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RV Education 101 - Converting a Rare Van Camper - Episode 1

Hi, I’m Mark Polk with “RV Education 101.” We’re starting an exciting project today. When we want to go camping with all of the comforts of home, we take our 35-foot Type A motorhome. Now, with the popularity of van camping, we decided to renovate an old van into a modern-day off-road weekend getaway camper van. When I was young, these vans were extremely popular. They were called street vans in the ’70s and ’80s, and they were customized with shag carpeting, captain seats, loud stereos, a bed, and a custom paint job.

Dawn Polk: Mark told me when he was a teenager, he and a friend would drive about 30 miles to a Dodge dealership to look at all the vans and dream about owning one. I guess after 40-some years, the dream is coming true.

Mark: Today, people look for the taller vans like a Sprinter or a Ford Transit or a Ram ProMaster to convert for camping. But a used one with more than 200,000 miles will cost you $20,000 to $25,000 or more.

For our project, I located and bought what I think is the perfect van for the renovation project. It’s a 1978 Dodge B200 van. The B200 designation means it’s a three-quarter-ton as opposed to a half-ton. It has a 360 V8 engine and a 727 automatic transmission. What sets this van apart from most vans is its four-wheel drive. In 1978 and ’79, Dodge sent roughly 700 new vans to the Motorhome Division of Champion Homes to convert them to four-wheel drive. They were called Wranglers. This is one of a very few remaining in existence today.

Dawn: I told Mark if we were gonna do this project, the van has to have a bed, a place to cook, somewhere to use the bathroom, running water, an outside shower, heat, and AC. He said he can make that happen, so we’ll see.

Mark: The seller was asking $7000 for the van. After I pointed out some problems with the van and after some negotiation, I bought it for $4500. It didn’t run at the time, so I took a trailer, loaded the van up, and brought it back to my shop. Our plan is to take this old 1978 van and renovate it into our vision of a modern-day off-road camper van. The first step was to make sure the van is mechanically safe and sound. Then we will renovate the interior by adding wall, ceiling, and floor coverings. We will build a bed, add counter and storage space, upgrade the seating, add hot and cold running water, 12-volt and 120-volt electricity and solar power.

On the exterior, I will repair the rust, add an old-school windshield visor, fabricate a rear storage tray to hold a generator, fabricate a front bumper with a winch, add new wheels and tires, do the bodywork, and finish everything off with a new paint job.

Dawn: We always name our projects, like the trailer we restored is the Old Yellowstone. The Dodge Power Wagon that Mark did is Project Semi-Hemi, and a project that Tyler and Mark completed together is HD Comanche. So, we are officially dubbing this the Ram Camp project. Settle in and enjoy our van camper renovation series.

Mark: When I got the van back to my shop, I did an inventory to see what I was up against mechanically. The van did not run, wiring was disconnected and hanging under the dashboard. The steering column and ignition switch in the van did not work, but there was another used steering column inside the van. The switches on the dashboard were broken and missing and, after connecting a battery, nothing on the dashboard was operating properly. Under the hood, I immediately had concerns= about the radiator, the coolant hoses, the electronic control unit or ECU, the voltage regulator, and other components. The van needed a thorough inspection to identify. all the mechanical issues that needed attention, but for now, my concern was to get the van running and find out if there are any other major problems.

I painted the used steering column, installed a new ignition switch in it, and installed the steering column on the van so I could try to start it. Then I checked the gas  tank for old gas and for any rust or other issues. Fortunately, someone drained the gas tank while it was in storage and it looked to be in decent condition. Then I replaced the spark plugs, the distributor cap and rotor and the plug wires. The oil in the engine looked clean and it was at the full mark on the dipstick. I added some antifreeze to the radiator and I put 5 gallons of fresh gas in the gas tank, and then I attempted to start the van. It didn’t start using the key, so I jumped it with a starter to turn the engine over. When the engine still did not start, I inspected the ignition system and discovered the worst-looking electronic control unit I’ve ever seen. I replaced the ECU and tried starting the engine again. The engine started but I noticed blue smoke coming out of the exhaust. I let the engine run a while to see if it would clear up, but I continued to see bluish-gray smoke coming from the tailpipe.

Blue smoke coming from the exhaust can be caused by bad valve stem seals, it can be a fuel-related problem, or by oil getting past the oil rings on the pistons. At this point, the best case scenario and least expensive option is for me to remove and repair the heads, and I hope that fixes the issue.

So, the decision was made to remove the heads from the engine. On a van, you have access to the engine from the interior. I removed the exhaust manifolds, the distributor, the intake manifold, and then the heads and I dropped them off at the Machine Shop to be repaired. If this isn’t the problem, I have a rebuilt engine I never used that will work in the van, but I really don’t wanna replace the engine if I don’t have to. Coming up on the next episode, we’ll show you how to lay out and rough in your 12-volt and 120-volt wiring and plumbing.

Happy camping from Mark Polk of RV Education 101

To learn more about how to use your RV,
Happy RV Learning,
Mark Polk, your trusted source for RV education

Here you can enjoy the extended version of Mark and Dawn Polk of RV Education 101’s Ram Camp Van Conversion Project – Episode 1!