Mat Mobile's Roadtrek ('98 Chevy 3500 2WD)

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
After many, many, many years of daydreaming, my wife and I finally found our travel vehicle. It's a 1998 Roadtrek Versatile 200, built on Chevy Express 3500.

I got it at 166,000km. The transmission has been re-built (as a preventive measure) and is still under warranty. The inside is really clean. I'll post more pictures later on.

Day 1.jpg

Background

Just to give a quick background, I'm from Montreal and was lucky to have parents that loved to travel with their RV (trailer). We went all over the Canadian Maritimes (except Newfoundland), driven across Canada to Vancouver and travelled back through the Northern states, roamed around all the eastern states all the way down to Florida (but not the Keys). So it's no surprise that I have the travel bug.

My vehicle of choice has always been a van. '93 Safari AWD, '91 Lowered Astro and finally a '79 Ford (pictured below). I enjoyed a 10 year phase of Vanning but the level of perfection that was necessary just drove me crazy. And the constant tinkering alone in the cold humid garage ended it for good. It just wasn't my (*cough* wife's *cough*) thing. But we loved travelling with it and want to focus on it!

My van.jpg

After following several blogs (Drive Nacho Drive, Desk to Glory, Song of the Road, Our Bigger Picture, etc...) we took steps to make this dream a reality. We downsized our life from a bungalow to a condo (and sold tons of stuff...) and now we're itching to go.

We evaluated several possibilities including a flatbed FWC on a Tacoma, a Palomino on a Ram with service bed, but in the end, we came back to my original dream vehicle: a Roadtrek. The main factors were because I live in Canada (rusted vehicles and crippling exchange rate).

The objective

My wife, Alfie (12lbs. Chihuahua) and I are planning the following for now:

- Summer 2017: 3 weeks in Newfoundland (trial run)
- Summer 2018: Go across Canada and Yukon
- Summer 2019: Start going south... then keep going south... until we don't feel like it anymore. The objective is to eventually reach Ushuaia.
- Someday: Ship to Europe and keep going...

- I'm not looking to convert it to 4WD (I can't say I'm not tempted though... :drool:). I don't think it's necessary for what we want to do. Others will agree (check out this conversation as an example). I do plan on making sure I don't get stuck too often and that it's easy to get myself out of trouble.
- We like the idea of slow travel.
- I don't want to build this thing forever. It's gotta be at least almost done by 'Nov 2017.
- I want this vehicle to be reliable.
- I want to be able to boondock anywhere... But we'd rather pay a minimal fee to be in nature than have free Wal-Mart parking lot camping.

The build

(I will update this section with links as the build progresses.)

- Add ground clearance in the suspension (currently discussing with Weldtec).
- New tires for ground clearance that can be deflated for reasonnable beach driving.
- Powder-coated wheels.
- Solar panel with corresponding electrical system.
- Steel front bumper with winch and recovery points.
- Steel rear bumper with spare tire mount and extra fuel.
- Roof rack for surf and SUP boards (for Baja per bucket list).
- Mount for MaxxTraxx or equivalent.
- Coat running boards with Raptor liner (still debating which colour)

That's about it. The rest should be minor details.

The challenge

- Limited availability of parts for the 1996-2003 2WD Chevy Express (I wish I had found a Ford... but I love this one).

- The whole camper part is a big Fiberglass bubble. This means:
  • There's no gutters to install the standard roof racks for the surf board,
  • There's no doors in the back so no hinges to install an Aluminess bumper.
This means the whole storage system will have to be custom. For now, and this may seem over the top (pun intended), but this is my inspiration:

(Photo courtesy of my friend VirtualVanner)

- I don't have a garage (I sold the house) so I have to work at my friend's (to whom I lent ALL my tools long term... he owes me), in my dad's driveway or have the work done by somebody else (thankfully it's already in great condition).

Thanks for following along or if you're a fan of Instagram you can find me at @matsirois .
 
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Mat Mobile

Adventurer
Saturday I spent some time removing the stripping decals at the meeting point between the white at the top and the blue part painted on the rocker panels. This was my priority because I might be bringing it soon to a supplier to have the line-x painted on the bottom.

Here it is after a quick wash to make sure I wasn't scratching with a bunch of sand and dust ("Before" picture):


Here's the tools I used:


I thought it would be more difficult but the decals came off pretty quickly. All i needed was to heat up the glue a little bit and it would pull off. I set the heat gun about 10" from the surface and at low heat/fan level. Any more heat would make the decals melt and break and making the job more difficult.

The plastic razor blades were useful but I only ended up using one. I'll probably end up using 2-3 more.

So it ended up taking about 2 hours to remove the bottom decals. I'll post an "after" picture once I finished the ones in the middle of the body.

Also, the van is officially named Gandalf! My wife picked that name because she loves listening to the Lord of the Ring soundtrack while we're driving in the country sides. It's our thing. :smiley_drive:
 
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Photomike

White Turtle Adventures
Congratulations!! I have been looking for a similar van, maybe a few years newer, for the past 3 years and nothing that I like so far. Okay truth be told I like the new ones but if I buy a new one I will never be able to stop working to enjoy it :Wow1::Wow1:

Sad that most of the ones that are for sale are either so over priced that they are not worth the price or they are garbage and not worth anything. I will be following to see what you do.
 
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Mat Mobile

Adventurer
Congratulations!! I have been looking for a similar van, maybe a few years newer, for the past 3 years and nothing that I like so far. Okay truth be told I like the new ones but if I buy a new one I will never be able to stop working to enjoy it :Wow1::Wow1:

Sad that most of the ones that are for sale are either so over priced that they are not worth the price or they are garbage and not worth anything. I will be following to see what you do.
Thanks Mike!

I completely understand your comment about liking the newer ones vs. having to pay for it.

I briefly touched on the decision process when I commented "We evaluated several possibilities including a flatbed FWC on a Tacoma, a Palomino on a Ram with service bed".

The reality is I spent a few years thinking about it while we arranged our lives to meet the demands of long term travel (downsizing from house to condo, paying off debt, etc.)

During all that time I kept changing idea until I eventually realized that there's no "perfect expedition vehicle". There's always a compromise (including in cost).

In our case, I could be patient and wait 6 years to buy an Earthcruiser.... and then save for the trip. But the world is big and we will need time to travel as much of it as we can... and we don't want to be rushed. I also have a personnal objective of spending a few months surfing in Baja and I'd rather do this younger than older (no offense to anybody's age). I just turned 40 and feel it is time. I was an ant for long enough... now it's time to be the grasshopper!


Just to give you an idea, buying this used 1998 model + cost of modifications + repairs = Approx. value of a 2004-2006 model without any modifications (it's also really close to the price of a used Sprinter Class B in the same years)

I find that having a 1998 model built exactly how I like it will be better in the long run than a stock newer model. That's my choice and I'm stuck with it! :wings:

I was also having a lot of trouble with the Built vs. Bought dillema. From previous experience I never have enough time to dedicate to the build of my van as I would like it and found it extremely frustrating. Just because I know that I CAN do it... doesn't mean that I HAVE to do it.

So my time will be better spent working my day job making money to pay for somebody to build it for me. That's my choice and I'm also stuck with it! :wings:

But I'm super excited to get the ball rolling. It's a snowball. Progress has been slow for the past couple of weeks but calls are being made and soon enough things will start happening.
 

Photomike

White Turtle Adventures
I have gone the entire searching route and sometimes it is so frustrating, you think you found what you want then you find out there is a huge issue with it.

My first real RV (not counting tents and sleeping in the back of a Mazda B2200) was a Northern Lite truck camper and GMC truck, I loved this set-up. But with not being able to move from the front to the back I was killing myself moving all my camera gear twice a day.

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Then I sold that last spring and looked for the entire summer. I settled on a Majestic 19' RV - I lost the 4x4 of the truck but I got the walk through to the camper. It is actually the same length of the TCer but it is so wide it is not working for some of the jobs that I bought it for, it is only about 3' wider than the TCer but on narrow roads it is not fun to pass other vehicles and using as a daily vehicle when I am driving around town is impossible as roads with vehicles parked on them get narrow REALLY fast. I realize that this is not exactly what it was made for but I thought that I could get by. I will probably hold on to this for camping or maybe upgrade to something even bigger if I am not going on narrow roads.

Majestic001.JPG

Majestic014.JPG

I have looked at EVERYTHING that is available and I mean EVERYTHING!!!!! Just looked at a Pleasureway built on a Promaster chassis and loved the overall build but to get from the front seats to the back requires someone from cirque du soleil. So with all the elimination back to a smaller class B. Even looked at a custom build but again the price.

I think you are more than on the right course. As for having someone do the work this is not always bad, sometimes it is smart as they can do the head scratching and figuring out. I do small things and some things that only I would understand, but I like being able to take to someone and say do this and see you tonight or tomorrow :sombrero::sombrero:

Looking at what is available in Canada right now I may be making a trip to Quebec as they seem to have the most selection on the used market and some more reasonable prices than the rest of the country.
 

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
http://www.boulderoffroadvans.com/chevy-gmc-8-lug-van-lift-kits
These people sell GM lifts and conversion parts.
I don't know a thing about them, except that their website isn't very good.
Thanks nastav! I remember these guys back from my "Astro days". The owner was Dan and something happened to him (health or work issues) and he had to sell the business. At least I think it's that company.

I checked out their site and had trouble figuring out if they could supply material for my van. To my understanding no. The kit you mention is for 2003 and newer (mine is a '98). And there's a big difference between the older and newer suspension set-up (even though the diagram shows for 1/2 ton).

Also, this vendor is not "active". I've never seen him on this site and this worries me.

So I ended up going with Weldtec designs. The owner, Jeremy, is active on this forum and has a good product line-up for my vehicle. Although he seems to be pretty busy (a good sign right?!?), he took the time to do a bit of back and forth with me to figure out what I needed and what suited my application best. So I ended up putting a deposit a couple of days ago for the following:

- Front bumper (similar to SEMA van with a few tweaks for my application) and includes 2 fog lights, a light bar and a winch.
- Lifted spindles (3" with the accompanying lower control arms)
- Lifted rear leaf springs (adjusted to the actual weight of my vehicle... and I still need to get it weighed)
- Fox shocks

This should allow me to run 265/75R16 tires.

I think this should be a good set-up for my application.
 

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
Looking at what is available in Canada right now I may be making a trip to Quebec as they seem to have the most selection on the used market and some more reasonable prices than the rest of the country.
Mike, you have to know that small Class Bs are selling like hot cakes here. Most of the ones I called to get information had about 5-12 people lined up for visits. One Leisure Travel Sprinter had 37 people interested! :Wow1: .

This one I was the second to see it. We tried it out, took 2 minutes to chat with my wife on the street over, drove right back and bought it right there. We made it conditional to an inspection but, to make a long story short, the owner politely told me that I better approve of it fast because he already had people lined up. We skipped the inspection and just went for it as soon as our DMV was open. A stressful Easter weekend!
 

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
Since my Air Conditionner wasn't working, I replaced it this weekend. You can find the whole step-by-step on my thread in the Class B forum. But since A/C isn't very "Overlandish" (to my understanding) I'll just give a quick summary and pictures here. It will be useful crossing Canada and the US from time to time but I don't plan on using it very much. Still... there's no point not fixing something when you can.

Before:


I had a really hard time finding the correct AC. It has to be a LG LW8016ER because of the dimensions (the height is the critical measurement). I ended up buying it from Amazon.com as Amazon.ca did not have it. The added difficulty was that Amazon.com does not ship to Canada so I had to ship it to Freeport Forwarding which is right next to the US/Canada border. The process was simple. I declared my purchase and paid my taxes as a good citizen and it was easy and painless. Going on a Wednesday afternoon was a great call as I had no line-ups!

I did this job with my Dad. You could do most things alone but removing and lifting the AC from the roof is definitely a 2 person job.

Old A/C removal:

This is what it will look like after the old AC is removed:



New AC installation:

  • I decided to add aluminum angles to help block the space on the top and sides. It was also a good way to attach the A/C to the cabinets (there's now 6 screws holding it in place properly instead of 2 screws barely holding on). I put a 3/4" angle on top and 1" angles on the sides.
  • I used GE Silicone II clear silicone.

The new AC in place:


From the inside:


Since my drip tray is in pretty poor condition (cracks, weird white sealing material, black caulking, etc...) I will patch it up with fiberglass and finish the inside next weekend.
 

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
I just wanted to share this picture courtesy of this Expedition Overland article (Thank you! :wavey:)


It's kind of the evil twin of my idea because my roof rack will be very similar!

We will call it the Dark Lord Sauron... but only behind it's back... :yikes:

BTW if anybody knows the owner of this vehicle or who built it, please let me know. I would love to compare notes later on or at least have a side by side picture. This Lord of the Ring comparison is just to good to pass up. :wings:
 
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Mat Mobile

Adventurer
I finally finished removing the stripes! Well.... Almost. I'm leaving the stripes on the roof and the Roadtrek lettering. I think the stripes on the roof help balance it out with the bottom and hide the awning on the passenger side.



I ended up using the Whizzy Wheel. It was so much faster!


The only thing is that you have to be careful on the fiberglass. In some situations, it would creat a bubble that seemed to grow with heat. Not big. Only about 1/4" in diameter. They would either "melt back in" if I let off the wheel or "burst" if I kept going. It happened at maybe 4 or 5 spots. Corners too!

But other than those 2 inconveniences, it was a necessity or I would have spent the whole summer removing the stripes!

BTW, I know it's not "expedition portal" worthy mods for now but it will be coming soon. Another quick update is that the company that will be building my roof rack for the solar panels, surfboard rack and various other "attachments" is fully booked. So it looks like I'll be enjoying my van this summer an drop it off at their location in late November. That way I will save on storage and they'll have plenty of time to do their work.
 
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Mat Mobile

Adventurer
I just wanted to share this picture courtesy of this Expedition Overland article (Thank you! :wavey:)


It's kind of the evil twin of my idea because my roof rack will be very similar!

We will call it the Dark Lord Sauron... but only behind it's back... :yikes:

BTW if anybody knows the owner of this vehicle or who built it, please let me know. I would love to compare notes later on or at least have a side by side picture. This Lord of the Ring comparison is just to good to pass up. :wings:
Mystery solved: GXV 2012 Specialty Van
 

Mat Mobile

Adventurer
A comfy bed

Today I finished up the bed for the van.

It used to be a L-Couch that you would put the table top down and assemble the 4" foam cushions like a puzzle. My wife and I really wanted a full-time bed with a real mattress.

So last week, I removed all the bits and pieces of wood and table-top and replaced it with about half a sheet of plywood (the back half was already one piece). I then added a Froli "Star" system. Not only will it be more comfortable but it will also prevent moisture build-up.


I had to add a piece of oak in the front to add strength to the plywood and also hide the Froli "springs".


I then picked up a full-size Matrand mattress from IKEA. It's a memory foam that they describe as firm. The cool thing is that it comes rolled up in a bag so it's really easy to bring it inside the van and just open it up.


Et voilà!


Of course I tried it and it's super comfy... But I'll give you an update after our 3 week vacation in august. :elkgrin:
 

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Mat Mobile

Adventurer
Front bumper preview pictures

Right before I jump into the bumper pictures I got from Jeremy, I'll close out the bed build with a final picture of it all made up with the obligatory Mexican blanket.



BTW, meet Alfie. He's small, compact, lightweight (12lbs.), doesn't eat much and loves hiking. He's the perfect dog for a small space! He might not be able to pull down a grizzly... but I bet you he would try!

And now the bumper preview pictures. Keep in mind these are progress pics so it's not completed. Also, it's not my van in the picture





I'm stoked! I love the way the bumper is curved on the sides. It will fit the body lines of the 1996-2003 perfectly!

I had to share! :wings:
 
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