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A Personal Motorhome Import - 3 Searching Germany

Six - Searching with technology to the rescue:  (All information correct at Spring 2001) Searching the market shouldn’t prove too difficult since I have a lot of PC / Internet skills and we’ve already established that the only economic way to trade with Germany is via the Internet.  Unless you’re German speaking and don’t mind making numerous expensive phone calls it makes sense to decide that anything of interest must be on the Internet and that the supplier must be on email - and they must be happy to use it and in English too! 

It didn’t take me too long to track down some of the most promising German web sites, www.dhd24auto.com, http://markt.reisemobil-international.de/markt/, http://www.mobile.de, http://markt.dolde.de/sho/,  and of course the manufacturer’s own sites like www.hymer.com. We found dhd24auto to be one of the most useful sites, it’s actually the Web version of Wohnmobil Markt which is an Autotrader like publication of some size and almost entirely devoted to motorhomes, motorcaravans and campervans which are variously known as 'Reisemobil' or 'Wohnmobil' or Camping-Car even 'Campingbusse'.  The choice offered here is simply mind-blowing!  There’s something of a knack in finding your way round these sites, especially since the search facilities don’t always seem to work as expected; unfortunately an ‘idiots guide’ is impractical because the major sites change design and layout so often. For private sale searches it is important to pre-pick a postal zone or PLZ so do your homework on that first.  Dealer searches present different problems since they rarely bother to fill in the specific information about engines, mileages, etc., so targeted searches are all but impossible.  In practice we found it best to search for all Hymers then to sort the resulting list to find our targets easily.  The quick access to dealer based brand searches at the bottom of http://www.dhd24.com/bilder/wohnmobile/suchliste_wohnmobile.htm was especially useful (updated & correct in 2004). Manufacturer’s sites are very useful too, as an example the Hymer site lists all the second-hand stock at all their main dealers - but only in the German version, you’ll see none of this if you click on the union jack at the start!

Thank goodness for ‘unmetered’ surfing, it lets me spend hours looking without costing me a fortune and I do need several hours to get the hang of the various sites.  Once you master navigating German sites it soon becomes apparent that there are numerous motorhomes on offer, far too many to think about viewing in fact. This is all made worse by the large mileages involved - a 1500 mile local round trip would barely cover the ground, so there are twin decisions to be made here, not only what make and model but what area too?  There’s some sense in deciding both at the outset because of the logistics involved later on.  First you’ve got to be able to view the initial selection easily and second you’ll need to fly out to collect the one you buy.  Since airfares run from 19 to over 500 it makes a lot of sense to group your selections round the airports that you can get to cheaply and also on easy train routes radiating out from those airports.  Good starting points for flights are www.ryanair.com and www.buzzaway.com since both specialise in Northern European destinations whereas Go and Easyjet tend to be more Southern.  For trains we found http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/ excellent and in English too.  The choice of ‘van was easier, we already know that it is between the Burstner with its vast underfloor storage but tiny kitchen, the Dethleffs with more room at the back but slightly short beds or the all round sensible compromise Hymer?  Best make it all of them I suppose - to see what turns up! 

Seven - Shopping in Germany but not quite as expected:  Now it’s February and we’ve searched all the German Web sites at least twice a week since Christmas for likely ‘vans.  As usual with any new off-season search we are presented with a high proportion of 'duffers' that have been hanging around for months.  After a very quiet January one or two new ones are beginning to crop up and almost all the old ones are still there of course.  We’re focussing now on the Hymer 544K since it seems to be the best compromise for us and also to be available in reasonable numbers.  Our German skills, or at least those relating to motorhome adverts have improved markedly and we’re quite confident about terms like Markise, Fahrradtrager and schaden; most important this one, schaden = damage!  Dealers are looking a better bet for us than private sales and we’ve discovered that it helps when emailing them to open in German with an apology that the rest of the message is in English.  As a result we are now in touch with several dealers in two groups, one in the North and one in the South of the country.  Plainly the next step is to get over there to have a look at the ‘vans on offer.  The two groups are too far apart to get to easily in one trip so we chose the most likely Northern set.  A little research about the flights and trains based on Dusseldorf or Hamburg, a check on the continuing availability of finance, and it’s time to plan a trip to see the 544Ks on offer in Munster, Bielefeld, Oldenburg and Bremen.  A few phone calls establish that the best ferry is the high speed Stena HSS from Harwich to Hoek van Holland and that the CCC can get us a 119, 5-day return deal, for the two of us in the Avalon which is duly booked.

It’s Wednesday 28th February and I skive off early to get our 'van ready for an evening trip to Harwich and the morning ferry to The Netherlands.  After just half an hour I discover that the Cascade water heater has literally fallen in half and I now have in excess of two gallons of water sloshing about under the floor!  Two hours, some minor engineering, some Araldite, a fair bit of silcone and several expletives later we have 16psi water once more and we both start packing in earnest.  In the meantime our eldest daughter has telephoned to say she's been watching the news and seen foodstuffs being confiscated in Holland as a result of the Foot & Mouth outbreak, so after some last minute phone calls to Stena and CCC we decide to remove all stocks of food from the Avalon and to leave behind all that shopping we bought at the supermarket only last night.  This is quite early in the outbreak and information is hard to come by but the CCC prove to be very helpful making further enquiries on our behalf and ringing us back with the latest info at gone 7pm.  Anyway the trip to the port is uneventful and we eventually pull into our favourite lay-by near Harwich just before Midnight and fall into bed. It’s now Thursday 1st March - 3am - and we're woken by assorted clicking and flashing. After some dazed staggering about we conclude that the Propex heater sensors are suffering from the earlier flood now compounded by freezing temperatures!  We manage to stop the chaos by switching everything off and retire once more for a little shut-eye before the 5:30 alarm.

As planned we arrive at Parkstone Quay at 6:30 after a rapid breakfast, check in and get the kettle on to enjoy some coffee while we wait to embark. Just ten minutes later a tannoy announcement tells us that "the Dutch fishermen are blockading the port...we can't let you embark until we're sure we can get you off again"!  Hmmm, now we're stuck in the port car park for an indeterminate length of time and all our food is back at home, hey hum!  Fortunately the delay is modest and they let us on board quite quickly; the trip over is quick, comfortable and uneventful until we are about one hour from Holland when the captain starts telling us about the blockade and that he has “no permission to go though” - so we drop anchor and bob about in the swell awaiting news.  In due time our captain announces that "the fishermen are expected to go home about 4pm" (for their tea no doubt!) "so we'll sneak in as soon as they are out of sight", so more gentle pitching and yawing until 4.  Eventually we get in to the port, disembark and queue up to be checked by customs, some travellers are being taken apart but our assurances that CCC briefed us and that we're carrying no food sees us waved straight through - phew!  Much relieved that we weren’t delayed further, we pull in to the supermarket off the first roundabout and spend 210Fl on re-stocking the 'van.  Much to our surprise no cards are taken at the till so I am forced to make a quick dash back to the camper to extricate our cash reserves from diverse hiding places and back to the till before the queue reaches back into the port!  The other customers were very good tempered about this but the whole trip is beginning to feel like an Indiana Jones movie!  Anyway we're now running very late and so decide to give Munster a miss since this seems the least likely of the Hymers and decide to head straight for Bielefeld - 220 miles away.  We eventually arrive there around midnight - yet again - and find a quiet car park in the Teutoburger forest for a spot of wild camping.  Snow is falling lightly and the whole place looks really rather picturesque.

Friday morning reveals a light dusting of snow, not so picturesque now that it carries the tracks of the early risers but the fluffy white powder clearly showing how cold it is! Having abandoned Munster the plan now is to briefly look at a new but discounted 2000 model in Bielefeld, dash up to Oldenburg to see a s/h one with less than optimum seat belts but a very good price and then on to Bremen by 2-3pm to see the favourite on which we had lots of info, pictures, etc. If by any chance we are unable to make the expected decision to buy the Bremen ‘van and prefer one of the others we should have time to return to the others on Saturday morning (all these Hymer main dealers shut for the weekend at about 1pm as does much of Europe).

The 2000 model at Palmowski in Bielefeld turned out to be very attractive if above our preferred budget and we spent more time there than expected, not least because the dealer was very helpful. Mr Palmowski has a young assistant called Julien who speaks English and he had plainly been given the task of looking after us. We might have been doubtful about dealing with the ‘trainee salesman’ in this country but Hymer take these things very seriously so Julien attends the Hymer College once a week for formal off-the-job training has considerable product knowledge and behaved in a thoroughly professional manner beyond his years. With a tight schedule to maintain and yesterday’s memories of just how much can go wrong we eventually tore ourselves away from Bielefeld and headed 100 miles North to Oldenburg. The motorhome in Oldenburg about which we knew least, turned out to be rather tatty and slightly damaged.  The dealer was also rather offhand and showed little interest in talking to us or showing us the vehicle.  Proof if any were needed that dealers can and do mislead to get you along to have a look, even if they know they have little chance of a sale! Time is ticking away and with travelling slower than expected due to regular light snowfalls, we must press on a.s.a.p. to the favourite at Bremen.

Anyway we arrive in Bremen about two hours later than planned to find the motorhome parked outside the showroom waiting for us .... but no this can't be it, the upholstery is different and it's got that bubbly exterior skin of the earlier model and crudely repaired damage too.  Wrong ... this was it after all, the statement "the exterior optic is the same as the 2000 model except for a few decals" was incorrect.  And what about the different upholstery? .... "ah, we use 'typical 544' pictures on the web site"!!  The same incorrect pictures were on the details sheet on the side of the 'van too, amazing.  So despite all our efforts to the contrary, we've travelled what seems like thousands of miles to see a pig in a poke!  Determined to get something out of this part of the trip I set about negotiating a deal, just to test the water, and succeed in getting agreement for a 10% discount; so whatever we eventually decide to buy at least we know that discounts are possible.

It's now late of course and nearly dark so we decide to camp nearby to re-think and re-group. We head for a 'rural all year site' in our 'continental guide', stop at the barrier in the snow and eventually manage to raise a caretaker from an apparently deserted site.  He is small, manic, very German, speaks no English, has a very thick accent, understands not a word of our school German, and to top it all, has a dodgy eye that glints in the moonlight!!  All this in a place called Syke - this is getting spoo-ooky as well as Indiana-esque!  A pantomime ensues when we discover that all the taps are frozen, that we can only communicate by manic mime and that it might just, just, be possible to reach a thawable tap by joining together numerous incompatible hoses, some his, some mine, and all in the 'glinting' moonlight.  Strangely enough, after 20 minutes this eerie pantomime begins to seen almost normal. The snow is still falling lightly outside, ‘glint’ has gone and the site is silent - quite deserted apart from us.  After a good meal and a comforting bottle of wine, sleep comes mercifully quickly tonight.

Eight - the decision at last:  It’s Saturday the 3rd, it’s still snowing, we haven’t bought our coachbuilt and everything is going to shut for the weekend at 1 o’clock. Over breakfast we decide that Bremen and the 544K that we saw last night is not for us but that the new but 2000 model in Bielefeld is very tempting and looks increasingly head and shoulders above the rest. It’s obviously worth another look so we quickly decide to set off on the 120 mile trip to see it again. Breakfast and washing up are completed in quick time and it's back into the driving seat once more and, and, and .... nothing, nothing at all, not even a click! "I don't believe it" I cry!  Fortunately it’s daylight and there are no signs of werewolves, left over bats, eye of newt or anything of that kind, so I spent a 'happy' few minutes under the bonnet checking and tugging at assorted wires and yes off she went and so did we!  The journey turned out to be very slow since not only was it still snowing but also nearly everyone goes shopping on Saturday morning.  Anyway we eventually arrive at noon, about as late as we dare, and look again at this brand new motorhome.  Sitting on a Fiat 2.8TDi with just 275Km on the clock, a brand new Hymer bathroom, upholstery we like, the safety belts and exterior storage we need, the special 'feather mattress' in the luton and a wonderful light-giving Heki-style roof light over the dinette.  We love it but all the 'omens' say this wasn't meant to be ... oh b****r that let's go and start negotiating!  An hour later we're 3,000DM lighter and a deal has been done for very close to 20K (for what must be 28K's worth here?) and we're absolutely delighted. Palmowski, our Bielefeld dealers are friendly and helpful and Julien promises to help us with the export, VAT, temporary plates, export insurance and so on.  We just can't wait to get our hands on it!

The return boat is not until 07:20 on Monday, so we treat ourselves to a day off for a bit of R&R in Holland at a great campsite near Appeldoorn and a day birdwatching in Flevoland, to say nothing of dreaming of all those forthcoming trips in the new one - of course!. 

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


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