Two Years With Our Knaus 550

Below is a summary of our experience with our Knaus 550. We now have 4 trips in one of these vehicles, one with a rental version, and three with the 550 we purchased. As we have spent more time in François we have added some accessories to address upgrades we wanted.

We have now owned François for 18 months and made three major trips covering about 16000 km’s. We have had no mechanical issues with the Fiat portion of the vehicle. During this time we have had no system failures with any of the RV components. There is a small mystery water leak when we drive in very heavy rain that does not occur any other time. Beside that we have had no issues with the vehicle. The vehicle as purchased was very basic as is common in rental RV’s. Over time we have added some accessories to give us some luxury we wanted, or to improve the livability of the RV.

Overall Design

The Knaus 550 is extremely compact at 19.6 feet long, 10 feet high, and 7.2 feet wide (In comparison Scout our Malayan is 22.5 feet long, 10.5 feet high and 7.5 feet wide). In fact it is shorter than most European RV’s. Despite the compact size the living area in the Knaus is from our perspective more comfortable for long trips than the Malayan. Part of that is because the Fiat Ducato (sold as the Ram Promaster in the US) does not have the hood of our Silverado, so more of the length is devoted to the house than to the engine, but also due to some smart decisions by the German designers. We particularly enjoyed having the bed at floor level, and still having a substantial sitting area. All of the space to the rear of the vehicle is used so the bathroom is larger than in Scout, and we have a floor to ceiling storage closet. In fact the interior storage is enormous compared to the Malayan.
In additon to the closet and abundant cabinet space they have a clever way of accessing the storage under the bed. The slat bed folds up in half giving you access to about 8 x 6 feet of storage. We were able to put our suitcases under there with the two lawn chairs, a folding table, and the hose and electricity cords. This storage area is also accessible from the outside, though that door could use to be a little wider. The fit and finish and quality of the latches hinges and other hardware is superior to Scout. Much superior.

Base Vehicle

The base vehicle is a Fiat Ducato which is sold in the US as the Ram Promaster. The Fiat Ducato model we have has a 6 speed manual transmission attached to 2.2 liter diesel engine. We did some mountain driving in it and it handled the hills well. I imagine it would be a little more of a struggle with an automatic, having said that I have relearned how much I like automatic transmissions. We have had no issues so far with our Fiat.

One interesting thing that took us a little while to wrap our head around is that most European RV’s do not come with a spare tire. In Europe roadside assistance is included with all insurance so they do not require a spare, if you have a flat you are supposed to call for assistance and they will come out and repair the flat or tow you to the nearest place that can. You are required to have a flat repair kit on board, but our understanding is that they are rarely used by the repair services.

Electrical

The utility systems are simple compared to Scout due to the differences in camping styles in Europe. There was no inverter initially, and when dry camping you have only one USB outlet available. When plugged in there are plenty of electric outlets. Campgrounds have communal plugs that you use when camping sometimes it is included in the price and sometimes you have to pay. Electricity is available occasionally at Aires, Stellplatz’s, and Sostas. There is usually a charge for this electricity and sometimes it is pay by the hour.

Electrical Upgrades

When dry camping the electric outlets do not work. We found that with proper management we could keep everything we needed charged from the one USB outlet, but after the first trip we did add an inverter so that we would have some more electric outlets available when dry camping. Eurocamping cars added the inverter and two additional plugs connected to the inverter. When dry camping the inverter powers these two plugs, and we have access to the USB port that works with the original house battery.
After the first trip we also added an additional house battery, and a solar panel. While we had not had any issues with running down our one house battery we decided to give ourselves a little leeway.

Fresh Water, Grey Water, and Black Water.

The RV holds about 30 gallons (120 liters) of fresh water accessible by filling a tank on the outside. There is no provision for hooking up water and having it on demand. In European campgrounds there are central water points where you fill the tank on arrival or departure. If you stay longer and do not want to move, we noticed most people carry 5 gallon water buckets and they manually refill their water every couple of days. The access points for water are quite large to allow for this. On our second trip we purchased a water bucket with a spout for about €5, one of our best purchases.
The systems for disposing of gray and black water are quite different in Europe, and I think it would be very difficult for a RV with an American Black water system to work here. We also have a cassette on Scout our American RV and I personally think it is less gross than the black hoses most people use.
The gray water in Europe is disposed of by pulling over a grate and opening a valve, and letting the water run directly into the drain. Sometimes these drains are located in very awkward places. We almost had a disaster trying to back into one in Spain. I noticed that a lot of people keep a separate water bucket for disposing of their gray water when they are parked up for a while. I have begun carrying the gray water daily to the disposal as we do not generate that much gray water per day and it is good exercise for me.

SOG UNIT

Ton hates the smell generated by the cassette and we initially managed the smell using the blue tabs most RVer’s are familiar with. As we were traveling we began to hear about a system to manage odors called a SOG unit. It is a German designed accessory that adds a fan to the cassette that holds the black water. When you open the slot in the toilet to let the bad stuff go into the cassette the fan kicks on and pulls the odor out of the vehicle. I was skeptical but everyone we met who had one raved about them. After our spring 2019 trip to Germany I noticed that Eurocamping car had added them to their accessory list so we decided to purchase one. We have now used it on our last trip, and it does a pretty good job of managing the odor without having to use the chemical blue tabs. Ton still occasionally gets a whiff of smell so it is not a complete success, but it does seem to be an improvement.

Propane

The heater and hot water run on propane, François had standard cooking containers for propane when we purchased it. An issue that we did not experience is that there is no standardization of propane containers or fittings in the EU, so when you change countries you have to change fittings, and bottles, it is a pain but they cope with it. The heater/ hot water system is significantly quieter than the propane heater we had in our Winnebago, and also quieter than the Espar diesel heater in Scout. The heat is floor heating and works very well. We had a couple of nights in the 30’s on the trip, and were able to quickly warm the cabin when we woke up. The heater also heats the storage compartment. The refrigerator also uses propane when not hooked up to shore power.

Gaslow Propane System

We heard of a system developed in England that allowed you to avoid the lack of standardization of propane containers and regulators in Europe called a Gaslow system. This is a British system that allows you to fill reusable containers that come in the system. In Europe a significant amount of the cars and trucks on the road run on LPG. As a result LP gas pumps are available at a large number of gas stations. This system utilizes a filler system that is compatible with these gas pumps. We did some reading on this system and it looked like a good alternative. It is most commonly used by British RV’s and continental RV dealers do not seem to retrofit it. We talked to Phill and he said he would install it so we decided to have him install the Gaslow when we purchased François.
Unlike the US the customer fills LP gas at the pump in Europe. (Except for Italy where the attendant must do it.) Once I learned the drill we have not had any real trouble with one exception. While the internals of the system work anywhere in Europe, the connector between the pump and the vehicle is not standardized across Europe. France, Spain, and Italy use one system, Germany uses another, and apparently Britain uses a third connector. Our system came with all three connectors. For the first two trips I had gotten used to the French connector and had no problem using it. The first time we got to Germany I realized that the German adaptor was missing. I had lost it in Spain. Eventually we were able to find a replacement at a gas station, but it was a day of panic as we would have had to have a new replacement mailed to us from England. So if you go with a Gaslow system make sure you have a good system to keep track of your adaptors. The other advantage of the Gaslow is LPG at the pump is almost half as cheap as the containers.
I think the Gaslow has been a good investment. If we are not heating François we get 3 to 4 weeks between fill ups. When we run the heater we get about 5 to 6 days between fill ups.

Other Systems

There is no AC unit, but good windows of the same make as Scout and two roof vents without fans. We have experienced temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s, I bought a little USB fan one day in a Lidl that Ton finds amusing for how little air it moves. During the next hot spell we will search for a better fan.
François did not have a screen door when we purchased it. After enduring a heat wave on our trip to Germany we asked for a screen door to be retrofitted. It was a great investment.

Safe

We added a small safe to store valuables in. When we depart François for the day we store some of our high value stuff as well as our passports in the safe.

Purchasing our RV in France

Purchasing our Knaus 550

The vehicle we had rented on our first trip to Europe was a Knaus 550.  We liked the layout and size of the RV, and determined we would like to purchase one.  When we returned the rental to France Motor Home Hire we initiated a discussion with the owners Phill and Hannah Spurge about purchasing a like vehicle.  At the time they operated the rental company, and would sell RV’s out of their rental inventory.  They have since sold the rental side of the business to Apollo but still receive vehicles from the Apollo rental fleet to sell used.  They are also authorized dealers for Knaus, and Blue Sky if you are interested in a new RV.  

They have an unique way of allowing the sale to non-EU residents that I will describe below under the heading Societe Civile, and we spent some time with them to better understand the details of setting up the Societe, and the process.  As part of the purchase process they also assist with the procurement of comprehensive insurance for the RV, and register the vehicle with the appropriate French agencies.

Sales Process

The sales process is much like you would expect to go thru for a RV in the US. We negotiated with Phill on the price by email, and once the final price was agreed to we arranged for payment. It was fairly straightforward with no real drama.

Societe Civile

It is difficult for a non-resident of the EU to purchase a vehicle there.  The folks at eurocampingcar.com have found a way that allows legal ownership thru establishing a “Societe Civile” in France.  A “Societe Civile” is similar to a LLC in the US.  While Ton and I cannot legally own a vehicle in France as individuals, we can form a Societe Civile in our names and the Societe can own, insure and register vehicles legally.  It is an extra step, but it allows for the vehicle to be in our names, albeit with an extra cost. 

Phil and Hannah set us up with a Notary that would take care of the paperwork needed to establish the Societe. It may be possible to file paperwork without using a Notary,   but unless you are absolutely fluent in French, and familiar with the legal requirements I would not attempt to do it.  The cost of hiring the firm is relatively minor considering the investment you are making.  We did have a few issues dealing with the firm that Phil and Hannah use, and at one point I did ask Phill to step in and help us with communication. 

The paperwork was supposed to take about 3 to 4 weeks to process, in our case it took longer as the famous bureaucracy in France kicked in.  Everything went well initially as the only identification required by law is a copy of our passports.  The first snag that we ran into is that in France the town of your birth is very important and is apparently part of the passport.  Ton’s US passport only shows Thailand as her place of birth and does not list her hometown so our initial request to file was denied.  Luckily Ton maintains duel citizenship and her Thai passport did list her town of birth, problem solved.  Not so fast, her Thai passport ( and US actually) does not list her maiden name, apparently European ones do, so they requested a copy of her birth certificate to verify her maiden name.  For various reasons this was going to take months to get, and have translated.  We offered up a copy of our marriage certificate in Thai as it listed Ton’s maiden name,  and we already had an English translation.  To make a long story shorter after a couple of tries this was accepted, problem solved!  Not so fast, this time the administrator noticed that Ron’s passport only had his state of birth, and not his town of birth so he requested a copy of Ron’s birth certificate.  This we could and did obtain, and though there was some doubt about whether the administrator  was going to accept the birth certificate due to the poor penmanship of the person who filled it out over 60 years ago, he did eventually decide he could confirm that Ron was indeed born at Camp LeJeune, Carolina du Nord, Etats Unis America. For Americans plan on submitting a copy of your birth certificate as well as your passport.

The Societe Civile requires that the company have an address in France.  In our case we are using Eurocampingcars address in Veron.  Phill and Hannah monitor the mail that comes in addressed  to Corbin Voyage (the name of our Societe Civile), and contact us if anything comes in that requires our attention.  They have begun charging administrative fees for some of the contacts.  The list of fees is available if you end up using them for your Societe.

At the Eurocampingcars site they have a more detailed summary of the process. If you are interested in going this way I recommend that you contact them directly.

Registration and Insurance

One of the issues that helped us decide to purchase an European RV was insurance.  When we looked into insuring Scout in Europe we found that liability insurance would be approximately $1200 per year.  It is very difficult to find anyone to write a comprehensive insurance plan.  We finally found one company that said they may provide comprehensive insurance for approximately 70% of the value of Scout for $4500 per year on top of the liability.  So if we shipped Scout to Europe we were looking at $5700 per year for comprehensive insurance.  This year our comprehensive insurance for François thru AXA Insurance is €800, approximately what we pay for comprehensive insurance on Scout our American RV.  

The initial paperwork to insure François with AXA was completed by Eurocampingcars, and all we did was make the payment by credit card.  The first year we successfully renewed the policy directly with the agency.  It took a couple of emails to get things going, but once we did succeed in getting their attention the process was done smoothly. For 2020 the renewal was very easy, consisting of a single email to the agent who then provided us a security code to go on to the AXA site to pay the fee by credit card.

The registration of the vehicle was also completed by Eurocampingcars and was completed within a couple of days.  The registration fees are a one time event in France, so there is no periodic renewal of license plates like we are used to in the US.

Storage

We have chosen to store François at Eurocampingcars in Veron.  The cost per day is a little less than I paid when I stored my RV in the US.  We make sure that our arrival and departure days are communicated as soon as we finalize our trips.  Eurocampingcars is a small operation, so there are windows when they are traveling so they appreciate the advance notice.  

There is no requirement to store with them, and other clients store at other sites and other countries.  In the future we may consider other storage to assist with logistics of trips.  

Update on Performance of our Malayan

Update on Performance 2016

Scout on the spit in Homer Alaska.

After two years of being on the road we made the decision to take Scout back to Provan for some extensive work.  We had more teething problems than we liked and a couple of the problems were quite problematic. This made us reluctant to take her out of Oregon, never mind the United States.  After several conversations with Mark about these issues, and several attempts by Mark and Jay at Provan to perform drive way fixes to the issues in Oregon.   We decided it was time to go about doing them right.  In October of 2015 Ron drove Scout across country and delivered it to Provan.  The issues that were tackled are listed below in order of importance.

Replace the Webasto Heater.  Scout was originally equipped with a Webasto duo-top heater.  The heater never worked properly from delivery.  Within a couple of days the system began to fault out on a regular basis.  Usually in the middle of the night.  At first a restart would get the heater going again.  Over time it began to take multiple restarts to get the heater going.  As you know from the blog we are winter campers so not having a reliable heater was a major headache.  Most nights entailed a 0 dark thirty restart of the heater,  which did not make for a good nights sleep.  Finally one night in December, 50 miles south of Fallon Nevada the heater failed and would not restart despite all of Ron’s tricks acquired over the prior 15 months.  The answer was to drive back to Fallon and buy a cheap electric heater and stay in a conventional campground for the rest of the trip. 

Mark and Jay at Provan had been working the issues with the heater almost from the beginning and twice Jay flew out to Oregon to work on the heater, making major modifications in the heater’s set up to try to solve the problems.  On another occasion a Webasto service representative flew out and confirmed that Jay’s fixes  were in line with what Webasto expected and to check the fault codes in the heater to assist in troubleshooting the problem, we never heard from Webasto again.

The other frustration with Webasto was though they advertise they have service centers around the country, none of them will work on duo-tops.  In the case of the failure near Fallon we contacted the Webasto dealer in Reno and they said they would service it.  So after that call we back tracked an additional 60 miles to Reno to the Webasto service center.  After describing the problems to the service tech we waited two hours in the waiting room only to be brought out to describe the problems again to the Webasto guy at the truck service center.  He looked at the unit for about five minutes and said that he was not going to touch this unit as he had never seen anything like it before.  120 mile round trip wasted.  In addition there was supposed to be a Webasto dealer in Vancouver Washington near our home, but they were deemed not capable of helping us with our duo-top by Webasto’s own people.

After this misadventure Mark decided to install a brand new Webasto in Scout.  Jay flew out again to Oregon and installed the new one.  The first time we went to use it in Reno,  the new Webasto leaked tremendously.  Because the hot water tank for the Webasto was hooked directly into the water line we could not pressurize our water system without generating a large leak in the heater, and we had no way to bypass the Webasto.  We finished that trip by staying at campgrounds with showers and using bottled water.  The problem was a faulty pressure relief plate from the factory.  A new plate was sent to us and we arranged to get it installed at a repair center in Vancouver (not Webasto’s).  However, this new unit began faulting also, and by October would not work.  

At this point I contacted Mark and said that I was going to return the unit and he needed to fix it.  After several conversations Mark made the decision to find another diesel heater besides Webasto.  Initially Mark was in discussion with Aqua-hot about a new small diesel heater they were developing that sounded promising.  For about three months I was getting regular updates on the on-going development of the new smaller heater, when suddenly Aqua-hot stopped returning Mark’s calls.  So several months were wasted on the Aqua-hot.  

We have now installed a Rixen diesel heater.  I will provide more feedback after some use of the Rixen.  The early impressions are positive.  The unit consists of three distinct modular parts that can be placed in different parts of the truck. This actually freed up some space under the truck to move the two batteries that had ended up in the rear storage box under the truck, lowering and centering their weight.

Heater Update March 2018.  We have made two trips since the Rixen heater was installed.  I need to clarify one thing though, Rixen is the company in Oregon that imports and modifies the components for the heater/hot water system.  The components are from Espar which is a German company.  The Espar system while it has not been flawless has been a major upgrade over the Webasto.  We ran into one problem in Alaska when the air intake sucked in some dirt after a 500 mile trip on gravel roads to the Arctic Circle.  This caused the impeller to jam and a heater failure.  The biggest difference was that when we contacted Rixen by phone they were able to help us troubleshoot and diagnose the problem over the phone, and we had a choice of three Espar dealers in Alaska.   The one we chose was able to more than competently service the unit.  Since the service we have operated for several weeks with no other issues. 

Leaks. We had two major leaks in the truck, and one minor leak.  This was particularly frustrating as part of the reason to go with an aluminum body over a fiberglass body was the belief that we would avoid leaks.  

The first leak was in the flexible bellows connecting the house to the truck.  This began leaking about 6 months in.  We would get this leak whenever we drove in the rain and it was caused by water passing under the truck off of the road and the wheels, the leak was substantial whenever we drove in the rain.  

Jay flew out and resealed the pass thru and this stopped the water entering the truck.  However, after about another 6 months we began getting water into the house on the floor near the door.  The problem was pretty much the same as the previous issue except the water flowed into the house instead of the cab of the truck.

During the one year at Provan Jay pulled the bellows apart and resealed everything with a new sealant as well as rebuilding the metal support.  Hopefully this does the job, time will tell.

The second leak was in the roof.  This had been on-going from the beginning.  Each time Jay flew to Oregon he would reseal all of the holes in the roof and along the various edges where there were seams in the construction.  Despite this there was still a leak  Mark working with the company that supplies the aluminum house decided to retrofit a single piece of aluminum on the roof that covers all of the seams.  In addition the design of the roof installations was adjusted to minimize the penetrations thru the roof.  As a result we lost the decorative aluminum rails on the roof, and the wind spoiler on the front.  We agreed that it was worth it to lose the rails and spoiler to minimize the chance of leaks.  Again time will tell, though the repair looks very substantial, so I am optimistic.

The third leak developed on the last trip after two years and involved one of the windows.  It was a relatively minor leak and was repaired by pulling the window and resetting it as a fitting had worked loose.

Other Issues.   In addition to these issues there were some minor issues with internal adjustments and cabinetry that we had taken care of while Scout was there.

Upgrades.   We also added two upgrades to Scout while she was in South Carolina.  The first was a Froli bed system and lower profile mattress.  By doing this we gained a few extra inches of clearance between the bed and the ceiling.  So far we are very happy with the change.  

The second upgrade was adding an Aluminess bumper and two storage units.  This was a pricey upgrade, but we think the extra storage will be worth it on the long trip when it comes.  This storage came with only a couple of inch increase in over all length.

Shakedown Cruise

Shakedown Cruise Report

Scout in Saguaro National Park

We picked up the Malayan on January 6 and returned home on February 5.  During that time we drove 6468 miles in a great deal of different weather and road conditions.  Scout has met our expectations and I think will be ideal for our future plans.  A few observations.

It is a much more complex vehicle than our ERA.  Particularly the electrical system.  As I said earlier in the deciding on a vehicle section electricity is a bit of a mystery to me, so I have a lot to learn.  Except for the water leak we experienced the first night that was quickly and completely corrected by Provan the other issues were electrical.  However, they were small issues on the whole and easily corrected.  We also used the Provan dealer in Redmond Oregon to take care of one problem and they did a great job fixing the problem and getting us on the road within 30 minutes.

The truck drives wonderfully.  It is much less fatiguing to drive than the Sprinter was.  It tracks very well and handles wind much better than I expected.  We gave it a pretty good off road test on the River Road at Big Bend National Park in a variety of road conditions and it had no issues.  For the trip we averaged 13.4 miles per gallon which is about what I expected.  It is relatively maneuverable and we were able to park in downtown areas with no problems at all.  

We did not get as full a test of the ability to cut ourselves free from hookups as we would have liked.  The majority of the nights on the trip were below freezing, and only two of the nights could be classified as mild, (lows in the 40’s).  One night the low was around 7 degrees, and several nights were in the teens. For that reason we spent more time on the grid than we planned.   I am fully convinced that this is a true 4 season camper if we work one bug out, the grey water tank has a heater blanket that keeps it from freezing, but the valve to release the water freezes preventing dumping when temperatures are below freezing.  The webasto diesel heater really puts out a lot of heat, despite the low temperatures we never set the thermostat at higher than 40% of the dial.  The fan and motor do eat up a lot of battery, but when we did sleep without hookups we were able to fully recharge within 2 hours.

Over the course of the trip we became better at managing ourselves and our stuff.  The size is perfect for the two of us, and the compromise between the smaller size of the LT and less space for stuff is something I think is going to work for us.  I am also wondering if at least for North America we can do without the external storage box.

The quality of the materials in the Tiger have more than met our expectations, and despite some teething problems and a late delivery I am absolutely convinced about the level of craftsmanship and concern for the customer delivered by Mark’s team at Provan.

We spent most of our time without tight deadlines exploring in the Southeast, and it was enjoyable as it is the area of the country we have the least experience with.  Some of the highlights were the Redneck Riviera, and the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama.  We ran into some unexpectedly good museums and historic sights.  After that we were a bit more rushed than we wanted to be due to some unexpected work that came my way.  I wish we had one more day at Big Bend, and the Texas hill country,  but I expect there are more trips to Texas in our future.

The Malayan attracts a lot of attention.  We had over 25 people approach us at varying times during the trip to ask questions and take a look.  We saw several people writing down the Provan website that is on the back of the truck.

I am convinced that the investment in the truck is a good one and will meet our needs if  we push on to Europe and South America.

Provan Malayan

Once we narrowed our focus to either a used Earthroamer or the Bengal Tiger, I emailed Mark Guild at Provan www.tigervehicles.com with a bunch of questions about what modifications could be done to a Bengal.  Among the modifications I asked for were a cassette toilet, solar, and all diesel appliances.  He replied that the cassette and diesel appliance options were not really available on the Bengal, but he was developing a new model that was going to be debuted in the spring called a Malayan, it was the same size as the Bengal, but had an aluminum body like the larger Siberian model, and would have both the cassette toilet, diesel appliances, and a solar package as either standard items or options.  The aluminum body also allowed for greater insulation which gave much better cold weather capability.  While the price was higher, it was within our budget.  This sounded close to our ideal vehicle.  In February Ton and I visited Provan, where we were able to look at the prototype Malayan as it was completing it’s build and a completed Bengal.  From February to April there were a series of email’s between Mark and us about technical details, and of course price negotiations.  In April we sent a deposit check and the build began.

Decisions.

New Truck or Old Truck

Ron really wants to take the Malayan to South America and that poses a problem.  All trucks built in the US since 2007 require Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (less than 15 ppm of sulfur).  The problem is in most of  South America ULSD is not available.  After a lot of research it became clear that there was a lot of risk to running a truck requiring ULSD on high sulfur diesel.  This problem is particularly acute in Central America and the Northern countires in South America where the diesel can be greater than 500 ppm of Sulfur. The effects of high sulfur diesel on a ULSD engine can be significant.  While there are plans to convert to ULSD or at least LSD (less than 50 ppm sulfur) in South America progress is slow.

One way to get around this problem would be to mount the cabin on a pre-2007 truck.  Ron talked to Mark at Provan during our visit about the feasibility of doing this and he said it was feasible. In fact he offered to mount the Malayan on an older chassis and when we returned from South America to remount it on a new chassis.  The other option would have been to purchase a truck with a gasoline engine instead of a  diesel engine.  We decided against this due to our strong desire for a one fuel system vehicle, and also a strong belief that we wanted the strength and durability of a diesel engine.

Researching availability there were plenty of low mileage F350’s and Chevy/GMC 3500 trucks available that would have worked.  However, after a lot of discussion of plans Ton pointed out that our plans were to spend at least a year and probably two in North America before visiting Europe and South America.  If we go to Europe first, then South America there will be another 5 years for the conversion to ULSD in South America to take place.  So the final decision was to go with a new truck.

GM, Ford, or Chrylsler

What truck to use?  Provan offers to build on all three 1ton trucks available in the US.  We quickly eliminated Chrysler from contention due to no real dealer structure in either Europe of South America (we decided that Fiat did not count). Update from 2020. Our impression of dealer support in Europe was wrong, while we do not see many American pickups in Europe the ones we do see are Fords, and RAM’s so Chevy is the least supported vehicle in Europe.   While the F350 and the 3500 series are North America unique vehicles  research did indicate that most GM and Ford dealers would take some degree of responsibility for repairs on the trucks in both Europe and South America.

It was an interesting discussion between Ton and I over the two remaining options.  It turns out Ton is a Ford Truck person and I am a Chevy truck person.  Actually neither of us knew this until it was time to actually pick a truck but like all good Ford v Chevy truck debates neither of us were going to give ground easily.  

The advantages for Chevy were:

1.  Independent front suspension.  Depending on how you are going to use the truck this is either an advantage or a disadvantage.  The Ford has a solid front axle which gives you better off road capability.  Our plans are 90% asphalt driving and 10% dirt road driving with no intentional off roading.  For those reasons the better ride and handling of the independent front suspension of the Chevy was a plus.

2.  Heavy Repair Issues.  Certain major repairs on the Ford are best done with the cab of the truck removed.  All repairs reportedly can be done on the F350 with the cab in place, but may take substantially longer.  Ford did have some early reliability issues with the diesel engine in the F350 that they appear to have worked out, but that weighed on our decision.  All repairs on the Chevy truck are designed to be done with the cab in place.  Once the cabin for the Malayan was mounted removing the cab of the truck was not an option so the Chevy had an advantage.

The advantages for Ford were:

1.  No 1 selling truck and most common platform for “adventure” vehicles.  Earthroamer uses Ford exclusively, the Malayan prototype we looked at was on a F350 so Ford is obviously doing something right.  We did not know this at the time, but the F series is going to go into limited production in Brazil in 2014 so there will be more support for the Ford in Brazil and Argentina.

2.  2013 was the last year for this model Chevy.  The Silverado was do a major model change for 2014 so we would be buying an older truck out the door.

The final decision though came down to something small.  Talking to Mark we could get a third “jump” seat installed in the Chevy, but not the Ford.  Since we wanted to have the capability to have a third seat for guests we finally settled on the Chevy as our truck of choice.  Of course this entailed getting an extended cab version of the truck.

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Our Silverado Before the Mounting of the Cabin

LT vs HT

The next decision for us was between a LT and HT version of the Malayan.  The LT is 1.5 feet shorter and lighter than the HT.  The LT has a full size bed vs a queen sized bed in the HT, and also you lose a wardrobe by downsizing.  Also when we were talking to Mark initially he indicated that the LT would not have the convertible couch and seat belts that the HT has.  The prototype was a little boxy looking and I was a little concerned about the looks (One friend characterized  it as looking like an ice cream truck), the prototype was mounted on a regular cab and I thought the extra length of the extended cab would help with the looks.  When we visited the factory we tried out the full size bed and it worked for us.  If we went with the smaller vehicle we would be giving up interior storage and that is always valuable, particularly on longer trips.  But Ton was always pointing out the shorter Sprinters when we were driving our ERA (24ft version).  She seemed to think the extra flexibility with the 21 foot version of the Sprinter would have been beneficial.  The LT version was also substantially less expensive, so we decided in the end to go with the LT. 

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Out Malayan LT I think the extra length of the truck does help smooth out the looks.

Options off the Provan List

We added a few options to the truck that were on the option list.  

-Fantastic Fan.  Wanted an all weather fan that did not add to the height profile of the vehicle. 

-Convection Microwave.  With more extended living wanted to have the maximum options for cooking.

-Firestone Airbags.  This was recommended by many people as a way to improve the stability of the truck and to help with leveling.

-Westin Brush Guard.  Wanted to have some protection for the front of the truck.

-Diesel Appliances.  Our target was a full one fuel vehicle.  A no brainer for us, though from a cost point of view we did think about it a little more before we finalized it as part of the truck.  In addition to the expense diesel stove tops have a reputation for being very slow to heat up.  This is supposed to be improving but time will tell.  If we have problems Costco is selling a convection electric burner for about $60 dollars we can augment the diesel with.

Non-standard Options

One of the nice things with Mark and his team at Provan was the ability to substantially customize the truck.  While we did not make extensive use of this we did ask for a few things.

-Safe.  We asked for a safe to be installed that could hold important documents and possibly laptops.  This turned out to be the most difficult request for Mark and his team, while they had mounted them in the past in Bengals, they had not determined the best place to mount one in a Malayan.  As of the writing of this, the safe is not finalized.  (Note after delivery.  There was not time to find a place to mount the safe so there is no safe.)

-Satellite Connection and mount a receiver for a tailgater.  Our initial plans have us shaking down in North America for a couple of years and we decided that we wanted to have some kind of satellite system for the truck.  Mark offered a standard roof mounted system, but we did not want it on the roof to maintain minimal clearance and to prevent any shading of the solar panels, plus we would not need it once we left North America.  We settled on a tailgater system as it is ground mounted when you stop, but we did not want to run a cable manually through the door or a window.  Mark put in a system where we could connect through the exterior of the truck.

Production Delay and New Options

Initially our truck was scheduled for delivery in July of 2013.  Due to several issues Mark contacted us in June and asked for a delay.  We agreed as we were more concerned to receive a high quality truck and had time.  Ron was doing some consulting in Brazil and Mexico at the time and we were not going to be able to use it extensively in the summer.  However, as part of the delay Mark surprised us with some upgrades.

-Improved cabinetry construction and materials.  After visiting a RV exhibition Mark decided he wanted to improve on the quality of the construction of the cabinets and said he would be including those in our truck.

-Upgraded flooring and couch material.  Based on the same criteria as above he also wanted to look at upgrading those options.

-Quartz Countertop.  During one conversation with Mark he mentioned that he was looking at a quartz countertop option but was concerned with the weight at a 100 lbs.  We were interested and asked him to install it, the 100lbs is an indulgence, but we thought it would add some class to the truck.  We are paying for this one. (Note after delivery.  There was some concern about mounting methods that caused us to decide to go with a standard countertop.)

-Couch conversion.  During one of our conversations Mark asked if seatbelts for a couch were a priority or the ability to convert it into a bed as they could do one but not the other.  As we do not expect anyone to be riding in the back, we opted for the couch conversion option.

Fred Cook aka Diplostrat

With the delay in the truck Ron had too much time on his hands to dream about Tigers and spent an inordinate time on the tigerowners.freeforums.org website.  It specializes in the newer Tigers primarily.  Through the website we made contact with Fred Cook who also had a Malayan under construction.  Fred had a lot of experience both traveling overseas and with off roading and was able to educate us on a great deal of things.  He had been in conversation with Mark for years about his truck and had a great deal of knowledge about the design of the Malayan that he was happy to share.  Based on his recommendations we decided on two additions to the truck.

-Sterling alternator to battery charger.  As I have said I am not particularly technical particularly with electricity, but this thing increases the efficiency of the transfer of amps from the alternator to the house batteries, resulting in a much more efficient charge when using the engine alternators to “fill” the batteries.  Fred did all of the research and initially had it installed on his truck.  After talking to him and following up with Mark from Provan, who shared Fred’s enthusiasm we added this as a way to reduce or possibly eliminate the need to use shore power. (Note after delivery.  After some issues with installation on Fred’s HT we decided to eliminate the Sterling.)

-In cabin storage cabinet.  Ton and I had been talking about how to use the space behind the drivers seat for storage.  We knew that in a smaller RV that using all of the space possible would be necessary.  I mentioned this to Fred and he told me he had designed a storeage cabinet for behind the drivers seat and was having Mark install it in his truck.  He shared the design with us and we also asked to Mark to install it on ours. Note from 2020 we ended up removing this as the storage was not as useful as we thought and it limited our view out of the side window, and it squeaked. We now use the platform that it was mounted on for dry good storage in boxes.

I want to thank Fred for his help in sharing his knowledge and experience with us.

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Fred Cook’s photoshopped design based on another Tiger owners design

Suspension and Wheel Upgrades

We have been studying various suspension upgrades.  It is clear that the truck will benefit tremendously from the upgrades, but we have decided to complete the upgrades after we return to Portland from the delivery.

We looked a lot at Wheels.  The Howe’s went thru two sets of wheels on their truck due to the stress of the weight of the cabin and the rough roads they travelled on in South America and Europe.  We spent a lot of time researching our options, but at this time we are not satisfied with what is available and are staying with the factory wheels as we assume they are at the same load limit as the axles.  We are going to continue to look at options until we come up something that will give us a safety margin above the standard wheel.

External Storage

The Tiger comes with 12cu ft of external storage.  Our experience with the ERA tells us this will probably not be enough.  On the ERA we had a Stowaway2 external hitch mounted storage box.  It served us well on the ERA and was just about the right size to hold the things we wanted to keep on the outside of the van.  Our research says that hitch mounted systems like the stowaway tend to fail on rough roads fairly quickly, but we have not found anything else that can be mounted permanently at this time.  So at least while we are using it in North America we will stick with the Stowaway2.  Note from 2020 we never did install the Stowaway on Scout. Instead in 2016 we added two Aluminess storage boxes on swing arms as well as an Aluminess rear bumper.

Deciding on a Vehicle

The Decision to Upgrade

Not an option we considered, but there are a lot of options out there.

When we decided on the early retirement it was done knowing that we would want to do a considerable amount of travel. After our experience with the Sprinter we knew that we enjoyed the flexibility and the pace that came with a small RV.  One of Ron’s bucket list items was a Pan American highway trip.  Ton tended to favor seeing more of North America.  The compromise was to look for a vehicle that could handle travel outside of North America, but start the traveling in North America.

Based on our experience with the ERA and research we set some criteria for our perfect vehicle:

1.  Under 24 ft in length, under 11ft in height.  We want a vehicle that can be manuevered in urban environments as we do enjoy towns and cities.

2.  Diesel engine.  Better fuel performance, and outside the US lower cost for fuel in general.  Diesels have longer life engines with more capacity to handle loads.  The one problem with diesel now is ULSD diesel.  Trucks built for the US market have required ULSD since 2007.  At this time most of Central and South America do not have ULSD.  We spent a great deal of time researching this issue and while there are some people who believe the issues are overstated, I think there will be long term problems running non ULSD diesel in a vehicle with ULSD.

3.  No propane.  Nearly every blog we read of people traveling overseas with propane appliances involved long technical discussions on how to find adaptors to fill the propane system, fit different kind of cylinders into the vehicle  and some interesting tale of how to source propane.  We wanted to avoid all of that if at all possible.

4.  Minimal or no requirement to plug in.  Our ideal vehicle would not require to be plugged in.  In many places we were considering to go there would be no electric available,or the electricity would not be compatible with North American standards.

5.  Comfortable cabin.  The one thing we never tried with the ERA was just sitting and relaxing for a few days in one place.  On trips like this we will have to learn to stop for a few days periodically.  We needed to find a cabin that would be comfortable enough to do that, without causing an immediate case of “cabin fever”.

6.  Capable of handling short periods of freezing temps.  We never planned to be caught in below freezing weather, but it happened on a regular basis to us in Oregon (including a Memorial Day Weekend).

7.  Rugged Enough.  We do not plan to intentionally go 4 wheeling, but we regretted missing out on some dirt roads in Alaska and Oregon that we want to go back and do.  Also, if we do head south we will need the capability to handle rough roads.

Vehicles We Considered

Our ERA.  The first choice was the ERA.  We were familiar with the van, and it had served us well.  The Sprinter is used all over the world, and getting work on the van would be easy in most places we would visit.  To give it the capability we wanted we would have to make massive changes in the electric system, and we would have to stay with propane.  In addition we needed to modify the bed, find a way to cold proof the water system, and modify the exterior to improve the clearance.  After a lot of discussion about how serious we were about having the capability to travel outside of the USA on a regular basis we decided to look at other options.

An internet search pointed us at some options that we would look at.

Earthroamer.  The first vehicle we researched was the Earthroamer.  It met all of our needs except for size, it is a really complete vehicle, but it is quite large.  The Earthroamer really set the bar for us, but cost was an issue.  New units were pushing up over $300,000.  We did watch the used vehicles on their website and there was one that was very intriguing.  This vehicle was a 2006 and the price was within our budget, and importantly it had an engine that did not require ULSD.  We actually planned to visit Denver to look at this used vehicle, but an unexpectedly large snow storm in February on our trip back to Oregon caused us to skip Denver.  By the time we were ready to go back and look, the unit we were interested in was sold.

Global Expeditionary Vehicles.  The GXV website had two variations of pickup based RV’s that we researched.  Their other vehicles were too large for our tastes.  We sent an email to ask some questions about the Turtle model.  They responded to our initial email, but never responded to a couple of follow up emails I sent.  We studied their websites for ideas, but eliminated them from our options.

Pick Up and Camper Shell.   We considered this option, but after looking at them at the Portland RV show, they just did not feel right to us.

Provan Tiger.  Looking at some websites we saw mentions of Tiger vehicles.  When we checked them on the web we liked the design and size.  The price fit our budget.  After reading the www.travelin-tortuga.com  and www.whiteacorn.com websites, these vehicles had done the trips we were planning on and handled them with a minimum amount of drama.  Mark at Provan responded within an hour of my initial email, and patiently to the barrage of emails I sent subsequently.  At this point we decided to focus on Provan as our primary option.

Our Winnebago Era

Our First Vehicle

Our first adventure vehicle was a Winnebago ERA class B.  When we decided to enter into the RV market (Ron got the bug first) we knew we did not want a large “motorhome”, but something that would give us the flexibility to explore out of the way places and bring our own bed.  It needed to be large enough to be fully self-contained, but small enough to park downtown in small to medium sized towns.  After some research we quickly landed on the Sprinter based class B as meeting our needs.  At the time the primary converters of Sprinters available in the Pacific Northwest were Airstream, Pleasureway, Road Trek, and Winnebago.  After looking at all of them at a RV show we decided to pursue the Winnebago.  At that time they were selling for nearly 30% below the other vans with very similar features, and while they were a little less elegantly put together we liked the layout and the feel of the van.

Winnebago
Our Winnebago ERA

The Good and The Bad of the ERA

The ERA was a great introduction for us and really met our needs.  Like any small vehicle there are necessary compromises.  During a little over three years of ownership we put over 40,000 miles on it.  This included a trip to Alaska, and two cross country trips.

Things we really liked about the ERA:

1.  Fuel Mileage.  In general we averaged around 17 mpg despite Ron’s lead foot.  The mileage ranged from 15 to 21 mpg depending on conditions.  The Sprinter from a fuel economy point of view is nearly unbeatable.

2.  Ease of Setup and Tear Down.  Once we got our routine down we could fully set up for living within 10 minutes of arrival.  Tear down was done in less than 15 minutes.  This allowed us to easily use the ERA on a daily basis, even if we were returning to the same spot that night.

Caught in an unexpected snow storm St. Louis February 2013

3.  Comfortable to Drive.  Initially it was a little twitchy in the wind and was definitely affected by passing 18 wheelers.  But after we upgraded the shocks and installed a beefed up rear sway bar, it drove very comfortably.

4.  The size was acceptable.  We had no trouble maneuvering in towns or in relatively close quarters with the ERA based on the 24 ft. Sprinter.  Ton did think that the 21ft. Sprinters conversions we saw were even cooler and more practical.  In parking lots we only required two spaces back to back to fit the van in.  We were able to parallel park legally in cities and mid-sized towns within a few blocks of the down town core.

Things we wanted to change:

1.  Low ground clearance.  On the second day we ever used it I caught the running boards on a downed tree branch in Redwood National Park.  The running boards on the passenger side were a constant concern not only on rough roads, but when parallel parking in urban areas.  The utility area on the drivers side, while less exposed was also at the very bottom of the truck and vulnerable to catching on something.

2.  There was effectively no sitting area in the van when the bed was made.  You did have the option of swiveling the front seats and using them as “living area”, but that never seemed to work for us.  

3.  The couch/bed was uncomfortable.  We tried several things to improve the comfort of the bed including an air mattress and 3″ memory foam top.  They never did the job for us very effectively and by the end we were just sleeping on the couch without anything on top.

4.  The ERA did not have an inverter.  The other three Sprinter Class B’s we looked at did.  At the time of the purchase that seemed ok, but as time went on it became more of a problem for us as we ventured afield.  When not hooked up to shore power we had to run the generator to use the microwave or electric kettle.  If we had kept the ERA longer we would have added an inverter.

5.  The generator on a small vehicle is a noisy beast.  Running the generator for all but the shortest of uses was not an option as it was located right below the bed causing a lot of noise and vibration.

Ton caught in an unexpected snowstorm in Missouri.