The Syncronicles, Living the Vanlife

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

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.

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!

“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…

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.

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.

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.

Filming by Sebastian Doerk, Infinite Trails

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