What began during the fifties, sixties and seventies with firms making Westfalia like and Devon-esque kits for the Type 2 - not forgetting Westfalia's removable Mosaic furniture kit for T1 and T2 Window Vans (nee Kombi) - evolved through the T3 era, only to flourish with the T4 and continues with the T5.
Numerous small businesses emerged to cater for an increasingly affluent society seeking out ever diverse leisure and recreational pursuits. A vibrant worldwide "cottage" industry prevails catering for all van types, not just Volkswagens. Yet it is the VW's traditional car like driving qualities and performance that ensures it's popularity and success. Like all Transporters before them, the faster and heavier T4 and T5, have a wide ranging and classless appeal as a base vehicle, suiting most tastes and budgets.
This article marks the first steps that should be considered before embarking on any project, such as base vehicle choice in the market place, windows, seats, and other important considerations - insulation and ventilation...
The Definition of a Motor Caravan
Minimum requirements to reregister and insure a newly completed, or soon to be completed, Motor Caravan are:
- at least one side window (preferably an opening one).
- some form of permanently secured bed - a bed/seat will require seat belt attachments (on vehicles over 2500kg GVW, from April 2012).
- a useable fixed water vessel (either a tank or large bottles equaling at least 27litres/6 gallons) that can pump water.
- a means of cooking with at least two burners and it's own fuel supply that can be stowed in a cabinet.
- a useable table that must have a permanent mounting point that corresponds to a seating position.
- a means of clothes storage - under the bed will suffice.
Windows, Seat Belts and Bed/Seats
Converting an old van into a multi-use Motor Caravan, Day Van or Surf Van is such a personal thing. Folks contemplate building a vehicle to reflect their character and lifestyle, which is to be applauded and encouraged as it adds so much more depth to our scene, providing fellow owners with an infinite source of inspiration and wonderment.
Perhaps unwittingly, Volkswagen themselves have helped the cause by facilitating the neat, but comparatively costly, fitment of "factory" bonded glass in various grades of tint to the standard panel van, improving the strength and integrity of the vehicle structure that is lost when the largest of the cheaper "cut-in" windows are installed with traditional rubber seals. Many Panel Vans have had windows installed by VW approved companies as part of a comprehensive Camper conversion.
... such is UK Law that adults and children over three don't have to be restrained if no seat belts are present.
However, moving internal objects - including people - are a major source of injury in Road Traffic Accidents, so there are a number of factors to be considered when choosing which vehicle to use as a base, particularly with the extra momentum generated by the greater mass combined with the higher speed capabilities of T4's and 5's...
What Is Available In The Marketplace?
Although the Transporter's diversity has been diluted to some extent - one talent has remained, it's user friendliness. Nowadays, many working vans and minibuses are leased vehicles that tend to be auctioned off after three or four years, giving a useful source of well maintained base vehicles - and some used and abused examples, so beware.
Arguably, giving such a van a new life has many "green" credentials not often considered by those "in charge", especially as the popular and economical diesel engines found in the T4 can easily be run on biofuel's and vegetable oil's (alas, the T5 shouldn't), and the petrol versions on LPG.
Apart from Caravelles, Multivans and the Motor Caravans that are based on the Window Van (nee Kombi) platform, many of which have bonded windows fitted all round, there are a number of options available that, with some thought and and a degree of investment, can be adapted to meet everyone's wants and needs...
Crew Vans were more commonly built on the Window Van chassis ordered through the UK dealer network, but Crew Van seats have since been fitted to some Panel Vans by their owners.
Choosing your Seat
The comprehensive Variotech seat was popular with many conversion specialists in the 1990's as the system was designed specifically for vans from that era. It can be locked into a number of positions in rails that are bolted through the floor making full use of the strengthening cross rails that are built into the T4's floorpan (when assisted by spreader plates that the fixing bolts pass through).
Both the T5 Multivan seat and the similar Variobank 333 (neither of which are Type Approved for use in the T4) are three seater rock'n'roll bed-seats as shown below (courtesy of Jimbo)...
For those truly on a budget some proprietary sofa-beds - already upholstered and "good to go" - will fit within the confines of the T4 body - but they do require a certain amount of fabrication and modification to enable them to be bolted adequately and securely through the van floor to the aforementioned cross rails with spreader plates. Seat belts should not be contemplated with these seats - as such they should only be considered if one or two people are to use the van.
Most conversion companies still choose use the Variotech and RIB seat, which are Type Approved for use in the T4 - and the Variobank 333, which is Type Approved for the T5.
Any seat supplier will be able to advise whether their product is suitable for your application, and as such any liability lays with them. However, if the self-builder chooses to fit a non-automotive seat in their vehicle (i.e a sofa-bed) it is the self-buider that must be liable for any risk - not the outlet that supplied the sofa-bed - in any case, these should not be considered if more than two are to travel in the vehicle.
Ventilation and Insulation
Of utmost importance is the provision for adequate VENTILATION - suffocation by carbon dioxide whilst sleeping in vans is not unknown, especially if a number of people are present.
As a van requires a side window to make it a proper camper it may be worth investing in an opening one (with a flyscreen) if the budget allows. A sunroof, skylight or wind powered roof fans will suffice, and cab door window wind deflectors serve a useful dual role.
Another consideration before setting out on a conversion is all round insulation and rust proofing as all those sleeping bodies in your van will otherwise cause the cold metalwork to "sweat" or condensate inside - at best dripping on your head come morning...
Specialists and Regulations
A number of establishments, many specialising solely in the T4, offer fitting services and Type Approved DIY kits for home installation. Ever tightening regulation and legislation apply to installers, which had led to a dilution in the marketplace, but with the T4's increasing popularity new companies are emerging thick and fast. Some companies choose to stick with an area of expertise, be it bonded window and roof installation, stylish interior panelling and quality furniture, whilst others provide a "one-stop" service.
Specific regulations exist for gas installations and mains voltage consumables, which may require signing off by certificated engineers before insurance cover is given - and they should have annual inspections. However, modern fully contained appliances, such a stoves and cool boxes, can adapted to fit in units. They do provide limited use, so this must be contemplated as does the need for a mains electrical hook up - is it really needed?
Please don't let all this put you off converting your van into a Day Van, Surf Van or full-on Camper. As we stated earlier in this piece every van is different and plays a different role in everyone's lives. Occupant safety should be a primary concern.
However, some of us built our vans some time before the T5 came along, hence we don't have the luxury of three point inertia seat belts in the back of our vans, and some of us, who built vans later on, do.
It pays to shop around and seek the latest advice before embarking on your project. Be assured that any investment into a conversion (but not necessarily any "customisation" or performance upgrade) will add value to any base vehicle (that's in good condition!). How much depends on the quality of build, fit and finish, so it is worth bearing this in mind at the costing stage. Of more importance is the enjoyment that can be had, and the respect from friends and family, who'll all want one of their own...
The Motor Caravan market does tend to fluctuate with the seasons, but keeping a photographic record, all of the receipts and any Type Approval certificates relating to the kit installed, will help with any unfortunate insurance claim, and will serve to remind of the effort required to complete it - and some vans never are quite finished...