Camper Conversion Mk1
We spent a long time thinking, planning, researching, googling campers and conversions. We went to the Caravan & Camper show at the NEC and shamelessly nosed at how everyone else was doing things, we took a camera, a tape measure & notepad and did the full “technical spy” bit.
And after all that, we came up with a basic design that we thought was probably sort-of about right for what we wanted.
But we couldn't be 100% sure.
Experience (ours and other people's) tells us that you can never get something like this right first time, even the big manufacturers end up with some less than great bits in their products, so we decided we'd take the approach of building more or less what we thought we wanted and seeing how it went, not investing too much time & money in the first attempt so that we wouldn't feel like it was too painful to alter later.
We could easily have gone out and spent thousands on bits and bobs - sink, toilet, water system, heating, lighting, ventilation, solar panels, scatter cushions and plasma TV - it's all out there for your camper conversion if you want it. But if you spend thousands fitting out your camper and then decide the layout doesn't work, or that you should've fitted a pop-up roof, or cut that hole for the window in the other side of the van, you've just burnt a pile of money and potentially made alterations to the vehicle you can't undo.
So we looked around, went for ideas which were as simple, cheap, and fairly easily reversible, and Mk1 is what we ended up with.
As it turns out, we were right - it wasn't right 1st time. It worked, but not perfectly, some bits were fine and some bits sucked the spicy sausage. But that's OK because we can easily change it, Mk2 will be new, improved, better, faster, stronger, more chocolatey and leaving no sticky residue!
Why are you doing it THAT way???
You may wonder as you read through (or skim through looking at the pretty pictures) why we have seemingly ignored so many simple and common solutions to camper conversions. The answer is to preserve the vehicle and to avoid making irreversible changes where possible.
The ambulance has a bit of character & history (compared with the average 3rd-hand white Ford Transit), and the bodywork would not be easy to repair/restore if we cut a hole in it and then changed our minds, so we're trying to avoid making too many changes that can't be easily reversed. Unfortunately this does limit a lot of the easy & obvious solutions to problems of camper conversion - to put it another way, we're trying to avoid making any more holes in anything!
There are many camper-things that require cutting big holes in the sides, roof, or floor of the vehicle, and for now we're really not keen to do that sort of thing. That does make fridges, toilets, heating, ventilation and plumbing more of a challenge and hopefully explains some of the slightly odd approaches we've taken. Much like getting a spider-web tattoo over your face, you've got to be sure you really want it because once it's done there's no easy way back!
We made a few layout decisions which sacrifice ease-of-construction for improved camping experience. A bit of extra hassle can pay off in the long run.
Removing the bulkhead
To make it walk-through from cab to living quarters.
Starting point, after removing the LPG tanks:
The bulkhead panel & frame had been hacked about with a grinder to squeeze the LPG tanks in:
Many scrivets removed, old rockwool insulation removed, frame exposed:
Many more scrivets removed, front panel cut with Fein tool (awesome bit of kit for this sort of thing):
Frame cut out, two lengths of 50x25x3mm box cut to go in the gap:
The original frame sat on the floor and was bolted through the floor with fairly skinny (M6? M5?) machine screws.
New uprights marked & drilled for all the rivet & scrivet holes to line up plus the seatbelt top mount bolt holes, then dusted over with cold galv / high zinc paint:
New uprights welded carefully in position without setting fire to the rest of the vehicle (but note fire extinguisher just in case!), joined to existing frame wherever it touches. More cold galv on all welds:
Wait, you just said you weren't going to cut big holes in things, but look!
Yeah, we lied.
Actually, although this looks drastic, the missing section could be easily fabricated & welded back in, and the panel had been butchered by the LPG install anyway.
The body was insulated from the factory, but that was 1980's rock-wool which is not exactly the best thing available and is also an itchy fluffy pain in the everything to work with. We decided to pull it out and replace with 25mm Celotex which is more insulating and less horrible. The ambulance was obviously never designed to be a camper originally so the walls are only ~30mm thick and the steel frame makes quite a thermal bridge - not much we can do about that but we'll just have to turn the heating up!
Anyway, after removing lots of drive rivets / scrivets that hold the wall and roof panels on - there were some we couldn't remove, the bottom section is “proper” riveted to the steel frame where it meets the floor and frankly we didn't feel like dismantling the entire back body so we went for what we could get, which was ~90% of the total amount of insulation in the rear body.
In the end it only took us a couple of sheets of 25mm Celotex so cost next to nothing.
A few shots of work in progress:
The gaps are for the lights - that will be addressed in Mk2.
While we had the panels down we gave them a good scrub, far easier when they're on the floor than back on the ceiling!
While we had the panels down I took the opportunity for some future-proofing by inserting rivnuts in all the holes that were once-upon-a-time used to attach interior fittings. This meant that we had ready attachment points for future things without having to take panels off or try to guess where body struts were.
Things we couldn't insulate
There were a few things we couldn't practically do anything about: The back doors are full of rockwool too, but the construction does not lend itself to easy disassembly. The doors are riveted together, as two interlocked shells over a steel frame, so we'd have to drill lots of rivets out to get them apart.
The rear windows are single-glazed, not a lot we can do about that although we did add curtains (more on those in a minute)
The cab itself is a standard Land Rover cab, not very insulated and not really lending itself to insulating. The previous owner had fitted Wright Offroad mats which make a fair difference to the floor, and we made some foil thermal blinds, more on those in a minute too.
Keeping it simple, we found some chequer-plate effect lino from B&Q for the floor. When camping or at off-road events people are likely to get in & out with wet or muddy shoes, plus there's the bathroom area, which leaves not very much space for shag-pile carpet. The decision was just lino the whole floor and we could always throw a rug or something down to really tie the room together. One note on lino or maybe we should say “vinyl flooring” is that the modern soft stuff with a sort of foam backing is not as tough as old style hard lino. It's much nicer to walk on and presumably a little more insulating, but drop anything with a sharp corner on it and it WILL leave a hole.
This is it during the fitting - we trimmed it back around the step and edged with some aluminium strip from B&Q, in the end it looked pretty smart.
…well, it looks smart when there's not tools and junk everywhere:
Fitting literally involved throwing the lino on the floor & cutting it to fit round things. We didn't glue it down because we felt it was unlikely to need it (things will be built on top of it, it can't move far!) and once you cover stuff in impact adhesive it's an absolute ball ache to remove. The sides of the lino were left long, so they extend ~3“ up the wall. This means dirt & water don't have a corner to hide in and makes it a bit more “hose-outable”.
While I was busy with the engine swap, Helen got busy with the power tools and started making a kitchen, bed, and bathroom. It was mostly done using 9mm ply and 34mm baton, it's been suggested we could've gone narrower on the baton and thinner on the ply, but only with decent quality material…
We got our wood from B&Q as they offer a cutting service on sheets, means you get all the stuff you need cut perfectly straight & square which saves a lot of faffing round. Be careful though, B&Q wood is utterly rubbish, especially thin ply and planks/baton. We've seen stuff in the store that has an easily visible twist or bend in it so you've got to choose wisely! If you're being fussy, you want something pukka like Baltic Birch Ply.
The super-deluxe workshop:
A unit, making use of a basket from our recently ripped-out kitchen:
All manner of bits coming together:
We have a storage cube each:
Camper fridge placed in, kitchen starting to take shape, base of bed/seat underway:
Sink was £15 from eBay, checking clearance:
You can see how the seat/bed end flaps will work:
Fridge gets the blue treatment, jerry cans for fresh & grey water are in. The aluminium plate allows us to bolt the kitchen to the wall along the centre strut line where there are existing threaded bolt holes for mounted equipment:
The caravan cooker we paid a whole £20 for at Sodbury Sortout didn't get on with our gas bottle & regulator, so a quick change of plans later…
Gas bottle tucked under the kitchen for now, don't really like having it indoors but it'll have to do:
Here's the full version of the Mk1 seat/bed conversion process:
Start with the seat base, back step must be up:
Fold end flap up & drop the legs to support it:
Slot two flat pieces together (they stow left of the fridge) to support the centre panel:
Put the 1st storage cube at the end:
Put the 2nd storage cube at the other end:
Put centre panel in:
…then rotate futon thingy and lay out long-ways (not pictured as it's like trying to shift a sleeping cat).
Yes, this is not perfect which is why Mk2 happened!
It's especially a bit of a faff when you stumble in late from the pub and just want to get into bed. Perching in the small gap near the back door, with your bum against the cold chrome door handle, trying not to drop a large wooden box on your toes gets old fairly quickly!
Very much “the smallest room”, we weren't sure how small we could get away with, but our spy mission to the Caravan & Motorhome show (we sat in a LOT of bathrooms) gave us the confidence that a pretty small space was fine for a porta-potti and emergency shower.
Bracket to stop the porta-potti sliding around, actually re-uses a hole in the floor that was holding the LPG tank down:
And voila, bathroom complete for now - as we were a bit behind by this point we didn't work out a shower, but we had the loo which is more important in an emergency! Shower curtain was cheap, mounted on a length of net curtain wire. Ceiling bracket picks up on existing holes in the ceiling. B&Q value loo roll holder. Wash your hands in the kitchen sink - why carry two sinks and plumb all the extra stuff in?
Deserve their own section as they're brilliant.
Helen got busy with the sewing machine & some material from eBay, plus “blackout” lining material. These are for the windows in the back:
Hooks are Maplin cable P-clips riveted to the window frame in an existing rivet hole:
Curtains are just threaded on net curtain wire which is peanuts to buy.
Helen also made a divider curtain where the bulkhead used to be:
And some thermal blinds for the cab windows - B&Q value tin-foil backed bubble wrap loft insulation (£15/roll), a roll of 2” NATO green nylon webbing from eBay and a dozen or so window suckers. Took some heavy duty sewing but came out a treat, they're hundreds of quid to get custom made!
Here's a close-up of the construction:
2nd Battery & Split Charge
The ambulance came with 3 batteries and 2 split charges (a factory-fit one of unknown status, and a posh 3-battery MOSFET unit). Two were under the seat, one was floating free in the back. We removed everything and then reinstated a single battery under the seat, so we now needed to reinstall a 2nd battery to run the “house”:
Battery cradle from 25×25 angle:
A couple of tabs to bolt to existing holes in the outriggers:
And a cutoff switch tucked under:
Fusebox under the sink, as there's a hole in the floor at the back where a cable used to come in, so it comes straight up behind the fridge - we ran twin ~16mmsq from the 2nd battery up to a marine fusebox:
Wiring to starter battery & split-charge in progress:
Lovely, all tucked neatly away (or so I thought): The 2nd battery is wired to the two MOD battery posts under the seat which link to the original ambulance systems (fuse panel in passenger footwell), supplying the interior lights, night heater, etc. - there's a maxi-fuse in line to catch any wiring faults downstream of the split-charge.
eBay £1.99 Chinese panel volt meter sits nicely in the fusebox lid - we disconnected it at night because of the glow:
As it turns out, the fancy 3-way split charge thing that came with the ambulance (purchased by previous owner) just didn't want to play, no idea why not (yes, I even read the manual!). Possibly it needs all 3 batteries connected or something. Whatever, by this stage we didn't have time for mucking about so I picked up a 140A smart split-charge relay from Furneaux for ~£35, quick & easy to fit, does the job.
The old Screwfix ERA van-lock was ugly and a pain, the screws got in the way (even cut down) and it didn't really exude a “high security” vibe…
Unfortunately this was done to the door to aid fitting:
Anyway, a slightly nicer one was purchased and bolted on, photos in the pipeline!
Roof vent was a steel cowling which was more than a little crusty, we were sure it was letting in water so I removed it, this was the rust left behind:
Run out of time, we're due to set off on holiday, problem solved for now…