You can take a man out of a camper van but…

Rocky T25/T3/Vanagon

It’s sad I know, but while visiting the warehouse where Rocky is laid up for a while, I got nostalgic for my second home, and spent a while sat inside, working on my laptop, listening to some music, and had some lunch!

I also removed the bike rack, bumpers, grilles etc. ready to attack the bodywork with an angle grinder (flap disc only – nothing too drastic!)

VW T25 1Z Tdi conversion

VW 1z tdi engine from a golf mk3 installed in a T25

Those of you who have been following along will know that last year, Rocky’s original 1.6 CS diesel was replaced with a 1.9 1Y engine from a mk3 golf. This was a good upgrade and I would likely have happily plodded around with the 1Y engine for years, had the engine not turned out to be drinking an unsustainable amount of oil.

So while deciding what to do about the situation, I phoned Phil at Millers Motor Services and he very generously offered to trade the engine in against a 90bhp 1.9 1z Tdi engine he had waiting, from a mk3 golf. Millers specialise in engine conversions and have been refining their set-up for the T25 1z Tdi conversion. Whereas the 1Y conversion was almost a straight swap, fitting a Tdi is a more complex install because of the additional wiring and fabrication work. The trade-off is increased complexity versus increased efficiency and performance.

Although the 1Y was an acceptable improvement over the CS, the Tdi is much more of an upgrade and brings the performance of the T25 in line with more modern vans. The VW 1z Tdi is renowned for is reliability, and (if looked after properly) should last for multiple hundreds of thousands of miles. As it has an OBD port for diagnostics, most garages can perform diagnostics on it, and spares should be more readily available than the older vw diesel engines.

After a small amount of deliberation, I decided to go for it, and dropped Rocky down to his unit in Launceston in North Cornwall.

Gearbox and Clutch

jx clutch kit
The clutch was replaced with a new JX clutch kit. The engine mounts to a standard diesel bell-housing and is using my original 1.6 diesel starter motor. So far the starter has had no problem at all with starting the engine, in fact it seems to turn over easier than the CS and 1Y did. It also uses a standard input shaft, but like the 1Y conversion, requires a spigot bearing.

1z engine and t3 gearbox

The gear ratios in my original 4 speed diesel gearbox are too low for a Tdi engine, the revs would be at something like 3,500 rpm at 60mph. The long-term solution will be to have this gearbox rebuilt with bespoke gearing to suit a Tdi, but in the meantime this has been swapped for a gearbox from a petrol T25, which has slightly higher gearing. This is enough to allow comfortable crusing at 60 – 65mph, but the revs are very high above this speed. Although the “new” gearbox (unsure of the code – it’s not visible) is technically a 5-speed, the extra gear is actually an extra-low crawler gear rather than a cruising gear – this is the case for all T25 5-speed boxes, so there is nothing to be gained from swapping from a T25 4-speed gearbox to a 5-speed unless you want to tow heavy trailers up steep hills.

The alternative gearbox solution would be to use a “flipped” gearbox from a different front-wheel drive vehicle such as a passat. This would require the engine to be mounted in a different position and more custom fabrication work (and hence higher installation cost).

Engine Mount

custom nearside engine mount for 1z in a t25
The 1z is installed at an angle, like the original diesel engines in a T25, but the nearside engine mount is not a straight swap, so a custom mount was fabricated fo the job.

Air filter

cone air filter behind light cluster
The air box was removed and a cone filter was installed behind the rear light cluster, directly below a duct leading up to the nearside air vent.

ECU and wiring loom

ECU and OBD socket behind battery
The ECU is installed behind the battery, providing easy access to the OBD port. This is an early ECU, and does not have an integrated immobiliser, which makes the wiring installation simpler.

Fly by wire throttle

fly-by-wire throttle potentiometer mounted in footwell
The 1z is a “fly-by-wire” engine, so the throttle potentiometer was installed in the footwell. The alternative is to install it in the engine bay and use the existing cable to operate it, but this method means a much lighter throttle pedal. The downside is that it took a bit of getting used to at first while wearing big boots!

Oil return

fabricated oil return line form 1z turbo to jx sump
The turbo oil return line was fabricated to feed in to a JX sump. It would also have been possible to use the original CS sump with an adapter kit.

Intercooler

intercooler mounted beside transmission
The intercooler is from a Citroen Xsara Picasso, and is mounted alongside the transmission, angled to receive sufficient airflow.

Rev Counter

aftermarket rev counter on dash
As my original diesel instrument cluster doesn’t have a rev counter, I asked Phil to install this after-market tacho on the dash. This is driven by a feed from the ECU.

Dipstick

modified dipstick
Having always had trouble with the curved dipstick set-up on my previous engine (accessed in the standard T25 way via the number plate flap), after a bit of research, I decided that I wanted a straight dipstick. I ordered a specifically modified dipstick for a T25 1z conversion mounted at 50 degrees from Greaseworks in the states. I have to admit I ended up paying way over the odds for this after paying for express shipping and import tax, but it does the trick. I’ve retained a T25 oil filler for now, but may blank this off and install an angled filler cap on the rocker cover, as i’ll have to open the engine bay to check the oil level anyway.

Exhaust


It would have been possible to use my original exhaust with a bit of fabrication work to adapt it, but it wasn’t in brilliant shape and Phil had a custom exhaust available from a previous 1z conversion, so this was fitted.

So how does it go?

So far, which at time of writing is about four hours of driving, split between hilly Devon and Cornwall A-Roads and crusing back to Bristol on the M5, it has performed brilliantly. The difference in torque is massive, especially on hills. It feels safer to drive because it’s easier to get up to speed pulling on to roundabouts and out of junctions. On the motorway it is quieter, and happily zips up to the legal speed limit to overtake lorries in the slow lane, but with this gearbox it is definitely happiest cruisng at 60 – 65mph. It is safe to say that I am a very happy customer, and looking forward to seeing how this engine performs long-term.

If you are interested in knowing more about getting a Tdi engine installed in your VW T25 by a specialist, speak to Phil and Kev at Millers Motor Services on 01566 248554 millersmotorservices@gmail.com.

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.

Owning a T25 – 12 months on

Rocky the T25 parked up near Saumur, France

It’s nearly a year since we picked up our VW T25 camper. In that time, we’ve:-

  • Driven it 4768 miles
  • Taken it on 2 ferries
  • Taken it to 3 VW events
  • Slept in it for 35 nights
  • Had the 1.6 diesel engine replaced with a 1.9 diesel
  • Called for breakdown service twice (starter motor problem in East Anglia and fuel line problem in France)
  • Drunk 200 cups of tea in it (estimated!)
  • Sorted out rust patches/paintwork, much of which now needs redoing, as i’m a bit of an amateur with this type of thing
  • Painted the wheels
  • Got some winter tyres and spare wheels
  • Had the windows tinted
  • Fitted a swivel seat base in the passenger side
  • Had an immobiliser fitted
  • Fitted a bike rack
  • Got it through an MOT

I’ve also spent an unhealthy amount of time on the T25/T3 forums and Facebook groups enjoying reading about what adventures other people have been having with their vans and what they’ve been doing to them. One thing that is clear is that it is possible to spend a massive amount of cash improving a T25, from professional bodywork restorations, suspension mods and massive alloy wheels to powerful subaru or tdi engine replacements.

Personally I’ve decided that I need to rein things in, and concentrate just on keeping our bus roadworthy and ready for more adventures. I have a list of things that need sorting before I would be happy to take Rocky on another overseas trip. The fuel lines and the fuel tank breathers need sorting out, but also it looks like I need to consider an engine rebuild or another engine swap, as the 1.9 engine I had put in, although it runs brilliantly, is using an unsustainable amount of oil. The consensus seems to be that it is burning oil (basically using it as fuel) due to worn piston rings and/or bores.

I was hoping to get at least a couple of years out of this engine, but it hasn’t turned out that way. If I had the tools, skills and space to attempt an engine swap myself, I might have been tempted to try my luck with another old engine, but I really think its time to look at having the current engine dismantled, inspected and reconditioned/ remanufactured as needed which would hopefully add many more years life to it. Tempting as it is to save up for a Tdi conversion which (along with an appropriately geared gearbox) would make the van faster and more suited to motorway driving, i’ll settle for a reliable simple engine to plod along with in the slow lane, and put the cash saved towards more road trips.

However, our other “ongoing project” is a Victorian house, and the bus has diverted cash and attention away from the house over the last year, and this needs to be rectified. I’ll need to redo some of the aforementioned bodywork before the winter sets in, but other than that I’ll have to ignore him for a while, and concentrate on the house instead.

One thing i’m sure of though, is that despite the ongoing costs, we have had a lot of fun with this bus, and are really glad we bought it. Still looking forward to many adventures to come!

European holiday road trip 2013

Rocky the T25 parked up at a campsite in La Romieu

At the end of July, we headed off in an unprecedented UK heatwave to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to Santander in the north of Spain. Despite the cost of the ferry, we decided that for Rocky’s maiden continental Europe voyage (under our ownership), we should get closer to our first destination under boat power, to ensure that if we got stuck, we’d get stuck in the north of Spain or south of France, rather than a few miles south of Calais.

I couldn’t help think back to the last time I caught a ferry to Spain in my old T25 – the van refused to start when the ferry started boarding, so people had to drive round me for a few minutes until it finally started and managed to get on board. No such problems this time, although I was one of the annoying people sat in the queue with the engine running way before I needed to start – partly because I have to go through the “disarm the immobiliser” + “wait for the glow plugs” routine very time I start so there is a good ten seconds between deciding to start the engine and actually starting it, which seems much longer when people are waiting behind!

The Santander ferry worked out really well – a 24-hour relaxing trip, in glorious sunny weather on calm seas, the holiday was truly started. After arriving, we took the short drive to our first campsite, at Cabo del Mayor above Santander. I had emailed the campsite trying to book a pitch, but they don’t take reservations for short bookings, so we took our chances and just turned up. Luckily they had space (though very tiny pitches compared to most french sites) so we parked up, opened some wine and relaxed.

If we had more time I would have liked to spend more time in Santander and the north of Spain, but we didn’t have that luxury, so after breakfast the next day, a coffee and stroll around the lighthouse at Cabo del Mayor, we started heading in the direction of France and found space at Camping Igueldo, high up in the hills above above Donostia San Sebastian. That night we sat and watched out of the van windows as our sun canopy buckled under the weight of water and ice thrown down by a massive thunderstorm. Luckily the canopy detached itself from the van before anything broke, and it all dried out in a couple of hours the next morning.

Heading off in the morning we experienced our first mechanical issue – Rocky suddenly lost power while heading through San Sebastian, and we found ourselves limping along at 20mph leaving a cloud of white smoke. so we pulled over at a bus stop, where he conked out. After reluctantly restarting, the engine seemed to be ok again, so we tried moving on, but after a couple of minutes the same thing happened again, this time while sat on a bridge over a railway. The inevitable despair set in – the thought of having to make the breakdown call, the thought that the engine would be in pieces, the thought that the van would be towed away leaving us stranded with nowhere to stay. As the camper was fully loaded including three bikes on the bike rack, it was going to take a good 20 minutes to get to the engine hatch to see if there was anything obviously wrong, so we decided to make one last push to try to get ourselves somewhere safer. We started the van again and limped through a short tunnel with no hard shoulder.

The engine seemed to be running fairly well again, so we made it through the tunnel and a couple of miles up the road before reaching a petrol station with car park, so we pulled over and decided what to do. The engine was running again, it wasn’t overheating, it wasn’t making any strange noises, no smoke, no oil or coolant puddles underneath, and there was nothing unusual hanging down from the engine from what I could see from underneath, so after a cup of tea we decided to wing it and carry on. A couple of hours later, after cruising at motorway speed faultlessly for about 100 miles, we pulled into our next campsite “Camping La Jaougotte” in a pine forest near Vielle-Saint-Girons, in the Aquitaine region of France. We put the power loss down as an “intermittent” fault, maybe caused by dirty fuel or a blockage of some kind.

Driving around the local area a couple of days later, on one of several trips to the beach and lake, the power loss happened again and this time the problem didn’t go away. Trying to diagnose the problem myself and with the help of a dutch T3 syncro-owning campsite neighbour, we spotted a tiny split in the fuel hose near the fuel pump. A gaffer-tape DIY fix looked promising, but didn’t stop the problem – possibly because it wasn’t a good seal or possibly because there was already too much air in the pipe. If i’d known at that point that the split was definitely the cause of the problem (it was) I would have persisted, and tried to bleed the air out of the system, but at that point I was stumped.

Eventually, a day later I swallowed my pride and made the breakdown call. A few hours later a man turned up with a truck and (after some half-hearted wiggling of spade connectors) towed Rocky away to a local garage. We decided to go to the campsite bar to commiserate. That’s when we spotted the warning that a heavy thunderstorm was forecast for that evening. Knowing that the van was very unlikely to return that night we started preparing to spend the night in our tent. We generally take the tent to use as a kind of shed – somewhere to store all the stuff we don’t want to keep in the van. Although we own a groundsheet and bedroom inner for it, they weren’t with us. It was quite depressing to think that we would have to squeeze ourselves and belongings into this tent and sit out a thunderstorm, potentially with water coming in from underneath. Luckily, our syncro-owning campsite neighbours bailed us out by loaning us a spare two person tent, so at least Jo and our son would sleep in the dry!

We survived the night, and the thunderstorm, and the next morning was fairly depressing, because we had no means of boiling the kettle, and we were also contemplating what would happen if the garage decided that they couldn’t fix the problem. Our breakdown cover would in theory give us a hire car, so we could drive to a decathlon and pick up some camping gear and carry on our trip, but we already had too much stuff (bikes, camping tables, the mattresses from the camper etc.) to fit in a normal car, which could be problematic.

There was also paranoia over an issue many vintage camper van owners have faced when the vehicle can’t be fixed and the breakdown insurance company decide to ship the vehicle back to the UK – someone in an office somewhere will look up the “market price” of a stock 30 year old van in a database and decide it isn’t worth enough to have it repatriated back to the UK, even if you have proof of agreed value. They then offer to scrap it for you! Thankfully a few phone calls later (via 3rd parties, my french is nowhere near good enough to deal with this kind of thing), we established that the van was fixed and waiting for us to pick up, so luckily I never got to find out what would happen in the worst case scenario.

The garage had replaced a short section of fuel line next to fuel pump, and bled the system. A nervous test drive or two later, the problem didn’t show its head again, so we moved on the next day. A lot of worry over a very simple problem, and a very simple fix. I do however plan to have all the fuel lines replaced in the near future, following some wise advice given to me on the club 80 90 forum – if part of the fuel line failed, the rest can’t be far behind. I also need to address the related issue where the fuel tank overflows if you fill it all the way to the top.

We then spent a relaxing week or so at a campsite in the village of La Romieu, in the Gers region, chilling out, swimming, sunbathing and catching up with friends before eventually deciding we need to start moving north. We headed all the way up to Saumur in the Loire valley in one go – a long motorway trip, stopping only once to top up the oil (more on that later). We spent a few days at Camping Chantepie, before deciding that we would head to a site near Roscoff in Brittany for a couple of nights before catching the Roscoff to Plymouth ferry. We found Camping des Abers near Landeda, right on a beautiful beach.

After the uneventful crossing from Roscoff to Plymouth we headed back up to Bristol with no issues. Apart from the obligatory traffic jam two junctions before Bristol adding on an extra couple of hours..

One thing that became apparent on this trip is that the 1Y engine we had fitted earlier this year is using (or losing) far too much oil – on motorways it gets through nearly a litre over a hundred miles. I need to address this before I would do another long trip, whether that means a repair (new piston rings?), getting the engine reconditioned or even remanufactured (making it like new, but costly) or another engine swap. Luckily the van is still perfectly useable in the meantime, i’m happy to use it for shorter trips, as long as I keep topping up the oil, so there is no massive hurry.

Apart from the engine issues, if I was doing the trip again, i’d definitely take more camping gear for “emergencies” – the inner compartment/ groundsheet for the quechua base, a second tent and a portable stove, as insurance against the van being taken away again – hopefully something i’ll not need!

Turn up, Pop up and Cider I up

VW T25 on hill end campsite, gower peninsula, wales

Last weekend we decided we should absolutely not go away camping, as we have loads of life admin to sort out at home. But then some good friends told us that they were off to their favourite campsite on the Gower and that we should join them. With this glorious weather, we knew we’d regret it if we didn’t, so we headed down on the saturday afternoon, haggled our way into a packed site, minimal camping gear (change of clothes, sleeping bags, and a few supplies in the fridge), popped up the roof and was rewarded by an ice cold cider by our generous hosts.

A glorious weekend of socialising, handstand competitions and swimming ensued…

Basket, bell that rings and things that make it look good

T25 with tinted windows

Over the last month or so i’ve continued to add things to Rocky – no actual basket or bells (that’s just a Pink Floyd reference), but I have had the rear windows tinted, added an insurance-approved immobiliser and wired in a reading light and a couple of fans. This is in preparation for an upcoming Europe road trip – just a short one, but hopefully the first of many.

The tinted windows are mainly for privacy, but should also help to keep it cool inside, by filtering out most of the UV light. In conjunction with an extra set of curtains across the back of the front seats, we can now transform the bus into an instant surf changing room, or private office with minimal effort. We’ll still use the thermal mats and curtains to keep the cab private, and no-doubt still use all the thermal mats for winter camping. The tint is known as “limo” – the darkest option only allowing 5% of UV through – we thought if we are going to bother at all, we might aswell make it as private as possible. You can still see out fine. We’ve also kept the original curtains, to help keep it dark inside for sleeping – I added some strong neodymium magnets into the hem, in an attempt to keep them stuck at the bottom, rather than dangling around – I often end up sleeping with my head outside the curtain! This seems to work well and is more elegant than adding a curtain wire retainer.

The immobiliser was added because it seems VW campers are a popular target for thieves, being easier to steal than modern vehicles, and there being a ready second-hand market for vehicles and spares. Hopefully it will bring my next insurance premium down too. I’ll carry on using the steering lock too, mainly as a visual deterrent – belt and braces!

immobiliser switch fitted in dash

The 12 volt LED reading light will be more efficient and provide a nicer after-dark ambience than the stark white light of the strip lights. It’s also got a flexible stem so can be positioned as a reading light or uplighter.

12 volt LED lamp fitted in our camper van

I also permanently mounted a carbon monoxide detector on the wardrobe (not pictured), seemed like a sensible thing to have somewhere where it will be effective (not much use if it’s hidden away at the back of a cupboard).

I’ve stuck a 12 volt steel retro fan in the front, wired into a 12 volt cigar lighter socket splitter, so we can also plug in phone chargers, sat nav etc. One of the things still on my list is to make sure that this 12 volt socket and the stereo is wired into the leisure battery circuit rather than the starter battery, as no doubt these will be running for long periods of time when parked up. I’ve also added another fan in the back above the passenger seat.

retro steel fan fitted on T25 dash

Lastly I added some extra magnet catches to the cupboard doors, which have a habit of flying open when we go around sharp bends and depositing the contents all over the floor (i’ve lost count of the times i’ve ended up with a jar of mixed herbs flying round the floor, threatening to smash!). I then added some handles so we can actually open the doors with the added magnets, without breaking fingernails!

Custom dipstick on 1.9 diesel 1Y Engine fitted to a T25

T25 dipstick accessed by the numberplate hatch

After having a 1Y engine fitted to our T25, using the oddly shaped sump from the 1.6, the old dipstick (which i’m not even convinced was the right length for the 1.6) apparently only showed an oil line on the very end when filled to the max capacity of 4.5 litres. This made it really difficult to monitor the oil level as I had to constantly top it up to make the oil appear on the end of the dipstick, or risk letting it get to low. Inevitably I would overfill, which isn’t good for the engine.

A workaround I tried was to carry around in the van an old bass guitar E string to use as a secondary dipstick, which actually worked pretty well, but I wanted something to do the job properly.

I emailed T25 Direct in London to ask what they did on their 1Y conversions, and they said that they weld a spare bit of dipstick on the end of the original, put in 3.5 litres, turn it over to fill the new oil filter, mark the low oil mark with a grinder, then put in another litre and add the high oil mark.

It had been over 1000 miles since the engine was changed, so I drove down to see Phil Miller, who did the conversion earlier in the year, for a checkover, oil change and to sort out a custom dipstick.

One thing I’ve noticed is that reading the oil level really can be hit and miss on a T25 – with this conversion, the dipstick tube is bent towards the access flap, and goes slightly over vertical, which means sometimes when the dipstick is drawn out, the oil can flow slightly up the dipstick.

The fluctuation in oil level (or misreading) is quite confusing. Alarmingly, after a 100 mile run up the motorway, Rocky appeared to have used a litre(!) of oil, despite there being no smoke, and no visible leaks. I topped it up slightly to within an acceptable range on the marks we put on it, and 100 miles later it appears not to have used a drop!

Needless to say, i’m keeping an eye on it. If it was smoking a lot i’d be worried, but I think (hope!) this is just a calibration issue.