Van Conversion Project

Campervan conversions are alllllll the rage right now. I mean, they’ve always been cool (I felt about 50 writing that) – but a cursory glance at Instagram is enough to tell you that they’ve had something of a renaissance; the popularity of this so called ‘van life’ lifestyle has exploded this last year. Another Covid factor? Perhaps.

We purchased our van in November 2019; after many months of talking about it, we finally decided to just go for it. E had long-held the dream of building a van, as had I (although less building, more enjoying). We’re very lucky that when we met we shared so many similar ideas and goals, and so it made sense to do this together.

Buying the van to begin with was a bit nerve wracking. I mean, buying second hand is always a gamble and a risk, but particularly where vans are concerned; let’s face it, we’ve all seen the way those things are driven by some delivery drivers – white van drivers don’t get a name for nothing! Where to begin when purchasing a van? Well, we knew we wanted a Sprinter – the size was a huge factor, but we also both knew that they can be good for hundreds of thousands of miles (additionally, my experience in the ambulance service also taught me that not much goes wrong with these things mechanically; they’re a real workhorse!).

The first van we went to look at was in Birmingham. It was a long drive, in rush hour, and just an all round negative experience. I had a bad feeling as soon as we got there – it was on what looked like a scrap dealers lot, and pretty much as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were surrounded. The guys showed us the van we were there to see, but they just wouldn’t leave us alone to look at the van in our own leisure. As E got down on the floor to look underneath for signs of obvious rust issues they were asking “What are you doing?” – instead of trying to be helpful. When we plugged in the diagnostics tool to check for any engine faults, again – they wanted to know what we were looking at, and why. I remember one of them kept on insisting ‘It’s fine, it’s ok, no problems’. I kept gesturing to E with the art of mime and death stares (the latter of which I’m a master in) that I thought we were wasting our time and should leave, but all credit to him, he carried on checking everything he wanted to see. He wasn’t going to feel rushed or pressured. They then tried to sell the van to us for less than advertised if we’d take it off their hands right then and there, no questions asked. Yeah… Eventually, we left with the excuse that we’d be in touch once we’d made a decision. Flogging a dead horse? Flogging a dud van!

One sunny and cold day in November, after weeks of searching Gumtree, Facebook and other local ads, we both took an early lunch break from work and met up in a town a few miles away where a small van dealership had a Sprinter that we were interested in. We’d already done the usual investigatory work, looking up previous MOT results and financial checks (it’s amazing how many people try to sell off vans that still have finance outstanding on them, hoping unsuspecting/naïve sellers are unaware) so this was exciting! Interestingly, we had a very different experience with this one. the owner handed us the keys, and told us to take our time, take it for a drive – and to come ask if we needed anything….

For a van that was 12 years old at the time, and had over 200,000 miles on the clock it didn’t appear to be in terrible condition, but it clearly needed some work. We were told that the previous owner was an office furniture delivery driver so there were a few dings inside the back where loads obviously hadn’t been secured down properly. There was also a few problematic rust issues on the wheel arch. The van still had the ply lining on the interior, so without taking a crowbar to it then and there, a lot of the ‘looking’ was actually guess work. We had a test drive of it and we both struggled to get it into gear when trying to switch up to 2nd and 5th. But in all, we saw beyond that, and in fact the owner offered to resolve these issues before we made any purchase. We put down a nominal deposit, and we were asked to give him a week or so to get the work completed, by which time we could come back and either complete the purchase, or he’d give us the payment back if we decided it wasn’t to our liking….yikes! We almost bought a van!

On 21st November, we both took off work for an hour and went to see the van again. Whilst the welding job to the wheel arch wasn’t brilliant, it was an improvement, and the gears were a little better but still not perfect. But these were all things that we were prepared to overlook given the price and the rest of the condition. So….WE BOUGHT THE VAN! I have to say, at the time I was a little nervous…it’s a big financial commitment, and in the back of my mind I am always wary of salespeople and trusting their word. But, it was done. We had a van, albeit a van that needed a lottttttt of work doing to it, but still….A VAN!

Pictured: Happy face. Not pictured: Heavily stained passenger seats
Check out the 70’s-esque steering wheel cover!

Leaving the industrial estate with the van was a bit nerve-wracking for E; it had been a long time since he’d driven a van, and I don’t think he’d ever driven one as big as this (do tractors count?). The fuel warning light was also on, so the first stop was the petrol station. Here she is, at her new home that evening.

Looking back, I like to think that we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. But, if you were to read any Instagram or other social media posts on van conversions and the cringe inducing ‘van life movement’ and you may be fooled into thinking it’s fun, easy and quick work followed immediately by glamourous beach shots by drone…and herein lies my issue with that kind of social media. I find it all rather fake and insincere – but maybe that’s just because I’m grumpy. You will see from what I am going to share about our conversion that it’s really not what Instagram, YouTube and other social media would have you believe. It’s incredibly hard work, and will swallow any free time you have. We still have a long road ahead of us, and that’s before we get the van off the driveway!

Watch this space for the next installment…

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