Vanagon – making a new roof rack

I get these ideas sometimes and for better or worse I follow through. Even though I have been using a perfectly good Thule rack system ( the type that has pads that sit of the roof top and hold down clamps that grip that black rail thing I installed for the purpose), the airfoil section aluminum spar material that was lying around the shop was too tempting.

Here’s the old Thule rack.

It’s the type of spar material you see used as spreaders on sail boats. This version is pretty stout, 1.5″ at thickest and a chord length of 5.5″.

The idea was to have two racks and not have them wider than the pop top. And the Thule ski box I use would be attached directly to the rack, not using the stock U bolt set up.

I cut the spars to 53″, and cut some shorties to act as pedestals. I coped the short bits to fit the airfoil section and welds them to the cross pieces. I also cut out some 1/8″ aluminum sheet and used that to close up the ends. This pic shows one with end closed, the other still open. You can see the slightly thicker section of the spar in the open end. All my attachments go to that thick section.

I glued some rubber sheet to the bottom of the closed in pedestals/feet later.

That groove running along the lenght of the spar falls pretty well on the middle of the thick section. On one end of the soars I drilled and helicoiled holes for the Thule box attachment. On the other side I used some 5/16″ riv-nuts as anchor points for eye bolts in case I need lash points for some future thing. Blanked those holes off with plain bolts for the time being.

And this is how they sit on the van.

The hold down mechanism took me a while and I ended up with a simple, if a little clunky, solution. For now the stainless brackets hook onto the rail, but when I am happy with the position of the racks I’ll bolt them to the rail and cut off the hook end. It’s a 5/16″ bolt attaching the bracket to the spar (helicoil in spar), I know it looks sort of week, I think it’s strong enough. It certainly pulls the rack down hard to the roof. Later you’ll see that I put in short sections of rubber hose to cover the naked bolts and make that part look less flimsy.

I am planning on painting the rack white, same interlux briteside one part polyurethane I used on the pop top itself. When it’s painted I think the rack will blend in with the roof, take away the raw industrial look.

It’s funny, the box still looks like it tilts towards the centre of the van. The cross spars are level, maybe the box itself is warped.

It’s not that bad looking, try to imagine it painted white. The painting will happen when the weather warms up, maybe this week. Oh and one more thing, the new rack lowers the box an inch or more.


  1. #1 by Pz on June 5, 2016 - 8:42 pm


    Looking very good overall!
    That poor old ancient rocket-box will always look crooked, square is square…. πŸ™‚
    Although, that shape sure complements the Vanagon’s Teutonic shape.
    I agree. Once monochromatic white is painted on the parts, the allusions will stop playing tricks on the eye of the beholder..

    Motivates me to get working on my rack solution…


    • #2 by albell on June 5, 2016 - 9:02 pm

      I would have been deeply disappointed if you hadn’t had another go at my old Thule box πŸ™‚

      Hey, I’ve changed the hold downs from crudely bent stainless bar to some aluminum versions. And I’m seriously thinking of ditching that old black rail for a new version and welding the hold downs to it, maybe fairing the joint in so it looks like all one piece. I can’t see myself moving the rack position around.

      Just back from a weekend trip, the rack stayed tight on rough roads so that’s a plus.




  2. #3 by Trevor Reynolds on June 19, 2016 - 8:58 pm

    Love the new airfoils Alistair; Hopefully you’ve got the correct angle of attack on those “wings” to give you some lift on the highway. He he. Very nice aluminum work!

    • #4 by albell on June 19, 2016 - 10:24 pm

      Well Trevor, I think I have the airfoils in a neutral attitude, so no positive or negative lift…. I think πŸ™‚

      (Foils symmetrical , no idea if it has a NACA number)




  3. #5 by Trevor Reynolds on June 19, 2016 - 10:43 pm

    Holy cow; NACA number eh… I haven’t heard that reference since I was in aerodynamics class at Selkirk College 21 or more years ago!

    • #6 by albell on June 19, 2016 - 10:53 pm

      Oh Trevor, I’ve got your number


      Man, a dad joke about fluid dynamics. How lame can you get ?



  4. #7 by John Thomas on March 8, 2017 - 10:04 am

    I am extremely jealous of your welding and metal-working skills. 😦

    • #8 by albell on March 9, 2017 - 6:11 pm

      Thanks for saying that but I’m more of a bumbler than truly talented. I wish I could say otherwise πŸ™‚




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