Most readers of Four Wheeler will be familiar with the cool 4x4 camper van conversions from Sportsmobile. These off-road-ready vans have been plying the backgroads of the world now for more than 40 years. Sportsmobile began in 1961, converting VW buses into campers. The rugged Vee Dubs took their owner far off the usual beaten camping paths in places like Baha and Alaska. The flourishing company had found a unique niche market, building adventure campers for people who wanted something more rugged and maneuverable than a pickup with a slide-in.
By the late '80s, the VWs had given way to more roomy and powerful American vans (predominately Ford's Econoline) and the Austin, Texas-based company had branched out with factories in Indiana and California. These 4x2 gringo vans could not match the traction capabilities of the old VWs and soon 4x4 conversions became a popular option.
We had a great time flailing this diesel-powered Sportsmobile around the coastal dunes near Florence, Oregon. The Old Man Emu suspension held the van in complete control and soaked up everything we threw at it, despite having to deal with an 8,500-pound dune buggy. When the going got too soft, the big diesel — coupled to ARB Air Lockers and aired-down 35-inch BFGs — pulled us through. This is the kind of wheeling ability you want to have when you are hundreds of miles from nowhere on a beach in Baja, Chile, Africa, or wherever.
Sportsmobile turned to 4x4 van specialist, Quigley Motor Company in Manchester, Pennsylvania, to change new Ford and GM vans to four-wheel drive before they were shipped to a Sportsmobile factory to be converted into campers. Quigley utilizes OE Dana, New Venture, and Borg-Warner components for their conversions, which are primarily aimed at the commercial, working-van world whose traction needs involve snowy or muddy roads.
By the early 2000s, adventurous owners and enthusiasts within the Sportsmobile West facility in Fresno, California, were pushing the limits of their vans' wheeling capabilities. The boom of after-market 4x4 hard parts, such as axles and transfer cases, offered available upgrades that could take the Sportsmobile's chassis to new levels that matched the time-tested designs of their rugged camper components.
In 2003, engineers at the Fresno factory developed their own 4x4 conversion. It focused on better wheel travel with room for larger tires, a tighter turning radius, better ground clearance, and improved ride and handling. The Dana 60 front axle gave way to a ProRock 60 from Dynatrac spun by an Atlas transfer case from Advance Adapters. Of course, all the trick components that go along with these familiar aftermarket names, like lockers and ultra-low crawler gears, became available options.
Providing a stronger housing, better oiling, and better clearances than a Dana 60, Dynatrac's ProRock 60 front axle brings extreme beef to the underside of a Sportsmobile. Tying these top-draw axles to the frontand rear of the Ford Van chassis are leaf springs designed by Old Man Emu exclusively for the Sportsmobile. Boasting all the features that OME leaf sprints are noted for like greaseable Teflon buttons between each diamond-cut leaf (for reducing friction which contributes to a harsh ride), graphite-coated, shot-sheened spring steel (for long life), and partial military-wrapped eyes (strength with movement), these state-of-the-art springs are matched with custom-valved Nitrocharger shocks that together provide a tuned suspension that will stand up to years of real-world abuse anywhere on the planet. Note the horizontal drag link to the Dynatrac high-steer righthand knuckle, which eliminates bumpsteer, a common problem with converted vans.
Behind the Ford five-speed automatic, our tester sported a 3:1 all-gear Atlas II transfer case. The Atlas needs no introduction to any wheeler, and we all know it to be way stronger than any O.E. 'case on the market today. Any Atlas ratio — 3:1, 4.3:1, 5:1, or the new four-speed unit — can be fitted under a Sportsmobile. Tying the transfer case to the axles are 1350-'jointed, 1-ton-rated drivelines. The rear axle on our dune tester was the factory Dana 60 semi-floater with an Air locker installed, but a full floating ProRock can be fitted in the rear instead. Also seen in this shot is the easy-to-access spin-on auxiliary fuel filter and large-capacity, steel aftermarket fuel tank.
Last fall we got a call from Chris Wood, Western Sales Manager at ARB USA. Old Man Emu, ARB's suspension arm, had been chosen to develop the sprints and shocks for the latest Sportsmobile chassis. Would we like to check out the prototype in the Oregon Dunes and do some test drives? Drive a van in sand dunes? Well heck, something new every day! Our bags were packed.
The test mule we drove in the dunes and shown here is an '06 Ford E-350 with a Power Stroke 6.0L diesel. Along with the new Emu suspension, it also features a Dynatrac ProRock 60 front axle and an Atlas transfer case. Thirty five-inch BFG All Terrains easily fit in its fender wells and never rubbed during our dune romps. Of course, ARB Air Lockers were fitted at both ends with 4.10:1 gears. We were surprised where this 8,500-pound house-on-wheels would go in sand, admittedly not the ideal venue for a camper van.
The Emu suspension articulated and soaked up the whoops like that of a much lighter vehicle. The camper itself was squeak- and rattle-free despite getting flexed around at speed over milder dunes and washboard sand "highways." Lockers, low gearing, and diesel torque allowed this beast to go places you'd think no van would ever be — even an old VW.
The aluminum bumpers, found both front and rear, are truly works of art. They blend beautifully with the lines of the Ford Van and give the whole rig a look that just screams "take me somewhere exotic!" IPF auxiliary lights from ARB help with the evening driving chores when looking for that hidden campsite.
Hidden under a lockable cover is a Warn 15,000-pound winch just waiting to get you out of all the trouble those ARB-locked ProRock 60s and the Atlas can get you into. Heavy-duty, shackled anchor points are handy for double-line winching or dragging dead firewood into camp with a tow strap.