With sales rising, it seems Britain is finally falling in love with motor homes. But the choice is vast, so what should anyone fancying a holiday on the road look for, asks Nick Rufford
‘ADVENTURE before dementia,” said the sticker on the back of my motor home. It got me wondering about the previous owners. Were they, like the vehicle itself, still in good nick and still rolling along? Or had infirmity overtaken them?
It’s fair to say that motor homes have an image problem in this country. While not quite as derided as caravan owners (their close cousins), motor home enthusiasts are viewed by other road users as a curious breed. For a start — as the bumper sticker suggests — they tend not to be in the first flush of youth, and it seems the British have always viewed nomadic peoples with an element of suspicion. Why can’t they just Thomas Cook it like everyone else? And what’s wrong with a good old B&B?
That might be changing, however. More than 200,000 people in Britain own motor homes and the number has recently risen sharply (new registrations were up 26% in 2014 compared with 2013), according to the National Caravan Council. It admits that most buyers may, indeed, be retirees but says they are not exclusively so. So what is the attraction of motor homes and will the British learn to trust them? We set out to find out.
On paper it’s easy to see the appeal. Travelling in one is like camping: it offers the freedom to go where you please but without the hassle of carrying a rucksack or putting up a tent. You arrive on a site, plug into mains electricity and fresh water, and your van is just like home. The beds are as comfortable, albeit a bit narrower, and on board you get a fridge, cooker, telly and often a microwave, shower and chemical lavatory.
The choice of vehicle is vast — depending on your budget. At the very top end there are specialist companies offering Formula One-style levels of luxury: the premium German brand Morelo recently announced it will start selling its motor homes in the UK this autumn, with the first arriving in September. Its range includes the Palace 90 G, which is so big you can fit a small car in the boot — although it costs €183,000 (£132,000).
Cheaper are brands such as Swift and Bailey, which market vehicles they have converted into mobile homes using Fiat and Peugeot platforms respectively. While my colleague Tim Rayment scoured the classifieds to find his dream — a giant American RV, or recreational vehicle — I set out to find the perfect, more compact European-style motor home. Cheaper to run, easier to park.
The forerunner of today’s European motor home was the 1950s Volkswagen microbus. Its doll’s house-proportioned fittings made it a twee home from home. It liberated a generation of Europeans who wanted to camp in relative comfort.
As the young owners of the microbus grew up and had families, so their vans grew in size. In America especially the yearning for a nomadic lifestyle and hazy memories of heading to the Californian coast to the soundtrack of an air-cooled VW engine gave rise to a cottage industry of mammoth recreational vehicles and a whole demographic — known as “full- time RVers” — who sell their homes, invest up to $500,000 in a state-of-the-art RV and hit the road for years on end.
I soon discovered that, as with many other things these days — cars, fast food portions — we’ve moved towards the American way of doing things. At 25ft long, the first motor home I tested was a bit of a monster; I just hoped it rolled along more easily than the name — the Bailey Approach Autograph 730 — rolled off the tongue. Inside, there’s tons of space, with a permanent double bed in the rear (pros: you don’t have the hassle of assembling and disassembling the bed; cons: it isn’t as much fun as sleeping over the cab) and a big kitchen and washroom. Surprisingly, it can be driven by anyone with a full UK licence. More surprising still, it’s easy to drive. High-up seating and wing mirrors the size of an African elephant’s ears made manoeuvring a breeze.
I took it to a campsite in Dorset, near the Swanage to Corfe Castle steam railway, and ended up doing tours of the inside of the van for admiring campers. The manufacturer says it’s priced “competitively” at £46,965. If that sounds a lot, then consider that it’s less than some Audi A6 estates — and there’s definitely more room.
But I was looking for something more trim — and cheaper. A bit like the Swift Sundance 590, in fact. If you had bought this new in 2005 it would have cost more than £36,000. Still in excellent condition, it was priced a shade under £25,000 — complete with “Adventure before dementia” sticker on the rear.
A solidly built motor home will keep going for years and often outlast the people who buy them. The dealer looked uncomfortable when I asked him what had become of the previous owners. It was, er, now surplus to requirements, he said. Stairlifts apparently get 18 months’ use on average before their owner moves to a rest home. Most buyers of motor homes keep them for 3-5 years.
Inside, you would barely know it had been used. Dinettes with settees were the order of the day, with comfortable cushions and lots of veneered MDF — the feel and look of a posh Indian restaurant. Had the owners had their one last blast of fun before they gave it up? I hoped so.
Perhaps sensing I might be persuaded to buy one, the dealership generously allowed me a two-day test drive. I took it to the favourite spot for Britain’s active sixtysomethings — Bournemouth.
Camped by Poole harbour, squeezed between the big “trailers” that the kitesurfing schools park there in the summer, it felt right at home. The van has a big picture window in the side, a bit like a giant high-definition TV screen, where you can watch kitesurfers zipping along while you drink a cup of tea.
OK, so it might not be the Californian coast but it’s about as close as Britain gets to it. Can I see myself buying a motor home? Yes. But maybe not just yet . . .
Swift Sundance 590 details
- Dimensions: 20ft 3in long, 7ft 3in wide, 9ft 10in high
- Seats: 4 while driving (sleeps 5)
- Price: £36,000 new in 2005; £24,995 now
- Verdict: Like previous owners, perhaps, an oldie but a goodie
Why buy a motor home just for holidays? In this digital age roving writer Tim Rayment thinks he can turn one into a practical home from home and mobile office all in one
“YOU’LL bankrupt yourself,” said my friend Paddy, a former Wall Street analyst, when I told him I was buying an old American motor home so that I could write for a living from a garret parked in industrial estates and meadows. I had a vision: just as I moved from central London to a farm 20 years ago when the internet made remote working possible, modern communications mean you can explore your own country as you research, eat and sleep on the road.
But in what? The budget was tight. And so began an odyssey in which I met the real-life figures for whom a Breaking Bad-style motor home became the answer to life’s needs, before deciding to join them.
I considered a van conversion first. They have the benefit of stealth, as nobody takes any notice of a strange van in their street. I like older European campers too. But they can be small: if you are going to spend serious time in a residence with axles you need to think big.
There are more motor homes around than you might think. Some were owned by film production companies as a refuge for stars on location; one for sale at the moment — for £12,500 — was used by Mel Gibson when filming Braveheart and later by Judi Dench. Some are teenage party venues, parked to the side of family homes like a super-sized Wendy house. Others are lived in by people building their own homes. And of course children love them.
The uses are endless — a hunting lodge by the lake for a fishing enthusiast, a private shower on the promenade next to the beach, or a guest suite that, unlike a house extension, you take with you to your next address. Why not a reporter’s office?
New big rigs, as used by the likes of the Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, cost six or seven figures. (His is bespoke British, not American.) They have every luxury, but after the vehicles’ 10th anniversaries, the fear of repair bills means values drop off a precipice, landing in my territory.
The search took nine months and uncovered all the reasons why people sell them. Ian, in Norfolk, was disposing of his because his wife was afraid to travel in the front passenger seat — which is on the right, facing oncoming traffic — after they were hit by an ambulance at night. As touring is a hobby for the retired, half are on the market because of owners’ ill health. Some had been bought by dreamers only to stand and deteriorate.
Tony Jordan, 78, the former owner of a breakdown recovery business, was selling his collection of vintage commercial vehicles and had been conditioned by the paltry prices they fetched to expect low offers. He had a 1992 Winnebago Brave priced at £5,950. I saw it last August but the engine misfired and the windscreen wipers would not turn off.
“I love the old girl,” said Jordan on the demonstration drive, holding first gear with a cold engine at a valve-wearing 4000rpm. It was a country road with an articulated lorry coming the other way. Sitting in the front passenger seat, uncertain of the old boy’s spatial awareness, I felt like Ian’s wife. I thought I was going to die. So I walked away.
Instead I bought another model, a Tiffin Allegro — cool and beautiful in the fuzzy photographs but sight unseen — on Gumtree for £1,500. The seller, who had lived in it for two years while converting a school in the far north of Scotland to a house, had an honest voice. I collected it in January and drove through blizzards to bring it home. Mechanically, it was robust. Inside, it looked as if an alcoholic had died in it.
What every dreamer needs is an expert. I went to John Beesley of the Northamptonshire-based LAS Motorhomes, an engineer who became so frustrated at not being able to find a specialist workshop for his American motor home he set one up himself. Seeing my first purchase, he was blunt. “Sell it,” he said. “What you need is a Winnebago Brave.”
A Brave? I had seen one of those — Tony Jordan’s — and seven months later it was still for sale. Beesley cured the misfire, got the electric step working and found a new carburettor for the on-board generator. It has a dining table for four, a kitchen, bathroom, sitting room and double bedroom. It’s a one-bedroom flat without the council tax. Now I’m self-sufficient. I can keep writing, on a laptop or even a desktop computer, until I run out of fuel.
Did I mention that the engine is a 7.4-litre V8? It’s a hot-rod hotel. The steering is as precise as an ocean liner’s, but that’s normal. On my first trip, tyre after ageing tyre deflated with shock; each gallon of petrol lasted 12 miles.
I love it. I liked the interior of Nick Rufford’s modern European camper, but you couldn’t tempt me away even if you gave me the price difference in cash — a cool-as-can-be £22,495.
Winnebago Brave 27RC details
- Dimensions: 26ft 11in long, 8ft wide, 10ft 7in high
- Seats: 6 while driving (sleeps 6)
- Price: $43,079 new in 1992; £2,500-£10,000 now
- Verdict: A bargain to buy — just don’t ask about the running costs
Motor home truths
A standard driving licence will allow the holder to drive motor homes weighing up to 3,500kg. To drive a larger C1-class vehicle weighing up to 7,500kg requires an additional test. Those who passed their test before 1997 and are not yet 70 can drive both vehicles without taking the extra test.
The adverts show motor homes in splendid isolation by a lakeside. In reality the law of trespass — and practical need for road access and water facilities — means that you’ll mainly be staying at campsites.
Emptying the lavatory
Most motor homes use “cassettes”; containers on wheels that slide out and can be dragged to an emptying point at a campsite or service area. There’s a button for the air valve. It’s vital to remember to press this to avoid the horrors of glugging and splashing.
Keeping it fresh
Often left in storage for months over winter, a hibernating motor home is a giant Petri dish for mould and mildew. Make sure you open it up regularly to let the air circulate, plus keep an eye out for any leaks.
The National Caravan Council has launched its Freedom to Go website (freedomtogo.co.uk) to help buyers research the right motor home or caravan. There are ideas on where to go and help in finding a campsite. The Camping and Caravanning Club website (campingandcaravanning-club.co.uk), has pages covering all the basics, including fitting a TV aerial.