When deciding to buy a military surplus truck, do your research, question everything, and have all preventative maintenance work done before clocking any substantial miles.
Many of us can attest, life is easier on the road. Whether on personal/family adventure, driving commercially, or deployed in military service; cost of living and responsibilities are simplified, taking on a much greater sense of purpose and meaning. It is pure joy and deeply enlightening to be freed from typical day-to-day occupation, upkeep on large domestic property and the payables that go along with them. It is for good reason, #vanlife, #homeiswhereyouparkit and #adventuremobile are among the most popular hashtags—and hence movements–of the day. Per the 2,000,000-plus romanticized and vicariously pursued Instagram posts brandishing these hashtags, living in a vehicle, turned adventure-mobile, naturally implores to a wilder more liberated life.
Ultimately, the earnest adventurer, yearning to live full-time on the road, has one quandary positioned neatly between their current innocuously secure life and the life of high-adventure by #overland: What is the most durable platform for my new home/vehicle-of-adventure-and-freedom? When any aspiring buyer of any mechanical product asks a question of this nature, the naturally-desired response is the closest they can get to the following: You will be able to operate this machine to your heart’s desire, only concerned with one simple obligation—where does the fuel go?
If the search for an adventure vehicle platform keeps circling back to the need for hearing the aforementioned response to a diligent question of durability—over all other considerations—we suggest a major shift of focus with respect to vehicle-to-adventure. There are many fantastic adventure-tour companies out there that make adventure travel accessible. One such company located in our home-base area of Central Oregon is Wanderlust Tours; they do a great job with adventuring, and don’t concern you with the necessary vehicle-reliability issues required to reach the locale you desire. While in Central Oregon stop by our shop and talk to us about our trucks—we enjoy spending time with, and educating prospective adventure-vehicle buyers.
But we know guided tour is not for you, you are already here reading this, you are independent, you enjoy adversity, you revel in challenge, you are durable. You want your home to be where you park it. You’ve already decided that owning and operating an adventure vehicle—of whatever platform or chassis—is the life for you. Now, there is just one paramount idea to accept: You will be the mechanic and/or mechanic-intermediary extraordinaire for your home-a-go-go. Wes Siler, contributor to Outside Magazine Online, says it well: “Do you know how to perform simple maintenance tasks? Do you mind getting your hands dirty? Do you know how to change your oil? How about changing a tire? Hell, do you own any tools?” If the honest-with-yourself answer is “Yes” or “No, but I am ready for this,” then read on—in no way should your options be limited to leasing a Subaru or joining a guided tour group.
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Adventurers
At Grigsby Truck Company, our emphasis is on repurposing medium to heavy truck chassis. We appreciate all manner of adventure vehicles—different rigs suiting varying goals, styles and comfort levels; but for us, the passion is centered on transforming military surplus trucks into adventure vehicles. Before continuing, take a moment to read the Outside Magazine article written by Ty Brookhart: We Bought a Military Truck So You Don’t Have To, we will reference Ty’s article many times going forward; and we will expound on the advantages and disadvantages of a do-it-yourself military truck conversion.
Walt and I have enjoyed getting to know the Brookharts. We wish our paths had crossed a little sooner than they did, as to help their adventure vehicle project go smoother from the beginning. We met for the first time on the top of Hash Rock, in the Ochoco National Forest for the 2017 Great American Eclipse. Ty arranged an off-road/overland rally for the eclipse viewing—a unique gathering of personalities that facilitated instant friendships, unforgettable memories for our family, and remarkable opportunities for our company. If you haven’t seen it, check out our marketing video, produced by Wolfpack Wanderings in association with Sam Giffin of Right On Brother Films. Ty and Rachel Brookhart are extremely talented—we highly recommend the services they offer through Wolfpack Wanderings.
We are waiting for the ferry across #lakepowell after spending 3 days in #grandstaircase. It's a giant swath of beautiful desert; petrified wood, canyons, giant cottonwoods and very few people. Headed to Moab now. If you have questions about this area or locations of off the beaten path camp spots, shoot us a message. Also, the rabbit stew Ty made last night with acorn squash was awesome.
Why an FMTV?
Ty’s article mentions some advantages, as well as some disadvantages of these trucks. Assuming you have read the Outside Magazine article, or spent some time researching these trucks, I will keep these lists brief:
Capable of driving water up to four feet deep, on deep sand, traverse steep approach and departure angles, designed to excel in forward combat conditions anywhere in the world
22 inch ground clearance, 47 inch tires (by original design/engineering)
The Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) includes 14 variations on 2 chassis platforms—LMTV – 2.5 ton, 2-axle 4×4 and MTV – 5 ton, 3-axle 6×6—and can accommodate a wide variety of service bodies with an assortment of configurations
Engine compartment utilizes SAE2-bellhousing, which can fit a number of engines: Cat 3116, Cat 3126, Cat C7, and Cummins 8.3 to name a few…
Does not require ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), which is strictly required by newer diesel engines, such as those found in the popular sprinter vans and Japanese made light-medium 4×4 cab-over chassis. This characteristic of the FMTV will be found extremely valuable when traveling through some third-world areas of the world which do not offer diesel produced to high standards, such as those commonly found in the US and much of Europe.
Extreme durability, FMTV trucks were designed for the military, with the relatively inexperienced 19-year-old motor-transport operator in mind.
Cab-over design allows for excellent maneuverability
Configured to legally drive on highways with a focus on heavy duty off road proficiency
Say what you want about “glamping” but these trucks can be roomy. Not impractical 40ft Class A RV roomy, but more like 80 sqft with headroom roomy.
All this, and still can be priced less than competing adventure vehicle platforms currently available on the market.
Lack of air conditioning. Really? No, not really. AC system parts are available. Some of the newer FMTV still in use by the Army and Air Force today are equipped with this luxurious option; and the parts are compatible with the decommissioned FMTVs available to the public.
Finding a U.S. supply of replacement cab glass is difficult, so all auto glass must be attained surplus or custom manufactured. Bulk manufacture of new cab glass for these trucks is not available at this time, so expect this to be one of the more expensive replacement parts on these vehicles.
Poor fuel economy and slow on the freeway? Actually for what they are, fuel economy is surprisingly good—8-10 MPG—compare that with other rigs; don’t even stay within class when comparing—it’s still good.
Slow on the freeway? This was mentioned in the previous bullet because it is relevant there, but it really deserves its own bullet—heck, it deserves its own newsletter write-up. Watch for one on this topic… Briefly—yes, FMTV are governed at 58 mph, and the governor is mute considering they simply max out around 58 mph on flat ground, driving with the wind. However, just like everything else, this can be modified. Re-gearing the differentials with a higher final drive ratio (smaller ratio number) will reduce RPM at higher speed. Don’t think this is license to do 75 mph in a vehicle rated for a top speed of 58 mph, which is rolling on 47 inch tires which have a max speed rating of 55-65 mph (dependent on which specific tire you choose). After re-gearing they still will not do 75 mph, and you really ought to not try. You will gain more miles-per-gallon, you can cruise at 60-65 mph (with governor defeated) with much lower rpm than with stock gears. Will you lose your low-end power, i.e. torque? The math certainly says yes. Though, recently, we have read anecdotal reports that the loss of low-end power was not substantial. Grigsby Truck Company will be performing deeper testing on this issue in the very near future.
Loud and hot in the cab? They sure are. Can this be mitigated? It sure can (mostly). Will any sound/heat insulation, installed in any manner suffice for mitigation of this issue? No, it will not.
Maintenance. Maintenance. Maintenance.
The most durable of machines, are machines nonetheless, and therefore must be routinely inspected and maintained. The military refers to echelons of maintenance (EoMs) for organization of maintenance action levels—think of this as capability levels. These levels are primarily determined by tooling, facility capabilities, and personnel training:
On-equipment field level maintenance (this is you, adventure vehicle owner), knowing your responsibilities is critical. For our preferred chassis, the FMTV, all the military’s manuals are in the public domain, and readily accessible to anyone with a connection to the internet. Our website is one of the many sources for these publications. If you read nothing else, read the lube order. If you have no experience with medium or heavy trucks, we recommend you also read the Operator’s Instructions Manual. Having the proper tools on hand is essential for day-to-day maintenance tasks, which—to name just a few—should consist of inspecting, identifying and attempting to mitigate fluid leaks; fluid reservoir service; filter replacement; engine accessory/appliance belt inspection/replacement; inspection, repair, and/or replacement of hoses and lines; minor to moderate adjustment/calibration; minor part replacement; etc… A detailed and itemized list can be found in the Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services chapter of the Operator’s Instructions Manual. This is all maintenance activity that a vehicle operator can easily perform with some basic tools; and it is the lifeblood of the vehicle tasked with carrying you thousands of miles, as well as into, and out of remote locations. Stay tuned to our newsletters for an upcoming writing on exactly which tools we recommend be carried aboard your FMTV at all times.
Intermediate, or in-shop maintenance, consists of tasks such as calibration/adjustment of major components; mitigation of leaks which require heavy disassembly, repair/replacement of damaged or unserviceable parts or components, and/or assemblies; and fabrication of non-available parts. The ambitious vehicle owner (common among those whom buy surplus military vehicles) will often attempt this work as a DIY project, however, if the vehicle owner cannot perform, or is uncomfortable with performing these types of tasks, they can be performed by a mechanic shop within driving or towing distance of your rig, for reasonable fee—IF said repair shop is vetted and chosen by diligent selection process—just as you would do for any vehicle. This certainly holds true for a specialty vehicle, such as a military surplus truck. The FMTV series of military trucks were designed with an approximate 90% commonality to medium and heavy fleet trucks with respect to commercial availability of parts. Think brands such as Allison®, Caterpillar®, Donaldson®, Rockwell-Meritor®, Parker®, Eaton®… What can make acquiring the correct parts difficult for a DIY project is the fact that the government referenced most parts with unique part numbers. At first, parts may appear very expensive, listed online by these government part numbers from resellers charging premium prices, but these are common parts and with a little research they can be mapped back to common manufacturer part numbers. There are exceptions, however: Turret hatch covers, doors, fenders, glass, suspension components, and a few other items must be purchased surplus or fabricated (where possible). Wherever your adventures take you in the world, there is a high likelihood that a shop exists that can work on these trucks, finding compatible parts to keep the vehicle running and in good order. In the story of the Brookharts, their alternator, by another part number, might not have cost as much. Owners are not tied to direct replacement parts. Many aftermarket parts can be direct fit, or fit with modification to support structures. The infamous Brookhart broken high pressure oil-line that gave out during a cross-country trip, was easily sourced by Ty at the nearest fluid-power shop. The majority of downtime is usually in waiting for parts to be shipped, parts stores to be open, and making ones way to those locations from the middle of nowhere to pick up said parts. We recommend fitting your adventure truck with means to carry an “escape vehicle.” Any one of numerous suitable motorcycle models will fit the bill for this application nicely (plus, countless other enjoyable activities can be undertaken with the addition of this equipment).
Depot-level maintenance, defined by the military as “material maintenance or repair requiring overhaul, upgrading, or rebuilding of parts, assemblies, or sub-assemblies, and the testing and reclamation of equipment as necessary.” This is the primary focus of Grigsby Truck Company. It takes a lot of energy—and produces a large carbon footprint—to manufacture a new vehicle and scrap a used truck. Our passion is rebuilding and re-purposing these awesome vehicles, so that you can enjoy the full extent of their usable life.
The Truck Flippers
An industry exists around people flipping these trucks. There are over 100,000 used car dealers in the United States, these amazing trucks are bound to end up on a few of these lots. Have you, or anyone you know bought a lemon from a used car dealer? Be honest. Was it the car’s fault? Again, be honest. There are a lot of reputable, descent, honest and thoroughly diligent used car dealers out there; but as with anything, there are also a sample lot that fly their flag in in the face of contradiction to the aforesaid used car dealer description. Some of these trucks have been used and abused—some by the military, some by private owners. These trucks invariably get sold to unsuspecting and under-educated buyers. A used car dealer—or even someone who has an interest in, and buys/sells surplus military vehicles—is not necessarily, in any way, an expert on medium to heavy vehicles, or military vehicles. There is no guarantee they have done any service, preventative maintenance, or performed any inspection what-so-ever. No, you cannot blindly trust that this vehicle with an inflated price—is going to be in great shape. If you are buying over the internet through resale mediums such as Craigslist or eBay, expect even less guarantee of the truck being in great shape. Resellers rarely disclose, or even know the truck’s origination point, and you will be lucky to receive the original inspection report from the DRMO auction, nor a comprehensive assortment of vehicle photos taken from a technical inspection point-of-view.
Navigating Government Auction
When you bid on a vehicle at government auction, you have the option of viewing the rather comprehensive inspection that has been performed and documented. Don’t take our word for it, check out this episode of Dirt Every Day where they walk the government auction lot, test drive an LMTV, and explain the basics of the GovPlanet auction process. We encourage you to not take Fred Williams’ word for it either—go to GovPlanet and see it for yourself. The procedure is as transparent as possible, but there are questions you won’t have answers for. Here are some examples: Has this vehicle been in any accidents? Did this vehicle deploy for a natural disaster or to a warzone? Has this vehicle been exposed to salt water, deicing chemicals, salt air, or opportunities where rain and snow could have leaked into the cab? If you buy directly from government auction there are fifty to a hundred photos of the vehicle and often-times a video of the engine running. Take time to look closely at every photo, and diligently review the written report. Take note of the vehicle’s location, as this may help determine what type of unit the vehicle belonged to or what environmental exposure the vehicle was subject to. Vehicles are sold from over one-hundred Defense Reutilization and Marketing Offices (DRMO) across the world, and you can deduce the vehicle you are looking at was decommissioned from a base within reasonable driving distance of that auction location. If you feel you do not know how to interpret the report, or don’t know the weight of each item on the report; talk to us, or have us source the truck for you.
On average, we see freight rates around $1.50/mile, although more expensive quotes can reach into the $4/mile range. If you want to lock in a good rate, it helps to have established relationships with freight brokers, carrier companies and owner-operators.
What Can Grigsby Truck Company Do?
Our mission is to make owning amazing and durable adventure vehicles more accessible. There is a large gap in accessibility between the do-it-yourself’er and the $600,000 turn-key luxury adventure vehicle buyer—we serve that space in between. Grigsby Truck Company is rediscovering durability in our renewing of trucks that were built tough, to identify for them a useful position in today’s high-adventure world; placed duly, smartly, efficiently next to the extreme-high-cost adventure vehicle options. If you are following our Instagram feed, the vehicles shown are usually the three Grigsby Truck Company LMTVs we currently have on-site (occasionally we feature a client project). All three are in various stages of overhaul and modification. We spend time on these projects between scheduled client projects, they will all eventually be sold, to make room for new projects and prototypes. If you are interested in a vehicle we currently have, our plans for these three trucks are as follows:
Babe Blue O’Eight: Overland expedition vehicle with full living quarters.
Double Nuts (Ought-Ought): Our company “daily driver,” well-maintained, fully serviced and reliable, the only aesthetics done so far are spot bodywork and paint to repair corrosion damage
Forty-Eight: This lucky beast will be pulled from the weeds soon, and broken down for complete rebuild—soup-to-nuts. Watch for that work on our Instagram feed beginning Winter 2018
These machines are very durable, but they are not Toyota 4Runners with AK47-like 22RE or 5VZ-FE engines; they’re more like a Harley Davidson, or Caterpillar heavy-equipment. These machines need maintenance. You cannot buy one from online auction or off a car lot, hop-in, and drive it thousands of miles without thorough—sometimes professional—inspection, and a good dose of rehabilitation maintenance. Checking the fluid levels and kicking the tires simply will not get you far without trouble. The fact that some of these trucks withstand this sort of abuse as long as they do, is a testament to their durability. To stay out of trouble, remember this simple yet important rule—mechanical maintenance first, aesthetics and adventuring second. But whatever you do, never stop adventuring. We live, learn and grow through these adventures, and these are the experiences worth having.