When you see an historic VW trundling along the road you can be pretty sure that the owner is one of two distinct groups. One group consists of those whose first priority is to preserve the originality and detail of their vehicle, almost in homage to the brilliance of the design and build quality of Volkswagen of yesteryear. At the other end of the spectrum sits the group who look at their old van and say, ‘ This is a charming little bus and I love it – but it is first and foremost just a camper van’.
You don’t need to have read much of SickBayDays to know that I belong firmly in the second group, although I did have my doubts back in the early days. Just as, all those years ago, I was about to rip out the ancient stretchers and wheelchairs to make way for the modern Vanwurks interior, I wondered if I was possibly committing an act of sheer vandalism. Maybe the Sick Bay should really be sitting in a medical museum somewhere or at least preserved so that future generations could see exactly what an ambulance looked like fifty years ago? Then I thought, Nah – it’s a campervan.
So off it went to Nick at Vanwurks to have the ambulance furniture ripped out and replaced with shiny new cupboards, a cooker and a sink. I stuck the old stetchers and stuff on Ebay and sold it all to a guy in Lanzarote who was overjoyed because he was restoring an old ambulance. Later, Carlos sent me photos of the gear in situ and has promised me free beer when I am next in Lanzarote.
The next stage of the journey from museum piece to campervan came when I realised that I needed a leisure battery. My old mate Stef at MAC advised me to put it in the engine bay opposite the starter battery and to make space he had to remove the Eberspacher. This is the original heater system, apparently very efficient but works by burning fuel from the tank which struck me as being very dodgy in a vehicle that already has a fearsome reputation for engine fires. When he had completed the installation of my new leisure system, Stef presented me with a cardboard box full of old bits which I thought were good for the bin. Instead he told me to take a picture and stick it on Ebay for fifty quid. Sure enough, it eventually sold for well over that as the Eberspacher is highly prized by the folk who seek to preserve historical originality over functionality. In fact I had a major spat with the buyer because he also wanted the switch which I had excluded from the sale because I wanted to preserve the integrity of the dashboard. I wasn’t a total vandal. I wanted to preserve the outward appearance of the old ambulance so long as it didn’t compromise its primary role as a campervan.
Since that time I have committed the ultimate heresy of ditching the original air cooled engine in favour of a modern Subaru. No need to go into that here but that did open up a whole new world for the Sick Bay as a camper – but I still kept the appearance intact. Only the true afficionados know that the gentle purr is a fake and that the sound they should be hearing is the loud pop-pop of the genuine Type 1 engine.
Tomorrow I am going to commit another offence against the original appearance of the Sick Bay and I hope that will be the last one. When the Scooby engine was installed over three years ago I discovered one unintended consequence. The position of the radiator, under the cargo floor, blocks the arm of the ambulance side-step which used to be drawn into place by a hook attached to the sliding door. So the step which used to miraculously appear as you opened the door, has now been disabled, and sits unused and unwanted under the sill. Joy likes the convenience of a little step as she gets into the back and so I have attached one of those aftermarket steps that slide into the jacking points. (I no longer use the jacking points to lift the vehicle since the day they collapsed in the garage and pinned me to the wall. They are affectionately known as ‘widow makers’).
Until now I have kept the old step in place in deference to my desire to keep everything as intact as possible. But to be honest it is inconvenient, heavy, definitely unsightly and, (most of all), I have been offered a hundred quid for it. So tomorrow it’s coming off.
I am taking the Sick Bay to Stef for some odd jobs before our trip to the Continent in January. Firstly he is going to weld a boss into the sump so that, finally, I will be able to change the oil myself. I am going skiing again this winter and so want to ensure I have pristine, low temperature oil in my engine when I am driving around in the Alps. While it’s up on the ramp he can take the step mechanism off – after 45 years under the van it’s going to take some persuading. Also, when we were in Avignon a few weeks ago a French mechanic told me my flexible hoses needed replacing. At least that is what I thought he said – he spoke no English and my French was stretched to the limit on that occasion. So I bought a new set of brake hoses from VW Heritage and Stef will install them. He’s also going to fix my window so that it doesn’t drive me mad with its whistle when fully closed – also important when you’re in the Alps in winter. Finally my horn is playing up, again, and so he will have a look at that for me. As all of us know, you need your horn to work properly so you can acknowledge all the peeps and waves you get while you drive around in your genuine and authentic piece of motoring history.