When we first got serious about our lifestyle change, we’d planned to convert a large cargo van (like a Mercedes/Dodge Sprinter van, Dodge Promaster, or similar). There are definitely reasons why that would have been the right choice, but ultimately the size, price, and classic look of the Cortez sealed the deal.
It’s pretty cool to own a bit of American history (although a niche one). If you’re interested in the history of the Clark Cortez Camper this curbside classic article covers it at length. Thanks to previous owner, King, a retired diesel railroad mechanic and classic car collector, our 1964 Cortez was mechanically sound. It was also outfitted with some useful mechanical and functional updates, including lightweight truck tires, and a second radiator core.
The interior of the Cortez was perfectly fine and functional. So why the #!%$! did we tear into our fully functional RV?
Well, it all started with a few small issues we wanted to address and snowballed from there. As tends to happen with renovations, once we started one thing, we ended up adding others, so this became a bigger project than we’d initially intended.
If you want all the details about what we did read on. Or you can head straight to the beautiful images of finished product in our post: Cortez van restoration final product.
Here’s a list of the 6 main “problems” we addressed with our re-build:
- Problem #1: The bed was too damn small: Tez’s original “bunk beds” were supposed to fit 4 adults, but they measured smaller than a twin-sized bed. Matt and I aren’t large people, and this setup seemed okay for shorter trips, but not full-time. We also weren’t sold on having a convertible bed (having to put it up and down all the time).
- Solution: We cut the kitchen and bathroom in half, knocked down the bathroom wall, and re-worked our space to fit a queen-sized bed next to the kitchen. We decided that we were okay with getting rid of the aisle that existed pre-renovation in order to gain the luxury of a large bed and the additional under-bed storage space. This also solved two problems at once (bed and storage, see below)!
- Problem #2: Not enough storage: This would be our primary residence for at least a few months at a time, so we’d need space for all of our gear– tents, sleeping pads, climbing equipment, etc.
- Solution: We rebuilt and expanded the overhead storage on the passenger and driver’s side. We also removed the incandescent lighting and replaced it with LEDs each with individual switches. We added a bookshelf and storage by the bed, and an overhead shelf in the driver’s area. We also added storage in the bathroom area, which included a combination of custom-built and purchased storage solutions, like a small medicine cabinet/mirror combo, and hanging crochet storage.
- Problem #3: Too many luxurious but space-hogging amenities: The RV’s original (to us) propane heater, three-burner range and oven, on demand hot water heater and two sinks took up too much space and made it difficult to solve the two problems above. We needed to give up some comforts that came with our camper in order to make it work for our planned lifestyle. Although we hadn’t initially planned to have internal or water heating or even a toilet, it felt weird to take out amenities that came with the camper. Would we be okay without hot water or heat?
- Solution: We removed the bathroom sink, three-burner range/oven, and propane heater to make space for a larger bed and more storage, but kept the on-demand hot water heater and toilet.
- Problem #4: Tez was fridgeless: The camper originally came with a propane-powered fridge, but it had since been removed.
To solve our fridgeless woes we weighed a few options:
- Low amp draw 12V DC/AC electrical fridge (which we’d run off our solar) like Dometic (Amazon), ARB (Amazon), Whynter (Amazon), EdgeStar (Amazon)
- Small stand up freezer converted to fridge (decent how to article , or google it)
- Highly-rated, quality cooler like Canyon (Amazon), or Yeti (Amazon)
- Solution: We purchased the 50L ARB DC/AC fridge through REI. To keep the price as reasonable as possible, we used both of our REI dividends (tip: place your order over the phone to use multiple dividends) and a 20% off coupon. We are *very* happy with this fridge so far. It holds enough fresh food to keep us off-grid for a week or more at a time. Something we learned in the research process is that the ARB uses with the most efficient compressor from a company called Danfoss. It draws between 0.7 to 2.3 amps per hour. We’ve run it for three days on battery power without our solar panels hooked up and it could have likely run for at least two more. The fridge is also perfectly-sized that it becomes an additional seat at our fold-down table. (The company doesn’t recommend using as a seat but we haven’t had any issues so far!).
- Problem #5: Tezarae needed to be plugged into shore power to function: Originally, the RV used two power systems: a separate AC and a DC, which is somewhat standard. The lights (incandescent) and water pump were wired to the DC circuit and the 120V outlets were AC only. To use the outlets you had to be plugged into shore power, and to recharge the house battery you either needed to plug into shore power or run the engine. This wouldn’t work for us since we planned to boondock and live off the grid as much as possible (and mostly avoid RV parks).There were a few other smaller related problems: the RV’s outdated DC fuse block needed to be updated. In addition, some appliances, including the stove and oven, hot water heater, and space heater used propane, and we prefer not to heavily rely on non-renewable energies.
- Solution: We’re solar powered! We installed a solar system that allows us to fully function without shore power. This not only saves us money in the long term, but also allows us to be more spontaneous and stay in more beautiful places for longer before we need to resupply. We built our solar setup so that we can easily expand in the near term (plenty of room for additional panels, batteries, our charge converter is 40amps, and the inverter is 1500w).We also decided to keep our propane-powered on demand water heater and propane two-burner stove. So, while we haven’t eliminate all non-renewable energies, we built our power system to allow us to do so seamlessly in the future if/when we’re ready (by adding an induction stove, for example).
- Problem #6: We were a bit leaky and rusty. The Clark Cortez is made of steel, and back in the ‘60s there weren’t as many rust-protection solutions. Although we lucked out given the condition and age of our camper, as we drove back through rainy Oregon, we still noticed spots that would need our attention. (Ie: water was rushing down our windshield and we had to stop to deal with it during a crazy downpour in Portland right near VooDoo Donut).
- Solution: This will forever be a work-in-progress for us given the age of our rig. For now, we’ve dealt with it by: first scraping all interior rust with wire brushes. Then, we used an organic rust converter solution, Corroseal, which changes the rust to magnetite. We waited for that to dry before we put up any insulation. (Look out for a future video run-down of this whole process).During the van build-out, we wanted until almost dead last to finish the ceiling. During the build, I hated the exposed ceiling because it served as a constant reminder of how far we had to go in the restoration. There’s nothing like sleeping in your half-finished future home during a freak New Year’s Eve snow storm in Joshua Tree (it’s a desert isn’t it supposed to be warm!?) to kick your ass into overdrive to get the thing done, insulated, now! But, in the end, this ended up being a brilliant, unplanned move.
We drove through a few rainstorms with the ceiling semi-opened (insulated but not finished with the wood) and were able to address leaks right there on the road (well, after we dried a bit) with a spray-can of Flexseal and a caulk-gun with a tube of UV-proof lap sealant. We will still need to address exterior cracks, rust, and leaks.
As I’m sure is common amongst many DIYers, we’ll always consider our home a bit of a work-in-progress, but we’ve really happy with the current setup for our on-the-road lifestyle. We’re more than six months into living in Tez full-time and so far there’s only one major item we need to address (our dining room table just isn’t working!)… but that’ll be for a future article.