Converting a Land Rover Defender 110 into a camper van...
As much as we loved Derek when we first got him, he wasn’t exactly ready for his cross-continental adventure just yet. We had a lot of work to do to turn our 15 year old off-roader into the vehicle a comfortable camper, and found even more as soon as we scratched the surface. Here's a brief(ish) run down of it all, but as with everything we blog about if you want more info about exactly what we did, just give us a shout!
The Sound system
After driving back from Belgium with no radio and a laptop stuffed in the cubby box to play music, the new sound system was on order within a week (long before we'd started on any of the changes we needed to pass the MOT...!) After a bit of research we opted for a Pioneer DEH3900BT head unit, a pair of Focal 100 CA1 Access 4" car speakers and an Alpine SWE-1200 Powered Car Subwoofer (this has been fitted to Defenders as a factory extra so fits perfectly behind the cubby box). We’ve been pretty pleased with all of them (although the head unit can be a bit fiddly at times).
Getting the cables through from the sub to the head unit was a pain - my advice is to buy RCA cables with small connectors and have plenty of patience. You can see from the photo that we routed the wires down to the fuse box using a coat hanger as a guide, but it also took some imaginative use of a hacksaw to hack out bits of plastic and make room.
The speaker hole on the drivers side didn’t have enough clearance behind it to fit in the bigger new speakers - we bought some spacers on ebay and they seemed to work pretty well. The gap in the dash on a Defender isn’t big enough for modern stereo head units. After spending ages trying to carve plastic out of the back of the hole, ours nearly fits and I used a bit of spare foam to trim it and stop it rattling.
To make sure we could hear the new sound system, I took it upon myself to try and cut out as many rattles as I possibly could. Defenders are always going to be pretty noisy but the difference you can make with a little hard work is definitely worth it. After lots of research into the pros and cons we decided to use SilentCoat 4mm sound deadening sheets, which we put under the roof lining, over the wheel arches, across the floors, over the seat boxes, inside the doors and on the underside of the bonnet. We were apprehensive at first and went in stages, but each section made a notable difference so we kept going. Some people seem to plaster it over every inch of every panel because that seems like overkill so we just did the middle of every panel. Other changes like the new carpets and the new windows have also made a big difference and the result is awesome - now we can drive at motorway speeds and still hear the radio without our ears bleeding!
While we had the roof linings down we also put up a layer of insulating foam to keep us warm at night and cool in the hot desert sun. The stuff we found was great - absolute basic yoga mats from Decathlon, which only cost £2 per roll! These mats were so cheap and warm that we also used them for window covers, which we cut to size and fixed with Velcro strips. When we slept in the car for the first time (in near-zero temperatures), we were toasty warm and had almost no condensation - a massive win!
Probably the most complicated upgrade of all, the bed took us ages to design and a few full days to build (plus a couple of iterations to the design!) After considering various designs and styles, we're incredibly pleased with the end results.
The system we used was called easyfix and consisted of 1 inch square-section aluminium tubing and various connectors that allowed us to design a strong, lightweight and removable bed structure. The really clever bit is that you can buy the box sections with an extra flange running along the length, which meant we could easily insert standard bed slats and create a frame that was incredibly light, comfortable and breathable. Unfortunately you can't buy sections with a flange on both sides so for some components we had to bolt our own on using angled aluminium sections.
The joints are incredibly strong but you need to use a mallet to bash them together and it takes a fair amount of effort to do. Once they're together though, there's no way they're coming apart - we had to sand down some of the connectors so that we could take the legs off and pull the whole thing apart to get it out of the car.
Although the slats are comfy they’re not that strong, so Eve immediately put her knee through one as soon as we started clambering in the back. We decided to replace the first few slats (nearest the back door) with some aluminium sheeting to create an area you can kneel on worry-free as you climb into bed.
The final ingredients were a couple of mattresses, spotted by an eagle-eyed Eve on the street just as we were on our way to IKEA and buy the exact same thing. They looked a bit gross but a good wash later and they were ready to be trimmed down to size (including adjusting the covers) so that they were a perfect fit. Nice and comfy!
Right from the start we knew we wanted to be able to run a fridge and charge phones and laptops while we were camping, but this turned into another epic project. (I really enjoyed this one!) It took a lot of online research to feel confident enough to buy all the kit and put it together, but here are some lessons if you want to do the same...
We decided on two extra batteries rather than one because, well, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it properly! Defenders have a battery box that is just about big enough to fit a small second battery in but the ones that are small enough are REALLY expensive. I figured it would be better to have higher capacity, lower priced batteries and put a box in the main cabin. We used two FISCH 110-AGM batteries as a good combination of capacity and price. They seem to be working pretty well so far.
Split charge kits can appear very complicated but they’re actually not at all, and seem to work really well. I bought mine from simplysplitcharge.co.uk and the guys there were really knowledgeable and helpful when I called. I went for a small 700W inverter so that it would fit in my box and do everything we need - laptops only draw a tiny amount of power so no need to go over the top - we’ll have a stove to boil water!
Don’t, whatever you do, accidentally drop one end of a cable onto a battery terminal when the other end is already connected to the other side of the same battery. It makes a MASSIVE spark, melts the battery terminal and scares the crap out of you.
New rear windows
The rear side windows of a defender are typically...basic. Instead of looking like every other car window in the world they slide sideways and are held closed with flimsy plastic clips. When we bought Derek ours also had the additional feature of some mouldy plastic pipe wedged between the two panes of glass, presumably to try and stop the loud rattling at high speeds.
We decided to put some nice new windows in to stop the rattling and help with security, and after a few issues from our first supplier eventually found some great windows made by Frontrunner and sold by Paddock spares. We chose ‘camper-style’ windows that open out like gull wings and can be unlocked from the outside because we figure it’ll make things really easy to load things into the car on the road.
They were incredibly easy to fit, although slightly unnerving as the process involved ripping out the whole old window, briefly creating a massive gap in the back of our lovely car (what if the new ones didn’t fit…!). We even got to try out our new battery box by plugging in a power drill to make the bolt holes. The whole job probably only took us about two hours and we’re really pleased with the results - Derek now looks even cooler than he used to (and he’s quieter too).
The final stage of our soundproofing quest was quite an extreme one, but the results have been great. It took us a day and a half, but in that time we completely stripped Derek to his bare metal, taking out the seats and cubby box as well as every scrap of carpet before putting in the lovely new carpets. We got those from Rimmer Bros (after a bit of hassle getting them from the manufacturer, Exmoor Trim) and the quality is great. The carpet came in two big boxes of pre-cut sections, but there was still a knack to trimming the carpet so that it fit perfectly. My advice would be to have a sharp stanley knife and lots of patience - there aren’t as many straight lines in a defender as you’d think!
And that’s not all! We’ve also:
Re-sealed and weatherproofed the doors, treated the rusted sections inside
Replaced one of the door locks
Installed a curtain between the sleeping and driving space
Installed a pedal lock for extra security
Fitted a refrigerated cool box
Replaced a broken light switch and a sticky indicator stalk
Re-lined the cubby box
Fitted a defender branded bottle opener
Stuck a map of the USA to the ceiling
Fitted and re-welded the back step
As always if you have any questions about specifics just give us a shout!