Want a camper van but have realised that you want a good balance between reliability, practicality and style ?
Well, if you’re like us you’re on a journey that has probably started with yearning after a T1 splitscreen or T2 bay window van but have now come to appreciate that there are certain drawbacks to such a romantic notion. Like comfort, for example. Or confidence that it’ll start first time. Or not really wanting to be on first name terms with the man from your breakdown recovery service.
The first part of my story recounted how we’d dipped our toes in the water and took an original 1970s Bay to Islay for a week’s break. We wanted to know if owning a classic VW camper van was for us. Unfortunately, it ended with us phoning the hire company to ask them to come and pick up their poorly-maintained van (rear bumper hanging off), having experienced several less-than-pleasant experiences over the previous week.
We’re not competent mechanics and the very last thing we wanted was the hassle of an old vehicle costing us money and worry, so we put pay to any idea of owning an original T2. However, we’d already got the camper van ‘bug’ and so the obvious question was: “so if it’s not going to be an older van, what should we now look at ?”.
Act II of this little story starts in mid-2010, two years after that fateful holiday in Islay.
In the UK there are basically three options – if you want a VW, that is (a large white motorhome wasn’t exactly what we had in mind !!):
- a modern Brazilian-made T2, converted by Danbury
- a T5 Transporter converted by one of many companies in the UK
- VW’s camper van, the California.
(No prizes to regular readers who know how this story ended, by the way. Please stick with me – hopefully you’ll enjoy the story).
Act 11 Scene 1 – The Danbury
We knew that the conversion company Danbury imported modern T2 Kombi vans, which are manufactured in Sao Paolo in Brazil, and converted them into campers. These have water-cooled petrol (or biofuel) engines and look similar to the original T2s with the exception of the radiator on the front and a flatter, squarer roof. Danbury import plain white panel vans and convert them into campers with windows and retro ’70s colour schemes.
There are four main model types on offer with a variety of specifications from 4 or 5 seats and an optional 7, but all rear-wheel drive.
However, we didn’t even need to view one to know they’re not for us. They seem underpowered (1390cc, 80 bhp), have basic specifications (power assisted steering is an optional extra, ‘clunky’ interiors) and don’t have the looks of the originals with that big grille on the front. It seems that rusting is an issue, even on these new vans. To cap it all, prices start at £23,000 and go up to £35,500 !
Production of Brazilian T2s is coming to an end at the end of 2013 owing to the introduction of new safety laws (where ABS brakes and passenger and driver airbags are required). One view is that these modern T2s will become instant classics and increase in value. I must admit I have my doubts; if you’re going to fork out this much why not buy a fully-renovated late Bay that’s a genuine classic ?
Act 11 Scene 2 – Becoming Converted ?
We started researching T5 camper vans in mid-2010. There are probably a dozen or more conversion companies in the UK including Bilbo, Danbury, CMC Reimo and Jerba and the key attraction on the face of it is that the purchase price is marginally less than the VW California.
Which Motorhome reviewed twelve conversions in their December 2012 issue, revealing the range of styles and specifications on offer. Clearly, the base T5 van is in a different league from the T2: front-wheel drive with 2.0 litre engines between of 82, 100, 240 or 180bhp, and with 5, 6 or 7-speed gearboxes. VW restrict supply of the specialist motorhome base vehicle (the ‘SE’) to only seven companies, the others using more basic Transporter bases.
In December 2014, Which Motorhome reviewed four campers based on a VW T5 (including the VW California) together with four non-VW conversions, including Mercedes, Ford, Nissan and Toyota bases. The video below gives a pretty good feel for each of these eight campers.
Which Motorhome’s review of twelve conversions
The Danbury Surf
CMC Reimo Multi Style … with a toilet (?!)
When we did our research in 2010 we liked the quality and ‘clean’ look of the Jerba conversion, with several variations available. We personally didn’t like the side-elevating roof of the Bilbo which doesn’t seem the most efficient use of space ‘upstairs’. On one trip away we looked at van from Elite Conversions but were put off the traditional, square look to the storage and the ‘carpet’ coverings (reminscent of buses) to the walls.
These days there are many more conversions available to suit different circumstances and budgets. So if you’re looking for a conversion seating a family of five then the CMC Reimo (T5 base), Wellhouse Terrier (Ford Transit base) or the Hillside Dalbury Action (Nissan base) might be suitable. Some people might be attracted by the fact that most UK conversions have the sliding door on the passenger side rather than the driver’s side (as in the VW California SE and Beach). (But having owned a California for four years now I can tell you that this really isn’t a disadvantage – you simply have to park on the ‘right’ side of the road). If you’re looking for just an ‘occasional’ camper (and one that’s in a lower price bracket) then the Bilbo Space (T5 base) or Autosleeper Wave (Mercedes base) might be worth considering.
However, in doing your research it’s well worth paying attention to the important aspects which might become limiting after a while, but not immediately obvious if you’re new to camper vans. For example, I think most conversions incorporate too many compromises – as the Which Motorhome videos show. Either:
- the storage seems inefficient or insufficient. Is a portable toilet, oven or grill a good use of scarce storage space, for example ? Would you use these often ?;
- the design is very traditional and perhaps unappealing if you want to sell it on;
- the materials are basic, plasticky or dark;
- the kitchen is at the rear and not very practical;
- the engine size is relatively small for a heavy vehicle and therefore limiting;
- the upper bed isn’t useable for two older children or adults which means that it’s effectively just a two person camper.
Perhaps as important, the initial attraction of conversions – a lower purchase price – isn’t all it seems. Generally, conversion prices start at £30,000 – £40,000 with options extra. Only two of the twelve conversions reviewed by Which Motorhome in 2012 came in at under £35,000 and once you factor in options to give the equivalent spec of the VW California then the margin is small, if at all. The best of the T5 conversions reviewed in December 2014 (the CMC Reimo) came in at £52,000, more than the starting price for a VW California. You then have to factor in residuals – conversions will have a higher rate of depreciation compared with the factory-built California and lack the European-wide dealer network should anything go wrong.
By now you won’t be surprised to hear that we weren’t persuaded to buy either a T2 Danbury nor a T5 conversion. To be honest, the final Scene is fairly short and sees us going into a VW Van Centre to see a VW California. It took about 5 minutes for us to be convinced. Literally.
Each to his or her own. You may well be (or have been) on this same journey and may come to a different decision. And if you buy a VW camper van you’ll still be part of the same worldwide community. But for us – a family of four needing a van for daily use as well as holidays away – the California is easily the best choice. (And ignore the fact that Which Motorhome for some reason viewed the most expensive California with all the options (at £57,000!) … current prices start at around £45,000, only marginally more than some conversions).
The ingenuity and clean lines of the Cali’s design, the build quality, the 3-year warranty recognised by a dealer network across Europe and beyond, and the fact that it holds its value far more than any other camper or motorhome (and most cars) means that it was a fairly easy decision in the end. We’ve now owned our Cali for four years and I’ve posted a comprehensive review elsewhere on my site.
Last updated November 2014