So where were we?
Leaving for our 1.5 year journey in less than 2 months time and no vehicle. That was pretty much the state of things in mid to late December 2013.
Knowing that most custom vehicle manufacturers would have a 6-12 month delivery time, going new was not an option. So, I began looking through various internet sites such as expedition portal, eBay, Craigslist, etc…in the hopes of finding a pre-owned overland solution which would meet our requirements. I looked for about 3-4 weeks before reaching the following conclusions: a) there are plenty of vehicles for sale at any given time, b) everyone has their own idea as to what constitutes an overland vehicle, and c) there were no vehicles out there in our budget that we felt comfortable purchasing.
I am not a car geek or enthusiast. However, if I see something that I like, I do get excited. All of my adult life I have had a fascination with just two vehicles. They are the Toyota FJ and the Land Rover Defender. I have read about these vehicles over the years on how they are the workhorses used to support various expeditions throughout the world. If these vehicles could work through the rugged deserts of Africa and the high mountains of the Himalayas, then surely one of them could support a drive from Alaska to Argentina. No?
The Land Rover Defenders were last available in the US in the mid to late 90’s. So relatively speaking, they are quite rare in the U.S. and have a price tag to reflect that fact. Looking at the older FJ models was not any more attractive. It seemed that you either get a fixer upper for a low price or a restored vehicle for the cost of a modern day luxury vehicle. We had no time for a fixer upper and no interest in buying a utilitarian vehicle which had the price tag of a Lexus.
However, Toyota was still at the top of the list since they were known for both their reliability and strong legacy of expedition support. So I began looking at their modern day lineup. The Tundra, the Tacoma, and the FJ Cruiser all seem to fit the bill. The pickup trucks would give us the space we required to carry all of our gear and allow us to do some level of customization(water tank installed in the bed, slide out cooking environment, storage compartments) all contained within a camper shell. The FJ,while not having quite as much room as the pickup truck, was added to the list because of its off-road capability. Every review that I have read or watched always came to the same conclusion on the FJ. Good enough on the pavement, awesome off-road!
Autotrader and Craigslist became my new best friend as I searched the ads daily. Living in California does have its advantages because there are a lot of cars for sale…and many within our budget! Test driving each of these vehicles proved to be critical as both my wife and I would be driving the vehicle during our trip and would have to like the platform.
A good friend of mine had a Toyota Tacoma and allowed me to drive it around a bit. I really liked the size of the vehicle, but had some reservations on its spartan-like interior and whether the six cylinder engine would be up for the task. It just felt a bit underpowered and he just has the truck. Imagine the performance when weighted down with a camper shell, gear, water, etc…This ended up being a non-factor since my wife came away from her test drive with the Tacoma uninspired.
If we don’t like it, we won’t buy it. No matter how desperate we are.
So on to the Tundra. We looked at both versions. Absolutely love the ultra reliability of version 1. My neighbor has one with well over 250k miles on it. No issues whatsoever. I loved the sheer size and power of the newer Tundra (v2) and felt that would make an excellent vehicle. It was the double cab model, lots of power, and an extended bed. We both did a test drive. I loved it! The wife? Well, let’s just say that she did not share my enthusiasm. Oh well…
So that just leaves the FJ.
We headed over to the local dealership to look at their used inventory and take one for a test drive. Impressions: Nice. Smooth engine. Good pickup / acceleration, decent amount of room inside, and a funky look to it that I really liked. Not bad, but the asking price was not in our budget. I liked it but had reservations about whether the internal space would be enough, but my wife really liked driving the vehicle. So we are now getting somewhere.
We would continue to research this vehicle option a bit more and look for an FJ within our price range.
By now it is early February and we still do not have a vehicle to support our trip. Our planned departure of February 6, 2013 has come and gone. In mid February I came across an ad for someone selling their FJ in the local area which met our budget requirements. We went to check it out and do the mandatory test drive. Everything looked good. We did not make an offer on the vehicle that day. We went home and immediately dumped everything we knew about the car into Kelly BB to get a sense of what the car was worth. Our offer would be based on these numbers. We called back the next day and made an offer contingent on the local Toyota dealership going through the car from top to bottom so that we could get an idea as to the current mechanical condition of the vehicle. The inspection identified a couple of minor items. No big deal. We got a repair quote from the dealer and reviewed it with the owners. They agree to accept our revised offer which took into account the repairs costs. We are now the owners of a Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Great, a car that can do anything and go anywhere, but we still needed a place to sleep. Remember, while the FJ may have some storage capacity and off-road prowess, it is not an RV and has no accommodations for cooking, sleeping,etc…so we still had our work cut out for us.
Towing anything was out of the questions since we wanted to keep the overall vehicle setup simple. Additionally, towing some type of living arrangement just meant one more thing that could go wrong (axle, tires, etc…) and finding replacements on the road outside of the US / Canada could prove to be problematic. A trailer was definitely not something we wanted to deal with and not something we would use after the trip. Therefore, not a good way to spend our money.
During my research on the trip, I saw images of Australian and some Europeans over-landers with tents on the top of their overland vehicle. I later learned these are called roof top tents (RTT). The Australians use this method of camping since the ground critters in their country can actually be quite deadly! I figured this approach may work out for us.
Online research showed two manufacturers which were relatively close to us. They were Tapui tents which is located in Santa Cruz,CA and Cascadia Vehicle Tents (CVT) out of Bend, OR.
Santa Cruz is only about 30 minutes from where we live so I called them to see what type of inventory they had immediately available. The answer was none. They were expecting a major inventory shipment in March/April and anything they did have was going to be used for early season trade shows.
The next call was to Cascadia Vehicle Tents. I was able to talk with the owner Craig. I told him our situation and he confirmed that they did not have any inventory for the tent options that we were considering. Like Tapui, they too were expecting a major inventory shipment in the March/April time frame.
I hung up the phone feeling totally dejected. We had no other leads or ideas for sleeping arrangements at that time (we were not willing to do the ground tent method). It looked like we would have to postpone the departure date of the trip again while we waited for the vendors to restock their inventory. This was not looking good.
About two hours later, I happened to check my phone and noticed a missed call from the number I had dialed for CVT. I called back to see what was up. Craig called back to let me know that CVT may have a demo model of one of the tent options we wanted at his showroom in Bend, OR. He was traveling at the time to some early season trade shows, but had left a call for one of his relatives to check availability. He said he would let me know for sure once he had confirmation. Later that day he called to confirm that they had the Mt. Rainier tent at their shop. Great, we will take it!!
One problem though, Craig was out on the road doing trade shows to promote his products and would not be back in Bend, OR for a couple of weeks. So we could not take possession of the tent until he returned. Just for reference, CVT is a small, family owned company. We made plans to be there in Bend, OR the first day of his return.
We arrived in Bend the night prior to our meeting and stayed at a friend’s house for the night. We met Craig first thing in the morning and began dismantling the tent which was being demoed on an old Toyota FJ45 in his showroom. We then re-assembled it on top of our FJ Cruiser. We were now the owners of a CVT Mt. Rainier tent.
We had some additional work done to the FJ Cruiser during the two week period we were waiting to go to Bend,OR to pickup our tent. A couple days after we purchased the vehicle we went to meet with Jeff Arabia at Arabia’s Overkill in San Jose, CA.
We wanted to have an additional battery installed on the vehicle and a inverter added so that we could charge our laptops, cell phone, etc…during our journey. Additionally, we asked them to remove the backseat and create storage compartments in the area behind the front seats and a fold out cooking platform which we could use when the rear door of the FJ was open. We brought the vehicle back a few days later for him to begin the work.
Even though this work was relatively straightforward, if you are in the San Jose, CA and need work done on your 4WD vehicle, I would recommend that you talk to him about your needs. He is a very knowledgeable person and has a great personality too!
Vehicle-wise we are all ready to go!! Finally!!
You are probably thinking that’s the end of the story, right?
Well, not quite.
So back in December 2013, I actually placed a call to XP Camper to find out their current production cycle times for a new camper. Unfortunately, it had not changed and was still at about ten months. My wife and I talked about it for a few days and decided to go ahead and put a deposit down which would officially put us in the production queue. We were given a delivery date of September / October 2014. So given that time frame, that would put us in the FJ Cruiser for the first six to seven months of our journey.
While I was searching for the vehicle which turned out to be the FJ Cruiser; in parallel I was also searching for a used one ton pickup truck that would be the platform for the eventual XP Camper build. In the U.S. diesel pickup truck arena, there are essentially three engines to consider: Ford PowerStroke, Dodge Cummins, and Chevy Duramax.
All are good engines. But from my research and discussions with the diesel experts in the area (Imler and Left Coast) the Cummins and Duramax engines were the most highly regarded overall. From the power stroke series, the 7.3L power stroke is highly sought after for both its reliability and performance. Other versions of the PowerStroke engine, such as the 6.0L,not so much due to potential reliability issues.
We ended buying a 2002 Ford F-350 7.3L V8 PS with 88,000 miles on it.
Why a Ford? It really came down to a couple of items.
The first was cost. Dodge and Chevy trucks have a much higher resale value than comparable Ford trucks. Great if you are the seller. Not so good if you are the buyer. The second was the 7.3L engine. As mentioned earlier, it is highly regarded and most diesel truck enthusiasts will tell you that the Ford engine designs post 7.3L production have not been on par with the 7.3L for both overall reliability and performance.
We found the truck on eBay in late December 2013. The truck was not being sold by a Ford dealer, but by what I will call a ‘2nd tier’ dealership. Not having previously dealt with this type of dealership before, I did my due diligence and searched the internet for customer reviews and BBB feedback. Everything I found on the dealership turned out to be quite positive.
The pictures linked to the auction showed the truck to be in very good to excellent condition. The truck’s location was in Southern California (SoCal). We live in Northern California. Distance-wise, it may sound close, but it is at least a 7 hour drive to the vehicle’s dealer location. Not wanting to travel that distance just be be disappointed or not purchase the vehicle, we hired an independent vehicle inspector from SoCal to check out the vehicle for us. The inspector would go over the car from head to toe and advise on current status, test drive performance, and provide additional photos of the interior and exterior. The report from the inspector came back a day or two later and was extremely positive. Only a couple of minor items were identified which we eventually reviewed with the vehicle dealership and they took care of them. I was feeling better about things, but still not eager to head on down to SoCal. I happened to be on Google Earth (or similar) and was looking at street view photos of the vehicle dealership. I happened to notice that there was an actual Ford dealership located near the vehicle dealership. I called the vehicle dealership and told them I was interested in purchasing the truck, but wanted to have a diesel specialist from Ford to inspect the it. The vehicle dealership agreed as long as I made the appointment and paid for the cost of the inspection. No problem!
Ford went through the car from top to bottom and remarked that overall the vehicle was in very good condition. Again, the issues which were identified were the same as the independent vehicle inspector’s. The vehicle dealership addressed all items which were highlighted during the inspection process.
We drove down to SoCal to look at the car for ourselves and take it for a test drive. Everything checked out just fine. We purchased the car that day and proceeded to drive it directly to Grass Valley, CA (XP Camper location) for drop-off. By now, it is late January 2014. Remember our planned February departure date? That is why we did not bring the truck back to San Jose, CA with us. We were in the process of moving everything from our house into storage as well as dealing with other last minute trip details. This was the only time we had available to drive to Grass Valley, CA which is a 4 hour drive from our home.
So by the time we leave for our trip, we will have a Toyota FJ Cruiser with a CVT roof top tent to use for the first 6-7 months of the trip and we have delivered a Ford F-350 pickup to XP Camper for our long term solution which is projected to be completed by September/October 2014.
Finally, no more thinking about and searching for vehicles!!
So, despite our original plan, we actually ended up leaving for our trip on March 8, 2014. We spent some time exploring Death Valley NP, Joshua Tree NP, Mojave Desert,and the Salton Sea area in California before making our way down along the Baja Peninsula to catch the humpback whale migration.
In the interest of time, we will fast forward a bit since this article is about vehicles and not the trip per se. Be sure to check out the other blog entries for actual trip details. 🙂
We took delivery of our XP Camper on July 10, 2014.
…“Huh? I thought you said it would be done in the September / October time frame!”
I did, but…On April 16, 2014, my wife and I were sitting in a cafe in Loreto, Baja California Sur checking email. I received an email from the owner of XP Camper. In the email, he stated that there was a used XP Camper available and asked would we be interested in purchasing it as opposed to waiting for a new one? Heck yeah!! Going this route would save us both time and money. Our delivery date now pulls in from the September/October to June/July timeframe. What an unexpected surprise!!
We received the vehicle just in time to familiarize ourselves with it for a few days in the Tahoe National Forest before heading up to Bellingham, WA to catch a ferry to our next destination. ALASKA.
So, there you have it. The condensed version of our vehicle journey.
Next up: My impressions of each of our overland solutions (Sportsmobile, FJ/CVT combo, XP Camper)…