The air-cooled Volkswagen Kombi is an iconic vehicle that just oozes character. Kombis are practical too. You can drive them to work, carry the family around and go camping in them, and you still see them being used on a daily basis as well as being restored for occasional use. There are still plenty of young guys and girls who would like to own one as their daily driver.
Volkswagen kombis do have one disturbing fault though. They catch fire, and then it's goodbye Kombi.
So just why do they catch fire, and what can you do to stop yours burning?
I haven't found a definitive article in a VW magazine yet, but I've been driving my 1976 2 liter bay window as my daily driver for over 14 years, so I've taken an interest in the problem and learnt as much as I could. I'll answer the question as well as I can.
There are actually a few different things that can cause the Kombi to burn, but they all come back to fuel getting loose in the engine bay. Kombis have a fuel tank in front of and above the engine, a hose going down from that to the fuel pump, and another hose going up through the tinware to the carbies.
Kombis are old now, and they have a lot of age related problems unless they've been rebuilt. Even then, it's most likely not everything has been brought back to as new condition.
One of those old-age problems is perished and cracked fuel lines. Chances are yours have been replaced, but check them anyway. When they crack they can leak gas everywhere. One spark and your Kombi is history. Also, right below the engine are two hot heat exchangers that have the exhaust running through them. I don't know what causes the biggest problem, heat exchangers or 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 and cracked fuel lines. Replace them! And don't forget to check the hose from the fuel tank to the pump. It's out of the way and easily overlooked.
If you've undone the fuel hoses a few times, make sure you haven't cut through the hose with the edge of the hose clamp. It can happen, and then you have gas dripping down onto the engine.
The fuel hose runs through the tinware surrounding the engine. The tinware plays a very important role, it's essential for keeping your engine cool. It's nearly as important as the radiator on water cooled cars, so don't discard it. But do check where the fuel line runs through the tinware. There should be a rubber grommet protecting the fuel line from the tin. Mine eventually perished, 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 rubbing,
Another old-age problem is where the fuel lines go into the carbies. There is a brass inlet pipe that is part of the carburetor, and they come loose. You can imagine what happens. All of a sudden the gas that was going into the carby is spraying all over the engine. Goodbye Kombi!
I was very lucky. I was buying parts from a long-time VW mechanic, and he told me about that particular problem. I checked the inlet pipes not long after, and one of them actually pulled right out of the carby very easily. I put it back in with loctite and check both inlet pipes regularly. If yours are loose, check with your mechanic and get them fixed before you drive your van again.
My Kombi also had loose inlet and outlet pipes in the fuel pump. They got put back in with loctite, and they also get checked whenever I'm doing maintenance on the engine.
I've come across another problem too. There is a rubber elbow near the fuel filler. Mine perished, and I could smell gas, but couldn't find the leak. Eventually I found fuel dripping of the bottom of the Kombi below the filler. Needles to say that got replaced before I drove it again.
I'm not saying that I've listed everything that can make a Kombi burn, so if a vee-dubber tells you other causes, listen to them. And keep a good eye on your kombis fuel lines. If you smell gas find out where it is coming from and fix it. It must be very depressing sitting on the side of the road watching your beloved Kombi going up in smoke.
And it does happen. You'll read about burning Kombis in VW magazines and on forums, and I've heard of a couple of incidents personally. My wife was driving to work one day and up ahead was a column of smoke and the local fire crew. As she drove past she saw a kombi burning. The burnt out shell ended up in a holding yard near where I lived for a few weeks.
A couple of months later the attendant where I got gas told me about his Kombi. His wife was driving it, smelt gas and went into a gas station to get it checked. The mechanic couldn't see any leaks so she kept driving. The Kombi burst into flames and that was the end of it.
Don't let it happen to you.