faulty plug wire resistor. This problem is not unheard of and is the Bakelite thingamajig that attaches the plug wire to the plug.
This can be tested with an ohmmeter and should read about 1k ohms if good.

Another tip is look underneath the engine and see how badly it’s leaking oil if at all.
If it looks like it’s leaking from many areas then condolences. This often means the only cure is an engine overhaul.
I’m not trying to be depressing here; just being realistic.