Beyond VANlife Part III: Working with the Right Builder
Once you’ve determined the geographical area you wish to explore and have chosen the appropriate chassis, probably the most critical decision you need to make is in working with the right builder.
Especially if you’re going custom, a reputable and attentive manufacturer can make or break the entire project. Each has their strengths, and you need to think carefully about the aspects of your build that are most important to you, weighing:
- Completion Schedule
- Attention to Detail
- Build Quality
- Finishing Choices / Level of Customization
- Track Record / Customer Reviews
- Likeability / Your Working Relationship
There are a number of builders who claim to build expedition-quality vehicles, and at first blush, they will all provide you with glossy pictures of prior projects, sound enthusiastic about all of your suggestions and promise you perfection.
We started our search thinking that the next step up from a custom Sprinter RV like VANdal would be a Sprinter-based motorhome such as the ones here. Visiting multiple RV shows and our local RV dealers only made us realize how the average RV market is unable to support the kind of rugged durability and sports equipment storage we knew were must-haves for us. Sales reps at these places had such a cookie-cutter slant. Their imaginations simply weren’t accustomed to dealing with inquiries about putting bikes inside or creating room inside for paddles and other sports equipment. On the other hand, off-the-rack sprinter-based RVs are very well equipped to carry cases of Ensure and Depends… (Sorry, friends with Views or RoadTreks). These are clearly designed as “leisure vans,” and to think that they are built for life in the great outdoors really depends on what your definition of the “great outdoors” is. We were bombarded by questions like, “You mean you don’t want to plug in? What do you mean by “off-grid?” What’s wrong with lugging around a 20’ poo hose? Why wouldn’t you want to stay at RV parks? There’s shuffleboard, you know. Can’t you just leave your paddleboards at home? And, our favorite, “Why can’t your bikes just get put on a rack on the back?”
We toured many a luxury sprinter, Provost bus and RV models of every size imaginable. Absolutely ZERO had a space for our bikes or our outdoor gear.
It was pretty clear that nothing off-the-rack was going to fit our needs, so we immediately began reaching out to custom builders.
Tiger Adventure Vehicles (West Columbia, SC)
On a trip up to North Carolina, we stopped in to Columbia, South Carolina-based Tiger Adventure Vehicles. An entry-level semi-custom builder, we found them to be not nearly as expensive as Earth Roamer, yet they shared the downside of not having ample customization options and, of course, lacked interior bike storage. They were exceptionally nice people and gave us a wonderful impromptu tour of their plant. As much as they tried to accommodate our storage needs, however, they could not.
As overlanding vehicles go, Tigers definitely appear to be catered to the retired couple who wants to pack their bags and see the world, but not require any sports equipment to do anything once they’re there. The same was true of our calls to Earth Roamer (Colorado) and Earth Cruiser (Bend, OR), and we quickly ruled them out due to this and some of the many reasons we outlined here.
Phoenix Pop-Up Campers (Commerce City, CO)
Our worst experience was with Phoenix. Phoenix Pop-Up Campers claims that they will build you anything you want. They have built their reputation specializing in the custom pop-up truck camper market, but have recently expressed a desire to make more custom expedition vehicles like this one. We spoke with Rob, the owner, sent him a detailed list of requirements and got an immediate and affirmative response. So far so good! They were incredibly kind and responsive. Everything we wanted was possible, as long as we wrote a check.
Our first red flag appeared when we questioned them about some of their negative reviews on Expedition Portal and other customer observations. Rather than diplomatically handling our non-accusatory questions, their response was overtly defensive, hateful of the Internet, and insistent that the issues were 100% problems with the customer. Their childish blame-game attitude was shocking, and we were appalled that Rob was willing to let go of a sale so easily just because we asked a simple question.
We continued the initial quote-building process anyway because we still liked their product and were curious to see how they would be able to negotiate our abundant wish list. Skeptical that our build list and layout preferences could be made a reality, we requested that Rob put together a layout and a mechanical schematic to make sure everything would fit before we stroked the check. Rob was very reluctant to provide this, saying, “We don’t normally do this; instead we like to start building and see how things fit together.” Yikes. Experimentation is wonderful but not with our money! Two days later, we received a pencil sketch that would make any third grade parent proud, but was hardly of the quality you would expect when writing a six-digit check. We had to KNOW the mechanicals would fit, not just hope. It was clear he hadn’t really looked at it with an engineer’s eye. We aren’t engineers, but we had taken a stab at creating a layout that, on the surface, would be perfect. After further examination and speaking to other helpful engineers, however, we realized that we hadn’t taken into account wall depth and thickness, the dimensions and weights of the components, mechanical equipment and batteries, water and fuel tanks and their locations, etc. Neither, apparently, had Rob at Phoenix. Having looked at his diagram in horror, we stared at each other with the realization that we had just narrowly averted a six-figure catastrophe.
We quickly eliminated Phoenix and encourage others to think considerably before choosing this brand. And don’t let us sway you — Expedition Portal has a plethora of horror stories others have experienced with Phoenix’s build quality and warranty work. Do your homework and make the choice you think is right for you. We think you’ll be glad you did.
Bahn Camperworks (Hood River, OR)
In juxtaposition to Phoenix, we spoke with Ryan Bahn of Bahn Camperworks. Ryan reached out to us in response to a social media post after learning that we were in search of a new vehicle. Ryan is an engineer and world-class kayaker who competed on the US National team, and his brand is built on re-inventing the truck camper. Pleasant, bright and accommodating, he was thorough in our discussions, offered well thought out advice and created multiple preliminary computerized CAD sketches of our future vehicle. He had some genius ideas for making our truck as much like home as possible while still prioritizing all the gear storage we wanted.
Originally, we wanted Ryan to build our truck on a Fuso, but he wanted his business model to focus on building custom campers utilizing pickup truck chassis. Ultimately, we agreed that these lacked adequate GVW to accommodate our build list, and although we were certain that Ryan could deliver a smartly designed and beautiful custom truck camper, we mutually decided that he was not the right builder for us for this particular project. However, we would have no qualms about building anything with Ryan in the future, and hope to visit him and check out his shop this summer.
Lite Industries (Reed Deer, Alberta, CAN)
We also spoke with Mark Cymbaluk at Lite Industries in Canada. Mark came across our radar via the high praise of his work on Expedition Portal. He is an overland enthusiast who has owned numerous expedition vehicles himself. Mainly working with high-end custom commercial/industrial vehicles, such as fire engines, ambulances, and other specialty trucks for municipalities, Lite Industries has also built a number of expedition-worthy rigs. They also recently became a Master Upfitter for Mercedes Benz. Mark is incredibly insightful, intelligent and customer-oriented, able to take our ideas and respond to them with a no-bullshit approach. He and Martin spoke the same language when it came to certain components and mechanical features, so it was always interesting to hear his take on our ideas. Where he didn’t know something, he was always incredibly efficient at getting back to us with a well thought out response.
Exceptionally thorough in collecting our spec list for the build, he was resultantly able to put together an all-inclusive quote, unmuddied by obnoxious upcharges and silly quabbles over nickels and dimes. He built in enough of a cushion on each end of his estimate so there was no arguing, no negotiation. It was clear he’d be wonderful to work with.
Given the current exchange rate between the US and Canada, working with Mark had its share of potential financial benefits, and Mark’s bid for our vehicle was extremely competitive. Working with him on this build would have been a positive experience, we are sure, but after much consideration we had to look to our other option: Global Expedition Vehicles. Though it was a close call, we ultimately decided to start work with GXV for three reasons:
- They had the chassis we wanted in stock and the box partially started. While the cabin interior wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, it was about 90% of the way there.
- Secondly, GXV could have our truck ready in July, whereas Mark’s busy schedule couldn’t deliver our truck any sooner than December. Trips to Canada in the cold without a truck (since VANdal will go to its new home in July) proved to have some logistical complications.
- Rene VanPelt at Global Expedition Vehicles had already been an absolute pleasure to work with so far. She and her chief engineer, Eric, had already put a lot of heart and soul into thinking through our layout needs and we were grateful for their hard work. Plus, GXV’s brand recognition and reputation in the industry already stood strongly, a plus for future resale.
Global Expedition Vehicles (Nixa, MO)
When we first started researching heavier duty expedition vehicles, we drove out to Nixa, Missouri, GXV’s headquarters, to look at a used Patagonia model cabin on an International frame. We wound up spending two days with Rene and Mike (GXV’s co-owner and Rene’s husband), looking at all their current custom builds under construction, as well as some new models that Mike had been designing.
Their shop consisted of three separate facilities, all neat, clean and fully staffed, where trucks are being built with surgical precision. The 20-degree weather during our visit bolstered our resolve in committing to a much more intense truck. We very much looked forward to arctic level insulation and the promise of hydronic heat. The used Patagonia show truck was being brokered by GXV for an existing customer, and met 80% of our desires but, alas, we couldn’t come to an agreement on price. Instead, we decided to build a vehicle specifically for us.
Rene VanPelt carries the torch for Global Expedition Vehicles and is an artful sales rep and brand ambassador. She has been responsive, supportive and patient as our build has taken shape. Since she and Mike are overlanders with stories of their own, they are insightful about the realities of life on the road. They know their business well and have built an impressive variety and number of high-end vehicles that compete with any comparable expedition builder worldwide. While their location in Nixa, Missouri seems random, it is actually quite strategic. Nixa is home to multiple custom boat, limo and bus manufacturers. As a result, skilled labor is never an issue, and the location happens to be in the dead center of America, so after-market service is as convenient as it can get. Over the years they have put together a great team led by Eric, their chief engineer and production manager, who is creative, clever, and unbelievably hard working. To put the GXV sticker on a truck is a stamp of excellence in quality construction and smart design. Here’s a little more on how they’re made. Worldwide travelers find security reading the tales on Expedition Portal and other blogs (like Whiteacorn) of GXV’s customer-driven warranty work shining through when they find themselves in an unexpected bind. Know that what you get from GXV is neither inexpensive nor a bargain. The quote process is laborious as every penny is allocated and you should expect to pay for every addition, change, or feature beyond what they consider to be their “base” models.
It is now June and our project with GXV is well underway. We have selected the LMTV M1083 6×6 chassis coupled with a “Patagonia” cabin box they had already started working on with remnants from other builds. Why the M1083? You can read all about our thought process on the chassis choice here and why we wanted this much truck here.
GXV has built numerous vehicles on the LMTV chassis, and has skillfully gone through the learning curve of the intracies and problems that typically arise during construction. As a result, choosing GXV gives us greater confidence that the project will be completed on schedule and without any surprises.
The crew at GXV has just extended the LMTV frame to accommodate our 16 ½ foot box + 4’ 8” internal gear garage, making the total vehicle length approximately 28 ½ feet. They are in the process of upfitting the cab with sound dampening as well.
When completed, it will feature an underbed storage area, along with a full 4’8” gear garage, 255 gallons of fuel and approximately 140 gallons of water. GXV is known for creating comfortable living spaces and they have great engineers on staff to layout the space to perfection. The cabin will have a full galley, storage everywhere imaginable, a washer/dryer, queen size bed and wet bath/shower combo with the Thetford cassette commode. We’ll go into the full build list as it gets further underway in one of our next posts.
Until then, we are officially homeless and starting the first leg of our travels throughout the southeast as we make our way to GXV. There, we will get a chance to sneak a peak at the build and make some final decisions in the second week of June before returning in July to pick up the final product. The only thing left to decide at that point will be what to call it.