Conversion Vans and Camper Vans
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What Exactly is a Conversion Van?
In practice a conversion van is nothing more than an upscale luxury people hauler. As soon as you add dining or bathroom facilities the van conversion becomes something else. However it's mostly just nomenclature that doesn't really mean that much. This is more an exercise in classification for buying and selling. There is no official definition, but it does make a difference in industry standard pricing guides like NADA, Kelly Bluebook, and Blackbook
- Camper Van - A Camper van is used to describe any type of van that is used for overnight camping. There is really no such thing as a commercially produced Camper Van. A commercially produced camper van is actually called a Class B Motor Home. But people choose to call any van that has been converted for the purpose of camping a camper van. It's a lot like saying you are going to Xerox something, when in fact you are not xeroxing you are making copies (Old Rob Schneider Reference)
- Class B Motorhome - When you build a Motor Home on a Van Chassis you are creating a Class B Motorhome.. A van may have the top raised or the side panels increased, but it is still a van in size and shape. But to really qualify as a Class B the van must contain built-in sleeping, cooking (Stove and Refrigeration - not just an icebox/cooler), and bathroom facilities (Including properly installed grey and fresh water holding tanks). Simple enough! If the frame of the van has been cut down clear to the floor level (they come direct from Ford, Chevy, and Dodge this way - just a frame and a cab) and built up completely from the floor it's a Class "C" not a Class "B"
- Conversion Van
- Any van that has been upfitted (converted) for comfort and luxury travel can be considered a
conversion van. Conversion vans may share some of the features of camper vans and class b motorhomes, but are generally more
upscale and designed for daytime use. These vans may have a raised
roof, Custom Paint, Alloy Wheels, Leather Seats, Captains chairs, High End Audio Systems,Televisions, etc. Think of conversion vans as luxury... but very small family rooms on wheels.
- Class C Mini Motor Homes & B+'s - Class "C" motorhomes masquerading as Class B Motorhomes are called B+ Motor Homes. These models feature sleek aerodynamic body styles - often made of a single fiberglass shell. Do you remember the Chinook line of Motorhomes by TrailWagons, Inc.? Another good example is "Lexington" by Forrest river. These are also sometimes referred to as B+ Vans. They are in fact built from the same chassis as a Class C, but are made more to look like a Call B. Confusing? Ultimately it doesn't matter, as long as you find what you want.
Should You Really Buy a Conversion Van?
I wrote this original article about a year and a half ago to highlight the differences between conversion vans, camper vans, class b vans, and mini motor homes. My focus was primarily on the American market place and the products you can purchase in the Unites States. Converting vans is sort of a hobby of mine and I've owned several. There are some really neat products available in Australia and Europe that are well designed on more fuel efficient platforms. I personally really like the VW vans as they cleverly conceal the camping elements inside a vehicle that looks for the most part like a conventional mini van.
I've always wondered why the American Automobile manufacturers can not come up with more versatile camping vehicles... vehicles that do not cost $100,000 and can be parked in your driveway, and better yet your garage. While there may not be huge demand (Simply because the product doesn't exist here) the success of the VW product is clear indication there is in fact a market for the vans. I personally would love to have a VW van camper with a pop top, the problem is the price... I look all the time for a nice used VW but even those that are 20 years old are commanding very high prices.
In contrast to the VW's you can purchase an older American Van from Ford or Chevrolet that has a fiberglass raised roof for next to nothing because people don't want them anymore. The reason they are so low in value is due to the design and functionality as every day multi-purpose vehicles. The cost to operate and maintain full size vans is high - big vans get poor mileage and simple things like washing are difficult. Because people can not reach to top to wash and wax they don't. Most conversion vans in the United States more than 10 years old with fiberglass tops look terrible. The fiberglass roof cracks and fades in the sun and brings down the aesthetics of the vehicle. The additional height of the van makes them too tall to park in the garage so they sit in the sun.
Because these vans are not factory, rather they are built by upfitters the workmanship varies. I've seen so many with side windows weeping rust out the edges. Once this "van cancer" sets in you can kiss the van goodbye because it's not worth the money to repair them. And finding parts to repair these vans can be equally difficult. Simple things like molded floor mats, seat covers, etc. are not usually in stock at any local car parts outlets. This is sad because these vans actually do make terrific weekend get away vehicles. Inside you'll find plenty of room for a couple days of what I call "convenience camping".
Instead of heading out to the great outdoors in a car full of gear, tents, cook stoves, etc. that require you to set up then take back down (effectively eating into your "happy fun time" on your weekend adventure) you could have everything neatly stowed inside your van ready to go at a moments notice. You hit the campsite, unpack the fun gear - bikes, fishing or hunting equipment, a few lawn chairs, then head out. Much better than the alternative don't you think?
So this brings us full circle in the short amount of space I have to ramble on here about camping in vans. Back to the should you buy a conversion van? The answer of course really depends on if you can afford to maintain and operate the van, do you have a place to store it when not in use, and will you actually use it. The last question is actually the most important. I can not tell you how many mini motor homes I've seen for sale that are 20 years old that have less than 50,000 miles on them. People get all excited to go camping, they buy a rig, they go a few times then the excitement wears off... now they have this giant vehicle to store and maintain. And they don't. They lose so much value that the money is wasted.
Compare that with a used van for $5,000 that can be driven like a second vehicle and it makes more sense. But in any case owning a van is not the same as owning a car - it's more work and it's less fun to drive. So these are just things to think about. For me... yep I'm always looking for my next "project van". I just like having one around for trips, to occasionally move a large item, or even for temporary storage.