We saved enough clams and did the research to decide on a Fiamma F35 awning for our Eurovan camper. We chose the 8′-2″ version since it covers plenty of ground and cost a lot less to ship to us from the Florida factory than the longer one.
I received the small box with the required bracket kit (Fiamma part number 98655-111) first, which was good since the instructions – if you can call them that – left a lot to be desired and required a bunch of research before I even began.
On the surface, the instructions look very simple: drawings only, no text. Step 1 shows tracing the bracket holes to locate where you’ll drill three holes (per each of the two brackets). Step 2 shows the drilling getting done, with a slashed-circle and numeral 9 above the drill bit, which means nothing to me since I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. I’m guessing it means 9mm, but it could mean don’t drill these holes unless it’s 9 a.m., or if it’s 9 a.m. Call me anal, but I like clarity when I’m about to drill six holes into a $35,000 piece of sheet metal.
Step 3 caused the biggest concern, as it showed a strange looking tool that looked like it was required to insert the threaded sleeves into which the brackets are to be bolted. So I spent a couple hours searching for information on installing one of these awnings, and found nothing. GoWesty sells the more expensive F45 awning, and mentions that a rivet nut tool is required for Eurovan installations. $27. Seems a bit steep, but that’s GoWesty for you. I looked for a rivet nut tool at Harbor Freight ($16), but learned that you need to know the thread specs to get the proper “nosepieces” and “mandrels” (not mandrills, even though a monkey could probably figure this out easier than I’ve been able to) for the tool so that it will install the threaded sleeves. But the Fiamma website (not to mention the bracket instructions) do not give any specs for any hardware, or even if the inserts are metric or SAE; you’d assume they’re metric since the brackets (or at least the instructions) appear to be fabricated in Milan, but who knows these days? Which left me wondering how these awnings, which I see on at least half the Eurovan campers out there, got installed. Obviously I’m either making this way too difficult or am retarded, or both. Clearly I have a problem here, but because of the lack of clarity on how to install this thing I feel compelled to write a blog to assist other idiots like me who might want to do this.
So I emailed Fiamma tech support, asking the size of the drill bit and the thread specification for the rivet nuts. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Anyway, they got back to me pretty quickly: 9mm drill bit, 6mm (M6) rivet nuts. Wahoo!
The next day I headed over to Home Depot to find a rivet nut tool. The biggest one they had only went to M5 (5mm). Not surprised (Home Depot almost never has what I need), I headed over to Sears since I’ve had pretty good luck with their tool department. They don’t carry any metric rivet tools. So I checked our local tool rental company (Tates Rents): strike three. I called Harbor Freight since I couldn’t determine from their website if they had metric rivet tools. The person I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about. My neighbor Dave, who’s got more tools than I knew existed, didn’t have what I needed, either. I found a kit on Sears.com for $65, but didn’t want to spend that much. Back to GoWesty and their $27 tool, which I ordered out of shear despairation (intentional conflation of despair and desperation). Call me old fashioned, call me anything you want for all I care; but it would seem – given the necessity of having this tool to install the awning brackets – that Fiamma might raise the price a bit and include this little tool to get the job done. My time is worth nothing, but I still have several hours invested in this, hours I’d gladly have returned to me for organizing my sock drawer or de-greasing used Ziplock bags. Hopefully my tribulations will benefit other otherwise hapless readers in this regard, or at least give them something to laugh about.
The big day came. I’d been dreading it, mostly because I hated the idea of drilling holes in the Eurovan. I needed a 9 millimeter drill bit, but didn’t have one and didn’t want to make another fruitless sojourn into the bowels of Boise to look for one at the non-metric conspiratorial network of commercial establishments some over-generously refer to as stores. I searched the Internet for an SAE equivalent: the closest was 23/64 (.359″), which equates to 9.128mm. I drilled one hole with my 23/64 bit into a piece of plastic (one of my Nordic ski wax scrapers), and tested the rivet nut: fit like a glove. So I traced the bracket holes with a pencil onto the van and drilled a hole, sweating bullets with every revolution of the over-sized bit. Seemed a little bigger than the one I’d made in the plastic, so I took the 11/32 bit and used that to drill the second hole: too tight. So I went back to the 23/64 bit and got all three holes for the front bracket drilled. Stressful.
The first rivet nut was tough to set because I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a while to figure out the position to get the tightening bolt in and where to hold the stabilizing bar. I also wasn’t sure how tight to make the rivet nut, but the tool ran out of threads at what seemed like the perfect spot. The rivets seemed tight, so I put the silicone sealant around each one, placed the bracket and its rubber pad over the rivet nuts, and tightened them down with my 10mm ratchet. Again, I wasn’t sure of the torque to use on these aluminum rivet nuts, and I’m still not. (Stay tuned to this blog for our road trip plans; if you want to follow us and I didn’t tighten the bolts enough, you might end up with a free awning.)
I made them as tight as I dared, but hope to get more info from Fiamma about this when I talk to them on Monday about the damage to the awning I discovered upon installing it.
To place the rear bracket, I went to the Internet to look for photos of awnings on Eurovans. I wasn’t sure whether to have the front of the awning hang over the front passenger door. Since we have the 8′-2″ model, and the sidewall mounting brackets for the awning legs (if you don’t want to or can’t stake the legs into the ground but want to secure the support legs onto the van, like if you were camped in a Wal-Mart parking lot) would need to be clear of the front passenger door, that pretty much sold me on keeping the awning mounted just to the front edge of the sliding door. Which meant that I had 97.5″ from outside to outside of the brackets. I gave myself some breathing room on the rear bracket mounting spot, and drilled the holes, deburring with a flat file, and installed the rear bracket in a fraction of the time it took to do the first.
Once both brackets were tightened down, I took the F35 awning itself and test hanged it on the brackets – miraculously it worked out, but because of the cracked plastic end cap sustained during shipment I couldn’t finish the job and tighten the awning down and do a test set up. I’ll have to get Fiamma to send me a replacement cap and figure out how to remove the busted one and reinstall the new one, which I’m a bit concerned about since they appear to be riveted in place.
Anyway, most of the job is done (as far as I can tell). I hope this sheds some light for the next fool who decides they want to do this themselves. One thing I know is that we had damned well better use this thing on our next trip. I’ll be looking for places that are awning-worthy campsites. If we find any, we’ll post some photos. Stay tuned.
Another road trip approaching, another round of “improvements” to our 2001 Volkswagen Eurovan Camper. We’re up to 71,400 miles on this baby and we love it more each time we get to use it. During each road trip, we think of things we can do to it to make the next trip better. Thus, the never-ending modifications…
Since my last post about this (Eurovan Obsession, November 12, 2009) we did the GoWesty Lift and Level Kit, which made a big difference in stability and ride. Plus, it’s cool having Mercedes Benz wheels on the van as well as a little more clearance.
Yesterday, I added:
- Yakima 8B Side Rails (Kwik Loaders) so I could put my old crossbars on top and use our Thule Spaceboost or whatever it’s called. We also might put the canoe on top if the mood strikes us to do a float down Big Springs next week (the origin of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, in Island Park, Idaho). The hardest part of installing the Side Rails was figuring out where they should go. I tried finding pictures of late model Eurovans with them installed, but could not, so I thought I’d document it in case anyone else wants another user’s input on it. Here in a nutshell, is how I did it:
- I wanted the biggest spread between bars I could get and still easily add the rooftop box I have, which turned out to be about 40″. Then I checked the overall length of the box (ours is 90″) and made sure it wouldn’t interfere with the rear door or roof vent. This put the center of the front bar about 25″ from the front of the poptop.
I used the Side Loader as a template to mark the two 5/16″ drill holes for the front rail. The elevation location of the loader rail – at least on this poptop – must rest on the bottom of the curve just above the lower part of the poptop that holds the gasket. Any higher and the inside mounting plate will not fit. I was concerned that the plastic-coated clips on my Yakima towers (which clamp onto the bottom of the Kwik Rail) wouldn’t have enough clearance because of the protruding lip just below the rail, but it just barely clears it when fully tightened (the instructions refer – briefly and vaguely – to this, but since they’re not vehicle-specific you just have to check it on your particular ride).
- Then I measured 40″ back to find the rear location, and marked the drill holes there.
Then I checked the inside of each location to make sure the mounting plate would fit; there are structural ribs located inside the poptop ever 12″ or so, which could interfere with your fore-aft location. I had to move my original spot about an inch in the front to avoid hitting one of those ribs.
- Once I had the locations marked and double-checked the measurements to make sure I had the rails set up exactly in the same place on both sides, I started drilling the first two holes. I learned quickly that it is much easier to line up the holes by starting the drill actually through the rail holes. The first two holes I just drilled through my pencil marks, and the bolts were about 1mm too far apart for the inside mounting plate to fit over the bolts. It took some pounding and re-drilling to get the two holes in the mounting plate to slide over the bolts. The tolerances are fairly tight, so it’s much better to get the holes started through the actual holes in the Kwik Rail. I had no trouble with the other three once I figured this out.
- When drilling each hole, I made sure to keep the tent material safely out of the way in case the drill bit flew too far through the poptop. Access on both the front and rear spots was fairly good, but I had to raise and lower the poptop several times for each rail; to avoid having to go inside the van each time I dropped the poptop down and release the latches, I put a 2×6 scrap at the front to keep the lid from going all the way down. This saved a bit of time and energy.
After testing the fit of the bolts with the gasket and the inside plate, I removed the assembly and added a small bead of Goo (clear poly auto adhesive/sealant) to the part of the bolt just up against the inside of the gasket.
- Fully gooed, I put the assembly back into the holes, added the lock-washer and nut, and tightened it all up with a 1/2″ socket and ratchet. I checked for tightness on each one, and noticed a small amount of Goo oozed above and below each bolt, as well as a little rubber-squishing of the gasket. Since the poptop is just a huge piece of molded plastic with no insulation or anything to crush, I tightened the bolts fairly tight without worrying too much about damaging the poptop.
Overall, it went pretty smoothly. One thing I added to the setup was a home-made bolt cover for the inside of poptop to protect the tent fabric from getting cut up with the bolts protruding from the nut. I cut two synthetic wine corks into four equal pieces each (total of eight), and then used a 1/4″ drill bit by hand to ream out enough material to be able to “screw” the cork piece onto the end of each bolt. It would have been nice of Yakima to include those flexible plastic caps to cover the bolts and nuts, but in a pinch I hope my method will keep my tent from getting torn… Time will tell.
Front dash utility rack: I spent some quality time at Target and found a small organizer to hold our cell phones and other doodads safely out of the way. I used a couple small metal brackets (which I had to modify a little) and the existing screws in the upper part of the lower dash cover to secure this gizmo.
- Two 12-volt outlets – just tapped into the existing outlet. Got these at Radio Shack pretty cheap.
- An iPod/MP3 player cable – tapped through the lower dash cover and held in place with a rubber grommet. If I want to use it I can pull it out at least a couple feet.
- Rear medicine chest cabinet shelf: also from Target, a little organizer tray that I snipped up and screwed in at a slight angle to make the cabinet a bit more user-friendly. Would it have added much more to Winnebago’s conversion to put a little shelf in there? Anyway, I’m thinking this will be a good spot for my toilet bag, which on previous trips was just lumped in there with Windex, paper towels, dog treats, licorice, hand-cuffs, Kim Chee, and an old dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice.
After years of hankering after and coveting our neighbors’ VW Eurovan Campers, Leslie and I finally put an end to all that unproductive desire and pulled the trigger on a lovely 2001 unit with about 64,000 miles on it.
Over the past four or five years I had learned a lot about these things, and waffled between going the old-school route with a chronically wimpy-motored Vanagon (especially the 4WD Syncro models), or a more modern, more powerful EVC. Various schools of thought compete with persuasive arguments about why their side is better: Vanagon campers are true Westfalias, engineered and built by Germans (as opposed to American company Winnebago, which made and installed the camper equipment in the Eurovans), with a better design, fit and finish. Vanagon campers have a better turning circle and more ground clearance, making them better suited to bad roads in faraway places (which really appealed to me). Vanagon campers have a much cooler “vibe” which almost seems to come from a kind of underdog ethos (a bizarre sensibility for a German product, regardless of the “volks” branding rhetoric) owing to their legendary lack of power, especially on hills. Eurovans, on the other hand, are roomier, have a much better power plant (especially the 2001-2003 models), making them better suited to road trips on the highway, especially in mountainous areas (which really appealed to Leslie). I think the deciding factor for me was that the Eurovan camper came with a 12,000 BTU heater, which was important for us since our favorite camping season is the fall when it can get very cold in the Idaho mountains. You can buy and install an aftermarket propane heater for the Vanagon camper, but it is expensive ($800) and a big job and puts out half the BTUs of the EVC heater.
With Leslie’s input we decided on the EVC, which came in three engine sizes, the best of which was only offered from 2001 to 2003 (201 horsepower), when VW stopped making them for the U.S. market. I “watched” fifty or sixty of the 2001 through 2003 models on ebay during the past several years, and was amazed at how they seemed to keep their value. When new, I think these sold for somewhere around $40k, and you can still find several listed for near or even over that figure. About four years ago I bid $28,000 on a 2001 and just missed getting it. The one we bought cost more than I’m comfortable saying, and we had to drive to Tahoe to get it. I won’t go into the deal, but it was a bit intense. When we got it home and got it registered, we were very relieved.
Although generally in very good shape – especially the most important part: the engine – our EVC needed a bit of attention.
The first thing I had to do was replace the antenna, which got broken off when we took it through the car wash. Not the easiest job in the world, nor least expensive since you can’t buy just the manually retractable aerial part but must get the whole antenna assembly. Since it’s German, it is one engineered bugger. The first one I bought from GoWesty ($79) had the old farka (?) connector for the original Blaupunkt (?) stereo, but ourEVC had a newer Alpine stereo with a different connector. So I cut the farka connected off the new cable, cut the Alpine connector off the existing cable, and tried to solder the latter onto the former. Didn’t work. The mini-coax antenna cable and the connector would not cooperate and I’m not really adept with a soldering iron despite my years of child labor in a Shanghai electronics factory making circuit boards for vibrating sex toys. So I did some research and found another connector on ebay. It didn’t work, either (or rather, I screwed it up while trying to install it). Then I found a web site that had new, different OEM antenna cables that would hook right into the Alpine stereo. So I ordered that (from http://www.Europarts-sd.com, $15), and re-installed it in less than an hour.
While replacing the antenna, which you do through the engine compartment, I noticed the plastic faring over the battery was cracked nearly in half. VW wanted $80 for a new one, so I got some JB Weld ($6) and fixed that.
One of the fog lights was out, so I ordered some cool yellow ones on ebay ($2 plus $10 shipping!). Once I figured out how to dis-assemble the fog light (much easier than it looked, but took me a while to realize it), I replaced the one that didn’t work, and it still didn’t work. So I took the other one apart to see if it was wired up differently, and it wasn’t. I replaced the working light with the new yellow one, then tested it and now it didn’t work. I took it apart, reassembled it, shook it around, banged it, cursed it, sweet-talked it, then retested it. Fiat lux! So I went back to the other one and did the same thing, and low and behold, it worked, too. It was a thrill to drive it to work this morning in my Gangsta EVC. Yeah Boooooyyyyy!
Now onto the big stuff…
The fridge – a Norcold 3-way (LPG, 12VDC, 120VAC) – didn’t work well on LPG, so I pulled it out and found a huge mess from what looked like an old boilover on the stove. I cleaned all that up, got rid of the stinky, stained vinyl flooring, waterproofed it, scraped some surface rust off the inside wall, primed & painted it with Rustoleum, and then added some compact foil-bubble-wrap insulation to the whole wall, cutting out the vent holes for the two fridge vents (the outsides of which I also replaced with new vent assemblies from GoWesty).
I could also smell an LPG leak somewhere when the propane was turned on, and noticed the burner box was missing screws and a gasket. So I took the whole thing apart, found some replacement parts on ebay (a new relighter assembly ($100!), electrode, interrupter, gasket, and thermocoupler), cleaned and re-installed it (which took about a week of evenings and a full weekend day). Now it works quite well on LPG, and gets very cold, unlike the old Dometic fridges in the Vanagons and Buses.
Underneath the van, the propane tank itself was really, really rusted and made me nervous, so I ordered a new one, and a new regulator from GoWesty (great selection and service, very high prices). My initial look under the camper intimidated me because of all the dirt, grease, minor rust, and hoses and components I didn’t understand. I searched high and low on the Internet for blogs from people who had done this replacement but found none. I was pretty surprised by this because I’d done some modifications on motorcycles and had a choice of half a dozen step-by-step posts with photos by people who had done the same thing. Nothing on the EVC.
So I secured a weekend day to tackle this project, borrowed some jack stands and a floor jack from work, and crawled under the van. After a few hours I had the system dis-assembled. It wasn’t easy because the 13/16th flare nuts on the three propane lines were impossible to reach with a wrench, but I managed somehow with a vise grip and crescent wrench to get them disconnected from the cross manifold. I knew that re-assembly would be impossible without a 13/16th crowfoot flare-nut wrench, which I found on ebay and ordered. The line coming off the regulator was saturated with oil, which made me feel better about ordering a new regulator. I took the two old rubber lines (from tank to regulator, and regulator to cross manifold) to Suburban Propane and they made up new ones with new brass fittings while I waited ($30). I got a new galvanized cross manifold and brass flare fittings at Home Depot, along with the yellow LPG teflon tape, and rebuilt the entire assembly.
This LPG thing was a time-consuming and big project for me. The new LPG tank I got from GoWesty (manufactured by Manchester, who made the original tank) had some paint chips down to bare metal which I was impelled to deal with because of the reason I was doing this in the first place: rust. So I masked all the ports and safety decals on it, sanded it down, primed and painted it with Rustoleum. Not quite satisfied, I sprayed the bottom of the tank with the rubberized under-coating. If this thing rusts I’ll eat my hat. The bolts and mounting bracket for the LPG tank were also pretty badly rusted (the EVC originated in Pennsylvania before moving to California when she was two), so I prepped those areas and sprayed with Rustoleum and rubber undercoating, too.
The crowfoot wrench from ebay finally arrived so I could finalize the reassembly. It worked perfectly to tighten the three flare nuts on top of the cross mainfold. The thought of finding a leak when I tested this made me really focus on getting every fitting as tight as I could. I used the floor jack to prop up the newly prepped LPG tank (heavy!), and re-bolted it with new zinc-plated bolts and lock washers. I even added a little blue Loctite for extra security.
The last two things before I could test the system were the grounding strap and loom clamp that had to be reinstalled on the cross manifold. These took about two hours because of the cramped area they lived in. My forearms, hands and fingers still ache from these little devils.
Finally, the new system was ready to leak test. I hooked the tank line to the old tank, opened the valve, and then sprayed soapy water over each connection and looked for bubbles. Nothing. I got excited. Not satisfied, I then took out my cigarette lighter and fired it up and BLAMMMOOO! Just kidding. No leaks, no squeaks. Good to go.
Some other stuff we did or are doing to improve the EVC are:
- Lloyd rubber mats for the passenger area and front ($80 each from GoWesty)
- GoWesty Lift & Level Kit ($1800): comes with wider alloy wheels (made for Mercedes Benz), larger Michelin Hydro-edge tires, Bilstein shocks, a lift pad for the left side, and hardware. Basically restores the suspension to the level it’s supposed to be, since the Winnebago camper conversion makes it sag and lean to the left. After installing it, the EVC handles and rides much, much better.
- Home-made awning: I bought material to make my own lightweight awning from Quest Outfitters (awesome online-store!), since the ones you can buy are a fortune. This will be a coated rip-stop nylon cover that will snap to the van over the sliding door, and be supported by shock-corded aluminum tent poles. Total cost about $110.
- Drink holders: the EVC console has a couple weird-shaped floor-level drink holders that don’t accept anything but small drinks or cups, and reaching for them is kind of dangerous. I bought some OEM fold-up adjustable drink holders (one of which comes standard in the passenger area) to mount in the front – either on the doors or in a custom console I’m hoping to make (see below).
- Console: the EVC console is weak, and the cockpit is surprisingly under-designed and minimalist. There is only one 12V plug (the cigarette lighter); what do you do if you’re using a GPS and also want to charge your phone or computer at the same time? Since there’s no glove box (air bag and air conditioner components take that space in the 2001-2003 models), where do you put pens, flashlight, CDs, comic books, dog treats, gum, car wash coupons, laser pointers for screwing with small aircraft, etc? I bought a cheap console at Target to put between the front seats, but it gets in the way of our dogs tromping between the back and front while we drive, which we mustn’t interfere with since they basically own us and we like the added danger of having dogs loose during drives on windy mountain roads at night. So we returned that. I saw a custom made console on the Yahoo EVC list and want to make my own with several 12V accessory outlets, an outside temperature gauge, a little lockable cabinet for wallet, etc., and probably mount the drink holders I got to it. Neither Leslie or I like clutter in the car, so this will be essential.
- Mattress pads: our EVC, we learned on our first over-nighter, was missing a couple of the foam mattress pads. I like to sleep up top by myself, away from our bed-hog dogs. Leslie likes to sleep below, away from me since I wake her up whenever she snores. So we went to the fabric store and bought some 2″ high-density foam and some nice heavy-duty upholstery fabric with a nice design that will go well with the lovely gray interior and will make the extras we need.
- Bike rack: luckily for us, the EVC came with a nice new 2″ tow hitch in which we can install a bike rack. After lots of research and reading reviews, I got the best bang for the buck, an Allen 545RR. It folds down at the perfect angle to get out of the way of lifting the rear hatch on the EVC, and is very secure. At $100, this rack blows away the vastly overpriced Yakima and Thule racks.
- Seatback organizer: got a cheap little thing that ties to the passenger seat and gives you lots of pockets to put maps, gazeteers and other junk in.
- Propane tank cover: you wouldn’t believe how many EVCs have lost these covers, made of thick, brittle plastic, probably from scraping them off on speed bumps. You can buy a replacement for $150! Incredible! Our EVC still had its cover, but it had a big crack in it that had been poorly repaired and broke in half when I took it off the first time. It’s not super easy to put on and take off, which you must do to turn off or on the propane valve, which you must have off while driving. So I prepped it and did the JB Weld thing with it, and it’s basically good as new, but with more character, featuring lots of scrapes and gashes from who knows what. While a pretty good protective device against the weather and road grime for the LPG equipment, I’m not satisfied with the usability of this cover. I bought some heavy PVC plastic and snaps and am hoping to make a cover out of that with a velcro flap that accesses the propane valve.
That’s about it for now. I’ll try to update this post with photos soon…