Base vehicle: VW Transporter T6.1 Price from: £14,000 (conversion only) as shown £49,995 Berths: 2/4 Travel seats: 4 Length: 4.90m Width: 1.90m Height: 1.98m Gross weight: 3,000kg Payload: 580kg
The Volkswagen camper market has surely seen more new converters in the last handful of years than in all the previous six decades of VW vans put together, and that explosion of both choice and demand has only been accelerated by the Covid pandemic and associated demands for staycation holidays.
But The Camper Factory (we’ll call it TCF for short) has approached the market from a slightly different angle and the company’s MD, Louise Sturman, says, “We knew a good crew that would join us to allow us to start up with the necessary skills and build a unit from day one and scale up production numbers rapidly.”
In fact, most of the team of 16, led by Louise and Engineering Director, Robbie Holland, already worked in the campervan sector.
Sensing they could do things better than their existing employer, they left en masse to set up TCF and an early opportunity was presented by a local Peterborough firm that was about to dispose of its fleet of ageing VW vans.
TCF offered to turn them into campers, rather than sell them as used vans, increasing the return for the owner. With these VWs not being in the first flush of youth, the emphasis was on keeping costs down and value up.
Since then, TCF has found a niche in building campers for hire fleets. If there’s one sector that might be growing even faster than campervan ownership, it’s camper rental, and this growth is likely to continue to mushroom following the easing of lockdown restrictions.
However, manufacturing a camper for hire is not quite the same as building one for a proud owner that will treat it like a doting parent with a firstborn child. We all know the phrase ‘drive it like you stole it’ and rental vehicles are often not far behind those that have been hotwired…
Louise told What Motorhome: “We want to make sure that the hire ’vans are robust for a wide variety of end users. They need to have finishes that are robust, appliances that are simple to use but dependable, and technology that works and is easy to use.”
For example, wood finish cabinets are more durable than currently fashionable high-gloss furniture, the company suggests.
Already TCF campers are featured on the hire fleets of vwcamperholiday.com based in Northampton and Camper Tribe in Surrey. In fact, the vehicle you see here had just been completed for the former’s fleet, as you’ll note from the signwriting along its flanks (hire prices start at £595 per week).
But it’s not just in the rental market that this fledgling converter has seen success beyond its years. Already, TCF has built a variety of VW campers for well-known motorhome dealers.
It hasn’t restricted itself to the ever-popular VW Transporter, either. It has built campers on the Nissan Elgrand, Vauxhall Vivaro and Ford Transit Custom (a long-wheelbase with new rear kitchen layout), while it is currently collaborating on a Proace conversion in association with Toyota GB.
Despite its name, the company also refurbishes boat interiors, too, and is looking at the horsebox market.
TCF doesn’t just offer one standard VW conversion, although it sticks with the typical side kitchen layout when converting Transporters. You can opt to have top lockers above the galley or omit them, and similarly a locker above the boot is optional.
Furniture is always edge-banded (no cheaper knock-on edging here) but the units can include drawers or cupboards, a front-loading or top-loading fridge, and doors that are inset and sit flush or the more basic type that stand proud of the cabinets, as here.
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Where TCF won’t compromise, it says, is on safety, with a particular emphasis on its gas installations and the fitting of a carbon monoxide detector in every campervan. It also believes in keeping the services outside the camper to maximise storage, so there’s an underslung 16-litre gas tank (with level gauge on the kitchen wall) and a 27-litre fresh water tank underneath, too.
The vehicle shown here has an RIB seat/bed unit, which offers generous storage below (including room for a portable loo) but is mounted uncomfortably high for even my relatively long legs.
TCF has also used seats from M1 Camper Beds and Scot Seats and is currently investigating the use of the FabworX seat, which has the attraction of a remote control electric option for the seat-to-bed conversion.
All TCF campers use a CBE touchscreen for the electrics and a top-notch Victron battery-to-battery charger, which can be switched to replenish either the vehicle or leisure battery, depending on need.
One of the most interesting aspects of this camper, however, is its roof. You would expect a new company to turn to one of the established pop-top suppliers, but no, TCF has designed and built its own roof for the VW.
The lid is vacuum-formed plastic, rather than the more usual GRP, which Robbie says is around half the weight. It comes in black gloss, as seen here, or can be painted to match the vehicle.
The canvas is to TCF’s design, too, with a fully openable panoramic section at the front and unusual porthole window/vents on either side, while the pod on the cab roof of the panel van (for mobile data) is relocated onto the top of the rising roof, towards the rear.
TCF can supply and fit this roof to a customer’s VW for £2,124 and it is happy to carry out partial conversions, too, as well as full builds. Customers usually supply the base vehicles, of any age.
The Pure Grey camper reviewed here is based on a T30 Highline Transporter van with the 110PS engine and five-speed manual gearbox and a vehicle to similar spec could be supplied for £49,995. Conversions on a customer’s own used panel van start at around £14,000.
For a start-up brand, there’s plenty to like here, not least the amount of storage on offer – in the boot, the large kitchen drawers, and especially the unusually generous top lockers above the galley.
Kitchen appliances (compressor fridge and combination hob/sink unit) are familiar items from Dometic and there’s plenty of worktop. Not so practical, though, are the substantial hinges used for the top locker’s fold-down doors as these intrude into the locker space. Heating is via a Propex blown-air unit, using gas rather than diesel, but the bulk LPG tank makes this a more practical proposition.
The cabinets are well finished and there’s plenty of interior LED lighting, even including uplighters at the front of the pop-top. Both cab seats swivel but the deep L-shape of the galley unit restricts rotation of the driver’s chair to little more than 90 degrees, making it nigh-on impossible to reapply the handbrake.
The biggest issue regarding on-site comfort, however, concerns the height of the RIB bench seat (particularly for anyone with relatively short legs) and this is exacerbated by the low table, which clips securely to the front of the kitchen for use. The table’s storage location (right at the back of the boot) also needs a rethink as it’ll be a faff to get at when the camper is loaded up.
On the road, it was pleasing to find an absence of rattles, even though the camper was loaded up with crockery, pots and pans, and everything a hirer would expect for a trip away.
Interior trim is grey carpet, where the most sophisticated conversions are now offering more automotive trims, but TCF is clearly keen to offer plenty of choice in terms of décor, with the bright yellow highlights here adding a bit of sparkle.
The Camper Factory has, up until now, focused mainly on supplying dealers and hire firms and is only beginning to move into the retail sector. That said, it is already able to build five campers a week and could increase this as a second ramp (for gas tank installation, etc, underneath the vehicles) has just been installed at the Peterborough factory.
To compete with mainstream makers, TCF will need to define its model range and pricing and refine details like the leisure battery storage (currently loose in a locker under the wardrobe) but the company has clearly found a niche and will be one to watch as it develops.
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