The Syncronicles, Living the Vanlife - Video

Jul 30, 2016
by Sebastian Doerk  
Views: 47,443    Faves: 509    Comments: 26


It must have been around 1991 when I first sat in a VW T3. After my mom died, I grew up in an orphanage and there we had two of those white VW T3 Transporter vans we used to get around in. Back then the orphanage was led by Christian nuns, so they were driving these things – not really well - so it has always been an adventure. I remember really funny stories when we drove down to Italy during the summer holidays for our annual two-week beach vacations. It was the highlight of the year. It was all about camping out, eating outside and living under the pine trees at the beach. We never had any issues with the Vans – they brought us back safely, sunburned and happy.

The years went by and when I was 19 my summer vacation took me to the Atlantic coast in France to learn how to surf. Again – Camping out under pine trees with many other surf people and their customized adventure mobiles. The camp ground was packed and no more space was available. There I spotted this perfection of a VW van – a much higher T3 with larger tires and the 4×4 Syncro decals on it. And it was parked on top of a small sand dune where no other car without all-wheel drive could get up.

In 2007 I made the investment and bought a T3 Syncro –the Van or at least a good base to build the van of my dreams. It used to be an old, empty military transporter van with plastic seats but with little rust and low milage. I paid 5400 Euro – which was a lot for such an old van 8 years ago, but nothing compared to the prices that are asked for very basic Syncro vans today. It seemed like a solid base to start a long conversion process. First I stripped the interior down to the metal and cleaned everything. I applied sound deadening matts everywhere and insulated the full body. The rear got a foldable bed and some storage underneath for the second battery, electronics, sound and the Webasto diesel heater. I made new wooden sides and roof panels and covered them with real alcantara fabric. On Ebay I found some used pilot seats and a good Alpine radio. Later I invested into some larger offroad wheels.

The moment where i wanted to run away it got more expensive every minute and seemed never-ending

I drove the van like that for 6 years. But the salty winter use and the bad military matte paint job destroyed the body very fast. Massive rust popped up everywhere and as soon as you look deeper whats under the “bubbles” the more you get frustrated when the screwdriver bores itself through the porous metal. The old engine made more and more problems as well so, two years ago, in fall 2013 I had to make a decision whether to give up on it or invest again to get the Van back on track.

I didn't plan to invest a huge amount of either time or money.

But due to my research for a good car body paint shop I ran into Marco Romaldini and his company Romaldini & Biccario in Munich. He is only a couple years older than me, a Mountainbike enthusiast and runs one of the best paint shops in Germany. His carpark was full with Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin supercars when I rolled in with my old rusty Van. I was like – fu*k it, this is the wrong place, turn around and look for something less exclusive. But luckily I didn’t. After a couple minutes with Marco, I knew he is the right person I could trust. That was in fall 2013 and the start of a full restoration process. The van needed some new metal body parts, some professional welding and rust removal.

Handmade.

To be honest, I had no clue what I had begun.

If I have known back then how much work it would be, I probably would have never started. I took the half car apart, removed the windows, the doors, the complete dashboard and so on to have a good access to all small corners and edges. Marco gave me the opportunity to do all the pre-paint work by myself in a corner of his shop. I thought I would be done with the van in like two weeks. It took more than two months. When I stood in front of the van – everything stripped, the hanging lights which looked like popped out eyeballs I lost faith in the project!

Salt Rust and Corrosion have done a lot more damage than i ever expected

“Throw it away, stop here and now… It's a massive waste of time and money!”

I often said to myself. There were days I came home from the workshop deeply frustrated because I couldn’t see an end. But Marco and his team kept me somehow motivated even they thought was completely crazy to put that much work into such a rusty f*cked up car. I kept going and did what had to be done. There was no way back anyhow…

Workshop II

At the point when I began to sand the body, I figured that when I make such an effort I could also give the car completely new and different paint. I was over the military nato-olive-green and thought the Van would look great in a more modern grey suit. Marco showed me the 200+ grey options I had to choose from… unbelievable. I listened to his expertise and we made a decision to use a metallic dark grey paint with a matte clear coat on top.

When the Van rolled out of the cabin with the fresh paint, applied by the master, all doubts and worries were blown away. The perfection of the new paint – the new fresh look made me feel uncomfortable when I thought that I would run the car with the old engine and live in the old interior. So I had to step up the game completely and made the decision to re-do everything for the second time of the vans life.

The engine has been replaced by a modern 120hp TDI with many custom parts. All taken to perfection by Alexander Schank – a real master and specialist in for custom built engines and transmissions. It took him a couple months to build a solid engine that changed the character of the Van enormously. A huge benefit is not just the extra power but also the modern and more eco-friendly technology that has been built in.

The car meets all modern standards – for real – not like in the latest modified VW cheating manner. I’ve spent the spring of 2015 rebuilding the complete interior and made all door, roof and side panels new. I changed many old cables and installed LED lights and new instruments to have control over my engine at any time when driving. I invested in some new Recaro seating because there is nothing more important than proper seats when traveling for thousands of miles on and off the road. To be completely self-sufficient when setting up camp far away from camp sites I installed two new batteries, new chargers and a mobile 100-watt solar panel to have enough power at any time.

First road trip after almost two years of rebuilding

Due to the fact that my little family was growing as well, I needed think how to fit us all in the van. We are now 4 when we travel as a family, so far we had space on the large bed in the back but with another kid, it's getting way too tight. I’ve spent many nights thinking about how I could fit them all when we camp out without cutting the roof and install a classic Westfalia pop-up roof. Well, it's not bad at all to have it, but I need for my job a heavy duty roof rack to more than I need a pop-up roof all year long. I found a solution and made a HEIMPLANET tent fit onto my roof rack. Its set up within 5 minutes, works excellent and solves my space problem in an aesthetically cool way too.

The last huge remaining work that had to be done was the complete underbody. Mechanically as well as fighting rust and protect the metal good enough for the next decade or two. Again with the help of Romaldini I had a workshop for my use. I took everything apart – which sounds easier than it was. It took me a week to open the 25 year old bolts. Most of them didn’t move at all so it hat to cut and drill them open. I replaced the old shocks with new GMB-Mount height adjustable ones. These are a lot stronger and more firm for a good drive with a heavy loaded van on and off the road. I also replaced all the bushings, joints and bolts. Everything new. I also kicked out the old drum brakes and installed new discs for better braking performance as well. Last but not least the underbody got a 2-way bitumen metallic wax coating to protect the metal for many more years of heavy winter and off-road use to come.

Flow Trail Black Rock Style

Finally, I've built the van of my dreams and learned tons about cars in the process. It's the most versatile car I can think of (well maybe apart from Richie's G Wagon.)

Am I finished?

I wish, but I guess not.. But it was more than worth it.

Rob J Heran.


119 Comments

  • + 179
 I can't believe I'm about to say this but I wish the video had more van and less riding!
  • + 34
 Yep, would be really nice to see some more detail shots of the van
  • + 10
 Agreed
  • + 29
 @T1mb0: check my instagram: @robheran for more detail shots ! thanks.
  • + 2
 @Rob-J: will do
  • + 1
 My thoughts exactly...
  • + 3
 Yeah we need a build log of the van!
  • + 5
 @Rob-J: A van like yours saved my @rse, and probably my life, on a snowy road in Taos, New Mexico in late 1989.
Never been so grateful for a little badge in my entire life ("syncro", that is).

Hope your van gives you many happy miles, she's SWEET.
  • + 2
 Could use more cowbell too...
  • + 32
 VW vans are like crack....you know its not good for you ( your wallet) but you can't help it. I so miss my van(s) and wish I had the money, time, and inspiration to do what you've done. Chapeau.....
  • + 3
 I know, I have a sinka 2wd, docka 2wd and a syncro doka! I can't help my self, they are too good looking!
  • + 1
 AWD Astro/Safari are great options to the VW
  • + 1
 @loopie: that's just wrong somehow to a vw purist. to modernize the vans people are putting Subaru and ford engine kits that give them power and economy not known before but the true vw guy is putting modern gas or diesel tdi vw products. not a cheap option but keeping it alive.
  • + 2
 @loopie: I've got a T4, it's great going to festivals and catching up with the other owners. Synchronised sobbing around a camp fire never felt so good
  • + 2
 haha, good one sewer-rat.......don't get me wrong guys, I'm a Van4Life kinda guy...love'em all. Anytime I come across van discussion I like to mention the Astro/Safari option for noobs just looking to get started and don't have a VW fetish just yet...haha
http://www.pinkbike.com/photo/13202792/
  • + 3
 @loopie: Mitsubishi Delcia FTW Big Grin
  • + 0
 @loopie:

GM > VW. Sure, an affordable starter van tho.
  • + 16
 this should be VOD, between the story, the nice riding and the way it was shot.. VOD fer sher
  • + 5
 This is a cool feature. I like vw vans, and I just love vans in general. Unfortunately we don't get all of the cool ones in the states. I'd love a tdi t5, but we can't have em. I've been eyeballing delicas for a few years, and they're finally popping up In utah, so that might be an option for me later.
As for now, I have 2 all-trac previas I use and work on. When one of them dies I'll have to look at a diesel van to replace it.
Pinkbike should do a feature each day. "Bike hauler of the day."
  • + 2
 "Bike hauler of the day.".... yeah I'd be up for that!
  • + 8
 This is the second German video with a Josh Garrels song on it. Didn't expect it this time either. Great music.
  • + 5
 I got so pumped when I heard, "Faaarrrrther along..." Thats what i love about mtn biking to appreciate God's beauty
  • + 2
 Great song. I was wondering who the artist was.
  • + 1
 @airsoftesneeto: Amen. The entire song is deep.
  • + 5
 Reminds me of my bike projects. Generally I start off with a great deal on a 2nd hand bike, end up needing to replace 75% of the parts, upgrade and customize it, and spent more money on it than a new complete bike would have cost me.
But, in the end, the bike might still be less good as a new one, but it is perfectly personalized, more fun to ride and it has stolen your heart more than a new stock bike could.

This van project seems like the same endless hole you throw money in, but in the end it's so worth it.
  • + 8
 Guy doesn't skimp on coffee when out camping Smile
  • + 2
 he's Swiss ;-)
  • + 1
 @strasznyzbigniew: Any idea what coffee press that is?
  • + 3
 Actually, I found it: www.rokkitchentools.com
  • + 3
 Great story & from experience it is lIke chasing something you can never quite catch.

My'90 Westfalia multivan is sitting waiting for the CNC cut stainless parts for the new shift linkage so I can finish installing the customized subaru 5 speed to mate up to the already installed subaru EJ25 motor.

I've got over 20k invested in restoration and haven't gotten close to body and paint yet.

There is almost nothing like these vehicles, but they are spendy & finicky and highly addictive.

The syncro is even more so, very deep pockets are a requirement for ownership.
  • + 3
 yes, you're right. luckily I can do most of the work by myself!
  • + 1
 Very cool vans those VW's...an inexpensive option is the AWD Astro/Safari
  • + 1
 @loopie: I'm not so sure about that. A decent unrestored syncro hard top is going for nearly $20K US right now. I've seen expedition ready syncro campers going for right at $100K and if I were to sell my'90 2 wheel drive as it sits I'd probably get $25K (entire drive train restored and Subaru motor and gearbox). Smile
  • + 1
 @tipsword: Not sure if one or both of us are confused, haha, but you just illustrated my point. As a base vehicle to build an offroadable van...the AWD Astro/Safari is 1/10 - 1/4 the price of a VW
  • + 3
 Just a heads up to everyone in this thread who is inspired by the VW vanlife. If you have always wanted a VW van, now would be the time to do it. The prices of these Gems has sky rocketed in the last few years. Pretty soon they will be very hard to find and very, very expensive. Do it now while you have time! That is all.
  • + 4
 Everything about this video is just right. Inspired to say the least... Fantastic filming as well, music fit the mood, and that mood was conveyed to the viewer.
  • + 1
 Sold my Syncro a year ago. Was is fun? Sure. Do I miss it? Hell no. If driving a van was the goal, then you need a van. If you just want to go places and do things then the van is just another variable. Got the Tundra. Not looking back!
  • + 1
 Loved this article. i have been building and modding my own van based on a pleaureway traverse which is like a pop top westy built on a full size ford van. (vCool . Love travelling in it with my family. So far Ive got it lifted , super cool custom rear bumper with internal storage, NS 4 bike rack ,all led lighting, and some other external upgrades.
Home on wheelsSmile
  • + 1
 I am on my 2nd T4, the first had done 235,000 miles (199Cool my current one has done 220,000 miles and runs and drives like a dream, I use it for work every day some holidays and of course carrying our bikes around the country.
  • + 1
 Awesome build

What kind of mileage does that thing get? What motor?

I work for a car company that uses matte paint. Why would you choose that for a car that's going to be used like that? It's notoriously hard to repair, scratches easy and gets shiny spots when you wash it. Looks slick when it's fresh, though.
  • + 1
 The article mentions motor
  • + 3
 @h-beck83:

No, it says more modern tdi.

There's a bunch of TDIs
  • + 4
 @UtahBikeMike: It's a 1.9l TDi from an old Audi A4 (AFN Engine code) original with 110hp - my van has around 120hp
  • + 13
 You are right, the matte paint is not the most thankful one when you're going off road. But I don't care that much about some scratches here and there. Its like having some scars on the skin - it reminds you where you got and there is always a story to tell for each one. And it still is just a car that I built for the purpose to get me to special places to ride my bikes and find peaceful places - not to car shows ;-)
  • + 1
 @Rob-J:

Right on

I re-ringed and de-carboned a buddies mk4 golf with an ALH. It had nozzles, turbo and a tune. Thing had 300ish ftlbs of torque and got close to 60mph. TDIs are underrated and now we're screwed in the US because of VWs scandal.
  • + 1
 @Rob-J:

I was wondering if you did it because you had a way to rattle can it or something for easy repairs. Had a buddy with a drift car that was olive drab so he could rattle can new panels super easy.
  • + 1
 @Rob-J: Matte white hides scratches and scuffs, and you can use strong detergents without worry of the finish getting hazy. It may seem counter-intuitive that white is the easiest colour to keep clean...

I have done many a restoration project, my first being a '76 Mini Cooper 998 when I was 15. That drew me right in and I became a bodyman, focusing on old world panelbeating and fabrication. I took a break from cars for a few years and made airplane spars for two years only to go back to bodywork. This kind of work IS my life. Interestingly, the last full restoration I did was a '68 Mini Pickup, painted the same colour as my old one!
  • + 1
 @Rob-J: Hi - its an amazing restoration - well done

one alternative to the matt paint is a wrap - same finish and actually protects the paint underneath, you might consider that

can you tell me how many hours of work went in to it?

cheers

andrew
  • + 1
 I've been doing the van life thing since February, and it's one of the best decisions I've made, both financially and in terms of my general happiness.
The hardest thing about van life is trying to put on a pair of pants in the van without the back of your shirt coming untucked Razz
  • + 1
 If you added rear brakes, don't forget to change the proportioning valve. Your rear drums required more fluid than the discs, and if you don't change that valve you'll have stronger braking in the rear. Read: If you REALLY need your brakes, things are going to get REALLY sketchy.
  • + 4
 Loved it. Can't wait to see the next edit. True mountain biking in it's purist form.
  • + 3
 Great Project and congratulation about finishing it successfully. And of course a explosion of lifestyle in this vid! GREAT work!!!
  • + 1
 oN TUESDAY my 87 westfalia gets towed to the garage to have the brake lines replaced. Other than periodically running the engine, it hasn't been used in 2 years since the brake lines failed shifting it out of the driveway to make room for a delivery truck. Its got just barely over 101000 kilometers on it.
  • + 3
 Doing this road trips to france for like 15 years Rob seems to be very comfortable with it. Thanks for the video which has a special chilled flow.
  • + 4
 Rob awesome! You must have a very understanding wife!
  • + 4
 Yes I do!
  • + 3
 I'd love a adventure mobile damn..if they only made 4x4 diesels with 40+ mpg in the states!
  • + 1
 I know right. There are loads of them out there!
  • + 2
 Great story and pics, video was nice also, would like to see more of the vanagon, love the old ones although i have the slightly newer t4 syncro i love it.
  • + 2
 Dayum that's a nice van! I've always been more inclined to the bay window busses, but this has me almost second guessing my '76. Which I have yet to even get running... haha
  • + 3
 That's 6 minutes of bliss right there. With the diesel sounds, riding, and music I could just loop this video all day.
  • + 3
 Love the video and project...here's my shuttle rig
www.pinkbike.com/photo/13768547
  • + 3
 When you consider the price of the latest and greatest MTB, a vehicle restoration isn't that bad.
  • + 3
 Is this you preparing the "reasonable project" proposal to your wife? Wink
  • + 3
 I want to know what lens was used on those drone shots - in 1080p those are some of best I've ever seen. Oh yeah cool van.
  • + 2
 You did a really great job rebuilding that veewee. That rig is really really nice looking. Good video, good vibes!
  • + 2
 @Rob-J very, very nice van (and normally I am not a VW fan at all ;-) ) and the scenery, oh boy
  • + 2
 great VW ! where were you driving in your video up in the mountains? awesome country
  • + 2
 We did the whole Border Crest Road which runs along old battle lines between France and Italy, more than awesome
  • + 1
 @infinitetrails: thanks for the info! Have a great summer !
  • + 1
 I'm going to remove rust from my kangoo, quit a job and take my fatbike for long mountain trip.
Great story. I look forward for next partWink
  • + 2
 If Rob is at home, i often see it, when i ride to work. It looks proberly done.
  • + 1
 I miss my T4 now I loved that old bus had it for 9 years went all over kite surfing then mtb trips, I like these sort of films make a change
  • + 2
 As a car body repairer I have big respect for this guy. And I want his life( in this vid anyway)
  • + 2
 man that second part lets you get lost in toughts, so good! and now I want a T3.
  • + 2
 That's a hell of a makeover. Great work and a great article, looking forward to further episodes.
  • + 1
 Ha! now I've realized where I've seen that van before... In Hinterglemm during the Glemmride this month, parked halfway down Buchegg Trail, with a view. Sweet ride!
  • + 2
 great van, those mods must of cost a bit
  • + 1
 i dont feel that lonely wolf riding style. Where's the fun between your legs?
  • + 2
 Let's see some pictures of the custom interior! I love these custom rigs.
  • + 1
 check my instagram @robheran for more shots.
  • + 2
 Can Relate to this, Current '96 Type 4 Owner
  • + 2
 Just beautiful all around #vanlife
  • + 3
 vaaaaaans
  • + 2
 Excellent video. Very inspiring. So many cool elements in 6 minutes.
  • + 1
 That hair game. Production value is over 9000. Tilt shift life. Pro riding.
  • + 2
 Just Perfect, the MTB license plate add that touch
  • + 1
 Great story Wink I would replace filthy diesel with petrol engine and then convert it to LPG Wink
  • + 2
 Nicely done! wan't to see the 2nd part of this video Smile
  • + 2
 that guy is fast!
  • + 1
 i really don’t get the VW van thing. just get a transit
  • - 4
flag ilovedust (Jul 30, 2016 at 4:42) (Below Threshold)
 Whaaaat??!!!
That said, I have a 2.5 130 T5 rather than the older ones. It cruises at 95 and drives like a car and has seen me through a trouble free 206,000m so far.
I have Transits at work. They are appalling and always break down or fall apart through rust. I have a 57 plate with less than 75k on its third engine.
Of course they are cheaper.....
  • + 2
 Must be a few ford lovers out there....
  • + 2
 @ilovedust: Or a few of us who have had big problems with VW vans
  • + 1
 Where the first location in the video tho? Looks amazing
  • + 2
 Looks like the black hills in Digne les bains, France.
  • + 1
 Awesome! You are da man!????
  • + 2
 Epic wagon, love it!
  • + 2
 The dream Cool
  • + 1
 Are we seriously going to ignore this guy's last name?
  • + 1
 i love this car! the best way to drive on 4 weels
  • + 1
 I want to see more of the van!
  • + 2
 you can see more shots of the van on my instagram: @robheran
  • + 2
 And in Episode II Wink
  • + 2
 @infinitetrails: we know whats coming up in episode II haha!! people won't believe it.
  • + 1
 Can't forget a good platform is a Mitsubishi delica
  • + 1
 Did you go to Lofoten this spring?
I saw a car that looked like this!
  • + 1
 Heaven..... If there is an afterlife i hope this awaits me.
  • + 2
 exelent!
  • + 2
 expectacular MTB360
  • + 1
 Cool as fuck!
  • + 1
 Brilliant.
  • + 1
 Very nice.
  • + 1
 sooooo jealous
  • - 1
 Like we need more broken down Westy's on the road...
  • - 3
 VW Vans are cool to look at but it's like riding a slug
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