If your campervan is going to be your only vehicle and you want something high-end, luxurious and great to drive, to serve as your daily driver but with all the camping basics needed for weekend trips and holidays, then you’ll love this.
Base vehicle: VW T6.1 Kombi Price from: £21,115 Berths: 4 Travel seats: 5 Length: 4.90m Width: 1.90m Height: 2.05m Gross weight: 3,200kg
Words and photos: Geneve Brand
It’s no secret that Volkswagen-based campervans remain as popular today as ever and continue to be bestsellers. What has always been the case since the dawn of vee-dub campers is that many people buy them to use as their only vehicle. That means we’re looking for something suitable to use as our main vehicle most of the time, but also equipped with camping basics for weekends away and holidays.
So, it needs to be car-like – we need five belted travel seats and plenty of boot space. It needs to be easy and comfortable to drive, and small enough to fit in standard parking bays and go under multi-storey car park height barriers. Of course, that’s all possible with a VW T6.1 Transporter. What also adds to its appeal is that it’s available in a range of specification levels, so you can have something akin to an Audi or BMW, if you want. And, if your campervan is going to be your only vehicle, then why wouldn’t you?
However, in the last couple of years, the prices of all vehicles, including campervans, have skyrocketed. The pandemic led to factory shutdowns, which not only resulted in fewer vehicles rolling off the production line but, now, there’s also a global shortage of component parts. Brexit hasn’t helped matters, either. But they’re not the only reasons prices of VW-based campervan conversions seem higher now than a few years ago. We’ve noticed in recent times that there is a trend towards ordering top-of-the-range Volkswagens rather than entry-level versions.
Sure, you could save a packet on your campervan by choosing a basic T6.1 model with a 108bhp (110PS) engine and five-speed manual gearbox, in Startline specification, without heated seats and heated windscreen, or sat-nav and parking sensors, with basic steel wheels rather than alloys, and unpainted bumpers. However, if you expect to have nice things in your car, then you’re likely to want them in your camper, too.
That means bespoke VW converters like Knights Custom build on high-spec vehicles to meet customer requirements, and that, of course, comes at a price.
This Grand Tourer – which had already sold before we’d had a chance to collect it for our review – had a price tag of £89k, of which almost £46k was the cost of the base vehicle alone. Even that is a bargain, too, because that was the price earlier this year when it arrived from the VW factory in Germany. However, as with everything else these days, the cost is only going up, and an equivalent VW will now cost you in excess of £50k.
If you’re going all out on a base vehicle, no doubt you’ll want your campervan conversion to be of an equally high-end standard, too, and Jonathan Nightingale only uses the very best of components, from leading brands like Reimo and SCA, for example.
And, if you’re wondering why you’d want the very best pop-top roof or bench/bed system when you could save a few quid with cheaper alternatives, well, the saying is as old as the hills – you get what you pay for. When you can’t use your pop-top roof because the scissors have buckled in the wind and the canvas lets the rain in, you’ll regret opting for cheap and not-so-cheerful.
Then there is the issue of safety, of course. When you’re slicing up a perfectly good van that’s been safety tested to the max by Volkswagen, you need to know that it’s in safe hands when it’s undergoing the campervan conversion process. After all, a crash-tested travel bench from Reimo, say, is only as safe as its installation. You wouldn’t allow any old Tom in off the street to install a new boiler in your house or rewire your kitchen, would you? The same is true when you’re buying a bespoke campervan.
That’s why Jonathan builds to the highest standards using only the best components on the market. He specialises in unique one-off bespoke conversions, with customers typically spending around £80k to £90k.
When it comes to layouts, there are only so many permutations possible within the limited space available inside a VW T6.1, of course, so Knights Custom Conversions offers a range of popular layouts, including three different side kitchen designs and one rear kitchen with toilet.
Customers choose the layout they need, but then the sky is the limit when it comes to customisation, as Jonathan’s imagination and skills seem to have no bounds.
The all-new Grand Tourer featured here is certainly testament to that because, just when you think you’ve seen everything possible in a VW campervan and surely there’s nothing left to be invented, along comes Knights Custom with something that’s really quite different, and incredibly innovative.
Jonathan says that he lives and breathes campervans, second only to his wife and three children. When I asked where his inspiration came from for his latest creation – the Grand Tourer – Jonathan said that he just likes to design and build campervans that he can enjoy using with his family. They love being in the outdoors and cooking outside, so that’s how the idea for a pull-out kitchen at the back of the campervan – which is also completely removable and independent – was born.
We’ve seen camping boxes that fit in the boot of a vehicle before – indeed, Volkswagen recently launched one, built by Ququq – but Jonathan’s design is different because it’s more sophisticated. It features built-in speakers and audio controls connected via Bluetooth to an Absolut5 Signature audio system discreetly concealed under the passenger seat, for example. In fact, everything is cleverly and thoughtfully well hidden inside this campervan, including all the electrics. The kitchen unit features 230V and 12V sockets and USB ports, with a coil lead out of the back of the kitchen unit that plugs neatly into a power source inside the campervan. There’s also an LED strip light underneath the worktop.
There’s a Thetford two-burner hob covered with a glass lid, powered by a Cadac Trio Power Pak, which is super-easy to take out in order to replace the gas cartridges. Similarly, there’s a 13-litre water container next to the Cadac gas pack, which feeds a tap over a stainless-steel sink (with plug hole and waste drain) and an activity shower, both housed within the kitchen unit. As a result, you could remove the unit entirely from the campervan and use it on a sturdy table outside instead, if you wanted. Weighing around 30kg, it’s easily removable, meaning you could store it in the garage at home when you’re not using your van as a campervan.
But perhaps the icing on the cake with this kitchen unit is the use of American black walnut, which has become a bit of a signature trademark with Knights Custom. The whole kitchen counter is made from this beautiful timber, with lift-up flaps at either end to extend worksurface area. A chopping board, with ‘Knights’ stylishly carved into it, serves as a sink cover, too. The wood is so tactile, I won’t deny that I spent much of my time stroking it!
When you’ve got facilities to cook and wash up, you’ll need somewhere to store your food and kitchenalia, too. Within the kitchen unit, there are a couple of drawers that provide space to store plates, cups, cutlery, etc. But what about a fridge, I hear you cry. Well, it’s where you’d never expect to find it, and is a stroke of genius…
Head inside the campervan and you’ll spot a drawer below the Reimo bench that’s actually a 30-litre Dometic fridge, with drawers either side for more storage.
Like the kitchen unit that discreetly plugs into the side of the campervan when you need electricity, a lead at the side of the bench to power the fridge also plugs neatly into the side of the campervan. That’s because the bench is fully removable, so the fridge needs to be easy to disconnect.
What we love about the fridge being here, rather than integrated somehow into the kitchen pod, is that you could make use of it on a day-to-day basis, not just when you’re camping. Imagine keeping your sandwiches in here when you go to work, or handing out cold drinks to the kids when you do the school run – you’d be the envy of everyone!
When you order your van from Volkswagen, there are myriad options to choose from, and one of those is double side sliding doors. Here, they are soft-close electric doors, too. The joy of twin doors in the Grand Tourer is that it makes it relatively easy to remove the Reimo bench/bed from the campervan if you needed the space inside.
With the bench and kitchen pod gone, you’re left with a completely open space, which is ideal if you use the campervan for work and/or need to transport bulky items – perfect if you’re moving house or shopping at Ikea, for example.
Note that most campervan bench/bed systems are not removable because they are secured to the floor, but it’s a Reimo Variotech 3000 here, so there’s a rail system onto which the bench affixes. Just like a train on tracks, the bench also slides backwards and forwards, with several anchoring points along the way. That means you can position the bench behind the cab when you’re travelling so you don’t have to yell at rear passengers. On site, with the two cab seats swivelled, it also means everyone can sit around the table at mealtimes or for a game of cards.
As you’d expect here, the tabletop stows out of the way under the bench seat when not in use, while the leg lives down the side, secured with clips. The leg then fits into a pole that’s attached to the bench and the table screws onto the top. The benefit of this system is that it’s completely wobble-free. Another advantage of being able to move the bench all the way forwards or backwards is that it really makes the most of the size of the loading space available inside.
Come night time, the bench easily converts into a double bed and it’s huge (1.98m by 1.38m), because not having a side kitchen means there’s room for a full-width three-seater bench. Upstairs, there’s another double bed in the SCA 290 pop-top roof, which is a relatively new design from SCA and features a bar to make opening and closing the roof easier, and there are large, robust clips on either side to keep it closed, rather than the rachet straps we usually see. The roof also features a panoramic canvas fitted with flyscreens, and there’s an SCA bed and mattress on Froli springs.
On the road, I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s a dream to drive. The twin swivel cab seat bases are a VW factory-fit option (perfect, because it’s obviously crash-tested by VW), while the captain’s seats are upgraded Recaro units upholstered in Nappa leather (along with the Reimo bench), and they are so comfortable, complete with armrests for cruising.
As it’s a top-of-the-range VW T6.1, it has a 201bhp (204PS) engine with a DSG (automatic) gearbox. It’s also 4Motion, so is all-wheel drive. In Highline specification, there’s adaptive cruise control, a multifunction steering wheel, App Connect, LED headlights and tail lights, front and rear parking sensors, heated windscreen and tailgate window, while heated cab seats and a reversing camera are fitted, too.
When you’re driving something this cool, you also want it to look the part, so Jonathan has fitted a full Abt bodykit, which provides lowered suspension and side skirts, as well as front grille and splitter, a rear splitter, quad exhausts and black VW badges. To complete the look, there are 20in Vossen alloys and a Volkswagen four-bike rack.
The conversion is also fitted with sound deadening and insulation, and lined with lovely grey suede. For extra comfort and off-grid capability, a Webasto diesel heater is fitted under the driver’s seat, too, where there’s also a 68Ah lithium ion leisure battery with a Victron DC 30A charger.
To complete the interior look, there is a multicoloured dimmable LED Halo strip light running all the way around, which is operated with a remote control, as well as three dimmable LED spot lights.
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