by Dave Boyer

Van Tops, the basics:

This is a big ticket item that seems to be about personal preference for most owners. I’ve touched on the different designs in previous posts but will go into more detail about van tops, primarily the Penthouse version I own.

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Generally speaking, a camper top is what makes a Sportsmobile a Sportsmobile. A top allows you to stand up, cook, and maneuver around inside the van, so arguably this might be the most important option of all. SMB offers 4 models that fit standard cargo vans:

  1. The penthouse.
  2. The Voyager.
  3. The Cruiser.
  4. The Contempo.

(A fifth model called the Penthouse “G” is a slightly lower version of the standard Penthouse design).

The top is what makes my Ford van feel like a RV. Of the four tops installed on smaller passenger vans such as the Econoline van, the Penthouse is by far the most common version coming off the Fresno line. The Contempo and Cruiser tops are seldom seen but the Voyager tops are somewhat popular. As far as the Sprinter style vans are concerned, a Penthouse top can be added as well. Sprinter vans are starting to take over as SMB’s #1 seller. Here are the two vans waiting for a conversion at Fresno.

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As you see there are a couple of different versions of the Sprinter, one that is significantly lower coming from the manufacturer. Most of the PH tops I’ve seen on the Sprinter vans are installed on these lower profile vans.

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With the top down it keeps a low profile look but raising it gives the owner all of the advantages that a Penthouse offers.

Upper beds can be added to any of the tops but usually reduce headroom inside the van. Some fixed top owners do not purchase the upper bed due to storage requirements, but custom lengths can be ordered to accommodate small children, cargo and adults. These beds are usually broken up into several pieces such as in this Cruiser van shown here.

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Multiple smaller sections can be conveniently stowed on top of one another in the van.

Here are a few pictures of the models: (To see the Contempo, and Penthouse G, go to SMB’s web site).

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If you’ve followed this post you know that the Penthouse top folds down to a lower position that makes the van almost look like a standard van. This design is the best for stealth camping.

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Unless you saw logs, with the top down most people won’t even know if the van is occupied. I’ll discuss the Penthouse in detail below.

The Voyager design seems to come in at number two as far as popularity goes. It’s rugged as compared to a lifted Penthouse and offers more headroom.

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The Cruiser option is by far the largest top and offers good headroom as well as a ton of storage.

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All the tops are made of fiberglass, gel coated as a rule, and can be color matched for an extra cost, but since 2007 SMB offers a Rhino or Line-X type surface coating options. The tops are very durable and as I have discussed in an earlier posts, can be walked on. But I have found that a small amount of gel-coat cracking can occur so care must be taken. There is a thin piece of insulation material sandwiched in the top that makes it sound like some major cracking is going on when walking on the top. Many owners install some sort of cargo or rack system and will want to climb on top of the Penthouse. SMB states that it is OK to walk on the roof but I try to avoid this as much as possible. During one visit to SMB I saw over eight people standing on a roof for a promotional photograph, so I’m probably overreacting to the cracking noise.

With any fiberglass top, waxing is important but even wax will not detour the effect of the suns harsh rays over long periods of time. Like a boat, colors will bleach out over time when exposed to the sun for several years. I chose white for a few of reasons. First, white is less likely to fade. Second, it repels heat better and third, there is no charge to match the tops color to the body. But the new coating SMB offers might be a solution to damaging suns rays. If the fiberglass top on my van loses its sheen, I will probably have SMB spray the new coating on. Waxing the top is very time consuming and a hassle IMO but must be done from time to time.

Penthouse design:

As far as designs go, I personally like the penthouse top with its four large see-through vinyl windows. When looking at a Cruiser it seems taller inside. This is possibly because of the solid nature of the design. What I found interesting is that in the fully extended mode, the Penthouse actually offers the most standup room of all the models according to SMB’s web site. When the top is lowered, its low profile is well suited for off-roading in areas that have limited overhead clearance. This is very important and one of the reasons I purchased an SMB over others larger expedition vehicles in the first place. It also might be a rig you can get into a garage but you need to make sure of the overall height. To keep a vehicle inside your typical garage, the chassis lift and/or tire size can make a difference on whether or not it will fit. Don’t do like I did and go out and have a custom bass boat built, only to get it home and find it won’t fit into the garage! Boy that was a wake up call. There was no way my garage would let a vehicle of this height to enter. In fact the total length would be more of an issue. (Again, the PH-G model might help lowering the overall height of the vehicle).

Being able to have a top bunk has many advantages. Sleeping in the Penthouse is nice because it connects me to the outdoors.

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With screened windows it’s enjoyable to hear a stream, watch wildlife and actually see what you’re around, whether it’s a colorful desert background or a dense green forest. Waking up to a bad ass sunrise is…well, bad ass when it’s staring you in the face. But some people might feel a bit claustrophobic in the top bunk especially if the windows are closed up.

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I must admit that I feel slightly more exposed; kind of like being in a tent. This is kosher with me and I would be reluctant to give up the scenery that the large windows offer. It’s all personal preference.

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Folding down the curtains supplies privacy from those looking in and the material used will let a slight breeze flow through provided the windows are open. Having such “openness” has an advantage in hotter weather and is a key feature of the Penthouse top. With the vinyl windows unzipped, air can flow through so easy that it makes cooling off the interior literally a breeze.

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An additional fifth “screen only” opening at the front of the top helps even more. And with a minimum of three screens that can also be opened, coaxing pesky insects out of the van is fairly easy. This also makes the PH top a first-class blind to photograph from. Many animals have a hard time seeing you inside the van which gives the photographer an advantage in the right situation.

Screens:

One problem that can come up is the fact that the screen itself is not a fine mesh type material. I realize that this picture makes it difficult to see how fine the mesh is, but the material is much more course than a typical household screen door. Most mosquito netting is smaller than what you find at home. This poses a problem with some insects as very small bugs can get through the SMB screens.

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So far I have not been exposed to these little bastards and really like the air flow that the screens offer. Hopefully I will avoid any area that harbors these invading type micro bugs. The worst part about it is every screen on the van is made of the same large mesh material. This might create problems around infested zones where it’s hot and muggy. Bring on the air conditioning.

Adverse weather:

When it comes to rain resistance, I have heard of owners complaining about water leaks from all the tops. With the Penthouse design, my first thought was how well the fabric would hold up to stormy weather. I figured the PH would be vulnerable to leaks but I am amazed how it stands up to heavy rain and windy conditions. But extremely high winds can pose a problem. I have had to lower the top in winds over 50 MPH but I did this out of concern of flying debris. Of course there is a limit on what it can really take. SMB recommends that you lower the top in winds that exceed 45 MPH. If you think about it, you probably would never know if a damaging high wind burst hit the van when you’re asleep, that is if you can sleep with the van rocking and rolling. So wind can be a pro and a con for the Penthouse compared to a fixed top. A vehicle with a Penthouse can’t handle the high winds but rocks less if lowered. This applies while driving as well and is something to consider. When it comes to rain, it has yet to pose a problem for me. When my van was completed I took it into the worst wet weather I could find. No problems at all. Mildew has also never been a problem with the outside material. While traveling, certain amounts of water will get in under the top and SMB makes you aware that the soft plastic windows and zippers must be fully closed while driving in wet weather. I have heard of mildew occurring on the inside (especially when the van is stored) in very humid environments. There are ways of cleaning up mildew, but most owners deal with humidify by using dehumidifiers or just leaving a simple incandescent light bulb on inside the van. Cold is another issue. Again, for me it’s not a problem. It depends on what kind temperatures you plan to deal with. Like I discussed in the section dealing with heaters, I have had my van into 8 degree weather while using the top bed and it was warm enough to use a cheap 40 degree sleeping bag.

About the PH bed:

One more bed is family friendly for sure. The top bunk is narrow and has ample room for one large person but with an approximate payload capability of around 500 pounds, at least smaller couples could sleep together. So as I said in a previous post, as long as you’re on speaking terms with the better half it might be the best bed in the house. The Penthouse bed itself is not the most comfortable sleeping surface unless you prefer something firm. Many folks add an extra padding or some type of closed cell foam. My back is OK with a firm mattress so at least I don’t have to contend with storing extra padding.

In most PH models, the upper bed is generally made in two pieces.

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The shorter section is positioned toward the rear of the vehicle while the longer front section is situated about midway in the van.

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The forward section has hanging hooks which allow that section to rise with the roof. As shown in the first of these two pictures, this keeps the bed stowed against the ceiling and out of the way until you’re ready for bed. Most people lean the rear segment of the bed against the back of the PH wall out of the way. It is an easy task to lay it down, then unhook the front bed from the roof and lower it when ready to crash. This is how I rig it when using the lower bed to sleep in. But I rarely use the lower bunk and almost never stow the upper bed against the roof. After my Penthouse is raised, the PH bed stays down in place like it’s ready for use.

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I keep my bedding (a light weight sleeping bag) folded over the front section. After lifting the top I simply slide the front section over the back portion of the bed. Pulling the bed into place is simple, plus flipping the sleeping bag over to dress the bed is quick and easy. This works for me because I have an EB-50 and nobody is using the lower bed. Situations vary with people. Some folks sleep with their head toward the front of the vehicle and some don’t. I’m always pointed toward the rear. With walkthrough model vans, different procedures are probably used. Climbing into the top bunk is also something that is evaluated differently by each owner. Much of this depends on the model of the van as well as the arrangement of the inside cabinetry and seating. I use a portable step to reach the refrigerators countertop and then climb from there to the upper bunk. Again it’s personal preference and the design of the van.

Lifting the top:

Another concern with the penthouse top is the effort in lifting it up. When I first began to make my design, I planned on the spring loaded PH. The price difference between the standard PH and electric PH was substantial (over one thousand bucks). The springs can be adjusted for top weights and helps to make it as effortless as possible while pushing the top up. There are a few problems with this. First, it depends on what is put on top and second, if you adjust the springs to easily lift the top, the adverse happens while trying to pull it down. I was leaning toward the spring loaded top until I injured my back at work. I quickly re-evaluated my order. Besides I am pushing 50 and things are getting more difficult these days when it comes to lifting things. SMB does offer a 12vDC device that assists lifting a standard spring loaded PH but I’m glad I shot for the full electric version. It lifts within a minute or so and only pulls just over 3 amps when activated. The worst part of the procedure is the hassle of climbing in and having to release or clamp the rear tie hook. The front two latches are no problem and can be done from the front seats. This picture below shows the PH rear tie down latch. A leather/vinyl flap snaps the clamp to the ceiling so it’s not swinging in your face while occupying the PH. I really don’t like the cutout in the lower bed section while sleeping but have learned to deal with it. If you have kids, just wait until they find out about this little communication device. It can be quite annoying. The clamp itself simply falls through the cutout when the top is lowered.

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With the top down in the 50 model, you have to reach over the rear bench seat but this is only a minor effort to complete. One thing you must do with the electric top is to make sure the hooks don’t hang up while lifting the top. This happened to me and I bent the struts slightly but I caught it before I did any real damage. There is a way to re-bend them or SMB can do it. I have yet to hear of any horror stories about the electric top but it’s always in the back of my mind. There is a mechanical aspect to worry about as compared to the manual lift top. What if something sheared and the top wouldn’t come down or even worse if snow dropped it down while sleeping on the upper bed. This can happen with the manual top and some owners put props in the corners to keep it from coming down un-expectantly. The electric tops can hold 200 pounds or more without a problem and makes it very convenient for those who store equipment on the roof.

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The top and mechanism has a lifetime warrantee and so far I’ve had zero problems but within the last 2 years SMB made a major change to the mechanism. This worries me a bit but I have been reassured by a few full timers that have had their tops up and down hundreds of times without any problems. Yet when the company itself asks “we’ve noticed you have the old top; have you had any problems” really doesn’t sit well. So far the top has worked flawlessly and nobody has said their electric tops have come crashing down on them. Most of the damage I have heard about are concerning the bolts shearing off inside the tracks. Although difficult to accomplish, the top could be lowered manually if needed. If a fuse blew or the control wire was severed in an unknown spot, you could jumper the motor to lower the top in an emergency.

I believe you can see some improvements that were made at this site: onlinehome.us.

The Badgers have basically changed or re-designed most of their Sportsmobile. I have downloaded the entire site relevant to repairs and keep it with my van. They have full timed in their van through some fairly rough stuff. Its possible Sportsmobile did review and change some of the vans designs in part due to what the Badgers found. Think of them as extreme testing individuals. I have yet to have the problems they encountered with their top but as I have said, everything can be improved.

Top Options:

This section on the work order list applies to the hard top versions SMB offers and was crossed out on my sheet. It covers additional windows, curtains, cabinets, and the attic fan. Basically I was exempt from these options except for the attic fan. There are a few penthouse owners that have attic fans who swear by them, claiming the improved air flow is worth the installation cost. I feel the top has enough flow and being they take up valuable space I had no need for this device. YVMV.

Summary:

To sum it up, I really prefer the electric Penthouse top because its low profile lets me into areas where a taller vehicle would have problems. With five windows fully open, the van can quickly cool down in most circumstances but those who like to camp where full hook ups are available, a fixed top might be a better choice as they are slightly better insulated. I would definitely have an air conditioner with a fixed top. Yet what I’ve found is a cool evening breeze really makes the Penthouse version shine but I avoid camping in high temps. Air flow makes the upper bed my first choice for sleeping in comfort plus the large windows offer a visual aspect I enjoy. The Penthouse also handles rain very well. Although cold weather can be an issue, with the correct heating, I’ve been able to deal with temperatures slightly above zero degrees. If I do get into lower temps I can always lower the top and bunk below. For those who plan to frequent extreme cold climates, a Voyager or Cruiser top might be a good choice. A fixed top also has the advantage of being an instant RV, so while camping, it’s possible to come and go as you please a bit quicker. With the Penthouse you have to take the time to raise or lower it, but I have yet to see this as much of a disadvantage. I would highly recommend purchasing the electric top over the manual version. It will help for resale value down the road and being able to lift the top with equipment up there is important. I know my back likes it and hey, it’s only money.

The next, and final section will deal with the extreme off road equipment.

If you want to read the previous parts of ‘Sportsmobile, Not Your Standard RV’ series click here: Sports Mobile Links

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