Phil Raymond's '75 Volvo out exploring.
Back in The April issue we featured a Volvo truck that was fully outfitted as an expedition truck by its owner ("Volvo Roamer"). The response was overwhelming on this truck, so we decided that an overview of expedition-type vehicles might be perfect. The idea of quitting your job (or getting fired) and hitting the road to explore every nook and cranny of the country has crossed the minds of every staff member at least once (if not multiple times a week), and we're sure it's the same for many of you. This, of course, is hard to swallow when you consider all the bills, family, and other obligations that life holds, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. We've heard of many families that have saved up the funds, sold or rented out their house, started home-schooling their kids, and hit the road to explore and see the world. Yes, it's a long shot, but it's not impossible. So read up, tell the boss you need the next week or year off, and hit the road.
Mercedes-Benz Unimogs are considered some of the most capable vehicles in the world. Global Expedition Vehicles (GXV) has recently launched its Safari Expedition model built on a Unimog U-500 chassis. Powered by a Mercedes-Benz six-cylinder (6.4L) diesel engine and based on a 154-inch wheelbase chassis with fully synchronized 16 forward and 12 reverse gears in the transmission, it has portal axles with selectable differential lockers front, rear, and center; a coil-spring suspension; and a sandwich-panel composite walled camper coach attached to the chassis frame. The extreme GXV is a rugged 4x4 expedition vehicle.
The GXV also has premium solid wood cabinets, a four-person dining area that converts into a bed, a stainless steel refrigerator and freezer, a two-burner diesel cooktop, a convection microwave and grill, LED lighting, a dry-bath with separate shower and toilet, another queen-size bed, two LCD TVs with a full sound system, and plenty of storage space. Not bad for a vehicle that is able to clamber over rocks or fallen trees and still reach 70 mph on the highway.
Pros: Luxury living anywhere you want, built to customer specifications
Cons: It's a big truck (26 feet long) and it comes with a big price tag.
Price range: $180,000 for light-duty; mid $300,000 for loaded medium-duty
Global EXpedition Vehicles
See The World In A Sportsmobile
A Sportsmobile 4x4 Van just might be the perfect vehicle for the off-road enthusiasts looking for a tow/trail/travel machine that can still be a daily driver. The 48-year-old Sportsmobile company builds 4x4 Ford and Chevy vans for the enthusiast or outdoor athlete looking to haul gear in a capable machine. And since both the Ford and GM vans are available with factory diesel engines (Power Strokes or Duramax), they are great for towing a dedicated trail rig or buggy or traveling long distances in barren lands on their own.
The Sportsmobile 4x4 Vans use well-known, proven products from the off-road world like Dynatrac Pro-Rock Dana 60 front axles, Atlas transfer cases, Warn hubs and winches, custom Old Man Emu suspensions, and Transfer Flow 46-gallon tanks. Then to make them suitable for up to four occupants, they can be outfitted with diesel-powered generators, refrigerators, sinks and water tanks, and a full toilet. Plus there are more minimalistic versions with a Thetford cassette toilette, designed for at-home comfort without all the holding tanks required when dealing with gray and black water.
Sportsmobile has built more than 1,000 vans to the owner's specifications. Whether you want an emergency response vehicle or a daily driver that can be hooked to a trailer Friday after work, tow your rock buggy to the mountain and then offer a comfortable place to sleep and eat when the nights get cold, Sportsmobile can make your dream machine come true.
Pros: Great for hauling or towing gear across extreme terrain. Smallish, yet still roomy enough for two occupants to live comfortably. Complete bathroom and kitchen facility available. Built to customer specifications.
Cons: Expensive, but can be financed like a motorhome, making it within reach.
Price range: $50,000 for basic 4x4 conversions, $85,000 to $150,000 for the ultimate camper van party-wagon with tons of stereo, GPS, and computer equipment.
Go Wheeling With A Gowesty VW Syncro
Pound for pound, the Vanagon Syncro pop-top camper might be the most agile, versatile expedition vehicle in the world. At GoWesty, they build Syncros designed for just that: travel to exotic locales.
Volkswagen built these wonder-buses from 1986 to 1991 and delivered the Syncro with an all-wheel-drive, viscous-coupler-based 4x4 system, 14-inch wheels, undersized brakes, and an anemic 2.1L engine that produced a mere 117 lb-ft of torque. GoWesty improves upon this stock platform by installing a 2.5L high-output version of the original engine that puts out 50 percent more torque. The viscous coupler is replaced by a solid billet straight shaft and decoupling system for true on-the-fly, selectable 4WD. By adding its custom-geared transmission and lower final drives (front and rear) to offset taller, 16-inch wheels and 29-inch tires, and by adding on-command, fully locking front and rear differentials, GoWesty transforms the vehicle from soccer-mom-mobile to a backwoods base camp for the Scout troop.
GoWesty also outfits the Syncro with larger, ventilated front brakes, which add increased stopping power and GoWesty-exclusive H&R German-made, progressive 2-inch lifting springs with Old Man Emu shocks on the fully independent suspension; undercarriage reinforcement and skidplates; an onboard compressed air system; a solar-powered auxiliary battery and refrigeration system; greatly improved front and rear lighting; a custom double swing-away carrier for fuel, water, and a fullsize spare; and creature comforts like Recaro seating, LPG interior furnace, deluxe awning, and a top-of-the-line DVD and stereo system.
Pros: Small size and weight. High agility and maneuverability. Comfortable and fun.
Cons: Not a tow rig. Not fully self-contained (no shower or toilet). Not designed to be a rockcrawler (but some owners do anyway). Built to customer specifications.
Price range: Cheap for a broken-down beater or $75,000 to $125,000 for a fully built and ready-for-anything Syncro.
Unique In Your Unicat
Unicat is one of the premier builders of expedition vehicles worldwide, if not the premier. These are the toys of the megarich, but with that price tag comes some awesome hardware. Unicat expedition vehicles are known for their ultra-modern interior living quarters for two, four, six, or more occupants. The vehicles are fitted with full kitchens, bathrooms, showers, and a private master bedroom. Plus the company's years of experience have resulted in a proven three-point kinematic attachment system so that chassis flex is allowed without worrying that your camper/living compartment is going to twist and break.
The latest offering from Unicat Americas is the Amerigo line of vehicles based on a USA-legal chassis. The Amerigo line of vehicles is built on the International 7400 4x4 chassis, the Unimog U500 chassis, or aftermarket 4x4 or 6x6 Ford, GM, Mitsubishi, and other chassis. These vehicles are for individual or group adventure travel, scientific exploration and research, environmental studies, photography, and professional uses such as search-and-rescue, escape/survival, and racing support. Unicat prides itself on its ability to scour the globe for the finest components, and if it can't find what it needs, Unicat manufactures it. Pricing starts at around $500,000 for the smaller 4x4s and goes up to around $3 million for fully customized 6x6s or even 8x8s. As for options, the sky's the limit. Yes, they can armor or gold-plate this mansion-on-wheels if your checkbook can afford it.
Pros: Unique, with a proven heritage. Ready for 'round-the-world travel. Five-star living quarters. Built to customer specifications
Cons: Costs more than a house. Big. Not inconspicuous at all.
Price range: $500,000 to $3 million
Earthroam Your Home
EarthRoamer has two main platforms.The EarthRoamer XV-LT is based on the Ford Super Duty F-550 four-wheel-drive cab chassis and is designed for two adults and two children camping for extended periods. Equipped with up to 90 gallons of diesel fuel and 85 gallons of fresh water, it is your own luxury condo on the move with granite counters, a convection microwave, air conditioning, a king-size bed, and an enclosed shower/bathroom. With a 17,950-pound gross vehicle weight rating and 10,000-pound towing capability, not only is the XV-LT a great camper, but it's also a great tow rig.
The other EarthRoamer variant is the XV-JP, based on the Jeep Rubicon Unlimited. Designed to carry two adults on technical four-wheel-drive trails to remote camping locations, this pint-sized camper/crawler has a unique Loftop camper that can be deployed to provide nearly 9 feet of interior stand-up space and a queen-size bed in the loft. The XV-JP comes with the capacity to hold 25 gallons of fresh water, an inside cassette toilet, an inside shower, and a sink. Plenty of light and ventilation is provided by an abundance of screened windows. An electric fan and the forced-air furnace will keep you cozy or cool.
Pros: There's a model for everyone, whether you want a burly towing home or a nimble crawling condo.
Cons: The Jeep could probably use more engine for big mountain climbs, or better yet a diesel.
Price range: XV-JP $110,000 baseto $125,000 well optioned; XV-LT $208,000 baseto$255,000 well optioned.
Build Your Own Mini
From 1990 to 2006 GM offered the Chevy Astro Van and GMC Safari Van with an all-wheel-drive transfer case. Though not as wild and exotic as some of the 4x4s we mentioned here, these vans do make for a great entry-level expedition truck in a small package with used prices between $1,500 and $4,500. The stock full-time BorgWarner transfer case puts a 60/40 split to the rear solid axle and front independent suspension axle, which is fine but can be upgraded to the NP231-C or later stronger electronic-shifting NP233 from a 4x4 S-10 pickup or Blazer, allowing for part-time use and a low range. The 10-bolt rear has plenty of gears and lockers available, and the 7.2-inch front axle is very similar to those from an S-10 truck and Blazer and can be geared down to 4.56 and equipped with a Lock-Rite locker. Every all-wheel-drive variant of these vans came with a 4.3L V-6, but V-8 swaps aren't uncommon and both the 700R and later 4L60E overdrive transmissions are great for long-distance exploring. Now don't expect to be rockcrawling the gnarliest trails just yet, but when fitted with some more aggressive tires, these vehicles could take you exploring backroads that leave other minivans crying to Momma. And if you do want to rockcrawl it, then know that there are quite a few Astros and Safari vans out there with solid axles swapped in under their full frames.
If you think building one of these vans is in your future, then Overland Vans (overlandvans.com) and AstroSafariVans.com should be your first two stops. Overland offers both 2- and 4-inch suspension lifts with new rear leaf springs and either new torsion-bar keys (2-inch) or a new front spindle (4-inch) to clear bigger tires and keep your rocker panels out of the rocks. Overland also offers bumpers and roof racks. AstroSafariVans.com has a forum where owners of both street and trail vans can discuss their build ideas, buy and sell parts, and show off their wheeling pictures.
Researching these budget backcountry explorers has a few of us considering one for a project vehicle. Email us if you think that's a good idea.
Pros: Cheap to get into. Great power. Parts are asy to find in the U.S.
Cons: Low-strength drivetrain needs upgrade to stronger bolt-in parts.
Price range: $1,500 to $4,500 as base purchase.
GTRV Pop-Top Campers