Father and Daughter Tackle Vanagon Restoration

Father-daughter dances and camping trips are standard fare in parent child bonding experiences. But father-daughter car restoration?! 

VanagonGary Gastman and his daughter Maya chose the latter and just completed restoring a 1990 VW Vanagon Westfalia, which she bought for $5,500 in 2016. The Vanagon, made in Germany from 1979-91, was the successor to the legendary Volkswagen Microbus. Westfalia designates the camper version. In a sense, The Vanagon and its predecessors were minivans before minivans.

At the time, the vehicle had sat inoperable for 10 years at The Beetle Shop in Belfast, ME.

Maya, now 24 and the multimedia production manager at PortMedia in Newburyport, Mass., was curious what makesVanagon cars tick and also had the bug to travel cross country in a legendary VW van like so many did in the Hippie Days of 1960s and 70s (yours truly did this in a 1966 ‘Poptop’ VW Camper bus in 1975). Or perhaps down to the Baja Peninsula or to Costa Rica.

VanagonThat has yet to happen, but now she has the wheels to do it. “I could follow bands all over the country and live like a vagabond,” muses the 24 year-old.

The top to bottom restoration took seven years and included, among other things, all new brakes, window seals, suspension, starter, alternator, clutch and lots of tedious body work including the replacement of four large body panels that needed to be welded to the frame. The core engine after 156,000 miles was solid and did not require rebuilding.

“We bought a welding machine and said, what are we doing? We’re not welders,” says Gary Gastman. So the welding was farmed out as was the custom paint job by Shepard’s Auto Center. Occasionally, the Yankee Garage in Merrimac, Mass. pitched in. All that’s left now are few improvements to the interior and perhaps solar panels. “I could live in it,” says Maya.Vanagon

The restoration was done in the driveway of their Woodland St. home, much of it outside although in the winter, they moved the operation into their garage. They never enjoyed the benefit of a hydraulic car hoist: rather they jacked up the vehicle and used wood cribs to prop it up so they could slide underneath.

The toughest part for Maya was using a butter knife to scrape off dirt and grime that fell on her face working underneath the Vanagon. No father-daughter dance for her. For Gary, it was too many stubborn bolts that wouldn’t turn.

The biggest Aha! moment? “The van wouldn’t start. Then I realize I had crossed wires on the fuel pump. Once I fixed that, it was vroom vroom,” says Gary. The project was delayed a year during the pandemic due to parts shortages from supply chain issues.

Maya produced and starred in a 2019 video describing the daunting amount of work that still needed to be done.

VanagonDid they ever regret embarking on this challenging journey? “Yes, many times. We had no idea what we were doing,” says Gary. If he gets bored now, he has two old Saabs to work on, down from four. “I love highly engineered Swedish and German cars.”

Gary, who just retired as director of Link House and who is co-owner of the Newburyport Tennis Club, estimates he put about $18,000-$20,000 into the Vanagon and bought around 50 new tools just for this project. Given what Vanagons sell for now, he should do no worse than break even should he decide to sell.Vanagon

So the father daughter relationship is stronger than ever. Gary says Maya taught him patience and to “chill” when confronting problems that invariably arise with such an ambitious endeavor.

Maya learned determination, some new skills and to navigate through problems. 

“The best part was not giving up, but sometimes it’s best to create space and come back with a new perspective. We spent many summer months getting up at 6 a.m. to start working on the van, and sometimes I’d come to the garage to see my dad already figuring out a problem that we encountered. My dad would never work on the car without me, even if it meant I would just stand there for an hour next to him while he drilled out a bolt,” she says.

“There was a lot of yelling,” she adds. 

Unfortunately, Gary will have to wait for a Vanagon road trip. Next week, he’s sailing to Bermuda and then onto Columbia where he and his wife Laura will spend the next year. Once Maya learns how to drive a standard shift also known as a “stick,” the father-daughter’s pride and joy will be all hers.

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