If you’re considering starting a DIY campervan build project, follow along with our Ford Transit camper conversion project from start to finish and find out everything you need to know to complete your own.
We got the idea to start a DIY camper build project some time ago, but as a first-time campervan builder, I had a lot of questions. Which van to buy? How much to pay for a van? What facilities would a camper need? How would I do the work, could I do the work?
We are a couple of a certain age, let’s say 60ish. We don’t want to “rough” it, so a sleeping bag, a bucket and a gas stove wouldn’t cut it. Equally, we could accept that some basics of modern living, microwave oven, electric kettle etc might not be totally essential.
As the main use would be for short holidays I quickly realised that putting in the full “vanlife” facilities wouldn’t be necessary, but some things would be very important.
You can purchase ford transit campervan conversion kits ready to install, but they are quite expensive and not necessarily how we want our camper to be. Overall the priorities for our van build became the below.
Picking The Right Van To Convert
- Our camper must be a mainstream van, so that repairs when away from home base are a possibility.
- The van needs enough head height in the back to be able to stand up.
- It must have sufficient room to fit the facilities we felt we needed.
- It must not be so big that maneuverability and access in towns might be an issue.
Camper Van Facilities
- As a number one, our camper van conversion must have a working toilet, even if we didn’t use it!
- Hot running water, or at least easy heating of water.
- Some heating, although we don’t intend to do many Winter trips.
- Enough electric power for upto a week off grid. Although not for every electrical gadget known, just lighting, phone charging, and water pump seemed to be enough.
- And comfortable seating and sleeping arrangements!
How to find the right camper conversion van
When we started looking for a van we set a modest budget of £4,000. This meant that there were quite a few different eligible vans, ripe to convert into campers to consider.
Height was a major factor as mentioned above, while we were looking, there seemed to be very few high roof vans available, but once we pulled the trigger and bought one it looked like every one that was for sale was a high top! That’s always the way when you’re shopping for something on ebay.
All of the different van manufacturers including Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, DAF, MAN, Renault, Citroen etc all seemed to have their own plus and minus points.
As the ones in our budget were always higher mileage examples, we decided to avoid ones with car based engines. Not for any other reason than if they were originally made for a car, having them in a van must stress them a lot more. Seemed like sound logic to me.
A lot of things kept bringing us back to the idea of a Ford Transit Camper Conversion, and eventually we found what we felt would be a reasonable base for the project build.
Because of the whole pandemic crisis, we felt we couldn’t look too far away, and viewing privately available vans didn’t fit with the rules unfortunately. So we bought on a wing and a prayer.
Eventually we found a suitable tranny van, it was a Ford Transit 85/280 Mid-height roof, Mid-length wheelbase, a minibus, that even had a wheelchair lift in the back from new.
Although it was higher mileage than we had hoped, with 170k miles on the clock, having been used to run disabled people for schools etc, we were told it had a good service history. This one was from a dealer within 50 miles of us, who offered delivery, and was just within our budget.
Having bought and sold a considerable number of cars and bikes in the past, I have grown a deep distrust of dealers over the years, and I avoid buying from them as much as possible.
This one didn’t let me down, in typical fashion, they were misleading in their original description of our van, and their supporting communications served to further mislead, and ultimately our new camper-to-be was delivered with unacceptable faults which I was not prepared to let slide.
Anyway, after a little bit of back and forth, and plenty of hassle we had the faults, which I will detail below, addressed by the dealer, and just had to accept the fact that one owner, full service history, was actually 3 owners and “you can phone my mate at the garage where it has been serviced over the last 6 years”
Classic. Luckily the van is still better than a lot of others I have seen. And although costing more than I felt it was worth, it wasn’t too far out of the way.
Time will tell if the maintenance it had was actually any good.
One of the perks of it being a minibus is that we won’t need to put in any windows DIY style, if anything we may have too many.
We realised that we will probably have to cover some of them with internal fittings, and we wondered if we might feel a little exposed with so many windows.
Initial Inspection of our camper van to be
As mentioned we did have few issues when the van was delivered. The worse ones were.
The side sliding door locking mechanism electrical connectors were totally broken. This means the door will not lock, and everytime you try to lock it, the van beeps loudly to warn you. The manual indicates there is a manual lock, but this wasn’t fitted in this van with it being a minibus!
There was a very loud knocking noise from the rear as you were driving along. I could see that there were new discs and pads fitted to the van which is great, but the noise seemed to be brake related. For example, when you pressed the brake pedal or pulled the handbrake on slightly, it stopped.
Now having seen anything obvious myself, eventually the dealer diagnosed this as the handbrake cable knocking against the body, very strange.
Frustratingly, the missing indicator lens, and badly frayed drivers seatbelt should have been picked up during the fresh MOT it came with! Just goes to show you how much that’s worth.
The missing jack and hub caps (which were in the advert pictures) should have been noticed before delivery too in my opinion, especially as all their vans are “carefully inspected”.
Surprisingly the van was very dirty. I say surprising because if you are running disabled people about, you would probably expect a reasonable amount of hygiene! But compared to the smell of the ex-builders vans, it was a pristine example, ripe for a camper van conversion.
The dealer did sort these issues out in the end which I’m pleased about, but it added a full month delay to starting the project. With hindsight, I would probably still have bought this van, but during normal “non-pandemic” times I wouldn’t have driven it away from the dealer until they had fixed all of the issues.
Which Window Tint for a Camper Van?
This is a strange place to start you may think, but just try doing it when there’s furniture in the way.
Privacy is always compromised when you are in a caravan, so we suspected that this would be the same story in a Transit camper conversion van. Especially when you may be parking in more public areas.
We knew we would have blinds or some sort of window covering to block out light on a night, but thought we would like to be able to sit in the camper without feeling like people are staring in and having to close the curtains all of the time.
Researching tints for the windows, we were worried that we didn’t want to make the interior too dark, after all, we want to visit some beautiful places and look out on an evening from the comfort of our camper van conversion.
However, the wisdom seems to be that even dark tints don’t do that when you’re inside and acclimated to it, but they do stop people looking in unless you’ve got a light on inside and its dark out.
We have had experience of applying window tints before, and are dab hands at using the soapy water to make the film easy to move, then squeegee the water out.
We considered putting chrome mirror tints on the window, but worried this might do the opposite of what we wanted by drawing attention. So we chose a middle ground 20% VLT (visual light transmission) window tint, this seems dark enough for privacy but not too dark.
Stripping the Transit camper conversion
Obviously all of the minivan seats needed to come out. And we were going to remove all of the grey panelling and head liner too. The dealer kindly took out the lift, just leaving us with a dangerously rough cut live wire straight from the battery, what great service!
Taking the seats out of our Transit minibus van was quite a task. We were quite pleased that because of the wheelchair use there were only 5 of them. 15 or 17 seats might have broken us before we’d even got started.
In principle it should be easy to remove the seats, but the nuts and bolts are exposed underneath the van and are rusted solid. We have 5 different impact drivers, rated all the way up to 1000nm of torque, but when the rusty nuts crumble to being round, that didn’t really help.
Anyway with the use of heat, angle grinding, cold chisels and a lot of swearing they did come out. Even if we had bought one of those Ford Transit campervan conversion kits, it wouldn’t have helped us with this.
There doesn’t seem to be any second hand market for mini bus seats unfortunately. Even in my local area there are at least 4 people trying to sell them. Seems everybody is converting mini-buses into campers. With this in mind we took ours to the local recycle center, which we used to call the tip.
We were probably lucky that we didn’t have a plywood lined Transit van. Taking the fabric-covered boards out of the sides was quite easy. They were mostly held in with plastic clips which although they break come out quite easily. There was a lot of dust, so masks and goggles were a must.