The perfect VW van for a campervan conversion
You've done it! You’ve made that decision to turn your dream of owning a campervan into a reality. No longer will you watch campervans drive by in your favourite beauty spots and think “I wish I had on of those.” But you now have one of the most difficult decisions of the #vanlife journey; what van to convert!
Now, being a VW campervan conversion specialist we are a little bit biased, but we believe that a VW transporter is still the ultimate blend of driving practicality, functional space and head turning looks. So, if you see yourself on top of that mountain, or chilling out by that lake, with a pimped out VW in the background, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about making an informed choice on that all important first decision… the base van.
What are the options?
Great question. The VW Campervan has a rich history dating back to 1950 when the original concept of the VW Transporter was first conceived. It’s appealing looks and perfect size made it the natural choice to convert into a campervan. Over the years the Volkswagen transporter has developed to incorporate more streamlined bodywork, more efficient engines and a more comfortable interior. The original VW campervans are iconic, with a dedicated and loyal fanbase and a cult following of people who love these classic campers. But for this guide we are going to focus on the modern VW T5 & T6 transporters that make up the majority of modern VW campervan conversions.
So What’s the difference between the T5 & T6
Not as much as you might think. The T6 is more of a modernisation than a full on upgrade on the T5 model. If the T5 was the initial iPhone of vans, then the T6 is the iPhone 14, it does largely the same thing just with some developed features. But there are a few key differences that are worth understanding, particularly around engine and model options as follows:
|Dates Built: 2003 – 2016
|Dates Built: 2015 – Present
|Carrying Capacity: T26, T28, T30 and T32
|Carrying Capacity: T26, T27, T28, T30 and T32
|Length Options: Short-Wheelbase (SWB) and Long-Wheelbase (LWB)
|Length Options: Short-Wheelbase (SWB) and Long-Wheelbase (LWB)
|Rooflines: Low, Medium & High
|Rooflines: Low, Medium & High
|Trim Options: Startline, Trendline, Highline, Sportline
|Trim Options: Startline, Highline, Sportline
|Latest Version: T5 Facelift (T5.1)
|Latest Version: T6.1
The T5 & T6 van platforms are also available as a people carrier with various seating options, which were known as the Shuttle, Kombi, Caravelle, and Multivan. These are the same underlying T5 & T6 van platform but are more ‘car like’ with the addition of rear seats and windows. Whilst these could be used as a base for a campervan conversion (why not!), they tend not to be as it makes more sense to start with the plain canvas that a panel van provides rather than stripping out unwanted seating.
It’s also worth knowing that both the T5 and T6 have undertaken manufacturer’s ‘facelift’ to their models. The T5 had a facelift in 2010 to the T5.1 which introduced a sleeker and differently shaped front end most notably apparent with the front headlight design and bonnet shape.
The T6 became the T6.1 in early 2020, again predominantly a styling facelift including the front bumper lower grill. Often referred to as a dogbone, this change has been the marmite moment for the Transporter in recent years. Also the T6.1 moved to an electromechanical power steering setup, this is to enable the range of driver assist systems now increasingly commonplace on modern vehicles.
Whilst not entirely significant, these facelift changes are worth noting, as price variation often occurs more steeply at the point of manufacturer changes and upgrades, so one of the last factory manufactured T6’s may offer much greater value than a 6 month younger T6.1 counterpart. And with the wealth of configurable grills and splitters available, the opportunity to personalise it yourself is endless.
On the fuel front, there is really not much in it. Across the range the T6 does slightly less to the gallon in real world use but this will vary significantly depending on engine choice, but it gives a good idea of what to expect. On any engine above 100PS, don’t expect much return above 30 MPG.
- T5 Transpoter: 35.0 MPG (Source: Honest John - Real MPG)
- T6 Transpoter: 33.9 MPG (Source: Honest John - Real MPG)
Just to further confuse things, both the T5 and T6 come in a range of carrying capacity ranges. This is important as it dictates the weight you can put in the van, which when thinking about a conversion, will have a direct effect on how much stuff you can squeeze in. Carrying capacities are reflected as a double digit 'T' number, such as a T28 or a T32. The number represents the gross vehicle weight (GVW) which is the total maximum weight of the vehicle and contents. This is different to the weight the Van can carry and is worthy of further explanation.
If we take a T28 T6 Short Wheelbase (SWB) Panel Van as an example, they have a GVW of 2.8 tonnes. This means that the van total weight must not exceed 2.8 tonnes, this includes fuel and all passengers, everything.
This SWB T28 has an official VW payload (the weight it can carry) of 768 to 917kg, but for this example we’ll use the nice round number of 800kg.
At this point it’s also worth noting that VW official brochures usually give this maximum payload minus a nominal 75kg which represents the weight of the driver. So lets add that back in also, giving us a T6 T28 total carry weight of 875kg. Taking this figure from the 2.8 tonne (T28) GVW means the base van is in the region of 1,925kg when empty.
So if you’re converting a T6 T28, and your family weigh 200kg, you intend to store 50 litres of water, a standard pop top roof, a rock and roll type bed, furniture, swivel seat base, sink and hob, you have already committed in the region of 500kg of weight to that conversion, leaving you 375kg left for fuel, food, clothing and whatever fantastic stuff you take with you on your adventures. Basically, keep an eye on the sums for the payload and GVW so it doesn’t catch up with you.
The DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) have reported that roadside checks found almost 80% of the motorhomes they assessed were over the legal limit. If taken to a local weighbridge and your vehicle is found to be overweight, you will likely be fined and stopped from moving on until you have achieved a legally compliant GVW which could put a real damper on that holiday experience.
So many colours!
The VW Transporter is available in a range of colour options. It is obviously worth picking a colour you like and can live with unless you intend to get your van resprayed as part of your campervan conversion. Colour options come in two categories, solid paint finishes and metallic paint finishes, which come at a slightly higher cost.
The lowest cost base van is white, which is why a large proportion of tradesmen use them, and this cost saving passes on to the converter, not only in the base van price, but also in the conversion. Standard pop-top roofs are usually white and black, so a white van avoids the cost of colour coding the roof, which will be in excess of £400 to ensure you get a suitable finish. Whilst a white Van may not express as much initial personality, colour can be added to bumpers, door handles and wing mirrors, as well as in grill details, you can even put the roof spray job money towards that classic VW two-tone look.
What extras to look for
The short answer is, as many as you can get. The extras are too numerous to list out in this article, but as rule of thumb, but anything the van comes with on top of the base specification is a bonus.
So which van would we choose for a base conversion?
The right van for you is always going to be a personal choice and the main thing is that it works for you! When starting out on this journey, you will inevitably be overwhelmed at some point as the range of options and associated costs threaten to consume your budget. It's tempting at this point to skimp on the base vehicle, we would advise against this. You are going to invest a lot of time, energy and money into this project, and the only thing you can’t change at the end is the vehicle that you’ve built it all upon. If the budget is tight, think of the project as a journey, an evolution. Get the sleeping zones and kitchen sorted, but leave things like a solar panel, underslung water tanks or the wheels and grill upgrades to later. Who cares what you look like, it's the experience you have on the way that matters and you want to be having that experience for as many years as possible!
That said, we should still give you a steer on what we feel makes a great canvas for the majority of projects we would go with:
The Van - T6/T6.1
Here at Redknot we prefer the styling of the newer variants of the VW range and being a newer model, you will tend to find vans with lower mileage on the T6.1.
Chassis - T28/T30
This is purely down to the load carrying capability. There is a T26 (gross weight 2.6 tones) model available but converting this seriously limits the amount of goodies you can add to your lovely new camper. Also the T32 (gross weight 3.2 tones) brings its own challenges with differences to the chassis making some conversion options tricky. We would always try to work with a T30 as this allows you to add all the luxury you will need. The T28 will work just fine too, you just need to keep the gross weight in your mind when adding things like extra water storage and large batteries.
The Engine - 2.0TDI (150 bhp)
There are many power options, from the modest 90PS all the way up to the 204PS 2.0TDI option. We feel that below the 110PS version presents a real challenge for comfortable driving as the power isn’t really sufficient for all that extra weight you will be adding. The 110PS is perfectly functional and will get you wherever you need to go, but the 150PS version is the one to strive for, but expect to pay a premium on vehicles with these engines. Of course, everyone would love the 204PS version, as it delivers lovely power in all driving conditions, but it does tend to be pricey to buy and has a higher fuel consumption.
Transmission - 6 speed manual
This is one of those things that is purely up to you, the driver. Here at Redknot, we have huge love for the VW 6 speed manual. Its always been great in all the VW vehicle’s we have owned personally. Also if you are an automatic lover the 7 speed DSG is a great offering, only drawbacks are higher servicing costs and you will pay a lot more for your base vehicle, if you can find one.
The Roofline - Low roof
We love the styling that comes with the standard low roof option, it lends itself really nicely to having a pop top for extra head room and bed space.
The Length - swb
We are fans of the short wheel base. The long wheel base has its place giving you an extra foot of internal space. So if you have kids or want to pack a little extra luggage in then that might be the one for you. From tackling the supermarket car parks to taking up room on the driveway the short wheel base is just a bit easier to live with on a daily basis.
The Extras - Air conditioning, app connect, up and over door
The extras are a real tricky one with so many variations out there. Obviously if you find your ideal van and it's got every single option fitted and it at a reasonable price, don't hesitate to buy it. But please do your vehicle checks first, take it to a trusted mechanic, purchase an HPI check for accurate mileage, accident history and outstanding finance to protect you from later heartache, and make sure you check the log book and vehicle status from the dashboard console as well if there is one, it will let you know if there are any engine warnings or alerts.
Unfortunately, too good to be true usually is, so be prepared to make compromises on the specification to get better value for money. But we feel there are certain things you can’t do without. In our view, Air conditioning is a must, summer travelling can get quite unbearable without it. The head unit (Stereo for you 80’s readers!) has to have a minimum specification of app connect so you can use Sat Nav, stream music and make calls handsfree through your phone. If you can find one with factory Sat Nav even better, and be mindful that many vehicles that have App Connect may still need it to be activated, which will cost in the region of £80 from a VW dealership or registered garage. We are fans of the up and over door as it gives you an extra bit of cover for simple things like putting the kids wellies on to just sitting having a brew on a drizzly day.
However, if you plan to use your van as the daily runaround as well, the Barn door option may suit you better as you have much easier access to the back of the Van without needing a couple of metres of space for access. The message here is always to think really clearly about what your needs will be and let that drive your choices.
When it comes to factory glazing, this is really down to personal choice. Some people prefer blackout on the rear doors and panels and others want to let as much light in as possible. In a conversion, extra windows add costs as they need glazing, curtains and the tools, materials and work to convert them. If you do want glazing, then look out for those models that can come with glazing on the rear door as this usually gives you a heated rear window and a wash wipe, not easy items to retro fit.
Factory glass feels like a nice benefit, but the tidiest conversions are often where you get to carpet around the window while it is fitted, a retro lining to a factory window might seem like a short cut, but you may have to put a bit of extra work in to get that final finish. Keep a lookout though, as this means you can often find surprising bargains with glazed Vans as the main converters aren’t targeting them.
Mileage - up to 20000 miles
This is one of those that is totally up to budget. We prefer to buy new or nearly new but we feel that under 20000 miles they still feel new and a solid drive regardless of the year. but this does tend to stretch the budget a bit. With the VW transporter being such a reliable workhorse we would feel comfortable buying anything up to 80,000 to save a bit of money on a self build.
Finding the perfect T6
Once you have narrowed down your van search and you are ready to go and view the worthy contenders, there are a few vehicle purchasing basics you should always do. If you have a mechanic friend take them with you, if not here are a few tips for you.
- HPI check: Make sure there is no outstanding finance on the vehicle, especially if you are buying from a private seller. HPI Check are a useful company to help with this.
- MOT: If you are considering an older van to convert you can use the Government website MOT checker. This tool tells you all the MOT history from minor advisories to major fails, it's all logged.
- Service history: Always check that the service manual is up to date. It does tell you in the service manual exactly what should have been carried out and when. So just make sure it has the relevant stamps in the book. If it is a newish van you are looking at, it may not have any service history yet.
- Crash damage: Some accidents don't get recorded . So check the obvious things like the chassis legs front and back. If they have been repaired the paint generally wont match the rest of the chassis. Check the the paint matches on all the panels. You can usually see a slight difference in the tone of paint from panel to panel if it has been repaired. Also pay attention to the tyres. If you can see one tyre that is more worn the the rest this can be in indication of crash damage.
- General wear and tear: This should be in alignment with the mileage of the vehicle. If it has done 10,000 miles it should look like new still. If it has done 10,000 miles and looks like it has done 60n000 then it has probably had a hard life and you would avoid!
- Sweat the small stuff: Vehicle tax cannot be carried over, so you will have to arrange tax before you drive your new baby home. You must get insurance sorted for your journey home, either start a new policy which can be cancelled within 14 days if you don’t end up purchasing the van, or if you have another vehicle currently insured you can usually contact that provider and add another vehicle along side your current policy for a few days at a minimal cost. Otherwise, there are companies that specialise in day insurance.
- Finally: As with any vehicle purchase, buy with your head not your heart. If something isn't as you want it, don't be afraid to walk away. This is your dream and your hard earned money, you shouldn't compromise when it comes to a purchase of this value. That said, if you do find the right vehicle for you, don’t delay, these vehicles are in demand so will move quickly.
What should I expect to pay?
We would expect to pay between £25,000 and £35,000 for a good quality, low mileage T6 or T6.1 van. This figure can vary a lot due to specification but hopefully it gives you a rough budget expectation.
We appreciate that this is probably a real stretch for many of us, but we would suggest that if you are looking to spend less than £10,000 on your base vehicle then you may want to reconsider whether you are putting your money into a good investment. The base vehicle is the platform that your camper will be built upon, converting it will strain your budget, don’t let a tired base vehicle add to that burden.
However, if you are really tight on budget, here are some other options to consider:
Don’t rule out something already converted. Personal taste often drops the price, but a lot of the functional groundwork will have been done. Feel free to get the buyer to bring the Van to a converter like ourselves so we could appraise the work involved in bringing it back up to date. Then make it your own!
Or follow these final options to try and find a bargain:
- Go low engine spec and get it tuned
- Attend camper fairs and events, people often sell at these
We hope that helps point you in the right direction and gives you some confidence in searching for your new, soon to be campervan. We'd love to see your campervan conversions, so please share with us on instagram using #redknotcampers and we'll share as many as we can.