Camper Conversion Donor Vehicle

Which is the best VW T5 for your campervan?

The VW T5s come in all shapes and sizes: with long and short wheelbases, as delivery vehicles, limos, eco-mobiles and terrain-tearing machines. Bag the right base van and your conversion shouldn’t present too many problems. Get it wrong and you could be shelling out for equipment that’s only going to be stripped out, using up time and budget and landing yourself a camper that doesn’t suit your lifestyle.

Steering you around that pothole, we’ve compiled a list of all the questions to ask yourself before buying your T5.

Wheelbase: long or short?

While the wheelbase (n. the measurement from the centre point of the front axle to the centre point of the rear axle) only differs by 40 cm between long and short wheelbase T5s, your choice can make a world of difference to carrying capacity and day-to-day drivability:

SWB

Pros

  • Easier to drive and park
  • Well suited to everyday driving
  • Cheaper on the ferry across the channel
  • More widely sold

Cons

  • Slightly less storage
  • 8’ floor length inside, so long boards are off the cards
  • Pricier than LWB

LWB

Pros

  • An extra 40cm for sports gear
  • A long board or kayak will fit under the Cambee R & R bed Link
  • Option of longer bed (up to 7’9”) in place of standard 6’3” in SWB
  • Slightly cheaper pre-owned than SWB

Cons

  • Harder to drive and park (tough to squeeze in a high street space)
  • More expensive on the ferry
  • Heavier, so a lower carrying capacity

Unless you need the extra storage space, the consensus favours the SWB for its far greater maneuverability.

Rear doors: Barn doors or Tailgate?

Though most automatically side with the tailgate, there are a few things to consider before you shut the door on this question.

Tailgate

There’s no denying tailgate has earned its place in the people’s hearts, or that it will earn a top price for a converted T5. It provides rain cover and shade when up, affords better rear visibility (no central pillar blocking the view) and is easier on the eye than barn doors. But those perks come at a price. A tailgate is difficult to open in a tight space, and when parked nose-in you’ll need to be mindful of passersby

It can carry 4 bikes but it will take 2 to hold the door up when this is loaded. Disfavored by fleet managers, there finally far fewer vans with tailgates, making them a whole lot pricier second-hand and the pool of vans to choose from a whole lot smaller.

Pros

  • More attractive
  • Provides sun/rain cover
  • Adds to your camper value
  • Can carry 4 bikes without a tow bar

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Difficult to access in a tight space
  • Bikes can make it impossible to open
  • Limited availability

Barn Doors

As a rule, most T5s come with barn doors due to the fact that trade buyers (and therefore most of the vehicles in the pre-owned market) need the option of loading with a forklift (where a raised tailgate obstructs a forklift mast). Though we’re swimming against the tide here, we like them because they’re easier to access (especially in a tight spot).

They make it much easier to load a roof rack and can be opened by one person with a loaded two-bike rack mounted on the nearside (driver-side) door.
Finally, the much bigger reserve of pre-owned barn door vans will increase your options for a good donor at the right price.

Pros

  • Readily available
  • Easily opened
  • Bikes don’t keep from opening

Cons

  • Less attractive
  • Need towbar for more than 2 bikes
  • Less desirable for resale

If you still only have eyes for the tailgate, there’s always the option of retrofitting one. Unless you’re planning on undertaking the work yourself, however, it will likely cost you more than finding a vehicle with a tailgate already in place.

Lisa's tip “get a barn door awning for a sheltered spot to enjoy the view”

Twin sliding doors: are two better than one?

A handful of T5s come a sliding door on both sides, an adjustment which can completely shake up the dynamic of your interior. Most find double doors a matter of preference, but there are several pros and cons to factor into your decision:

Barn Doors

Pros

  • Safe passenger exit from two sides
  • Interior feels bigger
  • Space for awnings either side
  • More kitchen arrangement options
  • More fun

Cons

  • Rules out a 60L 3 Way fridge
  • Usually more expensive
  • Fewer vans to choose from
  • Expect an additional cabinet fitting cost

Roof height: how low should you go?

The factory produces 3 different roof heights for the T5:

Low roof:
The standard height and the most common in a conversion. If you’re planning on having an elevating roof, you must choose this type as full length elevating roofs cannot be fitted to high top or mid-height roofs. The low roof model comes in at under 2m, so will fit into the majority of multi-storey and supermarket car parks with barriers.
Mid-roof:
The least common roof type and unlikely to do you many favours as a donor vehicle unless, that is, you’re short enough to stand up in one (under 5’3”). It’s also more expensive to line due to the nature of the internal framing, though can be good value as it’s less desirable.
High-roof:
Increased headroom, without the expense of an elevating roof.
If you’ve set your sights on a high-roof, then it’s worth considering buying one straight from the VW factory. Though this is restrictive (only available as a LWB with barn doors), it’s generally less expensive than buying a SWB and having a high top fitted. It will also provide taller back doors, giving better access to and ventilation in the high top. Though, it’s worth bearing in mind that a factory fitted roof curves inward more than the retrofit type towards the top, so roof bed space is limited.

Body Colour: Style vs Selection

T5s are available in a spectrum of stock VW colours but Candy White, India Blue and Silver are the most common.

Why we like white:

  • There’s a wider choice of vehicles
  • It’s the best colour for reflecting heat
  • You haven’t the need to colour match an elevating or hightop roof
  • The bottom half of a white van can be sprayed in a classic colour for a retro paint job (plus most of the minor knocks and scuffs will be on the bottom half of an older van)
  • You can up the fun factor with flowers or stripes without having to spray

At the end of the day, if you aren’t one to quibble over colour, you’ll have a much wider pool of vehicles to choose from. But other colours (particularly metallic finishes) are more widely sought-after and therefore will hold their value, making them easier to sell in the future. Excluding silver, however, you should expect to pay 10-20% more for a metallic finish van.

Engine Power: 1.9, 2.5 or 2.0?

Designed by the motoring magicians at VW, any of the T5’s tdi engines will go the distance and are expected to travel 250k or more with regular servicing. But when an engine can have a big impact on your driving experience and make a sizeable difference in running cost, it’s worth getting your head around the different types. Many choose to start their search with a decision on engine type.

The 85bhp 1.9tdi T28/30
The most basic model on the mass market and therefore the cheapest, though you’ll likely have to forfeit luxuries like air-con and might find motorways a bit of a chore. These were designed with fleet managers in mind to keep costs down and speeds low, so are often less worn.
The 85 bhp engine is essentially the same as the higher output models and can be remapped up to a gutsier 110bhp for around £350. This will increase pulling power and fuel economy, give you a smoother engine and can be done at any time. Aircon can also be added at a later date for around £1500
Expect to pay: £8,000 - £9,000 for a good mid -mileage private sale. If you ‘re quick off the mark and don’t mind a few scuffs, £6,000 for a good van isn’t unheard of (but it will likely be heading over 100k miles).
102-4bhp 1.9tdi T28/30
Not a deliberate cost-cutter like the 85bhp, these are more likely to have been built with extras like air-con, electric windows and mirrors.
The 1.9tdi has a loyal following for its durability and low fuel consumption (up to 50 mpg for those with a light right foot).
Expect to pay: £9,000–12,000 for a good, low mileage private sale.
130-174 bhp 2.5tdi T28/30
A 5­‐cylinder engine, which is quieter, smoother and quicker revving than a 4-cylinder 1.9tdi but quite a bit thirstier (giving 30-35 mpg). Costs of repairs are typically more expensive for the 2.5, but most appreciate its 6 speed gearbox over the 1.9’s 5. Well-loved extras, like air-con, are again more commonly found on the 2.5.
Expect to pay: £9,000-14,000 for a good low mileage private sale.
84 -180bhp 2.0tdi
Introduced in 2010 with the T5.1, VW’s latest off the line, the 2.0 offers strong acceleration, relaxed cruising, and generally better performance than its forebears, and its Euro 5 emissions rating will future-proof you for city center travel (the diesel T4 is already banned in London).
This is the facelift model and will therefore also have a higher resale value; a windfall later if you only intend to keep your camper for a few years.
But, being built from 2010 onwards, these aren’t so widely available through private sellers, so you’re likely to have to fork out a dealer’s rate for one.
Expect to pay: dealers’ rates, £10,000­‐18,000

Dealer prices are, generally speaking, around 20% higher than those of private sellers and lumbered with the additional cost of VAT. But dealers aren’t all bad news. They’ll usually allow you to place a deposit on a vehicle long enough to carry out an RSC check, where a private seller would give you an odd look for even asking... They’ll also offer a warranty on your vehicle (but bear in mind that to take advantage of this the dealer must be nearby).

Glossary:

tdi: turbocharged direct injection engine, the efficient, low-emission diesel engine developed by VW. Figures in front (1.9, 2.0, 2.5) refer to size in litres.

bhp: brake horsepower, an engine's total horsepower before the loss in power from alternator, gearbox, water pump and other components.

T28/30: Refers to the maximum gross vehicle weight, or “payload”, in tonnes (28 = 2800 kg or 2.8 tonnes). 2800kg or 3000kg, minus the 1800kg of the SWB chassis leaves a capacity of 1000 or 1200kg.

mpg: miles per gallon, the number of miles a full tank will take you. Obviously the higher, the better for your pocket and the environment.

Once you have chosen the “type” next you want to find one in great condition - read our guide

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