The Campervan Saga

29 11 2022

Life has a habit of throwing challenges my way….. A couple of years ago we rescued this old codger from the Geeveston campground which the Council have now closed to public access in exchange for some entrepreneurs to develop a small portion of it as a paying caravan park for people who appear to own very expensive luxury vans. Gerry’s story is a bit sad and I don’t want to intrude too much into what happened, but he ended up homeless even though he owned property where he could live. My life challenges pale compared to some others’…

To cut to the chase, Gerry lived in a 10m bus and used a Toyota Hiace van as a commuter vehicle. He’s quite a handyman, so he carried loads of tools and stuff he picked up at the tip. Both vehicles ended up parked behind the shed I lived in while building the house.

Gerry started complaining the van was becoming extremely unreliable, eventually needing the radiator topped up three times just to go to Huonville and his favourite tip 25km away….. one day he asked if I had a reliable vehicle I could sell him, and me with three utes had no hesitation offering him Ute2 which was very reliable. We agreed on a price, and he paid me more because he liked it so much! When he told us he was just going to trash the van for scrap metal, Glenda thought I could probably do it up. Like I’ve got nothing else to do!

Van parked in the shed awaiting surgery..

The first obvious thing to do was of course the radiator which was completely stuffed. I bought a new one on eBay and engaged the services of the local 80 yr old mechanic to fit it, because whilst I have the necessary skills, I don’t have the space or the time, really… While he was at it, I got Ian the mechanic to replace the air filter, change the oil and filter, put new spark plugs in and generally check it over.

Nothing in it worked. The fridge and stove were well past being of any use, and the original camper conversion was badly designed and built. So I completely stripped the inside, including the hoodlining that stank and looked just awful. We took it for a drive to Charlotte Cove where a couple of our friends had also bought a van, and it very quickly became obvious the clutch was completely worn out. So back to Ian who has a hoist to make such a big job easier. A new rear engine seal was fitted too, it was starting to leak and I’m not keen on oil spilling on new clutches!

At this stage, never having built a camper before, Glenda and I started watching hours and hours of YouTube van porn for ideas, and you would not believe how much info is available. We got inspired to build build a bed base that would slide into itself allowing space to walk through to the back and exit through the hatch. But before fitting it, I had to insulate the floor, cover it with 10mm ply, and some vinyl using a remnant from a retailer in Hobart. Looks pretty good actually.

Cutting plywood for the bed

It got driven a few times, and once going to Hobart to pick up a kitchen someone gave us, it ran out of petrol. Now I have to say I completely ignored the fuel gauge and the light that was on for a good 80km because, well, it wasn’t that long ago I’d filled it up and I wasn’t expecting to run out after less than 200km! I figured that the gauge was just playing up…… I luckily found a petrol station within walking distance, where having the vehicle restarted with a 4L emergency container I returned to fill it up again. To everyone’s amazement it only accepted another 20L.

Then, only a week later, it stopped in Franklin, just 100m from the local garage. By then I thought there was some serious issue with the fuel system, but it refused to start even when I dribbled petrol straight into the carburetor. A couple of days later, the Franklin mechanic towed it to his garage, and rang me to say the distributor was stuffed….. So I had that replaced while he had the car.

Now you have to realise that this van was converted to dual fuel a very long time ago, all the gas gear had not been used in years, and was well past it. plus, gas for cars isn’t easy to get in Tasmania, so I asked him to remove the geriatric gas tank. That’s when he realised that the petrol tank had been cut by nearly 2/3 to accommodate the LPG tank. No wonder I’d run out of fuel in Hobart!

Finding anything in Tasmania is always a challenge, but this time I got lucky. I met another mechanic in Huonville who knew someone who used to run a fleet of these vans for deliveries, and he was sure he still had a couple lying around for parts. $150 later and I had a new tank. Well, an old tank. That turned into its own saga, because when Ian put it in for me, the breather pipe wasn’t original and it was too long and kinked not allowing air out and fuel in to fill the tank… How I got home on the fumes still within is a mystery…

Even with this small amount of driving, it quickly became apparent this van was a thirsty beast. So I also replaced the carbie. And the fuel pump. Which caused me to realise that the air filter wasn’t connected to said carbie. It was like that when I got it, and Ian never noticed. Maintenance on this vehicle had obviously not been carried out much in the past few years! Fuel consumption is still not great, but has improved from 20L/100km completely empty to 15L/100km quite heavily laden. I was hoping that on 98 premium it would match the utes’ consumption, but then the other day both cars were parked side by side, and the van is easily twice as high as the ute and has to push a lot more air….

With the van all stripped to bare metal, you can hear every noise it makes and I started worrying the diff was too noisy. So I drained that too. And the stuff that came out looked like vomit, I kid you not.. I refilled it with the same oil the Queensland mechanic put in the 4WD’s gearbox to fix the slow gear change, which it actually did. Then decided to do the gearbox as well, though what came out of it looked pretty normal. It’s made a difference all the same, the diff’s quieter (could be from the insulation though) and the gearbox is now silky smooth.

Because I use a CPAP machine at night I need 240V power. So I bought a 260W solar panel from my neighbour who has a collection of them; I jumped on eBay again for a MPPT and 1500W inverter, and I got lucky again, picking up a couple of 20 month old Bosch deep cycle AGM batteries on social media….. I got my favourite welder Pete to make me a set of extended roof rack brackets to clear the high roof this old commuter bus came with, and with some help from Steve the PV panel was hoisted above the roof. More gear from eBay to get the wires through the roof, and a vent with fan, and slowly but surely it’s starting to look like a campervan.

We also shouted it a new set of tyres. Having had more than my share of old tyres with plenty of tread left pack up on me, I wasn’t going to take a chance. Two of the old tyres had heaps of tread on them but were 12 years old, well and truly past their use by date too…..

Unexpectedly, I’ve decided to cook with electricity. Only because my Little Guy coffee maker came with its own 1200W induction cooker which is less power hungry than most and so compact it fits in one of the drawers I recycled from that old kitchen I bought about five years ago….. the 240Ah battery setup seems quite happy dealing with this. Then Jaycar where I bought the cables for this and the house’s off grid system had a sale, and we bought a 12V 36L Brass Monkey fridge freezer.

It’s not completely finished yet, but it was good enough to take on an inaugural night away down at Cockle Creek, the very end of the road and farthest South in Australia you can drive…

It was surprisingly warm in the van considering La Nina is persisting and giving us horror weather for growing gardens.

I estimate the van owes us less than $6,000 but is easily worth $10,000 when finished. The awning alone, which I’m sure had not been deployed in years is apparently worth over $1000. So Glenda might have had a good idea after all.

Little Guy coffee maker and induction cooker

And the coffee was great.

But true to its history, the old van wasn’t finished….. 25km from home on our return from Cockle Creek, completely out of the blue, the right rear wheel locked up. Twice; in 500m. Leaving strips of expensive looking rubber from my brand new tyre on the bitumen.

There was nothing I could do, so with all fingers and toes crossed we finished the journey home, avoiding using the brakes at all! I’m actually good at that, I drive this way all the time and my brakes last forever. Luckily it didn’t re-occur. A couple of days later it went back to Ian who took the brake drum off to discover that both brake linings had come unglued from the shoes….. even Ian was gobsmacked, in his long career as a mechanic he’d never seen anything like it.

$250 later, that was fixed. But wait, there’s more……

A few days later we had to go to Hobart for a few things including picking up an unused garden shed Glenda wants to put a ceramics kiln in. So we took the van. It wasn’t a good day because my phone died on the short trip, and when I arrived to put the shed in the van, the rear brakes started leaking. I had only flushed the entire braking system of its old and dirty (yet again) brake fluid the day before and everything was fine when we left.

One good thing about being in the big smoke is you can find car parts a lot more easily, so we returned with two wheel cylinders which I fitted the very next day.

We’re not planning on going outside Tassie with this vehicle. We just want to see more of Tasmania’s nooks and crannies, of which there are many, before the fuel runs out and I’m too old to drive. Lots of things to see around this state, and Glenda’s keen on fishing. Let’s hope nothing else goes wrong now, I’m seriously running out of things to replace with the van…. and I think Gerry got rid of his van just in time!