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A Personal Motorhome Import - 2 A German Experience


Four - the German eye-opener We asked the Camping & Caravanning Club to book us a ‘five day break’ on the Stena Line HSS Discovery on the Harwich to Hoek van Holland route, they got us a better price than booking direct, just 135 return. So it's now the 29th of September and we travelled down to Harwich after work on the Friday and stopped overnight in our usual lay-by to be close to the port for a stress-free Saturday morning boarding.  We awoke to see nearly 100 pheasants feeding in the fields just outside our ‘van and after a modest breakfast we left for the port for a 9:30 boarding feeling fresh and relaxed.  This high-speed ferry is really quite civilised, it takes less than four hours, is very smooth, has most of the facilities you'd expect and is one of the few high-speed boats that takes large vehicles.  In the event it was half empty so we split our time between wandering about checking out the panorama lounge, the rear observation deck, various ‘eateries’, children’s play area, casino, cinemas and the ‘quiet areas’ (perversely situated over the engines, so no noisy video wall but plenty of rumble!).  The Olympics were on TV so we spent some time watching those too.  We disembarked at the Hoek van Holland at about 4 pm local time and immediately set off to take in mile upon mile of Dutch and German motorway.  No tolls, no border controls, just endless motorway.  Apart from some complex multi-route signing around Utrecht, it's all pretty simple really - you just follow the long distance ‘Euro routes’ - the E25 first, then the E35 and 160 miles later finish up on the approach road to Dusseldorf where the 'Messe' is well signposted.  We managed to find a few quiet and relaxing spots for breaks and meals on the way, mostly by seeing a promising landscape from the motorway and then turning off and going back to it!  

We'd been told that there's plenty of camping on-site at the Messe with an excellent bus service directly into the exhibition so we planned to stay on the 'camping fields' (no electricity by the way in 2000 but there will be in 2001).  We arrived soon after dark, just before 8 pm, didn't see anything referring to he Caravan Salon but followed some likely looking Messe signs and eventually joined the queue of motorcaravans waiting to get in. It soon became apparent that the queue was more or less stationary so Dilys got out to have a look at what was going on up front. Her report was not good news, the queue stretched ahead for a long way perhaps half a mile or even more, at the head were a few officials who were wandering up and down the parking lanes looking for vacant slots, then carefully parking one 'van, filling out their paperwork and then returning to the main queue to start the whole process all over again!  Needless to say the queue now disappeared as far as the eye could see in both directions! Under other circumstances we would have just turned round and gone away but given our specific objective and the limited time to achieve it we decided to see it through.

This pantomime continued at a snail's pace until about 10pm by which time we were just half a dozen vehicles away from the front of the queue. On the dot of ten, a small van arrived with yellow lights flashing and we were instructed by the marshals to follow it.  So off we all went, line astern behind a flashing escort vehicle, like some mad re-enactment of the pied piper, all round the camping fields including several that were totally empty.  On the way the huge snake that we had now become could frequently be seen, just two vehicle lengths away, going in totally the opposite direction as head passed tail and tail passed head in a tortuous manoeuvre that eventually returned us to where we had first come in two hours earlier!  Then they dumped us, dumped us all, in the public day-parking area overnight - right next to the beer tent and Oompah band no less! Thank goodness for double glazing. Next morning we were first woken by Dusseldorf’s planes that start flying from the adjacent airport at 6 am and then after a further fitful doze we were woken again at about 8 am by loudspeakers and door knocking telling us we were parked in the wrong place and must move before the day visitors arrived at 9! Astonishingly, almost everybody seemed to comply without so much as a murmur. Needless to say we Brits were late moving and got a red ticket on our windscreen demanding 25DM (we've paid now, so bail monies won't be needed thanks!). Oh for the friendly marshals of York and the clear signage and organisation of the NEC! Anyway after a very leisurely breakfast, during which we tried to regain our sanity, we moved off to find our own space and to look for one of the free buses to the exhibition. 

It's on this short walk to the access road and bus pick-up point that the sheer size of this event hits you.  On the way you naturally look at all the motorhomes parked around you but we are just astounded at both the scale and variety.  All around we can see motorcaravans in every direction as far as the eye can see, and in just one day I’ve seen the smallest, largest, oldest and oddest motorhomes I’ve ever seen, and all in the camping fields near our own campervan!  It’s been described as the “greatest free motorcaravan show on earth” - and that’s exactly right!

Transport into the show is by free bus just like the NEC - but when leaving try to re-trace your steps to your entry point, e.g. hall 16. If you exit at any other point there's precious little help to get you to a bus stop.  There are numerous locals wandering about between the halls getting in free via the back doors though!  The two day ticket at 28DM is particularly good value and the two days don't have to be taken consecutively - we decided to do Sunday and Tuesday - nothing else is open on Tuesday we're told, since it's a national holiday and that would also give us a break on the Monday.  By the way the buses will also take you into Dusseldorf itself in the evening if you wish.

The show itself is absolutely fantastic - nine huge halls absolutely packed with everything to do with caravans and motorhomes and their ancillary products and services.  It took us most of this first day to get to grips with the exhibition, its layout, the sheer volume of product, and all the new and unfamiliar names - to say nothing of the new-to-us technique of standing while drinking coffee and simultaneous eating wurst!  In fact there was so much to see that we had to become really focussed in order to get round it all.  We decided to use a simple first day strategy - we briefly stopped at each Reisemobil stand, checked to see if there was a sub-19ft 4-berth model with a fixed bed and seat belts for the rear passengers and if there was we lingered but if not we moved on immediately.  We steadfastly ignored all the wonders and curiosities outside our set specification and price bracket!  Our ‘brochure bag’ was soon brimming with literature and price lists but only about products that were of real and immediate interest. By the way bring your own bag, there is some exhibitions law that says you won’t be offered any carrier bags for at least the first two hours!

Most of the ‘vans on display are open and accessible to all, though just a few had ‘with a salesman only’ notices, this was of course commonplace on the 300,000DM+ vehicles!!  While looking at the many promising motorhomes we saw and poured over, I made extensive use of a digital camera to record much of what we saw, taking lots of shots of the most promising vehicles and rather fewer of the others, just for reference later.  Having found how easy it is to become confused about the features of various motorhomes when you see so many in quick succession, I’d previously purchased an additional large memory card just for this purpose.  By the end of the day we were elated, exhausted and confused, elated because we’d seen several really interesting coachbuilts from Hymer, Knaus, Burstner, Eura-Mobil, Rotec, LMC, Weinsberg & Dethleffs and exhausted and confused because we’d seen so many in such a short time.  Our planned day off tomorrow was now beginning to look very wise indeed!  We were also beginning to get a real feel of the German market and were able to separate the high-end manufacturers like Clou from the mid-rangers like Hymer and budget end like Eiffeland. Anyway exhausted we were, finally leaving at 6 pm along with everybody else and heading back to the trusty old Avalon for a rethink over dinner and a glass or two or the red elixir.  Veggie pie, several glasses of wine, and a bowl of strawberries later and the decision had been made to leave before ‘parking’ officially started again to go to nearby Mulheim where there were reputed to be hundreds of second-hand Reisemobiles for sale.

We woke at 5 am when our next door neighbour left his pitch, woke again at 6 am when the aircraft started flying and woke again at 7 am when our alarm went off!  We left after a very light breakfast to escape the camping fields and the parking fees before 8 am.  We intended to stop nearby for the ‘second course’ as soon as we’d left Dusseldorf.  This proved to be something of a mistake since this is one of the most heavily developed areas of Europe and not one usable pull-off, lay-by or field gate was to be found all the way to Mulheim. In the end we drove straight through the town past all the motorhome lots to find a quiet spot to stop.  Somewhat later but suitably refreshed we returned and ‘did’ the second-hand lots from end to end.  We probably saw as many motorcaravans on this one road as we’ve seen at many of the British shows.  As usual though, only a few were of interest and many of those were small Eura-Mobils, which seem to be a very popular hire and ex-hire vehicle.  These are often quite high spec with 2.8TD engines, air-con, satellite, roof racks, bike racks, awnings and so. By now we’re getting quite good at recognising the German words for these various features and add-ons and are also getting used to the lack of cab trimming and fitted ovens.

I was really quite taken by one small coachbuilt we came across - a ‘last years model’ Rotec 540L at a very keen price.  I think I’d have bought it there and then, it had more or less everything I wanted plus upholstery that I could happily live with - and I thought it had the features that Dilys wanted too, a particularly good kitchen for instance, but she plainly wasn’t going to be as impulsive as me so we moved on.  A brief diversion buying some fresh veg at a stall next to Thrun & Schmitt reminded us that there were other things in life as well as pouring over motorcaravans so we resolved to head South down the Rhine and take a bit of a break before joining the fray once more tomorrow.  This little jaunt was very pleasant but uneventful, finishing, as planned, wild camping on the edge of a wood within striking distance of the exhibition - what bliss, a night without oompah bands, late night revellers or early morning planes!

Five - too much stress but at last we establish just what we want:  All this free time gave us ample opportunity to discuss what we had seen and to debate the options open to us. It wasn’t too difficult to define just what we were looking for - a small ‘van that would fit on an 18’ 6” drive, able to accommodate our family requirements complete with rear safety belts, with a good bathroom, a fixed bed with adequate headroom, another double that was comfortable and easy to assemble, with a light and airy feel, a decent kitchen and also somewhere to lounge comfortably when required.   Add to that a 2.8TD engine, a preference for the later sandwich construction and a limited budget that wouldn’t stretch to new and you could see the problem straightaway - it didn’t exist!!  OK, so something had to give, the question was what?  It was interesting then to reconsider all the vans that we’d seen, so with the help of our digital camera we went back over the main contenders to see what each was missing.  I won’t bore you with all the detail but some examples will illustrate just what we were doing (all this is from our own personal point of view of course, others may see these same ‘vans differently as indeed we will at a different time).  The Hymer, Burstner and Dethleffs all had models with rear kitchens and side couches, the Camp Swing 544K seemed to have pretty much everything except a ‘proper’ kitchen; the Burstner A532-2 was very similar to the Hymer and had much better storage but didn’t have as much headroom over the bed, had an even smaller kitchen that was too short even to take a standard SMEV upgrade, and it was very awkward to get from cab to living area; the EuraMobil, Mobilvetta and Rotec all had models with rear-side or L-shaped corner kitchen, each of which was vastly superior to Hymer’s offering but each had necessarily sacrificed both the side lounging couch and the large side window that goes with it;  Knaus and Weinsberg seemed to go for a completely different layout that was a little claustrophobic towards the rear so failed on our ‘light and airy feel’ requirement.  So, after much debate about all the possible permutations it was beginning to look like a battle between lounging and cooking and much to my surprise Dilys was beginning to favour lounging over cooking, so that’s why she didn’t want to commit to the Rotec in Mulheim!!

It’s now Tuesday and our second day in the show. We turned up today just as day visitors but still headed for the camping fields.  By the way if you get it wrong they just wave you through and you go round again and find another entrance and/or queue.  We were now au fait with the system and kept well to the left of the motorcaravan lanes at the main entrance so that we could slide over into the service area to top up with water, empty the cassette and dump our grey water. They are very efficient here, you wouldn’t think that just two ‘service points’ could cope with up to 600 camping units but they do.  It helps that they have two men manning the grey waste trolleys and that everything you need is there in one place once you’ve stopped the ‘van.  Once serviced we found our own parking spot but were careful this time to find a man to give our 25 marks (about 8) parking money to and then made off once more into the show.  With a now clearly defined set of objectives we re-visited our favoured models, found a couple of new contenders and discussed ex-hire vehicles with a couple of vendors, We were also crazy enough to attempt a quick look at the accessories halls but it soon became apparent that we would need another full day at least to do that.  Being country folk from a fairly quiet village it was also becoming apparent that were becoming rather stressed by all this, concentration was waning and tempers were definitely becoming shorter by the hour - we decided enough was enough, time to retreat to the Avalon and ‘chill out’ before the long haul home tomorrow.  And anyway, if we hadn’t found the ‘van for us by now - it didn’t exist!

Chill out isn’t perhaps the right description since that evening and throughout much of the following day we debated all the various options we’d seen.  The photos we’d taken on a digital camera proved absolutely invaluable here - reminding us of all sorts of ‘vans and features that we’d forgotten and resolving numerous minor disagreements along the way!  The debate even went off at a tangent while we considered demolishing part of the front of our garage to accommodate a slightly larger ‘van - but we soon dismissed the idea and returned to the point. In the end we decided that we’d stay with the ‘family’ spec of 4 or more berths with a usable fixed overcab bed, rear belts - and therefore a dinette, with some lounging as well and with big windows to give that light airy feel.  That meant without doubt that the sacrifice would be the kitchen.  We’d already established that there were alternatives to grills and ovens - the ubiquitous double skillet for a start - so the plan now was to search the German market for a suitable newish but second-hand ‘van while trying to master the delights of oven-less cooking!

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


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