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Scene 1: early October

I’m thinking all things campervan as I plan out which van to buy and figure out which high-roof vans available in the Sydney area meet my other specs (=none, really). Throughout, one question that’s never far from my mind is this: to poptop or not to poptop?

Scene 2: mid October

I buy a van and, although I write a pros and cons list about pop tops (pros: everything; cons: it’s expensive), I know already I’m pretty much set on getting a poptop. I mean, maybe it’s not strictly necessary; maybe I’ll mostly be camping from/around/next to the van rather than standing in it. But gosh darn it, I’m all over van blogs and I’m coveting the whole poptop thing. Ah, the ventilation! Ah, the standing room! Ah, the appearance of space in a tiny home. I am decided.

Scene 3: late October

The first spanner is thrown into the works: I call a couple of poptoperies (not what they’re actually called, BUT THEY SHOULD BE; poptoperías if you prefer Spanish). And while, yes, they do indeed fit campervan poptops, unfortunately my short wheel base Renault Trafic is too small for the standard roof they have. The two places I speak to say, “no can do, sorry”. Then I find one that CAN do it (hallelujah! Because by this point I’m sold on the idea), but they’re in QLD, just over the NSW border, and although they can, probably, get a NSW safety certificate, it’s another hoop to jump thru as they’re out of state. But here comes the info I needed all along: have you tried Ballina fibreglass? Because they’re pretty sure that they would do it.

Scene 4: late Oct/early November

I call Ballina Fibreglass and ask: can you fit a poptop to my SWB, short wheelbase, Renault Trafic? And the man on the phone, Tony, says yes, he’s “99% sure that’s possible”, and I write down this percentage on my red clipboard, where I note all the calls and all the conversations. Of the 1% doubt, he will check and get back to me. And he does. And, yes, that’s possible, no worries. I ask about when he can do it, and speak to his wife, Judith, for she is the keeper of the diary. And we book it in for the week of 11-14 dec, because by then I’ll be free and able to drive the 800km north to Ballina. And she sends thru the standard invoice onto which (the same day) I pay $1700 deposit, to secure the booking. This is set! I’m gonna poptop!

Scene 5

I convert the campervan. I drive to Ballina. This might be a montage as you’ve read this part before.

Scene 6: Monday 11th Dec, morning

I show up, as arranged, before 9am on Monday at Ballina Fibreglass. Tony is friendly and shows me the roof they’ve made. I say I’m off to Byron for three nights in a guesthouse (as we’ve long-ago arranged I’ll pick the van up on Thursday). Seems it needs this long for the glue/epoxy to dry. Ok. I’ve booked a Hertz car rental, which is just around the corner from Ballina Fibreglass, as I’m keen to check out the hinterland around Byron. The plan then is that I’ll drop off the hire car on Thursday afternoon, pick up the completed van, and drive up to Brisbane, where on Friday 15th I’ve organised with the lovely Pia at Southern Spirit Campervans they they’ll fit the gas cabinet and connect the gas for the stove.

Scene 7: Monday 11th Dec, afternoon

Tony calls with what he describes as ‘bad news’. I brace myself for something having happened to the van. I realise I’m feeling very protective.

But it’s not that. Instead, it seems they somehow didn’t realise it was a short wheelbase, and the roof they’ve made is 40cm too long.

I’m not sure what to say.

I was very clear it was a SWB.

Indeed, that’s why I ended up in Ballina at all, rather than somewhere in Sydney. Tony’s “99% sure” was to check this, surely?

He’s immediately combative: did I not tell them? Did I tell them the wrong information (because, implicitly, I’m either a moron who doesn’t know what kind of van I have or else I’m somehow out to cheat them; oh those wily customers and their cheating ways, because it obviously works much better for me to tell them the wrong info. Duh).

I say I might have the SWB info on an email, but no, it seems it was just on the phone. I have the notes on my red clipboard, that’s all; it’s there, SWB, next to his “99%” comment, noted. The invoice doesn’t mention SWB (or any other wheelbase) but it should. It doesn’t.

Everything is now up in the air. It’s going to take longer, I may not get to Brisbane in time. I feel stressed and hassled when this had all been sorted. Byron Bay (at $200/night in a GUESTHOUSE, FFS, capitalist hippies) no longer feels relaxing as im now waiting on phone calls, checking in.

The solution we reach is that they’ll cut the roof, redo it, and fit it by thurs so I can take it up to Brisbane for the gas. But the skirt – the upholstered part that extends up from roof to poptop may not be ready until next week; Wednesday 20th is mentioned. I hadn’t been planning to spend this long on the coast (as it’s a squeal of summer holidaying children), but OK. What can I do?

Scene 8: another montage

On Wednesday 13th, Pia cancels on me, so there won’t be gas before Christmas. I call and check in with Tony, and Barry answers every time: it’s in progress. Tim the upholsterer is working late on it; he’s going thru a divorce so it’s messy. And so on. By Wednesday night, though, the news seems to be good: it should be ready by Thursday afternoon as planned. (Ahem, do you mean Thursday “as CONTRACTED”, because a verbal contract is equally binding under consumer law? But I do not make this point. Their mistake is not my problem, but I also do not make this point.)

Scene 9: Thursday 14th Dec, afternoon

I arrive back at Ballina Fibreglass. Tony is already spoiling for a fight. He shows me the poptop and I ask:

“Why is there a light, dangling, from a wire?”

“That’s from the roof.”

“Ok, but why is it dangling? Is it still connected?”


“Can you disconnect it then? Because, umm, it’s dangling, from a wire.”

Tony mutters something unpleasant under his breath and steps into the van. He unclips the light, leaving a dangling wire that they’ve cable tied into a loop. Of dangling wire. Dangling, still-connected wire. This doesn’t seem safe (and later I cut the cable tie and push the wire up into the body of the roof, out of sight and out of accidental reach).

Then he tells me the way I have the van set out is wrong. I should have an opening door to the passenger side. I say actually I checked, and that’s true of larger vehicles (bus conversions and so on) but the NSW legislation I read specifically says that’s for vehicles larger than whatever size it is. It doesn’t include my little van. But Tony is keen, it seems, to have an argument about this and tells me I “must have read it wrong”. I don’t bite. Ok, whatever.

He shows me, hurriedly, how to use the poptop and I’m obviously asking stupid questions (like, so, do you need to pull the skirt in so it doesn’t get caught? So how do you do up the clips?) because he’s exasperated and shows me once only. Ok, I’ll figure it out. Tony is not Mr Customer Service.

We go to the office and he presents me with an invoice. Only he has added $500 for the extra work.

This is the extra work that his error caused (but apparently this is just me saying that it’s their mistake because clearly it is all my fault. CLEARLY.)

I say I’m not paying it.

I told him SWB. I have the notes from our conversations. I only went to him at all because he said he was “99% sure they could do a SWB, then came back to me to say yes, they could. So he clearly knew what we were talking about all along. If he wanted to clarify, why didn’t he put it on the invoice, to confirm?

And so here’s what this adult man does: he tears up the engineers safety certificate in front of me.

And I say, “ok, so you can take off the $650 for it as well, because I’m not paying for that if you’re not going to give me it”.

And he says “but I’ve got your van. I’m not giving you your van.” There’s almost, but not quite, a “na na na na na” after this.

Tony makes this point with his voice raised, his finger jabbing towards my face.

I mention that I’m looking forward to writing a very honest review online about this experience. And Tony says he will review ME online (WTF?) And that he will sue! (And I don’t say, to win a defamation case you have to prove the allegations are untrue, and everything I’m saying here or would say on e.g. a google review is factual, not opinion.)

Instead, I say, “do we have to involve the police?” (I do not say, because you are illegally breaking a contract and illegally impounding a vehicle.

And at this point Tony’s wife, Judith, steps in and asks him why he tore up the engineers certificate. Why is he doing this?

And he throws down my van key. And I pick it up.

And Judith says, in tears now, “I will email you the safety certificate”.

But you know what, fuck that, because if this is how Tony is behaving then I simply do not trust Ballina Fibreglass, as a business, to do what they say they will do. And I say no, I’m not paying for it until it is in my hand. Because two can play at the game of being unreasonable. And it’s $650 (for the safety certificate) that I would rather not have to chase up.

And so I unpack the rental car into the van. I take back the rental car. I walk back to Ballina Fibreglass. My heart feels like it is beating too hard; everything feels as if it’s going in slow motion. I taste a metallic taste that I don’t recognise; is this the taste of ugly confrontation?

I sit by the van and I wait for Judith to come back.

When she does she is still crying. She has been back to the engineer to replace the safety certificate, which she now hands me. She apologises for Tony. I tell her it is not her fault.

She says they discussed this, she and Tony, and that they both said it WAS possible that I had said SWB.

I say, “I did”. And: “what do I have to gain by telling you it’s anything else? It’s always been the same van”. And Judith hugs me.

She says, go easy on us online.

She says, it’s my business too.

She says, Tony is having a hard time, another customer ripped him off.

And I say, maybe so, but that isn’t what this is. This is, at best, a misunderstanding.

I transfer the money to them, the amount we had agreed on, the full amount. Even though this week has been needlessly stressful. Even though Tony has been thoroughly unprofessional and also cowardly, not admitting his own error and trying to take it out on me.

And then I sit on the step of the van for a moment longer, trying to feel calm enough to drive, trying to dislodge all the awfulness I’m feeling.

I HATE confrontation. It has cost me $7100 to feel this bad. I didn’t pay the $500 extra, or it would have been $7600. For what? To be told never to come back to Ballina Fibreglass (AS IF I WOULD).

Scene 10: 14th December, evening

I’m in a very calm, quiet campsite, in QLD. Crossing a border seemed important psychologically, to add distance between where I am now and how that man made me feel earlier, because he would not own his own mistake.

On the way here, my friend Natasha called and was telling me about her friend Lucille’s uni graduation, which she had just attended. She described the moment –my favourite moment, at graduations– when the students all turn and thank their families, raising their trencher hats to the audience. And talking about this moment, I found I was crying. All the stress and upset of the day, the DAYS, had gathered together around this improbable thing, and there I was, sobbing along the highway.

And so. I do not suggest anyone do any business with Ballina Fibreglass. A business person who behaves like Tony behaved today has no right to stay in business. That’s just my view. I certainly would never go back there.

The poptop seems good, effective, suitable etc. But forgive me if that’s not my main feeling towards it right now.

Thanks (by which, of course, I mean no thanks) Tony, for making a very expensive purchase a horrific experience instead of an exciting part of the campervan “journey”.

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