Choosing Our Base Van

One of the most important decisions anyone considering a camper conversion will make is what vehicle to use as the base van. We were acutely aware that the decisions about this would impact on everything from layout to maintenance and running costs to the type of driver’s license required (and therefore scope for hiring the vehicle out).

Before we could even think about choosing a van we had to decide what our finished conversion would need to be suitable for. This could take you in some very different directions, depending on whether you are aiming to make the sort of van you could live full time in, or whether you are aiming at a van you will use only part time. Here are the factors that were important to us.

The potential for hiring out our finished conversion

When we first started thinking about a camper conversion, one of the things we quickly realised was that we didn’t want the van sitting on our driveway costing us money when we weren’t using it. We already have tents and camping equipment: what appealed to us about a camper van was the ability to pitch up without needing time to set up, making shorter weekend breaks much less hassle, and off grid adventures more comfortable. The creative challenge and uniqueness of creating a home on wheels was also a major part of the appeal! But it didn’t make sense to be paying thousands a year for this, and for a period we thought that it wouldn’t be a good decision to convert a camper given our jobs and time constraints won’t allow us to use it that heavily.

Then, while perusing #vanlife inspiration and pictures of lovingly converted interiors, we discovered Quirky Campers. This is a motorhome rental agency which specialises in unusual conversions; they act as agents on behalf of the owners and the website is a fantastic showcase of craftmanship and original design. Suddenly, the idea of having a camper van seemed feasible after all; if it can be used and enjoyed by others then it can begin to pay for its own maintenance and running costs (and in fact there are vans on Quirky Campers which turn pretty healthy profits). We listened to the Vansformation podcast with an interview of the owners of Quirky Campers and the business model made a lot of sense to us.

But deciding that you want scope to rent out your van will also restrict you. We were both drawn to lovely old vintage vans and buses – Mercedes in particular has produced some classic designs, and choosing one of these sort of models will guarantee you a head turning conversion once complete, as well as potentially more space.

A beautiful mustard Vario 4×4 conversion will take you to the wildest of locations!

We found a part converted Mercedes Vario on eBay and were very tempted by its beautiful (and practical) boxy design, as well as the fact that some of the work had already been done on the conversion including putting in extra windows. We saw boxiness as an advantage when fitting out a camper as you’re not having to work around as many curves – there’s also something so appealing about those straightforward and chunky shapes!

But hang on – this is a van that we hope to rent out, and the Vario has a feature that is a bit of a show stopper if you’re wanting to do this. This was…

Needing an LGV licence

The Vario can’t be driven on a standard UK driving license, unless you passed your test before 1 January 1997 (which neither of us did). People who passed their test before 1 January 1997 can drive vehicles weighing up to 8,250kg but people who passed afterwards must take an additional test in order to drive these heavier vehicles. This isn’t necessarily an issue if the van is intended for your own use (and particularly if you’re planning to live in it, when the extra space and weight may be useful) but we reluctantly decided that it is a showstopper for a van that’s to be hired out. We thought that many of our potential hirers would be excluded from the off, and so (with regret!) we passed on the Vario.

So we narrowed our parameters to vans which could be driven on a normal license, and where the total weight of the conversion and people, luggage etc would not exceed 3.5tonnes. Thinking about the total payload is absolutely critical when doing a van conversion – we’ll cover this further below and in future posts.

But we were still interested in classic vans, and there are a few candidates which could come in under the right weight. One of these was the Mercedes 407d, a van that’s increasingly rare in the UK as many of the vehicles that used to be on the roads have rusted away in yards. Although these vans are decades old and have hundreds and thousands of miles in them, they are blessed with an engine that’s affectionately known as the ‘million mile engine’; and their lack of electronics is a plus when thinking about maintenance as quite simply there’s less to go wrong!

There’s a stunning example of a 407d conversion done by the guys at Passport Diary:

Stunning conversion!

These vehicles are quite rare in the UK now, especially in right hand drive. When we saw one listed on eBay with restored bodywork and engine we were keen to go and see it!

The price of rarity and restoration

But rarity doesn’t come cheap. Most 407ds are not roadworthy now and would require substantial restoration before you could even begin the process of converting into a camper. While we’re confident we have the skills to fit out a camper, doing major repair work to the body or the engine wasn’t something we really wanted to get involved with. The 407d that we went to see had some major advantages – externally the bodywork was in good shape, the chassis and engine were sound, and the space felt really good, with a huge windscreen and cab area that you could really imagine hitting the open road in. But there were some areas of rust to treat, all of the window and door seals needed replacing as well as most of the console. The vehicle was beautiful, but it was far from cheap, and it needed work. There were also other factors to consider…

Ease and comfort of driving

One of the mechanics at the garage where the 407d was based kindly offered to take us out to see how it drove. He was interested in our plans for hire but sounded a note of caution – big vehicles are difficult to manoeuvre even when they’re modern, if you are used to driving cars, and a much older vehicle lacking power steering is another proposition entirely! Especially in a vehicle for hire, we had to consider the prospect that the newly restored bodywork would be vulnerable to dings and dents. Plus the thought of driving this van in the Continental heat was a bit off putting, with none of the mod cons such as air conditioning and Bluetooth to ease the ride!

But the real deal breaker for this van was…

Roof height

Let’s face it, nobody really wants to stoop inside a camper van, and the 407d didn’t have an especially high roof. In its unclad state there was room for someone of about 5’8 to stand up straight, but a few inches taller and you’d be stooping. And this was without considering the space lost to insulation and internal cladding. We were pretty clear that we didn’t want a van where we’d be hunching over the cooking area, and fitting a pop top doesn’t come cheap. Nor is it necessarily all that easy in vans like the 407d as we would have had to design a bespoke pop top. The vehicle was already quite expensive considering the amount of work it would need to even be ready to convert, and this would be adding yet more cost. Last, we hope to use our van in the Alps in winter, and typical pop tops use canvas sides which are not suitable for use in low temperatures as you’d lose too much heat through them.

Efficiency and emissions

We also had an eye on the efficiency of our vehicle. The 407d doesn’t actually have a terrible reputation in terms of mpg considering the age, but an old diesel isn’t ever going to be top of the class for emissions. If you need to drive in low emission zones this is worth taking into account; the ones that would be likely to affect us were the London Low Emission Zone and the French Crit’air scheme. Although we don’t plan on driving our van through central Paris, we do want to take it to the Alps, where the Crit’air zones are often active in Chambery, Lyon and Grenoble. Sadly pollution is a real issue in the mountains; we didn’t want to contribute excessively to this problem or risk being unable to drive where we needed to!

So, with a heavy heart we decided the 407d was not the right vehicle for us, although it would be a great option for many!

It’s worth noting that efficiency can be poorer than you might expect on a number of the modern vans which are popular for conversion, although this will be heavily influenced by factors including the total weight of your conversion. For instance, the popular Mercedes Sprinter conversions often work out around 30 mpg; the Citroen Relay, VW Crafter and Fiat Ducato vary in typical mpg from 30 to 44+mpg, even though the van is basically the same.

Payload – MWB, LWB, XLWB?

We discussed the issue above around LGV licenses and one thing that any self build camper convertor needs to be aware of is available payload and weight of the conversion! This is because you don’t want to convert a 3.5tonne rated vehicle and then discover that the total weight of your conversion, plus people and all the stuff you’re carrying with you means it actually has to be uprated (cautionary tale here!). This is possible, but we’d already decided we wanted our van to be under 3.5tonnes to make it more suitable for hire.

We noticed based on previous conversions we’d looked at that the size of the vehicle influences how easy it is to exceed your available payload. Most modern panel vans will start out with a fairly healthy payload but we realised that it would be much, much easier to exceed this in a super high top, extra long wheel base van or Luton box van than it is in a MWB van or something more compact like a VW Transporter. That’s just because with more space available, the temptation is to fill it! While we have some ideas about ways to keep our weight down, we didn’t want to be constantly fighting against the payload available to us. On balance we decided we didn’t need the absolute largest and tallest van available, although we needed to be able to stand up inside the van, and so MWB and LWB high tops started to look like good options.

Layout restrictions

The last thing that was a key factor to us was layout restrictions resulting from the internal dimensions of the van. Although we aren’t fazed by the design challenges inherent in small spaces, ideally, we wanted to be able to put the bed across the back of the van. Vans such as the VW Crafter looked promising but are not that wide – you would either have to have a short double, or have the bed lengthways. By contrast, we knew that the Fiat Ducato had enough space to put the bed across, freeing up space further down the van for kitchen and seating areas.

Bringing it all together

We narrowed our choices down to a modern panel van that was pretty efficient, ideally had some features such as air conditioning, had reasonable payload, wasn’t the absolute largest size available (to try and minimise payload issues!) and was wide enough to put the bed lengthways – pointing us in the direction of the Fiat Ducato. The big remaining factor is obviously cost – while we were willing to spend a bit more to get a reliable base vehicle in good condition, we didn’t want a new van. Nor did we want a clapped out old workhorse that had taken some abuse! We were interested in more modern examples which had mainly been used for long motorway cruises – vans that had been used for long distance removals, for example, were good options. We found a 2017 Ducato that while only two years old, had already covered over 110,000 miles – while the mileage might put some people off (and lowered the price) we reckoned there was a good chance that the majority of these journeys were easy motorway cruising with minimal wear and tear to the van. A few phone calls and a visit later, and we became the proud owners of a 2017 Fiat Ducato LWB high top with Euro 6 engine…our conversion journey has now begun!

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