Thomas Kreutziger is a professional electrician by trade, but in his heart, this talented German is a truck guy and an adventurer. If you want a real overland adventure, there is not much on the Continent. The options are to drive to southern Spain and ship to Morocco, or to Italy and ship to Tunisia. Both put you at the fringe of the Sahara Desert. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can travel 1000 miles and be totally self-contained. This fact, along with the heritage of the huge 6x6 and 4x4 support trucks for the Dakar off-road race, has resulted in the design of some amazing expedition campers.
After 12 years of working with aluminum Land Rovers, Thomas decided he wanted something a little bigger and more comfortable. With some investigation, he discovered the Magirus Deutz trucks built in Ulm, Germany. They were designed originally for the German railroad and later used as emergency response vehicles at airports. One thing that clearly sets them apart from other vehicles is their Deutz air-cooled engine--lots of oil but no radiator.
After much searching, Thomas was able to find a 1976 1770D 12A with only 64,000 miles and no camper. What followed was a mammoth project, four years of hard work, and many innovative ideas, several of which had never been tried before. In the process, Thomas founded ALU-Star Expedition Campers. His personal ALU-Star prototype would include everything technically possible to create a mobile home, a high-clearance expedition vehicle, and a moving multifunctional workshop all in one.
The basic 179D12A Magirus Deutz came with a Kloeckner-Humbold-Deutz 8.5-liter direct-injection air-cooled diesel V-6, putting out 176 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. Surprisingly, this is not a turbocharged engine. The German railway had its own specific requirements. All trucks of this generation came with a five-speed ZF transmission and a two-speed 4x4 transfer case, giving it 10 forward gears. Full-time four-wheel drive, heavy-duty rear axles, and 100-percent differential lock on the rear axle and transfer case provide maximum traction.
The heavy-duty axles lent themselves well to oversize Michelin 14.00R20 tires. With a 15-inch width and a 49-inch overall diameter, in very soft sandy conditions, these tires can be dropped to 17 psi in the front and 26 psi in the rear. The Magirus has a maximum speed of 75 mph. At high speeds, it sucks in fuel at a rather thirsty 8 mpg. If you slow down to 50 mph or even slower, you can get as much as 13.8 mpg.
Thomas' first job was to completely strip the frame and galvanize everything that could rust. New spring packs were engineered for high-speed 4x4 use that might be necessary in the Sahara Desert and for the autobahn. Heavy-duty gas-adjustable shock absorbers were fitted.
The battery box and the onboard compressor air tank were relocated to make room for the two four-chamber 128-gallon custom aluminum diesel tanks on the outside of the frame. Aluminum skidplates under these tanks pull out as work or camping tables. The original 18-gallon diesel tank was retained to allow uninterrupted fuel delivery on steep grades. All brake and air lines were replaced with fireproof tubing in the event the vehicle had to be driven through a brush fire.
Turning his attention to the cab, heavy steel plates were welded into the floor to protect against land mines, not uncommon in Libya or Mauritania. A full rollcage was integrated into the cab. Thomas located a bank that was being decommissioned and before the demolition crews arrived, he salvaged the bulletproof glass, which was used in doors and windshields, eliminating the possibilities of anyone breaking in. Any parts of the cab that couldn't be made from aluminum were galvanized, including the cab frame.
The locking box above the cab was designed to function as storage for large items like foldable bicycles, a raft, and mountaineering and recovery gear. A throwback to his Land Rover days, it also serves as a tropical roof, reducing the need for an air conditioner.
After looking at the more common construction materials for campers such as close-cell foam and fiberglass, Thomas used his expertise in aluminum and saw that there were weight and strength advantages similar to those incorporated in aircraft that would be superior for an expedition camper. The outer skin was constructed with 1/8-inch-thick flat aluminum plates, the same as used in shipbuilding. For maximum insulation in extreme hot and cold, he used special 3.2-inch-thick material and covered the inside with a bird's-eye maple veneer for a warm and homelike feeling, as opposed to the surgical white look used by other German manufacturers.
Since this sophisticated vehicle will encounter much more than paved roads and high-speed autobahns, there were other aspects to consider. Dual-pane windows incorporate a fold-down flush-mounted security shutter with peepholes that still allow outside observation and ventilation. The front section of the roof can be opened with servomotors for a better view of the star-studded sky. The bed itself can also be raised with four servomotors all the way to the roofline for a cool night's sleep in the middle of the Sahara. Thomas calls it the "thousand-star hotel."
Without power, nothing works. Plugs for 230-volt AC and 12-volt DC are located throughout the camper. The base power comes from a bank of Sunshine Dry Fit Gel batteries. The battery bank is charged on the road by dual alternators and four SunWare 12V/545W solar panels, which can be walked on. When in camp, a 12V/350W wind generator can supplement the solar panels. A Freedom Heart Interface (Xantrex) inverter/converter supplies 220-volt AC and quickly recharges the batteries when they are plugged into shore power, which is infrequently. When needed, a SDMO Aliize 3000 generator slides out from an insulated side compartment.
Radiant hot water tubing in the floor structure provides heating. An Eberspaecher (Espar) D5 Hydronic diesel-powered heater supplies hot water for kitchen, shower, and floor heating. A 40-gallon solar water heater on the roof is nice for extended camps. A backup Primus diesel heater is on standby. Drawing from the experience of other expedition travelers and blue water sailors, there is little question that a good propane stove is the only way to prepare meals, especially since propane works at all altitudes and is available worldwide. A custom-built 140-liter refrigerator uses a remote compressor.
All-important water purification incorporates a three-step Everpure filter, similar to the type used by commercial airlines. A 92-gallon stainless-steel water tank is adequate for traveling two to three weeks, nonstop across the Sahara.
The dinette is set into a three-sided alcove in the rear with windows all around. It converts into a guest bed. All storage compartments, inside and out, use lightweight plastic boxes on slide-out rollers. Lilli, Thomas's wife, insisted on little practical touches, like overhead wine glass racks, a large stainless sink, and an ice-cream maker.
In the back, the spare tire is accessed on a slide-out carrier underneath the dinette. Above that is a secure rack for a DR 250 Suzuki motorcycle. Gasoline for the generator and motorcycle is stored in integrated compartments on the motorcycle rack.
The top of the camper is reached either through the flip-up hatch over the bed, or by the ladder outside. Once on top, Thomas calls it his roof Garden, a comfortable lounging area for six people with a flip-up safety rail and wind/privacy screens if needed.
With an expedition camper like this, getting there can be half the fun. Fully loaded, this ALU-Star weighs in at 24,250 pounds, with 256 gallons of fuel and 92 gallons of water. Departure angle is 40 degrees, approach angle is 45 degrees, ground clearance is 15 inches, and fording depth is 6.5 feet. Total length with the motorcycle rack is 26 feet, and height is 11 feet. Normal range in the desert without refueling is 2300 miles.
If you'd like to have ALU-Star build one for you, start saving. You might be looking at around $800,000, about what you'd spend for a similar vehicle built by Unicat or Langer & Bock.