Here at Recreational Society we LOVE converted Ambulances. They tick a lot of boxes; already insulated, big and a lot of storage areas already made. And of course they are former life savers. But there’s also some pretty full on challenges. Sarah and Justin have just [mostly] completed their conversion of Earl, Sarah talks us through the process.
I grew up freedom camping in tents every summer with family on the East Cape, so I guess its in the blood haha. When Justin and I met we started camping in the back of our car with a mattress topper, then upgraded to a rooftop tent which we loved. When we moved from our flat with a garage to a small 2 bedroom apartment with limited storage we decided to buy a self contained van (Vincent Vanjina) which we could get away in on the weekends, but also use as our garage on wheels. Vincent was a LWB 1991 Nissan Caravan with a pop top. He already had everything we needed, but we did spruce him up a little with a lick of paint and some greenery. After a number of trips away in Vincent we decided we wanted a bigger, newer van so we sold him and hunted for a project.
Why did you settle on an ex ambo?
We looked at a few vans on our hunt, but there were a few things that drew us towards an ex ambo:
1 Most are NZ new and have full service history
2 The square body is wide (1900mm) and tall (1850mm)
3 They are well insulated (Earl has 80mm thick wall insulation)
4 They already have lights and cabling to powerpoints run through conduits
5 They are generally well priced
6 They have large, opening windows
7 They have a cool back story/ are a good convo starter
Earl is a 3L diesel turbo 2008 Mercedes sprinter (318 CDI 3665 S). He had done 315 xxx kms when we bought him.
Where did you do the conversion, is it the home driveway, on instagram the workshop seems pretty set up.
We live in a small central Newmarket apartment with one underground carpark (which Earl is too tall for), so my Mum kindly offered for us to use her shed/workshop on the outskirts of Hamilton. We keep Earl down there and work full time (Mon-Fri), then travel down on available weekends (1.5hrs each way) to work on him.
Decommissioned ambo’s are notorious for being holey ie; when all the sirens and lights get removed it’s done pretty roughly. Was Earl like that and how have you addressed that?
Like all decommissioned ambo’s, Earl is pretty holey at the top of the exterior walls. We have covered these holes with tape for the time being as the interior was our priority to get sorted before camping. The plan is to cover the ex-light holes with white pvc sheet that we will cut to size.
Looks like you had a very firm plan for the layout, how’d you settle on the floor plan, and could you talk us through it?
We were originally pretty set on wanting a permanent bed, but with the large opening rear doors it made sense to have a convertible table/seating to bed area. We watched lots of youtube videos and looked at lots of photos for inspiration of layout and tips on what works best. We found our inspiration (and Ivan) on Instagram by searching hashtags. We then bought Earl at auction after he had been decommissioned. We ended up landing on a pretty similar layout to Ivan from Quirky campers, which includes a rear convertible bed/seating area and a kitchen up the front with a central galley running the whole way up. Once we landed on this design I drew it up on sketchup with rough dimensions.
Earl has a full size double bed with a sliding slat system which is super simple and takes 3mins to set at night including a mattress protector, sheets, duvet and pillows. When in ‘lounge mode’ the seating can fit 6 comfortably for meals or game night. The kitchen has a 2 burner gas hob and a large full sized sink/drainer with a feature tap. The portable toilet sits behind the passenger seat, and there is an outdoor gas hot water shower. We also have a 12v projector which projects onto the rear blind for rainy Netflix movie nights.
Are you going for self containment, and where/how are you storing fresh and grey water?
We will be going for self containment shortly. Earl has two underslung tanks fitted with level monitors – 80L fresh water and 70L grey water.
Seems like you did all the work Sarah! Where was Justin?
Justin and I did one weekend of work on Earl together before he went away on deployment with the Navy for 6 weeks. I spent 4 out of 5 weekends while he was away working on Earl, because we wanted him ‘campable’ by Christmas. I got the bulk of the construction and painting done inside, then Justin installed/upgraded the electrics when he returned and we finished off plumbing/solar together.
And further to that, your skills are on point, do you have a background in building, or at least renovation?
I have no background in building or renovation – just winged it with lots of help from Youtube! Justin knew a thing or two about electrics though, which was handy when figuring out the multitude of leftover wires inside.
A rule of thumb is a conversion takes at least 300 hours, where are you sitting on that scale?
We would be sitting at around 100hrs work. We still have some finishing off to do on the inside and need to clean up the exterior, but the main components are finished.
Some big time savers for us were buying a second hand kitchen and resizing/upcycling the cabinets rather than building them from scratch, and using the existing lights (once Justin got them going)/utilising existing wiring to 12v power points.
Electrics; Most ex ambo’s come fitted with a house battery stored in an external accessed locker just behind the driver’s door, so I’m guess Earl did, and you’ve got that as a starting point, also ex-ambos have great lighting already in place. But you’ve added to this huh?
Earl did come with a house battery, but this was in poor condition so we got rid of it. Justin has installed a new 12v200ah LiFePO4 Battery and 680w solar with a 50A MPPT solar charge controller. This may seem like overkill, but we wanted plenty of power in the winter when off grid. We run a 12v 85L fridge freezer, water pump, projector, tank monitors, lights and have 4 USB ports + two cigarette lighter ports for charging phones, watches, blenders, fans etc. We also intend on installing an inverter to run 240v appliances.
At the end of it all what are you guys gonna do with Earl, how are you going to use him?
We have just finished 2 weeks of camping in Earl by the lake while wakeboarding, and really enjoyed him! The plan is to do weekend trips away with the odd longer road trip to the South Island etc. We may consider renting him out, but will give that more of a think once we finish him. As much as we love Earl, we do intend to sell him down the track to fund our next, bigger project.
Sarah has done an extensive job of posting Earl’s progress on instagram, it’s well worth decent read. Check it out HERE