The Volkswagen Kombi on fire: a burning problem for a classic van

The air-cooled Volkswagen Kombi is an iconic vehicle that oozes character. Kombis are also practical. You can take them to work, take the family, and go camping in them, and you’ll still see them used daily and restored to occasional use. There are still many young boys and girls who would like to have one as their daily driver.

However, Volkswagen kombis have a disturbing flaw. They catch fire and then Kombi says goodbye.

So why do they catch fire and what can you do to prevent yours from burning?

I haven’t found a definitive article in a VW magazine yet, but I’ve been driving my 1976 2-litre hatchback as my daily driver for over 14 years, so I became interested in the problem and learned as much as I could. I will answer the question to the best of my ability.

There are actually a few different things that can cause the Kombi to burn out, but they all come back to the fuel being released into the engine bay. Kombis have a fuel tank in front of and on top of the engine, a hose running down from there to the fuel pump, and another hose running up through the tin to the carburettors.

The Kombis are old now and have a lot of age related issues unless they have been rebuilt. Even then, chances are, not everything is back to like-new condition.

One of those age old problems is damaged and broken fuel lines. Yours most likely have been replaced, but check them out anyway. When they rupture they can leak gas everywhere. One spark and your Kombi is history. Also, just below the engine are two hot heat exchangers that the exhaust passes through. I don’t know which is the cause of the bigger problem, the heat exchangers or the sparks, but it’s largely irrelevant when your van goes up in smoke.

So check those fuel lines, and if you buy a kombi, don’t drive it anywhere with old, cracked fuel lines. Replace them! And don’t forget to check the hose from the fuel tank to the pump. It is out of the way and easily overlooked.

If you have unclipped the fuel hoses multiple times, make sure you have not cut the hose with the edge of the hose clamp. It can happen, and then you have gas leaking onto the engine.

The fuel hose runs through the tin that surrounds the engine. Tinsmithing plays a very important role, it is essential to keep the engine cool. It’s almost as important as the radiator on water-cooled cars, so don’t throw it away. But check where the fuel line goes through the tinplate. There should be a rubber grommet protecting the fuel line from the can. Mine eventually went bad, and it was one of the few parts I couldn’t buy new, so I wrapped the fuel line in a larger diameter piece of hose to stop the chafing.

Another age old problem is where the fuel lines go into the carburetors. There is a brass intake tube that is part of the carb and they come loose. You can imagine what happens. Suddenly, the gasoline that was getting into the car is spraying all over the engine. Goodbye Combo!

I was very lucky. I was buying parts from a VW mechanic for a long time, and he told me about that particular problem. I checked the intake tubes not long after, and one of them came off the carb very easily. I put it back on with loctite and checked both inlet tubes regularly. If yours are loose, see your mechanic and have them fixed before driving your truck again.

My Kombi also had loose inlet and outlet pipes at the fuel pump. They were put back with loctite and are also checked every time I do maintenance on the engine.

I have also run into another problem. There is a rubber elbow near the fuel tank. Mine died and I could smell the gas, but I couldn’t find the leak. I eventually found fuel leaking from the bottom of the Kombi under the filler. Needless to say, they replaced it before driving it again.

I’m not saying I’ve listed everything that can cause a Kombi to burn out, so if a vee-dubber tells you other causes, listen to them. And keep a good eye on the fuel lines of your combis. If you smell gas, find out where it’s coming from and fix it. It must be so depressing sitting on the side of the road watching your beloved Kombi go up in smoke.

And it happens. You’ll read about burning Kombis in VW magazines and on forums, and I’ve personally heard of a couple of incidents. My wife was driving to work one day and up ahead was a plume of smoke and the local fire department. As she passed by, she saw a burning kombi. The burnt shell ended up in a warehouse near where I lived for a few weeks.

A couple of months later, the gas station attendant told me about his Kombi. His wife was driving it, she smelled gasoline and went to a gas station to have it checked out. The mechanic couldn’t see any leaks, so he kept driving. The Kombi burst into flames and that was it.

Do not let that happen to you.

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