Harvey the RV

1971 Commer PB Autosleeper

Harvey was first registered as a Motor Caravan in June 1971 and was fitted with the venerable Rootes 1725 cc iron head engine as used in many Rootes products of the day. We took ownership on the 6th April 1994 and spent the next few years sorting out the many problems we encountered – rotten cab floor and spring hangers, knackered engine to name a few. A weekend shake down run to Anglesey was planned and all was going well until about 2 miles from the campsite when the exhaust decided to part with the silencer. A swift repair was carried out by sliding a piece of pipe, normally used for extra leverage on the wheel brace, down the broken exhaust and into the silencer. It was a surprisingly effective repair that had little effect on the already wheezy engine and we got home safely. There where two more shake downs runs - one aborted after 5 miles because of serious overheating (Cue engine rebuild) and another that actually went quite well, apart from a kinked petrol tank breather that caused fuel to pour out of the filler cap on a hot day. Much work was carried out on the interior and I started rebuilding the doors when a change of job in 1998 seriously cut into my free time. Harvey was taken off the road for a quick rub down and respray but progress stalled and Harvey went into hibernation at the back of the garage for a long time.

November 2008.

Poor old Harvey had suffered the ravages of time and weather as the various covers protecting him had rotted away or blown off but he was still all there and the re-commissioning began. The extent of the damage was much worse than first thought and took a lot longer than expected but many modifications along the way added to the time. The old engine had seized up with lack of use and was replaced with an Ebay purchased alloy head Sunbeam Rapier unit mated to an overdrive gearbox from a Hunter GT. To get this to fit upright (the Hunter engine sits at an angle) the input shaft from the Commer gearbox was used in place of the longer Hunter one, this allowed the Commer bell-housing to be used so all the linkages fitted perfectly, as luck would have it the propshaft from the Hunter fitted perfectly without modification. Further mods to the engine include a 1.75 inch SU carb from a Mini on a custom made manifold designed and built by Tim (Commeracer) Martin, the twin downpipe Rapier exhaust manifold was gas-flowed and an 1.75 inch straight through exhausted system made up from easily available modern stock (Fiat and Seat) chosen for size and cost (they were cheap and just happened to fit where the old system was).

To supply this set up with nice clean petrol good old Tim made me a shiny new aluminium tank, this has also eliminated the curse of the Commer fuel system known as ‘Snakeskin’ – tiny pieces of paint that flake off the inside of the original tank and cause havoc blocking filters and jets.

The mechanical cooling fan and water pump were removed with electric units fitted instead – the fan was another Ebay find and came from a Ford Escort turbo diesel – the water pump is a universal fitting Davies Craig kit that was developed in Australia for big straight six and V8 engines so is well up to the job of the little Rapier lump. It has the advantage of running at a constant speed so full flow is still rushing around the engine even when idling, essential when stuck in traffic, and doesn’t suffer from cavitation at high RPM. To further aid engine cooling the front air scoop was redesigned with a deep chin added instead of the restrictive ducting behind the grille. Now, even on those long killer motorway climbs, the electric fan isn’t needed and the engine stays at normal temperature.

After finding some tell-tale signs of tinworm in the rear floor all the furniture and floor covering was removed to tackle the repairs – there was a lot of rot around the wheel arches and jacking points that needed fettling and at one point there seemed to be more holes than floor, but now the structure is solid and rust free. The front engine cover needed the bottom 6 inches replacing and various other grotty bits were cut out and welded up. New wheel cylinders were fitted all round along with and a master cylinder seal kit and new clutch master and slave.

The paintwork was done in a very enclosed space and I didn’t achieve the best of results so will need doing again but the colour is lovely – Triumph Damson – you could almost eat it. The interior is still an ongoing project with most of the woodwork still needing a rub down and varnish but is serviceable and will be tackled properly over the winter. The original wooden glovebox lid was in a sorry state when we first got Harvey so was removed and eventually lost over the years. I searched for a suitable piece of wood to replace it but struggled to find anything with the right patina, I didn’t want it to look ‘new’. My search took me to the Lady Heyes antique centre near Frodsham where I started chatting to one of the antique dealers – I explained what I was looking for and he told me the story about working on a farm as a lad, the farmer let him and his mates camp out in a derelict Commer van – happy days. I came away with a present from him - a couple of oak veneered wardrobe side panels that have been turned into a nice new facia panel and glove box for the cab.

Harvey was always meant to be used as he was originally intended, as a camper, and the modifications and improvements were designed to make him more reliable and able to cope with modern traffic. Apart from the water pump everything would have been available when Harvey was new so this is very much a period build. The performance has been transformed, he accelerates almost briskly, he can cope with hills in overdrive top where he used to struggle up in third and as a bonus he is more economical to run – result. I can only imagine what the public would have thought of the transformation had Rootes given these vans a similar treatment on the production line all those years ago.

Harvey passed the MOT first time, with no advisories, in May 2010

It has been a most enjoyable couple of years and much support and advice (good and bad) has been given by a great group of friends on the commervanfan.co.uk internet forum. If you like Commers, or just old cars, why not log on and say hello – you will get out traditional greeting of ‘Welcome to the Madhouse’

Madhouse? - You’ll soon find out why.