This is the first episode of our new series “Building Dory” and here is the story of how we found her and brought her home. For the next two months, we will be working on converting this beautiful “modern classic” 1993 Volkswagen LT28 van to our new home on wheels. Since this will be our full-time home for the next few years it raises the bar significantly compared to our last van.

We are doing the conversion ourselves and completely from scratch, so it is not only a massive undertaking but we are also on a tight deadline. Due to visa restrictions, Scott has to leave Sweden by early November when his three-month tourist visa expires and Karma is not allowed to return to New Zealand again until next fall. So if we want to be together we basically have to travel, jumping borders every three months when our tourist visas run out. What better way to do that than living in a van? We already love vanlife, and it seems the only logical choice in our situation. Besides, it will be fun!

We started by making a short wishlist of the criteria we wanted in our new van. Nothing extravagant mind you, but a rather specific list nonetheless. But as we set out to find a suitable van we soon learned that very few vans in Sweden matched our list.

Our van-shopping wishlist

  • Character – we really wanted something we could fall in love with
  • Size – large enough for a permanent bed (not something we needed to convert every day) and an indoor kitchen
  • High top – we really wanted to be able to stand up inside the van
  • Diesel – a torquier engine to get us over the mountains on our adventures
  • A blank slate – preferrably a van that had not already been converted to camper
  • Budget – nothing too expensive

We really loved our last van in New Zealand, a super tiny Toyota Liteace, and thought we might look into its bigger brother, the Hiace, for this build. We soon found out that they pretty much only come as left-hand drive vehicles though, while perfect for New Zealand it would be really annoying for mainland Europe where we drive on the right. So we started looking at Volkswagens.

While the classic Kombi vans are super charming they are usually really overpriced and underpowered rustbuckets on top of just being ridiculously small! We also looked at the classic T3 (or Syncro) models. While they are really cool, especially the 4wd models, and enjoy almost the same cult status as the Kombi, they are also just too small for what we wanted this time around. Enter the Volkswagen LT series. The LT is the T3’s big brother. Similar body style but much less expensive and a whole lot bigger. We were sold!

Flying to Vienna to buy a van

Pretty much the first question people ask when we tell them this story is “why didn’t you buy one in Sweden?” Turns out older classic vans are few and far in between and ones with high tops next to nonexistent. We actually managed to find one in Sweden, but it was almost as far off (way up north) and the engine came in pieces… in two buckets… lol. So we booked plane tickets to Austria hoping for the best.

I should mention that the seller of this van spoke no English what so ever, and since none of us speak German the whole deal was set up via sms using Google translate. On our questions regarding rust and how it was running, we got the reply “motor läuft 1a kein rost”, which basically translates to “engine runs 1a no rust”. We are guessing it means that the engine runs “a-ok”… meaning that is is “in good condition”. Excellent… what could possibly go wrong?

We land in Vienna and Uber to the sellers’ house for the first look of our future home. She was a beauty! Oh alright, we are talking about a 35-year-old bus here, but she has been really well looked after. Very little rust, as promised, and the big turbo diesel ran great! Stepping inside for the first time was amazing, the potential seemed endless! Perfect size and a completely blank slate. She was perfect!

After sleeping in the sellers’ driveway, on a mattress in the back of the van, we got all the paperwork sorted so we could bring her home to Sweden.

Meet Dory – the blue adventure bus

Dory ticked all the boxes on our wishlist and stole our hearts immediately. We even fell in love with the blue color (hence the name… from the movie Finding Nemo). Only one problem–she was in Vienna!
  • Character: 1993 Volkswagen LT28, a natural blue
  • Size: long wheelbase = lots of space!
  • High top: check!
  • Diesel: 2.4L turbo diesel engine
  • Blank slate: yes
  • Budget: good deal (motivated seller)

Importing a van to Sweden check-list

You don’t have to pay tax (VAT) on older cars and since we were buying our van within the EU we did not even have to clear it through customs or pay any added value tax. Hell, it is not even technically called an import, but there is still some hoops you have to jump through when you are bringing a vehicle in across borders. Here is what we did (will do):
  • Temporary plates: road traffic insurance and a temporary registration with an Austrian  insurance company so we could get temporary plates to legally drive it home (we got the cheapest 3-day plan)
  • Road traffic insurance: another insurance with a Swedish company so we could apply for temporary registration and a verification of origin check once back home
  • Verification of origin check: the Swedish transport authority checks the original papers of the van (registration certificate and the sales receipt)
  • Registration inspection and technical identity verification: we are waiting to get this done after the build is completed since the van will change identity from light truck to camper at this point (why we got the temporary registration so we can legally drive the van for 3 months while building it)
  • Roadworthiness test
  • Allocating and activating the registration number for the van
  • Off on adventures!

It is a super fun project but it can be a daunting process at times. We are trying to make this into the ultimate van for us, on a budget and in a limited timeframe and we will share it all with you here. In the next video, we will talk more about planning the space and about insulation.