So it begins…

Well here we are. I’m writing this just a few days before we at set to fly to New York. According to a marine traffic website I’ve been obsessively reloading, the van has left the port!! Due to arrive in New York on the 1st of September, we have officially reached the point of no return.

I know that a few people have wanted to follow this blog in particular so here is a very brief overview of the timescale to this point.

Feb 2015 – we bought the van. It did not fit in the shed it was meant to and I had a grand total of 1 year’s experience working with cars. I planned to rebuild it in the shed it didn’t fit in with no tools, experience or roof for that matter.


To give some context, the van was bought with no interior (or subframe) and the engine/gearbox/wiring removed. The plan was to fit a Subaru engine for reliability and refurbish the rest. At the time I couldn’t weld, had no idea how to sort vehicle electrics and knew basically nothing about engine conversions.

Nov 2015 – The van arrived at work and my students descended on it, although they lost enthusiasm when they realised that a lot of the work was rust prep. Scraping expandable foam out of the doors became the go to punishment for anyone who was late to my lessons.

Feb 2017 – After just over a years worth of work from a lot of different people, she started with the new engine for the first time.


Maybe at some point I’ll post the photos of her refurb, but it is pretty lengthy. A few months later and I scraped an MOT. A few weeks later and after frequent breakdowns in the local area we drove her properly for the first time from Devon to Birmingham after having a pop top installed. That’s my dad behind us in the Honda keeping the other traffic from hassling us as we crawled out of the village at about 10mph. We had never driven it more than about half a mile without a major issue at this point.

Summer 2017 – Even though she was running at this point, she had no interior, no sound system, spare wheel and many other key parts. We had a lot of teething problems, mainly because I had no idea what I was doing and partly because my students had a tendency to not bolt thing backs on once they had finished. During the summer I started to fit the interior, we bought the wood as a whole tree which was then prepped and machined to planks to build our cupboards.

Our handmade cupboard for the kitchen go in. 

Oct 2017 – We got her resprayed.

March 2018 – We took her away on a proper holiday for the first time. We still had plenty of issues and to iron out but she made it to the Isle of Skye and back without a breakdown truck, despite a few breakdowns! There is a separate blog about this if you’re interested.

Aug 2018 – we went to France. This was the tipping point for us to buy a new radiator system.

April 2019 – our final major road test to the Pyrenees. What this blog fails to mention however is the last official day of our holiday which was spent driving from my parents house on the south coast back to Birmingham. Generally I wouldn’t describe a return drive up the motorway but in the case those horrible metallic noises finally made themselves known as a major gearbox fault. Just starting on the M40 we lost 4th gear, and had to drive to Birmingham in 3rd which was very loud and put more stress on our engine that I would have chosen.

After speaking to a VW gearbox specialist we decided to pay for a gearbox upgrade as well as a rebuild as he said the 6 rib box is only sufficient for around 100bhp and we have about 130bhp. This would also give us a better cruising speed through changing the gear ratios on 3rd and 4th and ultimately a quieter drive and better fuel economy. Here is our rebuilt gearbox internals.

He gave me back my old gears, so I could show the students. There’s also the main bearing which was absolutely knackered, and reverse gear which was kinda mauled. This is the remains of 4th gear.

The good news is that the new cooling system was brilliant. I would have liked to complete one road trip without a large problem, but it wasn’t meant to be.

This gave me the summer term to sort the gearbox out and any other small issues before we shipped her of to New York in August. I bet anyone out there who has ever had a project car will agree that it’s never really finished, so even now there a minor things to address but it’s now things like the windscreen wipers judder, rather than things like the shock absorbers aren’t attached (another discovery we made after the Pyrenees).

All of this brings us to the end of the academic year with Ruby pretty much done. In preparation for our trip we were renting our house, so while there was things that I still wanted to do on the van, she was no longer a priority. The next month featured a lot of painting and packing as I tried to get as much done before Lee finished work. The final two weeks of July we both worked flat out to get the house clean and tidy and finish jobs we should have done years ago. The majority of our stuff is packed and in the loft, some furniture is stored at my parents new house and the van is full of everything we think we need for a year. We just about made it, we were still frantically stacking boxes in the loft the day of our new tenants arrival and then it was all over and we were officially houseless!

That was the 1st of August. I spent a week staying with Lee’s mum in Shirley, before taking the van South to try and finish off some of the niggles (we have no curtains one side) and give my parents a hand moving to their new house.

We had been arranging the freight for several months and had been told to drop the van at Southampton port on the 16th of August. We also got told that we weren’t allowed any personal belonging in the van and would have to pay for a pallet to be shipped alongside her. I managed to source a cheap plastic pallet and Lee brought it down with him from Birmingham. The pallet is too big to sit in the van which means we would have to load it on the docks so we had a trial run.

Then the morning of the 16th we set off to make the thoroughly unpleasant drive that is going along the west coast. It took way longer than it should and it was raining. We stopped off in Southampton to get the mud jet washed off the van (a requirement of the shipping company) and then we got to the port.

The port had no idea what to do with us and we drove around to three different places before we got to someone who would accept the van. He didn’t look happy about the pallet though, “Why don’t you just leave everything in the van?” he said. We explained we were told this wasn’t allowed, which turned out to be rubbish. So they got a free plastic pallet and we left Ruby packed. A bit annoying but ultimately saved us quite a bit of money so we weren’t too unhappy. I explained to one of the guys there how to get reverse gear, and then we left.

Another person kindly gave us a ride into the city centre where we had a glass of Prosecco and tried to process the last few hours. We caught the train home and now all that is left is to wait for our flight on the 28th, and keep checking that our ship hasn’t sunk.

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