The Rialta Passes

Rob Siegel

First, I must make this related digression, because I may never get the chance to use it anywhere else: My wife, while explaining to one of her friends what our Winnebago Rialta is, searched on her phone for “Rob Siegel Winnebago Rialta,” knowing that I’ve written multiple pieces about the vehicle. Without realizing it, she searched within Facebook Messenger, which then used its brain-damaged AI tool to generate the hilarious blurb below, which claims that I’m a “well-known enthusiast and expert on VW vans,” which I’m not. It then states that the Rialta was manufactured “from 1999 to 2010” (off by four and five years, respectively), and that I’m “often referred to as the VW Van Guy.” It probably found a photo of me working on Maire Anne’s VW bus that was used in my first book and is on the Bentley Publishers website, but no one ever referred to me that way, until my friends began lampooning me with it after seeing this ridiculous AI-generated drivel. If AI is coming for my job, it needs to do it a lot better than this.

AI on Rob Siegel
That’s me, in an incorrect AI-generated nutshell.Rob Siegel

But obviously, something Rialta-like was in the air, because yesterday, exactly seven years to the day after we bought it, we let our 1996 Winnebago Rialta go. It was not an easy decision. I’ve described in this column how the Rialta is a Volkswagen Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on the back; how it was one of a tiny handful of compact fuel-efficient RVs available in the sub-$15K range if you found one in need of work; how ours was one of the early ones with the five-cylinder 110-hp Audi engine, so it was as slow as the old VW buses of yore; and how although we purchased it with the image of doing a big western road trip, its little engine was better suited to going to beaches on Cape Cod and staying in $40/night campgrounds, for which it was great. I might also have mentioned that owning a vehicle with a bathroom in it is absolutely wonderful. The first time we loaded the bikes on the back, rode on a rail trail, got caught in the rain, and not only had somewhere to stand upright while we changed into dry clothes but also could make a hot cup of tea, I realized that the utility of this little RV went far beyond the image of the big road trip.

Hack Mechanic Rialta side profile at the beach
Owning the Rialta was a great way to get affordable beachside accommodations. That’s the ocean on the other side of that dune.Rob Siegel

There were several reasons for selling it. The main one was that the balance between its maintenance needs and our use and enjoyment had gotten out of whack. Nearly every trip in the Rialta was accompanied by some sort of repair. Most were minor. One of the more trivial ones was when the wires going to the central locking on the side door broke and shorted out, causing all of the central locking to fail, which made it impossible to lock the vehicle, because the side door would only lock with the central locking. I’d say that the shower drain pump not working was trivial as well, but my wife might disagree, as she was the one who needed to bail it out with a plastic bag. Another was when the switch that turns on the water pump malfunctioned, requiring me to jury-rig something so we had running water and a flushing toilet. More serious was the rig’s sole stranding—a burst brake line just before the bridge heading to the Cape that required a hasty, careful exit ramp, a snail’s crawl to a repair shop, and an unanticipated overnight stay.

Hack Mechanic Rialta electrical
What? You never had to jumper across a bad switch contact to get the water pump running? What kind of an RV owner are you?Rob Siegel

On our final outing in the Rialta almost two years ago, the alternator died. We made it home by jumpering a relay that tied the coach batteries (which are constantly charged by the solar panel) to the vehicle battery. That failure caused me to address several deferred-maintenance issues. The alternator is only accessible from under the engine compartment, and the A/C compressor needs to be removed to get it out. While poking around, I discovered that several of the plastic coolant necks were weeping a little coolant, so I replaced them and the O-rings behind them. The big upgrade was the transmission cooler. One of Winnebago’s sins with the Rialta was not uprating the cooler used on the Volkswagen transaxle. They come with a small cooler mounted directly on top, but buying and integrating a larger externally mounted transmission cooler is strongly advised, as is a transmission temperature gauge. On most Rialtas, you can install a “ScanGauge” that pulls vital information such as transmission temperature from the OBD-II port, but our Rialta was a ’96 built on a ’95 Eurovan chassis, and that was the year before OBD-II was integrated, which means there was no port to plug a ScanGauge into, so I had to do the old-school thread-the-temperature-sensor-directly-into-the-transaxle-housing thing and mount a real gauge in the dashboard.

Hack Mechanic Rialta troubleshooting underside
Although the beachside scenery was great, I was not really enjoying troubleshooting the dead alternator in a parking lot.Rob Siegel

The fact that I did all this work after the alternator died indicates that I in no way considered that the final straw. It was a family health issue, not the alternator incident, that caused us to not use the Rialta at all last summer. However, I’d be less than truthful if I said that there weren’t general reliability concerns. Although I usually decry the whole “I just don’t trust it anymore” dynamic and come down squarely in favor of “address any ignition, fuel, cooling, and charging issues and it’ll be fine,” reviving the Rialta from its winter slumber was always accompanied by some odd stumbling and dying (the Rialta’s, not mine), and this year was no different. It fired up, but it sputtered and then died when I turned on the air conditioning to test it, and not only wouldn’t it start, but it almost sounded like the engine was intermittently seizing when I cranked the starter. I figured the last issue had to be somewhere in the battery-cable-starter path, and filing all the connections nice and shiny seemed to make it go away.

Then I discovered that the new alternator didn’t energize (didn’t begin outputting 14 volts) until the accelerator was blipped, so my conjecture was that turning on a big electrical load like the A/C fans before the alternator was running caused the voltage levels seen by the ECU to drop, which in turn caused the ECU to wig out. With clean engine grounds and this new blip-the-throttle-before-you-switch-anything-on procedure, the Rialta behaved, but I was never really certain I’d gotten to the bottom of it, and there was always the specter that it would recur on the road. And because the car was a year too old to have OBD-II, you couldn’t plug a standard code reader into it and find out what was ailing it. You’d need to use a VW-specific tool and pay a subscription fee.

Hack Mechanic Rialta breakfast cooking stove
We actually did very little of this—most meals were cooked outside on a fold-up Coleman grill.Rob Siegel

The bigger picture, though, was that any outing in the Rialta was not unlike the last few Space Shuttle flights where, whatever its intended destination was, the true mission was to get it there and back without breakdown. Even with the lengthy list of work I’d done, I hadn’t performed a full systematic sort-out of the cooling system. The five-cylinder Audi engine is unlike the BMW engines I’m familiar with in that the timing belt (the all-important belt that spins the camshafts in the head, which open the valves) also runs the water pump. A receipt from the previous owner showed that the belt and water pump had been replaced in 2010, but the radiator and electric cooling fans were likely original. Judging whether to perform preventive maintenance on parts like this is tricky, as the replacement parts may be of poorer quality than the originals. Two of our adult children live with us, and they both asked about using the Rialta, but my answer was: “Well, it’s not exactly a turn-key RV, and I’m always going to feel responsible for it.”

Hack Mechanic Rialta at the campsite
We eventually augmented the tiny space inside the Rialta with a pop-up screened enclosure.Rob Siegel

All this began to dovetail into the fact that although I still think I’m 35, I’m in my Medicare years and the number of vehicles and the totality of their maintenance needs are beginning to exceed the limit of what I can do (I know, you’re shocked). I’m iconoclastic enough that reader comments from some of you of the form “Crikey, Siegel, why don’t you sell a few of these dogs and concentrate on your nicer cars?” have less than zero effect on me, but becoming overwhelmed by actual physical, time, and money issues of needed repairs is an entirely different matter.

Hack Mechanic Rialta parked
This picnic table was soon to be full of my wife’s exquisite cooking.Rob Siegel

Finally, crucially, the Rialta simply wasn’t being used. The only time it was pressed into service since September 2022 was to buy a bed for my son. Whatever ancillary justifications I had for keeping it—another beach getaway, going to music festivals, hitting the road and pursuing my fantasy of being a touring singer-songwriter—just weren’t being fulfilled. Again, the overriding reason for that was my wife’s surgery and recovery, but you can’t force things that are out of rhythm with reality.

Hack Mechanic Rialta mattress
It actually was incredibly handy for transporting that mattress.Rob Siegel

Perhaps the last nail in the Rialta’s coffin was that not only didn’t we use it at all last summer, we rented a cottage in Truro, Massachusetts, right on the beach instead. And having done that, it’s kind of hard to go back to staying in campgrounds in the RV.

Hack Mechanic Rialta interior cushions
This was nice, but . . .Rob Siegel
Hack Mechanic Rialta beach house stop
. . . let’s face it, it’s not this.Rob Siegel

As painful as it was, I decided it was time to let it go. If we ever really want to do that big road trip, I’d get something a little bigger and more powerful (or buy a trailer I could tow with the Armada), but I think that when push comes to shove, in the fine line between camping people and RV people, Marie Anne and I aren’t really RV people, and that’s OK.

So I photographed the Rialta, did my customary brutally honest write-up on the vehicle’s history, recent repairs, and quirks, and priced it realistically on Facebook Marketplace. It sold in two days to a nice young man with a young family who will have their own adventures in it.

One fewer vehicle in the driveway, one fewer vehicle I need to keep running and pay insurance on, and some money in the bank. The calculus all makes sense, but we’re really sad to let it go nonetheless. Owning the Rialta was an adventure that gave us things to do and places to go together, and that by itself was a wonderful thing that we both will miss.

Farewell, Rialta. Long may you run.

I guess my two-week stint of being known as the internet’s “VW Van Guy” is officially over. But if you call me that, I’ll say “No, but I was sort of the Rialta Guy.”


Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website,

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    Refusing to listen to other’s espousing the realities of limited capabilities and resources only to finally come to a personal realization of one’s limited capabilities and resources isn’t iconoclastic – it’s pigheadedness. I know – I’ve got one of the world’s largest doses of it.
    But it sounds as if you’ve made a well-reasoned decision and freed up some parking space – good on ya, Rob!

    Rob we are all getting a little older and wiser each day. Glad to see your RV went to a good home and that you are slowly coming to the realization that “a man has to know his limitations”.
    Now as other readers have noted, what new basket case is in or heading for your driveway? as we have known you to long and you are if anything you are a creature of habit. So is it going to be or already an 850i (as those are the sexiest BMW ever made) or something similar?
    Oh and glad to hear your better half is back to 100 percent, someone has to watch out for you.

    At least the Rialta was the vehicle which gave us the classic article on how to empty the black tank!

    Parting with a vehicle always sucks because I’m very nostalgic. It doesn’t matter what the reality of ownership was, the greatest hits of adventures always play in my head when I think back to those machines. They all had their time and place, and I enjoy the direction my life is taking, but I still wax poetic about previous wheeled machines. Maybe I just miss who I was or where I was at that time.

    I have similar stories about a Winnebago Journey which allowed us to travel to wonderful places and do exciting things. In addition it hauled my race truck to tracks throughout the East. I have numerous tales of disappointment, failures and downright engineering flaws creating various forms of stranding. The “Final Straw” was driving home on I-90 in the Western hills of Massachusetts with a slider that would not stay closed. Staying in the right lane produced friendly honks from concerned passersby. Staying in the left lane led to comical hard right then hard left maneuvers to close the slider before the next oncoming guard rail.
    I loved driving her but finally traded for a new 26’ Minnie Winnie on a Ford ambulance (E-450) chassis without sliders. Parts available at every Ford dealership, everything easy to get to and money back from the 40’ bus. And it’s still pulling the race truck.

    I’ve spent my entire adult life regretting selling our various vehicles: “I never should have sold that (fill in the blank). Remember the time we….”
    Except for the ’78 Ford Fairmont. No one regrets that.

    I got a Fairmont from “Rent-A-Wreck” (remember them?) and drove it over Red Mountain Pass, that insane road cut through the mountains between Telluride and Ouray Colorado with no guardrails. I’ve never been more terrified driving a vehicle in my life.

    US 550, aka the Million Dollar Highway.

    Done in the snow at night, on mud terrains, white knuckle.

    That was in July.

    Took the E34 540i/6 over that circa 2016. Enjoyed the ride, it’s a 5 series on Bilsteins and Hankook RS4s. (Actually, probably were Continental Contacts back then) but I’ve always said since: “if you think youre self driving car is perfected, beyond reproach, then pitch me. Let’s have lunch in Ouray…”

    I bought a 97 new and I started becoming worried about the decision almost immediately when I learned the front tires were a smaller diameter than the back ones. It was “fun” to drive when we were on roads that had truck ruts since the rear wheels had a wider track than the front and no matter what I did I was fighting for control of the steering. I had problems driving it up and down hills because the “passing gear” would stick most of the time after cresting the hill and could take pulling over and stopping to get it back to shifting gears correctly. I also loved taking it to the VW dealer for warranty repairs to the front end engine etc. They freaked when I pulled in trying to tell me they didn’t repair RVs. Yes they did, but didn’t know it until I arrived. Getting fuel was fun as people wondered what it was. I told them it was a euro van Frankenstein. We put close to 90k miles on it before selling it. I don’t miss it.

    My dad built his first trailer (all fiberglass at a time when it was brand new material), then a camper van built out of a step van, then one built out of a full-size van with bubble top. He and I built my first camper van from a step van which my family loved and used every year.

    Then we got a proper “Class C” motorhome. I hated that thing with a passion. Yes, it was big inside (me, wife, 2 kids, 2 cats) but it was a beast to drive (huge v-8 so it *could* pass but was often blocked by small honda cars chugging along below the speed limit). You could watch the gas gauge drop if you stepped on the gas on a hill. But wonderful interior.

    Then there was the seamed aluminum roof. I spent at least half the time of EVERY vacation on top of the roof re-caulking all the weeping seams. The upper bed smelled of mildew (front window weeping).

    As soon as the kids grew too old to want to vacation with mom & dad we dumped it. I was never so glad to be rid of a vehicle in my life. I also swore (this was 1991) NEVER to buy another motorhome/camper van/trailer in my life, and could not be more happy with that decision.

    These monster things you don’t own, they OWN YOU.

    I always have admired your realistic evaluations of your car valuations, repair solutions, and tales of both victory and defeat.
    As time has passed, I now realize that I will never be able to fix most anything on the side of the road. Let alone fix obscure issues like you describe in your posts. I also don’t have a wife as willing to put up with my car adventures. Even storage space has become more restricted since we downsized.

    Coming to the realization that this is my new reality has been slow.

    Thanks for the read.

    Um. How do I put this gently? I think you ARE the VW Van guy!

    A quote from a long ago (2021) Vanagon article:

    “There were also the four Volkswagen Vanagons. I’d almost forgotten about that entire Vanagon chapter of my automotive life until recently, when Hagerty included Vanagon campers on its 2021 Bull Market list.”

    Looks like you may have blocked that part of your memory. Maybe on purpose? I swear I didn’t go searching for it, I really stumbled upon it after reading your free Shiny Black Shark story. 🙂

    It was a fun read either way. Sometimes it takes us a try at something top realize that it is not the thing for us.

    So, I may be being selfish but I think your next project should be one of the mid seventies GMC Motor homes because I’ve always had the urge to get one for all of the reasons you mentioned about the Rialta. It would be great to have your take on what it takes to keep one running.

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