Driving past Nitja and Ralf's beautiful little house is like being on the set of a Pipi Longstocking film. There is a mobile studio in the form of an antique circus cart behind the art deco house with its stylized gutters on the roof. A range of motorized treasures from the past century is parked in the driveway. "Old things just fascinate us", explains Nitja. "Ralf and I simply fell in love with old buses, in particular", says the art therapist with a laugh and opens the barn to reveal a bright green Mercedes-Benz L 319 named "Elliot", who watches us with big saucer eyes.
"These rounded shapes, the characteristic design, the quality…" says Nitja enthusiastically when talking about her almost 50-year-old campervan. "We do have a modern car for day-to-day things. However I would never think of giving it a name. In contrast to our Elliot, the car simply does not have soul of its own".
Nitja's father was a long-haul truck driver and she often accompanied him. "I really enjoyed that time", remembers Nitja. "It was as though he encouraged me to trust myself to tackle DIY challenges myself." However, Nitja's passion truly began in 2007 with the "Blue Elise", a Mercedes-Benz 207 which she bought online. Then she gradually inspired her husband and the children with the "van fever". However, for Ralf and Nitja it is about far more than simply nostalgia: "For us it is about experiencing something together and enjoying time together. We do not simply want to raise our children but rather grow together. Our bus holidays basically combine all of this under one roof."
When the family soon expanded from four to five people and Elmo the dog joined them, Ralf and Nitja began to search the Internet for a suitable successor for their van. "I often used to travel with my father in his model 319 and I have always loved this van", admits Nitja. "When I brought our youngest son Liam home from the hospital after giving birth in December 2011, Ralf promptly surprised me with Elliot – and we suddenly had two new family members".
The Model L 319 built from 1955 onward was one of the first vans to be a star. The "319" laid the foundation for numerous van generations up to and including modern series such as the Vito and Sprinter. "In its former life our Elliot was a fire service van in Butzbach", explains Nitja and points at an old black-and-white photo of the vehicle's history. After 20 years of service the van almost ended up on the scrapheap. However, an ambitious tinkerer gave it a second life as a campervan. The roof was raised and the old gasoline engine replaced with a diesel engine. Elliot then changed owners three times until he landed in Ralf and Nitja's barn.
Nitja and Ralf worked on restoring the van for almost an entire year. "The work to restore Elliot's interior literally took place between the sandpit and the garage", explains Nitja and grins. An effort which has paid off for everyone: "When you sit in the van you feel like you are in a submarine and it even has a roof terrace and a high bed – a little paradise for us and the children." During the past four years the five have spent time discovering the Mediterranean and Atlantic coast in their "submarine". The family drove around Brittany and Corsica in their bus. They also spent an unforgettable holiday in windy Provence and on the shores of Normandy.
"The great thing about this type of holiday is the freedom. You always have your home with you and never have to rely on hotels or camping grounds. For us the journey itself is the holiday." Elliot has only ever let down his friends once. A nasty cable fire in Maubeuge put an end to their planned tour through southern England last summer and the family was forced to stay in a hotel room. "Really not our style! That is why as soon as Elliot came back from being repaired we all spent the night together in the bus – right outside the house." They will take the trip to southern England this summer.
The older the children grow, the less space there is inside Elliot's comfortable interior. "That is why we recently bought an old Setra bus", admits Nitja. And what will happen to Elliot? "Don't worry, he will definitely stay with us. Because he's part of the family."
Model: Mercedes-Benz L 319
Production year: 1967
Power output: 48 KW
Mileage: 133,415 km
Ralf (39), social worker
Nitja (42), art therapist
Luca (18), Nele (6), Liam (4) and the family dog, Elmo
Further information about Elliot and his journeys is available at busverliebt.de.