Members motor – Howard and Debbie Nelson, Bertha

HYW 929N was purchased September 2018 from a very nice young man in our local village who had dreams greater than his wallet, patience and available time. After buying the van (for too much), spending £1,000 on panels to replace the obviously rusty ones, he sadly decided that the project was going to be too much for him.

So, the acquisition took place, in the dark, in the rain, without an opportunity to take a good hard look at what I was buying. The “right way” to buy a 45 year old vehicle (not!).

The bus is a 1974 (registered early 1975) Type 2 VW “Bay-Window” bus. The Chassis number 2342009591 confirms it is a “Kombi” (23); built in 1974 (4); built as a Bus (2); production number 009591.

It appears to have been painted a few different shades of green, ending up as a slightly metallic Hammerite-like darkish green.

In the cold light of day, the “gamble” didn’t look to be too disastrous. After borrowing a “beaver tail” to pick up the van, a closer inspection determined that the rot-worm had been hard at work – but I expected no less to be perfectly honest. All the insides were, well, inside the van which saved me some time in dismantling etc.

I am well known in the family for my “projects” – usually rusty vehicles dating back decades, so nothing new in my behaviour. What was a surprise was the positive reaction from friends and family about the new venture.

Everyone (nearly) loves a VW Camper and wife, Debbie and daughters got on board quickly and were fully bought-in. My son, however, couldn’t quite see the point of something that was slower than a very slow thing – he might come round when he finds a use for a quiet place to sleep.

Debbie and I headed off to the Busfest 2018 at the 3 Counties Showground, Malvern – one of the largest bus-only events in the calendar. I had a very long list of parts to price, identify and maybe buy. Debbie was far more interested in the aesthetics and the life-style implications of our newest acquisition.

Decisions on interior lay-out; internal and external colour scheme and camping paraphernalia were useful to have made early on – it was a great shot in the arm to get going on the hard work, having been inspired by the finished products – many of which were in beautiful condition.

Key decisions were made – after seeing a beautiful “splitty” we were sold on the pale beige / grey spectrum of colours. A web-trawl of colours led us to a shortlist of two grey shades. Beige Grey (L472) or Seagull Grey (L347). The top-half white was easier with Pastel White (L90D) being the choices.

Test pieces of each grey shade concluded in Beige Grey (L472) being the colour of choice.

A decision on a full-width bed resulted in key decisions about the type of units that would fit in. Fewer units and more open space was the general consensus. However, first the hard work.

The bus was parked in the yard of my mate “Scratch” (to his friends) – David Nield to the authorities!

The deal was that I would do as much of the preparation (cutting out rust, forming replacement patches and panels) and Scratch would advise and do the skilful welding and “tricky bits”.

We agreed to go quarter by quarter and started at the driver’s side front wheel well, arches and floor. It looked to be by far the worst corner so that is where we started.

Front cross-member was removed from the vehicle to make repairs to the cross member itself and the chassis area behind. This was welded with thick gauge steel, red-oxided, painted with smooth Hammerite and given a protective layer of black WaxOil sealer ensuring that inside box section were given a liberal coat as well. Nothing going to get through that lot!

Pretty much everything below knee level needed to be replaced. This included front and rear jack-points; front and rear wheel arches; inner and outer sills; front deformation panel (behind the bumper); both sides of cab floor; rear quarters; long side panel; seat belt fixing mounts and numerous internal closing panels.

Working from the driver’s side door, floor panels; seat belt fixing plate; front wheel arch were all replaced and then continuing to do the same for the passenger side.

The front has had a “bash” at some stage and the front deformation panel has had damage and rot repaired – this was cut out and a new panel put in place. This required spot welds every inch to be drilled and /or chiselled out before drilling about 30x 6mm holes for “puddle-welding” the new panel in place. The whole of the off-side was totally rusted through requiring all the inner sills, central sills and outside panels to be cut out and new metal welded in. The golden rule of panel replacement had been ignored in the past with the new panel simply being welded over the old rotten panel – thereby starting the rot cycle all over again.

The old (but newer) rear arch was removed (under ½ inch of filler); then a new inner arch was made from the not too bad panel and a new outer panel over the wheel arch welded in.

All would have been unnecessary if the repair had been done correctly first time around.

Half a new floor panel was also added with remedial welding of inner wheel tub undertaken. Front and rear closing panels to each wheel tub also added (they were so rusty they were non-existent!).

The extra rigidity and strength was apparent immediately.

Rear quarter panels at each side were also replaced as were new battery trays at each side (one for the leisure battery).

Rear engine compartment lid and rear window panels were sound only in need of cosmetic attention.

Bodywork welding was completed on 1 December. A total of nearly £2,000 worth of panels had been welded in place plus numerous small hand-made patches. Welding labour costs added another £1,000 not counting a few hundred hours of my non-costed time.

Floor repaired and treated with “Raptor” – then lined with sound-deadening material, 12mm ply and vinyl flooring and lining material. The engine strip-down was an interesting mixture of nuts, bolts and screws that were either finger tight and about to fall off, and stubborn fixings that required some serious flames and leverage to dislodge.

Good news on the engine front. Starter motor, distributor, clutch, plugs, ignition electrics etc. all look new and perfectly reusable. The “tin-ware” that is an integral part of the cooling system for the air-cooled engine, was complete but in need of degreasing, blasting and powder coating.

The main guts of the engine (which was working before removal) was showing signs of age and a decision had to be made to use as-is; refurbish; or go for a rebuilt unit with new “internals”. As the engine was out and stripped, it sort of made sense to go for the long-game and buy a completely new (rebuilt) engine.

The best deal around looked to be a like-for-like replacement of the 1600cc engine with an upgraded engine from the Engine Shop – their 1641cc “Big Bore Super Street” engine looked the right balance between performance and cost.

A twin carb. set-up was also added using the Dual-Weber 34 ICT (Twin Port) system with a new stainless steel “Quiet Pack” single exhaust completing the mechanicals.

Because the whole of the heating system had been removed and the heat-exchangers with them, 2 J pipes were added to take exhaust gasses directly from the exhaust outlets.

Electronic ignition was installed using a Petronix Vacuum Advance Distributor and “Flame-thrower” coil.

A “Super Flyer” gearbox from Limebug was fitted, with longer gearing adding approximately 10mph for same rpm – more able to cope with sensible cruising speeds and making the whole experience more “liveable”. A pair of new dropped spindles were put up front, lowering the front by approximately 2 inches. I wanted to keep a reasonably “stock” look but lowering a little was going to help with the over-all stance and handling.

When fully loaded minor (if any) adjustment would be needed for the rear. The front disc brakes were in decent condition just requiring a little refurb and new pads, flexible hoses and some new brake pipes. As all four wheels and tyres needed to be replaced I took the opportunity to assess what size wheels to go forward with and whether using traditional looking steels or Porsche style alloys etc.

Ultimately decided to stay with traditional looking white steel wheels with cap centres. However, 15 inch over 14 inch wheels appealed – filling the arches a bit more without going over-board.

A set of former Mercedes steels were bought on eBay for 1p (yes, a farthing each). Blasted and powder coated with RAL 9010 same as the bumpers.

Chrome (as opposed to painted) hubs were “tapped” into the wheels for security. Tyres were tested for fit with both 205/70R15 and 195/65R15 getting the “rub test” treatment. 195s have pretty much the same rolling circumference as the original 185/80R14 so no trouble with speedo etc. However,

the 205s looked better with a slightly wider feel and filled the arches better. However, after fitting all the interior and with “two-up” in the front the smaller 195/65/15 were fitted at the front to avoid the occasional bump/rub caused by the Norfolk roads.

White wall tyres were fitted to keep that traditional look. Body work final prep and painting was “outsourced” to Matt Saint Laurent of Norfolk Autowerk in Heacham.

They completed the strip down, filled, flatted, primed and painted the van inside and out. What a transformation! They did find a few items missed in the original remedial work such as around the front screen which was not removed earlier to keep the vehicle water tight. They did a great “no-fuss” job and just got things fixed as they appeared.

Matt and his team also did the final commissioning work – checking that all rubbers and glass was replaced, and that all was in working order. My mate Simon did the re-wiring over a few days and (using the original loom as the back-bone) added new connectors for each terminal.

A binding rear brake set us back – the original rear brakes looked (sic) OK so didn’t replace when the front brakes were serviced, however, we ended up replacing drums, cylinders, shoes and springs etc. to solve the problem. A Promek Turntable seat swivel from TEK Seating was mated to a pair of MGF cream leather seats with contrasting piping – bought off eBay. The leather was steam cleaned; deep cleaned with leather soap and abraded with a scotch-brite pad before three layers of leather “dye” – a rubberised coloured layer – was applied with brilliant results – even the green panels and green piping covered perfectly. A final three layers of leather top coat was applied which formed a really great hard protective layer over the newly dyed leather. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they look as good as new but pretty close!

Custom brackets were made to fit the seats and welded / bolted into place – the driver’s side seat back was removed to match the passenger’s side (which had already been cut out) and to give more leg room and seat adjustment.

Fitting out of the interior was outsourced to VanWurks in Oldham. A natural clear-coated birch wood interior with matching Range A Plaid 4 material with contrasting Magnum Vinyl upholstery and complementary soft furnishings. VanWurks did the full interior fit-out fitting a Propex HS2000e gas/electric heater system; leisure battery, lighting as well as fridge, stove and sink. The whole interior system was extremely well built and Nick and Liz at VanWurks did a great job in ensuring the quality of finish was spot-on. The run back from Oldham was pretty uneventful following the internal fitting that was until I stopped at a services on the A1 for petrol and disaster struck. After engaging rear gear the whole gear-change mechanism froze solid. The gear shift had always been a little problematic, requiring a hard “punch” to engage any gear and herculean effort to get into reverse.

All the bushing had been replaced previously and a “quick-shift” fitted to see if that would help. However, “it was worse than that, Jim” the bracket that holds the shift mechanism in place had actually snapped.

This required the removal of the engine, gearbox, the broken bracket re-welded and everything put back.

A rather expensive but drive-changing decision was made to swap the original lever for an after-market CSP Shifter – really well made and changed the experience of changing gear into a smooth, positive pleasure rather than the trial it had become. A small 2 wheel light-weight trailer was bought off eBay – a little Erde -which was stripped of vinyl stickers, painted in the same colour scheme as the van, given new electrics and finished with white-wall tyres. First “real” outing to Viva SkegVegas.

Great week-end (once the rain stopped and the sun came out). Bertha was perfectly behaved and our new leisure-time as born-again campers had started…… The naming ceremony. I’ve never really been a one for naming vehicles but it appears part of the scene. Debbie hit on Bertha; both reflecting the sleeping arrangements but also a child-hood memory of cartoon character “Bertha – a lovely machine” – there was even an appropriate song to go with her name….