Feature: DIY Old Van Overhaul

Susan and Keith Hall — 8 March 2011

IT'S A COMMON problem. You buy a nice new caravan, or even a beaut retro rig, and after a while it loses its initial pizzazz. The colours look dated, and you realise it’s missing some of the appliances found in newer caravans.

Luckily, there are heaps of ways to update your van without breaking the bank, even if you only have modest DIY skills. We see a lot of older caravans that have been given a fresh makeover, or fitted with newer appliances or furniture to better meet the needs of the owners. The range of possibilities is endless and many of the improvements are both cheap and easy.

First off, it is surprising how much you can change the look of an older caravan simply by giving it a thorough cleaning inside and out. Everything looks more appealing once you have removed the accumulated grime, old adhesive tape marks, unwanted self-adhesive hooks, broken towel rails and the like.

But a good cleaning isn’t going to help if you don’t like the dated colour scheme. For that, you’ll need to paint inside and/or outside. Painting the exterior requires a bit of know-how, since for the best results you need to spray paint. But you can freshen up the interior yourself, with paint and brush. Most people who have renovated an older caravan use a modern acrylic undercoat, because it doesn’t crack when the caravan gets shaken around on the road. For the outer coat they use a traditional oil-based gloss paint to get the right sheen.

Tip: New curtains and window treatments can swiftly update the look of a van, especially if they are co-ordinated with the bed covers and sofa cushions. Give it a go.

If you need to create more space in your caravan, you first need to check for things in it that you don’t need. Some owners like to cook and eat outside, in an annexe, so they can minimise the amount of cooking equipment inside the caravan. Others find that they don’t need some of the beds, so they can remove them to create more space.

There are also many ways that you can make better use of the storage space available. One very simple and effective idea is to put a set of shallow stationery drawers in a cupboard [see pic 4], and use it for storing smaller items or cutlery. This saves space and keeps storage areas neat. Another option is to look at installing a pull-out pantry, or a set of custom built shelves or cupboards. Those made to fit a corner or gap are particularly practical for space saving.

Its easy to install a modern car radio/CD player, even in an older caravan. To avoid changing the look of the caravan too much, especially in retro rigs, a stereo is often installed inside a cupboard. Speakers can be kept out of sight by building them into the bottom of a cupboard, facing downwards into cut-outs [see pic 5].

Regarding the television, many vanners find that the cheapest way to have a flatscreen TV is just to bring a small one from home. Of course, if you wish to keep it in the van permanently, you can use a simple bracket to attach it to the wall.

Tip: You can make things even simpler by choosing a small portable CD/radio unit that coordinates with the look for the van. There are several retro style units available in electrical stores.

Replacing an unreliable old refrigerator with a modern fridge only makes sense. Look out for fridges that come with a removable front panel. This means you can remove and paint the front of the fridge to match your van’s cupboards, helping the modern appliance to blend nicely into the older decor [see pic 6].

You may be tempted to use a small bar fridge, because they are compact and relatively cheap. Be advised that they require 240V power and aren’t really built to withstand the shaking around they will get on the road. Fridges designed for use in RVs are more expensive, but they are tough and run on 12V battery power. Also, remember that only qualified electricians are legally allowed to work on 240V electrical systems.

If you feel that your caravan simply must have appliances such as a microwave oven, you are not alone. We see them in many older caravans. Microwave ovens often seem to blend invisibly into the kitchen, but you can hide them inside a cupboard if you want to keep the retro look [see pic 7]. Watch out for appliances that fit within your storage restrictions.

Before you start modernising your caravan, look at the ways that other caravanners have updated their vans – a great place to start is the archive of vintage vans stories (see below). Also, look in some caravan parts stores to see what accessories are on display and talk to the staff about what ideas they can suggest.

If you aren’t much of a DIY handyman, get the work done by a professional. It will cost a little more than doing it yourself, but the money is well spent if the flatscreen TV stays on the wall instead of falling to the floor while you are travelling.

Susan and Keith Hall are regular contributors to Caravan World.


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Susan and Keith Hall