So, we’d drawn up our list of requirements and we were searching for the motorhome that came closest to meeting all of them. We were still using the Compass 100, but it had a final sting in the tail. Actually, quite a few tails probably came into it.
We were still going on occasional short trips and, if ten days or so slipped by without our using it, I would drive to the Caravan Club storage compound, run the engine and give Van Diesel (I’m not sure if I’ve previously mentioned our pet name for it) an airing.
On one such visit I found Van Diesel to have a generous sprinkling of mouse droppings. They were everywhere: on the floor, on every surface, on the overcab bed, on the seats. The upholstery had been attacked, albeit in a rather strange way. The mice had focussed on the fabric covering the mattress buttons, scratching much of it off to reveal the plastic. I assumed that the material scratched off must have been used to make a nest(s), but when I searched every corner of the van I found nothing.
The owner of the caravan on the adjacent storage pitch arrived and confirmed that his van had also been attacked. Then the owner of the motorhome three pitches away turned up. He’d also been a victim, suffering several attacks in the recent past.
When I mentioned it to the wardens it was greeted with a sympathetic shrug. As they quite reasonably pointed out, the compound is in the countryside, surrounded by hedges and fields, and they could hardly try to poison every rodent in the neighbourhood.
I swept up the droppings, disinfected all hard surfaces, cleaned the carpets and used up a couple of cans of upholstery cleaner on the soft furnishings, then I set off for B&Q to buy half-a-dozen mousetraps and a perforated metal sheet of fine mesh size. Motorhomes have vents in various places both to allow for the escape of gas leaks and to help keep them aired. I cut the metal sheet into the required shapes and wired it in place over the vents to make them mouseproof while, hopefully still serving their intended purpose.
However, the impossibility of keeping them out was brought home to me when I opened the glove compartment in the cab. The door is a pretty tight fit – I can’t, for example, get near pushing the ignition key into the gap at any point – and yet the mice had been in. They had shredded the insurance documents I’d left in there and even eaten their way through the hard plastic cap on an aerosol can of windscreen cleaner. The thought of what damage they could be doing to the electrical wiring was disturbing.
I suppose it may just be possible to make a caravan mouseproof, but not a motorhome, there are just too many ways they can get in via the engine compartment: the air vents, gaps around the steering column and the foot pedals. They don’t even have to get into the habitation area; they can do a lot of damage within the engine compartment.
So, now we had two problems: we had to find the right motorhome and, having found it, we’d need somewhere else to store it, rather than in a mouse-infested compound.
We thought we’d have no problem tracking down the right motorhome. After all, we only wanted what we assumed everyone else wanted and it seemed obvious that motorhome makers would supply what people wanted. We were wrong. It quickly became apparent that either we were unusual in our requirements or the makers didn’t ask what their customers wanted and produced models that looked nice, but were impractical.
What were our hard-to-satisfy requirements? Here they are:
4 berth utilising the overcab bed layout (provides lots of storage space);
generous height above the overcab bed, so no need to be a contortionist to get in/out;
it must be possible to leave the ladder to the overcab bed in place when the dinette bed is made up;
must be able to move freely along the van when the dinette bed is made up;
a separate shower;
a gas and electric space heater;
a gas and electric water heater;
plenty of work surface;
a storage locker accessible from the outside;
maximum length 6.5m;
maximum weight 3500kg to meet driving licence rules;
preferably Mercedes or Ford based, rather than Fiat/Peugeot;
within our somewhat limited budget of £10,000 plus the Compass 100.
Let me explain a couple of those, starting with the shower. In many motorhomes the loo and basin are effectively inside the shower cubicle. That’s good for saving space, but have a shower and everything is wet and needs drying off.
The outside storage locker is important to us as it means we don’t have to bring wet/dirty items (such as the outside chairs/table that could have been standing on wet ground, or umbrellas/waterproofs/walking boots) into the van.
Strangely enough it wasn’t the budget that ruled out most models, even though we were operating at the bottom of the range where motorhomes are concerned; it was the lack of work surface. Even on models costing £50,000+, we frequently saw the sink right next to the hob with no work surface at all, except for the glass hob cover. Pile the dirty plates on there, wash them in the sink – and nowhere to put a drying rack. There often wasn’t even space to stand an electric kettle.
The maximum length wasn’t set in stone, but it seemed about right. Much longer than that and we thought we’d have problems driving it through our narrow Westcountry lanes and parking it on public car parks.
Winter passed, spring was well underway and we were still scouring the Westcountry. We had to relax our requirements. What we dropped was our objection to a Fiat/Peugeot. We didn’t feel we had any alternative. We often called on retailers to find that every single 4-berth motorhome had a Fiat or Peugeot base vehicle.
Shortly after we’d made that decision, having searched from Bristol to Land’s End, we found exactly what we were looking for at Alan Kerr Leisure, just down the road in Paignton. It’s based on a Fiat Ducato, but we felt better about it as Alan Kerr has been a main dealer for commercial Fiats for many years and had maintained this particular example for several years, carrying out both the mechanical and habitation services. We were offered much more part exchange allowance than we’d been expecting, so we bought comfortably within our budget.
So what is this paragon among motorhomes? It’s a Bessacar e445, with the 2.3l turbo diesel engine and 5-speed box. Built in 2004, it had done only 20,000 miles with a lot of service history. It came with a full service, 12 months MOT, a 2-year AA warranty covering both the base vehicle and the habitation equipment, a bike rack and a roof ladder.
It’s only 6.13m long, which makes it easy to drive, particularly with the reversing camera. If we meet a caravan or tractor/trailer on a narrow lane we are happy to reverse. We can usually find some corner of a public car park where the space overhang isn’t a problem. It has a tall outside locker, called a ‘wet locker’ by Bessacar (a sink forms the base), which takes the folding seats/table, rotary dryer, umbrellas, fishing tackle, water hoses, electric hook-up cable, bike saddle bags and walking boots. But it was the inside layout and equipment that were the clincher.
At the rear, across the full width of the motorhome, is a large shower room that holds a full size separate shower cubicle, loo, sink, wardrobe, cupboard and shelves. The overcab bed is huge with good head height. There is plenty of work surface. There’s an area next to the sink big enough to take a drying rack. The area over the fridge/freezer takes the electric kettle and toaster, and still leaves enough space for food preparation. There’s another surface that takes, among other things, the television. We have a four-burner hob, a grill and a full oven.
As the picture shows, when the dinette bed extensions are pulled out, it is still easy to walk up and down, and the overcab bed ladder can stay in place.
Both the space heater and water heater can operate on electricity or gas. The Compass gas locker took two 3.9kg cylinders that cost currently £13.65 to replace from Flogas. Our new locker takes two 6kg cylinders that cost £16.28, so our gas costs have fallen from £3.50 per kg to £2.71.
The cab passenger seat swivels. There are fly-screens on the windows and habitation door. The fresh water tank holds 100 litres – twice the size of the Compass tank. There’s a Fiamma awning.
It suits us perfectly – but it clearly can’t suit everyone or we’d all be driving the same unit.
Buying from a long-established dealer was a very different experience to buying privately – it was painless and worry-free. The sales staff at Alan Kerr were relaxed and helpful. They encouraged us to spend as long as we wanted checking out the van; urged us to take long test drives and asked for a list of any jobs we wanted doing before buying. We gave them the list, the jobs were cheerfully carried out and we bought a van so immaculately valeted that it felt like new.
The warranty gives peace of mind. In the three months we’ve owned Bessie (I’m sure all Bessacars are so named) the water pump and the fridge gas igniter have failed and been replaced without quibble. In that three months we’re covered more miles than in the whole twelve months we had the Compass.
Buying from Alan Kerr has solved our other problem – where to keep it. They have a storage compound for their own stock and the motorhomes in for service work, but they also have spaces they make available at modest charge to local buyers. We have now worked our way to the top of the short waiting list, but in the meantime we had a stroke of luck. A neighbour set off on a long tour of Europe in their motorhome which enabled us to use their space. By the time they return we should have a space of our own.
We are enjoying ourselves immensely, spending more time away than at home. If you spot us anywhere, please say hello.