How To Reveal your Surprisingly Cool, Campervan History

Classic Toyota Hiace

WE KNOW you think your campervan is amazing. Even if she’s approaching two hundred thousand miles on the clock, a quarter of a century old or more and on her second or third engine – In this guide we’re going to give you our tips on how to trace the fascinating history of your campervan, motorhome or RV.

This is what you could do if you drove 200,000 miles:

  • Circumnavigate the globe eight times. (Assuming the seas dried up).

  • Navigate the perimeter of the USA more than 22 times. (If every road was coastal).

  • Race the Dakar Rally on 36 occasions. (High-five if you’ve done this in a campervan)!

  • Ambled from London to Stockholm and back 338 times. (Are you a shuttle bus)?

Your campervan, motorhome or RV isn’t just an inanimate, rolling object. She’s an absorber of the past, of people’s fun, happiness, laughter and shared experiences. It would be a shame to lose these in the midsts of time.

Hey, if your campervan was built pre-1971, maybe it was watching when Bowie headlined the second ever Glastonbury Festival? That year it was free to get in by the way and you could park next to your tent. The festival toilet situation was no doubt, a grim affair.

If your campervan was built pre-1989, (especially if it was a VW), maybe she was present at the fall of the Berlin Wall? Who knows? There might even be pictures of your van with David Hasselhoff in the distance singing that timeless classic we all hold dearly in our hearts, ‘Looking for Freedom’.

Hoff without a campervan
What does the Hoff know about campervans?

OK, maybe not, but it’s got to be worth a shot tracing the history of your campervan because, what’s the worst that can happen? You get some funny stories, a few cool Polaroid images and an even greater feeling of oneness with your campervan that you may never have had otherwise. You might even discover what that broken switch on the dashboard is meant for.

As the phrase goes, “If these walls could talk….” and when it comes to campervans, motorhomes or RVs, they really can, because if you use the information at your disposal, along with a little help from the kindness of strangers, it’s totally possible to discover the amazing tales of the people who used, enjoyed and even lived whole chunks of their lives the vehicle you now own. So let us show you how to undertake this journey of discovery.

Step 1: Don’t be a stalker

This is not a guide on how to hunt people down, pester people who don’t want to be found or in any way side-step the law, which of course varies from country to country. So, before you start this process please maintain respect for the privacy of others.

Step 2: Get your papers in order

If you’ve bought a second-hand campervan, motorhome or RV, hopefully you have at least some documented history with it. For a vehicle nearly a quarter of a century old this can add up to quite a stack. Luckily, things like MOT certificates and service stamps should all have dates on and sometimes the mileage of the vehicle. Put these papers in date order starting with the oldest document first. Make a note of all the names you can see and assuming there’s a few, try to work out when each person owned the van and how many miles they did. This will be apparent from MOT certificates or service logs. The more ground they covered, the more tales they’ll have to tell.

Step 3: Use open source searches and look for the clues

Now you have a list of names, some of whom you have an address for and some of whom you don’t. Time to fill in the gaps and get those remaining details so you can hit them up for a piece of history. Bear in mind that the further you look back in time, the less likely it is the previous owner still resides at the physical address. (Of course, you don’t need a physical address, although we do recommend this). A social media account such as Twitter or Instagram or perhaps just an email address can be more direct.

Obtaining contact details could be as easy as a quick search of Google but, due to a combination of changes to EU law and the nature of security settings, there’s no guarantees your initial search will reveal anything of use. So our best advice is to use the clues.

If you have paperwork that suggests the campervan was serviced in a particular town or city, then append that to the name in your search query. e.g. John Smith, UK becomes John Smith, Manchester, UK. This is where you need a bit of luck. Obviously there’s a load of John Smiths out there. There’s a lot more chance of finding the right person when you’re searching for a relatively uncommon name.

Other clues might be an old window sticker on your van indicating one of the previous owners was a member of a particular society, club or organisation. Something relatively obscure like the Manchester Canal Kayakers, for example. Marry the name you are looking for with the name of the club and Google it.

Potential campervan owner in kayak on canal
Could this be him?

If the results reveal a social media account with a person of that name kayaking in a canal then this is a a strong indicator you’ve found your man (or woman). However, do not contact the organisation in question as they can’t legally give out personal details of members or employees.

STEP 4: Make contact

We strongly advise that where possible you write to any previous keepers by hand; a far more personal method of communication than an email which may come across as spam. (If you’ve found an associated Twitter or Instagram account then it’s likely the person is comfortable being contacted by whoever).

Letter to previous campervan owner page one
First page of the letter we sent to a previous owner.

When writing, take into account, the person you are contacting will not have thought about the van for a very long time and won’t be expecting anyone to contact them in regards to it. So it might seem a little unlikely and maybe even sinister to receive such a communication. The initial contact should be handled with sensitivity.

Letter to previous campervan owner page 2
A gentle approach is best

In the letter pictured, note how we’ve mentioned we won’t contact them again if they don’t respond. We cannot emphasise enough how important it is you respect people’s right to privacy so please don’t go knocking on doors or sending off a thousand emails if you don’t get a reply.

In reality, we’re talking about old campervans whose owners may not be around any more, or simply don’t want to be bothered. Either way, respect is key and you are to a large extent relying on the kindness of strangers, to share their experiences with you.

So have a go!

Find out how we got on tracing the history of our own campervan.

We’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried tracing the history of your campervan, motorhome or RV. What did you find out? Maybe you have more advice you can add to the above. Please tell us in the comments section or tweet @VanUtopia

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to join the mailing list for updates and exclusive content!

Ant & Lou

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