I saw that Sportsmobile West posted that they will presumptively re-open the factory May 4-5. I decided that this was a good time to write about our experience with SMB during this coronavirus pandemic. We ordered our 2019 Ford transit 350 EcoBoost – Quigley 4X4 on July 17, 2019 while camping in our teardrop trailer in the Coconino NF outside of Flagstaff, AZ. The weather was spectacular and we were talking about proceeding with SMB after looking at many different class B types/build outs over the past year. In the end, the two things that were deal breakers for us were: 1. 4-wheel drive, 2. Gasoline engine (not wanting to deal with DEF, expensive maintenance for MB Sprinters and scarceness of diesel fuel with the proper mix in some rural areas). We had spent months exploring the SMB website, as well as, the Vandoit and Outside Van internet sites. After discussions with all three designers about our desired usage, options and costs and reviewing all three proposals, we decided on SMB.
Back to the story….
My wife, Judy (Charliesmom), Charlie, the dog and I were relaxing at our campsite having a glass of wine (maybe two). We had decent cell service so we decided to call SMB. I reached Nick Gennock, the sales manager for SMB West. We discussed our plans and timing. He told me that we should move along if we wanted our van by April, as Ford was already tooling up the factory in Kansas City for the 2020 Transit models. We ordered the vehicle/specs from Nick as he clicked off the options. We requested stone grey as our color, HR cargo van, 350, with 3.5 L Eco Boost engine. I gave him my credit card info over the phone for a deposit and Nick ordered the van. The next step was having the 4-wheel drive conversion completed at Quigley Motor Company in Manchester, PA. We had a plan. We designed our floor plan (DIY), picked our equipment and sent in our packet to Nick.
Two weeks later, again while hiking on a portion of the Arizona Trail, I received a call from Nick informing me that Ford was stopping production on HR Transits in preparation for 2020. Our option was to find another van with our specifications, color, etc. from a dealer. Nick said, “I’ll get right on it!” He did. About 2 hours later, he called as we were finishing our hike to inform me that he found three vans at Quigley which were waiting for 4X4 conversions. He sent me the vehicle descriptions and we selected our van – Magnetic color, 2019 350 HR, 148” wheelbase, 3.5 L GTO1 V6 engine, 3.31 SLA, with a few other package options - $49,595 sticker price. No haggling. Beggars can’t be choosers. Plus, it was already in the queue at Quigley! We were way ahead of schedule! The 4X4 conversion was completed and the van was transported to SMB in late October. I flew to Fresno in early December to finalize our plans and check out the van. It only had 40 miles on it. On December 20, Nick sent word that the build was scheduled to begin the first week of January …. An early Christmas present. He sent me pictures along the way to keep us abreast of the progress. Who knew at that point, that the COVID-19 pandemic was intensifying so rapidly?
Near the end of February, I received notice from Nick that our van would be ready for pick up on Friday, March 13th. We completed all the paperwork ahead of time and I made plans to fly to Fresno. I had read all the information from the Forum on the delivery checklist, orientation and what to expect. I made my own customized delivery “checklist,” ala Fitz’s template for his Sprinter build (Fitz’ 2016 Sprinter 4x4 RB 150S Build - https://www.sportsmobileforum.com/fo...ild-16293.html
), and scheduled my flight for Fresno on Wednesday, March 18th. The reason for not scheduling on Friday the 13th had nothing to do with superstition, but had everything to do with what I had learned from the Forum. I may identify some mechanical/systems issues and I wanted a few days left in the week in case I needed to bring the van back to Fresno for warranty work. This contingency was explained by Fitz when he received delivery of his Sprinter. Other recommendations from Forum members included, overnighting in the parking lot at Harris Ranch about 50 miles south of Fresno. That sounded like a great idea and I felt that I should treat myself to a great dinner in celebration of the delivery. Again, I had a plan.
As the delivery date approached, news about the global coronavirus pandemic and its implications were now on the forefront. On March 4th, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency after the first death in California attributable to coronavirus. On March 15th, he issued a mandatory statewide order to “shelter in place” to take effect on March 19th, the day after our delivery. Nick called me on Monday morning after the announcement and told me that SMB was closing the factory, effective that afternoon, March 16th. He said our van was ready for delivery, all the paperwork was ready to go and he could come in and give the van orientation on Wednesday, March 18th as planned, or I could wait until the factory would re-open in the next 2 weeks (we all know that didn’t happen). I told Nick that I felt the situation with the pandemic was only going to get worse. He agreed and we kept the plan to meet at the factory. I asked about gas, water and propane, thinking I would need to fill all the tanks after I received the van. He informed me that all the tanks would be full. I asked about a CAT scale weighing station nearby. He informed that our van’s UVW (unloaded dry weight) was 8109#, GVWR 9500# and with passengers, filled tanks and water our CCC (cargo carrying capacity) was 873#. Exactly what I wanted to know…. I love it when a plan comes together!
On the day of the delivery, I arrived at the Phoenix airport for my flight to Fresno. The place was weirdly empty. I counted about 50 passengers after I left security and only one of them was wearing a mask…. Me! The AA flight had only 16 people on the plane. I had two rows in front and three in back that were completely empty. Talk about social distancing. The van orientation and walk-through at SMB went well. Nick covered all the items on my checklist, I signed the papers, and wiped down the entire cab with disinfectant wipes (despite the fact there were only three reported patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Fresno at the time). I left the factory for the nearest Walmart to pick up some essentials. Literally, the “last van out.”
As a parting gift, Nick gave me 4 rolls of toilet paper. How prophetic! At Walmart, no TP, no bottled water (I didn’t need it since we had put a General Ecology water filter in the galley), no Cup of Soup or Top Ramen (my planned food staples for the drive home). Fortunately, they had beer and Diet Coke. I was good to go. The 50-mile drive to Harris Ranch was pleasant. The van handled well and was very comfortable to drive (especially with 10-way seat adjustments). The Eco Boost engine had surprising quickness when you need it for passing slower vehicles, getting onto a freeway or drag racing with a Sprinter. I pulled into Harris Ranch about 4:00 PM. The resort was in the process of closing for the California mandate. No dinner was being served, but I was able to order a take-out sirloin “Tri-Tip” sandwich. There were a surprising number of RV’s in the parking lot, also caught off guard with the Governor's declaration. The hotel was shuttered. I took a few pictures, made some phone calls and had dinner and a few cold beers from my Isotherm refrigerator. I slept comfortably on the platform bed in the sleeping bag that I packed for the trip. The temperature was in the high 30’s overnight and I fired up the Truma-Combi propane heater in the morning. It worked like a champ and the van was toasty in about 10-15 minutes. I made Starbuck’s Via coffee on the propane stove using the camp kettle I brought along in my duffle. Life was good!
I had originally planned to drive to Joshua Tree NP (346 miles) to camp there for the next evening, do a hike, check out the hot water and take a shower. Because of the closures in California, and likely facing 14 days of “spouse-enforced” quarantine in the van on my return, I opted to “boogie” straight to Phoenix. Plans change, life is fluid, but much better with a SMB.
Speaking of plans, I am planning the following mods while sheltering-in-place: 1. Cargo netting in the overhead cab compartments, 2. Froli system for the platform bed, 3. Replacing the Relion Fuel Gauge with a Victron 712 BMS with temperature probe to monitor the LiFePO4 batteries, 4. Rotopax 2-gallon gas pack on the back of the rear box (another Fitz inspired modification), 5. Scopema driver’s side swivel
We are planning our “virgin” trip, as we speak.
Still hunkered down in Phoenix. Be safe out there.