Feature: Lionel's DIY conversion tips
As he embarks on a dream conversion project, tech-savvy Lionel Mussell shares his top DIY tips.
As I gazed upon the splendour of rivers like the Loire and the Dordogne, caught glimpses of chateaux and old walled cities in the distance and had my senses intoxicated by the heady perfume of lavender being harvested, the lifestyle grew on me. I realised I needed to own a vehicle that would allow me to continue to enjoy the sheer unadulterated pleasure of motorhome travel back home in Australia.
With little money to play with, I began by scouring Ebay for likely vehicles, the aim to convert a Mercedes Sprinter ex-ambulance into the magic carpet of my dreams. I found an ex-ambulance Sprinter for sale with much of the ambulance fittings still in place – some that could be used, and others that would have to be removed.
Tip: Ex-ambulance Sprinters come on the market at government auctions from time to time. If you can’t get to one of those, "Melbourne’s Cheapest Cars" and similar companies usually have a few in stock.
SET A GOAL
With only myself to cater for these days, I set out to turn it into a budget motorhome with all I needed for comfortable extended touring in Oz, with an emphasis on self-containment. My goal is to have the finished product ready for the road at an all-up cost of less than $30,000, and it looks as if I’ll do that comfortably.
Tip: If you are fitting the unit out for two people and want a double bed, it will pay to strip all the ambulance gear out, including false walls and lining. Ambulances are over-engineered – I guess they have to be because of the vital job they do but oh boy, many of the fittings took some removing!
Around this time I made a fortunate discovery — a forum called Sprinter Source where enthusiasts share knowledge and discuss everything to do with this great vehicle. Through this forum I came into contact with Eric, who owns a workshop with all the equipment you’d ever need to do major work on a Sprinter. Eric lives about an hour from me, so he and I have spent quite a few days working on my new toy. There were days when I wondered if everything would ever go back together again but, miraculously, it always did!
Tip: It’s amazing what you can find through Google, and the Sprinter Forum mentioned here is a great example. There’s a section about converting Sprinters and also an Australasian section.
I’ve had so much help with this project that I hesitate to say that I’m the one converting it. My daughter Sue and her husband Shaun volunteered to help, and their work has been invaluable. Among other things, they made the hinged base to take the new 2'6" innerspring mattress. Two gas struts make it easy for me to get to the spacious storage area under the bed.
Paul next door pops in from time to time and helps fix things. Graham from down the road donated some carpet left over from re-carpeting their lounge, which now lines the wall next to my bed and covers a number of unsightly holes from where we had to remove a fitting that was held on with pop-rivets.
My friend Al, or ‘Lazo’ as he is more commonly known, has probably done the most work. Lazo built his own aeroplane in his garage a few years back, so building a kitchen unit and set of drawers for the Sprinter was child’s play for him. A great job and still not quite finished as I write.
Lazo’s wife Deirdre, is an accomplished seamstress and has made a lovely set of new blue curtains for me – they look great and just as importantly are backed with sun blocking materiel for when I get into the hotter climes up north.
Tip: Cultivate friends with skills that can help your project. Reward them with a case of wine or something that lets them know how much you appreciate their help. I took Sue and Shaun out to dinner a couple of times and the Lazos got some wine.
CONVERSION FIT OUTS
An Engel 80L 12V/240V compressor fridge now sits just inside the passenger side entry. A Coleman Hot Water on Demand unit is poised next to the sink to deliver shower and washing up water. The shower frame fixes to the side of the vehicle out from the driver’s side sliding door... and a vinyl curtain keeps my vital parts hidden from public view!
Tip: Ebay is a good source of things you need for the conversion, as well as the obvious places like Bunnings, Mitre 10, Carac, etc. Google showed me where I could buy Laminex and timber veneer near me. Also, little firms like kitchen manufacturers are usually pretty helpful when you are looking for suppliers.
The good people at the RV Repair Centre fitted a Fiamma wind-out awning and this will give great shade. My Hot Ozzie BBQ will be put to great use under there. They can also supply things like fridges and mattresses (tell them I sent you). Still to come is a fresh water tank and pump.
A few unexpected things cropped up like the window in the driver’s side sliding door. It only became visible after we removed some of the ambulance fittings, and when the black paint was removed it proved to be plain glass and not tinted like the rest. A local glass tinting business soon fixed that.
AS THE PROJECT UNFOLDS
This is still a work in progress. Today, for instance, I tracked down some Laminex for the benchtop and some Tasmanian Oak veneer for the kitchen unit and drawers. It’s going to look very swish, and the plan is to get it finished in time for a run at Easter. I’ve used it in its raw state a couple of times already, and it was great.
Tip: Be prepared to change you mind about things as the project proceeds. Many times, in the middle of a sleepless night, I’ve thought of some improvement that could be made. To this end, it's also helpful to get other people's input, though you don’t necessarily have to agree with their suggestions.
I can’t wait to jump into/onto my magic carpet and drift away into the distance. Sorry it’s only a single berth and you can’t join me!
For more tips, visit the Tech & Towing archive