Camper Conversion Base Vehicle
The VW T5 and T6s come in all shapes and sizes: with long and short wheelbases, as delivery vehicles, limos, eco-mobiles and terrain-tearing machines. Bag the right T5 or T6 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 VW Transporter.
Facelift lights, grill and front wings, new dash. Repositioned gear console with increased leg room. A big advantage of the T6.1 is that the Kombi is available to order with a window package, effectively transforming it into an M1 registered car which can be driven at unrestricted car speeds, as opposed to converted panel vans which can be subject to restrictions.
New 2.0 Euro 6 engine (2017 onward) petrol version available 2017 to 2019, facelift bonnet, lights, bumper and updated tailgate. New dash and door cards with greater storage in cabin.
New 2.0 Euro 5 engine, updated bonnet, grill, lights and wing mirrors. Slight facelift to centre console on dash, new aircon controls.
The first version of the T5 was a major shift from the T4 with a more refined interior built with the Caravelle in mind. This was to be more car than van in terms of a driver’s experience. With a shortend nose, more squat features, refined suspension and a console gear shift, the T5 took the Transporter from campervan to an everyday car and camper. Pull up at any beach carpark and the number of T5s facing the ocean is a testament to the success of this great van.
While the long wheelbase only differs by 40 cm from the short wheelbase T5 and T6 (n. the measurement from the centre point of the front axle to the centre point of the rear axle), your choice can make a world of difference to carrying capacity and day-to-day drivability:
Unless you need the extra storage space, the consensus favours the SWB for its far greater maneuvrability.
Though most automatically side with the tailgate, there are a few things to consider before you shut the door on this question.
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 or T6. 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 passers-by
It can carry 4 bikes but it will take 2 to hold the door up when this is loaded. Disfavoured 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.
As a rule, most VW Transporters 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.
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”
A handful of T6 and 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:
The factory produces 3 different roof heights for the T5/6 shell:
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.
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.
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.
Transporters are available in a spectrum of stock VW colours but for the Startline Candy White, India Blue and Silver are the most common. Highlines tend to be metallic, commonly greys and blues.
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.
Designed by the motoring magicians at VW, any of the T5 and T6’s tdi engines will go the distance and are expected to travel 300k plus 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.
New prices are typically from around £24,000 for a van configured for a camper. This will include single seats with spinners and tailgate with wash wipe, so will save up to £1500 on the conversion cost against a second-hand van which will likely need these things adding.
102 T28 Startline
The most basic model on the mass market and therefore the cheapest, though there are few second-hand with upgrades like air-con and satnav, they are a fleet manages favourite so there are lots to choose a good one from. Lower power also means less wear on the gearbox, drive train and breaks so are often in better condition.
The 102 bhp engine is essentially the same as the higher output models and can be remapped up to 140bhp for around £350. This will increase bhp and torque but will only affect the fuel economy if driven hard. It is not advisable to remap whilst in VW warranty as it may become invalid. Aircon can also be added at a later date for around £2000 by companies like Alpine air.
Expect to pay: £12,000 – £14,000 for a good 3-year-old mid – mileage trade sale.
102 T28 Highline
The Highline adds lots of favoured extras including, aircon, steering controls for the stereo and phone, reversion sensors, heated windscreen, colour coded bumpers and alloy wheels. They are popular with fleet rental companies who tend to sell them on after a year with 10 to 12k mileage.
Expect to pay: £18,000 – £20,000 for a 1 year old with 10k miles trade sale.
150ps T30 Highline Kombi Tailgate
The kombi is more expensive way of starting with a conversion but often has the 150ps engine which ads the advantage of a 6th gear. Usefull if you will be doing lots of motorway driving and continental touring as it will make the camper quieter. The kombi also come with tailgate with wash wipe, side windows and single front seats. The kombi rear seats will typically also be sold for around £600, so all in saving around £2000 on the conversion cost against a panel van. On the down side a Kombi will still cost around £2000 more than converting a panel van and the factory side sliding windows tend the break and leak after a few years so expect to pay £6-800 to replace them at some point.
Expect to pay: £22,000 – £26,000 for a 2-year-old with 25k miles trade sale.
Notes: Early 2016 T6’s has the T5 Euro 5 engine which might cost more to tax than a 2017 Euro 6 van
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 centre travel (the diesel T4 is already banned in London). Available with 85bhp, 102, 140 single turbo and 180 twin turbo, the twin turbos suffer from issues reputed to be the EGR valve shedding metal into the engine resulting in engine failure at around 60k. Tell tale signs are additional oil use, take note if the van has a big can of oil in the back! The problem was resolved with a new EGR oil cooler which was introduced in 2011. If buying a twin turbo then check it had the EGR replaced early on with the updated part no 03L 131477A replacing the 03L 131 501 H.
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.
85bhp 1.9tdi T28/30
Although Euro4 the 1.9Tdi engine is probably one of the toughest and most reliable diesel engines ever made, you will find it in any number of VW’s Skoda’s and Audis still sounding and driving like new after 300000 miles. Our in-house mechanic Monk has seen 600k !!. The T5 1.9tdi has a loyal following for its durability and low fuel consumption (up to 50 mpg for those with a light right foot). On the down side, you may have to pay additional charges when going into city centres, if not now then in the near future, so we would only recommend these older vans for a basic conversion or DIY project.
Expect to pay: £6,000 – £8,000 for a good mid -mileage private sale. If you ‘re quick off the mark and don’t mind a few scuffs, £5,000 for a good van isn’t unheard of (but it will likely be heading over 150k miles).
102-4bhp 1.9tdi T28/30/32
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.
Expect to pay: £7,000–12,000 for a good, low mileage private sale.
130-174 bhp 2.5tdi T28/30
Purists often think of the 2.5 as the best engine, a 5‐cylinder engine with plenty of power and torque, which is quieter, smoother and quicker revving than a 4-cylinder 1.9tdi but quite a bit thirstier (giving 30-35 mpg). With a chain in place of timing belt, it provides lower maintenance cost, but if they do go wrong it can be very expensive! 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.
A private sale might save 20% on these prices as there wouldn’t be vat to pay. But make sure a private seller is happy to wait for an inspection which might take up to a week to arrange before putting a deposit down.
Dealer may be more expensive but they’ll usually allow you to place a deposit on a vehicle long enough to carry out an independent inspection. They’ll also usually repair anything that the inspection pics up and offer a warranty on your vehicle (but bear in mind that to take advantage of this the dealer must be nearby).
We recommend a maximum of £200 deposit which is plenty for most traders. Never put a deposit down over the phone without being sure the trader or private seller is genuine. If you can’t get to see the van in person, ask for a facetime video of the van if you are unsure. If in doubt always walk away.
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 / PS: brake horsepower, an engine’s total horsepower before the loss in power from alternator, gearbox, water pump and other components.
T28/30/32: Refers to the maximum gross vehicle weight, or “payload”, in tonnes (28 = 2800 kg or 2.8 tonnes). 2800kg, 3000kg or 32000kg, minus the 1800kg of the SWB chassis leaves a capacity of 1000, 1200 or 1400kg less the conversion weight.
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 of van you would like, you will want to find one in great condition – read our guide