Oakley Wheelwright is a serial shitbox buyer and the current owner of Miles, CT’s now-legendary 400,000+ mile Skoda Octavia
Anyone who has contemplated a home on wheels recently will be well aware of inflated prices. Thankfully for us, we pulled the trigger in late 2019, before the pandemic made people much more interested in more local holidays. Months spent perusing classifieds, test driving everything from ropey old work vans to coach-built motorhomes. None had yet fully convincing us. Despondency threatened to kick in, but then my other Beth spotted it late one Friday night while browsing that most prestigious of websites, Facebook Marketplace.
It was large, Germanic and judging by the description, currently occupied by those classic nomadic dwellers, rats. Unperturbed, we arrived for viewing the very next morning. By nightfall this £1200 beauty was home, and the neighbours could be heard heaving heavy sighs and muttering, wondering what the hell I’d bought now.
Our find was a 1988 Mercedes 208d Autotrail Apache. It sits on a respected van chassis, is powered by its diesel lump is nicknamed the ‘million-mile engine’ and was converted to a camper by Grimsby’s finest, Autotrail. A winning combination, I think. Ours, affectionately known as Goldie, was running and driving, with 12 months MOT to boot. The bodywork was a tale of two halves; the aluminium back was in good shape, but the steel cab had fared less well. The odometer was reading a mere 110,000 miles, barely run in for this famous engine.
Clambering up the steps into the camper department revealed how the past decade spent in an overgrown field had taken its toll. One large section of the rear wall had given up all pretence of structural rigidity and had allowed the ingress of water, weeds, and the four-legged hordes. The seats were nonexistent, long since having lost their battle the damp. The only things that remained undamaged were the overhead storage cupboards, wardrobe, and bathroom. Our excitement was unabated; we cajoled a neighbour into renting us their yard and cued the A-Team music.
We worked all the hours we could spare over winter. Step one: stripping Goldie of all his damaged interior and filling many a wheelie bin. What remained was evaluated and repaired or replaced accordingly. The construction was mercifully straightforward, so even with my limited joinery skillset, it was easy to remedy structural issues. Soon the framework that makes up the seating and bed area was solid once more.
Unexpectedly, no welding was necessary. The worst area, in the bonnet, was patched and painted. The smaller patches of surface rust merely required a rub down, stabilization treatment and paint.
Marigolds donned, and the next step, a big clean, began. Aware that the rats had almost certainly not been using the onboard Thetford cassette toilet, an urgent necessity was to scrub every inch before moving on with the renovation. How Clean is Your Campervan - the next big hit for Channel 4?
The focus next turned to the decidedly unsanitary looking kitchen area. Fitted way back in 1988, the worktop, sink and hob were well overdue a refresh. A length of brand-new worktop sourced from Facebook for the sum of £20, mated with a glistening new hob and sink, had the space looking 30 years younger. Liberal applications of vinyl covering turned gloomy cupboards and drawers into light and clean storage. Amazingly, all the cupboard doors were salvageable, just needing sanding and a few coats of melamine paint before refitting.
By early 2020 Goldie was looking, and smelling, infinitely more appealing. Several packs of tongue and groove panelling had regenerated tired walls and made a perfect backdrop for new lighting. I’d be the first to admit that electrical jobs do my head in, but fitting 12-volt spotlights and two reading lights above the bed was a doddle. Not so the gas supply. A Cascade II water heater replaced the ancient boiler, installed by a gas registered plumber alongside an overhaul of the entire gas system. It’s worth remembering that some campsites require a gas safety certificate before allowing you to pitch up.
Then, it was finally time to tackle one big task that had been looming on the horizon for some time: the cushions. Conceding that we couldn’t save the current flowery numbers, we looked for replacements, but the expense seemed astronomical. Finally, we stumbled upon a fantastic foam company that cut exact replicas of each unique cushion. Even opting for the fire safe, higher density foam, the final bill only came to £250, a bargain if ever I saw one. And bear in mind that I’m from Yorkshire.
The upholstering we managed to outsource to my mother-in-law in exchange for a nice bottle of rum. We opted for a mustard yellow colour and, thankfully, the finished article looked the absolute business. The result was an unbelievably comfortable perch during the day, and once the sun went down morphed into a super king-sized bed.
The finish line now well within reach, I set my sights on ensuring a clean bill of mechanical health. A service threw up no nasty surprises, some of the consumables took a little tracking down but inputting part numbers into Google proved fruitful. Two new tyres and a dousing with underseal later, I proclaimed Goldie ready for the road. The total outlay of the refurbishment was a thoroughly reasonable £2000. Unfortunately, that was February 2020, and we all know what happened next. As the world hunkered down at home, Goldie was tucked away in a barn, waiting.
Fast forward to Autumn 2020, an easing of restrictions meant we could finally try out our new camper. Bags packed and tank brimmed, we aimed the three-pointed star north and mashed the loud pedal. The most incredible three weeks followed, exploring Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye and everywhere in-between. The progress was not swift, nor did we want it to be, meandering from place to place, revelling in the sense of freedom after months of lockdown.
Goldie aced even the most strenuous of journeys (looking at you, Mull), without so much as a single grumble. We did have two minor issues, though. First up, The inline fuel filters kept clogging with detritus dragged up from the fuel tank, owing to a decade spent holding old diesel. Thankfully, I had come prepared with a box of spares and after 1,000 miles and several tanks of fresh go juice, the problem was solved.
The other mishap was more driver error: I was perhaps a little too eager over a rough patch and managed to snap the exhaust. A quick 18 miles on the pushbike put me at the nearest Halfords, much to my relief they had everything I required to make a repair job. Almost everything - the bridging section of exhaust was a can of Brew Dog Punk IPA. The beer was a fleeting pleasure, but the can, masquerading as an exhaust remained in place until the next MOT.
Since that inaugural holiday, we’ve been busy making countless memories in Goldie. There have been far-flung trips to Cornwall and impromptu picnics, devouring vegan fish and chips parked on the harbour a mere mile from our house. I only need to climb in, inhale the wonderfully unique aroma and I’m instantly at ease, knowing that good times are ahead. My fickleness with vehicles is well documented but Goldie is one I will never sell.