Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Notes from a Novice RVer, Part IV: Bauhaus Hits the Road (the first short trips in the 1996 Winnebago Rialta)

In the last installment, I’d just purchased the 1996 Winnebago Rialta with 107k miles on it for three grand and driven it home, and was still pinching myself at my good fortune while waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of the rig dying or my finding that it immediately needed some crushingly expensive repair. So far, neither of these events has come to pass. So the other shoe has neither dropped, nor is it on the other foot. Which is only worth these two mangled metaphors because later in his piece I mention shoes in the context of how small the Rialta really is.
Let me talk for a moment about price. In the shallow waters of the world of highly compromised vintage BMWs in which I usually swim, I joke that I do my best work around four grand. I was never going to get a Rialta for four grand. It simply wasn't a reasonable expectation. The 2001 and later Rialtas fetch a premium due to their 201hp 24-valve VR6 motor. Low-mileage examples in excellent condition have asking prices of $26,000 and more. The 1998 to 2000 rigs with the 12-valve 140hp VR6 motor are next on the list, with asking prices near $20k for excellent examples, perhaps down to $14k if they have a punch list of needed repairs but still run well and look good. The early (’96 and ’97) 100hp 5-cylinder rigs like mine are the least valuable, owing to their anemic motor and slightly shorter body (21’ instead of 22’). I see asking prices around $14k for those in excellent condition, maybe $10k for a needy rig. Right after I bought mine, I saw one in worse shape—it reportedly had sat for several years and was running rough—sell on eBay for $8500.
So I was stunned when I picked up this Rialta for three grand.
Now, while there is no question that this was a particularly good deal, the vehicle does have a lengthy punch list. I relish the process of becoming interested in a new automotive make and model and learning about it so that, when a smoking good deal turns up, I can act very quickly. That’s what happened here. The seller (Maureen) was scrupulously honest in presenting the punch list of issues and needed repairs, and priced it very aggressively to get rid of it quickly. I do all my own repair work, so, as long as it ran, wasn’t rusty, and didn’t seem to immediately need major work to the drivetrain, the punch list didn’t scare me. I told her I’d buy it on the spot if it satisfied those requirements, and it did, and I did; cash was paid and it was in my driveway by the end of the day. It’s easy to say that she underpriced it, and she probably did, but she very efficiently achieved her goal of a quick sale to the right buyer. And I bought a vehicle that was a great deal, but needed a great deal of attention.
So I began working through the punch list. And I'm still working through it. Fortunately, the rig basically started and ran, and most of the RV systems—the 120VAC shore power and generator, 12V battery bank, plumbing, stove, coach heat, water heater, and rooftop air conditioner—came up running.

Immediate Repairs
·        Maureen reported that the roof was leaking slightly and that the upper corners of the windshield gasket had pulled away. I climbed up on the roof and found a split in the caulk next to the skylight and caulked it with silicone. I cleaned and re-seated the corners of the windshield gasket and caulked them as well. For the moment, it appears to be tight.
·        The air conditioning in the cab (the vehicle air you need while driving, not the coach air you need while parked) wasn’t working. I do a lot of a/c work. I hooked up my gauges, and found that the system clearly was low on refrigerant. That generally means it’s leaking somewhere. I hooked up my nitrogen tank and pressurized it to help find the leak, but the pressure reading held steady, and there wasn’t any gushing sound of air. In the morning, the pressure still hadn’t budged. I shrugged, evacuated the system, charged it with the correct amount of R134a, and to my delight, it blew cold and has stayed that way. If it’s got a leak, it must be a small one.
·        Maureen said that, about two years ago, the vehicle died due to a discharged battery, and that the battery and alternator were replaced. I did a health check on the charging system. At rest, the battery should read 12.6 volts, and while driving, the alternator should charge it up to about 14.2 volts, but I found that, when there’s a big electrical load at low RPM (like idling with the air conditioning on), the alternator doesn’t keep up with the electrical load, and the voltage drops as low as 11.8 volts, which will certainly discharge the battery if you run it this way for a while. The voltage recovers once you start driving and the engine RPM is raised. I cleaned every connection to and from the alternator and it made no difference. I’ve bought an inexpensive voltage regulator to have as a spare, and I drive with one of my $6 cigarette lighter voltmeters plugged in to make sure I’m keeping the combination of energized accessories and engine RPM balanced such that they keep the battery charged.
·        The coolant temperature gauge runs hotter than I’d prefer (like, at times, 7/8 of the way up the gauge), but the receipts show a recent water pump and thermostat, the thermostat is opening, the fans appear to be turning on, I can’t find anything wrong, and the Rialta tech forum has posts saying “yeah, they do that.” I’ve got half a mind to spend the $125 on a new radiator and drop it in just so I can cross that off the list. Any vehicle that doesn’t have a good old fashioned mechanical cooling fan and relies on electric fans instead makes me nervous, so I wanted to install a switch and a relay to be able to bypass the sensors and turn on the electric fans manually. I stumbled on a post in the Rialta tech forum describing how to do this by tapping into the existing fan control relay by splicing one wire and running it to a switch. I followed the instructions. Great minds think alike.
·        Maureen reported that the onboard 110V generator would start but not stay running, though she had a suspicion that the problem might be due to a low fuel level (the generator uses the vehicle’s gas tank). I filled the tank and have had no such problem; the generator appears to work fine, and powers the RV’s 110V systems, including, mercifully, the rooftop air conditioning unit.
·        Maureen also said that there was a leak in the fresh water plumbing. I found that one of the drain cocks had been left open. I closed it, filled the system, and the internal plumbing all seems to work. Never having owned an RV, the idea of having a vehicle with running water for a sink, shower, and toilet is still an unbelievable novelty.
·        The side door lock assembly is dying. The handle is extremely loose, and neither the lock nor the deadbolt work with the keys I’d been given, and the central locking doesn’t engage the side door lock. Thus, locking the vehicle requires engaging the side door locks from the inside, then exiting through the front doors, which is a bit of a pain. I pulled the lock out and found that sections are riveted together and not easily disassembled, and that much of the looseness is from a partially cracked piece that eventually will fail. Neither the whole assembly nor individual parts are available from Winnebago. An updated replacement is supposedly available from Trimark, the manufacturer, but it is expensive and the wait appears to be several months. I’m living with it.
·        The coach’s fresh water pump suddenly quit working. It turned out to simply be dirty switch contacts in the outside faucet.
·        I installed the missing leg of the awning that Maureen had bought.
·        The dump valve from the black water (sewage) tank was leaking, so the first time I unscrewed the big quick-release cap to attach the dump hose, there was already sewage present there even before I pulled the lever to open the dump valve. Ick. Even for me who isn’t afraid to tear into things, I didn’t relish tearing into a sewage system. I learned that this leak is a common problem, and fortunately there’s a simple solution—put another valve on the outside, between the release and the cap.
·        Maureen reported that the refrigerator ran on 120VAC and 12VDC, but wouldn’t run on propane. The fridge has been the most troublesome component on the rig and will get its own installment.
·        There is a faint exhaust leak that I'm not going to do anything about until it, um, becomes less faint.
Initial Impressions
When you buy any inexpensive partially hobbled vehicle, there’s a period of establishing trust in it, getting to the point where you feel reassured that when you get in the vehicle and turn the key, there’s a high probability it’ll start, and that it won’t drop dead on you while driving. Initially, the opposite happened: After the vehicle sat in my driveway for a week, it barely started, with symptoms of a partially discharged battery. I, who wrote an electrical book with an entire chapter on how to diagnose this kind of a “parasitic drain,” haven’t had the patience to troubleshoot what’s pulling the battery down while the car sits, and instead took to managing the problem by simply disconnecting the battery while it’s parked. So far, so good, but, combined with the issue of low charging voltage while idling, I keep that cigarette lighter voltmeter plugged in whenever I drive, and I watch it like a freaking hawk.
My first trips in the Rialta were to run short errands. When it didn’t die or overheat running it around Newton, I drove it into Somerville (densely-populated suburban Boston) to buy a mattress. Just like during the test drive when I bought it, I was extremely impressed with the degree to which the rig ran and drove like a big minivan, albeit a more rattly one due to the camper body and the stuff in the cabinets. I easily parallel-parked it on a Somerville side street to load the mattress into it. Try that in a 40-foot Class A.
The trip into Somerville meant taking the rig down the big hill on Route 2 into Cambridge, and then back up the hill on the way home. With the 100 horsepower five-cylinder engine propelling the 7,000 pound vehicle, the Rialta had to be popped into 3rd and my foot mashed to the floor to maintain 45mph up this short but steep incline. On the one hand, with my history of owning underpowered VW busses and Vanagon campers, I felt right at home, but sheesh, I thought; this is going to get old on anything other than level ground. Still, it was one hill, and a steep one, without a running start, and I tried not to extrapolate its entire performance envelope from this single data point.

The Mattress
Ah, the mattress. There are three basic Rialta floor plans. Ours has the one with two twin beds in the back and floor space between them. Maureen included a knock-down pedestal table that allows people to sit on the beds and eat back there as if it’s a dinette (though they’re still beds; there’s no padded back like bench seats).  A hinged board and a small joining pad allow the twin beds to be connected. 
Our rig, with the twin beds separated. The hinged board that flips out and connects the beds is below the right-hand mattress. You can see the connecting mattress on the right, and the knock-down sort-of-a-dinette table that Maureen gave us on the floor.
There’s a different floor plan with an actual dinette in the back, where the table slides away and the dinette bench seats fold flat into a bed.
The dinette floor plan from the brochure.
But there's a third plan with a full-time double bed and a small walkway and counter on its right side. Maire Anne and I aren’t twin bed people. We looked longingly at brochures showing the full-time double bed, but beggars can’t be choosers.
The double-bed floor plan from the brochure. 
It was immediately obvious that our rig's original 3” foam mattresses, whether separate or connected, would be miserably uncomfortable to sleep on. That trip into Somerville in the Rialta was to buy an inexpensive used memory foam mattress to put in the back. This turned out to be a failed experiment, as the mattress I bought was 12” thick, which turned it to be too tall; it practically caused our feet to touch the undersides of the cabinets in the rear.
It did, though, cause Maire Anne and me to think about the mattress configuration more carefully. The full length and width of the connected bed space (with the board flipped over) is about 73” long by 80” wide, which is very close to the size of a king-size mattress turned sideways. We initially thought we’d take out the existing foam mattress sections and replace them with a single 6” memory foam mattress and leave it set up across the entire back. Then we considered cutting up a memory foam mattress into sections so that we could fold the board up and take advantage of the floor space between the twin beds and only connect them at bedtime. One problem with this is that memory foam deteriorates if it’s left exposed. You can’t stretch a sheet across the disconnected foam sections, so that would require putting each piece in a slipcover.
In the end, we wound up buying a new high-quality ViscoSoft 3” thick king-size memory foam mattress topper with its own cover, and laying it on top of the original 3” mattress sections. It is very comfortable. In theory, it still allows the topper to be pulled over to one side, the connecting board folded up, and the mattresses returned to twins with the floor space exposed between them, but in practice, the topper is bulky enough that this isn’t easy to do, so thus far, we've left it in the configuration below, which has had some unintended consequences.
The twin beds connected with the board, and the king-sized memory foam mattress pad on top. Very cozy, very comfortable, but it takes up space and precludes options in ways we hadn't envisioned. 
With the mattress in place, it was time to hit the road. Sort of.

The First Trip: A Simple Overnight
Our first trip in the rig was to the western Massachusetts hill town of Beckett for an evening playing music with some old friends. This was a great easy inaugural jaunt, as all we were doing was driving the rig 130 miles (most of it a straight shot out the Mass Pike) and parking it in a friend’s driveway and sleeping in it; we didn’t need to use any of the RV systems. Two guitars and a small amp nestled perfectly under the board between the connected twin beds. With some pretty good-sized hills on the Mass Pike heading through the Berkshires, we were pleasantly surprised that the rig had no problem maintaining the cruise control’s 65mph. Even on the ups and downs on the local roads through the Berkshires, I felt more limited by the fact that the RV wasn’t one of my BMWs than by its low power. Perhaps this 100hp Rialta wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The big surprise was that, even on this short trip with limited use of the interior space, it became immediately obvious how small the Rialta really is inside. It’s nothing like most RVs where you walk in the side door and are greeted by a couch and two big living room-sized chairs. There’s only 62”—just over five feet—of floor space from the bed bulkheads to the step up for the coach battery compartment in the floor, and some of that 62" is taken up by the 3rd seat. There’s another 18” from there to the backs of the front seats. This proved to be a good place to put our backpacks and a small cooler, because simply putting them on the floor took up a good portion of the tiny available floor space. Cabinet space is similarly limited.
Still, the first trip was quite successful. Nothing went wrong with the rig. Both Maire Anne and I were quite comfortable sleeping in it, and loved having a bathroom right next to the mattress for when we woke up and had to pee, rather than having to go inside and find a bathroom in an unfamiliar house in the middle of the night.
Oh, and the rig averaged about 17mpg on the mostly-highway trip. Not bad.
The Second Trip:  Three Days on the Cape
Immediately on buying the Rialta, a natural division of labor emerged: I worked on the rig, and Maire Anne dove into researching campgrounds at nearby Massachusetts state parks and began making reservations for a number of short stays through the summer and fall. She learned about the distinction between RV sites with hookups (shore power and fresh water, about $30/night) and those without (about $20/night), where we’d need to “boondock” and rely on vehicle power and water. At these particular state campgrounds on the Cape, you’re prohibited from running the generator during the quiet hours between 10pm and 7am. Maire Anne booked us first for three nights in late July at Nickerson State Park in Brewster MA, on the “bicep” of the Cape, with other trips in late summer and fall at Horseneck Beach and Scusett. 
I had several weeks to prepare for the trip to Nickerson. I thought that this was ample time for me to be able to fix the rig’s three-way refridgerator, but despite a lot of work, I was unable to get the fridge to cool on propane. Without that, and without shore power, the fridge couldn’t be relied on to stay cold without draining the coach’s batteries (I’ll write a separate installment on the refrigerator-related trials and tribs). For the Nickerson trip, we kept it simple and used a cooler with ice. This was easy, as there was a store near the campground.
Nickerson turn out to be a great jumping-off point for a variety of day-trips on the Cape. Neither Maire Anne nor I had used our bikes in many years, but I bought an inexpensive bike rack that mounted in the Rialta’s hitch receiver, freshened up the bikes, and away we went.
Leaving for Nickerson
The campground at Nickerson was exactly that—a campground, not an RV park. There was a maximum RV length limit of 35 feet (obviously not a problem for us), and no hook-ups, but there was an RV dumping station. Our camping area was overwhelmingly populated by folks tenting or using pop-up trailers, with a few larger camping trailers. We were one of a handful of RVs. As I said, generator-off hours were between 10pm and 7am. When I did try and fire up the generator during allowable hours, our immediate tenting neighbors took notice. They didn’t complain, but it made Maire Anne and I feel self-conscious, so even though it was allowed, I shut it off. But without shore power or the generator, we had no 120VAC to run the hot water heater for the shower, so we settled into a rhythm where we used the campground facilities in the mornings for showers and, uh, other things.
We’d then head out in the rig to explore the cape, usually taking the bikes with us. We’d come back to the campground in the late afternoon or early evening, unfold the rig’s awning, hang out at the picnic table, cook and eat outside on a Coleman RoadTrip propane grill we’d brought (it was just more camp-y than cooking inside), make a fire in the pit, drink wine, play guitar, crash in the rig, and make coffee in the morning. It was delightful. And, like the overnight in the Berkshires, having the bathroom right there in the rig, and a sink with running water to brush your teeth, was fabulous.
Throwing an inexpensive Craigslist bike rack on the back of the rig, and the bikes on it, worked flawlessly.
Our standard evening libations.
Our standard morning libations.

But the true utility of the RV was shown in a completely unexpected way the day we went up to Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor’s Center in Eastham. The weather was iffy, but we decided to chance it and do a three-mile hike to Coast Guard Beach and back. Unfortunately, when we reached the beach, the skies opened up, and the hike back was in drenching rain. By the time we returned to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, we were soaked clean through. But there, waiting for us, was the Rialta. We got in, drew the blinds, stripped down (without having to lie down on the seats and do that funny horizontal shimmy you have to do to change clothes in a passenger car), toweled off, used the bathroom (in the rig), and put on dry clothes. Then we made coffee (in the rig). Then we made sandwiches, including toasting our buns (the bread buns) on the stove. In the rig. And sat there, happy as clams (warm, dry, caffeinated, well-fed clams with empty bladders), marveling at the experience.
It was an epiphany. Wow, I thought. Of all the vehicles I drop three to four grand on, this one is actually useful. Forget camping. Forget the idea of a big western road trip. Forget the big questions of whether or not we’re “RV people.” Look at what we just did with this vehicle. All of sudden, I realized how useful a vehicle this size with a bathroom, a bed, and a stove could be. Just wait, I thought, until we have a fridge that actually works.  
Highly recommend the hike to Coast Guard Beach, even though we got soaked.

Maire Anne toasting our buns after the great soaking.
There were two other revelatory moments. Our last full day there, we drove up to Provincetown. I hadn’t been up there in over 40 years. I didn’t know my way around. We were following our phone to get downtown. All of a sudden, we were right downtown, driving down a narrow street that wasn’t blocked off to vehicles but clearly should have been, as we were completely surrounded by wall-to-wall people. And we weren’t in a car; we were in an RV. A small RV, but an RV nevertheless. I hung the first right turn out of there, which turned out to take us down a far smaller street. And it was fine, because the Rialta isn’t really that big, and is incredibly maneuverable.
Then, that evening, as we were heading back toward the campground, we made a snap decision to stop at a very well-reviewed restaurant (The Brewster Fish House). I pulled the rig into the parking lot in front and Maire Anne jumped out to ask about the wait. I spied what looked like a parking spot all the way at the end. I drove around, pulled forward, and backed in with little more drama than you’d experience parking a Suburban. Just like when I picked the mattress up in Somerville, try that in a 40-foot Class A. (Note that, bravado aside, this isn’t a minor issue. I just read a post in one of the RVs forums on Facebook I’m now part of from someone who said they were in the Seattle area in their big Class A, and couldn’t find anywhere remotely close to the city to park it so they could go in and see the city.)
How do you park an RV in the tight parking lot of a nice restaurant? Like a boss. (Actually, like any van or SUV. It was trivial, really.)
For the trip to and back from the Cape, we averaged between 14 and 15 mpg, which I suppose isn't bad considering it included all the day-tripping up and down the Cape, and a good deal of stop-and-go traffic on the drive home.

The Downside
The major downside we experienced with the Rialta was that, even more than the trip to the Berkshires, this trip made me palpably aware of how tiny the Rialta is inside—that the small length and excellent maneuverability are purchased with the currency of interior space. When you’re driving, you’re into the vehicle part of RV, and you want it to be as small as possible, but once you’re parked, you’re into the recreation part, and you want the space. The Rialta's driveability is fabulous, but the trade-off against interior space is palpable. This is a bit ironic, as the Rialta’s original brochure touts “more recreation, less vehicle.”
As I pre-echoed in the introduction, take something as simple as shoes. Both Maire Anne and I had brought three pairs of shoes to Nickerson (decent shoes, sneakers, and sandals). That’s six pairs. We found that when you randomly drop six pairs of shoes on the floor of the Rialta, you can’t open the door to the bathroom. And that’s just shoes. You need to be absolutely relentless about not leaving things on the floor. We crammed everything we could in the cabinets, but the cabinet space is pretty limited as well.
Even our precious incredibly comfortable king-size bed created a bit of a problem. Initially we both thought “well why wouldn’t we want to keep the twin mattresses connected all the time with the fold-out board and leave the king-size memory foam mattress topper on them?” The answer is that doing so takes up half the interior space of the Rialta, and because it’s a bed, you can really only use it as a bed. If you want to keep sand and dirt out of the sheets, you can’t throw other stuff on top. And, although we could still use the area between the beds as storage space by sliding stuff under (that’s where we kept the Coleman grill, the beach chairs, the collapsible dinette table we never used, the guitar, the boogie board, the leveling blocks, and the toolbox), it never was available as floor space, which made the interior of the rig feel smaller. And we never could fit as much in there as we would’ve been able to do had it been uncovered. Plus, the vents for the cabin heater are under that board, so when we use the rig in the fall, we probably can't both have the king-size mattress deployed and have the area underneath it crammed with stuff like we did. Plus, without the floor between the beds exposed, in order to put things in the cabinets in the back, we needed to crawl onto the bed, which required taking off our shoes to keep sand out of the bed. This is hardly hardship, but it shows the trade-offs.
After a few days, the idea that we couldn’t put things on the bed because we’d get sand and dirt in the sheets went by the wayside, and we soon began stacking all sorts of things along the periphery of the mattress because, well, there was no other place to put them.
The fact that this Rialta doesn’t have a real dinette area wasn’t too problematic. The front seats turn around 180 degrees, and the 3rd seat swivels 90 degrees, allowing it and the passenger seat to face a small fold-out table. That’s what passes for a dinette in this floor plan. It worked perfectly fine for eating breakfast. 
What passes for a dinette in our floor plan -- the passenger and 3rd seat swung around and facing a very small fold-out table.
During most of the dinners where we were at the rig, we would up eating outside on the picnic table, and that was fine. As I said, we took a Coleman RoadTrip grill, which was nice to cook at out at the picnic table. The grill, though, even when folded up, ate up much of the storage space under the bed. I kept looking for a cost-effective way to mount both a cargo carrier and the bike rack in the hitch receiver so we could put the grill there, but the solutions either were expensive or dangerously extended the cantilevered load far off the back of the vehicle.
The Coleman RoadTrip grill can be seen behind the picnic table.
Another area in which the Rialta’s size is problematic is its lack of the kind of exterior storage compartments other larger RVs have. There are hatches on the Rialta's tail, but one holds the spare tire, the other the shore power line and access to the plug-in for the generator. Neither come close to being large enough for a tool box or a milk crate. This is significant because, at some point, you need to dump the sewage tank in the RV, and to do that, you need an RV dump hose, which is a collapsible accordion-like 3” diameter hose. Needless to say, in the process of doing this, the dump hose becomes, shall we say, fragrant, so you need to rinse it out with clean water, so now you need to pack a garden hose, but you don’t want it to be the same garden hose you use for your fresh water hookup, because, well, even the idea of it is gross, so now you need to pack two garden hoses. And, while washing the dump hose with let's just call it "garden hose number two," you want to be wearing disposable rubber gloves. So any reasonable person would take the RV dump hose, garden hose number two, and a box of rubber gloves, put them in a milk crate, and store them in an exterior storage compartment. But on the Rialta, there is no place to do this. Instead, there is barely enough space to stuff the dump hose in next to the shore power line, and jam both garden hoses in with the spare tire. It is far from optimal, and I find myself looking longingly at the exterior storage compartments on every other RV I see.
One other odd quirk of the Rialta is in its holding tanks. Like everything else on the rig, they’re very small. Unlike most other RVs, the shower doesn’t run off into the gray water tank—it goes to the black water (sewage) tank, and that holds only 12 gallons. If you’re going to have two people showering in the rig every day, you’d probably need to dump the RV every day. So far, Maire Anne and I have managed the issue by not using the Rialta's shower and using campground showers instead. It’s too bad, though. I’d love to test out the shower in my driveway. I’d have no qualms about dumping the shower runoff of soapy water in the driveway, but with it running into the sewage tank, obviously dumping that anywhere other than a dump site is out of the question, and there aren’t any RV dumpsites within 35 miles of my house.
So, for all of these reasons, although I really like the Rialta, and feel damn near blessed that it fell into my lap for the price it did, and Maire Anne and I will enjoy the hell out of it for these quick New England adventures (which, make no mistake about it, was the goal, and which is a great inexpensive way to do some fun things together), I do wonder if it is the right vehicle if we want to head out of state on a more classic RV adventure. The later Rialtas are a tad bigger (22 feet instead of 21), but I think something in the 24-foot range would probably be much more practical, even if that’s a more traditional American Class A or C without the cool Euro Rialta vibe. But I keep combing Craigslist, and have yet to find anything remotely close to making me want to go have a look.
And… Full Circle to Mothing
In my first installment, I described how it was an invitation to Maire Anne to go “mothing” (setting up lights and looking for moths at night) several months back that re-ignited my RV search—that if we had a vehicle we could drive out and sleep in, we might take the mothing folks up on their invitation to camp in their driveway. After we’d bought the Rialta, another mothing invitation came around, so we hopped in it and drove out to Ware MA. We did meet some great folk and see some cool moths, but the evening ended early and we simply wound up driving Bauhaus back home. Maire Anne did get to crash in the back, so the rig showed its utility. A bit anticlimactic, but 90% of life is showing up, right?
What’s Next?
Oh, a lot. There’s the new fridge, and the whole solar installation. So stay tuned.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Notes from a Novice RVer, Part III: The Purchase of Bauhaus (the 1996 Winnebago Rialta, a cross between a VW Westfalia and a blowfish)

In my last installment, I regaled you with my four simple requirements for a budget RV: It needed to cost me as little as possible, run, not be a fool’s errand, and Maire Anne had to be willing to sleep with me in it. If her first reaction to something I dragged home was “ick,” it would’ve meant I screwed up big time. I decided that I didn’t need to solve every problem while selecting my first RV; I could look at it as a starter RV in which to try short trips around New England while Maire Anne and I decided if we liked doing it. I went through a left-brained analysis of RVs in the sub-26-foot range that I found interesting, and explained that if I wanted something fuel-efficient but couldn’t afford a BMW turbodiesel-powered Vixen, the choices seemed to collapse to a Winnebago LeSharo (built on a Renault Trafic; has a reputation for trouble), a Winnebago Rialta (built on a Volkswagen Eurovan; has a somewhat smaller reputation for trouble), or one of the Class C cab-over Toyota mini-motorhomes (built on a small Tacoma; has an reputation for reliability but looks like a cinder block tying to mate with a turtle).
I was put off by the LeSharo's reliability issues, and didn't think I could ever find a Rialta I could afford, so I was drifting toward a Toyota Class C. I was about to bid on an auction for a very nice-looking 1990 Toyota Winnebago Warrior in Delaware on eBay that closed on a Saturday morning, when on a Friday night, I saw an ad that made me have one of those drop-everything moments we car people live for.
1996 Rialta Needs Repair $3500
1996 Rialta needs mechanical and cosmetic work. 2 years ago this month, I started up the road to get an inspection sticker. It died 1/4 mile in, had it towed to my local garage where they replaced the alternator and battery. On the way home, the oil pressure alarm went off. Replaced both high and low pressure sensors but still alarmed. Oil pressure was fine. Baffled mechanic kept it all summer without success, although the low bill made me wonder how much time he actually worked on it. There are also lots of Winnebago side repairs needed. There is a newly discovered water leak on attempting to fill fresh water tank. The awning needs a hardware pin for one arm. Windshield gasket has pulled away in the corners, but have had lots of rain with no visible leaks. No spare tire cover, fridge runs on electric and battery but not propane. Generator runs but shuts off, perhaps simply due to 1/4 tank of gas. Had locking gas cap that was seized, got a locksmith over to remove. New cap is ordered, supposed to be shipped by Monday. Has twin beds with a plywood hinge to convert to full, all extra cushions available. Rebuilt transmission at 80,000 miles (prior owner but have records) no trans cooler or dipstick. I purchased in 2010 for $12,000 and put $4,000 into it, then... water pump, tie rods, ball joints, fans, timing belt. 3 years ago replaced cracked skylight and vent fan cover. Will need tires.
I’d noticed in my Craigslist perusals that there are a lot of obvious scams for desirable RVs including Rialtas, but from the detailed description, multiple photos, and price that didn't mysteriously end in "234," this didn’t appear to be one of them. There was no phone number listed, but I emailed the seller as fast as my fingers could type. I hoped to hear back before the auction for the Toyota closed on Saturday morning.
Fortunately, I did, and spoke at length with Maureen, the owner. We hit it off immediately. She described in detail the oil pressure sensor problem referred to in the ad, and how the mechanic had put a mechanical oil pressure gauge on the engine and verified that the pressure itself was fine. I explained that I was looking for a small RV with a certain vibe for weekend trips with my wife, how the mechanical and cosmetic punch list didn’t bother me, and that, if her Rialta ran and it wasn’t rusty, I’d put cash in her hand right now.
Maureen said I was the first to call (yay), and the car was at her house in Mattapoisett on the southern Massachusetts coast, but that she was working all weekend so it would be easiest if she showed me the rig on Monday (boo). I said that, if that’s what needed to happen, I could make myself available on Monday, but gently pressed that I’d prefer to look at it as soon as humanly possible because at that price, she was about to get deluged with e-mail and sight-unseen offers. I explained that sight-unseen offers can be very tempting, but often turn into a time sink because people, understandably, want as many photographs as possible. I repeated that, if the vehicle was solid and ran, I could make something happen then and there. I also explained how, just two weeks prior, I was in exactly the same first-in-line-but-can’t-see-it-until-Monday situation with a well-priced BMW 2002tii, and how I’d lost it to someone who brow-beat the seller into letting him cut in line and then stuck cash in his face. Maureen, to her enormous credit, arranged for her husband to show me the rig. I dropped everything, and on a gorgeous early summer Saturday morning, my son Ethan and I took an hour and drove down to Mattapoisett.
The 1996 Winnebago Rialta I never thought I could afford that fell from the sky (well, from Craigslist) into my lap. That's Ethan standing in front.
After looking at that other inexpensive Rialta in NH a few months back and finding it completely rotted underneath, the first thing I did when I saw this one was don my Tyvek suit and crawl underneath the rig. The undercarriage was absolutely fine, with just a bit of surface rust where the undercoating was flaking off. A walk-around revealed some battle scars—the door for the spare tire compartment was missing, the corners of the windshield gasket were pulled away as described in the ad, there were some cracks in the front bumper, and the rear bumper corner trim pieces were missing—but in general it had the appearance of a happy vehicle, well-used but not neglected.
Then I went inside it. I’d only been in one Rialta—the rusty one in New Hampshire—and although that short visit left me pleasantly surprised with the rig’s light and airy interior vibe, I hadn’t paid much attention to the details. This time I did.
Now, Maire Anne and I had two VW Westfalia campers back in the day, a ’69 Type 2 bus and a 1980 Vanagon. They both certainly had their charm, but they didn’t feel like they had actual living space. Westfalias are small vans with a little fold-out bed to crash on and a stove and sink and icebox that are perilously close to toys. I was looking for something one size bigger than a Westfalia, something that was still trim and easy to drive and park but also gave you not just somewhere cramped to crash for the night, but the feeling that there was interior living space, even if that space was small.
As I said in the last installment, the Rialta is a Volkswagen Eurovan cab with a Winnebago body on it. That technically makes it a Class C RV, even though it doesn’t have the cab-over overhang associated with most Class Cs. However, because it’s so clearly a “campervan,” it’s frequently referred to as a Class B. None of this really matters; it’s just interesting to have learned enough about the RV classes to be able to understand the distinction.

     It's not a secret that the Rialta is a Volkswagen Eurovan; the VW logo is plainly visible in the center of the grille and on the dashboard, and there's a Eurovan owner's manual in the glove box. However, in terms of sales and service, it's branded as a Winnebago Rialta, and the graphics on the outside of the rig announcing it as such dwarf the VW logos. So if you were unaware of its existence, so was I.
The Rialta’s Winnebago body is both longer and wider than the original Eurovan, sticking out about nine inches on each side, though the stick-out is beveled, so it looks sleeker than most other Class Cs where the transition from cab to coach is abrupt, perhaps looking a bit like a small version of the hotel and rental car buses you see at airports. The total effect is that it looks and feels like a Eurovan Westfalia camper puffed up like a blowfish. Although it’s tiny by RV standards, it is, in fact, much bigger inside than a Westfalia, and if you’re used to Westfalias, you walk inside the Rialta and go “ooooooooh.”
The Rialta's smooth bump-out makes it more streamlined than most Class Cs.
There’s a wet bath (an integrated shower stall and toilet) which is particularly ingenious because, when you need to use the shower, the walls slide forward into the cabin’s floor space, and when you don’t, they slide back, allowing you to reclaim the valuable space. There a little kitchen area with a microwave, propane stove, sink, and a small three-way refrigerator (more on that pesky three-way in another installment). But, again, judged by RV standards, Rialtas are tiny. These early five-cylinder 100hp models (‘96s and ‘97s) clock in at just 21 feet; the later VR6-equipped models (140hp ’98 through 2000; 201hp ’01 through ‘05) are 22 feet. Both are available with several different floor plans. This one has twin beds in the back with a fold-out that connects them, a 3rd seat in the kitchen area, and a tiny fold-out table. If you swivel the front passenger seat and the 3rd seat, they face the table, giving you what passes for a dining area. If you want a bigger table, you have to go with the floor plan that gives you two bench seats in the back that then fold out into a bed when you fold up the table. Such are the Swiss Army Knife games played with space in small RVs.
The twin beds. A board underneath the right-hand bed can be folded between them, and the small cushion on the right placed on it to join them. You also can see the large rear window, which gives oodles of visibility when driving, and provides a great spacious feeling while parked.
The kitchen, if three feet of space qualifies as a kitchen.

The passenger seat swung around and facing the 3rd seat, with the tiny fold-out table between them.
I said that one of the perceived advantages of the motorhome configuration over a trailer is that the passenger gets to use a motorhome’s interior space while it’s being driven, allowing him or her to get up, stretch his or her legs, use the rest room, get a cold drink out of the fridge, take a nap in the bed if desired, etc. However, although the Rialta is certainly bigger than a Westfalia, and its headroom is adequate for five-foot-eight-inch me, there’s no pretending that it has real walking-around space. In fact, the front seats are so close together that the act of getting up from the front and walking between the seats into the coach risks ankle entanglement.
Still, Maureen’s Rialta was exactly what I said I was looking for. It not only was “something one size up from a Westfalia,” it was literally the Volkswagen-based RV one size up from a Westfalia. And I was very pulled in by the fact that the interior didn’t have the slightest meth lab / porn studio vibe of nearly every other inexpensive RV I’d looked at online. It had a lighter airier European feel.
And then I noticed something very cool. The extra seat in the kitchen area (if you can call a three-foot section in something this small a “kitchen area”) was upholstered in a wild fabric. I looked around inside the coach, and noticed that this fabric was echoed in accent panels on some of the walls. When I pulled up the covers on the front seats, I saw this same fabric, worn to ribbons on the bottom cushions. When I got home that evening and searched for Rialta options, I learned that this interior motif was called “Bauhaus,” and that it extended to the mattress covers, which unfortunately were missing.
The Bauhaus fabric on the 3rd seat and on the trim panel on the wall.
I’d been talking about finding an RV with the right “vibe,” and said that I didn’t know what that was, but I’d know it when I saw it. It was as if the rig was saying “I got yer vibe right here, pal.”
Ethan and I climbed in. I turned the key, the rig fired right up, and I immediately heard the audible oil pressure warning Maureen had described. There was also a flashing temperature light on the dashboard. It was way too early in the warm-up for the light to be a legitimate temperature warning; the gauge was still reading cold. I checked the coolant level in the reservoir and it was fine.
With its Audi-derived five-cylinder 100 horsepower engine, the rig wasn’t going to let me do burnouts in parking lots, but it ran and drove and shifted fine. I’d be lying if I said it felt familiar, as I’d never driven a Eurovan, and as I wouldn’t expect its automatic front wheel drive platform to feel like the rear engine rear wheel drive four-speed air-cooled and waterboxed Vanagons I’d owned. But it did feel fairly tight and “European.”
Another really nice thing I noticed was the bank of windows down the right side of the rig that gave great visibility; I didn’t need to rely exclusively on the mirrors to check for cars while changing lanes. And when, at the end of the test drive, I needed to turn around by banging a left onto a vacant side street and swinging the rig around, I was astonished at how small the turning radius was. It was little different than driving a minivan.
When I returned to Maureen’s house, I needed to back the vehicle down the driveway. For my old geophysics job, I used to drive a big pickup truck with a utility body on the back that completely blocked the rear view mirror, so I’m quite used to backing up while relying only on the side mirrors. I began to do that with the Rialta, and then remembered all the glass in the rig. I looked behind me, and saw the enormous rear window. I knew that it was there and that was a massive contributor to the vehicle’s airy feel, but hadn’t thought of it in terms of making the rig more easily park-able.
And this is how we buy an unfamiliar vehicle. There’s the whole intellectual and research part of it, but at some point, we find that we like certain small things, and our gut says “yeah, I think I’d enjoy owning and driving this.”
It seemed to satisfy all my requirements. I could afford it. It ran. It didn’t seem like it was a fool’s errand (I didn’t think I’d be working on it every waking hour for months before the first road trip). And, with that cool Bauhaus interior, there was a good chance Maire Anne would actually sleep with me in it.
I called Maureen, asked her a few questions about the warning lights and buzzers, and told her that I totally wanted to buy her Rialta.
I then asked her the question that has become the center of my negotiating strategy, if you want to call it that. It is a very simple and disarming question: “What do you need to get for it?” Note the difference between this question and “What’s the least you’ll take for it?” The former interrogatory is far more human and respectful and far less confrontational than the latter. And it is astonishing what people will say when you ask them this simple respectful question. Note, though, that when you ask it, you are in a sense skipping a step in the negotiating process. That is, if a vehicle is advertised at a price, it is normally incumbent upon you, the buyer, to make a counter-offer. When you instead ask “what do you need to get for it,” you’re essentially asking the seller to lower their price unilaterally. Personally, I feel that, in order to keep the negotiation respectful, if the seller names a new lower price, and it’s reasonable, you pretty much need to accept that answer and not try to get them lower out of sport. In this case, her asking price was already extremely low.
“Well,” said Maureen, “I know that it needs work. How about three grand and I’ll throw in the new locking gas cap I ordered when it arrives, and the TV my husband bought me for it that I never wanted?”
When I went back that evening to meet Maureen, hand over the money and pass papers, and pick up the rig, she showed me the owner’s and repair manuals, folders of receipts, and important articles she’d printed out from several Rialta forums. She was, as they say, a power user.
We negotiated over just one thing. There was a poster in the back of the rig showing a seagull with its feet in the surf, accompanied by the Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) quote “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.” I mock-complained as Maureen went to remove it: “Oh… you’re taking that? I really liked its vibe.” She hesitated for about half a second, then said “you’re right. It belongs with the vehicle.” I tried to explain that I was mostly joking, but the deed was done. It stayed.
Maureen and I said our goodbyes and vowed to stay in touch, which we have. On the hour-long drive home, the Rialta ran hotter than I would preferred, making this vintage BMW owner feel right at home, but exhibited no other major problems.
In the morning, the moment of truth: I showed the rig to Maire Anne. The past few years, my wife has gotten heavily into quilting; when I go into the garage to play with cars, she’ll go upstairs to play with fabric. So when she saw the Rialta’s Bauhaus fabric, she said “Oh, I LOVE it!”
Then, she looked me in the eyes and said as only a wife can: “I’ll totally sleep with you in this.”
Double score.
The rig was quickly christened Bauhaus. ("Christened" as in "named" :^)
So, for now, there will be no vixen in a Vixen. But there will definitely be a babe in the Bauhaus.

[Next: So, are we RV people are not?]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Notes From a Novice RVer, Part II: The Education

In my last piece, I wrote about how the desire to do something fun with Maire Anne, combined with our history of owning Volkswagen buses and Westfalia campers and with my re-acquaintance with the existence of the oddball small fuel-efficient BMW turbodiesel-powered 5-speed Vixen motorhome, got me looking in late spring for a small affordable RV.
First, why an RV and not a trailer? It's a fair question. If you have a truck and a trailer, you separate the requirements of the tow vehicle from those of the living space, theoretically making it easier to select both. You can buy the truck you want, then cut the trailer sausage, so to speak, to whatever length you desire. And, when you arrive at a campsite, you can de-couple the truck and trailer ("drop hook," as truckers say), and use the truck as the grocery-getter. Now, I love the industrial design of Airstream trailers, but right now I no longer own a Suburban to tow one with, and even if I did, I don’t want a truck and a trailer occupying most of my driveway. Others raised the option of a small pop-up camper trailer or one of the new small teardrop campers that can be pulled behind a passenger car.  
If those options are appealing to you, research them, but note that little trailers are bedding only; they don't have plumbing or appliances. Maire Anne and I both liked the idea of the motorhome configuration that gives the passenger access to the RV amenities such as the bed and refrigerator and bathroom while the vehicle is in motion.

       If you don’t know—and I certainly didn’t—RVs fall into three basic categories. They all have sleeping space, stove, refrigerator, toilet, shower, running water, and the three necessary tanks (fresh water, gray water, and sewage). Nearly all of them have a "shore power" line to supply house current (120 VAC) needed to power the a/c-only appliances such as the rooftop air conditioner and the microwave, as well as an on-board generator to provide the 120 VAC if shore power isn't available. They also typically have a 12 volt battery bank, separate from the vehicle battery, to power the RV's DC-only devices such as coach lighting. 
Class A RVs are purpose-built motorhomes. They're not just a truck or van design with a different body slapped on the back. The best-known ones are the size of a bus, chock full of amenities such as large flat screen TVs and dishwashers. Many of the newer large Class As have “slider” modules that bump out the width when the RV isn’t in motion, but the older ones are a monolithic rectangle. Large Class As have oodles of space (above a certain size, they usually include separate bedrooms), but they can’t easily be parked in places other than your destination campsites. You’d be very unlikely to try to parallel-park one in a city, which is why you frequently see big Class A motorhomes towing a small vehicle that’s used as a grocery-getter. However, not all Class As are the size of a Greyhound; there are Class As as short as 20 feet. Again, Class A simply means that it's a purpose-built motorhome. Depending on the size, Class As may have a front-mounted V8 gas engine or a diesel engine, often in a pusher configuration in the back. In the motorsport world, people who need to both transport a race car and sleep at the track sometimes refer to Class A diesel pushers that are large enough to trailer a car as “towterhomes.” And, whether it's gas or diesel, no full-sized Class A is fuel-efficient; 6 to 8 mpg is where it's going to live. 
Your basic big old Class A RV
Class B RVs are “campervans”--van conversions that still retain the original basic footprint of the van but add the bedding, kitchen, and plumbing of an RV. In the past, Class Bs almost always included roof extension, either a pop-up or a fixed bump-out. You would think that the VW Westfalia would be the best-known Class B, but because it's so small that it doesn't contain a toilet, a shower, a sewage tank, a generator, a shore power line, or appliances that run off 120VAC, it's not really considered an RV. In the 1970s and 80s, there were numerous American Class B campervans built on Dodge, Chevy, and Ford van platforms that were perhaps a step up from the "shag wagons" depicted in the Sammy Johns song, but not a big step. Nowadays, there are lovely Class Bs based on high-ceiling vans like the Mercedes Sprinter, but those are a long way from falling down into my price range.
A1980s-era Class B based on a Dodge RAM van with a fixed roof extension.
There's no getting around the fact that Class Bs are small. In order to maximize use of interior space, they are often Swiss Army Knife-like in terms of dinette tables that stow away and bench seats that fold into beds, and frequently employ a configuration called a “wet bath” where the toilet and shower occupy the same stall. The pop-top or odd-looking roof-top bump-out in a Class B RV is used to increase headroom and typically also to provide sleeping space. Class Bs typically sleep only two people, or perhaps two adults and two small children, with the kids up top. 
Class C RVs are built when an RV manufacturer orders only the "cab" section of a truck or van, and adds a "coach" body onto the back. Most Class Cs are easily identifiable by their “cab-over” configuration where bed space in the coach extends over the roof of the cab. However, as we'll see later, Class Cs don't have to have a "cab-over" section. If it's built by adding a coach body to the cab of an existing truck or van, it's a Class C. If it does have an overhang with bed space, whether that's the only bed space or not depends on the size of the RV. Class Cs can be as short as about 20 feet, or as long as about 33 feet.

Class C RV, with the recognizable "cab-over" overhang, based on a Ford van.
To make things more confusing, small Class As and Class Cs without overhangs are often incorrectly called Class Bs, and the terms “mini-motorhome” and “campervan” are often applied to all three classes. Because of all this, you can’t trust the class-based classifications on eBay, RVTrader, and other sites; you need to figure out which models appeal to you and search for them directly.
With this background, I learned that much the appeal of the Vixen 21TD (which, because it was a purpose-built motorhome, is a small Class A but is often listed as a Class B) was and is that it is 21 feet long (just two feet longer than a Suburban) and its BMW M21 turbodiesel engine gets as much as 29 mpg if driven at 55 mph. Further, with the engine in the rear in a pusher configuration, the Vixen’s nose is very short, which maximizes its interior space, and it has a low pop-up roof, which allows it to fit into a standard garage. To top it off, the 21TD is a 5-speed. That’s a pretty appealing combination. In contrast, the later Vixen 21SEs lose their BMW-powered cachet; they have a conventional Buick V6 gas engine, automatic transmission, and a roof-mounted air conditioner that precludes garage-ability.
Let me take a step back for a moment and say a couple of things. First, if you look at the above photos and say "gee, Rob, the pics you're showing are of old junky RVs," you got me. Yes they are. That's because I was looking for something in the three to four thousand dollar range, and we'll get to that.
Second, RV stands for Recreational Vehicle. It took me a while to understand that, while you're driving an RV, you're into the vehicle part of it, but when it's parked, you're into the recreational part of it. That is, when you've arrived at your destination, the bigger the RV is, the more room you'll have to spread out inside, and the more comfortable you'll be. In contrast, while you're driving it, the smaller it is, the better, in terms of turning radius, visibility, park-ability, and fuel economy. You can easily park a 40-ft Class A in the parking lot of a Walmart, but, for most people, when the vehicle size passes 21 feet, it can't be, say, easily swung into the small parking space in front of a little antique store you just saw, or easily parked at a restaurant where Zagat has advised has the best meal in town.
Third, where the bed is, how big it is, and whether it is a permanent bed or a Swiss Army Knife-like fold-up has a huge impact on the floor space of a small RV. In a small cab-over Class C, the bed is in the overhang, which means that the floor space in the coach is that much larger because it doesn't need to have the bed as part of it. Of course, the tradeoff is that you have to climb up and down out of the overhang to get in and out of the bed. In a small Class A or B, the bed is on the floor. If it's a full-time full-size bed, it's probably taking up half your interior space. If, on the other hand, the dinette table folds up and its two benches fold out to form the bed, that's far more space-efficient, but those cushions are never going to be as comfortable as a real mattress. Safari, who makes some smallish Class As, solves this problem by having a "magic bed" that descends from the ceiling. If it also played the Austin Powers theme while it came down, I might buy one.
With that background, a big part of the appeal to me of the Vixen was that it was one step larger than the VW Westfalia campers we used to have, with a little more space, a toilet, and a shower, but still easily park-able. And fuel-efficient. And with a manual transmission. And a full-sized bed in the back. And a cool vibe.
Thinking that I wanted something like a Vixen, I began looking at other fuel-efficient RVs. I learned that there aren’t many (like three), that I basically had to give up on the standard transmission, and that, like the Vixen, anything fuel-efficient also has a reputation as being badly underpowered as judged by the metric of the big hill climbs in the American west. You can't beat the laws of physics.
The first Vixen alternative I found is the Winnebago LeSharo (also sold as the Itasca Phasar) that was built from 1983 through 1992 on a Renault Trafic platform. They were 20 feet long and available with small gas and diesel engines. The gas ones were even available with a standard transmission, and some enthusiasts roll their own and mate the stick with the diesel. LeSharos have a cult following, but not a great reputation for reliability. Because this is a Renault Trafic cab with a Winnebago coach on the back, I'd call it a Class C without an overhang, but it is often listed as a Class B. The sides of the coach body don't stick out abruptly from the cab like most Class Cs, instead being nicely beveled, giving it a streamlined look.
A Winnebago LeSharo -- a Renault Trafic cab with a Winnebago body on the back.
Winnebago followed the LeSharo with the Winnebago Rialta, which is built on a Volkswagen Eurovan platform, sort of a Eurovan Westfalia camper on steroids, and, like the LeSharo, has bevels where the coach body joins the cab making it look streamlined. I was astonished that I didn't know this vehicle existed. Here I was looking for something one size larger than a Volkswagen Westfalia camper, and that "something" was in fact another Volkswagen. It's not a secret that the Rialta is built on a Eurovan (the big VW logo is still in the middle of the grille), but it's branded as a Winnebago, and the big "Winnebago Rialta" graphics dwarf anything on the exterior that still says "VW."
The ’95 and ’96 Rialtas have the Audi-derived 100 hp 5-cylinder engine; the 1997 through 2003 rigs had the more powerful and thus desirable VR6 motor. Owing to their VW DNA, Rialtas also have a cult following, but like the LeSharo, they also don't have a great reputation for reliability, and their looks-okay-runs-okay price of about $14,000 for a 5-cylinder rig and about $20,000 for a VR6-equipped rig put them out of my price range. However, in terms of both size and vibe, both the LeSharo and the Rialta, with their European feel, streamlined exterior, and fuel efficiency, seemed to be what I was looking for.
A Winnebago Rialta, built on a Volkswagon Eurovan.
If you are willing to give up on fuel efficiency, there are a variety of small-ish Class A motorhomes, in lengths from about 20 to 26 feet, powered by American V8s, for relatively short money. For a couple of nights, I became interested in the classic GMC Motorhome from the 1970s. They’re 26 feet long, larger than I’d prefer, but small by modern standards. The GMCs are cool, have a strong enthusiast following, and were available in some stunningly mod ‘70s-era color and fabric schemes, but unfortunately their Oldsmobile 455 cubic inch V8 engines are reportedly good for about six miles per gallon. In fairness, no motorhome is small or light, and poor fuel economy is commonplace.
A 1970s GMC Motorhome, this one with the "Palm Beach" package. Yes, this is the urban assault vehicle used in "Stripes." No, this one wouldn't be "short money."
I went gaga over a photo I saw of a 20’ Airstream Argosy, a motorhome with some of the look and feel of the Airstream trailers, whose paint had been stripped off and metal polished so it looked like a B-29 bomber. I learned that these 20’ Argosy motorhomes are rare and highly collectible. The 24’ models are more readily available. I spent several nights obsessively searching for these. They've got a great vibe, but like any V8-powered RV, the fuel economy is poor.
A very rare 20' Airstream Argosy with a polished exterior.
As I said, there are a whole variety of Class Cs RVs built on American vans, and when looking in the low thousands of dollars, they probably represent the best overall RV value in terms of size, space, and driveability. However, even though having the bed in the cab-over space is hugely space-efficient, they do nothing for me, both in terms of the exterior appearance (I can't get past the looks-like-a-van-that-crashed-through-a-wall styling) and the behind-the-wheel experience.
But then I stumbled on a very interesting Class C. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Toyota used their Hilux pickup truck (the predecessor of the Tacoma) as the basis for a number of Class C mini-motorhomes. Available with four and then six cylinder engines and with a variety of coach bodies from numerous manufacturers including Winnebago, these vehicles combine good (teens) fuel economy with Toyota reliability. The downsides are low power like every other fuel-efficient RV, and the feeling that you’re driving something that looks like a Goliath beetle mating with a mosquito. That is, Class Cs generally have a coach that’s wider than the vehicle cab, but on the Toyotas, the cab of the truck on which it’s built is so small that the mismatch is particularly pronounced.
One of many configurations of Toyota Class C mini-motorhomes.
With the above basic knowledge, I did what I do: I pounded on Craigslist and eBay relentlessly for several weeks to see what I could scare up. I learned that:
--There are many motorhomes, in poor condition from sitting, for sale for short money. If you want a $500 motorhome, you can find one. Hell, if you want a free motorhome, you can probably find one. Many people buy an RV thinking they're going to retire and do the Lost in America thing, use it once, park it, the vehicle deteriorates, it needs a ton of work, and the sellers want out. Over and above the standard hydraulics / fuel / exhaust /tires issues that all motor vehicles have from sitting, there are all of the RV-specific issues. All that square yardage of roof is prone to leakage, causing water damage to the interior. The heating, cooling, and plumbing systems go to seed. Propane heaters and refrigerators will no longer light. At some point, the vehicle is junk. If you've got some big old Class A that's been sitting in your backyard for five years, and the interior is water-damaged and smells of rodent urine and is in danger of being classified as a Hantavirus hazard, and the tires are flat, and it doesn't start, you may well have to pay someone to haul it off.
--If you're shopping in the low thousands of dollars range, you're probably looking at 30 year old (and older) rigs whose decor was, shall we say, trailer park even when it was new, and certainly hasn't improved with age. Patina is only appealing on the outside of cars. On Naugahyde and particle board, not so much.
--When you spend low thousands of dollars to buy a motorhome, it looks like a meth lab.
--When you spend mid thousands of dollars, you graduate from meth lab to porn studio. Seriously, what is the appeal of all those square feet of dark paneling?
--At high thousands of dollars, the porn studio vibe largely dissipates in favor of way too much country kitchen, bad wallpaper, and fru-fru curtains.
--In order to buy something that even remotely approached the point where Maire Anne would walk into it and say “wow!” I’d need to spend multiple tens of thousands of dollars. However, “wow” wasn’t a goal. But if Maire Anne's first reaction to something I bought was “ick,” it’d mean I screwed up big time.
I quickly learned that, really, class and size were secondary, and I could even swallow my leftist aversion to owning something with abysmal fuel economy; what I was primarily looking for was a rig with a certain vibe. That vibe could be retro, like a vintage Airstream Argosy or a GMC Palm Beach, or simply something without the yards of dark paneling and country kitchen cabinets. It didn't need to have granite counter tops and stainless-steel appliances, but it needed to feel like, well, like us. I didn't know what that even meant, but I knew I’d know it when I saw it. 
Now, I often think about buying cars as a flexible quadrilateral consisting of four things: Content (what the thing actually is), condition, price, and distance. That is, it’s easiest if a vehicle is roughly the model and option package you want, in about the condition you want, for about what you want to pay, and is close enough where you can go see it, buy it, and drive it home, but if it’s in Oshkosh and in great shape and a smokin’ good deal, perhaps you’ll risk the sight-unseen thing and go full-on damn the logistics hit the Buy it Now and figure it all out later. So I would’ve gone to see a right-priced 24’ Airstream Argosy or even a 26’ GMC if I found one that looked good online and was nearby. Or perhaps I would’ve had another run at a distant dead or challenged Vixen if the price point was aggressive.
In my first round of searching, it was liberating when I realized that I didn’t, in fact, have to solve every potential problem of long-term RV ownership with this first purchase. That is, I wasn’t looking for something Maire Anne and I could immediately hop into and drive to Arches National Park in. I was looking for something we could have small New England adventures in. A few weekends at the beach. Some fall trips in New Hampshire. It could be a “starter” RV. It could help me to learn what the next one should be. Or even that we weren’t RV people. We'd learn what we would learn. It just needed to run, cost me as little as possible, not be a fool’s errand, and not scare Maire Anne off. Those were the requirements. (I, who spent 30 years as an engineer, am very good at developing lists of requirements, which sometimes are right on the money, and sometimes are so wide of the mark that I marvel that I understand anything at all.)
I had a drop-everything moment when I saw a Winnebago Rialta advertised in New Hampshire for six grand. It was at a storage area, being sold for non-payment of fees. I beat feet (well, rolled rubber) up there to see it. I'd never set foot inside a Rialta before, and I was quite impressed. Although it was quite small inside, basically a Westfalia camper with a slightly larger kitchen area and a wet bath, the Rialta’s interior had exactly the kind of nice clean light airy European vibe I was looking for, including a large rear window that let in a lot of light. Unfortunately, this one was completely rotted underneath. I passed.
I continued searching. I saw an ad for a Toyota Class C mini-motorhome where someone had simply painted the interior white, and that simple change just lit the place up all bright and airy. Instant vibe. Suddenly my search preferences seemed to collapse to Toyota Class Cs and a gallon of white paint and a roller. Those that were advertised around Boston and were well-priced sold quite quickly. I realized that I needed to be very decisive.
A nice-looking six-cylinder 20’ Toyota Warrior Class C with 63,000 miles and the six-cylinder engine popped up on eBay. It looked very clean and tidy in the photographs. All of the RV systems reportedly worked. It was in Delaware, which is relatively easy striking distance. Bidding had stalled at $5400. The auction closed on a Saturday morning. Summer was starting in a few weeks. I thought, you know, if I could pick this up for six grand, I could do worse. The preceding Friday night, I resolved to wake up, bid aggressively at the last moment, and make it mine.
The Toyota Warrior Class C I almost bought.

And then, that evening, something most unexpected popped up on Craigslist.
[Next installment: The Winnebago Rialta you all already know that I bought.]