Conversion Vans

Luxury and Convenience - But at What Price?

Vans are the vehicle of choice for a number of reasons – practicality, first of all. For those who want something a little more luxe than the standard white delivery van, conversion vans offer a wide range of options for every taste.

Conversion vans are created by taking a basic, factory-direct passenger van like the Chevrolet Astro, Dodge Ram Van or Ford Econoline, and then spruced up with custom options. They’re an upscale version of their base model, offering larger windows, a longer base, and a taller roof. Typically, conversion vans come equipped with upgrades like captain’s chairs, wood veneer paneling, raised roofs, sofa chairs, and sunroofs. Some come with DVD/video consoles, fold-out beds, and even miniature, efficiency-style kitchens and bathrooms.

Safety vs. Luxury

When passenger vans are built by the manufacturer, they comply with Federal safety standards for passenger vehicles. But when they’re modified by a third-party conversion company, a lot of safety concerns fly out the window. It’s a trade-off that many consumers make without even realizing what they’re risking – they assume that the conversion companies are taking the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards into consideration when they install that microwave oven or overstuffed, couch-like bench seat, but that’s usually not the case. In paying for luxury extras that come with conversion vans, customers are sometimes losing the built-in safety features that came with the original vehicle.

In the 1980's, Americans began buying smaller and more fuel efficient recreational vehicles, trading down from behemoth, gas-guzzling Winnebagos to smaller, easier-to-handle passenger vans with custom options. To meet the increased demand for conversion vans, thousands of home-grown conversion businesses cropped up in garages and warehouses, buying stripped-down vans then outfitting them with extras and reselling them at a profit. The major auto manufacturers also got into the act, granting licenses to approved conversion companies, shipping them basic models – usually without seats, interior trim or other basic features – and allowing the converters to customize the vans to customers’ specifications. Sometimes the conversion specialists convert vans for direct sale at local dealerships.

Things that don’t stay put

When vans are shipped from the manufacturer to a conversion specialist, they’re usually lacking seats or interior trim. The converter is supposed to install seating and restraint systems that comply with federal safety standards. But most converters aren’t engineers, and don’t do any tests on their seats. Similarly, seat belts that are installed outside the automotive factory aren’t tested for weight and strength – and they can become split or even cut clean in two if they come in contact with sharp edges on a retro-fitted seat.

One common customization on conversion vans is a raised roof, created by cutting off the factory steel roof and support structures, and installing a fiberglass dome attached with simple sheet-metal screws. Raised roofs allow additional head room, but if the van should roll over, a fiberglass roof can shatter or come detached from the van entirely. And passengers often have an unrealistic idea of their safety in a conversion van – with their color televisions and DVD players, extra-plush upholstered seats, and fold down dining tables, it’s easy to think you’re as safe as you would be in your own living room – which is why a large number of passengers riding in conversion vans don’t bother to wear seat belts.

The luxury and convenience of a conversion van is tempting, especially for families looking for a vacation vehicle on a budget. But that luxury shouldn’t come at a cost – if you’re thinking of buying a conversion van, buy from a reputable dealer and ask about the safety standards of their product. That way you can enjoy your luxurious recreational vehicle but still be assured that you’ll be safe should an accident occur.

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