Acme Overland is an upfitter that designs and executes custom builds for a wide range of budgets. Their name, Acme, is derived from Greek and roughly translates to peak, zenith, or prime in English. This name is fitting, not just because Acme Overland offers high-end conversions of cargo vans, but because they strive to offer a superior customer service experience as well. Customers might initially overlook this aspect of the upfitting experience, but I can assure you that after handing over your hard-earned cash, you’ll appreciate working with a team who are down-to-earth, aim to please, and also highly skilled at what they do.
Acme Overland’s Roots
Motor vehicles have played prominently in the Bender family for generations, from Grandpa Bud who started an auto body shop in Illinois in 1949, to Gary Bender (Bud’s Son), who became the foreman at Knauz Motors, a Mercedes dealership in Illinois and worked there for over 30 years. Gary’s sons, Jeff and Thomas, both developed a passion for cars too, and followed in the family’s footsteps, learning how to completely rebuild vehicles before they were legal adults. And Thomas’ passion has continued, ultimately leading him to upfitting campervans.
Grandpa Bud Bender in his race car.
Knauz Motors in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Gary Bender with his two sons, Tom and Jeff.
Thomas and his wife, Jessica, founded Acme Overland out of necessity. They were in the market for an adventure rig that would deliver an escape from routine, letting them travel, work, and play in an ever-changing variety of locations. But they were discouraged by what was available at the time: a mix of poorly executed DIY builds and unaffordable high-end luxury campers. They wanted something in the middle, a well-built van with properly designed systems and a reasonable price tag.
The couple took their expertise in engineering, product design, building materials, and upholstery and got to work upfitting their own campervan. Their successful first build showed them the opportunity at hand, and they decided to begin building campers for eager customers. Acme Overland was born.
The Acme Overland shop.
But in a world that is full of unexpected and tragic events, Thomas lost his wife, Jessica, in October of this year, very shortly after she gave birth to their son.
“It was our dream to build this project together,” said Thomas, “and as you can imagine, it’s been very hard to continue. It’s been hard just to continue living without her. It’s hard even to type this as it still doesn’t feel real. I am very grateful to have my young boy, my immediate family, and the incredible community around us, which includes our clients at Acme. This family is now much larger than just Jess and me, my dad, brother. Acme has a bit of a new meaning after all this AND with the inclusion of my [son].”
Talking Shop with Thomas Bender of Acme Campervans
I recently caught up with Acme Campervans founder Thomas Bender to learn a little more about what makes Acme unique.
There are a LOT of upfitters churning out vehicles these days, so what makes Acme different from the other campervan builders?
The generic answer is we have years of experience, use better materials, and have control on all aspects of the build, from metalwork to upholstery.
The real answer does include those things above and then some. I strongly believe it’s us as people that separates us from other high-end builders. We’re down to earth, enjoy what we do, and will be honest with you through and through. Our clients become our friends, and I love it.
When it comes down to it, our experience, skill sets, material choices, fit/finish, build quality, etc., allow us to build the best vans around. But our personalities are what separate us.
Can you elaborate on your process from start to finish? What’s the customer experience like?
The process for our Adventure Custom vans can vary from client to client. In most cases, it starts with a phone call/zoom meeting, or if the client is local, I’ll just have them come in to meet in person.
The initial conversation tells me a lot about what we need to consider in the build. Sometimes the client will have never used a van or camper, so we’ll start with a basic question like seating or sleeping. In other conversations, the client will actually put together a presentation that lays out exactly what they need and want. Both are great and have challenges, but both direct us toward the end goal of the build.
After the initial consultation, I’ll put together an estimate, sketch out a floor plan, and send it back to the client for approval or adjustment.
Once the build layout is agreed upon, we require a downpayment of $5,000 so that we can begin ordering components and also provide a start date. Builds can range in length but typically take eight+ weeks. During those eight weeks, I strive to provide the client with weekly updates so they can visually see how things are going.
The big reveal is one of the most fun parts of the build. While the client gets updates, nothing compares to seeing the build finished for the first time.
This process is thrown out the window with our turnkey Adventure Ready build. We’ve used our years of experience to design a functional floor plan with a comfortable fit and finish that suits a variety of clients. The van has some modularity built in so that buyers can still personalize it to suit their needs.
Are there any cool, totally unique design elements that you offer or have created that you’ve never seen another van upfitter offer?
I love simple, functional, and well-designed components that have additional details that might not be apparent at first glance. One of the most recent items we developed was a simple fly rod holder. It mounts easily to a wall or ceiling, holds the rods accordingly, and has a little shock cord to keep it from whipping around. I’m ashamed to tell you how many hours I spent thinking about what amounts to a simple bent piece of metal.
I’m biased, but I love our products—whether a fully welded roof rack or a simple aluminum bent hook. The details make things special.
Do you work exclusively with certain van makes, or will you work on any platform? Do you ever do restoration/mechanical work in addition to upfitting?
We work nearly exclusively on the Ford and Mercedes platforms, and mechanical work often comes with the territory. We do suspension upgrades on 90 percent of our builds, add bumpers, lighting, ladders, etc. We don’t do things like oil changes. It would have to be a very special project for us to do restoration, but it’s something we’re very familiar with.
Learn more about Acme Overland on their website.
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