JATAC update: After a near-death experience

One afternoon early last year I was driving the JATAC, our Tacoma/Four Wheel Camper combination, west on Arizona’s Highway 86—a two-lane, 65mph road flanked with emergency lanes. As I approached a side road coming in from the north, I saw a Subaru sedan waiting at the stop to turn east, across my lane. Meanwhile, an SUV in front of me put on its signal and pulled into the turn lane to turn north. As I passed the SUV, the driver of the Subaru, who had apparently missed seeing the white pickup and cabover camper headed his way, accelerated, pulled out in front of me—and then stopped as he saw what he’d done. This left me heading toward his door at 60mph-plus, about 50 feet away. 

In one of those slowed-down time-warp instants I saw with utter clarity the driver’s face, looking at me with the open-mouthed certainty that he had just committed suicide. There was scant chance I could avoid hitting him. Braking would have been laughably futile. The only possible alternatives were the desert on the right or, across the oncoming lane, the desert on the left. I saw there was no opposing traffic, so I violently yanked the steering wheel left, clearing the front of the Subaru by what could only have been inches. On the edge of either sliding or rolling—I wasn’t sure which—I yanked the wheel the other way, corrected a violent yaw, and managed to keep the truck on the pavement in the oncoming emergency lane, where I slowed, checked traffic (the Subaru had fled—you're welcome, pal), and pulled across again to stop off the road and restart my heart.

I got out and checked the truck and camper. Everything seemed okay, so I continued home. But on the last rough dirt section I heard a faint but obvious rattle coming from the camper area. At home I investigated and found that one of the four turnbuckles securing the camper to the truck had split at the open hook. I’d been meaning to replace the stock, aluminum-bodied turnbuckles anyway, and took the opportunity to install forged steel replacements.

That seemed to be the end of the matter. However, several months later while washing the truck I noticed a split about two inches long in the camper’s aluminum skin, extending from the upper right corner of the front window, behind the truck’s rear window. Investigation revealed a similar split on the opposite side. Could the near miss have been the genesis of the splits? Difficult if not impossible to say, but it was a worrisome development.

I showed the splits to Tom Hanagan of FWC at Overland Expo EAST, who urged a factory visit to remove the skin and investigate the possibility of a cracked frame member or weld. So this Christmas we combined visit to see family on Coarsegold, California, with a trip to the Four Wheel Camper factory in Woodland. We took the opportunity to have a couple of upgrades done to the camper—the company is constantly evaluating current systems and components, looking for ways to improve the product.

As you can see, the splits would be easy to miss if you weren't paying attention. Between the time I noticed them and the time we got to FWC, they seemed to have remained more or less stable.

With the front skin removed, Tom Hanagan inspected the frame, but found no cracked welds or any other damage. He had only seen this issue a couple times previously, but nevertheless decided that further structural engineering might be worth investigating. So I went upstairs with Robin Pritchard, FWC's new engineer, and watched while she created a CAD image of the Four Wheel Camper's front frame structure. 

Once the virtual frame was assembled on screen, Robin applied a significant simulated side load. With no other structure or skin to reinforce the isolated frame, and the distortion effect magnified hundreds of times by the program, the graphic showed that the area of highest stress occurred . . . at the top corners of the window opening. 

Robin studied the image for a minute, then applied a simple boxed reinforcement on either side of the window opening with a few clicks of her mouse. Immediately the distortion was attenuated, and the angry red color that highlighted stresspoints cooled off to a benign yellow. Tom looked at the result, and rolled our camper over the the welding area of FWC's huge factory, where the fabricators welded in two channeled aluminum pieces on our frame. The entire process added perhaps six ounces to the weight of the camper.

With the reinforcements in place, Jay Bailey re-positioned the rigid foam insulation, and installed a new front skin.

Very soon the front of the camper looked new again. Despite the uncommon nature of this issue, Tom has incorporated the reinforcement into all new campers that have the forward dinette. He is also currently testing a new, forged turnbuckle that I think will be a significant improvement in the anchoring system.

Repairs completed, we had FWC install external roof-lifting struts on the front and rear of the camper. With only the single internal pair of struts, Roseann had trouble lifting the back of the roof when we set up the camper. She has no trouble with the external struts, and eliminating the internal pair cleaned up the interior appearance and added room on the bed. FWC also installed a new style table in the front dinette; with a simpler, stronger, and more elegant swivel.

Soon the camper was back on the Tacoma, looking visibly chuffed after its little spa facelift treatment. And I was chuffed after learning so much about the engineering that goes into a Four Wheel Camper.

Postscript. It's always fun to wander around the back wall of the FWC factory:

A custom Four Wheel Camper on a turbodiesel Mitsubishi Fuso chassis.

Hilux turbodiesel. 'Nuff said.