Nigel DonnellySee other Blog articles filed in ‘Our 'vans: Project Wilma’ written by Nigel Donnelly
There comes a time in any project where you have a decision to make. We had spent a lot of money on a cheapish Volkswagen Transporter but our reward so far had not been ... well ... very rewarding.
She broke down the day we bought her and two weeks later, the engine melted, the exhaust fell to pieces, the side door fell off, the roof leaked and the 12V electrics had been horribly bodged.
Finally, Wilma caught fire. Just to prove that she didn’t have any respect for our care and attention.
Looking through new eyes
What was needed was some perspective, and not a small amount of ability, knowledge and patience, all of which were more-or-less absent from us where this particular VW camper van was concerned.
Not so from Leigh at Combe Valley Campers, the workshop we chose to straighten out our calamity camper and get it so we could start to enjoy the ’van as we hoped.
I explained to Leigh there was no point us getting her back just ‘working’. She needed to be more reliable and more usable.
I didn’t expect miracles. After all, Wilma is nearly as old as me and I am a shambles of a human being. But we really needed to start enjoying our days out in her, and not returning from every sojourn on the back of a low-loader.
Following the engine bay fire, our VW camper van had been transported down to Leigh’s workshop in East Sussex.
He sat down with a clipboard and went through the ’van to see what needed doing, and what optional work we could have done to make sure that owning Wilma became fun again.
As someone who knows his old Volkswagens, Leigh didn’t wrinkle up his nose as most do on first acquaintance with our yellow peril – which in my opinion is a good start!
So, that list...
The first area to get some attention was under the bonnet, where a lot of molten plastic and rubber sat where the electrical and fuel systems used to live.
The requirement here was pretty simple – replace what was needed, but improve things where possible.
In terms of ignition components, everything needed replacing and a section of the wiring loom had to be made from scratch.
The fitted carburettor was not the right one, was now fire-damaged and the non-standard manual choke was causing issues pre-fire anyway.
One suggestion was to equip Wilma with twin-carburettors as fitted to older (and newer) models.
These need no manual choke and make it easier to fuel the engine consistently as you have one carburettor for each pair of engine cylinders, rather than one feeding all four.
The downside is that it can lead to poorer fuel consumption and they are trickier to set-up. We decided this was worth exploring.
Away from this, Wilma had never had a functioning fuel gauge, and when you filled the tank, petrol poured onto the forecourt floor. The fuel tank set-up on these VW camper vans is oddly complex and these symptoms can be caused by many things, so an investigation was needed.
Wilma had been comprehensively mucked about with in the past and her wiring showed evidence of this.
We’d added a split-charge relay and leisure battery which worked well, but there was still some weird old cabling. In addition, the headlamps were poor and were left-hand drive ones, so had masks fitted so we didn’t dazzle drivers in the UK.
In addition, the cut-out switch for the vehicle battery plainly didn’t work very well as the ignition lights stayed on, even when the switch was off.
Leigh also noticed that the fridge was not fitted with a relay, meaning the three-way fridge could technically drain the battery once the engine was switched off, so he added that to the list.
The gas set-up in Wilma had a huge gas locker just inside the door feeding the fridge, the hob and a long-broken gas heater under the floor.
Leigh suggested replacing the gas pipework, simplifying the pipe run, removing the horrible old gas heater and moving the gas cylinder to the other side of the ’van in the bottom of the wardrobe, with appropriate ventilation, of course.
This would also make the interior more spacious and allow the passenger seat to swivel more usefully.
Other very annoying issues with Wilma were the split front seat, the heavy steering and the complete lack of cab heating.
The seats were easy enough to sort. We ordered new covers from Newton Commercial, but we didn’t want to keep the nasty brown seats.
Instead we opted for grey ones to match the rear of the camper van and Leigh had some matching door cards. Perfect
The cab heating in air-cooled ’vans is always pretty marginal, mainly as it doesn’t work unless you are moving.
And ours, like many others is missing some of the required pipework to make it all work correctly – and the control cables were seized.
Replacing those and getting the pipes back in place is the minimum requirement, but Leigh has fitted other air-cooled ’vans with an electric fan which boosts screen demisting and cab-heating to make them as comfortable as possible. We ticked this box, too, in the name of improved usability.
VW T25 steering is just pretty heavy, particularly at parking speeds. But a company called Lite-Steer, based in East Sussex, offers a kit for adding electric power-assistance for various vehicles including the T25/T3 Transporter.
The kit provides lots of assistance at parking speeds, but little at higher speeds when you don’t need it. It also allows you to opt for a smaller steering wheel which makes the ’van more comfortable in the evening on site.
In addition, the fact that Wilma is left-hand drive means you need to pay extra attention when driving, so the lessened effort will also just make our VW camper van easier to live with.
All told, Leigh’s prognosis was not at all bad. He was very positive about Wilma’s general condition, particularly the lack of serious rust behind the scruffy paint and dents, and the fact it has a good-quality interior.
Many VWs are fitted out as day vans, so have a bed and not much else. Wilma is a fully-kitted camper, complete with waste- and fresh-water tanks, heating and so on.
It was apparent that we were not the first people to spend a lot of money on her.
“Leave her with me. She’s a lovely ’van and we’ll get her sorted,” said Leigh as we shook hands and I gave him the keys.
As I left her there, I was as positive as I’d felt about her for a long time, despite the inevitable punishment that the overdraft was about to take.
It felt like we should finally get a ’van we could enjoy. Fingers crossed.