Byron History & Mods

Introducing Byron...

Byron is our 1989 Volkswagen Vanagon.  

He is named based on our fond memories of our time traveling in Australia in early 2012 where we visited Byron Bay, where we saw many VW's on adventure.

He was acquired in September 2013 from a local family in Boulder County who had purchased him from GoWesty in Central California.  The link above describes in detail the work that they did to make Byron a road-worthy vehicle, and from everything that we can tell, GoWesty got it right!

Of course, we've had a few months to add our own touches to make the trip more enjoyable. Below are a few of the highlights.

Sound Deadening:

When traveling at highway speeds, we found it difficult to have a conversation that could be heard comfortably among the front & rear passengers. A little bit of searching on the Interweb produced lots of great ideas. We ended up using a common home building product called ProtectoWrap on the inside surface of virtually the entire shell of the vehicle to mitigate resonance. In areas where clearance allowed, we also added a closed-cell foam insulation.
I won't say that the vehicle is now as quiet as a Lexus, but it's a whole lot better than it was!

Upping the game on the refrigerator:

We replaced the stock fan attached to the refrigerator coils with a computer fan, added another one as an exhaust fan, and added a couple of switches to allow better control of these. One switch overrides the thermocouple that controls the coil-mounted fan to allow us to run them anytime for extra thermal transfer. The second switch controls the exhaust fan so that in case the T/C wants the fans to run when we want to sleep, we don't have to listen to the louder exhaust fan.

While this mod won't get formally tested until we depart for Alaska, driveway tests had the air temp in the fridge at 29 degrees dead empty.

Security System:

Since we were confident that Byron would be left unguarded at several trail-heads, parking lots, and the like during our 2 1/2 month journey, we wanted to give him a little protection. Plus, since he's our only way home, we have a vested interest as well. Digging around the 'archives', I found that I still had a 1980's vintage Ungo Box alarm system 'in stock'. About 90 minutes later, valla!
The 2nd battery system hardware was already under the driver's seat, courtesy of GoWesty.

Solar Shower:

We were planning on using a bag-style solar shower and putting it on top of the rear hatch for gravity feed, but I was concerned about how to keep it in the sun while driving. While searching the Interweb for ideas, I happened upon a better idea, and I even had most of the supplies in stock! 8' x 4" black PVC = almost 5 Gallons of water being heated all the time that the sun shines, and that's a lot in Alaska!

Post-Alaska Trip Mods:

The luxury of time and some 'wishlist' items from our trip led to a few updates in the time since we've gotten back from Alaska.

VW Emblem Stove Grates:

These are not purely vanity. The Bialetti coffee pot that we use barely balanced on the ends of the stock stove grate, and in fact once toppled and spilled hot coffee onto the lower seat/bed. Thank goodness Meghan was not lying there when that happened! You can find them from Frank Condelli.

Sliding Door Handle:

On several occasions, especially with the van parked 'uphill', we drove away only to find that the sliding door was not fully closed. The solution could be as simple as a quick pull from the inside, if only for a handle that was out of the way when the door was to slide open. Here's what I came up with:

Rear Table Improvement:

Most Westy owners would probably agree that the rear table is often in the way of the pantry cabinets, closet door, etc... I'd seen some folks that added a tube to the base of table mount that allow it to be raised up and solve some of these issues. Coincidentally, I had some old Yakima crossbars laying around that were rusty on the ends, but clean in the middle. When I cut one them and tried it out, the OD of the Yakima bar is just right to slide inside the ID of the table leg, and it has that great plastic coating that acts as a lube to smooth out operation. 
After the first camping trip using this mod, we found that we really like it! The ability to raise/rotate the table above the sink keeps it out of the 'floorspace', and allows for the pantry and closet to be accessed. Additionally, it can be set to a comfortable height for food prep with the top popped.
Search out those old Yakima crossbars and do this!

Center Console & Scope Drift

We went the entire summer with an aftermarket center console on the floor behind the shifter. It worked well to organize a few things, and hold cups / water bottles. Of course, it was inconvenient in terms of the reach required to get to your drink (especially for the driver), and occupied too much floor space for my taste. 
I spent a fair amount of time researching other options for center consoles and leveraged many of the good ideas out there. Our wish list was basic: Maintain walk-through ability on the floor between the seats, water bottles and cup-holders at good height for the driver, hard-wire in a multi-port USB device charger, shelf to keep iPod out of direct view, but easily accessible (iPod GUI is easier to navigate than via my stereo headunit). The following pix show what I came up with:

Well, I couldn't resist adding a bit of LED lighting to the lowest level to allow for night time visibility for moving around, but without any glare for the driver.
As I said in the heading, this project led to some scope drift, even more so than the LEDs above. When I was preparing for the installation, I decided to add some sound deadening material / insulation to further add interior comfort. Before & after photos:

Another wish list item was a dome light in the center of the headliner rather that just the stock one above the driver seat. A quick trip to the Pick & Pull netted this $10 goodie from a Nissan Passeo. A Rotozip made quick work of the cutting duties on the headliner. I swapped out bulbs for LED's and this is the result:

Since we have 2WD, might as well go big on the tires!

The Michelin tires that came with Byron were very good tires for our trip, but unfortunately one of them got some very uneven wear due to the broken ball joint we discovered in the Yukon and got repaired in Fairbanks. I decided to do a significant upgrade before winter and searched out the somewhat elusive BF Goodrich TA/KO tires to fit (215/70/16) So far, with a bit of off roading in Utah and the November snow around Boulder, these are performing great!

Recaro Seats!

We finally found a good enough deal to pull the trigger and go big on seats. Wow! What a difference in comfort. Well worth the expense. We probably should have done it before the Alaska trip, but this gives us justification for another such adventure.

The seats actually came direct from Germany via an eBay purchase. Vedat at Carpartzz provided great service and options for us. Shipping was quick and included in the price of the seats, and car seats import into the USA duty-free. He has a good supplier for the Specialist model seats and others that are armrest-compatible for Vanagons. Highly recommended!

T3Technique Front Anti-Roll Bar

For anyone who's driven one of these vehicles on a mountain road, you understand how much they lean going around corners. While the VW engineers did include anti-roll bars (AKA Sway-Bars) front and rear, an opportunity existed to improve on the original. A few options exist, but most are imported from right-hand drive countries, and reviews noted some fitment issues. We chose to go with the T3Technique version and are very pleased so far.

Closeup of the powder-coated bar and beefy bracket.
Endlink connection with Powerflex (purple) urethane bushing upgrade.

While it was impossible for me to get a photo of the full bar after installation, I captured the above that should give you an idea of the quality of this item. Very nice indeed! Installation was about as easy as anything under the car goes. I should have power-washed the area before install because gravity is still in play, even in Boulder. Thank goodness for safety glasses!

As long as I was under there, I also upgraded the steering-rack bushings to the Powerflex urethane bushings. This took some of the flex out of the steering system and provides better response, especially when in the 'jetwash' behind a truck etc...
Powerflex urethane steering rack bushings.

Driver's Side Grab Handle

Ever since installing the Recaro seats I've wanted to add a 'grab handle' to the driver's side A-pillar to allow the driver to easily lift over the side bolster of the seat, thus preventing unnecessary wear on the fabric / bolster. 

My research into the project warned of horror stories of drilling into the wiring harness that runs inside of the left-side A-pillar. Glad that I read about that in advance! 

Holes successfully drilled! 1/8" pilot hole first. 7/16" final hole.

5/8" spacing between each set of holes, 7 3/16" centers for top/bottom set. 
Closeup of the 5/8" spacing.

The finished product!

Flooring upgrade

A neighbor has one of those really nicely done Sprinter Van campers and we noticed this nice gray colored wood laminate flooring in hers. This gave me the idea that it would be really simple to put down some wood-laminate flooring in Byron. One $28 box of material from Costco and a new threshold strip from leftover materials and a few hours was all it took!

Remote power front door locks

OK, so having a vehicle that's three decades old comes along with missing out on some modern conveniences. With the (earlier) installation of a Clifford alarm system, we had the technology available to trigger power door locks, if only we had them. I ordered up a set of aftermarket motors and hardware from Parts Express a few months ago, and finally got it completed this past weekend. Sweet!
No, I don't plan on electrifying the sliding door to enable power locks there. Sorry, I'm not that committed.

This is our now very crowded under driver's seat area with the alarm module, power & ground blocks, relays, camp battery, and battery maintainer unit.

These relays send the power trigger to the door lock motors.
The tricky thing is that they reverse polarity of the triggers depending on 'Arm' or 'Disarm' signal.
I hadn't built a set of these in 25+ years, but all went well with no fires or shorts!

Adding an aftermarket door lock motor to a Vanagon is a challenge
due to the lack of mounting options. Normally I'd like to have the motor
in line, in this case vertically, with the lock pin rod it attaches to.

In this case, I had to settle for an angled motor, which also had to be spaced
out from the door shell for alignment and to clear the horizontal door handle
control rod. Some aluminium tubing came in handy for spacers.
Of course, there was a fine line for clearance between the rod and the window glass!
For reference, the spacers were right at 3/4" in length.
Replacing the factory door liner seal just seemed like a good idea!

South African Grille & LED Headlights

Last spring we had the misfortune of breaking one of our headlights due to a piece of random road debris. I shortly found out that the Vanagon-style rectangular headlights are no longer made and getting harder and harder to come by, even used. I ended up paying $90 for a used one to get us back in operation. I realized that the long-term solution would have to be to do the South African Grille and convert Byron to traditional round headlights, for which we could find replacements easy anywhere that we happen to be. Following are the photos taken of the install process.

I did decide to go with LED headlights from SuiTech for the main 7" Low/High Beam, and the 100w bulbs in the high-beam units, supported by the proper relay system to handle the power draw.

The start of the process. Removed the original grille and headlights / buckets.

In order to integrate the turn signal and DRL / Parking Light functionality of the SuiTech lights I had to link into Byron's existing wiring. I like to get a little geeky with the wiring process and do shrink-wrap and dielectric grease on all connections. 

The first side is in! Before starting the project, I refurbished the main headlight buckets before installation as the used set I got was a bit corroded and the adjusters needed a little work. Better to do it in the garage than on the road somewhere!

We almost always run with headlights on in the daytime anyway, so I decided to hook up the Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) in the SuiTech lights to my parking light circuit. I figured it would give us some less-obtrusive light for camp setup after-dark (like that ever happens!)
This was the test of the parking lights.

The SuiTech lights also have a 'turn signal' feature and illuminate the trim ring lights / DRLs as yellow when the turn signal is activated. Above photo is from the test of the hazard lights.

Finished! Well, sort of. I noticed the 'buck tooth' now visible near the top of the grille. Fixed that with a rattle can a couple weeks after original install.

High Beams are still Halogen on the inboard units, but with the 100w bulbs, sufficient for retina-burning.

Window Cranks & Third Brake Light

OK, so the windows cranks are not really a project, but I wanted to post here in order to give some promo to Craig Ross for doing these bomber window cranks! 

Then, what I thought would be a relatively quick project to install a GoWesty third brake light morphed into a much bigger deal once I saw the rats nest that my A/C wiring condition was!

It's tough to see here, but the 50A fuse that runs between the two screws (right one corroded) is bent because all the plastic housing behind it was melted and deformed.

I cleaned it up by replacing most of the 8G wire and installing an inline fuse holder of the same rating. Also cleaned up all the relay connections etc.

So, once that was cleaned up I continued with the original quick/easy third brake light wiring and installation.

Between the LEDs in the main lights and the high-mounted brake light, I'm feeling a little better on the road!

Blazecut Fire Suppression System

Winter is a great time to knock projects off the list. While fuel lines and related have been replaced and we generally keep a pretty good eye on things, I'll take all the protection I can get to keep Byron alive. One project that I've been meaning to do for some time is to install a Blazecut fire suppression system into the engine box.
I chose the 3M length system and added on the hardware kit to save a trip to the store.

Routing around the perimeter of the engine box was pretty straightforward. I had to disconnect/reconnect a few wires & pieces to facilitate a clean run, but nothing major.

Much of the system can be completely concealed under the lip of the opening. Some practically cannot, but nothing is protruding so as to hinder repairs. 


  1. Hi Rob,

    thank you very much for make me immortal on you webside! Enjoy the RECARO seatfeeling and take care :)

    Greatings from Germany.


  2. Great write-ups on maintaining and improving your Westy!

    Question about your Recaro seats (which I have always wanted) and wonder if you needed special hardware to mount them on the swivel bases in the van? If so, where did you get it?

    1. Thanks Andrew! We're having lots of fun with Byron. I ordered the Recaro rails from GoWesty (~$100 for both sides) and it was an easy install. I think the same kit is available elsewhere, but I was in a hurry and GW is great to deal with.

  3. Great. Thanks for the info. I agree, GW is great to deal with.

  4. Hi, I am looking to build a very similar center console, and I was wondering if you had anymore pictures or information. Anything would help. Thanks -