Tag Archives: La Chimba Hostel

Converting Steve

Now proud owners of Steve the 2005 Sprinter, it was time for some van conversion work. The awesome guys at La Chimba hostel had said we could use the parking round the back for the build and even use any tools they had in their bodega. This made the whole build possible, thanks guys!

I had spent some of the time whilst we were van searching researching where to get the necessary supplies (wood, water pumps, leisure battery and charging relays etc.). It turns out Santiago is pretty awesome for getting everything you need for a camper conversion if you know where to look. Although the internet is not used that much by a lot of businesses so some leg work is required. Most shops are very helpful, if they do not have something they often tell you somewhere that does.

The van basic design had been rolling around my head for a while and would provide seating, a kitchen unit with sink and stove, a double bed, lots of storage and a wood burning stove to keep us warm on cold winter nights! The van would also need a healthy amount of insulation to help keep it warm too, and I guess cool on hot days.

The design was sketched out and we went purchasing the necessary supplies. Some of the shops were quite fun, especially the solar shop run by geeky guys who ferreted around their warehouse to find the various components on my list.

Before we got into the build proper we decided to go for a little trip in the van to Cajon Del Maipo where there is some good climbing. We found that the ripio (gravel) roads can be pretty rough, which helped me decide how to construct the cabinets, they would be framed in sturdy 2″ x 2″ rather than just fitting up ply together with brackets.I also set about starting to strip the van out prior to the build during the trip. This was finished off and the inside cleaned out on our return to Santiago.

Steve stripped out and clean ready for the build.
Steve stripped out and clean ready for the build.

The insulation was two layers of insulation wool for the voids between the structural members of the van and inside the members where we could.  This was then overlaid with aluminised foam and sealed with aluminium tape to help prevent moisture getting to the metalwork behind. Whilst we aren’t keeping the van for long we thought we should do a proper job so he would last and provide a home and transport for many more adventures once we sell him in September .

Insulation wool complete
Insulation wool complete.

The van was starting to look pretty space age by the time the aluminium foam was nearly done and some people thought we may indeed be building a time machine!

Steve insulation complete and hole for the roof vent cut.
Steve insulation complete and hole for the roof vent cut.

All the insulation and first fix wiring was now done and the time machine was ready from ply lining. I had kept the lining that had been removed and took the dimensions from these to a wood store that I had found stocked 3mm ply. Two of the guys there were from Venezuela and really cool, Johnny and Francisco, they were both learning English and Francisco’s was pretty good.

 

Tommy, Johnny and Franky
Tommy, Johnny and Franky

We got the wood required for the lining and left, only to return the next day cos I’d forgotten the sides of the original lining didn’t quite meet the roof! Still the old lining was really useful for templating round the curvy bits i.e. wheel arches etc.

Foil insulation appied and roof vent fitted.
Foil insulation applied and Barbara repairing some taped seams torn when fitting ply lining.
The ply lining and lights were finished late one night!
The ply lining and lights were finished late one night!

With the lining complete the van was looking pretty good now.

Time had come for the framing for the units. However the frustrations started here as the 2x2s were all warped and vans are not square as such with plenty of curves to deal with. In addition the tenon saw I had bought, complete with mitre box, didn’t want to cut square, the corner brackets I got to join it all together were not that square and the screw holes were asymmetrical. This was an engineers nightmare! However this was what we had to work with and the results were not too bad – just don’t get a set square out! Hopefully some of the non squareness could be hidden with the ply facing material, either that or it would really look terrible. To my surprise the ply went on really well with a bit of fettling although it was also all warped and warping more by the second! It could be held flat on the timber frames but the doors, well not so much, but hopefully it would all settle down…

Wardrobe and kitchen units   taking shape.
Wardrobe and kitchen units taking shape.

During the build Barbara was serving her apprenticeship as a junior camper van builder and going off to the Ferreteria (hardware store) to get long weights, sky hooks etc. and holding various pieces of wood in place while they were fixed. Barbara’s skills developed pretty well and it was time for the apprentice’s project, the wine rack! There was space in the kitchen cupboard unit allocated so Barbara set to work designing, sawing, gluing and screwing, there was some design development as we went along and the wine bottles were used to ensure a proper fit for 2 x 75cl and 1 x 1.5l bottles.

Wine Rack, every good campervan should  have one!
Wine Rack, every good campervan should have one!

The end result was looking pretty good, Barbara was justifiably looking very pleased. Time to call it a day and have a nice glass of wine and some dinner. Selecting the nice big 1.5l bottle of wine, we found out it didn’t want to come out of the rack – Barbara had managed to actually build it in to the rack and no amount of frantic pulling would get it out.  Time to deploy the hacksaw!

Tom Releases the bottle!
Tom Releases the bottle!

Having mostly completed the units and installed the bed slats, we decided to go for a trip to Cajon del Maipo where we had been a week earlier for a mountain film festival. This time I planned on burning all the scrap wood I had generated from the build in a very big fire to mark the end of the main construction work, just the gas, water and wood burner to be fitted.

Two and a half weeks and a fair bit of fustration time for a fire!
Two and a half weeks and a fair bit of fustration time for a fire!

A further weeks work saw the sink, woodburner and cooker fitted, and the delivery of the cushions for the benches which also make up the bed. These were finally picked up after a Chilean week…. read 2 weeks! We were anxious to see what they had turned out like as the measurements were taken before the units were finished and Barbara had had to convey the design of the cushions with pretty limited Spanish. Actually they turned out exactly as per design and they fitted perfectly! Amazing! Time for another trip to the mountains to test things out and do some climbing, this time heading out to Farrellones, one of the winter ski resorts.

Van looking nice and cosy with wine and dinner on the go!
Van looking nice and cosy with wine and dinner on the go!

Steve was looking pretty sweet now and was really cosy and comfortable to live in. I just had the water and some electrics to sort, but these could be don whilst on the road.

Finding Steven

On returning to Santiago the search for a van was to resume in earnest. We decided to head back to La Chimba Hostel in Bellavista, although we did decide to sleep in the airport on arrival to avoid an expensive taxi ride and a nights accommodation cost. This caused a bit of amusement as we inflated our camping mats in a quiet corner of the airport.

We established a daily routine of searching yapo and chileautos websites for suitable vehicles, me trying to arrange viewing in bad spanish on the phone then getting the staff at the hostel to bail me out.  The process of getting to actually see a vehicle can be a bit hit and miss with the Chilean laid back approach to life, however – who would think some of these guys were actually trying to sell a van?!
I had put together a checklist to go through each time to try to weed out the problem vehicles. Sadly we found that every van we saw for two weeks had unacceptable issues. It was amazing and disheartening seeing what people were trying to sell for 4-5m pesos (~£4000-5000).  A few examples…

A van advertised having done 110,000 km actually had 350,000km on the clock, but apparently only 110,000km on the current engine! How about a van thats tacho showed 500,000 km, it was advertised with 150,000 km, but the tacho clocked a kilometer every second – but the van had only done 150k, honest! Maybe a van advertised as ‘first person to see it will buy it’ would be the one? I was that first person, but having gone over the van and established that the engine was leaking coolant at a reasonable rate I thought I’d give the key a turn.  It didn’t want to start. Finally it spluttered into life, only firing on 3 cylinders, ran for a bit then stopped.  Eventually I got it restarted and went round to have a look under the bonnet when I was told that one of the injectors was a bit dicky. I thought I would humour the sellers and take it for a spin and boy was it smokey! We said we weren’t interested and left, only to get a text offering a £200 discount, mmm let me think…

We had now pretty much exhausted the available vans from our internet searches that met our criteria. So we widened the search, non hightops were now in and we could pay more. Still no luck after two weeks of hunting. We decided to perhaps change tack and go for a four-wheel drive vehicle that we could live out of if not live in.  However, it seemed our perfect van might just be round the corner when I found two old Peugeot Boxer based ambulances advertised at a car lot. We decided to go there first thing the next morning and be the first through the door. We arrived about 10 mins after they opened and asked to look at the two vans.  We went over them both, but test drove only one (the one without an oil leak). The van was a great runner and only had one problem, the speedo didn’t work! We tried to negotiate a price but they would not budge and furthermore it turned out the revision technica was out of date. We could not get a new one till we had changed its appearance from being an ambulance to being a white van without flashing lights etc. We went away without doing a deal as we needed to do some research on the speedo issue and think about how to turn it back into a white van.

We did not want to risk losing the van so we phoned them and said we would take it and would be back in the afternoon. I did some more research on the speedo issue so I could try to diagnose it on our return. We also found somewhere to buy white sticky back plastic!

When we returned there were already other people looking over the other ambulance. Good vans sell fast in Chile! I dived under the van we wanted and  found the gearbox speedo sensor unplugged, that old trick… do any vehicles in Chile have a genuine mileage?! Anyhow the mileage wasn’t that important, the vehicle ran well so we went to go and figure out the rest of the deal, although with a different guy from the morning. He came down stairs from their in-house notaria with bad news –  the van had been bought at auction and was still registered with the police as an emergency vehicle and was not even yet in their name. It would take a further 4 months to get it in to our name and until then we would not be able to take it out the country!  Well that ended that and we left feeling pretty dejected, it seemed we were not going to ever make this work.
With our alternate 4×4 strategy in mind, we thought we’d get a feel for what we should be looking for by trawling used car lots for a day.  A few hours later, and several different options viewed and measured, we spied tucked away in the corner a Mercedes Sprinter.  Trying not to seem too interested we asked to take a look, and it seemed tidy  enough although there were crash repairs back and front, and it was a little smokey when cold.  We made a ridiculously low offer just for kicks, and the guy instantly took 600,000 pesos off the price.  We went home to sleep on it, but couldn’t help getting a little excited – it ticked pretty much all of the boxes except for the high top!  However a decent sounding Peugeot boxer hightop also came up that evening so a viewing was arranged for that too the next day. The viewing for the Boxer was in a DIY center car park, not ideal, but after some shenanigans trying to find the guy the van was generally pretty sweet except for a dodgy gearbox that felt like it would fail soon. I made an offer taking into account the gearbox, the guy said he would call me. So we decided to go look at the Sprinter a second time and try and negotiate a deal based on the fact we had an alternative now. We went over the vehicle more thoroughly first and then started negotiations –  in the end we got 1.2m pesos of the window price which seemed like not a bad deal. In doing some research on Sprinters it seemed that they don’t have many running issues at all, certainly not like Peugeot Boxers do.  We decided to have a second look, going through the full checklist this time, the brake wear light was on and there were a few vibrations when lifting off the gas, but they didn’t seem too bad.  A good bit of negotiation later, and we had a deal on the van!

As the initial offer we were given was 6 million pesos, we just had to name him Steve Austin, the  6 million Dollar Van!

Steve the $6m van!
Steve the $6m van!