Have you ever wondered what the difference between a campervan and a motorhome is? I know I have. Is it the body style? The layout? The number of features? Or is it the engine size, or how many people they can sleep? Is there actually any real difference? After all they both do the same job, providing tempory mobile accommodation that can be driven from A to B. Well I’ve decided to find out what actually makes a campervan different from a motorhome, and I’m going to share my findings in this article.
So let’s get started…
What is a campervan?
More often than not, a campervan is based around an existing panel-van body. Inside are ‘camping’ facilities such as some means of cooking and somewhere to sleep (although some campervans also manage to squeeze in a sink, fridge, toilet and even a shower). So you are basically camping inside a van – a camper-van!
Generally speaking, the average campervan is quite modest in size and most will comfortably accommodate at least 2 adults (depending on the layout). The modest size makes a campervan ideal for exploring the country and spontaneously hopping from one place to another with as little fuss as possible. Most places that you can park a car, you can also park a campervan.
There are many types and styles of campervan ranging from the DIY van conversion to the high-end professionally converted campervan. Pretty much any panel van can be converted into a campervan, some of the most popular base vehicles being:
- Volkswagen T5 and T6
- Ford Transit
- Peugeot Boxer
- Fiat Ducato
- Renault Trafic & Master
- Mercedes Sprinter & Vito
- Vauxhall Vivaro
- Citroen Relay
Companies offering professional bespoke conversions are plentiful. Nowadays the level of options and quality of conversion all depends on how much you want to spend. Basically, if you can afford it, then you can have it! Here are four campervan conversion companies that can turn your campervan dreams into reality:
Campervans come in all shapes and sizes, some big and some small, really small! An increasingly popular sub-genre of campervan is the micro campervan. These tiny travellers are based around small vans or MPV’s (Multi-Purpose Vehicle) such as the Citroen Berlingo or Fiat Doblo. Although the range of onboard comforts and options may not be quite the same as what’s found in its bigger brother; the micro campervan can still offer a respectable level of comfort and is more than adequate for long weekend trips away.
What it may lack on the inside, the micro campervan certainly makes up for with its practicality and affordable running costs. Because it’s no bigger than a standard family car, driving a micro campervan is no bother at all and fuel efficiency, tax and insurance is not much different from that of a medium sized car. Some micro campervans can even fit inside a garage. In fact, a micro campervan can easily be used as an everyday runaround.
From the outside, some campervans look like ordinary vans and you’d never really know what was on the inside. These are sometimes known as stealth campervans. Like the micro campervan, a stealth campervan can also be used as an alternative to a car for the daily commute, as well as for camping trips. The idea of a stealth camper is to keep it low key, that’s why some have blacked out, one-way windows, or no windows at all. With a stealth campervan it’s possible to camp in some out-of-the-way places or car parks overnight without drawing too much attention to oneself.
However, there are some disadvantages to the stealth camper too, such as:
- Can be difficult to reclassify as a campervan. (According to DVLA, it must have a minimum amount of features.)
- Some campsite don’t allow stealth campervans
- Lack of ventilation, so can get warm in the summer and also suffer from condensation
- Can be quite dark inside due to the lack of windows and natural light
For years people have been converting vans, minibuses, ambulances, etc. into campervans. It’s much cheaper to build, rather than buy a campervan, and you get a huge sense of satisfaction from undertaking such a project. The donor vehicle can be fitted out exactly how you want it to be, and the conversion can be done as (and when) you have the time and money.
A few years ago I converted an old Ford Transit minibus into a campervan using mainly recycled and secondhand materials (see picture above). The whole build cost less than £500.
If you’re considering building your own campervan, check out our How to convert a van into a campervan article for some useful tips.
A brief history of the campervan
The VW Camper
The one vehicle that is synonymous with the word campervan, is the Volkswagen camper. The genesis of the VW camper started back in 1947 when Dutch businessman Ben Pon sketched out an idea for a VW Beatle based van. Inspired by the box-on-wheels design, a year later the chief executive of VW launched the very first VW van (the T1) at the 1949 Geneva motor show. In 1950 the VW Type 2 went into production and over the next 40 years or so, around 5 million vehicles were built with 90 different body styles including the iconic VW camper.
The VW camper was extremely popular, and although production stopped back in 2013, it still remains so. Believe it or not, in 2014 a rare 1955 mint condition Devon Type 2 Microbus sold for a staggering £150,000! Many motor companies over the years have brought out their own version of the campervan, but none have captured people’s hearts quite like the VW camper.
The Dormobile Motor Caravan
One of the first, if not the first campervan’s to be produced in the UK was the Dormobile Motor Caravan, which came onto the market in 1957. The UK motor caravan movement started when the company behind Dormobile (Martin-Walter), noticed that at weekends some tradesman were putting cushions in their van so they could take the family out for the day. Looking to diversify, coachbuilders Martin-Walter (founded in 1773) looked around for a suitable vehicle to convert into a motor caravan, and decided on the newly released Vauxhall Bedford CA van.
The next stage of Dormobile’s evolution was the idea, and subsequent addition of the elevated roof. This increased the internal space allowing for extra headroom and the addition of bunk beds. If there was one single feature that changed everything, it was the elevated roof. This idea alone created a new type of vehicle in the UK – the motor caravan, or as we call it today – the campervan.
As well as creating a new type of vehicle, the Dormobile motor caravan also created a new sort of affordable holiday. One which enabled a family to explore the country in a self-contained holiday home on wheels, which at the time cost no more than a regular car to buy.
As the Dormobile Motor Caravan sales poster says:
“Five-thirty on a beautiful summer’s evening…when other holidaymakers are returning to their hotels, caravans, camping sites or even home, you and your family can linger on the beach enjoying the warm sunshine – that is, if you own a Dormobile Motor Caravan. It’s such a free and easy way of spending a holiday or weekend, for tomorrow you can be thirty or forty miles away in another beauty spot doing the same. With a modern comfortable holiday home on wheels there is no limit to your enjoyment, it’s so carefree“
It’s amazing really that since that was written the campervan may have evolved and changed, but the allure and reasons people are still attracted to them hasn’t.
What is a motorhome?
A motorhome is different from a campervan in the fact that it’s not based around a panel-van type of vehicle. A motorhome uses an existing chassis and running gear from either a large van or truck, however the body is completely custom made (coachbuilt) much like a caravan. In fact, you could say that a motorhome is actually a driveable caravan.
Due to the coachbuilt bodywork, a motorhome usually has a lot more space inside than a campervan. Some large motorhomes are very roomy indeed and can comfortably accommodate up to 6 people. (A fully fitted-out kitchen, with sink, hob, oven, microwave and fridge freezer, plus a separate bathroom with toilet, shower and wash basin, and a dedicated seating/dining area is pretty much standard nowadays.)
Other features not uncommon in a motorhome are built-in fresh and grey water tanks, onboard refillable gas tank, storage lockers for bikes, camping chairs, barbeques, windbreaks, etc. And in some motorhomes where the cab is part of the living area, swivelling driver and passenger seats allow the front seats to rotate 180 degrees to face into the living area.
Different types of motorhome
The American RV – Recreational Vehicle
Imported from the US, the American RV is the biggest class of motorhome you are likely to see on UK roads. The largest, all singing all dancing, RV’s, are based around coaches/buses with the engine at the rear, and can be up to 40 ft long. They include every conceivable extra you can think of (and some you can’t) including a full-size kitchen with massive fridge freezer, a dishwasher, washing machine and dryer, an onboard generator, full-size sofas, full-size shower (or bath!) and an end bedroom with a permanent island king-size bed. Some even have room onboard for a car, not a pedal car – a full sized car!
Another cool feature found on some RV’s is the side slideout. These slideouts are activated by a push of a button and will significantly increase the width of the living room, kitchen, bedroom – or all three, depending on how many slideouts the vehicle has. Now the RV may not be the most practical of motorhomes here in the UK and its appeal is going to be very limited, but it’s fun to marvel at what’s possible if you put your mind to it. No wonder the Americans were the first to put a man on the moon!
The Class A motorhome
Based around an existing commercial vehicle’s chassis and running gear (Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and Iveco being commonly used) the A Class is the largest purpose-built motorhome, and depending on the size, can accommodate up to 6 people. The bodywork, including the cab which is also part of the living space, is custom built from the ground up.
Some of these heavyweight luxury land cruisers have all the comforts of a penthouse apartment but without the price tag. At the time of writing, you can pick up a 2009 Burstner Elegance 821G for around £50,000. The 6 wheel, 5 berth Burstner Elegance 821G A Class, is based around a Fiat chassis and a 3L turbo diesel engine, and is nearly 9 metres long, 2.3 metres wide, with an unladen weight of 3815 kg. It has the luxury you’d expect from a motorhome of this size, including an end bedroom with a permanently fixed bed and another pull-down bed over the cab for guests. There’s plenty of storage space too, with a generous under-the-bed storage space which is accessed via the large rear external doors.
The over-cab coachbuilt motorhome
Say the word motorhome and the type shown above is probably what most people would think of. The over-cab motorhome is based around an existing commercial vehicle’s chassis, running gear and cab. (Renault, Fiat, Peugeot and Citroen are commonly used as base vehicles.) The body however is fully coachbuilt by the motorhome manufacturer to their own design.
Mostly diesel powered, the over-cab motorhome is also called a Luton-body motorhome. This derives from the Bedford commercial vehicle factory, which was based in Luton UK. Bedford, built commercial vehicles where the body extended over the cab, hence the term Luton-body. In an over-cab motorhome this area can be allocated for storage but more often than not it houses a permanent double bed which is accessed via a ladder.
Over-cab coachbuilt motorhomes come in various sizes. From modest 2 berth vehicles not much bigger than a Ford Transit sized delivery/removal van – to very large triple axle (known as Tag axle) 6 berth motorhomes which can be up to 30ft long. Internal configurations also vary with the manufacturer and model. As you’d expect, prices vary considerably according to the size of the motorhome and level of options. Depending on age and condition, a used over-cab motorhome can cost as little £6,500 or as much as £80,000.
The low profile coachbuilt motorhome
Like the over-cab motorhome, the low profile variant is also built around an existing vehicle’s chassis, running gear and cab. These increasingly popular, sleek looking motorhomes offer the same kind of comforts found in the Luton-body type of motorhome, whilst giving better MPG performance. As you’ll see in the picture above, some low profile motorhomes have a skylight fitted over the cab, this is designed to increase natural light and ventilation. Also some now include a drop-down bed over the cab, though this is more commonly seen in the A Class motorhome.
Caravan manufacturers such as Hobby, Bailey and Swift also produce low profile motorhomes (from 2 to 6 berth) with some very impressive and inventive internal layouts. For example: the almost 8 metre long Swift Bolero 724 FB has a front lounge, fixed bed, end bathroom with separate shower, swivel front seats and a centre kitchen with oven, hob, microwave and fridge freezer.
Motorhome driveaway awnings
A popular and affordable way of increasing the width/living space of a motorhome is by using an external awning. These are very similar in construction to a modern-day tent, using lightweight fabric and carbon fibre poles. Some awnings, known as air awnings or inflatable awnings, are poleless. They are erected using a hand or electric air pump.
More often than not a motorhome awning is free-standing, meaning that the vehicle can be used without having to dismantle the awning. Driveway awnings are also popular with campervan owners – so no difference there, then!
At a glance – 5 differences between a campervan and motorhome
- A campervan is based around an existing van body. A motorhome has a purpose-built body
- A campervan’s cab is not usually part of the living space. A motorhome’s cab often is
- A campervan usually has less room and thus fewer features than a motorhome
- A campervan generally is more economical to run than a motorhome
- A campervan is easier to drive and park than a motorhome is
Motorhome driving licence requirements
In the UK, to drive a motorhome between 3.5 and 7.5 tonnes you’ll need a category C1 driving licence.
Over 7.5 tonnes and you’ll need a category C licence.
Thinking of buying a campervan or motorhome?
My advice would be to try before you buy, just to see if you like it. Check out these websites for campervan and motorhome hire, or do a search yourself:
A good website I’ve found for used campervans and motorhome sales is marquisleisure.co.uk they have some really impressive vehicles on offer.
Does it really matter what the differences are?
Whether you choose a campervan or motorhome will depend entirely on your own reasonings and budget. Like most things in life there are fors and against for both. What really matters is what a mobile home can do for you. If you’ve got the urge to travel and explore whilst taking your home with you, then you owe it to yourself to do whatever you can to fulfil that desire. Whether it’s in a £500 converted minibus or a £80,000 A Class motorhome!
See you on the road 🙂
The Mini 1964 Caraboot
Before you go, I just came across this little gem of a video which made me smile, and I thought “I must share this on the blog” – enjoy!