Motorhoming breathes new life into the relationship between a retired truck driver and his favorite rig.
By Doug Uhlenbrock
When Jon Gibson, F368393, retired in 2002 from his job as an over-the-road owner-operator in the trucking industry, he gladly said good-bye to the road construction tie-ups, routine traffic congestion, and fickle Midwestern weather he’d become accustomed to during his 30-year career delivering goods across the country. But he was reluctant to give up one part of his livelihood: his truck.
In the garage behind his Strasburg, Pennsylvania, home, sheltered from the elements, sat his baby, a 1987 Peterbilt. For 15 years and 1.3 million miles it was his work space, albeit with a better view than most office settings. Other drivers in his situation may have hung up the keys, slapped a “For Sale” sign in the window, and hoped to get a reasonable deal. What’s a retired pilot going to do with a big semi-truck like that anyway? But Jon, now 53, couldn’t fathom the notion of selling the truck.
“I had five or six trucks over my career, but this one was the best I ever had,” he said. “It had a great service history and I just fell in love with it. When I retired I didn’t want to sell it. It was a model 359, and 1987 was the last year Peterbilt offered it.”
For two years he visited his garage every so often to see his old work partner. Sometimes he’d do a little preventive maintenance, while other times he’d give her a good shine, just as he had when they both were still in commission. On occasions when the highway called, he’d open the garage doors, crank the 425-horsepower Caterpillar engine, and take her out for some exercise. Each outing reinforced his decision to keep the truck.
That’s the funny thing about vehicles, no matter whether it’s a truck, a car, or a motorhome. When you find one you really like, driving it provides such pure pleasure. There’s a comfort level there that’s difficult to explain, but so easy to understand. Whether it’s the feeling of the steering wheel in your hands, the humming vibration of the wheels rolling across the pavement, or the way the seat cradles your body, there’s just something about the experience that makes you want to be on the road. So it was with Jon Gibson and his Peterbilt.
The problem was, without a trailer hitched to the back, the truck’s usefulness was limited. Using it for a quick jaunt to the supermarket was out of the question, and it certainly wasn’t the type of vehicle to use for a night on the town. The Peterbilt still had life; but, unfortunately, most of it was being spent locked away in a garage. “I had to find an alternative way to use it,” Jon said.
Jon’s inspiration came at a car show in Daytona Beach, Florida. While viewing the vintage autos, he noticed a motorhome built on a truck chassis. When he began looking around, he saw more of them. These images stuck in his mind, but at first he didn’t consider whether converting his own truck was feasible. However, as the idea brewed inside his head, he began to realize it might just be the answer to his dilemma. So he began calling different coach converters to find out what could be done with his truck and how much it would cost. To his amazement, he discovered that the price tag was much less than he originally thought.
One of the companies he contacted, Showhauler Trucks Inc., operated by Lonnie and Chad Troyer, extended an invitation to Jon and Linda, his wife of 27 years, to visit the company’s Middlebury, Indiana, facility to see their work. All it took was one look and Jon was convinced that his truck would have a second life: as a motorhome.
Although the Gibsons had never owned a motorhome, the couple had rented motorhomes when they would take their two kids (Linda’s from a previous marriage) to Florida, and they actually owned several travel trailers. But this would be their first coach, and they wanted it done right.
Before the conversion could take place, the truck had to undergo a week’s worth of structural surgery. Jon took it to Zimm-O-Matic Manufacturing Company in nearby Denver, Pennsylvania, to have the frame stretched and the electrical and air lines extended. Showhauler provided the exact wheelbase measurements that were required, and Zimm-O-Matic hit the mark precisely.
That’s when Jon discovered that not all wheelbase measurements are the same. “It’s a good thing we went over things beforehand, because [Showhauler’s] idea of a wheelbase, coming from the motorhome point of view, and my idea of wheelbase, coming from the trucking industry, were different and the measurements could have been off by a foot.”
When the Gibsons arrived in Middlebury in late August 2004 to drop off the chassis, the first thing the folks at Showhauler did was bring out a 100-foot tape measure to check the wheelbase. Once this measurement was confirmed, the truck was shuttled off to Quadra Manufacturing in White Pigeon, Michigan, to have a BigFoot leveling system installed.
After the truck was returned to Showhauler, welders began to affix the house framework directly to the truck frame. Over the next three months the semi-truck was transformed into a 45-foot type C motorhome with a 7-foot-6-inch interior height.
During preliminary planning the Gibsons, who have five grandchildren they enjoy traveling with, decided that sleeping space was a priority. So they came up with a floor plan that provides room for eight or nine people to sleep comfortably. Two or three kids can fit in the 54-inch bunk above the truck cab; a 76-inch bed folds out from the front sofa for two; the dinette converts to a bed for one adult or two kids; plus a set of bunk beds in the rear and a single bed across the aisle sleep three more. Although the capacity to house a baseball team is available, Jon said the most they’ve ever had to accommodate was six people.
The prospects of having a big crowd stay in the motorhome precipitated other decisions. Jon opted for a 200-gallon fresh-water tank and twin 72-gallon gray and black water tanks. He also decided that one bathroom wasn’t enough. The main bath, which is a coach-wide area between the galley and the rear bedroom, features an oversized 37-inch-by-37-inch shower, a toilet, a sink, and closet space. The half-bath in the very rear of the coach includes a toilet and sink plus a large hanging closet.
A 40,000-Btu furnace keeps the coach warm when the couple travels to the Northeast in the fall, while a pair of 13,500-Btu air conditioners provides cooling during the summer months. When shore power isn’t available, a 10,000-watt PowerTech diesel generator provides ample power. The house portion of the coach also includes four 12-volt-DC deep-cycle batteries; two that power the DC-electric devices in the motorhome and two that provide current to a 400-watt inverter. There are also four batteries dedicated specifically to the chassis.
A 13-foot slideout behind the driver’s seat opens up the living area, giving passengers plenty of room to get together to talk or play games. For entertainment, a 27-inch TV is mounted above a desk behind the co-pilot’s seat. The in-motion satellite receiver, surround-sound stereo system controls, and dual DVD/VCR player are housed neatly in a cabinet below the TV. The rear sleeping area also includes a 13-inch TV above the single bunk for those who like to doze off to “The Tonight Show” or wake up to Saturday morning cartoons.
A fully furnished kitchen area was a must, seeing as there would be lots of hungry mouths to feed with the grandkids on board. The curbside galley includes a 10-cubic-foot refrigerator; a recessed three-burner stove and a conventional oven; a microwave oven; and a large two-bowl sink. Custom-built Amish oak cabinetry in the kitchen area provides ample room for dry goods and cooking utensils, while a set of overhead cabinets runs the length of the slideout for additional storage space. Larger items can be placed in the closet behind the full bath, which is directly across from the stacked washer and dryer.
When the crowd moves outside, there’s plenty of room to gather under the 20-foot awning for dinner or when Jon and Linda regale the grandchildren with stories from their own youth. When the kids have heard enough nostalgia, they can swing open the stainless-steel storage compartment doors and dig out toys or sports equipment from one of the large bays. To help find a lost Tonka truck or a stray ball after dark, Jon can simply switch on the three curbside floodlights to illuminate the area.
Once the motorhome was completed, it was taken to Performance Painting in Elkhart for the exterior finish. Jon worked with the design group for a week on the graphics alone and said he was thrilled with the result, particularly the way the company was able to match the paint on the house portion of the motorhome to the truck cab.
Although the motorhome is as close to perfect as Jon could have expected, he did have to make one sacrifice. “The only things I couldn’t keep were my fuel tanks,” he said. “I used to love polishing those things up. It has a 150-gallon tank, but it’s hidden now. And we had to take the passenger-side tank off. If we would have kept it, the entry would have been way back in the center of the coach, which wouldn’t necessarily have been bad, but it would have put us right through the middle of the galley.”
The Gibsons say they couldn’t be happier with the motorhome and with the service they’ve received from Showhauler even after the sale. “You can go into the facility and see the coach being built any time you want,” Jon said. “I was there twice to see it being built, but if I didn’t live so far away I would have been there more. And any problem I’ve ever had, they’ve taken care of it.”
Now when the Gibsons are traveling about the country, it’s Jon’s motorhome that people are eyeing. “People are always knocking on the door wanting to see the inside,” he said. And with a price tag right around $125,000, he believes he received a bargain.
Although Jon still doesn’t get to run through the 15 manual gears of his old truck as much as he’d like, its rebirth as a motorhome has given him the chance to feel at home behind the wheel again. And with the addition of what amounts to a small apartment behind the cab, he can share the joy of being on the road with his family.