With our VW campervan sadly on a low-loader, it's time to find out why, open the purse strings and get Wilma back on the road, writes Nigel Donnelly

When we bought our T25 VW campervan, she was described as having had a rebuilt engine, which, as we sat in the cab of a breakdown truck, driving back from Taunton, was troubling me. 

I had hoped that Wilma was not in desperate need of mechanical work, and that we could treat the improvement work in an ongoing way, as we used her. But, as we reported last time, plainly something had gone awry mechanically and we were looking down the barrel of some expensive repair work.

The first breakdown truck to visit us that weekend had checked the basics to see why Wilma wouldn’t start. He pulled the air filter off the top of the carburettor and peering in as I turned the key, we established that fuel was getting to the engine. The only other ingredient needed for the engine to run is a spark. He pulled off an ignition lead, popped a spare spark plug in the end and held it close to the engine block as I turned the key again. 

"She’s got a spark," he shouted. That sounds like good news. It was not good news. It meant the most expensive thing to solve was the likely cause of the lack of starting. A lack of compression. That is basically caused by the various bits of the engine not being close enough to each other to compress the fuel and air, which makes the engine start. Replacing bits of engine is not something you do on someone’s driveway. A garage needs to do it. We were definitely not going home in Wilma. 

"I’ll book you some recovery," said the breakdown chap. "I’m afraid she’s not going nowhere unless she’s on the back of a truck."

We arranged recovery for the next day as we were actually attending an upholstery course and Wilma was our accommodation, as well as our transport. The course was very interesting and resulted in a freshened up interior for our ’van, just in time for her to be winched onto the back of a recovery truck. We then began the long journey back to London, making small talk with the driver, who said he was well used to taking stricken campervans from the West Country to wherever they normally live. 

The guys at the local garage who are used to both commercial vehicles and old rubbish that I take to them to get fixed called a few days later – the prognosis was not brilliant. The lack of compression was confirmed, but it wasn’t just a stuck valve, which I was hoping for. A valve had started to break up, damaging the cylinder head, piston and the barrel that the piston sits in. On top of that, the exhaust had been subject to lots of poor quality welded repairs and patches, and several of the studs holding the exhaust on were now lying on the floor of the garage as they had turned to rust, and snapped when confronted with a socket. 

The parts shopping list was extensive. The flat-four engines in Volkswagens of this era need to be well balanced to operate smoothly, so replacing one piston and cylinder liner is a bit of a no-no. Basically, the engine will shake itself to bits if you mix new and old pistons. So that meant four new pistons and barrels. The cylinder heads were savagable, but they had to go to an engineering firm to be rebuilt, with all new studs, new valves, valve seats, oil seals and gaskets. The cost of oil, filters, and spark plugs were also rolled into this. 

The exhaust was a particular pain to get hold of. The exhaust for the 1600 ‘CT’ engine in our camper is basically the only one that you can’t get easily off the shelf. Instead, I spent a few days ordering parts over the phone, dashing off emails to Germany and comparing parts numbers. In the end, the whole lot arrived from three different suppliers, including Just Kampers in the UK, and at a total cost of £800. Ouch.  

When stripping down the engine, spannerman Gary pointed out a few clues that the engine had been ‘got at’ at some stage. I asked if there was any evidence of it being a rebuilt engine, as we had been told. 

"Well, it’s been painted," he said. It turns out that the rebuilt engine was from a ‘specialist’ with a reputation that is best described as ‘patchy’. That said, not everything could be laid at the door of a poor quality engine rebuild. 

Evidence of poor care was there to see. The two different sides of the engine had different spark plugs. Not a massive issue, but they weren’t even the same size or type. In fact, the dents in the top of two pistons were perfectly matched to the bottom of the two oversize spark plugs which protruded too far into the cylinder. Removing the barrels and pistons also uncovered the aforementioned cardinal sin of working on these engines. The piston and barrel which had failed did not match the rest. It had received a single new piston in the past, presumably to improve low compression. That combined with the cylinder head damage ultimately manifested themselves in our breakdown. 

Aside from this, the engine bay seal, which is vital for keeping the engines cool and providing heating to the cabin, was absent. That wouldn’t cause the problems we had, but it wouldn’t help, and along with welded up exhausts, dirty oil and odd spark plugs, speaks of poor maintenance in the years prior to our ownership. The last documented service was in 2007, although there was various MOT work done in between, which may have included some servicing. Who knows?! 

To keep costs down, the repair work was squeezed in between other jobs, but the total cost of everything by the time Wilma came back to us was around £1800. 

While that hurts, it is worth noting that since the repairs, Wilma now starts every time, on the first flick of the key, rather than turning over for 20 seconds before firing. And while a two-tonne ’van with 50bhp could never be called fast, she is noticeably nippier around town and now climbs hills without a run-up. 

With Wilma back in our possession, attention could turn to getting her fit for her first camping trip of the year – one which hopefully will not end up with us all getting a lift home on a low-loader.  

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