Honda Element Van Build
Welcome to our journal! Here we plan to share entries of our travels in our Honda Element, the many uses of the Frontier Roll, and some automotive talk as well.
Why the giant blue toaster-on-wheels you ask? To start, we both (Kyle & Tori- hi!) love older-style boxy vehicles: first gen. VW Golf, Isuzu Trooper, International Scout, Toyota 4Runner, Squarebody Blazer. It’s the straight lines, square headlights, clunky dashboard and boxy functionality.
While we liked the concept of a vehicle like the FJ Cruiser, a modern off-road vehicle that’s reliable, the inside is just too small. We wanted the interior of the Sprinter types, while still having a vehicle we could easily drive around in the city. Enter the Element! As soon as we saw the Honda Element, we were sold. It packs a punch (perhaps unexpectedly) and keeps up with our favoured boxy look.
Honda has a history of being reliable and as a mechanic I (Kyle) wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have any issues on the road. We bought it used from a small lot in London, Ontario. It was manual, 4WD, and the price was right... Until we got back on the 401 to drive 8 hours home and the rear left tire began shaking uncontrollably between 100-120 (“Sorry Officer, I simply couldn’t go below 120!”). Lesson learned, try to take it for a highway-speed road test, not just slower speeds. Luckily the fix was easy: remove the litres of Slime (made for leaky lawn tractor tires) from inside that tire that was throwing off its balance. No more home remedies for this Element!
(read on if you want all the nerdy mechanical specifics)
We snagged our Element a little cheaper than most, but it came with a bunch work to be done. Since there were already over 200,000 km on her, I flushed and replaced all fluids: coolant, brake, clutch, power steering, transmission, and rear differential. They often go overlooked because the vehicle “always works”, but fluids wear out like anything else over time.
There was also a small vibration from the rear of the car felt in the seat which ended up being a driveshaft universal joint binding. After replacing the U-joint via eBay, I repaired the exhaust with a used manifold & muffler from Kenny U-Pull (a local wrecker yard), and OEM Honda gaskets.
The struts were also worn out, lending to a very bouncy suspension. I chose to replace just the strut & mounts and keep the coils that were there to save money. The factory rear upper control arms are a known problem since the arms aren’t adjustable. This gives the Element rear wheel camber issues, wearing out the tires. We replaced them with adjustable control arms from RockAuto for cheap, and finished up with an alignment.
Additionally, our Element’s floor was rusted through. You can imagine my shock when I lifted the Element up on the hoist to change the oil and noticed I was able to push my finger through the floor! We didn’t realize we were signing up for an in-depth restoration project, but that’s where we landed. I replaced sections of the front floor and sealed it with POR15.
The biggest modification I undertook was converting the transmission to a 6 speed. Thankfully, some had gone before me and I was able to refer to other Element owners’ experiences with this job. Adding another gear gives us much better fuel mileage, especially on the highway. Over a full weekend, I pulled apart the whole transmission, added the 6th gear where the spacer for it was (why cut corners like that, Honda?!), and since I was there: replaced the clutch disc, flywheel, pressure plate (which had a broken spring), and both master & slave cylinders.
After putting on a new set of tires (Firestone FR710) and removing the rear seats, we were ready to move onto the build!
INTERIOR: Before thinking of the bed, we stripped the interior to bare bones and added sound deadener panels to the floor and walls, and a layer of auto Thinsulate to the ceiling. Using Reflectix, we cut out the shapes of our windows and put black material one one side. These work great as a bit of extra insulation and as great privacy panels.
While we’re somewhat “off-grid”, we do have a power source in the vehicle. We upgraded our ignition battery to a deep-cycle Optima Yellow Top, which has a capacity of 38 amp/hours. It’s relatively small for an actual van - but all we’re looking for is to charge up our devices, camera batteries, turn on some interior lights, and run a fan overnight if needed. I hardwired a Bestek power inverter to the battery (so we can have power with the vehicle off), switched the 12V power outlets to be always-on instead of key-on, and replaced the small centre console with a more functional wooden box that housed most of the electrics.
A huge source of inspiration for our van build came from the Honda Element Owner’s Club Forum.. yes, such a thing exists. For our sleeping platform we wanted a lightweight, dynamic design. We planned on storing almost everything under the bed and wanted to be able to access it easily. Most van builds use wood whose weight adds up fast. We stumbled across a forum member’s design who came at it from the mind of an engineer and kindly posted his whole sleeping platform construction onto the forum. We claim no ownership of his awesome ideas - only slight modifications to the original plans to suit our needs.
The sleeping platform uses custom fabricated mounts to the rear seats mounts, aluminum square tubing as the frame, and a Lexan sheet as the top. The platform hinges in three ways and has no obstructive legs. We designed ours a little shorter (as we not super tall) and it works with keeping our front seats in a comfortable position for driving. The whole thing weighs less than one rear seat!
The mattress on top was a Double that Tori cut into three cushions to match the bed panels below, and are enclosed in removable cushion covers. Above our heads is a cargo net that holds the privacy screens & our pillows, as well as holding a LED strip light. As a final sewing project, Tori sewed bug screens that fit into the front windows and a huge screen panel that covers the entire rear hatch with the tail and lift gate open - probably our most used mod thus far and it’s not even bug season yet (yikes). Underneath the bed are a few plastic storage bins that store what feels like the entire contents of our lives.
EXTERIOR: After making the inside livable, we outfitted the outside with some off-road necessities.
I designed a simple front brush bar, brought the sketch to a local shop to have the steel bent to shape, then I welded the two shapes together. To attach it to the Element, I fabricated a mount that secures onto the frame through the bumper. Building off of the brush guard, we installed two fog beam KC Lights that really widen our view of the road.
A good ole adventure vehicle needs a full-size spare and the Element only came with a donut tire under the rear floor. We deliberated a long while about where to put a full size but settled on using a swing-away bike rack. Now we can join the ranks of CRVs, Jeeps, and FJs - and we gained some interior storage where the original spare was stored!
Finally for the exterior, we added a roof-top cargo basket. In this basket, we store our fuel tank, compost/garbage bin, a waterproof cargo bag for extras. We’ve got an additional spot up there for a second spare (for the Dempster Highway in the Yukon!). We also splurged on a Gobi ladder to complete the look and to get up to that tire easily.
After two weeks on the road, we are getting into a rhythm. There are definitely a few bits we can shed on our visit back to Ottawa, and some things to add. We don’t currently have any way of cooking if it’s pouring rain, but - the bed is comfy, everything is accessible, and we’re cruising at 8-10L/100km (29-23MPG)!
Could you live out of an Element?
So what do you think? Could you live out of a Honda Element? If you're interested in other Element owner's designs, google image search and browse to your heart's content! There are many other designs that make it a viable option compared to other classic camper vans.