About two years ago Kassandra and I left our home of Brooklyn, NY for a no-plans trip that would end up taking us across the US, through 6 months in Mexico, up and down Baja several times and all over California and the Southwest. We do periodically store the truck wherever we happen to be and fly home when work of other responsibilities bring us back. We end up just about splitting our time 50/50, on the road and at home in NYC. Originally we got our rig to access and camp on beaches in the Northeast, but at some point we realized that the best use of our primary rig is that of a roaming second home. But once the rig was far from home, we were right back in the same situation that motivated us to build a camper in the first place. It's time for a second rig.
Platform / Camper selection, and searching for vehicles abroad
I should start this section by saying that we are not selling our Tacoma / FWC rig and I’m not here to criticize them in any way. We love our home on the road and I have a great deal of loyalty to Toyota and Four Wheel Camper. That said, there is no perfect piece of equipment. Every platform has its strong and weak points. I don’t think that I need to go into the strengths of either product because they’re both very popular here. I did want to try something new, and I would like to try to best some of the weak points of our current rig as I see them: fuel consumption / range, payload capacity, ease of surfboard storage.
In order to accomplish this it’s pretty obvious that I need a diesel. I don’t like full size trucks and I don’t have the dough right now to consider the Chevy Colorado Duramax. So I started to consider importing.
My first instinct was to look for a Toyota HZJ 79 in Nicaragua or Costa Rica, where there is an abundance of these trucks and I have friends with a furniture making business. I thought, I’ll go down there, buy the truck, build it out while we surf down there and then drive it back up to the US when it’s done. Sounds like a fun adventure!
I started browsing the classifieds down there, a very fun way to pass the time:
There are a ton of cruisers down there, but I never found the perfect truck that was made before 1994 or so (needs to be 25 years old by the time it gets to the US). They were all either too beat up or had too many km on the clock.
I really liked the idea of buying a truck in some far away land and getting a unique experience out of importing it. So, I threw Europe into the mix! If you've never browsed the offerings in Europe, you’re in for a treat, or torture depending on how you look at it. I started searching this regularly:
At some point I realized that there’s also an RV search on Mobile.de, and with an advanced search you can unearth a huge adventure vehicle market that I didn’t know about. Just add Diesel and All Wheel Drive to your search and you’ve got yourself some serious overland porn. You do have to skip past a lot of AWD vans, but every page contains at least a few Land Cruisers, Unimogs and other esoteric overland vehicles.
At some point in my RV browsing I encountered a converted Mercedes Gelandewagen 250 (or 300) GD ambulance. This immediately piqued my interest; not because I liked the conversion, but because I could see that I was going to fall deeply in love with the source vehicle. I searched for Mercedes 250 GD and as soon as I saw the military ambulances I was hooked. More on this in the next post.
I started diving into the world of the Gelandewagen. There is so much to learn! A universal platform that has spanned 38 years of production and every variation from tractor like utility vehicles to the highest end luxury vehicles means that the possibilities are virtually limitless. It’s also very me…
Last week, after months of obsessing over these things, I traveled to Germany to meet up with Jorg Sand, of-owner of Gesellschaft fur Gelandewagen (GfG), G Wagen rally car driver, extraordinarily experienced overland traveler and publisher of G Wagen International magazine, to help me evaluate and purchase one of these.
Jorg has already taught me a ton about G Wagens. He even gave me a back issue of his magazine where he reviewed the 250DG ambulance. Here are some pics of the article.
Gelandewagen 250 GD Ambulance, aka Wolf, aka Sanitatskoffer, aka the Dog Catcher
Aesthetically speaking, I consider this vehicle to be unparalleled. This is purely subjective, but I love everything about it—the size, the utilitarian design, the fact that it’s a piece of militaria… I even love them with the distressed military paint job.
Objectively speaking, there is a lot to consider. Here’s a summary of all that I have learned:
The 250 GD ambulance is substantially underpowered. G Wagens are heavy and so is this box. The engine is an OM602, 2.5L I5, with about 95 hp and 154 Nm.
I have been told that as stock, I may occasionally hit 80 mph going down hill, but should generally plan on averaging about 62 mph (100km/h) on typical flat highways. I’m hoping that with the right expectations this will be acceptable, but down the road I could consider several Mercedes engine swaps. Most of the conversions that I’ve seen have installed the OM617 3.0 L Diesel I5 with nearly twice the power. These can be harvested from a Mercedes 300 SD donor, along with the transfer case. To be honest, speed wise, this doesn't sound that different than our current rig.
On the positive side, the small diesel engine is incredibly fuel efficient: 17-20 mpg. The stock fuel tank is also ample: 25 gal. Even without carrying any jerry cans, this is an acceptable range for my travels. This is well over double what I’ve had to work with on the Tacoma’s stock tank.
The final factor that I’m already anticipating is a significant loss of driving comfort. Crappy seats, more road and engine noise, no cruise control and no AC!
I’ll go into our mods in another post, but this is going to be a new style of travel for sure. I think it’s one that we can embrace, but we’ll have to wait and find out.
We’re working with Gesellschaft fur Gelandewagen on an initial round up upgrades and repairs. I visited their shop last week and was impressed by their inventory and capabilities. I have a feeling that I’m in the right hands. For all of the G specific mods I’m going to rely heavily on their advise. The vehicle is currently in transit to their shop for a more thorough inspection , but here’s a list of what we’re planning at this time:
Tires: BFG AT KO2, 225/7rR16
This is the stock size. I think it looks great. I’ve also been advised to not increase tire height unless doing an engine swap for more power. I would have gone with the original KO for looks, but I plan on doing some snow driving, so KO2 has me with the sipes.
One other option on the tire size is the 230/70r16; the same height but wider. I’ve opted to not go this direction because I’m very interested in the narrow tire theories guys like Scott Brady and Andrew St. Pierre White preach: less tread cover equals less chance of puncture, less displacement means less rolling resistance in sand, etc. It makes total sense to me.
Stereo: This was a vanity challenge. I wanted to put in a single DIN unit with a USB input that also looks appropriate in a ‘90s Mercedes. This was not an easy thing to find. Most aftermarket head units on the market look like they would be more at home on the Star Ship Enterprise than in a '90s Mercedes. After much research I finally found exactly what I was looking for with the Continental TR7422U-OR Also, it’s 24V and plays worldwide radio frequencies, so we’ll be able to listen to the radio while we tour Europe and North Africa. So perfect that I still can't believe it exists. I just bought one off of Amazon.de and had it shipped to the shop.
Other than these tweaks I’m going to leave the truck stock, military issue. I’m trying to keep my expectations under control. I’ll consider upgrades over time, but I do want to make sure that any necessary maintenance is taken care of before the truck leaves Germany, where access to parts is much better.
The thing that I'm probably most excited about is the camper build. I'll try to outline that here tomorrow. Thanks for coming along with me.
I'm beyond excited to build out the camper. I've always wanted to build a camper from the ground up by myself. I still need to find shop space and tools in Europe, but I have a few leads already through friends in Germany and Italy. Fingers crossed!
I'm happy with the space inside of the box, about 6'1” wide and 8' long. This was probably the most productive part of my two day trip to Germany—I determined that I can sleep across the camper, dramatically simplifying the design. The height, however, is totally insufficient at about 5'2”. I am determined to add a pop top to the box giving full standing height. I'm currently exploring a few different options for this, including working with an established manufacturer, or just building my own. This is still TBD.
I want to incorporate all of the features of our FWC into the design: heat, hot water, a fresh water system, a cooktop, fridge/freezer, solar, etc. There's plenty of space in the box for all of this, but I am going to severely limit space by including storage for 3+ surfboards (up to about 7'6” inside of the camper. I'm also excited about the opportunity to make all of this run off of the main Diesel tank.
I also want to mention that I was very inspired when I found the other two G Wagen Ambulance threads on EP:
I mentioned in my first post that I see this as a major challenge with out current rig. I’ve tried many different ideas on how to store the 5 surfboards that we travel with, but the fact is that surfboards should not live outside. In this rig I plan to store at least 3 surfboards along the passenger side of the vehicle, under the bench and into the bottom of the cabinetry. I’m hoping to be able to put them in there through a hinged lid. If they don’t want to go in that way I’ll have to make the back of the bench a super deep pull out on drawer slides. Here’s a pic of what I’m planning:
Thanks for the reminders! We like to go slow and I think that with the right mind set this is going to be a super fun vehicle.
Watching the weight has definitely been on my mind since day 1, but it's easy to get carried away. The current design is definitely MAXED OUT! We plan on spending months at a time living out of this thing, as we do with our current rig. We definitely use all of this gear, but I am considering the following to shed some weight:
By running a more efficient top loading fridge, can we get away with one dedicated (camper) deep cycle battery?
Will look at the weight difference between a Webasto Diesel heater and the Dual Top Evo. I may consider an alternative showering setup that would require heating water on the stove...
If I were you I would also consider the OM606A, in my opinion a much better motor for the weight of your vehicle. The OM606A will give you much better options for power, they can be tuned to 500+ HP and would move your heavy camper much better than on OM617A. The OM606A is super easy to get in Europe as they came in multiple platforms over there. I too am converting a 280GE ex-ambulance into an adventure rig, mine was a stock LWB in which a company would chop the back and the roof to make it longer and taller. If you haven't already you need to check out https://clubgwagen.com/forum/ and http://gwagenregister.com/phpbb/ , these forums are invaluable sources for these vehicles. Lots of threads about the OM606A conversions as well as everything you need to know to fix anything on your G. Cool project I will be following this thread as you work through it, and if your interested feel free to to check out my build, I am doing a full frame off restoration and just started the disassembly process. https://clubgwagen.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8685
@jtrein - Cool G! I’ll be following your thread as well. It’s great to starting to get to know the community.
The guys at GfG have definitely been schooling me on the engine swap options. It’s tempting to take advantage of all of the G Wagen expertise that’s available in Germany, but I’ve decided to stick with the stock OM 602, at least for now, for a few reasons: The first reason is that I’ve read that importation can get way more complicated when the engine and chassis serial numbers don’t match. I’ve even read that it could be impossible..? The second reason is that my build philosophy is generally to do as little as possible to my vehicles . Basically money . I’m trying to approach this vehicle with a slow but steady perspective and we’ll see if it drives me crazy. Also, I’m extrmemly excited about having a fuel efficient engine. If I do swap I will seriously consider the 602A. The silver lining on waiting to swap is that it would probably be cheaper stateside.
I will definitely be reporting here on my driving impressions as the project proceeds. So far I’ve only driven the truck on a dirt road at low speeds. I’m planning on driving with the current engine from Germany to Morocco (at least) before we ship back to New York.
Please stay tuned and continue to offer input. I really appreciate it!
I don't know a ton about the importation process, but I do know that you are correct on that front needs to be the original engine or at least the same model engine as the originally equipped or import problems arise. Mine is already here and registered and with the 4 speed and 6 cylinder gas it is sloooow, plus I love diesels so I am going with the OM606A with a 6 speed once I get the body work finished. I have never done sheetmetal work so I will be figuring it out as I go so it may be slow going but I am determined to make this G awesome! I also pondered many different rigs before I stumbled upon this G and luckily the timing couldn't have been better I had just had my 2014 VW Jetta bought back from VW as it was part of the diesel emissions scandal. I really loved the car, but in the end I took the money and was thus able to make the G happen.
I admire your courage and enthusiasm. I’m sure you will get there! Being a city dweller, I lack the garage space necessary to even consider your scope of work. I am a cabinetmaker and an experienced home remodeled though, so the camper build is right up my alley.