Road trip gone bad: Not quite making it to Baja in my Westy

My Wesy takes a trip

Mexico's Baja California peninsula is an incredibly beautiful place. My 1987 Volkswagen camper van can be an amazing way to travel there. As anyone who has been around one knows, however, calamity is part of every Westy adventure.

Two years and 10 thousand miles ago I completely rebuilt my VW Vanagon GL Westfalia. A day before a large holiday party, while running to pick up ALL THE FOOD, my Vanagon threw the alternator belt, overheated and in a disastrous chain of events ended up needing an engine, transmission, cooling system and brakes. I threw in a new tent and bigger, low profile wheels just for fun. I used GoWesty's fantastic 2.3L upgraded power plant and made a slew of minor improvements. I had been having such a great two years with the bus, I started to think it was bulletproof.

"She's like a new car!" I told my girlfriend, who had agreed to come with me on a trip to Canyon de Guadalupe, Mexico, before I described the long, long list of things I'd replaced or had done. We booked a campsite for a few days in late December and planned to marathon drive down from San Francisco on Christmas day.

I worried over every small detail. Swapping out an old p-trap under the kitchen sink in the van took 3 days. This should have been the first clue things were going to go wrong. I started out thinking I needed a better wrench to free it. I ended up drilling holes in the old trap to weaken it, and needing a saw to cut it out. Welcome to the world of the VW bus.

Then the fridge, after starting easily the first time I tried, refused to relight after I'd filled up the propane tank. "Oh well!" I thought, "I'll run off of electric and start it on gas when I get to Mexico." It gave me something to worry about, which I felt was normal, so I didn't let it get in the way.

I'd labored over a decision: whether to take Highway 5 up and over the Grapevine, or the 101. As we were trying for speed, and I trusted my GoWesty engine, we chose the 5. Where to cross the international border was also a major consideration. I wanted to cross at Tecate and drive the famous, scenic MEX2 highway 150 or so miles through La Rumerosa to Laguna Salada and Canyon De Guadalupe. I was worried that Pemex, the state-owned and only gas stations in Mexico, might be closed on Christmas in more rural areas and thought we might run out of gas on our way North. To ensure that didn't happen, we planned to cross at Mexicali.

I left Muir Beach, CA at 3:30AM, picked up my co-pilot in Oakland around 4 and we were off. She drove the first shift and I slept. Waking up once or twice at gas stops, I wasn't really cogent or thinking as she headed up the Grapevine, California's famous VW bus killer.

Many an air-cooled VW van has died on this monstrous incline. Named after the grapes that grow wild around the remnants of the earlier HWY99 that was long ago replaced by the 5, this section of road was once to be feared in the Summer. Nowadays cars have far more efficient cooling systems, as it helps regulate fuel efficiency (an important point later,) but my woefully underpowered 1987 van would have been in danger. Luckily, I thought, it has run super cool since the rebuild and December was freezing cold. I didn't anticipate any trouble. I didn't realize my co-pilot was unfamiliar with the Vanagon's quirky, near useless, gas gauge.

We actually made it over the top of the Grapevine just fine! The van did well and held 55 most of the way. Once we came over the top, with her nose pointed down, we ran out of gas. Initially, I didn't notice anything. My co-pilot complained she was losing power and I asked her to let off the gas. I took the car out of gear and immediately the engine stopped. Luckily, without the engine braking we sped up. We threw on the hazards and decided to try and roll to the next gas station in Gorman. We came up about 15 feet short and needed a slight push, but as far as Grapevine calamities go this was pretty mild. We filled up the tank, primed the fuel pump and she started right up.

It took about another hundred miles for things to go wrong. My best guess is that we sucked up a ton of sludge from the bottom of my new gas tank (did I mention that had been replaced 2 years ago as well?). It is possible we also got bad gas in Gorman, but they have so much traffic I find that less likely. Whatever the cause, the Vanagon gradually lost power until it wouldn't rev over 3500rpm. That limited us to about 50-55mph on flat ground and 35mph or so uphill. We were trying to take the 210 freeway around Los Angeles to bypass traffic and didn't anticipate the San Gabriel mountains being such a problem. Clearly something was wrong with the car.

We ran a little bit of fuel injector cleaner through the Westy. Things got better. We ran a lot more fuel injector cleaner through her and things got a lot better. I decided to swap the fuel filter, after I proudly told my traveling companion I had the foresight to carry one for just this type of problem. We would head from San Dimas, about 70 or 80 miles, with the car gaining and losing power, to Santa Monica and spend the night at my parents. In the AM I'd swap the filter and we'd head to Mexico.

Visiting Santa Monica let us have dinner at my favorite deli in West Los Angeles, Izzy's. I am not a Fromin's fan. Had we been closer to the San Fernando Valley, I'd have gone to Brent's. It was wonderful to eat at a deli on Christmas.

The next morning I swung under the van, asking my friend to time me, because this was going to take less than 5 minutes. Then I saw that the bolt holding the fuel filter to the frame was stripped. It looked like someone had used a power tool on it while up on a lift and chewed the center out. I tried my fathers special "remove stripped bolts and screws" screwdriver to no avail. I tried vise grips but couldn't get any purchase. Then I found a local mechanic who was open and for $20 he removed the bolt and swapped in the spare filter. It took him less than 5 minutes.

We were on our way! The car was running great again, we could hold 75mph no problem and O'Reilly Auto Parts had another spare fuel filter for us. We headed towards Mexico.

Around 40-50 miles later I noticed that the car felt like it was losing power when I floored it, a frequent occurrence in a vintage VW bus. I had no clue what was going on, so we stopped at a gas station. Idling the van for a few moments, I was surprised to see the temperature gauge never came up above minimum operating temps. I thought the thermostat might be stuck open. Luckily, my incredible mechanic Paul from San Rafael's Valley Wagonworks chose that very moment to call me. We discussed the issues I'd been seeing and he suggested finding a Vanagon expert to swap the thermostat. He wondered if maybe a fuel injector was still clogged. He told me I wouldn't hurt the van driving it like this, but it'd be slow.

I took a look at the thermostat housing and decided it was under too much junk to try and swap on the road. I wanted to go to Baja but I also just wanted to go home. The idea of finding myself stuck on the side of the road in Palm Springs, CA with the fluids pouring out of a cooling system I was unable to properly bolt down was only slightly more appealing than the idea of being in a similar position on the southern side of the US/Mexico border. It was around 11am and 70ºF out. The car was running fine. We agreed it'd be safer to just go home.

Thus began a long, slow trip home. I did not anticipate the outside temperatures changing. As it got colder the car lost power. As we went up in elevation, we lost power. The car ran less and less efficiently, sometimes down to 6 or 7mpg. We were stopping every 60-80 miles. When outside temperatures dropped below 50F the car started to blow clouds of smoke when you'd accelerate.

This was not how I'd hoped to introduce a new friend to the joys of Vanagon camping.

We got home. During the several days we spent pretending my house was a campsite, I found a spare thermostat. I swapped it in, in about one hour, and didn't lose much coolant. The car runs perfectly fine now. I'll take it to my mechanic to change the oil and check my work soon.

One friend suggested I find a newer van to go camping in. He doesn't get it.

While I never got to Baja, this was kind of a perfect Westy adventure. We solved the issues and got home safe. My friend says she'd love to find a closer hot springs and try the VW again. I still want to go to Baja.