A vehicle for success? How to convert an old motor into a bar

By Ben Winstanley

- Last updated on GMT

How to convert a vehicle into a pub bar

Related tags Molson coors Public house

With the need for alternative money-drivers challenging licensees to think outside the box, Ben Winstanley looks at the growing trend for converting vehicles into bars and whether more people should hop on board

British ingenuity has a funny way of manifesting itself at the pub. Four pints in, glossy eyed and ranting, our nation has a unique ability to cook up a host of creative ideas… before stumbling home and forgetting all about them the following morning.

“A pub that comes to you, now that, right there, is the future,” one might fantasise with suitable grandeur, “But could it be done?”

In recent years, such a statement is far closer to reality, as several bars have opened in anything from large buses, Morris Minors, even horseboxes, all of which are easily transportable around the country. 

Enterprise licensee Colin Flitter was one of the first pioneers after a visit to America gave him the idea business in 2012.

Ticket to ride

Sitting outside a “crappy English-themed bar” in Orlando, he spotted an old Routemaster bus in the car park and quipped to his wife that the experience would have been far more authentic if they’d put the bar inside the vehicle. “That sparked the idea and from there we set about researching whether it could be done,” Flitter explains.

“It was then a case of finding the perfect bus, which took us over a year. You need to find one that needs work doing to it because you’ll pay through the nose for the fully restored ones.

“We found ours on eBay for £18,500 and did all of the labour ourselves, which took about 18 months, with a total cost of around £35,000  after the conversion was complete. 

“I’ve had to learn everything from welding to mechanics so it is a big commitment, but if you get a company in to do it for you, that start-up figure goes through the roof.”

Hop On Inn, bus pub
The Hop On Inn is very popular at large events

The couple, who ran the Crown Stirrup in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, at the time, asked their drinks provider Molson Coors for support with the conversion and were thrilled when the brand agreed to provide and install the majority of cellaring equipment needed.

“Beer taps, pythons, installation, it all racks up quickly, so my advice for anyone starting up would be to reach out to your drinks provider first and see if they are willing to support you,” Flitter explains.

“We were very lucky. I think Molson Coors saw it as a good idea, something a bit different that they wanted to get involved in.

“It was a partnership that worked for everyone — there’s no contract that states we have to sell their products, we’re free-of-tie, but they saw their support of us as a way of getting their products into events they can’t normally reach like music festivals.

The popularity of the bus soon led the licensee to make a difficult decision. “Our original intention was to keep the pub and run both at the same time, but nothing could have prepared us for the level of demand,” Flitter admits.

“After 12 months, we decided to invest solely in the vehicle side of the business — we were getting into big events like the Isle of Wight Festival and did 30 weekends in that first year, it just wasn’t sustainable with a pub as well.

“There are some amazing, quirky pubs out there, which wouldn’t have been created without the vision of licensees. This has been our contribution to that, really.”

It’s not the size, it’s how you use it

Flitter’s company, the Hop On Inn, has since extended its range to include smaller vehicles, something the former publican believes would be the best choice for licensees running a pub at the same time.

“We’ve got a Morris Minor and a London Taxi now, which are fantastic for the smaller events where you can’t use the bus. We’ve just been on tour with Madness with the London Taxi because most of the stadiums and cricket pitches they use for their venues couldn’t accommodate a double decker bus.

“I’d definitely suggest a smaller vehicle for licensees starting out. Even though it’s not as lucrative at big events, the start-up cost is much smaller (in the region of £10k) and a publican would be able to cover his customer’s weddings and so on.”

The Four Horseshoes independent freehouse in Chobham, Surrey, has recently found success through converting a horsebox into a small pub.

“We had a few people ask us if we could do a party and outside events and it’s always been something we’ve shied away from because it’s not really what we do — you can complicate things by doing too much,” Justin Cooper, owner of the Surrey Life Pub of the Year 2014, says.

“Last year, we saw a Citroen van used as a burger stand and it got us wondering if we could do something similar with a horsebox — we’re located in a equestrian-minded area. We have hitching posts outside the pub. It just seemed like a great idea.”

Having purchased a 10-year-old horsebox on eBay, much like Flitter, the publican received cellaring equipment from drinks provider Heineken. It appears that many brands are keen to partner with successful pubs in a mutually beneficial agreement.

Cost breakdown of The Horsebox Pub

Start-up costs

  • Horsebox, second hand - £3,500
  • Cellar equipment (provided by Heineken) - would cost £1,500
  • Electrical works - £200
  • Decor and carpentry - £800-900

Ongoing costs (yearly)

  • Insurance - £1,000
  • Maintenance - £200

For the Four Horseshoes, the impact was instant, as Cooper explains: “We finished the conversion last year and intended to start up in the summer of 2016, but we picked up four or five events straightaway, which pretty much paid the start-up cost. Your overheads are so small — you’ve just got staff, a little bit of fuel and the cost of the alcohol.

“The only other consideration is a temporary events notice (TENs) application you have to complete each time you’re hired out, which costs £21 and is simple enough to complete.

“Events make between £400-£500 for a small event but for a wedding with 140 people, you make in the region of £3,000-£4,000. It’s a fantastic alternative revenue stream and we couldn’t be more pleased with how things have progressed.”

For publicans looking to reach further into the community, the idea of a mobile bar seems more achievable than many would initially perceive. Britain is full of used cars that are more than adequate for such a purpose and with a little bit of learning on the job, maybe more pubs will be ‘on the move’ in the near future.

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