Chapter 1 Part 4: Preparing the Van for Overland Travel

By Evan Lewis

When we purchased the VW Kombie in 1979, we were already planning to go to Africa, but partly because we had to choose the correct date to start the journey, we decided to travel around the Mediterranean first. Then we were both offered research jobs in Germany and settled in Erbach near Ulm for 16 months before embarking on our African adventure. Our living accommodation in Katy was complete by the time we arrived in Erbach, but there was still plenty to do in preparation for Africa. Some parts, such as the front suspension had been damaged by the rough country roads we had encountered in Spain and Greece.

In addition, the engine was making knocking noises, and even after replacing the cylinder heads with original parts, the knock persisted. The VW dealer in Ulm worked on it and could not find out what was wrong. So, after weeks of trial and error, we ended up replacing the whole engine. Well actually, we replaced the short-block which is the crank case without the two cylinder heads and their overhead valves and push rods. This reconditioned engine-replacement did not include “accessories” like starter motor and alternator. When we installed and started the new engine, we were horrified to hear that the knock was still there but mercifully, after a while, it disappeared never to return.

We were renting a house from a family in Erbach near Ulm. The owners lived upstairs and we lived downstairs. When we arrived, we didn’t speak a work of German. Well maybe Ja, Nein and Guten Tag. It soon became necessary to explain to them why I was constantly tearing the VW apart every week end and putting it back together again in time to drive to work on Mondays.

Learning German got me into trouble more than once. I had to learn the German names of all the car parts and processes. In German you would never say “I need this or that” because it is the car, not you, that needs the part. Instead, you would say “My car needs…”. But as my German teacher said, when he got frustrated with my German grammar, “Evan, you speak English with German words!” Well, one day I announced loudly in German to our neighbors “I need a new exhaust pipe” or “I need a new out-puffer” as the German word for exhaust pipe is “auspuff”. As you can imagine this resulted in great peels of laughter. The German words for car parts are quite descriptive and they are all male, female or undecided!

Names of car parts in German – from my log book

On another occasion, I was out on the pavement on a hot July Sunday in my greasy black overalls when our neighbors, coming home from church, greeted me asking how I was and I said “I am HOT”. They replied in German “No, WARM” to which I said “No, REALLY HOT”. I was reprimanded, being told that HOT means something completely different in German. No wonder they called me “Der schwarze Teufel”.

But our neighbour and landlord, Alfons Wilderotter proved to be a good friend to us, and helped us every step along the way. He started by inviting us to his house every Friday evening to drink Schnapps when his English and our German improved with increased confidence. Eventually they invited us to a private “Doozie” ceremony.

You see, in the German language there are two completely separate forms of grammar. In the formal version you always say “Sie” instead of “you”. The informal grammar is only used for people with whom you are very familiar, such as your spouse, or small children and in that case you say “Du” instead of “Sie”. Not only that, but all the rules of grammar change. We concentrated on the formal version so that we would not make the mistake of addressing the Professor with childish or overly familiar language. People would laugh when I spoke to Kae in the formal version of German. They assumed we must have had a fight.

After performing the “Doozie” ceremony we were now permitted to address the Wilderotters with the more intimate “du” form. This was a real privilege, and something we really appreciated. Soon we were even dreaming in German and knowing a second language proved very useful in our travels.

Alfons was an engineer working on building luxury buses and large snow-cat vehicles with hydraulic motors. We wanted to construct a plate to cover the gearbox and part of the engine to protect it from damage by rocks. I found an old sheet of heavy gauge stainless steel and he helped me cut it to fit. Not only did it work perfectly to protect the mechanical parts, it also streamlined the underside of the vehicle so that it tended to dance across the sand like a stone skipping on water.

We also had protecting plates over the whole underside of the chassis and the steering gear. These were parts that I obtained from a local man living in Erbach who allowed me to salvage whatever I wanted from his old green pop-top VW camper. Because removing a section of the roof affected the overall strength of the vehicle, the factory pop-tops had plates covering the chassis to provide extra strength. This created a space like a large box and I bolted heavy spare parts inside which had the effect of keeping the weight down low.

Repairs: There is a long list of repairs we performed in Germany and soon Katy was like the proverbial old axe with a new head and a new handle. Perhaps rather than describe every detail, the list from my log book might be quicker:

  • two cylinder heads with head gaskets and rocker cover gaskets
  • short block engine
  • engine mounts
  • oil cooler
  • clutch plate and cable
  • two batteries and diode splitter circuit
  • brake linings and pads
  • two front brake disks
  • four heavy duty shock absorbers
  • six new body panels to replace those rusted by salt on the roads
  • replaced engine compartment lid which was rusting
  • replace sliding door
  • paint and painting supplies
  • retracting seat belts from the green VW
  • chassis plate from the green VW
  • new exhaust system, muffler and tail pipe (auspuff)
  • second hand front suspension
  • replace torsion bar and bushes in rear suspension
  • laminated windscreen which will not shatter
  • new stub axels and rear half-shaft axels
  • constant velocity joints
  • steering joints
  • quartz halogen head light bulbs
  • hydraulic brake master cylinder
  • oil pressure and temperature gauges

I had fitted the gauges in England, and one winter day, we were driving to work with the rather inferior heater going. Suddenly the cab filled completely with white smoke! The plastic oil line running from the engine to the gauge on the dash was too close to the exhaust pipe and melted, spraying oil on the exhaust. The smoke was sucked in by the heater boxes which surrounded the exhaust system.

There were other modifications we had already prepared in England. As Kae mentioned, I cut a hole in the barrier between the cab and the living quarters in the back. This could have weakened the vehicle so, with the help of our neighbor Tom Barker in Newcastle Upon Tyne, we welded in steel reinforcing and frames for mounting the seats.

We removed the bench seat and replaced it with two comfortable bucket seats retrieved from a Fiat car in the wrecker’s yard and Kae recovered them with cloth. We removed the spare tyre from its well under the front seat, leaving a space for the complicated water tank.

Then we fitted a heavy steel plate inside the front of the vehicle, removed the VW sign from the outside and mounted two spare wheels in its place (as seen in the photo). We also made expanded metal mesh to place over the headlights to prevent stone damage.

Surplus Spare Parts: The repairs in Germany left a lot of fairly usable spare parts, together with other parts I obtained second hand. We took these with us, together with many new parts, many packed in grease to prevent rusting. These included:

  • shock absorbers
  • brake master and slave cylinders front and rear and adjusters
  • brake springs and hydraulic hoses
  • constant velocity joints
  • front and rear torsion bars
  • anti-roll bars
  • rear stub axels
  • wheel bearings and wheel hubs
  • steering damper
  • steering tie rod
  • petrol pump
  • brake parts
  • clutch plate
  • rubber bumpers for suspension
  • handbrake cables
  • cables for clutch brakes and accelerator
  • speedometer and cable
  • assorted light bulbs for tail lights, license plate, interior, head lights
  • switches and wiring with connector plugs
  • carburetor parts
  • chrome wing mirrors (we did use them)
  • plastic tail light assembly and flashing indicator light covers

New Parts: In addition to second hand parts I also spent a lot of money on new parts that I thought might break or wear out on the journey.

  • wiper inserts
  • clutch and other cables
  • decoking kit
  • engine and sump gasket kits
  • exhaust repair kit
  • four sets of brake pads (front and rear)
  • fan belt
  • spark plugs, ignition coil and wires
  • fuses
  • distributor cap, rotor, points and condenser
  • headlight bulbs
  • alternator parts and bearings
  • starter motor bearings and brushes
  • new engine inlet and exhaust valves
  • concertina push rod tubes (replaced without stripping the engine)
  • valve grinding kit
  • petrol filters
  • pedal rubber pads

Expendable or consumable items:

  • 30 liters of engine oil (a gift from a taxi driver who was selling up)
  • gear box oil
  • hydraulic oil for brakes
  • lithium grease
  • Pentrating oil
  • assorted nuts bolts screws, self tapping screws, washers
  • split cotter pins
  • tyre repair kits and inner tubes
  • valves for tubeless tyres, valve cores and valve tool
  • emery cloth and wet and dry sand paper
  • primer paint
  • one liter of pastelweiss paint and spray paint to match the VW
  • paint brushes
  • hand cleaner
  • exhaust pipe sealer
  • epoxy and other adhesives

Tools: I already had an extensive tool kit but needed to buy some specific tools including the large 46 mm ring spanner required to remove the rear axels while some others I took just in case I might need them. The whole kit was heavy. Battery operated electric drills were not available at the time. That would have been handy. Here are some of the tools I listed.

  • 46 mm ring spanner
  • metric taps and dies
  • drill bits
  • easy outs
  • hack saw and blades
  • two pound hammer
  • cold chisel
  • goggles
  • pop riveter
  • tin snips
  • vice grips
  • jacks x3
  • sanding materials
  • paint stripper
  • wire brush
  • center and pin punches and leather hole punches
  • plain, long nose and bent-long-nose pliers
  • wire side cutters
  • water pump pliers
  • electrical multimeter
  • scissors
  • large set of files
  • compression tester
  • valve grinding tool
  • feeler gauge
  • steel measuring tape and steel ruler with scribers
  • large selection of plain and Phillips screw drivers
  • large collection of open-ended and ring spanners
  • crescent spanners 6 and 12 inch
  • Complete metric socket set with accessories and extensions
  • spark plug socket
  • foot operated tyre pump
  • tyre pump that screws into a spark plug thread (can damage the head)
  • tyre levers x 3
  • large rubber hammer for tyres
  • tyre pressure gauges x2
  • tyre tread depth gauge
  • grease gun
  • torque wrench
  • valve lifter
  • piston ring compressor
  • micrometer

Special Equipment: These items were needed for overland travel:

  • Locking petrol cap
  • Locking wheel nuts
  • Combination lock for spare wheel
  • padlocks
  • 13 Jerry cans for petrol 20 liters each (5 gallons)
  • 5 plastic 20 to 30 liter cans for water
  • compass
  • snow chains
  • Nylon tow rope
  • 5mm wire tow rope (old elevator wire rope)
  • two tonne shackles x 2
  • Two short handled shovels
  • sand ladders wrapped in sack cloth
  • 300 mm wide rubber conveyer belt: two pieces 15 feet long
  • Worksop manual
  • Fire extinguisher
  • petrol and water funnels and spouts

1 reply »

  1. Wow ! David

    On Wed, Sep 25, 2019 at 4:03 PM OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA wrote:

    > kiwikaevan posted: ” by Evan Lewis When we purchased the VW Kombie in > 1979, we were already planning to go to Africa, but partly because we had > to choose the correct date to start the journey, we decided to travel > around the Mediterranean first. Then we were both offered ” >


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