We love travelling and as I found myself travelling often on my own with the children, we gradually traded up from tent to caravan. We’d contemplated a campervan conversion for a long time, yet we was torn what to buy. Buying a motorhome or campervan was expensive, but the self-build conversion route was complicated.
In the end, we opted for a self-build campervan conversion. We chose a retired ambulance as our base vehicle, because we thought it would be easier to convert; having insulation, lighting and heating already installed. By law, any public service vehicle has to have a check every 6 weeks at the most. So we knew (or at least hoped) that, despite whatever the mileage, the van would be in reasonable, serviced condition.
Those were our assumptions and here is the reality- the few things I’ve learnt over the past months, in the process of my self-build campervan conversion, starting with the surprises and the best bits about an ambulance as your campervan base vehicle:
Later, I’ll also discuss the bad points about embarking on a campervan conversion from an ambulance.
Can I even legally drive the ambulance?
Oops! Here came the first bump in the road: Our retired ambulance actually required a cat D licence to drive it, as it is plated (legal on-road weight according to the registration documents) at 4.5 tonnes. That left to my husband to do most of the driving, while we ran through the paperwork to get it “replated”. (Thankfully, I asked the right questions from the auction house and knew about this before we bought Campy Van)
Changing the plating of a van
The whole process to rectify the weight involves a couple of steps:
First hurdle was to tax the van. You can do this online in the UK. Goto the DVLA site for this.
I had to get it recategorised from PSV (public service vehicle) to private HGV, just to tax it (Note: private HGV is important, so you don’t have to have a tachograph). This was simple enough to do at the post office, once I understood the process. (The DVLA sent me around in circles.)
I was slightly wary of insurance, but ended up being able to insure the van through our Camping and Caravan Club membership as a “Van to Campervan conversion“.
Next, once taxed and insured, we had to take Campy Van to a weighbridge and get a plating certificate. We used our local council’s depo, where for £22 we got to park on their big scales and received a signed paper to certify the weight. Currently, with the wheelchair ramp and lift still in, Campy Van weighs 3000kg.
5. RECLASS AGAIN
As soon as the V5 is back, it needs to be sent back to the DVLA with the plating certificate to get it recategorised to a vehicle of GVW 3,500kg- it will become an LGV, aka light goods vehicle. Then anyone with a B licence can drive it too (and we won’t be banned from city centres across Europe).*
6. RECLASS ROUND 3
Again we were sent in some circles by various agencies and we needed go through an official replating process, through an official van converter.
We used SVT, whose details we found in the ambulance on a sticker: They had rated her originally into a higher category, when she started her life as an ambulance. For a fee, they reviewed the weighbridge paperwork and our work and provided us with an official certificate for her new, slimmer weight.
What exactly do these buttons do?
On the dashboard of an ambulance there is a range of buttons, nicely labelled. (Sadly sirens weren’t included with Campy Van) Some were obvious, some less so.
We were so confused by some of them that we ended up popping down to our local ambulance service station. There we asked one of the mechanics to walk us through some of the quirks of an ambulance. He was very helpful and showed us were the fuel stop for the heater is too and the key feature of the battery isolator…and some more of the nuances.
Tip: If you buy a retired ambulance use the battery isolator button each time you park the vehicle before you get a chance to rewire. Otherwise, all the gizmos will slowly but surely drain your battery.
Cool things that are included in a retired ambulance
One of the main reasons we bought an ambulance was that a lot of work of the conversion has already been done.
We have windows in the back
Cutting into the bodywork of a vehicle is, by all accounts, a daunting task for first-timers. In the ambulance, all our windows that we could ever need were in. Maybe too many if you ask some, but I like having windows in almost every panel.
Two of our rear windows even have opening sections, which is rare in vans, even passenger vans.
We also have a small skylight and roof vent. (This is not in the best shape, so may actually need to be replaced. We shall investigate.)
The ambulance is insulated.
One of those tasks, again, that people do not look forward to. We have rockwool under the panelling.
… but is it enough?
Update: Well, once we got to know the van and learnt more about our needs we decided to improve the insulation and instal closed cell insulation
The van is lined
How the interior of campervans look is quite important. You will, inevitably, end up spending a fair amount of time in there. You often see DIY conversions (and even some pro converters) using carpet or wood lining. I really dislike carpet lining and wood panelling would eat into our loading weight allowance for our campervan. I really appreciate the fibreglass panels used for lining our retired ambulance. I especially like the robust mouldings around the windows. These will be easy to keep clean, whatever my messy, constantly muddy kids throw at it.
Now, I just need to figure out how to remove these and put them back nicely, if we decide to improve the insulation.
The van has easy to clean flooring
Sadly, this will have to be ripped up as there isn’t sufficient underfloor insulation. I will try to replicate how the lino is curved up the wall though, as it’s great for sweeping out the van!
The van has heating
There is an Eberspacher heater in the ambulance. Sadly, the controller is a bit beserk and the heater won’t work. The quote for having it looked at was not favourable, especially as our local ambulance repair shop said these heaters are power-hungry and may drain our batteries quickly… but we will keep an open mind about it.
The van has internal lighting
We have two set of lights in the back: bright white lights and cool blue dimmed lighting.
The driver’s cabin has some very strong (not very atmospheric) LED light strips.
The van has cupboards
There are overhead cupboards all around. Although they say max. 3kg, they can actually take a 60kg person hanging on them. That’s quite a disparity, I know! They don’t look fabulous with their tinted plexiglass fronts and the lovely green lino lining, but those should be relatively easy to rectify.
The van has rear seats
We bought the van with 6 seats and a wheelchair support seat. The latter was taken out pretty quickly and one of the seats had to be repositioned, as it was blocking the aisle from the drivers cabin to the back. There are 2 fold-down seats in the rear too. These are rather cool and will, most probably, be incorporated in the final design.
The van has a sidestep
It’s easy to get in via the sliding door, there is a slide-out step. However, that step is wired to an alarm: if the engine is on then there is an ear-deafening beep. Makes sense if we were to drive off with it out, but not when we are just idling.
… one bit of rewiring to figure out, I guess.
The van has a reversing camera
Campy Van is long, almost 6.4m and, with the rear windows obscured, thus a full reversing camera is a great feature to have!
The van also has a reverse warning beep… that can be switched off. However, knowing that I’ll be moving around lots of kids, this is a cool feature.
The van is plastered with warning stickers.
I mention these in the positives because it does have one very useful sticker inside: the dimensions stuck on the front windscreen. The others make me laugh…but that’s another post.
We have a reserve battery
Not something I expected, but something I have had to resort to using because I didn’t know about the Tip above, of having to isolate the battery so extra ambulancey bits don’t drain your primary battery. Under the driver’s seat, there is another battery that is wired as an emergency start battery. If we drain the battery, we have one or two goes to start with this little power pack under the seat.
Sadly, I only learnt the particulars of the battery and sneaky things draining it after I’d spend £150 on replacing glow plugs and having other bits looked at.
So Campy Van has some nice features which make it appealing for a conversion and then there are some bits that complicate the conversion…