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Self-build camper project - an introduction
There are plenty of self build books and websites out available, so this website is more about working on Transits and the Hi Cube in particular, and my own solutions to certain problems.

The project was born from the desire to replace a classic caravan, originally bought for work and itself being towed by a mk5 Transit, with a 90s camper. We didn't really want anything pre-1990 as we wanted to travel long distances (across Europe) over short periods of time in relative comfort, and then be able to tour locally at our destination for the day. We didn't want anything newer as we had a budget that wouldn't stretch to maintaining modern engine management systems. The most important feature we were looking for was a high roof, we needed to be able to stand up properly in it.

At Camping Grassi,
                                          Frutigen, Switzerland

The caravan in question was an Esterel C39, a French folding caravan. This was being used as mobile accomodation for work, and whilst is was being used less often, it gave us ideas for future leisure tours. The caravan was normally pulled by a Transit, and was probably too much for our everyday car, a mk3 Astra 1.4 estate, to pull any reasonable distance. We started looking at a range of 80s and 90s campers whilst the caravan was up for sale. Unfortunately all the campers in our budget turned out to need more work than they should have done for the money, even when coming with MoTs. At the same time it was discovered that the floor was rotten in the Esterel, not easy or cheap to replace. With this mind we had a change of plan- rather than selling the caravan we would use the interior to build our own camper. The hunt was on.

In a sheer moment of luck, browsing local adverts we found a minibus being sold in nearby Kingston-upon-Hull. Five minutes and a quick phone call later we were heading into Hull to have a look as it was due to go to auction in Bridlington later that day. What we had found was a 2000 Ford Transit 190 EF Hi Cube minibus, recently decommissioned by East Hull Community Transport. It too had a few issues, mostly rot, but as we own and maintain mk5 Transits for work we were confident that it could all easily be put right for its MoT and simple to maintain once out on the road. A price was agreed on, and it could even be delivered... it was ours and the project began.

Interestingly, there was actually a choice of two minibuses that day as there was also an LDV 400 Convoy. This was later spotted by friends at the Download Festival!

another ex-ehct
                                            minibus, at the Download

Ford Transit 190EF HiCube

The first part of the self-build puzzle is the vehicle itself. In this case it’s a mk5 Ford Transit 190EF Hi Cube. The picture below is the Hi Cube as we first saw it on eBay after following up an advert elsewhere online.

HiCube as purchased

This appears to be an special order vehicle as it was a twin-wheel van with a 2.5litre turbo diesel engine and basic dashboard, and was obviously a van as it left the factory as the windows are not Ford's own  It was then converted to a minibus by Constable’s of Pevensey who fitted a heavy duty floor, a full set of windows, tail-lift, retractable side step, side-mounting spare wheel carrier (as the tail lift was fitted in the usual position), seats including an adjustable seat at the rear, and a large locker over the cab. The interior was finished in grey carpet, and had two opening roof hatches, strip lighting, and extra speakers in the back.

HiCube next to mk5 LWBview of minibus interior

PMS hydraulic tail lift,
                                          and Gomez the cat

Esterel C39

As luck would have it, the internal dimensions in the available space behind the front seats of the Hi Cube was only slightly less than those of the second part of puzzle, the Esterel caravan. The furniture consisted of a large and a small bed either side of a kitchen unit with hob, sink and fridge.

Esterel C39 erectedEsterel C39 ready for

It certainly seemed that by trimming the bed frames and the rear of the kitchen unit it could be fitted into the HiCube in the same layout with the only difference being that the small bed would be where the sliding door is in the van so it would become just a large seat.

Esterel C39 main seatingEsterel C39 kitchen

Planning the Refit

Planning is all important, it's no good deciding what you want with no idea if it will all fit, and then when it is all fitted will you have enough space to actually live in the finished camper. I've seen plenty of conversions that barely give space to open the fridge door or stand up whilst the bed is out because there's so much crammed in there that floor space is at a premium. Think carefully about what luxuries you really need. Do you need heating, or a toilet, or storage for awnings? Oven or fridge or both? 240v hook up or solar panels and multiple batteries?

Thinking about how we were going to use the camper, there would be days when it'll just be covering distance, days touring local attractions and weekends at various festivals both in the UK and abroad. The Hi Cube itself provided the most important feature, the high roof. In fact this is the tallest of the 2nd generation Transits in that the roof is approximately 50mm taller than the high roof options on the short- and long-wheelbase vans. Plenty of height for standing up and getting dressed (up) in. Our other requirements were a sensibly sized bed, sink, hob & oven, fridge, running water (not necessarily hot water), rechargeable batteries for lighting and charging, and storage for clothes, water and food. Two roof hatches were already in place and luckily they were far enough apart to fit a solar panel in the future.

We decided again an onboard toilet or wash room as these facilities would normally be available on site (we don't wild-camp), but have left space should we change our minds in the future. We also decided again blown air heating, hot water and built-in TV, again these were things think about for a future refit or the next self-build. A 240v hook-up would be installed so that the fridge, portable heating and a laptop could be used when circumstances would allow. For privacy some of the windows would be blanked out, initially using green vinyl. Curtains would be made to cover the remaining windows & sliding door and to divide the cab from the living space. One leisure battery would be used initially, normally we'd be on the move enough to keep it charged.

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this page last updated May 2020