Vote VW!

Friday, August 1, 2003

The result of the May 2001 general election in the UK was a foregone conclusion. A fact which meant the campaign was more than just a little dull. Maybe that’s why the producers of BBC2’s Newsnight decided to send their political correspondent Jeremy Vine on a 1500 mile road trip around Britain in a 1976 Devon Moonraker.

Vine’s Van -> A 76 Devon Moonraker

The van was given a nice purple paint job themed with the look of the programme. Along the way they ran-out of petrol and the engine gave-up, but was reapired. They added a surf board and rack to the side. In Hartlepool they managed to briefly get big gay MP Peter Mandelson in the back. There’s a good argument to say that apart from the Deputy Prime Minister punching a mullet haired yokel, the Newsnight ‘Battlebus’ was the only engaging part of the election. Read on to see why.


On May 8th at John O’Groats Jeremy, his producer Isobel and cameraman Frank listened in the Newsnight Election Bus to Tony Blair announce the 2001 general election would take on June 6th. Most of us couldn’t remember what we were doing at the time but Jeremy had a view that would help him remember the moment. They were “on a patch of lush hillside overlooking the sea – with the Dormobile standing proudly against the stunning blue of a clear Scottish sky.” But not everyone appreciated the Bus’ position. A photographer said the VW was spoiling his view! But within miles of embarking their election diary records that the van was showing signs of unhappiness.”…smoke crept through the dashboard; the milometer is intermittent; the engine went through 2 litres of oil in a single day; locking the doors takes the skill of a safecracker. But…” Vine notes with pride and good humour “the vehicle looks sleek, and stylish, and a following wind helps it past parked cars at a cruise.”

It’s Fun Up North

The camper made it’s way down to Inverness (May 9th), where Jeremy admits “to a moment of some frustration in Inverness when the driver of a yellow Peugeot van did not allow the Dormobile to do a u-turn at the main traffic lights – although the Daily Mail’s reference to ‘road rage’ was a little mischievous. We keep our temper even, our spirits up, and our oil tank full.” The following day came Glasgow. The buzz about the Newsnight camper was building by 13th as they hit Newcastle and they were being waved on by VW owners and encouraged by Newsnight viewers via e-mail. But it was in Hartlepool that the van hit the political big time.

Political drama -> Peter Mandelson storms out of the camper

The Mandelson Encounter

The encounter with MP Peter Mandelson was set in motion a couple of days before when Vine called the MP to ask if he might like to be interviewed in the camper. So it was a bit of a set-up when on Vine’s first day in Hartlepool the MP spotted Jeremy cruising by in the van and asked,
“What’s that? What’s that old heap doing in my town?”
“We’re driving up and down the length of the country” replied Vine.
“You’ll never make it. I don’t think you’ll get out of Hartlepool by the look of it!”

Vine mused on this encounter in his diary,

“…that’s the beauty of the camper van election: being able to catch the politicians in their natural habitat. In Mr Mandelson’s case, admittedly, the constituency is the least likely venue you’d ever expect to find him in. How times have changed since he bestrode the universe as the Prime Minister’s most trusted lieutenant…”

Like any attention loving politician he couldn’t resist an invitation to hop in the van for an interview the following day. It was all going so well, until Vine made a veiled dig at Mandelson’s relegation from cabinet level election planning, by asking him how well he thought Chancellor Groden Brown was doing at running the campaign. Mandelson stormed out of the van and only returned after being assured the interview would be kept to Hartlepool topics.As Vine put it “…surely, after a quarter of a century on the road, this must have been the first time its side door was slammed by a former cabinet minister on the way out.”

Mullet Madness

Two of the most enteraining parts of the election campaign came together when the camper stopped by Hull. Jeremy paused to gage the opinion of John Prescott’s constituents, in the aftermath of the Deputy PM’s punch-up with the mullet haired egg thrower, Craig Evans. Like the country at large, no-one seemed very outraged. As the Prime Minister later put it, “John is John”. The other reason to stop in Hull was to rebuild the engine after a blown piston flooded the van cab with smoke. No-one could claim that Vine hadn’t lived the full VW camper experience! By May 21st the purple camper crawled round Birmingham’s motorway system and cruised on to Cardiff and then onwards to Bristol for the 25th. Jeremy did what the Devon 21 has done at least twice, and reversed in to a fixed object, in his case a signpost! Vine’s odyssey had achieved cult status by now as was proved by’s Battlebus web game. In Dorset on the 29th Vine had a Monty Python moment … The Newsnight camper diary on June 5th reveals how well blooded Vine had become now in the ways of the bay window transporter.

” Here are some of the things we’ve learnt about 1976 VW camper vans between John o’Groats and Cornwall (where we’ve just arrived). First, they’re air-cooled; so if the engine’s overheating there is no point pouring water into it.Second, if the oil light goes on below the milometer you’re already in trouble. It means there’s a lack of pressure around the camshaft which could lead to problems with the big end. Third, fourth, fifth and so on and on – and on – the fuel gauge can be misleading. We’ve run out twice on dual carriageways. The cupboard door in the back can swing open, obscuring objects that should be visible in the rear view mirror (signposts in Bristol being a prime example). The handbrake doesn’t grip very well and so it’s worth leaving the van in gear when it’s parked. Also there’s no power steering, so turning the wheel is equivalent to a workout in the gym.”

Journey’s End -> The bus made it to Lands End!

Journey’s End

The epic jouney finally drew to a close at Land’s End on election day, June 6th. A dozen campers responded to the call to rally at the Land’s End car park and featured in a grand closing helicopter shot. An epic end to an epic journey through street level politics and VW camper eccentricities.

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