It all started 1972 with this one:
A Hanomag ‘Bahlsen-cookie‘-delivery van. The first one I ever converted to something like a motor home. (Here you see it after a near head-on collision with a truck in India, which left it ugly but running fine).
I had never seen a motor home when I built it. One could already see the VW bus on the roads, but, unlike in the US, in Germany it was mostly used just as a bus, the concept of a motor home was new. We called it “Schlafauto”, a car in which one can sleep, and that’s what is was for us.
The bed was fixed, the rest was storage and kitchen. I completely forgot to think of a sitting area; we always had to eat outside. I correctly anticipated great heat on our travels, so it needed a huge sliding roof-hatch (made of discarded traffic signs). When this hatch-cover was moved back almost the entire vehicle was open; it was like a cabriolet. When open, the cover actually stuck far out beyond the rear end of the vehicle. It was a great idea, we loved it immensely. In India we could sit inside halfway protected from the constant contact with people and still not get cooked alive from the heat. The only nasty drawback was that it soon leaked like crazy. We often sat inside under an umbrella when it rained. But we thought that wasn’t a big deal. (For more click here) or (here).
We did our first big journey together in this vehicle and drove it in one year all the way from Germany to Singapore.
This trip set the tone for the rest of our lives. It gave us the taste of real adventure, but most of all, just freshly married, it welded the two of us together for ever. Mind-blowingly beautiful but also difficult and dangerous as it was, it was the ultimate crash test for a relationship. We not only survived it but came home as if touched by magic. I have to say that I sometimes get wet eyes when I remember these early times, because it was only the beginning of a continuous celebration of a wonderful life together.
This funny van was not built for the tropics, it continuously overheated. I had to open up the front for ventilation and rebuild the entire cooling system, (click here for more). In Malaysia the clutch-operating system broke and we actually managed to drive all the way to northern Thailand and back to Singapore with a clutch that could not disengage – starting the motor with the first gear engaged and shifting the gears with careful intermittent gas – a nightmare in dense traffic in Bangkok. (For more on Thailand click here).
We finally abandoned this great van in Johore Bahru/Malaysia. It started to fall apart. We were broke and sick with Malaria and limped home – by plane – a bit tired but deeply inspired for more.
The next one was called
A Mercedes Benz 608 D. Also an old delivery van. This was perhaps the most elaborate conversions I ever made; some of it great, some naive and only good for learning how not to do it. (Here you see it in old age somewhere in Switzerland; the military look was an attempt to camouflage the countless ugly rust repairs) The canoe on top was our trusted companion for a long time. (For more on that click here).
It had a terrific shower. In order to save space I built a closet that took up all the empty space of the shower when that was not in use and would swivel out to free the room when it was shower time. It swiveled in front of the entrance door because that wouldn’t be used while showering.
But then, a little latch had to be moved, and, voila, the shower room opened up. When showering was done the box=wardrobe would swing back and the curtain would invisibly fold nicely behind and over it. No one would ever assume this double function of this wardrobe. There was a bit of empty space left underneath, it turned out to be a superb hiding place for valuables. (By the way, we did get broken in numerous times over the years – it is something you just cannot prevent entirely and need to prepare for.) Our Grüne Minna also had a separate storage room for two bicycles in the back. Later the bicycles were replaced by a motorcycle which turned out to be a fantastic new tool, like a dinghi, to expand our possibilities to explore.
We also had a great diesel-burning stove and the entire vehicle was well insulated, so we could use it as our chalet in winter when we would go skiing with it.
It also had a full size baking stove. It was our summer house. We first drove it to Iran several times (click here) and then, throughout our working years, all across Europe. It finally ended its life when it wouldn’t pass the notorious German annual technical inspection (TÜV) anymore.
The Grüne Minna had its limits on really bad road, so the next one was:
Bello, our big expedition truck
It was kind of a monster truck. It was this one we finally, 1987, after many wild traveling years, took all the way to America. And neither it nor we ever realy returned.
This “thing” was actually an old emergency ambulance of a German government catastrophe relief organization (THW). It was over 20 years old when I bought it for peanuts on an auction but had less than 10 000 miles on it. I converted this 7.5 tons of indestructible ruggedness to a cozy motor home. It had a wood burning stove for heat and solar power already then, 24 years ago. 2000 miles range on one tank filling. In the back, protected inside again, was a motorcycle.
We loved and hated it in about equal measures. We loved it for its fantastic Mercedes reliability and because it really would go almost anywhere. But we hated it because, in spite of its kind of friendly-cow slowness (absolute top speed downhill: 50 mph) it radiated this apparently unmistakable flair of machismo. Wherever we showed up a certain type of people would immediately appear and noisily approach us, beer in hand, and put us in a corner where we just didn’t enjoy to be. (Once, deep in the jungle of Guatemala, the military ambushed us because they thought we were guerrilleros.)
For Alaska we made a screen to protect the windshield from rock damage. Most roads up there were still gravel then. One single time I forgot to pull it up and bam, we had our “north star” on the glass anyway, we left it as a souvenir.
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We actually got another identical one:
We finally sold it to the very same people who bought our first Bello.
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The Aussie Camper
When we went to Australia we arrived with two backpacks, bought this old school bus, a bunch of particle boards and a few tools and drove out to a lonely campground and built another motor home within 10 days.
We threw out all the seats except those in the very back and made a huge bed that could be lifted up during the day with a pulley-system. It worked like dream, and it was clearly the best bed we ever had.
The table could be used inside and outside. When it was removed there was so much room, we could dance around in this vehicle. All the windows around could be opened – I made screens against mosquitoes – and it was like sleeping in the open.
It was fairly light weight, and with the twin rear wheels it could manage most of those infamous tracks in Australia and let us explore the outback. We spent a year in this fabulous country. (click here for more stories) In the end we sold it with quite a bit of gain.
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In New Zealand we had this one:
Our baby doll car
A Mitsubishi A 300. A joke of a camper. So small, so light, but we loved it. We bought it with a re-buy deal, I didn’t do much alteration on this one. The dealer bought it back after half a year for $2500 less, no questions asked.
It was great when it rained cats and dogs outside. We brought the bicycles with us. (for NZ stories click here)
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Back in the US, our traveling had already become slower and slower, with our old Bello-“tank” we spent more time staying and living than moving around. Its fabled “moving power” had become less and less useful to us. Eventually we sold it and did what we had somehow considered ‘out of style‘ and actually settled down – kind of. America became a new home (at least in summer). However, in a way – and I don’t think it’s just a romantic after glow of our wild, free traveling life but rather a beautiful result of serious learning – we never really gave up the attitude of being visitors, temporary visitors on this globe.
After Bello we wanted something unoriginal and banal to quietly blend in:
The first American motor home. (Here you see it in Baja, where we lived in it most of the time). A dream to drive (on good roads) but of mediocre quality. I did some changes; as our traveling style slowed down a lot it worked very well for us. Soon we started towing a little Suzuki, a wonderful addition that changed our style again.
A coach, really, with a separate king-size bedroom and a huge fridge for all the fish we catch. Only 25 foot long, so it still fits into tight places. Ample 250 Watt solar power, no generator, no microwave, no TV; we threw this all out.
Together we’ve grown old in our moving houses. But what a ride it was!
It may very well be our last home on wheels. I don’t see us getting a next one – it seems the time for this kind of life style has run out. As wonderful as it all is, it seems unsustainable. It is a marvelous life, moving around on this globe with your house. Even with driving this guzzler to Baja and return each year we still have a comparatively very small carbon foot print – the rest of the year we drive around with our bicycle – however, when you look at the state of our world, it feels pretty decadent. When the time has come we’ll let it go and stay home.
Klaus Aug. 4. 2011