Auto-Biography: 1977 Dodge Chinook 18 Plus (Concourse) – The Beginning and End of a 15 Year Love Affair

(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.