Six months on the road last year across the country taught me a lot about what was working on the Van, and what wasn't. A couple of years ago I had my interior upholstery redone in Tweed by a shop in Orange County, CA. The total cost came in at about $2000 and they did a pretty decent job. I went with Tweed because I thought that it would be hard wearing and last a long time. What I didnt know was how uncomfortable it was. Worse, it was starting to fray in some spots. Additionally I had opted for firmer foam, which combined with the Tweed made it pretty uncomfortable to sleep on. At the end of my trip in October I located a pair of Stow n Go seats in Washington State and replaced my stock seats with them. I've been very happy with the Stow n Go seats, some people say they aren't comfortable, and the armrests are too high, but for me they fit just fine. There were two things that bugged me about them though, the first was that the arm rests were basically a semi soft plastic type material that wasn't very comfortable, and second they didnt match the upholstery on the rest of the Van. It was time scrap what I had, and redo it all applying the lessons i've learned along the way.
I decided to make the following changes. I enlisted the help of my Designer buddy, Damon Butler @nrwstr to help me whip up what I envisioned.
1. Switch from Tweed to a soft Vinyl
2. Bolster the arm rests to make them wider and softer
3. Two tone front door panels, with blue stitching to match the color of the Van
4. Two large pockets added to the rear hatch panel
5. Cover my Dash Cluster to match
6. Cover my sun visors to match
Damon came through with a amazing mockup based on my direction (incidentally he can do this same service for you, visit our web store). These mockups served dual purposes, they both helped me to visualize and adjust what it was that I wanted, and they acted as explicit instructions for my team to follow. Yes that's right, i've pounded the Tijuana pavement to put together a team of artisans, who together with me will craft you a incredible interior for your Van (Check out the Store if you are interested in having yours done). A couple of weeks after work was started, I drove down to Tijuana with my Van and spent the morning reassembling everything. The results can be seen below...
This is article 5 of 5 about my mexican paint experience, the other articles can be found here:
And now, on with the show!
Much has changed in the last fifteen months since I wrote the first four entries in my series on getting my Van painted in Mexico, both personally, and with regards to Los Panchos Paint Shop. This sequel will attempt to bridge the gap, and explore whether I still believe that this is a viable option as part of your vehicle restoration process, or whether you should skip the Mexican Adventure and find a place closer to home.
At the end of 2016 I had my 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia painted at Los Panchos Paint Shop in Tijuana, Mexico. The Van was reaching the end of two long years of restoration and upgrades.
In early February, a friend and I took the Van down to Mexico once again where I was to drop it off to have a custom roof rack made, and some other fabrication work. We would leave the Van for two weeks, and taxi back to the border.
I ended up living on the sailboat for the next 5 months and did lots of weekend trips with friends in the van, where I would show off my fancy new paint job. Everyone thought it looked great, with the one exception being that many people would point out that my seams hadnt been properly treated and painted. Now it should go without saying that while my knowledge of Vanagon’s has come a long way, its been learned through a lot of hard lessons during my build. One being, when your Vanagon is painted, make sure they clean out, refill and paint your seams. Vanagon’s have a unibody construction where the body panels were all welded together. Where they panels meet, there were seams, that Volkswagen filled in with a seam filler (similar in concept and practice to the caulk you use in your bathroom). The purpose of this seam sealer is to keep water and debris from collecting inside your seams and rusting the van out from the inside. Many of the vans from the rust belt states that you see which have not been well maintained, will be weeping rust from the seams. What happens is, over time, the seam sealer begins to break down, crack, and pull apart, allowing moisture inside and rust to form. Nasty stuff, and its part of what makes these old Vanagon’s particularly rust prone. When I had my van painted, Los Panchos did not clean out and reapply seam sealer to my van, and within a few short months it was already starting to rust in a few spots from the inside out. No bueno.
At this point we're going to back up a bit to early January 2017. I was contacted by fellow Vanagon enthusiast Damon Butler from Portland, Oregon (@nrwstr on instagram and nrwstr.com). Damon was interested in getting his gold van painted at Los Panchos and wanted to see if I would be willing to shepherd him through the process. The articles I had wrote shortly before had garnered a lot of interest within the Volkswagen community, and I had started to be known as “The Mexico Paint Guy”. Maybe not my first choice in monikers, but hey, sometimes these things choose you. I was determined to use what I had learned and help Damon avoid the mistakes I had made, notable among them, not doing my seams. Damon is a designer by trade, and as such is very particular when it comes to aesthetics. He drove from Portland down to Laguna Hills and I escorted him to Los Panchos in Tijuana.
We met Ramiro, who brought out his paint book, and fabric swatch samples. Damon poured through the pages, and then agonized over which shade of Gold would best suit his van. Damon was very particular, and even came prepared with a brochure he had made, detailing exactly what he wanted done to the van, with photos, and directions in both English and Spanish! Talk about coming prepared! It was mighty impressive. I was concerned though, would Los Panchos be able to live up to his expectations?
A month went by, and I would make the drive down several times to check on Damon’s vans progress, prod Los Panchos to keep them on schedule, and make adjustments. This time, we came armed with Seal Sealer, Raptor Liner (they used cheap truck bed liner on mine, starting with Damon’s van they now use name brand, high quality Raptor Liner if you so choose), and a special undercoating in a can to prevent rust. We provided these to Los Panchos along with detailed instructions for their use, and educated them on their importance. A month later, Damon accompanied me for a weekend in Tijuana and my friends place in Ensenada. We first stopped by Los Panchos on Friday, when the van was supposed to be finished, it wasnt (remember things run a little more slowly down there). Anticipating this, we planned to stop by, point out things we didnt like or needed more work, then hang out for the weekend in Ensenada while they finished up. We ate tacos, played board games, drank some cervezas and relaxed. On Sunday we traveled back up to Tijuana and spent the day at the shop while they put the finishing touches on Damon’s van. The finished product speaks for itself. Damon took a bit of a risk, choosing a VERY Gold, Gold. But at least several car show awards this past year, including best 2WD van at the 300+ van Syncrofest Vanagon Gathering in central California, prove that Damon knew what he was doing and Los Panchos delivered. We took the lessons we learned on my Van and did a build that was even better. Follow my advice and these same results can be yours. Better yet, enlist my services to help you along (more on that later).
After folks saw the job done on both my van, and then Damons, many were convinced, and the floodgates opened. I had no idea when I wrote my first four articles on getting my Van painted in Mexico that it would garner the kind of interest it has. Probably somewhere between 25 and 50 Vanagons have been painted there in the past year, as well as countless other cars and trucks, all as a result of what I wrote. Kinda humbling. The vast majority of people have been very satisfied with their work, the few exceptions with minor complaints, either havent followed my advice, and or not had the proper expectations. Again, things work a little differently in Mexico. Timetables are a little looser, sometimes they forget to do this or that and you have to remind them. But if you have the proper expectations, and stay on top of them, you will get a very high quality paint job. In fact, id argue that the Vans coming out of the shop now in 2018 are even better than mine or Damon’s. Why? After now having done so many Vanagons, they have become experts. They now know what needs to be done, the problem areas, how to fix them, etc.
One thing that has always impressed me about Los Panchos is their honesty and integrity. Ramiro is a man ive come to respect. I have zero worries about leaving my van or anyone else's in his possession, and any and all issues ive ever had with his work he has taken care of for me, no questions asked. While Damon’s van was with him, I pointed out my seams to him, and told him that they were not done properly. He agreed to fix the seams for me, and respray the van under warranty (one year). I didnt have to beg him, threaten him, or argue with him, it was simply, “no problem Amigo, I will repaint it for you”.
In May I set off for a impromptu cross country trip in the van. I traveled up the coast to Seattle, then across the country to my hometown in Upstate New York, then up to Nova Scotia in Canada, back down to Florida and the Florida Keys, back across the country to Colorado, back to Seattle, and then down the coast again to Southern California. A trip that took 5 months and covered 20,000 miles. Having delayed South America for the time being, I needed to do a long trip to shake down the van, and see how it held up over a long distance.
I’m happy to report the van was a real champ, with only a busted clutch slave cylinder, and a radiator fan resistor over that entire span. In a way, it was sort of nice that I needed to get the van resprayed. I delayed it until my return in October, which allowed me to abuse the heck out of it all summer. By the time I was ready to drop it off with Ramiro again she had plenty of scars and trail stripes.
After nearly six months on the road, I had identified a few things that I wanted modified on the van. I wanted a modest suspension lift, and a way to carry my DiBlasi folding scooter on the back of the van so that I would have a easy way to cruise around camp. My plan was to drop the van off for the suspension and fabrication modifications, and then have that shop transport it to Los Panchos for me for the respray. While all of this work was being completed on our home, I would fly to Southeast Asia and backpack around for a couple of months. Sounded like a brilliant plan to me. In practice? Not so much. I made a few assumptions, the first being that my Mexican fabrication shop could complete my list of upgrades without regular check ins, the second that I would be able to easily communicate with them, and finally that I could trust my van in their possession. Ready to go, we shifted as much as we could into my Bus (ill talk about the Bus shortly) and drive both down to Tijuana. Id drop the Van off at the Fabrication shop, where they would complete the suspension and fabrication work, then they would drive it to Los Panchos for me as discussed earlier. We dropped the Van off, took as much out of it as possible, leaving behind a few items in my locked VanagonLife steel center console lock box. A few days later we jumped on a plane to Bangkok. Without my in person regular checkups, I noticed progress on my Van in the fabrication shop dragging on. Work was being completed, but slowly, and some of it was not coming out the way I wanted, notably the window guards that I wanted added to help prevent smash and grab burglaries. Rather than being sleek, low profile and blending into the Van, they looked like something out of Mad Max. They ruined the whole aesthetic of the van, and had I been there to check on it, would have told him sooner before he drilled holes in the sides of the van to mount them. The suspension lift however, turned out great. (editors note, upon installing a big brake kit in late Feb 2018, I found out that most of the bolts holding my front suspension together were only finger tight and loose!) Per my instructions they made custom spacers for the new Schwenk Springs I had fitted to raise the van about an inch.
A couple months went by while I backpacked around Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, India, and Nepal. While in Bangkok, I was able to meet up with some local Vanagon enthusiasts, which I really enjoyed. What these guys were able to build without easy access to all of the parts we can get in the States and Europe was incredible. To say being driven around Bangkok in a lifted, six cylinder Subaru, Syncro was a treat is a understatement.
A couple of weeks before we were due to return, the Van was dropped off at Los Panchos by the Fabrication shop and work began on the respray. They sanded it down, and removed the old truck bed liner along the lower rocker panels. One modification that Damon had made when painting his Van was getting his Vanagonlife Metal Windows painted to match the rest of the van. This gave it a very unique, quasi panel van look, which I loved. I took this opportunity to have the same done to my van.
In late December, just before Christmas, I made the trip down to Los Panchos to pick up the Van. They had completed the work on time, fixed my seams, painted my Vanagonlife windows, and the Van looked good as new. It wasn't until I crossed the border that I realized they forgot to paint one of my windows, which would necessitate a return visit (make sure you check EVERYTHING BEFORE YOU LEAVE!)
With fresh paint again, a modest suspension lift, and the other upgrades completed while I was away, the Van was looking pretty awesome. Van paint 2.0 was complete!
Part 5.5 The Bus
We’re going to rewind again back to March of 2017 when I purchased a rusty, crusty, old 1970 VW Bus Westfalia in Colorado. Apparently it had been sitting under a carport in Pennsylvania for 20 years and through several other parties ended up in my hands with a rebuilt engine.
The motor was badly out of tune, it had brakes that operated at maybe 10% capacity, shocks that were completed rusted out, floppy steering, you name it. I bought it sight unseen, and when it arrived to me in Long Beach I was afraid that maybe I had bitten off a little more that I bargained for.
I somehow managed to limp it a mile to a local Volkswagen shop I found to handle the mechanicals for me. We would throw on new steering linkage, install new brakes front to back, a new carb, new plugs and wires, adjust the timing, install fresh shocks and a myriad of other small mechanical repairs.
After the mechanical work was complete, she was finally ready to make the trek down to Tijuana to begin her cosmetic makeover. When I first brought my Van down to Los Panchos it had very little rust having lived its entire life in the Southwest. The Bus however, being from the East Coast, was pretty crusty and needed a lot of new metal. I was worried, could it be fixed?
I arrived at Los Panchos after a pretty uneventful 100 plus mile trek down from Long Beach, something of a feat after so much recent mechanical work. I showed Ramiro my crusty old Bus and we agreed on $3500 to repair all of the bodywork, and repaint it. I dont know if any shops in the U.S. would even touch a project like this, for any price. If they would, it would be at least $10,000. I decided id paint it the same 1950's Ford Blue that I had painted the Van, I really loved the color, and thought it would look awesome on the Bus too.
Ramiro quoted me two months for the overhaul, and I agreed to drop it off a few days later. It was driving so nicely, I wanted to take it down to Ensenada and enjoy it a bit before she was to go under the knife for a couple months. So I took off down the coast arriving at my friends hostel in El Sauzal where I relaxed and ate copious amounts of tacos for the next several days.
After dropping it off, all that was left for me to do was wait. As I ended up hitting the road in the Van a short time later, the time flew by. Los Panchos sent me some regular updates on the Bus and it was incredible to watch the transformation. Maybe there was hope for the old girl after all?
By mid June it was ready to go and I flew back from Seattle where we were in the Van and took a bus down to Los Panchos to pick her up. I couldn't believe the transformation! With her new front seat upholstery, new carpeting, new pop top tent, seals, and new paint, she looked like she just rolled off the production line.
I couldn't drive off without first affixing the all important hula girl to the dash!
Los Panchos finally finished the Bus at 10pm. I had a meeting in LA the following morning so I was forced to skip staying the night and drive back to LA. As I left Los Panchos and began my drive to the border the generator light came on the dash. I pulled over, and found a loose wire, reconnected it and was back on my way. Shortly after crossing the border back and now back in the states, the light came on again. I pulled over, filled up some gas, and checked the connections, which this time were all tight. Perplexed, and with it growing later, I hit the road again. A few miles later I noticed my headlights dimming, then my dash lights. The battery was draining. I pulled over again and determined that my generator was dead. It was now midnight and I attempted to repair the generator with simple hand tools for the next two hours. Finally defeated I limped her to a side street where she died leaning to one side. I decided it best to call it a night and try to at least get a new battery in the morning. With no blankets, pillows, and just shorts and a t-shirt I managed to doze off, only to be awoken at 4am by a lone mosquito buzzing in my ear. Now awake, cold, and tired and unable to fall back asleep, I walked to a nearby 24hr CVS and purchased several "As seen on T.V." blankets, one I rolled into a pillow, one to cover my legs, and one to cover my upper body. I slept a few more hours until sunrise when I flagged down a passing truck who gave me a jump. I made it to a shop nearby who sold me a battery to take me the rest of the way back to L.A. where I made my meeting on time. I decided to swap out the old generator for a alternator a few days later and she's run like a champ ever since. Below are some photos and videos post restoration.
So should you still get your Van painted in Mexico?
Want my help?
In the past year not only have I gotten two of my own Volkswagens restored at Los Panchos, but I have assisted many others in successfully restoring theirs. Through countless trips to Tijuana and Los Panchos I have developed a relationship with the shop, know how to deal with them, how to avoid the common pitfalls, and how to help you turn your tired looking Van into show stopper. I am now offering my services to those who are interested in avoiding some of the hassle. Please visit my web store and check out some of the assistance options i'm now offering. Want to get started? Click below for a free quote!