Mikey's Sprinter Expedition Camper: Chassis and Exterior

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
ALSO SEE THE TWO COMPANION THREADS:

CAB AND INTERIOR: http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20079
SYSTEMS: http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/showthread.php?t=26415


Greetings, Happy Campers . . .

And thanks to the forum members who’d ask for me to cover the design and construction of my 2005 Sprinter expedition camper. Very gratifying to have built something people seem to like.

There’s a little problem in that I could, literally, write a book about all the research and decisionmaking that went into this truck. I roughly figure I put about half-a-person-year into the design and specification, and the construction labor was not far off of that.

The best approach I can think of is to post some of the pictures, mention some of the features the pictures show and answer any questions raised. I’ll do a few pictures every few days, starting with the exterior and the chassis, then doing the systems and the interior in later separate threads. (Though if you’re dying to know something you’re worried I might not get to for a while, feel free to ask.)

With that preface out of the way—and apologies for the three-year delay—we are off . . .



The truck is a 2005 Sprinter 2500 (single rear wheel, vs. duels on the higher-GVWR 3500) with a 140 inch wheelbase. It started life as a cargo van. It has an 8550 pound GVWR and, fully-loaded, weighs most all of that. Front GAWR is, I think 3750, with the rear being 5250 or something close to that. If you build something like this, you have to watch both the total weight and the axle weights; it'd be pretty easy to end up with too much of the weight on the rear even while still being significantly below GVWR.

The truck is 18.5 feet long, something around 78 inches wide and nearly 11 feet tall with all the stuff on the roof. Mercedes also made a 158 inch wheelbase T1N, and it was a tough call to decide which to buy. A 158 is about 21.5 feet long, and the extra three feet of interior room could have been put to good use. But the van got longer by three feet while the wheelbase only went up 18 inches, so the rear overhang was considerably longer on a 158, with the departure angle sucking proportionately. Turning radius also took a hit. All in all, I'm very glad we used the 140 and, besides, it's short enough that you drive and park it same as a car, whereas the 158 was getting up into the "small RV" area.

I designed the truck, but don't be thinking I'm any magic combination of Jesse James and Norm Abram. I can get by, but it was Owen Connaughton and his people at Creative Mobile Interiors that made the finished product so nice. CMI is quite a place, as they do a fantastic job of doing what you tell them to do. They'll give you as much help as you might want, but if you know (or THINK you know) what you're doing, they'll happily do what you tell them. It's fun to think that as designer, you get the credit for the layout, components, etc., but you also get the blame when you start to uncover all the things that weren't quite so brilliant.

On top of the Sprinter is a Kingdome satellite receiver, which connects to a DirecTV receiver.



The dome is one of the smallest available, but it looks pretty huge on a mid-length Sprinter. This antenna finds satellites automatically, but does not track them. (BTW, the dome is handy if you want people to think you're listening in on their phone conversations. I actually got accused of that once. There was also someone convinced we were geologists looking for oil with some radio wave thingie. Honest. :))

The big round lamps are Hella cornering beams. They cover shorter distances than driving beams but with a much wider beam, and longer distances than fog beams, with a higher, less diffused beam. Strikes me as the perfect lamps for slow to medium speeds off road and they are great at lighting up the campground while you set up.

The bumper is from a company called South Texas Outfitters. They make all sorts of bizarre (at least to a non-Texan) rigs to go hunting in and, against all odds, they build a heavy-duty bumper that fits a Sprinter. Can't imagine who'd takes a Sprinter hunting, but clearly if you did get a deer, you could tie it to the bumper and take it home.



But the bumper as STO sells it just attaches to the stock bumper supports, so while the bumper is very strong, if mounted in the standard manner, you couldn't winch of off it; it just would have pulled off the bumper supports. So it was necessary to to get CMI to design and build a subframe that would connect back to the "kind-of-a-frame" the Sprinter has to locate the engine and front suspension.



It's a fine piece of work (we even suspect the airbags will work correctly) but buying the bumper, shipping it around the country, painting it, and then fabbing and installing the subframe added up to a fair chunk of money. You wouldn't want to do it unless you needed to winch, since others (John Bendit at The Sprinterstore.com, for one) have less expensive alternatives if you just want to keep the critters from smashing the truck.

Once the bumper was on, though, it was easy to start hanging stuff of off it. The most important addition was the front receiver.



The winch I have is an 8500 pound Warn on a universal cradle that pins into the receiver. This approach was taken so the winch could be used at the front or at the rear, which seems handy and I'm surprised it's not done more often. There are Warn winch quick connects at the front--the red plastic thing in the right of the poorly-framed picture) and the rear, along with appropriately heavy cabling. The cabling, especially to the rear, needs to be very beefy to carry the high current the winch needs. (Bigger than you'd suspect, or will want to pay for.)

The size of the winch was chosen to be the largest that I could waddle from one end to the other. Since you want a winch with a capacity of about 1.5 to 2 times the truck weight, any recovery will mean doubling the line anyway unless I'd picked a humungous winch, so the 8500 lb. capacity is actually enough. BTW, one of the great side benefits of this approach is that you don't have to carry around 100 pounds of winch when you know you won't need it. (Incidentally, you can see a set of Hella projector fog lamps located in holes that South Texas Outfitters had already cut into the bumper for 4x6 inch fogs.)

The bumper is also a fine place to carry the 60 inch Hi-Lift jack. Bolts were welded onto the bumper verticals at the right places to hang from a pair of holes in the jacks. Wing nuts (one of them locked on) hold the jack in place. The Hi-Lift is also routinely left behind when there won't be any off-roading.



It's worth mentioning the tires. Nobody on this forum is going to get excited about my 215/85x16s, but these are the tallest tire that will fit in the Sprinter's fender wells without considerable trimming, and Bushwacker doesn't make Sprinter flares. :) I chose Bridgestone Dueler Revo All-Terrain tires; they're 30.6 inches tall, which is better than an inch taller over stock, and they carry 2700 pounds each, which is enough.



Don't think for a second that it wouldn't be nice to have used some of the more hardcore tires people here are used to, but they simply don't fit. I'm not, however, displeased with this option. I'm a fan of tall, narrow tires over wider stuff; in my use, it's better that the tire be able to cut through the top surface to find some better traction underneath. It's also good to have the big sidewalls if you feel the need to air down. And these will work well in snow vs. more chunky treads.



Anyway, I've got these big doughnut-looking tires, which is great, but there's a bit of a limitation because you end up running them as high as 80 psi in the rear to carry the weight. At off-road speeds, I feel OK about dropping them a whole bunch, but we're still not talking psi's in the teens like on some of my other trucks.

It's worth mentioning, too, that the tires seems to be wearing great and they probably ride as quiet and comfortably as any credible all-terrain tire around.

Enough for now. More in a few days. Post up any questions.

Mike
 
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Gear

Explorer, Overland Certified OC0020
Awesome, Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on this Overland Sprinter. I am looking forward to the rest of the story. Those side windows sure look interesting.:)
 

spencyg

This Space For Rent
I'm sure something could be done about taller tires. No suspension I know of is incapable of lifting...it may just require a custom solution.

Love the van. That Satellite dome got all sorts of bad ideas in my head for my own van. Lets see some pics of the interior!

What kind of mileage are you getting fully loaded? I assume you have the Mercedes diesel... ?

Spence
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
spencyg said:
I'm sure something could be done about taller tires. No suspension I know of is incapable of lifting...it may just require a custom solution.
Yep, custom is the operative word here. There's many a lifted Sprinter in Europe done with over-the-counter parts from Iglhaut, Oberainger, etc., but not a whiff of those parts here.

What kind of mileage are you getting fully loaded? I assume you have the Mercedes diesel... ?
Yep, the 154 hp, inline five-cylinder diesel was the only engine available in the T1N (pre-2007 in US) series. Dandy little engine, with many engines having life spans of 300K, 400K or even half-a million miles. Empty, owners consistently report mileages in the 22-25 mpg range; at full GVWR, I get more like 20 mpg. Drop that a bit if cruising in the 70+ range. (FWIW, it's pretty much a fact that the V-6 diesel in the newer NCV3s don't do as well, but there's argument about the extent of the drop, with some people saying it's quite small but others convinced it's 10, maybe even 15, percent.)
 
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spencyg

This Space For Rent
Oh how nice it would be to get that kind of mileage. My 6.9L diesel only generates 175hp (N/A) and I am lucky to pull 14 MPG....very lucky.

Spence
 

39Ronin

Adventurer
Great looking rig. I didn't see it mentioned any where, but is it 2WD or did you convert it 4WD?
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
39Ronin said:
Great looking rig. I didn't see it mentioned any where, but is it 2WD or did you convert it 4WD?
Well, it would have been 4WD if it was the least bit practical, but it wasn't. We actually went to the effort to see what it would have cost to have the truck shipped to Europe and converted by Iglhalt. Sadly, it was more than the cost of the truck itself. :(

For time to time in these pages you'll see mention of progress being made on a U.S.-legal Sprinter 4WD system, and maybe one will come about. If that happens, I'll give it some serious thought, though I think we all understand that the price will be distinctly non-trivial. For the moment, though--remembering that I'm an "overlander" and not a "wheeler"--I'm getting along O.K. I have lots of stuff to unstick me, and I'm trying hard not to get stuck. It's a reasonable approach most of the time.
 

Redline

Likes to Drive and Ride
x2

Although I think a big 4x4 Ford Sportmobile would suit my needs better because of it's off-highway capabilities, I just really like the Sprinters.

Narrow design (lot of advantages, parking being one of them), cool European look/more aerodynamic, super Mercedes diesel engines. And who can't get excited about a large, outfitted van like yours getting 20-MPG!?

Nice work :)


brettf said:
Verrrry cool! Can't wait to see more!
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
Chassis and Exterior: Round 2

Continuing the trip around the outside of the camper . . .



A T1N Sprinter's van door opens real wide (and even wider on the newer series) and it'd be a rare builder who wouldn't want to reduce the travel. About two feet would do the trick for most people. Nothing more than a simple plastic block screwed into the slider's track is needed to set it anywhere you want.



Above the door is a yellow LED "porch light," that is controled by an interior switch, as well as outlets for AC and DC power. I really like these, and occasionally will use them just to plug in a power tool or hand vacuum. Not that there aren't outlets inside, but it's handy to not even have to open the truck.



Also seen in this picture is one of the four rings used to attach the silicon tarp awniing we use. Because we have Thule load bars that clamp onto the rain gutters, there wasn't a way to bolt on a FIAMM or similar style in-a-case awning. That's OK, though, as the siltarp awning is tiny to store and really easy to clip onto the rings with carabiner clips. It's held up at the other end with a pair of adjustable poles.



The rings are also adaptable to other tarps. We now have a considerably larger Kelty Noah Tarp that we can attach onto one or two of the rings and shelter a bigger area.

There are a few things worth noting at the rear of the truck:



There is a 5 gallon Jerry can, used for the generator's gasoline, attached to the driver's side rear door.



The can was made by Blitz and is hung of the rear door with a trick mounting clamp made by Con-Ferr.



We have to be careful to keep the clamp on top tight, as there have been reports of the cans following off of the mount. (It's getting academic, though, as Con-Ferr apparently went out of business, leaving no manufacturer. You can hold the same can, though, with a dumpier-looking holder made by Blitz.)

Also bolted to a rear door (passenger this time) is a grey Hardigg Storm Case. These are the same concept as the more widely known Pelican cases; they are absolutely weathertight and even dustproof.



This case is used to store an assortment of tools held in a gear bag from Galls that happens to be the perfect width and depth, and the coil hose used for the city water connection, if used.

The van didn't have rear windows, but I originally had CMI install fixed ones. However, after about a year, I went to Peninsula glass and had them replace the fixed windows with sliders.



I might not have bothered except Peninsula Glass in Vancouver, WA, is only thirty minutes from my house in Portland, and it was cheap to do because the holes in the doors and even the frames were already in place. Once I did it, though, I decided it was a great thing. One of the best ways to ventilate the truck is to open the rear sliders and put the Fantastic vent fan on exhaust; it pulls air in through the back at a pretty good rate.

More coming in a day or two . . .
 

adventureduo

Dave Druck [KI6LBB]
Keep the posts coming Mike. You have some great ideas we can apply to all of our rigs.

I take it the outside plugs are wired to a huge inverter inside the rig correct?

How did you mount the sand ladders?
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
SOCALFJ said:
I take it the outside plugs are wired to a huge inverter inside the rig correct?
Yep; wired through separate Blue Sea AC and DC panels, with the AC coming from a 2800 watt Outback inverter/charger.

How did you mount the sand ladders?
Well, I was gonna save that thrilling topic for later, but wouldn't want my good buddy Dave in suspense ;) . . .

The sand panels/sand ladders/traction panels/whatever-you-call-them are hung on the drivers side like this . . .




They hang from two custom-made aluminum brackets through-bolted onto the side of the rig. The top "hook" part gets stuck through the appropriate holes in the panels, and then the "latch" part at the bottom gets closed and locked to hold them solid.



But I can't tell you how to duplicate the trick brackets; I took them off my composite fiberglass camper shell--think EarthRoamer XV-LT cabin with no cabover; another topic to cover some day :)--that was originally mounted on a Unimog U140L. These brackets held different traction panels on the lower rear of that cabin, but I decided the brackets were more important to use here. So I shipped them off to CMI and asked them to mount them.

The panels themselves came from OK Off-Road. Their claim to fame is that OK OR sprays them with Rhinolining, which makes them look a little better and keeps the rust down. BTW, the two panels probably weigh about 80 pounds, so this is another thing, like the winch and the Hi-Lift, that gets detached and left behind when I know there's no off-pavement stuff to worry about.
 

ujoint

Supporting Sponsor
I know the steel is stronger, but aren't most sand ladders made from aluminum? Are steel units more reliable?
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
SOCALFJ said:
Mike, did you put backing plates on the inside? Seems like a lot of weight hanging off of sheet metal.
Giant backing plates, Dave. IIRC, we also are tied into the "ribs" on the van interior that help keep the flex outta the exterior panels.
 
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