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Old 07-14-2014, 09:49 AM   #1
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Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

2003 E350 SMB 4X4 w/Penthouse.

I am traveling through Wyoming and Montana. As I was driving (approx 40 mph paved surface) to a camp site yesterday I heard a loud pop/bang - like a rock hitting the side of the van. Since I could not see any damage I continued to drive. Several minutes later there was an even louder pop/bang coming from the passenger side of the van. I parked and attempted to investigate.

I unlatched the Penthouse and slowly pushed it up. It went up 2-3 inches and then the whole top slid about 8 inches over to the driver's side.

It looks to me like one or more parts of the lift mechanism broke - probably the spring or a bolt. The bars are not parallel (the ends are shifted to the dirvers side). The ends of the bars do not appear bent but they are not perpendicular to the block that they insert into.

I have the top up 10 - 15 times a year. No problems before. 100 Watts PV panel on top (<25#) and a Yakima roof rack that I have not used yet. I am in northern Wyoming. Not many resources available and broadband is marginal.

Has anyone had a penthouse top suspension failure?
How much does the PH weigh?
How did you get the top up and back down in the field so that you could assess the damage?
What parts do I need to order (springs/bolts/support bars/etc) before I get the top up?

I have hand tools and a cordless drill. Lots of trees and some rope but no garage to work in.

Since I am into week two of a eight week trip I would like to do the repairs asap. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Michael
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Old 07-14-2014, 03:07 PM   #2
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

I think your guess about the springs or their attachment breaking is a likely cause. Lot of tension there.

I haven't done it, but there are threads in the body section about repairs on the lift mechanism. Unfortunately IIRC they all had the penthouse up before they did the repairs. I would expect you'll probably have to jack it up. It's pretty heavy I imagine. Some vertical screw jacks might work though.

If it's just a broken bolt you might be in luck, assuming you can get the top up. But resetting the spring will be a project; the last time I saw anyone do that they used a come along very carefully.

Good luck; let us know how it goes.
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Old 07-14-2014, 11:13 PM   #3
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

Michael

This thread has a video that shows how I replaced my penthouse bolts. Be careful. It can be a dangerous process. viewtopic.php?f=13&t=10765&hilit=Penthouse+bolts
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Old 07-15-2014, 04:06 PM   #4
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

Update? I hate to think that you're on a long trip without a functioning pop-top.

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Old 08-20-2014, 08:06 AM   #5
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

Unless you have several friends who may never speak to you again, I would recommend that you take your broken penthouse suspension system to an RV repair shop.

After securing one end of a block and tackle to a tree and the other to the roof rack, we applied a moderate amount of tension to the passenger side of the penthouse top. This kept the top from being pulled to the driver’s side of the van by the intact driver’s side lift mechanism while we raised the top from inside.

We used a ratcheting load stabilizing bar to raise the penthouse top. Once we got the penthouse top up we found that the ¼ inch bolt that acts as a pivot for the two “U Bars” (the two pipes that help raise the penthouse top) on the passenger side had sheared. We cut 22 inch long 2X4s and used them to support the top.

5/16 inch shoulder bolts seemed to be a better fix than just replacing the ¼ inch bolts. It took two of us almost three hours to raise the top, drill 5/16 inch holes for the shoulder bolt on the passenger side and align the bolt holes. The 5/16 inch shoulder bolt was inserted so that the U Bar pivot could be restored. Just as the lock nut was being threaded onto the passenger side shoulder bolt, the ¼ inch bolt on the driver’s side U Bar pivot sheared at the base of the threads. The nut and threaded portion of the ¼ inch bolt dropped onto the floor. It took an hour to drill the second set of 5/16 inch holes and put the shoulder bolt in place.

Early in the process we noticed that there was a piece of 1X1 pine floating freely inside the front push pad assembly. When we had the 5/16 inch bolts in place we could lower and raise the penthouse but the top had moved two inches back and did not settle into its normal position. I called the Texas plant and was told that the “cleat” (the free floating piece of 1X1 pine) is used to hold the U Bar in place and to adjust the placement of the top front to back.

After removing the PV panels from the penthouse top I was able to unbolt the front push pad. The original cleat was held in place with roofing staples. The staples created a stitch line across the 3/16 inch plywood surface (not seen because it is covered with vinyl). I replaced the 1X1 pine with a 1X4 inch cleat made of ash. The new ash cleat was glued and screwed to the 3/16 inch plywood and two other pieces of ash were used to strengthen the plywood and back the cleat.

I placed two blankets on the bed and lowered the top. The top was then slid forward 2 inches (to its original position) and the push pad assembly was bolted into place. The PV panels were bolted on, bolts were cut flush with the nut and the interior finish work and cleaning were completed.

We were in northern Wyoming at the time. The closest hardware store was 80 miles away so the combined planning and work time took about 3 weeks. I would mention the name of the other forum member who worked with me but I am sure he never wants to do this repair again. We are now back on the road…going fishing near Beartooth Pass tomorrow.

PS Big thanks to the forum member who helped me. We are still on speaking terms but I am sure he will never volunteer to help with a penthouse suspension failure again.
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Old 08-20-2014, 05:01 PM   #6
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

Well whoever it is they deserve big for helping you out. It doesn't sound like much fun. FWIW manual top failures are pretty rare. I hope you have a few thousand peaceful miles out of your rig now.

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Old 08-22-2014, 05:27 PM   #7
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Re: Penthouse lift system broken (manual)

There are several posts on how to replace the 1/4 inch bolts in the penthouse suspension. If you are game you should replace the U Bar pivots with 3/16ths shoulder bolts. I left out the part about using a come a long to take the spring tension off of the U Bars. The previous posts describe how to use the come a long. The other bolts are more difficult to get to and seem to be subjected to less stress (IMHO) but should be replaced before they fail. Larrie's video cited above - viewtopic.php?f=13&t=10765&hilit=Penthouse+bolts - does a good job explaining how to get to the bolts and replace them but the author states that this can be a dangerous job and should not be attempted by a novice.
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