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Campervan Base Vehicles


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A few different van options

1. Choosing your Ideal Van!

Although we don’t like to be too biased about which vans are best for conversions, we figure that if you’re reading this article then it might be helpful to include a few suggestions of different vans.  However before you decide on a van, there are several other important decisions you need to make (or at least know where you are prepared to compromise when the push comes to the shove and you’re faced with the decision of purchasing a van!)  Before even starting to look at vehicles you need to have decided what you want to use your van for and how many people are likely to be using it…

Although this site is called campervan conversion your selection of vehicles is not restricted just to vans. There are plenty of folk who have converted people carriers, jeeps, buses, lorries, ambulances, and even estate cars. And even if you feel you know exactly what you want at the end of the day many of us just have to take what we can afford and/or what is available.

Is this van big enough...or too big?

2. Size Matters!

Put simply, your choice of vehicle will dictate how much space you have inside for the conversion and vice versa, how much space you want/need in your converted van will dictate the vague size of van you need to be looking for! 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 decide to go for a panel van one of the main considerations is whether to look for a short wheel base (SWB) or long wheel base (LWB). It’s as simple as it sounds, long wheel base vans are longer than short wheel based ones and therefore give you that bit more space, for example a LWB VW Transporter has an extra foot (for those of us who work in metric that’s about another 30cm) in between the wheels. The downside is this can make them a little harder to manoeuvre as well as heavier so usually less slightly less fuel efficient. The other important dimension is roof height, depending on the van make you can get everything from high roof to mid height and normal, in short, you can either stand up in your van, or not... roof height depending! If you are working with an existing conversion, or have to compromise on roof height then there are also extendable roofs which can house bed space.

Would everything fit into this campervan?

3. More campervan size thoughts...

Other things to think about when trying to decide which van to go for are things like the engine size. Generally, the bigger and therefore more powerful, the more you pay but if you are likely to be driving long distances and you don't want to be sat behind the wheel forever then it is probably worth investing in a bigger engine size; but remember the bigger the van, usually, the heavier it will be and therefore the more fuel it will gobble! It’s a compromise as always - if you are happy to pootle about at 40mph then no worries.

One last big thing to consider with regards to 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 - for security in cities or to get cheaper fares on ferries – the minute you have external add-ons they will charge more.  People regularly have kayaks, surfboards, or windsurfer boards on the roof but all but the biggest can often be stored inside for ferry journeys.

So…as clear as mud I assume! Basically there are vans at either end of the size spectrum and everything in between. Another way to get your head round what sort of sized van you’d like is to think about the following...


Is this van a good size?

4. Vehicle size thoughts...

So, you’ve been thinking about what sort of size of van you might want but how does this convert into actual vans that are out there? We’ve included some of our thoughts on van sizes to give you a bit more of an insight into what really is out there!

  • The smallest vans about are, in reality, only just bigger than a car which makes them very good as a general run-around vehicle but quite small if you want to do more than just sleep in them. This however does not have to be the case, there are some ingenious solutions which can make these small vehicles work well! Examples of the smallest vans are, but not limited to, VW Caddys, or Peugeot Partners.
  • Next up, in terms of size are vans like the VW Transporter or Mercedes Vito, this size of van is basically the smallest van in which you can fit everything as well as being similar to driving a car. You still have to be fairly space conscious and items like seat swivels and rock and roll beds do give you the extra space to also integrate a living and cooking area into the back of your van..! Some, for example the VW Transporter (T5 being the new model), come in a long wheel base version which gives you that little bit extra space which would allow you to store bikes/surf boards/white water boats inside. There is also the potential to get high top versions which give you the head room to stand up. Similar sized vans to these are also the Mazda Bongo, Toyoto Hi-Ace or Mitsubishi L300.
  • A bit bigger again (though not by much) would be the Renault Trafic or Vauxhall Vivaro (which are exactly the same van, just branded differently). These are like a small transit shape, a bit more box-like than the T5 or Vito but still reasonably small.

Taking a jump up in size there are Renault Masters, Movanos, Ducatos, Relays, Boxers, and Transits - these all come in a variety of wheelbase lengths and roof heights.  They all start to make good base vehicles for conversions that start to look more like motorhomes than campervans, and there starts to be space for luxuries such as a bathroom.

  • The Renault Master or the Vauxhall Movano (once again basically the same van just branded differently) come in different length wheel bases and roof height versions, they are a similar size to the Transit.
  • The Fiat Ducato, Citroen Relay, and Peugeot Boxer are the same vehicles branded by the three different companies - they make great conversion vehicles and in their bigger sizes are big enough to fit a decent living area, bathroom and comfy bed without being so big to become a pain to drive around. A lot of motorhome conversion companies use this size of van due to it’s relatively ideal size.
  • The Ford Transit again comes in a variety of sizes and are used for a lot of conversions, they are a work horse sort of van, used by lots of workies (painters, builders etc) and should, if you’ve got a good van, last you a long while.  There are a couple of fairly new versions of the Transit - the Tourneo and Connect which are both nice options for smaller conversion vehicles.
  • The really big vans are the Mercedes Sprinter, VW Crafter (which are the same vans) and bigger still the Iveco Daily. These vans are suitable for larger motorhome style conversions and you can fit loads into them, they do however feel really quite big to drive.
Some campervans are rather low!

5. Vehicle size thoughts cont.

In general for most vans you can get an assortment of wheel base lengths and roof heights (although a high roof generally comes with a long wheel base). Also the larger and therefore heavier the van, the more fuel you are likely to be using for your trips. If you are spending a lot of time and money on a van conversion then it’s best to buy the best base vehicle you can afford – as new with as low mileage as possible (within budget of course).

Have a good browse through the pictures below to get a better idea of what some of the vans are like!

What I want my van to do!

6. 'Useful Items' List

What will you want to put in the van?

  • Cooker / stove and gas
  • Fridge
  • Sink and/or water tank
  • Second battery
  • Bed / seating
  • Swivel seats
  • Table
  • Storage units
  • Toilet / shower
  • Kit / toys (bikes, boats, skis, surfboards etc...)

What will you 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.

An optional wish list...

7. Van Wish List?

This is an example wish list, based on a recent customer's 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 they only got 3 of their wishes in the end (LWB, height and make). Basically a good van of the right make and size came on the market so they compromised on all the other stuff and are still happily driving it around – so long as you know what you can’t cope without then you can't go wrong!

What about one of these vans?

8. Buying your van!

So, you’ve made your wish list and decided on the important factors of internal dimensions. Now’s the time to start actually looking for vehicles and 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 it falling apart on you on that very first trip! 

If you don't know what you are looking for then it’s best to get some help. Take along a friend who knows about engines or invest in an AA check. Here’s a quick list of some key things you should look at:

  • Age - this is probably the single biggest factor that will affect the price - the price drops dramatically with each year, and for good reason.  Get the newest vehicle you can afford, with the lowest miles.
  • Mileage - the importance of this does vary with van makes and models.  High mileage but newer vehicles will last longer than older low mileage vans.  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.  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.
  • MOT - getting a vehicle with as close to a years MOT as possible is a good start.  Be suspiscious if the MOT is almost up - work will almost certainly be required, which is fine so long as you budget for it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
How easy is it to turn round in a van?!?

9. Don't forget to test drive the van first!

Finally, take the likely vehicle on a test drive and try out all the features; this includes appliances if you are buying an existing campervan. 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) as well as the manoeuvrability, especially how easy it is to park. For example a big van is probably fine in the country but might not be the best in tight urban streets.

Now you’ve made and compromised on your wish list, as well as having thoroughly checked over you van and driven it! Your next step is to pluck up the courage to buy. 

Good luck!

Have a good look around this site as there are lots of articles about all sorts of conversion tasks, plus lots of example campervan projects categorised by van model.