Everybody likes snowy mountain ranges like the Pyrénées, old Volkswagen camper vans and family days out don’t they? So if you combine them all nothing can possibly go wrong, can it?
Well, yes it can, if our experience was anything to judge by.
When we first moved to France our only form of transport was a chianti red, 1972, Danbury converted Volkswagen camper called Emperor Rosko. He was named after the veteran pirate DJ whose slightly sleazy but certainly soulful style of chat was immortalised on the album ‘I’ll Take You There…’ which was released in the year of our van’s manufacture. It has clips of Rosko in between songs and one of them includes the instruction to lie down on the fur rug in front of the fire to enjoy the sound of Mr Brook Benton’s Rainy Night In Georgia. I think this advice may have been intended for the ladies.
He was what is known among fans as a crossdresser. Our van that is, not the DJ or the deep voiced soul crooner. 1972 vans and buses are given this epithet because from the front they look like early bays thanks to their low indicators and wrap around bumpers that incorporate steps, but from the back they look like a post-72 late bay because of the big lights, less curvy corners and squarer air in-takes.
There are other important ‘crossover’ features of vans of that vintage. In particular, the old, often ineffective, drum brakes were replaced with disc brakes but only at the front. This is a detail that might not seem terribly important but it is. Trust me.
This is something I said to my wife as we set off on the road from Bagnères Du Luchon, the town, to what is known as Super Bagnères, the ski resort. Our original plan was to park in the town and take a cable car up the mountain. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get parked but I spotted a sign pointing to Superbagnères.
The conversation that followed the chance sign sighting went like this:
Me – “Look, it is only another 4 kilometres- we’ll be up there in five minutes.”
Family – “Won’t it be very steep and dangerous though?”
Me – “No. They wouldn’t have a hotel up there if the road was too steep or dangerous we’ll be going up a mountain pass.”
Family – “Will the van be OK?”
Me – “Of course, I’ll take it easy and Rosko’s engine will be fine- it doesn’t even look that high, I thought 1,800m would be bigger than that.”
Family – “So you’re sure about all this.”
Me- “Absolutely, it will be perfectly safe and much quicker than looking for parking spaces. It will be fun. Trust me.”
The first clue that I might have been a tiny bit too confident came when we reached the top of the mountain, or what turned out to be the first ridge. With the rest of the ascent now clear I started to feel some doubts but the option of a three point turn meant going off the road onto the snow and then possibly into one of the beckoning chasms that now surrounded us. Best to keep cheerful and keep the revs up I decided.
The climb got steeper and the drops got bigger with every dog-leg bend as we crawled to the summit. When we got there it was great though. We got a round of applause from skiers who had spotted us coming and doubted whether our trusty air-cooled vehicle could reach the top. There was even a car park full of modern four wheel drives to prove that motoring to the top wasn’t unusual.
I even met another VW owner who said that he took his van off the road for winter but wouldn’t even attempt to get to Superbagnères in the summer. He kept patting me on the back and saying, “Chapeau!” I later learned that he wasn’t concerned about whether my head was cold, which it was by then. He was using a cycling term that indicates respect- you take your hat off to a person who achieves a notable feat. I was the vintage camper van equivalent of the Tour de France’s King of the Mountains and it felt good.
We paused for photos before setting off back down, which is where it all went wrong.
Coming up had been all about worrying whether the ancient 1600cc single carbed completely stock motor could cope. It soon became clear that the way down would be about the brakes and the steering. Every bend became a nightmare as I swung the giant wheel and fought to keep our speed down.
The whole time I maintained a cheery demeanour so as not to worry the passengers but in a van the front seats are ahead of the front wheels and we seemed to be going out into the void on every bend. My wife leant across and whispered, “If the children are hurt I will kill you.” I glanced down at the snowy cliffs and thought that I’d accept a bit of us all being hurt in exchange for not being killed but decided to say, “We’ll be fine trust me,” instead. This did not seem to have quite the soothing affect I’d hoped for.
On the way up I’d been cold but now I was sweating profusely and the acrid smell from the brakes did nothing to add to the calm either. No longer the King of the Mountains I now felt very, very bad. The old drum brakes were clearly dying and only those crucial 1972 discs were now between us and a snowy death.
And they did it- hurrah for crossovers! Those early bay purists who mock them for their slightly impure design should remember that although the back end is undoubtedly uglier than a ‘71 that brake upgrade can be a life saver. Once the road flattened out and we got out of Rosko I realised that my legs resembled jelly and I couldn’t stop shaking. We drove home slowly as the brakes were now barely hindering our progess and if we’d gone faster than 30mph we would have had to treat all red lights as optional.
Anyway, my advice is that if you have a van bring it to France. No other vehicle will lead to young women kissing you in IKEA car park and forcing their boyfriend to take a photo of them doing so. This actually happened to me and I’m no oil painting so it was definitely the vehicle that caused the excitement. Vans are great and help you to make friends- just what you need in a new country.
BUT DO NOT GO UP THE MOUNTAINS IN THE WINTER!