Converting Giovanni – Will & Tilly’s Gorgeous Fiat

Proud owners of Giovanni, Will and Tilly spill the highs & lows of their second van build and their top tips for aspiring converters!

Bertie, Will & Tilly’s adorable terrier, stole the show at Giovanni’s Port Hills photo shoot!

Getting Giovanni

Why did you choose to take on Giovanni and convert him yourself?

We’re from the UK, and when we decided to make the move to NZ we knew we wanted to maximise our time exploring the country when we arrived, and like many others we knew that one of the best ways to see NZ is by van.

Having converted a VW T4 in the UK, we knew we wanted something a little bigger over here that could comfortably fit two humans, a terrier (Bertie!), a bike and all our other kit that we’d moved to NZ with. It needed to be comfortable enough to live in for 5+ months and be suitable for winter, as we arrived in May.

Finding an existing conversion that fit all these criteria was going to be tough within our budget, but we weren’t afraid of making significant changes to improve and beautify an existing conversion, with the hope that we could rent it out down the line when we settled and found work in NZ.

A quick cuppa between jobs!

How did you find Giovanni?

On day 3 of being in NZ we saw the Facebook Marketplace ad for a Fiat Ducato which had good bones but was pretty tired and very dated on the inside. Initially we dismissed it as we hadn’t been looking at Fiats and because of its beige/white box motorhome style. Eventually we decided to go and view it, and were pleasantly surprised – it was big, already self-contained (and will remain certified under the new self-containment law), insulated and solar powered. Although the electrics and gas both needed work, and it had leaks in the roof which had caused some rot, we could see that it had generally been well cared for and was mechanically sound.

Overall, we decided that we could handle the level of work needed to make it suitable for us, and knew that we would be able to rescue it from its serious lack of character and “quirkify” it a bit, without it being so much work that we couldn’t get it all done in the driveway of our Auckland Airbnb (which we only had for 12 days so the clock was ticking!).

Bertie being oh so helpful 😄

Planning the Build

Did you have any initial hesitations about converting Giovanni by yourself?

There’s always trepidation at the beginning of a conversion, and arguably more so with a renovation like this as you can never be sure what’s lurking beneath the surface! However, there’s no point getting too hung up on what might be, the best tactic is to get stuck right in.

Looking back, were those concerns valid? How did you overcome them?

We did find a little more rot than anticipated which put us behind schedule, but nothing wood hardener and silicone couldn’t handle. The old veneer panels required lots of prep and primer to make sure the topcoat would stick properly without chipping, but we knew we needed to make sure Giovanni was good for the long run so all the effort was worthwhile.

The main challenge for us was the lack of proper facilities, so if you’ve got a garage and tools on hand you’re in a great place.

What resources did you use to answer any self-build questions you had throughout the build?

I can recommend an excellent conversion book/website called the Van Conversion Bible written by Dale Comley and Charlie Low. I used to work with Dale at Dyson and he has an excellent way of conveying complex information in a methodical and clear manner which anyone can absorb. Having a physical book when your hands are getting mucky mid conversion is also very useful!

Quick-Fire Questions

  • Why the name “Giovanni?” – The criteria was Italian (as he’s a Fiat), contain ‘van’ and be a chunky name, as he’s quite a chunky chap.
  • What were the pros and cons of converting an already partly converted camper?
    • Pros – there’s less to do as the essentials are all there, so you can focus on adding extras and improving the aesthetics.
    • Cons – you have to compromise with the existing build and be creative with getting what you want to add to fit into the available space – like installing the pullout bin under the 3rd passenger seat which otherwise was a lot of wasted, hard to access, empty space.

  • How long did the conversion take? It’s difficult to say as we spread it out over the 5 months we were living in the van with intense periods at the start to get it ready for us to live in, and then again at the end to get it ready to rent when we were moving into a house. All of the renovation work was done without a proper workshop, and almost all of it was done in places like the parking of our Airbnb, freedom camp areas, and quiet car parks.
    • Month 1 – re-siliconed the roof and mended the rot the leaks had caused; cleaned, sanded & painted the interior and replaced the handles; replaced the worktops; fitted a new cupboard to improve kitchen area storage; installed the pullout bin; fitted the inverter; added the roof lining.
    • Month 2-4 – made tweaks as we got to know the van and discussed what would make it more space efficient etc.
    • Month 5 – Sanded, oiled and fitted the birch ply highlights; replaced the bathroom door; installed the vinyl bathroom and kitchen tiles; re-did the roof lining; handmade the blind for the sliding door and the curtain tiebacks; added the bookholders; painted the ‘Giovanni’ lettering.

  • Tell us about his gorgeous artwork!? – Every van needs a name, and that name deserves to be displayed! Tilly wrote the lettering freehand, and we found the pressed flowers at a farmer’s market in Christchurch. 
  • What’s your favourite feature of Giovanni? – the splashes of colour and the bathroom tiles. A relatively straightforward job that makes such a huge difference.
  • How would you describe Giovanni? – Chunky on the outside, homely on the inside.

The Van Build

Talk us through the build. How did you do what?

It’s a good idea to sit down at the beginning of any renovation or conversion and establish your requirements in priority order. This makes it a lot easier to make decisions down the line if you’re getting close to your budget and remind yourself of what the most important elements are.

Once you’ve done that it’s time to figure out your systems, particularly the electronics. Try not to overcomplicate them as it’s amazing how quickly the costs can spiral!

Giovanni’s process was relatively organic as we discovered the needs and wants while on the road and if something needed doing quickly we could set aside a couple of days to do it. By the time we came to the final phase of renovations we had managed to sort out the major usability concerns and could focus on creating that homely feeling we were after.

This required a sheet of 9mm Birch Plywood – we love this material as it’s stable in varying humidity and temperatures, and with a light sand a few coats of satin varnish you get fantastic edge detail with a subtle grain on top, providing an uncluttered warm aesthetic and the ‘Scandi’ vibe too!

Giovanni’s finished curtain pullbacks looking good!

How did you find it overall?

It was immensely satisfying coming to the end of the renovation, Giovanni is a genuinely lovely place to be and all the really hard parts are already fading into distant memory.

The Highs

What was the most satisfying aspect of the van build?

Changing the worktops from the existing grey melamine to solid wood counters, this made a huge impact in changing the feel of the van from generic to homely.

What was the most challenging?

The time, budget and tool constraints.

No greater feeling than lying on the finished bed for the first time!

The Lows

What was the most frustrating part?

Probably having to adjust to a new country’s hardware supply e.g. names, brands, stores and costs. Will knew what he would be looking for if we were in the UK, but obviously it’s all slightly different over here. So there was more than one 3 hour long search of Bunnings/Mitre 10 debating what we could adapt to our needs… We often couldn’t find exactly what we were looking for, only to either come away empty handed and have to return the next day to buy the first item that we’d originally found. Or, we’d compromise on an item, buy it, and then find the exact thing we’d initially been looking for in another shop.

The fog of jet lag really didn’t help us either! Eventually we gave up on trying to find things ourselves and realised that the staff in these shops were super helpful when we asked for help… We are also huge fans of NZ having coffee shops inside hardware stores, a real life/marriage saver on more than one occasion. 

Also, having just packed up and stored all of Will’s tools in the UK, it was pretty frustrating to have to buy new ones out here when we knew we had them already (a few 1000 miles away). However, we’d learnt from converting our previous van that the right tools are worth it, so Tilly had to agree to loosen the purse strings on the budget.

Giovanni’s uninterrupted rear door views are amazing!

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Both of our van conversions have been on vehicles that had already been partially converted to varying standards. This meant that unless we wanted to rip everything out and start again, we needed to compromise to fit in with what was already there. Inevitably this can make the process more challenging and you sometimes have to be quite creative in working out your solutions.

Will is now running his own van conversion business, Fern Campervans, where he is doing a full conversion from scratch. This allows full control of the design, while utilising all the creative solutions that he’s found useful in the past.

Top 5 Tips for Rookie Converters

  1. If you can, invest in the right tools from the start, or borrow/rent them if you can’t afford them outright. 
  2. Be flexible. Have a plan, but don’t be afraid to make changes if things just aren’t working.
  3. Don’t poke about with a sharp box cutter when you’re doing the roof lining. It will lead to an expensive visit to the car electrician when your rear lights suddenly stop working…..
  4. If you have the luxury of family close by, get them involved!
  5. Coffee and a good podcast make everything better.

All the hard work feels worth it when your afternoons can look like this 😄

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Will’s van conversion business is called Fern Campervans and is based out of Christchurch. If anyone has a question or would like to enquire about a possible conversion get in touch at

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