What really are the pros and cons of buying an older van versus a newer one? We’ve compiled a list of things to consider when deciding between the two.
They say a house is the biggest purchase you’ll ever make and although a van may not be quite that, it’s still a pretty major decision if you plan to live in it. Some people have distinct visions for their van life – maybe cruising through the sunset in a candy-coloured VW bus or ripping through the mountains in a decked out Sprinter – but for anyone weighing out their options, here are a few things to consider.
First off, I want to clarify that when I say “old van” I mean anything pre-new millennium. In the car world, pretty much anything over 10 years old is considered to be old but in the van world, there are a ton of vintage rigs kicking around that still have plenty of life left in them. Using that benchmark, a “newer van” would be pretty much anything made in the 2000s onward but it seems like the past 15 years have been the most prolific.
IN THIS CORNER: OLDER VANS
- Usually significantly cheaper upfront cost. Our van only set us back 5 grand while it’d be a bit of a challenge to get a newer one for under $15k (CAD).
- They’re everywhere. We’ve travelled a good chunk of this continent and in every state or province, there are older vans around. They made a lot of these things in the 70s and 80s and most are still in use in some way or another. Basically, if you have a non-rich person budget, you’ll probably have more to choose from if opting for an older rig.
- They’re easier to fix. This doesn’t apply to ALL old vans but a good majority of American-made models were so widely mass-produced that the parts are still easily available at any auto parts store. You can also benefit from pick-n-pulls or junkyards to find usable parts and feel way more confident about doing the repair yourself as an amateur mechanic than you would with some spaceship looking modern vehicle. To that same point, it’s much easier and more realistic to learn how to do routine maintenance like oil changes, filter changes and brake pad replacements yourself on an older vehicle.
- It might already be converted. Camper vans were all the rage for many years before they got grouped into the luxury RV market (if you’re a 20-something who can afford a Winnebago or Pleasure-Way van then kudos to you but they’re usually geared toward retired folks with far more capital). Our van was already converted so we didn’t have to worry about installing tricky things like a propane system and instead only had to spend a month and less than $1000 freshening it up before being able to hit the road.
- They’ve got character. Older vans can be pretty quirky – we see this as something that adds to the van but it’s fair that some people don’t. I think it’s really cool that other people have gone on fun road trips and had awesome experiences in our van and that we’re able to keep adding to these memories 30+ years later.
- Insurance is usually cheaper. I say usually because insurance has so many facets that influence rates but for us, it’s about a $300-500/yr difference if we were to have a 2005 Sprinter, for example (I did an online quote out of curiosity).
- Fuel economy. This speaks for itself…we get about 5 km/L or 12 mpg, which is pretty terrible. We also have a 137L (36 gallon) gas tank so you can imagine that our gas fill-ups aren’t cheap.
- More likely to have rust or other sorts of body damage. Again, pretty straight forward: it’s been on the road longer and if it hasn’t been stored in a garage all the time then rust can be somewhat inevitable – especially if you’re in a place that uses road salt.
- They can be “interesting” to drive. Back to the quirks thing, driving an older van can be a pretty different experience from driving a modern vehicle. For example, our van has a carburetor, which requires a special pattern of gas pedal pumping and engine revving to get started and idling correctly. Similarly, older Volkswagens have air-cooled engines which might limit how much going you can do at one time in hot places among other things.
- Performance capabilities. Of course with a new engine and other costly replacements, an old van can run like a hot rod. However, lots of older vans in their current states need to drive a little slower and might struggle with mountain passes and other situations that are stressful on the engine. In any case, most people are fairly receptive to older rigs and will give you your space or pass as they do with transport trucks. Some people are still jerks though and just love to ride your tail. Pretty unproductive since they’re the only ones who end up being frustrated by going the speed limit but that’s their problem.
IN THIS CORNER: NEWER VANS
- Clean slate. By going for a Sprinter or other cargo van, it’s much more likely to find them completely empty or with minimal structure to remove before converting. Even if you have to remove rows of seating, buying a relatively empty van allows you to do whatever you want with it and not adhere to an already established layout that may not work for you.
- Warranty or financing options. Whether you’re buying brand new or new-ish, you’re more likely to have financing options or still be under some sort of manufacturer/dealer warranty. Personally, this wasn’t something we cared about but having financing as an option is helpful if you’re buying a pricier rig. Warranty can also relieve a lot of stress for people who aren’t mechanically sound, even though going through warranty often ends up being a huge headache.
- Fuel economy. Yeah, this is a big one. Less fill-ups and more efficient consumption can save you a lot in monthly expenses.
- Modern conveniences. If having dash air conditioning and things like GPS or Bluetooth-enabled radio is important to you then a newer vehicle is probably a better fit. That’s not to say that older vans won’t or can’t have these things but it’s far less common or would require your own modifications. Safety features are also a thing but even all the bells and whistles won’t save you if you’re a reckless driver – it’s all about going low and slow, regardless of the age of your vehicle.
- Stealth/Anonymity. This doesn’t apply to all old vs. new vans but usually a white cube van parked in an industrial area or even a residential street doesn’t scream “camper van” while many older rigs are a bit more forward. In good and bad ways, our van attracts a lot of attention and has a distinct look while Sprinters blend in pretty much anywhere.
- More size options. You can get some pretty long and tall Sprinters/Transits/Promasters that are similar in size to a small RV. These things come out of the factory with tall roofs and extended bodies while a lot of older vans have had these modifications done after-market.
- More upfront expenses. The initial purchase price of a newer vehicle is going to be higher unless you’re going for some crazy souped-up collector’s van that Mick Jagger might have sat in once. According to your budget, you have to weigh out if it’s more realistic for you to pay more for the van itself and less on fuel over the years or vice versa.
- Costly repairs. Looking under the hood of a newer vehicle is not the same as looking at the guts of an older vehicle. Usually the new compartmentalized style is geared toward having to get a professional to do most of your repairs and of course, paying a pretty penny for it. Also if you’re in a rut and on warranty, repairs done by you or a non-certified garage can void it; if you break down in the middle of nowhere, this can tack on a lot of extra stress.
- Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better. A lot of things nowadays are built with planned obsolesce in mind. Would a manufacturer genuinely want you to buy a vehicle and then barely spend any money on it for a decade? Of course not. They want you to buy brand-specific parts and do maintenance at arbitrary factory-determined intervals. Also, just like a new pair of shoes or a baseball glove, things are just better once they’re broken in.
- Higher insurance rates. It’s pretty simple, the newer vehicles are worth more so they are naturally more expensive to insure.
- Lack of windows. In many cases, Sprinters or Ford Transits are cargo vans and not passenger vans so owners have to install windows themselves if they want them. Personally, we love being able to get tons of natural light and have the feeling that we’re outside when we’re not from the panoramic windows. If you’ve ever lived in a basement apartment, you’ll get it.
THE WINNER IS….
There is no winner. Womp womp womp. Ultimately, this is a very personal decision based on your budget, mechanical know-how and how much work you want to put into it. Owning an older vehicle is a labour of love that’s priceless for some and completely unappetizing for others. If you’re willing to learn and are motivated to do repairs yourself then even with the higher costs of fuel, an older van will still probably end up costing you less after 5 years. As this redditor puts it,
“[…]if I compare my Econoline at 12mpg to a new equivalent Transit at 17mpg, it takes 204k miles at $2 a gallon to pay back even $10k of extra cost on the Transit.”
A lot of things added in modern vehicles geared at making your life easier can often make your life hell when they’re not functioning properly – computerization can be a blessing and a curse. I suppose the final thing to consider is how long you plan to own the van and how its resale value will be affected after that term. New vehicles lose value as soon as they drive off the lot so let someone else take the depreciation hit. Just remember, newer doesn’t always mean better and whichever route you choose, make that van your own and get cruisin’!