The one that got away – my old VW T25 Panel Van

1983 VW T25 panel van camper

I found some pictures of my old VW T25 camper, “The strawberry van” – a 1983 1.9 water-cooled panel van. I bought it off some clown. No seriously, I bought it off a professional clown who bought it for carting his equipment to gigs. He’d decided to use a landrover he had bought instead, as it was apparently better for towing his large trailer.

As far as camper conversions go, this was basic – I built a fold-down bed along one side, from the frame of an IKEA futon and using the futon mattress, and had a foam mattress from a caravan across the back, making two single beds. I also had a cooker from a caravan on the floor, crudely anchored to the back of the passenger seat uisng bungee straps. The curtains were also held up by bungee straps and made from an IKEA duvet cover. The only bodywork modification I made was to fit a sunroof halfway down the van roof for ventilation and light in the back.

These photos were taken in 1997 on my “spanish adventure” – where I spent six months travelling in my T25, alone and with friends, around Spain and hanging around for several months in a beautiful valley know as “el morreon” just outside Orgiva, in Andalucia. El Morreon is a collection of dwellings based around a river bed, which is mostly dry in summer, and to reach the valley requires a bit of mild off-roading, including fording the river. Full-time travellers often over-winter there, when the river bed is impassable in a motor-vehicle.

I’ve lost the full record of where I travelled, but I started by sailing with friends on the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, then we spent some time in Santander before splitting off, travelling along the north coast, into the Picos de Europa national park, visiting Gijón, Oviedo, León, Valladolid, Salamanca, Avila, Madrid, Toledo and Granada, amongst many other smaller places that I have no idea of the names. If only geo-tagged digital photography existed then – i’d love to look up where some of my pictures were taken. I also travelled up and down the south coast, making petrol and food money by busking outside (and sometimes inside) bars in tourist traps along the costa del sol. Most of the time it was wild camping, with the occasional stop at a proper campsite to use showers and washing machines etc. I travelled back to the UK through france and the channel tunnel.

The engine on my old van was in a bad way, and it only just got me back to the UK, where unfortunately I had to let it go, as an engine rebuild or replacement was then beyond my reach. I’m not 100% sure what was up with the engine, but there was a problem with one of the pistons which meant it was using a massive amount of oil – I had to top it up with a litre or so at every petrol stop. To say it was a bit smoky would be an understatement – the back of the van was covered in oil and it would stall whenever the revs got low, and wouldn’t restart until the engine had cooled down. I’m not quite sure how I got it back to the UK – I drove through most of france in a single day – stopping using the handbrake at traffic lights so I could keep the revs up and avoid stalling. Once across the channel, I also spent several hours at a petrol station in Kent, where the van was refusing to start, and I though I might have to arrange a tow back to East Anglia, but eventually got it started again, and completed my trip stopping only to pick up some hitch-hikers!

Dream Power

lawnmower engine

Last night I dreamt that I went to see a guy who was selling an engine, which might be a good replacement for the “naturally asthmatic” 1.6 diesel engine I currently have.

After looking over the engine, I asked the owner about it’s history:

“It actually came out of a lawnmower” he said, “but it’s probably more powerful than the one you’ve got in there at the moment”.

“Yes.” I sighed, “You’re probably right.”

And with that I wandered off with my new engine cradled in my arms…

(I think I may be a bit pre-occupied by Rocky’s lack of hill-climbing power!)

Keep calm and carry some tools

essential tools

A few days before christmas we headed off on the first long trip in Rocky since buying him. The cross-country trip from our home town of Bristol to my parent’s house in Cambridgeshire is always a slog, rarely less than four hours, but with an early start to beat the traffic, we were on the M5 heading north before 7am. Despite the driving wind and rain, the van did really well. With the under-powered but frugal 1.6 diesel “CS” engine we were mostly able to keep it at a steady 60 mph, only slowing down on the inclines where there is usually a crawler lane. Future plans for the van include changing the engine for a slightly more powerful 1.9 “1Y” diesel engine (from an old golf or caddy), which won’t make it much faster, but apparently wth 29% more torque should help us keep up with the trucks on the hills.

I had been nervously excited for days about doing this trip – the van was fully loaded with food and drink for xmas, bedding for camping over new year and xmas presents, so we needed to make it to our holiday cottage in Norfolk. About a week previously we had decided to upgrade our breakdown cover to include “relay”, meaning we were guaranteed to at least be towed to our destination if it couldn’t be fixed by the roadside.

Up until now we had only done fairly short trips e.g. 60 miles and every time so far something had cropped up, notably indicators and dash light not working on one trip (on Jo’s first stint behind the wheel), and windscreen wipers suddenly stopping working. Each time something like this happens, a small amount of panic and dread creeps in – panic that you won’t make it home, and dread that sorting it out is going to lead to expensive auto-electrician bills. However, in both these cases I managed to find and fix the fault with no external help.

For the record, the indicators and dash light issue was caused by an earth wire coming loose behind the glove box – once reattached to the earth crown, the problem went away, and the windscreen wiper issue was caused by a blown fuse. The wipers share a fuse with the blower motor circuit and I already knew the blower motor was on its way out as it was squeaking badly and varied in speed, so when that seized the fuse blew. The advice found on club 80 90 is to separate the blower and wiper onto different fuses, which I will do in due course. I also need to replace the blower motor, which involves removing the dash (which in return requires removing the steering column – or at least removing the driver seat and detaching the steering column).

So on the day of our 200 mile cross-country trip, we set off early in the dark to beat the holiday traffic, and found ourselves on the motorway in driving rain and wind. Despite requiring some serious concentration to keep it in the correct lane, Rocky made it to Wisbech with no problems, other than the heating stopping for the last hour or so – probably the result of air locks in the cooling system. Triumphantly pulling onto my parents driveway I felt instantly more relaxed about the prospect of future long journeys in Rocky.

In the morning I checked the oil and topped up the coolant, reloaded all the luggage and we waved goodbye to my parents to set off on the next leg of the trip… before sitting on the driveway in quiet despair as the van wouldn’t start. Turning the key, the ignition lights came on, but nothing happened when you tried to turn it over. If the battery was flat you might expect some dimming of the ignition lights or at least the sound of the starter trying, but failing, to turn the engine, but all I could hear was a click of a relay somewhere. We tried charging the battery for a bit and jump starting it from a portable jump start pack, to no avail. There must therefore be a problem with the starter motor, or associated electrics. After fumbling around looking for loose connections but finding nothing, I swallowed my pride and called the AA.

While we were waiting for the AA to turn up (at least drinking a cup of tea in the comfort of my parents living room rather than by the side of a rainy motorway or A-road), I was feeling quite despondent. I knew there was nothing major wrong with van, but I hated the idea that as it was a couple of days before xmas, it would be virtually impossible to get hold of any parts and get them fitted in time for the start of our holiday, so might be faced with a dead van that could only be bump started (and that’s not the simplest thing in a two-tonne vehicle!). I’ve always liked to think of myself as mechanically minded, and have worked on cars myself in the past, including helping to build a Citroen 2CV from spare parts. However, in more recent years, electrical problems i’ve had on more modern cars have usually boiled down to “Computer sais no.”, followed by expensive diagnostics at a specialist garage. I wondered how I would deal with this type of problem stuck by the side of a foreign motorway. My spirits were lifted when the AA mechanic talked me through his simple diagnostic procedure and found a way to get us back on the road.

The AA mechanic attached a wire to the spade connector on the starter solenoid with a bullet connector on the other end. With the ignition switched on, this bullet connector is pressed for a second or two on the positive terminal of the battery and the engine turns over and starts. This simple, slightly inconvenient method of starting the van is how we carried on with our trip without having to resort to bump starting or finding an auto-electrician. As well as solving our immediate dilemma, this has also changed my perception of the engine – it has reminded me that Rocky has an incredibly simple engine with no ECU or immobiliser to worry about, so it should be within my capabilities to diagnose the problem and fix it myself when we are back in Bristol.

I’ve since done a bit of reading about starter solenoids, and I now understand that a solenoid is a type of relay – the 12 volt feed that I am providing via the workaround is not powering the starter motor, but causing the solenoid to complete a circuit on the thicker wires needed to handle the heavy current that the starter motor needs. This makes sense and is a bit of a relief as I initially thought that I was man-handling the much higher current needed by the starter and was surprised that the wire hadn’t melted!

The next week or so was spent hibernating in a holiday cottage and so we didn’t use Rocky much, but when we did it involved running round the back, removing whatever was obscuring the engine bay lid, removing the lid, finding the ignition hack wire and touching the end on the battery terminal. I got a few weird looks, particularly on our last day at the cottage, starting from cold, the engine can smoke a bit for the first few minutes, until the engine gets up to temperature (I need to get the glow plugs replaced as it only fires on a couple of cylinders in the cold until it warms up, which leads to lots of unburnt fuel coming through the exhaust). Our holiday cottage neighbours (them with their two shiny black Range Rovers, us with a scruffy white campervan touched up with splodges of grey primer), were loading their luggage at the same time as us, and I needed to start the engine before we loaded everything into the back. As it idled, the wind direction and a particularly smoky start conspired to fog them back indoors until we were gone!

Our next stop was with friends/ relatives in Derbyshire where we camped for a couple of nights on their driveway with the luxury of electric hookup. This was fairly vital as I have yet to get our propex heater serviced and working, so we were relying on an electric fan heater to keep the van warm. In exchange for me sorting out their wifi network, Paul (who just happens to be a very good mechanic with a garage full of tools and random spares), diagnosed the ignition problem as being a relay, which had probably got thoroughly soaked in rainwater/roadsplash on the first leg of the trip and stopped supplying sufficient voltage to the starter solenoid. As luck would have it, he had a spare, which he fitted, and secured with a cable tie to the bulkhead with the connectors pointing downwards so any road splash will drain away rather than soak in.

Rocky got us back to Bristol again with no more issues, and no problems since. I also started putting together an electrical toolkit to carry around in Rocky, and came across some electrical spares that I used to carry around in my old T25 – including, of course, a spare relay!

Rocky, our VW T25 Campervan

first camping trip in Rocky, our T25 vw campervan

In September 2012, we bought Rocky, a 1983 VW T25 Devon moonraker campervan. The T25 (also known as a T3 across most of europe), is the last version of the rear-engined VW transporter-based campers, and is affectionately known as the “brick”, or “wedge” (on account of its box-like shape), and was styled to be in line with the other VW range of the same era, i.e. the front grill and lights resemble those found on the old golfs and passats of the time. The earliest T25s had an air-cooled engine, but then VW swapped to water-cooled engines.

This is actually my second T25 – back in 1997 I had a blue panel van which I converted into a basic camper and went travelling around Spain in for six months (I will blog more about that van and the adventures I had in it another time). I had to let that van go, because it needed an engine rebuild, and at the time I hadn’t got the time, space or skills to do it myself, or the money to pay someone else to do it. I’ve hankered after another camper eversince, but not necessarily a T25, so I wanted to blog some of our reasons for choosing this one.

Our checklist

Over the years i’ve spent hours trawling the web looking at campervans, so when my wife and I decided we should go ahead and get one, I had already narrowed down a set of criteria for what to look for:-

  • Already kitted out as a camper van.

    This was one of Jo’s conditions – although I would be happy buying a van and doing a DIY conversion, she quite rightly pointed out that i’d never find time to finish it and we’d end up with a “tin tent” – i.e. just a van with curtains and all our camping kit in it! Rocky had the full conversion – pop-top, beds, Electric hook-up, 3-way fridge (12 volt, 240 volt and gas), propex heater, cooker with 2 rings + grill, leisure battery with split charging, storage and proper curtains.
  • Under four grand.
    Although we will end up spending more improving this, we had a fairly tight budget – there’s not many professionally converted campers on the market for that budget. The budget really narrowed it down – there is plenty of choice for 2-berth self-converted vans, which would be perfect for a couple, but you really need something more practical if you have children. We got this one for well under that with money left over to insure it and tax it, plus pay for a few bits and pieces we needed to start using it. Being less collectable/ desirable than the older classic vw campers there are bargains to be had.
  • Sleeps four comfortably
    We are only a family of three, but with a double bed in the pop-top and the rear seat pulling out into a 3/4 width double (known as a “Rock n Roll” bed) there is plenty of sleeping space. It is also possible to fit a child-size bunk across the front to sleep another mini-person, although there are only seat-belts for four.
  • Seat belts in the rear.
    Ours has one 3-point and one lap belt in the rear. Lack of rear seat belts ruled out most of the self-converted campers we looked at.
  • Diesel, rather than petrol engine.
    Old diesel engines last longer than petrol engines and get better mpg. Diesel also generally costs less than petrol on the continent (unfortuately not in the UK). Rocky has a 1.6 naturally-aspirated diesel golf engine – frugal, but not exactly powerful. In fact an engine this small in a vehicle weighing 2-tonnes, and having the aerodynamics of a brick is a bit of a compromise, and a more powerful diesel engine is on our list of future improvements.
  • Able to cruise at 56mph – the speed that HGV’s are limited to across europe.
    With the current engine we can cruise at 60mph on the flat, but it struggles on hills, often finding us in the crawler lane in third gear at 40mph on motorway inclines, which isn’t ideal.
  • Low depreciation
    I hope Rocky will be with us for many years, but if we needed to sell him, we wanted something that we can potentially sell for the same, or even more than we payed for it. The T25 doesn’t fetch as much money as an older classic VW transporters, but they will hold their value if looked after, and will go up in value if improvements are made. The real issue is how much you spend in the meantime.
  • Small enough to keep on the street near our house, and to fit in normal car parking spaces in supermarket etc.
    Rocky’s footprint is about the same as an estate car, so can be shoehorned into car-sized parking spaces. He is also quite narrow, so suitable for narrow european streets. He doesn’t have power steering though, so parallel parking can be a bit of an effort.
  • pop-top for standing room and bed
    we possibly would have considered a permanent hi-top, but I was concerned about fuel economy and height restrictions in car parks etc. Height restrictions can still be a problem with this pop-top, which is 2.3m high at its highest point.

The unexpected advantage of a 30-year old classic van is that it can be put on classic insurance, which with a limited mileage restriction really brings the price down. If we could get it on a driveway or in a garage, the price would come down further. We were starting a new insurance policy, as we are keeping our car on the road – a new non-classic policy with zero no-claims would be very expensive and might have been a show-stopper.

Another advantage to having a classic camper is the community of enthusiasts, who are able to offer advice and encouragement. Club 80-90 for T25 owners has an active forum, and there is usually a club 80-90 presence at VW and camper festivals that happen each year.

Apart from ticking all the boxes for what we wanted out of a camper, I have an affection for the T25, having owned one before. As soon as I got behind the wheel for a test drive, the memories flooded back and I knew we would be buying him.

Reasons not to get a T25

Having explained why we chose the T25, I’ll also talk about possible reasons why you might not want to get a VW T25:-

  • They don’t drive like a modern van
    Even though the T25 drives better than an older classic camper (in my opinion), they are some way off a more modern T4 or T5 transporter in terms of handling and performance. Obviously they can be improved by putting better engine, brakes and suspension upgrades in, but if performance is your thing, you should probably save up for a T4 or T5.
  • The petrol versions are very thirsty
    The most common engine for a T25 is a 1.9 water-cooled flat-four engine. Although they go quite well, these will only do about 15-20mpg, so unless you have an LPG conversion, they are expensive to run. For anyone in the U.S. reading this, petrol in the U.K. is currently £1.40 per litre, which works out about $8.60 per US gallon – I think you can appreciate why 20mpg isn’t acceptable over here!
  • They are old vehicles
    Although T25s are a simple and reliable vehicle for their year, you have to be something of an enthusiast to put up with the mechanical and electrical issues that will inevitably crop-up on a 30 year old vehicle. If that’s not your thing, start saving for a modern vehicle!

So far we are really pleased with Rocky. We’ve had a few minor issues (which i’ll blog about in due course), but have made the right choice, and Rocky is a keeper. We’ve done several nights camping – even in December, thanks to electric hook-up and a fan heater, and looking forward to adventures this year.