Guest post by Tony van Diesel
This was going to be the big test. Two weeks off piste in northern Spain with our new Vantage Sol camper van.
Would our little panel van conversion turn out to have been the right choice? Would we miss the spacious old Hymer? Should we have gone for a bigger replacement?
Here’s the full report on how baby campervan shaped to the task.
Camper vans – the first four years
We started the whole camper van thing with a very secondhand Hymer B544.
It was the perfect van once you were parked up, I used to say. Lots of room, a drop down bed, well built though just starting to show its age after almost 20 years on the road.
A simple two burner stove, very well insulated, loads of cupboard space, and a certain retro style.
But on the road though it was getting me down.
The top speed of 62mph could be achieved after a bit of work, the Hymer didn’t so much accelerate as gain momentum.
But the slightest motorway incline had the juggernauts re-overtaking us, and narrow country lanes made me worry that the offside mirror would be whacked yet again.
And the steering needed continuous adjustment – it was an old van chassis with a big body and was best treated like the elderly German pensioner that she was, coaxed along without expectations of too much nimble footwork.
The big decision
After four great years we knew that campervanning and us was here to stay, and a redundancy cheque gave us the chance to upgrade.
I wanted something a lot nippier, but Tammy didn’t want to sacrifice any comfort, and needed plenty of space to contain her large and stylish campsite wardrobe.
And we needed to bring back all that wine from those lovely vineyards across Europe!
We ruled out the standard coachbuilts, as most of them are just as wide as the old A-class Hymer.
That left a panel van conversion, so we started looking at the various manufacturers and wondering about layouts.
I really liked the look of Murvis, and was impressed by their build quality, but Tammy pointed out that the front lounge layout just wouldn’t suit us.
Breakfast time in the van sees Tammy taking her time to rise, while I am up making coffee, eating breakfast and having a read. In a front lounge, you have to get up at the same time and put the bed away before you can do anything else.
So it was a U-shaped lounge layout that we wanted. Only two travel seats were needed, plus we wanted a better kitchen, and enough storage.
We visited the shows and read the magazines, and looked at models from the big manufacturers like Autosleepers and Trigano, plus the smaller converters like Devon, East Neuk, SL, and Wildax.
But there was one other that we wanted to see, and at the Peterborough show last April we finally got to see Vantage’s offerings.
First up, we were really taken with Scot Naylor’s enthusiasm for his products, plus his attention to detail.
He told us to go and look at the other vans and hit them. No really, give the cupboards a good knock and see what they feel like. He was right.
All the big manufacturers vans just didn’t feel substantial, and little things like the backs of cupboards in all of them were thin bits of board. If that’s what you can see, what’s it like in the bits you can’t get to see?
I should at this point admit that I do have a connection with the company.
While Scot was trying to sell me a van at the Peterborough motorhome show, we had the idea that I could produce a video for him.
Since that first conversation I’ve made a couple of videos for Vantage – they’re on the company website – and there are more in the pipeline. Just thought you should know that.
Anyway, back last April we were still havering a bit, and it was almost a year before we decided to go for it, when Scot got hold of a rare thing – a secondhand Vantage.
People seem to keep them, and the company is only a few years old, so there’s not many about. So we got a Sol just over a year old, showroom condition and only a couple of thousand miles on the clock.
On the road
Driving back from Leeds the first thing I noticed was just how quick the Sol is.
It’s a Euro IV engine, 130bhp (I think, or could be 120) but it’s acceleration is like a car, and it keeps up with motorway traffic at legal speeds easily.
Plus it goes round corners properly, and goes in a straight line.
In the old van the two hour drive home would have had me tired, but not this time.
So it was off to the Lakes for our first weekend away, and we got to try it out properly. And the kitchen was the first test.
At first glance there doesn’t seem to be a lot of working room – the sink is next to the cooker with no real workspace in between.
But sturdy flaps lift up at each end of the cooking area, giving you extra room, and it’s a half minute job to put the breakfast table in. It’s a round table that sits just behind the swivelled-round driving seats – easy and quick to assemble.
Suddenly you’ve got loads of room to prepare your culinary delights.
A three ring hob and a proper grill and oven meant that the Remoska is now a thing of the past – even though we loved it at the time. So slow roast belly pork was a nice easy start. And the fridge has a freezer that actually freezes things.
For some reason we seem to get in each others way less in the new van.
In fact despite the van being at least a foot narrower, we’ve found that we have fewer of those campervan moments of “just move over there while I squeeze past”. Something to do with the layout I think.
The big test would be packing for a fortnight away in Spain, but it worked out just fine.
All the clothes fitted in the overhead lockers, plus Tammy gets the wardrobe for her wide selection of evening gowns. Cups, glasses, small plates and coffee kit, as well as books and DVDs go up top too. Plates, cutlery and pans go under the sink.
The big under seat locker holds the duvets, the smaller one is now designated as the “wine cellar”. Boots and chairs fit in the shallow space under the other seat. Tools, ramps, medical kit, hosepipes etc fit in the spaces at the back.
So storage is no problem at all.
Our van has a slightly raised floor behind the kitchen which lifts everything up and increases storage space at the expense of headroom, which I think is a good compromise.
I’m just under six feet tall, and I just bump the ceiling at the back of the van, but not anywhere else.
A right shower
Shower space is fine, not massive, but how much time do you spend in there?
We could do with a bigger bathroom cabinet really, and somewhere to keep loo rolls and toilet fluid in the bathroom would be good as they have to go in the back cupboards now. But it all works.
And the water system is really good, instant water, no waiting for the little pump to start up. The water heater works off gas or electric (if you’re on a hookup).
Space heating ditto, although we do find that the van takes longer to heat up than the old Hymer in freezing conditions – I guess the Hymer’s construction is just better insulated than a metal bodied panel van.
Techie stuff here… The new van has two leisure batteries giving about 160Ah total capacity, about twice what we were used to.
But the fridge is a compressor model – good on the ferry as you don’t have to turn the gas off and you can keep it running.
In Spain we never actually used a hookup, and managed well enough.
We were driving every day and that kept the batteries topped up – nearly. The voltmeter was occasionally down into the red, and we found that the gas water heater didn’t like that and turned temperamental.
We’re getting a solar panel fitted this week, so we will see whether that helps.
It would be great to be able to do without electric hookups indefinitely, and I think a battery to battery charger might be a long term solution. But it turns out that they are not an easy thing to install.
Let’s see how that works out.
Evenings are great fun in this van.
There’s a feeling of relaxation and space that I thought we wouldn’t get after the big old Hymer.
We can stretch out in comfort and watch DVDs – we got through most of series one of The Killing on the Spain trip.
Still don’t know who did it though…
The Avtex telly is good, decent picture, sound is a bit thin, but the aerial does well at pulling in a signal and doesn’t need pointing at the transmitter.
We’ll miss a satellite for following the progress of Sir Bradley on our planned next trip following the Tour de France, so we might have to fix that somehow.
Time for bed
Now you can’t beat a drop down bed, and the Hymer’s was great, seven seconds to make the bed.
But the Vantage is quick as well – it only takes a couple of minutes to slot in the boards and move the back rests into position.
Once it’s all there it is really comfortable and we sleep better than we do at home.
The right decision? Yes, no question.
Top moment for me was sipping coffee one morning on a site on the Spanish coast, the big sliding door open, the sunshine pouring in, and the beach and the sea below us.
Now that’s what it’s all about…
It’s a proper quality bit of kit this, really well made, brilliantly thought out, and it suits us down to the ground.
We’re looking forward to many happy times on the road…