Disclosure: This is a review of my own vehicle which I converted myself. Unless otherwise stated, I paid for all elements of the conversion myself and did not receive any discounts or freebies.
However, links marked with (eBay⇒) or (Amazon⇒) are affiliate links. This means I get paid a small commission if you buy something after clicking on the links. This money helps to pay for the running of the website.
It’s been 18 months now since I finished my Ford Transit-based DIY conversion and in that time my wife and I have been lucky enough to enjoy 4 long trips away, totalling 13 weeks. That’s enabled us to get a really good understanding of what works in the van and what we’d do differently in our conversion if we did it again.
I thought it might be interesting for anyway planning their own conversion to read about our experiences with ours. To keep things simple, I’ve divided this article up into a number of sections, reflecting the different elements of the conversion.
I’ve also written a guide to all of the parts used in the conversion, which you can find here.
- Furniture and Storage
- Windows, Carpet Lining and Insulation
- Seating and Bed
- Water, Toilet and Washing
- Cooking and Gas
- Base Vehicle
- Final Thoughts
Furniture & Storage
The basic design for our van was the classic VW side conversion – that is, furniture units down the offside of the van with a sofa that converts to a bed on the nearside and a demountable foldaway table.
The furniture was built for us by Scott at Convert Your Van (eBay⇒), who I’d recommend. He used high quality Vohringer board and Reimo trim to create a lightweight, smart and functional setup with a fair amount of storage. He has standard designs for common base vehicles but is also happy to build to custom designs.
After 25,000 miles (the van is our ‘car’, as well) and 18 months, everything is still working well and in one piece. The Vohringer lightweight ply still looks smart and wipes clean easily, and the push-button catches work well and look good too. Storage wise, there is plenty of space, although the large rear cupboard is hard to use effectively. It has a shelf in it (at the same height as the counter top) but no other subdivision of space. This means that stuff at the back is hard to reach from inside the van, although we have improved this by buying eight small plastic storage boxes which stack on the shelf neatly, enabling us to fill the space completely without it becoming a complete mess (we tend to go away for weeks at a time, so clothes storage is important as often encounter a wide variety of weather conditions and cannot wash clothes too regularly).
The other change we would make is for the rear cupboard not to go right up to the roof of the van – instead, for it to be closed off a few inches below the roof, so the top of the cupboard would function as a large shelf, with a barrier around the edge. This would mean that small items, such as books, could be kept there when we’re away. This was actually suggested to us by Scott but we chose to have the cupboard built right up to the roof instead! Our mistake, but not a big deal.
In addition to the storage provided by the furniture, we have a considerable amount of space under the bed, where we keep food, spare kitchen/toilet rolls, walking boots and all sorts of other things in plastic crates (like wine purchased when in France!). This is indispensable for long trips away.
Additional storage for odd items is provided by a large cargo net type storage pocket that is fastened across the top half of the tailgate.
Windows, Carpet Lining & Insulation
Although it’s a fairly small van, I was determined to make it well insulated and ventilated, especially since we don’t have heating – so good insulation is the next best thing! Here’s a recap of what I did:
1. Used 2″x1″ wooden battens to raise the floor by an inch and filled the void with natural wool type loft insulation.
2. Filled the space behind the wall and ceiling panels with loft insulation.
3. Fitted Seitz S4 windows (eBay⇒) to both sides of the van. These are double glazed, with integral fly screens and heat-reflective blinds
4. Carpet lined the walls and ceiling, used lino to cover the floor.
5. Since I did the conversion, I’ve added a Dometic GY20 (eBay⇒) roof vent which works well, was cheap and doesn’t let insects in (except the occasional Scottish midge…). I might now choose the GY11, however, which is the same but has an electric fan in it. This would really be useful sometimes.
Overall, we are very happy with the way all of this works. We have slept comfortably without heating in fairly cold weather (down to low single digits ºC) without being too cold. Likewise in hot weather – the insulation and double-glazed windows mean that the temperature in the back of the van is far more stable than the temperature in the (uninsulated) cab section, which gets much hotter/colder, depending on external conditions. We have curtains to seperate the cab off but also have a set of insulated internal silver screens (eBay⇒) for the cab which help a lot and are recommended.
The Seitz windows are worthy of individual mention – they are easy to fit (click here for my fitting guide) and are infinitely superior to single-glazed glass vehicle windows (e.g. bonded windows), although with hindsight I would try to fit slightly larger ones.
I cannot understand why supposedly upmarket converters like Auto-Sleepers sell panel van conversions with single-glazed glass windows all round rather than proper double-glazed caravan/motorhome windows like our Seitz units. Single-glazed windows don’t help to insulate the van, they suffer badly from condensation and are generally not suited for accommodation use (our last van had a single-glazed window in the rear, so I speak from experience).
Seating and Bed
The van’s layout meant that our only option was a pull-out sofa/bed, of the type known as a rock and roll bed (eBay⇒). If you are looking at buying one of these, they fall into two main categories:
1. Sophisticated items that convert to a bed very easily and are suitable for use as travel seats (when correctly installed with seat belts). The best examples of these are made by RIB (eBay⇒) and they are amazingly expensive (£2,000+). They are excellent, however.
2. Cheap welded constructions (eBay⇒) that concertina to make a sofa and then slide out to make a bed. These generally cost upwards of £200 and vary considerably in easy of use and quality. Better ones have special hinges that make it easier to fold up the bed. They are NOT always suitable for use as travel seats.
Ours is not very easy to use and wasn’t especially well made.
When we tried to fit it, we discovered that one leg was in the wrong place. Luckily, my brother-in-law had a welder and was able to rectify this. Earlier this year, we found that one of the (welded-on) hinges had broken. Looking at it, I don’t think it was fitted quite straight when made. I’ve replaced it with a new hinge that I’ve bolted on. So far, so good.
The other problem with our design is that while it pulls out into bed mode easily, folding it up into sofa mode requires considerable strength. I’ve improved this by fitting a strap that enables me to lift up the back to start the process more easily, but it still is awkward to do.
One final complication for us was that this type of bed is generally made to fit in VW Transporter vans. When fitted, it sits against the nearside of the van and straddles the nearside rear wheel arch. It turns out that the rear wheel arches of a front-wheel drive Transit are much higher than those of a VW Transporter – so our bed had to be made with longer legs in order to fit over the wheel arch. This has made it slightly too high to sit on comfortably, but it is our fault really for not researching/planning this more carefully. (Rear-wheel drive Transits have lower arches, due to the higher floor necessitated by the drive shaft.)
Overall, the bed was a cost-effective budget solution but seriously lacks sophistication or ease of use. If I did it again, I wouldn’t buy one of these cheap units, I’d make something myself from wood, even though it would take longer.
For cushions, we bought a foam futon mattress from Ikea and trimmed some of the foam off the edge to make it the right width. My mother-in-law was then kind enough to re-sew the covers so they fitted properly. It’s very comfy indeed and didn’t cost much more than buying the foam on its own (eBay⇒) – recommended!
Our aim when away in this van was to mostly use aires and wild camp for overnight accommodation – not to use campsites. I therefore wanted a solution that would keep the leisure battery (eBay⇒) charged without using electric hookup regularly.
At this point, I have to confess that I was a bit too clever for my own good… Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
First of all, the good points:
1. Good quality 12V LED lights (eBay⇒) throughout – expensive, but worth it. They hardly use any power (ours are 2W each) and never make a dent on the battery. You can use them as much as you like on dark evenings without worrying about power consumption.
2. Sterling 600W inverter (eBay⇒). Good quality piece of kit that charges almost everything without a problem. We keep it switched off when not in use as it has a quiescent (idle) current of 0.4A.
3. 110Ah leisure battery (eBay⇒). Good battery life once we took the fridge out of the equation (read on…)
Having followed the extensive debates in the SBMCC forums over whether a small 240V domestic fridge could be used, with an inverter, to provide a cheaper alternative to a 12V compressor fridge, I decided to give it a try with my single 110Ah battery. To keep it all optimally charged, I fitted a Sterling Battery to Battery Charger (eBay⇒).
This was a mistake. I’m sure that B2B charger is a great bit of kit but I would have needed at least twice the battery capacity for this setup to work, I think. The charger was always working overtime and I fried one inverter (a cheaper, 350W unit), due to the power surge required when the 240V compressor in the fridge started up.
After some trial and error and collateral damage (the van battery also failed, I think because of the B2B charger constantly running at maximum load), I gave up. We now only switch the fridge on when we have mains hookup. I have also sold the B2B charger and replaced it with a simple voltage-sensing relay (eBay⇒), which seems to work very well. I’d recommend this.
The battery is now only used for lights, water pump and laptop/phone charging and the whole setup is kept adequately charged by daily driving. We have no fridge (surprisingly manageable) but have achieved our goal of not needing electric hookup. If money was no object, I’d now buy a Waeco 12V compressor fridge (eBay⇒), but at £400-£500 each, money is an objection!
Lesson learned: Motorhome fridges (whether 12V compressor or 3-way 12V/gas/240V models) are expensive for a reason – they are actually suitable for continuous use in a motorhome. We’d be better off with a 12V coolbox (eBay⇒) than our 240V fridge, as at least we could run that easily when we are driving each day, just switching it off at night.
Water, Toilet and Washing
Since we wanted to be self sufficient and use aires/wild camp extensively, we needed basic washing facilities and a toilet. I’ve written about our toilet solution here and it remains an excellent setup that can even be used when the bed is out. Although privacy is minimal, capacity is excellent (our Porta Potti 365 (eBay⇒) has the maximum size 21l waste tank) and so far, quality and durability has been excellent, too. Housing the toilet in a large box provides an extra seat and looks much more attractive, too.
I decided against fitting underbody fresh or waste water tanks to the van and went for internal, removable water containers. It could be argued that this wastes internal storage space but it did make installing the water simpler. In the cupboard under the sink, we have a 25l fresh water container (eBay⇒), into which a standard caravan-style 12v submersible pump (eBay⇒) goes. We also have a 25l waste water container, into which the sink drains. Naturally the sink (eBay⇒) (with cold tap only (eBay⇒)) serves for both personal washing and culinary washing up – there ain’t room for two sinks!
The fresh water can be filled in situ, thanks to a funnel/pipe arrangement, and the waste water can be unstrapped and lifted out in a few seconds for emptying. This does mean you can be a bit more flexible with emptying – you don’t need to be able to drive over a drain.
We also carry two 10l water carriers (eBay⇒) under the bed at the rear of the van which we use to store additional fresh water and to collect fresh water when filling the main water container. All of this works quite well and is reasonably satisfactory – although perhaps I should have fitted a proper grey or fresh water tank (eBay⇒), if only to free up more cupboard space.
Cooking and Gas
We didn’t want to have a full gas installation in our van so had a fairly narrow choice of cooking setups. Having considered the fantastically expensive, marine-style Origo sprit-burning stoves (eBay⇒), we decided that we could manage with a single burner and got a Camping Gaz stove (eBay⇒) of the type that uses aerosol-sized disposable gas canisters. By putting a screw through each of the feet of this ‘portable’ stove, it was permanently fixed to the worktop! This is a cheap and cheerful setup but we find it adequate – and we self cater almost all the time, so do give it a fair amount of use.
Obviously this setup can also provide hot water for washing, when we need it.
Last, but by no means least, is the vehicle itself – our 2001 short wheelbase Ford Transit (eBay⇒) 100T280. I’ve been very happy with this. It’s good to drive and averages 35mpg (with the 2.0TDDI engine – update 2016: in my opinion, based on eight years of ownership, this is a really great engine).
It’s small enough to use as a car in day-to-day life, but the extra width (compared to a VW Transporter (eBay⇒)) makes a big difference in terms of space in the accommodation section. Being a Ford, it’s been pretty reliable and is cheap enough to service and repair when necessary.
Although I lust after a Mercedes Sprinter (eBay⇒), I’d be happy to have another Transit (this one is my second, anyway!).
Our conversion was done on a budget and overall, I’m very happy with it. While there are a few things I’d change, none of them are show-stoppers and we’ve already had a lot of use out of the van, which enables us to travel to all sorts of places independently and quite cheaply. It’s also great fun.
Although it isn’t a typical motorhome, it is self-contained and does everything it needs to do – in a vehicle that’s hardly any bigger than a large 4×4.
If you’re working on a conversion (or you’ve already completed one), I’d love to hear about it and to see a photo of the end result – if you’re happy for me to do so, I’ll publish pictures and details of your vans on this site for others to learn from, too!
As always, leave a comment below if you’ve got any questions or would like to comment on my simple van conversion!