Monday, August 17, 2015

What the heck were we thinking?

We realized that we've never discussed what made us decide to do a DIY Transit conversion. Specifically, why a DIY instead of something off the shelf, why a classB size, and why a new Transit instead of another brand?

While the glue for our vinyl floor is drying, I'll ramble on a bit (OK, a lot) about the whats and whys.

A Very Long Preamble:
A long, long time ago, in a state far, far away, we had a VW bus that we turned into a minimalist camper. The conversion consisted of a bed that folded out from over the engine compartment, a Coleman ice box, indoor/outdoor carpet tiles over a tempered Masonite floor, same tiles on the walls, and burlap against the ceiling. The name was Bussy. Bussy was both a daily driver and our base camp when we went backpacking. Bussy could go anywhere if you gave her a good running start. For a while, we lived in Bussy on abandoned B.C. logging roads.

We loved Bussy. (We're less fond of Brad.) In spite of blowing multiple engines (once on one of those abandoned logging roads) we kept her for 13 years and probably about 200K miles, and remember her as the best vehicle we ever had.

Entropy eventually proved her insurmountable enemy, and we replaced her with a Vanagon. It just wasn't the same. We moved on to more "practical" cars and trucks, but always missed living in Bussy.

We tried a cab-over camper and eventually a smallish class C (nominally 23', but 25'6" bumper to bumper). Both handled like pigs. (Well, so did Bussy, but that was different somehow.). Most importantly, they didn't have the boondocking utility or maneuverability that we had loved about Bussy.

The cab-over was too top heavy for riding on abandoned, tilted, decaying, cliff-side roads.  We did have a few nice trips, but again it didn't feel right.

By the time we got the class C, our little duo family had expanded by two large dogs. We named it Moby (for Great White Whale).
We had some really nice trips with Moby, and took it places it was never designed to go.

But, Moby couldn't stop on a downhill until it started going back uphill. Driving Moby was a royal pain (in the butt, in the eardrums, in the gas tank, etc.). All the rattles and clanks on back roads probably registered on the Richter scale. On washboard roads, we became the washboards. Driving at freeway speeds was too loud to use the radio or CD player. On its best days ...downhill, no brakes, until the uphill, Moby got 9-10 MPG (I exaggerate ...a bit). If there was a groove worn in the road, that's what Moby would follow. While we liked Moby fine once we got somewhere, the ride made me not want to try getting anywhere. We wanted to not worry about successfully getting to places Moby wasn't designed to get to.

So, about 3 years ago we traded for a nice (21') trailer. Named it Moby2. Very comfy, very easy to drive. We figured that we'd set up a base camp somewhere nice and do day trips in the truck. This works great if the base camp is someplace easy to get to. Doesn't work well at all if we want to boondock off some tiny twisty back road, far from the madding crowd.

That (finally, whew) gets us to the Annie decisions.

The criteria:
Our camper must
  • be comfortable to travel at speed or on small back roads
  • be maneuverable,  not whale sized.
  • be able to get off the beaten path, have adequate ground clearance for rough road driving
  • be able to camp for a while (1-2 weeks without coming up for air)
  • be optimized for boondocking, not campgrounding
  • have room enough for 2 adults and one large dog that enjoy each other's company
  • be comfortable for 2 aging hippies with some disabilities
  • be "affordable" (our target price is <$70K total)
  • have very good build quality.
With the requirements (sort of) narrowed down, we're pretty much left with a class B, or VERY small (smaller than Moby) class C sized camper.

Based on our noise and handling experience with Moby, we pretty much eliminated a small class C. It does not seem that the core technology or basic build quality had changed all that much in the 20 years since we bought Moby. A few more bells and whistles, but it's still just a box on the ancient E350 truck frame design.

That leaves us in class B territory.

Why not commercially built campers?
We started our search by looking a a range of OEM class Bs. All failed to meet our criteria in way or another and/or more anothers.

Most are way over our budget, many have dubious build quality, most are optimzed for campground camping. 

Most don't have things we want, like a good sized fresh water tank. Most also have things we don't want. Like showers, AC, black water tanks...and stupid running boards that would get trashed on our first outing.

Used units are even further from our want/don't want lists.

The few brands that might be customizable the way we want are expensive and far away, and with very long lead times. We did not want to cede control over the build that way.

In short, no commercial brand met, or even came close to, our criteria.

That means a DIY project.

Choosing the vehicle:
We decided against buying used. Used commercial vans are likely to have been rode hard and put away wet. Just look at the rust complaints on the Sprinter forum.

We want to be able to stand up inside. That eliminates the Chevy options, since I didn't want to cut open the roof.

Our wants list pretty much defined the size of vehicle we need. It came down to the extended length LWB Transit, the 170"W.B. Sprinter, or the longest Promaster. Each would need to be in a high roof.

We test drove each brand. Unfortunately, none in the exact configuration we would buy. The Sprinter was actually tested as several different campers...Winnebago Era 70A and C, and Pleasure Way something or other.

The Promaster and Transit were what was available on the dealer lots.

I pretty much ruled out the Promaster based on noise and build quality. It felt kinda cheap...enough so that the lower price was still not appealing. It's tranny felt rough. It's main advantage was its extra width, but again not enough of a reason to persuade.

The Sprinter handled nicely, would need the 6 cylinder engine for the type of driving we intended. The comfort was so-so, with the front seats questionable for longer or bumpy rides. It was a strong contender, but a few important (to us) issues knocked it out of the running.

  • Dealer support. The Sprinter dealer network is very thin. A breakdown would likely be far from any competent shop, much less a competent dealer/warranty shop.
  • Cost. It is quite a bit pricier than the Transit (at least that was the case when we started looking)
  • Reliability. Sites like the Sprinter-Source forum really raise a pile of issues, many around the emission and DEF sensors. These are issues that could leave us stranded.
  • Engine type. While Diesel is certainly more fuel efficient, the engines are more expensive, the fuel may be harder to find, and until recently was also more expensive. Modern diesels are much more complex than the old smokers in order to meet emission standards, and thus more likely to have problems.
Now we're down to the Transit. No service dealer issues. There's practically a dealership in every town, all selling Transits. The test drives were pleasant, comfy seats, not very noisy, but what options? The choices are stupefying, interactive, and confusing.
  • We decided on the 3.5L E.B. engine. That avoids the diesel issues as discussed above . The E.B has lots of torque, so it should do well climbing our mountains in the PNW (and all the other mountain ranges we want to visit).
  • We got the 350 SRW model to be sure we'd not exceed any weight limits. SRW because dual rears may not have as much grip on dirt roads
  • We ordered the 3.31 rear end with limited slip. The Transit doesn't come with a transmission locker. LS is the next best for the times that you want to disable traction control. Traction control is great for streets, less good if you're climbing slow on a rough slippery surface. At those times, you want to be sending power to the non-slipping wheel, not just throwing it away from the slipping one.
  • We got the leather power seats because Renee's disability makes it harder for her to adjust a manual seat, and leather seats feel nice and are durable.
  • We chose the MFT/nav system because the other display options are even worse/harder to see.
  • We chose all around privacy windows with pop-pouts. This may be our iffiest choice, but we didn't want to cut holes for third party windows, and so far, there are no direct drop-in replacements with sliders/louvers.
So, that's about it. What we're putting inside is pretty much taking up the rest of the blog, so no sense repeating that here!

Next entry will be finishing up the floor.