At that time, the orphanage was run by Christian nuns, and they drove these things - not really well, so it was always an adventure.
I remember really funny stories when we went to Italy in the summer holidays for our annual two-week beach holidays. It was the highlight of the year. We camped, ate al fresco and lived under the pine trees on the beach. We never had any problems with the vans - they brought us back safe, sunburnt and happy.
The years passed and when I was 19, my summer holiday took me to the French Atlantic coast to learn how to surf. Again I camped under pine trees with many other surfers and their custom-made adventure mobiles. The campsite was full and there was no space left. That's when I spotted this perfection of a VW bus - a much taller T3 with bigger tyres and the 4×4 Syncro stickers on it. And it was parked at the top of a small sand dune where no other car could get up without four-wheel drive.
In 2007 I made the investment and bought a T3 Syncro - the van, or at least a good base to build the van of my dreams. It was an old, empty military van with plastic seats, but with little rust and low mileage. I paid 5400 euros - which was a lot for such an old van 8 years ago, but nothing compared to the prices charged for very basic Syncro vans today.
It seemed like a solid base to start along conversion process. First I stripped the interior down to the metal and cleaned everything. I put soundproofing mats everywhere and insulated the whole body. The rear got a folding bed and underneath STORAGE ROOM for the second battery, electronics, sound and Webasto diesel heating. I made new side panels and roof panels out of wood and covered them with real Alcantara fabric. On Ebay I found some used pilot seats and a good Alpine radio. Later I invested in some bigger off-road wheels.
I drove the van like this for 6 years. But the salty winter use and the poor military matte finish destroyed the bodywork very quickly. Massive rust appeared everywhere and the deeper you look to see what is under the "bubbles", the more frustrated you get when the screwdriver drills through the porous metal. The old engine was also causing more and more problems, so that two years ago, in autumn 2013, I was faced with the decision of whether to give it up or reinvest to get the van back on its feet.
I DID NOT INTEND TO INVEST A LARGE AMOUNT OF MONEY OR TIME.
While looking for a good body paint shop, I came across Marco Romaldini and his company Romaldini & Biccario in Munich. He is only a few years older than me, a mountain bike enthusiast and runs one of the best paint shops in Germany.
Its car park was full of Ferraris, Mc Larens and Aston Martin supercars when I arrived in my old rusty van. I thought to myself - fuck it, this is the wrong place, turn around and find something less exclusive. But luckily I didn't. After a few minutes with Marco, I knew he was the right person I could trust. That was in autumn 2013 and the beginning of a complete restoration. The van needed some new metal body panels, some professional welding and rust removal.
TOO BEHONEST - I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I HAD STARTED.
If I had known back then how much work it would be, I probably would never have started. I took half the car apart. I removed the windows, the doors, the entire dashboard and so on, so I could get a good look at all the little nooks and crannies. Marco gave me the opportunity to do all the preliminary work myself in a corner of his workshop. I thought I would be done with the car in about two weeks. But it took more than two months. When I stood in front of the van - all stripped, the hanging lights looking like eyeballs poking out - I lost faith in the project!
"THROW AWAY. STOP HERE AND LET IT GO.... IT'S A MASSIVE WASTE OF TIME AND MONEY!"
I often said that to myself. There were days when I came home from the workshop deeply frustrated because I couldn't see an end to it. But Marco and his team somehow motivated me, even if they thought it was completely crazy to put so much work into such a rusty, broken car. I kept going and did what had to be done. There was no way back anyway....
When I started sanding down the bodywork, I thought I might as well take this opportunity to give the van a completely new and different colour. I was fed up with the military Nato olive green and thought the van would look great in a more modern grey suit. Marco showed me the 200+ grey options I could choose from.... incredible. I listened to his expertise and we decided on a dark grey metallic paint with a matt clear coat over it.
When the van rolled out of the cabin with the fresh paint job applied by the master, all doubts and worries were blown away: The perfection of the new paint job - the fresh new look - made me uncomfortable at the thought of running the car with the old engine and living in the old interior. So I had to go one step further and decided to redo everything for the second time in the car's life.
The engine was replaced by a modern 120 hp Tdi with many custom parts. All done to perfection by Alexander Schank - a true master and specialist in customised engines and transmissions. It took him a few months to build a solid engine that has changed the character of the van enormously. A big advantage is not only the extra power, but also the modern and environmentally friendly technology that has been installed.
The car meets all modern standards - really - not like the latest modified VW fudge. I spent the spring of 2015 completely rebuilding the interior, redoing all the doors, the roof and the side panels. I replaced a lot of old wiring and installed LED lights and new instruments to keep control of my engine at all times when driving. I invested in new Recaro seats, because there's nothing more important than good seats when you're travelling thousands of kilometres on and off the road. To be completely self-sufficient when setting up camp far from campsites, I installed two new batteries, new chargers and a mobile 100-watt solar panel to have enough electricity available at all times.
As my little family got bigger, I had to figure out how to fit us all into the van. We are now 4 when we travel as a family. So far we have had space on the big bed in the back, but with another child it becomes far too cramped. I have spent many nights thinking about how we can fit everyone in when we camp without cutting the roof and installing a classic Westfalia pop-up roof. Well, it's not bad at all to have it, but I need a sturdy roof rack for my job so I can more than use a pop-up roof all year round. I found a solution and mounted a HEIMPLANET tent onto my roof rack. It sets up in 5 minutes, works great and also solves my space problem in an aesthetically cool way.
The last major remaining work to be done was the complete underbody. Both mechanically and to combat the rust and protect the metal well enough for the next decade or two. Again, with the help of Romaldini, I had a workshop to myself. I took everything apart - which sounds easier than it was. It took me a week to open up the 25 year old bolts. Most of them didn't move at all, so I had to cut them open and drill them out. I replaced the old shock absorbers with new GMB mount height adjustable ones.
These are much stronger and firmer for a good ride with a heavily loaded van on and off the road. I also replaced all the bushes, joints and bolts. All new. I also threw out the old drum brakes and fitted new discs to improve braking performance. Last but not least, the underbody got a 2-way bitumen metallic wax coating to protect the metal for many more years of hard winter and off-road use.