1954 Chevy Cab-Over is the Ultimate in Living Quarters
Russ Moen’s Tourliner tells a tale as tall as the streamlined land yacht is long.
Howard Hughes lived large. He didn’t just build a plane; he built the Spruce Goose. When ordered to vacate a penthouse at a Las Vegas hotel, he bought the joint. And he didn’t just buy a casino; he bought pretty nearly every square foot of land around Las Vegas. So it wouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that he’d build a camper on the back of a Chevrolet cab-over truck.
“It’s entertaining to think Howard Hughes built this thing to travel to his favorite fly-fishing spots in Canada and Alaska,” Russ Moen, the steward of this zeppelin on wheels, says. “And people really love the story, especially the part where I found it out in the woods,” he adds. “But at one point I have to tell them that I made it up,” Moen admits. And by made it up he means more than the story. Moen, a pretty average guy by most accounts, transformed a 1954 Chevrolet cab-over truck into what he refers to as the Tourliner. And more incredibly than that, he did it almost entirely at home by himself.
He began the way most of us think of building a camper: by marrying a travel trailer with a cab-over truck. But as he explored the options, Moen uncovered numerous shortcomings. “In the end I decided to start from scratch,” he notes. “I really liked the Bowlus trailers (the pinched-end precursors to the Airstream) so I basically came up with a rough idea of what I wanted to build.”
While a talented craftsman, Moen is no draftsman. “So I made a deal with Mike Pearson and gave him a bunch of pictures and told him to put that in a drawing. We must’ve gone back 50, maybe 100 times tweaking this and that.”
Moen had a cab in hand and a camper in mind but no foundation. “I was going to start from scratch but when I told the street rod suspension manufacturers what I wanted they told me their stuff can’t go that big. It made sense to start with something that was built that heavy from the start.” He found his answer in an 1985 Elite motorhome, basically an apartment built on a GMC P30 commercial chassis.
“Then we did the dirty-grimy thing to mount the engine to the frame,” he continues. His weapon of choice: a 12-valve Cummins that Malcolm Cross, diesel drag racer and owner of Harbor City Diesel, built. He O-ringed the block, upgraded the head studs, and fit a BD Power Super B turbo on an aftermarket manifold. BD Diesel in Vancouver built the transmission. “It’s probably the single-most expensive pieces in the truck,” Moen laments. “Those things are crazy expensive because they have to build them for the torque.” Case in point, the engine produces 800 lb-ft … at 1,700 rpm.
Naturally that kind of power generates heat. To control it Moen uses four heat exchangers: the radiator from the Dodge, an intercooler, an oversized oil cooler to shed most the transmission fluid heat, and the transmission cooler in the radiator tank to stabilize the fluid temperature. That doesn’t even include the Vintage Air SuperFlow condenser.
Moen narrowed the front track 3 inches to fit the body. Carey Young updated the Dana 70 with a 3.73:1 gear on a limited-slip Eaton carrier. Spring plates remain to locate the axle to the chassis but Slam Specialties air springs support the rig.
Then the camper. “I was thinking aircraft and I actually found somebody but it was at aircraft prices,” Moen gripes. “It was my wife, actually, who asked, ‘Well you want to make it look like an upside-down boat, why don’t you get a boat builder?’ Well my buddy Karl (Foeshe) does that.”
Foeshe worked out a CAD design and trimmed 3/16-inch-thick aluminum sheet into strips. “He’s kind of picky like me and he’s very good at what he does,” Russ praises. “He did it very well.”
Then the fenders. “I have a couple more buddies who have a boat shop, Randy Langille and Rick Granneman from R&R Boat Refit and Repair,” Moen notes. “They saw the concept and said, ‘Oh … we’d like to get involved too!’ So I gave them a profile and they built a buck then a mold and gave me two fiberglass fenders.” An aluminum apron spans the gap between them.
Moen then attacked the individual components. He extended the cab’s rear window downward to create the passage to the camper. Bear-claw latches positively close the doors. A windshield visor gives the cab an old-world flavor; a ’51 Cadillac bumper and chin pan give it a refined, almost car-like presence.
Moen and Lars Jorgensen at Harbourview Collision prepped and shot the body Dupont Chroma Black. And if you thought Moen should’ve polished the camper then you’re not alone.
“I spent probably six months solid working on it pretty much all the time to polish it,” he says. “It was breathtaking … but once I got it outside in the sunlight I didn’t like the way it looked. The image is all broken up by seams on a plane or trailer but mine’s continuous. So I just sanded it down and painted it. I’m happy with the decision but man it was a lot of work.”
Foeshe built a seamless shower and Moen installed a vacuum-cassette toilet, a 75-gallon freshwater tank, and a 20-gallon gray-water tank. “The rear also has its own climate control, a self-contained Dometic unit like the ones in tractor-trailer sleepers,” Moen notes.
Randy Langille and Rick Granneman, the guys who built the fenders, also laid the teak and maple floor and built the birch and cherry cabinets. They house a Wallas diesel stove/heater, a Nova Kool refrigerator, and an electric hot-water heater.
The cockpit resembles many well-appointed rods. It features a Dakota Digital combo and solo gauges. Moen mounted the RV’s steering column to the dash and tucked a Vintage Air Gen II Super Cooler behind it. A Painless Performance harness distributes power.
Rather than rely solely on mirrors, Moen employed Vision Tech cameras: two mounted in 1939 Chevrolet taillights at the front steps and a third at the back. They broadcast to a JVC head unit in the overhead console. That head unit feeds a four-channel Pioneer amplifier that drives Pioneer 6-3/4-inch component sets and a 10-inch subwoofer in a seat base in the camper. The bottom door in the camper’s overhead cabinet swings down to reveal a 19-inch monitor.
Ford Windstar cargo seats make the most of the cab space. Mark Latrace at Miracle upholstery in Black creek trimmed them and the side panels in tan leather. He also covered the cab floor in square-weave carpets.
For wheels, Moen dressed up standard GM 19.5x6 wheels with stainless trim rings. The 1949 Mercury caps mount creatively: by stainless hardware that bonds to the wheel centers with molecular epoxy. The caps simply spin on.
Despite its size, the Tourliner weighs only 10,000 pounds. That’s about two-thirds what the donor motorhome weighed yet the Cummins produces more than twice what the motorhome’s 454 could muster. In fact it has a better power-to-weight ratio as a big-block full-size truck from a few years ago. “It’ll go right up hills,” he brags. And due to diesel’s efficiency it’ll do it for few bucks. “I get 20 miles per U.S. gallon,” he brags.
The camper’s tapered profile not only looks distinctive; it makes the ’Liner uncannily good in cross winds. “We’ve been caught in heavy wind and rain a couple times and people tell us that it looks pretty cool because of the tail that comes off of it.” The massive antiroll bars don’t hurt, either. “That’s a nice thing about starting with a motorhome chassis,” he observes. “One thing I really noticed is how effective that tag axle is. Sometimes I’ll drop the pressure on the tag axle to get in and out of a place but as soon as you put the air back in you can feel the whole truck get solid.”
The Tourliner makes pretty good accommodations, though Russ and Ru choose to stay in hotels for longer trips. “This is not a vehicle that you’d go someplace and live in,” Moen admits. “It’s very comfortable to travel in and maybe stay overnight in. So when you pull into a truck stop you can kick back and watch a movie or something.
“Usually the truck-stop people won’t bug you but I have had to rethink taking my wife to shows in it,” he says. Case in point, awestruck attendees can’t resist ogling the Tourliner in the RV lots after hours. “It’s fine for me but you don’t get any rest. People are always knocking on the door when you’re trying to go to bed. I don’t mind it but it’s not good for my wife.” But Russ and Ru have driven it to and stayed in it at major landmarks in Canada and the United States.
So Russ Moen’s Tourliner may not have a tycoon’s provenance. But that’s all the better if you ask us. Because as cool as it’d be to uncover an uncommon find, we rather like the idea that a regular guy with a regular job can still pull off a Hughes-scale project. Plus he can actually use it, something that he couldn’t do with an artifact. And what good would that be?