This Old Van

Buying a vintage van to renovate can be a scary prospect. Knowing what to look for is vital; we’ve got some great tips on where to start.

Buying a vintage van

What you look for in a van is going to be very personal to your specific situation, including your budget, skill set and location, to name a few. But there are some overall things to look out for to ensure you wind up with a van that suits your needs and doesn’t end up revealing more problems than it’s worth.

Things to consider before you start looking

Think of who you’re accommodating and your skill set when looking for a van.

Who are you accommodating?

The number of people you need to accommodate should be your first consideration when looking for a vintage van to purchase. Ask yourself these questions before you start your search:

  • How many beds do you require?
  • What size beds do you need?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of converting the dining table into a bed every night and back to a dining table in the morning?
  • Are you going to attach an annex that can also house beds?

What’s your skill set?

Your skill set will come into play thereafter. The second-hand van market is diverse, and there is everything out there from full strip-outs to vans that have been half renovated before a weary renovator has thrown in the towel. Are you more of a jack-of-all-trades with the time and skills to tackle a substantial renovation, or do you have the budget to outsource the entire project to professionals? You might even lie somewhere in between. Where you sit on this spectrum is going to weigh heavily in the decision process of the type of van you are going to purchase.

How many beds do you think you’ll need?

 

Shape and type of van

The shape of the van is wildly important, because unless you plan on making significant structural changes (we don’t) then there’s not much you can do to alter the shape through a renovation. The ideal van shape obviously comes down to personal opinion, so the best way to decide what you like and don’t like is to do your research. There is so much inspiration on Pinterest and Instagram, and you will easily be able to refine your search parameters to pinpoint what is right for you.

There are some beautiful old vans out there, but there are also plenty of ‘stinkers’, so remember that just because the ad says it’s vintage, it doesn’t always mean that the ugly duckling will turn into a swan.

Personally, we love the shape of the old Viscounts. They are wide with a visually aesthetic facade, and the corner windows offer a great aspect from inside the van and let in much-enjoyed light.

Conventional van

Conventional vans have a full-height roof and solid walls. They don’t require any set-up or pack down and are always accessible when travelling on the road. They offer plenty of storage options and are consistently our pick when looking for vans to purchase.

Wind-up van

A wind-up van’s walls are made up of solid panelling on the lower half and canvas on the upper half. Because they are compact when packed away, they are a good option if they are to be stored; however, these vans require considerable setup. They are inaccessible until they are set up, they offer no up-high storage options, and the wind-up mechanism can become a maintenance issue.

Pop-top van

A pop-top van is a combination of a conventional caravan and a wind-up camper van. Offering the benefits of a full height van once set up, a pop-top van packs away for improved aerodynamics while towing and a lower height for storing.

This van still requires set-up on arrival; however, the inside can always be accessed and the extensions provide extra sleeping space.

 

Where to source

Start by researching the market to gain an understanding of what’s out there, the range of brands, asking prices and the variance in conditions. This will stand you in good stead when it’s time to negotiate with your seller. We’ve sourced all of our vans online from (Australian site) Gumtree, but we also recommend scouring local websites like Facebook Marketplace and TradeMe.

In fact, a simple Google search will provide you with a huge range of options from various sellers. On top of some late-night scrolling, start telling everyone you know that you’re in the market for a vintage van. We’ve had multiple people contact us over the years to let us know they had vans on their property that they’d love someone to come and take off their hands.

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Things to consider before you buy

The importance of a pre-purchase inspection cannot be overstated. Michael was lax with the inspection for Bumblebee, having already decided to buy the van simply based on the photo alone and irrespective of its condition. Let’s just say the impulsive approach is flawed. He returned home with a van that turned out to have a timber frame. ‘No problem. I’m a carpenter. How bad can it be?’ The answer is: very bad! It required a significant rebuild, to the point where Michael reconstructed almost 60 per cent of the van’s entire frame. Had he been vigilant with the pre-purchase inspection, he would have seen the warning signs that lay beneath the perfectly shaped exterior.

Start by researching the market to gain an understanding of what’s out there

Water damage

When inspecting the van, decide whether you will do a complete strip-out, partially demolish it or leave the interior intact. Water damage to materials you will replace is not a deal-breaker, but if you decide you merely want to make simple cosmetic changes, and you won’t be replacing the materials, then checking for water damage is crucial. Water damage typically presents in the swelling of timber cabinetry and water stains around windows, skylights, roof hatches and vents. Another indicator of potential water damage is if the van shows heavy use of silicon on the exterior, which is often a sign that the previous owner has attempted to stop leaks.

Rust


Check the chassis for any obvious signs of rust. The most common place for rust to be present is around the hitch and drawbar. The chassis will almost always have surface rust, which can be easily treated with rust-inhibiting pain. However, rust that is starting to bubble through paintwork or has completely eaten a hole through the chassis is a potential red flag and should prompt further investigation, although it isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. If there are only rust spots here and there, then it may be an easy fix for a welder. If the chassis is riddled with rust, it’s your cue to walk away and look for another option.

Windows

Be sure to check that all existing window frames are intact. It is common for owners to pull out windows to install the old ‘window rattler’ air conditioner. This can pose a potential problem, because vintage van window frames can be hard, if not impossible, to source. On the other hand, the glass is easily replaced, and a lot of owners opt to replace the glass with acrylic of the same thickness. Many suppliers will cut to size if you can provide them with a template. Window stays and locks are readily available online, and my bet is that most of your vans will need restoring or replacing.

A well-restored van can give years of family enjoyment

Van cladding

Depending on your plans for the exterior, the cladding can make or break your project. You will be very lucky to find a 50-year-old van that doesn’t have a mark on it; however, too many holes, dents, bumps and scrapes will mean a lot of work down the track and may not be worth the time or cost of fixing them. Some caravan profiles have been discontinued, meaning you will be unable to buy replacement panels.

Mechanics

During the pre-purchase inspection, [book author] Michael always checks to ensure the van is, at a minimum, safe to tow home. Inspect wheels, brakes, bearings and the hitch, and ensure there are no loose items that might blow off. Check the requirements for towing unregistered vehicles in your state or country with local transportation authorities, as the regulations can differ significantly. If the van does not have working lights, a trailer lightboard can be attached.

Brakes 

Check with your local governing body for brake requirements specific to your area. Use the following as a general guide: Australian regulations
• Vans up to 750kg (1650lb) do not require brakes.
• Vans over 750kg (1650lb) require mechanical brakes.
• Vans over 2t (4400lb) require electric brakes and a breakaway that applies the van’s brakes if the van becomes detached from the vehicle.

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Towing a van can take some getting used to

Towing ability and capacity

If you are a vanning novice, this may not be the time to seek out a 31ft (9.5m) Airstream. Towing a van can take some getting used to, and the bigger the van the more challenging it will be to handle on the road. If you’ve ever watched anyone try to steer a caravan into the increasingly tight spaces provided by caravan park sites, you’ll know that starting small is key. We suggest beginning with a 16–18ft (4.9–5.5m) van for a family or a 12ft (3.7m) van for a couple, and working your way up if you want to. It’s also worth pointing out to van-towing rookies that there are towing-education services out there – simply punch it into your search engine to find one in your area. It’s certain to make you more comfortable on the road, as well as keep you, your family and other motorists safe.

Knowing your vehicle’s towing capacity is extremely important when choosing which type of van to purchase. Buying a van that is too heavy for your vehicle is not only counter to regulations but is also dangerous. A van that’s too heavy can make your trailer swing, causing you to lose control of your vehicle, and can create difficulties in stopping. When you get a towbar installed, the supplier will add a plate on the inside of the driver’s side door that will indicate your towbar rating.

Generally, you should aim to have about 150–300kg (330– 660lb) on the tow ball. To determine your vehicle’s towing capacity, you’ll first need to understand some specific terms:

The vehicle

Kerb weight: The total weight of your vehicle with only the driver and liquids, such as oil and fuel.
Tow ball weight: The amount of weight exerted by the van on your vehicle’s tow ball. You can check this weight by using a tow ball weight scale. For safety, this generally needs to be less than 10 per cent of the total load; otherwise, it takes the weight off the front wheels of the car, which can make directional control difficult.
• Vehicle payload: The weight of anything you add to your vehicle, including gear, cargo and passengers. This also includes the weight exerted by the van on your vehicle’s tow ball.

The trailer

• Tare mass: The weight of your van, including accessories but not cargo.
• Trailer payload: The weight of anything additional you add to your van, including cargo.
• Aggregate trailer mass (ATM): The total mass of the van when carrying the maximum load recommended by the manufacturer.
• Gross trailer mass (GTM): The weight of your van when attached to your vehicle.

The limits

• Aggregate weight rating: The maximum allowed weight of your van, including all gear and cargo. The tare mass + trailer payload can’t exceed this amount.
• Gross combined weight rating: The maximum amount your vehicle and van can safely weigh when loaded. Your kerb weight + vehicle payload + tare mass + trailer payload cannot exceed this amount.

These limits will be stated on the vehicle’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) plate, usually found on a sticker on the driver’s side door or in the owner’s manual. Take time to calculate the weights correctly.

Win one of five copies!

Extracted with permission from This Old Van by Carlene and Michael Duffy (Hardie Grant Books, RRP $47.99). Available in stores nationally.
We have five copies of This Old Van to give away. To be in to win, email competitions@nzmcd.co.nz, with ‘This Old Van’ in your subject line. Winners will be drawn on May 20th, 2023.

A well-restored van can give years of family enjoyment

Purchase price in New Zealand

Prices for vintage vans vary wildly according to area, type of caravan and the condition it’s in. When vintage van renovations really started gaining momentum a few years ago, so did their prices. Owners quickly realised the value of the piece of metal sitting in their back yard, and the pandemic has added to inflation.

However, good caravans are still available to buy; just make sure you do your research, and wherever possible, buy from a reputable dealer. The more you know about who you’re buying from, the less chance you have of being overcharged or even scammed.

 

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