What to Look For When Buying a VW T5 / Common T5 Problems

Whilst I am not a mechanic, I have looked around and bought a few used cars in my time. I thought it might be useful to share my experiences of what to look out for when buying a used VW Transporter T5. Please don’t take this article as all-encompassing or as gospel, but treat it as a source for a few extra tips that you may not have thought of to add to your other research.

General tips for buying a used VW T5

Generally speaking with anything in life, you get what you pay for. Any cheap VW T5 is probably cheap for a reason. It’s always a good idea to look at as many different examples as you can before you go and look at ‘the one’, so you get a general feel for what represents a good vehicle and what doesn’t. In your research stage, go and have a look at various VW T5’s, some cheaper and some more expensive – you are not necessarily going to buy these ones but you are learning from looking. Obviously with this approach to researching the T5 in general, you want to stay away from private sellers as it is more than a little unfair to be wasting their time in this manner. Instead, go and look at some Transporters for sale at local dealers or at auction…. what are you getting for the extra £1,000’s over the other ones you just looked at? What are the cheaper ones missing... is it poor body work or high mileage etc and are you happy with this for the difference in price. If you look at a few T5’s you will quickly get a feel of what ballpark is a fair price for your requirements. You will also pick up ‘a nose’ for what looks like a good one and what doesn’t. There is always a trade-off between price and compromise, by looking at lots of examples you can prioritise what is important to you and be armed with this clear in your head for when you go and make a purchase.

Look for a vehicle with a full or good service history and as few owners as possible. If a T5 has more than its fair share of previous owners, it could be that the van has regularly changed hands as each owner becomes aware of problems.

I have spent a lot of time at BCA car auctions in the past, not for T5’s but for other vehicles. You get to have a good look round the vehicles if you arrive early and you can see which ones have been looked after and which ones haven’t. I would recommend this to anyone looking to build up their experience in how to look round a vehicle.

How to inspect a used VW T5 Transporter

You can apply the following tips for your 'practice' visits above as well as for real. The first thing I do when I look round any vehicle is arrive 10 minutes before you have arranged. Drive/walk slowly by unannounced to get your first impression. I am amazed how many times my initial gut instinct has been correct with this drive by. It really is very bizarre but I can normally rule out a vehicle certainly within the first couple of minutes. Trust your gut. Look for anything obvious – oil on the floor, the owner starting her up so she’s warmed up ready, general bodywork condition etc. To me, general bodywork reveals a lot about the owners general attitude to looking after cars. If you decide to continue, next up you want to look down every line of the body to check for knocks, bumps, trolley dings and panel alignment…. Look for gaps between panels that are bigger than they should be or that are uneven – perhaps there has been a bump at some point and then a bad repair. Start a metre of so behind the vehicle and look all the way down the left hand side without moving, look at how the doors & panels meet etc and how the light bounces off them. If it’s important to you, never inspect bodywork in the rain or dark. Move to the front and do the same looking backwards and repeat round all four sides of the van. Check the alignment of the bumpers and tail gate with uneven gaps perhaps revealing a previous shunt. Be realistic according to the age of the Transporter you are looking at, it won’t be perfect.

Looking down the lines of the van from an acute angle can help to reveal small dents and panel repairs. Repeat at each side looking forward and again looking back.

Whilst walking round the T5 van, also check tyre tread depth and condition – perhaps you are happy to replace the tyres soon or perhaps not. Do a wheel at a time and also look at the brake discs and pads. A basic check of the discs can be to see if there is a lip all the way round which signifies they have been worn down inwards although some wear is obviously normal and to be expected as they are a consumable part. To do this properly you would need to know the VW spec for minimum thickness of the discs and use a Vernier calliper to check the exact depth but in reality you will just do a quick visual and touch. For the pads, look through the wheels and you will be able to see how much depth is left on the pads – you want a decent looking wedge for want of a better term, but you will have built up a feel for what is normal on your practice trips above.

Bad discs above showing the ridge/lip, ok discs below

Still with the engine off, pop the bonnet and look for any obvious leaks. Look at the coolant which should be bright pink and between the min/max lines in the reservoir. Be VERY suspicious of discoloured coolant and/or a general coolant smell in the engine bay as it may signify a head gasket failure. Look under both the coolant lid and the oil cap, both should be clear and not have a milky mushy deposit underneath which again can signify a dodgy head gasket. Check the oil dipstick level and brake and power steering fluid levels visually. Gently shake the reservoirs if the level isn’t immediately obvious and watch for the moving fluid. Check for cracks and splits in pipes, tubing and belts. Leaking coolant tends to evaporate quickly and leaves white crystals on pipes and visually around the area it has dripped on.

Coolant should be nice and pink like above. The oil cap below is showing deposits indicative of head gasket failure.

You are now ready to start up the T5 van, but before you do, pump the brake pedal. You should feel increasing resistance start to build up each time you pump the pedal with your foot as a vacuum is created. Turn the key to start the engine still with your foot pushing on the brake. When the engine starts, the vacuum you created should dissipate and your foot should move back downwards towards the floor. This shows the brake master cylinder/servo is working correctly. Next, with the engine now running, quickly check the clutch….. any clattering or tapping sounds coming at idle might be signs of a worn dual mass flywheel (DMF). Problems with the DMF are common on the VW T5’s so listen carefully. Put the van into 1st gear with the handbrake on and start releasing the clutch with no revs. This will check the clutch and handbrake are working correctly – the engine should eventually stall with no revs applied (although don’t take it quite that far) and the clutch pedal coming out.. Again, listen for DMF noise.

Rev the engine and check for smoke at the exhaust, blue smoke signifies problems. When revving also check the engine doesn’t move (engine mounts). Listen under the bonnet for a squeaky auxiliary drive belt towards the left of the engine bay (driver side) although this is relatively easy to swap yourself.

Check all lights and electrics – windows, mirrors, stereo, everything.

Go on a test drive (with the windows open and stereo off!) and listen for strange noises or knocking noises (driveshaft) which is a common problem with the VW T5’s. Droning noises dependant on travelling speed can be wheel bearings.

All being good so far, check all the paperwork. Service history, receipts etc – it really is worth taking the time to go through this properly and looking for things that don’t line up properly – as honest as the seller seems, don’t trust anyone! Has the timing belt and water pump been done at the correct mileage for example?

Anything you have spotted along the way can be used to negotiate yourself a better price! Only you will know what you are happy to accept as ok as everyone is different. A trolley ding might not bother you but it might someone else. Have a price in mind and stick to it. Be prepared to walk away. If its a shed, walk away.

Hopefully you will have found some of these tips useful – I hope it helps you get your perfect VW T5! Enjoy your vehicle!

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