I deliberately didn’t date these Blogs so they could be read at any point and not seem old. That said, knowing roughly how old I am won’t go amiss, as it may help with the understanding of things later. Like why kneeling or crouching hurts.
I’m now in my early fifties, and to earn a living I am a Procurement Manager for a Government Department and I’ve done that for the last twenty years. That will be relevant (in many ways) as we progress, trust me. I am not a small person at over six foot (1.84m) and at a weight that is not helpful to be but is the wrong side of fat. Too much easy living and good food thanks to formally being married to an amazing cook.
For hobbies I like Land Rovers, driving off road including unsurfaced rights of way. In Europe this is known as green lanes and in the USA/Canada, trail driving.
I’m in to photography, tech, gaming (computer, RPG and board), live music (have an electric guitar – can’t play it) and writing fiction. I spent eight years in the Royal Air Force reserves teaching cadets, which is where I got my love and appreciation of Land Rovers from.
I was an early tech adopter and came to both CB Radio and Computers very early in both my life and the tech curve. CB radios were illegal when I got my first one (remember President rigs or the Tristar 777 anyone?) and was DXing to Italy and Spain from my parents house at the age of 14. My CB handle was Projectblue from the TV programme Project Bluebook and the Stephen King book ‘The Stand’. Later on, on the internet, I continued with Projectblue as my online persona. So, I’ve been known as ‘Project’ or ‘Blue’ for many, many years.
I currently live in the South West of England but I was born in the cold and brutal lands of the North. Oh, wait, that’s Game of Thrones. I was born in the North, but despite it being hailed as the grim and cold part of the U.K it was a happy, if damp (it rains a lot in Manchester) upbringing. Now you’ve caught up a bit, where was I?
Got divorced (not my idea – quite painful, not recommended) and sold Beethoven the Fiat 2.4 Ducato based Swift built motorhome. ‘Wouldn’t mind, but despite the idea of the divorce not being mine, I still had to be the one who sold him because I had the ‘knack’ apparently. You try selling a 6m motorhome when the paperwork is in your wife’s name and address. Anyway, I must have had the knack because it sold. However, I was still into Land Rovers and I kept on with my hobby of touring Britain via greenlanes (unsurfaced rights of way) in my trusty Defender, which I told her she would get when she prized the steering wheel from my cold dead fingers. I never did find out why the stairs were slippery that day, but I survived with a wrenched shoulder and my Defender.
Sadly a short time after the divorce the DoD passed on (from cancer, not mourning the loss of her holiday bus). Worst day of my life. Worse than the divorce. And for a while I let the whole sequence get on top of me. Luckily, somewhere in the back of my head, I left a lamp on in the room marked ‘touring holidays’.
A few years passed and at work I did quite a lot with converting Mercedes Benz Sprinters which, by the way, are superbly capable vehicles.
During that time, I kept looking at them thinking ‘if you took the 4wd version, and converted it to a motorhome…’ and so the seed germinated under the lamp, in that room marked ‘touring holidays’.
I maybe mentioned before that I am a petrolhead. If it has an engine and wheels, I’m interested. Indeed, if it has an engine. Be it in a boat hull, an aeroplane or helicopter, the bigger, and more complicated, the more interested I become. Particularly if it’s functional such as the ubiquitous Mercedes Unimog. Four-wheel drive, huge off-road capability, difflocks up the yin yang, winches, PTO’s – the list goes on. So, I did what I often do, I started doing research on them. Model variants, engines, chassis lengths, suppliers, parts, used for sale ads etc.
About this time, I visited the Expedition Overland Show in Stratford Upon Avon, England. Ok, it’s not the Abenteur Allrad in Bad Kissengen, Germany which is the place to buy a ready-made truck seemingly. But the UK show was worth a trip. I learnt a few things, like a standard Unimog cab is not tall enough for my long body. I’m 6’ 2” (184cm) but with a 29” (72cm) inside leg so I’m like Baloo off the Disney Jungle Book movie. And the used Unimog I viewed was just not big enough. But I must say that all the owners of trucks were lovely. Really helpful showing me their inside layouts and letting me try cabs for size.
Not only am I tallish, I’m kinda round. Well, oval. That doesn’t help getting behind a wheel because one criteria for an expedition truck is “earlier model, pre EU4”. This is because early models don’t have complex electronics to go wrong out in the backwaters of planet Earth. However, it also means they don’t have things like adjustable steering columns, something which people shaped like me find extremely useful (it’s a long Gorilla arms/big tum thing).
This time I returned home empty handed but not disheartened. I was learning all the time, soaking up information about an area I knew little about, but loving the research all the same. Then I heard about the perfect truck. It was in South Africa, so not too far then! Undeterred I got more info, and pics. It was amazing. Just what I was looking for. Perfect. Even had the Dokka (German for double) cab with extra height roof and air con. Built by the world famous Alu-cab, it got my brain racing.
Anyway, as it turned I couldn’t move fast enough to make the sale work and someone more local to the seller snapped it up. Probably did me a favour. When your calculations include selling your house and downsizing, you probably need to be a bit more realistic!
Incidentally, at the time of writing/publishing this blog that Unimog is back up for sale. If I wasn’t already committed, I would be buying it. I like it that much.
Back to the drawing board then! Plus write up what I had learned. I find writing it all down both useful and organising. As if my brain is sorting it and storing it logically as I go. That’s how you come to be reading this.
One of my roles that I actually manage to earn a living for is in requirements management. The black art of listening to a user and teasing out what they actually need something to do. Then writing it down in a description that means something to someone who is seeing it for the first time. Imagine making a cup of tea. Someone says ‘put the kettle on’ but you have never done this before, ever. How do you describe it? What’s the very first thing someone needs to know. Think about it. It’s natural for you to do right now, but if you had to describe it to an alien…… That’s where you want to start with a build.
One of the interesting aspects of understanding how I wanted to go about my overland touring was this:
What is my goal? What do I want to achieve in doing this?
Unbeknown to me, an old school friend that I had pretty much lost contact with, turned up at the Overland Show with his plan to go around the world. He had already toured Africa twice and Australia, so he knows a bit about Overlanding. But his goal was slightly different, which meant his main requirement was different to mine. Let me explain;
H (not the one from Steps) is going travelling the world, all over it, over ten years. He has set a timescale on it, and he has budgeted carefully based on the money he has available to him. Key factor. By dividing his money by the cost per day he arrives at time and distance he can maintain travelling, according to his funds. Or, divide money by time, and you get cost per day.
For H, one of the critical drivers for him is his budget. And as part of that, he needs travel to be lower cost. Use less fuel, ship his vehicle between continents for less etc. Ergo size and weight must be less. He also needs a lower capital cost at the beginning, so he has more disposable budget on his travels. That means no big truck for H! It would still need to have 4x4 and great off-road capability, so that’s either SUV or small van size vehicle. Like me H is single. Unlike me, he doesn’t need huge space and is happy sleeping in a tent that is something akin to being in a coffin. Seriously, I saw him throw some Transylvanian soil in his bed once. Honest.
For myself, I’m not yet ready to go full time. I’m still working and have a year or three before even semi retiring. Eventually I would like to get to North America but until then, all my driving is in Europe and Asia, so I don’t need intercontinental shipping. My main requirement is comforts. I want a proper bed and a proper bathroom (never under estimate the importance of a loo! See Blog one – bragging rights over Jaguar owners)
With trips limited to two and three weeks, my fuel economy won’t be so important – space and comfort will. This meant I would needed either a van or a truck. Back to the searching!
I’ve been tempted by the VW scene for a bit. I would like to be cool ultimately, but let’s face it, never going to happen - I’m geek and proud! However, I still tried the van scene out, because it’s de-rigueur down here in the South West. One thing I can tell you, have you ever seen a Grizzly bear (or probably closer to silverback Gorilla) ever change from swim shorts to trousers in the back of a VW van? No? You would remember, trust me. Lots of swearing and windows breaking, eventually the acknowledgement that their bargain purchase was just too small. Yeah, that.
By late 2019 I knew that my VW was too small. A 4x4 van probably too small to fit everything I wanted in, and my driving licence went up to 7.5t (benefit of being old). Having driven such trucks, I wasn’t daunted by their size difference over the vans.
|Example Truck||Example Weight|
|Truck Chassis Cab||4000kg|
|Habitation Box *(including all fittings)||2500kg|
|Crew (2 adults)||150kg|
|Spare wheels (complete +tyre)||170kg|
|Gas Bottles LPG (2x19kg)||38kg|
I am bound to have forgotten something! If that was my vehicle, I would have to weigh any prospective passenger that joined me and make sure they were under 86kg!
*Habitation box can be built many ways. Some very lightweight to help limit the impact on the GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight). But then you compromise on structural integrity etc. It is possible to add a box that weighs closer to 1000kg
After some research I had shortlisted the D.A.F 244 and M.A.N FAE 8.150 despite the weight limitations I’ve detailed above. Both available as ex-military and good base vehicles to start with. Looking for a completed one was difficult. There were a few DAF’s about but the 8.150 was rare. Quick word here about the numbering systems on different manufacturers. Mostly with German makes the prefix before the “.” is the weight the chassis is rated to. The triple digit number after is either the power the engine puts out, or indicates the length of the wheelbase, depending on the manufacturer. There are lots of MAN FAE about, but all 8.136 which aren’t popular for Expedition trucks as the chassis is shorter than an 8.150 variant.
The age of the truck plays a part. Earlier engines have less complex engineering, which many prefer for crossing third world areas. But newer engines and design may be lighter and more efficient. As this excerpt from Commercial Motor 1998 shows;
“At first glance, its extra 10kW over the now obsolete 100kW 8.136F seems trivial, bearing in mind the continuing rise in engine outputs at the heavier end of MAN's truck range. The real changes — extremely lively acceleration and excellent fuel economy — are achieved through the use of a larger, slower-revving engine that punches out nearly 28% more torque and is 6.3% more fuel efficient.”
But I was still someway from finding my ideal spec truck. Each day I would receive an email from Mobil.de, summarising a search of vehicles on the German equivalent of Autotrader. I perused ex-army, ex-Council (Germany has a lot of snow, so lots of 4x4 maintenance trucks), ex-fire and basically any 4x4 truck that I thought might have a chance at being converted. There are other sites, there is one for Netherlands, but the German one is the biggest. Also, being European, they are nearly all LHD which is really useful when touring outside the UK.
https://www.mobile.de/?lang=en - Germany
https://www.trucksnl.com/transport - Holland
I was told about one of my shortlisted trucks by a trader pal who knew I was interested in these and he spotted it in a yard in the UK having just come back from India. It was great and I was sorely tempted but £40k is a lot for me to drop on something and the interior of the habitation just didn’t wow me. To be fair, if had been a great interior, it would have been £50-60k. You pay your money etc.
Possibly still for sale, although the owner Dr.Anul, is possibly taking it to North America next.
While I was viewing this truck, the chap showing me round picked my brains about expedition trucks. It turns out he was the manager for the UK MOD disposal agent and they were getting some of the trucks currently in service with the British Army. Of course, I should go and have a look. Oh, my. They were awesome things. Lots of spec, lots of space. Lots of German engineering. But at 9t empty and a 6t payload, they were clearly over my 7.5t licence, however there was so much scope to build a truck on.
Finally, we fast forward to just after Christmas 2019. The online auctions for around twenty of these MAN HX60 SV are ending and I’m watching closely. Like it’s ebay and I’m about to win that crazy thing you don’t really need, but it’s only £0.99! I’m also talking to a good friend of mine on the phone who is watching the said auction. We chat through the process; he suggests a walk through so I don’t get outbid on the ones I’m wanting. I agree and put a silly low ball £9k in. We count the timer towards the end... “3, 2, 1 NOW.” I hit the bid button with about 5 seconds to go and wait for it to roll past £9k. It doesn’t. Instead it says “You have won, but didn’t make the reserve”.
Ah, bollocks. Now I have done it. Motor trade auctions are not Ebay. There is no backing out once committed.
At the other end of the phone my mate is proper happy. “What a bargain” he says. And we watch the others roll past ten, eleven and even twelve grand. I feel sure that my bid is going to be rejected as not making the reserve. I’m partly happy, partly nervous.In the end, the ones I had previously ear marked for possible purchase, were making much stronger money.