Van Build I – Choosing Your Van
For my first post on our van build series I figured I should start at the beginning, and that of course is with the van itself.
If you ever decide to do a van conversion, especially in Europe (and most especially in France) it’s quite important to think about the vehicle before you jump onto the next steps. You need to ensure that what you’re starting off with not only suits your personal travel goals & needs, but also that it remains legal and able to be insured after you’ve completed your interior masterwork.
The latter point is perhaps less of an issue in the USA, where regulations on van conversions (or bus conversions or whatever) are pretty loose. Here in France however it’s a massive deal, as the regulations are super strict. So you can’t just chose whatever vehicle you like, build it up anyway you like and expect to stay road legal. Ah non, non, non….
Then there’s all the other things you might want to think of such as your travel style, where you plan to go, repairs & parts, and of course your budget!
We are by no means experts on any of this, given this is our very first endeavor in this space, but we (and by that I mean Paul specifically) did think a lot about all of these things before we bought our Fiat Ducato. So I figured would share the thought process in case it might be interesting to some of you too. This is a looong post, so get comfortable and dig in 🙂
Size, Height & Length
Most folks who decide to buy a van are looking to go small. After all, the whole point of a van is that it’s nimble enough to fit and go anywhere. But even within this small space there’s a lot of variation in size and the most common way van folks talk about this is by model name, followed by L (length) & H (height) values combined with a number.
For Length: L1 = short length, L2 = medium length, L3 = long length, L4 extra-long or maxi length
For Height: H1 = standard roof, H2 = high roof, H3 = super-high roof
So in basic terms, whenever you look at a given model of van:
L1H1 is the smallest size both in length and height. You could probably get a bed and a few cupboards in here, but you can’t stand up. Bonus is this size can fit into a regular-sized parking spot and can go just about anywhere a car can.
L1H2 is still small in length, but taller in height, which allows you more interior room and (most importantly) to stand up. However you will be excluded from underground car parks and parking lots with standard height barriers.
L2H2 is the same as previous, but longer so you have more interior space and thus more ability to make it livable. The L2 length is ~0.4-0.5m longer than a regular parking spot size so you may overhang a bit when you park, but in most cases you can still get by.
L3H3 is both taller and longer than the previous sizes. You’ll have loads more interior space so lots of ability to get creative with your layout, but your vehicle can no longer fit into a standard parking space.
L4H3 is the largest size you’ll find. Lots of space, but heavy duty size.
And all the combos in-between…..
Every van manufacturer does these L, H values a smidgen differently, and the numbers will also vary by van model, so if you want exact dimensions you’ll have to look them up. However, the general idea is similar for all vans.
Wanna Travel & Surf? Many of the popular beach parking lots in France now have fixed height barriers (often ~2 m), so if you’re an avid surfer and want to park on the water you’ll have to go for a compact van. The L1H1 Renault Trafic (1.971 m high) is an example of a low-profile van that can fit pretty much anywhere.
Weight & Carrying Capacity (Payload)
Another important consideration for a van conversion, especially in Europe is the weight. Basically you need to know your van’s empty weight (as bought) and what its max allowed weight is (legally). The difference between the two is your allowable payload or carrying capacity, and if you’re converting that will determine how much weight you have available not only for your conversion, but also for your stuff and you!
In France, these are the terms to look for:
PTAC (“Poids Total Autorisé en Charge””) or MMA (« Masse Maximale Autorisée ») = Authorized Gross Vehicle Weight. This is basically the MAX allowed weight of your van. If your van ever exceeds this, you’re not road legal, you could be fined and your insurance could deny any claims. This number is generally between 2.6 to 3.5 tonnes, depending on the van model, and on a French “carte grise” (registration papers) it’ll be indicated on line F.2
PV (“Poids à Vide”) = Unladen Weight. This is the empty weight of your van (with fuel), in the configuration sold to you from the factory. This will vary from van to van, depending on what options the van has, how many seats etc. On a French “carte grise” you’ll find this number on line G.1.
The difference between these (PTAC-PV) is your CU (“Charge Utile”) and it’s what you have to work with*.
Why not just go for a bigger PTAC/MMA? You can certainly buy vans larger than 3.5 tonnes PTAC/MMA in Europe, but they require a special (heavy load) drivers license and also cost more to drive around, both in tolls and gas. For most folks it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
*Weight matters even more In France: Fun fact, if you’re converting a van in France, the weight of your final conversion (including full water, propane, and fuel tank) must be kept ~300kg under your PTAC/MMA in order to pass all the requirements. Plus your conversion has to be weight balanced (left to right, front to back) and can’t exceed the individual axle allowances either. There are exact formulas for all this (of course), but I’ll keep that joy for a later blog post.
A follow-on consideration after you’ve decided on general size is something I like to call interior “boxiness”, and it’s basically to do with the interior dimensions of the space you are going to build in.
If you look in detail at some of the most popular vans (say Sprinter Mercedes, Ford Transit, Peugeot Boxer/Fiat Ducato etc.) you’ll notice that they aren’t all “square” in shape. The Sprinter vans are narrower and more streamlined with curvier sides, while the Boxer vans look….well….very “boxy”.
This may not seem all that important, but it can actually make quite a difference in the interior. The more “boxy” your van is the wider it is (more space to work with), the straighter the interior walls (easier to build on), and the bigger the chance you can build a bed to sleep comfortably width-ways, rather than sleeping length-ways (if you want a “fixed” bed that can be a big deal).
As for negatives? You might think a “boxier” van is less streamlined, which would mean it’s less fuel efficient, but slight differences in van shape are actually the least of factors when it comes to diesel usage. Soooo many other things come into play here, including the engine size/type, drive-type (front-wheel, rear-wheel), size, overall weight, van build year etc. Even within a given model-range (say Fiat Ducato) you’ll find variations in fuel efficiency depending on the type of engine and overall size you choose, and of course once you load up your van (with stuff) all these numbers go down further.
Parts & Repairs
Van conversions are like anything in life….you have to prepare for the occasional break down and repair.
In Europe Fiat/Citroen/Peugeot are staple vans that have easy parts and service everywhere. In fact in 2020 Fiat Ducato became the best-selling commercial vehicle in Europe, with Ducato the most popular motorhome base. Within Europe there are slews of commercially available off-the-shelf motorhome parts for it, and over 6,500 places (!) to service it.
But what if you van adventures take you abroad?
Fiat is actually quite popular in Russia, Latin America, the Middle East and Australia but is not quite as well-known in the USA (although it’s making quick inroads, thanks to Fiat’s joint venture with Ram**).
In comparison, the Mercedes Sprinter is a solid van but parts are more expensive and difficult to get a hold of, and authorized repair centers (only 21 in Canada, 370 in USA, but 2,500 in Europe) can be harder to find.
Just a few, random additional things that we thought about:
Type of Engine – If you buy a newer (~post 2016) diesel van it will undoubtedly require AdBlue, a fluid that helps to convert 90% of nitrous oxide emissions into dinitrogen and steam. The advantages of these newer engines are that they are less polluting, allowing you to meet EURO 6 emission levels. This is a good “future-proofing”, especially if your van travels will include bigger EU cities, many of which are now staring to ban vehicles with older diesel engines. However it can be a HUGE disadvantage if you plan to travel to countries outside of EU where AdBlue may not be readily available (e.g. Africa, certain parts of Eastern Europe etc.).
FWD vs RWD – the age-old discussion of Front-wheel drive (FWD) vs Rear-wheel drive (RWD creates many passionate online debates. FWD vans tend to be cheaper to build and buy (basically because the whole drivetrain can be assembled in one piece), but RWD vans boast more traction especially when fully-loaded. So basically if you want to off-road a lot, FWD (or even better AWD or 4×4) may be a better option for you. Fiat Ducato, Peugeot Boxer and some Renault Master vehicles are FWD. Mercedes Sprinter and some Ford Transit are available in RWD & AWD.
Short Vs Long Wheel Base – The wheel base of you van is just the distance between the center point of your front and rear wheels (or axles). Smaller vans will naturally have a smaller wheelbase than longer vans, although sometimes there is a bit of choice. A shorter wheelbase will feel sportier to drive and can be easier to maneuver and turn, whereas a longer wheelbase will feel more stable (especially if you carry more load). Personally I like a longer wheelbase on larger vans.
Age – Buying an older van can be extremely economical, and is absolutely the best option if budget constraints are tight. Plus older vans can be more unique-looking and may actually be easier/simpler to fix (less electronic whiz-bangs etc.). On the negative side older vans can have more problems especially with rust (most especially if they are not galvanized), and if they have been neglected they can become a literal money sink. Like any vehicle though, if you take time to look around you can find some excellent deals, and if you’re handy you can fix and create a totally unique ride.
Color – Do you go for a white van or not, that’s the question? It seems 90% of the van market is your standard white cargo van, so if you’re buying used it’s one of the most common options you see. For anyone who wants to “stealth” camp in urban areas, white is a good, unremarkable color to buy. It also keeps cooler in hot weather and is fairly easy to keep clean (ish). But yeah, you will have zero pizzaz. My only definite tip? Don’t buy a black van unless you want to travel in a moving oven (trust me on this).
What about Electric Vans? Electric vans are already here and although payloads (what they can carry) are smaller than current diesel options, they’re not that bad. Honestly the biggest limits are cost (they’re pricey!) and driving ranges. The driving range for the Mercedes eSprinter currently caps out at ~82 miles while the Renault Master ZE / E-Tech maxes around 75 miles. The most promising of the lot is actually the Fiat E-Ducato which claims up to 175 miles (with 2 battery packs). Personally we’re not opting for an electric van, but I don’t think it will be long before folks start converting them.
Some Popular Large Van Brands
The Fiat Ducato, Peugeot Boxer and Citroen Relay are solid “boxy” vans, with lots of parts & maintenance availability, especially in mainland Europe. They are all built at the same Italian factory (SEVEL Sud) so they are broadly identical, apart from some specification details. Negatives? They’re available in FWD only.
The Ford Transit is by far the most popular van sold in the UK, and is also one of the best-selling commercial vans in the USA. It’s affordable, has good carrying capacity and is easy to find parts for. Plus, as of 2020 you can get it in AWD. Negatives? It’s apparently quite easy to steal (this is discussed often on van forums)
The Mercedes Sprinter is a high quality van, that’s become super popular over the years for van conversions (especially in USA). It also has the advantage of tons of options, including both RWD and AWD. Negatives? It’s pricey to buy, and parts & maintenance are the most expensive of all the van models.
Other options to consider are the Vauxhall Movano, the Renault Master, and the Volkswagen Crafter, amongst others!
** In USA The Ram ProMaster looks identical to the Fiat Ducato, and that’s because it was developed in a joint venture between Ram Truck and Fiat Professional. So it’s a close copy with the same “boxy” style and just a few minor differences.
And We Went With….?
As you already know we decided on a Fiat Ducato, but that wasn’t our original plan.
We initially thought we’d buy a Sprinter, simply because we know friends who have them (plus Paul was watching a bunch of Sprinter conversions on YouTube at the time). However a few weeks of searching quickly revealed that used Sprinters were not only difficult to get, but also heavily priced.
For the same price as an older Sprinter we could get an almost-new Fiat Ducato, which is an engine & base we already know quite well (and like) from LMB. Plus we have a fab Fiat repair guy just 30 mins away from us. The decision was easy.
Our Fiat is a newer engine so it requires AdBlue. Ideally we’d have gone without, but all new vans come with it these days. And we decided on a L3H2 size as we like to have some comfort. We felt this was a good compromise in size, weight and height…at least for our first build. We’ll remain under 6m in length, which is fine for our needs, and we’ll have enough room (13 m3) to trick out the inside and stand up (very important for us).
And yeah, it’s white. C’est la vie…
Finally, A Few External (and Extremely Useful) Links:
- Best Vans For Camper Conversions: Link HERE (Two Wondering Souls)
- How to Choose The Best Van for a Camper Conversion: Link HERE (Mowgli Adventures)
- Choosing a Van: Link HERE (Far Out Ride)
If you made it this far, WELL DONE! And if you have any questions DO feel free to fire away below.SPONSORED LINK:
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