In the second of three guest posts, Robin explains the steps he took to understand the myriad of options involved in converting a VW Transporter into a camper van. Getting to grips with the VW enthusiasts’ community opened up a whole new world – including helpful tips and advice. Once he settled on converting a T5 van, hiring one first to try out proved a hugely valuable way to tailor the options to his family’s needs.
Once we decided that tents and caravans were not for us but a campervan could be, what next ?
We had ruled out the older VW vans for practical reliability reasons and unfortunately the current VW California was too pricey for us. So it appeared that a campervan conversion based on a current VW Transporter T5 was the way forward.
First, onto the internet. There are so many sites out there, so many conversion companies, accessories vendors, eBay auctions – it’s incredible. It also turns out there are a bunch of magazines (like … paper things) too; a whole other world that we’d been blissfully unaware of.
Looking around the web one of the first and most useful sites I found was the VW T4/T5 Forum – www.vwt4forum.co.uk. This is a treasure trove of information. Think you’ve got a new idea about what your campervan could be or have, or what you could do in it ? You’ll be sure to find someone on the forum that’s either done it themselves or can point you in the right direction. It’s a well managed forum too – there’s a little light hearted banter but only a miniscule number of negative threads unlike some other forums I’ve come across in the past.
The other thing I did early on was get a subscription to VW Bus magazine. The official website is www.vwbusmagazine.com but I found a fantastic deal through Zinio on my iPad and got a year’s subscription for £19.99. secret was to log on to the Zinio store through the Zinio app on the iPad.
I wanted to go and look at some vans myself. Unfortunately I had started this quest just a bit too late in the year (October) and although I found the details of a number of VW shows around the country including Busfest which is not too far away from us in Malvern, we had missed them all.
I also started to look out for VW Transporters on the road. And guess what, there are millions of the things, they’re everywhere ! We started a van counting game for my son, Owain, for long journeys but gave up as there wasn’t much of a challenge spotting them. We started to recognise the pop top roofs, and the vans that were vans and those that were a bit more than just a van.
So I started checking out locally-based van conversion companies and it turns out that South Wales has a lot of them. We also go down to Devon quite a lot to see relatives and there are loads of them down there.
I also heard that a neighbour’s VW Transporter van that I’d walked past a thousand times was actually a camper conversion albeit without a pop top roof. He was really pleased with his conversion. It had the most popular layout – units along the drivers side including a fridge, two burner hob and sink, cupboards and a 3/4 width rock ‘n’ roll bed at the back.
After the chat with my neighbour I visited the company that had converted his van. The work was really nice but there wasn’t a lot of scope for customisation as they bought the furniture off the shelf and then fitted it (to a very high quality).
While at that conversion company I also met a chap who had his van in being fitted with an internal heater. It turned out that this van was available to rent – more of this below.
I visited several other companies, checking out their work and chatting about what they could and couldn’t do. I have to say that without exception they were all very open and generous with their advice. It was apparent also that they had a pride in their work and a huge amount of experience. However, the level of customisation varied from company to company; some had standard configurations, others custom-made all of the furniture. There was a range of roofs and beds but most kept to the standard layout.
The other key differentiator was that some of the companies also sourced the panel vans; with others you had to bring the van. I was learning much more about the VW Transporter, how their average mileage as vans was 25,000 per year and how they were in serious demand, and commanding serious money secondhand.
Having done initial visits I took Heather and Owain along to see a couple of the firms. This was going to be a big purchase and it was important we got it right. I wanted Heather to see a couple of vans in the flesh too. One really important thing I wanted to check was that Owain was happy in the pop top – other friends we spoke to had a bad experience where they only discovered their son’s claustrophobia after they bought a van!
Happily Owain loved it, immediately declaring that the pop top was his room. So that sorted that then.
We were getting there. I was happier that I had a handle on the prices of things although the list of things that you could include was growing by the day. I had a better understanding of the different models of vans avaukable together with their costs (gulp).
Overall it was adding up to a larger number than I had first envisaged. Before we went down the route of sourcing a van I thought we should try the whole campervan thing out. That’s when I remembered the chap I met at the first conversion company who rented his van out.
It turned out that the chap ran a company with several types of motorhomes and campervans including the VW T5 Transporter that I’d seen at the conversion company. They’d bought the T5 camper 9 months before with the idea that they could hire it out at weekends and then use it during the week as a family car. This plan had come unstuck when it turned out to be seriously popular. It had only had a couple of weeks not rented out. In fact it was so popular that they were in the process of buying two more. You can see them on their website – www.beaconscampers.com.
By this stage it was mid November. We only had a couple of weekends free between then and Christmas. Why not rent the campervan and stay away a night ? It had a heater (which was being fitted when I first saw it) and it would allow us to try the whole experience out. If we had no problems during a winter weekend with forecast 2 degree weather we should be fine for when we actually wanted to use it in the spring and summer.
We decided to drive it down to my family’s place in Devon. This is a route that we do regularly and would give both of us a chance to try driving the van on a range of different types of roads. The idea was to then stop somewhere on the way back.
We found a pub with a camp site – The Mason’s Arms near Yeovil which looked great. It has electric hookup, heated and clean wash rooms, great reviews and a fine range of real ales ! It even does breakfast on a Sunday morning – we weren’t going to be exactly slumming it!
All went well. Heather loved driving the vehicle. The campsite and pub were great. Owain slept soundly in the pop-top. Everything worked as planned with the slightly ironic exception of the heater which blew a fuse after heating the interior of the van to 33 degrees ! (This has since been fixed and I have to say it was lovely and warm). The rental really helped us decide what things were must haves (reversing sensors for one !) and which things were nice to have (a diesel fuelled heater and the roll out awning were two of these).
Following the rental weekend we started putting together a firmer specification and had more detailed discussions with our favourite conversion companies. We contacted several owners via the forum who had conversions built by our preferred company and all of the feedback was positive. We also had the chance to see a conversion that had just been finished and to meet the owner and hear about his experience first hand.
By now it was just coming up to Christmas. Most of the conversion companies had warned us that it got really busy in the New Year. We didn’t need our campervan to be ready before the summer due to other family commitments but we thought it would be worth getting in the queue. We put down a deposit with Cascade Conversions to secure our conversion slot in May 2014.
We picked Cascade for a number of reasons. They could source a van to fit our budget. They were very experienced in building campers and they built the furniture from scratch to a very high standard. They were not fixed to a particular configuration, but would advise if they thought we were making a mistake and were very open to tweaking the design to suit what we wanted. Finally, everyone we spoke to who had one of their campers had nothing but praise regarding the product and the service they received before, during and after the build.
We also bought a registration plate with Owain’s initials on it – this was wrapped and used on Christmas morning to announce that after all the talking we were actually going to get a campervan.
Robin’s final guest post will focus on his family’s experiences in using their newly converted campervan. You can read more on his own blog, http://www.davinacamper.com.