2019 Update: My complete in-depth build documentation is here.
Replacing an old friend is never easy. I’ve been pondering replacing our ’77 Dodge Chinook camper for years. It’s old and not up to big trips anymore. We’re getting old too, but we’ve still got some more big trips to make yet. And this coming winter we’re off for to the Southwest and California, and we’ll be rolling along in our new DIY Chinook V2.0. This big, empty, white box in front of our house is the starting point, the automotive equivalent of the blank slate.
I’ve written up my love story for our Chinook, and the reasons why it finally had to go here. But it won’t be easy saying goodbye, as I’ve developed quite an emotional attachment to it. And despite its growing infirmities, it has been an exceptionally cheap rig. Between its purchase price ($1200) and parts and repairs, I don’t have more than about $2500 in it. And I’m sure I can get that back (or more) selling it, while it’s still running. But the time has come to have a new, reliable, comfortable, quiet and more efficient escape pod.
It’s not like I haven’t been pondering it for quite some time. I did an analysis of the three main Euro-van candidates here, back in 2013. I’d forgotten about the fact that I’d pretty much made up my mind back then. But I’ve had quite a bit more time to contemplate the alternatives, now that there are three good options: Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit and the Promaster, essentially a federalized Fiat Ducato.
After lots of consideration, the Promaster has the best package for what I’m wanting to do. It starts with one big advantage: its FWD configuration means it has a lower floor height. That means that the raised roof version has a 6’3″ interior height, which is perfect for me, and the same as in the Chinook, yet it’s only 100″ total height. In order to get that much headroom in the RWD Sprinter or Transit, total height is almost a foot taller. The Transit is appealing in principle, but its body configurations were just not ideal for my purposes.
Another advantage is that the Promaster has 4″ more width than the other two. These Eurovans are all a bit narrow, especially compared to the widened Chinook body, so that extra 4″ makes a bit of difference, especially with the floor plan I’m going to do.
Bottom line is that the 159″ wb Promaster (not with extended body) offered the best compromise in terms of its packaging. And at the best price too; more on that later.
In addition to a few other objective reasons, there’s also an emotional one: this will be my fourth “Dodge” van . The first was my ’68 A100 (Auto-Bio here). I bought it bare too (used, of course). In fact, it was my very first carpentry/building project, and I bought my first electric saw for the purpose. I paneled the walls in 1/4″ plywood, and built a bed in the back, and added a couple of windows. My GF made the curtains. So I already have one DIY van under my belt, although this one is going to be a bit more complicated.
And in some key regards, the Promaster is sort of like our ’92 Dodge Caravan, on steroids. I sure could have used something bigger when I took five boys camping all over Oregon and California in 2000. The Promaster’s drive train and configuration really is like a bigger Caravan. And it only weighs some 400lbs more (4,880 lbs) than a Caravan; of course that’s with a bare cargo area.
Up until the time I bought it, and even for a few days afterwards, my plan was to largely replicate the Winnebago Travato, which is popular as well as pricey (MSRP: $90-$99k)
It may look good in the pictures, but when we saw one close-up, the quality of the materials and finishes was really disappointing. there’s still lots shiny plastic-clad particle board. And the cabinet and drawer latches/locks are fussy, and two of them were non-functional in the one we looked at. It exuded poor quality. And its stuffed full of things we have no use for, which makes it heavier and more expensive. The truth is looking at these one gets the sense that it’s more of a shiny, expensive toy with lots of bells and whistles that we would never really put to use, given our camping style.
The Europeans are still well ahead in regard to functionality and aesthetics. If I was to spend that kind of money, it would need to look more like this, even if this isn’t all necessarily real wood either. Ok; ours isn’t going to look like quite like this either, but we are going to use a lot more natural wood than plastic. And we’re not out to impress anyone; just to make it feel (and smell) good.
Before I get into explaining my plans for ours, I need to digress and say something about our purchase experience, which was a bit unusual. Once I decided that the Promaster was the one, I drove to our local Chrysler-Jeep-Ram-Dodge dealer to look at one close-up and start a buying conversation. Surprise! They don’t carry the Promaster van line! They’re not a “commercial line” Ram dealer, meaning no Promaster and HD Ram trucks.
So I started an internet search for one, and one dealer that had some in stock was Dave Smith Motors, in Kellogg, Idaho. I had a good experience getting a great deal on our 2013 Acura XT wagon in Boise, and the drive back was fun, so I responded. I talked to a salesperson there, and he instantly came up with a great price right upfront, no begging, hassling, or any weird added charges whatever.
Meanwhile, my calls and email inquiries to a number of Promaster dealers in Oregon generated the opposite response: equivocating, extra charges, the commercial salesman is in the hospital, no returned calls, blah, blah, blah,…anything but a clear, quick bottom line price to compare to Dave Smith Motors. No wonder they’re the world’s largest Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram dealer. And Kellogg is a little mountain hamlet with a population of 2,063! They all work at Dave Smith, undoubtedly.
I was hoping to pay $30k for a stripper 2500 159″ wb high-roof, whose MSRP is $34k. Well, there are no true strippers out there, unless it’s a fleet order. They all seem to come (like mine, whose sticker this is) with the tow package/hitch (which is nice), rear view camera (also very nice), heated/power folding mirrors (sort of nice), cruise control (an absolute necessity for me), and the Uconnect 5.0 entertainment system (whatever). That all pushes the MSRP to just over $38k, with the destination charge.
Well, I got a final, out-the-door-drive-it-off-the-lot price of $30, 495 (no sales tax in Oregon), or almost $8k off. And that includes several years of Oregon registration. I didn’t really push very hard actually; I really appreciated that their starting number was so good. I hate having to grind for every penny.
So now to actually buy it and get it home. When I got the Acura, I took a Greyhound bus, and spent the night in Boise. That was not going to work well to Kellogg, but I was able to buy a next-day ticket from Eugene to Spokane, WA (via Seattle) on Alaska for $225. So I got up a bit early and was in Spokane by 9 AM. The salesman told me there would be a shuttle van waiting for me for the 70 minute drive to Kellogg.
Well, there were two vans, and the one I took ended up with four passengers, all coming that morning to pick up their new Ram trucks. The driver told me that there are five full-time airport shuttle drivers at Dave Smith Motors. That’s when I got an idea of just how big of an operation this is. And that was driven home when I saw acres and acres of Ram trucks parked on storage lots as we approached Kellogg.
Here’s the main street running through Kellogg, which is utterly dominated by Dave Smith Motors. This is their other store, across the street, a GMC-Cadillac operation (NW’s largest GM dealer). And they’re expanding, closer to Spokane though, with an Alfa -Romeo store, and reputedly they’re in the process of buying a Ford dealer there.
This is where I met my salesman, William Ellis. It’s not obvious from this shot, but this room is packed with desks, and salespeople. But when I went to the restroom, there were two more even bigger rooms packed like this too! All the showrooms are wall-to-wall desks, and no cars. Dave Smith employs over 100 salespeople! And they sold over 1200 cars in March; over 1700 in December! So even with 100 salespeople, that’s still 12-17 cars per salesperson per month. And they’re still growing. This was a real eye-opener for me.
William told me he’s sold cars to every state in the country except for three, even to Alaska and Hawaii. Needless to say, Dave Smith probably gets some serious volume incentives from FCA. Superdealer. And everyone there was extremely pleasant and courteous.
In less than two hours, at noon, my paperwork was all processed and I was ready to hit the road, all 530 miles of it. The tank was full, courtesy Dave Smith, and I snacked on the nuts and dried fruit I had brought along.
I’d never actually test-driven a Promaster before, so this was my first time behind the wheel. And I was quite happy there, especially the seating position. Unlike the Transit, which I have driven, the Promaster has a taller, more upright position, which really makes it feel like a bus or truck. I happen to like that, as it reminds me of my bus driving time, and just works well for my tall and upright body.
But Stephanie is going to need a bolster for her feet, as they won’t reach the floor. The seats are comfortable, with good lumbar support. I felt fine after my 8+ hour drive with just one short gas stop. And the lack of constriction around the feet is great. The engine is actually way down under and in front of the cab, there’s no footwell intrusion either, thanks to being up so high. A terrific cabin, but obviously not meant to impress in terms of fine materials or matching vinyl grain patterns.
It was an exceptionally windy day. Coming down southerly in Eastern Washington on I-90, 395 and I-82, the wind hit me from mostly the side, and yes, I could feel it, as one would expect from driving an empty big box like this. But it was not problematic; just a bit wiggly. When I hit the Columbia Gorge, the combination of heading directly west into the wind and the tendency for the wind to be amplified by the gorge, it made itself very noticeable, as in some serious headwind. To keep up its cruise control speed of 70-75 mph, the transmission needed to be held in 5th gear, upping revs to about 3100 from about 2200. But then by airspeed, we were actually doing more like 100mph. And although the 3.6 V6 has plenty of power with 280hp, the torque down at about 2000rpm obviously isn’t exactly like the 360 V8. But then the Chinook’s 360 spins at about 3000rpm at 65, given the lack of an overdrive.
Gas mileage for the trip was 15.5 mpg (actual, not indicated); not bad considering the very strong wind. Based on what I’ve read, I expect about 17-18mpg in normal conditions; or a range of 16-19mpg. In any case, 60-70% better than the Chinook.
Here’s how a slightly smaller Promaster 1500 hi-roof (above, and some other pictures) that the folks at the DIY website did on their first big trip:
Full trip was 2065 miles from Bozeman, MT down through south Utah canyon country and back.
Grand average for 2065 miles was 20.2 mpg on computer and 19.6 mpg on actual calculations.
Breaking the mpg down by type of driving:
Freeway driving at 60 to 65 mph: 20.5 mpg
Two lane roads at 50 to 62mph: 19 mpg
Side trips up into the mountains on good paved roads: 18.5 mpg
Back roads, slow, twisty, sand/gravel 5 to 15 mph: 15 mpg
Obviously, it was noisy with that bare body back there (with tape lines for our floor plan), but I have to wear my Bose noise cancelling headphones (with music) in any longer trip now, because of severe tinnitus. It would have been torture otherwise, at least for me. But in every other respect, it drives great. The rack and pinion steering is accurate, the big Brembo four-wheel disc brakes are superb, and the handling is surprisingly confidence-inspiring for such a tall vehicle. There’s been some very genuine progress made in trucks to make them feel like they’re truly car-like except for their actual size. And at 236″ overall length, it’s the same length as a Ram Crew Cab with a short 6’4″ bed.
The wind died down as the afternoon wore on. As pleasant of a drive as it was, it felt good to be on the homestretch at sunset.
So now what? Well, I really couldn’t completely flesh out the plans for my conversion without getting it first, and as a matter of fact, I made a major revision to what I thought was going to be ideal, a replica of the Travato floorplan (above). By using a more compact toilet and dispensing with the shower, and giving Stephanie a shorter bed, I had made it fit in our 14″ shorter body version. But Stephanie pointed out that it wasted a lot of space by using the side door, unlike the much more space-efficient Chinook rear-door configuration. And she was right.
So I came up with Chinook V2.0, and it allows us to have a tall ceiling-height cabinet across from the galley with a larger (propane) refrigerator instead of the very small one in the Travato, as well as much more storage. The Travato is really not designed for longer trips.
Initially, I was a bit hesitant about using the back door instead of the side slider for access, but actually it has additional benefits. The sliding side door is very big (and tall), and takes a bit of heft to open and close, whereas opening the right rear back door is a a cinch. And I’m planing to make the right side bed so that it partially folds back on itself, or can be fully removed, just in case that side egress is desired, or I want to use the van to haul my tools and supplies to one of my rentals in the winter. I’m actually very pleased how well the floor plan came together after making that change.
As to the design of the various systems, I learned a huge amount from the DIY Promaster conversion website. They used the shorter 136″ wb version, and it’s a bit more modest in its storage and amenities, but it’s designed for shorter trips and minimal cost. But the key similarities are that in both cases, it’s about making a camper oriented for boondocking (camping in remote areas, or no facilities), and not RV parks or campgrounds with hookups. That’s a critical one, as it defines the systems. All commercial motorhomes are intrinsically oriented towards being hooked up, and they’re not very useful when not.
They often lack enough natural ventilation, and all have rooftop a/c, which is of course useless unless plugged in, or using a noisy generator. We have no use for a/c, as out in the West, the nights are typically cool except in the desert in the summer. So I’ll be installing the largest opening windows possible (for views too), as well as a rooftop ventilating fan/vent. And of course, the first step will be to insulate the whole body (and floor) with 1″ foil-faced foam and filling all voids with spray foam.
One of the biggest changes from the Chinook (and all commercial campers) is that we’re going to buy a composting toilet, which will drastically reduce the need for water as well as eliminate blackwater storage and dumping, one of the less appealing sides of an RV. Composting toilet, you say? Yuck!! Well, I’ve been aware of them and their widespread use in boats, remote cabins and all sorts of places where a regular toilet isn’t ideal. But any inhibitions I had were..composted away when I read up on these.
The key thing is separating the pee from the poo, as mixing them triggers fermentation and the resulting strong smell that can only be mitigated by chemicals in the holding tank. The pee container is easily and safely emptied every 2 days or so, and the poo is mixed with peat moss in the composting/storage area, and is dried by the little fan that runs constantly, which is hooked up to intake and exhaust hoses. The testimonials all swear that it DOES NOT SMELL, and the resulting compost can be disposed off readily in the ground (or legally in the trash) eventually, but the composting process goes on for months, so there’s no rush. The acid test was running this by Stephanie, since having a toilet on board in the first place is her demand, although I’ve come to appreciate it too. But once she understood how it worked, she signed off. It will make the camper significantly simpler and lighter.
Shower? Yes, these compact motorhomes technically have them (“wet toilets”), but the water tanks are just too small to use them properly unless one is hooked up. The Chinook technically has one, but we’ve never used it, and the hot water heater was ditched early on, as was the furnace. Stephanie heats a bit of water and takes a sponge bath before bed, and I’m good to go for a couple of days, although it rarely goes that long, as I love to swim in lakes and rivers. And we inevitably find a campground or truck stop to get a good hot shower every 2-3 days. It’s just another complicated system not really needed as per our extensive experience. Or just call us earthy.
Having gotten that touchy subject out of the way, it makes the rest of the required systems easier. There will be fresh water tank under Stephanie’s bed, probably about 20 gallons, compared to the Chinook’s 30. Without the toilet, that’s enough for 4-6 days, depending. There will be a gray water tank under the floor, about 14 gallons or so. Emptying it can be done with a simple ball valve and 1″ hose instead of the big 3″ flex hoses required for raw sewage, which can only be done at a dump station, and which requires flushing out the blackwater tank too. Always a bit of a messy job; I’m thrilled at the idea of being done with all that.
The electrical system will be 12V, with an inverter/charger, a 12V (or 2x6V) deep cycle storage battery, and a solar panel on the roof that should keep the system going essentially indefinitely except in very cloudy/winter weather. And of course it will be charged by the alternator when underway. The folks who did the conversion at that web site used a small high-efficiency 12V fridge, which allowed them to use just a refillable 20lb portable propane tank, stored inside the van, with a vent. I’m now planning to go the same route, perhaps a slightly larger unit.
One possibility is to superinsulate a cheap ($99) Energy Star compact “dorm’ fridge, as someone has done on this thread here. It’s substantially more efficient than the ones designed for RV and marine use, and they start at about $600 and easily top $1000. So I’ll probably do the same thing, with a portable propane tank for the cook top, and a very compact little furnace. With good insulation, it will take very little to keep it warm in cold weather.
The DIY Promaster conversion at the link below cost some $6k in materials. Ours will be a bit more; maybe $8-10k. But that’s still a huge amount less than a commercial conversion. Sportsmobile, which is a popular conversion outfit, tells folks to figure on about $40k for something roughly comparable.
Enough talking about it. I need to flesh out the details, and get started. Since my busy season with my rentals is just starting, this will be a very much part time project for now, but it will hopefully be ready for the late fall, winter for sure. Stay tuned.
Lots of excellent DIY info here: buildagreenrv.com