Ford Free Bird mini-camper keeps US van life comfortably affordable
About five years ago, Seattle-area startup Caravan Outfitter launched one of the most affordable turnkey camper vans in the United States. Its $37K Nissan NV200-based Free Bird brought a compact, low-profile floor plan with everything a couple needed to take off on a holiday road trip or even full-time van life experience. Sadly, Nissan has discontinued the tiny 186-in (470-cm) NV200, along with other American-market NV vans. Instead of cancelling the Free Bird model, Caravan Outfitter has reinvented it atop a new van. The all-new 2022 Ford Transit Connect-based Free Bird brings a new look and a new four-seat floor plan, and it still wears one of the lowest complete camper van price tags in the industry.
Brothers Kurt and Craig Campbell spun off Caravan Outfitter from their family's Campbell Auto Group back in 2015, deciding it high time to offer an American replacement for the Volkswagen Westfalia camper van. It had been over 10 years since Volkswagen had pulled its beloved camper vans from the US market, a decision that had affected the Campbells firsthand as Volkswagen dealers. Without a VW van to work with, the Campbells developed the original Free Bird atop Nissan's NV200 and began selling it for just over $37,000 in late 2017. It was a remarkably low price for a stealthy American camper van that made the absolute most out of its compact base vehicle.
Fast-forward half a decade, and Caravan Outfitter has grown out a full camper lineup that includes the $76,000 Mercedes Metris-based Backroad, a Mercedes Sprinter upfitting business, and the $40,000 Nissan Frontier Outpost camper pickup. It probably could have dropped the Free Bird from its lineup and not missed a beat in the camper business, but it instead decided that the model would live on as a Ford.
Instead of using a cargo van, as it did with the NV200, Caravan Outfitter upgrades to the Transit Connect Passenger Wagon spec, furnishing the new camper with the rear passenger seats the original Free Bird lacked, along with a superior fit and finish. It removes the third row of seats to make room for the camper package, leaving the van as a full-time four-seater with two rear captain's chairs separated by a dual cupholder. With no pop-up roof option on offer, the van only sleeps two of its occupants as standard, but Caravan Outfitter offers an iKamper Skycamp Mini rooftop tent, providing an option for making the new Free Bird a four-seat four-sleeper.
The camper package has a similar overall layout as the original Nissan Free Bird but brings a few critical changes. The slide-out tailgate kitchen has been fully reworked and now includes only two drawers instead of four. The wider driver-side drawer slides out and transforms into a work area that holds a portable dual-burner stove that replaces the single-burner stove from the original Free Bird.
Caravan Outfitter adds a sink, placing a collapsible sink basin on a flip-out panel on the side of the kitchen drawer. That works with a tall 9.5-L water jug with spout to create a working sink area for washing dishes. The 30-L fridge drawer slides over to the passenger side.
With two factory seats inside the van, the new Free Bird doesn't offer the transforming dining area the original Free Bird had. Instead, the slide-out cutting board over top the fridge drawer removes and sets up in front of the rear passenger seats to work as a position-adjustable dining table. It might not be the most elegant dining experience, but the cutting board is a slick, little dual-purpose addition that helps keep the van efficiently packaged.
At night, campers fold the rear seats down and set up the two-cushion mattress. The 3-in (7.6-cm)-thick mattress fills the length and width of the rear cabin, offering a sleeping area of 78 x 47 in (198 x 119 cm).
The Free Bird also comes with an 85-Ah AGM battery and 300-W inverter. A Blue Sea System relay allows for charging the battery off the automotive alternator and isolates it from the van starter battery to prevent draining the latter. The AGM battery powers four dimmable LED interior lights, a roof fan, a 110-V outlet and USB ports.
The long-wheelbase Ford Transit Connect Passenger Wagon used for the Free Bird conversion measures 190 inches (483 cm) long. Its standard equipment package brings a SYNC 3 touchscreen infotainment system, rear-view camera, wireless smartphone charging, Ford Co-Pilot360 driver-assist tech, rear-seat climate control, and FordPass Connect with 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. It also includes a factory roof rack with rails.
The Free Bird starts at US$46,550 for the Transit Connect XLT trim. The Titanium trim brings the base price up to $48,990 and adds adaptive cruise control, heated leather seats, navigation and a few other upgrades. Caravan Outfitter is accepting preorder applications now and plans to begin deliveries in July.