Welcome to our Blog. We spend a large part of every year travelling in our beloved Rapido 741F motorhome.
We post regular accounts of our adventures as well as the occasional article, and of course, pictures.
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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Home to Cambrai

23rd Jan.
So we were finally off, the ferry booked. The schedule, as ever, was vague but with six months to play with there was not much point in doing a meticulous plan, just stick a few pins in the map and go for it!
We like to follow our noses most of the time – people and places have a habit of changing the itinerary, and that’s how you find those “undiscovered” places off the beaten tourist track.

The plan, though hardly worthy of the name, was to go to the French or perhaps Italian Alps, enjoy the mountain atmosphere and do some leisurely skiing, then down through Italy, perhaps take a look at Sicily, and then get a ferry across to Greece. Greece would be a first time for us in the motorhome and would probably involve a major exploration. Thereafter the obvious thing to do would be to make our way up through Eastern Europe, though we hadn’t decided which countries – we’d do a little homework nearer the time.

25th Jan.
Drove off the ferry in Calais at 0530. Half a km away there is a huge aire de service where a dozen or so vans were passing the night, so we joined them. Okay, you can hear the throb of the ferry's engines, but for old sea dogs like us it just sounds familiar and doesn't disturb us in the slightest.

26th Jan.
Chilled out in Arques (near St Omer) for a day - a pleasant aire attached to a (closed) campsite. Adjacent to the aire is an old gravel pit turned into a fishing lake. On the lake there are dozens of duck and geese - but they were a bit strange - bobbing up and down like corks, they turned out to be decoys, artfully anchored in groups. Whether they were meant to attract or dissuade the real thing we weren't sure. There were also some hides and a pen, or maybe trap, with some live birds in them.

27th Jan.
It looked like this trip was going to get off to shaky start. Arriving at Catillon sur Sambre we turned into a narrow entrance to the aire. There was a loud bang from the offside front suspension and the van started to steer to the left. After some investigations I surmised that the roller bearing in the top of the suspension strut had seized. More deliberations and we concluded that our best course of action was to go back to Cambrai where there was a large motorhome concessionaire. We would ask their recommendation for a local garage which was used to working on motorhomes. We then retired to the local "Bar L'Europeen" to console ourselves.

28th Jan. Catillon sur Sambre.
Had a look at the garage the concessionaire recommended, but it seemed so tiny we wondered how they would get the van inside. Further towards Cambrai we found an HGV garage with a FIAT sign outside and thought we would try our luck. My knowledge of French technical terms is pretty poor, despite having worked on a French built ship, but fortunately our manual came to the rescue – a picture is worth a thousand words!
The top man was obviously very busy, but friendly enough, and after jacking the van up and driving it around he came to the same conclusion as I had and ordered some parts to fix it. Unfortunately they were not due until Thursday and we would have to wait until Friday for them to change them. Went back to Catillon’s other aire by the canal bank – free electricity!

29th Jan. Catillon sur Sambre.
Grey old day. Took a walk along the canal bank to the next lock. By the lock keepers house was a somber plaque commemerating the soldiers from the Royal Sussex Regiment who had died storming the lock in November 1918. Their CO was awarded a Victoria Cross.
Along the path we saw two more lakes with decoy ducks, hides and pens, obviously a popular combination – I wished someone could explain it to us, we were inclined to believe the purpose was entrapment rather than observation and conservation.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

RAPIDO LOVE - Our ideal motorhome

This is an updated and revised edition (2009) of an article first published in MMM magazine in May 2007.

Given an unlimited budget and the willing services of your favourite motorhome constructor, then the undivided attention of a skilled designer to bounce your ideas off and do the hard technical stuff – could you create your perfect motorhome? It’s nice to dream!

Personally I have my doubts, because squeezing a transportable home into a small tin or plastic box is fundamentally about compromise, and your view of the balance of that compromise can change in the instant you bang your elbow, or when your new wok won't fit in the drawer.

Our style of motor caravanning is definitely at the “wilder” end of the spectrum - the more remote the better. Natural beauty, and the wildlife that comes with it, are what give us the greatest pleasure. Autonomy, and freedom from the constraints of regimented campsites, are what we aim for.

Practicality, usability and reliability are therefore valued above all else and we recoil from some of the style (gimmick) driven designs that the major manufacturers are putting out. The problem is of course, that turning out a proven, slightly upgraded but essentially identical design every year doesn’t make headlines. An absence of new “style statements” to grab the customer’s attention just isn’t sexy - though how overblown, convoluted plastic mouldings (a nightmare to clean or repair) can hold their appeal is beyond us.

Hence the rising interest in Panel Van conversions, where style hasn’t yet overtaken practicality. We originally set our hearts on a Panel Van conversion, and on our shortlist of three were IH, Murvi and Timberland. The problem was, we just couldn’t decide between them. The rationale for buying a van conversion, as you would expect, was for a compact and go anywhere vehicle, but items we kept struggling with were: storage (for bikes and skis), bed making, kitchen workspace, washroom usability (the dreaded clingy shower curtain) and winterisation.

When in 2002, we climbed into the Rapido 741F for the first time we couldn’t believe what we had found. Here was a fixed bed with cavernous storage underneath, a kitchen with more worktop than you could shake a saucepan at, and a bathroom with separate shower that would not disgrace some motel cubicles.
All this in a body only 2 feet longer than the Ducato van, nominally no wider (wing mirror to wing mirror) and well insulated and equipped down to -10º C. A neat touch here is that all water pipes, even right up to the kitchen sink, follow blown air heating ducts, hence keeping the heating ticking over at night avoids any freezing problems.

The four functional areas: bathroom, bedroom, lounge and kitchen, are fully effective and easily accessible to the other, with no wasted space or separated components, e.g. fridge away from the preparation area. A sliding solid partition can swiftly separate the bedroom, bathroom and wardrobe from the living area, forming an en-suite bedroom and giving total privacy. The living area can thus be left fully lit or open to the outside, whilst at the same time the bedroom is dark and totally isolated, perfect for un-synchronised sleeping!

The key to the design, and its masterstroke, is the fixed table (with sliding top) opposite the kitchen. This gives you all the worktop you could want for cooking, dining, working and playing, plus additional useful storage in the base. Although the downside is the restricted movement around the L shaped settee, as boat users we are accustomed to that and it doesn’t bother us. A table that size and solidity would be cumbersome to store and erect, but why bother, when it is never out of use?
Access to the driving compartment is easy, and swivelling the passenger seat immediately integrates it into the lounge.

We are sold on the Rapido trademark ambience created by the maplewood and brass décor, the solidity of the furniture construction, and the light, airy and easy to clean bathroom. (In newer models it is now sadly made dingy by extra wood panels and dark brown worktops).

We are no fans of domestic size cookers in motorhomes and the built in 3 burner hob and SMEV oven are just right for us. There is a huge drawer underneath and a large, full width cutlery drawer above.

When it comes to services we are also well endowed; 140 litres of internal fresh water storage and 100 litres of external waste water; space for two 13 kg gas bottles and under the bed (the best place for it - warm bed in the winter) a Truma 6 kW combi heater.

The Heki 1 roof light is a joy with its multi-position opening, though now sadly ditched on newer models - probably due to its added weight and cost.

Externally, we love the smooth, well fitted panels and the deep gel coat on the walls – this is tough, resistant to scratches, yet easy to clean and repair.

To get the van to its present state of usability we have added a few indispensable items and made a few slight alterations:

Built on a 2.8 JTD Maxi Platform Cab, we upgraded the GVW or MTPLM from 3500 kg to 3850 kg. This was a paper exercise, just requiring a certificate and a new chassis “plate” (sticker actually) from SV Tech, plus visit to the local DVLA to change the registration to PHG (Private Heavy Goods). There is no change in road tax or MOT requirements.

We had a CAT 1 immobiliser/alarm system fitted from new and this has a perimeter alarm function allowing us to alarm all doors and hatches (plus a bike loop) and still move around inside. This is our standard setting at night.

On the cab doors we have HeoSafe deadlocks, which have a very fast and simple twist locking action and require the use of a key to unlock them once engaged, hence a potential intruder removing the quarterlight would still be faced with smashing the lock or the window – an action that should cause at least as much disturbance as the alarm going off.
They are not cheap (£100 plus) and made in Germany, but are available from service centres such as Brownhills and Essanjay. Different versions are produced to fit Fiat/Peugeot/Citroen, Mercedes and Ford. They are simple to fit using existing bolts and no drilling is required. Consequently they can be moved from van to van if you change, with no evidence that they have been fitted.
We lock ours as a matter of routine as soon as we park up and immediately feel that the front of the van is secure from any unwelcome visitors.

The van door has had a small rocker switch fitted to isolate the central locking control, effectively converting it back to manual locking. The thinking behind this was that with the central locking active, a thief breaking the cab window (or removing the quarter light) and then lifting the door locking button would immediately gain access to the interior via the unlocked coach door.
However, when driving, we still have the facility to lock and unlock all doors in an instant, a great feature we think.

A Disklok is used when parking up and leaving the ‘van, it is less bulky and heavy to store than a wheel clamp, quick to fit, yet almost impossible to forcibly remove without causing a lot of damage to the interior of the van.

We also have a RAC Trackstar tracker fitted , with European cover and a lifetime subscription. You do of course have to remember to call the control room if you put your van on a trailer or ferry, or you will receive a polite phone call asking you to prove your identity - a sin which we have been guilty of several times.

A new fitment this year is a three sensor gas detector. Made in Germany and available from Guardian Valves Ltd it has an LPG sensor incorporated in the base unit and separate sensors for Carbon Monoxide and Narcotic gas, thus providing a neat and comprehensive solution for those concerns.
We are well aware that the concept of narcotic gas knocking out people sleeping in motorhomes, prior to robbing them, has been largely rubbished by very experienced and highly qualified anaesthetists, but as one pointed out -the only economically viable gas for such an attempt is ether, and in the right concentrations that is highly flammable - so we would certainly like to be made aware by our alarm that any such gassing was being attempted. And, of course, in sufficient concentrations, it is lethal, as several reported cases of dead lorry drivers has indicated.
Our unit is powered directly from the 12v system and at 210 mA the consumption over 24 hrs is significant, but because of its design the unit is self calibrating, unlike battery powered units which lose sensitivity over time.

We have an Alden 100W solar panel from Roadpro glued to the roof, the voltage regulator for which has a proper battery charging regime and is very effective. It helps significantly, even in the winter, and in the summer we just forget about battery charging unless we are using the laptops a lot. Where it does fall down however is in the higher latitudes, i.e. the North of Scotland, the low sun just doesn’t excite it much and the output is very low.

For backup and winter camping, we use a Honda EU 10i Generator which was converted to run on LPG (No petrol cans under the bed, thank you) by Brownpower at Rugby . The essential regulator for this is smaller than a small fuel can and stores in the gas locker.

A 500W Moore Power inverter is wired in and supplies all the 230V sockets in the ‘van via a 230V relay. When a hook-up is connected the relay is activated and changes the socket supply over from the inverter to the mains inlet.

A Ctek Multi XS 7000 battery charger has also saved our bacon on several occasions, notably after free camping for few days in the below zero temperatures, thus leaving the engine battery too low to start the engine. A session with the generator and the Ctek has got us going in under an hour.
It also occurred to me that even without the generator, the combination of solar panel, inverter and Ctek charger could be a "get you home" combination.

The Gaslow user-refillable bottle system was one of our best investments. The ease and convenience of filling at petrol stations makes the thought of removing and exchanging bottles feel like a return to the dark ages.

Another great advantage is that you can top up when gas is available. When winter camping in the Alps we tend to store up everything in one go and can then be independent of campsites for 3-5 days, even in extreme conditions. Should we (inadvertently) become entrenched on a campsite for a long period, there is nothing to stop us renting a standard gas bottle and disconnecting a Gaslow bottle temporarily. We have a 1.5 metre flexible stainless hose on one side of the regulator which will reach outside the gas locker to the rented bottle.

To supply the generator and the BBQ, an external gas supply unit with snap connector is fitted under the rear floor. This is easily reached without crawling on the ground, but keeps the gas connection out of sight of meddlesome hands and more importantly avoids the possibility of the snap connection getting iced up when using the generator in the snow.

Another five star recommended addition is the Nature Pure fresh water filter. The water tastes good whatever the source, and the filter cartridges, though expensive, last for ages and are cheapest bought direct from the website .

We always have a secret smile to ourselves when we see motorhomers lugging six-packs of mineral water back from the supermarket. With Nature-Pure’s small filter housing (the size of milk carton) mounted under your sink you can forget that journey forever. Ours is fitted under the bathroom sink because: a) there wasn’t room under the kitchen sink and b) we wanted to avoid fitting an extra faucet. Installing it in-line with the supply to the cold tap means that you have pure water for cleaning your teeth, for drinking or for the kettle, but no filtered water is wasted washing dishes.

The simple Omnivent above the bed was this year replaced with the American designed and manufactured Fantastic Vent, a 12 volt 3-speed, extraction/supply fan, which simply - with the right adaptor plate, replaces the existing fitting.
Not as aesthetically gifted as the Fiamma and Omnistor offerings, (in fact it looks rather commercial/industrial), it none the less blows them away in terms of performance. Fitted with the additional feature of a rain sensor it can be left open when the van is unoccupied and the thermostat will automatically control the running of the fan to keep the van cool and ventilated whilst you are seeing the sights. Should it rain the lid will close as soon as spot of rain hits the sensor, and open again when it has dried out.

On our last trip this fan was a revelation, giving us a wonderful cooling draft when the temperatures soared into the 30’s and above. To get the best effect we shut all windows except one facing away from the sun, and only opened that enough to provide a comparable aperture in terms of area to that of the fan casing. This created a fierce draft which whistled through the van like a breeze, cooling us down with a wind chill effect, as you’d expect sitting in front of a table fan.
Even on full speed the noise was not intrusive and, exposed in hot sun, the solar panel easily kept pace with the demands of the fan.
It was also brilliant at rapid extraction of cooking heat and aromas, and, as we found out to our surprise - Carbon Monoxide build up from cooking with too little ventilation, which was highlighted by out recently fitted sensor.

Two mods here, the first was to fit a plastic gate valve from CAK tanks to the lowest part of the tank. This is operated by an extended rod and handle to the side of the ’van. To our amazement, when we checked to see how much additional water we were able to drain from the tank, it was found to be in the region of 30 litres. Not only has this effectively increased our waste water capacity, but it has a beneficial effect on our payload and fuel consumption.

Secondly, I have fitted a thermostatically controlled heating element, again from CAK tanks, close to the gate valve. This is claimed to keep 45 litres of water from freezing down to -25ºC on an un-insulated tank. Its DC consumption is 2.5 Amps (the equivalent of three halogen lights) so it’s not something you would leave switched on for a long period without a hook-up.
It does indeed work, keeping the contents liquid down to -10 and below, but despite being sited near to the gate valve in a bid to keep that operational, we have had to resort to a hot water hose or hair dryer to get it open (even an insulated and heated tank is crippled if the drain valve freezes).

After much encouragement I finally fitted the German SOG system to our cassette. What ever the more outlandish claims for this product it is basically nothing more than an automatically switched extraction fan. As such it does its job well, allowing one to remain in bed whilst one’s partner is using the convenience – if you get my drift.
As for dispensing with the need for chemical, well yes – but be prepared to hold your nose when emptying the cassette and don’t park your chair next to the outside vent when it is in use!
To be honest, I freshen up the cassette with chemical occasionally and empty it at every opportunity, which of course one is happy to do when you don’t feel that you are wasting Thetford blue.

This evolves as new equipment becomes available, and it is entirely portable.
We currently have O2 Smartphones which comprise a Microsoft operated PDA and phone. These have the addition of Copilot satnav software and a Bluetooth GPS receiver. The software, including mapping for the whole of Europe, resides on a mini SD card which slots into the phone, and the receiver can be kept in our pockets (if cycling) or in an overhead locker when on the road.

The phones will operate as a GPRS modem for our laptop, though this method has now been superseded by a 3G Broadband modem from Vodafone. This is basically a USB dongle, but works like a dream, giving broadband speeds with a 3G signal, and adjusting automatically to a GPRS signal and back if the 3G is lost.
It is on a separate £15 per month contract, exclusively for data, and gives us virtually unlimited use in the UK (fair usage 3GB per month). As such we have abandoned our dial-up connection when at home and can enjoy internet connection in the van wherever there is a phone signal. Even on GPRS it is adequate for emails, banking and blogging.
On the Continent, now including most of Eastern Europe, use is charged by a timed 24hrs (fair usage 50MB), which costs £10 each time. In Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe we have occasionally found it cheaper than campsite wi-fi, and in the UK of course, it makes a nonsense of the Caravan Club’s ridiculous charges.
With the smartphones now on an O2 £10 a month Sim only contract, we are enjoying much easier and better connectivity for little extra money.

We now carry two laptops since the failure of our Toshiba Qosmio G30 in 2008. The repaired Toshiba has been supplement by a super slim and lightweight 13 inch MacBook. This has a copy of Windows XP loaded on it (from Amazon), thus giving us the best of both worlds.
The Apple eyeTV hybrid TV tuner is a huge advance over the integrated Windows TV tuner in the Tosh and also accepts an input from a satellite TV receiver. On digital reception the HDTV quality of the picture is fantastic.
A Logitech V470 Bluetooth mouse frees up a USB port and is a great to use.

We graduated to a coachbuilt motorhome via tents, boats and a panel van based camper. It was love at first sight, and after seven years the love is undiminished. With the self installed tweaks we now have a ‘van which suits our needs like a second skin - so well we honestly don’t know what we would buy to replace it, given any budget. If we were forced down that road, I think we would look to a bespoke construction with a similar layout.
Why doesn’t somebody make a rugged, well insulated, basic coachbuilt body that could be fitted out with various designs according to the customer’s requirements?

Take a look at the new vans on offer from the major manufacturers, they inevitably have some awful styling gimmicks to give “wow” factor, an utterly useless piece of “inventive design”, or are just so flimsily and badly built they wouldn’t last a couple of years of continuous use. We despair when we see the way development is going, ever larger, ever more expensive, ever more grandiose. I suspect most of the price increases are going to pay for the annual re-designs and marketing. We are also convinced that most of the designers never actually use the vans they have created!

At the moment it seems that if you want a self built/designed or bespoke motorhome you have to go the panel van conversion route, but as we have discovered, a slightly larger coachbuilt body gives you so much more in terms of space, facilities and insulation. The problem is finding one that you can have fitted out, and getting it though safety regulations and insured if you can.
We have looked at the Hymer Van and similar concepts from other manufacturers, but in our opinion none of them compare with the quality and practicality of our 741F. Rapido – take note!

Date of Manufacture: 2002
Price when new: £37645 (Basic van)
Base Vehicle: Ducato 16 Maxi platform cab. 2.8 JTD (127bhp) Turbo Diesel with 5 speed manual gearbox.
Exterior Dimensions: Length 6.15 m (20ft 2 in), Width 2.23 m (7ft 4in), Height 2.79 m (9ft 2in)
Berths: 2
Layout: Fixed rear bed, separate shower, L shaped lounge, fixed table opposite compact kitchen
Maximum Authorised Weight: 3850kg
Payload: 840kg

Tough GRP panel construction
Central locking including ‘van door
Cab air conditioning
Rear vehicle heater
Fixed bed with massive storage underneath
Separate shower with drying rack (doubles as wet locker)
Sliding wood partition between bedroom/bathroom and living area
Big fixed table with sliding top & storage underneath
Kitchen layout with SMEV hob & oven
Powerful heating system with winterised plumbing
Sliding rear window - keeps you cool on hot nights
Rapido quality and details - drinks locker, magazine rack

Swivelling driver’s seat
Insulated waste tank

Original waste tank outlet didn't fully drain tank.
(After 7 years we honestly can't think of anything else!)