Why I’m Not Converting Another Citroen Xsara Picasso into a Car Camper

I really loved my Citroen Xsara Picasso as a campervan, especially because you can pretty much do anything to kit it out, and not worry about wrecking it. In December, the famously unreliable French mechanical engineering let me down when the Picasso’s gearbox and engine broke so I had to give it to the scrap merchant for £20, and I bought a Rover 75 because it was cheap. Some plans I’d had for this summer for the Picasso were to put vents in the sides (by drilling holes in the non-petrol side) and to fix the storage situation.

I want to talk today about why I did my car camper conversion the way I did it, why I will probably not buy another Citroen Xsara Picasso to camperify (it was great for what I wanted but it does have a lot of limitations) and I also want to go through some of the considerations you need to think about whilst planning your camper conversion.

When I bought the Citroen Xsara Picasso to convert back in 2014, nobody had done such a thing before and the only mentions of it on the internet were people joking about what a stupid idea it was. I feel proud that I started something that (it turns out) so many people are interested in doing, and I am glad that my posts about how I converted the Citroen Xsara Picasso and my review of the Picasso are helping other people achieve their dream of having a car camper. This did mean though that when I did mine, there was absolutely no information specific to the Citroen Xsara Picasso to give me any idea about how to go about converting it. I took inspiration and ideas mainly from Toyota Previa Delica Lucida conversions, obviously the Citroen Xsara Picasso is much smaller and there’s a limit on how much space 2 human beings (6’2″ and 5’6″ respectively) need. If you are 5’4″ or under, you can convert a Citroen Xsara Picasso and have acres of space because your clothes, shoes, sleeping area etc all take up less space. Even in the most practical Previa Delica Lucida conversion that I’d admired and used as guidance, the tallest occupant was 5’8″, so perhaps car camper conversion is a sport more suited to shortarses rather than longshanks.  We had great times in it, although in hindsight I think we would have had a better shot at a more complex conversion in a Previa Delica Lucida (a Toyota’s a Toyota).

The main stumbling block I came up against (I did everything myself) was we were just too tall for this vehicle to be our ideal camper conversion. Yes, you can fill the back of a Citroen Xsara Picasso with a wooden framed bed, a nice coloured fitted “kitchen” unit etc, but you won’t actually have enough headroom to use this stuff because human beings bend at the middle to sit up. I measured us. I need 83cm to be able to sit up in a vehicle, and my husband needed 91cm. Since my husband is 6 foot 2 inches tall, we needed that length to sleep in, so the Picasso was not long enough for us to add a kitchen unit at the back (so you can cook with the boot open) either. From a ventilation and safety point of view, there was absolutely no point in fitting a kitchen but again if you’re short or single you won’t have this problem, you can kitchen away.

Add to that, when you’re not actually camping (which is most of the time, unless you’re retired, in which case you probably aren’t going to convert a Picasso when you could drive one of those hulking great motorhomes at 20 miles an hour around the Derbyshire Dales), having a kitchen unit in a Picasso is generally stupid for most people. It adds weight and stops you from a) carrying people in your people carrier when you want to and b) using it as a van to transport large items.

The main thing I really loved about the Picasso was its sheer versatility. There was the time I gave a ride to three people with a sick cat they found on the street, who needed to get it to a vet’s across town. There was the time when my dad died 400 miles away and, because his sister has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and thought it was all about her, I had to clear his flat in the dark on a Bank Holiday (when all the van rental places were shut), and if I hadn’t had the Citroen Xsara Picasso I would not have been able to save my antique 1920s wardrobe (four foot wide, six foot long, two foot six inches deep) from my bedroom, the only thing my dad ever bought me; it would have been taken to landfill by the council instead (crammed it in on its side, filled it with mementos, photos etc that we salvaged). There were the (countless) times I needed to take garden waste to the tip, the time my husband decided to take 500 bricks off someone’s hands (thanks Freecycle), all the large pieces of wood we transported home for furniture projects, that all made the ability to have a completely empty loading area an absolute essential. To put it into perspective, last week we bought some new fence panels and had to walk home with them because the Rover 75 blatantly couldn’t fit them inside or on top. If we’d still had the Picasso, we could have either attached them to the roof with rope through the windows (put a big towel on your roof, nothing gets scratched) or crammed them into the back to get them home. If we’d put fixed furniture in the Picasso, its storage space and passenger capacity would have been more limited.

I’d like to add something about effort vs benefit because a lot of people lose sight of this when they’re spending 6 months to a year converting a vehicle (during which time they don’t go anywhere on holiday in it). Allowing for the possibility that there are people in the world small enough to fit in the vehicle afterwards, it still takes a lot of effort to build a bed/storage unit and a kitchen/storage unit because you have to custom size it all to the vehicle and it has to be safely attached somehow so you don’t kill everyone in the vehicle in a crash.  Unless you very specifically want that exact vehicle for many years to come, you are putting a lot of work into making custom camper furniture for a car that you probably won’t be cooking in very often, or storing camping equipment in, compared to the number of times you will drive it to work (in our case we had it for 15 months, August 2014 to November 2015, and used it for four different long-distance holidays, where we slept in it for more than two nights apiece. We would have used it for more trips but I was a bit preoccupied with my parents both dying last year). I decided that since we bought the Picasso as an experiment in the fusion between Bangernomics and Campernomics, and that it was only going to run to its next MOT, there was no point in going to that much expense, effort, and time, to do something to a vehicle that was going to be scrapped in a year. I did want to work out how to put air vents into it before I scrapped it, but I was very ill at the time, in and out of hospital, so that never happened (2015 was a shit year. But I did buy the plastic air vents from Homebase and find out how to do it, although there’s no schematics to confirm that I wouldn’t have drilled through a wire or something). I also wanted to put a roof rack on top, but when I tried to get one fitted on the day I had to clear my dad’s flat, Halfords kept me waiting for ages then said it was too late in the day and that I should come back tomorrow. The store was empty of customers the whole time. I got let down at a time when something terrible was happening, so I didn’t bother going back. I’ll spend my money elsewhere thanks.

Other important considerations are a) the law b) visibility c) weight distribution/fuel consumption and d) access to and from doors.
a) I have talked about international window tinting laws for driving around the world previously. They haven’t changed, and they do also apply to any obstructions to visibility. I drove my car camper to Rome and this year I’m going to drive (whatever vehicle I end up with by July) to Spain. For me, putting anything in the back of the Picasso that would affect visibility is a hard “no.” Additionally, there’s no point making a camper that sleeps more people than it seats with a seat belt. Where are these extra people going to come from? How are you all going to breathe?

b) Visibility. The positioning of those front driver pillars (and the fact that there’s two of them) is really stupid. The car looks lovely from the outside but from the inside? Really hard to see where you’re going. In the blazing sun in Italy, the reflection from the top of the dashboard made it virtually impossible to see out of the front window. The heat was over 40 degrees celsius and my car’s fans were blowing even hotter than the ambient air because my car was a scrapper. If I hadn’t been able to see clearly out of my back and side windows, I would have had an accident. That means the only place to put a fixed kitchen/storage unit would have been behind the driver’s seat (where I can’t see anyway) and it would have had to come no higher than the window for aforementioned legal reasons.

c)The petrol tank is on the driver’s side, then it goes under the vehicle on that same side. It takes 40 litres. If there’s a fixed heavy piece of furniture behind the driver, that’s another 10-30 kilograms of weight on the same side. An uneven load distribution, being driven around in the same place all the time, in addition to anyone or anything else you put in the car, is going to affect the car mechanically.

d) I wanted all the doors to be openable and to permit access to the vehicle. This meant I wasn’t limited about how/where I parked and there were two examples of this being invaluable: firstly, when I couldn’t stop vomiting on my first day in the Highlands in August 2015, I was *really* glad of this because I could just open the door, do my vomiting, close the door, without having to disturb my husband who was trying to get to sleep. Secondly, when we came across an unexpected nudist beach in Belgium, we were able to park the car and change into swimwear whilst avoiding getting our shoes in the back of the car by opening the door behind the driver seat.

Another thing to be aware of is cabin fever, especially on a long trip to Europe or further afield. You will want to be able to go to sleep with more than two inches between yourself and the person next to you.

I think when looking at converting a Citroen Xsara Picasso, or any other smaller vehicle, into a campervan, it’s important to keep perspective of the best possible function and use of the vehicle, rather than being able to go “ooh ooh look at me it looks like a real caravan inside I designed it to be popular on PINTEREST” (seriously, why do people do this) whilst compromising on the most important things in any vehicle you sleep in – bed length and comfort, privacy and safe air flow.

Things I didn’t like about the Citroen Xsara Picasso:
1. There’s nowhere to put a freaking drink on the driver’s side, and seemingly nowhere to attach a place to put a drink because every surface is curvy and “futuristic” (from the Picasso’s design vision in the late ’90s).

2. Ours was petrol. I liked the 1.6 litre engine, but I disliked the really tiny petrol tank that was NOT designed for long distance journeys, and I really disliked having nowhere (in the curvy futuristic exterior of the vehichle) to store a jerry can. Add to that, some countries don’t allow you to carry petrol but everywhere lets you take diesel. You don’t want to sleep in the vicinity of a petrol can (I’ve done this, it’s horrible) leaking fumes everywhere, so it has to go outside the vehicle, but there’s nowhere on the Picasso to put it. This means you’re forced to fill where you can, which means sometimes you’re pushing the car to the petrol pump, and always you have the knowledge that you didn’t get a good price on fuel.

3. The lights on the Picasso we had just never worked properly. By the time I scrapped it, one headlight would not even do a side light let alone anything else and the suspension was terrible. Yes, you can fix these things, but there’s only so many times you can get it “fixed” before you just want a different car.

4. The spare wheel being under the boot seems like a great idea but it reduces the ground clearance – which in general was not shockingly bad (not a lowrider) but wasn’t fantastic either.

5. The fans blowing air didn’t work at all and the temperature control didn’t work, so when the ambient temperature was hot, the car was hot, and when the ambient temperature was cold, the car was cold. You may remember cars of the 80’s often had this problem, and this might make you think “who cares?” but when it’s 40 degrees in Rome when you wake up and sub zero in the Alps when you go to sleep, it really is important to have some sort of controllable warm/cold air coming into the car.

6. The off road capabilities were less than impressive, the cruising speed was sub-par which especially pissed me off in Germany where I wanted to be going at over 90 mph and was stuck at 75, and the brakes were nowhere near as good as on the VW Golf.  Adding weight of a full-on camper conversion to make it look like a Citroen Romahome on the inside will ONLY make this worse.

I did a hell of a lot of research into a lot of different vehicles before I bought the Picasso, and it was the perfect car to get some experience of campering with.  If you’ve never converted a vehicle and you’re not tall and you don’t buy a £600 category-C write off, you’ll probably have many happy years in this.  As for me, I am hoping that this summer I can buy a Land Rover to convert, so I’ve got a vehicle that’s a) wide enough for actual luggage storage and b) has 4 wheel drive capacity for when we’re campervanning in the snow or end up off-road both of which happened in the Highlands and in Austria. I want to take it to the Sahara (amongst other places), after all, and a Picasso was never going to be appropriate for that.  I also like the fact the Landie has a flat roof with excellent potential for luggage storage.

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[travel] Buying Petrol Abroad

Buying Petrol In Europe and European-language countries

I was actually photographing the misty mountain in the background
The 7am queue, Sunday morning at a petrol station in the Austrian alps. The majority of petrol stations we saw in Austria/Germany were Shell garages.

When we were approaching the ferry at Dover, England, I pulled into the petrol station and filled the tank. My OH’s mum had told us confidently that petrol was much cheaper in France. This should have meant waiting until France to fill up, surely?  Why, then, was I getting petrol now?

Actually, I was deeply worried by particular practicalities of our trip, not least of which, where to actually buy petrol. I didn’t know any of the brand names and was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find these petrol stations. I’d looked online for a list of company names to look out for (Esso, Shell and even BP have stations abroad), but since no list existed I was limited by searching for the overseas locations of petrol stations I already knew the names of. I’d also searched online to find the names of fuels abroad.

I was still deeply worried about running very low on fuel and not being able to find a petrol station. This only happened in Italy, where there were so many different flavours of fuel and colours of hoses that it was rare to find somewhere that carried all of them. The only constant everywhere was diesel, which left me wishing many times that our vehicle was a diesel one. But you got what you got, all you can do is work with what you got.

I’m going to tell you what I learned about filling up abroad, and I’ve included a list of names of petrol types (and which engines they go in) for the countries I’ve been to so far.


Here’s my top hacks for buying petrol in Europe:

1. Service stations generally sell fuel at an almost-reasonable price, but it varies wildly. In Northern Italy on the Autostrade (plural of Autostrada, or freeway), they give you the next 3 prices for diesel and “benzina” from which you can work out the relative prices for your chosen fuel if it’s not either of those.

2. Always fill at two bars or quarter of a tank, and always round down when making the decision; every time we looked at the two bars (1/4 tank) and thought “it’s ok, we can shop around for a better price” something always happened that stopped us getting to a petrol station in good time, and we cut it far too close, far too often. We actually skipped quite a few stations on the way down because we didn’t understand which fuel to put into the car (because the Italians have so many) and they all had black, yellow or red pump handles, no green ones.  There was the time we suddenly ended up in a 4 hour gridlocked traffic jam around Firenze, in 45 degree heat, watching our petrol dwindle. There was the time we took an A-road (I think they’re “routes” or “interstates” in America – the one that’s the next size down from a freeway??) and our 50 mile route suddenly became 100 miles in the dark on continuous hairpin bends every 30 metres or less, so we constantly were doubling back on ourselves, and that hadn’t been marked on our map as such, cutting across from just below Ravenna to the E1. The scenery around there is apparently stunning, but at 1am, it was dark and we didn’t have enough fuel. Luckily the second half was 50 miles of the same, but downhill, so we just rolled it until we got to the E1, and there was a petrol station within 500m of getting onto the Autostrada.  The engine never stopped from lack of fuel, but it came very close a couple of times (making that dreadful hiccuping sound as it gasped for gas).

3. SP95-E10 is the name of a semi-synthetic fuel that is an EU-approved version of petrol. In some countries it’s cheaper than normal 95 octane petrol, in others, it’s more expensive. It’s good stuff though, at least, it was really good in our Citroen Picasso, and I was a little sad when we got back to the UK and couldn’t buy it anywhere. SP95-E10 gave us a vastly improved mileage and the car engine sounded healthier whilst it was using it. I would highly recommend it if you have a Picasso – it’s like they’re made for each other, which could be true, since it’s a French car and since SP95-E10 is prevalent in France. It’s often also called “Super E10.”

4. In Rome, most petrol stations are self-service, but there are men who will insist on filling your car for you (they will be on a mobile phone the entire time, and usually smoking as well, we saw many of these) and then harass you for a tip. Unless you’re sure of yourself physically or speak Italian louder than whoever is on the other end of the phone, you just have to give them some money. I consistently gave 2 Euros on a 20 Euro fill, and it did work out cheaper than the manned petrol stations on the ring road. I don’t think these men actually work for any petrol station company, but Rome is a city whose primary workforce are street hawkers, so you just get used to it.

5. In Austria and Germany, many stations have full service pumps and self-serve pumps, and these mean different things to elsewhere. With the full service pumps, you stop your car and tell the attendant how much fuel you want (like in the olden days of good service) and they’ll fill it for you. At the self-serve pumps, you put your own fuel into the car – but with either option, you still have to go inside to pay. They don’t have a pay at the pump option at these stations so either way you’ve got to waste the same amount of time. The full service pumps are usually about 15-20 cents more expensive per litre than the self-serve, which can seriously add up (that’s 1 euro extra every five litres of fuel. Your fuel tank is usually 25 to 30 litres, so service costs 5-6 Euros per complete tank fill).

6. Make sure you have a credit card as well as your money, some pay-at-the-pump self service machines only take cards, and they’re the ones you’ll get stuck with late at night.

7. To use the European pay-at-the-pump petrol stations, you actually don’t pay at the pump you’re using. In the centre of all the pumps, there will be a machine that you have to select options from and prepay for the amount of fuel you’re going to put in your tank. There are usually language options for at least French, German, Spanish, Italian and English, but once you’ve used 3 or 4 of these machines you’ll know the menu options well enough that you won’t need English (unless you really aren’t paying attention). Just follow the menu through to select fuel type and amount to buy, select payment method if it’s an option and give the machine the money. Eventually it’ll let you go back to your pump and fill up.

Some of them tell you the price in litres and get you to confirm you are happy with this price before letting you continue. Others just take your money. Once you’re filling up, it will automatically cut off at the amount specified. There isn’t an option with these machines to “fill ‘er up” so you need to guess how much fuel you want to put in. I usually went for 20 Euros because the price per litre was often quite high and I thought that if anything went wrong with the machine I’d only lost 20 Euros. If something does go wrong there isn’t really anything you can do about it because these stations are totally unmanned, so just write it off to experience.

8. Knowing your numbers 1-15 in foreign languages really helps with identifying which pump you’re trying to pay for petrol. In England, you walk into the shop and say “pump number 5” and you do the same thing in foreign countries. Just have the number ready before you go in and they can process your request faster. If you don’t know the numbers of the country you’re in, Europeans often can also do English although it might take them a minute to work out what language you’re speaking in, just like if someone started speaking to you in French at your place of work you’d need to think before responding.

9. Despite my worries, it’s actually really easy to spot petrol stations abroad – because they look like petrol stations. Big roof, booth for paying (usually), sign with prices, petrol pumps. Unless, y’know, you’re really unlucky and end up at a car wash or diner that used to be a petrol station and still has all the trimmings. I think my main worry was needing to look for them on my smartphone which always needed a brand name to search, but since it didn’t have any network at all from Dover onwards, that really wasn’t an issue for me because there were so many roadside petrol stations.

10. As a final hack, none of the petrol we bought in France was anything remotely resembling the prices OH’s mum had found before we left.  I hadn’t been holding my breath, but it’s worth bearing in mind that those price comparison tools are not always very up-to-date and it’s probably going to save you time to not bother looking them up, especially if you’re going to be gone drivin’ for more than a day or two.

Here’s the names of fuel in various countries, and what engines they go in:

France/Belgium:

Super E10 – unleaded engines

Super Carburant – leaded engines (old 4 star cars) don’t put in unleaded engines.

Gazole – Diesel engines

LPG – LPG/autogas engines
Sans Plomb 95 / Sans plomb 98 – Unleaded engines

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel but not aboard ferries.

Germany/Austria:

Super – unleaded engines (95 octane)

Super Plus – unleaded engines (98 octane)

Super E10 – unleaded engines (synthetic SP95-E10)

Diesel – diesel engines

No lead replacement available.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Italy:

Benzina – generic term, sometimes used for “fuel,” still unsure if this would go in my car.

Benzina verde – unleaded engines.

Benzina super – unleaded engines (higher octane)

Gasolio – diesel engines (don’t ask for gasoline if you have a petrol engine, they’ll think it’s this)

GPL (gas di petrolio liquefatto) – LPG engines.

No lead replacement available, but you can buy a fuel additive to use with unleaded petrol.

Sometimes unleaded is called “senza plombo” but it’s not an official grade of petrol.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Over 800 miles of driving in Italy, I only saw SP95-E10 once, and it was far more expensive than anything else they were selling.

Spain:

Bencina – petrol, again nowhere was able to tell me if this was ok to put in an unleaded engine or whether it was a common term for something else.

Gasoleo “A” – Diesel engines

Gas-oil – Diesel engines

Gasoleo “B” – HEATING OIL ONLY DON’T PUT IN CAR!

gasolina super – Leaded 4-star engines

gasolina sin plomo – Unleaded engines.

biogasol – another one that no-one could agree on the meaning of. Most likely biodiesel but might instead be something to fuel houses. Probably best to avoid.

SP95-E10 may or may not be available in Spain – it’s likely because it’s a European initiative, but then we don’t have it in the UK, so I will report back when I return from driving to Moroccco.

You can carry up to 10 litres of fuel with you, but not aboard ferries.

Check out this AA motoring guide for other European countries and their specific driving rules, including what to carry when you go abroad:
http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/countrybycountry.html

Does anyone have any further experience on the names of unleaded/diesel in other countries? I’d love this to become a reference. Don’t just post website translations because I’m specifically collecting the words printed on the sides of petrol pumps. For example, some Italian dictionaries say “petrolio” means “petrol” but it’s actually never used in the sense that we would mean, because it means “petroleum” like “petroleum jelly” (Vaseline). If you asked for it at a petrol station you would get mocked. So, only contribute what you’ve seen at petrol stations please!

Happy driving!