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A Personal Motorhome Import - 1 Background

We've recently imported a new motorcaravan from Germany after much research and a long search. The full story 'warts and all', is really quite long and comes complete with the background details on this page. You can hop to any part of the tale using the links provided the German part of the story starts on 'import-2' and the final collection on our 'import-4' page. 

One - how we got into motorcaravanning:  Just to put everything else into perspective here's a little intro as a pre-amble to a motorhome importing story I'd like to tell you in four instalments.  Dilys & I started motorcaravanning almost by accident about seven years ago when we discovered that we were not going to get a decent second car with the cash available at the time.  So we decided we would look for something cheap but with character. After looking at various romantic notions about classic cars we hit on the idea of a dual purpose vehicle and set off to find one for less than 2,000. Dilys was very doubtful at the time having seen me 'at leisure' in both a static caravan and a tent, neither of which were ever repeated.

There followed the usual fruitless search for several weeks and eventually unexpected success in South Wales where we bought an old Mercedes 208 petrol engined panel van, X reg & 'privately converted'. It was in two tasteful shades of hand painted battleship grey and black with an interior boasting green flock wall paper and purple velvet curtains with lace edging - oh yes, it had character all right!  But it was a sound van.  After some serious bargaining we paid just 1,300 for it, removed the curtains almost instantly and drove it home.  We couldn't understand why our neighbours didn't come rushing out to see it the minute we got home but later discovered that the combination of grey paint and weird aerials meant they all thought it was a TV detector van!  Over the next few weeks we re-painted and re-decorated the 'van, lined it with cheap carpet, added numerous small comforts and started to find out what this new life could offer. 

With a background of liking wild places and of wildlife photography as a slightly erratic hobby we soon found it greatly to our liking and joined the Camping and Caravanning Club to gain access to their network of informal farm sites. The Camping Club wouldn't have us at the time - in the absence of additional evidence our DIY conversion didn't meet their membership requirements!  We soon travelled all round Britain and into France too with the Merc even serving as 'chuck wagon' on a couple of photographic trips with a group of friends (more than 20 of them!).  They christened it "the soup dragon".  There started a love affair with motorcaravanning that is still going strong today.

The old Merc served us well - in three years we put nearly 40,000 miles on the clock and many wonderful experiences into memory.  These great experiences convinced us that we really enjoyed the amazing freedom that motorcaravanning offers, it also helped us to discover that we were not 'big site people' nor 'ralliers' nor 'sea-siders'; no what we really liked was getting away for short breaks to wild places often at short notice and out of season too.  Our 'out of season' even extends to Snowdonia in February in the snow so we are all year round campers too.  Campers we might be now but privation has never been my idea of a holiday so we decided that a few more home comforts wouldn't go amiss in such circumstances, a proper shower, a cassette toilet, better heating and an on-board waste tank for example.  A van with a fifth gear and less than 120,000 miles on the clock would be nice too!  So 'the soup dragon' was eventually sold to a couple of Aussies who used it to tour Europe to re-capture an adventure of their youth - an idea so much after our own heart that we weren't so sorry to see her go! 

Two - a bit more comfort:  The old Merc served us well but it did have a few drawbacks, it was getting a bit old in the tooth, the showerless bathroom was a bit primitive, it was noisy and thirsty and flat-out at 60mph, and of course we fancied a change - so we set out to find a newer one, albeit about the same size. We set ourselves a budget of 8-10K and started searching the magazines and Autotrader. That round 10,000 turned out to be a bad figure - it's just too obvious, everyone wants to buy at that price but sellers seem to be looking for less than 9K or more than 11K!!  

After the usual weeks of fruitless searching we set off to Leicester to look at a very reasonably priced Mercedes that had been professionally converted.  One of our main concerns then (and now) was the provision of proper rear seat belts - and that limits the choice and selection of 'vans in this price bracket quite severely.  While looking at the Merc, which was really quite outstanding value, and trying to work out how we could turn it into the 'van we were really looking for we joked with the dealer about our 'ideal'.  His eyes gleamed as only a salesman's can and he said "come and look at this".  

He showed us a J reg Autohomes Avalon Hightop with shower, cassette toilet, blown air heating, full kitchen, and rear belts. It looked quite nice too with decor that wasn't too over the top. I'm a 'plain carpet' man not too keen on living with the multiple patterns, chintz and moquette so often seen in British 'vans and fortunately Dilys is of similar mind too. The seats showed some signs of wear but the oven had never been used and it had only 15,000 genuine miles on the clock!  It was based on a Talbot Express (J5) with a 2 litre petrol engine having a bit more power than the old 208 and a five speed gearbox too - ah, quieter cruising at last I thought. 

We were, of course, impressed - but I had to say "yes, but the budget is 10K not 15K!"  Our salesman then told us that this was a commission sale, that the owners now wanted to push it through and he was also keen to see it completed promptly for them so a good deal might be on!  Off we duly went for a test drive and poured over the 'van some more, discovering in the process an exhaust leak, rough slow running and a funny smell in one cupboard.  Given the low mileage and other desirable features we decided to start negotiating.  I won't bore you with the machinations but after sleeping on it we decided to settle on 12,000 - rather more than we wanted to pay but we had by now confirmed that we could borrow enough to cover it.  We also thought that we would benefit in the end because a 'later spec' vehicle like this would hold its price well and we'd get better money for it in 3 to 5 years time. 

Our dealer said he needed to sort out a couple of minor items while we were getting our loan through and everyone was happy. There followed a number of delays and odd phone calls eventually resulting in our discovery of their real problem - and the reason why they had been so keen to do a deal - petrol in the water tank!!  Apparently they had mistakenly poured a gallon of petrol into the wrong filler - into the fresh water instead of the petrol tank.  They didn't want to admit this to the owners (commission sale remember) and they certainly didn't want the owners to 'borrow' the 'van back again as they had once before!  They had then compounded their problem by trying to flush the system out with bleach - in the process destroying the interior coating of the Cascade heater and Lord knows what else besides! Hence the funny smell in the cupboard containing the Cascade. More negotiations supported by my numerous phone calls to the makers of the various parts of the water system and eventually the dealer agreed to replace the entire water system f.o.c!  No profit for them on this sale then, especially since we had arranged our own finance and they weren't making anything on the HP either; they've since gone out of business by the way.  Still, all's well that ends well.  Since taking delivery we've sorted out the exhaust problem and misfire and have put another 30,000 miles on the clock over four years.  In the process we've enjoyed numerous wonderful trips around England, Wales, Scotland, France, Holland and Eire.  

Motorcaravanning suits us particularly well since the nature of our business makes it extremely difficult for us to 'book' a holiday in advance.  In practice we get away, fairly frequently, for long weekends and short breaks instead.  The particularly memorable breaks are Burgundy & Champagne in Autumn, Scotland (right up & round the top) in early Summer, Eire in May, Skye in late Autumn, Holland in February - (bird watching!) - and Snowdonia in February in the snow.  The long weekend favourites have got to be the North Norfolk Coast, Gigrin Farm at Rhayader (wildlife again!), the Yorkshire Dales, the Devon coast, the Red Squirrels at Formby Point, Cycling the trails in the Low Peak and nightingale listening in May, wherever we can find them!  Many of these shorter breaks have involved meeting friends too and we even have Saturday night dinner parties in the 'van; these have been somewhat cosy as you might imagine! 

All idyllic really - except we have found the multi-part bed rather uncomfortable. This is in part a penalty of the rear seat belts requirement in a small 'van. The lack of easy lounging and guest space is a bit restrictive and I find the bathroom & shower rather small.  All this combined with the appearance of a grandchild - and therefore 'skint' adult offspring too - convinced us that we needed more of a family 'van to cope with our lifestyle over the next few years.  It's the recent search for that family van both here and abroad that is really the point of this story...

Three - searching, searching, searching:  So now you know the background, let's get on to the more recent stuff - the business of choosing a model and deciding on where to get it from.  Hopefully those of you thinking about buying or changing a motorhome will benefit by sharing in someone else's hopes, experiences and agonies! ...

Our Avalon Hightop has given good service over the past four years and is still a very good camper but our desire for a bit more comfort plus all this business about an imminent grandchild got us thinking about whether our next 'van could accommodate the needs of the whole family?  A tricky business this, trying to work out what's best for your future needs.  How 'newbies' do it I'll never know, perhaps you just take pot luck and then move on when you need to - as we did?  Anyway we asked ourselves the big question and found that we couldn't come up with a sensible answer.  This isn't quite as bizarre as it seems because we seem to have several parallel lifestyles, each of which seem to have conflicting requirements!  Once we'd brought that clearly into focus we just had to look at the most important factors in some sort of order of importance.  First, and very limiting, our driveway is just 5.64 metres long (18'7"), second we are determined to have decent rear seat belts for family and friends, third we often meet up with 'non-camper' friends on weekends away and then have joint days out and also 'entertain' on some evenings, and finally we wanted personal comfort - good bathroom, a good preferably permanent bed, comfortable lounging, etc.  Mmmm, all this in about 18 feet? - a Motorcaravanning Tardis would obviously be required!

Thence began a year long search for our perfect small 'van. The original idea was that a MWB Boxer Hightop would give us sufficient room and that its modest dimensions would continue to give us excellent access to the wild places we love so much. This idea was discarded as soon as we started looking at small coachbuilts and low profiles with their wider body and astonishingly efficient use of space giving a quite roomy feel to the 'van.  Most of our searching was done at the various motorcaravan shows, starting with the NEC indoor show in February and taking in the big outdoor events at Stratford, York and Shepton, unfortunately we couldn't get to Peterborough. All this wasn't a big problem for us since we intended to go to several shows to promote our Website in any case.

The first real temptation came at the  NEC where we were offered a demonstration model low profile Rapido with fixed rear bed (very tempting) and at an astonishing price. A little reflection over coffee reminded us that it wouldn't fit on the drive and it wasn't really that suitable for family use - what luxury for two though!. A warning here - It really is very easy to forget just how big some of these 'vans are when you spend several hours looking round the shows stuffed full of substantial vehicles.

By the time we got to Stratford we had some fairly firm ideas but hadn't found the 'van yet!  Our budget was about 18k and there were lots of good 'vans on offer in that range. We were quite tempted by the layout of a second-hand Swift Sundance but with its rear u-shaped lounge we couldn't see how to fit seat belts sensibly, we loved the Mobilvetta Top driver 52 with an excellent kitchen but were concerned about the lack of lounging especially since their foam is a bit on the hard side, we particularly liked the Pilote Debut 35 and possibly some of the smaller Hymers and Eura Mobils though we couldn't actually see the models we were particularly interested in only their bigger brothers. By the time we'd 'done' York as well we were pretty well convinced that a small coachbuilt with an overcab bed would satisfy the family requirements if it was fitted with three-point seat belts but that our specifications for both lounging and entertaining resources just couldn't be squeezed into 18 feet so one of them would have to be scaled down. 

A pattern was definitely beginning to emerge here though - it seemed to be the European 'vans that were tempting us the most so it was natural to ask why? There are several factors but top of the list seems to be the fact that European 'vans are aimed at a wider age group, everyone from young couples and families to we 'silver tops' and 'grey beards' in fact! As a result proper 3-point belts, good low level storage accessible from inside and outside, good insulation and larger engines are fairly commonplace. Ovens and grills and full cab trimming regrettably are not, particularly on the smaller vehicles. We also found that we preferred a lot of the European furniture and fabrics to the rather more 'ornate' British decor. Some of this is changing of course, we found the new Sundance 520 really quite continental in it's approach but were not overly impressed by the build quality. OK, so now we know more about our choices; that sub-19 foot motorhomes are few and far between; that the British ones don't generally offer the outdoor activity / family resources that we need; that we fancy the comfortable one or two piece overcab beds as long as there's sufficient headroom in the Luton; and that we might be prepared to sacrifice some part of the specification to gain comfortable lounging. So at the Shepton show we begin to investigate alternatives to grills and ovens and invest in a small 'double skillet' to try out. Other than that we are not much further forward with the actual choice - but we do now have a burning desire to see more European motorhomes.

A little research soon reveals that to see European motorhomes in quantity we'll probably have to go to Germany - which has 48% of the EC motorhome market would you believe?  The best place to see both new and second-hand 'vans is the Dusseldorf Salon which it turns out is held in Autumn - just a few weeks away - see www.caravan-salon.de for info. So after yet more discussions, some quick research into the intricacies of 'buying abroad', a phone call to the CCC to book a special offer ferry, and we're off to Germany, to the Caravan Salon at the Dusseldorf Messe! 

Related site links:   Facts   Import Story Pt1   Import Story Pt2   Import Story Pt3   Import Story Pt4


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