Most reviews you will read about a campervan will be for a shiny new model, recently launched by the manufacturer and plugged enthusiastically by a magazine or new owner in the first flush of love. But will this marriage last? Will that van stand the test of time of long term ownership and use?
Sadly, we had to sell our VW T3 campervan in 1998 when my work took me abroad for a couple of years. I felt the loss deeply, built of 5-years of use with a growing family. We have stories to tell of the many adventures around the UK and Europe, and I look back at those photographs with wonder – did we do that?
On return, the passion for owning such a vehicle had not diminished. My first thoughts turned to a new van, and I scraped together al our spare cash and took the plunge to purchase a brand new VW California Event from Krefeld, German, via Deepcar Motorhomes who specialised in such vehicles at the time. They prepped the Left-Hand-Drive van, with new headlights, speedometer label and switched over the rear fog light. In December 2001, we had a beautiful new T4 on our driveway, fresh from the VW factory.
Over the last 19-years, we have enjoyed uncounted journeys and adventures in this van. Having covered 200,000km it is a keeper, as you can imagine, and I intend to continue to use the vehicle until the end of its life (or more perhaps when one of my daughters persuades me to pass ownership to them). We have had our ups and downs mechanically, but it has only let us down once.
So, it is now time for a review; one based on our own experience over almost two decades.
Let me start with mechanicals. The van is the coveted 2.5-litre 5-cylinder turbo, 150PS AXG engine model which has a reputation for good performance when fully loaded. Hills and motorways are effortless, and only strong headwinds seem to blunt progress. For a period the turbo hose would blow off the housing, and it took some ingenuity to secure it, involving a new hose, cleaning of surfaces and a good c-clip. I could be seen under the bonnet on perhaps 5-6 occasions, much to the amusement of fellow campers, fixing the issue. Now I have had 5-years of trouble-free turbo pressure. I have replaced the clutch and dual-mass flywheel which improved the smoothness of the engine significantly and replaced temperature sensors and cam-belts (usual 4-year interval), but other than that it has enjoyed the standard maintenance schedule. These were performed initially at a VW dealer, but now I use a local Bosch franchise, luckily, with a T4 enthusiast mechanic who loves to see the motor every year.
Other maintenance issues are self-inflicted. The first, involved my wife filling up with diesel – in the water tank! She didn’t translate “Wasser” and assumed the hole in the rear left was for fuel. You can imagine the conversation that evening and the weeks that followed as I drained the tank and hand cleaned the interior with sterilising fluid. No sooner had I fixed that, when she fell to the floor with uncontrollable laughter, when I filled the tank with Shell’s finest High-Performance 98-octane petrol!! The van drove for 15-miles before conking out. Fortunately, I was near a commercial vehicle centre, who had me back on the road in a few hours! I had mistaken the red branding for diesel, thinking “red-diesel” I was familiar with on the farm I worked at in my youth (that’s my excuse). That is the major embarrassment over with, other than a few times leaving the campsite with the roof up, which my kids happily pointed out giggling away in the back.
Bodywork wise, I am happy. It has not had the hard life of a builders van, but there is no rust to talk of, and the blue metallic paint has stood up to all manner of corrosive coastal conditions. The 16″ steel wheels are a bit rusty but do their job – I have never got around to replacing them. A few chips on the bonnet, as you would expect, and now the roof has lost its lacquer finish and could do with a respray, but no bi-metal corrosion as the pop-up top is fibreglass. The cycle rack is indestructible, and I am very fortunate to have no significant dinks or scratches.
Interior wise, the cupboards and draws have taken all forms of abuse and still work well. Some melamine trim has come loose but is easy to glue back and perhaps the units are a bit grubby, but very much still functional. Nothing has broken, and if it did, I am sure the fix is easy. The original fridge soldiers on and the cooker is as efficient as ever, with occasional replacement of the fibre seals for the burner rings. The sink is sound, but I have replaced the micro-switch twice. The expensive water tank level gauge failed early – I never replaced it. The main control panel is faultless as is the Eberspächer heater – used often in winter and cold autumn evenings (sometimes I programme it to come on to warm my van after work before the drive home).
Electrically, all interior lights are on their original bulbs. I am on my third leisure battery (£300 a pop – ouch) and I re-soldered a dry joint in the battery charger unit to solve a hook-up problem. I have now fitted a removable solar charger and MPPT control unit so I can keep the battery in good condition over winter and at long-stay campsites without hook-up. This free power solution works remarkably well and is inexpensive compared to a new battery. I wish sometimes I had an inverter for 240V capability, but charging smartphones and the like is never a problem if I carry a few power packs.
What else has been an issue?
The rock-n-roll bed needs greasing, and I clean the seat rails often. The front swivel chairs are fine, with good uphosltery for two-decades of sea/sand bodies and food spillage. The curtains are excellent and still fresh, although I now use an insulated screen-cover to shield the front windscreen and side-windows at night – this prevents condensation and the pain of cleaning the interior before departure in the morning. The pop-up roof fabric is remarkable, keeping the wind and rain out. It will need replacing one day, but only as it is dirty. Careful closure procedure has prevented any tears.
Storage-wise, everything now has its place after many years of evolution: fishing rods, umbrellas, seats, boots, clothes and food all have their spots reserved, each location now burnt into my memory. The under-seat storage takes clothing, the cupboard takes waterproofs and jumpers, the rear cabinets take all manner of odds and ends, and the optional hanging pockets each contain items easy to hand at night or to cook. Dave Brailsford would be pleased with the marginal gains of our arrival/departure routine and storage efficiency – all of which maximise our leisure time.
The van is lovely to drive and you easily get used to the Left-Hand-Drive, which is rarely an issue as you are seated above the traffic. I sleep better in the van bed than I do at home and we have mustered up some amazing meals on two gas burner (sometimes going overboard on birthdays with tablecloths, candles and china – for a laugh, but more often great BBQs. Before bed, competitive games of scrabble or cards might end with 52-card pickup or the search for a Q or W on the floor.
The campervan is now so much a part of our life that I cannot imagine a year without it – although I am thinking of the emissions regulations and general carbon footprint. I’m not sure I have found a solution other than to keep the vehicle. Perhaps a small van, or use B&Bs more or even revert to a tent we used in our 20s. But if you understand the flexibility, freedom, agility and sheer joy of touring in a small campervan, you will never change. Often the sales staff will tell you that it is an “investment”, which it patently is not, but one day I will add up the numbers and conclude we have had fantastic adventurous holidays at a very reasonable cost. Even though I paid £26,000 in 2001, those calculations are a side-thought to the value it has brought our lives.