Should we buy a one ton truck to put under the heavy slide-in camper…or convert our 1996 GMC Sierra half ton?
“On the cheap” sounded better than “break the bank”, but for us the obvious reasons to go with a conversion were many:
1. I figured I could convert the Jimmy for under $1,000 total cash layout, thanks to (a) online shopping and (b) access to a “free” mechanic with his own shop. My wife’s son, Zach, would be more than happy to do the job if I rounded up the parts.
2. There was no time to shop for a used one ton truck. I’d purchased the camper but had just five days left until the appointment with RV City north of Huachuca City, at which time the vehicle needed to be ready to rock and roll.
3. Buying any used vehicle is, of course, buying someone else’s problems. Used trucks in perfect operating condition are not often found on the open market.
4. Buying a new truck was out of the question. The cost is astronomical, and besides, the newer the unit, the more high tech garbage is included, very little of which I consider acceptable.
5. Our GMC is a family friend. True, it has more than 180,000 miles on the odometer, but so what? The transmission was rebuilt in late 2009, ditto the brakes, and the engine–which has never been touched–still powers down the road without using a drop of oil.
Wait. Let’s back up a bit. Why did we need a camper?
That’s easy. Medical malpractice.
At least, that’s how we see it. My wife, Pam, is deeply disabled on too many fronts to list in this post. Suffice it to say that she’s in extreme pain 24/7, 365…and in November, when I stopped by her doctor’s office to pick up the monthly prescription for her pain meds, Doctor Dearest cut the prescription by nearly 20 percent. Arbitrarily. With no discussion whatsoever. I objected through his nurse, who relayed the objection back to the Mad Medico. Pam’s been his patient for more than four years. He knows she’s in real pain, not an addict looking to get high. He’s said as much, and more than once at that.
So…what did Doctor Strangelove reply (through his nurse, certainly not to my face)? He said, and I quote,
“Tell Fred I’m confident she will do well on this dosage.”
Okay, that tore it. We knew immediately that we’d have to do something, and the ensuing weeks bore that out. The increased pain levels (due to the reduced prescription amount) took my wife over the edge, from a point where she could manage to work with the pain enough to eat enough to keep her weight above 90 pounds. Pam’s safe weight is 95 pounds, her ideal weight 100 pounds, and her danger point 90 pounds. We know this from nearly two decades of working with her health challenges, though it’s been years since she’s been able to hit the 100 pound mark. Now…now she’s unable to force down enough food to stay above 90 pounds, which means she’s in Danger Territory and struggling most of the time.
That is, in a word, unacceptable.
What to do? We kicked it around for a few weeks and came up with a plan. Our local area in southern Arizona is not likely to be helpful, so we crossed that off the list. Fortunately, however, Pam’s eldest daughter, Amy, lives in north central Utah–and works for a Nurse Practitioner who sees no problem whatsoever in providing her mother with the prescription regimen that has worked for her for so many years.
But the distance between our place and Amy’s place comes to more than 900 miles, one way. If, however, we had an RV we could park up there for a few days each month, we could switch Pam’s medical care to Utah.
Hence the camper–and sure enough, RV City had one that would work, a Palomino by Bronco, a slide-in that was also a pop-up with all the amenities including two beds, a stovetop, a sink, and even a little porta potty that slides under the dinette/bed area.
Ah, but that sucker is heavy. Somewhere around 1,600 pounds, in fact.
And so…time to convert the GMC.
A bit of thought made it clear that only three areas needed to be considered. First, the tires had to be burly buggers, capable of carrying all that weight for extended periods. The tires, as it happened, had already been upgraded several years earlier. I’d taken the truck to Furrier’s in Sierra Vista, asked them to sell me the most awesome truck tires they had that would fit the GMC, and they’d done just that. Amazingly, they’re 10 ply (rated) beasts, good to carry up to 3415 pounds per tire with the tires inflated to 80 psi. In other words, one of these tires could handle the weight of two complete campers with a bit left over.
The photos, when blown up on the computer, did reveal one flaw. The tires are beginning to weather check, especially around the raised lettering. The cracks are not yet large enough to be visible to the naked eye; I’d never have known about them if I hadn’t written this post.
They’re not a problem yet. I’ll need to pay attention, replace those tires sooner or later.
The two remaining areas that needed upgrading were (a) rear leaf springs and (b) mirrors. Online searches produced a pair of stock one ton springs (6 leaf springs rather than the stock half ton 4 leaf springs) from General Spring. Their pricing was excellent–just over $500 for both springs, mounting accessories, and shipping–but most importantly, they use no Chinese or other foreign parts. Everything in the assembly is made by a North American manufacturer to strict standards.
It took a bit longer to find the right mirrors. Website after website had suitable replacement mirrors (extendable power versions that can reach wide enough to see past the camper walls)…for every 1996 GMC model except the Sierra. Finally, after two or three hours of digging around, one great pair of mirrors did pop up at TopSportGear.com. Price: $279 plus shipping.
Amazingly, both sellers (for the springs and the mirrors) stated UPS would be able to deliver the parts to Zach’s home on Tuesday, the day before the camper was due to be mounted. Awesome. Okay, so the mirrors are made in Taiwan, but you can’t have everything.
Last evening, I popped the tailgate off of the truck, took out the homemade wooden headache rack and the rack’s retaining bolts, swept out the bed, and we were good to go.
Zach got started on the parts swap-out at around five p.m. after I arrived with a load of double quarter pounder cheeseburgers from McDonald’s. Gotta keep the workers fed. Sure enough, the parts had all arrived earlier in the afternoon. With Zach’s friend Bob helping, my stepson cut out the old U-bolts with his acetylene torch (they were far too rusted to loosen any other way) and installed the new springs, completing a five hour flat rate job in two hours and twelve minutes.
Did I mention he’s good at what he does?
The results were awesome, lifting the truck’s rear end 3 1/2 inches and stiffening the suspension a lot. I’m predicting the camper will settle right in, leveling everything out without having to touch the torsion bar that determines the amount of lift for the front suspension.
Zach tackled the mirror change-out next. I was glad to have him doing the work on both upgrades, but truth be told, I’d have been less concerned about the springs–despite not owning a lift–than about the mirrors. With good reason, too. Inside the door, a small plastic door panel pops free to provide access to the three mounting bolts for each mirror. Unfortunately, it’s not clean access; the only way Zach could get a nut started on each bolt was to use a mechanic’s five pound magnet. (That’s five pounds of attractive force; the magnet does not weigh five pounds.) I don’t own one of those magnets.
Still, he changed out both mirrors, wiring and all, in one hour and ten minutes. I don’t know what the flat rate allowance is for that job, but the learning curve was pretty swift and steep. At a guess, forty-five of those minutes went to the first mirror and twenty-five to the second.
With the mirrors added to the upgraded springs, the GMC came out looking like a TRUCK!
Driving the fifteen miles home after Zach (with Bob’s help) had finished the beefing up of the 1996 GMC Sierra half ton, it was crystal clear that I was now piloting what was a beefy brute of a one ton truck. Strangely enough, even though the ride over our last two miles of dirt road was as rough as expected, the stiffer suspension actually made the pickup handle better. Much better. Turns were sharp and crisp, no hesitation whatsoever. Could the old half ton springs have been wallowing a bit on the turns, squishing along so subtly that I hadn’t even realized it? I suspected the answer was yes.
After posting my notes and photos to this point, there was only one thing left to do: Set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. to make sure that I had plenty of time to reach RV City by 8 o’clock.
December 10, 2014. The truck’s appointment at RV City is set for 8:00 o’ clock. By 6:30, still before sunup, I’m at our bank, grabbing a bit of cash from the ATM and a low light photo of the pre-camper truck, running on one hour of sleep.
We (the GMC and I) pull up in front of the RV City showroom at 7:00 a.m., one full hour ahead of time. Yes, it would have been nice to sleep that extra hour, but in my book, if I’m exactly on time, I’m late. Besides, I want to see how this camper settles in on the truck. Will it sit level when all is said and done? In other words, did I correctly plan and Zach correctly execute the conversion from moderately wimpy half ton pickup truck to burly one ton beast?
Our arrival is so early that we’re already parked when the General Manager unlocks the front door to feed RV City’s house cat, Blackie.
At 8:00 a.m. sharp, my sales guy arrives and ushers the truck back to the bay where it will spend the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon, getting fitted with wiring and hardware connections to make the Palomino camper a happy camper.
Somewhere around 2:00 p.m., the guys call me out to get my orientation on the camper. The truck’s bed liner had to go; that has been scrapped. Inside the front wall of the truck bed, a stout set of hardware has been installed that provides (a) bumpers to keep the camper from sliding forward far enough to rub against the bed’s top edge and (b) strength to support the tie-down brackets on the outside of the bed wall. I’m mildly surprised; the salesman had said the tie-downs would be frame mounted. Then again, maybe this counts; the mounts are attached to the bed and the bed is attached to the frame, so….
At the rear, things are not quite so sturdy. One of the techs warns me not to tighten the rear tie-downs too much or risk warping the bumper to which they’re attached. There’s a difference, then, between front and back. Forward tie-downs are cinched down hard; rear tie-downs are not much more than snugged.
For the first time, I get to see the camper with the top popped up. (Which I could have done earlier, but it didn’t seem important.) Except for a hinged set of wood at the rear, the expansion is covered by plasticized fabric and screening, sort of an off-the-ground layer of tenting.
Inside, popping up that top reveals a full sized bed extending out over the cab in addition to all the other goodies. Not a bad little package, really.
To show our readers the rake the truck had prior to adding the camper, I took a few photos, using the span of my hand to demonstrate the considerable rake (3 to 3 1/2 inches, depending on how the GMC was sitting).
Okay, now for the big test. The camper was mounted on the truck and cinched down. How did the suspension look now? I’d predicted to friends and family and anyone else who would listen that we’d come out with, “…the truck perfectly level or maybe a very slight rake.”.
The hand-measurement check showed…we’d done it! Here’s a photo of the combined unit (truck with camper) parked in front of the Golden Dragon restaurant in Sierra Vista. You can’t get a vehicle any closer to level than that!
Damn, I’m good.
The only other Burly Truck Tests that mattered were:
1. How did it handle on the road? Reviews on that one were mixed, but overall not bad.
A. It does wallow a bit, thanks to the much higher overall center of gravity. Not much, though; the heavy duty springs damp the wallow down pretty effectively.
B. It takes a lot more power to accelerate from a dead stop to highway speed; you can tell you’re pushing a good deal more weight down the asphalt. We won’t know the exact numbers until we make our first Utah run, but a drop from the GMC’s usual 16 mpg to somewhere around 14 (or less) is likely.
C. To my pleasant surprise, the necessary stopping distance while braking did not increase nearly as dramatically as I’d expected it would. The rig still stops easily and surely.
2. How did the oversized extendable mirrors work out? Awesome; the blind spots are next thing to nonexistent.
3. Did the tires stay cool, running under the increased load? Of course they did; those tires could handle twice the load without noticing the difference.
Bottom line, then, the conversion of the half ton truck to, a one ton brute of a beast was 100% successful. One of the techs at the RV shop even admitted he and his coworkers were “thankful” when they saw those brand new heavy springs. I’m guessing the sales force has required them to mount campers on many an under-sprung truck in the past; they appreciated a customer who understood the forces involved.
And the cost? Not counting the tires (because the ones we had on there were already burly brutes), the conversion was made for under $900 total. That’s definitely chump change in today’s market.
So. Definitely successful conversion and definitely cheap. I’m giving myself FIVE STARS. (Zach gets Ten Stars, so between us…Fifteen Stars!)
Naturally, since pride goeth before a fall and all that, the camper’s interior lights quit working shortly after we got the rig home. Details, details.
Update: December 13, 2014. Uh…no, they didn’t. Turned out there was nothing wrong with the interior lights. The camper was built with a shutoff switch that disconnects those lights the moment the pop-up to is prepped for lowering. I removed the bumper that turned off the switch and the camper now has interior lights in any position.