When a Vereeniging businessman decided it was time to buy a motorhome, he didn’t scan newspaper smalls looking for bargains. Nor did he go and look at new motorhome offerings from established suppliers. Instead he decided he would build a motorhome from scratch, according to his specifications. It started with a Mercedes-Benz 518 CDI V6, and ended with a R1,6 million, eight-wheeled camper
Text: Danie Botha Photography: Jannie Herbst
Hannes van der Westhuizen from New Vaal Motors in Vereeniging pages through a file on his desk. It’s a bulky one. He finds what he is looking for, and steals a glance at the mammoth camper parked on his showroom floor a few metres away. Then he returns his attention to the piece of paper in front of him.
“Here it is – R355 000. That’s what the Mercedes 518 CDI V6 Freight carrier cost the customer,” he says. “And from there it got a lot more expensive.”
A lot more expensive, in this instance, turned out to be R1,6 million. That is what this motorhome eventually cost to build. But this is obviously no ordinary motorhome. For starters, it has a total of eight wheels instead of four. It is fitted with a state-of-the-art air suspension. Just about everything in and on this motorhome is custom-made, and no costs were spared in this process.
But let’s start at the very beginning, with the Merc chassis.
“The customer came to me with his requirements, and he was very specific about it. Together we looked at all the chassis options, and eventually sett led on the 518 CDI V6 chassis-cab. The chassis is good to carry seven tons, so it was more than enough for the customer’s requirements. And with all those horses under the bonnet… well,” smiles Hannes.
This 518 is fitted with the brand’s V6 turbodiesel engine that delivers 135 kW of power and 400 Nm of torque in this application. The common-rail, turbocharged and intercooled engine sends its power to the rear wheels via an optional five-speed automatic gearbox, as specified by the customer.
Ordering a Sprinter 518 also means you have to decide between a myriad of options and features, which you can add or delete, mostly at will. Like an ashtray, rearview mirror in the cab, armrests for the seats, comfort seats or normal seats, front passenger airbag, an adjustable steering wheel… the list goes on and on.
When the Sprinter arrived at New Vaal Motors the building process immediately got underway, and would conti nue for 12 months.
The chassis and suspension were first in line. The chassis was extended from four to seven metres. Two additional trailing axles, manufactured by Alko- Trailco in Vereeniging, were fitted with 10-inch airbags and with 170mm of axle travel. Additional shock absorbers were fitted to all the rear axles, while the centre wishbone and draglink rearsuspension was specially developed and built for this camper.
Each airbag can be inflated or deflated individually. This is used to level the camper when it is parked on uneven terrain, and an on-board compressor provides the air. All this work was done by specialist engineering firms in Vereeniging.
Interestingly, the owner decided to fit the rig with low-profile tyres. So eight Continental Sport Contact tyres (275/45 R20) do service on aftermarket alloy wheels. This was apparently done to lower the centre of gravity of the camper and provide a more stable on-road drive. Incidentally, the standard tyre-size for a Sprinter 518 is 195/75 R16…
The next step was the camper body, and this proved more of a challenge. Several companies were approached, but it was AC Motorhomes in Cape Town that was prepared to take on this job.
“We are sometimes reluctant to provide our custom bodies to customers, since we have no control over the final finishing of the interior. We don’t want motorhomes brandishing the AC name but boasting horrible interior finishes running around. That could be detrimental to our business. But this customer was clearly intent on creating something out of the ordinary, and the job itself was not a challenging one for us at all,” says AC Motorhomes’ Carey Wareham.
The company used an existing mould to create this body.
“We can’t alter the height, shape or width of the existing mould, but we can change the length. Normally our camper bodies are 5,1 metres long, but this one is seven metres in length. We also supplied the basic interior lay-out, according to the customer’s specifications,” says Wareham.
After the camper body was fitted onto the extended chassis, the motorhome was returned to Vereeniging. The interior and the fitment of all the extras were next.
The kitchen and cupboards were fabricated by Theron’s Cupboards in Vereeniging. The drawers operate on anti-slam/automatic closing slides, while the doors are aluminium roller-doors with chrome inserts. All very fancy.
Separate shower and toilet cubicles were installed, using only the best materials. On more mundane campers the shower and toilet areas are normally combined. In this camper the shower is about as big as the one in your home. Very nifty.
A water tank of 240 litres was fitted to provide the kitchen and bathroom with (hot and cold) water, while a 120-litre grey tank with a bilge pump looks aft er the toilet system. A 9000 BTU Panansonic air-conditioner (220V) was installed, along with a microwave, television and a 410- litre fridge/freezer.
To operate the electrics while on the move, a Honda Super Silent generator and inverter system was also fitted.
It doesn’t end there.
The lengthy motorhome is also fitted with a Fiamma awning with a 5,5m privacy room, a GPS navigation system, DVD system, CD system, MP3 player, DStv and front seats that swivel. From a driver’s point of view you get a tyre-pressure monitoring system, reverse camera, cruise control, a long-range diesel tank of 100 litres, and importantly, that five-speed automati c gearbox.
“The engine and gearbox combinati on works unbelievably well in this applicati on.”
It’s the owner of the rig, who dropped in to say hello. He prefers to remain anonymous though.
“I took the camper down to the coast over December and the stability of the rig, as well as the ease with which it maintained 120 km/h, was simply amazing.
At one point I even pushed on to 160 km/h (recorded on the GPS), to see how stable it would be, and she was 100% composed. Overall it’s just perfect for my family. Spacious, luxurious, an absolute pleasure to drive on the road…,” he says.
And off he goes again.
While we stand around and stare at this eight-wheeled wonder, Hannes van der Westhuizen gives a small chuckle.
“He says that at 120 km/h it gliiides over the road,” he smiles.
At a price of R1,6 million it should be able to fly too, we joke.
But then you look at the interior of this motorhome. The vast interior, with its high-quality finishes, space, versatility and practicality.
And you can imagine the purring V6 Mercedes engine on the open road, with the speed control set at 120 km/h. You can imagine the wife busy preparing a hot cup of java while you point this thing towards the horizon. The kids contently watching Dora the Explorer on the plasma.
And then you imagine arriving at your destination, setting up that Fiamma awning, switching on the air-con, taking a comfortable shower, and then taking in the sea, mountains, or wherever you parked the rig.
We can live with that dream.