Our Winnebago Brave is kind of a wreck.
Originally we’d planned to buy a pretty inexpensive, probably very ugly, RV in fairly good working order. Maybe a Class C from the nineties. Something practical we could use for a relaxing road trip in the states before we head home to St. John. We thought we could either sell it after the trip or store it to use whenever we’re over here. You know, something practical. Because as much as we love older vehicles, we knew that we were in no position to buy a project. We’ve been living out of a seemingly endless string of Airbnb’s in Indianapolis for months as Jennifer’s work assignment keeps getting extended. We have no tools. We have no contacts here. We don’t reliably have a driveway or a garage. We literally have our two dogs, our luggage, and a couple of hard-to-find-on-island goodies that we’re planning on taking home. But after a couple of weeks of scouring the internet for possibilities, we saw an add for a “90% restored” 1974 Winnebago Brave D19.
It was so cute! It was so much cooler than modern RV’s. Plus, it was small enough to fit in most parking spaces. And it has a bathroom, which is a huge upgrade from the 1977 VW bus we loved and traveled in before. We couldn’t resist. So I flew down to Florida to check it out, in hopes of driving it back to Indianapolis for some minor updating.
The Winnebago looked much rougher in person than in the photos. Shocker, right? This was not “90% restored”, even from a distance. It had obviously been sitting neglected for a very long time. The tires were dry rotted. The inside was pretty filthy and moldy. The appliances had not been tested. There was some water damage…but it had such a better feel than a modern RV. It was like a cabin on wheels.
Then came the test drive. It was a disaster. It barely ran. The brakes were pretty much non-existent. None of the gauges worked. There was absolutely no way I could drive it 1000 miles. Or even 10 miles. The price was way too high but I negotiated it down (still way too high) and called Jennifer. After maybe five minutes discussion, I bought it and the seller’s son bravely coasted it over to a nearby shop. And I flew back to Indy empty-handed. Here’s some of what it took to get it stable enough for me to be able to drive it to back to Indianapolis:
- 6 new tires
- Full tune-up and replace intake manifold gaskets, timing cover gaskets, etc.
- A very hard to find water pump
- batteries and terminals
- fix and/or replace all the wiring for brake lights, signals, wipers, horn, headlights, etc
- brakes: master cylinder
- reroute generator fuel line (safety issue)
- new oil pressure gauge
It stayed at the shop for like six weeks. When I finally went back down to pick it up it was running. But it was leaning pretty heavily to the right and the steering wheel was not aligned. Basically I had to steer at an angle to go straight. And I kind of felt like I was going to fall out of my seat a lot of the time. I needed to get an alignment and to have the suspension looked at, but I didn’t have time. The mechanic who’d been working on it wasn’t set up to do it and none of the truck places could fit me in. SO after much discussion with the mechanic, I decided just to drive it like that and get it looked at in Indianapolis-if I made it.
Kind of a sketchy decision. Also, in general, it is not ideal to go on a 1000 mile/three day trip in a vehicle that has been sitting so long. I pretty much knew SOMETHING would go wrong, just not exactly what or how bad it would be. I had gotten used to this feeling when we had our ’77 bus. Without knowing much about engines or cars in general I was always having to figure stuff out with the bus. I wasn’t sure how much of that VW technical experience would carry over to the Winnebago, but I knew how to expect the unexpected and keep on rolling.
This journey was made even more interesting by the fact the speedometer, odometer, and gas gauge were still broken. Not running out of gas would get tricky but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be speeding. My first stop was a Wal-Mart where I picked up a decent GPS I could stick on the dash that would give me a rough idea of how fast I was going and how many miles I’d traveled. I also bought a pen so I could keep a log of how much gas I was going through (a lot). High-tech meets low-tech. My plan was to drive in daylight and sleep in motels because nothing had been done yet to the interior or any of the camping equipment/systems. And, just to be clear, the Winnebago was still really gross.
The first couple of hours, bouncing along at 50mph in the right lane, were absolutely terrifying. But then I got used to it and it was amazing to be cruising down the highway in such a fine, fine motorcoach. Obviously the radio didn’t work, but I eventually downloaded a book on my phone and stuck one headphone in so I could be entertained and also stay alert for scary noises.
Sometime on day two I noticed the gas pedal wasn’t really bouncing all the way back when I let up on it. I pulled over, did some googling, did some looking around under the Winnebago and decided it was probably a spring of some kind, or maybe the cable, but I had no idea how to make it better so I just took off my shoe so that I could physically pull the pedal back with my toes. This was not a practical solution for everyday driving but I thought it would be manageable since I was pretty much only on the highway. Okey dokey.
Then in Tennessee at the end of day two, maybe 600 some-odd miles in, I hear a scary noise. A loud continuous THWAPPING sound, like a belt gone crazy or something. So I took the next exit and heard some sputtering, like backfiring. As I’m coasting into this gas station to check it out I hear the loudest backfire. Ever. I did a quick inspection and saw that there was indeed a belt hanging loose, but I couldn’t figure out where it went. I ended up calling AAA and getting hooked up with a very cool local mechanic and his girlfriend (thank you John and Ashley) who met me at the gas station. John showed me how a bolt came off the alternator causing the belt to slip AND showed me where the spring for the gas pedal had broken off AND fixed both things right there. No tow. Great conversation.
The downside was the huge backfire was basically my muffler exploding. Serious exhaust problems and a very loud Winnebago ensued. John’s opinion was that I wouldn’t actually be doing more damage by driving it that way, so the next morning I fired it up, opened all the windows and actually made it to Indianapolis. Rejoice. However, when I was taking pictures of Jennifer and the dogs in front of the RV, I noticed that the rooftop AC unit was in tatters. Somewhere along the way the shroud (and various ac parts) must have blown off. So scary. I had no idea. So scary.
Once in Indy I took it pretty much immediately to get aligned and have the suspension adjusted (although the wheel still needs to be straightened). And then on to another shop where they replaced the muffler and the exhaust manifold…but it’s not a perfect fit so they’re looking for another manifold (and a shifter cable, too) and in the meantime it’s at yet another shop (two hours away, near Cincinnati) where we are having some stuff done to the interior (new a/c, water tank, composting toilet, checking all the propane, etc.). I took it all the way to that shop because I’d seen pictures of the work they’ve done on older campers and because when I called they were nice. Also, we have friends in Cincinnati . Very scientific reasoning, I know.
On our way to Cincinnati I noticed that the oil pressure seemed kind of low compared to when I was driving back from Florida. Also, there were a couple of low popping sounds which I think might have been from the exhaust leak? Anyway, I stopped. I didn’t see any leaks. I checked the oil and there was some brown oil on the dipstick (which is hard to read) but it was arguably a bit low. So I put in maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of a quart. But when I checked the dipstick again…I couldn’t see any oil at all. Seriously. Jennifer and I both dipped and looked and dipped and looked and nothing was on the stick. Where’s the oil??? I didn’t want to keep pouring it in without any idea of what was going on. So I fired it up. The pressure was better. We continued on our way and made it to the shop, although the oil pressure seemed to be creeping back down a bit. This shop doesn’t really do chassis work, they’re just doing the camper stuff, so I’ll have to figure all that out when they’re finished. I just need to make sure I can drive it two hours back to the shop that’s finishing the exhaust work.
Basically we’ve done exactly what we said we were not going to do. We bought a project. And because of our current situation (time and space) we have to just keep paying different people to work on it for us. Although, honestly, most of this stuff we would have had a mechanic do no matter where we were living. We have about six more days in Indianapolis, and we can probably stay with our friends in Cincinnati for a while after that, but we are really, really hoping to be on the road within the next two weeks. That way we can travel in the Winnebago for at least six weeks before we head back to the Virgin Islands. So, instead of buying a practical RV that would have been easy to part with at the end of our adventure, it already feels like we have a new family member.