06 Jun Camper Van Dreams

I’m crazy about camper vans. When I was in college, I had a VW micro-bus that I converted into a camper. Now I have a Mercedes Sprinter that I’ve converted in the spirit of the old VW campers from the 1960s. You can learn more about my new conversion here: Van Adventures I’m attracted to the smaller vans that show lots of ingenuity in making the most of their limited space. A campervan is like a sailboat. Or a traditional Japanese home: every inch must count.

When looking at the history of vans in America compared to vans in the UK, Asia, and Europe, it’s fair to say that we Americans have been short-changed. For decades, our market was glutted with V-8-powered, gas guzzling, low-ceilinged Dodge, Ford, and Chevy vans. We did our best by these but we had virtually no variety to choose from: all three of these Detroit monsters were virtually the same body size and shape, with the same kind of engine, designed to haul heavy loads. With the exception of the VW microbus, we didn’t see minivans until the 1980s and even then they were extremely limited in variety and hardly suited to customization as campers.

Only now are we beginning to see the kinds of micro-vans that have been popular in Asia and Europe for 50+ years. Why did we get short-changed? One word: regulations. The U.S. Department of Transportation standards discourage imports. Which brings up another word: competition. I suspect that the powerful U.S. manufacturers found ways to prevent many cool, cost-effective imports from finding their way to our shores. Also, until the 1980s, Americans themselves were suspiscious of imports and stayed loyal to our domestic market, despite its severe limits.

Here’s my hit list of great camper vans, new and old:

My all-time fave! With an interior as well appointed as a classic sailboat’s, the VW camper of the 1950s-60s is a beautiful little vehicle.

The VW “microbus” was the most widely marketed minvan of all time. Its tiny size, modest anybody-can-fix-it engine, and modest price are why it can be found in virtually all parts of the globe. Its high wheel base and remarkably spacious interior — in such a tiny package — made it a must-have for custom conversions.

The Japanese have all kinds of micro-vans we never see in the States. Here’s a cute, recent model by Suzuki: it’s called the “Every” and can be had in a 4 X 4 model. But the tiny 660 cc engine is far from ideal.


The English Bedford Dormobile Landcruiser, circa 1969. First built in about 1955, they came with showers and loos, and I think they stopped production of these “dormobiles” in 1969. The company kept making vans, however, until it went out of business in 1986.


First produced in 1959, the Estafette (“courier”) was French auto maker Renault’s entry into a line of a front-wheel drive cargo vans. Equipped with an economical four-cylinder engine, the Estafette was a microbus in the European tradition (i.e., small and underpowered). Renault made three varieties, one of which included a high top. In 1961, it brought out a model that could be converted into a camper. Production of the Estafette ceased in 1980.

The English Commer, with diesel engine, ended production in 1976 and was available in Canada (with left side steering) as well as the UK. Admired for its spaceship design but not for its slow, noisy engine.

Americans haven’t seen the Ford Transit until recently. Today’s Transit is one of America’s first microvans and, given their immediate popularity when they entered the American market, one wonders what took Ford so long? The answer is, Ford has been making a Transit minivan for decades — since 1965 — but not in America. As the Transit was the best selling minivan in Europe for 40 years, you have to wonder why Ford never marketed it in the U.S. It’s confounding. The European Transit was customaized as campers in many permutations. Interestingly, the fourth generation of European Transits (1986-94) look very much like the Mercedes Sprinter van.

Manufactured by Fiat in Italy, Iveco (Industrial Vehicles Corporation) trucks and busses got its start in 1975. Its vehicles are available everywhere in the world except the U.S. The Iveco Explorer is a way cool four-by-four camper. Its narrow profile and compact size make it an ideal go-anywhere vehicle. I have no idea how much these cost but, given the vagaries of the American market and the take-no-prisoners regulations of our D.O.T., we’ll probably never see these in the States.

Here’s an oddball from about the 1950s. I don’t know if it was a conversion or a marketed camper. Do you know?

Here’s a recent Mercedes. Do you know what it is? In keeping with the theme of this post: Europeans have all kinds of cool vehicles to choose from, stuff we’ll never see in the States.

This American beauty was made by International Harvester, better known for its farm equipment. But the body was made by Metropilitan Truck Body Inc., whose successors are still making truck bodies today. This example probably started out as a bread truck in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Anybody got any photos of a Metro conversion to share?

All I know about this one is that it’s a Renault. Don’t you want to put it in your pocket and take it home?