Nigel DonnellySee other Blog articles filed in ‘Our 'vans: Project Wilma’ written by Nigel Donnelly
“Load her up?” said our latest friendly recovery driver as he approached our stricken ’van.
It was a sunny August weekend, and as reported last time, we were sat at Winchester services on the M3, waiting for the tell-tale lights of a recovery truck with a Cornetto in hand.
Any recovery driver worth their salt knows their way around an air-cooled VW camper van, and our latest attendant didn’t even have any tools with him. As far as he was concerned, she was broken and was going straight on the truck.
I wasn’t happy about this. She had been driving alright until we stopped and I wanted to at least take a look before we admitted defeat.
He wasn’t excited at the prospect of clambering into Wilma’s red-hot engine bay on a sunny day, but Jen and I weren’t exactly buzzing at the prospect of sitting in (yet another) smelly tow truck swapping small talk with a driver who would tell us that our ’van was rubbish. We already knew that.
“Let’s have a look then,” he said.
Under the bonnet
With the engine bay opened, he asked me to turn the key – and he immediately shouted for me to stop.
“The choke is jammed on,” he shouted and he prodded the choke flap with his finger. “Try it again.”
The asthmatic chatter of Wilma’s recently rebuilt engine filled our corner of the car park, but recovery Ted still wanted her piggybacked home as he was worried she could blow-up again.
We were having none of this negative talk. Jen and I threw everything back on board and rejoined the M3 with the truck following us to the next exit. He flashed his lights as he left at the exit, and we completed the last 50 or so miles without incident.
We were a little delighted at this, but resolved to take a look at the sticking choke as a matter of urgency. Technically though, we were delighted to complete a journey in the camper van which was longer than an hour! Although we did need a visit from the AA, we got home, and that felt like progress.
As discussed in previous episodes of the Wilma saga, at some time, she has been fitted with an aftermarket carburettor. For the non-technical among you, that is the device on older vehicles which turns petrol liquid into vapour, which is then squirted into the engine to be burned.
In the case of Wilma, there was a single Weber ICT 34 carb fitted. The original one would have been a Solex PICT4, but these are rare and expensive, so when the original wore out, the Weber would have been fitted as it is easy to do, and comparatively cheap.
These Webers are a popular fit on old British cars such as Land Rovers but they have a manual choke, so at some point, Wilma had a manual choke fitted too. As the engine is at the back of the VW, the cable to operate the choke had to be very long and was prone to sticking. This was likely the issue.
It was surmised that even though we had not used choke for hours on our last journey, it had stayed on for the whole journey. It was only when we tried to start her up when warm later on, that she flooded the engine with excess petrol and wouldn’t go. Mystery solved? Maybe.
Hot and bothered
It was a couple of weeks before Wilma was used again but no fixes had been attempted. She had just sat in the road, minding her own business. I’m not sure whether this annoyed her, but she was about to have a tantrum to end all tantrums.
I jumped aboard to head to the supermarket and just to do a couple of miles in her to stop the cobwebs forming. As always, I pulled the choke and winced, expecting her not to start. She started quickly and I was delighted. But as I pushed the clutch down, she stalled.
After a little gentle swearing, I turned the key again. This time she turned over – coughing, but not starting. My swearing got a little more advanced at this stage, but then I glanced in the rear-view mirror.
There was grey smoke drifting gently from Wilma’s rear-vents. By the time I got the cab door open, the smoke was billowing from the vents and was thick and black.
Wilma was on fire.
Armed and ready!
This is fairly common with rear-engined Volkswagen campers. Strangely, I wasn’t very panicked about it. That was for two reasons: I knew we had a new fire extinguisher inside, and I’d read enough to know exactly how to tackle it.
I grabbed the small extinguisher and went to the back of the ’van. But rather than opening the boot and the large engine access panel, I headed to the rear number plate.
The plate folds down to reveal the oil filler cap and dipstick, but crucially provides access to the top of the engine without flooding the fire with life-giving oxygen which would make it far worse.
I pointed the extinguisher across the top of the engine and with very little drama at all, the smoke instantly abated and the camp-fire crackle which was filling the air had gone. It was about three or four minutes later that realised how lucky we were to still have a van at all. I felt quite sick.
Surveying the damage made me feel even more unwell. Evidently the HT leads which connect the spark plugs to the coil had melted, as had the distributor cap, all the low-tension wiring in the engine bay, some plastic components in the cooling system and parts of the air-filter housing.
The fuel lines had also melted, showering the top of the engine with petrol as soon as the fire started. The engine-bay wiring loom had melted. And this was what could be seen. Plainly there could be more serious damage that wasn’t immediately visible.
Is this the end of the road?
The friendly local garage who had completed the engine rebuild the previous year came and had a look at the damage, but suggested calling my insurance company to get their view.
Adrian Flux specialises in older vehicles, but the company's assessor suggested that the level of damage meant Wilma was a write-off, beyond economical repair and consigned to the scrapheap. It was really hard to hear. An offer of £4250 was made, but I wanted a second-opinion.
It was at that point that I scouted around the various Facebook groups for these old VWs in search of a specialist somewhere nearby who would give me a knowledgeable but honest appraisal of the singed mess sat outside my house.
While there was a lot of damage, someone who worked on these Volkswagens regularly would know what was difficult and what was not. That was how I found a small, new company called Combe Valley Campers. Company owner Leigh Hicks was a regular on the various Facebook groups, offering common-sense advice to folks seeking assistance when their ’van was misbehaving.
I gave him a call and I emailed him all the pictures, plus details of the insurance assessment, and asked if he could estimate the cost of getting Wilma running again. Adrian Flux Insurance was happy to discuss the case and would make a single payment for me to spend on a repair if the quote was agreeable and considerably lower than the offer it had made previously.
Leigh called me a day or so after I sent the photos and we discussed at some length how Wilma had been unreliable, expensive and basically, a complete cow since we took ownership. The fire was the icing on this particularly rubbish cake.
He listened, more like a therapist than workshop owner, before telling me that he felt Wilma could be got back on the road for around £1600.
The next day, I was on the phone to Adrian Flux and the claims handler listened. And once he had been sent the estimate from Combe Valley Campers, a deal was struck. I was sent a cheque for the repair on the understanding that any costs in excess of the estimate were my responsibility.
The future's bright, the future's yellow
By this stage, around six weeks had elapsed since the fire but finally, we had a way forward. Despite her best attempts, Wilma had dodged the indignity of being broken up for parts and was in fact off to be spoiled like never before.
By the time the busy Combe Valley workshop had room for Wilma, it was early December and I was sat outside my house with a coffee when the orange lights of the recovery truck flicked on, ready to transport her to their workshop.
“Load her up?” said the recovery man as he wandered over.
“Yep. Take her away,” I replied.