In the spirit of fearlessly reporting anything on four wheels, or even more, DTW questions why anyone would want a motorhome?
Whatever the weather might suggest, In Europe we are now in the holiday season. Some of you might be ‘travel as quickly as you can to a destination, then stay put for the duration’ sort of people. And, if you use a holiday as a reason to relax and recuperate, I can’t deny that this is wisest. For myself, I seem to lack the ability to stop still and, if I visit mainland Europe for a week or more, I usually end up putting 4,000 km, at the very least, under my wheels. And whereas I might have a couple of notional waypoints in mind at the start, these are often ignored and I really don’t expect to schedule an itinerary. So booking in advance is a non-starter and the nicest affordable hostelries are usually crammed full by the time I arrive.
But, on four wheels, within the footprint of a Rolls Royce Phantom, but for less money, you can fit a complete home – Dining Room, Kitchen, Toilet, Shower and at least a Double Bed, maybe more. You can also carry a sizeable larder and substantial luggage, plus things like inflatable boats and skis, should you wish. True, it’s not the standard of home the average Phantom owner would tolerate and, although you get full headroom, there’s not quite enough for a chandelier. But, if you grew up wondering what it would be like to be inside Doctor Who’s Tardis, it’s as close as you’re likely to get.
I have a history of camping in tents. There is the obvious draw of its cost, but there is also the attraction of being able to wake up in the middle of scenery that isn’t often available from looking through a hotel window. Additionally, there that atavistic thrill of being sheltered from the elements, yet only just. But camping has its drawbacks – strangely comforting though the sound of rain on canvas is, fitting a soaking wet tent into the back of a Citroen SM is less so. But where do you go from there? The answer, of course, is the caravan or the motorhome. This is something I resisted for a long time. I can’t pretend that these, generally, white boxes improve the landscape and I freely admit a certain bohemian snobbery about joining that particular club. But, out of interest, in 2003 I hired a motorhome or, to use my effortless command of the local language, un camping-car, from Paris for a week, drove down through the Pyrenees, and was thoroughly hooked on something that offered no need to restrict your belongings to a single suitcase, an infinite variety of great views through the windows and a cold beer from the fridge at the end of the day. The next year I travelled to Baden-Baden one cold February and bought an ex-hire vehicle, which I still own.
Before we go further, I must mention caravans. Just as you are either for Manchester United or Manchester City or you are a North Londoner or a South Londoner, so there is a forced antipathy between caravan and motorhome owners. I like to think I’m as open-minded as the next bigot, so I’ll point out that a trailed caravan allows you to be a moving roadblock as you go on your way but, once arrived and unhitched, you have a nimble civilised car to travel around in though, if you’ve ever seen a badly paired car and/or ill-loaded caravan lose it on a motorway, you might think twice. A motorhome is a more convenient way to get from here to there, or to tour, but you need to secure all your belongings even if you just want to drive down the road to buy some bread and, like any multi-function device, when it breaks down, you’re stuffed. Moreover, it remains a species of panel van and, although such things are far more civilised than they were, they are still compromised.
Nevertheless, my choice is a motorhome. As I say, I’m bad at staying fixed in one place so, for touring several thousand kilometres, it’s far more convenient. My own essential requirement for any motorhome is that I should be able to park it in a town or city. I live in a city anyway, and I want to visit museums, churches and the like when I travel, since I’m pretty useless at lounging on beaches. So anything much over 6 metres long is a problem – mine is just 5.6 metres which is perfect. The only other solution to that rests at the other end of the market where you park your huge 8 metre plus vehicle in a convenient berth outside town, then use the bicycles, the motorcycle or, even, small car that you tow behind it, rather like the tender of a yacht. But I tend to feel that this solution has just put the caravan/car combination uncomfortably back-to-front.
Living with A Motorhome
There are downsides to motorhoming – emptying a chemical toilet is never a pleasant experience, but maybe the worst is in your perception by others.. Fairly or not, I think that the stereotypical caravanner, motor or trailed, is viewed as someone who stocks up with food in the local supermarket before they leave and travels, blighting the landscape whilst spending as little money as they can in the localities they visit. For this reason, not all areas welcome them and, if you’ve ever driven around a seaside beauty spot and come across a line of white boxes, their occupants staring out through the windows, tea and biscuits in hand, you can see why. But I don’t really fit into that generalisation, and I’m sure neither do many other caravanners. Although the cost of a holiday in a motorhome can quite easily be presented as writing off the cost of the vehicle, if you consider the hotel bills you have saved over 10 years, this is offset for me by the huge amount of stuff that you can buy along the way from shops, markets and roadside vendors, a purchasing frenzy encouraged by having a huge ‘garage’ (rear storage space) built into the rear of the vehicle
Motorhome road behaviour varies. Generally, alcove types and larger coachbuilts are wind baffles with high centres of gravity and some manufacturers are better at addressing weight distribution and airflow than others. Unlike panel vans, in Europe motorhomes under 3500 kg gross weight come under the same speed limits as cars, which does allow a well-designed motorhome with the right engine to make good progress. But read the small print in specifications and you will realise how much manufacturers push this limit – load up some larger vehicles with a relatively light complement of people, food, water and equipment and you will easily risk breaking the 3.5 tonne barrier. So most motorhomes aren’t going to be hustled about by their drivers, though some can be surprisingly able, should you wish.
Apart from politely grunted good mornings, when camped my contact with my fellows is usually minimal. Once under way, though, it seems that everyone is my best mate. From my two-cylinder Citroen days, I remember the odd camaraderie that having a similar piece of mass produced metal engenders. Back then, I was less concerned about being socially awkward but, now, I feel it impolite not to return the waves from the cab of almost every motorhome coming in the other direction. And there are so bloody many of them that, on a long drive, my arm starts aching and I become indiscriminate, waving furiously at any white delivery van I see. For, as anyone who drives round Europe in the Summer will have noticed, the motorhome industry is huge. After a boom period, recent years saw a decline in new sales, which can be explained both by economic problems and, possibly, by the fact that motorhomes tend to have a long lives. But they are still being churned out by factories in France, UK, Italy and, above all, Germany.
Although there are many examples of motorhomes long before, the German company Hymer present themselves as the instigators of the modern motorhome and, in terms of the European industry, that is a reasonable claim. Their first vehicle avoided the obvious Volkswagen route and used a larger 1961 Borgward van as a base for their Caravano. Ten years later they introduced what they claim is the first fully coachbuilt production vehicle. Since then, many manufacturers have joined in and, just like cars, motorhomes have more comfortable and more large, with the compromises diminishing and the interiors more lavish.
Fiat have, for some time, been the leaders in providing bases for mid-sized motorhomes with the Sevel produced Ducato. This can be a conversion of a panel van, a semi-integral, with a custom built back attached to the recognisable cab of a Ducato panel van, or a full coachbuilt, with an entire custom body on a Ducato chassis. In addition Alko make rear chassis conversions that provide a lower floor and more comfortable rear suspension. Mercedes are seen as an upmarket alternative with the ageing Sprinter base and Ford have started marketing a motorhome base more rigorously with their new big Transit.
Bearing in mind the size of the market, it’s disappointing that no-one has developed a more specialist and refined motorhome base. Although modern vans are civilised compared with their predecessors, they are built to tight budgets with the expectation of a relatively short life. My own experience of the Ducato is that it handles well, especially if based on an Alko chassis, but progress at speed is noisy and bumpy unless you stretch to upmarket air suspension options. I’ve done quite a lot of work improving my vehicle, and one of the first things I did was padding the cupboard opening and securing everything. It was built to good standards, but I was amazed how much things swung and slid about, with no fiddle rails or retaining nets to be seen. I can only assume that the industry assumes that all motorhomes are driven at very modest speeds. Except mine, of course.
If the world of car design is often depressingly homogenous and conservative, caravan and motorhome design can seem even more so. Compare a vehicle of 2016, with one of 30 years ago, and differences will be marked. But generally design is cautious and evolutionary. To some extent that this is based on a perception about the older demographic, many of whom buy such things, but I’ve never been convinced that’s true and, anyway, it’s a self-perpetuating attitude that alienates anyone younger who might consider one, as well as misreading the preferences of many of today’s older generations.
There have been attempts at more elegant forms using moulded GRP, but most constructions are built onto a framework using flat aluminium sandwich, resulting in a box, punctured with hatches, doors and windows. Attempts are made to enliven this with swoopy graphics, in the old use of the word. So no clumsy Mercedes like swages carved into the side, just clumsy curves and lines comprised of coloured vinyl. But although some are better than others, I cannot think of a motorhome that I’d call good looking. Except mine, of course.
Full coachbuilts tend to follow the luxury coach look but, if you are looking for the Chris Bangle of motorhome design, or the Renault Espace type game-changer, they don’t seem to exist. Of course people produce concepts and Luigi Colani’s eleMMent Palozzo got a lot of publicity a few years back. Although this sits more in the realm of the huge bus-based motorhomes, and is frankly rather silly, it does highlight exactly how hidebound the industry is in comparison.
Moving inside, whereas on these pages we discuss car interiors in terms of industrial design, many motorhome interiors might be better discussed it terms of interior design. And as interior design, the interiors of motorhomes have traditionally been … traditional, with the UK industry being even more so. Plenty of wood and fussily patterned fabrics. A sign of different lifestyles was the British industry’s disinclination until relatively recently to offer permanent beds in many of their vehicles; the British customer preferring more of a Sitting Room environment with a plush sofa that would be converted to a bed at the day’s end. A full oven was also required. I lack that discipline, so my German vehicle has a fixed bed, and lounging takes place in the dining area or on the swivelling front seats and I’m happy to forgo my full roast dinners and cook on hotplates.
Larger motorhomes demand few such compromises. a recent space-wasting feature filtering down to relatively more modest vehicles is the island bed that you can enter from three sides, just like at home. But, just as a Rolls Phantom and a Honda Gold Wing Valkyrie have a certain louche appeal – insofar as I’d like to sample both for a couple of days, neither do they, nor a bloated motorhome, have any longer-term place in my world. But there has also been a return to the sub 6 metre van style motorhome, which I like, combined sometimes with an outdoor sports orientation, which is slightly less useful for me. Associated with this is the appearance of well-designed but slightly more minimalist interiors, without recourse to too much timber veneer and happy patterns.
It’s a surprisingly huge industry though, unlike modern cars, most motorhomes are still generally labour intensive in their construction, so purchase is often a decently-sized investment. However many people only put on two or three thousand kilometres each year (though mine’s averaged 10,000) so, unlike a 10 year old van, a 10 year old motorhome can still command a respectable price when you sell it.
Vehicles that are direct van conversions tend to be more affordable and, a possible advantage, more discreet. Also, since they usually save 10cm or so on width, they are a bit easier to navigate through more interesting areas. And, if you are very disciplined, there are some endearing smaller vehicles. Romahome on the Isle of Wight have been making small Citroen-based motorhomes for years and the owners of these probably make the same ‘why would I want something that big?’ comment about mine that I do about huge coachbuilts. What they do, though, which is relatively rare in the industry, is to make their living cells as GRP mouldings. And, of course, the Japanese have some suitable Kawaii ideas.
So what can I propose as a good, contemporary, purpose-built motorhomes? Were I to have an open budget and to choose a current vehicle to replace the one I have, it might be a Hymer ML-T 540. At just over 6.3m, it’s a bit longer than I’d really want but is supremely habitable and well put together. Its graphics are reasonably restrained. A short, but well-laden motorhome ends up with a high rearward weight bias, making a front driven configuration a pain in snow or mud, even if Winter tyres are fitted, so the Hymer’s rear-driven Mercedes Sprinter base make sense. If you want something even better on difficult terrain, or you’re driving to Australia, there is also an ML-T 4×4 but, at 7.8 m, it’s far too long for me. Bürstner make the T600, at just under 6m, which has a large rear hatch so that you can also use part of it like a real van and Knaus has the Van TI 550, a similar size. Hymer also make the Van 314 which, at 5.45m just crams all the essentials into something you could conceivably use as an only vehicle. Dethleffs make a full coachbuilt at just 6.0m long and their associated company, Globebus, make some excellent panel van conversions. But all these are pragmatic choices for me. I can’t pretend the Hymer looks anything other than workmanlike, and its interior does tend to scream ‘take your shoes off please’. The reality is that no-one seems to have designed the perfect motorhome for me but then, if you’ve read me banging on about cars, you realise that I’m probably too picky.