Welcome back to another instalment of Ancient Syncrology. In this episode I take a look back over some of the most challenging van life months to date and demonstrate how quickly a routine job on these vans can become four months of mechanical chaos.
In the last entry you joined me in Scotland as I made my way to the most northerly point of Skye for an off-grid bikepacking adventure. As some of you will already know the exhaust on the van has been a rotter from the day I bought it and on the way back from Skye it completely broke loose. Consequently, I spent the seventeen-hour journey home trying to drown out the truly deafening sound of the apocalypse with the soothing tones of the Allman Brothers! I’d had the exhaust welded a couple of times last year, but a broken head stud meant these fixes were temporary. Thus, upon returning home for Christmas I decided it was time to book the van into the garage and get a new stainless exhaust system built for the van.
I ordered the system from J-PEX exhausts and was immensely happy with the finished product. I explained that I live on the road full-time and they did everything they could to get the exhaust back to me as soon as possible ( it’s worth noting that the customer care & warranty is also excellent ). Meanwhile, the entire engine was removed from the van and vital welding was done to repair the damaged head stud. The engine was put back together and included a new performance air filter from Pipercross ( specific to the T3 ). It also made sense to do a full coolant & oil change. The van had felt tired when I dropped it off to the garage in January, it had covered 10,000 miles in just four months and desperately needed some lovin’. However, picking it up was a very different story and the Syncro felt brand new. It had been about six weeks by this point and I was desperate to get back on the road. I’d like to say that I packed my bags, started up my engine and head into the sunset…but it wasn’t to be!
The van was on the road for about a week as I stocked the cupboards, organised my gear and squeezed in some last minute catch-ups with friends. It was during these local miles that I noticed a peculiar grinding sound, which got worse and worse. Thus, I took it back to the garage and after a road test they surmised it was probably the front-diff, but couldn’t be sure. As fellow Syncro owners will appreciate, this isn’t an easy fix and chances are you’ll be heading to the gearbox guru Aidan Talbot ( I spoke with Aidan a few times during the process and I just want to say what a lovely, genuine and helpful guy he is, really kept me positive in the light of the mechanical apocalypse: www.aidantalbot.com ). Honestly, by this point I was so fed up of being static that the money seemed irrelevant, I just wanted my van back on the road. The only issue was the garage couldn’t be 100% certain it was the front diff and I couldn’t afford to fork out that sort of money without being sure. Consequently, I was put in touch with three Syncro enthusiasts who between them know pretty much every nut/bolt on the van. After a few more weeks of laying under the VW I managed to organise a meet with two of them and hoped to finally get some closure on the whole grinding issue ( which by this point was sounding terminal ).
Syncro guru number one was similarly concerned it was front diff/gearbox related and recommended removing the prop, whilst this was a sensible first step the grinding continued. A second opinion from Syncro guru two was that it was potentially just a vibration and didn’t recommend doing anything drastic until every possibility had been eliminated. The guys had been so helpful and it was a great opportunity to learn more about my van, but after weeks of investigation I was none the wiser. It was incredibly demoralising, I had spoken to at least five experts and felt pretty helpless. I love my Syncro…I mean truly, I can’t imagine my life without it! However, I think now’s a good time to stress to those of you considering a T3 Syncro that they can be costly and unless you consider 4WD a vital prerequisite ( which personally I do ) then perhaps consider a standard T3 ( after all, there’s plenty of awesome mods you can make to create a rugged 2WD adventure camper, see pic of my buddy Darren’s 2.0 air cooled project below for reference). At this point I want to introduce an angel, a beautiful majestic divine creature, called Bob.
Bob has been working on my dad’s work van and cars all my life and has been a mechanic much longer….I’m pretty sure he was servicing cars for Jesus. The bottom line is there’s very little Bob hasn’t seen in a career stretching since Roman times. He had popped round to work on my dad’s van and I asked if he could take a look at the antichrist. After a quick test drive and a graceful shimmy under the back of the van Bob ( I might add his face was inches from the scolding exhaust…I couldn’t even look…the mans a beast ) he casually proclaimed ‘ ah yeah easy…the new exhaust is moving under load and very gently touching the underside protection, which I can see is bent very slightly at this point here…’. I mean, it seemed too good to be true, I’d gone over this stuff a thousand times with five other experts, but it was worth a shot! The van was booked into the garage…again…the exhaust was adjusted and the underslung protection was beaten to an inch of its life. Well, call me a badgers auntie, it only bloody worked. I honestly couldn’t believe it, I spent a good week of solid driving expecting for the sound to return…but it had gone! It may have been frustrating but the whole experience was incredibly valuable and I learnt a huge amount about my van. Moreover, the lengthy process had taught me how to effectively problem solve and identify issues via a process of elimination, which I feel will prove immensely valuable ‘ moving forwards ’…or not…depending on how the van’s running!
Right, so that’s my tale of woe…so what else have I have I been up to beside shedding tears!? Well, I bought my ARB awning a month or so after getting the van and finally got round to fitting it. The awning’s awesome and provides superb shelter in bad weather, but one thing I would say is be extremely careful up country lanes as it can easily get hooked on branches ( some owners have fabricated a bracket to sit proud at the front of the awning to take the initial brunt of any high speed collisions ). The next big exterior addition is the Thule high top roof rack, which I’ll be using to carry my kayak and perhaps a small roof box periodically. There’s endless pop top vs high top threads online and I feel limited roof rack options is one point against high tops like mine. Furthermore, due to the generally fragile roofs on the high tops you’re largely relying on the structural integrity of the van's gutters, which I personally wouldn’t trust with my body weight ( I’m sure these could be strengthened by a body shop). That said, I’m very pleased with the new roof rack and so happy to be able to transport my kayak.
Since owning the van I’ve wanted to upgrade the standard front seats for some of the more premium bolstered captain chairs and after months of searching I finally got hold of a set. I have to say that the difference in comfort is huge and the back support is superb, whilst the arm rests are a welcome addition. The combination of the Syncro’s standard soft suspension, BFG All Terrain tyres and the new captain seats provides unrivalled comfort on long journeys. Last, but not least, I fitted a Paulchen bike rack.
I’d originally looked into the Rocky Mountain Westy Rear Wheel Carrier & Swing Away Rear Carry Tray but couldn’t justify the cost and don’t particularly like drilling into the bodywork unless absolutely necessary. However, I was desperate to get a bike/luggage rack on the rear of the van and quickly discovered options are limited. In the states they have the awesome Gary Lee systems ( www.telusplanet.net ), which are both reasonable and ingenious. Unfortunately these products will cost a fortune in import tax/shipping to the UK so I was quick to dismiss them as an option ( it would still be worth considering if you have the budget or place a bulk order with some mates ). The most readily available option is the Fiamma bike rack seen on thousands of T3’s ( I’m sure a very good option ), but if you want something a little more durable then you need a Paulchen ( www.paulchensystem.net ).
Paulchen are based in Germany and have a huge range of quality racks to suit almost all makes/models. The rack was delivered swiftly and it’s clear immediately that the quality surpasses that of the Fiamma alternatives. Their T3 rack will carry 70kg ( 4 bikes ) and can also be fitted with their spare wheel holder ( this is an additional accessory, see here: Paulchen Tyre Carrier ). I’ve had my Paulchen fitted for a few months now and I absolutely love it. The quality of the components is superb and once assembled the fitment is fantastic. There are several accessories you can purchase to improve the security of the rack including an accessory to padlock the Paulchen to the van and a product that prevents the bikes from being removed ( both are a no brainer in my eyes ). Personally, I’d also buy a Kryptonite D-Lock to secure the bikes together then use a Kryptonite cable to lock the bikes to the bumper/underslung protection ( At the end of the day you want as many deterrents as possible and Kryptonite products are seriously tough ). It’s great to get back from a ride, release the rack and have bikes mounted securely in minutes. Further still, the bike trombones ( the supports the bicycle sit in ) are fully adjustable and accommodate for the larger wheels on my fat bike ( you may need to slightly deflate a 4” tyre ), whilst the seat post clamp prevents any movement during transit. The ability to carry my bikes on the road has always been an essential requirement of van life for me and it’s great to have a system I can trust. If you have any other questions about the Paulchen racks don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact form ( more to come on the versatility of the rack in the next instalment ).
Right, without further ague, I introduce Apocatron 3.0.
I'm already working on the next entry, which will include my latest modifications and a 7 countries in 7 days road trip ( featuring a short film ). Thanks for taking the time to read and feel free to get in touch via Contact Me.