If you are considering buying or building a camper then you’ll be aware that it can end up being a hefty investment. Starting with the right base van is a big part of the decision making process. This page is designed to help you look at some of the options it is worth considering when choosing your base van.
Make & Model
We’re all about VW’s so we are starting from there! Traditionally they have been a great van to convert – every version of the Transporter has had various incarnations as a camper. They are reliable, have well galvanised bodies and they hold their value exceptionally well. In addition their size means that they can be a second family car as well as a camper.
This page will look in detail at the options offered by the VW T5.1 This is the facelift model of the T5 which was produced between 2010 and 2015. We’ve chosen this particular model because we feel that, at this stage, this will be the base van that most people will be looking at converting.
People build camper vans for as little as a couple of thousand pounds. The amount you spend will depend very much on your taste, what you consider essential and how long you want to keep your van. These pages are currently tailored for those that are looking at converting the VW T5.1 to a relatively high standard. With that in mind we’d expect to be paying anywhere between £12 and £25K for a base van to convert. When you consider that a conversion will probably cost between £8 and £20K it is worth starting with a good base vehicle.
There are various specification levels of the T5.1 One step up from the base van is the Trendline. This model adds features such as parking sensors, bluetooth phone connection, cruise control, body coloured bumpers etc. The Highline has all of those features plus an upgraded alarm system, leather steering wheel and gear knob, upgraded air con system and front fog-lights. There is also a Sportline version which has the most powerful engine plus things like side bars and 18″ sportline wheels.
All of these options are worth considering in that should you wish to add things like parking sensors, cruise control, alloy wheels etc. it can sometimes be more cost efficient to simply look for an upgraded model such as the ones above.
Kombi’s and Shuttles
Apart from the T5 vans VW also produces the T5 Kombi and the T5 Shuttle. The Kombi is more family orientated with back windows and a second row of seats. The Shuttle is a small mini bus configuration with additional rows of seats as well as the back windows. Both these versions have the tailgate as opposed to the barn doors. (See below.) Again, these are worth considering for a few reasons. They are generally higher specced vehicles with options such as cruise control, leather, alloy wheels and colour coding. They will not have had a ‘rough’ builders life. They already have back windows which means that you won’t have to put back windows in as part of your conversion. Lastly they will have additional rows of seats which can sell for a reasonable amount of money on the second hand market. For example a rear seat from a Kombi (which will generally be removed for a conversion) can sell for around £400.
From 2010 on the VW T5.1 comes with a 2 litre diesel engine as standard. There are however important decisions to make regarding which particular version of the 2 litre diesel you choose. The main difference is the Brake Horse Power (BHP) of the engine. Essentially this is how the engine is tweaked / set up at the factory. From 2010 – 2015 there were four models to choose from: 84 BHP; 102 BHP; 140 BHP and 180 BHP. The general opinion seems to be that the 84 BHP is to be avoided for camper conversions as it is a little underpowered. The 102 is adequate, the 140 gives you a bit more get up and go and the 180 is obviously the most powerful. Most T5’s are either the 84 or the 102 so finding a 140 or a 180 can take a little longer. And obviously you’ll pay more the higher you go. Surprisingly there is little difference in fuel consumption.
Our recommendation: 140 BHP.
After Market Power Increase
Some people choose to have their original engine ‘chipped’. Essentially this means that the management system of the engine is re-configured to produce increased BHP. It costs in the region of £300 and can, for example, boost a 102 BHP engine up to around 140 BHP. Seems like a no – brainer but there are down sides. If your vehicle is still under warranty then ‘chipping’ it will void that warranty. And it is worth remembering that VW set up the more power vehicles at the factory in more ways than just the engine power output. For example, all 140 BHP and 180 BHP vehicles will have a 6th gear and other added components to deal with the added power. Some argue that ‘chipping’ can put increased strain on other parts of the vehicle.
Our recommendation: Avoid purchasing a vehicle that has been ‘chipped’.
You’ll find that the milage of the vehicle will significantly impact the asking price. The lower the miles the higher the price. Having said that it doesn’t necessarily follow that a lower milage vehicle will be in better condition than a high milage one. For example, a low milage van that has been driven hard in town carrying heavy loads and hasn’t been well serviced will probably be in worse condition than a high milage van that has been used for light loads, driven on the motorway lots and has a full service history. The key considerations here are what has the van been used for and most importantly, has it been well looked after and well serviced.
Our recommendation: Consider the whole picture – look for and carefully inspect service history.
Barn Doors or Tailgate
Nine out of ten VW T5’s come out of the factory with the Barn Door option – i.e. two rear doors which open out the way on either side of the back of the van. This is because the majority of these vans are used by the trades and these doors are considered easier to open in tight spaces. Most people who are going to convert to a camper will look for the one in ten that has a Tailgate – i.e. one big rear door that opens up the way. The main reason for this is that this type of door can provide a degree of shelter when you are standing at the rear of the van. Some people also consider the tailgate option to be better looking. When you option a brand new van there is no difference in price between the two but when you are looking for a second hand van you will find that you’ll pay around £500 extra for a van that has a tailgate. Worth considering that it will also add to the value of your van and will reflect in the selling price when you come to move it on.
It is possible to change a barn door van to tailgate but it is a fiddle and can be expensive.
Our recommendation: Tailgate.
Cab Seat Configuration
Up front the VW T5 can come with a double or a single passenger seat. The single seat up front will add up to £500 to the asking price for the van. There are clearly pro’s and cons – double seat up front means you can carry an extra passenger. Single seat up front means that you can ‘walk through’ from the cab of the van to the living space. Both versions can be made to swivel round but the double is a lot more hassle to turn than the single is. And the double is generally a fairly uncomfortable seat with no recline function and no movement back and forward.
It is relatively straightforward to change a double seat to a single. This can cost anything from around £400 to well over £1000 if you want to buy a pair of used genuine ‘California’ seats. If you want to sell your double there is generally a market for it but don’t expect to get much more than £50.
Our recommendation: Unless you really need it for an extra passenger go for the single or budget to change the double to a single once you’ve got the van.
Most T5’s are builders white! If you don’t mind white you’ll have a lot more vans to choose from and you’ll save yourself somewhere between £500 and £1000. You’ll pay a premium for almost any other colour on the second hand market but for some, having a van that isn’t white is worth that premium. The other option is to paint your van. A decent paint job for a van of this size will cost anywhere from £2500 – £4000… paying that premium might be worth it.
Watch Out For…
There are plenty of dealers out there who are aware of all of the above. Some will take a shabby builders van and make it over a bit to push it towards the camper convertor market. Look out for vans that have just had a shiny set of wheels put on and a bit of a half done paint job.