Many of you will recall the trip we did 5 years ago across the USA and Central America on our Triumph Tiger 955, Silver. It was without doubt the best experience of my life so far. Since then we have been living and working in the pressure cooker of Hong Kong. We have managed a few shorter motorcycle trips including two weeks on the North Island of New Zealand in 2016 on a rented bike.
A month in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada in 2017 also on a rented bike…
…and quick trips to Ireland and Northern Spain/Portugal on our Triumph Tiger 800 bought in 2017 to fill the gap left by the sale of our glorious Silver.
The work-focused life in Hong Kong combined with some health problems has caused us to reflect on how we want to spend our future and a year ago we took the decision to retire from work this summer, buy a campervan and spend a few years travelling around Europe looking for the right place to eventually settle and buy a forever home. While motorcycling will always be part of our life together and we still have our Triumph Tiger 800 here in the UK, we have found that long days spent on the bike and nights spent in a tent are taking an increasing toll on our middle-aged bodies and impacting negatively on our enjoyment of travelling. We always knew we would move over to a campervan one day but imagined that would not be until we were into our 70s. However, we find we want to travel and sleep in more comfort and be able to camp all year round, in all weathers, so we took the decision to move to a campervan and keep the bike for shorter jaunts.
The original plan, conceived a year ago, was to buy a professionally converted van. We had our eyes on a Swift Select 122. We love how light it is inside and the rear lounge layout, which allows you to lie on the sofa with the barn doors open, admiring the view. We spent the winter months in Hong Kong (yes they do have a winter there) obsessively checking Autotrader, fixating on vans generally and watching van life videos on Youtube. We planned to purchase a Select 122 as soon as we arrived back in the UK in June and spend the first few weeks visiting family and friends before heading off for the continent. Then COVID 19 hit and the realisation gradually dawned upon us that this might not be the best plan. Back in March we were not sure how quickly borders would open up and we are still unsure about whether there might be a second or third wave that could cause borders to close again. I have a health condition that makes me more vulnerable to complications from the virus so we want to be as safe as possible. At first, it was a huge blow to acknowledge that our plans would have to change but like everyone else during this time, we have adapted and come up with a new idea.
Dave and I agreed that the safest option would be to return home to the UK for a period of at least 6 months to wait things out. We have not lived in the UK for 15 years so that was a big decision. At some point, and I cannot remember exactly when or how this happened if I am honest, we decided that, rather than buy a professionally converted van, we would build our own. Our reasons were threefold- firstly, it would give us something to do while we were waiting out the virus; secondly we could spec the van with higher quality components than you usually get in a shop bought vehicle, such as lithium batteries, bigger solar panels, an oven and a better fridge and finally, we could build a van with a fixed bed in the back which allows for a lot more storage space underneath than that offered by a Select 122. This will allow us to take all kinds of shit with us to enhance our life on the road, including an electric guitar and small amp (yes really).
So the decision was made and the next stage was to spend the remaining weeks of self-isolation in Hong Kong researching the kind of van we needed to meet our needs. A simple task you would think but nothing is ever easy in the world of the campervan when one of you is 192cm tall. We eventually realised that, in order for Dave to be able to lie flat in bed, we would have to position our bed along the length of the van rather than across the width, which means that, if we are to fit in a shower and kitchen, we will need a long van- what is called an L4. Also, in order for Dave to stand up in the van (or almost stand up) we would need a tall van- what is called an H3. While Mercedes Sprinters are the vans of choice for most larger van conversions these days, we were initially considering investing in a brand new Fiat Ducato or Citroen Relay as there were many bargains to be had during the lockdown in the UK, placing them around ten thousand pounds cheaper than a new Sprinter.
It was only by chance that one day less than a month ago I happened upon a vanlife forum post that referred to the impossibility of registering a right hand drive commercial vehicle on the continent of Europe, due to the sliding door being on the wrong side for safe use. We realised that, sadly but unavoidably, this van we plan to convert cannot be our forever van if we eventually move to Europe. When we move, we will need to sell the van either as a campervan conversion or deconstruct it and sell it as a van with windows and then possibly build another left hand drive vehicle for future use. It is just too risky to invest so much cash in the base vehicle if we are not going to be able to keep it forever and if there is uncertainty about how much we will get back on it in 3-4 years time. We did briefly consider sourcing a left hand drive van but it proved to be too complicated and expensive, so we pivoted again and decided to buy something secondhand to reduce the potential loss on resale.
The advantage of deciding to buy something used is that a Mercedes Sprinter was now on the table. They are generally considered to be much better vans than pretty much anything else on the market so this quickly became our first choice. On returning to the UK three and a half weeks ago, we had to wait out our quarantine before we could start looking. Our first trip out was to view a selection of ex-police vehicles at a dealer in the Midlands. Although they only had one Sprinter, we had high expectations and set off with Jason for a five hour round trip on a gloomy British summer’s day. We stopped for socially distanced tea and toast along the way as cafes in England are now open both outdoors and indoors. Our hopes of buying the first van we saw were dashed by the general poor quality of the vehicle which had clearly lived a hard life. It did come with a cell in the back though.
Over a very late fried breakfast at a classic greasy spoon, we identified a place nearby that specialised in selling on Sprinters that had been used by a courier company. The rain poured down as we were shown around a huge yard full of vehicles in the process of having liveries removed and being tarted up to sell. They were all in need of a lot more than a bit of TLC. We were shown one van covered in dents, with a partially ripped off front bumper and damaged rear doors. It came with no service history but the promise that damaged doors and bumpers would be replaced if we were interested. On the drive home, we decided we were not, the price was good but the van was not.
Fortunately, within a couple of days we located a dealer in Manchester that sold on ex lease vehicles for Mercedes Benz, most of which had been used by the health service. We viewed four Sprinters, none more than 5 years old, all in decent condition and chose a 2015 Silver Sprinter 313 cdi LWB. We drove it home that day.
So there we are, we have a van. It is sitting on the drive of our rented house in North Wales waiting for us to start work on it. We have taken it out for a drive today to do some chores and it seems great.
It is big but Dave says it is easy to drive. I plan to have a go myself in the next few days. It is full of potential and the holder of our hopes and dreams. I can’t wait to get started but more about the next time.