Motorhomes Caravans & Destinations
An engineering duo are producing user-friendly flatpacks that convert a van into a comfortable RV. Paul Owen reports.
The Vanlab range lets you convert an everyday van into a comfortable RV
To paraphrase the philosopher Kahlil Gibran, “comfort enters your (motor)home as a guest, but soon becomes the master”. Every day we witness the compromises that an ultra-comfortable, spacious mobile home creates, whether it’s finding suitable parking, managing fuel and insurance bills, or simply the high purchase price. So it’s nice to know there is an alternative – the easy-to-install and affordable van conversion kitsets on offer from Auckland company Vanlab.
Vanlab kicked off after the director, Andy Jones, spotted a niche in the market: a kitset that backpackers could buy on arrival in New Zealand, enabling them to quickly convert a secondhand van into a self-contained mobile home. The inspiration came after a trip around the country in his own converted van, where his rig was often praised for its neat and functional design, and clever use of space.
“In my travels over seven or eight months, I started to see what else was out there, and soon realised that the quality of homebuilt plywood-style vans wasn’t great.”
He decided to make a conversion kit that anyone with any skill set could install, and that would look professionally made.
“Where it had taken me three weeks to convert my own van, I wanted to offer something that anyone could do with just a couple of screwdrivers and a few spare hours.”
To achieve that goal, the kits had to be as simple as possible, and Vanlab kits are designed with a Japanese manufacturing philosophy in mind – Poka-yoke, which means mistake-proof. Perhaps the best illustration of Poka-yoke design is the humble USB port, which will only accept a plug if it’s inserted the right way up.
“It stops you putting a square peg in a round hole, and allows anyone to build their van into one of our motorhomes. The fastest conversion I’ve installed has taken three hours, but I’m very familiar with the process – typically it takes our customers a day.”
Naturally, the more comfort features you specify, the more expensive the conversion, and the longer it takes to install. And the larger the van, the more space it has to pack in the niceties of the mobile lifestyle. So a higher proportion of customers ordering the kits for larger vans also get Vanlab to handle the installation – a service the company offers to all customers.
Andy says that people often come up to him at the Vanlab stand at motorhome shows and confess that “I’ve always wanted to put something like this into production, but just never got around to it.” However, it’s the automotive engineering skills of Andy and design team leader Robert Brum that are the key to the quality and ultra-snug fit of the kitsets.
English-born Andy learned computeraided design (CAD) at the supercar manufacturer Mclaren, and he has a PHD in aeronautical engineering. Us-born Robert Brumm has worked for Sikorsky Helicopters and the American train-maker, Alstom, a company he credits for teaching him “how to make processes smoother, and become a better engineer”.
The pair were friends first, but became collaborators when Andy asked Robert to do some 3D scanning for him.
“He’s much stronger on CAD than I am, so I persuaded him to move over to Vanlab and become design leader.”
Robert scans a van’s bare interior by passing a computer tablet over targets stuck all over it. This records several million points that are later folded together to make a digital ‘shell’ of the interior.
“It takes 10 minutes to do the scanning, and around half a day to process it into a ‘skeleton’ that will define where each component of the kitset goes.”
A prototype kitset is then based on that digital skeleton and installed into the van.
“We always find that there are changes needed to ensure that it fits – but it’s easy to go back to the skeleton and make those changes to it.”
It’s a process that has enabled Vanlab to offer kitsets for 20 vans so far, with five different sized designs being refined for individual van segments of similar shape and size. There’s a ‘small’ kit for vans the size of the Nissan NV200, a ‘medium’ one for the ever-popular Toyota Hiace and its competitors, a ‘people mover’ for popular multi-seat imports such as the Toyota Alphard and Elgrand, and a ‘large’ kit for high-roofed Euro-vans such as the longwheelbase Ford Transit 350. For this one, expect a queen-sized bed, full-size galley kitchen and storage for longer items.
The latest addition is an even larger kitset for the LDV V80 (see below). This is perhaps the conversion that’ll best meet the expectations of NZ Motor Caravan Association members. It’s the first to offer 240V hook-up and permanent gas plumbing. “We normally steer clear of anything that requires drilling into the van body, or the attention of an electrician.”
THE MICRO MOTORHOME: NV200
Andy says sales of the compact and affordable Nissan NV200 conversion are strong. It’s easy to see why – the end result is perhaps the cheapest motorhome on the market, and is cuter than a basketful of kittens.
A second-hand NV200, with around 50,000km on the clock, can be had for about $17,000. Full conversion to selfcontained certification will cost between $6000 and $7500.
The first decision for any Vanlab customer is the plywood. The woodwork of the small kitset costs $2075 for unfinished pine, $2795 for clear coated pine, and $3675 for richer, more durable, clear-coated birch plywood.
You then furnish this interior with four 100mm thick foam squabs ($845) that can be configured into an L-shaped lounge, a king-sized single bed, or a spacious workstation. For privacy there is a set of six curtains ($550). The $430 plumbing kit includes two 25L tanks for fresh and grey water, a sink with a chrome tap, and all pipework and fittings. Add $135 for a 10L portable toilet with a flush rinse. This can be used with the bed erect, as per current self-containment regulations.
For cooking, owners of the Nissan NV200 conversion will have to carry the camping stove of their choice. It all adds up to the minimalist motorhome that Gilbran would choose.
“All our kitsets can be certified as selfcontained,” says Andy. “We won’t build
anything we can’t self-contain – it’s a very emotive debate and we want to stay on the right side of it.”
There’s the choice of two deep-cycle house batteries at $375 for the 100AH version, and $425 for the 120AH. The 21L fridge ($500) has an automatic disconnect at times of low voltage, and an extra 12V socket. Choose either a 350W inverter ($200) or an 800W option ($700). All electrics are connected via a well-labelled wiring loom ($900) that includes all switches, two USB chargers, circuit breakers, fuses and fuse board.
VAN FOR LIFE: LDV V80
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon for Vanlab sales, and the larger, betterequipped LDV V80 conversion reflects changes in the customer base. Andy might have started this enterprise with backpackers in mind, but most customers are Kiwi residents aged between 40 and 60. The spacious three-berth V80 kit appears to be aimed at them.
You can even buy this kit when you purchase a new LDV V80 van ($40,990 +GST) through the New Zealand dealer network. For the clear melamine-coated birch plywood version, it costs either $18,200 uninstalled or $21,950 installed. The unfinished plywood version costs $3500 less, at $14,700 uninstalled, and $18,450 installed. Prices include GST.
One advantage of buying this motorhome through the LDV dealers is the 1.9 per cent finance offer on both the van and the conversion. Which is a pretty sweet way to buy a turn-key new motorhome with all-up costs in the low$60k region, provided you can live with a 20L portable toilet.
The money buys 3300L of rear garage space, two 55L tanks for fresh and grey water that have remote drains and fillers, and a two-way 75L Vitrifrigo fridge. There’s a microwave oven to take full advantage of plugging the V80 into mains power, and a sealed gas locker houses a 9kg bottle. If installed when you purchase, the conversion comes with an electrical warrant of fitness and full gas certification.
Vanlab’s kitsets open a more accessible avenue to an enjoyable nomadic lifestyle. They create highly functional motorhomes through their Ikea-like flatpack design, and give everyone the opportunity to convert a van into a work of mobile art. ■
Find out more at vanlab.co.nz