(This is a two-part article on our Chinook. Part 1 was originally written and posted at the other site in 2007, and documents its early years. Part 2 is new, and explains why I’m finally (and somewhat reluctantly) parting ways with it. Its replacement will be documented in another post immediately following this one.)
Part 1 (2007): Five years ago (2002), when my younger son’s semi-year-round middle school had a two-week fall break, on a whim I rented an RV and we headed for the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons. The late October weather was exquisite; we didn’t see a single cloud for the whole two weeks. And the scenery was stunningly, drop-dead awesome. Once again, my wife and I (and now our youngest son) were hooked on the freedom of the open road and self-contained camping. But steep prices and free-fall depreciation of new RV’s was off-putting. But the answer was waiting just down the street…
Walking down the street in my neighborhood a couple of weeks later, I stumbled upon a 1977 Dodge Chinook camper wearing a FOR SALE sign. Seeing it instantly triggered the “Oregon wet winter escape plan.” Standing there in the street looking at the dirty and dusty old camper, I worked it all out in my imagination.
Other than an impaled branch sticking out of its fiberglass roof like an antler, the Chinook looked in reasonably good shape. The seller was “motivated,” and he gladly took my $1200.
The Chinook Concourse (originally called “18 Plus”) is a contemporary classic, the big brother to those little Toyota pop-up Chinooks. It first appeared in 1971, and essentially created and defined what has come to be known Class B+ motorhome: bigger than a van conversion, smaller than a cab-over Class C. With its all-fiberglass and foam construction (except the cab), it’s intrinsically more waterproof and better insulated, and thus the Chinook holds its value better over time. (here’s a history of the Chinook company and all of their many products)
With its bulletproof 360 (5.9-liter) V8 and A727 Torqueflite transmission, I knew it had good bones. So I taught myself fiberglass repair, fixed the roof, and embarked on a major interior makeover. Stephanie lovingly restored the original seventies-vintage paisley curtains, but the smelly, mildewed lime-green shag carpeting had to go.
I just barely finished the cabin before my son’s extended winter school break. With no time for a mechanical check-out (I’d only driven it briefly), we packed up and headed south. That was very impulsive and fool-hardy.
Thirty minutes into our intended three-thousand mile winter journey to sunny Baja, reality crashed the party. On the first incline on I-5, the engine began clattering horrendously. I suddenly realized that this trip was even crazier than stunts that I’d performed when I was less than half my [then] age.
The clattering was just way-off timing, easily adjusted twice (by ear) on the freeway shoulder. But the rest of drive through the mountains to California was hair-raising. While my family sacked out in back, I fought driving rain, snow and high winds with numb and sloppy power steering, and the constant worry that something was going to break ant second. And it did.
When we hit the Bay Area, the fan clutch (and maybe the waterp ump) started screeching. I remember pulling off in the East Bay and checking it. I hoped it would last another 25 miles; it barely did. I had to replace them in front of my up-tight sister-in law’s house in San Mateo. To her, we were just like the Griswold’s hillbilly relatives (a la National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movie) who show up in their decrepit RV and spew raw sewage all over their street.
We visited friends in LA, and then heading toward San Diego, the front wheel bearings began howling like a wolf in heat. Instead of grease, they were coated in dry rusty powder. After attending to that, it was relatively smooth sailing.
We explored both coasts of Baja in record-breaking January warmth. Near La Bufadora, we boogieboarded in the Pacific for hours. When we got cold, we warmed up in the natural hot spring that bubbled up in the sand. Having recharged our internal solar cells and filled-up on cerveza Pacifico and one dollar fish tacos, we reluctantly piled into the Chinook and headed back for El Norte.
On the way back, we stopped off at the Anza Borrego Desert where I once spent so many warm ’76-’77 winter weekends in my ’68 Dodge van.
During the following three years, we racked up over 25,000 miles on the Chinook on rambling trips throughout the West and Baja. We hit all the famous scenic spots and places we never knew existed. October rocks in the Rockies and the rest of the West: cold starry nights, clear days, no tourists. Its cozy cabin with big windows is a great place to enjoy the scenery while having tea and reading a good book.
Since we strictly dry-camp (no hook-ups), we head up logging roads or out across the desert when night falls.
Sitting in a natural hot-springs pool with a bottle of wine in a remote high-desert valley with the lights in the Chinook softly glowing nearby– now that’s my idea of a five star resort. Save the cost of gas (11mpg), and the price is right.
After some card games or Scrabble, we always sleep like babes in the Chinook, oblivious to our collective snoring and the howling coyotes.
The Dodge V8 exhales with delightful burbling and woofling through its low-restriction muffler and big driver’s side exhaust-pipe. I always have my window open part-ways to listen to its reassuring song as we sail the seas of the Great Plateau.
Sadly, the Chinook now gets less use; my son’s too big to fit in his little “bookshelf” bed. Anyway, his high school doesn’t have long off-season breaks and he has bigger fish to fry than camping with his parents.
In a few more years, we’ll be free again. Stephanie and I will hit the road in earnest. In the meantime, the Chinook makes a perfect guest house. When our house gets too noisy and crowded with company, I go sleep out in the camper, dreaming of sunny Baja beaches and fish tacos.
Part 2: Farewell (2017):
The Chinook continued to be used after those first few years of big trips, although mostly in lots of regional trips in the Northwest. The Chinook’s last really big trip (to Glacier National Park) is documented here. It was not without a bit of drama.
I bought the Chinook back in 2002 for all of $1200, and I’ve spent no more than that amount in repairs or parts; seriously. And I can probably get more for it now than what I have in it; there’s still some demand for these. In those 15 years, we put some 40k miles on it, traveling all over the West, Baja California, and up and down the whole Pacific Coast, and made some wonderful memories in the process. All for very little money. But it’s getting tired, and I’m getting tired of worrying every time we take it out as to whether it will get us back home; in it.
The whole front suspension is loose and wobbly; the shocks are shot, a combination of old age and lots of time spent on rough forest roads, never mind the wading-pool sized potholes we encountered in Baja. The tires are old and worn down, and in a size (800R16.5) that’s no longer made. The Torqueflite A727, which undoubtedly would go on another hundred thousand miles, is leaking fluid out the back. The 360 V8 still fires right up, but in a cloud of smoke, from bad valve guides, I assume. It’s a cold-blooded beast, with a finicky choke system. The heat riser valve is MIA, which means it takes forever to really warm up the carb, during which time it is very prone to stalling. Not at all fun when pulling out into a highway from a campsite. I put on a manual choke conversion, which helped a bit, but it still doesn’t like a quick dose of air and gasoline until it’s truly warmed up.
Somewhat amazingly, it’s only ever once needed to be towed (a short distance). The moral: Never leave home without a ballast resistor. That was so utterly avoidable, but I was not yet initiated into the true Mopar cult until that day.
The cruise control only works in really dry weather. Perhaps worst of all, the wiring is wacky; endless issues with turn signals, brake lights, etc. I got pulled over one night heading up into the Cascades for not having any rear lights on at all. The cop was quite nice about it: I promised to pull off right there into a parking lot, spend the night, and drive home to fix it in the day light. So much for that camping trip. And the heater fan croaked this winter. I could go on… Admittedly, all these things could be fixed. But then there’s the issues that can’t be.
The lack of cab air conditioning and that big, noisy, hot 360 V8 right between us make summer time trips out of the question except for just local jaunts to the coast and mountains, which is all we’ve used it for in recent years. And increasingly less so. As much as I like V8s, I’d rather not be quite so intimately close to one, especially on a warm day. That goes doubly for Stephanie, whose front seat and leg room is even more severely impacted (the engine is offset to that side). Then there’s the propane fridge that’s falling apart. And…
Ok; no more justification is needed. We deserve something newer, reliable, and more efficient. The question is just what to replace it with. I’ve had lots of time (years) to mull that over, and I’ve finally decided and acted on it. Stay tuned.
Postscript: The Chinook Concourse (and various variants) were built through 2006, for a total of 35 years. A classic design. I did consider a later-model used Chinook, but was put off by the interior that was designed to look like a miniature mid 90’s McMansion, poor storage, too much useless crap, and lousy fuel mileage from the Ford V10 engine. Designed for a very different role than we have in mind.
My guess is you’re going for a Mercedes Sprinter Camper Van next. They were all the rage last summer at Jalama Beach near Santa Barbara, a great campground btw.
So many Sprinters, most in a very attractive dark green. I believe most if not all were diesels. Looked good, looked comfortable. Was told by campground staff that those were the most popular rentals these days. Sprinter folks would use the showers and restrooms at the campground facility. I always felt funny doing that “on board”.
You’ve accomplished one of those dreams I’ve yet to do . . . . . and at my age better get going on it real soon now.
For the moment, my gutted ’08 Kia Sedona handles my needs at the racetracks very well, reenactment has me using the van just to haul since period camping is expected, and everything else is covered with my ’95 Triumph Sprint and my camping gear. MotoAmerica Superbike at Virginia International Raceway in two weeks.
But Maggie and I still dream of a real RV. Will probably start looking next year once the current three-day-a-week excuse for retirement turns into the real thing.
Mmm, fish tacos in Baja. Boondocking on logging roads. I’m just about to head off to work and here you’ve got me wondering if it’s VW van time yet…. Not yet.
Anyway, sounds like the old Chinook is ready for someone with more appetite for fixing a lot of minor problems. Looking forward to what’s coming next.
Really nice shape. I’m so in awe of your F-series that I forget you have this old camper. Ergonomics count big time on those long journeys, so a much newer replacement will only enhance your vacations. That van has a classic ma mopar face.
Paul, just out of curiosity, what is insurance like on something like this? And is your new vehicle significantly more expensive in that regard?
Peanuts. Because it was just liability, and my age and other factors. Something like $200/yr. But it hasn’t been insured since last summer, since we haven’t used it since. I’ve added it and removed it from our policy seasonally.
Oops; I can’t answer the second part because I added it on the phone with my agent and she emailed me the insurance card, but I never asked how much it will be. It shouldn’t be all that much; my insurance rates are always quite good, and I have a high deductable.
That’s not bad at all!
The sad fact is that the Chinook is now 40 years old. You have gotten a good run out of it at a cost of peanuts.
But it is time for an upgrade. My recommendation is to go full out on this new one.
WHAT?!? Getting rid of the beloved Chinook? At first, I thought this was a late April Fool’s joke, then read through your very good reasons. At this point, I agree with others; probably time to move on.
Next thing I know you’ll REALLY surprise me, by getting rid of the F-100. That would be a real shocker!
Paul, thanks for that beautifully written, temporary escape that was Part I. I’m on a full, morning train car as I write this, and I got completely lost in that. And now I wish I was also going camping instead of heading into a beige, office cubicle. 🙂
Fifteen years is a long time, though… The constant worrying about if the Chinook will safely get you and Stephanie there and back would surely put a huge dent in any sense of spontaneity and fun that an off-the-cuff trip would provide.
Staying tuned for Part III.
I’m now at the oint Paul was in 2002 kid wise. I that about camping. Not in a tent… Hate that, but in a camper dry rv’ing. Buying one at the cost if a new E class not gonna happen. Renting one is more pricey than hotels. Forget that. Old camper… Ya. I’m handy. But not good for wifey… She’s not into side- of-freeway repairs and nail biting. Then it struck me. Buy an as-new-as I-can-get used slide-in camper for very little buy-in. No… I won’t buy a pick up. I will rent the pick up. Which are cheap to rent and you can get unlimited mileage on…… Still haven’t done it yet. But with how time flies…. I better get cracking….b4 the ‘cat in the cradle’ song gives me the guilts.
I hear that, the “cat in the cradle” thing has been getting to me lately. But finances won’t let me get rid of my own old daily driver. I guess I’ll just keep on “truckin”. And fixin’!
It’s sad when a comfy old jacket still has a perfect zip and perfect fit but so many holes that you have to admit defeat and acknowledge that in truth it’s now as much a doily as a windbreaker. Great memories, though. I wonder, at near six litres, and doubtless capable of pulling moonshot gears comfortably, was the Chinook nevertheless geared down so that it roared unnecessarily at highway speeds? I ask because the only similar type I’ve driven (Ford-based) could probably do 80+ mph but felt stressed over about 50, not to mention that above 50 the tank emptied so quickly I was seriously convinced it leaked.
I think you definitely got your money out of this Chinook, and it sounded like you were ready to move on some time ago. Glad you were able to enjoy it, and hope it finds another good home.
I’m an RV fan from way back, since finding a ’77 GMC Palm Beach while I was in Alberta. It was my home away from the Ranch, and gave me “spot-on” service. It was a true gem! Next came my 1976 Dodge Street Van, which I called “CanadaVan” that helped me bring my stuff from Lethbridge to Powell River, and then when I emigrated to the States. My trusty Mopar “Dormobile” never let me down… I’m in the process now of converting a 2017 Mercedes Metris cargo van to be my next “Dormobile” to ferry Artwork and me and my Partner around the NW, and across country. I find RV, and soon-to-be-RV’s real gems. Sure wished the van thing perked with the new crop of vans out there… (‘Sigh*!)
Paul, you could, if you had the water/electric hookups at your place or one of your rentals, park & rent the RV for a reasonable sum and it would generate rental income while not moving and still be sellable in the future. I know someone in Oregon who parks her RV at a house and she tells me they like having someone else there to watch their property while keeping their home private.
Good writeup on a fun vehicle, but I assume this rig is too worn out for anyone else to loveningly care for.
I currently own this vehicle! I think I may need to do a blog myself 🙂 She is very much still on the road but working on that tender loving care she so desperately needs!
Sounds like it was just the right vehicle at the right time for you and your family, and despite the work needed it can fill that role for someone else too. Someone who has the time to put in the necessary repairs, as that sounds like the stumbling block more so than the money needed.
One would think there has to be a modern tire size that’d fit, unless those wheels are a really odd size…
The Chinook has served you well over the last 15 years, and with some work, the next owner could get another few years of the same pleasure it has afforded you. The great memories alone are worth more than the relatively small amount of money you’ve spent on it. Good luck with your Promaster project.
Great Story! It’s too bad the Chinook has to go, but it sounds like its time to move on. I am looking forward to the story about your Ford pickup.
I am a stranger in need of some guidance. In two months I will be moving from the northeast to Moab, UT to guide for a mountain bike company for the summer. I need to find a vehicle that I can live out of during my off weeks, and I’ve been looking at purchasing a 1976 Dodge Chinook Camper. The history you have with your Chinook is great and makes me want to buy one. However, there were also a few instances where it seems like shit went wrong. The guy I’ve talked to is asking $6500 bucks for his, which certainly isn’t the $1200 you paid for it. Do you guys think this deal is worth it? Any advice on what I should offer him. Here’s the posting if you want to take a look. Any advice is appreciated.
There’s no link to that ’76 Chinook you mentioned.
This is a difficult question to answer. These have many great qualities, and are relatively solid and not too difficult to fix. But it’s…42 years old! So inevitably, things are going to break, or just deteriorate.
Are you planning to drive it much, or just park it and live out of it? Are you handy?
FWIW, I’m just about to my Chinook up for sale. For a lot less than $6500. Maybe half that or less. But it needs a few things attended to.
Hello, I have a 1977 Chinook van as well. It’s a 318 engine as opposed to your 360. I’m wondering on average what MPG you were getting on highway vs in city or if you kept track of that. I plan on doing an extensive out west road trip and would love to know how much you were getting on gas mileage. Glad I finally found someone that hates that shag carpet as much as I do currently. Thanks!
Are you sure it’s a ’77 and it has the 318? From everything that I’ve seen, the 360 was standard in the ’77.
I consistently got 11mpg. That included highway driving at about 63-64 mph and two lane roads and such. It almost never varied from that, and I kept meticulous records of it because my gas gauge never worked, so I always wrote down the mileage and how much fuel I took on.
If I really babied it, by slowing down to 55 or so, I could get 12; 13 once. That was my record.
Hi Paul! I am currently the owner of this amazing beast. I often come here to read about her past. Her name is Suzie now (named after Suzie Quatro) and Susan when she’s giving me troubles. Thank you so much for writing these blogs! I may need to write something up of my own. However, I just wanted to let you know she lives on!
Hi Savanna! I heard that it was sold again, so I’m glad to know it’s in good hands. I know the previous owner did a bit or interior remodeling.
These are tough trucks and well-built fiberglass bodies, so there’s no reason it can’t go on for a long time yet.
By the way, I’m writing this from my Promaster van that replaced, on the Southern Oregon coast.
I’d be very happy to post an update on it anytime you like. Let me know.