144" High Roof European-style build

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
It seems like a good time to introduce my project to you, as I suspect there are some on this forum that are interested in van builds and the great escape into the outdoors that they offer.

She's a 2016 144" High Roof, 4 cyl, 7-speed in a color I like to call "battleship grey." Major options include:
-Assorted tinted windows
-OEM swivel seats
-Aux Batt
-Appearance package (Bi-xenon + alloy wheels)
-Backup cam
-Towing package

Ordered it new and very excited to own a vehicle I have dreamed about for many years.

I'm pretty sure you know what a Sprinter looks like, but here it is:


Plans:
DIY build. Sleep & transport 3-4 humans, open layout with emphasis on a great entertaining space. What does that mean? You can throw a mattress down and sleep in any van, but I wanted a space where 3-4 people could comfortably sit down and eat a meal or play cards at a table, with room to walk around inside. In order to achieve that in a 144" wb van, that means the beds will need to be deployed, and I am fine with that. Sailboat/trawler travel has taught me that on extended trips, having a great socializing space is great when the weather is bad or the mosquitos come out. That said, I love being outside so most cooking and activities will occur outside of the van when possible.

I decided I needed a european-style layout to achieve this. I fully intend to blatantly copy the design of the VW California, which ironically is not offered in California or anywhere else in the U.S. This is the layout of the VW Cali:


My design will be similar, based around a sliding seat/folding bed concept as well as a 3-panel high-mount bed in the rear as is common with a lot of Sprinter builds.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
I had been wanting a small RV for a long time and the addition of a kiddo did nothing to quench that desire. I've been looking at small pull trailers for years and while I found a couple of trailers I could live with, dealing with storing it offsite, being limited to 55 MPH while towing and the generally atrocious build quality of small trailers turned me off. I then became interested in Class B (van style) RVs for the simple fact that I could park one in my driveway and live/travel more spontaneously. YouTube and Instagram depict "van life" with lots of hot chicks doing yoga and hanging out wearing next to nothing, so there is that.

I have gone to dozens of RV shows in the past couple of years. I found one production RV that I liked--the Winnebago Travato based on the Ram Promaster chassis.


It was one of the few Class B's that had seatbelted seating for more than 2 people, however even though I think the Travato checked most of my boxes, it, like all the other American RVs I've seen, they tried to cram too much stuff in too small of space. It was also expensive at $70k, but that's $30k less than the Mercedes Sprinter RVs on the market.

What I really WANT is a European RV. Like a VW California. They have seatbelted seating for four, the sliding bench seat makes a bed for two and there's sleeping for two more in the 'upstairs' tent. They have a refrigerator, sink, 2-3 burner stove, hot water shower off the back. Perfect for what I want. Of course they also have diesel engines and manual transmissions, but that's another story entirely. The closest thing you can buy here in the States was a VW Vanagon Westfalia, which they stopped making in 1991. Stop what you're doing and look online and see what those go for--a ratted-out 80s VW Westfalia will go for over $20k, often times closer to $30k.

I realized the only way I was going to get my European RV was to build it myself. I was interested in purchasing a Ram Promaster and doing an RV build myself. After looking at them at the dealership and doing some reading online I quickly realized these Ram vans are built in typical Chrysler fashion--just totally slapped together. They saw Mercedes selling the heck out of their high roof Sprinter vans, so they utilized their partnership with Fiat for the Ducato body, slapped the running gear from a Dodge Caravan under it, put this ridiculous low-hanging trailer axle at the rear and called it a day. I will bet anything that rear axle is also out of a PT Cruiser or something else, but I digress:


The nail in the coffin was when a good friend of mine rented one for a job (his other commercial vans were in use) and he was excited to tell me he'd be driving it for a couple of days and wanted to provide his impressions. I got a text the day day that it was being hauled away on a tow truck after shattering a flexplate on the freeway. It just felt like a sign.
 
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asimba2

ourkaravan.com
That left me with one choice, or so I thought, the Ford Transit. It turns out that the high roof option isn't actually tall enough to stand up in, so you have to order the mega roof. When you order the mega roof you have to order the medium-length body. If you happen to order the extended body (not the medium one), instead of adding wheelbase Ford just tacks a ridiculously long tail section onto the rear:


Fugly. To avoid the Ford's dimensional problems I could have ordered a non-high roof non-extended van and added a Sportsmobile-style pop-up roof, until I found out those cost $7-8k.

I read online (do people read anywhere else?) that spec'ing a Promaster or a Transit with a diesel engine resulted in a price higher than a Mercedes Sprinter, it got me curious about those. I had assumed anything with a Mercedes badge would be way out of my price range. The build quality was much better than the Promaster and the proportions were better than the Transit. I drove the 4 cylinder and V6 Sprinters back-to-back and came away really impressed with the 4 cyl with the 7-speed transmission. Reading this forum turned me away from the emissions issues of the V6 but the 4 cyl seemed to be widely praised, so long story long, the combination of $3,000 cash-back on 2WD models + negotation well below MSRP put me in a Sprinter for a reasonable price. The Sprinter just felt more special than the other vans. But I like all vans, so don't take that as a bash of the others, it's just my reasoning behind why I ended up in the Sprinter.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
So on to the build.

2nd day I had it I busted out the drill and jigsaw and cut open the side for the T-vent window. That pretty much caused my neighbors to think I had finally lost it. (There's still time for that.)

Link to Window Install Video on YouTube

Here's my write-up on installing your own windows: https://ourkaravan.com/windows/

Also completed:
Dap butyl sealant on body trim clips to prevent intrusion of water into lower body cavities
 
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asimba2

ourkaravan.com
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asimba2

ourkaravan.com
Next step was to get started on the insulation. I did a lot of research on this one and while opinions vary wildly on this issue I decided to go with small amounts of butyl panel dampener (Noico) with the main insulation being Thinsulate. I may (or may not) follow up with some Reflectix on the inside of the wall panels, but I will look at the airgap at that time and decide if it's worth it or not.

I started with the rear doors but will hold-off on insulating the ceiling and walls until I install my solar and route my electrical wires.
Link to Insulation Install Video on YouTube

And here's my write-up on choosing insulation and how to install it: https://ourkaravan.com/insulation/

Even small amounts of the panel dampener made the doors sound much more solid.
 
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Nice work.

I started with a 144 high roof passenger van and wanted to go down the road of something like a VW California or a VW weekender. A couple of years ago, I rented a T5 VW California in the French alps and followed the tour de france with my family of 4 for a week. It was super fun - but a tight fit on a rainy evening. The fit and finish in a T5 or T6 is pretty amazing.

Check out these guys - http://www.spacecamper.ch/de/camping-van/open/
They seem to have built interior cabinets and both look great and seem like something mortals could fabricate.

I spent most of last year building out the infrastructure:
- 2 operable cr laurence windows
- 230 aH house batteries
- electrical system
- D2 heater
- 600W stereo system
- 2 sets of bed rails and bed panels,
- sienna rear captain's chairs
- fiamma awning
- roof rack
- ladder
- trailer hitch
- removable "rear door" shower module - gas hot water heater and 20 gal tank.
- noise dampening
- thinsulate insulation (from Hein)
- swivel driver and passenger seats
- removable table between rear and front seats

The result is more like a VW weekender - mixed with a base Outside Van. In weekend mode, it sleeps 4 and drives 4 in complete comfort. In weekday mode, it can haul lots of stuff and carry 7 people (with the rear 3 person bench in place).

This summer will be overhead cabinets and interior modules - rear roll-out storage sliders, side door roll-out kitchen unit, solar panels, and roof fan install. I'm planning removing my factory rear AC to make room for the solar panels (I've used rear AC about 5 times in almost 2 years). On the cabinets I'm thinking about building something like the space camper esthetic - gray laminate with exposed edges of high-grade euro plywood. We shall see.

It's been a project for sure.

Good luck with yours.

C
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
^^ Sounds like we have similar layouts in mind. I had highly considered going with the Sienna seats as well. In my mind a van this big should be able to carry more passengers than a 2-seat sports car, but I understand why so many builds only have two seats--the seats are always in the way. That's why a sliding seat made so much sense to me.

You wouldn't happen to have a build thread somewhere, would you?
 
^^ Sounds like we have similar layouts in mind. I had highly considered going with the Sienna seats as well. In my mind a van this big should be able to carry more passengers than a 2-seat sports car, but I understand why so many builds only have two seats--the seats are always in the way. That's why a sliding seat made so much sense to me.

You wouldn't happen to have a build thread somewhere, would you?
I should have done a build thread - but I barely had the time to build - and at the time I wasn't at all sure I was going to be successful :) So I guess I chickened out on the build thread.

Here is my bed rail install:
https://sprinter-source.com/forum/showthread.php?t=40806&page=3

I designed the rails sort of like the ones in outside van. I had them fabricated at a local sheet metal shop - and then powdercoated. It was super reasonable - cost-wise. For the bed panels, I ordered a bunch of 16' sticks of 1/8" square tube aluminum from a local industrial supplier - next day delivery to my local makerspace (shout out to: port city makerspace) - I cut and ground all the parts - then a buddy welded it up. I later swapped out for 1/4" plywood on top. Super comfortable with a mat on the frame.

Here is my sienna seat install:
https://sprinter-source.com/forum/showthread.php?t=46979
I really wanted to go with the euro sliding / removable captains chairs - but they either aren't US DOT passenger approved or they just aren't available in the US - and the typical US RV captain's chairs are just not... well let's say they are not what we were looking for.

Here is my electrical plan - with a split battery scenario - one in engine bay and one under frame rail (both george ra and hein gave me great advice here):
https://sprinter-source.com/forum/showthread.php?t=47517
This has worked great - I use a victron battery monitor - it is awesome to know exactly how much battery you have left.

Sadly - I did not document much of the other stuff.

I will do better on photos this summer. :)

Best,

C
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
Corbury, thanks for the links, I enjoyed reading those threads. The bed mount you used really gives me something to think about.

As far electrical, I mostly have my system planned out. I decided to go LiFePO4, and have some more research to do on bottom-balancing, wiring schematics and where I want lights, outlets, etc before I get knee-deep into it.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
How did you get the oem swivels on a 2016? Or is yours a 2017 with 2016 epa designation?
I think it's a 2016, or at least that's what the data card sailquik sent me says. I placed my order on August 31st and I told the dealer I wanted swivel seats but they indicated they were not available. The next day on September 1 the sales guy called me and told me to come in, as he had just received a small booklet from Mercedes dated Sep 1 that spelled-out options available for the 2017 model year. Among those options were a new for 2017 leather steering wheel (dealer said mine was the first one he had seen in person) and the swivel seats, which were only available on the 2500 cargo vans (NOT Crew vans or Passenger vans), and even then the dealer had to request permission from Mercedes. I got a call later in the day on Sep 1 that Mercedes had approved the swivel seat addition, and this aligns exactly with what I read in the "swivel seats now available" thread here on the forum. I also got the $3000 rebate that was available on 2016 model years, so I think I got a 2016 with 2017 options.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
Makes sense. That's what I heard too. Cargo only. Which makes zero sense. But congrats to you!

Enjoy the build
I was very happy to get them as they are rock-solid. The seat bases are somewhere around 2" lower to accommodate the height of the swivels, the parking brake folds out of the way and I think the dealer said the bottom seatbelt mount point gets moved to the b-pillar to get it out of the way,.
 

Motodisiac

Moto Terrorist
Looking forward to seeing your build. Sounds something I would like to do but never will because I'm busy with other things.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
Looking forward to seeing your build. Sounds something I would like to do but never will because I'm busy with other things.
Me too! I am enjoying the build so far, but the van was not usable to haul my child (in a carseat) around until today, so my excitement level is up 100%.
 

asimba2

ourkaravan.com
Next up the Espar D2 install with the High Altitude Compensation Sensor and the Easy Start Select digital controller. It took me a day to install the unit and another day to do the wiring, but I do tend to take my time on projects like this.

The Espar install was pretty straight forward, but as everyone states, the wiring isn't exactly cut and dry. I try and clear some of that up in the video. It is quieter than I was thinking it would be and it raised the temperature of the uninsulated van from 59 degrees to 78 degrees F in 15 minutes.

Link to Espar D2 Install Video on YouTube
 
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Shibby!

Member
Haha.

You wont use a hole saw but use a torque wrench (incorrectly) on the mounting bolts. I love it.

(you aren't supposed to use torque wrenches for ratcheting)


Whatever gets the job done. Looks like you are off to a good start on this project. Nice work.

BTW, if you use your side door and this muffler vents under it, you may want to be careful if you go to cold climates. It could melt snow and create ice under the van step.
 
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asimba2

ourkaravan.com
After a good deal of effort the RIB seat/bed is installed and functioning. It may still be a bare carcass of a van but I'm ready for a trip.



The seatrails are a fixed width and I had to consider where I wanted it to land inside, but more importantly still have access from underneath to properly brace all 8-feet of the rail. The fuel tank had to be removed for access. I spent a good amount of time in the planning stage alone. Had to clear the stepwell, have clearance for the seat to slide over the fenderwell, not land on a framerail (where there is no access), but be located near support structures to secure properly.

Then I had to build a jig to keep rails perfectly straight. The seat won't slide well if the tracks aren't perfect. I test fit, test fit again, and test fit again before drilling holes through van floor (seven per side), followed by 1-2 applications of paint in the holes to prevent corrosion.

The corrugations in the van floor wouldn't allow the rails to sit flat on the floor. I planned to use aluminum, steel, or HDPE for this, but discovered the material that sat in the corrugations of the floor required a chamfer to be effective. Wood was easiest.

-Next I had to come up with a safe mounting method. I studied how VW braces these from the factory, which involves passing the bolt through the thickened part of the floor where the framerail is rolled and spot welded to the bottom of the body. I couldn't do that exactly, so the next best thing was go into overkill mode and put holes in 3/16" steel and either incorporate a crossmember or ensure that the steel overlaps that thickened part of the frame where the strap begins and ends. You can't see those thickened parts of the frame in the video (they are under heavy undercoating), but they are there.

It was a ton of effort but I love the flexibility this will offer, not to mention that my child is riding in a safe seat with 3 point shoulder belts. Next up is an insulated floor that is built-up to the level of the aluminum rail covers.

Link to Rock N Roll Bed Install Video on YouTube
 
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