Thirty years after Chris Farley's legendary SNL character Matt Foley made living in a van down by the river a hilarious punchline, live-in vans have become a trendy way to see the world, whether it's from the comfort of one of the many affordable, fully equipped camper vans or out of a do-it-yourself conversion. Another popular camper van is the Volkswagen Transporter, named the Vanagon in the United States, beginning with the third generation in 1979. In 1985, Volkswagen began producing a special four-wheel drive version of that T3 Vanagon known as the Syncro, and the Vanagon Syncro has carved out a particular two-track road in the hearts of camper van enthusiasts ever since (Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer).
The Syncro was a truly capable 4WD vehicle, with a 2.1-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that could produce 95 horsepower and 117 lb-ft of torque. The Syncro came with a four-speed manual transmission and a few upgrades over the base Vanagon, including a stronger air conditioning system and body, bigger brakes and CV joints, and a longer wheelbase.
A Motor Trend feature on the 1986 Syncro highlighted the all-wheel drive system VW had chosen to put under the Vanagon. "When the rear wheels begin to lose traction," the review read, "the viscous coupling automatically transfers power to the front wheels. The transfer is continuous and unnoticeable to the driver."
The Vanagon Syncro has increased in value over the years
Motor Trend also mentions the Syncro's other off-road enhancements: larger tires and increases of 20mm in suspension travel and 30 mm in ground clearance over the standard Vanagon, along with an extra lower gear, a bigger fuel tank, and an optional locking rear differential (Image courtesy of Bring a Trailer). The Syncro's engine was also 200 cubic centimeters larger than the base Vanagon's, lopping five seconds off the Vanagon's 0-60 time (although the Syncro was still no speed demon at 18 seconds).
Larry Griffin of Car and Driver reviewed the Vanagon Syncro in February of 1986 and had kudos for the seamless all-wheel drive system. "The transmission of torque to the front wheels is continuously and infinitely variable," he wrote, "and the delivery is so smooth that occupants are generally unaware of anything except nonstop motive traction."
The 1986 Vanagon Syncro carried a sticker price of between a little under $16,000 to just over $20,000 depending on the submodel, but its unique appeal and reputation for durability has made the Syncro a wise investment; Vanagon Syncros from between 1986 and 1990 routinely sell for between $30,000 and $50,000 and a modified 1991 model sold in 2021 for $65,000.