Restoring a 70's Camper Van




Introduction: Restoring a 70's Camper Van

This is my van: The Campster (but we also call her Heidi (idk, she just looks like a Heidi to me!)). She's an absolute Beaut.

It's a 1977 Dodge B300 Maxivan that was converted to a camper van by a defunct company in California called Sierra Vans. At some point in its 40 year life, it was completely gutted and used as a junk transport van (What a waste!). My goal was to bring it back to it's former glory as a camper van (although, not in the exact same way).

Here's the finished product:


The Van - $1000

A new set of wheels and tires - $950 (ouch)

Building materials - Probably around $900

Hours put into the project - its over 9000! (practically)

Having a frickin campervan - PRICELESS

Making a regular instructable on how to restore a van doesn't quite work. Every van conversion or restoration project will be different, depending on the van, and the needs/budget of the person doing the conversion. This is part of the reason that it is such a fun and rewarding project.

With that said, this instructables shows how I built my van, and gives some advice that I've learned along the way.

Step 1: Selecting the Van

First off, newer vans will last longer, there will be less rust to deal with, they are safer, and they will get better fuel economy.

I should have gotten a newer van, but after seeing Heidi, I couldn't resist. There is something just so... tubular (don't know where that came from, it just seemed like the right word ;) ) about old vans. Newer vans just aren't as cool.

Well, that, and it was only a kilobuck ($1000, sorry, I just felt like being nerdy), which was all I had at the time!

There is also another benefit of getting an older van that isn't as obvious:

They are so simple! There's something to be said for a vehicle that you can basically take apart and put back together if you need to. There's no computers or sensors or even fuel injectors to go wrong!

In fact, I'd feel more confident taking my 1977 van on long trips through remote places with no cell reception than a newer car, as long as I had tools with me!

A word about high tops:

It is extremely nice being able to (basically) stand up in my van. However, there are some drawbacks worth mentioning about fiberglass high tops.

-Worse gas mileage

-Much harder to put a roof rack on

-Louder and more unstable at high speed or quick wind

-Less safe

Whether all those drawbacks are worth standing in your van for, is up for debate. For me, the benefit outweighed the drawbacks.

Here's the advice that I'll give you:

-Spend a lot of time looking!

-Get a specimen with the least amount of rust you can possibly find. (I didn't look for rust when I bought it, and spent months trying to patch up rust holes and water leaks. It was not fun.)

-Make sure it's mechanically sound. I would go to a mechanic and have them look it over. I kind of lucked out in this area (knock on wood). My van has ran and driven great for the past few years.

-Check the tires. My van had old worn tires and one of them had a blowout on the freeway. They were an odd, obsolete size, and the cost of replacing them was more than the cost of getting 4 new wheels and tires (which was still 950 big ones, ouch!). If the van you're looking at has bad or odd tires, factor that into the total cost.

-Long story short, get a better van than I did!

Step 2: Rust and Leak Repair... Sigh...

If you did step 1 properly then you don't need this step.

The truth is rust is cancer, and it's nearly impossible to get rid of it all. However, with enough welding and crappy bondo jobs, you can have years of fun before your van is toast.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the bodywork while I was doing it, but I posted some pictures of the work after I was done with it.

I'm not the person you should take instruction from for repairing body work on your van. The repairs I did didn't turn out incredibly aesthetically pleasing, but they did the job, and my van seems to be structurally sound and no longer leaks.

The steps I took are basically as follows:

-Used an angle grinder to grind off as much of the rust I could.

-If enough metal was gone, I'd attempt to weld a piece of metal in where the old metal was (but often in vain because the welder I have just blows holes right through the sheet metal).

-I'd use "Bondo Hair" (which is basically body filler with fiberglass in it) over the top to give it more structural integrity.

-Next I used regular Bondo to smooth it out (with a bunch of sanding of course)

-Finally, I got a place called "Industrial Finishes" to match the paint of my van with spray paint, and I painted it up.

The biggest problem area was around where the fiberglass top attached to the van itself. I tried using body filler and caulk to seal it but with no luck. Finally I tried a type of permanent tape made for sealing RVs called "EternaBond", and so far it has worked. It doesn't look the best but as long as it keeps the water out I'm happy.

This is the part of the van that I am the least proud of. With proper tools and more patience I could have done a better job, but at least all the repairs I've done are holding up and keep the water out.

Step 3: Planning (Is Overrated)

Okay, maybe it's a good idea to plan a bit, but I've always been a design-as-I-make kind of person. It's hard for you to foresee every little thing that will come up when building.

Here's what I've learned from building mine:

-The bed is by FAR the most important thing! It needs to be comfortable for you! If you ask me, the main benefit of vans over camping is the fact that you don't have to sleep on the ground!

I'm 6'5", which means that in order to be comfortable, I needed to sleep lengthwise in the van.

-Open floorplans mean that you can use your van as a van as well. If you wan't to bring bikes or surfboards with you you can throw em in! My van is pretty open, but it could have benefited from being even more so. In my opinion, less is more here.

-I rarely cook inside, so a kitchenette is nice to have but not very important.

-Storage space is very important! You can't have too much! My benches are all hinged so you can store stuff under them.

Step 4: Framing and Headliner

I started off by laying a big piece of exterior grade plywood down for the floor, and securing it with about a hundred self-drilling sheet metal screws. After that, I started framing the walls, benches, and kitchenette with 2x4s. To secure them to the van, I welded metal brackets on the floors and on the wall supports. If you don't have a welder, you could always use more sheet metal screws, but in an accident it may tear up. (Although, in an accident no camper is very safe anyway.)

After this, I covered up the nasty ceiling of the van with some grey felt that I got from a fabric store. To attach it, I used spray adhesive, which ended up working pretty well. Make sure all doors and windows are open if you do this!


-If you make benches, account for the height of the cushions when you frame them. Mine are a little tall because I forgot to.

-After you're done framing, make sure to everything is extremely sturdy. It may even be worth it to use aluminum frames for your benches, as it would be much safer and probably last longer.

-Keep your work space clean. I cringe when I look back at the work space I had in the van when I was framing the benches. Keeping the space clean would have made the process much faster.

Step 5: Flooring

Unfortunately, my phone blew up right around the time that I was doing the floor, so I lost all of the pictures of this process.

When I had everything framed, I laid the floor down. I used some click-lock laminate flooring that my old landlord had in his basement. I can't recommend a floor like this enough (Vinyl or Laminate)! It is so nice to be able to sweep out the dirt, instead of having to vacuum it. Unfortunately, the front of my van had very uneven floor so I had to carpet it.

You can glue it all down with a flooring caulk or leave it floating (I glued it down). If you use laminate click-lock flooring, account for thermal expansion (leave space at walls, like 1/4 inch), but don't worry about it too hard, because it's such a small amount of flooring that the expansion will be minimal. My floor is glued down and I haven't had any thermal expansion problems yet.

You might be tempted to do the floor before you frame the benches/bed, but I wanted the benches to have a solid connection to the floor of the van, so I built them first and put down the floor around them.

Step 6: Wood Paneling and Carpet on Walls

Once again, I don't have a lot of pictures from this step unfortunately, as my phone got destroyed with a lot of the pictures on it.

I found some plywood paneling on sale for the sides of the benches to give it that 70's vibe. Putting it on was just a matter of cutting it down to size and nailing it on with a little nail gun.

For the walls, I put plywood on the frame and then stapled some cheap carpeting onto it. I put some reflective insulation up but I didn't worry too much about it because the roof was very un-insulated already. I'll never use the van in the snow anyway.

If you end up paneling your van, aluminum angle iron is extremely elegant as trim, although it is a bit spendy. I just used some caulk to stick it on the corners.

Step 7: Kitchenette

Like I said before: in my opinion, kitchenettes are not very important, as I hardly ever cook inside the van. That being said, it is a good place to store your kitchen supplies and utensils. It's also a good surface to set food on when you're camping.

Making drawers and cabinets are pretty self explanatory so I won't go too far into it.

If you make cabinets, make sure they have a way to latch shut so they don't fly around when you're driving. The latch shown in the picture is like $1.50 at a hardware store and does the trick.

Step 8: Cushions and Curtains

The cushions are something that I got really lucky with.

For a birthday present, my dad helped me sew some cushions for the benches (and you can see how cool they turned out!) but I still needed some cushions to fit between them when the van was in bed mode. My girlfriend's dad works at an RV place and just happened to be throwing away a pair of cushions that fit perfectly in between the bench cushions!

For curtains, I bought some more cheap fabric, sewed some up, and hung up a couple of cables to act as curtain rods for them.

On the back windows, I just hemmed some fabric to fit and hot glued neodymium magnets in the hem every few inches. This works amazingly (like suprisingly) well if you have steel around your windows to stick the magnets to.

Step 9: Other Details

For lighting, I used an old household LED lightbulb that no longer worked. Often times when they "burn out" the LEDs are still good and ready to be re-purposed. Check out another one of my instructables for a similar concept:

I also had to put an RGB LED strip around the perimeter of the ceiling by the benches for extra groovyness. You can find these LED strips on amazon for around 15 bucks and they're absolutely worth it.

For now both of these lights are hooked up to the van's regular battery, but I hope to eventually rig a solar system.

Finally, I put a big shelf above the driver and passenger seats to hold the extra cushions for the bed.

I'm currently working on mounting a stereo system.

This van is one of those projects that will never be "Finished", because I'm always adding little things to it here and there, but as is, its fully usable.

Step 10: Use It

Converting a van is fun, but the best part of it by far is getting to use the thing. You already know this though, or else you wouldn't be here reading this instructables!

Anyway, thanks for reading this instructable, and I hope it was a bit helpful at least in your restoration/conversion endeavors. Feel free to ask me questions about my build in the comments and I'll try to answer them in a timely manner.

If you liked this instructable don't forget to vote for it!

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    5 years ago

    Well done. It must be a warm shelter along your trips!


    5 years ago

    Great project! Kudos!


    5 years ago

    I think it needs a trailer to pull kayaks, bikes and other toys.


    5 years ago

    I love this sort of thing! Nice job!


    5 years ago

    we have a 1987 Chevy camper van which has a portable toilet stashed in it. Sure comes in handy. You did a great job.


    5 years ago

    What a way to Glamp!


    5 years ago

    Every van conversion job I saw back in the '70's had shag carpeting on the floor, shag carpeting on the walls, shag carpeting on the ceiling, shag carpeting on the doors, I mean they were all rolling pimpmobiles, oh yeah and the carpet color? burnt orange, it hid stains real well.

    Far out man. ☺

    sir bobby
    sir bobby

    Reply 5 years ago

    I don't know if you noticed, but if you look carefully at the base of the front seats of my van, you can see all that was left of the original carpeting of the van, and sure enough, it's burnt orange shag! Every van! You weren't lyin! lol


    5 years ago

    Nice way to revive a van