Curbside Classic: 1991 Geo Metro Three Axle Ultra-High-Efficiency Motor Home – 45 MPG?

(first posted 10/6/2017)       Is there an efficiency gene? Why do some people intrinsically (or compulsively) turn off the lights when they leave a room, keep the thermostat at 68 (or lower) in the winter, and drive high-efficiency cars? If there is, I obviously have it. Actually, our thermostat never goes above 66 in the winter, and I always shut off my car engine if it would mean idling for longer than a red light, like at a train crossing, which bit me once. Meanwhile, I see folks idling their pickups while they’re inside shopping in the building supply store. They obviously have the consumption gene.

So when I stumbled into this ultra-efficient three-axle Geo Metro “motorhome”, I could totally relate, even though my efficiency gene is nowhere near as strong as that of its builder/owner. I am not worthy…

Somebody home-built this vehicle out of a 1991 Geo Metro (CC here), a NA market version of the Suzuki Cultus and which was America’s mileage champ in the pre-Prius era. The FX version was rated at  43/52, with a combined 47 mpg by the EPA (these are adjusted EPA numbers), which put it very much in Prius territory. It accomplished that thanks to its light weight (just under 1700 lbs) and its 993cc three-cylinder engine, which was rated at 55 hp. It was popular, back in the day when fuel economy was important to a lot of buyers (remember those distant days?).

This shot is a nice demonstration of how things have changed; today’s young person on the go with a mountain bike and other outdoor gear to transport would likely go for the burly Toyota Tacoma right behind it. And be content with its 15 mpg thirst.

Not the builder of the Metro-mobile. This person wanted to have the most economical way to transport themselves, their bike and outdoor gear and be able to sleep in it too, with the very lowest possible fuel consumption. And that’s something I can relate to, having always had a soft spot for economy and efficiency, even if I haven’t exactly managed to make that consistently applied to my own life.

When I was between the ages of 18 and 23, I was always on the go, and rarely stayed in one place for more than a few months. And I was perpetually financially challenged, not surprisingly. This Metromobile would have been absolutely perfect for me then, much more so than my several elderly but very cheap to fuel VW Beetles, with a tent and gear strapped to its roof carrier.

Let’s start with the Metro’s original driving compartment. This person is a loner, which I was too back then, although I did appreciate being able to also provide accommodations to a companion or three. Not here; there’s only the driver’s seat, and the disassembled mountain bike.

The driver’s seat is obviously not original, and looks like it may well be more comfortable for the really long trips this person has likely made and still makes. Yes, it’s got the five speed manual, not the automatic.

One indication of the roaming nature of its owner is this 2016 Alaska State Parks Commercial Operator Permit. There are others. The strap-on rear view mirrors may look a bit improvised, but seem to do the job.

The license plate is from Washington, so he’s still on the go. I can understand the homemade rear hatch made out of wood, but I’m rather puzzled about the “wood” planking on the sides. Hmm.

The new rear section appears to be made of aluminum sheet, riveted together. Something stronger than ordinary duct tape has also been employed, presumably to seal a seam against moisture intrusion. Perhaps all that traveling opened up some of the seams. But that certainly doesn’t explain the woody sides. It juts seems incongruous on such an otherwise minimalist low-weight machine.

I tried to get a shot of the interior, but the tailgate window was made of badly-yellowed plastic. I couldn’t get a shot of it from the front window.

But here’s a shot from the web: A rather high flat floor, with a mat and lightweight sleeping bag on the driver’s side (left). And a few articles on the right. The floor had two or more lift-up doors, that open up to storage compartments below.

This shows the large storage compartments.

Of course I got down to look underneath, to check out its construction and how the rear axles were suspended. here two or more of the those under-floor storage compartments are visible.

And here’s a shot of the two rear axles. I’m not exactly an expert on double tag axles axles, but these seem to have had a bit of thought put into their construction.

Here’s another shot, from the rear. There’s a leaf spring up high between the two axles.

Which can be seen in this dim shot. I had expected something cruder than this, which looks to be rather well engineered so that the two axles have plenty of articulation. It is pretty obvious that this rig was constructed by building a rather high frame, from which the spring is suspended at its middle, as well as the storage compartments. I had expected a much lower floor, and not exactly a custom designed and built rear suspension system.

The whole reminds me some of the GMC Motorhome, although its back axles were of course suspended on air springs.

It’s more akin to this, actually. Which certainly would have made a fine basis for a low-profile motorhome, although certainly not exactly very efficient.

So what’s the best guess as to what this gets on the open road? 35 mpg? Easy. 40? Probably, given how low it is, increasing aerodynamic drag quite minimally. 45? Possibly. I was hoping the owner would come out of the supermarket so I could ask, but no such luck. So I hopped back in my big 18 mpg Promaster van and drove off. I guess my efficiency gene has mutated some.