Choosing A Van To Convert

 

Choosing a Van For Your Conversion

Luckily, there are more choices these days for a van to use as a base for you conversion.  This page provides a little detail on some of the choices.

 

The Full Size Euro Vans

In the last few years, the van designs that originated  in Europe from Mercedes, Fiat and Ford have become available in the US.  They offer full standing height and a relatively efficient design, and have become popular for RV conversions — both DIY and commercial.  The Nissan NV van is less popular, but offers about the same inside dimensions.

Some dimensional information on the RAM ProMaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes Sprinter for comparison:

 

The information above is from the Sportsmobile site — a great source of information on custom van conversions.

Lots of back and forth on which of the above is the best choice for a base van.  A good place to get first hand information from the owners are the online forums:

I’ve found the information and discussions on these forums to be very helpful.

Compact Euro Vans

Vans such as the Ford Transit Connect and the RAM ProMaster City offer a more compact and  higher mile-per-gallon choice for a conversion.  Its more of a challenge to get a good functional camper into these smaller envelopes, but there there are many successful conversions out there — some examples…

I have seen pictures of Transit Connect conversions with a pop-top to gain headroom, but don’t know if he pop-tops are available in the US?

There are also a number of European conversions based on the VW van, but the VW van does not appear to be offered in the US at this time.

US Vans

US vans such as the Ford Econoline appear to be fading out, but could be used as the base for a camper conversion.  Bear in mind that they are less efficient (lower mpg), and without an add on pop-top they will not offer full headroom.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Hey Gary,
    As everyone has mentioned, fantastic site man! Fantastic.

    I wanted to check in and see how your PM is holding up.
    There is a ton of information about PM reliability online, a lot of upset stories. Trying to decipher whether this is a general consensus or just selection bias (only those with issues will be reporting, the happy ones are out there on the road!)

    PM has my vote given the dimensions (tall + short config.) is perfect for city dwelling. The Ford, I’m not the biggest fan of the configs but I see little negative info on their reliability.

    Anywho, would love to hear your 2021 thoughts.

    Cheers !

    • Hi Ryan,
      Our van has been reliable. Its got 98K miles on it and very little in the way of mechanical problems.
      We did have the oil pressure sensor go out at something like 60K miles, and apparently this is a thing with 3.6L six. Its only a $30 part, but its hard to get to and I decided to have the dealer do it — I think it came to about $300.
      But, that’s about it — except for squeaky brakes that the dealer fixed for free.

      I know what you mean about seeing things that say its not reliable on the forums. I don’t really know what to make of that, and, as far as I know, there is no place to go to get actual reliability data – as you can get from Consumer Reports on cars.
      I think at least some of it is just that people have problems report them, and people who don’t don’t.

      An interested set of posts to read on this is Kip-on-truckin on the ProMaster forum. He runs several of these vans for expedited shipping – so, lots of mileage fast. I think he as about 500K on his oldest one. He also has a lot mechanics background, and has done a lot of posts on what tends to go wrong how to avoid or fix. I’d say he generally has a pretty positive view of PM reliability.

      The Transit and especially the Sprinter forums have their own set of horror stories, but probably for the same reasons. The Sprinter has the extra problem of Mercedes parts and labor being high priced. I started out looking for a used Sprinter, and was just too put off by the mechanical horror stories and decided to spring for a new PM, as they were just coming out at the time.

      If you find a good source for reliability data, please let us know.

      Gary

  2. Thanks very much for this trove of thoughtful information. We’ve been thinking about a conversion for years, but never gotten started. I was curious I haven’t seen that you gave consideration to a low roof with a pop-top. I would think that would be a fairly large boost in mileage? Any thoughts you could share on that topic?
    Thanks again.

    • Hi Dave,
      I rather like pop tops.

      In addition to the aero drag reduction, it possible that the van may fit in your garage, and that’s a plus.

      You could get a rough idea on the MPG change:
      Figure out the percentage reduction in frontal area.
      Take about half of that percentage reduction, and that will be a rough estimate of the MPG improvement.

      This assumes that drag drops linearly with frontal area, and that at normal cruising speed about half of the horsepower goes to overcoming drag and half to rolling resistance. I think both of these assumptions are in the ball park.

      On the downside for pop tops, they are not cheap, and they do add some weight up high.
      There was a post recently on one of the forums that from a person with a pop top saying that is was hard to heat in cold temperatures.
      I’ve never actually lived with a pop top myself, so don’t know how they are to live with — I would think that sleeping up there would be nice with the view out the windows in the canvas.

      If you go that way, please let us know how it works out.

      Gary

  3. I purchased a Ford Transit 350 D. Building the walls has been a real pain in the ass. I am not sure but the Sprinter seems to be an easier build. It seems most the conversions companies use the sprinter because I think they think it is easier to convert. what do you think

    • Hi,
      Mine is a ProMaster, so I’m not too familiar with the Fords or Sprinters.

      One thing I do like about the ProMaster is that the walls are pretty close to straight up and down which probably makes things a bit easier. Boxy shape makes the conversion a bit easier.

      I wish that someone would come out with a set of exact templates for the wall and ceiling pieces so that you would not have to go through all the careful measurements and trail fitting of each piece. I’d definitely have paid for such a set of templates.

      Gary

  4. I could be wrong, but that data on the PM on the SPortsmobile site seems wrong regarding the length of the PM LB… not 22’2″, but 20’10″… and internal height is 6’4″, not 6’2″, right?

    • What — I got the data off the internet — how could it possibly be wrong:)

      I’ll check it out when we get home from this trip and correct it then — thanks!

      Gary

  5. Thank you so much for this website/forum. Hope you can organize a live seminar/training, I will attend even with a fee.

    Cheers!

    Jonathan

  6. Hey thanks for the great website. I’m looking to start my van life and need to pick the right van. I’m a taller guy with long legs any idea which van would be more comfortable to drive?

    • Hi Will,
      I think you will probably have to just go sit in the ProMaster, Transit and Sprinter vans. I see pro and con comments on seating comfort for all of them, but just not sure on the tall with long legs comfort for each.

      You will also have to evaluate the standing head room in the back, but the diagrams above should be helpful for that. And, if you want to sleep crosswise, the ProMaster is a few inches wider than the others.

      Gary

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