WHALY – from a fire truck to an expedition vehicle
Hello; my name is Whaly.
An adventurous and travel enthusiastic Mercedes AF 1120. My owners – Linda and Sandro – found me at the fire department in Wolfwil. As a fire truck I was an old boy with 25’000 km; however, just the right age for Howis to be converted into an expedition vehicle. I was christened Whaly, which reminds them of one of their favorite animals underwater: the whale shark.
The most important question is the one about the vehicle. This is not an easy one and should be well considered. After all, it’s your house on 4 wheels for the next few years. Of course, as is usually the case in life, each variant has its advantages and disadvantages. Basically, everyone must make this decision for themselves, as the needs are different. The following criteria may play a role.
- Driver’s license
- Fuel consumption
- Voltage 12V/24V
- Maintenance costs
- Ground clearance
- Load capacity
- Autarkic YES/NO
- Availability spare parts
- Water system
Autarkic Yes/ No
Availability spare parts
As you can see, there are many pros and cons, and the list is not exhaustive. The following criteria were decisive in our case: comfort, load capacity, four-wheel drive capability and at least live self-sufficiently for 10 days at a time. The four-wheel drive truck quickly emerged as the only option, so we also accepted some disadvantages. It also depends on where you want to go and how long you want to be on the road.
Vehicle search: The agony of choice
If the decision is made on a vehicle over 7.5T, there are several possible manufacturers. Typically, these are decommissioned fire trucks or military vehicles. Whether Mercedes, MAN, Steyr, Iveco, Unimog: The offer is there – but it also takes luck to get hold of one of the rare vehicles. The choice of manufacturer depends on various questions: Budget, four-wheel drive capability, desired cabin size, availability of spare parts and possible tires.
The Mercedes revealed itself to be our dream vehicle In view of the worldwide availability of spare parts, the possible cabin length of up to 5m and the 6 liter engine (instead of 12l), the decision was made. One of the three types (1017, 917 oder 1120) should be it. Fortunately, we got Whaly from Wolfwil, an 1120, which was the favorite in terms of weight and horsepower.
Some base vehicles are suitable to stay under 7.5T total weight. However, this is only possible with complete lightweight construction. Our experience has shown that the limit is quickly reached – too quickly. Consequently, we have refrained from paying strict attention to the weight of all parts (including the cabin). The consequence is the more difficult drivers licence C instead of C1. Since the driver’s license is a one-time affair, but the vehicle is a lifetime one, this corresponded to the better alternative for us.
Judith from Drive Center Belp taught us with such composure that every single one of the 35 or so driving lessons was fun. Learning something completely new definitely has its appeal. After successfully passing the exam, we look forward to a free ride in the truck. Thanks for the great support Judith!
Vehicle conversion: Get rid of the fire department structure
After the planning phase is finished, the work can begin. However, we left the dismantling of the fire truck body, the derusting of the vehicle and the modification from double to single tires to the professionals. Not only the missing hall and machines, but also the good price/performance ratio made us hand this over to Benno from Basisfahrzeuge.ch. Arrived in Chur, Whaly has experienced a complete transformation during about 4 weeks. Definitely the right decision not to do this work ourself.
A technically flawless chassis is also indispensable for a long-term trip. Freshly derusted and half naked, we have therefore moved Whaly from Chur to Belp to ABAG. With a rebuilt engine, replaced V-belts and a new diesel tank, Whaly feels ready to go. Although this work was not favorable, it gives a reassuring feeling. A reliable and robust vehicle is the be-all and end-all. Of course, the appearance is also important. After browsing through the RAL calendars, we decided on a shade of gray. Happy with the result, we are ready for the next step of work.
Cabin body: The empty cabin is finally ready
The choice of cabin is like a question of faith – and again one that is strongly dependent on the budget. Should this be made of aluminum or rather GRP (glass fiber reinforced plastic in sandwich panels)? The off-road trade show “Abenteuer Allrad”offers the perfect opportunity for advice and inspiration. Two years in a row we traveled to Bad Kisslingen. Pros and cons rolled off, the various suppliers compared and initial offers obtained – a trade show provides the ideal platform for this. In our case, the GRP cabin won – thanks to its insulating capability and the possibility of repairing dents. Sooner or later, these will become a reality. Using a ready-made shelter (for example, from a military vehicle) provides a more cost-effective alternative.
The decision was made in favor of Ormocar in Hauenstein (D). Swiss suppliers did not come into play due to the high price difference. By other suppliers we were completely ignored at their exhibition stands – also no basis for cooperation. Ormocar took a lot of time and patiently answered our questions. A very good price-performance ratio as well as many successful reference objects confirmed our choice. Some decisions must be made for the planning of the empty cabin
During the intensive preliminary meeting in Hauenstein we clarified the important questions and discussed the plans we had drawn. After camping experiences in Australia and Switzerland it was clear for us that we build the U-Sofa floor plan. The generous sense of space in the entrance and kitchen, as well as the ability to spread out comfortably and put your feet up were decisive factors. The decision has definitely been confirmed in practice.
One issue that causes headaches are the windows. Should it really be the expensive, but high quality, KCT windows? The highest level of insulation, completely dust-proof, sturdy metal locking, burglar-resistant real glass, protection against stone chipping, perfect mosquito barrier and dark nights thanks to high-quality insect and blackout blinds; yes, this has its price. In the end, we struggle through because it was the wrong approach for us to save.
Where we have saved a few (thousand) francs, however, is on the cabin breakthrough. Arguments like safety aspects, shortened toilet break and dry shifting in case of rain did not convince us enough. Practice will show. If we regret the decision, the positive thing is that the breakthrough can be installed afterwards.
Many meetings, e-mails and several trips to Hauenstein later, the time had come. We were allowed to pick up our Whaly and bring it back to Switzerland for the interior construction. We are very satisfied with Ormocar’swork.
Interior construction: the work really begins
Excited and awestruck, we stand in our empty cabin and think of thehundreds of hours of work ahead of us. Doing the interior work yourself requires a lot of time, patience, perseverance, creativity and a lot of technical understanding. Fortunately, Sandro meets all these qualities. This allows us to save a lot of money. Not to be sneezed at is also the fact that we know in detail which parts are installed where. This makes repairs much easier.
The list of materials– another part that took hours to complete – has long been complete. Whichheating system, what kind of water filter system, number and strength of solar panels, cool box or refrigerator? Partly we had the feeling we were building a family home. Delivered at home, the material easily fills a room. The work can start. We have regretted only one choice so far; the chemical toilet. Today, we would install a dry toilet (air-head composting toilet). We have subsequently replaced these and are very happy about this decision. No chemicals, no water and easy disposal will simplify our life in the camper.
The availability of a suitable parking space and the necessary machines are also relevant for a self-construction project like this. On this point, we could consider ourselves lucky. With the carpentry “Stalder Küchen” as well as the welding shop “Thierstein Metalltechnik” two companies (both friends of Sandro) supported us enormously. Without this infrastructure, the expansion would have been very cumbersome. Due to the fact that the vehicle has not yet been inspected, it cannot be moved. With “Stalder Küchen” we also had the ideal partner for the production of the wooden modules/cabinets. It was important to us that the quality and the visual impression was right, which is why we had the furniture made, in order to subsequently install them ourselves.
Including the planning, we invested a total of 5 years in the project. We bought the fire truck in January 2017. It was inspected in August 2018. Such an expedition vehicle is probably never really finished – there are always small construction sites. But that is also what makes the project so exciting. In January 2021, Whaly is now ready to embark on the big journey.