And so I started researching what van to buy to convert to a campervan. You can go with tiny, like this one. Or you can build a giant, like this. Basically, you can start with almost any size of base vehicle and build it into a more-or-less liveable space. But of course, what you gain on the inside (space for living) you pay for on the outside (=you have a monster of a vehicle to insure, drive, and park – plus there is a ton of red tape in Australia with bus conversions as opposed to smaller campervans). The opposite is also true: what you gain by going with smaller on the outside (manoeuverability, parkability, stealth, and affordableness with fuel and rego) you pay for on the inside (=you live in a postage-stamp sized space with no dance floor. And who can live if they cannot dance?) As in life, there is a need to compromise.
I looked at small vans including the Suzuki APV, which are insanely cheap (buying one of these new costs less than most vans secondhand). But the APV gives a teeny-tiny space to work with, and it’s too narrow (1.38m) to build a bed across horizontally. I also looked at much bigger vans, like the Mercedes Sprinter. But in the end I decided it was just TOO big for now: I live in an inner-city suburb; parking is at 90 degrees on my street; most of my van travel will be solo; and I want to be able to get the van into car parks (usually these have a 2.2m height restriction, and the Sprinter is 2.4 to 2.8m high). And so I knew I was looking at something mid size.
The options are basically these: Hyundai iLoad, VW T5, Renault Trafic, Mercedes Vito, or Ford Transit. There are also smaller vans, like the VW Caddy, narrower ones like the Toyota Hiace, and larger ones, like the VW Crafter, but I’m only talking now about mid-size vans that are broad enough across the beam to put a bed horizontally, as that’s the design that seems to work best for me. I’m 169cm tall, so for me to sleep on a slight diagonal across the bed, the van needs to be at least 160-165cm across inside. And all of these ones are. You can get the specs for all the various vans by looking at the manufacturers’ websites (though note that if the van’s had a major redesign since yours was built, these may be slightly out as the info will be for this year’s model – but they’ll give you a ballpark).
Within these parameters, you then have options around SWB/MWB/LWB (short, mid, and long wheelbase, respectively) and LR/MR/HR (low, mid and high roof) – but not all of these vans have every permutation, and the space that each adds is different for each van. And, of course, if you add length you’ll lose some of the manoeuverability you were looking for; if you add height you may not get it into car parks, etc, but you will be able to stand up (and dance!) inside. So you need to check and re-check the specs, and work out how, exactly, you want to compromise. This involves plenty of time online.
Then there are layout/design questions:
- do you want a tailgate or barn doors? I wanted a tailgate, as it’s a kind of awning at the back, but it’s a simple thing to throw a tarp over barn doors if that’s what you end up with.
- do you want one side door or two? I wanted two, as my layout relies on access thru the second side door to the back of the kitchen bench.
- do you want to buy a van with side windows already in it, or are you happy to live without side windows? No windows are better for stealth, but depressing to spend any time in, I think. Or: do you want to pay to get these added as you convert? Note: YOU may be able to DIY this aspect of van conversion, but my skills are not up to window cutting just yet!
- Similarly, if you buy a minibus-configured van, or one that’s been set up as a tradie van, with shelving and stuff, are you confident about taking out the seats/shelves etc? Or do you want a blank canvas?
Then there are the mechanical and tech aspects: how old/new of a van do you want to deal with, and what can you afford (and how many kms on the odometer, which is a related question)? I’m not a grease monkey at ALL, so I wanted as new a van with a low km’s as I could afford, to give me limited hassle — I figured, if I’m spending a lot on the conversion, the LAST thing I want is for the base vehicle to crap out on me and to give me big repair bills because it’s not something I know how to fix myself.
And do you want automatic or manual? I wanted automatic, as I’ll be using the van as my only transport, so will be driving in city traffic.
Do you want airbags, aircon, ABS, power steering (etc etc)?
And do you want a reversing camera, GPS, bluetooth, hands-free phone kit etc? (All of these last ones can be retro-fitted, so don’t let their absence be a deal breaker).
These are the things to think about at this stage. In my case, my wishlist ended up being this:
- less than 80,000kms, less than 5 years old
- two side doors
- automatic transmission
- not too bashed up (but a few dings is fine as long as there’s no rust. Actually a few dings is probably better than none, because then I won’t be too precious about it when I put new dings in it myself…)
- not too huge – so probably SWB rather than MWB, and defo not LWB
- high or mid roof – or I can get a poptop installed, but it’s more expensive
- within my budget, which is $23,000 for the van itself
- side windows – or I can get these installed
- tech toys: bluetooth, GPS, handfree, reversing camera, etc – or I can get these installed
- not white, ideally; WHY is EVERY bloody van white?
- not with too much tradie shit or minibus seats, built in — as I’ll have to take them out
- tailgate rather than barn doors
- from a dealer rather than a private sale, as there’s a tiny bit more reassurance
- a van that’s common in Australia (so probably the iLoad) so that a mechanic knows what to do with it when there’s a problem way out in the outback
And so with this list I spent a LONG time on carsales.com.au, plugging in specs, contacting dealers — from whom, ugh, so much paint-by-numbers sales spin and SO much email, SMS, and voicemail spam, FFS — reading up on vans, and all the rest.
And then, having done a so much research that I was starting to bore MYSELF, I went to see ONE van, at ONE dealer, and I ended up buying this:
- Renault Trafic, 2013, $20,880 (less than book value, which was $23k at time of purchase)
- SWB, LR (and, so, I’m getting a poptop installed next month… there just weren’t any HR/MR ones available that fit my specs and budget, and of course I wanted to move fairly fast on this because the whole project just felt so damn EXCITING! But this was my big area of compromise that, if doing it again, I would do differently)
- 65,000kms, four years old
- two side doors & tailgate & side windows
- no tradie or minibus setup to remove; a blank canvas (though there was a cargo barrier that I removed and sold on ebay for $60, a bonus!)
- automatic transmission
- airbags & aircon
- not too bashed up (but with a few dings)
- GPS but no reversing camera (I bought one for $50)
- from a dealer not a private sale, and with a one-year dealer warranty
- Renault is not a common brand in Australia, but it’s not unknown either
- white 😦
- mechanically sound – checked by NRMA inspection and confirmed by diesel mechanic when I got it serviced