I first saw the Sick Bay on the 3rd October 2010, a few days after I had actually bought the van on an Ebay auction. The previous owner lived in Cornwall and so with a pocketful of cash I flew down to Newquay, paid for it and drove it three hundred miles back home to Manchester.
Having made the fateful mistake of buying a forty five year old vehicle totally unseen, I was naturally more sensitive to what was wrong with it than to what was good with it. The first thing I noticed was that there were serious rust bubbles around the wheel arches and also that the Maltese Cross insignia on the near side was badly damaged. None of this had been apparent in the superbly staged photos, overlooking Newquay Bay which had so entranced me, Joy and Adele in the Ebay advert. There was a powerful petrol smell and the ancient bench seat was so worn that the driver had to sit on bare springs and horse hair. We were blissfully unaware of all this as we toasted our Ebay ‘win’ with champagne.
Down in Cornwall, Tom the P.O. counted the cash, gave me a ‘Sold as Seen’ receipt and explained how to change gear. The first challenge was doing it with my right hand as I had never driven a left hand drive before. The next one was getting over the first speed bump without scraping the underside as the van had been lowered to within a few inches of the ground. For some reason old VW vans look really cool when they are lowered, and this was surely one of the subconscious reasons why we had all fallen in love with the Ebay pictures. Looks cool but completely impractical when it comes to driving on anything other than perfectly flat surfaces. (One of my early embarrassing moments came when a group of campers had to lift my front bumper which had become stuck fast in a deep hollow at a campsite in Hebden Bridge).
Being an ex-ambulance all the rear windows were frosted glass so that the rear view mirror was no more than an ornament and the side windows were also useless for visibility. Being left hand drive, looking over your shoulder was a waste of time and the only way to see behind was with the side mirrors, one of which was very corroded. Joining a motorway was a dangerous act of faith and you just hoped other drivers could see you coming as you certainly couldn’t see them.
It took me all day to drive it home – these vans are naturally very slow but due to a fuel leak I also had to make extra stops to fill up with petrol, and to clear my head of the fumes. It was nearly midnight before I was able to present our new acquisition to Joy and Adele. And, given that it was a ‘fait accompli’, they were just as sensitive to the faults as I had been when first coming face to face with the old van.
Even in the dark they could see that it was ‘tattier than expected’. It stank of petrol and, of course, it did not have a pop top. Earlier in the day I had told Tom that I was going to convert it from a tin top to a pop top. He promptly threatened to pull out of the sale if I was going to mutilate the roof and I converted quite readily to his way of thinking. In my ignorance I had thought it would be possible to incorporate a raised roof without damaging the precious heritage of the ex-ambulance which includes the name of the first driver, (Johannes Wetter), together with blue lights, sirens, identity numbers etc which I will protect as long as I am the owner. Joy had always wanted a pop top and now she wasn’t going to get one, a big disappointment. The threadbare bench seat didn’t go down well either, it looked old fashioned and uncomfortable.
Inside, the old grey stretchers, wheelchair and blood tray made Adele shudder as they reminded her that ‘people have died in here’. Neither wanted to stay inside for long as the petrol made them feel sick.
A little bit crestfallen I locked the van as best I could, (the rear door lock was missing), and left it on the drive. That night we had torrential rain, (welcome to Manchester), the windows all leaked and in the morning it was full of puddles. Modern cars don’t leak – these old vans do. To dry it out we took it for a spin round the M60. Within half an hour we got pulled and a local bobby told me if he sees the blue light again we will be getting a £60 fine. Later that day my neighbour, who has a sharp sense of humour, asked if I was now collecting scrap metal.
Buyers remorse was beginning to kick in but the biggest bubble was still to burst. I had bought an old VW because I assumed that they were cheap to run and reliable. Surely that was why so many were converted into campers and why there were so many still on the road? Sadly this is not so; they have poor fuel economy, require constant maintenance and there is a ‘VW scene tax’ that keeps genuine parts very expensive.
Today if you ask me how I feel about buying the Sick Bay I will tell you it was the best thing I’ve ever bought. By far. How did all those negative vibes get converted into such a positive feeling? What happened to the buyers’ remorse?
The answer is that you get to know hundreds of people who are madly in love with their old VWs. They lavish care and attention on them without considering the cost, they unleash their imaginations and make them all highly individual. They are also equally enthusiastic about the van you have bought and are very happy to support you as you learn how to enjoy all aspects of VW camper life. The enthusiasm is infectious. At the first show we went to I remember a father and son having a look at the Sick Bay. The son, who was no more than twelve years old, asked me all sorts of questions and then commented that it was great that the van ‘still had its original paint’. I didn’t even know that but what struck me was that he did – and he cared about it! He also admired the originality of the bench seat which had been re-upholstered and which we had grown to love because it seats three in the front – very handy if there are three of you.
Of course, in overcoming any remorse it helps when fellow Veedubbers point out that the old heap of rust that you have bought is actually an appreciating asset. I paid £6,450 for the Sick Bay and to buy a similar van now, despite all the drawbacks mentioned above, would cost about double that. If, during your short period of remorse, you wondered why you had not simply bought a new Mazda Bongo, the answer might be that the Bongo is depreciating like crazy and your pride and joy is steadily increasing in value. That thought helps a lot and it leads naturally to the next step in overcoming remorse.
What you learn is that if there is something about your van you don’t like, you get it fixed – because, to borrow a phrase, it’s worth it! If it smells of petrol, change the fuel lines. If it’s too low, raise it. If it needs constant maintenance then buy a manual and learn, it’s easy enough. You don’t like a tin top – buy an awning. (And, don’t forget, tin tops look ten times cooler!) Need more space, buy a roof rack. I wasn’t happy with my fuel economy so I replaced the original engine with a modern Subaru. I changed the frosted rear windows to clear glass in order to enhance visibility. Nowadays I can actually see oncoming traffic as I join a motorway – wonderful. Some people even go to the length of changing their left hand drive to right hand. We solved that one by taking it abroad a lot and so turning it into an advantage. I really hate those silly little fuses that old VWs use so I am replacing them with a modern blade fuse system. The old ambulance stretchers, which we used to sleep on, have been replaced with a lovely modern interior. It’s all worth it.
The final step comes when you realise that what you have is more than just a camper. If someone offered to swap the Sick Bay for a modern campervan with all the bells and whistles I would not be interested. I enjoy driving an old Bay, I enjoy mixing with other people who have old Bays, and I have come to understand that when I bought it, I was buying more than just a campervan.
That first morning as I contemplated that bedraggled, sorry looking old van sitting on my drive leaking petrol and leaking rain I certainly experienced those pangs of remorse familiar to all of us who are new to the VW scene. Any vehicle over forty years old will harbour unpleasant little surprises that only come to light once you’ve got your name on the registration. However the remorse was shortlived. Secretly I felt all along that, in spite of everything, it was the coolest vehicle I’ve ever seen – and I think Joy and Adele felt the same. We went through the same process that everyone goes through and we learnt the same important lesson. Your van is an icon of our motoring heritage and you must accept it for what it is. There will be aspects that you don’t like or that don’t live up to what you want from a camper. Change them if you can – and if you can’t then learn to love them anyway. Then get on with enjoying your unique little piece of VW history and thank your lucky stars that you’ve got one.