Choosing a van for UK to China
We have decided to look for a vehicle with the following characteristics
- Very reliable
- Good load capacity
- Twin rear wheels
- Good ground clearance
- Tough construction
- Reasonably spacious
- Basis for good security
- Diesel fuel
A coach built (ie a vehicle with a special designed motor caravan body built on a chassis cab unit) will be really hammered over the rough roads Some people have experienced the whole body coming adrift from the chassis. So our spec means a heavy duty panel van with over 3.5 tons gross vehicle weight. To get the high ground clearance and tough construction it needs to have a separate chassis. There are several options to choose from. Before making a decision, we spent some time chatting to the mechanics and depot manager of our local bus garage. They run Ford Transit, Iveco Turbo Daily, and Mercedes based mini buses. This selection is clearly based on experience and excludes other options such as the LDV.
The view of the Iveco was not very favourable to put it mildly. The Mercedes was very good but parts are very expensive when needed (they cannibalise old buses to keep the others going). The Transit they thought was best - they had some 15 years old still on the road. This investigation led us to the Mercedes - the Transit is too small for our taste.
Eventually we settled on a Mercedes 811d. These come in 2 lengths- normal and lwb (20.5 and 23 feet long approx). Ann wanted the normal length one and I the longer one so we compromised on the longer one. However in reality as the Mercedes dealer said good ones are rarer than rocking horse s--- so either would have done.
The next thing was whether to convert a van or find one converted. Again a very rare beast. We eventually found one which was very interesting but rather old and tired and in need of a lot of work to bring it up to our spec (of which details later). It was also automatic - which for preference I don't like personally (although many expedition and military vehicles now have it). In addition the previous (deceased) owner had had a glorious time adding lots of mains cable and other wiring all held together with bits of insulating tape.
We looked at an Iveco based vehicle as well just to be fair. The roof is fibreglass and the height of the perimeter frame supporting the roof was so low that the worktops seemed to be at knee height to allow for the windows.
Eventually we concluded that we needed to buy a van and convert it "ourselves". After a bit of a search we found a lwb length 1994 811d with a low mileage (116,000 km - most vans don't use miles any more). So we bought it.
We immediately ran into problems. This wagon has a GVW of 7.5 tons and is classed as an HGV. Ok to drive on my licence but not the easiest to insure. Insurance companies won't treat it as a car being over 3.5 tons and its not a motor caravan until its converted. So a commercial vehicle insurance is needed - this involves declarations of the type of goods to be carried etc. After all that they wanted nearly £600 for a year and I only wanted to get it home. Eventually a friend added it on to his fleet insurance. Then of course there is the tachograph and other odds and ends to deal with.
The vehicle comes with a large sliding side door. On the plus side this gives good ventilation in the van when camped. It is also a means of exit when parked tight up to other vehicles in such places as border compounds while you wait hours or days for bureaucracy to grind to a conclusion.
On the minus side the large opening makes it more difficult to include wall and eye level cupboards. It is also noisy to open at night (yes I know we can use another door). On the Mercedes it is possible to have a normal sized opening door (known as an emergency door). however they are only made to fit the right hand side of the van and the cost is about £3000 so that is not an option for us.
Written by Clive Barker
in preparation for UK to China and back.