1997 Chevy Express Camper Van – Intro to Our Budget Build
Written by Ross M. Perkins
When Jess and I were contemplating purchasing a van at the beginning of 2019, we were starting from ground zero. Sure, our eyes had been flooded for years by images of fancy Mercedes Sprinters, functional Dodge ProMasters, and the inexplainable badass-ness of the lifted 4x4 Ford camper vans, but as amazing as all those are, we wanted to experience what van life was like without spending tens-of-thousands of dollars. This is when the thought of conversion vans came to mind. About two weeks after we contemplated purchasing a van in the next year or two, we found ourselves with a 1997 Chevy Express Conversion Van, fitted with a Geneva conversion, in our driveway.
Why We Chose This Particular Chevy Express Conversion Van
We happened to stumble across this beaut on Craigslist with an asking price that was enticing– $5,000, if memory serves me right. Better yet, the seller lived only 10 minutes away from us. Our initial plan was to go scope out the van so we could get a feel for conversion vans in general– see if it was something that we could realistically see ourselves traveling in for extended periods of time. You can look at dimensions and specs all you want, but it’s hard to put things into perspective without experiencing them in person.
After a thorough inspection and a quick test drive, we made a deal on a final price and picked up our Chevy Express Conversion Van the next day. One of the biggest selling points of this particular van was that it came with a lengthy, well-documented service history– dating back to the original owners in California up to the current seller’s lifespan with it. Plus, it also had a new transmission installed with roughly 2,000 miles on it. I’ve spent the majority of my life buying used vehicles for cheap that needed some love, but I finally reached the point where I would rather spend my time doing the fun modifications, not repairing things all the time.
The factory interior was pretty bleak, but well maintained. From the moment we stepped inside the van, we could envision the bigger picture in our minds. From the outside the van doesn’t appear all that big, but once you get situated inside it’s a whole other story. Whether you are in the driver’s seat looking back or lounging on the bed looking forward– the van almost seems to double in size.
The Beginning of the Chevy Express Camper Van Conversion
We wasted no time before the modification began. It was less than a month from the purchase date that we left on our first adventure to the coast of Washington. What was originally supposed to be a one week trip extended to two weeks. Extended travel plans can be stressful, but we found it liberating since we didn’t have to worry about securing expensive hotels for another week, nor did we have to eat out for our meals (even though we did indulge in plenty of local establishments).
Countless nights were spent in the driveway in sub-freezing temperatures and blizzards to get the van outfitted to the point where we were confident on hitting the road. We stuck with the basics for the first round. Being that we already had an extensive collection of camping gear, we didn’t need an insane amount of life items. We picked up a cabinet, an indoor/outdoor rug, storage cubbies, toaster oven, Wirthco Battery Isolator, and some other odds’n ends that helped to add some comforts and efficiencies to our camper van. For a couple hundred dollars we were able to completely transform the look and feel of the interior.
The setup we had thus far made our two weeks on the road very comfortable, but as always, the modifications must continue. Throughout our travels we made note of things that came up here and there that could use some tweaking, or something that could be added to make things even more efficient and functional.
As soon as we arrived back home we started revising and adding on. The cheap particle board doors of the cabinet were replaced by thick, sturdy lumber, a shelf was built above the cabinet and over one of the rear windows to help with organizing and decor, a portable Renogy Solar Panel kit was installed, more solar lights, a low-power-draw fridge, a two-directional fan that we mounted in place of a rear window rather than cutting a hole in the roof, and we also built a deck on the roof of the van. Oh yeah, and we also snagged a portable toilet that could fit under the rear seat/bed– which made night time excursions much easier. Many changes were minor, but made a huge difference. I’m sure I’m forgetting a handful or two of things.
Final Thoughts = No Regrets
4 months & 7,000 miles later, we have absolutely no regrets. Our Chevy Express Camper Van has withstood a 2,000+ mile road trip, forest service backcountry mountain roads, and daily driving duties to take the pup to the river or for a grocery run. With this platform sharing many components with other Chevy models, if something were to break you can find parts easily around the country and at an affordable rate– unlike Sprinter vans and other newer cargo vans.Opting for a conversion van to use as your canvas can make entering into van life seem much less daunting since prices are low– under $10K and even under $5K for well taken care of specimens–, you can begin comfortably sleeping in them since day one since the majority have a bench that folds into a bed and a fully built out interior, often times equipped with comfort and convenience amenities not found on standard cargo vans– such as comfortable power seats, legit sound systems, air conditioning, and cruise control. If you have been second guessing because Instagram says that you need a Euro-Style Van or old VW to be able to live in a van– we assure you, that’s not the case. Our Chevy Express Camper Van is proof that you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to experience life on the road.
👋Heads up– Some of the product links point to Amazon.com & I may earn some compensation (pennies on the dollar) if you were to purchase a product through the link, which would help to pay for website maintenance or maybe a tank of gas for the Honda Grom😅. Purchase through the links or not, we’re happy to share which products are being used. Thanks for looking!