Trials and Tribulations of Van Life

Back in 2016, I was planning to do the first Seaside Scavenge tour up the East-Coast, hitting 6 coastal towns in 7 weeks. For that I needed a set of wheels, which I didn’t yet have. In a mad 6 week flurry before the first Scavenge scheduled for Burleigh Heads, I found Oscar on Gumtree.

A 2000 Ford Transit, with a biiig empty shell, a good engine (or so I’d thought) and more rust than I had cared to notice. It sounded like a truck, felt like one too but all that space for that price! Coupled with the insistence from the owner that if I didn’t take it now it would be gone, I bought Oscar for $4,250.

I later learnt that you’re meant to take it to the mechanic before you make the purchase… Well, you live and learn, right?

After a week of 3 mechanics telling me to sell it; ‘the turbo’s gone’, ‘this needs replacing’, ‘that’s going to cost you…’. Apparently $8,000 was the cost to fix all his ailments. Basically, take it to the wreckers was their advice!

This diagnosis was pretty grim and I was pretty disheartened. Despite driving fine the vehicle was beyond repair mainly because the labor costs for someone to fix it would sky rocket the overall cost. I, myself didn’t have the skills or know-how.

Consider for a moment, the sheer amount of resources required to build one car let alone a van – aluminum, steel, plastic, copper, glass, rubber, lead and they’re just the common ones. Then there’s palladium, platinum, rhodium and many more. The energy required for the whole process has been calculated out at roughly a tonne of gasoline per car!

Lucky for me, my master mechanic of a friend Muzi offered a much needed helping hand. Within a week, we’d identified that the broken turbo was just a loose bolt, the breaks just needed to be bled rather than replaced, the temperature gauge actually does work (the van just runs cold), and a whole heap of other minute details.

After a day at the wreckers scavenging car jacks, wheel holders and a few other bits here and there, we managed to get to the van up and running for under $500. Obviously it was a labor of love and the biggest of thanks goes to Muzi!

Meanwhile, we’d started construction on the inside too. With only a few weeks before we set off there wasn’t much time for grand plans. I taught myself some skills on the jigsaw and with yet another helping set of hands from my talented partner, Paul, built a bed frame and desk/shelf just enough to call it my office.

September 18th 2016 rolled around and Oscar was ready to rumble, signage and all! He made it successfully through the whole East-Coast tour and served many more Scavenge missions down to Melbourne, inland to Jindabyne and all over Sydney.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing of course. There were dead starter motor, lose bearings on the drive shaft and unexplainable safety pins somehow lodged in the fan belt resulting in cracked pistons which required some serious interrogation of the engine. But we made it! Again thanks to the helping hands of mechanics across the state, Stu, very much included!

The rust that I had chosen to overlook was what broke the camel’s back in the end. I’ve since learned that constant maintenance is the key to preventing rust. But he was beyond that. So it was time to pass Oscar onto a new home and someone who had the welding skills.

We all know the saga of selling stuff online and this was by no means different. Up on Gumtree he went for $1,500. Emails and calls began pouring in, to no avail. Finally the night before I was due to leave Sydney for a couple of months, a young and enthusiastic lad called Will came to check Oscar out. Unperturbed by the rust or the flat tyre, we made the deal.

The problem was he didn’t have the money. That was when chapter 2 of the van saga really began. Communicating with each other through his fiancé’s Facebook and then through his personal instagram, slowly the money began to trickle through , first $100, then $200  into the bank account. That was enough to let him know where I’d hidden the keys.

A month later $1,000 came in. Then I gave up on chasing anymore.

That’s when it got weird. I returned to Sydney after 2 moths away and I was driving to the South Coast. In Friday night traffic I spied 5 cars in front an ‘Oscar-like’ van… The closer I got I soon realised that it actually was Oscar, still with Scavenge signage and all! But the driver was not Will.

Tailgating Oscar and his ‘owner’ for some 100km he eventually pulled off the road and we managed to have a chat with the driver. Oscar had been sold and re-homed twice in the past 2 months, first for $800 then for $1,500 to Michael. He was taking it to Melbourne to remove the engine for his own Ford Transit, and then Oscar would end up in the wreckers.

I felt relieved knowing that we’d been able to extend Oscar’s life for a couple extra years but simultaneously sad to realise Oscar was going to end up a purposeless, rusted out pile of metal, battery acid and glass. Oscar had become my second home that I depended upon greatly and ultimately enabled me to expand the Scavenge to where it is today.

Consumer culture, it’s a strange and addictive thing. Playing into our unconscious psyches of wanting the next best rather than repairing what we already own. Mastering the skills required to fix, maintain and build what we own is something we're losing fast. Never pass the opportunity up to get those practical skills. You never know where they'll come in handy next or even how much money it'll save you somewhere down the track! 

So if there’s one piece of advice I can leave you with is, don’t buy a Ford Transit… But if you do make sure you have a mechanic for a mate to teach you how to fix it. 

(For those of you wondering... Will did transfer the last $200, better two and a half months late than never, hey!)

Anna Jane Linke