On the last weekend of February, we ventured out to Birmingham to visit the Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show in the NEC. Having great fun with backpacking, camping and glamping already, we have been toying with the idea of a home on wheels for quite a while now. So we booked ourselves tickets to the Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show. It was the first time for us to go to a motorhome expo and so we got quite excited to see some of the vehicles up close to get a feel for layouts and sizes.
Getting to Birmingham from Cardiff was quick and easy. We stayed overnight and found ourselves a room in a Best Western Hotel nearby. From there, it was just a short drive over to the NEC and we jumped right into the experience. The NEC itself is big – my step counter recorded about 13 kilometres that we walked around the expo. There is little seating and not very many spaces for breaks, so as much as we enjoyed the experience, it was also very intense. But that meant that we got to see a lot in one day.
Five of the NEC’s halls were filled to the brim with caravans, van conversions, motorhomes, tents and camping equipment. They had also prepared shows, demonstrations and activities for the visitors. Some new releases in the world of motorhomes made an appearance at the expo as well, such as the VW Grand California for example which was, by far, the motorhome with the longest queue around it.
What we wanted to get out of it
We were primarily interested in getting in as many different types of motorhomes as we could to get a feel for sizes, layouts and features that we like and to talk to some actual motorhome owners to benefit from their experience. We also wanted to compare panel vans to coach builds, permanent beds to fold-away beds and wet rooms to separate toilet and shower situations. So with that in mind, we stepped into our first van and basically didn’t stop boarding vehicles for the next six hours.
What we saw
We boarded vans and coach builds alike as we went into our research with both as an option. The only thing we really ruled out for our particular use were caravans. Between the rest, we are pretty torn.
Vans and coach builds can serve different purposes for the users and we find ourselves to be somewhere in a grey area between the two.
We are attracted to the flexibility and mobility of motorhomes and can see ourselves using it for holidays and weekend trips but in the future would also quite like the experiment of permanently living in it for a longer period of time. We’d want to work from the mobile home and spend extended periods of time in it which is why we didn’t want to go full on diy van conversion but rather have some creature comforts that purist nomads and many #vanlife people have ditched a long time ago.
The smaller the vehicle, the more flexible it gets as to what sorts of roads and places the driver can take it. However, a smaller vehicle also reduces the time one can stay completely off the grid (given the fact that we personally have decided that we will want to have electricity and water to be able to keep our jobs running even when we’re out and about). So what we are after is the smallest vehicle that still feels more like a living space than a car.
That narrowed it down to large vans and compact coach builds. Of which there are plenty. Here are some that left a particularly strong impression on us.
Volkswagen Grand California
There was no way not to check out the brand new Volkswagen California release. They exhibited the shorter 600, the larger 680 was not on display. The VW Grand California was an absolute magnet for visitors and had a considerable queue around it for the entire day. When we made it to the front of the line, we boarded a very compact vehicle with a super lovely finish and nice lighting. The feel of quality is very present in this car, but so is the chill that the price point sends down one’s spine. The raised bed in the back frees up some space for storage but a car that compact simply doesn’t feel as spacious as some others. It seems to be a wonderful option for family weekend trips or shorter camping adventures, but for us personally is too crammed for permanent living. The hype around that car is so much fun to observe, though, and we hovered around the VW stand for quite some time (not purely for the cars, I have to admit – the top dog arena was right next to it…)
Auto Trail V Line and Tribute Vans
The area of the NEC that Auto Trail used to show their models was huge, there were many different options to see and a particularly nice salesman took the time to point us to some of their products that checked our boxes. He pointed out the V Line and the Tribute Vans to us as they are reasonably compact but still offer creature comforts in van size (The Tribute range also has coach builds available). The smallest models are only 5.41 meters long and 2.27 meters wide, so they are very compact for what they are but feel a lot more spacious. I loved the back lounge with the two benches next to the wide-open back doors. I can absolutely envision myself working and chilling there. However, there are, of course, compromises in a vehicle that size. To us those were mainly that the lounge transforms into the bed and there is no front lounge. So the only other seating is the driver and passenger seat, which rotate around but don’t offer another lounge and therefore feel sort of wasted. The car also has only two seatbelts and even though we are going to be by ourselves for the vast majority of our trips, having such a big car under you and not being able to take anyone with you just doesn’t feel right . There are, however, other V-Line and Tribute models with different layouts in different sizes that do have four seatbelts.
So how big does one have to go tip the scale and be happy with the compromises? We found that the 6.36 meters of the Swift Select might be how big. Given that the car is longer, it is still as narrow as the Auto Trail vans. The range does give customers the option to opt for a permanent bed in the back, right there by the big back doors that fully open. I might have seen one too many #vanlife photographs but picturing being wrapped up in bed with the back doors open and enjoying the view floods me with so much joy that I can hardly contain it (I am well aware that either the bugs, the view of the camping toilet walls or the next door camper neighbour will make me want to close these doors soon enough – but one can dream.). The van comes with a front lounge and two more seats with seatbelts. So there we have our option to take others on board and also means for one of us to lie down in bed whilst the other one might be up working. Currently, from all the ones I have seen in person so far, the Swift Select is my favourite.
Bailey Advance 76-4
The Bailey Advance 76-4 is the biggest one we can envision for ourselves and a coach build. From all the vehicles I have seen at the Expo, this one was by far the prettiest. It has a permanent bed in the back but where other coaches have a garage, the Advance 76-4 has a bathroom tucked away behind a wall. That means that the entire width of the car is bathroom. That is a lot of space. And with the coach itself being so big (over 7 meters) it still doesn’t take away from the living space. That said, it does take away from the available storage space and for a coach build it really does only have little capacity in that regard. There is a front lounge and with the bathroom being in the back it has an uninterrupted line of sight from the front right through to the bed. That makes it feel so generous and open and like a studio flat more than a car. I tend to feel a bit trapped in coach builds because they tend to have smaller doors and windows than the vans. But with that one, the crammed feeling was gone. Combine this with the lovely finish of the interior and you have yourself quite a nice house on wheels. But at the end of the day, that is what it is in terms of size – a mobile flat. And that’s just not what we’re after right now. That said, I would love to find myself in something like that maybe when I am retired and the camping adventures become a little more stationary. Maybe one day.
Van vs Coach
Just for the laughs we also boarded the bigger coaches. The really big ones. The battleships that extend to either side once you’re parked up. Oh my, they are absolute beasts! So whilst sat in such a beast we contemplated what we liked and again came to the conclusion that vans and coaches serve different purposes and fit different needs and you have to ask yourself where you’d rather compromise: Driving a bigger vehicle that is less flexible or having a better living space you can reside in for longer.
Also, one needs to think about storage and what it is they would like to cart around and why. Parking is another factor. We, for example, could get away with parking a van in our residential area but certainly not a coach as we do not have our own driveway.
Combine that with the varying build qualities from budget to high end and the stats of the actual cars, which I left completely untouched here, and you have a lot to ponder in the process of finding the perfect motor home.
Whilst we think and refine our plans (work on our savings) and figure out what exactly we’d like to have, we shall keep an eye out on our adventures for motorhomes in the wild, what size they are and how far into the remote countryside they got. There is obviously a whole world of used vehicles that we are looking at as our entry level motor home. The NEC gave us valuable new knowledge about different sizes and layouts and how it feels to be on board the different models. The research continues and I am very happy with the world of new insights we unlocked through our visit to the Caravan and Motorhome Expo 2019 in the Birmingham NEC .
Any motor home owners around? Let me know what you drive and where to!