Ich bin ein Paderborner
We had been spending all our holidays in France ever since we got married in 2000. We had been taking our car across on the ferry or via the Tunnel and although this had been a great way to explore the country it did mean that we had to stop every afternoon at around 4pm so we could look for a hotel, and we had to take pot luck with the standard of accommodation and with our meals, so after 3 years we decided to buy a camper van. This would give us more flexibility with where we could stop for the night and would allow us to prepare our own meals with the delicious ingredients which we found in the local markets and small shops.
Since we knew that we would mostly be using the van in France and her neighbouring countries we decided it should be a left-hand drive vehicle. We did not want to buy a new van because we were new to camper vans and we did not have a clear idea of exactly what we wanted, so a mistake could be costly. We did not have the time or the garage space to embark on a home-build, so it would have to be a ready-built van. However, we did look round one or two dealers in the UK to get an idea of what was generally available by way of base vehicles, interior layout, fittings etc. and at what price.
A quick search on the internet soon showed that second-hand vans were relatively expensive in Britain and France but seemed cheaper in Germany. Fortunately I speak German, although the specialist vocabulary needed to discuss light commercial vehicles and caravanning was all new to me. We contacted several dealers and private sellers and set off in our car one week in May to do the rounds.
After visiting a few dealers we went to see a private seller in Paderborn. He had a medium wheelbase Mercedes Sprinter which had been converted as a home-build into a motor caravan. The base vehicle was sound and immaculately maintained, and although we were not too sure about the home-build aspects the work appeared to be competently done and it had passed all the relevant German safety checks etc.
We struck a deal, but then came the interesting part – getting the money over from the UK. It seemed that even with a SWIFT transfer it would take the best part of a week for the money to make its way from our bank account, across the Channel and into his! We seriously considered taking a cheap flight back to the UK and drawing the money out in cash and flying back. If there had not been a foreign currency exchange involved as well we would probably have done just that. We would have been horribly stung by the local banks for changing money at “tourist rates”, and even as it was, our own bank gave us little mercy on the rate. We did not know much about FX dealers in those days.
Eventually though our money reached his account, and even though his bank told him that we could in theory still recall it (which caused his wife great anxiety) he agreed to hand over the van, and even came with us to the German equivalent of the DVLA to transfer the paperwork. This day came as a great relief to us, since our money was now with him and we had had nothing in return except a sales contract document.
We drove back home in convoy. We were able to get a 30 day third party only insurance cover-note from the German DVLA office, but none of the UK insurers we phoned would even consider insuring us until the van had UK plates. Once on British soil we were in an odd legal limbo because the van was now registered to us at our UK address, but with German papers and plates. Because of this we could not have bought any Road Tax, so we drove home from the port with our fingers firmly crossed. Fortunately we made it back without incident, and I sent off the paperwork to get the van re-registered in the UK.
I believe we had to get an MOT first, and that it took about 6 weeks for the British V5 to come back, after which we could get the van taxed and insured. Since it was a left-hand drive vehicle we had to get our local garage to fit UK headlamps. He also had to re-wire the reversing lights. We got him to do it so that they both came on instead of just one, which satisfied the MOT requirement but did not cripple the van too badly for continental use, which after all was the whole point of having it. We kept the old headlamps.
After we had owned the van for a few months we began trying to make it work a bit better for us.
The previous owner's goal seemed to have been to create as much sleeping accommodation as possible. The German authorities had licensed it to carry 6 including the driver. The back third of the van was a U-shaped lounge with a central table which could be lowered down on a scissor mechanism to make a bed which could sleep 3 adults, if they were good friends. There was also an upper “bunk” on gas struts and hinges. This could be raised into the roof during the day, and lowered at night, although the occupants of the top deck would have quite an intimate relationship with the van roof. The van had started out as a standard height vehicle but had been fitted with a glass fibre high top. Lastly there was a purpose-made tip-up jump seat between the driver and passenger seats which, with the addition of another upholstered board, would allow a child or small adult to sleep in the cab.
All of the caravan fixtures and fittings had been done in ¾ inch marine plywood. This added a HUGE amount of extra weight and we soon realised that the vehicle was probably well over its maximum permitted weight. Also the top “bunk” was making it feel rather unstable as the centre of gravity was being affected. Out came the screwdrivers, and out came the upper bed. Pretty soon the front jump seat came out too, as it was hindering access to the hand brake and made getting from the cab to the camper part more difficult.
In place of the top bunk we got our local caravan fitter to make us two bins which are fixed to the walls and in which we store a torch, maps and guide books and anything we might need in the back after the bed is made up. I later added some soft rubber bumpers to the front corners of these, which are conveniently at head-bashing height.
The powder-coated steel scissor lift table mechanism was not only extremely heavy but awkward, as the clearance was limited and anyone wanting to sit on the back bench seat had to slide their legs past its sharp metal edges to get in. It came out and was replaced with an L-shaped aluminium tube “island” pole fixed to the table top slightly off-centre. The support for the bottom of the leg was fixed to the base of one of the benches. This meant that when the two clamps were loosened off the top could be swivelled to either side. This not only improved access to the back of the van but also made the lounge dining area more versatile, since the table could be “parked” against the side wall and used more in the manner of a coffee table. The only loss in functionality was that the table top now has to be removed from the leg when making up the bed rather than swinging down into place like something out of Thunderbirds, but this is not a problem.
The converter had sourced what was probably genuine Mercedes-Benz blue-grey and red upholstery fabric for all the seating and mattresses, and had used plain grey cord carpet on the walls, with plain grey curtains and grey floor and cupboards. Unfortunately we felt it made the interior look rather austere. It felt like we were in an episode of Das Boot. After a few months I reupholstered everything in rather brighter mustard yellow and terracotta fabrics. The finish was perhaps not quite as professional as the original but we have both found it easier to live with.
Recently we had to have the consumer unit replaced. This was a devil of a job for the poor caravan fitter, as it is sited on the inside edge of the leisure battery box, which is behind the driver's seat, and can only be accessed by lying on your side wedged in the small gap between the fridge and the bathroom wall.
The van has a Truma water and space heater and two gas burners which were originally supplied via a 50 mbar German regulator. We had to get this changed because that system became obsolete even in Germany and we wanted to use UK bottles and a UK regulator. We had been told by several “experts” that you could not convert a Truma heater to run at lower pressure and that the gas hob would become “dangerous” if run at lower pressure. However, we finally tracked down a caravan gas specialist in Norfolk who sourced and fitted new jets into the Truma and was happy to sign off the cooker to run on propane at 37 mbar. This was all done several years ago and we have never had any problems with the gas burning yellow, going out, flaring up or producing large amounts of carbon monoxide as some had threatened darkly that it would.
Getting the van re-registered in France
Before we came out we got our local garage to replace the UK headlamps with the original German ones.
Our first task in the re-registration process was to get the vehicle a Contrôle Technique, which is the equivalent of a British MOT. Our van had passed its UK MOT a few months before, but during the French checks they found several things to rectify, including a problem with the brake balancing valve. This was annoying, but solved a mystery which had been bugging us for quite a while. We had had our suspicions that we had a mechanical problem in the region of the back axle, as we had occasionally heard a loud clunk when driving along and we had thought the brakes were not as effective as they should have been.
A few weeks later, when the work was all done, we took the van back for a second Contrôle Technique and it passed.
We needed to get a Tax Certificate (Quittus Fiscale) from our local tax office. This is a document which states that the owner of the vehicle has paid any French taxes due for its import. Since this was a second-hand vehicle and one which was being transferred from one EEC country to another as our personal goods there was no French tax due on it. However, the tax office did want to see our original purchase receipt, the British registration document, and proof of residence (a utility bill with our name and address on it). Thank goodness I had held onto that sales contract which we signed in Germany back in 2003. It could so easily have been lost or destroyed in the house move.
We sent off a cheque to Mercedes-Benz France to get a Certificate of Conformity, which attests that the vehicle has been constructed to European standards. Unfortunately the fact that the vehicle has been converted into a motor caravan means that Mercedes will only grant a partial certificate. And before they would even go that far they made us go to the local Mercedes dealer for them to confirm that the headlights were correct (i.e. not English!) and the speedometer had Kph on it. The local dealer made us wait in Reception for an hour so that he could charge us for an hour's labour, then gave us a letter with a single sentence on it. Mercedes then sent back our partial certificate and a several page “Specimen” document giving the weights, measures and other specifications for the base vehicle as it left the factory.
Next we approached the DRIRE (or “the mines” as they call it). This is a vehicle inspectorate. The local office would not countenance a partial certificate. We must get a full one. We explained that this was not possible. Could we have an appointment with the inspector so that we could show him our file and explain? No. The inspector does not give appointments. Come back when you have a full Certificate of Conformity.
My husband made a few calls and eventually got through to the Regional Head Office of the DRIRE, where he found someone who was more reasonable, and who gave him the name of an inspector in another office about an hour's drive from us. This person agreed to see us.
On our first visit to the DRIRE they did not want to look at the van at all so we could have gone in the car. They went through the list of documents we would need to get a certificate from them. One of these documents was a certificate from Bureau Veritas, a standards organisation, which was also an hour's drive from us.
On our first visit to Bureau Veritas they looked round the vehicle and went through the list of documents and modifications we would need to get a certificate from them.
We had to get a new gas regulator which is designed to be fixed to the copper pipe and to the bulkhead and which is then connected to the gas bottle via a high-pressure flexible hose. On-bottle regulators using low-pressure rubber hoses are no longer permitted.
We needed to get a gas safety certificate. This could be obtained from a qualified gas fitter. When we got home we made several phone calls to gas fitters and caravan shops and none of them seemed willing or able to assist. Eventually we found a gas fitter who said he had never done one before, but if we could tell him what he had to do he would do it. His secretary found a document with the text of the expected certificate and typed it out for us, while he came and looked at the pipework and declared it gas-tight.
The gas locker has proved to be another challenge after our move. The locker was built to take German gas bottles. British Calor cylinders would fit into it – just. The last steel French propane bottle which would have fit into it has just been discontinued. The normal sizes are too tall and wide, and even the short stubby ones are too wide. With a bit of juggling and removing a few more unnecessary spare parts we have managed to get a plastic cube into the space. We needed to buy a special bottle adapter from the petrol station where we got it as well, as they are usually used with a “Clip”, which is not compatible with the new regulator we had to have fitted. They are the most expensive of the bottled gas solutions and if they discontinue them we are into cutting marine ply again. The locker is screwed together in complex fashion using lots and lots of plastic chipboard corner fixings, each of which is held in by eight screws. Teutonically solid. It is positioned at the far left-hand side of the vehicle just inside the rear doors, but since you could not get the bottle past the rear light cluster, access is from above via a hinged trapdoor. This means that to open and close the gas tap or to put in a new bottle you need to open the rear doors and remove all the rear bench seat cushions. This has caused us a few expletives when going through the gas check at the Channel Tunnel, particularly on a wet and windy night.
Veritas said we had to get some aluminium or steel plates made and fitted to the lid of the unit which housed the 2-ring burner, as flame protection in case someone should shut the lid with the rings still lit. We managed to find a metal workshop who was able to supply and cut and drill some sheets of thin stainless steel and we screwed these on ourselves.
We were told that although we had a side door and an electric roof fan we would need more ventilation. Perhaps we could drill a hole in the bodywork of the sliding door? (Eek!). My husband proposed instead that we should drill holes in the plywood base of the back bench, which fed into the rear storage compartment, and from there into the gas locker next door, which had a vent through the floor of the vehicle in its base. Yes, this would be acceptable. I ordered some plastic vivarium vent covers off Ebay (to keep the mozzies out) and got the drill out. I don't know if you have ever used a circular hole saw on ¾ inch melamine-faced marine ply, but it takes a while.
At our second visit to Bureau Veritas they inspected the work we had done and gave us our compliance certificate. We could now go back to the DRIRE, but first we needed to compile a “dossier”, that thing so beloved of French administrators.
A further complication was that the original converter had fitted a Goodyear air suspension system. With this fitted, the German authorities allowed the rear axle weight to be increased by 300Kg. We now realise that with all that extra weight on board this was absolutely essential if our home-builder was to be able to get the vehicle through its German MOT (TÜV). Although this was approved for use with Sprinter vans Goodyear does not have a presence in France and Mercedes wanted nothing to do with it. I took the original German documentation from Goodyear and the TÜV engineer's report and translated them both into French. I think it may have helped that our Bureau Veritas and DRIRE offices were close to Alsace, so they were more used to seeing the German way of doing things. Whatever it was, they accepted it, where they could so easily have refused.
Similarly, the previous owner had fitted alloy wheels. This did not turn out to be a problem for us, but it was another modification to the base vehicle which could have been an issue.
We needed to get tickets from a weighbridge, showing the front axle weight, rear axle weight and total weight. This had to be without any equipment or people on board, but with full freshwater and fuel tanks. After our first trip even a cursory glance at the Mercedes specification papers showed that we were right on the weight limits, even after our efforts a few years previously taking out all the superfluous lumps of welded steel and sheets of ¾ inch marine plywood. With a bit more effort we were able to get the weight down a bit more and make a second visit.
We needed to make a diagram of the vehicle showing the measurements from the front axle of each of the cupboards and storage spaces. I am fairly good at drawing and maths, and I had some squared paper, which helped. Using this diagram, we had to do a weight and balance calculation. We had to state how much weight we were going to put in each of the storage spaces. I put together a spreadsheet to help me with this, as it involved a bit of educated guesswork and trial and error. We reckoned we would have to “lose” at least two of the passenger places if we were going to be allowed any food or clothing on board, but this was OK as there are only ever the two of us. We decided to apply for 4 persons, in case we should ever want to pick up 2 hitch-hikers or take new camp-site friends to a local restaurant. The rear passenger places are using lap seatbelts on side-facing seats, so they would never get approval in a new vehicle under current regulations anyway, as I think they now have to be front-facing with 3-point seatbelts.
On our second visit to the DRIRE an inspector walked around the vehicle and checked our papers against what he saw. I asked him what he was looking at and for. He said “everything”, which told me nothing. Since we had asked for 4 persons and had seatbelts for six we should take 2 out, but he would trust us to do that at home. Also, somewhere on the vehicle, he thought usually inside the nearside wheel arch, there should be a die-stamped VIN number. Our vehicle had been under-sealed with anti-corrosion wax and it had been covered up. We should scrape it clean. Where did we need to scrape then? He was not sure. But he would give us our certificate. It would be ready for collection next week. Or they could send it to the Prefecture. But he did not recommend that, because they often went missing. We could not return on the date proposed as we would be away for 2 weeks, but we said we would make the 2 hour round trip to collect the papers when we got back.
Two weeks later, on our third visit to the DRIRE I phoned the day before to check that the papers had been prepared. No they had not. Could I phone again tomorrow? The next day they were ready, so I drove to get them. One sheet of A4, in duplicate, and my signature. Two hours on the road well spent.
Before setting off for the Prefecture I checked I had the necessary paperwork. The van belongs to me. I took a photocopy of my passport. French passports have the woman's maiden name on them as well as their married name. British ones do not, so just in case I took a copy of my birth certificate and our marriage certificate as well. On this occasion I did not need them, although the woman at the Prefecture said she thought it was very odd that British women did not retain their maiden name on their ID papers after marriage.
I also needed a Justificatif de Domicile (utility bill). This might have been tricky. All of our bills are in my husband's name and none are in mine. Note to self – the next time we move house I need to make sure at least one of the bills has my name on it. Fortunately the woman at the Prefecture accepted the “justificatif”, though she did have to think about it for a minute.
I needed a duly completed CERFA form n°13750*01, applying for a French Carte Grise. To save time, I had downloaded this from the internet.
I did not need the CERFA form n°13754*01, because this is for people resident in France who are buying and importing a vehicle from a non-French seller.
Since the vehicle is over 4 years old I needed the Contrôle Technique certificate. This has to be less than 6 months old (or less than 2 if it is one which is provisional and requires a contra-visit once repairs have been done). Since our Contrôle Technique had been one of the first things we had had done, it was now one week away from its 6 month anniversary. Just lucky, I guess.
I needed the original V5 UK Registration document. The clerk looked at it as if it were from Mars and said that she did not see many of those. They keep the whole thing, including all the bits which the owner is normally required to send back to Cardiff when you sell or transfer a vehicle. Presumably the DVLA gets informed at some stage. Or maybe not.
I needed the Quittus Fiscale and partial Certificate of Conformity from Mercedes. The Prefecture keeps these and you do not get a copy, so if you think you might need them in future, take a copy before you go.
I needed the original of the Certificate from the DRIRE. They give you an original (for the Prefecture) and a copy which you are supposed to keep with the vehicle documents.
The lady at the Prefecture was the slowest typist I have ever seen. She entered all my details using one finger, and kept having to peer at the keyboard to find the letters. Clearly she does not use a computer at home, and she probably needed new glasses as well.
I needed a cheque for the tax due. I was still waiting for the bank to produce a cheque book in my name, since when we first opened the account I had foolishly forgotten to take my original birth and marriage certificates with me to the bank. My husband only needed his passport. So much for Égalité. Because of this, although the account details had been changed the cheque book was still in my husband's sole name. Before leaving the house I had got him to sign a blank cheque for me. When I got to the cashier he stamped the cheque with the payee name but he made a mess of it so he asked me to write out another one. I explained that this was not possible. He shrugged, and said it would probably be OK.
A few days later my new Carte Grise arrived.
Our first trip to get new number plates coincided with a public holiday, but on our second trip we were able to get our nice shiny new French number plates.
I could now set about getting some nice French insurance!
I decided to replace the German 3-pin socket in the lounge dining area with a French one, as the earth pin was in a different place so it could only take 2-pin plugs. This again involved removing an unbelievable amount of screws. I think somebody must have got an electric screwdriver for Xmas! Also the back of the socket was padded and buttressed with miscellaneous bits of ¾ inch marine ply and the double-insulated flex was housed in industrial strength square conduit.
Although there are some parts of the vehicle which remain as they were when we bought it we seem to have made quite a few changes and adjustments!
As people new to caravanning we should not have bought somebody else's home-build van. This is not because it has not been a good van. We have had 8 years of excellent holidays in it, and expect we will get a few more yet. The issue is that if you are a beginner you can end up with something which does not meet current regulations or which is difficult to live with. Professional caravan builders have an after-sales service contract and a reputation to maintain. Home-builders do not.
We now know that we need to watch out for too much extra added weight. Professional caravan builders use much thinner and lighter wood and bracing frames instead of heavy ply.
We have gone through 2 re-registration processes. Back in 2003 it was relatively easy to import a European van into the UK. In France in 2010 it was relatively difficult, and it is probably even worse now. We have seen that governments are keen to encourage scrappage of old cars to boost their domestic motor industry. We think the same is happening with caravans, but with caravans there is a lot more scope to tighten the safety and construction regulations!