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Our conversion project is nearly complete

Old van front 2In October last year we bought a Ford Transit panel van with the idea is converting it into a camper van. We had rented one in Australia in the summer and decided there and then that we were going to get one ourselves and covert it into our dream mobile holiday machine.

The van we bought was in pretty good nick and was a perfect blank canvas for building our customised camper rather than buying something that someone else had already converted. The first time I talked about this was in a previous post back in November 2012.

The process of getting around to converting it was a pretty long winded and convoluted process. We spent a lot of time finding the right people to do the conversion which is not that easy, especially when they are mainly set up to convert VW vans.

These are last photos we took before sending it away to be converted. We went up to the Downs in Bristol and captured in posterity the old van before the big transformation.

Why Transit and not a VW?

We chose to go with the Ford Transit for a number of reasons. The main reason was the cost of a relatively new Transit was much lower than the VW. Although they are not quite as pretty as the VWs the new turbo diesel engines in the Fords go for miles and tend to have fewer problems that the VWs and certainly cost less to repair.

One of the other reasons we chose the Ford was the additional flexibility you get with the much bigger cargo area. This was great because it gave us about 20cm width and a small amount of height in the living space. As they say every little helps, especially in a small metal box…

So how did it all work?

From making the decision to make a campervan we went through a number of stages over a period of about 6 months before we actually got the conversion started. What was seemingly going to be a pretty quick process ended out being quite drawn out and ends up being a bit like buying a house. I suppose it is really buying a house, just a mobile one. These guys are pretty helpful if you have never done a conversion before. Below are my experiences and thoughts on how we did it.

1. Buying the van

This only involved a small amount of research for us because we knew how much we wanted to spend and how much van we could get for that money. It was then a matter of finding the right people selling them. In the end we went to a main dealer and picked up a properly looked after vehicle with a warranty and a decent service history.

We found a three year old Transit that met our needs and with it’s 2.2l TDi engine it pulls like a horse (at least at low speeds), which fits quite nicely with loading it up with loads of camper kit. The other thing that is a huge bonus is that it has cruise control which is essential when you are doing a big road trip around France and Spain.

In the meantime it is worth deciding if you are going to convert it yourselves or get an approved company to do it. We went with the later because we don’t have a garage or any tools so it was the logical choice. It also makes the re-classification easier and keeps the insurers happy.

2. Building a feature wish-list

Before you even start working out what you want it is worth doing a couple of things that will help you work out what decisions you need to make. I found both of these things very useful:

  1. Learn about the build/conversion process – this really helps in understanding what goes where and what are the important decisions in planning
  2. Work out what things usually cost – things are pretty expensive and there is no point setting your mind on something to discover that it is going to blow the budget (e.g. a £3000 pop-top roof)

Once you have done this you can make a list of essentials and nice-to-haves and plan the build accordingly with your budget, time and the people who are going to convert it.

The key features for our build were as follows:

  • a safe convertible rear seat/bed with seat belts
  • plenty of usable storage
  • a “day van” for two so no need for a pop-top roof
  • outdoor kitchen with gas and water
  • 12V electric only (no 240V hook up) with leisure batteries for power and lighting
  • re-upholster the front to match the back
  • respray to make something special of the van
  • good use of the rear space
  • plenty of light, but with the option of privacy
  • high quality finish – no scrimping

3. Find someone reliable and capable to do the conversion

There are loads of people that do these conversions, but they are certainly not all equal. In fact some of them are not good at all if you compare finish and build quality. We visited a few and were not always overwhelmed by the workmanship. There is a big difference between a cheap caravan and a high quality camper, so be sure you know what you want and find the right person for your needs.

I would definitely recommend visiting a few in the area and see their finished vans to compare. You are making a big investment and you want to be sure it isn’t a cowboy set up.

Another important factor is to try to find a local company so you can visit leading up to and possibly during the build. It will reassure you that you have made the right choice. It is also worth noting that conversion companies mostly don’t work weekends so are not always easy to get to see during the week.

One thing I found useful was asking about how long they take to complete a build and how big their teams are and how many they typically get through in a year. It is quite a good marker of their skill and team capability. The more conversions they have done and the bigger the team was gave me confidence that our baby was in safe hands.

Finally I recommend checking with your insurer about the things they are going to do and if they will still insure it. Ultimately they will only insure you if they approve of the work. A converter that is recommended by SafeGuard is always a good start point for this.

4. Think about the internal & external configuration

We chose to have a pull out kitchen at the rear of the van to maximise the space inside. We wanted to make best use of the cargo area as a living space and not clutter with sink and hob inside the cupboards.

We made loads of drawings for what needed to go where and then talked these through with each other and the converters. I would highly recommend talking to your converter and learning from their experience and have an open mind – they will know what works and what doesn’t.

We also decided on the number of windows we were going to have and what glass they were going to have. We went with fixed, tinted windows in the barn doors and a sliding window on the driver side and a fixed one in the sliding door, while keeping the rear side-panels for some privacy and warmth.

5. Choose the details and accessories – what do you want to have at the end

This is where the drawings come in handy again for light positions, sockets locations etc.. Our conversion was pretty simple so this didn’t take long to finalise. We also had to work out how many doors and drawers in the cupboard/storage unit we wanted.

The finishing was the final thing that we sorted and that was all about working out  what flooring and lining we wanted and the wood finish for the units. Because we were re-spraying this is also when we finalised the paint colour (Ink Blue). We had already had a look around for paint colours that were going to go well with the van.

Finally we chose the little bits of kit we wanted on top of the core conversion. The only real things here was the electronic safe that we had installed, not unlike the hotel safes. This was bolted to the floor for piece of mind.

6. Book it in!

Depending on who you go with a conversion it would appear they can take anything from 2 weeks to 6 months. Our guys were confident they could complete it in 2 weeks; in the end it took them 4 weeks, but the end result was well worth it.

7. Reclassify with the DVLA

Reclassification to campervan or motor caravan is all a bit murky because there are no official guidelines as to what is required and lots of places seem to differ on exactly what the DVLA requires. I found this website the most useful and comprehensive when it comes to what you need to send the DVLA. The DVLA gave me different answers each time I called them and also insisted it wasn’t a reclassification, but a change in body type, so I am still a little unsure on what you have to do. It is probably worth calling them if you want a straight answer. You may even get a consistent response, but don’t count on it…

In theory when you have done this your insurance should come down, although in the current climate I wouldn’t bank on it.

Who did our conversion?

In the end we went with a company in Weston-Super-Mare called JAS Conversions.

The team was really helpful and have given us a high quality van that is hopefully going to last for years.

Hints and tips

  • Rent a van beforehand so that you can get an idea of what it is like living in one of these things. This really helps in working out the features you want and need.
  • If you create a custom design then make sure you leave space for things that you don’t choose to have at this stage, but will help resale value in the future (e.g. fridge, heater). Remember it is like a house.
  • Choose a budget and try to stick to it.
  • Get your requirements written down and agreed with the converters.
  • Draw plenty of pictures so you know exactly how it is going to look inside and out.
  • Use the first trip as a means to pick up snags and things you want to change and agree with the converters that they will deal with those when you come back.

And after all that what do you get in the end?

New van clean

Here are some more photos of the outside

In my next post…

I will go what it looks like on the inside, how we kitted it out and what we are doing next.