Although purchase of a ready-made modern slide-in or chassis-mount camper on a pickup or cab type truck may seem the easiest way to become a motor-age gypsy, I feel there is much merit to considering the alternative offered by the numerous used, or compact vans on the market. If you find, as I do, laying out six or seven thousand dollars for a factory-built unit is a bit beyond your budget, then combining the used van with a bit of component buying and do-it-yourselfing may be your answer.
By custom designing a motor home to your own requirements, you can make sure that there isn't one precious inch of space or dollar wasted. You will not be trying to warp your living patterns to fit a space designed to attract the mythical average buyer. You can select components that best fit your needs and desires. You can have a choice of options as wide as the market and you can buy many items factory-direct at a sizeable savings. By doing the parts of the installation which are within your capabilities, you can greatly reduce the cash you spend and most manufacturers are glad to give you the information you need to do the work on your own.
Once you have your basic vehicle, you can work at your own pace as time and money allow. Start out by throwing a mattress on the floor, cooking on a camp stove, bathing in a wash tub and storing in cardboard boxes if this is all your pocket book will allow in the beginning. As you slowly upgrade, you will be planning ahead for greater efficiency and, by doing the work yourself, you will end up knowing your rig and how it works. Thus, repairs and maintenance will not present the doubt they do to the man who bought a factory package.
You may wonder why I recommend starting this project with a van? First, you have enclosure from the beginning. You also have easy access from driving to living areas as these are actually one area; not two smaller separated cubicles. The van's monolithic construction saves weight over the separate truck and camper, each of which must have its own structure. Because it weighs less and presents far less wind resistance, a van does not require as much horsepower and it will use less gas. It uses less gas because of its lower center of gravity and because it is less affected by wind it is easier to handle than a high, broad camper. It also presents the driver with better side and rear visibility than most chassis-mount and slide-in units.
Vans like the Dodge A-100 and A-108, the Chevy-vans, the Ford Econolines and those by GMC are available with a variety of engines, both sixes and V8's. They offer automatic or standard transmissions as well as many performance and load options. Most come in two lengths; short vans with 8.5 feet behind the seats and the long vans with about 10 feet. They are available with a variety of glass and door options and on many, side and rear cargo doors are inter-changeable. If you find one that has side doors with windows and rear doors without windows, and you want it the other way around, it can be changed painlessly.
If you plan a gross vehicle weight of around 5000 pounds and wish to be able to travel at normal highway speeds, you should select a van with an engine rated at 140 horsepower or more. Under-powering will result in poor performance and poor gas mileage. Gas mileage and performance can be improved by adding to or, replacing parts of the engine with high-performance equipment and by proper tuning and timing of the engine. Replacing factory exhaust manifolds and mufflers with good tube headers and straight-through glasspack mufflers can, by itself, increase gas mileage by 20 to 30 percent for example! With a proper sized but not excessive engine and a GVW of about 5000 pounds, 14 to 18 miles per gallon is possible with such performance equipment.
Now to specifics: What is it going to cost? I would select a 1966 Dodge long van (108" wheel base) with a 225 cubic inch 140 horsepower slant six engine which uses regular gas. I would use the model with both side and rear cargo doors, with windows in one set. This should be available for about $1400 in fairly good condition.
Some items I would have installed because little could be saved by doing it myself or because the job requires special equipment or know-how. These include fiberglass top which makes the van tall enough to stand up in comfortably, the 10-gallon water tank and hand pump, the 5-gallon butane tank, the headers and glasspack exhaust system.
The items I would purchase and install myself would be a package stove, sink and refrigerator unit, a heater unit, extra fuel tanks to increase fuelcarrying potential to 60 gallons, extra battery and electronic switching system, ozite carpeting, miscellaneous cabinetwork, insulation and paneling, chemical toilet, bedding and seating and an 8' by 10' awning over the side cargo doors.
How I would set up my van and how you approximately do yours is, of course, a matter of personal taste. But then that's the beauty of building your own. This, at least, gives you a place from which to start planning, and that's half the fun!