The problem with a Vanagon's front suspension is the same thing that makes it great: it has a lot of suspension travel. It's what gives the Vanagon such a great "ride." Vanagons, in fact, have almost twice the suspension travel than the average vehicle on the road. No suspension design can maintain perfect alignment throughout its entire travel—and, in the case of the Vanagon, the challenge is even greater. Adding or subtracting load causes the vehicle to lower or raise. The measured alignment variables—namely camber, caster, and toe—all change with differences in loading and the resulting suspension height.
We recommend 100 lbs be added to both front seats before attempting to align the front end. Better yet, if you know how your Vanagon is loaded most of the time, load it accordingly. For example, if you drive by yourself 90% of the time, and you weigh 200 lbs, then our recommendation is perfect. If, on the other hand, you almost always travel with a passenger that also weighs 200 lbs, then load your vehicle in that manner. Basically, for the best tire wear and vehicle efficiency, your vehicle should be loaded so that it closely approximates the way in which you use it most often.
Now, it is not actually necessary to physically put weight in the vehicle to load the suspension and get it to the desired ride height. At our shop, we just have one or two guys jump into the front seats, and then we measure how much the vehicle drops in height. Then we tell them to get back to work, 'cause break time is over! Afterward, we simply pull the vehicle down to that height on our alignment rack using a pulling jack. The same can be done using a winch or come-along. Any alignment shop worth their salt will have the ability to effectively set the vehicle at the correct loaded height before any front end alignment is attempted. You can be proactive by advising them about the type of load under which your vehicle is most often operated.
Getting the correct loaded height is even more important on Vanagons that have been raised with lifting springs. On lifted 2WD and 4WD Vanagons, the upper control arm ends up at a sharper downward angle. This causes a high degree of negative camber when the vehicle is unloaded. The problem is present only at the top 1” of suspension travel, and it is more prominent on 2WD models. It is not possible to get the camber angle within spec unless the vehicle is loaded with the weight of at least one human. Luckily, these vehicles are not remote-controlled and require at least one human behind the wheel (no backseat driving!). So, the problem of getting the desired alignment specifications is solved by simply getting the vehicle as close as possible to actual loaded height.
Update: If you have 2WD lifting springs on your Vanagon, try installing a pair of our new upper ball joint spacers. Click here to read more about the spacers, and check out the product page in the "Related Products" section below.
One more tip: If new springs have been installed, or any extensive front suspension work has been done (bushings, ball joints, etc.), it is a good idea to get the alignment “close” and then take the vehicle out and mash it over some big bumps before the final alignment is performed. Springs are likely to settle into their perches, bushings will take a set—stuff will change.
So, mash away before getting in there and trying to split hairs at your friendly neighborhood satellite-calibrated, dilithium crystal laser-guided alignment machine…