Wandering the Overland Expo 2016
As you may have guessed, the above scene was taken in the area I was camped in. The wind advisory yesterday was for gusts up to 50 MPH, and the tall trees blocked some of it, but not all. The one camper I’d talked with in the Expo camping area on Thursday was not aware of what was forecast, and when I returned to see the show on Friday, even the canopy used at the day pass sign-in checkpoint had been blown away. I’d assumed that they had taken it down as a precaution, but the volunteer there told me, “Nope, it took off.” Fortunately, the tight pack-together and a line of tall pines at one edge of the display area broke enough of the 25 MPH average that the vendors seemed to be doing well – even the awning people.
What follows is not at all a comprehensive overview of this year’s Expo. It’s just the few things that drew my attention.
Actually, the Overland Journal has come up with a pretty good definition of what overlanding is: “History, wildlife, culture, scenery, self-sufficiency – these are the rewards of overlanding. Overlanding describes self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal. Typically, but not exclusively, accommodated by mechanized off-highway capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping; often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and often spanning international boundaries. While expedition is defined as a journey with a purpose, overlanding sees the journey as the purpose.” So, this is quite a bit different than enthusiasts who want to permanently live in their vehicles as an alternative lifestyle (like me), and who tend to band together by vehicle type and any associated subcultural beliefs that may go along with that. Here, the ideal draw is personally experiencing new places and cultures, and the annual gathering together is to share those experiences and to inspire more.
When I first saw the above vehicle with manufacturer’s license plates on it, I thought that Chrysler had finally gotten serious with the brand, and that the Warn booth next to it had simply added one of their winches in front. But what I found confusing was the proper amount of lift, the big tires and an elaborate rear bumper that had massive plates for attaching D-rings for recovery, which are all counter to the direction that manufacturers want to go. So I headed over to the Chrysler Jeep booth (why isn’t Toyota here?) and looked for it among the assortment of Wranglers. Nope. A fresh-faced young man, maybe 23, told me that the Brute was a concept vehicle that was planned for production in 2017-2018, I forget which. Mystified, I eventually circled back over to Warn to get a little more info. Apparently, American Expedition Vehicles has been building heavily-modified Wranglers for 15 years now, and Chrysler often includes them in their auto show displays as concept vehicles – concept vehicles that AEV actually sells.
I’m not certain of how AEV would feel about Chrysler offering their own version of a product like the Brute (and I may head back on Sunday to ask them since they’re there too), but one thing is guaranteed: it won’t be even close to the same, but will appear similar. AEV builds in some $42K worth of serious base-level mods to start, in addition to the composite core pickup bed and rear roof section. No doubt Fiat/Chryco will refrain from all the characteristics that make the Brute succeed off-road, and simply offer standard Wranglers with a pickup bed – possibly fiberglass or some material suited for very low volumes – at a market price slightly above the rest of the line. That’s just a guess on my part. Montana-based AEV completely re-engineers the vehicle without compromise, while Jeep will have an attractive price as their driver. No way Chryco is going to come remotely close to bringing the Brute into volume production as-is.
I have to say, I’m a sucker for old IH Scouts. I think they were the first competitor to the Jeep and were in production from 1961-1980, and spurred later equivalents from Ford and Chevy once they smelled the money flowing. International Harvester kept it pretty much the same throughout, and became pretty much outgunned as the competition out-marketed and new-and-improved it out of existence. It stayed dowdy and slow, but it was endearing because its truck engine was intentionally overbuilt for durability and abuse. When the other more successful SUVs were heading for the crusher, an inordinate percentage of the few of these made were still lumbering along like the-vehicle-that-would-not-die. Obviously, with no aftermarket and no help from the factory on parts, most of the clapped-out remnants are rare today. Somehow, Anything Scout in Ames Iowa has been goofing with these since 1993 and can scrounge for parts, upgrades, and even help you find one. The example at the show got notable and well-deserved attention, I think. It’s as tough and functional as it looks.
Once I hit the Four Wheel display, I looked for mods that the customers there had on their rigs and got sucked into prolonged conversations with them about how various features were working out for them, the value of updating older models to current specs, and where they’d been. Apparently, at 1 o’clock, the company owner Tom Hanagan had gathered them together and asked point-blank what they liked and did not like about their FWCs – emphasis on did not like. They were impressed by that, especially in that he did not flinch or dance around with pat responses. If anything, he asked for details. That’s precisely what drives future production changes and, as I found out myself later, they do not wait for the next model year to carry them out.
I’d been talking with the production manager and mentioned that one of the three overhead LED lights on my Grandby took to slowly flickering in light levels over time, unrelated to other equipment turning on or off. I asked whether my dabbing a little dielectric grease on the bulb’s contacts would help, since a single tap on the fixture immediately got it back to full brightness. “Nope,” he replied, “Just call us and we’ll send a replacement fixture right out to you wherever you are. We don’t use that light any more for that reason. We’ve changed over to an LED strip light that’s better, but we just found and tested a new LED light from National Luna, and are very impressed with the way it lights, and its reliability. It’s much better. We’re going to be sourcing it from Equipt Expedition Outfitters as soon as possible. If you want to see it, their booth is just down the next row, and ask them to show you what they’ll be supplying us with.” Equipt is probably one of Four Wheel’s newest camper dealers, but also sources at least two recent upgraded components for them.
Since all the customer yakking was eating up so much time and I was done with my show tour, the complimentary supper was about to be served in their big tent, so I did what comes naturally – I mooched some great grilled edibles and guzzled a Corona beverage made from healthy hops. Tom also fielded more questions, including the details of why prices go up every year, and mine of how they deal with the fun of seasonal demand and how that affects production rates (it doesn’t). They take build orders and pump out 14 a day. All that varies is the backlog and lead time. He refuses to staff according to demand and then lay people off, as he’s been on the receiving end of that little joy. Their business did contract somewhere less than 20% in 2009 (but laid off no one, by force of will) and bounced back and then some in 2010. This, at a time when most of the RV market went bankrupt and most of what was left was snapped up by mega-brands for pennies on the dollar. They still exist as brand names but, much like the lawnmower industry, they’re all just variants from only a few real manufacturers. FWC has been gaining between 10-20% in sales each year since.
I’ve met arrogant business owners, kindly ones, and self-entitled ones acting as royalty. I must say, Hanagan talks like a real person, considers that he had to “buy his job” at FWC in order to find work, and was silently digging out napkins and refilling wine cups at meal prep instead of enlightening the masses as the center of entertainment. He’s very likable guy who’s eager to listen, and not your average businessman. Little wonder that his attitude has filtered deeply into every department of Four Wheel, and that the business is doing as well as it is. I’ll end my brand-centric gushing here.
My God, these people can talk. I finally had to bow out just past sunset in order to pedal the e-bike back up the hill to camp, picking out a halfway decent path between as many rocks as I could in the light of the headlamp. I arrived there at about 8, with a full gut and a tiring battery, just before true blackness set in. Another fine day!