Hellooooo again and welcome to another episode of the ‘ Money Pit ‘. Jokingggg…. ‘ Pit ’ suggests a bottom which is totally ridiculous as the Syncro…in the words of Shakespeare’s Twelfth night…. ‘ Because it hatthhhhhh no bottom ’. In fairness the van is generally pretty good when you consider the silly mileage it does, but four broken CV’s in Norway caused me all sorts of organ sales and sexual favours for petty cash. I like to be completely transparent about the costs of these vans because they really are expensive at times, I often wonder how some people afford to keep them when they’re not living in it! In addition to a host of exciting new upgrades I put a huge emphasis on preventative maintenance so post Norway I had the rear drum breaks rebuilt, new pads/discs on the front ( inc new brake fluid ready for freezing temps in Norway ), oil change, checked Gearbox/diff oil, fitted a new Viscous Coupling from Visco Werkstatt Kern, cleaned out my jet washers, new HT leads, new distributor, rotor arm, spark plugs and a general service to identify any demons lurking below. The gearbox and diff are working spot on at present, but at 36 years old I’m starting to save for a complete rebuild with the VW guru Aidon Talbot. The original 1.9 WBX is still purring along at 140,000 miles, but I’m considering my options should it explode in the near future ( I’d love to get it to 200,000 miles…but we’ll leave that to the gods ).
APOCATRON 4.0 was a pretty big instalment so I’m hoping 5.0 will bring things up to date and give you an idea of what the van looks like at present and what my plans are moving forwards. I had scheduled to finally tackle the ancient interior during December 2018 but I soon realised that bodywork, mechanical upgrades, servicing and Norway prep would make this simply impossible. However, I’m currently working with the very talented Wheeliams to produce a one of a kind bespoke overlanding interior that will be fitted in 2020. The Apocatron build series has focused on current upgrades but in this instalment I want to also talk about what my plans are for the future.
The Apocatron has been my home now for the best part of five years and I’ve loved every minute of it. The T3 Syncro is the swiss army knife of vans. It’s one of the biggest small vans due to its completely flat front/back, easy to work on, easy access to both spares and new OEM parts, comfortable to drive, very reliable if serviced correctly and relatively cheap to run ( for an overlanding vehicle ). That said, it does have its limitations and over the last six months I’ve really considered the alternatives. The main reason I’ve found myself dithering over different vehicles is that life on the road for me is ‘ life ’ and there’s a point where you have to stop and ask yourself whether this is 10000000% the van you want forever. Consequently, I’ve been researching big overlanding trucks ( viewed several for sale ), more modern 4x4 LWB vans or even something like a Toyota Land Cruiser with a habitation pod on the back. However, the closer I get to considering a swap the more sure I am of the Syncro. The reality is there is no such thing as a perfect vehicle and the deeper I investigate the options the more I fall in love with the T3. The best way to understand my love of the VW T3 Syncro is in this wildly generalised and sweeping statement:
- VW T3 Syncro. Crap in theory. Amazing in reality -
I appreciate these are very confusing but hear me out. In theory there are simply hundreds of 4x4 vehicles out there that on paper are bigger, more reliable, fuel efficient, durable, powerful, better off road, mechanically sound & on & on & on. The Syncro is quite honestly pretty woeful in comparison. However, in reality the VW T3 Syncro remains one of the best overlanding vehicles in the world for two reasons:
- Community & Parts –
If I have a mechanical gremlin I can post the issue on any one of the numerous VW T3 facebook groups and get so many replies that generally within one hour I’ve either solved the issue or know what I need to do. The community is absolutely incredible. There’s so many epic overlanding rigs out there but when it comes to problem solving issues I don’t think any alternative has the same online support. Parts. It’s all very well having a modern truck that rarely breaks down but when it does you’re going to need new parts and this is another area the T3 is superb. I have had an array of issues all over Europe and never has a part taken more than 10 days to arrive ( generally 3-5 ). Moreover, when it comes to finding new parts it’s an absolute breeze with huge OEM stores like VW Heritage, Just Kampers, Campervan Culture and Brickwerks. Thus, whilst the T3 does not have the best engine or drive train by a long shot it is very easily fixable and you’re spoilt for parts. The other key aspect of the community is the huge array of VW specialists/garages that will completely rebuild your engine, gearbox, diff or offer you one of the numerous engine alternatives ( there’s almost too much choice in this department ). Furthermore, lets not forget the tremendous amount of VW restoration workshops that can keep on top of bodywork when the time comes ( it’s important to point out that I’ve not yet explored beyond Europe in the van so I appreciate access to parts will be more challenging further afield, but I do know that a lot of the companies I mentioned ship globally. It’s my understanding that one of the best options for parts is trucks as haulage is global and has to be kept moving whether it’s in Europe, Africa or anywhere else in the world – perhaps something to consider if you’re planning a round the world excursion ).
I’m not saying the VW T3 Syncro is perfect, quite the opposite and I’m the first person to highlight its faults. However, there can be no question this is an extremely versatile option. Ultimately, this van will never stop because when it does finally breakdown you’re just a phone call away from getting back on the road. Every single part can be either bought, reconditioned or fixed with relative ease. Thus, for me ( and this is a very personal preference of course ) the T3 Syncro is the van I want to take round the world. So how can I optimise the T3 Syncro for global travel?
There’s no easy answer to this, but lets start with mechanicals. The Apocatron is 30+ years old and subsequently has heaps of very old parts. In an ideal world you’d change all of them….and actually I will aim to change most ( but I will prioritise the major components and do as many of the smaller parts as I can along the way ). At the end of the day if you’re planning a huge trip it makes a lot more sense to change old components beforehand for new ones as they’re much less likely to fail on the journey – common sense really. In terms of interior I’m taking a super minimalist overlanding approach that maximises space, whilst also featuring extremely tough lockable storage ( I will also be fitting a larger ‘ bread loaf style ’ high top as seen on Finnish military syncros to maximise internal space/overhead storage ). At this point it would be premature to go into too much detail about the final spec, layout or design of the interior as I barely know myself. However, the absolute focus will be weight.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with the guys from Chef Campers and spending multiple nights sitting in the vans chatting all things adventure. We spent several evenings discussing whether the Syncros were the best option for our lives on the road and subsequently what were the alternatives. Ultimately we always came full circle and decided that due to the amazing VW community and accessibility of parts for the T3 we’d stick with our rigs. Consequently, the conversation moved on to creating the ‘ ultimate ’ Syncro ( something that is of course a very personal choice ). That said, one improvement that we agreed was universal and arguably the most important of all was weight.
Think about it. What one thing effects handling, performance, durability, economy, reliability, etc….it’s weight ( also easier to recover when off road ). People are quick to point out that the T3’s original WBX engine is uneconomical, slow and unreliable….but have you ever driven an empty T3 panel van….even with the smaller 1.9 WBX?! I think you’d be surprised. My 1.9 WBX is as fast, if not faster than a lot of my friends 2.1s ( simply due to their heavy Westy interiors and overlanding gear ). Moreover, on a long run I’ve frequented 27mpg on flat motorway at 50 mph ( generally 25/6 mpg ). I have broken down just once in 5 years despite averaging 20-30,000 miles per year. Honestly, aside from meticulous servicing, I put a great deal of this down to my van being light. I have a tacky interior, a pretty small high top, no big water tanks, huge batteries or armada of spare parts. My van inside is basic ( crappy actually ) but I think this has been advantageous. Thus, when it comes to the rebuild I want to make something beautiful and refined without compromising weight. I will be adding items that will make the van heavier ( solar, better batteries, bigger water capacity…the very things I list above ). However, at the same time I will remove anything that’s unnecessary and really reduce my personal items ( I over packed for the Arctic this year as I had no idea what vanlife would be like in -15/25 ). I want a military approach to my belongings….a few t shirts, one jumper, one coat, one bowl, cup etc. I want to feel that the majority of the cupboards are largely empty instead of bursting. Well, there you have it, a quick overview of the future and some of my personal thoughts on the VW Syncro. As always I have listed the latest modifications below, enjoy:
Visibility is key. The standard mirrors on the VW T3 are ok, but they’re not great. Thus, I ordered truck mirrors from Campervan Culture and it’s one of the best upgrades I’ve made to the van. The old mirrors only showed me a fraction of the van, which meant I was forever leaning out of the window to see how close I was to the curb when parking or squeezing through tight spots. At the end of the day the greater your visibility on the road the more likely you are to spot a cyclist/pedestrian/motorbike or avoid an accident. I honestly wish I’d got them sooner as it really is a huge improvement to my daily driving experience.
New Discs/pads & Drum brakes:
The van covers a huge amount of miles and consequently the brakes take a monumental beating, I’m pretty sure they’ve smoked more than Keith Richards over the last five years! Thus, in winter 2018 I had all of them replaced/rebuilt and the difference in performance is considerable ( I did have other parts changed over the years, but this was the first full rebuild ). A lot of people opt for changing the existing system but I’d recommend just replacing original parts first as you maybe surprised how much it improves the stopping distance.
I have to say when the VC went bad it happened at quite literally the worst possible time and I remember calling my dad and saying I’d had enough of the Syncro. I was working for a client all over the UK and ended up on my back in the pouring rain at a service station at 1am removing the prop. I was freaking out initially as to buy a new VC from VW is astronomically expensive and at the time I had no idea that there were services available to rebuild them. Anyway, once I’d got out of the rain and had chance to do some research I realised that Visco Werkstatt Kern not only reconditioned the Syncro VC but improved them for a fraction of the cost ( another example of the accessibility of services available for these vans ). I’ve had the VC for six months now and all I can say is wow. In January I drove over 2000 miles during some of the coldest most extreme weather Norway has experienced in 30 years and the Syncro’s 4WD didn’t miss a beat. At times the van was crawling through snow 2 feet deep and there can be no question that the Kern VC improved power delivery to the front wheels dramatically. I’m sure many Syncro owners will have similarly experienced the rear wheels working much harder than the front when the going gets tough and I too shared this issue. However, after fitting the new VC the van’s wheels were engaging simultaneously and it’s completely transformed the Syncro’s ability off road. As discussed, initially when the old VC died it was a pretty miserable moment, but actually I wish I’d done it sooner, the van’s transformed. Link to their website below:
If I had a penny for every time I got questions about my roof rack via my website or on social media I’d be a millionaire. I’m not surprised as there’s very few options for high top vans. The build is largely made up of two ‘ Thule High Top Racks ’, which are no longer in production ( but can be picked up second hand from time to time ). I first stumbled across these racks a few years back and managed to find one for sale on an obscure classifieds page. Thus, for some time my roof set up looked like this:
I made do with this rack for almost two years until I sourced another on ebay and combined them with a custom Land Rover Defender overlanding rack ( this was never a permanent solution as it was nowhere near big enough for the Syncro and whilst the caged design was great for boxes and securing equipment it made carrying my 5m sea kayak a nightmare. That said, it greatly increased my storage on the van and served me really well during my four month road trip through Scandinavia:
The final stage was put together in November 2019 and replaced the Land Rover rack with a more generic Rhino MWB VW T5 roof rack, which is extremely durable, features a rear roller and is much better suited to my sea kayaks with an open front/rear. The top rack is secured to the Thule High Top rack using brackets I sourced in Norway.
The standard tow bar was perfectly ok ( I actually towed a small crane around skye – see pictures below ). However, I wanted a proper expedition hitch that was much stronger and far more versatile. The design I went for is based around the MOD Nato slider bracket that’s largely found on Land Rover Defenders and offers an unlimited selection of bolt on accessories ( inc my motorbike rack ). I had the work carried out by Watling Engineers ( towbar specialists ) and included additional underslung support bars, which also act as superb protection for the exhaust/engine ( in the video below you’ll see my van bottom out at 20 mins in after getting stuck and without the new supports I think I’d have done a lot of damage to the exhaust/engine ).
This isn’t a particularly exciting upgrade just a recommendation for new owners. I hadn’t got round to changing my CVs before going to Norway ( I have no idea how long they’ve been on the van, but at least 6 years ) and during my 4 month trip I lost four in quick succession ( guessing they were all around the same age ). In Norway it’s not uncommon to pay £150 p/h just for labour and subsequently it cost me a fortune ( you need a pretty huge wrench to get the correct torque on the front outer CV’s and I didn’t have anything even close ). If you’re considering a big road trip and don’t know how old your CVs are I’d recommend getting them changed so they don’t catch you out on the road.
N.B. IMPORTANT – If you’re considering lifting your van on higher springs the stress on CVs is increased dramatically and it will cause you a lot more problems. Lifted vans look amazing, but if you’re going down that route do it properly or you’ll be burning through CVs at a ridiculous rate.
My van’s interior has remained almost unchanged since I bought it and the curtains were completely see through/falling to pieces. I therefore decided to invest in the very best craftsmanship available to humankind and reach out to nanny Tess. Yep, my nan is one badass seamstress and using material I picked out ( inc a LOTR map ) backed with black out material we set to work on new curtains. We made the front curtains intentionally long to help prevent drafts in the winter from the cab ( particularly prominent around the front doors ). The curtains really do block out the light despite some small gaps around the top where they connect to the rail. It’s funny, I’m not precious about the van’s interior, it’s there to be used & enjoyed….but the time and effort put into making these by my nan melts my heart and I’m always quick to ask people to be gentle when using them.
I actually didn’t run a heater during the first three years I lived in it, but when I finally fitted my Propex 1600 gas heater it was a revelation. However, after a couple of solid years of service I decided I wanted to eliminate the need to carry a second gas bottle just for the Propex and opted for an Eberspacher that ran off my fuel tank. There were three main reasons for this:
- I can’t tell you how nice it is knowing that as long as I have petrol I have central heating and I never have to worry about running out of gas in cold weather.
- The Eberspacher unit itself is much smaller than my old propex, which combined with the fact I no longer need a separate gas canister just to run my heating means I’ve reclaimed a considerable amount of storage inside the van ( also means saving a little weight, which is always good )
- Lastly the Eberspacher is a better heater ( although it’s bloody expensive and you can’t go wrong with a Propex for the money ). The B1 is far hotter, much quieter, there are tonnes of Eberspacher dealers who can service the unit, super compact and all round feels like a quality item.
Like I’ve said, Propex heaters are brilliant so I wouldn’t be getting rid of one in a hurry unless like me you live full time in a compact van and want a more efficient/compact unit. However, the Eber has been one of the best upgrades I’ve ever made to the van.
N.B. One thing that did happen in -20 was the gas pipes to my stove froze and that made me wonder whether a Propex would struggle to run in extreme cold ( just something to bare in mind ).
Lightbar & High Powered LED Spots:
In Norway almost all the locals have auxiliary lighting fitted to their cars and for good reason. The roads in the Arctic Circle during the winter are nothing short of deadly and the better your visibility the more time you have to assess the road surface ahead ( which varies constantly from sheet ice, hard packed snow, potholes and quite often a mixture of the lot ). I therefore fitted an additional two LED spots to the bull bar and a lightbar that runs off a secondary auxiliary switch ( lightbar is for forest tracks when I’m not at risk of blinding oncoming motorists ).
New Front Bumper:
My existing front bumper had seen better days and was just about the cheapest option available at the time. Unfortunately the heavy duty bumpers available from the likes of Rocky Mountain Westy were just too expensive so I opted for a much cheaper stock variant from Brickwerks. There’s no question this option is better than some of the more generic cheap front bumpers and definitely feels more sturdy. I would highly recommend spraying with Raptor paint ( or similar ) as I fitted in a rush and only applied one coat of Hammerite and it’s already showing a little surface rust.
I preach about preventative maintenance constantly and this was another example of what happens when you overlook old decrepit parts. I’d been warned about the main steel coolant pipe that runs from the water pump to thermostat housing on the WBX as being notorious for deteriorating but both my time/budget hadn’t stretched to changing it and I paid the price. After hanging out with my friends Chef Campers in Lofoten I started my engine and was immediately greeted by a flashing coolant light. I jumped out of the van and sure enough coolant was pissing out of my engine like a waterfall. As always I sourced the best possible parts and upgraded to a stainless steel pipe, which should last forever. Chef Campers very kindly waited around for almost 2 weeks to help me fit the new parts/bleed the system and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Distributor, Rotor Arm, HT leads & Spark Plugs:
The van eats through a lot of serviceable parts due to high mileage and during the winter of 2018 it really struggled starting. I was amazed to see that my HT leads and Spark plugs were completely fried after just 12 months so decided it was time to refresh the system. I swapped out the Distributor, Rotor arm, HT leads, Sparks and the van started on the button. A quick cheap service that can literally transform the van. My coil pack is also pretty dated and I’m pretty sure the cables running from it are temperamental so I’ll be changing both in December 2019.
Space in a VW T3 Syncro is limited and it’s therefore imperative to make the most of the storage options available. Thus, I invested in a rear seat organiser made by Molle and I couldn’t be more happy with it. This product is one of the better systems I’ve seen available in the UK and offers a decent amount of customisable storage. Moreover, I can still swivel my seat with the system fitted and the material is extremely durable ( I’ll definitely be investing in a second one for the drivers seat when I get my new interior fitted in 2020 ).
I was confident the van would sail through its MOT in December 2018 but instead was greeted with a list of advisories and two major spots of structural rust. The van is my life and I’m now on the road ( usually abroad ) for no less than six months before returning to the UK, thus whether it’s major or minor work I never hit the road until everything has been completed. If I were to leave minor advisories then within six months of hard use they would be major and cost me double. It sucks sometimes and inevitably clears me out at the time, but in the long run it’s vital to the preservation and health of my rolling home.
Expedition Wolf Roof Boxes:
These are hard wearing/heavy duty overland boxes than can be purchased through Campervan Culture.com. I use these to store spare parts/recovery gear and they’re generally secured to my roof rack.
Thule Kayak Rack:
The old rack I had fitted held the kayak on its side, which turned out to be horrendous in cross winds. Moreover, because the wind had such a profound effect on the kayak it would work itself loose from the straps ( regardless of how tight and how many ). The Thule rack is a totally different story: easier to mount the kayak, solid as a rock, the supplied straps are superb and I barely notice cross winds anymore…10/10.
The van has never been insulated and the only evidence that anyone even tried was some completely loose boards of foam that did absolutely nothing. I will be insulating the van properly from the ground up when the new interior is fitted but for during December 2018 I did my best to insulate the accessible areas using Dodo dead matting, Supasoft, alloy tape and some old cellotex boards I had in the shed. This was NOT a thorough job but it did make a big difference and eliminated a lot of the drafts I was experiencing from the rear door, behind the units and in the cab. If you want to see a proper job I’d highly recommend checking out the Indie Projects insulate their Mercedes Sprinter on Youtube.
As a general rule I avoid sponsorship/partnerships with brands because I like my autonomy. I only work with companies I’m genuinely invested in and for the most part it’s not worth what’s expected in return ( sponsorship isn’t what it used to be ). However, there are a number of brands I’m extremely proud to work with and they can be seen adorning my van both inside & out.
Do NOT forget to fit Carbon Monoxide & smoke alarms - I just replaced my old one.