View original topic: Automatic transmission: good or bad?
Pieterjan Wouda Tue Jul 21, 2009 7:32 pm

I found a 1987 Westfalia in good condition. Stored indoors with only 1200 km put on since 2001. 144,000 km total on original 2.1 L water cooled engine. Recently saftied and emission tested. Automatic with a/c.

I am very interested in buying this Vanagon, but have been told by friends (experienced owners of VW buses from the '60-ies), that an automatic gearbox consumes quite some of the engine's marginal power. They advised me against buying an automatic; especially in mountainous roads an automatic would cause trouble. I don't live in a mountainous area but in Quebec and don't expect to venture in mountains often. Still, I am wondering about the automatic transmission.

What is your judgement of Vanagons with an automatic transmission? Good or bad.

VWGeorge Tue Jul 21, 2009 7:50 pm

In my opinion the automatic is a reliable and desireable option. How many of your friends have actually had an Auto equipped bus or vanagon?

Pieterjan Wouda Tue Jul 21, 2009 8:07 pm

No, you are right, they only have much experience with manual '60-ies VW busses.
Maybe I should add this to my question: Are you aware of commonly know problems with these automatics?

Tristar Eric Tue Jul 21, 2009 8:59 pm

Vanagon automatics = 2 thumbs up :D

Just make sure the cooler doesn't leak into your transmission fluid.

magician Tue Jul 21, 2009 9:00 pm

I've had 3 Vanagons, 91, 87, 91. The first two were 4sp and the last (current) is an auto.

I'm glad I have an auto. Then again, the use is primarily around town and local interstates, i.e. not very many road trips. Mine has 136k ... shifts fine ... a little bit early for my tastes (but maybe ok for a TDI swap).

VWGeorge Tue Jul 21, 2009 9:03 pm

I really never had a problem that was due or faulted by the van. All the problems (Check my Post) were the effect of Non-Scheduled service, or work that could have been performed by the last owner. These machines, if properly attended to, give an amazing return in reliabilty. I laugh sometimes at the fact that my 81 Vanagon is more reliable than My 2001 Jetta GL.

PDXWesty Tue Jul 21, 2009 9:25 pm

I've had a manual and now an automatic. I love the auto trans too now. I climb mountains fine with it being able to maintain 50-55 mph up steep grades by downshifting to second gear. I haven't really noticed the difference between the power of a manual vs. auto.

funagon Tue Jul 21, 2009 9:35 pm

Some reading on the vanagon auto trans:

Terry Kay Tue Jul 21, 2009 10:41 pm

If maintained properly, and on some sort of regimented schedule, you couldn't ask for a tougher long winded transmission.

One short coming of any automatic trans is the neglect a prior owner has inflicted upon it by a simple lack of maintenance.

That's it---

You won't go wrong with the VW automatic trans.

D Clymer Tue Jul 21, 2009 11:21 pm

I think you'd be happier with a manual. My experience with automatic Vanagons in mountainous areas has not been good. The problem is that most grades of any size cannot be taken in drive. The 2nd gear in an auto can only be used up to about 50 mph for extended amounts of time. The third gear in a manual van is good for about 10mph more. This would especially be a problem with a camper and its extra 400 lbs of equipment. I've also found that auto vans get poor mileage. Our family bought a brand new one in 1987 and on two trips to Utah from Seattle it got anywhere from 16 to 19 mpg - 17 to 18 most of the time. With my manual vans I've always gotten better than 20 on extended trips. Also, the shift points are set too low, so you often have to hold the van in lower gears with the lever to get decent performance.

I will agree that the auto vans cruise nicely and can be very relaxing to drive, but I think the manual trans allows you to get the best out of these engines. You should probably drive one of each so you can form your own opinion.


Wildthings Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:35 am

With an automatic your engine will always be turning 3000 RPM or better when at full throttle and in motion. This gets and keeps the engine within the torque curve for maximum power. I have owned two Vanagon simultaneously for years one an auto and one a manual. We have to pull a long grade to get home, the manual may or may not make it in high gear depending on load and wind, while the automatic always will. The shift point issue just takes a few minutes to adjust, following the instructions in the Bentley won't necessarily give you satisfactory results, but good results can easily be had by a little experimentation and testing. All my Vanagons have always gotten about the same gas mileage, 20-22. If you caravan with someone in another rig the Vanagon's poor gas mileage and small tank will be an annoyance. Others may be able to make it almost twice as far on a tank as you.

hiram6 Wed Jul 22, 2009 7:13 am

I love my 85 Westy with the automatic. I will, at some point, adjust the shift points to get a little more out of each gear before it shifts up, but that's a minor complaint. The transmission is pretty bulletproof if maintained, and will likely outlast many other parts of the van. I replaced the factory cooler with an external cooler, so I'm hoping that gives me a little lower temps and longer life, especially since I want to do a little light towing with it.

Some years of the manual transmission have a common defect, sopmething about the 3-4 shift.

I'll just put my van in drive, and

Terry Kay Wed Jul 22, 2009 8:34 am

It's pretty common for an automatic trans to get a little less mpg. than a stick, and of course this all depends on how you flog your your Van.

You wanna fly, keep up with the reat of the flying fools on the road, expect to see 15-17 mpg realisticly.

I've never had the time, nor the inclination to roll at 50--55 mph all day long on a trip--yawn---

Then maybe you might see at best 18 mpg--bu that's really sqeezing it.

The 4 speed's can get an honest 18 -19 mpg. at 60-65 mph. kinda- sorta fuel economy, as long as you don't push it.

The automatic trans will handle just about anything you throw at it.
Hill's mountains, hollar's, waller's, no problem.

For long trans life in high heat & long hauls a trans cooler has historicly proven to do any automatic trans well.
Tyoe F fluid in a Vanagon automatic is the way to go for crisp , non destructive "slip between each gear" shifts, and will prolong the transmissons life span.

All in all there is nothing wrong with the Vanagon automatic trans.
It is pretty much bullet proof, and has a bunch less moving parts to engauge the trans, and make the Van move.

Here's an item interest--regarding the 4 speed trans---

If anyone's wheeling in a pre 85 stick shift Vanagon--and has been petrolis negectus on the shift shaft bushings, and has a real sloppy, and non recognizable shift pattern--well, get used to it.
The shift shaft bushings are NO Longer Available.

It's going to be a hunt and hope transmission gear selection for you unless you locate somebody to custom turn you a new set of nylon support shaft bushings.

It's the big pay off for not greasing them--

This is another reason I wouldn't have a 4 speed--
Too long a shift rod for unidentifiable sloppy shifts.
Too many parts to move to get rolling.

TSR53 Wed Jul 22, 2009 9:58 am

My automatic works very well in my 1991 Westfalia. Just returned from a 1100 mile vacation down through Vermont to Cape Cod and back.

I have 157k miles on mine and the AT has been recently rebuilt. I've installed a new factory cooler and fluids too. Yes, it's slow but I love it = easy to drive.

carlivar Wed Jul 22, 2009 11:24 am

Manual transmission, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons to own a Vanagon. There simply aren't any other manual transmission vans available in the United States.

Also correct me if I'm wrong, but don't the torque converters in automatic transmissions lose about 15-25% of the engine power?

deprivation Wed Jul 22, 2009 11:45 am

I have an auto and I've driven it from sea level all the way to 12,000 feet and it's solid, especially after I added an external transmission cooler and Royal Purple ATF.

Maybe you lose a little power but not 20 percent, as has been suggested. You lose a little. That's it.

Wildthings Wed Jul 22, 2009 1:11 pm

carlivar wrote: Manual transmission, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons to own a Vanagon. There simply aren't any other manual transmission vans available in the United States.

Also correct me if I'm wrong, but don't the torque converters in automatic transmissions lose about 15-25% of the engine power?

My automatic Multivan has always got just about the same gas mileage as my Syncro, and a little better than my badly worn out 83 1/2 does. I can't imagine that the auto uses up very much energy, maybe 5%. Since it keeps the engine within the torque curve it probably earns a little of that back. In our case since I don't like paying the state extra installments of cash from time to time for the privilege of driving over 55-60 mph on our local roads the gas mileage is pretty much the same auto or manual.

madspaniard Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:18 pm

I've always been a manual transmission guy. That's what we had available in Europe but I have to say I love my auto tranny Westy, nothingvlike cruising around without care of shifting, enjoying the views and a coffee or soda. Keep it well maintained and it will be trouble free. Change the original cooler like they have mentioned above.

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