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  1. Importing a Motorhome - Dave O'Hara

This is how one person purchased and imported an American motorhome
Copyright 1999 Dave O'Hara


Back in the 80's we had an XD Falcon ute with a Millard slide on, this was used on a number of occasions for trips from Sydney, to various locations within NSW, long weekends away from the stink of the city, and one major trip around Victoria.

All very well but we didn't like the cab over bed all that much, and as time went on Gloria's back injury, from a serious car accident some years before, started to limit use of this setup. So a new unit was needed.

I was a few years away from my planned retirement at 55, Gloria wasn't working but we wanted to see lots more of our wide brown land. I had travelled extensivly overseas, and as a youth in the 60's had travelled around Aus for 3 months with a couple of mates in a FE Holden, Gloria had done the same and almost at the same time, with a pair of girlfriends, in a Volkswagen .... we were both closet wanderers waiting to break out.


We had to decide the critera , and importance of same in our choice of a new Motorhome. We discounted a caravan because both of us hated towing the things, we were not as nimble as we once were so pop-ups and trailer style were out as well, we liked the slide on concept, but wanted a bigger unit with the same one vehicle concept. A Motorhome was the answer, we wanted low bed that didn't need to be setup and stowed every day. We hired a Maui unit in NZ a couple of years ago, that had this setup, having to dismantle your bed to use your lounge, wasn't what we wanted.

A lifetime ago I raced motorcycles, and went to England to race at the Isle of Man, and various european meets, the short story is I wasn't that good and eventually ran out of sponsorship and funds. I took up managing a motorcycle shop in Blackpool Lancashire. This lasted 4 years and in that time my younger brother came to visit with his campervan, as did various old mates from home, seeing and experiencing the setup of these vehicles tought me a lot about what I didn't want in a motorhome. I'd worked as a mechanic for many years, and the last thing a mechanic wants to do in time off is fix things.

So our list went like this: Low bed. Separate lounge. Enough room for dog (corgi), Dual fuel or deisel. Shower separate from the toilet. Fixed dinette or similar, walk through from cab to rear without a major hillclimb, no "how many does she sleep" type compromises, this vehicle was just for us, Gen set on board, good sized fluid tanks, Annexe, a minimum of having to do mechanical fix it's, as we travel around.


We started looking and pretty quickly discovered a Winnebago was about the only choice, (Swagman weren't around much then) the 28ft Alpine was real nice, but so was the price, 135k and considering the low power unit it's built on we thought, (well, I thought anyway) we could do better, a second hand classic would set us back 200k a new one 300k, way outta our reach. So we looked at a some Bus conversions, they were mainly discounted due to age (most being 25 to 35 yrs old with 500,000 plus k's) and poor mechanical condition, although some were well modified with good living room, we could see that going down this road was leading to never ending expense and constant fixing of problems.

Unless we built one from scratch, which I baulked at, I'm no spring chicken, and already having a slight back problem plus the fear that I wouldn't be able to finish something I started. This was also to be ruled out.

We thought we'd be just buying trouble, in getting a used bus conversion, mind you this is not saying all rigs were like this, just the ones we saw.

We (read I) decided to look at RV's I'd seen in the USA a few years ago.


What we did next was impossible 5 years ago, and it's all due to computers and the internet. First I gathered all the data regarding importing vehicles, e-mailing the various people and getting hard copies of regs and laws. NSW RTA, NRTC in Melbourne, FORS in Canberra, ADR's Canberra, and the Customs and Quarantine office.

Then an evaluation of what we would need to look for in respect to fitting within the framework of this overegulated system, (how else do beauracrats justify their jobs, unless they make more and more meaningless rules :-)

Once we worked out our max width, length, height, overhang, axle loadings, tyre ratings, exit provisions, (must have door on left side or rear), LP gas laws, electric code, and others I can't remember right now, we started looking at various internet sites, rvsearch, rvamerica, and a dozen others.

It became clear rather early that 95% of American RV's were never going to get on the road here, overhang being the number one culprit in older units (5-15 yrs) and width in almost anything made in the last 5 yrs, the wide body was here to stay. In the USA 102 inch (2.6 m) is the standard, (even though it's still illegal in 14 States).


Months of searching followed, I boiled it down to wheelbase, as a percentage of overall length, many were found in the 34 Ft Length that would fit but most were lower level price models and as such didn't have a left side access door. Or the ones that had access doors had too short a wheelbase, resulting in being too long in the overhang department.

Eventually I bit the bullet and decided to restrict my search to rear engine diesel, medium-long 33- 37 ft, mid 90's, second hand units, these were the only ones that had most of the criteria, ie: rv's in this pusher range had left doors, good weight distrubution and width of 96 in. And the Cummins engine presented few EPA problems.

But even these bigger units had short wheelbases, most 218 in to 225 in, occasionally I'd find a 34ft rig but enquires would show the thing had 218 in w/base instead of a 225 in, a 218 in would be line ball on a 34 ft unit, it would depend on front length, and actual measured total length.


After 7 months of frustration, I found a unit that sounded too good to be true, a 1994 Allegro Bay??? , never heard of them before, Allegro to me was a music term "to play louder". I e-mailed the owner for a check on if it was still for sale and some more specs, back came a set of figures I didn't believe so I asked the owner if he'd mind measuring up the figures personally, no problem he said, and back came almost identical figures, but the main one was 252 in wheelbase on a 36'10" unit, a quick calculation showed an overhang of 11ft 4in or 3.44m well under the 3.7m legal limit, the percentage of wheelbase was even better giving 151 in at 60% and 11ft 4in is only 142 in (sorry about all old style fig's).

It had all legal specs, and as far as I can tell, is a one-off. The guy I purchased it from had it built to order, by Tiffin Motor Homes Red Bay Alabama, who are one of 45 US motor home builders, and produce 30 plus units per week. His main reason for special build was he didn't want a lazy axle.

It's an Allegro Bus (next model up) chassis with the Bay body, the Bus is usually 39 to 42 ft long and used the XC Oshkosh chassis, -part of Freightliner -, now sold as their X-Line chassis. Some features are 12ft Slide out, HWH computer leveling (4 hydraulic Jacks) 7.5 KW onan diesel Gen set, (dual Voltage) 250hp (mod) Cummins B5.9 turbo diesel, 6 speed Allison MD2060 Auto ranging tranny, and all the other usual features.

Silver Linings

Well now the ball was well and truly in our court, we had to be sure that if we went there, we would not find some ommited item that threw the whole deal on the scrap heap. The seller wasn't retiring until next year, so this gave us plenty of time to raise the money, I suggested a thousand dollars as a refundable deposit, he agreed.

At the time I was running my business in Sydney.

These were also the blackest days of my life.I was trying to deal with a wheelchair bound mum with cancer, in a nursing home. (Look at all alternatives before taking this step, it's a daily heartbreak).

My young brother had gassed himself in his car, over a romance gone wrong. And my father had a stroke and passed away just after that.

Gloria's young brother had a heart attack and died while waiting for an ambulance.

I was heading for oblivion - fast. I found it very difficult to cope and the business was suffering. I needed a Holiday..., it never came.... I had by now developed asthma.

In Sept 97 mum finally succumbed to cancer.

If it wasn't for Gloria and my sister in Kangaroo Valley, well ...who knows.

On the Move

That Christmas I asked my head mechanic if he was interested in buying the business, which he was. Gloria and I booked a 3 week holiday to the US, March saw us flying north to Los Angeles, then by rental car we drove to Huntsville Texas.

First sight of the Allegro was awesome. I hadn't realised it was so high, 3.8m, you can look eye to eye with Kenworth drivers, and it looked like the XPT (NSW train), we measured it all again, I handed over the deposit and we all retired to a Texas steakhouse.

Money-Money-Money (apologies to Abba)

Well now we had to find the money, and I won't disclose the price paid, as it was by private negotiation between the buyer and seller, however it was well within our budget of $ 60,000. and to date we are on track for a total costing of under $140,000 aussie dollars.

In 1979 I returned from England , stone cold broke. This bit of the tale is not meant to be in any way a put down, or me being a smart ass.

By working 7 days for several years I managed to build a successful business, to the point that I invested heavily in real estate, I owned two good houses, a shop and self contained flat above the shop, this was in August 98 less than 20 years since coming back. It simply proves what we all know, this is the greatest country in the world to get ahead, if you are prepared to work hard, and don't listen to the fast buck or doomsday merchants.

I sold both houses, and invested in a pension fund, then used most of the rest to pay up debts, as well as funds for purchase of the RV. Still holding the shop and flat, (both rented out).

On the money side some may say I was lucky, I disagree, I worked hard invested wisely and never married, ask anyone over 45 with no kids what they would like most....

But still, I had fantastic highs, and terrible lows. Now I count many unseen motorhomers out there as friends and riches, fellow travellers, all enjoying, in their own unique way our fantastic land. The more we travel and put faces to names the richer we get.

Back to the Future

Well it's back to the USA, and our future motorhome, on my own this time for four months. Part of the deal if you want to bring a vehicle into Australia as a personal import is that you must have owned and used the vehicle for 3 months outside Australia.

The trick is, if you go to the USA you can go without a visa for periods up to 3 months, for longer stays you need a visa, and that's fun to get, armed guards outside the consular office and metal detectors at the door, you need to allow six weeks and about $150 for this whole process.

Don't imagine that because your visa says you have 12 months, that's what you'll get. When you go through US immigration, it's up to the person there to evaluate you on the spot, one smart or uncertain answer and you get 3 months only, then your up the creek without a paddle, you can't comply with our 3 month rule if you can only stay there 3 months. Only a reasonable story and lots of smiles will get you 6 months.

Once in the US don't use their inter city coach system, that is unless you want to run the risk of getting mugged; air travel and car hire are cheap and plentyful.

Rules ...Rules ...and more Rules

It takes quite a while to get paperwork through the US DMV system, they are about as efficent as our RTA was 15 years ago, you have to get the registration changed to your name, allow at least 2 months if you have to post to another state or 2 to 3 weeks if local, also don't forget they have transfer fees just like here, and some states are as high as 6.5% of purchase price, if they suspect you have given a dud price they determine the value by trade blue book, top retail value, plus a penalty. And forget tax free states, you have to produce a income tax statement and a current US drivers licence.

Like here you've got to have insurance, our ctp is not known there, you get liability insurance. Farm & City is good for RV's. if you don't have this type of insurance and you injure someone, you firstly go to gaol, then if you have insurance you get released on bail, and your passport is confiscated until insurance is settled, (not paid, just settled) then you pay your fine and away you go. Don't get caught for any traffic violations, they issue on the spot fines where you can pay by mail, but not if you are driving on a non US licence, you are taken from wherever you were stopped to the police station, and must pay the fine with cash or if you are lucky a credit card, this was by way of advice, not personal experience.

You don't want to think about not having insurance, besides you can't register your RV without insurance in some states.

Now you head off and enjoy driving a big RV on the US interstate system ...

Okay you've had your fun, 3 months has gone and it's time to go.

Find a customs export firm such as AFS long beach CA, do your export out of US paperwork and wait 21 days for your export approval, Oh! don't forget your Australian Federal Office of Road Saftey, (FORS) import document, that can take a month to six weeks to get Australian approval to import the vehicle into Australia, this is where you will need your proof of overseas stay, (Passport pages), proof of ownership and use overseas for 3 months, (Rego; 3 months only counts from date reg; in your name, and don't forget that could have been two months after you arrived) you may also need reciepts for fuel RV parks etc.

My head is starting to hurt with all this, so I'll go back to what I did.

Alaska Air

On arrival at San Francisco International, I went to the domestic section and bought a ticket on Alaska Air to Portland Oregon, and then on to Redmond , where I would be picked up and taken to Bend, a city a bit bigger than Taree NSW.

The owners of the A-Bay had been transfered there from Texas.

The flight was on a 767 and took 2 hrs, it was the most informal flight I've ever been on, the classic was in the safety talk, pointing to where the air masks would drop from, the stewardess said "place the mask on your face and if you have a small child next to you, or someone who is acting like a small child".

On the Road

After a month of waiting, the paperwork and insurance cover note (Binder) came through and I was on the road, driving a 9 tonne left hand drive RV down the other side of the road, to say I was a little nervous would be an understatement.

Most of what happens for the next few months is pretty straightforward tourist stuff, a few things to note, when making a right turn at lights, if they are red you MUST turn, if safe to do so. Buy a Rand McNally road atlas at Wal-Mart, about 6 dollars, has a wealth of info re; rest areas that you can and can't overnight at, as well as where all the Wal-Mart stores are, (free 1 night stop, in car park). Interstate numbers have a system, even numbers go east-west, odd numbers go north-south, Exit numbers are equal to mileage from the state line, comes in handy for pre planning. And forget any old ideas about 55 speed limits most I/S's are around 75 mph (120 K). 80 to 85 (130-140K) was not difficult to maintain in desert areas, just keep the CB on ch-19, radar detectors are legal. And yes the A-Bay easily does 140, at 2450rpm, (max 2800 rpm) nothing like doing 140 and an 18 wheeler thunders past at 160 plus causing air turbulance that drags your 9 tons off line.

Telephones are hopeless, there are about 10 different main carriers and dozens of minor companies, you buy a telephone card say at&t, and you can only use the card in that company's phones, you have wander around looking at the phones to find one that's at&t, in the end you carry a sack of quarters and dimes, local calls are 35c, mobile (cellular) forget it ours are incompatable with the US system, besides you pay for air time (incoming and outgoing calls) plus daily rate and long distance extra charges.

Side lights

I forgot to mention that Gloria joined me at Christmas, I met her in LA and we were supposed to go to New York, but they had the worst blizzard in 10 years right through the north, and many roads were closed, I didn't feel like buying snow chains at $350 a set for just one long trip, so we went back to Oregon, to try once more at getting the rig registered, in my name in Oregon -we failed- and it was 16 below as well.

She flew back home at the end of January, and I headed back to Texas to visit my cousin in Houston, a hot humid city very similar in climate to Sydney: 8th biggest city, at around 8 million people.

I also spent a month at the Tiffin factory in Red Bay Alabama, over thanksgiving 98, and you wouldn't want to know it, Red Bay is in Franklin county Alabama, one of only a handfull of counties that are dry, no alcohol whatsoever, so even though I learned a lot about how Motorhomes are built and repaired, and got stacks of spares, it was a dry old time.

On the Homeward Trail

Well it's time to head to Long Beach CA, part of the Los Angeles County, but a city in itself. All the export permits had been obtained, and import approval was granted, next was to Terminal Island and load the unit on a 40ft container, main awning and rear view mirrors had to come off, fuel level no more than quarter tank, no propane, and batteries disconnected. It was lifted by two forklifts acting together, tynes under the wheels, I couldn't watch as it went way up in the air and lowered onto the container that was already on a semi flatbed, a perfect job, spot on the right place. I climbed a ladder and opened the door to get in and lower the hydraulic jacks, then lifted bonnet and shut down the batteries, locked her up and caught a cab to the Tasman Motel Palo Verde, just acros the bay from Long Beach.

It felt strange to have so much room to move around in, after months of living in the A-Bay, I wasn't sure I liked it any more, the RV was much quieter, (50mm foam filled walls). It didn't take long to acclimatise. See a couple of movies $1 mid-day sessions, Mel Gibson "Payback" which when I saw it here on release (not my choice) was censored to the US version.


After a long flight, I was home, and although I enjoyed my time there I can truly say there is no place like home, especially if it's Australia, I could not live in the USA full time. It's a close call, but we've got a better lifestyle, less pressure day to day, and a scone is a scone, not a biscuit.

28 Days later on the "Direct Jabriu" the A-Bay sailed past the opera house, under the harbour bridge and like millions of immigrants, docked at Darling Harbour.

Due to my poor choice of a customs agent, things got a bit messy, by this time I knew more about importing a M/H than the agent, he got the duty wrong by thousands of dollars, caused delays because of his inability to process the correct customs clearances, etc etc..... There was a funny up side to this, prior to clearing customs, it had to be transferred to bond storage, but the container it was sitting on had to stay at the wharf. I had to go down to the wharf and raise the jacks. There I am, on my own hooking up the batteries, starting the engine and raising the jacks, all without another soul around, if I'd had anything illegal on board I could have pocketed it there and then. This happened three times for various reasons, then when the A-Bay was in bond storage, the customs flying squad pounced and I had to go to the bond store and deal with the "supprise" inspection, it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Probably if customs find out by someone reading this they may change their procedures, but I doubt it.

The A-Bay cleared inspection, I paid the duty, 47.5% of purchase price, quarantine cleaned the wheel wells, and all the "contaminated" water formed puddles on the ground at Mascot and trucks splashed through it carrying whatever to all parts of Australia. I watched on and shook my head. Fitted the mirrors and drove out to a mate's place not far away. 2am I headed out with A-Bay and made it to Ingleburn, and that's where she still is, looking very sad with all the front end off (except windscreens) and I'm into the big conversion. Nobody was interested in doing it as a paid job, too big for our factory was most common story, although now I see an ad in the Wanderer .....all too late.

Copyright 1999 Dave O'Hara


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