My second campervan was a VW T5. I might buy another one, I might go for something different, but I would want to ask some much harder questions this time. After all, I’m not buying something to drive to work, this is going to go on adventures.
1. You really do need the service history.
The Volkswagen Transporter is a fine piece of German engineering. In 2020, the T5 model is like a figure skater in her late twenties: Old enough that things aren’t working like new any more but not old enough that she needs a hip replacement yet. Still beautiful to look at but it’s hit-or-miss as to whether she’ll ever qualify for the Olympics again. Before anyone thinks I’m attacking figure skaters, I’ll remind you I used to be one.
I used to be of the opinion that service history was a waste of time and that only pedants read through it before buying a car, and that I could learn a lot more from getting underneath a vehicle and looking at the state of things, starting the engine and listening to it, and feeling how the vehicle drives, than from reading some stuffy pieces of paper. Let me drive it already! However, that might be true when it comes to an idiot-proof car like a Vauxhall Corsa model B, but for bigger engines and longer journeys, you need to check the service history.
You need documented proof that the VW T5 got its check ups on time, because there’s a lot that can go wrong and some vanlifers care more about aesthetics than whether they should fix the squeaks and rattles. After ten or fifteen years, that kind of inadvertent neglect can take its toll in all sorts of weird and common places.
When was the timing belt last changed? Has the engine ever needed major work?
2. You need to know the annual mileage.
If the service history is complete, this should be easy. If not, you will need some other way of finding this out. Low mileage is not always better. It’s not good for an engine to drive it less than five hundred miles a year. And it’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of campervans I have walked away from buying over the past 15 months.
3. You need to know where it’s been kept
This might seem silly, but think about it. A car that’s been kept in a garage out of the rain, snow and local youth is far less likely to have rust under the body, issues with the fuel line or handbrake cable, dents and scratches on the panels (which can cause rust), or sun damage to the dashboard. The same goes for a van. If it lives in a garage, you have a lot longer before you would need to do any welding. Extensive rust is an MOT fail.
You need to know who did the conversion
Bob Smith of Bob Smith’s Quality VW Conversions is going to do a better job than Rip-Off Steve from down the pub. Especially if you’re looking forward to vanlife with children, you absolutely need to know that the person who converted the vehicle is reputable and did a stellar job.
4. You need to know what sort of rock-n-roll bed and seats you’ve got.
They’re not all created equal. Some rock-n-roll units are not safe for passenger transport. In a crash, they can come unbolted from the floor or even shear the floor with them because they’ve been attached to a part of the vehicle that wasn’t strong enough to support the angular forces at play in a crash.
People still attach seatbelts to cheap, substandard seats, especially if they’ve done a half-arsed conversion whose only aim was to sell a clapped out old builder van with 200,000 miles on the clock for several thousand pounds more than it’s actually worth. The rock-n-roll unit should be safety-tested and should have been fitted with seatbelts when the unit was installed, by the fitting company.
If this has not happened, and you have kids, walk away from that van for the love of God because a rear-facing car seat won’t save your baby if the thing the car seat’s attached to falls apart.
5. Whether it’s registered as a van or motorhome on the v5
This is important for reasons to do with insurance, primarily, but also many music festivals don’t let you use the campervan parking unless your vehicle is registered as a camper on the V5 log book. Which would mean pitching a tent. Yesterday, I discussed the requirements for changing your campervan from a van to a motorhome on the logbook.
So there you have it, my top 5 things that I wish I’d known before buying my first T5. None of it is the sort of thing anyone likes thinking about (unless you’re James May, and maybe not even then) when buying a vehicle, but it will save you a lot of stress and even heartache in the long run.