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Choosing a base vehicle for a camper van conversion

Choosing the right type of vehicle for your campervan conversion is critical.  You need a vehicle that matches your camping requirements, budget and vehicle maintenance skill level.

Choosing the right vehicle from the start means you can crack on with your conversion, and not look back.  Choosing the wrong vehicle means delays in starting your conversion, and it'll probably cost you money too.

Lets look at the types of vehicle available, and which is best suited to you.

Panel Van

Panel vans are popular, spacious and ideal for medium to large camper van conversion.

The surge in recent years of courier services means there are loads of used panel vans to choose from.  Those used by courier services generally have high-mileage, but might have service history.  Vans used by buildings firms are normally thrashed.

Parts are readily available and fairly cheap, because there are so many of these vehicles around.  Used vans are easy to find, and you should have plenty to choose from.

Most come in high top versions that allow you to stand up inside. They also come in short, medium and long wheelbase versions, so you can choose one to fit your needs. If you are building a camper van for a long trip then a panel van is probably the best choice.

Short or medium length panel vans are a good choice for 1,2 or 3 people using the van for short or long trips.  For longer trips you'll want a high-top so that you can stand up.  Shorter vans can be used everyday as a commuter, as they are reasonable on fuel costs (35mpg).  Popular models include the Mercedes SprinterFord Transit and Iveco Daily. 

The popular VW Transporter is rarely found in a high-top or long wheel base, and are generally better for short trips, and especially good as everyday vans, as they are easy and cheaper to drive.  The Mercedes Vito is also a great smaller, everyday van.

Most people can drive panel vans on a car license.  They are generally easy to work on.

See the full list of panel vans.

Mini bus

Mini buses are a good alternative to panel vans. Many are panel vans with windows already fitted, which is good if you want lots of light. Some models are available that are bigger than panel vans, like the Dormobiles used as library vans.

If you want a conversion that will have lots of windows then you can save yourself a lot of hassle by buying a mini-bus.  You can always black-out any windows you don't want.

Almost all mini-buses will come with seats already fitted.  This is actually a good thing, as they are easy to remove, and you can sell them on eBay.  You can use some of the seats to make a dinning or seating area.

Most mini-buses have an easier life than panel vans.  The miles are normally motorway miles, rather than harder citiy miles that a builders van would probably rack-up.

Popular models are Mercedes Sprinter and Ford Transit.

Most people can drive a mini-bus on a car license.  They are generally easy to work on, and almost always share the same components as panel vans.

Car derived van

Car derived vans are compact, easy and cheap to drive. They are essentially a car with a larger van-type back area.

They are more suited for a weekend camper van, as they are limited for space.  The rear area is a little smaller than a VW Transporter or Mercedes Vito.

These vans are great if you want a campervan for the weekend for 1 or 2 people, and for summer trips when you can spend time outdoors.  When converting one of these vans you need to plan your use of space carefully.  For long trips you might want to consider a panel van, than you can stand up in.

Popular models include Fiat Scudo, Citroen Jumpy, Peugeot Expert and Nissan Vanette.

You can drive these small vans on a car license, and they are easy to work on as they use the same components as cars.

Luton or box van

If you want more space then consider converting a large luton or box van.  Most are simply a box mounted on a pickup chassis. The base vehicles are common makes and models such as Mercedes Sprinter and Ford Transits, so parts are common as they are shared by the pickup alternative.

The boxes are normally made of fiberglass, which are light, but also noisy. They are designed to be very light, and to provide limited insulation for the contents.  Insulating them is a good idea, to add extra strength, reduce noise and to keep you warmer inside, when in cooler conditions.  Some of the boxes have an opaque ceiling which lets in lots of light, but are very noisy when it rains.  You can insulate the ceiling, leaving holes to let the light through.  Adding windows to the side can be tricky as the walls are too thin to work with.  However, more modern box vans have thicker plastic walls which are much better for working with.

Box vans are typically wider than panel vans, and allow more space inside.  They are good for 1 or 2 people on long trips.

Luton vans have the very handy part that hangs out over the cab, which is ideal for adding a permanent bed.

In the UK ex British Telecom vans are a good buy, as they have service history, and there are normally many around.

Popular models include Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter and Fiat Ducato.

Depending on your country, and when your driving license was issued, you might be able to drive these vans on a car driving license.  Check though.  Parts are normally from pickups, and these vans are generally easy to work on.  Bigger models might need specialist tools.

Ambulance

Fiat Ducato AmbulanceDuring the 1980's Ambulance conversions were popular due to the high price of panel vans.  Today panel vans are much cheaper, and Ambulances are more expensive.  But an Ambulance makes an excellent vehicle for a campervan conversion, for those with better engineering skills and enthusiasm.

Today's Ambulance are purpose built or adapted.  They normally have higher powered engines and upgraded suspension, normally air powered.  The rear section is integrated with the cab, is normally fully insulation with a hard lined interior, which makes a great finish. 

Decommissioned ambulances normally come with the expensive medical equipment removed, but you will almost certainly have a mass of wires and fittings hanging around.  To a DIY or engineering fan this should be easy to remove and adapt.  Removing the excess wires is recommended as the combined weight of the extra wires, boxes and junctions will be considerable.  Also be aware than many ambulances have 12v and 24v systems.  Check them all, don't assume. 

Typically the ambulance will come with the blue lights still on the roof.  Legally you might have to remove them, of simply paint over them and remove the wiring.

Modern ambulances come with lots of tinted windows, which is perfect for a camper van.  The rear doors open wide and easily.  Typically there is no side door though.

Ambulances can make great campervan conversions, but know what you're letting yourself in fore before you buy such a vehicle.  Many of the parts will be more expensive as they are custom fitting for the ambulance.

Typically you can drive an ex-ambulance on a car driving license.  Parts are often the same as the panel van chassis, but often more expensive, high-quality parts will be fitted.

Bus

For maximum space and a permanent home then consider a bus. Whilst they offer incredible space, they will limit where you can drive and park. Used models are not normally expensive to buy, but parts and fuel can be expensive.

In comparison to vans, or even a mini-bus, a bus offers masses of room.  So much room makes a perfect vehicle for living in.  You can build proper bedrooms and total separate kitchen and living areas.

If you are using the vehicle for motocross you can add a custom made storage area for you vehicles.  I have seen some bus conversions where people have added a storage area in the back for a small car. 

Whilst internal size is a great plus point for a bus, the external size is its downfall.  Driving a bus around is not easy.  Between towns you'll have no problem, as you'll follow the same routes as the public transport buses, but once you get into villages and smaller towns you could find yourself limited to where you can go.  Some campsites don't have room to maneuver a bus, but with such a self contained vehicle your need for a campsite is much reduced.  And after all, there are other campsites.

If you enjoy visiting out-of-the-way places, and remote beaches and beauty spots, a bus has the greatest of problems.  Small bridges often have weight restrictions, and buses tend to be over those weight restrictions.  Buses also don't handle rough terrain so well, as there long wheel base grounds out more easily.

Buses are cheap to buy used as there are so many of them, and few people looking to buy them.  They are generally very reliable, built with commercial vehicle components, and serviced their entire lives.  Think of cities like London, were 50 year-old buses still roam the roads.

If you want masses of room, and have the space to store such a big vehicle then a bus conversion might be for you. 

In some countries, depending on when your driving license was issued, you can drive a bus on a car license, as long as it is not your job.  However, check before you buy.  Parts can be expensive, but last a very long time.  Parts can be tricky to fit, as they are bigger and heavier.

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Comments (39)

  • Daz 's picture

    HIYA TO YOU IF YOUR READING THIS.

    I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YEARS FOR SOMEONE WHO CAN CONVERT MY TOYOTA INTO A CAMPER!?
    I WOULD BUY A NEW VW BUT WHERE I LIVE MY LUCIDA JUST FITS INTO MY CARPORT. BESIDES WHICH MY LUCIDA IS EVERYTHING I NEED-IT CAN CARRY MY ELECTRIC SCOOTER A WHEELCHAIR, MY PARENTS, SISTER, 2DOGS AND ALL OUR LUGGAGES FROM KENT TO NEWCASTLE WITHOUT BREAKING SWEAT. I ALSO WENT TO A FESTIVAL IN DEVON. AND, I'VE ALWAYS WANTED A CAMPER SO I'M HOPING SOME KIND PERSON OUT THERE CAN HELP ME? PLEASE!!!

    Dec 01, 2009
  • Isobella's picture

    Hi. I am thinking of using a Daihatsu Hi Jet 7 seater as base model for a camper conversion. Is it advisable?

    I was thinking of a car derived van, but it is for 2 adults and a small child, and I was not sure about regulations as to how many people can legally travel in such a van.

    ANy tips are gratefully received! Thanks

    Mar 17, 2010
  • Darren's picture

    No reason you can't use a HiJet for a conversion.
    How many people do you need to carry when driving, how many will sleep inside?
    What sort of features did you want inside? A cooker, sink, beds?

    Mar 17, 2010
  • Mo.'s picture

    please need help, have bought 3 half tonne peougeot boxer van, have taken off back and need to make new back longer, any rules of max distance from rear single wheel to rear of van. any help would be appreciated. many thanks

    May 12, 2010
  • big red iveco's picture

    Its not the legality you need worry about, its 2 other things. First, because of the lever principle, the further you place weight behind the rear wheels, the more it effectively loads the axle.
    2nd, you need to consider the swing out. When you move off from parked, say, and ease the vehicle to the right, the rear will swing to the left. Too much overhang and you will sweep the pavement clear of pedestrians!
    I have an extra long wheelbase iveco daily, which overhangs by 1.4 metres. I would never want more overhang, that much is trouble enough. cheers and good luck

    Sep 06, 2010
  • Lee Gavin's picture

    does anybodey know the approx weight of a ford 1980s transit motorhome???

    Jun 13, 2010
  • phill cardiff's picture

    hi just a quick question about convertions i am thinking of converting a 7.5 ton truck or may be a 14 ton trck into a camper and a place in the back to carry my race car seperate from the camper convertion at the front half and half will be fitting complete caravan into front half electricks bed sink cookwer ectect then rear will have tail lift for car to be lifted up into the garage part at the back seen loads of these done but what do the 1 register as ? 2 tax class ? 3 licence class ? if you can help me or shed some light on this please would be great thanks phill

    Jul 30, 2010
  • Richard's picture

    Hi de hi, Is there anyone out there who has converted a merc 709D,811D,814D or Vario LWB panel van. I have one and am about to start fitting it out and would like to see some layout details, drawings or photos to give me some ideas. Regards Richard, in sunny Gravesend Kent.

    May 21, 2011
  • Colin's picture

    Hi Richard
    I have just bought a 1988 709d van that was converted about 6 years ago. I am also looking for a layout and was wondering if you came across any suggestion on your travels.
    I will be ripping most of the camper out as it's just wrong inside at the moment.

    Col

    Oct 16, 2011
  • Paul Cannon's picture

    I have a new 2011 Vauxhall Combo CDTI van.I would like to fit an elevating or pop up roof. Does anyone know if this can be done?And where?Thank you.

    Jul 14, 2011
  • Anonymous's picture

    I am thinking about buying a LDV Maxus for conversion to a camper. Are there any pointers or downsides for me to look into as I'm not mechanically minded, so anything that goes wrong will have to be done by a mechanic, the bodywork of the one I've seen looks good and so does the underneath. Are parts easy to get hold of? Any advice gratefully received.

    Jul 24, 2011
  • Big Dave's picture

    What are the legal limits on passengers traveling in a motor caravan? do all passengers need to be seated and belted?

    Was playing with the idea of a 4 berth conversion, with swivel driver/passenger chairs, but what about the extra to members of my family, will they be allowed to just sit in the rear with the gear?

    Jul 30, 2011
  • Big Dave's picture

    Thanx for the reply, info and links much appreciated.

    Aug 01, 2011
  • fletcher's picture

    Hi any body out there who has or knows about converting a toyota hiace panel van, insulation, wood panel then carpet or upholstery.Which is the best way to wire up with a leisure battery what size amps? i only wont something simple 2 spot lights and 2 strip, radio and dvd player i could carry an extension lead for hook ups and connect that to the battery charger, any advise i would appreciate. Fletcher.

    Sep 07, 2011
  • robo's picture

    have got a ldv maxus, and going to convert to a camper van, problem is cant find any one to put windows in we live on the cambridgeshire suffolk boarder, have phoned lots of windowscreen people and soon as i say ldv maxus they say they cant get the glass

    Nov 01, 2011
  • Anonymous's picture

    I have a mitsibushi pajero 2.5td have had it for years love the 4x4 so would like to convert to wk-end van sleep 2 cook wash in it. anyone ever done one or know how to sort out the rear seat for sleeping. Any advise?

    Nov 20, 2011
  • Anonymous's picture

    Have a look at SWISS ROOM BOX

    May 29, 2012
  • Rob Sharp's picture

    The 2rd row of seats and rear seat fold flat into a double bed mate

    Mail me if ya need any help

    Regards

    Rob

    Jun 20, 2012
  • Gill's picture
    Gill (not verified)

    Does anyone know where I can get silver insulated fitted window covers fo my Hiace Devon conversion camper van: its v. cold in winter!

    Dec 05, 2011
  • markandstevie's picture

    My wife and I are considering selling the lot and convertiong a bus or coach and living on the road for 5 or more years, has anyone tried this yet and found any pitfalls, such as somewhere to stop all year round, being hounded by the authorities or even the practicalities of life on the move?
    We are both practical and have worked hard so far, we have camped alot so not afraid of roughing it but neeed some comfort in out 50's.
    Also anyone recommend any websites on conversions?

    Jan 25, 2012
  • Darren's picture

    Converting and living in a bus is slightly different situation to a van.
    The extra internal space allows a lot of luxuries in a bus. A nice big bed, massive water tanks underneath.
    However, finding somewhere to park is going to be a problem. Wintering in the Algarve should be OK. I have seen big vehicles parked for long periods in several places, but during the summer months you might have problems finding places to stop.
    Galicia in Spain general welcomes visitors of all times as they have only a few.
    Are you thinking of Europe?

    Things to consider when living on the road is
    - mail. You need somewhere for it to be sent, and someone to open and read it, then convey the info back to you. I used my Dad when I am away.
    - Water - You need to fill up whenever possible with drinking water. Waster water can often be dropped onto the ground.
    - Toilet - this needs to be emptied regularly. If using a Thetford toilet, then probably every few days. Often done at campsites, service stations, Aires, or public toilets
    - Campsites - There are few campsites that can accommodation a converted bus, but there are some.

    Jan 26, 2012
  • dave oliver's picture

    has any one got any floor plans or advice on layout

    Apr 28, 2012
  • George's picture

    How did you get on converting the convoy. I am converting an LDV Convoy 17 seater low top. Just rough like a travellers van but its lots of space. Just had it serviced.

    May 10, 2013
  • bob wheeler's picture

    Hi,
    Very good site, congrats to all concerned.
    I have lived on the road for many years from the late 80's through to the mid 90's in the uk and built and run many different conversions, freecamped almost always.
    Only marriage and kids caused me to buy a house.
    I do still love the free life though, and run an 85 Hymer merc 6 berth which makes a wonderful holiday cottage and gets much use every year.
    With todays technology- iphones, netbooks,led lights, solar panels etc, it has never been so easy for life on the road!
    My advice on building your own camper really begins on how comfortable you want to be and how long you intend to stay in it.
    If all year round, then space is important as cabin fever soon sets in in the winter.
    Sustainable resources and independance (gas, water, batteries,loo,heating, cooking etc) is a large consideration, and if done right gives you so much freedom to camp in the more remote and beautiful places.
    If you want to be comfortable you will need many gadgets to make life nice like shower, central heating,loo,water heater, fridge etc. These can be expensive for a conversion, but are part of most caravans already, so buy a cheap knackered leaky caravan for a song and rob the gadgets and as many fittings as you can.
    Plan your van well: On most vans, the cab area is waste space. Remove the passenger bench seat and fit a single on a swivel at least. Better still, get clever and have seats that fold and become part of the beds. I restored a 68 Bedford CA dormobile, a van no larger than a Vito and that slept 4, and you could still cook while the beds were out!
    Granted, it was too small to live in for more than a few days but a clever use of space.
    My Hymer was chosen using this criteria, and I have lived in it all year round in massive comfort. I bought instead of built because to build such a high spec van would cost as much as to buy and restore a genuine one, with the added bonus of a great re-sale value. Home-built conversions do not command much more price than the bare vehicle.
    I hope this helps some make their mind as to how to begin.
    I am a self-employed builder and jack-of-all trades from wiltshire, and offer a full camper design, build and restore service from home for 100 quid a day plus materials.
    Live life to the full!
    Bob

    Jun 29, 2012
  • Darren's picture

    Good advice Bob. Nice to hear from you.

    Jun 29, 2012
  • Anonymous's picture

    Hi Bob: I'm thinking around the subject of taking off in a camper conversion but would need your kind of help to do it. Can you give me your email, so we can discuss it further? Best, Simon

    Jan 12, 2013
  • Laurence Martin's picture

    Hello Darren,

    Thank you very much for the opportunity to find out about campervans.

    I'm at the thinking about it place. I've only ever owned a trailer tent. My wife and I are soon to be on our own, so we need less space. We don't want the hassle of a trailer tent or caravan.

    I've certain diy skills. Basically, what I want to know is, what's the best van to stand my 6' 4" in, have a 6' 6" bed and is economical to run?

    Regards,

    Laurence

    Apr 25, 2013
  • Darren's picture

    Hi Laurence

    You height sounds the like the priority here. I have a high-top Mercedes Sprinter, and people over 6 feet in height cannot comfortable stand in there. However there is a super high top Sprinter, which is taller.

    There is also an extra high-top Fiat Ducato. The Fiat is also sold as a Peugeot Boxer and a Citroen Dispatch, and all three are essentially the same van with some changes.

    http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/0000-Fiat-Ducato-35-MAXI-3-0-EXTRA-HIGH-ROOF-V...

    All of these vans will have similar economy to run. The Mercedes will be more expensive to buy, but will probably cost less in the long run, as maintenance is rarely required.

    Apr 26, 2013
  • Anonymous's picture

    Do they make side window kits for the new 2014 Nissan nv200 van

    Jul 14, 2013
  • Trev's picture

    Considering the whole conversion idea as holidays for 2 plus 3 are getting pricey! Any suggestions for the best style/type of van for space and easy of conversion?
    Cheers Trev

    Jul 18, 2013
  • Trev's picture

    Sry, forgot to say, I'd need two rows of seats with full seat belts.

    Jul 18, 2013
  • Darren's picture

    There isn't really a best, only really what suits you best. For 5 people you will want something fairly big.
    For space and easy of conversion I would get a Mercedes Vario, see first pic. They have straight interior walls, so easy to convert. Lots of room, and cheap to buy. Problem is they can be slow and not easy to store.

    If you want something more nimble, try a Sprinter (or Transit) LWB, see second pic. These are popular, modern and nippy vehicles.

    You could go for something smaller, but you'll really struggle for space.

    Jul 19, 2013
  • Anonymous's picture

    New to the camper scene, and im looking for somethong for two , with a small kitchen, basic bathroom a tv and somewhere for my playstation 3 to go, thanks in advance :-)

    Jan 12, 2014
  • Sell my car's picture
    Sell my car (not verified)

    Actually I think this is among the most vital information for me. And i am glad reading your article. But want to remark on some general things, the web site style is ideal, the articles is really excellent. Thank you for sharing with us. I think it would be effective for all. Good job, cheers! invites you to readSell my car

    Feb 25, 2014

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