The longest Born Free motorhome to date provides extra room while maintaining the company’s commitment to economy of space.
By Guy and Pamela Selbert
John Dodgen, the venerable head of Dodgen Industries in Humboldt, Iowa, maker of Born Free type C motorhomes, was preparing to celebrate his 78th birthday soon after we picked up a new model for a recent test drive. Although he has been designing and building motorhomes for more than 30 years, Mr. Dodgen shows no signs of slowing down. Rather, he continues to expand the repertoire.
The largest of the Born Free motorhomes made up to this point have been the 26-foot Rear Bath and Rear Side Bed models. The other Born Free coaches are the 21-foot Bed & Breakfast and Built for Two models and the 24-foot Rear Bath. All are 96 inches wide. Now, in a moderate concession, the Born Free team has designed its biggest motorhome yet: the 30-Foot Wide Body. This new unit measures 30 feet 10 inches long and 102 inches wide.
The 30-foot Wide-Body is so new, it is not yet available to the public, and the one we took out was a prototype. However, officials said they expect the coach to be on the market by February of 2005.
Mr. Dodgen still adheres to his belief that bigger is not necessarily better. He understands what the ever-growing numbers of Born Free buyers want: an elegant coach that’s meant to move. The Born Free 30-Foot Wide-Body continues the spirit of the touring coach. It is intended to take travelers out on the road to adventure, to drive the roads less traveled.
Born Free motorhomes have always been long on luxury, with solid-wood cabinets; quality seating, countertops, and appliances; and compact, well-planned bathrooms, but with economy of space a hallmark. Nearly every aspect of the Born Free serves more than one purpose. For instance, the living area is often also the bedroom, and the dinette can double as a computer station, or create additional living space when the sliding table is put away (an ingenious attention to detail). Each separate area is well thought out and comfortable.
As to the fundamentals, our test vehicle was built on a Ford E-450 cutaway chassis with a 208-inch wheelbase. Equipped with the 6.8-liter V-10 engine and automatic transmission, the unit is well supplied with power.
Born Free has a reputation for building its coaches strong and substantial. The new 30-foot Wide-Body will be constructed utilizing some new designs and new advanced materials to be just as strong, but lighter in weight to accommodate the 14,050-pound gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) engineered into this chassis by Ford Motor Company. Our 30-foot Born Free prototype unit was released to us for a drivability and livability road test. Born Free representatives have assured us that the total weight and weight distribution will be within Ford’s GVWR when the unit is ready for market.
The chassis is well-equipped, with all of the extras we have come to expect in a Dodgen product. Power windows and door locks, keyless entry, deluxe AM/FM/CD radio, a six-way power driver seat, cruise control and tilt wheel, antilock brakes, and driver-side and passenger-side air bags are all standard.
The unit also is equipped with Ride Rite heavy-duty air shock absorbers, which can be adjusted by adding or removing air pressure through two Schroeder valves at one side of the coach. We did note that when the air shocks were nearly empty, the unit experienced moderate roll problems.
Our standard roll test is to drive the unit slowly at a diagonal over a curb cut, which forces the coach to accommodate two levels at once. When we added air to the shocks, however, the roll diminished significantly. We believe that when the company takes steps to lighten the coach, particularly behind the rear wheels (the overhang area), this will further minimize any roll.
The ample power of the Ford Triton V-10 engine, delivered through the electronic four-speed automatic overdrive transmission and a 4:10 to 1 differential, is brought to bear on the road by Michelin LT225/75R16E tires.
Testing a variety of Ford-based motorhomes over the years, we have noted a lack of foot room on the passenger side of the cockpit. The folks at Dodgen Industries have taken this into consideration and now order their units with the standard doghouse (the engine cover between the driver and passenger seats) rather than the fancier option, since the standard doghouse provides a bit more passenger foot room.
Another thoughtful Born Free particular: the chassis’ standard cockpit area is outfitted with only one cup holder, but our test coach had two. Mr. Dodgen noted that he designed and added the second holder (in natural oak to match the cabinetry) for the passenger to use.
Born Free 30-Foot Wide-Body interiorSeating in the cockpit is deluxe, with the Flexsteel captains chairs you expect on larger and more expensive motorhomes. Covered with Ultraleather, they are fully adjustable. The driver’s seat is fully powered and eminently comfortable. The outside mirrors are remotely adjustable and heated, and the inside rearview mirror includes a compass and a thermometer. The Wintron TFT 5.6-inch backup monitor works well even in bright sunlight.
Engineering-wise, the Ford chassis performed well and was remarkably easy to drive. During acceleration, braking, and turning, the unit behaved with aplomb. Our standard braking test “” bringing the coach from 60 mph to a sudden stop “” showed that the coach’s braking system worked perfectly. The vehicle halted with little dip or sway.
This brings up another advantage of the Born Free. For those who view larger units as intimidating, and many smaller ones lacking in quality, this is a perfect fit. The 30-Foot Wide-Body is a well-made and luxurious coach “” just built on a smaller scale. It’s an excellent alternative for motorhomers who want to downsize to a unit that is easier to drive.
One of the greatest advantages of the Born Free (and one we particularly appreciate) is its ability to take you places you can’t go in a larger coach. Its size makes towing a car unnecessary, and its excellent interior appointments make it quite livable.
The exterior fit and finish is also first-rate. It would seem that Mr. Dodgen’s color philosophy is similar to that of Henry Ford, whose Model Ts came only in black. The Born Free is available in any color you want, just as long as it’s white. Actually, Born Free motorhomes are not painted; rather, an Oxford white fiberglass gel coat is used that matches the paint of the Ford chassis.
The aerodynamic styling of the coach makes a distinctive statement, and is also a major factor in its economical operation; the slick form slides easily through the air.
During the test drive, the 30-Foot Wide-Body was buffeted much of the time by strong crosswinds and headwinds. Although the strong winds affected the coach’s performance, corrections were easy and we never felt threatened, even when being passed by a tractor-trailer. The fuel economy on our test tank was approximately 8 miles per gallon, but we believe this figure may have been influenced by the wind.
Window of Born Free 30-Foot Wide-BodyThe low design of the Born Free doesn’t allow for traditional basement storage. However, several cargo bays on the sides of the coach are convenient to access. Two are slung below the floor line. A curbside compartment measures 19 inches by 31 inches by 14 inches, and its streetside counterpart is 54 inches by 25 inches by 14 inches. These incorporate fiberglass tubs, which seem quite durable.
Three storage areas are actually fitted into the coach floor and accessible from the outside. A curbside door opens into the area under the couch, which measures approximately 64 inches by 36 inches by 10 inches. Another door, located under the bathroom cabinets, reveals an area that measures 23 inches by 21 inches and includes access to the water heater bypass. The third storage area, a streetside cubicle measuring 7 feet by 37 inches by 11 inches, is under the couch on that side.
The rear bumper is equipped with three lockable doors: one provides access to the detachable shore power cable, another to a tow-ball bar, and the third to the tow bar receiver. This last feature allows the operator to pin the receiver without crawling under the coach.
Other outside compartments contain the remarkably quiet Generac Guardian 3.6-kilowatt generator; two 12-volt deep-cycle marine house batteries; and a six-gallon LP-gas tank. Access to the plumbing of the inside shower and to the water heater is available via a locked door. The 6-gallon water heater is efficient, and recovery time is short. A standard roof ladder leads to storage atop the coach.
Two other outside features are worth mentioning. One is the motorized Carefree awning, which can be extended in a matter of seconds. But the operator must watch carefully and stop the process when the awning is fully extended. If you fail to stop the motor, it keeps running, and the awning winds up backward. An automatic stop would be desirable, in our opinion. Still, it’s a terrific awning.
The other feature worth a mention is the outside shower, which is a dandy. It’s incorporated into the water service panel. Two electric outlets are also located on the coach exterior.
The locks on the outside compartments are noteworthy as well: rather than being standard key locks, they are Southco barrel locks, which provide added security.
Let’s continue by returning inside. At the entry door, which is designed to provide a relatively short distance from the ground to the coach, two inside steps lead up into the vehicle. To the right as you enter is a Norcold N-841 8-cubic-foot convertible refrigerator. The two-way fridge automatically switches from source to source (AC to propane). The refrigerator is generously sized for this type of motorhome.
Forward of the refrigerator is the dinette area. The test coach was equipped with a table that slides up out of a pocket in the wall to drop between the two chairs. A small door, providing access to an area perfect for storing a laptop computer, is exposed when the table is retracted.
The chairs are also Flexsteel with Ultraleather; they swivel, recline, and include seat belts. This clever table feature allows the seats to double as easy chairs for watching TV or to accommodate guests.
The table is made of oak sandwiched between sturdy laminate and measures 24 inches by 29-1/2 inches. It provides plenty of room for dining or for use as a computer workstation. A phone jack and 12-volt and 110-volt outlets are convenient to the table.
At the curbside is a couch that converts easily into a single bed by removing two bolster pillows and adding bedding. The head of this couch can be elevated like a hospital bed for comfortable TV viewing. A switch that can be hand-held or hung from a hook on the wall nearby allows the occupant to bring the head of the bed up or down. The privacy curtain across the cab, hung on a series of hooks on a track, works well and does a good job of blocking out light.
Across from the single, adjustable couch is a foldout bed with adequate space for two adults. This couch also has an electric motor for folding and unfolding. One of the attractive optional features offered by Dodgen is a Travasak sleep system, a sofa-sized comforter that doubles as a sleeping bag with detachable top and bottom sheets.
Dinette area of Born Free 30-Foot Wide-BodyWe found the galley of the 30-Foot Wide-Body to be excellent in both form and function. The cabinets and drawers are within easy reach, operate smoothly, and utilize a “catch system” that prevents them from opening while the coach is moving.
The galley includes two items of special note: a pull-out pantry and a cutting board. The pantry is located behind a single door that measures about 3 feet high by 10 inches wide. This beautifully finished wood cupboard, which pulls into the aisle, can accommodate many boxes and cans of food yet occupies little space. A knife block is situated at the outside end. The whole apparatus is clever and useful.
The pull-out cutting board is located atop the drawer under the three-burner cooktop. It is made of heavy plastic and can be slid back and forth over the open drawer; it clicks into place when extended. Even if you have nothing to slice, it adds counter space. The cutting board is removable, providing a convenient method of cleaning.
Cooking appliances include a Panasonic microwave-convection oven and a three-burner Suburban cooktop. The latter has a manual Piezo ignition button and is quite serviceable.
The galley offers abundant storage space: three generous drawers and five large cabinets under the Centura solid-surface countertop; four deep overhead cabinets; and, of course, the slide-out pantry. None of the drawers has a flatware sectional, which would be useful.
The 30-Foot Wide-Body is equipped with light-colored oak cabinetry. All cabinet doors are made of solid oak, and the walls are constructed of oak plywood. You’ll find nary a trace of particleboard in a Born Free. Cabinets are made at the Humboldt factory.
Storage-wise, this coach is made comparable to other motorhomes of its size by the inclusion of many cabinets. Inside some motorhomes, taller occupants can have unwelcome encounters with the cabinets (lots of head banging). Not so in the Born Free. Here, cabinets over seating areas are canted back at the bottom, practically eliminating the possibility of hitting your head as you stand up or sit down.
To the rear of the pantry area is a wardrobe, where again the coach provides abundant storage space. The wardrobe area includes a large clothes press, a large closet with adjustable shelves, and two drawers. At floor level, two doors open onto the floor area under the cabinets. The electric utilities are located here, but plenty of room remains for storage.
Bath of Born Free 30-Foot Wide-BodyThe bath of the Born Free exemplifies economy of space. The vanity is at the rear wall, with the molded shower to the right and the Thetford Bravura toilet on the left. The Bravura has a powerful pulse flush that works extremely well. Here, too, overhead cabinets are raked inward. The mirrored cabinet doors open from the bottom and can be adjusted to preference; air pistons keep them in place.
The shower, made of molded fiberglass, is surprisingly commodious. It is separated from the rest of the room by only a curtain, but a shower pan prevents drips from escaping.
Another large closet with space for hanging clothes is located behind the toilet and includes a light that goes on when the door is opened. The closet also can be accessed through a door in the hall outside the bathroom.
Simple, serviceable floor coverings are found in this motorhome. High-quality vinyl flooring covers the rear section of the coach, and sturdy carpet covers the living area into the cockpit. A soft, carpet-like material dresses walls and ceilings.
Window treatments are tasteful and serviceable, with day-night shades protected by polished oak valances. Born Free now installs shades that can be stored in the fully down position, rather than fully up, which places the weight of the shade onto the sill rather than on the shade strings, thereby prolonging their life. Two cutouts are provided in the top valance to facilitate raising and lowering the shades.
The coach includes two Fan-Tastic Vent ceiling fans: a standard model in the bath and a rain sensor model over the galley. The air conditioner is a standard roof-mounted Dometic Duo-Therm with the nice addition of a heat strip, which came in handy on cool mornings.
The entertainment array is impressive, headlined by a 20-inch Zenith LCD television. A Bose Home Entertainment system including an AM/FM radio, a CD player, and a DVD player is also included, connected to a surround-sound system. Picture and sound quality are first-rate.
The flat TV swings down from above, so the cabinet behind it is available for storage. The cabinet to the right of the TV is mostly filled with entertainment equipment, but two other front cabinets offer additional storage space.
All of the items noted here were standard on our test coach, so its base price of $112,000 was unaffected.
During our five-day test drive, we traveled 600 miles on a variety of road surfaces. We stayed in campgrounds and also dry-camped, which helped us test the coach’s versatility. In every situation the Born Free proved itself to be a fine and comfortable companion.
For folks who want to get out and see the world, we can think of no better windshield from which to view it than that of the Born Free 30-Foot Wide-Body.
Manufacturer … Dodgen Industries Inc., Highway 169 N., Humboldt, IA 50548; (800) 247-1835; www.bornfreemotorcoach.com
Model … 30-Foot Wide-Body
Floor plan … Rear Bath/Wide Body
Chassis … Ford E-450
Engine … Triton V-10, 6.8-liter, 305 horsepower, 420 pound-feet torque @ 3,250 rpm
Transmission … four-speed automatic with overdrive
Axle ratio … 4.10 to 1
Tires … Michelin LT225/75R16E
Wheelbase … 208 inches
Brakes … four-wheel with antilock (ABS)
Suspension … front “” coil; rear “” multileaf single-stage with Firestone Ride Rite and added leaf spring rated at 1,600 pounds
Alternator … 130 amps
Batteries … chassis “” (1) 12-volt 650 cca; house “” (2) 12-volt 600 cca deep-cycle marine
Steering … power
Inverter … optional
Electrical service … 30 amps
Auxiliary generator … Guardian QuietPact 40G, 3.6 kw
Exterior length … 30 feet 10 inches
Exterior width … 102 inches
Exterior height … 10 feet 5 inches
Interior height … 7 feet
Gross combination weight rating (GCWR) … 20,000 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) … 14,050 pounds
Gross axle weight rating (GAWR) … front “” 4,600 pounds; rear “” 9,450 pounds
* Wet weight as tested … front “” 4,280 pounds; rear “” 10,200 pounds
Frame construction … tubular steel roll bar, wood frame
Insulation … fiberglass batting with foil wrap
Fresh water capacity … 29 gallons
Holding tank capacities … gray water “” 35 gallons; black water “” 21 gallons
Fuel capacity … 55 gallons
Fuel requirements … gasoline
Propane capacity … 29 gallons
Water heater … 6 gallons
Water delivery system … demand
Furnace … 30,000-Btu, thermostatically controlled
Air conditioner … 13,500-Btu roof air with 5,600-Btu heat strip
Refrigerator … Norcold N-841 8-cubic-foot (AC/propane)
Toilet … Thetford Bravura with foot pedal flush
Coach warranty … three years/36,000 miles limited warranty on motorhome; 10-year limited fiberglass warranty against corrosion or hail penetration
Base suggested retail price … $112,000
Price as tested … $112,000