I’ve been toying with the idea of buying myself a campervan for about 3 or 4 years, but never had the funds to buy or build something that I thought I’d be happy with. So I’d pretty much resigned myself to having to wait until the mortgage is paid off in a couple of years and then embark on the project. It turns out that the time to get a campervan was about 3 or 4 years ago, before they became as popular as they are today and certainly before the lockdown of 2020 when their popularity rocketed, along with their price!
When I first started thinking about a van, I could find a decent base vehicle for about £10-12k – now it’s more like £13-15k – and that’s just for a second-hand Transit. You can add at least another couple of grand for a similarly specced VW Transporter, which has become the de-facto vehicle for campervan conversions. I’d decided long ago that when I did eventually buy a van, it wasn’t going to be a VW, but the slightly cheaper, just as reliable and much more available Transit Custom.
My plan had been to buy the best base vehicle I could afford, and then convert it myself. I’m not especially ‘handy’, but the prospect of creating exactly what I wanted, and making sure it was done in the best possible way had always appealed to me and to my sense of order. I’ve watched so many self-build videos on YouTube it’s not funny and if they’d taught me anything, it was that if you set your mind to it, work through things in a methodical way, then almost anyone could build their own camper. I conveniently ignored the fact that I have nowhere to carry out such a build. My drive is quite big, but I have no garage for storing anything (it was long ago converted into my home office) and the drive already has cars on it and wouldn’t be able to support a van as well. I added that inconvenience to the ‘cross that bridge when I come to it’ list.
Then, in mid-2020, I actually came into some funds – coincidentally around the same time as we re-mortgaged in order to put a proper roof on the conservatory and transform it from a room we could use about 2 months a year, into something we could actually use every day! I now had enough money to buy a decent base vehicle and all the materials I would need to convert an empty Transit into a comfortable home from home on the road.
My search for the perfect Transit began in earnest. Ideally I was looking for a 2016 Custom (the one with the Euro-6 engine), L2 long wheelbase, good interior spec (bluetooth, cruise control, etc.) and a fairly low mileage. Ideally I need the vehicle to give me 10 years service, so I’m going to add 60-70,000 miles to it over that time. I know Transit engines will last forever, but the fewer miles it has to begin, the longer it’s going to last me. I also didn’t really want a white one – which ended up being the biggest problem – it seems that every second hand Transit is white, it’s almost like an unwritten rule! It was when I started this search that I realised how much the value of Customs had risen in the past couple of years – I realised the search was going to take a bit longer than I’d thought. I could find dozens of vehicles that met some of my criteria, but very few that met all of them, and these ended up being too new or too expensive.
While I was searching for a vehicle I was also looking for the materials I would need to convert the van into a camper. It soon became apparent that this too was going to be more of a challenge than I’d expected. I think a combination of Brexit and the increased demand for materials from people doing self-builds had led to a dearth of many of the things I was going to need. Insulation and sound-deadening materials were nearly impossible to find, and when they were in stock, their price had risen significantly from when I’d been looking a couple of years ago. Stock availability and cost of materials were a problem across the board though. Although it’s still much easier to source vehicle specific items for a T5 or T6, there has been a growing market for Transit Custom components too. I had found suppliers for pre-cut lining materials and for fitted cabinets and kitchen units, all specifically designed for an L2 Custom, but now they were almost permanently ‘out of stock’.
After three or four months of looking for the right vehicle and the right materials I began to despair. I found myself in an infuriating Catch-22 situation. I didn’t want to buy the van and then have it sitting on the drive for months while the materials I wanted were impossible to source, but I wasn’t prepared to risk buying the materials until I had the base vehicle sat on my drive. It was in March this year, only when my morale reached an all time low point that I began to consider buying an already completed conversion. I had always wanted to do the conversion myself, but I began to think about the advantages of buying a finished product. I started doing some searches.
You’d be amazed at the price of converted campervans, well I was! I found 20 year old Transits, with 200,00 miles on them for £10k. I spent three weeks looking on sites like Autotrader – concentrating on private sellers so I could avoid having to pay 20% VAT. On an average day there would be just one or maybe two new vehicles that were even close to my spec, entering the market. I quickly had to switch off the ‘100 mile radius’ filter and eventually I found something that met nearly all my criteria. The only thing it was missing was the Euro-6 spec engine. It was a 2015 model, but it was a good price, it had absolutely everything else I wanted, but it was in Bournemouth – the best part of 200 miles from home! I dismissed it and continued my searches.
I talked with my wife about the frustrations I was having in finding the perfect vehicle and she had a stern word with me. She suggested that if I didn’t soften my stance I may never find the right vehicle and the longer I spent looking, the less time I would have to enjoy the vehicle this year. She’d also suggested that building it myself may be great in theory, but it would be damned hard work for two or three months and when push came to shove I’d probably make a balls of it – my imagined abilities would be far outweighed by my general incompetence when it comes to anything practical.
The next morning I went back to Autotrader and tried to find the Bournemouth van again. It seemed to be gone. I was a bit gutted. However, I tweaked my searches and eventually found it again. I messaged the seller through the Autotrader site and waited. A couple of hours passed and nothing happened. With my wife’s words ringing in my head and my renewed vigour to secure a converted vehicle, I was now worried I would miss out on what was the best van I’d seen in weeks of searching. I rang the guy directly. It went to voice mail, so I left a message. Within 2 minutes the guy rang me back. “Yes, it was still for sale”, “No, no-one else had been to see it”. It turns out the vehicle had been converted by the guy himself, after building his own T5 he’d decided to build another as a lockdown project to make some money. He was a boat builder, so the work had been well within his wheelhouse. I arranged to go and see it.
I figured that if this turned out to be anything like as good as it appeared to be in the advert, I would probably end up buying it. In which case, I wouldn’t want to drive all the way down to Bournemouth, view it, agree to buy it and then drive all the way home and then try to make arrangements to go back down and collect it. I needed to be able to view it, make a decision, and if I bought it, drive it back in the one visit. I rang my very good friend Chris and he agreed to drop everything and take me down the next day. I spoke to the seller again and pretty much told him that if the vehicle was as per the advert I would buy it, at the price he wanted – but only on the proviso that he wouldn’t let anyone else see it before I arrived tomorrow.
Chris drove the 140 miles from his house to mine and then the 200 miles from mine to Bournemouth. As well as providing a lift, Chris knows a lot more about campervans than I do – he’s been researching them for much longer and he would be an extra pair of eyes and a second opinion when it came to the decision to buy it or not. I was doubly grateful for his company.
Turns out the van was just as advertised! We drove it round the local area, we inspected the crap out of it, the seller gave us a detailed run-down of how he’d converted it and where everything was. There were a few more miles on it than I would have wanted, but nothing major and it was a 2015, but again, not a deal-breaker now I’d refined my criteria, so I bought it! The seller said he’d struggled to sell it, which I thought was odd – he’d had loads of “is it still for sale” messages, but no follow ups. He’d even dropped the price twice and had been considering dropping it again – but I actually thought it was a good price now. I’d have struggled to have bought this spec of vehicle and converted it, for the price I paid him. I thought the 3 months of back-breaking effort I’d have spent doing the conversion was more than covered by any price difference.
There are a couple of things I need to change in the van, but on the whole I reckon it’s 90% perfect. I’ve had two trips out in it and I’m very happy with the results. I want to add a swivel to the passenger seats and I think the windows could do with tinting more – the base vehicle was a minibus, so the windows are what came out of the factory. I don’t have much headroom when I’m sitting in the back, so I need to make some adjustments there too. Overall though I’m very satisfied with what I’ve ended up with and maybe I could have produced something better, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to use it until next year and maybe material shortages would have resulted in compromises I would have been unhappy with.
I’m looking forward to a summer of weekends away!