Sportsmobile: Not Your Standard RV – Part 5

By Dave Boyer.

Welcome back to Autoramblings “Specialty Vehicles” section.

The remaining portion will cover what options I ordered on my off road vehicle. Due its length it will be broken into parts. This will be the most opinionated portion of this blog and primarily reflects my views. From time to time I will discuss issues I have read about concerning problems that other owners have encountered. I have no way of verifying legitimacy of other people’s views on a particular issue, so it’s possible I might post some inaccurate statements. I will try to keep “rumor” to a minimum. It is the readers responsibility to determine fact in this or any other Web post. There are several owners that are more knowledgeable who have owned these vehicles longer than I have. Many of these people belong to the two Yahoo groups and are more than willing to answer questions.

In the past posts I discussed the major steps on ordering a Sportsmobile. As a kid my mom and dad told me there is always somebody bigger and meaner than me. I took this into consideration when ordering my van. I wasn’t after the biggest or best vehicle rolling off the line. If you were to try this, it would be necessary to buy a new vehicle every year and spend boo-coo bucks just trying to keep up with the Jones’s. But it was now time to actually request what I wanted on my new vehicle. Every time you visit the SMB factory, more than likely there will be a new van coming off the line that is better than yours. Not to say I didn’t make upgrades during construction, as seeing other vehicles did make me re-evaluate my order and add several items. The SMB options form contains a detailed list of items and what they cost installed. More than likely SMB has added new changes to their catalog by now, but most of their production items haven’t varied that much since 2005. The list I am going to base this article off of is the 2005 option form. So if you’re in the market for a new Sportsmobile, it would be wise to contact SMB to see what’s now available. Also going on line should take you in the correct direction. Besides, in a year or so this article might be a little outdated, especially since Ford has made some major style changes forcing SMB to make changes also.

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Just because I am having trouble with some items, it doesn’t mean you will have the same problems. See if improvements have been made and make your own decisions. Many problems I had were resolved and may no longer exist. Please remember that there are several options I didn’t order, so get a list from Sportsmobile, look over the optimum possibilities, and use the Yahoo groups to research your choices.

One of the first rules is, “never say never”. I am doing things periodically with my vehicle that I didn’t plan on when I made my purchase. I based my original order on a few things:

1. Where I planned to take the vehicle

2. The terrain

3. Length of time spent at a single spot

4. Storage

5. Towing

6. Daily driving

My views are quite different than when I made my purchase. Where I planned to take the vehicle and what kind of terrain I would go into changed dramatically once I found out what this thing could do. In the picture below, I was discussing a climb with Phillip, a forest service worker (on the right) who was having a recreational day himself. We followed him in and out of the area. The Sportsmobile climbed over rock better than his Jeep, but his vehicle took tight turns and narrow access such as the trees in the background much easier.

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Sportsmobile’s are so large that most pictures will not show the degree of difficulty involved in a climb. On the contrary, Phillip’s Jeep really shows what the terrain actually was. This was an easy climb for a Sportsmobile but required a spotter to be on the safe side.

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Off roading has become my main interest and unfortunately the van now sports scratches and dings as badges of honor to the 4×4 world. I wouldn’t have it any other way except for free body work.

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If you find something you don’t like or question in the writings below, ask SMB or research it. I might be misinformed or just plain wrong!

The vehicle:

This was not even an issue for me, but others might disagree. I went with Ford because I believe the frame is stronger, and a big heavy rig like this needs the ability to resist tweaking on adverse, off camber situations as much as possible. Even though I’m a Chevy dude, I prefer the Ford while off roading for the stated reasons. As far as SMB 4X4 conversions, I’ve been told that the Chevy ride is far superior compared to the Ford E-350. I have seen some 4×4 General Motors vans, but they are usually more suited to light off road travel. Check out this great looking GMC/ Quigley 4X4 vehicle.

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I decided on a white vehicle because I live where the summer heat is always over 100 degrees. I don’t know how metallic paints handle sun these days, but my rig will have to sit in full sun until I build a covered area to park it under, something I need to address soon. White stands up well to sun, stays cooler, is easy to keep clean, and more important, I like it.

The van’s length was a fairly easy choice also. First and most important was that I needed space for my astronomy equipment. The length between a regular body (RB) and an extended body (EB) is only about 20 inches, but it makes a big difference as far as inside storage, an advantage when traveling for extended periods. I am not sure, but it appears that the beds in the EB are longer (check with SMB) and at six foot, I wanted all the length I could get. The RB would be a better choice for heavy off roading but with a little finesse the EB does well. The EB has problems with departure angle (such as the lower rear bumper hitting the ground when driving out of a ditch) and tight turns on switchbacks. Usually you can calculate a drive into a gulch without dragging the ass end, but I have drawn a few lines in the sand with my hitch. As far as tight turns, the EB must make more multi point turns while driving on switchbacks and the like. So the RB wins here, but my rig gets the job done. The picture below required a spotter to help negotiate several very tight turns on a road in the eastern Sierra Nevada Range.

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I have been told that the SMB 4×4 conversions turn sharper than their Quigley counter parts. This can be important for an EB depending on what you plan to do with the vehicle. The only problem I had on my decision to go with an extended body was that the RB was better looking, but that just my opinion.

The power plant was also pre determined before I ordered my rig. A diesel was first on my list. I was willing to put up with the extra noise, although the noise of the fan surprised me. Before I made my order to SMB, I was issued a new aerial lift truck at work that had an International Diesel motor in it. I drove it to the job site with no surprises. The first time I operated the boom, the fan kicked on while I was up in the air. My co-worker looked down and thought the truck had caught on fire. Not a great feeling when you are 70 feet up. There was a loud roar as we looked down to see what appeared to be smoke engulfing the engine area. Of course it was just dust. I had no idea how similar the Ford 6.0 power stroke diesel was to my work truck. While driving my new SMB home it took about 10 miles before the fan kicked in and all I said to myself was “O-NO”. I felt like…well some major mixed feelings kicked in about as hard as the fan did. You got to here this thing before buying one. Dura-max diesels don’t do this. I know of people who were totally freaked out when the fan kicked in on their 6.0 PSD. One person said they returned to SMB thinking a problem had occurred. Dust is the worst part, and this fan will really kick up the dust on some trails. Unfortunately I am forced to deal with it. The noise is just part of the van now and less noticeable to me at the present. Our work trucks sit at high idle for hours at a time, not to mention that they run about 10 hours most every day. Many of the older gas rigs had problems with heat, so we switched to diesel motors on equipment that idles up for long periods. But the newer gas engines are a new breed. I don’t want to talk anyone in to or out of the power plant they choose to put under the hood. We still use gas engines in meter reader trucks and electronic meter technician vans which have thousands of hours put on them in some of the worst conditions. A gas rig might be fine for your needs. Because of the weight of these rigs, I would go for the largest gas motor available if that was what I planned to order. At this point in time I would still order the 6.0 diesel. Just remember I said at this point in time.

For those who are hesitant about the purchase of the 6.0, watch this set of videos:

http://powerstrokehelp.com/PSD_common/6vs7/1of6.asp

Some of the pros of a 6.0 PSD are:

>It handles heat during long idle times better. Personally I feel that diesels handle heat better overall.

>It has good torque for pulling trailers and heavy loads.

(Note: I have been told the E-350 van 6.0 PSD has been de-tuned which produces less power and heat than the Ford pickup counterparts. This is to combat of limited air flow around the engine compartment.  The horsepower of the Ford Power Stroke Diesel in the Econoline van series  has been lowered about 100HP to accommodate for heat. The total HP output on my E-350’s PSD is about 235 @ 3300 RPM. Because of the heat issues, re-programming or “chipping” the engine is not recommended. After the warrantee is up on my motor I might add a programmer for use in limited applications with close monitoring of EGT’s.

>It gets reasonable mileage. This is true especially when running a trail at slow speeds or on downhill grades. I have averaged about 13-14 MPG on a flat highway driving around 65 MPH. Driving slower speeds pushes up the mileage considerably. When traveling in the hills, I usually average 11 to 12 MPG. Pulling my SMB trailer doesn’t seem to make much of a difference on MPG in the hills.

>The motor should run longer before having to be rebuilt.

>Diesel is a by-product of gasoline and should be cheaper in price. I have no idea what happened here. New additives to fuel, hurricanes, and environmentalists give the oil companies an excuse to drive up prices on fuel. Conspiracy? It’s a bi-product for crying out loud.

>Diesel is actually more eco friendly than gasoline. (Don’t even think of arguing this point. Do your own research on it and make your own decision).

>Diesel fuel is much safer than gasoline.

<>This issue could be a pro or a con. Ford E-350 vans with the 6.0 PSD are used in ambulances all over the USA. I guess the best person to talk to would be a mechanic who works on fleet vehicles that run 6.0 Power Stroke Diesel vans. Don’t try to compare to a Ford truck. It’s a little different setup. Take a look under the hood of a Ford truck and then look at the van. Air flow is a major issue. Yet many times ambulance personal will keep their rigs running while sitting at their departure spot. They do this in all kinds of conditions, so the engines have to be somewhat reliable. I’m sure the major companies who utilize diesels have a reason why they use them over gas rigs, but who knows. I do know that the ambulance companies freaked when they found out the new ford 6.4 would not fit into the vans. The 6.0 is here to stay until a solution is found. A mechanic would be the person to say if a diesel is a pro or con, but even mechanics can be skewed one way or the other. Think about it. If a 6.0 is more difficult to work on than other engines, some mechanics will hate them even if they are better in the long run. Also remember the early 6.0 engines had major problems and I heard all kinds of bad reports. Bugs eventually get worked out as a rule. You always hear the bad because people complain and you rarely hear from those who have no problems. This is just human nature. I would rather not be a beta tester on a new motor though. You’re just rolling dice IMO. A very important fact is that people generally drive their work vehicles differently than their personal vehicles. Think about a Fire Department and how they use their rigs. Jump in and go. They drive them hard under heavy loads. More than likely they hit the road from a cold start. I believe strongly that cold short runs with a diesel aren’t a good thing.

Some cons:

<As I said, the 6.0 PSD has had its share of problems, most from the turbo charger. I have yet to have trouble with my motor (I’m knocking on wood as I write this), but I always pre-heat the motor to reasonable temps before heading out. In fact I usually pre-warm the motor before I start it in cold weather. (More on this later) IMO switching to synthetic oil will help with cold starts. I also watch the heat on long hauls and idle down the engine before killing it. It usually requires a 3 to 5 minute cool down before turning off the ignition after a hard run. On long steep grades, I periodically pull over and let it cool down. A pyrometer is a very valuable gauge. Too bad Ford doesn’t install these as a stock item, but they are in the business of selling and repairing. I plan to install a pyrometer soon.

<The motor is very expensive. Don’t think you will ever recoup the cost by fuel savings unless the oil companies go back to pricing fuel on what it really cost them to make it. We need to get some more refining plants going in the US. Diesel fuel subsidizes losses in other areas (IMO) or we are being ….well I’ll leave that out.

<The motor is noisy, hot, and smells like a diesel. The dog house (engine cover) gets really hot as does the front floorboard. The fan kicks up dust and sounds like a jet. If you don’t like diesel smell, take it into consideration. I never smell it in the van while driving unless I overfill the fuel tank. If that happens I will have to find a car wash ASAP. The exhaust isn’t that bad, but some find it irritating. Gasoline makes me noxious, but I actually kind of like the smell of diesel provided it’s not too overpowering.

<Diesel fuel is harder to find. But in a pinch, diesel might be easier to find around a farm or anywhere heavy equipment is being used.

<The motor holds 15 quarts of oil and is more costly to service.

<Repairs can be costly. I will say yes to extended warrantee when the time comes.

<Diesel fuel and extreme cold weather don’t like each other. The fuel can wax up and cause problems. When the Alaskan pipe line was built, they kept the diesel motors running 24 hours a day because of this. But this takes colder than average temperatures to cause problems. Special fuel blends plus strict procedures are required in colder climates. Synthetic oils are a big advantage because of their above average viscosity in cold harsh conditions. Getting oil to moving parts is crucial, and Synthetic’s move better than standard oil in freezing temperatures. Someone from a state like North Dakota could answer how they deal with this kind of weather. Another minor setback is that diesel foams up when pumping the fuel. A slow delivery is necessary to fill the tank. Some of this problem has to do with the aftermarket tank, where foaming is an issue.

In the upcoming post I continue on to some of the inside options.

See you on the trail.

Sportsmobile – Not Your Standard RV – Part4

by Dave Boyer

Welcome.

In the previous posts, I went over what I was looking for in an off road camper van. I discussed making the commitment to purchase a vehicle, and a few details on ordering my 4×4. When I first decided on a Sportsmobile, I was looking at spending no more than 90K, give or take a thousand. Whether a curse or blessing, buying a Sportsmobile can be a fluid adventure while dealing with all the options and what these “extras” end up costing you. When you’re being bombarded with so many features to choose from, without some insight or previous experience, it can become a difficult task to figure out what you really want or actually need. In turn it affects your pocketbook. How you configure your rig can become an extension of one’s self. This made it a little difficult for me because I ordered things that I wanted but could have lived without. In my “newbie” world, the Sportsmobile site led me to thinking I could drive one off the lot for about 85K. Well I was looking at the wrong picture. I wanted that big gnarly rig the web site shows climbing over canyon walls.

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(Picture from the Sportsmobile.com web site)

85,000 bucks? Maybe, but forget a large portion of all the extra goodies I saw on many of the vans in production. Now before going on further, I should also mention one alternative that I haven’t touched on. There might be great deals on some pre-owned vans out there, I can’t leave that out. Sportsmobile itself has a used vehicle section on their web site (see Links, below) as well as the Yahoo SMB forum group.

LINKS:

*Sportsmobile.com

*Sportsmobile Forum Group

*Yahoo Sportsmobile Forum

*NY Times Used Sportsmobile review

Buying a used vehicle might be right up your alley. From what I read in NY Times article (see link, above), a used vehicle was a good choice.  The purchase of a vehicle that is pre-fabricated or used is fine for many RV buyers, but it seems most SMB owners prefer to set it up their way.

Well, after another visit to Fresno, things in my world started to change a bit. Looking at what others were putting on their rigs skewed me toward adding items. I sat at home looking over all the options, adding it up and then deleting stuff to make my target price. As I started checking out the archives on the Sportsmobile owners group, more and more optional equipment was ending up on my order sheet. I came to the conclusion that 90K wouldn’t cut it to purchase my 4X4 vehicle. I did the math and figured I could afford more. Priorities are important especially if you have a family, but if you can afford a slightly higher payment, think about it. My boss at work made a comment that stuck with me, “if you are going to spend 100K on a vehicle, why not spend an extra 10 or 15 thousand and get what you want”. Although there is no reason to get a divorce over an RV, he knew I wasn’t paying cash and his statement started to make sense to me. Order it the way you want. Besides, it would make for a better resale when time came to let it go. OK… that made a good argument at the time. So I compared what different loan rates would be and soon talked myself in to a slightly higher payment. My vehicle looks good and more important, I didn’t have to sacrifice any of the items that deal with the off road performance. I get complements daily when I’m on the road, but at times it can actually become a pain in the butt. I have had guys on top of, and under the vehicle without my permission which is somewhat upsetting. A comment from one lady made me laugh, “Looks like solid testosterone.” Some people even give me dirty looks thinking I’m some sort of an uppity jerk or maybe they have issues with 4×4 vehicles in general. These vans don’t look like fuel saving eco vehicles, that’s for sure. The worst look was by two guys pointing at the van while at a stop sign. Paying attention to my van and not the road, they pulled out and T-boned a Chevy Tahoe that was traveling at high speed on the highway. I almost ended up in that wreck myself.

As I stated earlier, there are a bunch of preferences that many folks (me included) could live without, but I deleted a few items that I shouldn’t have. As I stated in part one of this article, sometimes options you think you don’t need come back and haunt you later. This leaves you wondering “why didn’t I order that.”  Of course, it can go the other way too, “that was a mistake, what was I thinking!” But even though my vehicle was different than many rolling off the line in Fresno, I got what I wanted for the most part. I will say that a large chunk of money came out of my pocket to make the van look the way I wanted. In the up coming posts, I will discuss in depth how my order ended up. I will also go over some of the additional changes that have been made to date. This will be the most highly opinionated portion of this entire article. The “option adding game” hasn’t stopped yet, and I wonder if it ever will, but I enjoy my rig and welcome every outing. I must say that a lot of people buying a Sportsmobile don’t feel they need some of the expensive changes such as the bumpers, locking differentials or a winch. That’s a reasonable decision and OK with me. It will save money and maybe they don’t like or need these features. I have met several folks that feel 2 wheel drive is enough. So be it. Order it the way you want. I refuse to put down what others order. Degrading someone’s idea or making a statement like “that’s ugly” or “what possessed you to buy that” is just rude! You should be proud of your rig and others should respect this. On the other hand you might be sorry if you don’t do a lot of research. Get on line and ask. If you see an owner at the factory with a van that looks like something you would like to own, ask them. Just don’t use what you see or read as the only template deciding on your vehicle. Give some thought about ordering it the way you want.

Sportsmobile – Not Your Standard RV – Part 3

By Dave B.

It is best to do your homework

Welcome.

In the last two posts I went over my choice on a new off road vehicle that would take me on excursions into the wilderness in practicality, style, and overall comfort. I had finally decided on the Sportsmobile Company located 90 miles away, so it was time to sit down and look over SMB’s plans and brochures. I had to make an estimate on how much I was going to spend and what I could afford. I also had to look into the financing and get an idea how much insurance would cost me. There is no sense having a vehicle like this if you can’t afford to put it on the road. It would be foolish to pay 100K for a vehicle that sits most of the year. Renting a vehicle would be cheaper in the long run, not to mention the maintenance alone. SMB requires you to buy or put down a deposit on the van itself when you order it. If you plan to buy a vehicle MAKE A PHONE CALL TO SMB AND DISCUSS THE PROCEDURE. What I did was to put down a minimum deposit and paid for the van when it came in. I had the 32K (the price of the van) in an account ready for SMB when they requested it. Then I prepared several loan rates on the total conversion (what the loan would cost me in the end) that fit my budget. ANOTHER PRIORITY THAT’S REQUIRED; YOU NEED TO HAVE THE VEHICLE INSURED BEFORE YOU CAN DRIVE IT AWAY. I called several insurance companies and found a wide spread among the companies. My driving record was squeaky clean, and even though I drive Class A vehicles, prices varied. I soon found this was a confusing issue. Apparently there is some reluctance to insure van conversions as RV’s. One big selling point for me was that insurance was supposed to be cheaper on a RV than a standard vehicle. But prices changed from agent to agent even within the same company. Going on line to the SMB user groups did help a little, but many times I found what others advised me on was something I could not get. My personal agent (State Farm) gave me a quote that rattled my bones. They said it was impossible to compete with companies that deal with RV’s only. OK, I went on line and started looking and soon found quite a few willing to take me on. I got quotes, phone numbers, and addresses. I did not like dealing with companies I have never heard of, especially if they were out of state. Did they even exist? If I totaled the vehicle could I depend on them to deliver? And what if I broke down in the back country, would they come get me? Well I never did find an insurance company that will pick you up in the back country. If there is one out there, I would like to know. The premiums varied widely with each company. The worst brick wall I encountered was, to many insurance companies, a toilet and black water tank were require to classify a van as an RV. I planned to have the standard amenities, shore power hookup, refrigerator, sink, hot water, shower, sleeping quarters, microwave (stove), D/C-A/C power inverter, and a gray water holding tank. I figured that a Porta Potti would cover the head portion, but there were qualms about this. Was this because it could be removed? If you think about it, most any of these items could be removed if you put your mind to it. This toilet thing varied from agent to agent, and even company to company, so excuse me, it pissed me off! I called around and put the crapper question to all of the carriers that sparked my interest. Geico, Progressive, and Foremost gave me some higher quotes but would not give me a definite answer on the head issue. State Farm and AAA said no way; it had to have a permanently mounted marine toilet. This is strange because several SMB owners have stated that some of these companies cover them with no problems and they have porta pottie’s. Maybe I got an agent or agent assistant that did not know what he or she was talking about. REMEMBER, JUST BECAUSE THE AGENT SAYS YOU ARE COVERED, AFTER AN ACCIDENT, THINGS MIGHT CHANGE! This is no time to try to get a cheaper rate by misleading or being misled by anyone. Good Sam was the best to deal with but on the high side also. Then I found a company called Explorer RV. Great quote over the phone as well as a written estimate sent to me by mail. I called them several times during the vans construction, keeping in touch and updating them on changes in design while it was being built. OK let’s jump to the delivery date. Two days before my delivery date, I called to reserve a rental car and phoned Explorer to inform them I would be on my way to pick up the van. Everything was looked good until the day I was to leave. Crap, rental car problems. After a long and upsetting argument with Enterprise, I was finally off to Fresno my head pounding with frustration and excitement. Then low and behold, when I called Explorer from SMB to give them the VIN # and my money, the premium jumped way up in price. On top of that the agent also said they (Explorer) would not comply with the full replacement value clause that I insisted on. I was in a pinch and ready to chew some butt. I asked for the agent who I had been in touch with for the last 4 months and was told she no longer worked there. This is unacceptable and Explorer RV didn’t even care. So moral of the story, HAVE SOME BACKUP PLANS! Most people don’t go through this but I did. Thank God I had those backups. I pulled out my file I took along and found the Good Sam (GMAC) quote through Camping World. All I could hope for was driving away with a good company covering me. I didn’t have time to do the necessary research, so there was a big jump of faith thing going on here. Kind of scary considering I just got burned. Camping World/Good Sam had my information on hand and within 30 minutes I was rockin and Rollin, well almost Rollin. SMB had a little problem with my front lockers, one of those issues I talked about in the previous posting. Heber, Randy and Leo did a little OT to get me on the road, but later I would have to return to finally fix the bug, but I am getting off the subject here. It got fixed.

As far as the financing, I went through my Credit Union without any problems. The only problem was using the van as a tax write off. Rather that go through the van vs. RV thing again, (the Feds also seem to have an issue with the crapper on what constitutes an RV) I just did a second against some property I own, and this was done well in advance of the pickup date.

The day started off with a headache because of a rental car company, a short drive that took forever, an upset stomach due to a lousy insurance company, mixed feeling being overwhelmed during the walk around, and a feeling of doom because I thought I wouldn’t be driving my new toy home. With a lot of self conscience cussing and a verbal prayer it was over. I was on the road. I made it home exhausted.

Do your homework!

Click here to see the sample insurance quotes>>>Insurance Quote

Sportsmobile – Not Your Standard RV (Pt. 2)

By Dave B.

Hello 4X4 enthusiasts. In my last post I went over what I was looking for in a camping rig that would get me into the back country where most RV’s can’t go. I ended up choosing a Van conversion manufactured by a US based company known as Sportsmobile. The company has been in business since 1961 and claims to be the oldest RV van manufacture in North America. In all fairness I have to reiterate one item I commented on in the last post. I have had problems with my vehicle. By no means is this a stab at Sportsmobile. It’s a fact that some owners have had more problems and some have had little or maybe none. If you archive the SMBYahoo user groups you will find several posts dealing with issues that some have had. Some deal with workmanship during the install. I knew that I would have problems and took this into account before I made my purchase. We all look for the most high tech stuff we can pack into a package and SMB tries to keep up with this. Most standard RV companies pump out clone after clone on a normal assembly line, and their products are usually put through the ringers before it’s released to the public. In my opinion this would be difficult for a company like SMB where each vehicle is more or less unique. Many of their time tested options have been rock solid and work great. But everything can be improved, and many times new products are coming at them so fast that a buyer might end up as some sort of a beta tester. Of the 17 plus problems I have had (to date), more than half were product failures from the company that manufactures it. Three have been design problems from Sportsmobile, two that happen to be ongoing for my vehicle. Workmanship has accounted for a grand tally of four, in which one was catastrophic that resulted in a long distance tow. As I write this, I seem to be having a charging problem that may or may not be Sportsmobile’s problem. Even I caused one problem that required me to return to Fresno and I was not charged for the repair. During construction there was a problem with where I wanted my 2-way radio mounted, but their crew bent over backwards for me. SMB continues to improve day by day and they are more than willing to work out the problems with the customer, it just might take some time.

During a recent off road adventure, I had a minor malfunction. The picture above shows the removable sway bar disconnect. The red arrow points to the stud that sheared off while driving over very uneven ground. We just disconnected the sway bar and continued on. The sway bar disconnect lets the wheel travel further when removed and adds highway stability when connected. It did give us a smoother ride on the rough road when we released it.

I could have waited to have the stud replaced, but returned to Fresno the next day and had the sway bar repaired. I also had them change out a failed control panel that operates the inverter and shore charging systems.

As I said in my last post, I would purchase again even knowing of the potential problems that might occur. Stuff fails from time to time.

With that said I must admit that when I first started out, I planned on a vehicle priced between 85,000 and 95,000. As I added options to my dream vehicle, it soon became a monetary monster. If I knew that this vehicle was going to end up at over 115K I might have made a different choice. I’m glad I didn’t go with larger rig from some other company, even though I was drawn toward the Earth Roamer. It sure was one nice looking vehicle and being the SMB was looking around 85K, jumping to 115-120K may have been a factor on where I wanted to go. Later after I had used the SMB in the field, I found a big advantage to a smaller vehicle. Folks with Jeeps might think the same thing about my SMB. Many off roaders think it looks like a tank, but I found that luxury out weighed many other elements while camping or when boondocking off four wheel drive roads. So what I am saying here is this; at first I was more worried about the inside being large enough to be comfortable for me with plenty of space to haul all my equipment. This steered me toward larger vehicles. It was only after I made my purchase that I realized how versatile my Sportsmobile was and where it could go. Sometimes bigger is not better. I had done my fair share of off roading, but with this vehicle, moving from spot to spot became easier, especially on long trips. In the future this is something I plan to do more of and being able to tear down and set up fast sure makes it nice. Many of the trails I have traveled over have been tight for me, and if you are worried about scratching up your vehicle, a larger rig might be right up your alley. So if you have no wish to travel on narrow trails with low clearances you might want to buy something that is roomier. With a big rig you have to stay on the larger trails or plan to make a lot of stops with some kind of a saw. Even I carry pruning shears, but I still rely on a spotter to guide me.

In tight situations like this I usually hear stuff like “Go, OK, Whoa, or the standard loud yell STOP!” I hate cutting my way into an area. Now here is the next thing I have to say; don’t plan on going everywhere a Jeep can go! It’s just not going to happen. You can get close, but physics is going to come into play here sooner or later, just like the fact that a Jeep can’t go where a quad can. And don’t think a 10,000 pound four wheel drive van is going to fly over one foot ruts like a Baja rig. This will not happen either. If you hit a hard bump going 30 it will usually scatter all kinds of stuff inside the van. A Sportsmobile is actually more suited to rock crawling. Are you going to rock crawl like a Jeep? Nope. But you would be surprised what this vehicle can do. I have seen quite a few grins from off roaders when they see a vehicle as large as mine crashing through the brush or chugging up a trail. Needless to say, my van has its share of scratches because where it’s been. I still hate the screeching sounds of brush scraping the sides and avoid it when possible, but sometimes you’re stuck with no way to turn back. It’s up to the buyer to determine whether or not this vehicle suits your need. What it did for me was to open a new world, giving me the opportunity to explore the US in a different and unique way. It sure put a few other hobbies on the back burner, but I’m not complaining at all. So if getting away from the mass population and being adventurous is up your alley a Sportsmobile might be for you.

Sportsmobile – Not Your Standard RV

By Dave B.

I want to begin by saying welcome to all who follow Autoramblings.com and thanks to my good friend Lloyd for letting me use this web site to feature a vehicle that does what many RV’s can’t do; participate in the art of four-wheel off-roading. With this being said, I don’t want to offend others who have purchased similar vehicles who disagree with my postings.

 

 

I am not a four-wheel drive expert by any means. There are many similar rigs out there that can travel off-road and I respect these owners and their choices. I wish to promote off-roading, not argue over technical issues. There are many companies that do four-wheel drive conversions that put out high quality work, but I will be keying on the Sportsmobile conversion here. Responses that are positive concerning equipment, safety, or exploration of other areas will be much appreciated. At this time I do not plan to respond to other posts dealing with my writings.

On the flip side – I refuse to get into a debate with environmentalists who view off roading as a vicious attack on Mother Nature. Extremists can take over a web site and ruin its intended idea. I will ask Lloyd to moderate this section and remove these kinds of responses. This is the author’s opinion and does not reflect on other posts within autoramblings.com.

I am mainly posting here for people who are looking for a method of RV’ing off the beaten track. As an avid backpacker I understand how some individuals can destroy our back country with motorized vehicles, but with a little care and common sense we can preserve our natural resources as an enjoyable, recreational asset for years to come. I am not going to get in to a political debate over off roading. If you don’t like the channel, change it! Many times I have hauled out garbage that others have left behind and I suggest all who participate in off roading do the same. Blazing new trails and tearing up existing ones to see what you can do only does harm to our hobby. There are specific places to “tear it up” that are designed for just that kind of activity, but most of the areas I visit are fragile. Respect it or loose it! Unfortunately, I have found that more destruction is done by self-centered individuals who do not care about the preservation of our “United States outback”. With the advent of SUV’s, more and more pressure is being put on our back country. Thank God that many 4X4 enthusiasts and clubs regard our back country as a sacred resource. Although I do not belong to any of these groups, for the most part their bylaws make common sense. I plan to join CORVA (California Off Road Vehicle Association) in the future and I would encourage all who enjoy off-roading to do the same. Just think of the support the industry could have if all persons who own SUV’s would voice a positive view of this hobby. Anti off-road activists do their best to shut down vehicle trails every year. Much of this is due to the lack of support by the off-road community voicing their view. If I can convey anything in this article it would be this; respect our natural resources to help promote and secure our wilderness for various activities including off-road driving . Also on a side note, I don’t plan to make this a blog, rather a rough guide to areas that I have explored. This might be helpful for others who plan a trip to these areas or those who are just arm chair explorers. I take delight in web sites that show scenic areas even if I don’t plan to visit there. I hope you enjoy the snap shots of my journeys. From time to time I might update a section with added pictures. I am not a writer and have found that sometimes I make mistakes. I’m only human so please give me a break. Downloads might be an issue for some but I plan to keep each post as small as possible. Enjoy.

I have been a camper and backpacker most all of my life. I started camping with my parents in a little trailer that my folks purchased in the early 60s. I will never forget the smell of the propane lantern inside the trailer that also kept us warm and sitting around a camp fire cooking hot dogs. The site of the fire fall off Glacier Point, in Yosemite, when I was young is embedded in my mind forever. Camping became a staple in my life during those early years and as most people do, we upgraded our equipment. As I grew older, I found out how nice it was to be secluded. My parents enjoyed the close company of people; something I called a sardine can. I learned to dislike it. It became more difficult to find campgrounds that were devoid of the masses, so I started to backpack to get away from all the people. Lloyd has accompanied me on several trips both camping and backpacking that will last for a lifetime in our memories. Soon backpacking became the “in” thing. Camping became a thing of the past. Unfortunately, as the years went on, age was catching up with me and it became difficult to pack in to those secluded areas. Still I could not give up the mountains and wanted to visit them more on a regular basis. I was looking for something to get me into the wilderness without tearing up my body. Not wanting to pull a travel trailer, I looked into camper units to put on the back of my four-wheel drive truck. I opted to keep tent camping because of the trouble of taking a camper unit on and off, besides I really had no place to store one. I started buying items to make camping easier and luxurious. I bought a little cargo trailer to pull that could handle the big stuff. The tents I have owned have all served their purpose but with all the elements that Mother Nature threw at me, camping was best during good weather and I really did not care to set one up in the dark. Another thing I was getting tired of was loading all the camping equipment. By the time I had all the stuff loaded I was a little exhausted and grumpy. The last thing I wanted to hear form someone was “what’s taking you so long”. Usually I would snap back “as long as it’s going to take”. Being that most of the equipment for the base camp was mine, I guess my friends thought it was my responsibility to load it. I hated being rushed packing up for a trip. But coming home was the worse part of all. In the summer our average temperature toward afternoon can be well over 100 and unloading became an unwanted chore to say the least. So I was at a cross road trying to find a solution to my camping nightmare. I had thought how nice it would be to have a vehicle that I could pack days before the exit date. And how great would it be to get home without the need to put everything away. That would round out a trip nicely. So I was on a mission to find the perfect rig.

This is what I was looking for:

  1. A 4×4 vehicle.
  2. The ability to pull a trailer or boat.
  3. A vehicle small enough to use as a backup rig or daily driver.
  4. Living quarters large enough to house 2 people or 1 person with a lot of equipment.
  5. The ability to stock and store all my food and equipment days before the departure date.
  6. A vehicle that has air conditioning and heating units that can be used while hooked up to shore power.
  7. The ability to park on my driveway.
  8. Diesel engine.
  9. A price around $100K.
  10. The ability to be a self contained shelter during adverse weather.

I would need a kitchen with a sink, running water, and a cooking area. A bathroom or portable head at minimum plus a shower, but the latter would be a luxury. I enjoy a variety of outdoor activities including bass fishing and astronomy, so being able to overnight was a must. And as a back country enthusiast, I had to have four-wheel drive to get into the rough stuff. I looked into many different vehicles, one being a class B van conversion made by a company called Roadtrek. When I got a chance to look at one, the inside seemed cramped, and being low to the ground it was not what I was looking for. Being on the larger side of life, I wanted some elbow room. Besides I needed a 4×4 with reasonable ground clearance. Looking further I found some nice four-wheel drive motor homes. The Earth Roamer turned my head as well as rigs from Revcon and Xplorer. But these were well beyond my price range. The Chinook Baja was about 120K and in my range but all these rigs seemed too large for a daily driving vehicle. I had about 25 feet to park on my driveway, so the vehicle also had to fit without sticking over the sidewalk. Westfalia, who makes Volkswagen conversions, also makes a 4X4 version but I needed something that could pull a heavy trailer. I started looking at Jeeps (a vehicle I plan to own someday) with tent trailers but I wasn’t sold on the concept. Jeeps are light weight and are limited to pulling small trailers so this was out. It was turning out like Goldilocks and the three bears, too big or too small, not “just right.” So it was back to the web. There are many companies that do 4X4 conversions for special purposes such as fire departments, ambulances, and the common off roader as well. A few of these in my area include Salem Kroger, Advanced 4WD Systems, and even GTRV (Westy) who will build to suite from what I had gathered. I was sure there were more so I kept hitting the web. Quadravan came up but I could not find where they were located. Then I found a company, practically outside my back door, called Sportsmobile. Sportsmobile, or SMB, is a US based company that builds van conversions similar to the 4X4 Westy pop up conversion. SMB has three locations in the lower 48 that do conversions and the Fresno factory (SMB West) was less than 90 miles away. The big difference between SMB’s Fresno site and other van conversion companies is that they will build to your specs more or less. I also found out that the four wheel drive conversion is done on site. This company offers a 4×4 conversion that is engineered well above stock specifications. Even their two-wheel drive units looked nice, but I was captivated by the web sites four-wheel drive section. Some of the links in the 4X4 sections at Sportsmobile.com were informative and the images alone are worth a look. There are a number of floor plans to choose from plus you can shift them around to suit your needs. SMB will also add (at request) many custom items that they don’t normally offer, provided it’s within reason. Even though I could not believe that a van conversion would be roomy enough for me, I drove down to take a look with a buddy of mine. Upon arrival we were greeted and shown to the showroom. The first thing we noticed was a 60’s era Volkswagen bus with a little pop top camper on the roof. This is SMB’s main marketing concept, making pop top campers which they call a penthouse top or PH.

Even though they make hard top models, I wanted to see the PH top. Inside the showroom we got a look at a 4×4 conversion designated as a 50 plan. When the side door was opened we both said “WOW” at the same time. I was totally surprised on how roomy it looked. The PH was in the up position and there was well over six foot of head room. Later I was shown that with the PH up there is a bed stowed on the roof, and when lowered it provides a spot where you can sleep surrounded by vinyl windows with an elevated view.

With the windows open (there are screens to keep out bugs) ample breeze is available but you better be on good terms with your spouse because there isn’t a lot of room up there. I knew at this point that I might have found the perfect vehicle for my needs. It was roomy yet compact. I found many models also had a bench seat the made into a larger bed which would be more suitable for 2 people. OK, get into an argument with your second half and head to the PH bed or get kicked out of the PH and bunk down below. The floor model also had a propane cook top, refrigerator, microwave, inverter, sink with hot and cold water, plus a porta potti. One of the best options I found was adding a solar array to the roof and many of the vans in production were outfitted with this option.

This gives you the ability to stock the vehicles refrigerator days before you have to leave, something I had to have. SMB also offers a Sprinter van that didn’t meet my needs but we saw several that were made into toy haulers for the dirt biker. The Sprinter also is sized to fit between larger RV’s and the standard Sportsmobile.

The company was working on a four wheel drive version of this van. It would be helpful in areas when you need extra traction where a off road vehicle would not be needed.

OK I was sold, so now the confusion on what to order. Extended body (EB) or regular body (RB)? Gas or what I really wanted, a Diesel. And what color? Although there are some items that I am sorry that I put on my van, there were a few I wished I would have ordered. Some of the items you order are obvious but others aren’t. It’s important to look at the more critical production line items that are installed before the van is close to its delivery date. Some options have to be installed during a specific time while the van is under construction. A few options such an awning can be added at a later date, but things like the solar panels must be pre wired during construction. A good rule of thumb is to research what others have done and use the SMB staff as a resource. Their customer relationship is like none I have ever dealt with. You never get pushed into something by the sales people. For instance when I asked about the awning, they made me aware that it is subject to wind and might even damage the vehicles body. They offered to install it at a later date or wait until I was sure I wanted it. For additional information, there are a couple of yahoo user groups that help immensely. Posting a question or accessing the archives can help you decide what you want, or more important what you don’t want. One disadvantage of buying a Sportsmobile is it can take up to six months for delivery if you design your van. There are a few floor models available from time to time, but most people choose to custom pick what they want. It’s kind of an exciting wait with a lot of tweaking as you make your decision on how you want it to turn out.

My van ended up at about $116K (Sept. 2005), but it has been worth it IMO. I also ordered a trailer SMB calls the Rock Crawler Trailer. On local trips I always haul the trailer if I plan to stay out over 2 days.

It helps with the larger camping items that I use to make a base camp. I even haul wood up so I don’t have to gather it for a relaxing fire. But the great thing about a Sportsmobile is the ability to setup and tear down quickly giving you the opportunity to jump from place to place. The vans are small enough to camp at most any campground and with off road capabilities you can find you own spot for a quick stay over.

In an upcoming post I will go over what I ordered, what I should have asked for, and some of the newer options I have on my wish list. I will also go over a few technical issues. Sportsmobile has been very prompt with working out the bugs that occur with a vehicle that is as unique as this one is. I did expect some problems but being close to the Fresno site, it’s not too much of a problem. For the most part I have been very happy with my purchase and would definitely do it over.

Maybe, I will see you on the trail.