Inspiration for our mini van conversion
Jean Robert owned his own ‘car camper’ in New Zealand, where they are very popular on the backpacker circuit as a cheap driving/sleeping and living option.
The size and relatively small engine power of these car campers make them affordable, and more importantly insurable, to younger travellers. There are plenty of amount of companies offering professionally converted cars, such as Wicked, Spaceships and Escape.
Seeing car campers all over the place in New Zealand inspired both of us. In some ways, these vehicles are actually more suited to Europe; narrow and busy city streets, tight parking spots, cheaper campground rates, higher petrol costs….etc!
There are a few companies who offer small campervan rentals in Europe – indeed, Wicked Campers and Spaceships are also in the UK for example – but the high long-term cost (4,000 pounds for 10 weeks! Ouch) is the first barrier, followed by the limited destinations the insurance will cover (mostly just EU).
Furthermore, the bright orange branding (Spaceships) and sometimes brash decoration (Wicked) do not really lend themselves very well to stealth/wild camping (parking outside of campgrounds), which is something Jean Robert and I wanted to do.
Unlike New Zealand however, there aren’t really many people either converting and selling small campers! And before you ask, we didn’t even consider a VW, for many reasons including cost as the main one.
So Jean Robert decided to build his own. We did have one major issue; absolutely nowhere to park a vehicle. We lived in the centre of Brighton (UK) and there was just no way around it unless we wanted to spend a lot of money on storage!
So we bought a car in May, only three months before we wanted to leave for our trip and stored it on my Grandmother’s driveway about 10 miles away from our home (45 minute journey on the bus!).
A quick build
We bought a Toyota Lucida as we wanted to base the conversion on the most popular design we’d seen in New Zealand – that of Wicked and Escape campers, with the kitchen at the back and bed in the middle with storage underneath. I’ve heard a lot about Toyotas being solid and reliable cars, so it was an obvious choice.
Design and layout of our Toyota Lucida van conversion
We kept the back seat in the car so that we could technically take passengers if we needed. At the same time, the back seat provided one edge of the bed. Jean Robert built a box on the left-hand side with a trapdoor to access the storage underneath.
Another box was built on the far side, again with storage. The section in the middle was left open to allow foot space for potential passengers and also for table space. While the original idea was to have a removable table, time wasn’t on our side. It wasn’t finished on time. In the end, it didn’t matter so much as we ate outside the majority of the time!
The curtains were attached to a wooden frame tied to various points (hand holds) on the ceiling. Jean Robert built this during our South-West tour of the UK….so during the trip!
Luckily we were staying at a friend’s house at this point so we were OK without curtains until France. The curtains themselves were just charity shop curtains cut in half and hemmed by my wonderful mother!
The kitchen design was, again, based on the Wicked and Escape designs. We didn’t get into the logistics of fitting a proper fridge in this car since it was only for a short amount of time and this was a fairly basic conversion without an additional battery or extra electrical work.
Jean Robert made a kitchen counter frame at the back, with a hole for the sink. The cool box and various big storage containers were on the right while everything else was under the sink in various boxes and containers.
We had a white plastic table to eat outside on – the legs came off so it was easy to store. We also had two small foldable chairs, again they were really easy to store in the back.
There were some issues with the sink on the trip. For one thing, it was far too high for me (I’m 5″2) to comfortably reach. If the sink/kitchen unit would have been lower then we would have sacrificed storage space.
The plan was to mostly cook outside anyway so it wasn’t a huge problem. We definitely won’t be having a kitchen at the back for our next conversion.
We bought some storage shelves in Poland (see photo below) to sort out the organisation underneath – with these, it was a lot better. Not having a fridge was a bigger problem since in 30+ degree heat we couldn’t store things for more than a few days at best!
One time we bought mushrooms and they lasted less than a day. We were, therefore, visiting supermarkets every other day. While it wasn’t the worst thing, it was still a hassle and took time out of our day.
Finding facilities on a road trip
Another big issue was bathroom facilities, more specifically not having a toilet. Not having a shower we could deal with, but the toilet was the most pressing problem.
We did spend a considerable amount of time looking for toilets while on the road, which took leisure time out of our trip.
Obviously, it was fine when we were having lazy days in campgrounds or truly out in the wilds, but when visiting more built up areas we did have trouble.
What did work in our Toyota Lucida conversion
On the good side – our car camper really came into its own when stealth/wild camping. We slept overnight in some amazing locations, with far less concern that we’d be moved on compared to if we’d had a big RV/camper.
We managed to park in some very tight spots, and really pushed the vehicle’s capabilities – the poor car ended up on a lot of rough roads, especially notable was one in Slovakia meant for tractors/4x4s!!
I also felt much less of a tourist; it wasn’t at first sight obvious that we were visitors…until they saw the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side of course!
Selling our camper
We returned to the UK and sold our car for a very similar place that we’d bought it for, six months earlier and without the 15,000km we’d put on the clock.
The conversion cost (150 pounds), vehicle tax, insurance, and fuel were the only outlays, but if we’d hired a vehicle we would have to pay the latter two anyway, plus fuel. Not bad at all really!
The experience gave us inspiration, a lot of ideas and insight for our next project; a car conversion for travels around Canada. The conversion is going to be much more sophisticated, comfortable and ‘finished.’