Ford Transit conversion
Our thoughts, experiences and advice.
Please note that whilst I link the products we personally bought; we are in no way endorsed by any of these products and simply share them as we believe they are good products.
So, you want to live in a van? Or you dislike large spaces to live in and enjoy the tinny sound of rain when you stay in a caravan with parents, staying up late as they snore in the room next door thinking about how life has to be better than this? Well, whatever your reason, lots of people live in vans for either travel; ease of living or just financial reasons. When I lived in Leeds I worked as a Train Conductor, which was a well paying job. I lived with my boyfriend in the outskirts of Leeds in a duplex apartment with a mezzanine level in a listed building. Now the rent there was £695 a month, and then rent, and then internet; council tax; water and electric; TV licence and home insurance. Though bills where split with my then partner we were still paying around £440 each a month, and then I had the cost of a car and motorbike on top, fuel for the (admittedly short) commute to work. The list of costs with living anywhere goes on and on as I’m sure you reading this are well aware, but now imagine all those costs have disappeared into a van shaped hole in the ground. Now fix that hole, buy a van and start living like the coolest hippies in your area (maybe).
Van life can be the answer to people who are prepared to sacrifice certain modern luxuries to save money; and have the opportunity (job dependant) to travel and explore in a way so many people cannot. You won’t be able to get that big gaming desktop battle station you’ve always wanted but never needed, you (probably) won’t be able to have indoor games of twister or badminton. However you can drive your home to the top of a mountain and still have your own cosy bed seconds after closing your door after a hike. You can save money and spend it on adventure sports; or thousands of dog treats for your visits to the dog shelter every other Thursday. Your experiences may differ.
Welcome to the possibility of van life. If you are intrigued, read on.
Back in September 2017 myself and Carl, along with our friend Fyn, stayed at a static caravan in France for a weekend of fishing. Just to perk your interest of where our lives have ended up since, we now work on that campsite, but that’s a tale for another day. We observed the workers here seemingly enjoying themselves in the lovely weather and scenic location, and became interested in the job of working on a campsite. We have always been very interested in travelling and neither of us have any plans to spend the whole of our lives in the UK, indeed around this time we were looking into teaching English in China as possibilities of work and travel. It only took a few days of research into the job and what sort of savings can be made doing this work for us to conclude we’ll do it, and apply for Courier roles abroad.
The idea was spawned that we’d spend the work season working on sites and then travel in the off season, and so we needed something to travel in that could accommodate ourselves, a dog, and all of our stuff.
We initially planned a caravan as a big one would give us a large amount of space, towed by a van which would carry larger items and indeed motorbikes for us. This was actually the plan all the way up til when we found and purchased a van; as I drove it down fromAberdeen through the night I had a lot of time to think and concluded that the easiest option for what’s known as “stealth camping” (not being obvious that what you’re sleeping in is designed for it, because some areas would not allow just campervan or caravans to stop and camp); would be to simply have a van that we can park anywhere and not struggle to find somewhere to stop for nights. So our drawn up blueprints changed and we designed the layout for the van as our only living accommodation, with the plan down the line to purchase one for Carl so that we had one each and had our own space and privacy.
Many MANY a night was spent simply watching youtube videos on van conversions, noting down ideas for layouts; patterns; sources of power and water and what we wanted our van to have and not have. We decided against certain things like a shower and a toilet, instead happy to use service stations / the great outdoors. As this van was going to be mine I had the decision making powers and so I measured and plotted and decided upon the design and layout of the van. No wood panelling like a lot of conversions had, simple carpets and trim walls with a three-quarter bed; shelving; under-bed storage and a kitchen counter. Nice and simple.
Oh and solar panels; a relay system to the alternator; dimmable lights in the back above the bed and separate lights above the kitchen, running water for the sink and a 12V fridge all wired into the leisure batteries.
Hmm. Not so simple seeing as I don’t really know electrics. Oh well, let’s crack on!
Now the van that we had bought for this cosy lifestyle was a 2003 Ford Transit long wheel base minibus, and we took a risk and bought a very high mileage van (shy of 400k miles) for small amounts of money (£800). We knew the van mechanically would need some work but for the low price we figured it would even out, and in hindsight it’s not been a bad way about it. The only issue that still bothers us is that the van has a slight leak which means in more severe rain (luckily not common in France through the summer) there is a drip just at the base of the bed: frustrating but fixable at some point I’m sure. Otherwise the van hasn’t been too bad, a new Gearbox and clutch has been needed are the main items but it has still been cheaper than buying a less mileage van, and the initial cost was a concern as we have had to pay as we go over the course of a few months in order to finish this conversion.
When I collected it from Scotland I realised that we had not noticed on the pictures that it wasn’t actually a high top, and so I (at 5 foot 5”) could just not quite stand up straight, and Carl at 6 foot would definitely more than struggle. However we were committed now and we went through with it regardless: this is one of the few regrets I have about this van is that we should have bought a high top van, but live and learn!
The van had 5 seats in the back of it left over from its days as a minibus, the floor was grubby mats and the interior was generally pretty dim and horrible. So we started work.
Step one was the seats coming out, which is so much easier said than done! They had clearly not been removed ever, the bolts were rusted in and over half of them simply refused to move under the pressure of our tools. We had to bring in the big boys and use a grinder to remove the troublesome bolts. Once the seats where out we could then start to remove the walls and roof, a sort of felt fabric that simply popped out with a satisfying sound similar to bubble wrap being attacked by an overeager man child called Carl.
Once these were suitably ripped out and thrown out of the door the van needed cleaning and drying out of the condensation that had settled upon it, a good sweep and hoover got the van looking good enough for its new floor; insulation; walls and roof.
So step two. Insulation foil was placed on just about every surface that we could find, and onto that we stuck basic loft insulation in big clumps in the gaps that would be hidden behind the walls. This would hopefully keep us warm in winter, and cooler during summer. Obviously we have no comparison to work with so we simply have to assume that our insulation has worked! For all we know we stuck it on backwards and totally ruined everything (note: this may not be how insulation works)
The floor mats we were able to use as stencils on the hardwood that we’d selected as the flooring, which meant that the wheel arches could be easily navigated. The floor was 12mm plywood which gave us a really good solid floor that we could drill into without worrying overly about drilling straight out through the floor of the van. 3mm plywood was used for the roof and walls because it was thin enough to not take away from our space inside the van, but also just thick enough that very light things (such as the dimmer switch and some hooks) could be screwed into it without it breaking. Lots of work with measuring tapes and pencils on the wooden walls that we had bought resulted in the walls and floor being done in just a few evenings work, and a healthy amount of carpet purchased from a a carpet shop for around £20 meant the van was happily carpeted and looking good. Careful planning and drilling got the holes in the right area in the roof panels for the LED lights that we had purchased, two separate banks of 3 parallel lights gave us 12 lights in total, with the lights that will be situated above the bed casting a softer light than those that will be above the kitchen area. This was a specific want of mine because I liked the idea of having two areas in the van, and maintaining the pretence that the bed area was a bedroom with it’s own lighting and atmosphere.
A long evening was spent by the two of us putting up van lining onto the walls and roof to give it a professional and finished feel, as well as feeling warmer and more cosy inside. We bought this van lining from Ebay for £49.49, though we underestimated how much we would need and so had to order again! But the finished look was exceptional and in my opinion much nicer than the cold wood look that a lot of conversions go for.
Step three was to start to plan the electrics around the walls that were going up. The lights were ready to be connected, and we tested them by wiring them to the vans own light cable that was running through the roof. Carl was more experienced than myself in electrics, and he taught me the basics of splicing and crimping cables together so that I could continue the work during my days off that didn’t correspond with his own. Long hours were spent running cable through the walls and roof to the lights and light switches, connecting them up to the newly purchased leisure batteries. We bought 4 of these batteries which have done extremely well for us in terms of amount of power they can store, and they are connected to a 2000W power inverter which changes that 12V power into regular household 230V. So with a simple extension cable into the inverter we had plug sockets! I went through a lot of effort and switches in order to get the correct dimmer (I settled on this remote dimmer for £6.75 and it’s been fantastic) and lighting done like I wanted, and I was very happy with it when I sat back and looked upon our carpeted and well lit van that we had made. The next electrical work was to fit a relay system that was meant to connect to the vans alternator, enabling the van to charge the leisure batteries whilst we were travelling or at least had the engine on. Now we instead opted to fit the system to a switch located behind the drivers seat and connect up to the vans battery, because our reasoning was that if the vans batteries ever struggled to start we could simply boost them from the leisure batteries and whilst we travelled the van batteries would be full and thus would charge the leisure batteries. The switch we connected enabled us to simply separate the batteries when necessary, and has been incredibly useful to avoid draining the vans batteries by using our electrics. Relay systems aren’t expensive, ours cost around £42, they are hugely helpful and I highly recommend you to get one if you are ever doing a conversion.
All the electronics are connected up to the batteries via a fuse box next to it, so that we don’t blow the lights or anything terrible like that! This fuse box only costs £11 but is the one that we have used happily.
The coolest electrics we had to install were obviously the solar panels, two 100W panels that we fitted onto metal brackets and screwed onto the roof. They connected up to a solar controller we attached to the wall, a helpful piece of kit because it connected to the battery and told us the voltage of it, and even had two USB connections in it which is very helpful as extra charging facilities. Solar of course is something that really helps the van be self sufficient, because whilst it may not be great in England in winter, in parts of Europe during the summer we’ll just about never have to worry about connecting to power facilities thanks to them.
Step four was to begin to design and build the furniture. Obviously we had to maximise our use of what is a limited space, and we knew storage space would be necessary considering we would not just be travelling but living out of this van. Considering our limited tools for very specific measurements of wood I decided to have it done by a professional instead. Long hours were spent with pencil and paper designing the bed-frame, ensuring there was enough storage underneath whilst not causing me to be unable to sit up in bed comfortably. Finally I decided on a design that was very structurally stable and easy to construct once cut to the correct lengths.
We ordered it from the shop and were very satisfied with the result, all the pieces slotting together like a jigsaw that we simply had to screw it together. We used our circular saw for the required slats for the bed, which I had measured so I could simply place my three-quarter mattress on-top, because I didn’t fancy buying a new mattress when I already had one that I liked. Everything fitted great, and to complete the frame we went to Ikea and purchased a shelf with pull out boxes which gave us great storage. The initial plan had been to build the shelf ourselves but honestly the Ikea shelving unit was the perfect fit and cost less than it would have to make ourselves, plus it looked professional and finished so don’t shy away from taking the easy route sometimes!
The kitchen unit we designed and built the same way, in that we ordered the correctly measured and cut pieces of wood and simply screwed it all together. We bought a plain but nice kitchen counter-top from Wickes for £41 and used a jigsaw to cut out the very precise holes required for the sink and hob. I have to admit, seeing those slot in so well was extremely pleasing and proud moment for us both personally, as boy did it look good to see this thing we had planned and built come together so simply.
Step five. The sink was connected, but what’s a sink with no running water? Just a shiny bucket I suppose. We had ordered a 12V water pump from Ebay for £12.99 and connected this up to a switch built into the kitchen counter frame. We then attached up the 25 litre water container with pipes, having another 25 litre water container connected to the outlet of the sink to act as our grey water tank. We actually had quite a large amount of difficulty finding the correct plumbing connections to go from the sinks outlet into a pipe that fit into the water container, all whilst remaining water-tight, but we eventually managed! The well sized 12v fridge could either be connected via a 12V plug that you’d see in all cars and vans, or by a regular 3 pin 230V household plug, which we could use thanks to our inverter and extension cable. However to save a plug socket we instead spliced open the 12V cable and connected it, via a switch, to the leisure batteries. Connecting the fridge via a switch was important because we wanted to be able to turn it off completely when it wasn’t in use or didn’t need to be on.
The hob was a very simple one from Tesco that we bought, and attached via a normal gas pipe to a 7kg butane CampingGaz bottle we had bought from Go Outdoors. Did you know regular hobs can be connected up by a pipe just like camping hobs that you can buy? Those hobs are typically not very aesthetically pleasing compared to ones you can buy for your kitchen, so just buy one from anywhere that you like! The only issue we had was that initially the flames came out very yellow, but some tiny jets that we purchased that restricted how much gas came through sorted that and made our flames blue, putting an end to the black carbon that was on the bottom of our pans!
Step 6, and we’re not far from being finished at this point. The van could happily be used as a home, we had a fridge, running water and plenty of power. But what else does a home need? Well frankly it needed a heater, and so we purchased a diesel heater from our friend in Scotland for around £120. These heaters can be bought new for just over £200 and are incredibly good value for money with a 5 kilowatt output that heats up a small area like a van so incredibly well. Though it won’t be necessary for large portions of the year, this heater will be nothing short of a life saver during winter when we are travelling through the alps and cold countries. Our friend Robyn made us some curtains from heavy fabrics, and we hung those up using curtain poles that you can buy from any home store. These are the heater combine to make it a very cosy place to be when the weather outside is frightful.
Cargo nets where hung up onto the walls above the bed to provide some close to the wall storage space, and the under-bed storage started to get assigned items to hold. Me and Carl had a large 70 litre storage box (which fitted with literally no millimetres to spare, how’s that for perfect fit!) each in which to put our respective items, and the third box we bought we used to store all the items for the van like sealants and spares. The remaining space under the bed fitted our toolkit, and a 20 litre jerry can that we have for emergencies.
Out of steps.
This build took us around two to three months of work in our spare time, but in all honesty the first four steps were done in around two weeks as I had an entire weeks holiday from work, and we worked our days off and our evenings. Including the cost of the actual van at £800, this total build has cost us around £2500, which considering the cheapest camper vans you’ll find are from around the 80’s; are in horrible condition and still cost upwards of £4000, our van is an absolute steal. I look forward to our next conversions, of which there will definitely be some, and I am also happy to offer help and advise to people who are inspired by our build. Indeed I even had someone offer to pay me to build their conversion for them but alas I had already agreed to leave for France and sadly could not do it. There’s some things that I would consider doing differently, such as purchasing better tools and taking more time to cut out the walls more accurately. The areas around the wheel arches was a pain for both the walls and the carpet, and I rushed when trying to do the lining around the lights on the roof. The van looks like what it is in that some areas like the bed-frame and such is still exposed, and the electrics are botched somewhat, but overall I am very happy with what I have done and it’s easily the proudest I have been over something I have created.
The biggest tip that I can give any reader out there is simple: planning is everything. Down to the centimetres and millimetres, ensure you know what layout you want and how you want it to look. Take your time during the build, don’t rush anything you aren’t happy with, be the perfectionist because this is YOUR creation and it should be perfect.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and feel inspired, see our contact page on details if you want to contact us.
Please find the video of the van build here on youtube: