Motor Homes, Van Conversions, and Mini Campers Compact but Packed (With Features)
If you live in the USA or Canada or Australia, with their big, wide, endless roads and you want to buy a used camper van, why import one from Japan? And if you are in the U.K. or Europe, with their narrower roads, you could still ask: Is buying a second-hand Japanese camper or motor home the best option?
I certainly know why people love campers and motor homes. It was years ago, but I will remember till the day I die the wonderful camper trip we took one long summer from Toronto to Prince Edward Island in Canada. The old motor home we had for that trip was based on a Ford pickup truck like this one:
What a pig it was to drive! It had a turning circle measured in light years, and even with the extended side mirrors we were always leery of backing up. When backing that old hog, one of us would take the wheel and the other would climb out and check behind. (So on rainy days, we would fight over who got to drive and who got to direct.)
That old motor home had everything in it: Dining table, shower, kitchen, kids’ bed above the cab, bigger fold-down bed for two adults, toilet, and plenty of storage compartments. But there was one thing that it did not have: Reliability. It’s not that nothing ever worked, it’s just that nothing ever seemed to work for very long. The water heater would work when it felt like it, and then go on strike. The toilet would get angry at one of us and use its whole reserve tank of water to flush a single cup-worth of piddle out and down the trailer park drain system. The gas stove just would not light unless it liked you personally. Ditto the room heater.
But we loved that old motor home and I’d have it back in a minute. The engine and transmission, by the way, were supremely reliable and I can’t recall any trouble in that department but, boy, did it suck gas!
Japanese motor homes, and especially the van conversions, get good fuel economy now; better than we could have dreamed of getting with the campers of years gone by. And things work on a Japanese-built camper. A good second hand Japanese camper has the quality that we have come to expect as the norm with Japanese products. So, just as with the other good used Japanese vehicles that we export, from sports cars to luxury cars to super cars to kei trucks and solid daily drivers, the second hand campers that you can import from Japan to your nearest port (Jacksonville, Savannah, Tacoma, Baltimore, Bremerhaven, New Westminster, you name it) will be machines with the fundamental good quality and reliability that make them a good bet when you are looking to buy second hand.
Let me show you some of the campers that we have exported recently to the USA.
A nice, clean Toyota Townace Camper.
A Fargo Camper by Isuzu.
A Toyota Hiace van conversion with a rear extension that gives you toilet and washing facilities. This camper van was a real find for our happy customer in America.
Now, let’s take an overview of Japanese campers. (And don’t miss the campers page on our main site here.)
Basically, the campers most commonly available in Japan fall into four classes:
Full On Van Conversions,
Budget Van Conversions,
Mini or Kei Campers.
Let’s go from biggest to smallest.
Japanese Motor Homes
The bigger ones are the motor homes. These campers are based on a light truck chassis such as a Toyota Liteace, Toyota Townace, Isuzu Elf, Mistusbishi Delica, and others. With these campers the obvious thing is that the camper body extends over the lines of the standard van or truck version of the chassis, both to left and right of the chassis frame, and up in height higher than the roof of the cab. Many of these motor homes also have the camper body extending out the back of the vehicle a bit beyond the truck frame.
This nice side view here of a Toyota Camroad shows how the motor home body extends beyond the basic light truck chassis:
With a Japanese motor home you’ll get features like: a table with seats for four adults, a proper kitchen set (meaning sink, stove, and small fridge), a closet and more than one cupboard, and usually, but not always, a toilet. For sleeping accommodation the table and its two benches will convert into a bed that accommodates two adults, two more can sleep in the upper bunk, and there will be, in most cases, one other single bed either across from the kitchen or toward the back of the motor home. If it’s to the back, this third sleeping area may in fact accommodate two people. One advantage of a motor home is definitely greater storage spaces: cupboards above the dining area, below a bed or bench, here and there and really everywhere; and these cupboards, cabinets and cubby holes are what make taking a trip in a motor home just so much more comfortable: you can bring with you well more than what you need, be it clothing or pots and pans (or, in my case, books).
Here is a photo showing part of the interior with kitchen area of the Townace camper I showed you above that we recently exported to the States.
Simple and nice. Really “Home Sweet Home.”
Van conversions have notably less storage space and the kei-based campers are definitely tight in the area of free storage space.
“Full On” Converted Van Campers
The next class down in size in Japanese campers is the fully converted full size van. With what I call the “full on conversion,” the van has had lots of changes done to it, the most obvious being the special camper top that provides a sleeping area (and often extra storage space) above the main body of the vehicle. These extended roofs come in a wide variety of shapes and often incorporate a pop-up bedroom of either the lean-to type or the box type.
Your typical Japanese full on conversion camper van will have many of the features of a motor home: you’ll often get the fridge, stove, and sink, and decent storage space (but, of course, not the storage space you’ll get with a big motor home). Typically, a van conversion will give good sleeping accommodation for two adults and, usually, will offer further sleeping space for one, two, or maybe even three kids, depending on the layout. But it is not likely have a full shower or toilet. (Of course, that Hiace conversion I showed you above does come with toilet and washing area, but that unit is a bit of a special conversion job.)
Points to check with any used camper that you import from Japan are: Does it have a dual battery system? and: How many seats does it have that are equipped with seatbelts? Obviously, you don’t want your kid perched on a kitchen stool or stored in a cupboard while you zip down the highway. The only way to go is belted, and there are van campers from Japan that have five seats with belts. (And there are Nissan campers that come with eight.)
Going down from these full on van conversions you get into what I call the “budget” van conversions.
“Budget” Van Conversions
Unlike with the full on conversions, with the budget conversions you are looking at a vehicle that has not been so fully modified and definitely has fewer camper features. The same Japanese vans as used in full on camper conversions will be used for the budget jobs, of course, but you may not get things like the pop top or raised roof with its more generous sleeping accommodation.
With these budget conversions you’ll often get a fridge/freezer but not a sink, in many cases. But there will be room to store a portable-type gas stove.
An advantage of a budget conversion camper van is that the van itself may retain more of its “vanny” features like load carrying space, since this space is not taken up with the camper features.
There is really quite a range between “full on” and “budget” when it comes to camper van conversions and you can usually find a clean unit in Japan that has features anywhere between these two poles.
Now, when a small Japanese bus like a Toyota Coaster or Mitsubishi Rosa
is given a full camper conversion, it may very likely come with a shower, and almost certainly a toilet, and have fairly generous seating accommodation as well.
At Fuji Speedway one time I saw a Rosa bus converted to a sort of conference/entertainment vehicle and it had the whole rear one meter of the bus sectioned off and turned into a shower room, sort of like this:
It was kinda…..sexy, that bus camper conversion: Full bar, table, padded long lounge bench along one wall, impressive stereo and entertainment console. Yeah! You could drive to the beach and have real fine conference in there, and if the conference participants got too heated in their debates and discussions, there was always that full shower at the back of the bus camper to give everyone a chance to cool off……O.K., O.K., I’ll stop; but I do wish I’d taken some pictures of that converted Rosa bus. The only problem I could see with the specific design that I saw that day was that you had to access the shower from the rear outside door. There was no shower access directly from the cabin.
This bus camper conversion thing leads me to the whole topic of creative, out-side-the-box, Japanese camper conversions, especially in the small “kei” class.
We’ll have a look at these, and more, in Part 2 of this article.