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Campervan & Motorhome Converstions

posted on 21 May 2012 | posted in camping

How to convert a Van into a Campervan

This section is all about the how to choose the donor vehicle for your campervan conversion.


I'm not going to tell you which specific vehicle you should buy and use for conversion. Everyone has their favourite, in fact there is a Forum topic on just that question. Instead this section looks at the key things you should consider in terms of forward planning and thinking about what you're going to put in your conversion and what you want to use it for and therefore what you should be looking for in a vehicle.

Although this site is called campervan conversion your selection of vehicles is not restricted just to vans. I know plenty of folk who have converted people carriers, jeeps, buses, and even estate cars.

At the end of the day many of us just have to take what we can afford and what is available.

Dimensions - or Size Matters!

Put simply, your choice of vehicle will dictate how much space you have inside for the conversion. It will also determine the possible arrangement or layout of what you want inside. The key dimensions are length and height.

This consideration makes ex-commercial panel vans of various makes pretty popular. They usually have a good interior space and often have minimal stuff you need to remove e.g. ex-delivery vans.

In terms of size, if you have decided to go for a panel van one of the main considerations is whether to try for a short wheel base (SWB) or long wheel base (LWB). Long wheel base vans give the most space, for example in a VW Transporter this comprises an extra foot in between the wheel arches. The downside is this can make them a little harder to manoeuvre. There is also the issue of roof height, depending on the van make you can get everything from highroof to mid height and normal. If you are working with an existing conversion there are also extentable roofs which house bedspace.

One interesting variation is with regards to older Japanese vans e.g. the Mitsubishi L300 or Mazdas from the 1980s as they have the engine under the cab space. This means no bonnet so more space in relation to van length than their European or North American counterparts. Obviously these are easier to get a hold of in the far east or Austrailia and New Zealand.

Engine size is also important. Generally, the more power, the more you pay but if you are driving long distances and you don't want it to take forever then it is probably worth investing in a bigger engine size - and remember that the bigger the van, usually the heavier it will be and therefore the more fuel it will gobble! Its all a compromise as always - If you are happy to pootle about at 40mph then no worries.

Right, one last thing to consider with regards van size. Roof racks or bike racks are ideal to extend the carrying capacity of your campervan and keeping the inside clear. However, being able to cram everything you will be taking inside the van at certain times will be useful. I'm thinking for security in cities and also to get cheaper fares on ferries. The minute you have external add-ons they will charge more. I generally have boats, surfboards, or windsurfer boards on the roof (up to 4) but all can stored inside for ferry journeys.

So basically there are vans at either end of the size spectrum and everything in between. The best option is to think about the following...

What you will need

cooker / stove and gas
sink and water tank
second battery
bed / seating
storage units
toilet / shower
kit / toys (bikes, boats, skis, surfboards etc...)
What you will use the van for:

long trips
short trips
daily driving
good / bad roads
just you or 2, 3, 4 people etc...
....and then use these to write your wish list of van features. The wish list I used is below but remember this is based on what I am using my van for.

Wish List

This was my wish list, based on my van needs and is just a guide:

LWB (maximum length for more room but not too big to drive though)
normal height (easy access for putting things on the roof rack)
tailgate (provides a useful semi-awning)
single passenger seat (for easy adapting with a swivel)
around 5,000
low mileage sub-100,000
make - Transporter T5 TDi
not white!
You might be pleased to know I only got 3 of my wishes in the end (LWB, height and make). Basically a good van of the right make and size came on the market so I compromised on all the other stuff.

Buying a Vehicle to Convert into a Campervan
The following goes without saying..........

If you are going to do all this conversion work you need a vehicle which is mechanically sound. Even if you are buying an old campervan or ready converted vehicle you don't want a turkey!.

If you don't know what you are looking at get some help. Take along a friend who knows about engines or invest in an AA check.


Hopefully you have considered the features of various vans and how they fit with your wish list. The next thing is looking at specific vehicles. After mechanics and the engine the key thing here is condition.


Leaks - check door and window seals and look for wear or evidence of water (e.g. staining). For existing conversions / campervans, check where anything has been added which breaks the integrity of the van e.g. vents, a new roof.
Rust - check the vehicle all over for rust. If the vehicle is quite old some rust is probably inevitable. Look underneath, wheel arches and in key joins. This is ok if repairs have been done well or you feel you have identified all the problem areas and are confident you can fix them.
Service History - a full service history (FSH) is a must for a relatively new van but is much more unlikely with older vans / campervans. An incomplete but current record of repairs and services is better than nothing and can help you to plan when major components should need replacing.

Mileage - the importance of this does vary with van makes and models. A high mileage Ford Transit can last longer than a weekend-only classic Volkswagen Campervan. An old campervan, driven only on the odd weekend in the summer and stored over winter will have a very low mileage, while an ex-delivery van, even only 2 or 3 years old may already have 100,000+ miles on the clock. What I'm saying here is mileage isn't everything Bear it in mind, find out what is average for the make but put that in the context of how other aspects of the van fit what you want . Soft furnishings - e.g. seats or cushions / bed if you are looking at an existing campervan. Preferably you want these to be in a good state however they can be easy to repair Check for any damage to the driver or front passenger seat as this could require a whole new seat.
Test Drive

Finally, take on a test drive and try out all the features, this includes applicances if you are buying an existing campervan. I'd be highly suspicious of any vehicle you are not able see or allowed to test drive. Beyond the basic mechanics and engine power you want to think about comfort for sitting (drive position, head height, passenger comfort etc). Also, and this goes back to size is the manoeuverability and how easy it is to park. A big van is probably fine in the country but might not be the best in tight urban streets.


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