Many Americans are looking at alternative ways to enter the motorhome market, and converting old commercial vehicles seems to be one popular route. We’ve talked about ambulances and hearses as possible starting points, and our own Mercedes has an RTS transit bus that she once contemplated turning into a recreational vehicle. Ideally, you’ll find a reasonable not-too-beat example of a used bus or truck, strip out the interior, and then…what? Well, you’ve got mad carpentry skills, right? You know electrical and plumbing tricks? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you don’t. I’ve come up with a modular camper component system that makes building your own RV easier.
At the Autopian, we embrace all forms of transportation, and with the surge of interest in recreational vehicle we’ve been sure to post daily on the latest and greatest models available. Sadly, for most of us, reading about one of these new motorhomes is akin to looking at articles about some hypercar; we’re learning about something that is essentially unobtainable to us. New motorhomes were never cheap, and they are now getting stratospheric. Honestly, even if our camper superfan writer Mercedes Streeter had $150,000 sitting around she’d probably spend it on something more logical than one of these new campers, choosing instead to buy up every remaining VW Phaeton and Smart Fortwo left in the United States with that money (she might actually have change left after that). [Mercedes’ Note: I’d also probably try to import a Smart Crossblade, buy a GM New Look bus, buy an Indian FTR, and maybe sneak in an Audi A2.]
If you’re looking to build out your own camper, you might suddenly become overwhelmed. Tearing out seats and other bits from a vehicle’s past life are easy. But how do you turn a bus, truck, or van from an empty space into a cozy home? If you don’t know how to do any of this yourself, you’re sort of left paying someone to do it for you, which erases some of the cost benefits of building your own camper.
For those without YouTube maker-level abilities, there are options appearing on the market. As we’ve reported on before, VanLab offer a system for small to large vans. These are flat-pack-style kits that help you assemble a camper van like it’s an IKEA product. But these are made for a few van models, and leave bathroom facilities up to you.
source: VanLab USA
There is also Happier Camper with its Adaptiv modular system that helps you build a van like it’s a Lego set. The modules offer seating, sleeping, and kitchen applications, but still no bath or shower options. It’s yet not in production, either, and it’s unclear what vehicles it will work for.
source: Happier Camper
But what if hipster van life isn’t for you; what if you neither have a beard nor have the yoga-acquired dexterity needed to inhabit cramped little boxes? Maybe you want or need a larger motorhome with all of the home-away-from-home niceties? Or maybe you have a van that isn’t a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Nissan NV200, or a Ford Transit? She could be wrong, but RV PhD Mercedes says that there really isn’t anything readily available now for those applications.
What if there were a fix for this? Larger scale components for bigger vehicles?
Let’s pretend that I developed a system, and she acted like a boss mogul similar to DeLorean (bad example) or Bricklin (worse example) and got the components manufactured. These parts could be applied to any random retired commercial vehicle, such a shuttle that used to drag people from DFW arrivals to get into their shitty rental Chevy Aveo. A Hertz bus is as good a vehicle as any to start with for Streeter Recreational Vehicle Components to use a demonstrator.
source: Las Vegas Bus Sales
Streeter RVC would offer a choice of modules to convert any van, bus or truck. The modules for this program could be flat-pack style and easily assembled (and built in the bus if they are too big to fit through the doors assembled). The components would be around six feet tall to fit most vehicles, and side panels and bath modules around eight feet in height could be cut to size to blend in the with height and side-wall shape of whatever vehicle you’re converting. The bath and shower modules would be cut down to height, and a water barrier added for the outside wall and top.
source: The Bishop
Note that the kit would provide a rubber or neoprene molding that goes around the cut edges of the side panels, which not only allows the panels to fit snugly against the side of the vehicle, but also means you can cut the panels to shape and even your nasty-ass Sawzall cut edges will be covered up.
Electrical connections could be simple between modules, and note that the modules being shorter than the ceiling means that lights could be mounted on top aiming up to create an aircraft-style “cove lighting” effect.
Modules are made in two, three, or four foot increments to allow for easy space-planning. I’ve heard of people spending years making custom interiors for motorhomes, while using kit components like this could be done in a few weekends. Plumbing options would be provided for simple installation.
You’re in, right? How would it work?
1.) Measure the stripped-out interior of your vehicle, including height. Make note of wheel wells so the system can alert you.
2.) Go to www.streeterrvc.com (you know this is fake, right? You aren’t really clicking on it, are you?), put in your floor dimensions, choose the items and configure your space to your liking. The Streeter Systems site generates the bill or materials that you would need to order.
Here’s a ‘screen shot’ of something you might do for that old Hertz bus:
source: The Bishop
3.) Give ’em your credit card number and wait for the skid of parts to arrive!
The website would obviously have plenty of install kits for plumbing and electrical, plus videos to watch to make installation easy. Remember that these are basic components- you can customize whatever you want but at least you have the bread-and-butter parts worked out for you.
There’s other features as well that could be offered by Streeter Systems, such as the “Caboose Cupola” inspired by Mercedes’s love for trains. This overhead unit blends in with the roof air conditioners (to make them look less stuck on) and has windows on the sides for indirect sunlight like on old cabooses.
source: Las Vegas Bus Sales and The Bishop
In back, you can bolt on a screened porch. No, really. Fold the top up, the floor folds down, and a screen covers the perimeter for a mosquito-free place to relax. Fold out stairs allow access.
source: The Bishop
Price? It’s anyone’s guess, but remember that a new airport shuttle-sized motorhome with bathroom and kitchen would easily be six figures, so even using a late model $20-30,000 used bus and a Streeter kit it should still be a fraction of that cost. [Mercedes’ Note: Or buy a bus from a surplus auction for well under $10,000!]
There’s also a plethora of unfinished projects out there; at a car show recently a man with a mint 1973 GMC motorhome told me that you can find countless examples of these masterpieces where the owners ripped out the insides and then gave up. In fact, our own Mercedes says that if an option like this were available, her RTS might be a full-fledged Autopian bus camper right now.
source: The Autopian
Shit, we should crowdsource this thing to make that happen, right?
One thing I see in a lot of the DIY RV builds is that people are assembling things like the whole body “box” is rigid. This is a mostly reasonable assumption for something like a Transit with unibody construction, but not for something like a body-on-frame skoolie. Frame twist is a feature, not a bug, on vehicles like chassis cab cutaways and larger buses, and trying to mount something to the box rigidly is most likely going to result in your addition breaking at some point in the not too distant future.
Designing your modules to be mounted on one plane (like the floor, with a relatively small footprint), with interfaces between them that allow relative motion would help the novices and make installation easier. It looks like you’ve started down that path with the neoprene edge trim. One addition to your kit of parts should be a flexible wallcovering that incorporates sound & thermal insulation with a finished face to cover the walls and any spaces not occupied by your modules. This would help eliminate the bulky and awkward shiplap that seems to show up on all the builds.
I can tell you had fun with this one
I want the Streeter Skeeter-free Screened Porch. Shut up and take my money! 😀
you know, a 10 year old, <30k mile Tiffin 34 TGA, the pretty much best gas powered <35' RV (important for many camping areas that restrict at 35') can be had for under $60k (typical negotiation room is in the 20% range and the ask on this one is only $58K)
the cost of buying and building out a schoolie or van life van gets into that neighborhood real quick, and for your money you get to be cramped into a tiny box and shit in a glorified bucket.
My barely informed impression is that one of the big problems with RVs is the built-infulness (that’s a word) of what we’d call the “mechanicals” in a stationary home. Seems like this idea, where you can just rip out a misbehaving module, would be a benefit even to the pre-built RV industry.
Why is this not a thing yet? Y’all are sitting on a gold mine of an idea.
I have wanted to build something akin to what I helped rescue contained in a 1954? VW camper. A self-contained removeable kitchen unit. Sink, stove, water container, greywater tank, propane tank. Possible electrical plug for powered faucet if footpump is too primitive. Slide the whole thing in for camping, out for haulling. Seats can fold, or table collapse for a bed. Duffle bags or suitcases for gear (gasp!). I did build a box to hold our portapotty that hold TP, chemicals, and a cushion on top for seating. Removeable of course to provide seating outside.
All I want is a high roof van with a treadmill in back so I can drive to the park a few blocks away and look out the window while I exercise.
I love the concept because it’s exactly how I built my bus! Instead of walking it all out, I stripped it out, used off the shelf cabinets for the kitchen space, and built all the “rooms” as separate cabinet modules. I figured building them as effectively pieces of furniture instead of as walls would be a more efficient use of space.
beachbumberry- that’s the idea, except here I have the items knocked down in case you can’t get them through the door of your vehicle.
Also I have to be sure that whatever material (plywood, etc.) is going to be safe in terms of fire. We use an expanded PVC material at work for some things which is light and durable but I know when it burns it gives off toxic fumes; sort of like the sight and smell of a Fiero burning, if you’ve ever witnessed that.
We use a FR plywood in my industry. It’s not cheap, but it is of very high quality.
This is an excellent idea! I have zero interest in camping of any kind, but I’m here for this!
I once designed a system like this for outfitting truck interiors to perform specific tasks (military and civilian.) It was a nightmare making all the possible modules connect with each other type of module. Keep the connecting interfaces very simple.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve built RVs (maybe three decades) but I remember it being something like this. I remember catalogs (that I don’t think the public could look at) with engineering drawlings of units. And basically it’s this. You this much space and can carry this much weight. This unit has these dimensions and weights this much. You line em up and fill in the spaces with filler panels and storage.
chewy- something MUST have existed at some point, but apparently doesn’t now. It’s too good of an idea not to have been done before. What is nice is that three decades ago you couldn’t have done configurations on a website and see what it would look like. Plus the website makes ordering and production much easier since it just sends a bill of materials to the warehouse floor to be packed up.
This place turned into a how to live in your car blog so fast I barely noticed.
When a car and a home become unobtainium people now dream of a car that is a home.
You can live in a car but you can’t drive a house!
This is a sound idea as I am not an expert craftsman. To expand on this, I can see an industry popping out “You buy the van, we will help you maximize the use to fit your needs and install it”. Should be less than a standard Motorhome. This would fit some styles, like those using the RV like a rolling tent and spend most time out of it but still want creature comforts.
With a camera and TMPS setup you have a nice ride you can drive to the store to pick up items. Then back to the park.
TOSSABL- Just like unfinished kit cars (usually the ones that look the Hardcastle & McCormick car with Monza taillights), there will be failed projects out there, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance with this. Seriously, according to Mercedes, when you rip out the interior of a bus now you are starting entirely from scratch.
I believe that car was called the Coyote. It was seriously cool to an impressionable 7 year old.
MATTinMKE- sorry that I likely got that theme song going in your head…”RIDE..”
It the show, it was supposed to be an experimental race car or something like that and was called the Coyote X. IRL, it was a Manta Montage kit with the side and rear windows removed and other mods.
I’ve become the curmudgeon I always aspired to be. I like the basic idea (especially the Skeeter-Free Screened Porch), but my mind instantly went to, ‘Yeah, and in 8 years you’ll find busses all over CL with 1 unit (mostly) assembled-and the rest opened & mixed together all over the interior’…
Needs a jaunty advertising jingle:
“Skip the Skeeters, Buy a Streeter!”
Before I even read the article I have to complement The Bishop on leaning in on Mercedes’ RV obsession in the lede pic here. Way to do a call out, Bish(thumbs-up emoji)