THE ULTIMATE “VW CAMPER VAN”

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I don’t know if this’ll be of interest to anybody but me, it might not be fascinating to all Spillers but there are some that may find it interesting. Ali’s recent question about ‘best moment ever’ was not an easy one for me to answer, I stumbled and mumbled something about SF Immigration etc but that event was not really memorable. That’s maybe because mine are not ‘moments’, they’re more long term, After thinking about it for a while I realized that mine fell into what you might call ‘events or achievements’, and they take time. I’d say that my 3 month trip to Jamaica was probably one of the most significant events of my life and so after thinking about it a bit more I came up with another that’s been on my mind in one form or another lo these many years. I’ve scribbled notes about it and collected photos in files but I’ve never gone beyondthat, here’s that story.

I’ve regaled you with tales of VW camper visits to Jamaica and Guatemala etc. one outcome of those trips was an idea that was implanted into my brain: ‘to create the ultimate VW camper van’ and on my retirement to live in it and to travel throughout Europe and thence to Africa. From Spain to Algeria, down the west coast to Cape Town, left turn and back up to Ethiopia via Tanzania and Kenya and all points in between and thence through Israel to Iran, to Turkey and Greece and then back into Europe, time would be of no concern, we’d be retired. I still have the 6ft by 7ft Michelin map of Africa with all the roads in every country on my bedroom wall. But that part never happened, it’s too long a story but it concerns my wife’s reticence, she was scared of it.

So sometime in the late ’80’s I started thinking about diesel vans/trucks/busses. I haunted the ‘want ads’: I had a vague idea of what I was looking for, a small to medium size commercial vehicle that would fit into a standard parking space, it must be industrial grade diesel and must be capable of being converted into ‘something livable’, something like a Mercedes bus conversion that I’d seen and something similar to a VW camper. I had just sold my Maserati Sebring and I had $20,000 in crisp $100 bills stashed in a jacket pocket in my clothes closet.
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This is the original Iveco, windows an’ all. All the following photos have enough resolution that they’ll enlarge if clicked on if you want more detail.

One day I saw an ad. for a 10 seat Iveco bus, he was asking $8900, I looked at it and drove it and it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. It was a specially built vehicle, designed specifically to transport oil company executives to their various well sites in Texas. Bumper to bumper it was exactly 20ft long, 8ft wide and 9ft tall with 30″ ground clearance below the floor, it weighed 7100 lb empty. It had only 57,00 miles on the clock. Everything in the interior was blue velvet, walls, seats, ceiling and matching blue carpet. There was an air conditioner/heater vent running the length of the ceiling and it had 5 large windows on each side plus one at the back. It had a 5 cylinder, 5 litre air cooled Deutz diesel engine, I’d never heard of air cooled diesels before but I researched it and it had good credentials. Deutz was the oldest diesel engine company in the world and at one point in the late 1800’s they had Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Rudolf Diesel, Robert Bosch and Ettore Bugatti on their staff! Talk about giants! They’re not giants, they’re GODS! Check Google/Wiki for details if you’re curious. So I felt secure with an air cooled diesel and it seemed totally appropriate for the ultimate VW Camper so I offered him $8000, he accepted, I peeled off 80-$100’s from my stash and the deal was done.

Having bought it I didn’t quite know what to do next, so I started by getting rid of all the seats. I used it for three months as my everyday driver, I drove it to the university every morning, early, to get a good parking space and sat in it every day eating my lunch and pondering ‘What the hell was I thinking’. But, I had a large workroom adjacent to my office which had a dark lino tile floor; I drew an accurate floorplan of the van’s rear section and transferred it full size onto the lino with 1/2″ masking tape, I indicated where the windows, door and wheelwells were and then stared at it some more. Slowly it began to take shape in my head, I knew the features I’d like to incorporate, a bedroom, a shower, a toilet, a water system, a waste system, a stove, an oven, a water heater, a sink, a fridge, a dining table, storage cabinets and drawers and of course a music system. I’d calculate how much space each of these items needed and then transfer them to my floor plan with masking tape, there was lots of shuffling items backwards and forwards but it began to take shape. I spent a lot of time working with that full sized ‘drawing’ before I started anything, I wanted to get a clear idea of how to go about it. All I had in the van was an area of floorspace, it was an empty box 15ft by 8ft by 61/2 ft high and there was a step-through into the driving compartment, into that space I had to create a self contained apartment! I’d never done anything like it before, I knew nothing about wiring, plumbing, cabinetry, sheet metal work, flooring, nothing! I was starting absolutely from scratch! It was a bit intimidating but also quite exciting.

I’d bought one of the first Macs, a 256K if you can believe that and a friend, another Mac owner, was seriously into spreadsheets, he suggested that I create a spreadsheet to log the evolution of the project, actually he created one for me and I used it religiously throughout, every penny spent and every detail was logged. That spreadsheet got a lot more use later on, I also used it to log all my photos for easy retrieval plus my extensive VHS collection. Having that large chunk of cash available was a very positive factor, I thought nothing of any of my numerous purchases, all I had to do was pull a couple more $100’s, it might have been very different if I’d had to use ‘real money’. The total cost of materials including the initial van cost was $19,691. A straight swap for the Maserati almost! The first item logged was dated 10/20/89 and the final one was 1/19/92. That’s 2 years and 3 months, 586 week days and 235 weekend days; I worked EVERY weekend, EVERY holiday and many weekday evenings on this project. I’d lie in bed every night unable to sleep thinking how do I do the next phase and then the next day I’d leap into it, it became the only thing I ever thought about. Much of the work was done with the Iveco parked in the alley behind my apartment, I bought tools as I needed them but also I had access to the Civil Engineering department’s wood and metal workshops, I spent hours/days there.
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Blue Velvet anyone?
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Now its all coming down.

First off all that blue velvet had to go so one Saturday after lunch I took a kitchen knife to it and it was all gone within the hour. Then I dismantled that overhead heating/cooling vent. Also all those windows had to go, it was like an oven in there. So I bought several 10ft sheets of aircraft grade aluminum from a scrap metal dealer, I removed most of the windows, filled the cavities with stacks of Christian Science Monitors for insulation, hoping that a future archeologist might find them interesting and riveted the pre-sized aluminum sheets into place. Riveting, another new skill!
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That’s me on the ladder.

I bought a lot of 1″ angle iron and designed a structure that would support the bed, the 55 gal water tank, and 6 – 4ft drawers, I had it welded into shape and then installed it at the rear of the cabin and bolted it into the floor. All the drawers that I built, almost two dozen, were built with half inch 9 ply Baltic Birch, with all joints tongue and grooved and the interiors lined with half inch camera case foam to prevent the contents rattling.
I struggled with the toilet/shower, the only place available was over the rear wheels, this entailed installing a 40 gal waste tank behind the rear double wheels and devising the necessary 4″ plumbing into it. Then I had to create a waterproof shower enclosure and install it right above with a small toilet right in the corner – it worked! Plumbing, another new skill! There was a fair bit of ‘cabinet work’, creating the spaces for the shower, the fridge, the sink and stove, all of this was done with 3/4″ plywood secured into the floor with 2″ angle iron.
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This is the basic cabintry to hold everything else, on the left the space for the oven with a 4 burner stove above and drawers below. Next to that the sink plus cutlery drawers and next to that is the shower/toilet. Bedroom at the back with 6 underbed 4ft drawers.

The entire project was broken down into dozens of individual specifics, I won’t bore you with more details but in addition to the foregoing they included: Buy and install a residential size 12 volt/propane fridge/freezer, buy and install a residential size Bosch ‘flash’ water heater, buy and install a catalytic propane space heater, buy and install the shower and toilet fixtures, buy and install a 12volt water pump into the 55 gal water tank, buy and install the sink, the stove, the oven, the 40 gal propane tank, [secured below the floor in a welded steel frame] ditto the separate 40 gal gray water waste tank for the sink and shower, build a very strong steel frame to hold 6 heavy deep cycle batteries and install it below the floor. Lose the door that came with the van and install a heavy duty residential door and lock. Buy and install 3 roof fans above the stove, the toilet and the bed area. In addition to the foregoing there were endless details to be resolved, they included designing, building and installing the following.
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Here’s the upper deck with the roof rack and ladder, The 3 squares are the fan covers, they close automatically with rain. I was experimenting with the idea of somewhere outside where we could eat lunch.The storage lockers were not yet installed.

an 8ft by 15 ft roof rack with overhead storage lockers plus the access ladder.
a ‘cop’ searchlight mounted in the cab roof
four driving lights inset into the front bumper.
oak plywood ceilings throughout
a teak paneled bedroom
short wave radio, GPS receiver and the computer in the bedroom.
outside storage access to the under bed storage space.
an additional outside shower- hot and cold.
an engine oil cooler, [a stroke of genius.] and the oil temp gauge.
a dining table and seats
fluorescent lights plus reading spotlights
overhead wire shelves
tiled wooden floor – oak
a sound system with speakers throughout with
cassette storage plus a 300 watt amp.

All of the preceding needed pumps, wiring, plumbing, welding and cabinetry, for me it was amazing and wonderful figuring it all out and I should say that the only help I had was in the welding. One policy that applied to everything I bought was that it be the best quality available.
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Now it’s all done, space heater on the left, door [with one of the windows inserted], oven, stove, sink, shower, behind the curtain.
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Here you can see the wire shelving that was real handy, plus the dining table, tapered and swivelling for easy access. The white box is the wonderful water heater, instantly boiling hot, and the tall white thing behind it is the fridge. That’s a fan over the stove, one of 3.

When it was all done I painted it gray and painted Jah Lion on the front and I added a red-gold-green stripe just like the VW van. Another advantage of my access to Civil Engineering was that they had a spray booth adjacent to where I parked the Iveco, so I ran an air hose outside and spent the holiday week between Christmas and New Year 1992 masking, priming and painting it there.
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Half way done.

Now if you ask me for something that I’m proud of, it’s all of that, it was the most interesting and ambitious project I’ve ever done and I learned so much from it and the most interesting aspect was that I set myself an ongoing series of tasks that I had no experience of and that I was able to figure out how to resolve them. The key to that was the time spent in bed thinking during all those sleepless nights, I literally figured out the design and fabrication of each one and that was a whole new experience for me. Amazingly, everything worked perfectly! When I was a kid in Sheffield during the war my Granny often used to tell me ‘You can do anything you set your mind to’, back then it didn’t mean anything. I wish she’d lived long enough to see this, she’d a’ said ‘Told thee so’.
We didn’t go to Europe but we did use it to travel all over the south west US and Mexico. it was wonderful, and now it sits unused in my yard.

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In the Sierra Nevada mountains at 9000 ft.
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A Mexican beach.
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New Mexico mountains.
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California redwood forest.
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More redwoods
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Camping somewhere, no idea where.

7 thoughts on “THE ULTIMATE “VW CAMPER VAN”

  1. Fabulous post goneforeign, very envious of your practical aptitude and your ‘bravery’ in making the decision to take on such a project.

    I know the joy of having a “mobile apartment” as one of the best holidays Mrs. L and I had was a fortnight tour of Wales and Ireland in a motor home with no booked campsites just taking it as we went and deciding to stop where we felt.

    One of our plans for our retirement is a complete tour of Europe, nothing quite to the scale of your original plans but the thrill of the open road and having no fixed abode has a certain lure.

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting story.

  2. Epic post, gf!

    Have just glanced at phone before bedtime (yes, already! I’m completely stripping back and re-decorating DsSis’ room whilst she has a few days at DsGran’s, and it’s killing me!) so reading & responding properly will have to wait. But I will get there: the humble camper (not this mega -“project”, obv) has a big place in the DsD / DsMam history.

    Cheers for posting, but goodnight for now.

  3. I’ll try and add this reply in the correct place – rather than in DsDs post bellow:

    This is so great GF – our friend in New Zealand converted a similar truck – he was/is a pretty good engineer – so he managed to get the sides to electronically expand by a couple of foot each way when they park up… madness.

    Quite a few of my friends still live in trucks – the Thatcher government killed off housing benefit for students when we were studying – meaning most of us couldn’t afford to live/study. There was still the idea (to us) at the end of the 80′s that a life of dept was not a good thing – so they all bought buses, converted them and became the dreaded ‘new age’ travellers… but that’s a whole different story.

    We had to buy another vehicle last year – we weren’t pleased about it as we care about the planet (well I’m told to – I’d be happy zooming around the track in an old Lotus 7 but hey – I did that – I have the memories) …
    But really I do care what my children grow up into and so having to get a 2nd car – I went sod this – lets buy a camper instead… now, VW’s are a pain in the arse for my back to get to the engine and so trendy that a rust bucket will cost the same amount as a brick of gold on wheels.

    So we imported an old Mazda from Japan.
    A ‘Mazda Bongo Freindee Explorer’

    It’s a little 8 seater that still fits in a supermarket parking space – but all the seats fold down to create a big double bed – and the roof pops up to put a tent on the top for our boys.
    we converted it to run on LPG – so is more fuel efficient and cheaper to run than our old car.
    and everyone falls in love with it.

    We rocked up to DsD’s house last summer parked up outside and kipped by his house without annoying him too much – and this was after driving around Scotland and visiting Arran… we get bored driving we just stop and stay were we are – the littlest Hobo family on wheels – it’d bloody ace.

    Best fun I’ve had with a vehicle since my friends old beach buggy or the track testing of a Caterham 7.

  4. amazing post GF. It looks amazing and I’m in complete awe of your DIY skills.

    Now, I just need to get that driving licence…..!

  5. Shane: The ‘expanding sides’ is a feature on many commercial RV’s now, not sure how they do it but it’s handy when you have limited space.
    Never heard of the Mazda Bongo, they’re not imported here, the pop up roof is like the VW, I slept up there a lot in Jamaica. LPG sounds great, I toyed with the idea of running the Iveco on 50% propane but I never got to it.
    Caterham 7 and Snetterton sounds ideal, I always fancied one of those. Years ago I read a piece about a showdown between a 7 and a 5 litter Corvette, the Lotus won hands down!
    Thanks guys for the positive comments.

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