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Chumley 03-22-2012 05:37 PM

My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
I thought that I would try to memorialize my sportsmobile RV purchasing experieince. Take it from why I chose SMB to design to construction. The conclusion being handed the keys and manuals after the overview at the threshold of the roll up door leading out into a new world of adventure.

I realize the experience will be different for each one of us. I'm also sure that I can't be the only one who had questions about the process of designing and building your vision of the dream Sprinter based RV.

I can't find that it has been done before so I hope I am not duplicating someone else's experience. I apologize if I do.

So I will go back to the beginning...

My wife and I have been looking at motorhomes for a long time. Every time we got close a good reason would pop up not to purchase. Things like where do we store it, how much would it cost in fuel (could we just pick up and go a few hundred miles on a spur of the moment trip?), how much upkeep would it take, how much of a chore would it be to drive, etc... We realized that we didn't want a huge lumbering RV that had a long list of special "needs". That would not be convenient and would likely end up not being used as much as imagined (like many friends who paid big $$$ for a motorhome now being used 3-4 times a year). That's when we started seeing the Sprinter van based RVs, specifically the Roadtrek. My God, how could they fit all of that into such a small van and still seem so comfortable? And - the gas mileage was incredible! So we looked around and Sportsmobile kept popping up. We soon thought Sportsmobile was perfect for us. We could have exactly what we wanted and pay for only what we wanted! We have found out that it is not exaclty the case but it is very close. It's hard to imagine how much they can effectively pack into a van but your imagination can also try to fit too much too.

So after about a year and a half we decided it was time to get serious. I was convinced that if I waited any longer that I would continue to shrink and stoop and and not be able to see over the steering wheel. I also convinced the wife but she didn't take well to my vision of her stooping over and shrinking. After Christmas 2011 we decided that it was time to commit to a build. Hopefully we could still get in an epic 2012 vacation in our own Sportsmobile, maybe. I lurked here and many comments reinforced my notion that going to the SMB website would be the best place to start. I called SMB for initial information and they directed me to their website as well. So I studied that Sportsmobile website until I was sure I knew what we wanted. Intent turned into action and we went to SMB West in early January to see the facility. There is no other place to touch and see the real thing and learn more about the whole deal. During that visit I realized that I might know more about the information provided on their website than they did. Each shop is independently owned and the website is maintained by only one of the shops so you can't necessarily get everything you see on the website at all shops. More on that later.

We had officially started the process.

Chumley 03-23-2012 04:20 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
Getting Started - Is Sportsmobile for Me?

This is my second installment. I would really welcome any one else's experience in response. My experience may not be typical so any feedback would educate me and hopefully others.

Before I get too much further I guess I should tell you a little about my approach to things. My professional background is in commercial construction where most of my life I have put together large complex projects typically in a very short time period. I regularly deal with vendors and consultants who have answers at the ready or get them quickly. I am also a sitting Planning Commissioner in my community so I am also used to staff providing information in a timely manner, even if research must be performed. Designing and specifying a Sportsmobile RV looked to be right up my alley. But I also wanted to try to be sensitive to the fact that not all industries operate the same. My experience in the outdoor recreation industry years ago taught me that I can't realisticly have the same expectations from everyone. I fully appreciate the efforts of those that can deliver since it is a lot of work at times. I thought that I took that into the process but sometimes I just forget and revert back to the "Little Captain" approach.

I believe that your background can have a dramatic effect on your level of patience and general expectations. I certainly think mine may have.

Our first visit to the Fresno SMB facility really sealed the deal in our minds. I saw several vans, both Fords and Sprinters, in various states of construction. Some of the interiors were really looking very impressive. There was an impressive audio and video system being installed, nicely made cabinetry, upholstered benches, etc... I was able to open cabinets, see how they were fastened, look inside (I love the smell of freshly sawn wood), inspect the upholstery, etc... Everything I saw made me feel comfortable about their business and I have been in many large cabinetry shops and steel fabrication shops over the years. The work they did looked very nice to me and I am a real picky son-of-a-gun. We'll see how that effects the build itself.

It felt good to see and feel the real deal after all of that time looking at pictures on their website. If you can a visit is well worth your time. Just be prepared to get hooked on the idea of a Sportsmobile in your driveway.

So, of course, my inevitable series of questions began. I was paired up with a very nice young(er) salesman and he was obviously very proud of his company's product. We liked working with him right away but over time we also started to develop the feeling that we were speaking two different languages. Our goal was to build a small self contained RV on the regular wheelbase (144") Sprinter with cooking ability, toilet & shower, comfortable sleeping area and an area where my wife and I could work or comfortably eat take-out meals together parked in front of a nice restaurant. So I would say that I want this and saw it on the website and I would get a response saying that it did not appear possible and it would be looked into. Then I would wait 3 to 4 days and I would get impatient and call or send an e-mail looking for the response. I would then get a response but it would either be incomplete or raise another question. Sometimes my impatience would lead me to call the SMB Texas shop and would always either get someone on the phone or they would call the next day. This further complicated matters since SMB West cannot or will not do everything that SMB Texas will do. Some examples were the generator was dismissed immediately by SMB West and Texas said they could, a brush guard was available in Texas but not West, but they both agreed that upgrading to a 3500 from the 2500 was one of personal preference and they had very little experieince with a regular wheelbase 3500. We learned that our salesman was new and needed to ask a lot of questions himself. Of course I tend to stretch the boundries so I asked questions outside of his routine but wanted to give him a chance as many chances as possible. In all fairness we had strayed from the standard plans and this is foreign territory that turned out to be tough for even the most experienced staff. We were still being frequently told to go to the website.

It had become apparent that the website was a great resource but a human is critically needed if you do anything more than choose one of their standard plans, even that would be tough. We were told that the SMB Texas shop maintained the website so there may be some fine details that need to be worked out between the shops.

We forged on and had actually sent our deposit check in for the van itself but then told them to hold onto it. I was about to reconsider the whole deal due to the lack of progress with our salesman. My professional experience reared it's ugly head and told me that if you are not being treated the way you like during the "courting" period (the sales pitch and estimates) then it rarely got better once you were on the hook. What could we expect if our representative at the factory was still learning how to take care of my interests? We were stretching from a standard build so who would make sure it was right?

So what do you do then? We revisited the Roadtrek and actually had the opportunity to drive one on local winding roads - I was so impressed with the driving experience of the Sprinter that I knew we had to stay with that platform but whose? The Roadtrek SS Agile was just too much, we wanted some stealth and that was not stealthy, and it didn't appear as well build as the SMB (note: the Roadtrek salesman also said he has redirected many customers to SMB when he realizes they would be a better fit). I contacted Outside Van as some here had recommended but they never returned my calls or e-mails!?! Did they exist? I called Van Specialties and discussed a build, I also asked them about Outside Van since they work together. Van Specialties appeared to have it together but were about 800 miles away, they were not on Mercedes' list of approved Upfitters and Body Builders (whatever that is worth?), wanted a lot of money down to start the build, and just didn't have the "presence" of SMB. Ouside Van finally e-mailed back (I assume since Van Specialties told them to) but they appeared a little flakey for me, cool dudes, just flakey.

Hmmm... SMB had great design flexibility, were recognized by Mercedes so the build will not effect the factory warranty, had a great build warranty, could handle my warranty issues only 120 miles away, and they really were a bunch of good guys. I realized that I wanted an SMB but it just had to work better for me personally.

Back to SMB.

After over a month and a half of working with SMB we decided that to continue we must change salesmen. I really felt bad doing it but after making incredible progress in just a couple of days I felt resentful that I had so much of our time wasted. In hindsight it wasn't all wasted but I'd say a month was lost from the actual order time. (Note: the first salesman was sensitive to this and had put us on the schedule so as soon as the van showed up it would start.)

We got back into confirming that our proposed design would work. Our new salesman made a great recommendation to move from a "Dinette L" to a couch in the back with ottomans that converted to a near king size bed size. We loved it. We got a larger refer in the design and the salesman recommended an Isotemp so we found we could get 4.6 c.f. into about a 3.6. c.f. space. We got a diesel generator in the plan but had to make concessions (we had to accept a reduced size propane tank and use a flat plate water heater but the generator did fit). Everything really came together in about 1 1/2 weeks. We released the check to order a 3500 (the diesel generator hanging off the back as well as a discussion with Upscale Auto the deciding factors).

We learned that you have to ask your questions and question the response if it is suspect. We have learned that there are things that companies like to do and don't like to do but will do if pressed. You are the customer and I believe that you deserve an honest effort on your behalf. You may have to pay extra for some things but I think we deserve the offer of the option.

If something at SMB is not working for you then just keep trying or make a change in who you are working with, it could change everything.

Gnarvan 03-23-2012 05:26 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
Interesting read so far. Keep going. :a4:

scamperbee 03-24-2012 10:43 AM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
This is a very interesting read. Thank you. I should have done something like this with GTRV California b/c it was a long, drawn out and exasperating experience (apparently very different than the GTRV Canada experience). I think it is also difficult to go through these builds long distance. In my opinion, it would be much better to be able to drop in and see the build and discuss the choices in person. Probably better for all involved!

oldbernie 03-24-2012 12:20 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
Like you we had looked at all the other "B" class vendors and then luckily stumbled across SMB. Now we could have exactly what we wanted or at least what would fit in the van of our choice. When we decided to go ahead we traveled from Dallas to Austin prepared to spent the next full day there at SMB. We of course had spent lots of time on the web site beforehand. Anyhow we spent about 6 hours roaming through all the new and used vans that they had on site, even to the point of driving different models. During this period the whole staff was available to answer questions and believe me we tested that idea to the max. After the roaming we then sat down with Paul and started designing what we wanted. After a few trials and errors and suggestions based on their experiences we settled on our design. As you said in your post, we got exactly what we wanted as we perceived our traveling lifestyle. Kudos to SMB Texas they were great to work with.

stevepar 03-24-2012 06:44 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
We built our penthouse Sprinter in 2008 at the Fresno location and had a great experience through the entire design build process. We went through the same pre decision process that all new RV ownwers go through. Bottom line is no matter what choice or design you choose there are always tradeoffs. There is NO perfect RV that will serve everything that you and the wife want in one vehicle. The empty van always looks huge and you think you can cram all the cabinets and areas that you want, but then realize you can't pass each other when the bed is down or there is food on the stove. Realize you must make tradeoffs and think hard about your travelling lifestyle and what is important. Personally I would not bother with an onboard generator. We put an extra battery in that area and carry a Honda 2000 generator. More than enough battery power and the Honda runs rarely if we stay put for more than 2-3 days. Have fun.

Chumley 03-25-2012 01:51 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
Understanding My Needs, What's Possible, and My Build

The third installment of my experience.

I appreciate and understand the comments of others to my posts. This post should address my particular build needs. I don't think we are a typical anything much less SMB customer.

One of the things that I routinely work with is the architect and client relationship. It is key for the architect to understand the client so he can translate the client's vision into a two dimensional and finally a three dimensional product. It is also important for the client to check in with the architect and make sure that the vision is true. It takes commmunication. Communication is key.

During the process of sorting out our design I realized that I was stepping in with my long planned design and forcing it. I really hadn't told the salesman what we wanted and then let him provide his solution too. We knew we wanted something that might be adrift from the mainstream but we had "special needs" that we felt justified our approach. We have essentially adopted 2 rescue puppies. They are a part of the family now and are continually improving but their "backyard breeder" really messed them up so they can't be left alone for long. This was the incentive to push us into the van sooner than later. We would take them with us and have a safe place for them and still get out and do much of what we liked - travel and dine out. We wanted to be able to go out and stop somewhere and hang out. We realized that we would often be sitting in the van itself when most would be out exploring so that factored in. We wanted all of the convenience of home on the road. We also wanted it to be as simple as possible to operate and to be appropriate for use as we age. We are now in our mid-fifties and I am realizing I was not good to my body when I was younger. At one point we delivered our story in the form of a narrative in an e-mail to SMB to help them understand we were going to be different. What we soon came to realize was that we kept hearing about how they do this and do that on their trips but they are likely 20 -30 years younger than we are. We were told by one that he and his girlfriend went out to the desert for 5 days and used only 10 gallons (5?) of fresh water. We could never do that. I asked them to understand what we wanted and over time I actually appreciated the challenges that our new saleman made to my ideas. He talked us out of a marine toilet and into a porta-potti in the shower enclosure. Both of the holding tanks were the same size but emptying at a dump station really became un-appealing. But other questioning was met with solid reasons so we kept items. I appreciated the challenges and they helped make the build better.

There were two items that really needed serious consideration. One was the need for a generator and the other whether or not to upgrade to the 3500 chassis.

At first we were told we couldn't have a generator on the short wheelbase platform but eventually we found out we could. The generator is a lot of money and due to the short wheelbase we would have to go to diesel (the propane tank had shrunk to fit this design and would not support a generator). I did a lot of research and the diesel generator will last a long time so it seemed a fair deal. The real test was whether or not we really needed it. So what did we want it for and how serious about it were we? We wanted to be able to pull over and sit in the van, potentially leave the dogs in the van (not likely), use all of the aplliances when we want, use laptops that may need to be plugged in, when we are in a hot environment. We do some of that in the truck now. It can get hot in California at any time of the year and we also love to spend time in the Southwest. I spoke to a person with an older SMB Sprinter and he was all about solar, the staff at SMB said we needed a generator to sit with ac if not connected to shore power, other aftermarket builders also said to run a generator if the ac was on. The wife and I talked, we needed to have the ac and if we were boondocking we needed that power. We had originally thought that the portable generator would be the solution. Unfortunately we were told that there was no room inside under the couch and that there might be gas odors. I found a converted Yamaha propane generator to take care of the odor but it still had to be mounted in an outside box due to no room inside. We wanted the van to remain stealthy and were already disappointed that we needed the extra length that the swing away spare tire carrier added. No exterior boxes. We also want to park in regular size parking spaces in an urban environment. So we decided to accept the cost of the generator for the general convenience it would provide. Our intent all along was to be self contained since we don't like the usual RV campsites. We have that now. That also helped with our other issue, what about a 3500 chassis?

I had driven a Roadtrek built on a 144" wheelbase 2500 chassis. I was amazed at how peppy it felt (4.18 rear end) and generally how it handled but I felt some handling dynamics that concerned me. It wallowed a bit and I noticed some mild porposing. The Roadtrek was at about 7,700 lbs (claimed, we know what that means, and that did not include the 250lb generator) and with a couple people and some load it looks like it would hit the GVWR pretty quick. I had read a few posts here where the Sprinters were surprisingly close or over GVWR. I made a lot of phone calls and read everything I could get my hands on. Most acknowledged that the van was near its limits but it was designed for that. But all of the time I asked? Apparently the consensus was that the van was designed to operate as a heavy commercial vehicle and it was up to what I wanted but it was at its limits. No one tried to talk me out of the 3500 except for one. I called Upscale Auto in Oregon and they were the ones tha really made me understand that I could go either way and with some modification be okay. You could order the 2500 and make sure it was beefed up from the factory and then change the shocks and struts or add air bags to get it where you like. You can start with the 3500 and go the other dirtection and change the shocks and struts to soften it a bit. One of the guys up there really made me think though. He said that the 3500 would really solve the handling issues I was worried about without modification. Adding the +/- 250 lbs of generator behind the rear axle would also be best served with the 3500. Supposedly the 3500 has larger rear brakes (uses the larger front brakes in the rear). We willl spend a lot of time in the mountains so this is nice but not everyone agreed that the brakes are different in 2500 vs 3500, strange. So we decided to go for the 3500 and if needed see the folks up north to adjust the suspension if needed.

So we now have the 3500 on order and we are going with a generator. As I said before, we are not building your typical SMB Sprinter. We have challenged the conventional thinking and feel we made the right decision for our use.

We learned that you have to try to get the SMB staff to try to understand where you are coming from and may need to remind them continually. On the other hand their challenges will help you look into yourself and make sure you really need something.

The SMB staff is trying to help you get your build right. Their experience with these things could lead you in a certain direction so be willing to stand your ground if you believe you need what you want in another direction. What is very heartening to see in any company is that there is no attempt at all to upsell you on anything. This initially appeared to be a reluctance to stretch beyond their comfort range but now they are offering everything we asked for. They actually seem to be trying to help you build the least that you need. Very unusual and praiseworthy.

I am still working on the communication aspect. I sent in my floor plan and sheet with extra options two weeks ago and am still waiting for pricing. I will try again this week to get some pricing since I really don't know if my added items will kick this out of our budget range since some items are considered custom. I hope this next week is a good week

flagstaff 03-26-2012 10:59 AM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with SMB. I think that you are right on with your assessment of the company in gerneral and the need for and sometimes lack of communication in the design process. I receintly canceled my order and had them return my deposit because, after initally assuring me it would not be a problem, they could not figure out how to put an awning on a Sprinter penthouse conversion. Like you, my wife and I (we are just entering our 60's) travel with our two dogs in warm weather. We currently have a 2001 Dodge SMB with the penthouse and find that raising the roof and opening the five windows on the penthouse provides plenty of air circulation so that having an AC is not necessary. An awning is a must for us for the expanded living space, shade and protection from the rain that it provides. We are still hopeful that SMB will be able to figure out the awning issue. If they can figure that one out, we are ready to start the process over again.
I look forward to your future posts and hope that the powers that be at SMB are also reading and acting on the valuable assessment that you are providing.

Angel 03-26-2012 11:54 AM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
You are right about visiting your build in progress. I went every 14 days and was glad I did. The last 2 or 3 weeks of the build, I should have visited every week. Also, going there a day before pick up day is a good idea.


Ford_6L_E350 03-26-2012 02:36 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
And I did just the opposite.

We worked out our floorplan from the SMB design kit. Then I communicated with SMB Indiana by phone and email. First time I saw the van was when I picked it up some months later. I was very happy with the Indiana team and with the van.


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