I. How Our SMB Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be
This is a story of our experience of designing a Mercedes Benz Sprinter van conversion with Sportsmobile. I am writing these posts to share with the readers some of the important things learned from van camping and motor home travel over many years, and learned from reading this forum, how these experience lessons have defined our current Sportsmobile build plans, and to describe our Sportsmobile build process over time as we work with the Sportsmobile company to realize our dream of a “Magic Carpet” Sportsmobile Sprinter van conversion.
We have begun our journey of this build by personally working with our Sportsmobile sales representative/build facilitator. I have done a great amount of research to develop our specific detailed build plans which we have discussed in person with him during our four personal visits to the factory 150 miles away and on the telephone. Our sales rep has been positive and encouraging and our planning a cooperative effort. We really like our Sportsmobile West sales rep. who is also a SMB executive. He is the kind of person who understands what these vans mean to peoples lives, appreciates the history of van adventuring, and looks forward to what's possible rather than backward to what's not. Just the right person for our "Magic Carpet" Sportsmobile dream.
Sportsmobile West received our detailed and dimensioned build floor plans on the grids provided on their web site, interior elevations, two cabinet drawings, and electrical and plumbing systems drawings, and equipment specifications resulting from this cooperative process along with our conversion and Sprinter order sheets and detailed options and cost calculations on the order forms. Our deposit check has been cashed and we have been given a build date. The Sportsmobile “Magic Carpet” adventure has begun.
As we wait in line for our new 144” RB HT Sprinter van’s arrival and for the actual conversion construction work to begin, and the line is long, I will go back in time and begin this story with our van experiences which are the origins of our van design ideas and share them through a series of posts including how and why our build is designed the way it is. The posts will provide copies of our detailed build plans, and when construction begins provide progress pictures. I hope you will enjoy our Sportsmobile Sprinter van conversion journey and come along with us, and that it will help you to develop and realize your own dreams as my wife and I try to reach ours.
Here we go. Our van travel and van camping actually began with a station wagon in the 60s, yes, way back then. It was a 55 Ford 2 door “wagon” with fold down seats that allowed at least six feet of flat sleeping space in the back. I built a plumbing pipe rack with 2x4 wooden skids on the roof and put four wooden fish boxes with canvas covers crossways up there to hold our second bedroom (tent), our sleeping bags, and the other stuff we carried. Our children rode inside and we had no dog. Our kitchen was another wooden fish box I modified with compartments and a shelf to hold our Coleman stove, kitchen supplies, ice chest, and food. This kitchen box sat crossways just inside the tailgate and could be slid out onto the opened tailgate for use. The dropdown tailgate and swing up back window portion were our rear doors. I made thin plywood sandwiched screen boards with large porthole like openings for the front windows when open and a bedboard that laid across over the front seat and dash from one side windowsill to the other windowsill and along with the front seat itself this gave us two bunk beds for the kids. We slept in the back with the backseats folded down. When traveling our two young sons could ride back there with a seat up, or with it down they had a large play area. There were no seat belts or child safety seats in those days. The kitchen box was their play table.
Our boys brought along their clothesline ropes and hardware store pulleys for scrambling up campground banks, their makeshift toys were tin cans, wood pieces and such, and they had their 20” wheel bikes riding along set atop the rear sculpted fenders along both sides behind the rear doors with the bike frames tied to the pipe rack and the rims to fender top fastenings. They were the adventure climbers and the motorcyclists, although without the motors. I guess you could call this an adventure van, or at least a van for adventures, and it was our first and we converted it ourselves!
'95 SMB E350 Quigley 7.3 https://www.taylorarts.com
... If you have to ask, you'll never understand...
"... torpedo'd, because we don't generally cotton to bullshit around here." -jage
"... do they ooch apart in the night?" -Dia
How Our SMB Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be - Part II.
So one thing we discovered from our first Ford Wagon van was how useful rear doors (drop tailgate and swing up window above) could be to open up access to the interior, provide a great view and fresh air when parked, facilitate loading and unloading, and provide a more private area behind the vehicle and those screens we made for the front door windows really helped with ventilation and privacy but we could still see out, and no bugs allowed unless invited. So in our "Magic Carpet" Sportsmobile to be plan we want to preserve the usefulness of the back doors and have windows there, give the Sportsmobile rear door screen a try, and get some front door screens for the van from "Skreenz" online, they are awesome!
The Ford Wagon van was great and the 60s were a great time also. All the interest in the nature of social and environmental responsibility, the “Whole Earth Catalogue”, the “Family of Man”, alternate realities, and of course the sexual revolution. But also for us it was now a time of the Volkswagen van, of which we had three over the next few years.
Our first two VW vans were Westfalia campers, Volkswagen’s standard camper design of the time. They had a backseat that folds down to make a bed, well at least part of a bed as there was always that closet along the side that made it narrow and climbing out from the end of a bed, like climbing up from the ground in a tent, now seems like a younger person's activity. But the VW vans had a fold up table on one side, a small sink, some built in storage, a canopy style screened window, a big sliding door later, and some even a pop top so we could actually stand up to move around inside. And they had seat belts! If you want to be safe, stay put. Now that's certainly a "no such thing as a free lunch" but so was being injured.
I really loved the visibility from the VW van cab, the higher seating position, the maneuverability, and sitting so close up in the nose, we saw a lot and did a lot together, and the van could fit in just about anywhere, even if we didn't always fit in. Here's my wife beside one of our VW vans.
One thing I was impressed with during our first visit to a Sportsmobile factory was a restored original Sportsmobile VW van conversion that Sportsmobile themselves had begun converting during this heyday of the VW Campers. They respected this history and preserved this vehicle in their California showroom. These vehicles meant a lot to many people’s lives who have experienced what they made possible.
How Our SMB Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be - Part III.
In planning our "Magic Carpet" Sprinter conversion we need to look back and identify and consider what we have learned from our previous van adventuring.
The earliest VW Westfailia conversions had small windows but then they got bigger and the view out was better. They were canopy vent style windows and we could leave them open in the rain or when we were away from the van.
The pop-top, ours was hinged at the rear, let us actually stand up and move around inside. We could hang out inside if we wanted, be more comfortable, and still appreciate the scene outside. Wow, the vans just got better and better.
Here comes the 70s. We were on a roll with camper vans, so to speak. We were now living in California and discovered Adventure Campers of Ft. Bragg, California. We bought a brand new VW Van and contracted with them for an Adventure Camper conversion. In a few days they showed up pulling a flatbed trailer carrying a van top, and all the needed parts to convert our VW, and within two days they had converted our brand new VW van into a permanent high top camper van including the interior furnishings and equipment right in our own home town. Wow, compare that with the current up to twelve month wait for some van conversions.
The Adventure van was great! It had a full van width already made up comfy fold out bed. You just folded the back seat top down, grabbed a handle on the folded bed behind it, opened it forward from the end like a book, and clipped up a strap on each side. No side closet to crowd the bed and reduce its size. The Adventure camper had a fold up table, a sink, a propane stove, a PortaPotti in a cabinet, screened canopy windows, storage above the cab, windows in the raised top, rooftop storage, and it was brand new. It even had a spare tire on the front which I always hoped would give us some protection if in a crash but the tire did add to the length of the van and we never had a flat. This van was our only vehicle. We traveled across the US with our kids to visit family and had many other traveling adventures.
Here is one like it, its even the same color. Ours might look like this by now like we do, wherever it is. Maybe this was ours.
To be continued.
How Our SMB Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be - Part IV.
We learned from each van what we needed and what really worked for us. Lessons that have now shown up in our current design of “Magic Carpet”, our Sportsmobile build plan. But we’re not there yet.
We reached the 80s. People had been adventure traveling in space for a while. New technologies, new technologies, new technologies, cut and paste your past, but be sure and edit it. And we did, well we tried anyway.
Our next van was an Xplorer, a Dodge van conversion. We learned from this on too and want to use these lessons in our "Magic Carpet" When I visited the Xplorer van factory I saw them cut the frame and body of one model of their vans, spread it apart with a jack and weld it up that way to get more width. Wow, anythings possible when thinking out of the box. Change the box.
The Xplorer model we bought was low enough to put in your garage, if you had one, and if the garage was slightly over 21’ long as was the van, but it was an interesting concept. After all a van has to live somewhere when you’re not out adventuring.
Our van had a dropped floor, a 1.5’x5’ by 10” or so deep well starting behind the front seats creating a stand up kitchen and sofa side aisle without the need for a high top. The roof AC in the picture below was added by the next owner and cancels out the potential “garage-ability”. But this van had a generator, a microwave, a furnace, hot water, holding tanks, and a very small bathroom stall with a very small window.
This 1989 Dodge van not only had a dropped floor well but also a rear end extension, a fiberglass rear cap that extended the van to just over 21 feet.
The bed was at the rear and you slept crosswise, well sort of slept! Sleeping is very important when adventuring and gets to be more of a concern as one ages and enlarges as does an adequate bathroom so these concerns are an important factor in our design of our “Magic Carpet” Sportsmobile build plan to come. To be continued.
How Our SMB Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be - Part V.
A bigger van camper is better, right? Well maybe not!
Our next vans were really motorhomes 27 feet long and at least 1.5 feet wider 6’ longer than what we had before. They were also old. Really old. Twenty five years old! Innovative in their time. However, their time was past. But the appeal of classics never dies. One of the oldies was a Cortez one a GMC. Both were front wheel drive Oldsmobile V8 engine powered. Both had air ride suspension in the rear. The GMC had tandem rear wheels. Both were to a great extent "rescue motorhomes". The Cortez had one front cab door, well one's better than none.
The GMC looked and still looks really modern and is aluminum. No front cab doors, and boy did we miss those. A shorter version of the Cortez had been used by NASA to transport astronauts to and from the launch pads. But perhaps "to the launch pad" needed more thought. “Magic Carpet” indeed! We lived in our Cortez for a year. We took a short trip to Mexico just South of the border. The GMC was a “money pit”. But we kept giving and it kept taking. I still shudder about the experience. It was fun to develop design ideas and to take a big rubber mallet and knock loose the joints of the old cabinetry and throw pieces out the side door. Something very satisfying about cleaning out the house, but wait, then it was empty. I had lots of ideas and needed lots of help so joined the ranks of many others having these old vehicles restored by someone else.
The having a larger motorhome sounded great but the “doing it” the journey and adventuring with the motorhome is really the thing. Get to the launch pad but don't forget the importance of the journeys to come. Smaller is better! I knew that, just got carried away. I can't look, so let’s forget the pictures and move on, and we did. To be continued:
How Our SMB Magic Carpet Sprinter Conversion Plan Came To Be - Part VI.
Our most recent van/motorhome came about in trying times. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Wow, now that’s an adventure. I got in a hurry really quickly. We had been working abroad as international educators and just retired and returned to the US. OK now what?
“Life’s a journey not a destination” and we needed to keep moving! I entered radiation treatment and we bought a used 22’10” Born Free, “Built for Two”. Wow, new adventures. This has been a great motorhome or is it a van? It has a Ford E350 Super Duty Cutaway Van chassis, a V-10 engine, a rear door like a pickup camper and we can take it and park it anywhere. And we do!
This small motorhome has a propane stovetop, a microwave/convection oven, hot water, a generator, a roof AC, a furnace, roof solar, TV, 30 gallons of fresh water and so on.
We have been to Cabo San Lucas and back, followed the Oregon Trail, Toured Alaska for two months, toured Mexico for two and a half months, traveled across the country and been up and down the East and West coasts, as well as made many short trips. We stay overnight in rest areas, travel plazas and truck stops, driveways, State and National Parks, Wal-Marts, Elks Club lots, on the streets, and some RV parks. It is truly a magic carpet. We even removed all the vinyl decorative swooshes and branding to get more stealth and avoid the “oh my god, the gypsies are coming” reaction ingrained in many property owners. We park it on the street outside our apartment and only occasionally get hassled about it.
This is the best motorhome we have ever had. Well, let me try again it has been very functional and we have done so much with it. Thats the best!
But we can get smaller, more flexible, more free, and hopefully more spontaneous and relaxed about the trip(s). As our adventuring evolves into more touring, more family visiting across the Country, more art workshops, art and photography production, more outdoor spectator events, more historical visits, and more spontaneous and catch as catch can travel and as we get older, and older - we can simplify and open up new possibilities and reduce the traveling workload. Back to the future, how about a new personally designed “Magic Carpet”? Enter Sportsmobile!
We first visited Sportsmobile several months ago. I kept thinking, could we get a smaller pocket sized motorhome that could even be an only vehicle but provided all the functions and comforts we had identified and benefited from. Well what about a van conversion, could we get all we wanted into a vehicle smaller than the 22’10” motorhome we already had, let’s try. My wife was not, let’s say “real sympathetic”, she really likes what we have, but we’re skating on thin ice here, always parked on the street, managing a heavy and somewhat large vehicle at an advancing age, using a lot of fuel at 10mpg, doing quite a bit of loading and unloading, and needing not so much a vacation cabin on wheels as a frequently used touring and spontaneous adventuring vehicle.
For example how about a regular body 19’6” long about 6’ wide around 8000 lb vehicle with all the conveniences that can pass for a regular van wherever it is and we are. But wait, how about a Mercedes Benz high top Sprinter? I found one already converted for sale 150 miles from home listed on the Sportsmobile pre-owned website. We went to look at it at the owners house and drove it.
This Sportsmobile had a Silver Gray exterior, fiberglass running boards, a Dove Gray interior, canopy vented Sprinter style windows, no propane, a flat plate water heater, an Espar air heater, felt open with great views out and down its continuous central aisle, and the rear doors could be swung back 180 degrees against the sides if you wanted the back completely open. It of course had two front doors in the cab, was well ventilated, had a nice 39”x27” bathroom. It also had a roof AC, swinging rear mounted spare tire and bracket adding to its length, a macerator toilet that we’ve not heard good things about, and an awning, all of which we didn’t want or need but, ok.
One big big problem; we wouldn’t be able to sleep in it! It was a rear dinette and in a 69” conversion width, 123” conversion length vehicle thats what you have; a 69” long by 54” wide bed. I’m 6’2.5” long and my wife is 5’10.5”. I’ll skip the width part personally. One of us at a time could sleep in the bed on a diagonal, I guess we could sleep in shifts.
We decided to stop at the Fresno Sportsmobile factory on the way out of town and thats where the current plan for our Sportsmobile Sprinter custom conversion “Magic Carpet” ideas started to be planned and where we met Jonathan Feld, President of Sportsmobile West who became our sales contact. This started what I call “the flight”.
Why “the flight” you might wonder. Well here we go with our current Magic Carpet Sportsmobile conversion plan.
Great story. I couldn't find it the other day and have been waiting on another installment to bring it back to the top.
I absolutely love the first pic of your old wagon with the bikes on the sides. That's just a classic pic. I'd love to have a framed copy! It reminds me of the Ansel Adams pic with him on the roof of his wagon with a camera for some reason.