John Dyer builds a Defender camper that offers generous space and comfort for all the family
Our Dormobile Defender 110, which we affectionately call Ruby, is far more than just another Land Rover. She has become part of the glue that keeps our family together, young and happy. Ruby offers us the means to an instant escape from the constant pressures of school and work. She gives us the opportunity to make time for one another and to enjoy each other. No other vehicle that I have owned has ever managed to do this. I suppose it does help that she is a Defender, the most versatile vehicle ever produced.
My children, Wilamena (8) and Martha-Lilly (15), just love everything about Ruby, especially the cosy interior. With a bed each, they both have their own space, like a tree house on wheels, it really sparks their imaginations and ours. Even if we just go away for one night in Ruby, it still feels like we have taken a holiday – probably due to the fact we've broken the routine of sleeping at home. It's camping made simple, you just turn the key and off you go. It’s a wonderful thing really. I know I'm waxing lyrical about her but I do have one regret. Why did we take so long to convert her from a regular station wagon to a Dormobile Defender? The decision to go down this route was a practical and cost-effective one. Camper vans are much in vogue at the moment with VW Danbury conversions enjoying a lot of positive press. Over the years I have toyed with the idea of a camper van and always decided against it because of the costs and practicalities. I simply couldn’t imagine having three vehicles or not having my trusty Defender 110.
Friends of ours have assorted campers including Bongos and VWs, but for various reasons they don't use them often. They complain that the children get too big and don’t fit into the top beds, or that they get too cold at night. I purchased Ruby secondhand in 2004 with just 38,000 miles. Today she has covered 97k. Ruby was one of the last 12-seater Defender 110 County Station Wagons that Land Rover manufactured in 2001, this is why we wanted her. On one memorable occasion we drove from our campsite in France, to just across the border in Italy to grab a pizza. The Italians couldn’t believe what they were seeing when 12 people climbed out and occupied an enormous table in front of the restaurant. The fact that Ruby can carry loads of cargo is another reason why we bought her. My wife Jo and I are artists and we can pack an entire exhibition of framed artwork into the back, whilst the easels to display the pieces go onto the roof. We have done some huge exhibitions that sometimes attract audiences of over 900 people. When doing so in places like Monaco, the Defender sure looks funny parked among Bentleys, Ferraris and Aston Martins outside the Hotel de Paris or Hermitage. Ruby is not a vehicle that ever stands still, we use her all the time and all over the place. We really racked up the miles when living in Monaco for three years. It must have been comical to watch her attempt the hairpins and switchbacks – which at times required a three-point turn – almost always accompanied by a cacophony of beeping horns.
She also came with us to Italy when we had a studio there. Needless to say that after a decade of working for us she was looking a bit tired. Water leaks had appeared, the roof lining was sagged and mouldy, doors rusted, and the children had long outgrown the rear seats. Ruby had become a part of the family though, selling her was unthinkable. And how do you replace a 12-seater station wagon? A camper van perhaps? Or better still, a Dormobile Defender. We investigated three options. The German Ex-Tec lifting roof, the Swiss designed Safari-Equip and the Dormobile. One thing I didn’t want was a Land Rover that was carting around a kitchen sink and associated camper van clutter for no good reason. All of the solutions were really clever but for me the original Dormobile design was by far the best, and it was also good value. After discovering that a lifting roof was only around £1000 more than replacing the mouldy headlining, I realised that not only would we end up with our dream camper van, but we would have a good as new Land Rover too. The main aim of our bespoke camper van was to bring the family together and provide a vehicle with all the utility and space it originally had, but with the capability to feed and house four people and Digory, our sausage dog.
Creating a 12 seater, four berth mobile art studio and B&B, the Dormobile conversion would be perfect. Dormobile in Romsey, near Southampton, handled the entire bespoke conversion with real style and attention to detail. Ruby now has a Dormobile pop-up roof, which provides lots of headroom when fully extended, with two built-in full sized bunks. One of the bunks is placed slightly higher to make sure it will accomodate an adult without their weight causing the canvas to stretch and hit the steel of the roof conversion. And instead of fitting two Dormobile roof windows, a Land Rover sunroof has been installed to create more light. As well as proving a cheaper option, it also acts as a vent while sleeping or cooking. Like the bunks, the roof is available in a variety of coloured fabrics, and I opted for red inside and white outside to provide a nice contract but to also ensure it didn't cast any colour when I paint inside the Land Rover. You can customise the canopy with .your own design, fortunately I kept my head and resisted the urge to have a large Union Jack or one of my paintings pasted over it.
A leisure battery and split charger has been cunningly fitted under the passenger seat, next to the starter battery. And to ensure we can all see whilst camping, we have fitted interior LED lighting for each bed, rear and front passengers, together with USB charging points for further practicality. Moreover, with a highly capable, solid chassis we are able to picnic where no other camper van can picnic. Under the rear forward facing seats Webasto Air Top 200ST heating has been installed with a thermostatic control in the back near to the door. This runs off the leisure battery for up to 36 hours and pumps diesel straight out of the main tank to burn and create heat. We have fitted silencers to the air intake and exhaust to make the system almost silent for other campers. The heating is incredibly efficient and with a few of the summer evenings often dropping down to 12 deg C, it keeps us warm all year round. It also means we can brave the snow and hail, and get away during those depressing winter months. It's a wonderful way to get the family together and escape modern day living, allowing us to make simple food, play boardgames, chat and snuggle. It’s what being a family should be. The next task was to upgrade the three rear seats, as the original Land Rover items didn’t have high backs, which weren't very safe for children. We also needed to fit a full width futon to give us the flexibility of a pull-out double bed. Exmoor Trim did a superb job – a patform made of plywood is stowed under the cushions of the rear bench seat and extends out to make a platform for the futon to sit on.
The space underneath takes all our belongings, and offers incredible living flexibilty. As Ruby has a rear wash wipe space is limited, so Dormobile built a bespoke table that folds so it fits onto the rear door. The two rear three man bench seats in the Defender make the perfect benches for this table – it’s almost as if Land Rover should have always equipped their 12 seater station wagons with this. set-up of table. It cam also stand outside the vehicle on its supplied tripod foot. With a small gas stove that's housed under the rear seats and a collapsible kettle we can get a brew on or whizz up some pasta in a second. A new windscreen and seals were also fitted, the gutters repaired and resprayed where necessary, and a chequer plate added to the bonnet and wings, together with a front roof rack and curtain track all round. Dormobile also fitted a special detachable bar to the back so we can still take our full sized Old Town canoe.
The canoe fits on the Dormobile Brown Church front roof rack and extends over the pop-up roof to rest on the bar on the back. It’s very simple, but extremely durable. The rear bar also makes a brilliant support for a rear awning. We have an Outdoor Revolution Cayman Tailgate 4x4 freestanding awning that we use on longer trips to create more space, whether that's for dining or for storing items whenever we leave the campsite for a day. So for just over £6000 we have a new camper van converted from a base vehicle that we know, love and trust. It’s absolutely perfect for our family. We could have spent less, but we took the opportunity to make repairs, getting her back to her former glory, and the heating system means we can use her all year round. Afterall, we want Ruby to last as we have so many adventures planned. If you have a Land Rover and fancy a camper van, you don't need to look any further, you already have the basics. Ours has been the subject of much admiration and we're having a huge amount of fun as a family. Dormobile can covert 90s too so don’t despair if that's what you have sitting outside your house.
Whether I'm cooking on the bonnet, the children are playing musical instruments from the roof or Jo's painting, the Defender allows every member of the family to indulge in their favourite pasttime. And then, come the evening, when we're under the stars with our steaming mugs of hot chocolate and the promise of a warm, snug bed to climb into, it seems that nothing in life is quite as rewarding as our Defender.ABOUT DORMOBILEThe company was originally called Martin Walter, named after the family that started making harnesses in the late 1700s. They progressed to carriages a year later, and by the early pre-first world war years were selling a number of different makes of car and commerical vehicles. Production continued, albeit with difficulty due to the shortage of materials, so they produced products for export, which stood them in good stead during the 50s and 60s. When the development of the motor caravan stemmed from the Bedford CA, it quickly became the mainstay of the travelling salesman and delivery driver. And when Walter found out that people were sleeping in the vans at the weekend, they introduced the folding seat design, which was patented and named Dormatic. This created the demand for the addition of a stove and sink, the patented Dormobile roof with two bunks gave the CA a 4-berth capacity.Although production figures were lost in the demise of the company, photographic evidence shows over 10,000 conversions were produced using various makes of vehicles. The development of different products flooding the recreational market, led to the last motorhome conversion in 1984, and ten years later the collapse of the company. To cut a long story short the Dormobile name and goodwill were purchased from the Official Receiver in 1999, before it was sold to SHB Hire Group in 2002. Dormobile, specialises in the supply of spare parts to the original Dormobile vehicle market, and offers conversions of new and older Land Rover vehicles. For more details go to the website www.dormobile.co.uk or phone 01794 830831.