NEW MOTORHOMES & OLD CAMPER VANS

In addition to my trip to the moon (which is in Cornwall by the way), I had another grand day out last week but I wasn’t paid for this other one. My wife and I ventured forth to the Motorhome & Caravan Show at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. Still nostalgic about the two motor caravans we owned over a period of twelve years (but not so fussed about exploding toilets), we are beginning to yearn for another motorised home on wheels. So off to the NEC we went to see what we couldn’t afford (just about everything there!). What an amazing sea of wheeled white boxes confronted us in the NEC’s massive halls. White boxes (with some colourful exceptions) of every size and price – every price, that is, above about £40,000! It’s a fairly safe bet we won’t buy brand new but it was good going to the show to see how things have moved on since we bought our last van in 2004. Also, it was just plain good fun jumping into, and having a nose around, all the different motor caravans on offer. A bit like going to a show home on a new housing development, even if you have no intention of buying. Admit it, I bet many of you have done that … or been tempted at least.

In addition to all the shiny new white stuff, there was a corner dedicated to shiny old Volkswagen campers. Thought they would provide a more interesting pictorial enhancement to this post than the modern vans. The white and green VW (above) was of particular interest. Externally, it was identical to the split windscreen camper my family had when I was a kid – it was even the same year (1967). However, ours had an elevating roof and the cooker was attached to the inside of one of the side doors. Compared to a modern day motor caravan, our old “splittie” was primitive; no fridge, heater, toilet or shower, just the cooker, a tiny sink with hand-pumped cold water and four beds (two of those in the rising roof). Our van had a party trick though. A fan mounted on the ceiling of the cab blew air into the rear of the van when travelling – together with clouds of small black flies. It was years before I realised that baguettes were not the French equivalent of currant buns. Yet this trundling tin can (1500cc and about 50hp) supported a family of four on a two week adventure through France to Spain and back, not once but twice in the early seventies. One of those summer escapades included a trip over the Pyrenees via the little principality of Andorra. Quite scary. The van had many other practical uses too, like transporting half the Cub Scout football team. Had we had two vans my Cub team would have beaten the Brownies more often; five of us against eleven of the little brown devils just wasn’t fair. There  were other holidays in the UK too and numerous weekends away until the arrival of a little brother prompted the sale of the camper van (we called it a camping car back then) and the purchase of a large frame tent. Not quite the same.

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And what sort of motor caravan are we interested in now? One thing we have decided is that any new purchase will be bigger than our two old vans (both four berth vans less than 4.9m in length) because we need extra comfort now we are the wrong side of fifty. But we would still want something relatively compact (less than 6m). Beyond that, things get a bit uncertain. Do we want a coachbuilt (original van cab with bigger fibreglass body grafted on the back, more space) or another van conversion (a van with its original metal body, narrower than a coachbuilt which would aid manoeuvring and driving, particularly on narrow country roads)? How many belted travel seats would we want? How many berths do we need (our son is beyond family holidays now, not too sure about our daughter)? Would we feel obliged to give a naff, cutesy name? Could we keep it on our driveway or would it be more sensible to store it at the local farm when not in use? Could we marry off our daughter? All these questions and more….. At the end of our trip to the enormous NEC show, one white box began to look much like another but we came away with a few ideas. Any purchase is not likely to occur until next year but you will be sure to hear about it if we do take the plunge!

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Colin

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CAMPER VAN MEMORIES AND EXPLODING TOILETS

Back in May, I eulogised about the VW Transporter Kombi and finished with the question, is the VW Transporter Kombi the ultimate family transport? Well, in my experience…… not quite. You see from 1999 to 2004, we owned a VW camper van – a 1995 Autosleeper Trident based on a VW Transporter T4 (the current generation Transporter is the T6). This is another reason why I have come to enjoy driving vans so much. It has been interesting comparing modern T6s (of which I have now driven a few) and our old T4. With its non-turbo, 2.4 litre five cylinder diesel engine and a mighty 78hp, our old van was on the slow side and noise levels meant that travelling at anything over 60mph (100kph) was a trial. The modern VW Transporter is a dream by comparison. The purchase of our camper van was the fulfilment of an ambition fuelled by my fond childhood memories of French holidays in the van my parents bought in the late 1960’s. A classic 1967 VW Type 2 split screen camper with green lower bodywork and off-white above. What would that be worth today??! It was a Canterbury-Pitt conversion for those interested.
When we first bought our Autosleeper Trident in October 1999, our two kids were about 3 years old and 18 months old and we soon found out that, for a family with young children, the benefits of a camper van were many. A VW Transporter is not much bigger than a large MPV so it can be used as a normal car every day of the week. However, on days out a camper van becomes a civilised changing room (for nappies as well as clothes!), wash room, café, toilet and of course, bedroom. The versatility doesn’t end there. When you can no longer avoid doing those jobs around the house and garden, there is plenty of space for junk to go to the tip or for purchases from the DIY store or, worse still, IKEA.
Van May 2002
Our Autosleeper Trident. Somewhere in Suffolk in 2002.
Over the four summers we had it, our van took us on a tour around Devon and Cornwall, to the French Alps, to Cornwall again(!) and then to the mountains of northern Spain (via the two-night ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Bilbao) and back through the length of France. In addition, there were numerous cheap weekends away including our very first night camping in the van in … Sandringham (so, it was a truly nostalgic return in June this year). The beauty of a camper van holiday is that you can do as much or as little preparation and research as you like before you go. For a foreign holiday, just book the ferry or simply turn up at the Channel Tunnel and off you go (but don’t forget travel and breakdown insurance and any necessary legal requirements for motoring abroad!). If you wish, you can make up or change your itinerary as you go. If you come across a place you really like – well, just stay a few nights and enjoy it. Freedom is the word that springs to mind.
Van July 2001
France 2001 returning from northern Spain
The disadvantages of a camper van are very few but we (or rather my wife) did discover one hazard of having a mobile toilet. If anyone is familiar with Porta-Potties they will know that the waste is contained in a sealed (and airtight) tank which forms the bottom half of the toilet. On our summer holiday in the French Alps, we had descended from a lofty summit when one child decided they needed to avail themselves of our portable convenience quite urgently. No problem. We just pulled over in a lay-by and my wife sat small child on the Porta-Potti. Once finished, the product of this call of nature sat on the sliding lid of the waste tank. In accordance with Porta-Potti protocol, my wife started to open this lid …. suddenly there was a loud “PHHSHHHT” from the toilet followed by a loud “URRGH!” from my wife…… Now, I know I really should not have laughed (nor indeed failed to have recovered from my helpless convulsions in order to help clear up the mess) but only the most serious-minded, cheerless soul would deny that an exploding toilet and a faceful of wee (provided it’s someone else’s face) is pure comedy gold. Of course, we had used the Porta-Potti (and closed the airtight waste tank) some time earlier at the top of the mountain where the air pressure is lower. Now, down in the valley, where the air pressure was greater …. well, let’s not get too scientific.
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These happen to be Spanish mountains (the Picos de Europa) but be careful with your Porta-Potti whichever mountain range you explore! Our van is amongst the trees.
In addition to all the pleasure (and laughs) we got from our van, there was also another benefit. In terms of overall cost, it was the cheapest vehicle we have ever owned. Insurance was cheap (through specialist motor caravan insurers), fuel consumption was comparable to a petrol-engined family car at the time and servicing costs were similar to a car. And the biggest cost of owning a motor vehicle – depreciation – was spectacularly good because these vehicles hold their value really well (especially the combination of a VW base vehicle and conversion by a top converter such as Autosleeper). Sadly, our van was stolen off our driveway and never recovered but the payout we received from the insurance company meant that depreciation cost us less then £500 a year. Even in 2004, that was not bad for all that fun and cheap holidays!
Happily, that was not the end of our camper van ownership. The VW was replaced by a Ford Transit-based camper which we managed to keep hold of for eight years.
Colin