Posted by: Steve and Bethany | March 24, 2009

THE REASON

date; 3/10/09

Alright, I know there are plenty of expedition vehicle builds & camper conversion websites out there, it seems like all of which I’ve visited over the last year. All of these vehicles do a great job & creatively perform perfectly, for their purposes, but none seemed to solve all of the requirements I have for our particular needs. What I’ve decided to do is document the process of design, decision-making & construction of our ultimate expedition vehicle, with the hopes that this info catapults the next person closer toward their project. Many solutions have been solved for me by other campers built in other websites, & are well worth looking into:

http://www.thesupercamper.blogspot.com/

the most amazing vehicle modifications of them all

http://www.ecoroamer.com/

not a custom owner-build, but one of the most well thought out

http://www.earthroamer.com/

& of course, the grandfather of them all:

http://www.turtleexpedition.com/vehicles/

but at the same time, many other of my specific design challenges have not been solved & by the end of this blog, will be.
Let me start by saying two things:
1- I’m coming into this, an architectural designer, artist, & builder, so I have plenty of building experience, but no automotive experience whatsoever. The last time I regularly worked on my car was in high school, when I spent every afternoon fixing what broke the day before! (I’m 42 now) so I really am learning this all from scratch.
2- I tend to write in run-on sentences, I just get exited when I talk about something I like, & I write just like I talk, & my talking tries to follow my thinking, & my thoughts tend to float around..   …! so please understand I’m no English major!

you’ll also notice I’m altering the order of these posts to go from first to last instead of most recent first, (how un-blog-like) this is so people will see how this whole thing started, & follow the order of events, as opposed to just seeing the finished product first. This whole thing is really about the project not the product. If you want to see the most current posting, click on whatever’s at the bottom of the column on the right. this also means at the bottom of the page, clicking on “older posts” will actually get you to newer posts & vice versa… …..(yeah,I know, I have to live with myself all the time!)

I have also started a thread on ‘Expedition Portal’, to get feedback on questions I have, from people alot more rehearsed in this area, it’s worth checking out as well

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/34294-building-the-Bullet-XV

signing in will allow you to see all the photos (it doesn’t cost anything)

Posted by: Steve and Bethany | March 23, 2009

THE HISTORY

date; 3/12/09

Back in 1987, when I was 21 years old, I spent two months driving across the country for the first time, from boston to Oregon. This trip had a fundamental impact on my personality, with the people & places I visited, I grew & learned more about myself than I ever expected. The vehicle for this trip was a four cylinder 1982 blue toyota 4×4 shortbed pickup truck outfitted with a soft top canopy I designed & built specifically for this trip. img034This was a cool setup for one person: a twin mattress just fit in the bed between the wheel wells, leaving just enough room on the sides for a toolbox, bag for dirty laundry, camp stove & some kitchen wares. On the mattress, while driving was an old metal Coleman cooler and a trunk for clothing, both got thrown under the truck at night while I slept inside. Believe it or not, I had this packed so well, I could travel indefininitely, camping at campgrounds some of the time (when I started to smell myself!) and driving into the woods or mountains other times.

One great memory was driving up this closed dirt road in Yellowstone park, quickly getting out of site & out of daylight just as I found some rolling hills to park on for the night. When I woke the next morning, me & my truck were surrounded by a heard of about 100 elk foreging in the grassy fields around me as the sun came up over the hills. I certainly wasn’t in Boston anymore.

This setup worked for me for years, traveling back & forth across the country eight times, down into mexico,  & up to Alaska, always taking a different route, never knowing that route until I was driving it that day. I got really good at always being able to find water to camp next to, for cooking, cleaning & swimming (I’m a sunshine camper) this is where I learned four wheel drive camping is an essential part of my life.

In 1999, Just as life seemed perfect, I found I now needed to accommodate a girlfriend & a dog with me on these trips, & the blue Toyota would not work anymore, plus, the blue Toyota finally got put out to pasture, literally, (it’s now a farm truck).

Next in line was something totally different, a four cylinder 1993 silver Toyota 4×4 pickup truck, this one however, outfitted with a four wheel camper. img0336The eagle model fit inside the small bed of this truck, & being the designer/builder I was, I got right to work painting it silver to match my truck, putting carpeting into it, building more shelves, devising a way to store the pop up table & base out of the way & building a folding step up into the camper that fit into the 2” receiver on the truck. my dog could sit just inside the camper with her head poking through the sliding rear window which gave her a perfect view down the road as we drove. This camper taught me the value of a pop up camper (low height, low center of gravity, ease of setup for pulling over for lunch etc.) I bought this camper used from the factory as a consignment, & as a result, it had many more options than I needed- or thought I needed, but learned to appreciate, such as:

A heater- I found the first summer we took a cross country trip, it rained the whole time, & the heater sure came in handy then, plus I’ve learned that a heater extends your camping season in both directions, spring & fall, so it’s now a must.

A refrigerator- an icebox would have been fine, as this was what I was used to, but the fridge has earned its keep in my setup.

The sink & cooktop- although we mostly cook outdoors, it sure is nice to have the ability to cook indoors when raining.

A queen size bed- I’ll be camping with my wife for the rest of my life, so why not be comfortable, plus the value of a good nap or nights sleep really makes traveling enjoyable.

Spring ahead to 2005, I’ve worked out all the little kinks in the camper, but the truck has been diagnosed with an irreparable tick which only got worse. When talk of a new motor begins, so does my search for a new truck. Some of the issues I had with the truck were going to get resolved now, namely, the four cylinder. Although peppy around town, I needed more power climbing over mountain ranges with the camper on its back. An extended cab would sure give just the extra needed storage for camp gear not wanted in the camper. So next up was once again, something totally different, a six cylinder 2001 silver Toyota 4×4 pick up truck, extended cab, (sencing a theme here yet!).Modifications this time were to resolve putting a permanent second battery in the camper, redo how the wiring for this battery hooked up to the truck, replace the ever spotty water pump, install a foot pedal switch for the water pump to save on water usage (thanks for the idea bob), put a permanent grey water drain below the truck, fasten the boot to the camper with snaps, to stop its sliding up & out from between the camper & truck. All of thes modifications will move with me into the design of the bullet XV.

Now that the four wheel camper was totally customized to the way we camp, & a brilliant design to begin with, I found that it was just too small for, now two, humans & two dogs for extended periods of time. In the morning, one person has to get up,  get dressed, & get out before the second person can get dressed. This because when the queen size bed is pulled out, there’s very little room to stand up. This plus the need for more storage inside & out plus my need to always design things better & tighter & a need to build my own destiny led me to where I am right now, ready to begin.

Posted by: Steve and Bethany | March 23, 2009

THE CONCEPT

date; 3/16/09

Back in 2001 I got the idea in my head to build my ultimate 4×4 motor home. It came to me during a 4 day hike through the Beartooth Mountains. I saw this camper as a pop-up even at that time, already knowing the benefits of that on small dirt roads (nimble through the woods was my goal). At the time, I envisioned this built on what I thought was the ultimate four wheel drive vehicle, the hummer H-1. With that assusketches-002mption in mind, I started laying out a rough floor plan, enough to find certain dimensional & spacial problems, fortunately I kept myself busy with architectural projects while ideas fermented in my head. A true H-1 has one huge hump down the middle, and although its width was good, the length was too short for my needs. So I began looking into kit hummers such as  the badlands rt.

http://www.classicroadsters.ca/html/badlands_rt.html

or the catvee

http://www.catvee.com/cat9_1.htm

but the length was still a problem, that plus hummers developed a bad name, & the H-2 or H-3.. .. come on.  So I kept looking around for a year or so until I saw an older suburban, nice body shape, looks good lifted, but length & width were too small, so this only lasted a couple months. Then I finally did some sketches with a camper built on the back of a cab & chassis, not the motor home look I was originally thinking, but my first sketches looked good & solved all the dimensional problems.

Now I had a platform in my head to work with, so the goals are many:

A pop up roof, similar to the four wheel camper, but hydrolically lifted, as this roof would be too much bigger & heavier to lift by hand. This would help maintain a low center of gravity, bigger tires to increase my clearance between dirt to differential, but no lift.

A queen size bed that does not require pulling out or more importantly pushing back in, or removing the bedding from, to put the roof down (the four wheel requires both).

Outside storage for dirty items like firewood, chains, tools, a high lift jack, a spare tire, cookstove, camp chairs & table, sand ladders, & emergency gas cans(I almost learned this once the hard way up in the yukon) as well as propane storage, an outside water spicket, water hose & key lock.

A power system including two AGM batteries, a twelve volt charger/converter for line current, solar panels & controller.

Interior amenities, such as two dog beds just behind the cab’s seats dresser drawers, dry food pantry, a cabinet for cookware, min 20 gallon water tank, ¾ height 3 way fridge, sink & cooktop of course, hanging cabinet for jackets, another cab for toiletries, a heater.

Truck amenities will include:

Power winches front & rear, two navigation systems, one in dash for roads, one dashtop handheld for trails, dirt roads, topo maps etc.,  a custom center console for maps,  books etc., a place to hide & lock cash, direct access back into the camper (& to dog’s noses), & a CB radio.

This also, was to remain a camper, not a home for years at a time, but capable of trips of 2 to 3 months, and I’m a sunshine camper, so given this, this vehicle will remain smaller than a true expedition vehicle, not have the same requirements of a full time domocile, but absolutely will maintain extreme offroad accessibility

Posted by: Steve and Bethany | March 19, 2009

THE BASE VEHICLE

date; 3/27/09

Once I determined that a cab & chassis would work for my design, the search began. I knew based on my initial designs that a chassis with a 12’ frame with an 84” cab to axle was required.

I began my search with the GMC , looked fine, worked fine, but one problem I found here was that my initial sketches solved the dog beds, clothing storage, & full time queen bed best  with a standard cab, not a double or quad cab. The extra length was more than I needed, the wider turning radius was not desirable, & it put the dog’s heads too far behind us! . The standard cab in and of itself wasn’t the problem, but GMC looked at the standard cab as more of a work truck. As a result, it didn’t have the interior package I wanted, that being nicer materials such as power windows & locks, navigation, cruise control, etc. In essence, I wanted the Denali interior with the standard cab, & they couldn’t do that.  They only offer the double or quad cab.

Next was the Dodge, I of course, found the same problem. The standard cab felt.. ..cheap, no upgrade options, I got bad stories about the navigation from a Dodge salesman no less, stating that you had to be stopped to input destinations, which makes no sense given that Bethany plugs in destinations  as we drive to determine where we’re going, & we’re not going to pull over and stop to keep going! I understand the reasoning, they don’t want drivers inputting addresses while driving. Maybe they need a sensor in the passenger seat to allow this when someone’s sitting there. I did test drive one though, my first test drive of a 12’ cab & chassis & was somewhat dismayed at how big & cumbersome it was to drive, was this what I was creating? A big cumbersome camper? Not part of my ‘nimble through the woods’ plan.

Being the Toyota guy (after all these years, I really trust their engineering) that was naturally my next step – no go, no cab & chassis there.

Ford, never really attracted to them, I realize that 90% of all state, city & private work truck platforms out there are ford, really, look around, but they have this chest puffed up posture that reminds me of a baby faced kid acting tough, (I get these weird images in my head sometimes & I can’t get them out!) obviously Fords are reliable or there wouldn’t be so many out there, but the boxy styling bothers me.

All this time, I’d seen the Sterling Bullet in advertisements, but they were all diesel, & I’d never had a diesel.  Plus, I felt it would be too loud to move stealthily through the woods, & not scare the bejesus out of the wildlife. We tend to make a full pass through campgrounds, when we actually stay at one, before we choose a site, & I like to not disturb the other campers. I also learned that Bullets are made in the Dodge factory & share the same cabs, just a bigger frame, & I assumed, had the same pitfalls of the Dodge, just bigger.

Now I started to expand my possibilities, by considering getting a Toyota, probably Tundra, fully dressed up, removing the bed, cutting & extending the frame before the rear axle, to get the frame I needed. We test drove one and found: a good engine, lots of power, average or below gas mileage- but a contender. The more I thought about it however, the more I realized that although yes, I could extend the frame, it would still be a frame cross section, designed for a specific span between the axles.  I would be adding 32” to that (or roughly 130% its intended span) my architectural background told me that, really, the weight on a beam doesn’t affect the depth of the beam as quickly as the span. So, eventually, I gave up this idea.

At this point I got exasperated as I usually do, being a designer, I can see whatever it is I need so clearly in my head, it’s usually so simple, but not out there. This goes with all sorts of things, hinges, pens, hose reels, light fixtures, hoist systems, clothing! I’m really good at taking existing things & redesigning them into substantially better things (in my opinion anyway) now that I think about it, my college friends may want me to rethink my past clothing style! Fortunately for my sanity, Bethany & I had a trip up to Portland OR.  We were scheduled to go out to dinner at the Portland City Grill, a brilliant restaurant that surpasses every other place we’ve been (we just cook at home a lot now) plus, this one table looks down 30 floors, to where we first met , little did I know how important this trip would be for this project.

I’d scheduled to test drive a Sterling Bullet as well as a Ford (I was getting desperate, & had to leave my weird images behind) at Northside Ford earlier that Saturday afternoon. When we pulled in, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Bullet, it has a tough charisma that was lessened a little by the ‘sterling white’ paint job (they all come in white). Our salesman started it up, and to my & Bethany’s surprise, the 6.7 Cummins wasn’t as loud as I feared or had heard in other trucks. I also noticed no, I mean no, visible or other signs of exhaust . I was informed that this Cummings turbo engine was the most advanced diesel engine ever produced, emitting the least exhaust ever not produced. I was also informed that infact I could get an upgraded interior with all of my wants, no problem. They happened to have a bullet 5500 4×4, 12’ frame, 84” cab to axle in stock, this particular one had a basic interior, but that wouldn’t affect a test drive, so Bethany & I took it out for a ride. From the moment I pulled out of the parking lot, I knew it, this felt right, turning radius was tight, power steering was nimble & responsive, engine power, it’s a 6.7 liter diesel, What do you think! I shifted into 4 wheel drive, smooth as Bethany’s bosoms! Now I started to question my first impression of the Dodge I’d test driven, had I just gotten desperate for any vehicle to work? So after a little discussion on options, I told the salesman I had to go test drive the Dodge again (was that rude?). We quickly booked over to a Dodge dealer nearby & took out a similar cab & chassis, all specs the same, nope, my first & now second impressions were the same. To this day, I don’t know what parts sterling has, that differ from the Dodge in terms of steering & turning radius, but Dodge lost this competition. We quickly drove back to Northside Ford, Bethany writing down the pros & cons of the bullet,

Pros – available interior packages, navigation, not having to cut & extend the frame, this truck being new, will last us forever(into our retirement), great styling, standard cab, turning radius, diesel engine will last forever, good sized tires & frame, really low exhaust

Cons – bigger motor than we would need, although this was a quiet engine by diesel standards, it was still louder than what we planned, it was a dually & I’d have to change that to a single rear wheel configuration for real four wheeling. I knew sterling stopped making the bullets in 2009, so was getting parts going to be a problem down the road, & lastly, what was gas mileage with this engine?

bullet42081

When we got back to Northside Ford we did our obligatory test drive of a similar Ford unit, (it was OK, but it felt like a ‘unit’!) nope, we were sold on the Bullet. We also talked through all of our concerns & ‘cons’ enough to realize that the Sterling Bullet was for us, plus, it’s named the same thing as this blog, what a coincidence!

Finally, these months of frustration were done, our project was about to begin, we now had a base vehicle and a great meal that evening to boot! And yes, we got our favorite window table.

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