Herbie's Chevy Astrolander/ZMB Build Thread


Rendezvous Conspirator
Well, after more than a year of lurking, reading, and even some spending, its about time I got a build thread going for my little project.

This project really got kicked off early in 2009 while my wife and I were expecting our first child. A friend was telling the story of his nieces and nephews who, at five to ten years of age, had decided that "camping sucks" and that they would rather be home with their X-Boxes, etc. Determined not to have my little girl fall into this trap, I immediately knew I needed to start getting her out camping sooner, rather than later.

Now I used to do a lot of backpacking, but my wife is a city-girl, through and through. It quickly became apparent that city-wife + young baby was not a combination for backpacking, but I've never been much of a fan of improved-campground camping either. Once you've been alone on a bluff somewhere at dawn, sleeping near noisy neighbors in a campground loses its appeal. Somewhere along that line was when I stumbled into the Expedition Portal, and I've been researching and planning ever since.

Things really kicked into high gear in September when I settled on the Chevy Astro and picked up our van in Tucson for the holiday weekend drive back to San Diego.

I've joked about it for a while now, but the plan at time really was to just blatantly copy T.Low's excellent "Astrolander" van as much as possible. I have no shame, and I'm leaning heavily on the experience of others for almost everything in this project, "standing on the shoulders of giants", as they say.

The used car dealer didn't have "AWD" stickers to distinguish from 4x4, but I thought it was appropriate signage, based on what I was planning!

The planned buildup, in broad strokes:

* Sportsmobile "50"/Classic VW Westfalia Weekender layout
* 4" Overland Vans Lift
* Rock-rails/Side steps (in deference to ingress/egress concerns for the wife)
* NP231C transfer case swap, Convert AWD to 4x4, including 2.7:1 low range
* Light "Camperize" on interior - Furnace, House Batteries, Fridge, but no cooker or cabinets - trying to keep as Daily Driver functional as possible.

Details of many of these steps (and others) to follow.

Lastly, I should explain the "ZMB" reference. Anyone who's met me knows I have a serious affinity for Zombies. I love Zombie movies, Zombies as a cultural meme, and mostly Zombies as the perfect metaphor for many of the things that are wrong in people's lives. Ask me for my long diatribe on the subject sometime, its a riot. At any rate, since many people abbreviate their SportsMobile as SMB, and I'm building something similar, my wife starting referring to it as the ZombieMobile, or ZMB. In my head I started creating a little fictional backstory for the vehicle, a well-used tool in the ongoing war against Zombie infestation - Van #1 of a fleet of vehicles belonging to a company specializing in Integrated Undead Pest Management and General Zombie Abatement. So here it is, the Mobile Zombie Abatement Unit, or simply the ZMB.

Follow along to see how I got from above, to below:
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Rendezvous Conspirator
DIY Pop Top Work

The Pop-Top part of my project has been a big weight looming over me. Initially I had planned to just pay a visit to GTRV and have a sleeper top fitted just like Tom did. Their pricing is a bit more than Sportsmobile (who won't work on an Astro), but not completely out of line. General availability of funds (see above re: Newborn baby), and some trouble getting in touch with them and getting the information I needed, however, soon had me looking for alternatives.

Not long after getting the van home I paid a visit to a local friend who runs a company called 3Dyn. I've done a bunch of work with them on other projects, so I know all about their expertise on molded composites (including building some parts for the SpaceX private spacecraft effort). We talked a bit about what I wanted and not long after he shot me these:

We talked about what it would take to build a mold, lay up the pieces, etc. and it was an ambitious project, but definitely doable, and potentially not too expensive if we could possibly sell another few pieces as "kits" for other Astro owners. However since we'd be doing this as a side project, it had to take a back seat to any real paying work coming my friend's way, so this was a long-timeline option.

Nevertheless, we pulled the van's headliner and roof rack and started making paper templates so that we could update his CAD model to match the roof of the van.

Not long after that, I spoke with Derek (dsw4x4 here on the forum) at the newly formed Colorado Camper Vans. I was interested in both a hi-roof based pop-top like he did for his own van, or a simpler design based on using the shell from one of his Top Bunk roof top tents. These are both promising concepts, and I think Derek is going to go very far with his new company. The only hitch for my plans is that Derek is still very busy getting started and has a lot on his plate. I had an unofficial deadline to try to get the van ready for serious camping by the Summer, so I continued to look for more alternatives...

After more discussions with other ExPo members I heard a few different people mention that one or more builders had managed to use a Maggiolina RTT as the foundation for a pop-top. Searching for these projects was difficult (due to the high number of people using Maggiolinas in a "regular" way), but after a couple of conversations with Mike S. at Autohome, I was able to track down a Volvo C303 whose owner had done exactly what I'd been picturing.

This was the final kick in the arse that I needed to move forward. Given that April is drawing to a close, I am running out of time to meet my Summer deadline. After one last call to Autohome confirmed that I am extremely lucky to have found a model in stock that fits my needs, I placed my order and I am moving forward full speed at fitting the Maggiolina to the top of the Astro.

More to come!
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Expedition Leader

Looking forward to seeing your ideas come to fruition, especially with regards to the heater. My brother in law used my van to shuttle and camp for the Desert 100 a few weeks ago in Eastern Wa. He deemed the pop top "Camp Frozen Balls" (a la Dust to Glory). Time to install a heater.

Looking forward to your build.

Edit: And does it bother in one else that they advertise these AWD vans as "4x4" half the time? :mad: If it was 4x4, we'd be half way there already!
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Rendezvous Conspirator
Edit: And does it bother in one else that they advertise these AWD vans as "4x4" half the time? :mad: If it was 4x4, we'd be half way there already!
Heck yes. You and I have both oft lamented that Chevy never offered a ZR2 or Z71 optioned Astro. It suspect would have done quite a bit to change both the image and sales future of the van.

If they'd simply done a little parts-bin engineering and sold 4x4 versions of the Astro/Safari and Express/Savanna, the whole landscape of post-factory conversion for industrial and recreational use would have been completely different.


Expedition Leader
hey Mike,
Have you considered leaving the AWD system alone for the time being?

I know you've got in your head what you want to achieve, and Lord knows I love to
tinker as much as the next man, but is there a concrete reason to automatically toss the stock system?

For example, from what the e-jeepers have told me, my rear Dana 35 axle should have exploded into a mini mushroom cloud by now. I have a 8.25 Chrysler rear axle in my garage just in case of that occurance, actually. Thing is, its been the shining example of reliability thus far. Sure, it can't take hammer-down runs in Johnson valley on 35's, but then again, thats not what I'm using it for...

I do plan on swapping the other axle in, after I upgrade to disc brakes, and maybe put a traction device in it, simply because its easier to do so, with it sitting in my garage, with no timeline attached to it, but If my rear end isn't broke, I don't plan on "fixing" it anytime soon.



Rendezvous Conspirator

So my first post outlined some of my reasons for doing this project, along with some of the implementation goals, but I never really detailed what my criteria for success were. This will hopefully explain both why I tackled a van camper, and why an Astro. Based on a few trips of varying length with my wife (pre-pregnancy), and some experience with "suburban" infant care, we tried to figure out what the big hurdles were for getting the whole family out camping on a regular basis. In something resembling an order-of-importance, our design criteria:

* Affordable. We have a discretionary budget, but its a small one. A Sportmobile, even a used one isn't in the cards for us for a few years, at least. Similarly, $10k for a "pro" 4x4 conversion would be a hard sell.

* Reliable. I like to tinker with cars, but I want to be able to have some adventures without worrying I'm putting my family at risk that they'll have to wait out a breakdown (or worse).

* Everybody sleeps IN/ON the vehicle. This comes from a variety of factors, mostly related to my wife's comfort (both physical/emotional).

* No need to get dressed for a midnight pee. This should almost be the top of the list. Cannot stress how important this is to my wife. With a small child over the next few years, I'm sure this will be more than a luxury.

* Easy setup/teardown. Striking camp should not take an hour. This would mean one adult keeps the munchkin out of trouble for an hour while the other strikes camp. We want as much self-contained functionality as possible.

* 4x4 capable. Rock crawling not required, but we hope to go some places more remote than just "Fire Road" accessible.

* Relatively small/nimble vehicle. Both for the offroading needs and because I am replacing my daily driver vehicle with this project. I don't want to drive something massive every day, nor pay for the gas to do so.

* Street parking. I don't have room for trailer storage at my house. Any solution would have to be able to be street-parked.

I put this all into my brain computer and churned on it for a while and the only options that came to me at the time were an inexpensive camper van, or a crew-cab truck with a Flip-pac. (I have since stumbled on some other solutions, but I'm committed now! :Wow1:)

Crew-cab trucks (even used) were still a bit more money that I had to spend in one chunk, but I did look for quite a while. However, I grew up camping in two distinct vehicles: My Mom's Toyota-truck based Camper, and my Dad/Step-Mother's VW Westy. The Westy was the closest to what I thought we needed, so I kept leaning in that direction. Seeing T.Low's van and a host of totally awesome (but ultimately unaffordable) VW Syncro westies just kept the van fires burning.

Eventually I found a very low-mileage Astro at a good price, so I jumped. The Astro fits most of the bill pretty well. Converting AWD->4x4 is the simple matter of swapping the transfer case and doing a bit of wiring, which is a DIY project instead of writing a big check. Lifting is similarly easy and inexpensive. T.Low has shown that its smallish size works well on most trails, though as I move forward with my interior layout I find myself wishing for a few more inches of interior space. More than anything, I like that I'm not breaking a ton of new trail here. As I said earlier, I'm leaning on the experience of a lot of other people, so not much of what I'm doing should prove to be impossible, or even very very difficult.

For posterity and others following in my path, here are the alternatives and things that I keep second guessing:

* I still think a crewcab truck with a Flip-Pac would have suited very well. Fullsize domestic crew cabs are thick on the ground here in SoCal, but bigger than I really wanted to drive every day. Smaller 4-door trucks like the Tacoma are still much in demand, so prices remain high.

* I wish I'd looked harder at lightweight slide-in campers like 4WC, etc. I think I ruled them out because I thought I couldn't afford one PLUS the crew cab truck to put it on, but experience has shown there are deals to be had for the patient among us. Plus I'd have to either store the camper or haul it every day, but it still bore more scrutiny than I gave it.

* I wish I'd looked harder at the fullsize vans like the Express/Savanna. I looked but I couldn't find enough data on whether the AWD->4x4 conversion was as easy on those vans as it has proven to be on the Astro. With more research or some experimentation, I might have had a bit more space inside the van!

* Seeing all the clever folks who've bolted inexpensive trailer campers to the frame of Isuzu NPRs or similar larger truck chassis is inspiring. Doesn't really fit the bill for a daily-driver capable dual purpose rig, but it makes me wonder what else I could accomplish if I were as creative as those people. Maybe if we have more kids? :)


Rendezvous Conspirator
Perhaps an LS_ motor swap, er, conversion while you are in the parts-bin, doing some engineering ? ? ? ;)
It bears more examination. Something in my head from my early research tells me the LS series doesn't bolt to the 4L60E the same way as my V6 or the LT series engines. Unfortunately in California the LT isn't a smoggable option because it was phased out of passenger vehicles by 2003 (my year).


Rendezvous Conspirator
hey Mike,
Have you considered leaving the AWD system alone for the time being?

I know you've got in your head what you want to achieve, and Lord knows I love to
tinker as much as the next man, but is there a concrete reason to automatically toss the stock system?
I'll be leaving it in for a while, mostly while I work on/pay for other aspects of the build, but I will be driving it as-is for several months, at least.

The main reason for the swap is to get the low range. Granted 2.7:1 isn't a deep deep low range, but anything that will help the big tall van move more slowly over uneven ground is going to be a big plus. On a daily-driver note, the electronic AWD engagement is a little clunky (versus the older viscous system, which was smoother), and I expect a small but non-trivial mileage boost when I can disengage the front axle on the street.
i also have an AWD Astro van and have toyed with the idea of doing something like this. I'll be watching your progress and probably asking a lot of questions :)

Cool project. I'm a friend of T.Low's and a SMB owner. Having driven Tom's Rastro van, it rides like a Caddy and corners like a sports car compared to my 4x4 SMB. The 4x4 SMB really is, and drives like, a 1 ton truck. Off road the Astro seems to work well on rough roads, and easy trails, which is what is was "re-designed" for. All around a pretty nice package.

I was just telling a friend a couple days ago about my idea of using a hard shell RTT with the bottom cut out as the basis for a low cost pop top, and here you are with the same idea! Hmmm, good to know others are thinking about this too.

Looking forward to your posts.

Brian Rutherford
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"Based on a few trips of varying length with my wife (pre-pregnancy), and some experience with "suburban" infant care, we tried to figure out what the big hurdles were for getting the whole family out camping on a regular basis.

* No need to get dressed for a midnight pee. This should almost be the top of the list. Cannot stress how important this is to my wife. With a small child over the next few years, I'm sure this will be more than a luxury."
A PortaPotty in a van is a great thing for women camping, and, I gotta say, I am spoiled by it too. I thought I would hardly ever use it, but I do often. Not having to go outside at night is great. I have used it in cities too where I can't find an easy place to stop and pee. Just pull over, close the curtains, do your biz, and you're back on the road in a minute.

Brian Rutherford


Heretic Car Camper
Having used my fiance's PETT on a cold & windy night in the Mojave inside the TrailBlazer's tent I will agree that something like this is a good idea. I will suggest that the relative ease of waste disposal be carefully weighed. I personally think that the PETT system, while more expensive, lends itself better to this type of use.