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.
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.
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.
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.