Meet the O’Briens and their converted Ford Transit. Nick and Amanda are what it’s all about…bit of Kiwi can do and just get started. Find out what works and figure out how to make what doesn’t better. Amanda takes us through their 2 years of owning and loving their camper….
Let’s start at the start. You bought the Ford Transit in 2018, but prior to that what was the inspiration to take the plunge?
We have never been the type of people to sit still and watch a weekend go by. Often we would find ourselves taking a road trip to various places around the North Island. Then, not long after Harri was born, we moved from Taupo to Hamilton, where we found ourselves craving the freedom to get away even more. It was Nick’s passion project right from the beginning and it took a fair bit of persuading to get me onboard. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the idea of a campervan, but building our own from scratch with no relevant experience felt a little crazy! Needless to say he was persistent and I gave in!
How do you mainly use the van, are you away most weekends, are you using it as much as you intended?
The goal was to be weekend vanlifers, with the occasional longer trip thrown in.
Considering we have now owned the van for 2 years, we definitely haven’t used it as much as we intended. But in those two years, we have also moved back to Taupo, built a house and had another baby, so things have been fairly hectic! Hopefully this Summer we will be able to get our goal back on track with plenty of time spent exploring beaches!
Nick’s woodworking skills look pretty good, is there a background there, or was it learning on the job?
Nick’s woodworking skills were minimal at best before we started, hence the initial reluctance on my part. We were both rookies and I just couldn’t imagine a tidy finished product! There was A LOT of learning on the job! Plenty of mistakes were made. Many hours were spent figuring things out and redoing things that didn’t quite work out. But I honestly think that it made the finished product that much sweeter! Nick has learnt so much along the way, particularly about attention to detail. I am really looking forward to seeing the remodel finished, as this time around there is a lot more ‘know how’.
How did you plan out the conversion; where you taking leads from similar fitouts you’d seen online, or did you have a firm plan?
The conversion was a hash up of different ideas that we liked, fitted together into something that was going to work for us. The van was literally just an empty shell when we purchased it. We needed to consider everything from insulation, to plumbing and electrical, as well as the general layout.
Harri was only one when we started the van so there was quite a bit to consider with that. Seating, sleeping and storage were all issues that we spent quite a bit of time thinking through.
Proper certified seating for Harri and a future child was something that was a must for us. We outsourced this to Auto Transform to ensure it was done properly (a testament to our lack of know how!) While we love the double seat, unfortunately is does take up quite a bit of space. It ended up being a compromise between the seat and a bathroom; however, because the van was primarily for weekend use, this didn’t bother us too much.
The bed configuration was something that we put a lot of thought into, and have changed once already. We had seen a couple of vans with bunk beds and quite liked that concept. Ideas were tossed back and forth, and Nick ended up designing the original bunk which worked really well with our first layout. Unfortunately, Harri didn’t love it as much as we did and spent most of the night squeezed in with us! Underneath the bunk, we had our fixed double bed. As we tend to travel with a lot of gear (beach days, surfing, and children all tend to take up a lot of space), we decided on a fixed bed to maximise storage underneath. This also meant we could incorporate a pull out table and slide out fridge from under the bed too. Now, of course, this is all changing again to accommodate the second child!
The captain chairs…so good! Were they part of the original plan, how did you find them, and what’s the certification process like?
The swivel seats are one of the best decisions we made! The ability to swivel the chairs around adds so much living space and means that we are not tripping over each other all of the time. Originally there was a two seater bench seat and the drivers seat up the front. It was always the plan to have swivel seats so Nick managed to find a matching single passenger seat online. We got the swivel bases from RV World for about $500 each. Initially it seemed like quite a big expense, but it was absolutely worth it! Also, because the swivels are just mounted to the existing seats, there was not certification process necessary.
2 years in what’s worked really well, what’s not?
It has definitely been a couple of years of trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn’t! And we still haven’t actually finished adding everything that we initially planned to have either (outdoor shower, storage, etc)!
A few things haven’t worked the way we expected. To begin with, the fixed bed was set up so that we were sleeping sideways. We had deliberated a lot over this at the beginning because the van was just not quite wide enough to stretch out properly when sleeping; however, we decided to give it a shot. Turns out that being able to stretch out when sleeping is a must have! We ended up adding a sliding extension that pulled out into the kitchen/dining area at night to enable us to sleeping long ways. This then meant that Nick was sleeping underneath the bunk with not a lot of room, which wasn’t ideal!
It took us a little while to work through the self containment process, and for anyone going through a van conversion we totally recommend talking to a self containment inspector before putting in the work! We put a lot of time into our plumbing, which was a mash up of hose and connectors that would empty the grey water out through the drivers door. That was a no go, which we found out during the inspection! We ended up have to go down through the floor for our grey water outlet, which is much more efficient, but it would have been good to know this first!
Also, in an effort to create more room, we squeezed the added double seat as close to the driver’s seat as we were allowed. In hindsight, it would have been better to move it back slightly so that when the swivel seats turned around, there would be more room. In our current remodel, we plan on adding a removable table to this area and the extra space would have been helpful!
Everything else seems to have worked out well for us. Harri really enjoyed sitting at the pull out table to eat and play. I would definitely recommend that if you are planning on having a fixed bed.
The decking that we added to the roof rack is really handy for putting the surfboards on the roof, and is great for taking photos from a different perspective. The swivel seats are obviously a fave too!
….and you’re forced into a remodel aye… what you going to do?
Yes! Forced to remodel, having another child will do that! It was a hard decision (again, one that Nick had to persuade me into!) We had thought about selling and buying something bigger, but we do love our little van and Nick was convinced he could make it work.
Pretty much everything, except for the kitchen and seats, is going to change! In an effort to create more living space, the fixed bed has gone and in it’s place is a lounge/dining area that will pack down into the improved (bigger) master bed. This will also create a walkthrough flow so that we are able to live out the back of the van, as well as the side (a game changer at some of those tighter freedom camping parks!) We are still going with bunks, one on each wall above the master bed, but these will fold up onto the wall during the day.
The fridge is now static and doubles as a side table and work space. In the kitchen we changed some of the bench so that it folds down, allowing us to extend the bed without losing precious bench space! We are also adding overhead cabinets above the kitchen to maximise storage.
So that is the plan… There is a whole lot to do before Summer comes but hopefully we will be enjoying out new layout as a family of 4 in no time!
Check out the O’Briens on Instagram HERE