To come to the point right away: Regarding the manufacturing, the occupant protection, and the rust prevention, the body of the T3 was the best you could buy in the eighties. The competitors like Ford Transit, Fiat Ducato and several Japanese models were manufactured much worse. The years did not pass the T3 Busses without a trace, though. The condition of a T3 Bus mainly depends on the kind of use and the way the former owner cared. Generally, every year of construction of the T3 can be recommended. There are busses from 81 which are well conserved, and there are also pieces from the nineties in poor shape, but it seems that the busses produced during the last years of construction from 1989 were more likely to corrode. As it is the case with any other used car, one should gain an overall impression. Are the gap sizes correct; does the color deviate; is the paint well-tended, etc.? After that, the VW Bus should be checked in terms of its special weaknesses.
For this we start at the front end in the area of the windshield.
In case there already are little rusty bubbles underneath the rubber gasket or in the gaps under the windshield, you can conclude that the frame of the windshield is completely rusty. Rain water remains there for weeks and is the basis for corrosion. In the later stage, even the inner edge and the metal dashboard can be affected. Then a repair would be extensive because it might be necessary to take out the dashboard. A first sign for a corroded frame is a constantly wet footwell. You might say that the frame of every T3 is corroded, even with well-tended models.
Afterwards, you should inspect the lower part of the front panel.
If the seam behind the bumper is corroded, an external removal of rust is almost impossible.
After the inspection of the lower radiator grill, you can also look at the inner welding seam by means of a mirror. Mostly, it is also rusty, as it is hardly painted ex works. With many busses, the only thing you can do is to change the lower front panel. The last thing you check with the front end is the condition of the headlamps and the bumper. While the round headlamps are still available at a good price, the twin headlights are more expensive. The light level of the matt twin headlights is almost zero. The black bumpers are still affordable on the market; chrome and plastic bumpers, in new or used condition, are always high priced.
We continue the check by opening the driver’s and the passenger’s door.
First we throw a glance at the entrance. Because of a loose sticking, there is in most cases a constant clamminess under the small rubber mat which makes the seam rust. Constant stone impacts from below also contribute to that. Another examination is the lifting of the (rubber) mats of the driver’s cab. Everything should be absolutely dry there, otherwise you are confronted with the afore mentioned leaky windshield frame; - or the former owner did not hit the washer reservoir when trying to refill it. The position of the washing reservoir under the front area of the left mat is unknown to most of us and is often sought for desperately. Other leaks can arise from faulty washer nozzles, antennas, or heat exchangers. Oily residues on pedals or on the driver’s cab mat are a sign for a defective brake master cylinder or clutch master cylinder, which, together with their reservoirs, hide behind the instruments. A glance at the level indicator of the expansion tank is a must before every test drive. For that, the cover as well as the protective sheet of the dashboard must be removed carefully. The expansion tank is then easily visible between the speedometer and the revcounter. Brakes and clutch are supplied by this expansion tank. Leaks at either one of those systems make the liquid sink to a dangerously low level. Not all T3 models have a safety lamp indicating the low liquid level. So the regular check as described is extremely important.
Due to overlapping metal sheets, another rusty area can hide at the seat belt anchorage besides the front seats. Unfavorably, the carpet is stuck together there, so that the seller probably won’t be thrilled with the idea of lifting it to check what is underneath. You can only feel the rust or you can look for traces in the wheel housing. Unfortunately, this rusty area is quite spiteful, as, in case of emergency, the belt loses its function as life-saver. If the metal sheet together with the carpet gives way when you tightly pull the belt, there is need for action right away! Otherwise you risk your life.
The doors of the T3 are said to be quite rustproof, as they are zinc-coated ex works. With the doors, there are many odds and ends which bother you or which meanwhile got expensive, especially the rubber parts of the door window ventilators in front, which can be bought at an extra charge, as well as the window channels and rubber seals. The window winders should be smooth-running. If they are not, you can order them in packs of ten. The fasteners of the door window ventilators must work properly, as it is quite costly to order new ones. The T3 doors have a significant shortcoming: the locks. Mostly, those are worn out and hardly work any more. With many T3s, the door handles have been changed and you have five keys for one car. You can consider yourself lucky when you have a bus with a uniform locking.
When locking, the door should shut with a clunk which sounds like “plop” with the Multivan or like “dang” with the Transporter; and you should watch the side panel.
If there are irregularities or waves, you can assume former accident damages; you have to target the seller with regards to that. The seams of the side panel are a big issue, especially in the area of the middle side panel/ sill and the back splash water area. Some of the T3 models have plastic panels there, which is another risk for the viewing. The degree of corrosion of the seams is the essential criterion for or against buying a T3 bus. Disregarding the price, the bus whose body is in better condition with little or no rust definitely is the better purchase in the medium and long term.
Plase note that at present a T3 body with rusty seams in advanced state is economically impossible to reconstruct!
This means that a well-kept T3 with a corrosion-free body which is offered for sale in established media in most cases is considered overpriced. It would take a bigger investment, though, to restore a T3 in worse condition that to buy an original T3.
Another convincing argument for buying an original T3 is the development of prices for original vehicles in the classic car scene. Since the Busfest 60 years of Bulli, prices for original vehicles generally are increasing. After a few years when restored vehicles set the benchmark, the collector’s scene now focuses on original and unspoiled vehicles. Even a perfect new painting is only second choice compared to an original painting in good condition. Well-known expert organizations tell their investigators that a very good original vehicle should be assessed at twice (!) the price than a restored car in best condition. Therefore the condition of the body of a T3 is of major significance for the performance of the bus.
At present, the costs of a professional and correct repairing of the body by far exceed the value of the vehicle. This will probably change in the future, if the classic car scene will remain as it has been so far. Even the VW-AG has recognized the potential for body-restoration at the plant; since 2012, they offer to have a T3 restored at concern’s level at the plant VW-Nutzfahrzeuge in Hannover.
The T3-scene is yet complaining about the seemingly high costs for a partial or complete restoration. But someone who has ever watched or carried out himself the process of manufacturing and perfectly inserting metal plates, knows that even the labor time of a complete restoration can be several 10.000 €. To that, the expenses for the panels must be added. Even after the paneling of T3 is completed, another several thousand Euros incur to refresh the paint of the body. So far, we have not calculated the expenses for restoring the interior or the drive unit.
No other T3-problem is trivialized so much at the moment as the rusty seams.
Slight beginnings of rusty seams can be easily handled, but if the adjacent areas are also affected, or if the metal plates are already deformed by corrosion, changing those parts is the only way. The beginnings of rust on the seams always manifests itself by light fissures in the painting on the seams, (which is not alarming yet but must be watched). Fissures in the sealant are showing in the next stage. The affected parts must be newly sealed and painted; otherwise the decay starts at that stage. T3 busses whose payload was always exhausted are most prone to rusty seams. Besides that, the Multivans and the campers are affected by condensation due to insufficient ventilation when staying in the bus overnight. As you have done with the front end, all of the windows must be checked here, too, with regards to uneven window seals which are a clue to hidden rust.
Another word on the plastic panels:
They should be complete and without fissures, as a repair is time-consuming, and new or use replacement parts are really expensive. Because of the price level, there are many replica parts on the market which, after all, mostly cannot compete with the accuracy and manufacturing quality of the original parts. Before you buy used parts, you personally should inspect them, because structural damages or fissures are hard to recognize on photos. Only very few models from the pilot production in the early eighties don’t have holes for the car-jack holder yet. If you ever encounter such a panel, it’s worth keeping it in your treasury. The plastic panel was not serialized before 1983 when the Caravelle luxury model CARAT came out. This history formed today’s term “Carat-paneling” for those plastic parts of all later T3 series. The holders of those panels often are completely destroyed by corrosion, but you can get those on the market as original metal parts or as reproduced parts made of stainless steel.
Finally, we look into the wheel arches and inspect the state of the undercoat, the external condition of the hopefully oil retaining shock absorbers, as well as the condition of the tires and brake hoses. If there is a suspicious fuel smell in the front wheel arch, you have to be alert, as this might take a lot of work and money; we will come back to that later. Those who have a sharp awareness, might also have a look at the front axle rubbers and the outer universal joints. With campers, please also check the side installations like the vent of the fridge, sockets, and the fresh water neck for rust, because these holes had been subsequently cut out and deficiently preserved by the former manufacturer.
Now the first fifteen minutes of the inspection are over and we turn to the rear end. Again, our first glance is at the rubber of the rear window (if still existing) to find out if there might be hidden rust. If the vehicle has a rear window wiper, we test if rust has formed there. Next we open the rear tailgate which actually should open by itself and remain in that lifted position. Otherwise it might hit your head, and also two new gas pressure shock absorbers fall due, but they are gettable at a good price. The extra strong shock absorbers, which are often offered, really can open the tailgate together with a bicycle carrier, but too much load is transferred to the vehicle’s D-pillar and it might get destroyed. It is generally known that every chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
After that we look at the upper edges of the body. There are brazed joints where delamination of paint can happen. The hinges of the rear tailgate usually are quite solid, as long as the Bulli is not charged with heavy bicycle carriers the whole year round. Changed rear tailgates can mostly be identified by totally botched inside hexagon screws at the hinges. The bottom edge of the tailgate usually is rustproof, too, but some of the more recent busses and the campers tend to rust excessively, caused e.g. by insulating material which soaks with condensed water due to insufficient ventilation. It is to assume that the tailgate of all campers with insulating windows (double-glazed plastic windows) is rusted through. Extreme caution is required! Even if the tailgate looks great from the outside, it is obligatory for you to take a look at the inside tailgate behind the curtains! Just lift the window rubber in the edges inside a little. Every swelling underneath the rubber clearly hints at rusty areas. In many cases it is even possible to put the finger through the tailgate, because the rust has eroded that area completely. Mostly, the dimension of erosion is unknown to the T3-owner. In this context it is interesting that in most cases, the tailgate of the original VW camper T3 California has endured with only little corrosion, while the tailgate of the affiliated model T3 Atlantic predominantly is totally destroyed. The reason simply is that the insulating windows belonged to the standard equipment of the T3 Atlantic , but they were an optional feature at additional charge with the T3 California.
Another issue that needs to be examined are the lower edges of the tailgate on the inside!
If the tailgate lock works smoothly, we are through with the tailgate-check, and we turn to the sealing rubber. At the load sill, there usually are only fragments of the rubber left; a new rubber is not cheap. Actually, a totally wrecked load sill is a rule with commercially used vehicles.
Now is the time to put aside the carpet/ mat of the cargo area and to open the engine cover lid. If the insulation of the cover lid is severely damaged, we should examine the engine compartment regarding more damages through marten’s bites. All checking points of the engine will be explained later; for now, we deal with the metal plates. We check all joints and seals in the engine compartment for rust, especially the joint at the rear end panel and the plate under the (mostly loose) sealing rubber of the cover plate of the engine bay. Afterwards, we look behind the tail lamps. It is likely for water to gather there, because it inevitably enters from above through the vent grill, or from the bottom side which is positioned exactly in the splashing area of the rear wheels. The area behind the right tail lamp is difficult to check, because there is the air intake (Wasserboxer) or the battery (diesel). The greatest weakness of all Bullis is the left engine bay side panel. Between the exterior and the frame rail is a small gap in which dirt and humidity gather in the course of years, which leads to a totally corroded engine bay side panel in the lower area.
Further checking points on our list are the tail lamps; if those are very dark or the glass is deformed, the wrong bulbs with too much watt/heat were used. Used replacement items are available at a reasonable price. Rust also preferentially forms around the license plate lamp and in the weld joint above, because that joint was only sparsely painted ex works. The service cover, on which the license plate is assembled, is unremarkable; rust is found only sporadically at the snap fastening and the screw on points. The same criteria as for the front bumper also apply to the rear bumper. The rear bumper, however, is more damaged due to parking attempts, depositing of loads, and trailers which have disconnected by themselves (with trailer hitch). A rear bumper without dents – ideally an original chrome bumper – meanwhile has become one of the rarest T3 parts. If the plastic corners of the bumpers are loose, it is very likely that there is a big corroded hole in the carriage around the covered fastening screw.
Perforation corrosion at the rear end also occurs in the area of the bumper holders, as the wheel arches are exposed to splash water.
Sitting on our knees, we look for rust in the lower part of the rear panel on the inside and the outside. Inside, the rear panel only has a thin paint film, and in connection with the exhaust heat, massive rust can develop. Nearly every second Bulli had a trailer hitch ex works; superficial rust is not a problem, but the ball head must not undercut the TÜV-prescribed minimum diameter, the identification plate must be legible, and the socket must not be oxidized. As for trailer hitches which were mounted subsequently, you have to pay attention to the entry in the papers. Depending on the engine output and the drive, a Bulli can pull braked trailers from 1200 to 2000 kg; the Syncro (57 KW and 82 KW, but not the 70 KW!) and the Oettinger wbx-6 models even up to 2500 kg.
Now, the first 30 minutes of the inspection are over and we turn to the right side of the bus. Again, our first glance is at the window seals to check if the frame is already corroded. Afterwards, we have a close look at the cover of the ball bearings of the sliding doors, because this is an area prone to rust. The cover itself is zinc-coated, but on the metal rail behind, rust is likely to form. The right back panel definitely must be scanned for rust, if the car has a rear window wiper. The water reservoir for the wiper is behind that side panel. In many cases the reservoir was leaking for years and was keeping edges and corners moist. Finally, we check if the right corner of the rear bumper is fast and if the end and the left side also are rust-free.
Now, we turn to the sliding door which was also zinc-coated ex works. The sliding door is fairly rust-proof, but its front lower edge is located exactly in the area of splash water and stone impact, so that especially older models are likely to rust there if paintwork damages were not repaired accurately. Raised dust tends to deposit on the lower inner edge, which, under deficient care, in the course of years leads to total corrosion of the inside panel. A well-serviced and perfectly adjusted door slides by itself when being released and falls into the first locking pawl; or at least it should be easy to close without much effort. A further rust cluster is the lower ball bearing of the sliding doors. Here, raised dust gathers as well, which makes corrosion inevitable; a complete removal of rust is only possible by sandblasting.
Now we scrutinize the area around the tank filler neck (rear wheel drive), where raised dust often causes corrosion of the pipe socket as well as rusty spots around the filling neck and the adjacent seams. In most cases, only a change of the wheel arch can help, if you are aiming for a permanent repair. The right bottom step, the passenger door, the seat belt mounting points, and the right floor panel have to meet the same criteria as the left side. Further checking points are in the interior, but some of them are not visible without dismounting the inside fittings. In the gasoline-driven cars, the battery is under the passenger seat; you should watch out for acid damages there. In Multivans (6 seats), Caravelle Carat, camper vans, and self-made constructions you will mostly find a second passenger floor. With lacking upkeep and care, there might be rust damages underneath this (wooden) floor by fluid retention due to condensation, leaking side windows, or a leaking rear heating. The last issue in the interior are the belt mounting points of the rear bench. Those are prone to rust away as a consequence of splash water from outside; thus, they cannot wholly comply with their life-saving function any more. Unfortunately, that is only apparent when you remove the rearmost bench.
We finalize the bodywork check by looking at the roof and the bottom. The roof should be free from dents, scratches and the like. A further issue is the drip rail, which should be without rust, especially at the beginning and the end. If your dream-Bulli has the big steel sliding roof ex works, you have to regard the functional capability and impermeableness, because repairs are complex, and many spare parts are not available any more. The same goes for the glass roof above the front seats and the passenger compartment, which could have been optionally ordered ex works. With both roofs, you need to check if the lower end of the B-pillar (front car-jack holder) is not badly corroded or even filled. Are the water drains still in good order? That can be checked by filling water into the drains of the open roof. After 2 to 3 seconds, the water must drain in the area of the front car-jack holder. If the water is not draining at all or only drop by drop, extensive repairs are falling due. The bus also should not be lifted with the standard jack any more.
With camper vans which are supplied with a hard elevating roof, you have to check the surrounding sealing seam, which mostly has fissures and leaks due to UV-radiation. If the roof window or the screw on points for roof carriers/ awnings are leaking, water likely gathers in the back upper metal cross beam of the body which rusts away from the inside to the outside. It is obligatory to check that! - and it is easily done when the tailgate is open. Best put your head on the backmost cushion and look straight up. If that part of the bus is rusted through, you better return without it.
Actually, the bottom of the Bulli is fairly rust proof; rust only develops by lacking care or by damages in the underbody preservation. The only weak spot of the bottom is the fuel tank, where raised dust deposits in the course of years and makes the tank rust away from the top. If leaks occur after fueling, extensive and costly repairs are due, as a replacement tank in good quality will cost you about 500€, and the repair can only be reasonably accomplished on a lifting platform because of the numerous pipes. Leaking tanks are a problem with the rear wheel driven bus as well as with the all-wheel driven bus, which has its plastic tank above the rear axle. With the Syncro, however, only the add-on parts are corroded, like the cap of the tank sensor and the retaining belts. If the retaining belts of a Syncro T3 are rusted through and therefore the tank already rests on the gearbox, extensive repair is necessary for which all of the rear drive (supporting frame, engine & gearbox) must be pulled out.
That was it for the body.
If the model you are aiming to buy has passed the checking so far, turn to the engine and drive.