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Readers write – Buying an Older RV

Reader Bobby wants to know more about the Fish Bus:

Hello Andy, glad to hear you’ve found a rewarding way to make a livin’.  My name is Bobby and I’m a Major in the Army.  I have an MBA, and I too, turned my back on the corporate world.  I had started in the military and then got out in 1998 to appease my future ex-wife to come back to the states and live like normal people.  Well, she wasn’t happy with “normal” either so we parted our ways.  During the time of “normalcy”, I worked as a senior manager / safety manager for a fairly large warehousing company in Georgia.  I hated it!  People weren’t getting promoted off of their performance, but rather whom lied more about the other managers to plant the seeds of discord into the bosses’ thought process.  Needless to say, I went back to my calling, the military.  And now I sit in Afghanistan, the Executive Officer of a Support Battalion, counting the days until I get back home to my wonderful (2nd) wife and my 2 little girls.
Hence the email.

I have found what I think to be an awesome deal on a 1993 34′ Dolphin Diesel.  I’m thinking about picking her up next month when I go home on R&R.  Is the Dolphin a unit to start off with for a young family?  Is it a comfortable unit?  Is it easy to work on if you are mechanically inclined?  Any quirks about your unit that you’d prefer not to have to deal with?  How is the steering with the front axle set back the way it is?

Please consider these questions when you have time.

Thank you,


Hello Bobby,

Thank you for your service sir! My two young ‘uns are USAF Active and I am as proud as punch of them and their careers.

OK, you ask some great questions. Let’s take a look at the Old Girl from a desirability standpoint.
Your question about the steering is very apropos. I was lucky enough to find complete records from the two previous owners. There had been at least 4 trips to the dealer for “wandering” on the road and “loose steering.” At some point, she was fitted with a steering stabilizer to try and thwart the problem. I have driven about everything in my life from 18 wheelers to race cars and I find going down the road in the Fish Bus to be a bit of a challenge. It is not dangerous but just more inherent to the design. It requires a good bit of concentration. On the Interstate, getting passed by 18 wheelers requires concentration as the bow wave of air tends to upset me pretty bad.

Would it be appropriate for a family of four? Without slides, it might get a little close Bobby. I am a bachelor and it suits me just fine, I enjoy not having the additional mechanical overhead of 15 year old slide out mechanisms to deal with.

Over all , I think the general construction and design are quite good. National RV quality control seemed to be quite exceptional back then. You are looking at a unit that had an MSRP of over $100k back in the day. Is it a gasser or diesel pusher you are looking at? The diesels seem to age MUCH better than the gas models. The 230hp Cummins and Allison 6 speed transmission are trouble free in my unit and are not a source of major worry. I have replaced a water pump, belts and fluids and that is it.

My mind is racing with things to look out for and check on this unit so let me add some specific bullet points unique to the Old Girl. I would do a routine pre-purchase checklist which you can find online at any of the RV forums and then these points as well.

Leaks. I dealt with a leaky front cap and solved it by putting Eternabond on the joint where the cap meets the roof. Look for signs of leaking in the drivers compartment. Discolored carpet at the base of the wall is a sure sign.

Electronics/electricity/generator. I mentioned in one of my blog entries that electronic upgrades of the converter and other electronic components was mandatory in a unit this age. I would connect to shore power and flip every switch and check every component. AC, microwave, water heater, refrigerator, TVs… the works. Then I would fire up the genny and repeat. Then I would take it for a lengthy test drive and check all the running gear and associated stuff. Pay special attention to the dash air and the front duct system. My dash air works but the blend door is broken and I do not see it as being repairable. I cannot re-direct the vents to the floor or windshield any more. It is stuck on the dash outlets.

Propane system. I have a massive 40 gallon onboard tank. Make sure it is turned on for the duration of your pre-inspection. Run the furnace and the stove. Make sure the fridge works on propane AND electric. Turn on the water heater. Any whiff of propane during your inspection is totally unacceptable and signals a huge safety risk.

AFTER your test drive, crawl underneath and look for fluid leaks. ( You wore old clothes, right? LOL) I find there is enough ground clearance for me to get underneath and look around quite easily. Bring a flashlight. On a diesel that age, some seepage from the pan, around the drain hole and where the transmission and engine mate is acceptable. Seepage– not drips. Look for lines that are leaking from the various reservoirs and radiator hose leaks. Look closely at the wheels for any leaking seals. Prop the bed up and check the engine from the top.

Batteries. If you have a multi-meter, bring it with you. I have replaced the chassis and house batteries at some expense.

Extreme boondocking. No electric, septic or water available

Extreme boondocking. No electric, septic or water available

Crawl up on the roof. The only evidence of silicone or joint material should be around the front and rear caps and the various vents, AC units etc on top. Any place else on the roof where you see silicone or patch material might indicate an attempt to patch a leak.

Make sure the Boost switch on the dash works. This switch uses the house batteries to start the engine in the instance of a dead engine battery. Mine does not work.

Make sure the disconnect switch works. This switch powers down the unit for storage– disconnecting the house batteries. It is on the entry stair. Mine does not work.

Parts. Everything on an RV with the exception of the structure itself is from an aftermarket supplier. I have had no problem replacing components that were worn or needed to be upgraded.

Manuals. A full set of manuals is almost a requirement. Every aftermarket component should have a manual. Their should be a manual from National complete with wiring diagrams and other chassis schematics and there should be an engine manual.

With all that said Bobby, let me offer some advice. When I first purchased the Old Girl and for probably a year thereafter, I was very active. Probably a trip or two a month. I pulled an enclosed race trailer with it to different events and I bet we went to 20 different state parks. It was great. Then my circumstances changed and I use it on the jobsite now and may not move 3-4 times per year. If I had it to do over again, I would by a later model bumper pull trailer to put behind my Suburban with more room, less mechanical infrastructure and more recent technology .. and it would be cheaper. The property owner where I am at now has a 31 foot Jayco bunkhouse model which is a basic unit with one slide and it is perfect for his family of 4. He has two axles and 4 wheels to worry about vs. my entire drivetrain. It really hurts a machine to sit unused out in the elements day after day. Insurance is less, upkeep and maintenance is less, headaches are less and I bet a bumper unit would be cheap. The enjoyment level would probably be about equal don’t you think? Not trying to dissuade you from your purchase –especially if you are getting a great deal but you asked for my advice.
I wish I would have bought an RV when my kids were small so we could have enjoyed this lifestyle together and I envy you getting started decades earlier than I did.

My prayers for you and everyone of your brothers in service. Godspeed on your safe return.


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