When Austin Bell set out on a cross-country trip in a Sprinter van he built with a bed, batteries and a “porch” roof rack, he thought he would be gone for a while. month.
Two and a half months later, Bell returned to Harrisonburg with a business idea that embraced a west coast lifestyle and aimed to make it more accessible on the east coast.
âI was planning on leaving for a month and a month later I realized I was in Portland, Oregon, and I realized I was halfway there,â Bell said. âIt was fantastic, it opened my eyes. I did it solo, all this decision making was [great for me.]”
Bell wanted to share the experience he had and make the trip in a van with camping capabilities accessible to people of all price ranges. As a result, he started a new business with his father, Ken Bell, called Skyline Van Design, which was launched earlier this year. The company offers modular components to make DIY easier while providing custom builds and services for customers.
âWe’re focused on creating a modular system of components that can be kind of plug-and-play and built so you don’t necessarily have to buy the full kit all at once,â said Austin Bell. . “There are a lot of companies that create these high-end constructions, but they cost $ 200,000 and that’s [an expensive] entry for many [customers]. “
With the help of his father, who runs a business called Tradeshow Direct that makes custom trade show displays, Austin Bell secured space, manufacturing tools, and funding to help start the business.
âMy experience so far is creating custom trade show counters that are all modular and things like that,â said Ken Bell. âSo it took us 25 years to build custom modular living room furniture and turn it into modular van parts. It sort of flows from us because it’s something I’ve been doing for so long. “
Using computer-aided design, Austin Bell, a 2019 architecture graduate from the University of Virginia, created a kitchen cabinet. It includes a safe fridge-cooler, microwave and three different power sources. The electrical system includes an AC to DC charger, which connects to the vehicle’s alternator to recharge while driving; a solar charge controller that connects to solar panels on the roof of the vehicle; and an inverter charger that can be plugged into an outlet or a campsite.
Bell said he used a combination of solar power and car charging to power his journey up the northern United States to Portland and back along the southern United States to Harrisonburg.
âBetween solar energy and recharging the car, I had no problem for two and a half months crossing the country. My batteries never went below 80%, âsaid Bell.
Another big part of the business, which operates out of a warehouse next to Brothers Craft Brewing, is the customization and aesthetics. In addition to incorporating branded components, customers who purchase modular offerings can choose accent colors. Van customers can also opt to install custom flooring in their van and can choose from a variety of multi-colored textiles for the floor mats.
âIf you ever go to a high end kitchen design center, we kind of want to have it when you walk in here. You can explore these different color options so that you can really make them your own. So materials and finishes are things that really interest us, âsaid Ken Bell.
Currently, the Bells fully equip a 2021 beige Mercedes sprinter van with a roof rack, ladder, lights and more in part of the company’s warehouse space.
Austin Bell said he plans to use the van, once it’s completed, at trade shows as a display, as a rental and potentially sell it to a customer.
âWe’re definitely pushing that level of aesthetics to the curb. We’re going to make him sound badass. It’s going to be functional and badass at the same time. Not everyone who comes to us will want the all-terrain wheel and tire combo and all those exterior components, but it kind of shows the potential of the products we’re going to be offering, âsaid Austin Bell.
Arranging vans is often a do-it-yourself activity, but Austin Bell, who spent about four months outfitting his own van, said it can get tricky when it comes to electrical and other large installations. projects, like cutting a new window.
Jeremy Wimpey, director of Applied Trails Research, spends much of the year designing and maintaining forest trails across the country and relies on a van equipped for the job.
âMy first van, I was afraid it would burn to the ground because I did the wiring myself. I made two [vans] in the past and I just don’t have time to do it all, âWimpey said.
Wimpey, who recently bought a new van, said he decided to become a Skyline Van Design customer because of his location and the team’s level of expertise.
” They are close. Most of the places the pickup trucks work are in the west, so it’s really nice to have a pickup resource on the east coast, âWimpey said. “[Until] pandemic, I lived in my van probably half the year for work. But I still carry stuff in it. So have something that looks like a convertible and doesn’t slam when you are driving on country roads.
Austin Bell is betting that his ability to design fully functional vans with computer aided technology before making anything will set his business apart from DIY enthusiasts who want a van life experience.
âWe did a lot of initial computer prototyping first. We design the van on a computer even before we start cutting the wood so that we can see how it will flow. I have the impression that a lot of people think that every pickup truck starts from scratch. But for us, by the time we cut our first piece of wood, in the virtual world, we prototyped it about four times, âsaid Ken Bell.