** Updated February 2017 **
While VW Californias have thankfully not been affected by the scandal of VW’s emissions cheating software, a rapidly growing issue is fast tarnishing VW’s reputation among diehard owners in the UK and Europe. It appears that many – if not most – Californias produced since 2005 have been affected with a “roof corrosion” issue which causes paint bubbling. Unfortunately, VW’s attempts to identify the cause of the issue have so far failed and their mismanagement of the issue is a case study in corporate ineptitude.
To summarise the story so far:
- the roof repairs rolled out across the UK and Europe from 2013 onwards have proved ineffectual. Corrosion has now re-appeared on many Californias which have already been repaired using this process (costing over £4,000 per vehicle).
- new vans from 2014 were supposedly modified to prevent corrosion taking place but these too have suffered damaged paintwork.
- clearly realising they misunderstood how to solve the issue VW Commercial Vehicles withdrew the (ineffective) repair procedure in August 2016 and have instead introduced a process that doesn’t remove the cause of the corrosion but simply covers it up by installing a new bodywork panel. So far, there haven’t been any cases of corrosion reappearing.
- however, it’s now clear that new T6 Californias also suffer from roof corrosion around the perimeter of the elevating roof (ie not the front panel) – confirming that VW have failed to correct the design flaw in their latest model.
This sorry tale continues … and is by far the most lively topic on the VW Calfornia Club Forum. The latest twist is that owners have now started a campaign to escalate the issue and highlight the appallingly poor customer service from VW Commercial Vehicles. All owners are therefore asked to register their feelings by contacting BBC Watchdog (or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if the online form doesn’t work for you).
In the meantime – and to save you reading all 150+ pages of posts (so far …) – here’s a summary of what you need to know.
What is the “roof corrosion” issue affecting VW Californias?
There are two parts of the vehicle which tend to be affected: the elevating roof and the front panel between the elevating roof and the windscreen. Affected vans have blistering paintwork – small ‘bubbles’ of paint – which start to appear along the adjacent edges of the elevating roof and front panel as well as around the perimeter of the elevating roof.
The problem appears to affect some (possibly all ?) T5 vans produced between 2005 and 2015, and now owners of T6 Californias have also reported corrosion issues around the perimeter of the elevating roof. It affects all Californias of all specs and colours. Often it takes a few years to become evident but a key point is that unless you look very carefully for it you may not see it until it’s really obvious.
This is not rust but galvanic corrosion. Where two dissimilar metals but against one another an electrochemical reaction takes place, causing the blistering paintwork.
According to VW’s own design guidance: If two different metallic materials are connected together by an electrolyte (eg moisture from the air) then this will give rise to a galvanic connection. The result will be electrochemical corrosion, and the less noble metal will suffer damage.
So far, a definitive explanation of the problem is elusive but there are currently three plausible theories:
- First, it’s suggested that paint blistering on the front panel was found by VW to be caused by poor primer adhesion, owing to the chemical composition of the aluminium panel containing too much copper.
- The second explanation is that the rubber seal which fits around the perimeter of the elevating roof contains a reinforcing metal (possibly steel) strip within it. As moisture gets trapped in that seal it creates the ‘battery’ effect that causes corrosion. Seals that have been removed have been shown to be rusting inside.
- A third suggestion is that moisture and grit get trapped underneath the rubber seal and create the right conditions for the bi-metallic corrosion to take place.
This video shows a particularly bad example:
At the time of writing (February 2017) a survey on the UK California Club Forum shows how many owners have reported roof corrosion:
- 40% front panel only (154 vans)
- 48% front panel and main elevating roof (184)
- 11% elevating roof only (43).
This is likely to significantly underestimate the number of vans affected since only a minority of owners are regular members of the online Forum. It’s estimated there to be up to 10,00 Californias and Beaches in the UK sold since 2005.
So what has VW done about it ?
In short, VW has done the absolute minimum to solve this issue. VW has been aware of it for many years and in fact, they continued to sell new Californias knowing that it was likely that they would suffer roof corrosion.
Contrast this with the much-publicised emissions scandal. Here, VW wrote to all affected owners to (a) let them know there was an issue affecting their vehicle and (b) informing them that their vehicle would be fixed at VW’s cost. In the US, where litigation law is much tighter, VW have been forced to compensate owners of affected vehicles.
There is a link of course. Faced by having to pay $14.7bn in fines in the US they have looked for every way possible to cut costs in other parts of the business. This now includes a supposed fix to the roof corrosion issue that simply involves fitting a new panel to cover up the blistering paintwork. It’s akin to simply brushing it under the carpet !! Why haven’t VW Commercial Vehicles come clean and admitted to existing VW owners that there is a design flaw, and that it’s their responsibility to make things right? This isn’t good enough – and UK & European owners are getting a raw deal.
Instead, the onus to initiate a repair rests entirely with VW customers, not the company. This has been hugely frustrating for owners, many of whom have been patiently waiting on repair lists for over three years.
Following two years of patient meetings, phone calls and e-mails with the UK California Club Forum VW Commercial Vehicles finally acknowledged the existence of the problem. As “a gesture of goodwill” VW committed in 2014 to repairing affected vans which are up to six years old. This means that owners need to notify their local dealer immediately to ensure they have their vans repaired during this six year window. This was set out in a letter in August 2014 from VWCS to the UK California Club (see page 72 of the Forum thread):
“As you are aware, all repairs relating to the front panel section of the California roof are covered by our paint warranty policy, not body protection warranty. While we recognise issues relating to roof corrosion, it is not as a result of through-corrosion of the aluminium panel. As such, repairs are covered by the three year paint warranty policy. In an effort to offer our customers peace of mind, we took the decision to offer an additional 3 years goodwill, extending the terms of the protection from three years to six.
Following your most recent correspondence, we have again conducted a thorough review of the goodwill terms with our colleagues at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles HQ in Hannover. As a result, I can now confirm that Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles will extend the terms of the goodwill to cover the entire roof panel. Any cases of roof corrosion to the main roof panel will now also be covered under our good will policy for up to six years.
This enhanced support is linked to the individual Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and is therefore transferable upon sale of the vehicle.
We will be notifying our Van Centres of this additional enhancement. I would ask that you encourage any of your members who may be affected by this issue to visit their nearest Van Centre so that their vehicle may be assessed …………”
It’s important to note that this extension of the three year paint warranty to six years only applies to T5s. T6s still have the standard three year paint and twelve year body corrosion warranties..
How can I check for any roof corrosion on my VW California ?
You should raise your roof by 1-2 feet so you can inspect the roof properly. You need to check in three places:
- check the gutter between the elevating roof section and the front panel. Inside the gutter, not visible unless the roof is raised, you may find bubbling paintwork;
- check for bubbling at the front edge of the front panel (just above the windscreen); and
- remove the rubber protective seal from around the perimeter of the elevating roof to look for bubbling underneath. Don’t worry about using a bit of force to do this: the strip isn’t glued on but should just come away and be able to be pushed back on again.
You may want to take your own photos at this stage as evidence, and also to check whether the problem becomes worse over time.
How can it be fixed ?
The first repair process in the UK early repairs (2011-14) simply involved rubbing down the affected paintwork and respraying it. This wasn’t an effective solution. The problem re-emerged in vans which had simply had this cosmetic treatment.
Since 2014 a new repair process was rolled out (using four appointed repair centres across the UK) that involved putting in place a plastic protective strip in the gutter between the elevating roof and the front panel, acting as a barrier. The front panel was replaced with a new panel using a different aluminium alloy to give stronger primer adhesion. Secondly, another plastic strip was fixed around the outside perimeter of the elevating roof underneath the existing rubber seal (although not all repair centres included this element). Together with a thicker layer of paint this was designed to provide stronger protection between the rubber seal and the aluminium elevating roof.
This second approach also proved ineffective and since August 2016 VW introduced a third procedure involving gluing a plastic cap (a new panel) on top of the existing corroded panel, as seen in the pictures below. Worryingly, the second picture below shows a line of ugly black filler sealing the gap between the plastic cap and the existing front panel. So far at least, there are no reports of paint bubbling reappearing on repaired vans … but this seems a very inelegant solution and confidence among owners about its long-term effectiveness isn’t high.
What do I need to do to have mine repaired ?
If you’ve found evidence of roof corrosion take your van to your nearest VW Van Centre (dealer) and ask them to log the issue. They will probably take photos and measure the thickness of the paint near to the affected area. At this point you need to make sure that the dealer checks all parts of the roof – ie the front panel as well as the main elevating roof (checking underneath the black rubber strip around the perimeter). (If you subsequently find you have corrosion on a different part of the roof this will then be registered as a separate claim, and you will likely be put back to the end of the queue again. So it’s in your interest to get all of the roof sections inspected at this initial stage). The dealer should then log the issue with VW Customer Services centrally and gain approval for the repair. You will then receive a letter acknowledging your van will be repaired under the agreed process and notifying you of the repair centre which will carry out the repair.
My advice (having had mine repaired in 2015) is to be proactive.
- Do not assume that your local dealer has passed on your repair claim (mine didn’t for four months).
- Once ‘in the system’ ask when the repair will take place.
- Keep in contact with them regularly to check that things are still on track.
- Don’t assume that they won’t forget about your claim … this has happened countless times.
Unfortunately, many dealers are not very switched on about this issue and can be very slow and unresponsive. (You’d think that having bought a product costing in excess of £45,000 – 50,000 you would receive attentive customer service … but not in the world of VW Commercial Vehicles unfortunately).
What kind of warranty does the repaired roof come with ?
Given that previous repairs have not worked this is a very important aspect. Some owners whose Calis were repaired at the start of the process in 2014 were told that a 3-year warranty would apply to the repairs carried out. Indeed, a letter to the California Club from VW Customer Services in June 2014 confirms this:
“Anyone who presents this issue to their local Van Centre before the vehicle is six years old will have their vehicle repaired under warranty, even if the vehicle is actually repaired after this time. As with any bodywork repair within our Paint and Body Network, the workmanship is guaranteed for three years“. (See page 41 and page 119 of the Forum thread).
However, by the time my van was repaired in May 2015 the line from VW Customer Services had changed. By then, they would only say that the repairs came with a 12 month workmanship warranty from the repair centres, offered “as a gesture of goodwill”. I phoned VWCS three times to speak to different people and got the same message, and others have been told the same thing. However, given that the 3-year warranty has been widely shared on the VW California Club Forum – and now here – from a legal perspective it is difficult to see that this would not apply.
And finally …
- What if I buy a used Cali – how do I know whether the roof has been repaired ? VW Customer Services maintain a database of all vehicles and repairs registered through the four repair centres via vehicle VIN numbers. Any Cali should therefore be logged on to this system.
- What if my van is over six years old and I have just found blistering paintwork ? Unfortunately VW won’t pay for the cost of repairs to your van. Owners are liable for the full cost of any repairs to vans over six years old.
- Does this issue affect new T6 Californias ? Unfortunately yes. Several cases have now been reported on Calis less than a year old.
- Will roof corrosion reduce the value of my Cali ? Resale values don’t seem to have been affected for those vans which have been repaired within the six year period. They’ve stayed buoyant given the continuing strong demand for factory-built California camper vans – and VW have committed to repairing all vans which have been registered for repair by a dealer within the six years. However, the realisation that T6s are now affected underlines the fact that VW clearly don’t have a clue how to fix this issue, and this may start to impact on resale values. The value of those vans affected by roof corrosion which have not been repaired within the six year period is likely to be reduced owing to the £4,000+ cost of the repair to the front panel and elevating roof.
Note: I have endeavoured to summarise the twists and turns of this sorry saga through more than 140+ pages of discussion posts. If I have misinterpreted or provided any misleading information please let me know and I will update this post. The purpose of this post is to provide an easy-to-digest summary based on my interpretation of the facts. I have done this in good faith and cannot provide advice on individual cases, nor can I be held liable for any incorrect advice or information. VW Commercial Services alone are responsible for managing their response to this issue and any queries on individual circumstances should be directed to their Customer Care team or to your local VW Van Centre.
This article was updated on 4th February 2017.