“Struth, I didn’t plan on this many problems!” said Brent, early on in his ambitious renovation of a 1977 Viscount, ‘Vincent’ he bought sight unseen on Christmas Day in 2014. The van had been largely neglected in the years leading up to Brent’s ownership, and, if everything had gone to plan, was destined to end up in Tassie with his daughter’s family. Fortunately for us, plans change.
Like so many projects, part one was being overwhelmed by everything and wondering if tearing apart an old caravan just to put it back together was a good idea. His wife was wondering if it was worth kicking their brand-new off-road caravan out of the shed while it all happened. Brent had restored a 1971 Mustang Grande before, though, so this should be a walk in the park, right?
An obviously fastidious person, Brent documented nearly every step of the way, not just on the Classic Caravanners forum (ditzygypsy.proboards.com), but also in a hand-written notepad. Flicking through it shows that Brent started work on Boxing Day 2014 and worked on the van nearly every day of 2015, sometimes spending up to 14-hours on the job. Comments like ‘Lots of little jobs completed, not sure where the hours have gone,” or “Spent the day removing outside ugly rivets and awning holders,” show how tedious some of the work was, and how completely Brent was immersed in it. By April 2015 he’d put 270 hours into the project, by November, 820. When he finally finished documenting the renovation on the 15th of February 2019 he’s logged 1019 hours on the tools, giving some sobering insight into the level of commitment needed to restore an old caravan.
Typical of just about every van of age, the first thing to do was deal with timber rot and work out why it had happened. Old Viscount vans are all aluminium framed, so rarely have problems with structure, but plenty of the furniture under the windows had been water damaged and so had to come out. But pulling things apart is the easy bit, and as plenty of bits in this van aren’t made anymore and can’t easily be replaced, Brent took a very considered approach to it all. “The hardest part of the whole restoration was not knowing. I had to learn everything about this van as I went along.”
Sometimes he was forced into jobs he didn’t want to do, though. It was on day seven that he had to prematurely pull a window out after locking the keys inside the van. At that point, he didn’t know how the frame would be supported without them, so had been hesitant, despite the fact they all needed attention.
Some of the biggest jobs were the most wearisome. Brent spent eight hours over two days just polishing one window frame, although discovered that using a drill with a nylon brush, followed by three grades of steel wool saturated with Inox the wiping down with Autosol did the best job.
He also trawled the internet for hours searching for the best alternative to Sikaflex (a compound he said is more dangerous in the hands of a novice than any firearm he’s ever used) as he wanted to make sure that anything he stuck back onto the van could be easily removed again if it had to be repaired and replaced. Around the windows and joins he used caulking tape (basically hard-core Blue-tac, and the same stuff used to seal windows on Holdens during the ’60s and ’70s) because it comes off easily (unlike silicon). Brent also set the clutch on his drill, so all screws are into the same depth, and didn’t use glue anywhere. “Everything I’ve done can easily be reversed,” he boasts.
Another difficult job was the toolbox on the front – it seemed no matter what he tried, he couldn’t get it to fit and still open properly. His frustration and relief even show in his typically matter-of-fact notes: “Forgot about mounting the spare wheel that would not allow the toolbox to open. Bloody toolbox; it’s been one problem after another, but finally in place.”
Some jobs were easier than others, though. Almost all of the original glass windows have been replaced with Perspex, although he expected the bay windows front and back to be difficult to source. “I went to the local Perspex place, and after telling the bloke what the window frames were from, he went up into his loft and started tossing things around until he walked back down with the exact mould for 1970s Viscount bay windows.” They only cost him $60.
The hatches were another daunting job that turned out to be a cinch. The original tin hatches were pock-marked with rust holes and over 20 drill holes each (potentially where more rust had been cut out. But getting new ones pressed proved to be either too difficult or too expensive until someone suggested he just fibreglass over them. Brent used to build fibreglass kayaks, so in comparison, this was a simple job.
As the work continued, there was no stone left unturned in the van. “It got to the point,” Brent told me, “that I was just looking for things to do, so I wired in points for pay-TV!” But it also included remaking the front bunks, so they folded down for transit, rather than up and so didn’t block the windows. He removed the 12V bar fridge and sourced an original Electrolux three-way. He found a period correct tap for the mains connection plumbing and wherever possible, reused the original facing materials, even if he had to rebuild what was behind it completely. Brent and a friend also spent days trying to get the paint correct and said it took them three goes before they were happy with the finish.
The work never really stopped, but it did get to a point where Brent and his wife Colleen could travel in it. From the beginning of 2016 until October 2018 the van was towed over 6600km to various classic car and caravan meets or just beachside getaways with friends. Notes like, ‘Biskit [their dog] trashed the flyscreen door’ prove that jobs keep creating themselves.
But maybe it was the thrill of fibreglassing the roof hatches, or just the attraction of having something so rare, Brent found himself the proud, albeit slightly hungover, owner of a 14-foot, 6inch Waldens Sunliner after trying to buy a 16-footer off a bloke and either getting him too drunk, or not drunk enough. Either way, there’s one of four-known, mid-length Sunliners sitting outside his shed, waiting to be restored. The daughter in Tassie also went and bought herself an off-road van and so the Viscount had to go.
To us. We just bought it, and so the ROAM team just got 17-foot bigger.
We’ve got big plans for Vincent, but it’s the small ones that matter first up. Vincent was based in Caloundra, and ROAM’s south of Sydney, so we spent a week bringing him back. Typical of old vans, we’ve already broken off a cupboard latch and decided we probably won’t be putting the heavy, old canvas awning up regularly. But we bought Vincent to travel in, not to display in a museum, so that’s all just part of the fun (although if anyone has some spare Viscount cupboard latches…)
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