Introduction: 80's Mercedes Campervan Conversion
I am making this Instructable to give ideas and inspiration to self-buiders of campervan conversions. I've learned a lot on Instructables and now I have the chance to make a modest contribution. I think this van, while maybe not the fanciest in the parking lot and far from perfectly done up, has some good tricks that can hopefully inspire you for your build. It was done with limited time (less than 2 months), resources and tools, and that is reflected in many imperfections that you will probably see in the pictures.
Sorry that I don't include step by step instructions for everything, it would make for very long Instructable since it involves so many things. It's almost like building a house! I think each of those steps/areas is better and well documented elsewhere in this and other sites. The intention is to give ideas as to what you can accomplish with your build. If it gives you just one useful idea, I'll be happy. Also, I look forward to your comments, ideas, and I'll anwser your questions if I can
A bit about the van: This particular model of Mercedes Benz diesel van, the MB 120, was manufactured in 1988 Vitoria, Spain, my home country. You can still find a number on them on the roads around the countries where it was sold (not in the U.S.), since it was built to very high standars, if not of luxury, of quality of the materials. Mine was a delivery van used for short distances, so it was quite low mileage in relation to it's age (178,000 mi). The engine is reported to reach 1,000,000 kms (621,000 miles) with no major problems. It's about a third of the way now... so, another 60 years left!
Step 1: The Sofa/bed Structure
I wanted to make a strong structure frame so that I could use thin (1/4") removable pieces of plywood on top and front in order to save weight. The covers are very easy to lift to access underneath storage without using hinges. I preferred this, not only because it was easier and cheaper, but because I found that with hinges you have to get all the cushions completely out of the way to lift the covers, and like this you can open them more easily. There is one big drawer, made with a plastic box with rollers, and then covered in wood and bamboo strip decoration. This is the under-bed storage that I use most often.
The floor is one big melamine covered particle board that was cut to fit around the wheel cavities. However, I now find that the colour is wearing out quite quickly and would probably do with a coat of two component hard poliurethane varnish, or some other flooring on top althogether. Other than that it's working really well and you can securely screw things to it (like the sofa/bed structure and kitchen).
Step 2: Multi-purpose / Movable Table
The table is able to move around and placed in different positions, as well as lowered to form a wider bed, although in my case it's a bit short on one side, but I don't mind. This is easily solved using a slightly longer table. I left it this way becasue it matched the cushions I had made for an originally different design.
Being a small van, I like to be able to "park" the table by moving in on a side of the van, this gives a lot of open space in the middle to move around and do stuff, and gives the impression of being in a much bigger van.
The base was designed by me and then made to measure by a welder. It is bolted to the floor with bolts and nuts that go through the metal floor of the van, so it's quite strong.
Step 3: Kitchen
The kitchen is quite functional, with two burner gas stove, sink with running water, storage and space for cutting boards. The cabinet was custom-made to accomodate a recycled sink and stove from an old 70's caravan, and wood knobs added to replace the plastic ones.
Gas is provided by a small butane gas bottle. The brand name in Europe is Campingaz, and they can be exchanged in many places. It's small, about 2,75 liters (a bit over half a gallon), but it lasts a long time since it's just used for cooking and not for a gas fridge or heating.
Overhead cabinets are also very light and simple. Wooden latches keep them closed (if you remember to close them...). A magnet maintains the door opened when reaching for things. The hinge is DIY, with a simple extra wood support and a nail.
FUTURE UPGRADES: 1) A foot-operated microswitch that activates a 12v mechanical ball valve. I think that if you don't have to manually open and close the tap, you can make the fresh water tank last about 1/3rd longer. 2) A digital gallon/litre counter, to know how much fresh water you have remaining.
Step 4: Water Tanks: Fresh and Grey Water
Fresh water is stored on a PVC pipe 6.5 ft (2 meter) in length and 6 inch (16 cm) in diameter bolted through the fibreglass roof to the metal beams that support it (and which are attached to the chassis). It holds about 11 gallons of water (42 litres). The outlet is routed through the fibreglass roof, then behind the overhead cabinets, to the side of the kitchen and under the sink. This might be harder or easier for you depending on the type of roof you have. I had to do some non-standard stuff with the outlet, such as drill through it to install the outlet that would fit the pipe I wanted to use.
I also fitted a bicycle valve so that it can be pressurised when I connect a shower head (haven't figured out how yet). However, I realised I had to leave an air vent so that vacuum wouldn't form and water stopped flowing. So now it's not possible to pressurise it since air would escape through the vent (I placed 4 globs of hot glue under the cap so that it closes tightly but lets some air in. If the hot glue is removed so that there is not air vent, then it can be pressurised.
I also painted it black so that water is heated with the sun. It's very handy when you wash dishes, and if you make tea or soup it will be ready sooner ;). Also, when I connect the shower head, it will be nice to have a warm outdoor shower.
Perhaps needles to say, it doesn't require a pump since it flows by gravity, with (not much) but enough pressure to wash dishes.
The gray water from the sink is stored in another PVC pipe half the length of the fresh water one. It is bolted to the under chassis, with an outlet tap. I find this is enough since not all the water in the fresh water tank will end up in the gray water tank.
Step 5: Electrical System - Solar Panel
The van is equipped with only one large 250 Ah battery for starting and for leisure use (TV, computer, phones, etc). The battery is charged while driving and also by a 150 w flexible solar panel on the roof.
The inverter is a 1000w modified wave. I needed it that large to start the refrigerator; it wouldn't start with a smaller one due to the power peak when the compressor starts. This would need a whole Instructable or two, and believe it... it's not me that would be able to write it properly! (I burned and inverner connecting it the wrong way) I'm still learning as I go... But if you have any questions I'll be glad to answer if I can.
As far as lightning, I had grand plans but have settled for a USB rechargeable flexible neck LED lamp that I can move around (see 'Velcro and curtains' section below), and find that it is sufficient.
FUTURE UPGRADES: 1) Remote controlled relays to turn on/off fridge, lights, sound system, and the inverter itself.
Step 6: Curtains and Velcro Wall
The curtains are very simple, and not installed and all windows yet, only where I need them most for some privacy. They slide through a tense wire and held in place by Velcro strips that are attached to the frames with self-tapping screws.
One of the back side panels of the van is covered in black carpeting where the rough part of Velcro happens to stick really well. That's where I put my phone, tablet, notebook, lamp, etc. It can all be moved around and it's quite convenient to save space on the table, or have things within reach when you sleep.
Step 7: Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for reading my first Instructable! It's also in the #Van Life, Outside, and First Time Author, where you'll find great projects. If you have learned anything useful, it would be nice to have your vote.
Again, this is not an Instructable with step by step instructions and measurements since every van is vastly different, but rather an overview of the many steps involved in a large build, so I'm available to answer any questions. I will, however, write detailed Instructables on future upgrades, such as the Microswitch Ball Valve for Water Supply, Gallon/Liter Digital Counter and Remote Control Relays.
EDIT: I am now traveling around the whole Iberian Peninsula with it; halfway through now. I am making notes of lots of things to change and improve. So my advice is leave things a bit open to change, because I am finding that no matter how much you plan, there is no substitute for actually using the thing to find out how you will need it to be. Also, be prepared for a LOT of work! This Instructable might make look things quick and easy, but they are far from it, there are a million details and corners and everything needs to fit together... but having a van you have build yourself is worth it and very gratifying!
Second Prize in the
Participated in the
First Time Author Contest
Participated in the
Outside Contest 2017