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Vangon Articles - The Truth about Vanagon Heads and Head Gasket Replacement


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The Truth about Vanagon Heads and Head Gasket Replacement

August 6, 2009 9 Comments Cooling, Engine Ken Wilford

Of course the Head Gasket is the bugger boo of Vanagon ownership. Much has been made of how unreliable the Vanagon is because of the head gaskets have a tendency to leak over time. However with regular maintenance you can extend the life span of your head gaskets to 100k miles or more.

The first tip I will give you is to regularly change your coolant or at least add a coolant renewal to the coolant system every two years. You can buy a coolant renewal fluid from NAPA. Over time the corrosion inhibitors break down. Refreshing your coolant every couple of years is really needed in every vehicle that is on the road. However it is more critical with an all aluminum engine like the water boxer.

If you see a puddle of coolant under the van or see hanging drops on the bottom of the engine you should do an inspection of the head gaskets right away. Remove the push rod tube covers on either side and look at the bottom of the heads. Again if you are having a leak you will see some drops hanging or some crust that is colored the same as the coolant. If you are having just a very minor leak (like a seep) you can try to seal this seep with some stop leak sealer. Bar’s Leak sells a good stop leak sealer that can temporarily seal small seeps. Usually this type of patch will last for several months to a year. However to properly fix this problem you will need to replace the gaskets at some point.

When you decide that it is time to do the head gasket replacement, getting the proper parts is one of the most critical part of the job. We sell only the best engine gasket kits made by Erling and Victor Reinz. These kits come with all of the gaskets you need and also both sealants you are going to need.

Another thing that I have found is that many times the heads also need to be replaced. I know much is made of cleaning up the pitting in the sealing surfaces with and repairing these with JB Weld. However if you have cracks between the valves this cannot be repaired with JB Weld. Whenever I find a head with a crack between the valves, I replace it with a new one. The cracks may test OK with a pressure test, however after the heads are reinstalled they will quickly get wider and can cause premature head failure. Rebuilt heads are generally no good in my opinion because they take bad heads that are cracked and severely pitted, and they weld all of the problem areas so that they look good and then sell the heads. The welded areas between the valves have even more stress than they ever did because of the welding. So they crack very soon after they are installed.

We sell brand new heads made by AMC that come with new valves and springs installed. These are great heads and I have installed more sets than I can count. I have never had any problems with any of them or the valves that they come with. They have re-engineered the heads with an updated alloy that better resists the infamous pitting problem, and they have thickened certain areas that were prone to cracking. All in all a superior product that is better than the original.

I know some sites tout their heads as superior and charge extra money for “better” valves. However I have never had any problems with the valves that come stock with the AMC heads and I have been installing them in customer’s vans and my own personal vans for over 11 years now. In my opinion, why pay extra money to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. I feel perfectly confident selling and installing the AMC heads as I have had such great reliability out of them over the years. No product is perfect and I am sure there have been defective ones, however I can say that I have never seen one and that is a good enough track record for me.


Barry A. September 2, 2021

Sorry in advance for necroing an old post. I have an 85 wasserboxer 1.9L. I don't usually name names but as a public service: as mentioned in a VW forum, avoid GEX out of AR like a pandemic. They seem to build lemons from bins of junk parts. The first rebuild had the distributor shaft in backwards and a dead cylinder, so it was worse than the motor that was pulled. My mechanic didn't tell me they were using them, so it cost me $9k and 4 months to get a motor that will likely self-destruct with no warranty. I paid for a P&L warranty, but GEX forcibly-refunded it without asking me after they screwed up and were hemmed-in by my mechanic to rebuild it again. It leaks oil like sieve and I'm likely going to have to toss it when it explodes. Get a crate motor from a reputable seller with a warranty or go with a known good engine rebuilder who cares about excellence, craftsmanship, and stands behind their work. The other thing, which maybe a rumor, is not to use old American standards antifreeze that supposedly degrades engineered for German markets head gaskets faster, but to use German-compatible HOAT for aluminum motors like Zerex G-05.

Barry A. September 2, 2021

@SOLOMON If still applicable: 1. Check for air in the system, it might be two-/three-phase hydrolocked with bubbles. 2. Check the radiator-side circuit for flow resistance by draining and blowing through the feed line. 3. Check the water-pump for flow. A thermostat is absolutely needed. Deleting it is a big no-no. It's possible to use a slightly lower temp thermostat than stock, but that's all the mods that should be done in terms of the cooling circuit. I also have a numeric analog universal temperature gauge kit rather than the vague, instrument cluster one. I have it mounted in a 3D-printed ashtray replacement from Etsy that has a voltmeter in it too. I'm going to splice in an Arduino custom audible alarm so I know when my engine is breaking a sweat and I need to have a look under the panel. I don't trust the instrument cluster one at all because it has to be calibrated, and after many years, it's unlikely to be accurate..

J. Bell July 28, 2017

The other thing which has saved my engine from h.g. jobs is to pay a bit more for top-quality Synthetic multigrade oil. I use Synthetic 20-50. It doesn't leak in long, hot highway driving, and lasts quite a bit longer between oil changes. It's worth a few more dollars.

t ibach July 30, 2016

follow the bleeding procedure as outlined in any decent water boxer manual...should sort out the problem, and yes, you need the thermostat to keep the engine running at proper temps so the fuel injection will provide the engine with proper optimum fuel delivery

Solomon June 29, 2016

I have a 1984 waterboxer with the 1.9 heads. They have been replaced twice now and this engine has only 2500 miles on the rebuild. My problem is this. The coolant seems to stay in the engine and does not seem to reach the radiator. The mechannic took out the Thermostat. Said I didn't need it. I can hear the coolant boil in the engine. It cools down quick but I am worried that i have been stiffed. The repair shop is out of business so I don't have any recourse. I can't help feeling that there is an air bubble in the hose going to the radiator. Just had the radiator pressure tested. Purchased it two years ago. It is a Behr. Any suggestions on what I should do. I don't want to pull the heads again.

Ken Wilford January 8, 2016

Dean, yes just order a pair of the 2.1l heads and a complete engine gasket set and you should be good to go. The 1.9l heads can be replaced with the 2.1l heads as long as it is done in pairs. Here are links to the parts. Also, if you haven't done in it in a long while, changing the water pump is highly recommended while you are doing head gasket replacement. Let me know if you need anything else. Ken

Dean Staltare January 8, 2016

Hi Ken, well looks like the dreaded 1.9 WBX "cracks" have appeared on my '85,Westy with just under 300k on her. Just to confirm: I need to replace these with new heads per your recommendation with the 2.1 L available here on your site? Much thanks DS

Ken Wilford September 9, 2015

Charles we are comparing Apples and Oranges here talking about diesel engines in a waterboxer thread. VW diesel engines all have cracks between the valves and it is considered normal. The Bentley manual even has a measurement of how wide the crack can be before it is a concern. I would send the head out to a machine shop, have it pressure tested and checked for straightness, and if everything checks out, put it back on there. For the waterboxer I usually recommend replacing a head if it has cracked between the valves. Just a different design with different weaknesses. Let me know if I can help you further.

charles burks September 7, 2015

I have a question: I have a 1.9L VW Diesel with three cracks between the valves. It seems that you don't weld up 1.9 L WBX heads? I have peened up old 1600 single port air cooled. please comment. My diesel has a Mexican head. Should I buy a new head - not a rebuild! I did a pop test on the injectors - all 4 were bad, slopy spray dripping after spray stopped. Any comments, Retired heavy mobil equip mechanic, long time ago

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