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Vintage 'van renos

Tips for family caravan rennovations

As more people embrace the “slow travel” movement, so too are they harking back to bygone eras in search of small pleasures. For road-trippers, that means classic caravans, often in need of a little love. Jennifer Ennion shares her tips for a vintage ‘van reno.

1. Getting 'The Look'

When it comes to old caravans, their look plays a big part in the appeal. These homes-on-wheels aren’t about getting from point A to B (although that’s always a bonus); they're about the shape of the ‘van itself, the colours of the paint, the dressings on the windows. I have a 1982 Viscount Grand Tourer. At nearly 3.7 metres, there's nothing “grand” about it, but to give the appearance of more space I've repainted the interior walls and cabinets white, getting rid of the ghastly brown that’s synonymous with the ‘80s.

My two biggest tips are to do your prep right (i.e. use painters’ tape to line the windows and anything else you want to protect) and be thorough. I've done three to four coats of paint, which includes a primer as the base. If you’re fastidious about zero brush strokes, sand in between coats, and be sure to use high-quality brushes and rollers. The paint you use will depend on the surface but, as a general rule, low-sheen, water-based interior house paint works on laminate, while I've used White Knight Grip-Lock Primer as the first coat and Taubmans water-based enamel (a gloss) on trims and the heavy wearing areas, such as the tops of cupboards.

Other aesthetics to think about include curtains and upholstery. If you make curtains out of dress fabric, which is a lot prettier than typical upholstery materials, it will likely fade in the sun over time. The solution is to either buy curtain fabric (more durable and solar-resistant, but basic colours and prints) or put a backing on the dress fabric to block out harsh rays. For dinette cushions, the main concern is durability. I'm expecting a lot of wet boardshorts and sandy beach bums at our dining table, so marine material is best.


2. Keeping cool: Refrigeration

Van rennovations

If you’re all about eating fresh produce and steering clear of canned and packaged foods, you'll need a fridge that keeps cool in Australia’s hottest environments.

The original two-way (240-volt and gas) fridge in my Viscount worked fine, but was never that cold and I was nervous it would stop operating in the middle of nowhere, so I've replaced it. I now have a 93-litre, three-way (12-volt, 240-volt and gas) Thetford fridge (model N314-E), which runs quietly (unlike compressor fridges) and keeps fruit and veg crisp.

The major learning curve with installing the fridge was discovering that it requires a separate 12-volt power source inside the ‘van to turn on. This is due to the fridge’s computerised operating system. Modern caravans come with an onboard battery system but old ‘van owners will need to get one installed. I also needed to get Anderson plugs installed on my 4WD and caravan so I could run the fridge on 12 volts for cooling while driving.


3. Solar Power

In this sunburnt country of ours, it makes sense to use solar power. This is also a must if you prefer getting off the beaten track and being self-sufficient. Plus, it’s cheaper in the long haul, as you won't need to book powered sites in holiday parks. If you’re serious, mount solar panels to the roof of your caravan for maximum exposure. They’ll need to be wired to a battery system in your caravan that will convert the solar power to 12 volts. The number of panels you need will depend on the appliances you use. I have two 200-watt panels charging a 160-amp-hour battery that will help run a water pump, and charge a laptop, fans, lights, cameras and phones. I don't have a television or microwave to worry about. If you only want a top-up of power for occasional free camping, buy a folding solar panel, which you can move around your campsite to face the sun.

Obviously, there is plenty more you can do to give your vintage ‘van a new lease on life. Replacing the axle, suspension and tyres can go a long way to ensuring you survive life on the road, especially if you’re keen to travel bumpy tracks. Then there is the oven, stove-top, hot water, lighting, ventilation and insulation... and the list goes on. Baby steps, though, right?

This article originally appeared in Volume 10 of Caravan & Camping with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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