Making the Ultimate Sprinter Van
Pull into any bike-event parking lot and you’ll see an overwhelming number of vans these days—everything from company race rigs to personal camper-style vans. And now, with the current pandemic situation, the so-called “van life” is becoming an even more popular way to escape the crowds, explore nature, and work remotely from wherever you can connect to Wi-Fi. Vans are replacing pickup trucks as everyday vehicles, and once you experience all their benefits, you’ll always want one in your family. They truly are game-changers in so many ways.
LEARNING TO IMPROVISE
When I learned the Sprinter was coming stateside, I really started taking note of all the different layouts my Euro friends were building, seeing what I liked or thought could be better. Having spent the ’90s racing in Europe, I’d always seen these vans used by racers, such as Rob Warner and Steve Peat, and I spent many hours escaping the elements in their race rigs. In 1999, I had a Ford Econoline van built by Sportsmobile, an iconic brand known for its penthouse pop tops and 4×4 conversions, but they just didn’t have the needed space to carry bikes and didn’t have all the creature comforts of home. So, in 2001, when Dodge started importing the Sprinter to the U.S., I bought one straightaway and pitched Sportsmobile with my design to build it for me. It was their first Sprinter build and such a hit that Dodge ended up using it in its display at the L.A. Auto Show. Sportsmobile saw the interest and started offering this floor plan as the BL55, which was the beginning of a new generation of vans being built here in the U.S.
This was just the beginning of my addiction to designing vans. Always trying to improve on the layout, options, build quality and needs, I have just finished my 11th van and have used four different builders to create my visions. Through the process, I’ve learned a lot, to say the least. My latest creation was built by American Van Works in Stanton, California; it’s my third van with them. Mark, the owner, is a good person who is very honest, stands behind his work, builds nice fully custom vans and is only a 35-minute drive from my house. It’s inevitable—with a fully custom, ground-up build—that you’re going to need something adjusted, fixed or added once you put a few miles on it, so finding someone who has these qualities is a must.
This is a 2019 Mercedes, 144-inch wheelbase, 4×4 passenger-van chassis. Having had just about every height, length and wheel configuration Mercedes makes, I’ve found the high-roof, 144-inch wheelbase is the best all-around van for most needs. It’s small enough to drive every day and fit into a regular parking spot, yet big enough to take all the bikes and family on a road trip. This is the first passenger van I’ve ever started with, and I went this route for a few reasons. I wanted the factory rooftop air-conditioning system, the stock headliner and the stock walls, which are already pretty nice in the passenger vans.
THE TOP CONCERNS
With all my builds, the number of bikes and passengers I want to carry is the primary concern. From there, I have to decide on the bed configuration. Do I want water? Do I want hot water? What kind of climate will I be traveling/sleeping in? What kind of electrical system am I going to need, etc.? The list can get very long, very quickly, and options can drive the price up just as fast.
Here’s an overview of what’s used in this build by American Van Works (https://americanvanworks.com/american-van-works/) and why I chose some of these products.
ROOF RACK AND MORE
ROAMBUILT roof rack, ladder and wheels. I choose to go with this brand first and foremost because I love the look. The designs also add length to a roof rack, allowing for more space up top and, of course, granting the option to add lights on all four sides. ROAMBUILT’s wheels are on the pricey side, but they are load-rated way above spec and are custom-built for ROAMBUILT specifically. They are not your average mass-produced wheels, so if you’re looking for wheels that you will not see on many vans, these are a great option.
Two 90-watt Zamp Obsidian solar panels are hidden on top of the rack. These are the latest panels by Zamp and are not yet listed on the website. The 90-watt panels are narrower than the current 100-watt panels that are listed on the site and should be available soon, possibly by the time this story hits the newsstands.
All the plastic molding on the van, as well as the bottom siding, was sprayed with Tuffskin Bullet Liner. I wanted the added protection but also thought it gave the van a tough look. This is a labor-intensive job, as all of the plastic has to be removed before spraying, and it takes a lot of time to do this job correctly. Don’t cut corners if you’re going to do it. Make sure you get it done right the first time.
Flarespaces were installed in place of the back-side windows that come in the passenger van. I opted for shallow flares on both sides to keep it symmetrical, but you can opt for the deeper flare on the driver’s side if you are over 6 feet tall and plan to sleep east to west in your van. The benefit of installing flares is that when you sleep east to west, you’ll save approximately a foot versus making a panel bed where you sleep north to south. Inches are critical in these builds, and Flarespace can really help with adding a lot of space and options to your layout. I decided to paint the flares gloss black to mimic the rear-side window of a passenger van. Oh, and I can’t forget the memory-foam mattress that Flarespace makes to fit perfectly over the panels and into the flares.
My stock three-person reclinable bench seat was cut down by XPLR Outfitters. I didn’t need to carry five people in my van, and cutting down the bench seat gave me more floor space in the van. Not only did they do a great job with the cutting, but XPLR Outfitters also made all of my window shades. Held on by magnets, not only do they keep the heat out, but it’s pretty much pitch black inside when all the blinds are up.
SHOWER AND SINK
Having a removable indoor shower and sink in the van meant I had to have hot water, and there’s no better option than a Rixen Espar system. This system runs off the diesel fuel from the van and provides nearly on-demand hot water. And, since I went with this system, I opted for its ability to provide ambient heat also, meaning I can set my van for 75 degrees, and when I come back from that cold bike ride or day out skiing, my van will be nice and toasty for me.
The fridge is by Isotherm, and they make a wide selection of sizes and models to choose from, depending on the space you have to work with. The galley into which it’s mounted to is by a company called Vannon. They also made the upper cabinets and my rear bumper. It’s lightweight alloy with a slider door on the cabinets, making it easy to access the contents inside.
—Two 100-amp GoPower lithium batteries
—Viaair onboard compressor
—Amp electric step
—Fully insulated and soundproofed
—New birch floor with Loneseal-coined pattern cover
—20-gallon Northwest Van conversion water tank
—Custom storage boxes by American Van Works
—Tweed-covered walls, as well as all pillars and back-door panels.
There are still a ton of small items that aren’t listed above, but hopefully, this gives you a pretty good idea of all that this build has going on. It seats four comfortably, sleeps two comfortably (with enough room on the floor for a single sleeping pad for my son), has enough water for six or seven short showers, auxiliary heat to keep the van warm, factory A/C to keep it cool, a fridge to keep the perishables, and enough room to fit four bikes easily under the bed (five if you take the pedals off and get creative). It’s not cheap, but in my opinion, if you’re looking to build a van at this level, it’s well worth it if it’s within your means.
That’s not to say you can’t have a great experience in a van at probably half the cost; you’ll just have to give up some creature comforts. Think of it like building a custom bike. Do you want Shimano SLX or XTR? Are those carbon wheels within your budget? Saving a couple of pounds off your bike can nearly double the price of a bike, but if you can afford it and it’s going to make you happy, then why not?
This is van number 11 for me, and I’m still learning and already planning the next one. What can I make look cooler? How can I improve its overall function? I love these tiny homes and all the places they take me and my family, and I’m positive you’ll enjoy the van life if you’re not already living it.
Follow me @brianlopes on Instagram for more van posts and let me know if you have any specific questions I can answer for you.
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.