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.]

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