Buying a Base Van

Choosing a used panel van

The best and most popular base vehicle for a camper van or motorcaravan conversion is an empty panel van. There are a few options to consider when choosing the make and model of van, what the van has previously been used for, and from where to buy it.

Used panel van essentials

  • The vast majority of panel vans will have been owned by companies, and used purely to make money. They will range from very well maintained, to completely trashed.
  • There are panel vans which have been privately owned from new. These vans are more likely to have been well cared for.
  • Modern panel vans are designed to go on for years and do hundreds of thousands of miles. A modern, well maintained, van that has done 200,000 miles (320,000 km) is far from near the end of its life.
  • Almost all modern panel vans will have diesel engines. Compared to petrol engines: they are cheaper to run and cheaper to maintain, they can cost more to by from new, and some servicing can be more expensive.
  • Full service history, or some service history is a big bonus. Not only has the vehicle been maintained properly, but it shows the owners have shown some care for the vehicle, which is a good sign.
  • There are specialist use vehicles that should be considered , such as ex-AA and ex-Ambulance vehicles (see below).
  • Modern panel vans, from about 1996 onwards, are all very similar. In fact many vehicles with different manufacture names on are in fact the same. Manufactures with less than impressive build quality in the past (Citroen, Fiat, etc.) now make great vans.
  • Part prices for most vans are reasonable.

What the vehicle has been used for

What the vehicle has been used for can make a big difference to whether it will reliably run for years, or constantly keep breaking.

Privately owned panel van

Privately owned panel vans are generally the best option. This will be owned by individuals for use at car boots sales, moving personal possessions, fishing trips, small private jobs, etc. The vehicles tend to be well-cared-for and could have service history. Privately owned panel vans are often the best base vehicle for doing your own camper van conversion.

Company owned panel van

A van used by a company is likely to be used as a workhorse, purely to make money. Larger companies (such as couriers) will see the vehicle as an investment, and will regularly service the vehicle, and sell it after a selected period of time. The are thousands of ex-company vehicles around, most are a good buy, and are generally the cheapest place to buy a panel van. Many companies, such as the RAC, sell their vans at motor auctions. This can be a good place to buy a panel van. Vehicles owned by builders will be used hard, and probably neglected. A van used by a painter and decorator will always be covered in paint inside. Buying a vehicles that has converted for refrigeration is not a good idea. Vehicles with high mileage can be great vans, if they have service history, and are in good condition.
Look for: Service history, good condition, bargains at auctions, good value ex-fleet vehicles
Avoid: Builders & painters vans, neglected vans, custom paintwork or stickers that cannot be removed

Ex-AA VW T4 Transporters

The AA use VW T4 Transporters, and sell them after a few years of service. They are very well maintained, and come with a clear glass window in the sliding door. They are a good buy. However, they often come with additional wiring for a winch. The used vans are normally sold through used vehicle dealers. Be sure to check any additional fittings before buying, as they can be difficult to remove, and may leave holes.

Ex-Ambulance (various models)

Ex-Ambulance vehicles can make an excellent base for a serious camper van conversion. The distinct advantages are that they will almost certainly be well maintained, although with high mileage, they will be insulated, and will probably have a hard finish interior. More modern vehicle engines will have: 2 alternators, one for the engine battery and another for the leisure batteries, a more powerful engine, and air suspension. Popular makes include Mercedes and Renault. When the vehicles are decommissioned the internal fittings and the external lights will be removed. On older models, such as the square nose Mercedes, they are generally tidy when decommissioned. When more modern vehicles are decommissioned, which are equipped with more equipment, they can be left with masses of wires hanging everywhere, and a lot of work needed. Decommissioned ambulances are often sold by used vehicle dealers, and at motor auctions. Ensure you check the inside carefully, and check what additional work is required to get it on the road, especially when buying at auction. This is not always possible at auction, so only buy it if you know a lot about it.

Where to find a base vehicle

There are a number of places to buy a panel van. Finding the right vehicle from the right source can save you a lot of money and effort. See the guide to buying a used vehicle.

Private sale

Most used vans are sold through private sales. Vehicles are at their cheapest when sold through a private sale. However, you will have no guarantee through a private sale. If the vehicle is stolen you will loose the vehicle. See the guide to buying a vehicle privately.

Motor trade dealer

More and more vehicles are bought and sold through motor trade dealers. People with little time to look for vehicles go straight to dealers. Dealers generally offer some sort of guarantee on the vehicle, often 3 months, and you are better protected if the vehicle has been stolen, although they will have checked this already. Whilst you are more likely to pay more for a vehicle at a dealer, you can assume the vehicle is is good general order. Dealers also have part exchange vehicles which they will want to get rid off. These can be great value, but ask around, as they may not be on display, but parked around the back. Ex-fleet or commercial vehicles are often sold exclusively through dealers, so it pays to look around.

Motor vehicle auction

Buying at auctions is risky, but you can find yourself a bargain. Many companies will be looking to get rid of lots of vans quickly, and will sell them all at auctions. However, people looking to sell wrecks will also try and sell them at auction. The disadvantage with an auction is that you are unlikely to be allowed to see inside the vehicle or hear the engine running. See the guide to buying at motor auction.


eBay may seem like an unlikely place to buy a van, but it is possible to find great deals, as well as lemons. The advantage is that you can see the photos of the vehicles on the website, from your own computer. You should also be able to see where the vehicle is, the seller should list information about its past, and you can contact the seller to ask questions. However, once you place a bid it is a binding contract, should your bid win. Should your bid win the auction you must buy the vehicle when you visit the seller, you cannot decline once you see the vehicle. Therefore, always see the vehicle, and drive it, before making a bid. Buying via eBay is actually a great way to buy or sell a vehicle, as long as you see and drive the vehicle before bidding, and follow the eBay rules and guidelines carefully. Many people are put off in buying a vehicle this way, which leaves more bargains for you and me.

There are always lots of vans for sale.  Try eBay ( and

  1. malcolm edgington February 8, 2013 at 9:15 am

    van conversion
    i have a 54 plate renault master lwb hi top that i am looking to get converted to a 2 berth motorhome. would you be interested in carrying out the work and if so would you let me have some idea of your proposed layout and ball park price. i realise this will be a guestimate until you see the vehicle but as an idea we require a shower toilet kitchen inc fridge and sleeping not a fixed bed.
    regards malcolm edgington


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