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FrankenSprinter Maiden Voyage

As usual, we were hustling to get on the road for the RMAF convention in Billings, Montana. I had spent the previous two weeks solid building out our 2004 Dodge Sprinter Cargo Van. It was previously owned by a baker in Albuquerque,NM and a dry cleaner before him. It had 118,000 miles on the van by the time we got it. The cargo van was pretty empty inside. Driving the van back from New Mexico, it sounded like the inside of a steel drum!

We love our 34′ Fleetwood Bounder motorhome but the nature of our travel is changing. Young Guns Wild West Fun Park is doing very well (more on that in another post) for summer bookings. With Emma quickly approaching school age, we decided to test out spending the fall in Jackson, Wyoming, but we still plan on spending the better part of winter in Mexico. As a result, the logistics are complicated. Rising gas prices and 6mpg towing a trailer with the Bounder just compounds the problem.

We looked long and hard for another “motor home” typeof vehicle that could tow a trailer, get decent gas mileage, and sleep 4. The first two are possible, but apparently most smaller camper/class B RV’s are designed to sleep 2. We needed something to sleep 4 ALL THE TIME, not once in a while. The Sprinter is a diesel and driving it back empty from New Mexico I filled the 25 gallon tank and drove the 440 mile trip straight through on cruise control at 65mph. Seven hours later and still almost half a tank left I arrived in Tucson delivering right at 24mpg! Even in our old Landcruiser we would only get about 16mpg and it’s not very comfortable for long distance driving.

So we needed a way to sleep four people all the time. It had to be easy to set up. We needed hanging clothes storage for jackets and Hil’s costumes, a toilet of some type, some drawers for minimal clothes storage, a fridge would be very nice for the kids, a small sink to rinse dishes, and a one burner to make coffee and eggs, or heat up soup while on the road. Since the fairs will put us up in a hotel while we are working, the main objective for the Sprinter is a weekender camper. While on the road to get to the fair, we need basic amenities. Occasionally, we will need to kill a week in between events. In that case, we need enough convenience to rough it camping.

We have the 158″ wheel base model of the Sprinter with the high roof, which allows over 6′ standing height inside. The van is approximately 64″ wide at the beam. I designed a way to install a couch bed behind the driver’s seat using the IKEA Exarby model that will easily pull out for a 74″ x 54″ bed for Hil and me. In the rear, I designed a couch/bunk bed using the same frames with locating pins welded into the van walls and spring loaded latches. By releasing two pins the couch back flips up into the bunk position and snaps into place! There is also a provision to move the upper bunk panel in front of the seat to make a larger bed like in the front.
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I spent a long day at my cousin Hugh’s shop welding in the locating pins and modifying the Exarby frames to fit. Then I pulled everything out and installed a sound deadening material that is actually a rubberized flashing material from Lowe’s called Vycor. I installed 1.5″ thick insulation panels and locked them in with great foam on top of the sound deadener. We wired the van for 110v outlets, 12v outlets, a roof top Air Conditioner, a DC vent, 10 LED lights, a DC fridge, and a DC water pump. Once all the wiring and insulation was installed it was time to make the paneling.
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I used 1/8″ LUANN plywood from Home depot for the panels and used sheets of cardboard as templates for the panels. Finding the cardboard was harder than finding the plywood! I needed to ply to bend a little and I was concerned that 1/4″ wouldn’t cut it. For reference, I would probably suggest 1/4″ to others in the future. The 1/8″ can be a little wobbly and “oil can” when installed. I also had width concerns because of the bed frames in the back and was really concerned an extra 1/4″ overall might be too tight!
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After all the panels were cut and fit, we glued on indoor/outdoor carpet and trimmed it to shape. Installing the panels was definitely a two man job. The ceiling panels were a three man job! We wired up the LED lights, installed the 110v breakers and panel, and trimmed out the vent fan and AC unit. I also installed a house deep cycle 12v battery under the passenger seat. I wired in a Automatic Charging Relay from the starting battery to charge the house battery from the alternator. I also wired a 120v battery charger when we can plug into shore power or run off the generator. The house system is wired into a 6 fuse block panel right at the passenger seat.
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Back to my cousin Hugh’s shop to make the interior cabinets. I decided to use 1″ steel tube for the frames and plywood panels. I was concerned about an all wood frames being too heavy and not structurally sound enough in case of an accident. With the girls strapped into car seats, I don’t want an overhead cabinet coming down on top of them. With the steel frames, I can bolt them into the steel structure of the van. It took me about 4 days and 80 feet of steel tube to make two cabinets out of four. The closet cabinet took most of the time because I had to bend the steel to fit the curvature of the walls- only to realize I couldn’t fit it in the van in one piece and had to cut it into two cabinets and weld in more structure.

The closet cabinet has a hanging rod on top, a large linen drawer below it, a nook for the porta-potty and a cabinet for misc. storage next to it. I didn’t get the panels installed or the frame painted but we got it installed in time for the trip to Montana and it worked out great! I also had enough material and time to weld an overhead cabinet above the couch/bed behind the driver’s seat. But it will have to wait to be installed.
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The last two cabinets are the kitchen cabinet and the overhead pantry cabinet. When complete, finances permitting, I want to get the steel frames powder coated. It’s a one time kind of job and I’d rather not have to remove the cabinets to touch up paint in the future.

Down to the wire, we installed the couch/bed and bolted it down. I installed bolt points for the kids car seats and ratchet strapped the seat in place. We loaded up all the props for the convention and hit the road!
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One of the nice things about the Sprinter- Hil can drive it. She wouldn’t drive the motorhome, which meant I had to do ALL the driving. This trip she could drive a leg and I would curl up on the rear bunk bed and catch some rest. We drove from Tucson to Flagstaff where we were snowed in for the night. We parked in a Walmart parking lot and bundled up in the van despite dropping temps until morning. It was a smart move, but it really pointed out the necessity of a small diesel heater!

We drove straight through the next day and night to make it Billings early Wednesday morning. I blindly followed the GPS, which probably wasn’t too smart. It routed us through West Yellowstone which we hit with icy snow covered roads at around three in the morning. But the Sprinter ran great!

On the trip back, we wanted to spend the night with friends in Jackson but they had 24 and counting of snowfall and the roads were just covered. There was a advisory for snow chains on the roads at the pass and it would have added about 3 hours to our trip to go around the pass and we would have arrived late at night, so we had to skip it and drove straight through back to Tucson. There was a leg of about 90 miles where the roads were covered with snow and ice. The Sprinter, despite being rear wheel drive, handled it very well. We stopped for a few hours sleep just across the Nevada border. The kids were asleep in their car seats and Hil and I could crash on the rear bunk beds without waking the children.

There are a few things we want to tweak but the overall design is great for us. We have about two weeks until we leave for the Las Vegas convention and I hope to be pretty close to finishing the van by then.

For the 2700 mile round trip we averaged 22mpg! Diesel prices average $4 per gallon but it was still cheaper and far more comfortable than either of our other vehicles-and we didn’t have the expense of hotel rooms like we did last year!

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