Remarkably Awesome: The Lifetime of Our Heroic Hiace Camper

Ground shot of Heidi Campervan in Wales

IF YOU’VE never wondered where your second-hand campervan, motorhome or RV has been in the hands of its previous owners, why not? Since we bought Heidi the Toyota Hiace camper in 2016, Lou and I have attempted to reveal the hidden secrets and surprising stories she’s collected in a lifetime spanning more than 25 years.

Below are the real-life tales of the people who cherished our campervan before us, what we learnt from them, not only about the van but living #vanlife itself, and why it’s worth taking the time to research the history of your campervan, motorhome or RV too!

Ground shot of Heidi Hiace Campervan in Wales
Heidi looking magnificent against a moody Welsh sky

Swishing the brandy around our glasses, comfortably reclining in the club’s leather wing-back chairs, Felix tells me about the time he took the campervan on a Scandinavian sojourn;

Splayed fingers gripped firmly against our faces, as if to offer some futile protection from the seemingly inevitable impact, we careered down an icy mountain track, flames shooting from our red hot brakes and somehow screeched to a halt just inches from a drooling beast that bore its antlers like a series of well-sharpened bayonets. With the van at at a standstill, our next problem? How to wrestle a moose!”

The above scenario would not make the worst intro to an off-beat TV show. Admittedly we have embellished the truth somewhat. However, the inspiration came from a real-life previous owner of our campervan, Heidi. That’s the point. It inspired us to bring her fascinating story to life. More on this later.

Heidi Hiace campervan poptop windsor park
Heidi the Hiace with top popped!

Finding Heidi and why we wanted a Hiace

Let’s start with a little background. This is our beautiful campervan Heidi. Why did we name her Heidi? Because she’s a Toyota Hiace of course. Heidi the Hiace. Because, as Principal Skinner says in the barber shop quartet episode of Simpsons,

We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny every time you hear it.”

Heidi’s our hideaway; She’s got a pop-top to hide in; She’s quite good at hiding in the wild… You get the idea. Plus the fact Lou wanted a name that would reflect her Austrian roots… and love for the musical, (and arguably, very guilty pleasure), ‘The Sound of Music’.

So why do we love our Toyota Hiace campervan Heidi, so much? If you’ve ever been to South America or Asia you’ll see the Hiace everywhere in various forms. In Bolivia, she’s the backbone of the public transport system acting as a hop-on bus. In Thailand she’s the heart and soul of the long-distance taxi network. In Japan the Hiace is frequently found performing life-saving duties as an ambulance. This girl is a dynamic work-horse and almost peerless in her utility. Toyota engines last forever and, the fact she’s such a goer, makes Heidi the Hiace cool by default, what with being Japanese and all. Seriously, have you been to Japan? It rocks!

When your home is in London, it’s relatively difficult to find affordable campervans for sale. Especially the Toyota Hiace, most of which have diesel engines because older, (and therefore cheaper) vehicles are essentially banned from the city due to the prohibitive tax on entering a ‘Low Emission Zone’.

Having decided we wanted a Hiace campervan for all the above reasons, the next challenge was finding a petrol-engined example with a manual transmission. A configuration that was proving hard to find on Autotrader or the other classified websites. So, when we saw an advert on Gumtree for a Hiace campervan with the right spec, located only a bus ride away from us, and within our budget, we phoned up straight away to make sure it was still available.

Lou Heidi Hiace campervan at dealership
It was love at first sight….

The following day we arrived at a backstreet dealer in North London whose tiny lot was crammed with campervans of varying ages and in various states of decay. In the middle, was an off-white, pop-top style Toyota Hiace long-wheel base, campervan we recognised as the one in the advert. Considering this Hiace was an ‘H’ registration, (1991), the bodywork was in great condition with just some minor rust spots around the sills. So far, so good. Only one major flaw was apparent – 201,000 miles on the clock. Ouch!

If we’re being fair to the dealer who omitted the mileage from the advert, it was somewhat reflected in the price of £3500. This is about half the price of any other Hiace campervan conversion or indeed, VW camper we saw for sale at the time. Pretty much all of which had a six figure mileage anyway.

Given the Hiace was over twenty five years old, it wasn’t surprising a few of the original documents had gone walkies. Missing was any information about what company did the original campervan conversion, how to operate the folding bed or anything about how to turn on the built-in refrigerator. Teasingly, the dealer had suggested she was originally a Japanese import but the registration document simply said it was registered in the UK in 1991 and there was no evidence to back up the dealer’s claim.

Since we bought Heidi approximately a year ago, these are the repairs we’ve had done out of necessity:

  • New Exhaust

  • New Radiator

  • Rebuilt Clutch

If you add these to all the silly little things that have needed fixing like our wing mirror getting swiped or the windscreen wipers losing torque, it all adds up to a pretty penny. (I haven’t done the maths but it’s well over a grand). The only upside of this expenditure is that we’re planning a long trip to Europe. So in a funny way, we’re kind of alright with things breaking while we’re still on home turf, as we can communicate with mechanics in our native language. Due to her venerable age we have to accept that even Heidi the Hiace needs TLC more frequently than younger models.

The history of Heidi the Hiace so far

Now, compared to a car, a campervan has way more potential for adventure due the fact you can make your home in it and travel wherever you want. Lou and I are fascinated by the idea that an old campervan, maybe the one you own or are thinking of buying has seen sights you couldn’t possibly imagine.

Look at it this way. By driving 200,000 miles you could circumnavigate the globe eight times. At over a quarter of a century old and with six previous keepers it’s totally conceivable that, well, babies could have been conceived in her, who are now fully grown adults! Whatever, there’s no question that any really old campervan, motorhome or RV has stories to tell. She’s a part of history.

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At the time of writing we’ve made contact with two previous keepers both of whom have been absolutely lovely people and very generous in giving us their time. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve learnt from them so far:

Hayde and Mick

They owned the campervan between approximately 2012 and 2015. When we first wrote to the address on the paperwork, the name given was a Ms Heidi. Honestly, we’d not looked at this paperwork closely before we named our campervan so this was a massive coincidence! As it happened the paperwork had been incorrectly completed and rather than Heidi, it should have said Hayde. (Apparently Hayde’s mother was Swedish and the name is the feminine version of the more common Hayden).

At the time of writing we’ve only had a brief chat on the phone but we’re hoping for some more details soon. From what we gather, they weren’t able to use the campervan much as they had a very bad experience with an evil mechanic who kept Heidi in his garage for more than 15 months! We did however glean the following information:

  • We learnt how to use the fridge on 12v electricity. (Bingo)!

  • Heidi may have had a respray quite recently. (Explains why she still sparkles).

  • The conversion was probably done by a company called Devon. (We’ll be in touch)!

  • The most exotic place she went was Wales. (Or maybe WOMAD).

  • Heidi’s name back then was ‘Mimi’ (The name of Hayde’s mother)

So far, not quite the rock-star past we were hoping for. However, Heidi’s Scandinavian connection continues…

Chris

We’ve managed to contact Chris, via Twitter. The clues that lead us to believe it was the same Chris on Heidi’s paperwork, were the faded ‘Harvest Festival 1994′ sticker on the rear window, (Chris’ Twitter feed is primarily Church related). Also, the fact the garage where the van had been serviced during that period of ownership, was located very close to the Church mentioned on Twitter.

Happily, Chris, who shared a surname with another person mentioned in the service logbook, confirmed the original owner was indeed his dad. Tantalisingly he mentioned to us that his dad had once been driving down a mountainside in Scandinavia with the brakes on fire, followed by having to wrestle a moose. Of course, this is where we got the inspiration for the slightly unbelievable paragraph at the start of this post.

Chris’s dad sounds like quite a guy and with a bit of luck and their generosity, we’re hoping to discover the details of that story and a whole lot more in the near future.

If you want to know the best way of researching your campervan, motorhome or RV’s history then it’s important you follow the tips in our step-by-step guide.

Thanks for reading and please sign up for our weekly update email if you haven’t already.

Ant & Lou

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