When we say “conversion van,” what comes to mind? An old Chevy Mark III with some sweet captain’s chairs, a state-of-the-art TV/VCR combo, and interior blue shag carpeting that shimmers with the faint glow of cheese puff dust? Let’s be honest, for many years conversion vans held one of three reputations– trade vehicle, family weekend camper, or the morally questionable “shag van”. But lately these rigs have seen a much-needed facelift. They’re lighter and more fuel efficient, with greater cargo space and car-like driveability. Attractive qualities to professionals and small business owners looking for a versatile ride on a budget. However, this redesign has led to more than just an increase in popularity among the nine-to-fivers. It’s created a new purpose and new audience as well: the bohemian mobile home.
“So…you live in a van?”
We know what you’re thinking: a worked-up Chris Farley in a checkered blue jacket screaming at David Spade and Christina Applegate about “living in a van down by the river.” While undoubtedly a piece of SNL gold, that’s not the kind of lifestyle we’re talking about. These are well-made, often new, commercial-grade models like the Mercedes Sprinter or Ford Transit. And they’re decked out with serious modifications inspired by camper, boat, and tiny house designs. While vintage family conversion vans may have successfully achieved the living-room-on-wheels vibe, these vehicles have a loftier goal.
Kitchenettes, folding tables, innovative gear storage, and surprisingly spacious sleeping quarters are cleverly fitted into a space often around 150-400sq feet. This outfitting takes meticulous planning, hard work and more than a little technical know-how. Much of the lifestyle appeal is in putting a stamp of individuality on the conversion. However, most owners are only capable of doing so much by themselves. Furthermore, with most base models starting around $30,000 buyers just can’t afford to waste money on expensive mistakes. Many van lifers opt for low cost DIY conversion kits when starting. Then they reach out to professional shops as they hit projects outside their capabilities. The spectrum is wide– from families looking for weekend overnighters to young professionals looking for a full-time adventure rig. These add-ons and build-outs can provide excellent opportunities to jobbers looking for creative capital.
Beating the Stereotype
Millennial Instagrammers can be thanked for making conversion vans trendy. But there are many people who jumped on the #vanlife bandwagon long before it was ever a hashtag. And these off-gridders don’t do it for the ‘likes’. Choosing to convert such a small amount of square footage into usable living space is a conscious decision and major lifestyle change. Most van dwellers would tell you that it’s more than a choice; it’s a sacrifice. And a humbling one at that. Imagine telling someone on a first date that you live in a van. Filling out “permanent address” on an application. Entertaining friends. And that’s not even including the little things of everyday life that we take for granted, like privacy or headspace.
It would be easy to stereotype this movement as modern counterculture led by social media addicts. But the truth is that many Average Joes with average lifestyles have chosen to adopt vanlife, and there’s some real money to be made within this growing segment. Van conversions have long been, and still are, a popular choice for travelling musicians, amateur filmmakers, and the like. But with more people telecommuting for work, many freelancers and web-based employees have found that mobile living allows them to earn a paycheck in some of the world’s most exciting locations.
Less Is More
So why the van? RV’s and trailer campers can be complicated beasts with extra gadgets and amenities. They often have very high base prices and little room for cheap customizations. Vanlife adoptees want simplicity and convenience, easy maneuverability and low maintenance. Modern commercial vans offer that element of minimalism that seems quite central to the philosophy surrounding van living. They’re also well-suited to meet the varied needs of mobile dwellers. And with more competition within the segment, buyers now have much more power of selection both within and across models.
Among the vanlife community, the Mercedes Sprinter seems to top the list as the most capable and versatile option with the best safety features, resale ability, and brand cachet to boot. While it is one of the most expensive models on the market, its great fuel economy, payload capacity, standard diesel engine and available four-wheel drive have made it a fan-favorite.
This stamp of approval from vanlifers has provided a noticeable sales boost for the Sprinter, with the model selling 26,000 units in 2016, and data suggesting it will surpass that for 2017. While that might represent a very small percentage of Mercedes-Benz vehicle sales, as well as that of the U.S. commercial van market in general, it’s enough to show the automaker that there’s serious growth potential among America’s blue collar workers and a growing subgroup of van dwelling adventurers. So much so, that Mercedes has plans currently in motion to build a $500-million plant to build the next-gen Sprinter in South Carolina by 2020.
Ford currently owns the majority of commercial van sales in the U.S. with a whopping 52.6%. And while the Transit may not top its record 2016 sales, it’s still set to finish the year strong and keep its crown as the best-selling model on the market. Domestic competitors Chevy, Dodge, and GMC round out the next largest share, with Mercedes and Nissan taking the leftovers. Obviously, this subculture of wanderers doesn’t represent the bulk of retail sales– that part of the pie is still firmly held by utility companies, cable providers, and other fleet-vehicle industries. But as the lingering effects of the recession continue to well, recede, the commercial van segment is seeing a lot of growth. And a large part of that is due to a more disposable income of small businesses and the free social media advertising of vanlifers.
Vehicle of the Future?
Regardless of whether #vanlife will be a flash in the pan trend or a lucrative subculture with lasting power, it’s safe to make optimistic predictions for the commercial van segment. As EPA standards get stricter and the push for electric and autonomous vehicles continues to gain momentum, businesses will need more environmentally-friendly and tech-integrated vehicles to round out their fleets. Cargo vans with their utility and adaptability seem uniquely suited to handle the task. They need only wait for the OE’s and aftermarket to catch up to the growing and changing demands of their consumers.
We’ll be revisiting this topic, so keep an eye out for Part 2 where we discuss the popular modifications and custom touches being done to these vehicles, as well as how aftermarket professionals can capitalize on the fun challenge these builds offer. Even more, Part 3 will explore what exactly automakers have in store for this segment. So stay tuned!