With their cool, retro looks a well-maintained classic is a source of pride for many campervan owners. However, while there’s a lot to be said for owning your own little piece of motoring history, vintage campers aren’t without their problems.

If you’re looking to invest in a slice of vintage van-life then read our helpful guide to some of the problems you might experience when out on the road.

From issues getting the engine to start to the dreaded dangers of rust, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Particularly if you’re new to the classic camper club!

Owning a classic campervan can sometimes be a worry, so let Motorhome Protect take some of the weight off your shoulders by arranging specialist insurance for your campervan.

The engine won’t start

Okay, perhaps the most infuriating problem with any classic vehicle is when it won’t start in the first place. Just like many older vehicles, some broken wiring or a loose spark plug can soon leave a classic campervan dead on the drive. Well, not quite, but it can be difficult to get them started up – particularly if they haven’t been run for a little while.

But in general, if your camper is well maintained, well oiled, and well cleaned it should be able to start no matter how old it is. But when parts start to fail you really need to get them replaced if you want everything to run smoothly.

Fortunately, many parts for classic camper engines are available online, ranging from standard spark plugs and starters to whole units ready for installation.

If you’re having problems starting then Practical Motorhome magazine advises owners to check the following.

  • Check everything is correctly connected. Start with battery terminals then check all the spark plug leads are connected and wires are connected to the coil.
  • Use a multimeter to check the voltage on your battery. Check the leisure battery too as it may drain the van’s main battery if it’s flat.
  • Can you smell petrol inside the engine bay? If so, you might have a leak and need to check the fuel pipe connections to the fuel pump. This has been blamed for a number of classic campervan engine fires over the years.
  • If the engine turns over but won’t start then it might be a failed fuel pump diaphragm.
  • Moisture in the engine’s electrical components can cause poor starting. Spray WD40 over the HT leads and wires connected to the coil to absorb any moisture.
  • If the engine starts but seems sluggish then you’ll need to check all spark plugs are secure, their HT leads are connected and the distributor cap is secure. Use a timing strobe to make sure the engine is correctly timed.
  • Poor running can also be caused by the points gap closing or incorrect valve clearances. Check these with a feeler gauge.

Warning lights

The campervan breaks down

Breakdowns can happen with any type or age of vehicle but with classic campers it can be a more common occurrence – particularly if you’re covering longer distances. That’s why it’s so important to pack an emergency tool kit and parts in case of breakdown far from help.

If your campervan comes to a grinding halt all of a sudden then there could be a whole variety of culprits. The most common ones are:

  • A flat or faulty battery
    With most batteries having a lifespan of only five years a classic camper could get through quite a few in their lifetime. And if you don’t run your van regularly then this could be even shorter.
  • Alternator trouble
    It might not be the battery’s fault; it could be the alternator. Check connections are free from corrosion and tight. While you’re at it, check for broken or corroded battery cables.
  • Oil leak
    An undiagnosed oil leak can wreak havoc in your classic engine. Check the oil level regularly.
  • Oil deposits and debris in the engine
    A build up of sludge in your engine can soon interfere with your engine’s smooth and efficient operation.
  • Distributor cap
    Look for cracks or obvious signs of wear.
  • Fuel problems
    Carry a petrol can.
  • Flat tyre
    Knowing exactly how to change a tyre on your classic is a sensible thing to discover. Much better at home in daylight than by the side of a country road in the dead of night and pouring rain!

Just like having the right campervan insurance, breakdown cover is useful no matter how old your vehicle is.

Accelerator or clutch cables snapping

Depending on the model, it's a fairly common problem for vintage campervan owners to have issues with both the clutch and accelerator cables. If these snap then it will make it impossible to change gears or obtain power. Disaster for anyone’s road trip!

These cables are relatively inexpensive and straightforward to replace. So, be sure to learn how to replace them and carry these parts with you at all times.

You should be able to tell if there’s a problem with an accelerator cable as you feel a sort of delayed response when you step on the pedal. But if the cable snaps entirely, then you won’t be able to use the vehicle at all!

It’s easy to tell if it’s your clutch cable that’s snapped as the pedal will sink down to the floor. For worn-down clutch cables, you might notice gears slipping or a jammed pedal. To avoid accidents, it’s wise to have these replaced on a fairly regular basis.

The dreaded rust

R-U-S-T, yes definitely a four-letter word for any owner of a classic vehicle. These older vehicles can often become plagued by rust if action hasn’t been taken soon enough by previous owners. While you’ll no doubt have checked thoroughly before purchase, unexpected rust spots are bound to turn up at some point.

Rust is a big problem and can take a lot of time and money to fix depending on where it’s found. The vehicle chassis is the most significant area where you really don’t want rust to take a hold but there are other important areas, too. These include:

  • Body panels – especially under the wheel arches, in the corners of the windscreen, at the bottom of the doors, and behind the bumpers.
  • Pop tops – check for both rusted mechanisms and torn fabrics. While a high top made from fibreglass won’t have a problem with rust, they are prone to cracking. Tin tops tend to be more susceptible to rust, particularly around the gutters.

If you do end up finding rust on your vehicle, then time is key. Work quickly to remove it before the problem gets worse – which it will if you don’t act now!

Rust on the surface of the camper is relatively easy to deal with. Simply sand or grind back the area until the rust is gone and you’re left with just the metal underneath. Then treat the area with an anti-rust agent to make sure the rust won’t return. Then apply a primer to the surface before repainting it.

If the rust has managed to corrode the metal so as to leave holes in it then you’ll need a professional to cut the rusted area out of the vehicle and patch it up.

Rust

Water damage and mould

If your campervan has sprung a leak or you’re suffering electrical faults in the vehicle then water damage might be the culprit. A sign that water could be getting into your vehicle are mouldy spots on the interior.

If you aren’t lucky enough to spot these signs of water damage before purchase then you need to be diligent in locating and fixing any leaks – particularly around failing seals. After fixing any faulty seals and waterproofing, disinfect the area and apply an anti-mould treatment. After all, you don’t want that funky smell returning!

Failing electrical components

While electrical components like lights, indicators and wipers don’t often fail, fuses can still blow. So, always carry the right spares when on a trip. Keep a careful lookout for any loose wires that can cause components to fail. And make sure you pack a full set of spare bulbs for indicators and rear lights.

Fire can be a serious hazard for any vehicle owner. Depending on your campervan’s age, the electrics could be quite old. Be sure to have your electrical wiring checked by a professional on a regular basis. Read all about what to do if there’s a fire in your campervan in our other handy guide.

Essential tools and spare parts

Knowing what tools and other essential items to carry in a campervan is an important part of any pre-holiday checklist. Make sure to include the following if vintage campers are your thing.

  • Feeler gauges
  • Large adjustable spanner
  • Multimeter
  • Screwdrivers and spanners
  • Spark plug spanner
  • Timing strobe
  • WD40
  • Accelerator cables
  • Clutch cables
  • Spare bulbs
  • Drivebelt
  • Fuel pipe and jubilee clips
  • Fuses
  • Spark plugs and HT leads

Driving tips for your classic camper

If you’re looking for top tips for driving a classic campervan then we have a guide that’s just right for you. But here are a couple of quick tips also worth remembering.

Getting started

  • Before turning the ignition check it’s in neutral or first gear. If it's in first gear, remember to push in the clutch. If it has an automatic gearbox then check it’s in Park.
  • Pump the accelerator pedal a couple of times to get the fuel moving.
  • Turn the key slightly until you hear a click and the alternator and oil light come on.
  • Turn the key until the engine starts.
  • Push the accelerator down slowly until the engine runs smoothly.
  • Run the engine like this for a minute or two before heading off.
  • If the engine doesn't start right away then repeat the steps. However, avoid pumping the accelerator too much or you’ll flood the engine.

Handling

To say that handling in a classic camper is a bit loose compared to modern vehicles is a big understatement. So be sure to keep your speed down while turning or negotiating roundabouts. And if it feels as if it's leaning when going around corners, don’t worry that’s perfectly normal.

Braking

There is a rather peculiar art to braking in a classic camper. You really need to keep your eyes fixed well ahead to anticipate when you’ll need to stop. Make sure to give yourself as much time as possible to stop when driving a vintage van.

Parking

Many classic campers are in fact relatively easy to park if you make good use of your mirrors and any helpful passengers. But be aware the parking brake might not be as reliable as you’re used to. If you park facing downhill, turn the steering wheel towards the curb. If you’re facing uphill, turn the steering wheel away from the curb. Always use the parking brake, too.

Gear changes

Don't be too heavy-handed when changing gears. The gear stick is often quite long in these campervans and multiple linkages are used. If you're too aggressive then these linkages can quickly wear out.

Brakes

Get the best campervan insurance

Campervan insurance from Motorhome Protect is vital if you want to cover your cherished camper against many hazards on the road. But the benefits don’t just stop at that. There’s a whole range of other advantages available, too.

Choosing the right insurance cover for you and your van will depend on how you intend to use it, the places you plan on exploring and how much cover you need for personal belongings.

Whether you’re travelling in the UK or in Europe, the right insurance policy will mean you’re protected when things don’t quite go to plan.

Many of our policies also cover personal belongings up to £3,500 and campervans with a value up to £150,000.

Discounts are available if you’re a member of a motorhome or campervan club while quotes are also available for customers with claims and convictions.

Get a quick quote for campervan insurance today so your vehicle and its contents are covered wherever your adventure takes you.

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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