When Tim bought Chimera (then Vanyan), it had a stock Vanagon interior, with one bench seat that folded down into the bed and old carpet on the floor. This was a comfortable set-up for short trips, and even our Canada road trip, but we knew that we wanted more of a camper interior for our Pan American travels. The common conversion for Vanagons is the Westfalia or Westy style, with a pop-up roof that becomes the bed and cabinets along the driver’s side. We decided against doing the standard Westy conversion and decided to make our own custom camper interior, following a similar design with cabinets along the driver’s side and a taller cabinet in the rear. Going into the project we had little experience with cabinetry, but we figured it out as we went along, making plenty of mistakes and then fixing them. What we ended up with far exceeded our expectations and makes for a very comfortable and lovely little home. It was a particularly cold and snowy winter in Boulder, so much of our cabinet work was done inside in the kitchen and hallway.
What started as a simple two-hour task of changing a torn CV boot, quickly ballooned into a month-long ordeal. Before I knew it I had all four half-axles out and rebuilt all 8 CV joints. This, naturally, led to a test of Chimera’s viscous coupler (VC).
Viscous couplers are the devices that transfer power from the transmission, in the rear of the van, to the front wheels while allowing some slip between the front and rear wheels. This slip is what allows the van to go around corners on dry pavement. When the wheels begin to spin out, such as on ice or sand, the VC engages, coupling the front and rear wheels, thus making the van all-wheel-drive.
When I tested the VC, I found that what I thought all of this time to be an all-wheel-drive vehicle, was actually just two-wheel drive. The VC was shot, it was transferring zero power to the front wheels. I weighed my options, and decided that I would attempt to rebuild the VC. Syncros are somewhat rare and the youngest ones are still over twenty years old, so there is no such thing as a new VC, and the trick to rebuilding them seems to be some sort of coveted secret.
Viscous couplers are interesting mechanical devices. They consist of an inner shaft, connected to the front wheels, an outer shell, connected to the transmission, and a bunch of disks immersed in a viscous fluid about the consistency of honey. Half of the disks are attached to the inner shaft, and half to the outer shell. When the rear wheels slip, the disks spin in the fluid, transferring power to the front via the disks attached to the inner shaft. This isn’t a particularly complicated device, but it’s rather sensitive to the integrity of the disks, the shaft that they’re mounted on, and the amount and quality of the fluid.
The VW Wasserboxer engine is notoriously underpowered for Vanagons. We knew we wanted more power and reliability, so an engine conversion was the first project. We decided on a 2.2L Subaru engine, as it is extremely reliable, offered an increase of roughly 145% horsepower, and happens to fit right in the VW engine compartment. We got lucky and found a cheap 1998 Subaru EJ22 engine that was in great shape. Tim did most of the conversion work himself, with some help from his dad. The necessary additional conversion parts include a custom flywheel, adaptor plate, and exhaust system, which Tim bought from Rocky Mountain Westy, conveniently located just up the road in Fort Collins. The following photos show some highlights from the 8-week conversion process.
Unloading the Subaru engine Continue reading