There’s so much promise tied up in the image of a metal box with wheels. Maybe it was those moments in On Any Sunday when Mert Lawwill pulls out of his driveway in a white 1969 Ford Econoline. Or maybe it’s just that the van is such a versatile and practical motorcycle support vehicle.
It’s not a dis on the ubiquitous pickup. We love the galactic-height “roof” of an open-back pickup truck, but nothing beats the security and weather protection of a van.
It’s why we used one to build the Ultimate Motorcycle Adventure Hauler. The goals were simple: Haul three dirt bikes or two streetbikes, onboard electric power, sleep four, and have dirt-road capability so we could make camp at remote riding spots.
Some people see a silver 2018 Ford Transit Cargo van. We see a blank canvas for adventure. It was natural to start with a 350 XL long-wheelbase, high-roof cargo van. You throw away less on the inside and start with a 9,500-pound gross vehicle weight rating. Also, in the case of our van, a 6,800-pound tow capacity with built-in trailer-brake controller and a heavy-duty 250-amp alternator, plus limited-slip drive axle.
The Custom Build
We worked with Sportsmobile in Fresno, California, on a custom build, since the company has a long history converting Ford vans (and most other brands) into adventure vehicles. Our Transit build was a little outside the company’s normal full-camper outfitting, in the sense that we were not going for an onboard water system or a kitchen, and didn’t need a lot of interior sleeping space. The company’s work is thorough, tidy, and super high quality, and it also has much experience building vans for hauling two-wheelers of all types.
Our finished van makes for an awesome motorcycle base camp. We can sleep four in the Tepui Ruggedized Kukenam 4 roof-top tent (with comfy built-in mattress), and have room for one more on the rear bench seat (covered in Italian leather!) that folds flat to make a bed. An added side window helps with ventilation, as does the roof-top, remote-control ventilation van.
The whole van interior is paneled and insulated, part of Sportsmobile’s “Basecamp” treatment. Down to the flooring, all the materials have a quality feel and fit is excellent. Interior wood is hand cut, as are the fabric and leather on the couch and other trim pieces. It’s beautiful inside, as well as quiet and temperature stable.
Electric power is set up like a standard RV. A 200-amp-hour house battery is charged by the van electrical system but doesn’t drain the van starter battery. In addition to an exterior shore-power plug so we can connect to the grid as necessary, a 115-watt solar panel keeps the battery charged. On sunny days in the desert, that solar panel works: On one trip, we camped three days, ran the ventilation fan, the lights, charged phones and other lots of video equipment through our 110-volt inverter and four outlets, and never had battery voltage drop below 11.5, without ever needing to start the van to charge the system.
The garage is our happy place though. The goal was to get three dirt bikes or two streetbikes, plus have room for tools, chemicals, and gear/helmets. A stepped main bulkhead seals the garage from the passenger area. An overhead cabinet at garage front fits three helmets and three sets of boots, for example. L-track provides plenty of tie-down points, and the wall-mount tracks allow for custom cabinets to be easily mounted, for example. Passive ventilation keeps air fresh.
The recessed side walls allow for plenty of handlebar room and make it possible to space the two dirt bikes far enough apart to load a third backward, as necessary. Four overhead LED lights, plus 12- and 110-volt power outlets complete the parking area.
Transit Cargo-specific Bolt It On grab handles ($240) are beautifully made and make getting in and out of the van much easier. They also offer tie-down points that were particularly useful when loading a third dirt bike.
A word on the rims and tires: The stock steelies with 235/65R-16 tires were super nice on the highway but not quite dirtworthy enough for our intended use. Enter a set of 17 x 7 Method 701 wheels with LT 245/70-17 Falken Wildpeak A/T3W all-terrain tires. Ride is slightly rougher and tires are noisier on the highway than those stockers, but well worth the trade-off once we hit dirt and sand as we searched for campsites off pavement. Getting them to fit the front fender wells required a minor sheet-metal modification and trimming some plastic panels, and we still get minor rubbing at full lock. We are investigating a minor front end lift or leveling kit to give us no-touch clearance.
On The Road
Our finished van with Aluminess roof rack and Tepui tent stands 131 inches tall, which is an inch under 11 feet. The tent is a about 220 pounds. We bring this up because we weren’t sure if there’d be a remarkable swaying feeling as we wound our way around mountain roads.
After a few thousand miles, there’s a little sway, but the van drives great overall. Cornering performance is quite good, brakes are super strong, and ride quality is remarkable. Many-hour drives have been comfortable and pleasant. It doesn’t drive as “big” as it actually is. And we wouldn’t build a van with anything but a high roof, since it allows us to stand up straight and have more overhead storage space.
We managed to squeeze out 14 mpg in a mix of highway and town driving. But we found that nearly impossible to maintain on a regular basis since the 400 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm that surges forth as the twin turbos spin their siren song was irresistible. It also seemed so improbable that this van actually was doing what it was doing. It just encouraged repetition, this swelling of boost and remarkable forward motion from this very large vehicle.
Honestly, it’s like driving a triple-decker Mustang. The benefit of all this excess power is that the van laughs off any load, and also tows great.
Price for the van with our selected options was $46,870, and Sportsmobile’s thorough conversion work was $38,120. Add in the tent, plus wheels and tires, and the finished product is just under $89,000, which is about in line with upfitted adventure-style vans.
We hit the overall goals with our build and ended up with a Transit that fit our hauling and camping needs without being a full-blown RV/motorhome build, which helped us more easily justify the van as a regular-use family/work vehicle. Hauling, for example, a built-in toilet around all the time as you pick up things from the hardware store, etc., was outside of our van desires. Our Transit has also turned into a great media-support vehicle on multi-day video shoots since in can sleep several bodies and can charge just about any of our equipment.
We are looking forward to more camping trips, trackdays, and other good times in our Ultimate Motorcycle Adventure Hauler.
Ford Transit 350 Cargo XL LWB High-Roof Van
- EcoBoost 3.5-liter twin-turbo: 310 hp and 400 pound-feet of torque
- Sync 3 with Navigation, Apple CarPlay, cruise control, and Lane Keeping Alert
- Keyless entry
- 9,500-pound GVWR; 2,860-pound load capacity as modified
- 6,800-pound tow package with trailer brake
- Heavy-duty 250-amp alternator
- Raptor-lined garage area with full bulkhead and custom wheel chocks
- Hauls three dirt bikes or two street bikes
- Sportsmobile “Basecamp” fully insulated custom interior finish
- Shore power, solar panel, and 2,000-watt inverter for 110-volt and 12-volt outlets front, rear, and side, with 200-amp-hour house battery
- Seats four, rear seat converts to bed.
- Secure helmet storage
- Interior and exterior custom lighting
- Custom side window with shade
- Remote-control roof ventilation fan
- 10-foot awning
- Aluminess roof rack for extra storage and roof-top tent mount
- Tepui Ruggedized Kukenam 4 roof-top tent