New versus vintage Dilemma

T25 gearbox

I’ve recently started to wonder whether I might be better off aiming to get a more modern van and do a self-build camper conversion. I’ve even joined the Self build Motor Caravanners Club. The dilemma comes from exploring the idea as having a camper van as daily-driver vehicle, and having spent lots of time and money recently keeping a vintage camper on the road.

Pros of a modern vehicle

  • More reliable (at least in theory)
  • More economical (again theory)
  • Easier to insure as a daily driver (though reclassifying a commercial vehicle as a motorcaravan can be tricky)
  • Better for long motorway journeys
  • More safety features (ABS/ Airbags etc.)

Cons

  • more complex technology – more difficult to take on maintenance as an amateur
  • Repairs may be more expensive, as generally new, original parts will be sourced
  • less character – there’s no denying that a T25 puts a grin on my face in a way that the modern vw transporters/mercedes vito/ford transit/vauxhall vivaro etc. don’t. That’s not to say I won’t consider them.
  • higher price – though not always. Well restored vintage VW campers can be extremely expensive

The other thing to consider is that to suit potential budgets, my definition of “modern” includes vehicles that are getting on for a decade and a half old now, with 100 – 150 thousand miles on the clock, so may be prone to exactly the same kind of maintenance issues that an old T25 is prone to – although the older vehicles are more likely to have already had all these items replaced (maybe more than once).

The “repair it, might as well keep it” cycle

This is a cycle that most people with an old campervan probably fall into (I know I do!) – you experience a reliability issue, such as a gearbox problem, and while skinning your knuckles trying to fix it, or while waiting for the recovery service to tow you off the hard shoulder you decide that it’s time to sell it and move onto something more modern. But of course you don’t want to be selling a camper with a mechanical fault, so you go ahead and fix it. Once fixed you decide that you might aswell keep it! And repeat….

Surviving a rainy campervan trip

rainy day in the campervan

I’m sat writing this in deepest Norfolk, using the passenger swivel seat as my office chair, while on the other side of the curtain (seperating the cab of the van from the back), my wife and son watch a film on a laptop. Outside it’s persistent drizzle mixed with howling wind. Our bright orange sun canopy lays miserablly on the grass outside the van alongside the wet bag of charcoal and soggy camping chairs. Despite setting it up in “ridge tent” mode to cope with rain, the wind unravelled the granny-knots I used to attach the guy ropes and by morning it was hanging pathetically from the van.

We also made the mistake on this trip of not bringing any kind of tent/ standalone awning, so later on when we go for a drive, we have no choice other than to either take the soggy stuff with us in the van, or leave it on site to get soggier.

We don’t like the idea of a proper driveaway awning hitched right up to the van, we like to be able to sit in the doorway of the van and look out at the view rather than into a tent. We usually bring a Quechua seconds base pop-up shelter, which gets used as a kind of shed, and in this case even a small pop-up tent would be handy, but i’ve heard good things about the Coleman event shelter, and i’m now wondering if this could be the solution for a standalone rainproof canopy. I’ve heard good things about them and they are apparently very sturdy and hopefully won’t collapse in bad weather.

So we haven’t got it right with the canopy/awning/gazebo this time, but the things we have got right:-

  • We have electric hook-up on this site, so the electric fan heater is keeping us toasty. An oil filled radiator would be a less noisy solution. Without the hookup we could fall back on the propex heater. The fan heater can also be used to demist the front window before we go for a drive.
  • We have a full gas bottle, and the kettle is being used to it’s full potential.
  • Loads of films and tv-series on the laptop, there is no wifi and zero mobile reception here, so we couldn’t rely on streaming services or being able to download anything new.
  • As i’m doing a bit of work on this holiday, I made sure I had all I needed on my laptop to do the work without an internet connection – no point relying on cloud-based services. As rainy days are ideal times for fitting in a bit of work, we brought along a second laptop, so that work time for me can also be film-time for my family.
  • Board games! For when the films have run out.

Before we got Rocky, we did a lot of camping in tents, and I have to say after a couple of days of rain like this, we’d probably pack the soggy tents into the car and call it a day, but in a campervan, especially a warm leak-free campervan with a supply of food, tea and entertainment, we can still have an enjoyable trip.

Heating a campervan for winter camping (and day trips).

Propex compact 1600 installed in a T3

Rocky has sat parked up near our house pretty neglected since the summer, but now my thoughts are turning to winter camping and day trips. Last winter we did a few overnighters, using a combination of an electric fan heater (noisy, but effective), duvets and hot water bottles to keep ourselves cozy. I’ve also been told that an electric oil-filled radiator is a good solution for heating a campervan, as it is safe and silent, so can be left on overnight, unlike the fan heater.

Of course electric heaters require mains hook-up, and this isn’t always available, so many people have blown-air heaters installed – either an eberspacher, which runs on diesel, or a propex which runs on gas. Both these types of heater are expensive bits of kit, but luckily Rocky came fitted with an old propex, which I sent off to be inspected to check if it is safe to use.

The advantage of the propex heater is that it ventilates to the outdoors – ours is fitted under the rear seat with two holes through the floor attached to a couple of lengths of pipe under the van to provide air intake and exhaust for the part of the heater where the flame occurs. This makes it quite safe, though we have a carbon monoxide detector in the van anyway just in case. The other safety issue to watch out for is to make sure the heater isn’t buried under anything flammable – i’ve removed everything from under the seat except my jack now.

I’m writing this on a crisp November morning sat in Rocky parked up near our house, testing out the propex heater that I re-fitted last week. When I first tried it, I couldn’t get it to light. I’d read about how butane “freezes” below a certain temperature – the truth is, it doesn’t actually freeze, but the liquid just gets too cold to boil, and therefore it doesn’t produce any gas below about 4 degrees centigrade. I confirmed this by trying to light the cooker, which also didn’t work. The potential solution is to buy a propane cyclinder instead, which would need a different regulator. I’m reluctant to do this as it means buying and carrying more stuff around, that might rarely get used, and I like the fact that the second bottle of butane used for the heating is a backup for the one running the cooker and fridge. The blue camping gaz butane bottles that I use seem to be available virtually everywhere in the UK and on the continent too – less so for propane I think.

The solution today (I just wanted to check it’s all working, safe etc. before we go and try it for real) was to run an extension cable out to the van and gently warm the gas cyclinder with the electric fan heater that we use on electric hook-up. After about five minutes I tried the propex heater and it worked fine. Of course if we have electric hookup available, we’d probably just use the fan heater instead of burning up our gas supplies and running down the leisure battery. I guess one possible solution if we didn’t have electric available is to use a small portable gas heater (which run on a canister of butane/propane mix, which will hopefully still be working) to warm up the gas cylinders – yep, I know what you are thinking, possibly a bit dangerous! The portable gas heaters shouldn’t be used without ventilation and can be a fire hazard. Another (untested) possibility is that maybe you could use a small butane/propane mix stove to boil some water for hot water bottles to warm the gas bottles. I’ve read somewhere that another solution would be to stand the gas bottle in a washing up bowl full of warm water.

So my thoughts turned to insulating the bottles, but I read somewhere that one problem with this is that the bottle actually cools down as it produces gas, so having it insulated while it is being used will possibly lead to it cooling itself back down below operating temperature! In summary it is worth insulating it to stop it getting cold overnight, but then remove the insulation when you start using it. The more I read, the more I think maybe I should just bite the bullet and buy a propane cylinder..

I’ve actually removed the thermostat for the propex heater and wired it into a switch instead. The reason for this is that I couldn’t get it to work with the thermostat – the heater just squealed! The propex engineer I spoke to suggested that this may be due to a faulty relay, and that I could try to run it directly from a 12 volt source by removing the plug and joining the orange and red wires together and attaching to a 12 volt supply. This seems to work fine.

Bristol Volksfest 2013

sun setting behind Rocky the VW T25 parked up at Bristol Volksfest

A couple of weekends ago we headed over to Bristol Volksfest as it was on our doorstep and the weather was good, so it seemed rude not to really.

Great weekend, great vibe, even if we did make the slight mistake of squeezing into the family camping next to the noisiest family on the site (but hey, it was a festival!) – next time I think we’ll take our chances with the party animals in the general camping!

Enjoyed looking around the arena, bought another vintage deckchair and a vintage windbreak, looking at interiors and paint-jobs of other people’s vans to get ideas of what we might do to Rocky in the future.

On the sunday, rather than join the queues to leave the site, we drove into an empty spot in the general camping and chilled out with a cup of tea and enjoyed the rest of the sunshine.

Campervan errand bike

milk crate cargo system on my camper van trip errand bike

One of the things people often mention when comparing camping in tents to camping in camper vans, is that it can be a pain to pack stuff down in a camper if you need to drive to a shop to fetch groceries.

There is some truth in this – once Rocky is set up with the pop-top up, with bedding in place, kettle and pots and pans on the stove, awning attached and thermal blinds attached to windows, we need a good 20 minutes to get it back into a state where we can drive it. I think it’s true to say that it affects your behaviour – not always a bad thing, once i’m camped-up and have a cup of tea in my hand, the last thing on my mind is driving. However, when you run out of milk, teabags, or beer something has to be done!

You often see people towing small cars behind large motorhomes, it makes sense that if you have a very large motorhome, once you’ve parked up on a site, you really don’t want to keep moving it, particularly if you need to take it somewhere where it would be difficult to park up a Winnebago.

We haven’t gone to quite that extreme, but the last few trips we’ve always taken at least one bike to use for errands – fetching water, shop trips. I’m now experimenting with cargo systems – a bike trailer would be good, but they aren’t cheap, and would be more to store and carry, so for now this milk crate attachment is proving to be a simple and effective cargo system for my old mountain bike. I think I might need another on the front to balance things out a bit!

Idyllic bank holiday weekend

Rocky the VW T25 parked up looking over Putsborough Sands

This is exactly what I had in mind when we decided to buy a camper van. A rare coincidence of fantastic weather and bank holiday weekend in the UK. Camping at our favourite “secret” Devon camping spot with friends, the first time there in Rocky, our T25 camper, surfing and lazing around in the sun.

We left on friday night, fully aware that we may get snarled up in bank-holiday traffic, but it actually turned out to be not too bad. This was the first proper road test for the new engine – fully laden camper and a motorway run before taking on some of North Devon’s finest A-road hills. The 1Y engine handled it all with no complaints, with no sign of overheating or (excessive!) smoke.

We arrived at the camping spot before it got dark. We made some new friends, who kindly shared their fire and wine, as we weren’t really prepared with these necessities!

The next day we got some time to work out what other kit we think we need for longer camping trips, what works and what doesn’t work. I got the 3-way fridge working on gas, which is ideal for spots like these where there is no electric hookup. I think for longer trips where there is hook-up, we’ll also take our powered coolbox, as there isn’t exactly much room in the fridge.

On the last day, we took Rocky down to the beach car park at Putsborough and were lucky enough to grab a spot overlooking the beach. It might be a bit of a cliche, but being able to sit in the van having a coffee, with the music on watching the sunset, really is living the camper van dream. If only overnight camping was allowed in that spot! There are a few camper van overnight spots at the back of the car park, which we might try another time.

One thing we did decide that Rocky would benefit from is window tints in the rear – although we have curtains and thermal blinds, it takes quite a lot of effort to make the van private enough to quickly get changed at the beach. I’ve also had that “being in a goldfish bowl” feeling when I use the van as a mobile office – it would be good to make it so people have to make more of an effort to be nosey.

The run back saw us caught in the predictable bank holiday traffic jam. Looking on the bright side this was a good chance to see if the engine cooling system works properly – which, i’m happy to say, it did. Being stuck in traffic is always a pain, but so much more bearable if you aren’t worrying about the engine overheating, have some decent tunes on the stereo and cold drinks in the fridge!

Out to lunch

lunch in cwncarn forest in out vw camper

Much as i’d like to be on an epic year-long road trip, or even just a weekend away, life often gets in the way. The British winter isn’t helping, and i’m counting down the wet, cold, dark, miserable days until we can head off on our next camping trip in Rocky. Owning a camper doesn’t have to be all about sleeping in one though – with a cooker, seating and even heating available it can become your private portable dining room in any weather.

At the start of December last year, desperate to use the van, even though we couldn’t get away for the night, we headed off to Cwmcarn forest in Wales, to give the van a run after having the coolant changed and bled. The first thing to note is that camper vans are classed as cars on the Severn Bridge toll – not sure if self-converted “stealth” camper vans would get away with that, unless they look sufficiently campervan-like? If you can get it through as a car it is virtually half the price of a van.

The Cwmcarn forest drive is a private road so you can park up anywhere convenient for a few hours and explore, before shutting yourself in the van, sticking some music on and having lunch or coffee in comfort. I’m not sure how busy it gets at other times of the year, but we hardly saw anyone except the odd mountain biker riding the trails, or the mountain bike truck and trailer whizzing past occasionally.