Sunday, July 30, 2017

Notes From a Novice RVer, Part I: Why The Hell Would a Vintage BMW Guy Be Interested in an RV?

If you know me from my 30 years of Hack Mechanic columns in BMW CCA Roundel magazine, you might think "WHAT? AN RV? Has Siegel finally inhaled too much brake cleaner? Did the Kugelfischer injection in one of the tiis cause him to lose his marbles (or, more appropriately, his bearings)? Or does he feel the collection needs a behemoth to balance the very small and very light (but very dead) Lotus in the garage?

I assure you, I'm quite sane. As with many things, understanding why I bought a small budget RV simply requires the proper context. (And, if you know me, you know I'm all about the context.)

In the dim and distant daguerreotype past, what now seems like grainy newsreel footage in our minds, Maire Anne and I owned a succession of Volkswagen buses and campers. We moved down to Austin TX in 1982 in Maire Anne's rusty '71 VW bus. My keeping the bus running actually predated my BMW fixation. We then bought a '69 VW Westfalia camper with a dead engine. I pulled the engine out of the '71, refreshed it, and installed it into the '69, and that became Maire Anne's daily driver.  We loved the camper, and occasionally overnighted in it around Texas.

When we moved back to Boston in '84, Maire Anne drove the camper north (I was driving a U-Haul towing our other worldly possessions, including my rust-free BMW 2002). Maire Anne continued to daily-drive the camper around Boston until the kids were born and it was clear it wasn't the best safest choice for a daily vehicle.

We sold the '69 Westfalia in the late 1980s for $500. It's what it was worth. I'd say I rue the decision, but I really don't. It was simply an old car that was starting to rust and was out of sync with our needs. Plus, I wasn't accumulating cars then as I tend to now, and I had nowhere to put it.

But our attraction to VW buses and campers continued, simply transferred and updated to VW Vanagons. Over the next ten years, we had six, including an '83 Westfalia, and a diesel, which was, by far, the slowest vehicle I've ever driven, even slower than the old buses.

So we had lots of exposure to and understood the charm and the limitations of these vehicles, including the joy of having a line of angry vehicles behind you as you held your foot to the floor in third gear and struggled to hold 40 mph. But hey, the campers had a fold-out bed, a small cook stove, a "closet," and an icebox (or a finicky refrigerator in the later ones). All that you could want. At least when you were in your twenties.

The fact that Westfalias didn't have a toilet or a shower wasn't a big deal. Those were hygiene issues. So you'd get a little fragrant and pee outside. Big deal. Plus, to get a vehicle with actual plumbing, you needed to buy an RV, and it was something of a point of pride among Westfalia owners that their vehicles weren't RVs. To us, Westfalias represented quiet minimalist ecologically-responsible left-leaning escapism. RVs represented loud fat fuck Barcolounger-sitting beer-swilling flag-waving American excess. Two totally different camps. (Though I must admit that Maire Anne and I were blown away when, while camping at Yosemite in '79, a woman in the RV in the adjacent campsite offered us a slice of pie that she'd just baked in the oven in the RV. Perhaps the origin story began right there. We just didn't know it yet. We had already met the enemy, and they already were us.)

The VW van / bus / camper idea took a long time to flush through my system. The waterboxer motors in the '84 and later Vanagons are shit, reliability-wise, and there are a whole variety of motor swaps to increase reliability and power. As recently as five years ago, I was hell-bent on the idea of buying a late-model Vanagon, like a '90 or a '91, and installing a 230 hp Subaru SVX motor. It's a not uncommon transplant, with a lot of support in terms of kits for the engine mounts, wiring harness, etc. Oh, to have a VW bus or camper that wasn't underpowered! I looked at a few candidate cars and came pretty close, but a few things steered me away.

1) Rust. Like most old cars, pre-1980 VW buses are rust buckets. Vanagons aren't really much better; they rust along the seams if you look at them with so much as a moist thought in your mind. This meant that, if I owned one, it would need to be garaged. When I framed the question in that way ("are you willing to surrender one of your precious garage spaces to this?"), the answer was clear: No.

2) Cost. Pre-1980 buses, especially pre-1974, especially the split-windowed pre-68s, had gotten pricey (they're insane now). Even Vanagons have been on the upswing for some time. Now that I have more places I can store cars, I'd love to have another one, but only if its financial bite is minimal.

3) Real Predicted Use. When I spoke with Maire Anne about the idea of a Vanagon or a later Eurovan camper, while we waxed nostalgic about the good old days in our buses and Westfalias, we both readily admitted that, at this point in our life, we like hotel rooms, and there's no shame in that.

So that was that.

And then something interesting happened. A post on Bring a Trailer re-introduced me to the Vixen, the boutique RV that was designed by Delorean designer Bill Collings and built by the Vixen Motor Company 1986 through 1989. The original Vixen 21TD was an innovative package. It did have a toilet and a shower like a real RV, but there were other features that made it attractive to a former Westfalia owner. First, it simply looked massively cool. It was low and streamlined and looked like an escaped design exercise from Space: 1999. 

And it was incredibly fuel-efficient. It was powered by a BMW turbodiesel M21 motor, the same engine that was in the short-lived BMW 524td. I had been aware of the Vixen's existence, since, because of the BMW motor, the introduction of the RV was covered at the time in the magazine I write for, but I had totally forgotten about it. The fuel-efficient motor, combined with the Vixen's aerodynamic shape, low weight, and 5-speed manual transaxle, resulted in a reported 29 mpg fuel economy at 55 mph. It didn't have a tall roof like most RVs, instead having a pop-top roof that was hinged on one side, offering walk-around headroom when the rig was parked. Because of the pop-top roof, it didn't have a rooftop air conditioner like most conventional RVs. That, combined with its 21-ft length, allowed it to fit into most garages.

Only 376 TDs were built before Vixen's investors got antsy and pushed the company to make the RV more conventional. They released the Vixen 21SE with a Buick V6 engine and automatic transaxle, a molded fiberglass roof for increased headroom, and a rooftop air conditioner, the pair of which almost guaranteed it would no longer fit in a garage. Vixen went under shortly after.

The fact that the Vixen 21TDs have a BMW motor is no secret. In fact, many of these rigs have sprouted familiar BMW blue-and-white badges on their nose and/or tail that were not there at the time of production. Make no mistake--Vixens are not BMW RVs; they are RVs with a BMW engine. Still, when one shows up at a vintage BMW event, it is welcomed warmly into the fold. And as a guy who regularly attends a fair number of vintage BMWs events, there was a lot of appeal in that.

While I was doing some field geophysics work in Denver in the fall of 2016, I found an affordable Vixen 21TD in Santa Fe, not exactly right around the corner, but close enough to go have a look. This was right after the election. Everything was in turmoil. In addition to the appeal of showing up at vintage BMW events in something rare and weird, I became entranced by the fantasy of buying this Vixen RV, telling the rest of the screwed-up world to go fuck itself, and running away with my darling Maire Anne and trying to be the full-time the touring singer/songwriter I've always wanted to be. It didn't happen; once I saw the Vixen in person, it was clear that it was far too hobbled to consider such a quest (for a lot more information and a good laugh, see and But I did get to walk around inside a Vixen and experience the feel of a slightly larger RV that actually had some living space instead of just a fold-out bed to crash on. It started me thinking more seriously about small RVs.

But oddly enough, the thing that really kicked my RV search into gear occurred months later. It was an offhand comment Maire Anne made about going "mothing." My wife is technically not an entomologist, but she owns a business called "Bugworks" which does hands-on programs with live insects for elementary schools, libraries, and museums. As I am plugged into all manner of vintage BMW-specific online resources, she is plugged into many insect-related forums and Facebook groups. Back in the spring, Maire Anne mentioned that The New England Entomological Society (an official-sounding name for a pretty laid-back group of insect enthusiasts)  was hosting "Moth Ball in Athol," about an hour and a half from us, a night-time activity where knowledgeable lepidopterists (people who study moths and butterflies) would be there to identify whatever winged creatures were attracted to the white sheets with the lights behind them. The invite said that people were welcome to camp out in the host's yard.

I heard this and thought "so, if we had an RV that we could sleep in, we could use it for this. We could go mothing in it. We could do this, together."

Now, you might think this sounds sweet and a bit quirky, and I guess it is, but is in fact central, because it combines two huge things. The first is that owning a car usually works best if the car is actually for something. Sure, you might buy a car specifically to flip and make money on, or to be a hanger queen that you rarely drive and mainly look at, if you have that kind of money and space, but the cars that I love best are the ones I actually use. Sometimes they're daily drivers for a period of time, sometimes they're beloved classics that I drive thousands of miles to vintage car events. But they're for something. If they're not, if that's missing, the car just sits in storage. Taking a step further, car people often look at cars the way that normal people look at clothing or shoes. You never have enough of them. You look at new ones and think "ooooh, I could wear these doing this." You're always thinking about which car would fit a certain task, or how to modify the task so taking the car would make sense.

But the second and more crucial thing is the idea of buying something that allowed Maire Anne and I to spend time together doing something we both enjoyed, or, at least, that one of us enjoyed and the other one politely tolerated. For many years, we were in a band together. It was a wonderful thing to do as a couple, something that took us outside the standard parameters of parenthood. We still jam a few times a year with old bandmates, but it's not a consistent activity. People get in ruts, wrapped up in the minutia of their lives, and we're no different. Some of my car friends are surprised that Maire Anne doesn't tend to accompany me on my long road trips in my vintage cars; the 17 straight hours I spend driving the 900 miles to The Vintage in Asheville is her idea of hell. Vintage at Saratoga, on the other hand, is about 4 hours; she'll come with me to that. And on the way back, we'll take the long way, and stop at any quilt or craft store she wants.

Now, for the record, I think the whole tiny house thing is stupid. I don't give a shit about millennials with Instagram accounts and a dog living in vans and eking out a living endorsing Nalgene water bottles. My singer-songwriter fantasy notwithstanding, I wasn't trying to engage the all-or-nothing paradigm of selling the house and wandering around the country like Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in Lost in America .(One of our favorite movies. Let me explain the nest egg philosophy to you.) I don't care about any of that. I'm not part of a trend. I was simply looking for a means of doing something fun with my wife. The idea that, if I bought a small inexpensive RV, we didn't have to immediately drive off to Yellowstone in it and begin debating whether we'd be happier staying in hotels and B&Bs, and instead we could simply use it to go "mothing" together, was tantalizing. I wondered, if we owned a budget RV, what other activities we'd never thought of, like mothing, might materialize.

So, really, that's how it started. Mothing.

(Next week: Having laid out the case, I educate myself.)