Over around 8 years we’ve had 3 motorhomes (a panel van conversion and two A classes), and have managed to break our fair share of stuff on ’em. Here are the top ten which might be of most use to you, hopefully helping you avoid making the same mistake (where there was one), and helping you fix the problem should it happen to you.
Broken Thing 1: Ripped off an Awning
BANG! We were woken in the early hours as we slept in Harvey (the RV), our 1990 Talbot Express Autosleeper Harmony on the west coast of Scotland. Eyes wide open, we shoved on the sliding side door. It slid open to reveal nothing. This was a bad thing. The awning was down when we went to bed, and the legs for it, plus the canvas top they were supporting, should have been there. The calm sun-warmed evening which we’d enjoyed with a bit of vino had been replaced with a dark, howling wind.
Staggering about outside in our undies the awning legs appeared on top of the van, one of them tapping against the windscreen. Pulling the thing back off the roof we could see the body of it had been twisted around like seaside rock, ripping half of it from the side of the van. Nothing for it but to finish the job – we pulled it off the van and the next day threw it in a fishermen’s skip. Replacing it required removing half the bathroom and took me 6 months.
Lesson: always put the awning away at night, or make sure it’s as well anchored as a cruise ship.
Broken Thing 2: Froze the Boiler
I can’t explain this one, an error concocted from a dollop of sheer laziness, boiled up with a dose of daftness and a splash of ineptitude. One spring we came to use Harvey for the first time after a freeze-your-pond cold winter. Firing up the hot water boiler we were treated to a sprinkling noise, like water was running out of the boiler and into the cupboard below. Which it was.
We’d failed to drain the system and the freeze-thaw-freeze effect over the winter had split the pipes inside open like peeled bananas. A dealer repaired it by welding it. Then we froze it again. Sigh. Then it wasn’t repairable, so we had to buy and fit a new part ourselves.
Lesson: don’t be us. Or at least don’t be the earlier version of us. Drain down your boiler if you’re not using it in winter.
Broken Thing 3: Smashed Plughole from Sink
Opening the bathroom door after a short drive along the Loire, I couldn’t work out what was wrong with the scene in front of me. Then my eyes trailed down to the sink, which weirdly had a shower gel bottle in it? Ah. Sheet. I’d left the bottle on the soap holder before we set off. It had fallen off during the drive, fallen maybe 15cm, and smashed the plughole clean out of the bottom of the sink. Fortunately the break was clean and some decent glue got me out of hot water!
Lesson: bathrooms are brittle, make sure everything is put away before you drive.
Broken Thing 4: Wore out a Clutch
As we rolled off the Pyrenees into France, Dave (our 1993 Hymer B544) didn’t want to cleanly move between the gears. I dutifully ignored the problem at first, then as it got worse crawled under him and used the two 10mm nuts under the engine to tighten the clutch cable. This helped, but not for long, and an ominous whining noise started to drift up as we drove.
Eventually, a couple of weeks before Easter in the shadow of one of the Cathar Castles, Ju popped the symptoms onto a Fiat forum. Almost immediately, an incredibly helpful and detailed response told us the awful truth: the clutch was dead: better get it fixed quickly! It took a while, as these things do around any French public holiday, but we got it replaced and were on our way.
Lesson: we’d bought a cheaper, older van, and put the thousands of pounds we saved by doing this into a ‘fix it fund’. This worked out for us as the clutch cost was just a small part of the repairs fund.
Broken Thing 5: Blew out a Tire
Writing this stuff down has us thinking: how could we be so daft? This one I’m putting down to human nature. That’s my excuse. At the start of our two year tour, we failed to replace the clearly old tyres on Dave. The back ones were the worst, clearly ages old with cracked sidewalls. The sudden change from two big fat corporate salaries to unemployed itinerants tightened our wallets to the point we were spending nothing if we could help it.
As we drove a Spanish motorway at about 50mph an event which felt like the back half of the van being ripped off occurred as one of the rear tyres blew out. We managed to pull onto the hard shoulder, and once safely out of Dave, sat in our high vis with warning triangle deployed, we worked out what had happened. The entire tread pattern on the tyres had removed itself, whipping round and smashing through the wheel arch, twisting the metal step and mangling the cupboard and seat which held the fresh water tank. ADAC recovered us, and the Hymer dealer in Santander did a brilliant job of fixing the whole mess.
Lesson: make sure you’re not driving about on the tyres used to launch the Ark.
Broken Thing 6: Killed Leisure Batteries
Again this was an early lesson, one we learned when we had Harvey. Waking up one winter morning in a field outside Skegness, the inside of Harvey had frozen, and the duvet was heavy with dew. The heating had given up. After much faffing about we realised the leisure battery was dead. We replaced it, and after making the exact same mistake again some time later, did some research and realised we’d left the battery completely flat all winter, which had killed it.
Lesson: keep your leisure batteries topped up to keep ’em alive. We’ve had solar panels on our two A classes, which have done this job for us, or if parked up at home use a trickle charger.
Broken Thing 7: Snapped a Door Off
Leaning into Dave one day in France, the mighty Mistral wind released the barn door from the plastic thingy which is supposed to hold it open, and firmly slapped my ass with it. My ass being what it is, it refused to give, snapping one of the hinges on the bottom half of the door clean in two, which effectively removed it from the van. As I stood there smiling for a photo holding the door, I was blissfully unaware of the many-month saga we’d put ourselves through trying to get a replacement hinge! Eventually, after making seven ‘temporary hinges’ from whatever we could find, and visiting several dealers across several countries, we got the right (weird-shaped) hinge and had a rear door again from a dealer in Germany, who was utterly bemused at our massive joy when the door closed neatly.
When the same thing happened again on Mount Etna, we couldn’t face another hinge saga. Spotting a very talented black-smith, we popped in and half an hour later he had made a replacement hinge for us. It was made of steel so was probably stronger than the door; perhaps we should have got a whole set done.
Lesson: improvise, you don’t always have to buy the proper part from a dealer – this lesson was also used when we smashed a wing mirror in France, the replacement came from a tractor dealer who even fitted it for us.
Broken Thing 8: Lost a Main Skylight
Our two year tour in Dave started with a bang when the main skylight removed itself while pulling away from the Dartford tolls on the M25 as we headed for the ferry. When we set off we forgot to wind it down. Realising this, we stopped by the side of the road and wound it down but clearly it didn’t catch properly. We didn’t see what happened to the skylight, but having stopped and waited the road was flowing freely so, hoping we’d done no harm, we tried to get a replacement.
After much teeth sucking and mutterings of ‘non-standard’, “You’ll have to go to Hymer in Preston” was the suggestion from the motorhome dealer we’d driven to. We decided we weren’t doing that, so we made a temporary fix with some free plastic from a carpet shop, a ratchet strap and some duct tape. A French dealer near Honfeur fixed a second hand skylight to Dave on a Friday afternoon, and we were off.
Lesson: a bit obvious: check your skylights are closed before you tootle off into the sunset – we leave something on the dashboard as a reminder that the skylight is up or the steady-legs are down. Other lessons, they sell stuff abroad (sometimes cheaper than the UK) and finally always carry some duct tape.
Broken Thing 9: Smashed the Bathroom Mirror
Bounce, bounce, bounce, SMASH! A Greek backroad finally did for the mirror which doubled up as the bathroom cabinet door in Dave. The small plastic area which held the mirror in place had give out and dropped the mirror on the floor. This was the second time it had happened, and my attempt too fix the ‘hinge’ had failed, although the first time the mirror had survived.
This time round a campsite owner drove us (at speed, down narrow roads, with seatbelts deemed unnecessary) to a glass cutter in town who cut the perfect replacement for us for a few euros (it even needed a hole cutting for the cupboard handle to go).
Lesson: it’s surprising what you can get fixed in remote bits of the world!
Broken Thing 10: Wore the Fridge Out
Tons of folks seem to have problems with their motorhome fridge at some point, and we’re no exception. We’d done a shakedown weekend in Dave before heading for the continent, but had failed to try running the fridge on gas (most European & UK motorhome fridges work, weirdly, using heat from either an electric element or a gas flame). We discovered the mistake about 12 hours into our travels, when all of our frozen bacon stash had defrosted while we were camped behind a pub in Milton Keynes, leading to one almighty bacon sarnie-athon.
The same dealer near Honfleur who fixed the skylight replaced the gas burner, telling us it was probably 10 or 15 years old, and should be replaced every 3 years.
Lesson: when on a shakedown, try everything, but once again, it’s almost as easy to get stuff fixed in France as the UK.
I don’t think we give our motorhomes a particularly tough time, but we do use them a lot. That said we have stabbed one in the side with rebar, broken two water pumps, cracked bumpers several times, rolled backwards into some trees, had window leaks, freshwater tank leaks, radiator leaks, sensors stop working, windscreen wipers stop working (and refuse to stop working when the rain stopped), lost wheel trims and countless other things. It’s all part of the fun.
Overall, our main lessons for motorhome life would be:
- Make sure you maintain your vehicle when back in the UK ( when we’re back in the UK for an MOT, our mechanic is instructed to do a full service and fix anything that might need doing in the next 12 months)
- Have a checklist before you set off like a pilot – Gas off, Fridge on, Step up, etc
- You can buy stuff abroad and improvisation can sometimes save you few quid.