Learning to motorhome 2. It’s all DIY… Including panelbeating!

28 April 2017. There’s a parade of motorhomes on South Island roads. Many are rentals, distinguishable only by their prominent branding. And if you’ve seen (or been stuck in traffic behind) one Maui, Britz, Jucy etc., it seems like you’ve seen them all.

Ageing motorhomes tend to be privately owned. And like older houses, they develop lots of “character” – things that don’t quite work, are not the latest tech, or just don’t suit the current owner. As they get repaired, upgraded and remodeled they gain individuality. And as space is limited, extra features are not necessarily positive for the next owner. For non-TV watchers like us, a much-loved TV with sat. dish and Sky decoder would just be junk taking up space that could be better used storing our toys (skis, tramping gear etc).

This puts buyers of second-hand motorhomes in somewhat of a quandary. No vehicle will have everything you want. Do you get the one with the solar panels (great) but no heater (not so great)? How much would adding a heater later cost? And where would it go…?

A motorhome is both truck and home. So it has all the systems of a truck, plus the systems of a home. The home part of Tonka has a 240V electrical system (charged when plugged into the mains), a 12V electrical system (mostly charged by solar panels), an LPG gas system (for cooking and water heating), a fresh water system, a grey water system, a self-contained toilet system. And Tonka is tiny:

When buying Tonka we didn’t anticipate just how much customization and “repair” we would want to do, nor that we would end up doing most of it ourselves. So far we’ve added a rear-view camera, a second LPG bottle, an LPG and CO gas detector, a tank monitor, 3 shelves, a fire extinguisher and 4 fly screens. And we’ve improved the security and (partially) fixed the radio.

We scoured wreckers yards looking for a sunvisor, eventually finding one at Robertson’s Auto Dismantlers in Timaru.

Our toolkit keeps expanding. Who’d have thought you’d need a hammer? A battery-powered drill? A wire stripper? A junior hacksaw? At least a tree stump can be drafted as a ladder when necessary…

Yesterday we were looking to avoid the wind, so chose a walk on the lee side of the Pisa Range. After missing the (rather small) DOC sign the first time, we drove onto a farm track and found another sign promising 3km to the car park. The track was dry, the potholes looked small, and the hills not too steep so we headed onwards. But disaster struck. A small pothole dislodged our spare tires, one of which jammed under the rear of Tonka, ripping off the rear and popping our hatch covers.


We emptied our rear storage compartment, turned around, and drove gingerly back along the farm track. Stopping, of course, to pick up stray tires and hatch covers. We figured we needed a panel beater, so headed into Cromwell.

Cromwell is booming. It’s Queenstown-type growth without (yet) Queenstown-type traffic jams. It now boasts three panel beaters. We stopped at one. They looked over the damage. When would you like it fixed? Today? (Muffled laughter.) We’re busy for at least a month. Try Central Panel Beaters down the road, they’re busy too, but not as busy as us…

At Central we met the owner Kerry. Yeah, I’m pretty busy too. You could try Michael Stewart in Cemetery Rd. If he can’t help then I might be able to help out tomorrow (Saturday).

Michael Stewart specialises in vintage restorations. He does panel beating on the side. But he’s booked up for the next six months!

So we were back to Kerry. He was planning to work Saturday, and offered us advice and access to tools. But we’d have to do the work ourselves.

We spent Friday afternoon removing bent and broken screws, rivets etc. Saturday morning we turn up at Central. Kerry looks it over, and suggests bending the panel back into place and securing it with cable ties. We had a plan!

Sue & Dave go to work. The tools bred. But the plan worked well. Before long the back end was straightened out.

Getting the spare tires remounted was tricky. Kerry and Dave spent quite a while under Tonka…

Sue & Dave re-riveted the hatch covers, re-glued the corner strips, hammered the number plate flat and put three times as many screws into the frame as there were before. As good as new (well, almost…)!

Kerry lived in Greymouth until about three years ago. His panel beating business struggled as the West Coast coal mines closed down. He sold up (the purchaser subsequently went broke) and moved to Cromwell. He hasn’t looked back.

Due to his incredible generousity, we were back on the road within 24 hours. Payment? A slab of beer for his employees. Total cost of repairs … About $125.

Here is Sue delivering the beer.