Campervan conversion tips, tricks and pitfalls before you buy


Not for sale

New Zealand is on track for a summer unlike any other. With international borders closed and roads emptied of inbound travellers, everyone has a road trip planned. Routemaps to the Forgotten Highway, rounding the Catlins or the northern cape are being redrawn with fresh enthusiasm. This summer will be different. No jams. No wrong turns. No fights over car playlists. Only, ribbons of tarmac and halcyon summer evenings stretching out to the distant hills.

Or so, I’ve been told.

Marianne the van. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Marianne the van. Photo / Thomas Bywater

It was this promise of a summer of open roads that led to possibly the rashest purchases of my three-decade-long lifespan: in July I bought a campervan. Judging by the front drives of Auckland, I’m not the only one.

The freedom of a home on the road now has a fresh appeal. After the first half of the year spent in and out of lockdowns many New Zealanders have been turned on to the idea of a home on the road. Since emerging form level 2, 103,402 people a month have been Googling the term “camper conversions”, according to Quirky Campers New Zealand.

As one of those pouring over Trade Me listings, I can tell you the range of vehicles on offer was a mixed bag. With a mass exodus of travellers who would normally be on OE touring the country, there was a glut of boxy looking vans with mattresses in the back. They ranged from vintage “Vee-Dub” kombis to family cars with a “self-contained” sticker slapped on the bumper.

But it wasn’t about what they looked like now. So I reasoned with the girlfriend. It was about what they could look like, given a lick of paint or three.

Tiny home on the road: Inside Marianne the van. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Tiny home on the road: Inside Marianne the van. Photo / Thomas Bywater

With the spectre of turning 30 fast approaching and a pandemic that threatened to turn up with little warning or regard for anyone’s summer plans, the impulse purchase of a budget camper looked increasingly rational. Worst-case scenario, I might learn a bit about mechanics and 12-volt electrics. As the year has taught us, a bit of survivalist “prepping” for the unforeseen goes a long way.

My specific brand of motoring mid-life crisis was a 1991 Toyota Hiace, with 300,000km on the clock.

Her prior owner – Jean from Lyon – had spent the entirety of the national lockdown sleeping in the back. Having arrived in New Zealand in January as a fresh-faced traveller, he now had the beard and thousand-yard stare of a cloistered monk. He handed me the keys to his hermitage on wheels. It needed a clean.

Dropping him off at the Queen Street Backpackers, I asked him if he’d miss his home on the road.
“No,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.

At least it had been excellent value. A very reasonable offer on the face value of the van. Added value in the form of a set of pots, pans, camping accoutrements and a frisbee. And entertainment value for the neighbours, as we turned the drive into a workshop.

A campervan conversion could be just the project you're after. Photo / Thomas Bywater
A campervan conversion could be just the project you’re after. Photo / Thomas Bywater

In spite of extensive internet research of reams of impossibly neat and spacious designs with suitably inspiring titles like #vanlife #nomad, the aesthetics veered towards “granny camper,” as the girlfriend put it.

With white cabinets, fairy lights and paisley-floral upholstery for the ceiling panels, there’s no mistaking it for anybody else’s van. Staring at the swirling constellation on the roof of this psychedelic mystery machine is enough to power some very vivid dreams.

Three months and too many trips to the garage later, our mobile grand design is up and running.

Mobile kitchen: Camping in Marianne the van. Photo / Ian Bailey
Mobile kitchen: Camping in Marianne the van. Photo / Ian Bailey

However the great redeeming feature is the awning. Once you’re pitched up with a view, awning extended, it’s a home away from home. On weekends away with friends this shaded space becomes a the focal point for the camp site. You certainly can’t miss it.

Road guide to campervan ownership

There are many more routes to a motorhome holiday than ownership. Bargain rentals vans and campers have been a hit with Kiwi roadtrippers getting out of lockdown. However, if these fleet of RVs don’t quite live up to your Instagram aspirations there’s another way.

Quirky Campers NZ manages a fleet of nine unique motorhomes with a lot of personality. And not the quirky personality of our new van, which complains loudly and doesn’t like turning over on cold mornings.

The vehicles are mostly converted work vans and ambulances with features you’d more likely find in a boutique BnB than a mobile home.

Quirks such as a log burner in Ivan – a 2006 Fiat ambulance which is now a “bach on wheels”.

Ivan the converted ambulance. Photo / Supplied, Quirky Campers NZ
Ivan the converted ambulance. Photo / Supplied, Quirky Campers NZ

Leanne and Dan Edwards have been running the rental company since last October. “We’ve had a huge amount of enquires from people wanting to own a campervan,” says Leanne. Their company, which lets out the idiosyncratic autos online, has started running courses on how to build your own and common pitfalls to avoid for first time converters.

Some of this knowledge is practical: 12v electrics, van plumbing and the like. The rest of it is valuable lessons they have learned from years of holidays. Some they learned the hard way. Five years ago they were taken for a ride by a fraudster, when the motorhome they had been planning their honeymoon around failed to materialise.

“We’re still out of pocket,” say Dan and Leanne. “We were ripped off and we don’t want anyone to go through that again.”

They have made some resources to help those planning a campervan conversion do so with confidence. One of these is a directory of reputable camper converters and workshops around New Zealand, to stop anyone else getting stung.

“There are particular types and styles,” says Leanne. “Not all converters can do everything – like putting in gas or windows, but there are craftspeople producing unique bits of road-going art.”

There are three main ways to find the van of your dreams. Which one you pick depends on what resources you have at your disposal.
“Are you time poor, cash poor or both,” says Leanne. “You’ve got to weigh up what you can dedicate to this project.”

Then there is the fact that summer is fast approaching. “What’s your deadline? You might want to be going on the road right away or having a planned sabbatical.” Leanne and Dan have outlined the best route to your own motorhome, and outlined some of the potholes and pitfalls along the way.

Van life near Kaikoura. Photo / Getty
Van life near Kaikoura. Photo / Getty

Buying a pre converted camper

Time poor, cash rich

“You might want to just fast track,” says Leanne. Depending on how much time you have to invest.
When looking to buy “be value savvy, and work out your must haves.”
“This could be a big bed, a fridge.” She recommends taking a trip in something similar before buying, so you can work out potential pitfalls.
“Then, how specialist are your needs? Most campers aren’t geared up to be to be wheelchair-accessible or for large families or dogs.
“It’s going to be much easier for you to convert a van to meet your needs than find one premade.”
As you would with any vehicle, make sure the paperwork is in order and try to see the van before you buy.

Commissioning a professional

Time rich, cash rich

When you have a vision for the perfect van and won’t compromise on your vision. Of course this route is the most costly and time intensive.
“That’s where the quirky comes into it,” says Leanne. The top end, one-of-a-kind vans are an investment but they do make their value back.
“And if you rent it out you can recoup the costs.”

DIY

Time rich, cash savvy

The final road to ownership is a passion project. It will mean a lot of learning, but for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty it is definitely the most cost-effective way to convert a van.

“There are heaps of vans which have belonged to backpackers,” advises Leanne. “These normally have been done at speed with limited tools. But it’s cheap and it can give you a base to build off of.”

Mahara the campervan. Photo / Quirky Campers NZ
Mahara the campervan. Photo / Quirky Campers NZ

Four tips for the road

Skills to learn – “Even if you’re buying outright it’s helpful to have some knowledge of 12v electrical or plumbing on top of mechanics.
“I bought myself a sewing time machine and learned to upholster our van – YouTube is a great resource.”

How much to Budget – “Be tuned into what the market value is of certain vans. Look at the price of a base vehicle,” says Dan. There’s often a steep markup on work done from the cost of pre-converted vans.

Best make or model? – “If you’re looking to rent out the vehicle there are plenty of popular models – bigger vans do better. Stand up, automatic and bigger models. Ford Transit, Sprinter rent better,” says Leanne

“Ex ambulances make great vans. They are pre-insulated, and have plenty of space, says Dan. “As ex-service vehicles they’ve been well maintained and the paperwork and history is going to be impeccable.”

“Smaller vans like Hiaces go forever and you can get parts quickly and cheaply. Don’t worry about the make or model only your needs.”

Try before you buy – “You might have fallen in love with the idea of a campervan – definitely road test something close to what you’re thinking.” You might find something that’s critically important, you can live without. Other things you might not have thought of could be deal breakers.

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com

This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 27 October, 2020

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