Special feature: Motorhome build

By: Claire Smith, Photography by: Supplied

This couple has built the motorhome of their dreams, and at over 17m from tip to tail, it’s one of the biggest rigs on the road

When Allan and Gemma Brown pull into a campground in their enormous motorhome, people stop and take notice. Perhaps ‘motorhome’ isn’t quite the right description. This home on wheels comprises a 12-metre long ‘home’, driven by a MAN TGM 250 truck, in bright orange no less.

The total length, including the truck cab, is 17 metres. Fair to say that finding a suitable park isn’t always easy; in fact, it takes some very careful advanced planning. But for Allan and Gemma, this big orange beauty is their dream home. It’s a dream that has been a long time in the making, with more than a few nightmare moments along the way.

I first met Allan and Gemma in 2019 at the Covi SuperShow in Auckland. The couple told me they were planning to build a mobile home on a truck and trailer unit, and that it was going to be big. The plans had been drawn, they’d found a builder, and work was about to get underway. It sounded ambitious and expensive, but they knew that. What they didn’t know was that their builder was about to go bust and a global pandemic was on the way.

How it started

This big orange beauty is Allan and Gemma’s dream home

About four years ago, with a sizeable mortgage and a strong desire to travel the country, Allan and Gemma started to think about the possibility of buying a motorhome and living full-time on the road. The couple had a lifestyle block in North Canterbury.

"We wanted a life that offered more freedom—to travel, to stop and go as we pleased, to work as it suited, and to enjoy our country without travelling for hours on end in holiday traffic," says Gemma.

The decision to sell up and buy a motorhome was easy. The harder decision was choosing a motorhome that would meet their wish-list. That list included being able to carry Allan’s 5.5-metre kayak and his Honda CPX150 motorbike. They wanted a full-sized bathroom, a bed just like home, to have the bedroom and living area completely separate, enough storage space to pack their lives into, lots of power, and most of all, to feel ‘at home’.

"At first, we considered a traditional fifth-wheeler but the more we looked into it, the more we realised that wasn’t the best option for us. After looking closely at how much weight we wanted to carry, the size of the floor plan, the layout we wanted, etc., we decided that the best way forward was to have it built to our design."

Both Allan and Gemma had built their own homes before, so they had a good idea of what was involved and how to get started. Add to that, Allan is a full-time truck driver, and Gemma has a truck licence.

"Once the idea of building took hold, our plans kept getting bigger and better," says Allan. "We realised the trailer would need to be over 3.5 tonnes, which meant we’d have a weight issue and would need a suitable truck to tow it with."

Because the couple, who have family ties in Aussie, eventually want to live and travel around Australia in their new motorhome, they initially considered building there.

"We flew to Melbourne and found someone who was building large-scale motorhomes. After years of planning, we settled on what we thought we needed and were ready to go."

But just when it seemed like they could take the next step and get the build underway, the Melbourne workshop closed their doors and ceased business.

"That was a bit of a blow," says Allan. "They were the only workshop in Australia doing the sort of build they wanted, so that meant a change of plan. We decided to look for someone in New Zealand instead."

In early 2019, the couple found a builder in Hamilton prepared to take on the build, so they moved to Cambridge and rented a property.

Allan and Gemma ordered a 12-metre trailer from Fruehauf NZ Ltd in Feilding, complete with airbag suspension and manual wind-down levelling legs for additional stabilisation. Rather than the traditional ‘gooseneck’ connection, it has a flatbed with a level floor all the way through, which made it possible to build the multiple exterior storage lockers they wanted.

The cab

The living area is separate from the kitchen and at the opposite end of the unit from the bedroom

I caught up with Allan and Gemma in Hamilton in September 2019. The trailer had arrived, the build was about to get underway, and there was excitement in the air. Their new dream ‘home’ was finally happening. And the ‘motor’ part of the equation was also on its way—a MAN TGM 4x4 automatic 13/250 (13-tonne GVM, 250hp) cab.

The cab unit, ordered through Penske in Auckland, was shipped from Germany. The truck has the latest technology on-board, including SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) and is almost emission-free using AdBlue additives.

An aluminium locker was built onto the chassis to house the 3kVA generator and three jerry cans of petrol for Allan’s motorbike and the generator. On top of the truck chassis, which has been shortened by about one metre, are the mounts for the ‘fifth-wheel’ turntable, and a hydraulic crane for lifting the motorbike, which sits behind on a ledge at the front of the trailer unit, and also for lifting off the kayak, which is on top of the motorhome. Other modifications to the cab unit include fitting a PTO pump to operate the crane.

Another locker was also fitted directly behind the cab for storing camping gear and a slide-out fridge/freezer. And above this, a cage for holding any other extra bits and pieces. And with a decent bed set-up behind the cab seats, the truck unit has pretty much everything needed for those times when Allan and Gemma need (or want) to unhitch the unit and go off-road in the Aussie outback (fingers crossed that will be possible in the near future), or just into town to stock up.

"We can’t speak highly enough of the guys at Penske who transformed the truck into what it is today," says Allan. "They did an absolute first-class job, right down to the nitty-gritty detailing. They even added a really cool touch on the cage unit at the top. On each of the corners, they’ve added our initials: GB and AB. They didn’t even mention it to us. We just discovered them and were really stoked. It was such a thoughtful touch."

In the meantime, while the team at Penske was busy blinging the cab with all the gear, the team at Roadrunner Manufacturing in Bulls were hard at work custom manufacturing the storage lockers that would be fitted to the trailer unit.

A challenging time

A bed just like home

Up until this point, things were going relatively smoothly. Here’s where the road got a little challenging. More than a little really; there were some pretty big potholes, dead ends, and U-turns.

In early February 2020, the truck was complete, physically at least. But then Allan was told he couldn’t drive it. Not without a Transport Service Licence. Because the truck is more than 6000kg (6920kg to be exact), he was required by the NZTA to pay $500 and wait through an eight-week application process.

"I contacted the NZTA and argued that the truck was to tow a motorhome and wasn’t being used for commercial purposes, but that didn’t wash with them. It was a case of ‘rules are rules’. It meant a big delay and a lot of stress and hassle that we didn’t expect."

But in the grand scheme of things, that was just a pothole. An unexpected dead end was around the corner. In early March 2020, Allan and Gemma received a phone call advising that the Hamilton builder’s company had gone into liquidation. All the money they had given them was gone and building would cease immediately.

"We were in turmoil," says Allan. "The build had barely progressed, yet we were now out of pocket by a six-figure sum of money." That would have been enough for most to call it quits and change tack. But Allan and Gemma forged on.

The good news was that, unlike a few other unfortunate clients of the builder, the couple owned the trailer unit being built on and were able to retrieve it and think how they’d move forward. There was just the matter of a global pandemic to contend with first. But while everything and everyone was locked down, phone calls were made, e-mails were exchanged, and their derailed dream got back on track.

Wade Group to the rescue

Allan’s Honda CPX150 motorbike goes where he goes

Wade Group in Te Rapa are not, and don’t aspire to be, motorhome builders. They fit out police cars, prisoner transport vehicles, and ambulances. But what they are known for is their impressive horse float fit-outs—or ‘equine coaches’. Horse truck in the back, luxury inner-city New York apartment up front. And although Allan and Gemma were horseless, the team at Wade Group agreed to take on the job.

Allan and Gemma sat down with the team and talked through the build in June of 2020. Denis Rylie, Wade Group’s project manager, says that apart from a few tweaks, the build went very much according to plan.

Moving in

The total length, including the truck cab, is 17m

The original plan was to take delivery in November 2020, but with COVID, Christmas and shipping delays, the couple finally got their hands on their new home in late January 2021.

I caught up with Allan and Gemma the day after they took possession of their new home. "It still doesn’t feel real," said Gemma. "We sat in the lounge last night and I just kept saying, ‘Is this real?!’"

It’s understandable. Losing a significant amount of money and massive unexpected delays weren’t something they’d factored into their plans.

So was it worth it? I didn’t even need to ask. The couple showed off their new home like new parents show off their baby.

Moving on

Allan and Gemma Brown with their new home on wheels

Having had their new behemoth home for a few weeks, I asked the couple if they ever had a moment when they felt they’d gone too big.

"In the early stages we did wonder if maybe the size would be an issue, and we know there will be places that we can’t go, but we’ve also made the necessary arrangements to adapt," says Allan. "We’ve got the ability to leave the trailer parked up somewhere and just take the truck or the bike. And for every downside of being big, there are many more upsides."

Eventually, the couple will head back to Australia, but for now, their plans are to see as much of New Zealand as possible.

One thing is for sure, wherever they do go, they get lots of attention.

It’s been quite the journey for Allan and Gemma, even before they started their travels. But with the hard work and headaches behind them, they’re now looking forward to their new life travelling wherever they fancy, working as they go, and always having their own home with them. We wish them safe and happy travels and may all the potholes and dead ends be well and truly behind them.

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