Camper vans

The camper van’s 4th birthday

GUEST BLOG : Tony ‘van’ Diesel

Hymer van

Twilight on a Lake District camp site

It’s four years since we bought our first ever camper van… a Hymer.

I can’t believe we’ve had the van that long.

Although trying to think back to life ‘pre-van’ it seems a very long time ago.

So I thought it might be interesting to look back at life with the van, ask myself what we like about it, and what we might want to change.

Hymer van

The camper van being prepared for its first outing

First, having a van, any van, is just great. We’ve had so many good times in great places that we just wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

How else would we have woken up to watch the Caerlaverock wild geese flying in their thousands at dawn over the Solway Firth marshes?

We wouldn’t have explored the weirder parts of the UK like Spurn Head, the Teesdale Moors to watch the black grouse lek, or hidden bays with dolphins on Anglesey.

Nor would we have toured the former east Germany, chased the Tour de France, or explored out-of-the-way Dutch art galleries.

Well, we might have done, but Tammy calculates that if we had taken the car and stayed in small hotels we would have spent over £16,000 in those four years.

So the van is officially a bargain!

Buying a van

Hymer van in Germany

Watching the England v Germany World Cup game in… Germany

But was this particular van a good buy?

We bought it from Ikonic Kampers, a one-man importing operation in Hull. Chris found us just what we were looking for, a 1993 Hymer B544 with one careful German pensioner owner.

Full service history, low mileage – about 50,000 in 16 years (when we got it). And really nicely looked after. So it looked like a good bet.

We chose this one because of Hymer’s reputation for quality, and the layout – we loved the drop down bed and the large lounge.

And that has proved to be a good choice. Once we are parked up it’s great having so much space to lounge in.

We nearly always use the dinette – sitting normally to eat, then turning to put our feet up to read or watch a film with a bottle of red wine.

And the bed – we only use the drop-down bed – can be made in seven seconds. It’s really comfortable. We get a better nights sleep than we do at home!

So lounging and sleeping, full marks.

Cooking on gas!

Camper van interior

So big it even converts to a mobile film studio!

The van is great for work and play. Once it hosted a TV production during the Cumbrian floods and doubled for a film studio!

There were a dozen hungry mouths to feed – but the van was perfect for rustling up coffees and cakes.

So how’s the cooking when the van crew get hungry?

Not so great as it happens.

There’s just a two-ring hob and no oven or grill, which is a little restricting.

We’ve bought a Remoska (an oven-style device), which is terrific, but only works when you’re on a hookup. Bung just about anything in, add olive oil, and cook for one hour 15 minutes. Perfect.

The trouble is that when you’re shopping you need to know whether you’re going to have a hookup, and that means planning, which we don’t always do. And only having two rings isn’t great.

That said, we’ve eaten fillet steak, guinea fowl with herbs, and a pheasant in a rich sauce, all cooked in the van to gourmet standards.

So, what about storage?

No problems. Lots of space for food, utensils, big overhead lockers, loads of space under two of the seats… enough to bring three cases of wine home from France and still have room to spare.

The wet stuff

The washroom is fine, although we’ve had to replace the water pump and the shower head.

Actually, quite a few bits have had to be replaced, but that’s what you expect with a van this old.

Lots of storage in the washroom too, enough for Tammy’s potions and unguents, plus room for spare loo rolls and the bottle of blue for the loo.

But the wash room has been a source of several arguments over the shower (“I didn’t touch the nozzle, honest”!) resulting in water gushing all over the floor and van.

On the plus side, there is also an outdoor shower head which is great if you’ve got muddy boots or sandy shoes.

Camper van

An outdoor shower is great for walkers and dirty folk!

That’s entertainment

Well, there wasn’t any entertainment, apart from a superannuated radio cassette, in the original van.

So, it was pretty basic then…

We got a cheap Curry’s 12V television and DVD player for about £150, and I got a proper Amperor regulator to power it.

We started with the roof aeriel, but soon got fed up of constantly having to retune the telly so upgraded to a satellite dish rescued from a skip and mounted on our birdwatching tripod.

Sophisticated!

Eventually I put in a roof mounted Maxview crank-up dish, and apart from the occasional grumpiness when I struggle to find a signal, it’s worked well.

For music we use iPhones connected to a little external loudspeaker box.

Drive time

Hymer at Bauhaus

The Hymer goes arty at the Bauhaus

So what’s the Hymer like when you’re driving it?

Well, this is where we start to get poor reviews.

The van has a 2.5 litre non-turbo engine – it’s a Fiat Ducato underneath the A-class body.

And it’s slow. Flat out at 62mph. Slows down on motorway inclines. Really slow on proper hills. Wallows on corners.

Wanders in a straight line.

But if you take it slow, it’s fine. I mean, you’re on holiday, what’s the rush?

It’s just that I find that about four hours driving is about as much as I can do without being worn out, which means long continental trips take time.

But the thing that bothers me most is the width.

At 2.4m plus the mirrors you have to be really careful about road positioning, keeping a close eye on the white lines in the mirror.

We’ve never actually got stuck down a narrow lane, but had a close shave with a Volvo in Little Langdale in the British Lakes. It just adds to the stress.

That said, it did get on a boat over the water in east Germany just fine.  Never even got wet! Earlier in the day it made the long trip to the Bauhaus in Dessau – not bad for an old truck.

Hymer on a boat

The Hymer on a ferry boat in Germany

Reliability

Well, what do you expect on the reliability front? It is 19-years-old after all.

We’ve replaced the water pump, kitchen tap, shower tap, and have had two new leisure batteries.

I’ve had to fix the fridge – it wasn’t lighting on gas. Fuses have blown. Strip lights have blown.

There’s nearly always something to sort out, and I wouldn’t recommend an old van unless you are reasonably good at mending stuff.

Tammy in camper van

Tammy fails to help after another technical problem

Mechanically, it blew a head gasket and needed the head skimmed (and we had to be rescued on the A19) .

It’s had new front disks and pads, new exhaust, new radiator, new rear pads, and that’s all I can think of just now.

But the engine sounds really sweet, just trundles away and sounds as though it’ll go on for ever.

Gear changing with the column shift took a bit of getting used to, but now I don’t think about it.

Left hand drive. Yes, it’s German. But to be honest having the wheel on the wrong side isn’t a problem at all.

Stuck in the mud

Camper van on location

Holy Island – not stuck in the mud for once!

It’s terrible when it gets muddy, the front driving wheels spin at the slightest opportunity.

I think it’s because of the rear overhang, all the weight is on the back wheels, but we’ve had to be towed three times.

Once was from a ditch (thanks to John K with his Range Rover), another from Gibside car park (thank you National Trust Land Rover) and recently from Peterborough showground (thank you huge tractor man).

Now we’re thinking about what the next van should have – see Tammy’s previous post about the Birmingham Motorhome Show

Wishing on a van

Here’s the wish list for our next, new gleaming van…

  • Oven/grill
  • Three ring hob
  • Quicker
  • Narrower
  • Reliable
  • Well made
  • Only needs to sleep and transport two people
  • Lounging space for a couple of guests

What type will it be? We’ll have to see.

It’s all down to money!

Tony 'van' Diesel

Tony ‘van’ Diesel tries a new van for comfort

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