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Reader DIY: Unimog Camper


Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by trucks, off-road driving and camping. My first vehicle, as a student, was a 1953 Willy Jeep CJ-3B: a soft-top with a threespeed gearbox. I moved up through the ranks: Land Rover 300TDi hardtop, Club-cab 4×4, and Hilux 2.5-litre D-4D double cab, before I ended with a 4.0 Hilux with raised suspension, towing an off-road trailer fully equipped with roof-top tent, fridge, freezer, awnings and the like. For many, this would have been the ultimate vehicle-combination to strive for, and it has served us well.

As a family, we like to travel. We camp one or two days in a location, explore the surrounding areas, and move on. Our camping system was very comfortable when deployed, but took hours to unpack and set up. It required 42 tent pegs, together with bags full of canvas and lots of loose items that needed to be stored and unpacked, often twice a day, when doing a road trip. Moving camp in the rain was a nightmare, off-roading with the trailer was limited, and the Hilux was both heavy on fuel (5km/l), and not very reliable. The stress and effort of arranging the trailer and tent on a campsite wore everyone down, and an alternative solution was required.

I considered the requirements: we needed a 4×4 vehicle with enough living and sleeping space, storage, and a short set-up time. We also needed reliability, safety, and reasonable cost. We did not need a full overland vehicle with a built-in toilet, kitchen and shower, as we would mostly stay in campsites with ablutions of some sort. The vehicle needed to provide weather protection in wind and rain, and good security for people and their possessions. We also needed it in less than six months’ time, as our trip to the Wild Coast and beyond had already been planned.

The alternatives were not exciting. These included two roof-top tents on the Hilux, with a canopy for storage. That would work, but had the limitation of cramped living and cooking space, especially in bad weather conditions. Storage for a family of four would also be limited, and the risk of overloading the vehicle was high. And, although a conventional motorhome would solve most of those problems, it would not allow back-road travel… The conclusion: we needed an off-road motorhome.

I started with a design to fit a camping body on the back of a single-cab Land Cruiser. This would allow floor space for four people to sleep, and enough storage, plus four seats when driving. However, the wheelbase of the LC might have to be stretched to achieve the best layout, and the cost of a decent chassis was high. Overloading the rear axle was still a strong possibility.

The drawback of all conventional pickup designs is the “unused” bonnet space, with the driving cab behind the front wheels. That problem would be solved with a Land Rover Forward Control, or the Land Rover 101, both of which would be difficult to source, and would possibly require driveline modifications for the intended loads to be carried.

The Unimog 416 series was next on the list, and appeared to meet the specification. It could carry the load with ease, and the footprint of the vehicle was similar to the Hilux, yet it provided a rear load bed that was three metres long by two metres wide.

The search was started, and I purchased a 1978 Unimog 416, with 46 600km on the clock, that had been “reconditioned”. (After our 3500km road trip, it still showed 46 600km on the clock…)