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Contemporary Gypsies

Occasionally, over many years, my wife and I occupied a corner table in a Newcastle Wetherspoon pub (no piped music) and I watched the Fiat Doblo High Roof taxis milling about outside. The Doblo roof lights reminded me of a gypsy caravan, and I thought: "I could make a camper-van out of one of them!".

But then I thought: "How on earth can two of us subsist in that tiny space?". So I located a new (French) Lider 26460 trailer and proceeded to design and build what I thought was a very clever folding caravan instead. It operated in three modes - folded (no offence to the neighbours), horse-box (no horse, but room to make tea and even cook meals out of the rain), and fully extended (a roomy two-berth all-year-round caravan with good facilities).

To my wife's disgust I've still got our would-be folding caravan, which proved very difficult to progress, on the drive. I would have named it Concorde**, for reasons of its on-the-road slightly streamlined resemblance to that aircraft when in mode two, and to its French connections. Then we located and purchased the would-be towing vehicle, and drove again after a gap of 20 years during which we were happily reliant on bikes and public transport. These means continue to supply our daily travel needs still, although we are now motorised when we need to be.

But then I thought: "Wow, we can't tow that thing to the sorts of places we want to visit in the UK, let alone France" (it's very slightly wider than the Doblo). "What will happen when we want to use a car park?"; "Do a "U" turn because we've mis-read the map?", (we say: "The signs were wrong"); "What about bikes overtaking us on the inside at junctions?". As a cyclist myself I have this concern both when cycling and when driving a car, let alone pulling a large trailer behind.

So I've reverted to adapting the Doblo as a stand-alone camper van, albeit for our simple wants and to accommodate if not encourage our desire to get out and stretch our legs in exotic places and explore French village shops and hostelries. As a result I have a part-built folding caravan for sale, though I regret giving up on this very challenging project which would have made a compact and comfortable mobile home.

But the Doblo is very challenging too. Having designed and built inland waterway and seagoing vessels for most of my working life, and being used to fitting accommodation into restricted spaces, I find there are differences. You don't get drop-down vents in ships or boats! You don't get earth returns and you have water-cooled exhausts. You have more space than in the Doblo, even in most small yachts. In sailing vessels you steer from outside, whereas the Doblo has to comprise a chart room, a wheelhouse, and domestic accommodation, all in one. But something you can't do at sea is put up a porch and step out on to the grass!

As with the folding caravan, I've gone for a "transformer" layout. The caravan functioned in three modes: folded, "horse-box" (fully mobile), and extended, on-site. Our Doblo will also function in three interchangeable modes: five-seat MPV as-built, five-seat MPV with our accommodation compressed into the boot, and, with the rear seats folded, a camper-van with a galley, a two-seat dinette, and two berths on top of the galley and dinette respectively, when required. We retain the use of all six doors in all modes, and we will be able to travel in any one of them, to choice, the camper-van gubbins being secured by four wing nuts so that everything can be easily taken out when required. When in mode two we can convey four average adults, the limit being for weight reasons although we have five travel seats.

I love the appearance of the High-roof Doblo: it's compact, perky and quirky. As already mentioned we seldom need a car for domestic purposes, but it's there if we need it. When on tour we avoid major roads so far as possible and we can negotiate congested towns and villages with ease and use car parks with a height limit not less than 2.1 metres. (We have already tested a 2.0 metre multi-storey car park to the limit and we won't repeat that experiment). The vehicle does not intrude upon our neighbours, and on long runs we get 68 miles to the gallon of diesel.

Bliss! But there is work still to do, we love driving the Doblo, we don't drive miles for their own sake. Apart from visiting our children and exploring this end of France - once we have got there, mainly on foot - we'll continue to keep our mileage to a minimum.

Doblo7 (recent new member).


To read Doblo7's supplementary article click here

I don't have a pic of the timber and plywood (four 9mm sheets) that went into the job but suffice it say that the thought that it would all fit into the van was difficult to grasp. Here these materials and others such as fabrics and foam for cushions, and equipment, are on display and you may have the same thought.

This is our Doblo as built at a Fiat factory in Turkey. We can travel with the rear seat raised or lowered and the latter configuration has been much used shifting clay in buckets up to 12 at a time from the garden to the local tip, and returning with compost from our allotment. We call this Mode 1 with the seats in either position.

Here the rear seats are lowered and the accommodation moved forward. A box contains a lightweight rear porch and also comprises a step up to the rear doors. This is Mode 3 and with the box put on board and the saddle removed (see later) we can travel two-up in this Mode. On Summer days the box can become a seat outside and can be complemented by the panel that closes the boot when in Mode 2 which becomes a camping table.

But all this stuff not only fits into the Doblo but all except the forward bed boards fit in the boot. The forward bedboards go between the seats when these are in the raised position: ie five seats all useable subject to the Fiat weight limit of 5p + 150 kg. I reckon that this will become 4p + full outfit ex stores and fresh water, but I would be interested to know what a Fiat "p" weighs. This is Mode 2.

This pic shows the dinette unit, the forward seat of which comprises a food and utensil box and rolls forward on wheels. The aft seat contains a Porta Potty. The unit is attached to rails in the floor by means of clips and two wing nuts one of which is visible. These rails were put in for the previous wheelchair user.

This pic shows the galley unit which is secured the same way as the dinette. This unit contains a 25 litre water carrier plus foot pump with faucet to the sink, a two-burner gas hob, a small two-bottle gas locker, stainless lined and drained via reinforced vents through the floor. All vents and the sink drain are made to unplug when the unit is removed. The unit also contains a leisure battery in a battery box, a switch panel, crockery locker, cutlery drawer, a locker with access through to a cubbyhole outboard ideal for old socks, a ditty box on view, and two locker doors which drop down to make extra tables when required. This unit is unfinished as photographed and some items such as the switch panel and remaining locker doors have yet to be fitted. A stainless steel splashback folds down and becomes part of the starboard berth at night. The strut shown is temporary. The forward part of this berth can be set up as a large worktop and is hinged lengthwise to make more space. Formica laminate for this worktop, the galley and the dinette, still has to be chosen, sourced and fitted. As you will see, the cushions and curtains, and a roof vent, still have to be installed. We also plan to install a diesel-fuelled heater for off-season trips.

This shows the bunkboards in position. One of them functions also as a worktop at a lower level.


We call this item "the saddle". It supports the berths at night and also supports one of the bunkboards as an additional worktop - at a different height - when required. The saddle rests on the seat backs and clips into place with two turnbuttons.

To read Doblo7's supplementary article click here

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