MOTORING / There are no places like home: Phil Llewellin tests his parking skills at the controls of a bedsit on wheels

Driving a big motor home is a bit like sailing a ship. Making sure that all the cupboards are closed, to eliminate the risk of covering the carpet with everything from gin to jam, is the equivalent of securing the vessel for sea. The lofty driving position offers a hint of the captain on the bridge. Weather forecasts predicting wind speeds and directions command attention when planning a cruise in a vehicle as long, high and wide as a Swift Kon-Tiki 640 Vogue. And there are times when docking is a more appropriate word than parking, because the Swift measures 22ft 9in (6.8m) from stem to stern - one-third longer than a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit - and all of 7ft 5in (2.2m) across the beam.

Covering the Christie's International Historic Festival at Silverstone was the reason for spending a long weekend amid what Swift Motorhomes' brochure describes as 'the ultimate in customised comfort' and 'the highest level of comfort and convenience' on four wheels.

In fact, visions of living in the lap of luxury, while watching classic Ferraris and Maseratis racing wheel-to-wheel with Jaguars and Aston Martins, were modified before I left Swift's headquarters on the outskirts of Hull. Bill Branton, the company's general sales manager, rated top marks for his conducted tour of the vehicle, but I was surprised to be told that three important features - the microwave oven, the air-conditioning unit and the reading lights - would operate only when we were plugged into the mains. Silverstone, like most sporting venues, lacks such facilities. A generator to produce your own electricity costs an extra pounds 3,500.

Being deprived of the microwave's convenience focused my wife's attention on the absence of a gas-fired oven to supplement the four-burner hob. Cold plates made it virtually impossible for five people to eat a cooked breakfast at the same time.

Jokes about going on holiday with everything but the kitchen sink don't apply to motor homes. The Kon-Tiki 640 Vogue's specification embraces washing-up facilities, a 22-gallon freshwater tank with an efficient heater plumbed into the system, another 22-gallon tank for waste water (which declined to flow out), double-glazed windows, velvet curtains, two tables, a sort of promenade deck on the roof, and a dedicated drinks cupboard for dedicated drinkers.

Pre-breakfast and post-prandial rituals in the 'fully fitted luxury shower compartment' prompted a question. How would Swift describe a deluxe bathroom if it added a five-star hotel to its portfolio? Washing facilities share a space not much bigger than a telephone kiosk with a Porta-Potti cassette toilet.

Efficient utilisation of space - squeezing quarts into pint pots - is what motor homes are all about. The Kon-Tiki 640 Vogue is a squirrel's delight. There are no fewer than 23 cupboards, including a crockery locker, so remembering what is stowed where can save a lot of time. Seats lift to reveal compartments big enough to swallow all the bedding and other bulky items. Weight is saved, convenience enhanced and ventilation encouraged by fitting slatted, rather than solid, lids.

The original motor home was built in Paris in 1901. The owner, an intrepid German doctor who planned to become the first man to drive around the world, named his home on wheels after globetrotting Phileas Fogg's valet. He left London in April 1902, but the engine gave up the ghost and forced him to abandon Passepartout in a Russian snowdrift.

Britain's first motorised caravan was based on a Belsize car, slept five and emerged from a Manchester workshop in 1903. The concept was not greeted with universal approval at a time when driving a horseless carriage was widely regarded as an amusing hobby for a few wealthy eccentrics. The 1905 edition of the Motor Year Book dismissed the newcomer as suitable only for 'those misguided folk who imagine that motoring has something to do with carrying your home about with you'.

Towed and motorised caravans still attract similar sentiments, albeit expressed in much stronger terms, when crawling nose-to-tail along crowded holiday routes. But the Kon-Tiki belied its bungalow-on-wheels appearance, and a name borrowed from nothing more powerful than a wind-driven raft, by performing remarkably well.

Peugeot Talbot's answer to Ford's Transit provides Swift with the cab and chassis on which the motorhome's aluminium and plastic body is built. The package includes a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine with a turbocharger that boosts power to 95bhp at 3,700rpm and also provides good mid-range acceleration. It averaged 22.6mpg.

As expected, the engine clattered when cold and at tickover when hot. There is no chance of a blindfolded passenger mistaking the Kon-Tiki for one of the most sophisticated of today's diesel cars, but on-the-road noise levels gave no cause for complaint over more than 600 miles.

The real surprise was the Kon-Tiki's ability to keep pace, for most of the time, with motorway traffic. Notable exceptions included the M62's long climbs over the Pennines, which reduced it to a little under 50mph. At that speed you are locked in combat with trucks. Apart from that, the main problem is being pushed sideways by the bow-wave of coaches, few of which travel at anything below grossly illegal speeds.

Lesser roads inevitably reduce the motor home's pace. This is not what I would choose for a dash across Wales from Cwmystwyth to Eglwyswrw. The understandable lack of agility, even when compared with a limousine, is compounded by the body being considerably wider than the cab. Failing to remember this when squeezing through narrow gaps can be expensive.

Does this flagship model's pounds 34,998 price tag represent good value? One way of answering the question is to recall the 24ft-long (7.2m) Millard Sprinter that was home for the Christie's weekend in 1991. Built in the US and imported by Greenaway Marine International, it had a 6.2-litre Chevrolet diesel with automatic transmission, was bigger than the Swift, and even better equipped, but cost about pounds 3,000 less.

Of course, like the new range of Ford-based vehicles that Greenaway has begun importing, it had left-hand drive, which was a handicap. But if you can get used to driving a ship, you might as well make it an aircraft carrier.

Swift Motorhomes Ltd, Dunswell Road, Cottingham, North Humberside HU16 4JX (0482 847332).

Greenaway Marine International Ltd, Broad Hinton, Swindon, Wiltshire SN4 9PA (0793 731666).

(Photograph omitted)

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