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?]


  1. Great series of posts. My wife and I travelled a similar road a couple of years ago. Weighing option A vs B and so on. We ended up in a different place, buying a 23' Winnebago Warrior Class A, but the process was similar and you really did a good and entertaining job describing your process. Thanks.

  2. Hey, Bill, thanks. I really appreciate that! In my next piece, you'll see that, while I love the Rialta, it really is a bit small, and if I do it again with longer trips in mind, I'd look in the 24-ft range like you.