Making a Modern Bay - The Story of a Subaru conversion
Back in the days when Kustom Revival was just an idea, our now dream team, Anthony Winter and David Grayson worked together at VW Kampers… Anthony was the workshop manager* and Dave was his right hand man and together they created the Subaru engine conversion on this 1972 Volkswagen Bay Window Campervan that ended up in Camper & Bus magazine!
Now running his own company, Kustom Revival, Anthony Winter is still thoroughly modernising VW vehicles for his customers by converting some of them to Subaru or Porsche engines and gearboxes, and making them a much more comfortable drive.
Everyone loves the looks of a classic VW Camper right? But the sad truth of the matter is that sometimes the reality of owning one doesn’t quite live up to the dream. It’s not so bad if you’ve come up through the ranks, so to speak, and have gone from Beetle to Bus ownership, which used to be the most common form of progression for Bus enthusiasts. However if like a great many Bus owners today, something like a Bay is your first foray into the world of classic cars, they can come as a bit of a culture shock, to say the least.
Progress is a wonderful thing, and nowhere is this more noticeable than the motor industry. Compare a new VW Transporter to one 10 even 20 years ago, and you’ll be blown away by how much better and more user friendly they’ve become. And if you really want to shock yourself, compare a modern car, anyone will do, to a 42 year old commercial VW, and you’ll quickly discover why so many people new to vintage VW’s struggle with them.
Things we take for granted in our daily drivers, like motorway journeys, can take quite some getting used to in an older VW. Tiresome noise levels, lack of creature comforts, like heaters that heat up the vehicle and demist the windows, slow travelling speeds, wandering steering and unassisted brakes can all take their toll on a ‘newbie’.
Fortunately, for those who really can’t bring themselves to accept such levels of character, but still want to own the ultimate in cool, quirky transportation, there are now other options.
Hot under the collar
Converting a Bay Window to run a Subaru engine is going to overcome a lot of the standard offerings on shortcomings but it’s not going to please the purist. However, before you turn the page let’s hear the reasoning behind this VW’s heart transplant. Workshop manager, Anthony Winter*, explains: “We had an idea for improving the factory offering that we wanted to roll out to customers but had to be sure to make it a reliable conversion first. So we converted our own Bay Panel Van to Subaru power to act as a rolling test bed.” It’s a good job they did as the cooling system alone needed a fair amount of fine tuning to be 100% reliable when either battling down the motor way or sitting in heavy traffic.
To overcome the overheating issue, twin radiators were sited underneath the centre of the bus, nestled up between the chassis rails, out of harms way. This is great for avoiding road debris or large obstacles but not so great for air flow which is pretty essential to a cool engine. To solve this Ant, fabricated a ram scoop under the front bumper, connected up to some elaborate ducting which forces air into the dual radiators. This tried and tested set up is said to work a treat all the time the vehicle is moving along the road but it’s when you come to a halt in traffic that some extra trickery is needed. It comes here in the form of a dual thermo switch. What this means is that when the engine is up to operating temperature the first stage of the thermo switch turns on one fan for each radiator. When the bus is sat idling in traffic, the second stage of the dual thermo switch activates a second pair of fans. The two fans per radiator and a fanned oil cooler to boot may seem excessive but it means the bus theoretically should never overheat.
Once this set up had proven it’s mettle in the shop test mule, the team were ready to offer this conversion to their customers. Ant: “We use the EJ20 2.0 litre non-turbo Subaru engine. It won’t turn a Bay into a race car but with 115bhp on tap it really does transform the driving experience.” When this engine is coupled with a ‘six-rib’ Late Bay Window gearbox (the ones with ‘taller’ third and fourth gears) it makes motorway cruising and absolute delight. The gearbox work is the only part of this build farmed out to a supplier, the rest is handled in house.
Fitting the Subaru engine to the unmodified engine bay was surprisingly easy as, being water cooled, the Subaru doesn’t required a sealed engine bay, meaning there’s plenty of room around the block for ancillaries, as well as for servicing proceedures.
Now imagine the above set up with the added benefits of servo-assisted brakes and power assisted steering. Yes that’s right, the crew have fitted these refinements too, making parking and driving around town a breeze too.
“It makes motorway driving as absolute delight”
Anyone who’s ever driven a Late Bay equipped with a factory servo will know you can usually stop one using only the force of your big toe. To ensure this was the case the brakes were overhauled to stock spec but with the addition of a stock Brazilian servo.
Before all this work could be carried out on James Sweeney’s Crossover (the bus you’re looking at here) the base vehicle had to be sourced and restored to the teams uncompromising standards. This began with a shell sourced from a dry climate, blasted first to ensure any rust was eradicated, then bespoke built to James’ spec. This included a freshly moulded pop-top, trial fitted to the braced roof before the shell was wheeled into the paint booth to be refinished in light grey and white.
With the paint done, the refit could begin in ernest. Adjuster were welded to the new front beam before the bus was lowered one outer spline at the rear. This moderate drop keeps the vehicle wholly useable but firms up the ride just enough to get rid of the wallowy feel you get from stock suspension.
Ant and the team also fitted one of VW Kampers’ own interiors with gloss white cupboards, Smev hob and sink, two way fridge and a gloss red tiled floor. Ant: “When the gloss red tiles initially went down they looked hideous. The customer is always right though and when the interior was complete the red was deemed to be the right choice”. The roof locker houses the island table when not in use and the bus is fitted with interior strip lights up front and spot lamps out back.
Charge of the lights brigade
It’s under the surface of the interior where all the (elec)trickery really comes into play though. The Bus not only sports a leisure battery set up, 240v hook up and water tank with submersible pump but also has a smart charger fitted, in a similar way to a new T5 California, or motorhome. This means that the leisure batteries are charging as soon as you plug into the hook up on a campsite, making life much easier and reducing the load on the alternator whilst camping.
Of course with a full compliment of units down the drivers side, night time occupants have to make use of a 3/4 width bed. Now anyone used to sharing a normal sized double will tell you a 3/4 bed is definitely ‘cosy’, if not plain intimate but this is the price you pay for so many mod cons. The cosy bed, buddy seat and cab area, complete with Porsche ‘Tombstone’ front seats, was upholstered in white vinyl with a light grey central panel and red piping that ties in with the red floor tiles and the polka dot curtains.
So white kind of person buys a Bay built to this spec? To see wher you sit on the comfort scale, try drivng a stock Bay Windwo Campervan from the Midlands to Cornwall, then doing the return journey in a T5. After that we’re pretty sure you’ll have made up your mind. In a nutshell, a bus like this will appeal to all but the most die-hard air-cooled fans. being a four cylinder boxer moter, the engine note, especially when coupled with a custom manifold and a stock Type 4 silencer is remarkably similar to that of an air-cooled VW. The overall ‘feel’ is of a Bay Window but just a more refined one, and all the classic look remains. But what you all really want to know is what it feels like to drive?
Anthony Winter: “The Subaru engine doesn’t give amazing economy – think 25-30 miles to the gallon, but where it comes into it’s own is drivability. Theres plenty of torque and power for effortless driving, both around town and at higher speeds. You doint have to constantly change gear to make progress and the power steering retains feel at speed but makes driving around town and parking effortless.”
James first trip in this Bus was a trouble free 2500 miles fast drive to Monza and back, so it goes without saying James is delighted with the finished article. And it’s not hard to see why. He’s got a beautiful Bay with classic looks that has been upgraded in every area that matters. Sounds perfect to us.
With it’s 1.4 litre Fox (Polo) engine, the closest rival to this Bus would be the Brazilian Bay but now that production of those has finally come to an end their days are numbered. So if you like driving something that will turn heads wherever it goes but doesn’t demand as much from you to drive or maintain as a stock air-cooled example does, Ant, now owner of Kustom Revival, will be only too happy to build one of these for you. Naturally it won’t come cheap but all you really need to ask yourself is what would you prefer to own – a T5 camper or a modernised Bay? Your call but it’s an easy choice for us.
Article credits to VW Camper and Bus Magazine, with a few corrections.
*Yes you read it right here. The original mag article got the credits wrong – Whoops!