Over the past decade, the Honda Element has been gaining a cult-following among car-campers, wanderers, and adventure travelers. The relatively tall, boxy shape and removable backseats make it a great sleeper. The clamshell tail gate design and outward-opening rear doors are perfect from climbing in and out, or just hanging around the campsite. The urethane-coated floor and stain resistant fabric are easy to clean. It comes in all-wheel drive. Details such as standard power outlets complete the package. Not to say it will ever rival a Volkswagon bus or Vanagon in status or cachet, but for the indoctrinated, the Element is tough to beat. If only it came with a Westfalia-style pop-top…
Thanks to an after-market conversion by a San Diego-based company called Ursa Minor Vehicles, it actually does. Founded by a mechanical engineer in 2007, Ursa Minor is clear about the inspiration for its conversion kits. “I had a VW van for probably 10 years that I traveled, camped in, and repaired all over the USA,” says founder John Gish. “I liked that mode of simple travel.”
After a spell in Europe, Gish moved back to the U.S. in the early 2000s, right when the Element was gaining popularity. Looking for something a little more reliable for the L.A. traffic than his old bus, Gish ended up buying an Element. “It was unique in a few ways, like the wipe down interior and dash shelves, but the sunroof was at the rear, where Honda figured a surfer could stand up to change,” he says. “That as well as the really open interior and the option for an AWD version led me to think it would make a decent camper.” After using it as-is for a few years, Gish got to tinkering.
He says he sold his first model about a week after hitting the road with his prototype. After a few months of refinement, he was ready for full production. Ursa Minor now operates two facilities, one in Portland, Oregon and one in San Diego, and also has a version for the Jeep Wrangler.
The conversion takes about a business week, and runs from $5,650 to $8,500, depending options and whether or not there is a sunroof and XM radio (the antenna has to be relocated). There are no changes to, or holes drilled into, the interior of the vehicle. “The design is such that we nest our camper on the original body structure, without any cuts,” Gish says. Access is through the original sunroof. If there isn’t one, Ursa Minor will cut that area, and finish it with Honda parts to create the opening.
“The camper is built up from a base, which is a large composite part that creates a flat sleeping surface and ties in the exterior of the camper to the Element body,” Gish says. “This is bolted to the Element roof. We do some work connecting the ECamper to the car battery to power the LED lights, and outlets. We also add a handle to the rear door that is tied to the power lock system so you can climb out of the rear hatch. The final stages of the conversion would include any options such as roof racks or solar charging systems.”
Once popped, the ECamper features 6 feet, 6 inches of standing room, and a 7-foot by 4-foot bed. The walls of the tent are made of Sunbrella marine canvas, while the cap and base consist of a carbon/fiberglass/honeycomb composite material. The entire conversion weighs about 130 pounds and adds six inches of height to the vehicle.
Honda discontinued the Element in 2011, which is when Ursa Minor branched out into Jeeps. “Somehow we’ve outlasted the Element itself,” Gish says. “But with 330,000 of them made I don’t think we will run out.” Ursa Minor will put their 500th ECamper (just the Element version, not including Jeep conversions) on the road around labor day.
Photos courtesy of Ursa Minor Vehicles
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