Good ideas don't have a shelf life. Take for instance the old VW Westfalia bus from the 1960s and 1970s; its fabric top popped up to create sleeping quarters that used the exterior side of the roof as a sleeping platform. That idea has been revived, this time on a new vehicle. Ursa Minor Vehicles, located in Chula Vista, California, has the 2003-2008 Honda Element as the vehicle of choice. Sitting around after a morning of surfing down in Baja, John Gish flashed on the idea to convert his all-wheel-drive Honda Element into a vintage-VW-inspired mobile hotel.
Marrying his engineering degree and experience with the same composite resin infusion process that he uses to create state-of-the-art single-piece molded kayaks, John quickly had a prototype designed, built, and ready to test. It passed with flying colors, and the ECamper was born. These days, Honda Element owners bring their vehicles to Ursa Minor at the rate of about four a month. It takes four working days to complete the transformation.
Not only is it a speedy conversion, but another particularly good piece of news is, in these economically challenging times, it's nice to report this modification has a thrifty suggested retail price of about $4300. Imagine being able to turn an everyday fuel-efficient transportation vehicle into a quasi-RV for just a few dollars. Equally important is that, during a long weekend of biking, hiking, and surfing, you no longer have to sleep in a primitive camp setting. Plus, once back at the office, your Honda Element can still be parked in the covered parking area at work (and at home), and the vehicle can be called into service and used to take the client to lunch as if nothing had changed.
According to Gish, 2003-2008 Elements offer two distinct advantages that are of major importance to the outdoor enthusiast. One, they have the option of all-wheel drive, making it easier for owners to get to places that are off the beaten path. Two, all-wheel-drive Elements come with a sunroof at the rear of the interior cargo area, making it easy to access the sleeping area above when the ECamper top is raised for use.
With the top raised and the sunroof panels-lightweight composite panels replace the factory sunroof hatch-stowed out of the way, a six-foot-five individual can stand upright in the back of the Honda Element and use it as a changing room. The ECamper instantly becomes the perfect place to don a bathing suit or wetsuit or change from wet to dry clothes after a day in the water.
Why can't 2009 Elements get the ECamper treatment? They will -- soon. For 2009, Honda no longer offers a sunroof in the Element, so Ursa Minor is proactively and aggressively crunching numbers and running its computer-aided design programs to work around the change; the hope is that, by the time you read this, the company will have created an access point in the rear portion of the roof. Thus, the conversion will be available for any Element owner, including those with two-wheel-drive models dating back to 2003.
We paid a visit to Ursa Minor's shop to watch the guys do a conversion on a 2004 Element. Following its completion, we borrowed the unit for several days to see how well it performed, both on the road and at the end of the day when it was time to go to sleep.
We checked the fuel economy over a 300-mile stretch and it came in right at 24 mpg, about the same as before the modification was made. With such a slight addition, only 4.5 inches, to the height of the roofline, we couldn't detect any wind or added noise from the composite top, even at freeway speeds.
And it took no more than 60 seconds to ready the unit for sleep duty: We simply released the two forward exterior mechanical latches (one at each corner of the roof) and pulled on two straps tucked up inside the sunroof opening; this releases two more internal mechanical latches inside the pop-top. Standing inside the cargo area, we pushed up the pop-top and swung down a hinged leg that locks the top in the extended position. Dropping the top and making it road-ready is equally easy.
When the top is raised, its highest point is at the rear of the vehicle. From there, it slopes down toward the front of the unit, where your feet go while you're reclined. The fabric panel walls are made of Sunbrella, a waterproof product that has the ability to breathe, is resistant to the effects of the sun, and comes with a three-year guarantee from the manufacturer.
Zippered panels on all sides let you allow in as much air as you want when inside, but zippered screens hold back the outside (and the bugs). On those absolutely perfect nights when you want to drift off to sleep while watching the stars above, these screens can be fully opened.
The sleeping area comes with a high-density foam mattress pad. With the composite sunroof inserts put into place, this mobile condo comfortably houses two full-size adults.
The modification shouldn't compromise the vehicle's warranty -- the only items removed are the exterior molding trim of the roofline and the roof-mounted antenna (replaced by an on-glass Shakespeare antenna across the top of the windshield). Wiring for the interior lights in the pop-top is tapped off the vehicle interior lights. Added illumination includes two LCD gooseneck reading lights and an LCD dome light, all of which are incorporated into the interior side of the top's roof.
The fabrication plant where John Gish creates his high-end composite kayaks is where the two-part composite top is made. In a process derived from the aerospace industry, catalyzed resin is pulled into a dry mold under a vacuum. Once the resin has cured, the vacuum is released and the finished part is removed for trimming. Ursa Minor subs out the fabrication of the Sunbrella panels that become the walls and screens in the pop-top. The floor or bed platform portion of the ECamper includes bracing structures created in the mold process.
The outside of platform is shaped to fit the curved roof, but is flat on the inside. A hinge-type mechanism is attached on each side of the sleeping platform at the front and then attached to the composite roof, and a pneumatic strut on each side modulates and assists in raising and lowering of the roof or cap section. The entire assembly adds only 130 pounds to the weight of the Element. As John explains, with two average-size adults, the weight of the modification and a full tank of fuel, there remains about 300 pounds of cargo-carrying capacity.
A couple options are available. The top can be painted to match the exterior color of each individual Honda Element. Roofracks can be added so bikes, kayaks, and such can be carried atop the Ursa Minor ECamper.
Fully appointed, the MSRP is still a stingy $5300 -- a bargain for those looking for a more affordable way to enjoy the RV lifestyle.