RV News

Vintage RV enthusiasts take on a major challenge

Mike and Gisele Godwin overcame significant obstacles to restore their classic RV units

by Danielle Brost
Mike and Gisele Godwin sitting in front of their RV
Mike and Gisele Godwin have discovered a knack for vintage restoration. — Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

In the world of RVing, there's a unique subculture of enthusiasts who find joy in reviving vintage campers and breathing new life into their favourite classic units. Mike Godwin and his partner Gisele are two such passionate individuals. 

The Godwins proved they were up for the challenge when it came time to upgrade their vintage Datsun and Nissan RVs. In a candid conversation, Mike shares their story, the struggles, and the thrill of giving old RVs a fresh lease on life. From the humble beginnings of a 1979 Datsun 620 Little Chief to the ambitious restoration of a 1984 Nissan 720 Okanagan motorhome, their journey is a testament to the enduring appeal of old-school vehicles and a love for the road less travelled.

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

How long have you been into RVing?

We got into our first RV back in 2019 with the purchase of our 1979 Datsun 620 Little Chief. We chose a Datsun because we have an affinity for the Datsun brand from other collectable vehicles we had owned. (Currently we still own a 1966 Datsun 1600 Roadster, 1971 Datsun 510 two-door sedan, and recently added a 1976 Datsun 280Z just last year.)

The Little Chief was a workhorse for us and it ran great! We had to replace the hot water tank and while doing that we noticed the floor was a little soft due to water damage, so we replaced the plywood on the floors.  With the floor replacement, we painted the walls and cupboards and also changed all the handles. We also were able to find a newer fridge and replace that as well.   

The Little Chief came on the Datsun 620 chassis powered by the 2L L20B engine from Datsun.  The engine powered the four-speed manual transmission.  The only drawback to the chassis was the single axle on the Datsun. (Would give lots of side-to-side motion when driving on rough roads or during windy days.) 

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

What inspired you to start revamping RV units?

As said, we love the Datsun brand and being such a special vehicle led us to do the update on the camper.  

Luckily, we had an excellent chassis and camper to start with.  We had no water leaks from the roof or windows and everything in the camper (furnace, water pump and tanks) were also in fabulous shape given the age of the camper.  

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

As you can see, we painted the walls and ceiling along with cupboards. We did not have to redo cushions and pads as they were still in pretty good shape and the colours were something we could work with.

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

What was involved in restoring the Nissan 720 Okanagan motorhome? 

We enjoyed the Little Chief for at least two years before we discussed upgrading to a slightly larger camper.  And when I say, “slightly” I do mean “slightly.”

In 2021, we purchased the 1984 Nissan 720 Okanagan camper.  

Datsun had been officially discontinued in North America and replaced with the parent company Nissan.  

The 720 chassis was slightly larger (18 feet versus 17 feet on the 620), the engine was slightly larger in the 720 (2.4 cc engine and this time it was paired to the 5-speed we wish we had in the 620).

The “bones” of the Okanagan seemed solid. . . which we were wrong about. Boy, were we wrong!

When we bought the Okanagan, we knew the roof had previous leaks and the ceiling needed to be replaced.  Moving to a slightly larger camper, with a bigger engine and to a 5-speed from 4, was also viewed as a positive move. 

Painting and a new floor was something we had already completed with the Little Chief so the purchase seemed like a no brainer.  

As we started pulling the ceiling down we quickly realized that the project was outside our wheelhouse.  The roof was badly pitted from the numerous leaks that had been repaired poorly, but the damage had been done and sealed in. We were now looking at a total roof replacement.  In discussions with a local company that provides metal and tin to local RV companies, they quickly stepped in to help us out of this coming disaster. 

As the roof was being replaced, they pulled the side tin off the camper and more and more rot was found. Basically, the camper was peeled all the way off!  The water damage had progressed to the rear quarters and the floor and stress fractures were present on the upper bunk area as well. 

You know the saying: “Do not say ‘woo!’ in a mud hole.”  We had to move on with the repairs. 

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

Some of the changes we decided on were easy ones: why put 30-year old windows into a brand-new frame and siding? 

In the end, all new windows were ordered, plus:

  • Tanks were replaced

  • Aluminium floor joists to the new steel roof

  • All new siding, new windows throughout camper, painted and finished inside as well

  • Fantastic fan was added

  • New fresh water tank, black tank, and toilet

  • New seats from Isuzu Rodeo 

  • Newly rebuilt 2.4 NAPZ engine with Weber carb upgrade. This upgrade features LED lights all around the camper, also running two 100 watt solar panels. 

  • New furnace and hot water tank

  • New awning installed

  • Dually rear end and extra leaf spring added for stability

We recently added airbags to the rear to assist with bottom drag when the tanks are filled. That was a huge game changer—we should have done the airbags years ago. 

The appraisal in 2022 was at $57,000. The (nickname of the camper) “Lee Majors Edition “ started as a joke between my wife and myself and extended to Norm with National RV who oversaw the entire process. For those who do not recognize the name “Lee Majors”, you may remember him as the Six Million Dollar Man (TV series from the 70s). Although we didn’t spend 6 million on the rebuild, it did feel like we came close. 

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

How did you first become interested in vintage RVs, and what do you love most about them?

We just love the old vehicles—something about the character of these makes and models. Driving down the road and getting the thumbs up from passersby is pretty cool.  

Do you RV full-time?

We do not RV full-time. We enjoy taking our little rig out for Crown land camping (aka boondocking.)

My wife and I currently are working full-time paying for all the upgrades and changes to our fleet.

- Photo courtesy Mike and Gisele Godwin

What piece of advice would you offer to other RVers who would like to restore a vintage unit?

Know your limits and what you can and cannot do. 

Create relationships with those special shops. They are a wealth of experience and knowledge that you can utilize. 

Start with a solid unit! Look for the basics. 

No matter what, you have to have a budget and try to stay within it.  Ours quickly overran and spiraled out of control. Luckily, we were in a position where we could afford the upgrades and changes made during the build.  

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