When we bought our 1997 Ford Econoline Coachman campervan at the end of the 2020 camping season, we knew we wanted to do a little work on it. The engine had about 120,000 on it, and at some point, the driver hit a tree (or was hit by a tree? It’s truly unclear), putting a sizable dent in the side and ripping off the original passenger side mirror (which was replaced with one that works…ish). All told, the van was in great shape, but the interior needed a little updating, and we wanted to make sure the engine got a once-over.
We paid about $6,000 for the van. The guy selling it, who could not have been over 23 years old and who had been given the van by a family member, had no idea what it was worth here in Alaska. We think he could’ve easily asked and gotten more than $10,000 for it. Knowing that, we were willing to spend a few thousand more to make it great since there’s no way we would find anything similar for under $10,000. It’s basically impossible to find a camper van with the seven seatbelts this one came with.
1997 Ford Econoline Coachman Conversion Van engine work
The first thing we did was take it to a mechanic, who put about $1,000 worth of repairs into it, swapping out aged hoses and other engine components. From an engine and van perspective, the vehicle is in great shape considering its age. As of this writing, the only problems are the passenger-side mirror, which we have the part to replace but just haven’t gotten that far, and no power to the dashboard. Could that be a blown fuse? Yes. We just haven’t tried to fix it yet. It means that the radio doesn’t work, for example.
For the most part, we’re good to go there.
1997 Ford Econoline Coachman Conversion Van interior work: the ideas
This is where the real fun is — and continues to be. The previous owner had swapped out the carpet with a vinyl floor. Awesome. He reported that it was more work than he expected, and other van updaters have written that they didn’t bother because it was too complicated.
Remodeling a van is just like remodeling a home that you’ve never before lived in — full of surprises. We knew for sure we wanted to do a few things:
- Remove the toilet. We like the idea of water in this — it has a sink and an exterior shower — but the toilet was RIGHT THERE. We are comfortable taking our business elsewhere.
- Paint. Like any glorious late-90s van, it needed some updating. This was really just a nice-to-have … or so we thought.
- Update the curtains. They smelled terrible and looked bad. We don’t care about sunlight since we’re used to tent camping, but we do care about privacy. Those had to be replaced, if only because of the smell.
- Look at upgrading the generator. The van came to us with a generator that works flawlessly at about 20 degrees. That’s awesome, but if we want to use this in the winter we definitely need one that works below 20 degrees. Ideally, we can take this for ski adventures. Under 20 isn’t going to cut it in Alaska.
1997 Ford Econoline Coachman interior work: the reality (so far)
When we started getting ready to prep for painting, we could see that the vinyl was a little warped near the windows. We suspected water damage from someone leaving the window open. Easy, we thought — we’ll just peel it off there and see what’s going on, maybe paint whatever is under it instead.
Of course, water damage is never, ever that simple. As soon as we started peeling we could see that not only was it damaged from past exposure, but it was currently wet even though the windows were closed. Uh-oh.
Under the vinyl in this van is a pressboard, followed by wood paneling, followed by the actual camper top or van body. As we peeled and removed, we found that on the passenger side the pressboard and wood were both damaged around and near the window. On the driver’s side, we found that it was all so damaged that the wood was literally disintegrating.
To solve that, we removed all of the vinyl, pressboard and wood around those windows. Luke then removed the windows themselves and the upper bed area (above the driver and passenger seats), by squeezing it through the window. (If you’re doing this yourself with a similar van, pro-tip: the bed is too wide to remove any other way).
He purchased new wood, which he has cut to match that section on both sides of the van. We’re painting the wood while it’s outside the van and then installing it, followed by installing the windows and sealing them back in. The windows have received a good cleaning with a power washer to remove any gunk around the edges. We’ll have to report back on how this installation goes as we haven’t gotten that far.
The other major task was taking out the toilet. After removing it following some Youtube-provided camper toilet instructions, Luke bought a pressure seal recommended by a Lowe’s employee and screwed it into the hole leading to the grey water tank. He also capped the water-in line. We haven’t tested whether it works yet. Cross your fingers for us.
Finally, replacing the curtains was a process in going to the fabric store, picking the fabric and taking it and the old (cleaned) curtains to a local seamstress. I need to call her this week to see when they are going to be done.
We anticipate having the van completely done in the next two weeks, in time for Luke to take it and use it during a course he’s attending. Now that I’ve written that, it seems really aggressive so … cross your fingers for that, too. The major taskings that are left are:
- Install the wood
- Seal the windows
- Paint everything (and let it dry!)
- Reinstall everything we took out
- Test the water lines
- Repair the side mirror
- Repair the console
- Buy a new pole for the interior table (it was missing when we bought the van)
Many of these are really just nice-to-haves. In fact, the only things we really have to do before we use it are sealing the windows and reinstalling the beds/benches.