Vanlifers Goose and Ellen have spent the last four years travelling in the States, Australia and now back home here in Aotearoa. Their experience in the USA led to them building a 40ft bus into a home in South Australia, they even did a side build of a van during that time. Like one camper build in a different country isn’t enough. They moved back home last year, but not to settle, far from it. They built out their third camper, the one they feel is their most ideal yet. So with three builds and actually living in them who better to give us a run down on the how and why.
Check out Goose and Ellen’s interview about what they have been doing for the four years HERE
Talk us through the process of identifying a 4WD Hi-Ace GL poptop as being the vehicle you wanted?
Well as you know we’ve had our fair share of experience with campers, whether it’s our own or friend’s we’ve met on our travels. Because of this, we have a fair idea of what to look for in a base vehicle. There were a few non-negotiable factors that we had in mind when searching for a van to convert when returning to NZ, it just so happened that the Hi-Ace fits the bill. Cheap running costs and repairs are a big factor – can’t beat a 90’s Toyota for this one, especially the indestructible diesels! Ellen and I are both rather tall humans, so space to stand and stretch is a must for us. A permanent high-top would have worked fine, but when you’ve driven in 50km winds in a van, you’ll definitely not want the extra height to be blown around! Throw in the 4wd and the relatively low km’s on the engine, the Hi-Ace was just too good to pass up.
We actually came across the beast by accident! If anyone has searched for this kind of vehicle in NZ before, you’ll know that they don’t pop up too often. We’d been scouring sales sites for months and couldn’t find anything that met our criteria. It wasn’t until one night when Goose took a wrong turn (classic Goose move) that we saw the Hi-Ace in a small car yard on the side of the road. We went back the next day to suss it out, only to be told it was already sold . . . To cut a long story short, that sale fell through and we jumped on it! Our budget at the time was 10k, but we pushed it out a little to 12k because we new we wouldn’t find anything else like it for a long time. And before you say it, yes we agree that 12k for a 30 year old van is a little excessive, but we’ve since seen comparable vans being listed for nearly twice that price. Hopefully we made a good investment!
We didn’t set out with the intention to do another full build when we were looking into vans. If something popped up that was all set and ready to go, we would have jumped straight in and been gone. If I’m honest here though, I think that any future vans we look at will either be empty or completely rebuilt. Aside from having the building bug and spending all day thinking about future builds, I think it’s really important to understand exactly how everything in your own rig works. You never know what’s been hidden or dodgily patched when buying something premade.If something goes wrong with the wiring for example, at least you have a fair idea of how to fix it if you built it yourself.
As for the cost of the rebuild, we tried to toe the line between quality products and cost effectiveness. We haven’t done an official tally of the build cost, but can safely say that it was between 2 – 3k. It’s surprising how quickly things can add up, and at least $1000 of this was solely on the electrical system (fridge/solar/battery etc).
You bought the camper then tried it out on a trip as is first, did this change your conversion plan or did it just affirm it? [can you explain the old and how it failed maybe]
This definitely did confirm that we wanted to rebuild. The space wasn’t used as efficiently as it could have been and besides, it didn’t include a fridge or room for a cooker with the factory set up. These things are 100% essential for us on the road so there was no question that everything had to come out!
The original Japanese camper fit out uses MDF with vinyl and veneer how’d you feel about that?
Ugh . . . . enough said haha! Even if it was set up really well and didn’t need altering, we would have found a way to cover or paint the existing cabinets to freshen things up a bit. They were actually in pretty good nick, so we removed the whole unit and managed to sell it to someone else converting a Hi-Ace. Not a bad deal for someone looking to throw together a weekend getaway van.
Can you explain your ethos of building and design?
This is a tricky one because the idea for the overall aesthetic changed as we went through the building process. We knew the layout from the get go, but the colour scheme and finishes certainly did evolve. The original idea was to paint everything white. It’s the old trick to make small spaces feel more open and brighter. We did this in the bus and it looked great, but we were forever wiping and touching up scuff marks. We decided to leave most of the timber natural, with accents of white and darker timber to give some interest. I think it works well and gives the van an open but cozy feel.
Okay I’ll try to keep this one short! Directly behind the front seats is our L- shaped kitchen area. In the first cupboard behind the passenger seat, we have our 9kg gas bottle and cutlery draw above that. Next cupboard is the portable toilet and also where we keep pots and pans (all very sanitary of course), in the drawer above we keep plates/bowls/random bits. We have one more full height cupboard that houses or rubbish bin, 2 burner cooker and chopping board. In the very corner of the bench behind the driver seat, we have our little hidden fridge. The space here was pretty unusable, so having the bench hinge up to reveal the fridge made good use of it. Underneath the fridge is also our heaters which we’ll go into detail about down further.
Then along the wall is our sink with fresh/grey water jugs underneath. I’d love to mount a tank under the van to free up this space, but it definitely works fine as is. Next up along the driver’s side wall is our wardrobe/shelving and surprisingly, this area fits pretty much everything we own.
The first cupboards are for clothes with storage for sleeping bags and other random things underneath. We made the centre of the shelving to be a bit of a focal point, with the framed window for our record player. Completely unnecessary? Yes. Completely cool? Double yes! Under that we have a pull out table for meal or work time, the unmentionables draw (which is still accessible with the bed made), and also a drawer for the vinyl records. The back end of the shelving houses all of Ellen’s books, some speakers, and down below the electrical goodies to run everything. We purposely left the shelving just short of the back of the van so we could hang jackets and have a space for skateboards etc.
Across the back of the van and along the passenger side is the L-shaped couch/fold out bed. The original idea was to be able to walk through the van, but having the couch extend across the back door gave us so much more storage space. This bit is essentially the garage, so we keep our camp chairs, hiking boots and backpacks all in here.
Under the centre of the bed is where the bedding goes when in couch mode, as well as dirty laundry. Finally, the last thing is our food storage. This is a big draw that pulls out from the end of the bed by the sliding door, easily accessed and enough room to stop the need from shopping every few days. Jeeze when you lay it all out like that, we’ve pretty much manages to utilised every inch of the van!
Ok the nitty gritty… what’s stage one of demolition, what did you salvage? Were you able to retain the insulation?
Stage one of the demo was gently removing the existing interior. We knew it was still worth a little something so we preserved it as best we could to resell later. There were only a couple of things we salvaged from the old set up – the sink and tap, as well as the foam from the couch. The sink is pretty much the perfect size for our van, and new foam is so bloody expensive that we couldn’t get rid of it with the rest of the old set up.
There was no insulation in the van originally and we honestly didn’t put any back in. The cost and effort to insulate the walls would have far outweighed the gains made from it. Full length windows and a giant hole (pop top) in the roof mitigates the warmth kept in by the walls.
How’d you decide on ratios and new measurements, how big and wide the shelving/kitchen would be, how many drawers, what would be clothing storage what would be food storage.
The measurements for things came around mostly through trial and error. I (Goose) have a small background in architecture, so have a rough idea of the generic sizes things need to be. We basically started with the bench tops (410mm deep) and worked out the framing sizes off that. Once things were roughly framed, we placed in the gas bottle/toilet/fridge etc to figure out the best way to configure the cupboards. The portable toilet was a big pain here, but it managed to fit in just right. As for allocating what went where, I’d love to tell you it was all a genius plan from the beginning, but we really just decided what went where as it was coming together!
Was the sacrifice of some of the windows on the driver’s side a consideration?
Not at all to be honest! We’re still able to see out the kitchen and record player windows, and with the passenger side being completely open there is more than enough natural light coming in. My only regret here was not tinting the windows before covering them!
The majority of the interior was built using plywood of various thicknesses (7,9,12mm). We used dressed pine (roughly 20x40mm) for most of the framing where visible, and some thicker 2×4’s to give the couch enough strength to support us. The bench tops are just premade counters from Bunnings. Pretty simple when you put it like that hey!
Now keep in mind I’m no Chippy or Cabinet Maker, so how I’ve built them might not be the ‘correct’ way! It starts with the lengths of dressed pine that I cut to length and screwed together to create a basic frame. I usually try to save money where possible and not use brackets, but they definitely come in handy in a lot of instances. I don’t use dowels or glue for most things as I usually end up taking things apart and redoing them. This is why I much prefer to just use screws to fix everything (pre-drill the holes is a must to stop things from splitting!). The sides are then skinned with thin ply to keep down weight and then the bench top is rough mounted to keep everything together. The doors are also made with ply and have a simple frame on the face to give them a bit of depth. All the hinges and knobs were from Bunnings, nothing special but the deep brown colour looks great. We also use little magnets to keep all the doors closed tight. As far as tools required, there are a few basics that are 100% necessary. A power drill, circular saw, tape measure, square and a straight edge are pretty much non-negotiable. Other than that, there are a few specialist things like hole saws and jigsaws that make the work a lot easier, but aren’t needed all the time.
Did you retain the upstairs double bed, if so how does it work and do you use it much?
Yup the bed up in the poptop is still there. It’s basically a flat board that sits ontop of where the old roof would be. It’s hinged at one end so it can fold up and clip to the poptop to give us all that lovely headspace. We’ve only used upstairs a handfull of times, including when Ellen’s sister came along for a little adventure. It’s surprisingly comfortable in the van, even with 3+ people. Goose is partial to a little midday nap upstairs too!
The downstairs bench and pull out bed unit how does this work?
The L-shaped couch/bed is a pretty simple design that works well for what we need. It started with some 2×4 framing to create the basic shape of the ‘L’. There was already a steel frame under the old couch that was for engineering purposes for the back seatbelt, so I built off that to get the sizes correct. I then ripped up some ply (12mm) to cover the top face, as well as an extra piece to use as the flip over bed base. I hinged the base piece along the front edge of the couch so it sat flat on top. Now I needed a way to support this flip over piece and adapted an idea I saw on a how-to video online. I made an angled backrest for the couch and attached this to the underside of the bed piece, this meant that the backrest turned into the legs to support the bed when flipped. The backrest/legs also needed to be hinged as it fowled on the opposite shelving when folding over. The last steps were to face the inside edges of the couch (this also supported the fold over piece instead of relying on the hinges), build the pantry drawer on the kitchen end, and also create a door/table to fold up in the back garage area. There are plenty of ways to build a couch/bed, whether it slides out or folds over. Youtube University is your greatest friend here haha.
The power centre…what batteries are you using?
We’ve kept the power setup nice and simple, if anything goes wrong or comes loose we want to be able to fix/isolate/remove it as easily as possible. All things electrical in the rear of the van run off a 120ah Deep Cycle battery. The lights, fridge, waterpump, heaters and record player all run off a 12v switch-panel with inbuilt fuses. This keeps everything all in one accessible area. We also need to charge the laptop and camera batteries, so a small 200w pure sine-wave inverter converts the 12v battery power to 230v power ‘like in a normal house socket’.
The solar set up…just one panel huh…how was that installed and how much juice does it give you?
Yes just the one 100w panel for now . . . we’re in need of jobs before adding another! It’s simply mounted to the roof using corner brackets that were screwed and glued. The wiring then runs in through a little gromet just in the back door, keeping the least amount holes in the roof as possible. This panel gives us a max of about 6A into the battery at full sun. This is plenty of juice to keep the fridge cold, the phones charged and the speakers blasting indefinitely, we just need to be a little cautious when charging the extra things on top of this.
To help top the battery up on grey or rainy days, we also have an isolator that charges the secondary battery when the van is running. It’s a cheap and simple way to get some more power into the battery and can also be used to ‘jump start’ the main starter battery should that go flat. Another 100w solar panel ontop of this current setup would just help the battery charge that much quicker, and prolong the life of it as well.
South Island travelling is most certainly part of what you’ve done and doing…what have been your considerations for keeping warm?
As I mentioned earlier, we have no real insulation in the van. It would have taken a lot of money, time and physical space up to be efficient. We do however make up for this by having two forms of heating in the rear. One is like your standard heater in the front of the car. Tubes of coolant from the radiator system run through the heater and a fan pushes the hot air out. This obviously relies on the engine being warm but is a great way to preheat the rear while we’re driving, meaning it’s nice and warm when we’re ready to park up for bed.
We also have a Webasto diesel heater that was in the original fitout of the van. This consists of fuel lines run from the vans fuel tank to a little burner unit. A fan then pumps the hot air through a duct and into the living area. If you have the opportunity to get one of these things I recommend you do it, these little things absolutely blast the heat out! It does suck a little bit of juice from the battery on initial start up, but once it’s running it uses barely any power or diesel to run at all. Also, the lines that draw fuel from the tank are set up to never be able to drain the tank completely dry. No risk of burning through all that precious fuel and and getting stuck!
Check out our How To; Heat post HERE
And check out Goose and Ellen’s inspirational Instagram page HERE