The first mutterings about a Type 25 replacement began in 1982, at about the same time as the water-cooled Type 25 replaced the air-cooled version, with the first prototype rolling out a year later. Shock horror, VW had finally decided on a totally new front-engine, front-wheel-drive configuration for the new model.
Early drawings looked like a Renault Espace, with huge amounts of rounded glass area, but the in-house stylists eventually settled for something that took its cues from the Mk2 Golf. Wise move, because the T4 refuses to date, and even the earliest ones still look contemporary.
The final styling solution gained approval by VW’s board and was put before a customer clinic where it achieved an 80 per cent approval rating. The biggest improvement over the Type 25, it was confirmed, was in terms of practicality.
Surprisingly, considering its British-designed cockpit won a Design Council award, those involved in the customer survey saw only a marginal improvement in driver comfort over the older vehicle. Though if you’ve ever driven a late ’80’s / early ’90’s water-cooled Type 25 you’ll know they do feel surprisingly sumptious and civilised for a rear-engined VW.
The first production T4 finally broke cover in January 1990. Sure, it was a big departure from the Type 25, which the VW purists struggled to cope with, but it soon established itself a reputation for being a tough, reliable and user-friendly workhorse.
Built at VW’s dedicated Transporter factory in Hanover, it comes in SWB or LWB format and in various different roof heights, with the range including a Panel Van, Eurovan, Kombi, Caravelle, Single and Double Cab Pick-Up and Syncro (4×4). You can also buy one that’s been converted into a Camper, the Westfalia California being the name that gains continued kudos in VW circles.
A facelift in 1996 introduced a longer, re-shaped nose to accommodate the optional VR6 lump. At that point ‘short noses’ were known as T4a, ‘long noses’ as T4b.
The T4 was replaced in 2003 by the T5, though many still believe the fourth generation Transporter to be the better option.
Buying a T4: Drivetrain
Engines and ’boxes
Petrol engine offerings included a 1.8, 2.0, 2.5 five cylinder and the 2.8 VR6, which was also available in 201bhp 24-valve guise from 2000. The latter are lovely, but thirsty, unless you get one that’s had a well executed LPG conversion. As for the diesels, there was a 1.9D, 1.9TD and the 2.4D, along with range-topping 2.5 five-cylinder units that initially produced 88bhp (denoted by a blue ‘i’ badge), rising to 102bhp from 1995 (here with the ‘i’ in silver) and a stonking 151bhp from 1998, but only on German Vans (with the ‘i’ appearing in red).
It goes without saying it’s the diesels that are more abundant and, of these, the 2.5TDi is the most desirable, providing plenty of performance and up to 42mpg. It’s relatively easy to convert the 88bhp unit to 102bhp by fitting a top-mount intercooler, and even 150bhp is within reach with a decent exhaust system, ECU re-map and well considered uprated diesel injector nozzles. On the downside, it’s more complex and the engine’s controlled by an ECU, so it’s more pricey to fix if it does develop a problem.
The 68bhp 1.9TD is also a good bet. Granted, it’s not quick in standard form, but it’s reasonably tuneable and doesn’t command as high a price as the 2.5. The non-turbo diesels feel sluggish and, although you would the think the 2.4 five-cylinder would be pretty swift, rest assured it’s not.
Being Volkswagens, all units are reliable – provided they have been looked after – although the 2.4D has a bit of a reputation for busting head gaskets, so watch for oil / water contamination and signs of overheating.
Because the TDi’s timing belt drives the water pump as well, if the pump fails it will take out the belt at the same time. The key then when buying is to make replacing the cambelt and water pump the first job you do to avoid the prospect of bent valves and a snapped camshaft if it lets go. Always check for a valid and reliable service history to see when these items were last changed.
Gearboxes are robust, but check for any that jump out of gear or have dodgy synchromesh, which could be a problem on high milers. Because the T4 has a hydraulic clutch, check for fluid leaks around the pedal box. And while you’re down there with the torch, check there are no cracks in the pedal box itself where the clutch master cylinder mounts as this is another T4 foible.
Buying a T4: Rust watch
Thankfully, T4 rust proofing was a lot more effective than on any of the earlier models, so serious corrosion shouldn’t be a major issue, and things improved further still after the 1996 facelift. However, as old workhorses can be up to 25 years old now, it’s worth inspecting carefully the common rust areas, which include the area at the base of the windscreen, the wheelarches, lower sills, the bottom of the sliding door inside and out and the area around the fuel filler. Though none are too difficult to repair, having the necessary panels welded in and painted taking work to a professional body shop can soon begin to swallow up cash.
While serious structural rot is unlikely, there’s no harm inspecting the inner wings, chassis and floorpan. Rust can also take hold around the rear crossmember, just above where the rear springs locate.
Check all the door seals are sound and watertight, especially around the bottom of the tailgate. The sliding mechanism for the side door should be smooth and even. If the top rail is worn, the door can drop out, so lift the door up and down to check for any play. It should also sit flush when closed but, if it doesn’t, there is some adjustment to get it fitting properly.
Buying a T4: Stopping
There’s no real problems to beware of regarding T4 anchors, so just do all the normal brake checks such as eyeballing the hydraulic pipes / hoses and making sure there’s no judder resulting from warped discs. If a Van pulls up to one side on a test drive, it could be one of the rear calipers has seized. Replacements aren’t expensive. Neither, thankfully, are service items like discs and pads.
Make sure the handbrake is effective. The cable can stick in its outer sleeve if a Van has been left standing for a while.
Buying a T4: Electrics
Lights ’n’ gadgets
When viewing any Van for sale, spend some time making sure everything works as it should, because trying to diagnose electrical niggles can be time consuming and really pretty annoying. Westy tank level sensors are prone to failure and expensive to replace, while T4 instrument clusters have a voltage regulator that can play up and cause erratic temp / fuel readings, though later models seem to suffer less from this. Also check the wiring into the driver’s door, which can chafe and fail, and that the central locking window regulators (if fitted) are all behaving themselves.
Watch too for faulty brake light switches and duff ignition switches.
Buying a T4: Noises
Suspension / steering
If you spot uneven tyre wear, it’s probably due to tired suspension bushes or a Van that has had its geometry put out by a prang. Meanwhile, knocks or clunks on rough road surfaces will usually indicate worn bottom balljoints, drop links or anti-roll bar bushes. Nasty noises from the rear are most likely the trailing arm bushes, or anti-social passengers.
Power steering was an option initially, although later Vans should have it. In which case, listen for groans or grinds as you turn from lock to lock and check the reservoir to ensure there’s been no leaks.
Remember, anything you find at this stage can be used as a negotiating tool and, considering all the bits are available cheaply from the likes of VW Heritage, you could easily find yourself up on the deal if you don’t mind getting on the spanners.
Buying a T4: Wonga
What to pay?
At the bottom end, around £3,000 will get you behind the wheel of an early 2.4D or 1.9TD Panel Van, while £5,000 will be the starting price for a half-decent 2.5TDi. Camper conversions from the likes of Autosleeper begin at £10,000, while really nice conversions from Reimo or Westfalia with a 2.5TDi can make as much as £12-£15k.
As always, the best T4s are ones that haven’t been fiddled with. So you’re looking for a self-employed plumber or electrician’s vehicle that’s been washed on their drive at weekends and dropped in at a local VW specialist or main dealer for regular servicing bang on when the service booklet demands. Avoid the ratty, rotten ones that have already been lowered and generally tinkered with unless you know it’s been done properly and with good quality parts.
Of course, everyone wants the eager 2.5TDi, but there will be a premium to pay and, because of its extra complexity, if things go wrong it will be more expensive to fix. With that in mind, the 1.9TD is perhaps a better bet, with the added bonus it can also be run on veg / bio fuel, which could be a consideration.
Buy wisely and enjoy the T4 experience to the full. Whichever you choose, you’ll be joining a huge clan of others that have done just that and haven’t looked back since.