When Allan and Gemma Brown pull into a campground in their enormous motorhome, people stop and take notice. Perhaps ‘motorhome’ isn’t quite the right description. This home on wheels comprises a 12-metre long ‘home’, driven by a MAN TGM 250 truck, in bright orange no less. The total length including the truck cab is 17 metres. Fair to say that finding a suitable park isn’t always easy, in fact it takes some very careful advanced planning. But for Allan and Gemma, this big orange beauty is their dream home. It’s a dream that has been a long time in the making, with more than a few nightmare moments along the way.
I first met Allan and Gemma in 2019 at the Covi SuperShow in Auckland. The couple told me they were planning to build a mobile home on a truck and trailer unit, and that it was going to be big. The plans had been drawn, they’d found a builder, and work was about to get underway. It sounded ambitious and very expensive. But they knew that. What they didn’t know was that their builder was about to go bust and a global pandemic was on the way.
HOW IT STARTED
About four years ago, with a sizeable mortgage and a strong desire to travel the country, Allan and Gemma started to think about the possibility of buying a motorhome and living full time on the road. The couple had a lifestyle block in North Canterbury. “We were both over paying a mortgage, paying rates, and paying for things we didn’t need,” says Gemma. “We wanted a life that offered more freedom – to travel, to stop and go as we pleased, to work as it suited, and to enjoy our country without travelling for hours on end in holiday traffic.”
The decision to sell up and buy a motorhome was easy. The harder decision was choosing a motorhome that would meet their wish list. That list included being able to carry Allan’s 5.5-metre kayak and his Honda CPX150 motorbike. They wanted a full-sized bathroom, a bed just like home, to have the bedroom and living area completely separate, enough storage space to pack their lives into (which is quite a lot!), lots of power, and most of all, to feel ‘at home’.
“It became clear very early on that if we were going to live comfortably on the road for the rest of our lives, we needed to go big. At first we considered a traditional fifth-wheeler but the more we looked into it, the more we realised that wasn’t the best option for us. After looking closely at how much weight we wanted to carry, the size of the floor plan, the layout we wanted etc, we decided that the best way forward was to have it built to our design.”
Both Allan and Gemma had built their own homes before, so they had a good idea of what was involved and how to get started. Add to that, Allan is a full-time truck driver, and Gemma has a truck licence. “Once the idea of building took hold, our plans kept getting bigger and better,” says Allan. “We realised the trailer would need to be over 3.5 tonne, which meant we’d have a weight issue and would need a suitable truck to tow it with.”
Because the couple, who have family ties in Aussie, eventually want to live and travel around Australia in their new motorhome, they initially considered building there. “We flew to Melbourne and found someone who was building large scale motorhomes. After years of planning, we settled on what we thought we needed and were ready to go.”
But just when it seemed like they could take the next step and get the build underway, the Melbourne workshop closed their doors and ceased business. “That was a bit of a blow,” says Allan. “They were the only workshop in Australia doing the sort of build they wanted, so that meant a change of plan. We decided to look for someone in New Zealand instead. It meant we’d have to eventually ship the motorhome to Aussie, but also gave us the benefit of having it here in New Zealand to live and travel in first.”
In early 2019, the couple found a builder in Hamilton prepared to take on the build, so they moved to Cambridge and rented a property.
Allan and Gemma ordered a 12-metre Trailer from Fruehauf NZ Ltd in Feilding, complete with air bag suspension and manual wind-down levelling legs for additional stabilisation. Rather than the traditional ‘gooseneck’ connection, it has a flat bed with a level floor all the way through which made it possible to build the multiple exterior storage lockers they wanted.
I caught up with Allan and Gemma in Hamilton in September 2019. The trailer had arrived, the build was about to get underway and there was excitement in the air. Their new dream ‘home’ was finally happening. And the ‘motor’ part of the equation was also on its way – a MAN TGM 4×4 automatic 13/250 (13 tonne GVM, 250 horsepower) cab in the unmissable colour of burnt orange.
The cab unit, ordered through Penske in Auckland, was shipped from Germany. The truck has the latest technology onboard including SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) and is almost emission-free using Adblue additives.
An aluminium locker was built onto the chassis to house the 3kVA generator and three jerry cans of petrol for Allan’s motorbike and the generator. On top of the truck chassis, which has been shortened by about one metre, are the mounts for the ‘fifth-wheel’ turntable, and a hydraulic crane for lifting the motorbike which sits behind on a ledge at the front of the trailer unit, and also for lifting off the kayak which is on top of the motorhome. Other modifications to the cab unit include fitting a PTO (Power Take Off) pump to operate the crane. Another locker was also fitted directly behind the cab for storing camping gear and a slide-out fridge/freezer. And above this, a cage for holding any other extra bits and pieces. And with a decent bed set up behind the cab seats, the truck unit has pretty much everything needed for those times when Allan and Gemma need (or want) to unhitch the unit and go off-road in the Aussie outback for a camping adventure (fingers crossed that will be possible in the near future), or just into town to stock up.
“We can’t speak highly enough of the guys at Penske who transformed the truck into what it is today,” says Allan. “They did an absolute first-class job, right down to the nitty gritty detailing. They even added a really cool touch on the cage unit at the top. On each of the corners they’ve added our initials: GB and AB. They didn’t even mention it to us, we just discovered them and were really stoked, it was such a thoughtful touch.”
In the meantime, while the team at Penske was busy blinging the cab with all the gear, the team at Roadrunner Manufacturing in Bulls were hard at work custom manufacturing the storage lockers that would be fitted to the trailer unit. There are lockers for everything – from the Weber barbecue to the weedeater (yep, you just never know when you’re going to need to clear a patch of weeds next to your campsite).
A CHALLENGING TIME
Up until this point, things were going relatively smoothly. Here’s where the road got a little challenging. More than a little really, there were some pretty big potholes, dead-ends and U-turns.
In early February 2020, the truck was complete, physically at least. But then Allan was told he couldn’t drive it. Not without a Transport Service Licence. Because the truck is over 6000kg (6920kg to be exact), he was required by the NZTA to pay $500 and wait through an eight-week application process.
“I contacted the NZTA and argued that the truck was to tow a motorhome and wasn’t being used for commercial purposes, but that didn’t wash with them. It was a case of ‘rules are rules’. It meant a big delay and a lot of stress and hassle that we didn’t expect.”
But in the grand scheme of things, that was just a pothole. An unexpected deadend was around the corner. In early March 2020, Allan and Gemma received a phone call advising that the Hamilton builder’s company had gone into liquidation. All the money they had given them was gone and building would cease immediately. “We were in turmoil,” says Allan. “The build had barely progressed, yet we were now out of pocket by a six-figure sum of money.” That would have been enough for most to call it quits and change tack. But Allan and Gemma forged on, determined to realise their long-held dream.
The good news was that, unlike a few other unfortunate clients of the builder, the couple owned the trailer unit being built on and were able to retrieve it and think how they’d move forward. There was just the matter of a global pandemic to contend with first. But while everything and everyone was locked down, phone calls were made, emails were exchanged, and their derailed dream got back on track.
WADE GROUP TO THE RESCUE
Wade Group in Te Rapa are not, and don’t aspire to be, motorhome builders. They fit out police cars, prisoner transport vehicles and ambulances. But what they are really known for is their impressive horse float fit-outs – or ‘equine coaches’. Horse truck in the back, luxury inner city New York apartment up front. And although Allan and Gemma were horseless, the team at Wade Group agreed to take on the job. “Although motorhome builds are not part of our usual offering, we wanted to help Allan and Gemma out,” says Alyssa Wade, managing director of Wade Group. “They had a good design and a determination to see the job through, and they’d really come unstuck through no fault of their own. We really felt for them, this was their retirement, their dream.”
Allan and Gemma sat down with the team and talked through the build in June of 2020. “We gave the team at Wade Group our book of wishes and plans,” says Gemma.
Denis Rylie, Wade Group’s Project Manager, says that apart from a few tweaks, the build went very much according to plan. “Allan and Gemma had a clear idea of what they wanted, the plans were drawn up and ready to go. We made minor adjustments, such as the exact placement of things, but otherwise, everything was fairly straightforward,” he says.
The build size, although bigger than most motorhomes you’re likely to see, was well within the scale and scope of Wade Group’s experience. But Denis suggests that anyone who is keen to follow in Allan and Gemma’s footsteps do their homework first. “First up, get a reputable builder, and be very clear about your budget and timeframe expectations.”
The original plan was to take delivery in November 2020, but with Covid, Christmas and shipping delays, the couple finally got their hands on their new home in late January 2021. I caught up with Allan and Gemma the day after they took possession of their new home. “It still doesn’t feel real,” said Gemma. “We sat in the lounge last night and I just kept saying, ‘Is this real?!’” It’s understandable. Losing a significant amount of money and massive unexpected delays weren’t something they’d factored in to their plans. So was it worth it? I didn’t even need to ask. The couple showed off their new home like new parents show off their baby.
Sitting in the living area with the slide-out extended, you would think you’re sitting in the lounge of a home. The extra space is just so… extra. There’s room for a comfy four-seater lounge suite which converts to a queen bed for guests, plus two La-Z-Boy recliners and footstools. What’s really nice about the living area is that it’s a space all of its own. It’s open and spacious but completely separate from the kitchen and at the opposite end of the unit from the bedroom – something that was a key consideration for Gemma.
DINING AND KITCHEN
The dining area is a little more ‘motorhome traditional’ with a face-to-face dinette style set-up. The L-shaped kitchen is centrally located with a full-sized oven/gas hob, a 155L Dometic three-way fridge/ freezer, lots of cupboards and drawers complete with a full-height slide-out pantry, and plenty of bench space. Plus there’s the addition of the handy slide-out 80-litre freezer that has been built into the end of the island bench. “Having a big freezer was high up on the wish list,” says Allan. “One of the reasons why we wanted it was so that when we’re travelling around the Australian outback, we can stock it up and not worry about being hours away from a shop or supermarket.” Makes sense, you can never have too much freezer space.
The bathroom is about the size you’d expect in a small apartment. The shower is full sized, and there’s room for a 6kg washing machine in the corner. “No dryer then?” I asked Gemma. “Nope, we’ve got a washing line on the back of the trailer, or we’ll just use a laundromat.”
The entire wall opposite the bathroom has been dedicated to storage, with drawers and cupboards galore. There’s a space for everything and everything has its space. Although deciding what they’d keep and provide space for wasn’t easy. “We had to go through a process of deciding whether we really needed all the things we had in our home,” says Gemma. “And for the things we did need, we created the best storage solutions in the early planning stages. For example, I wanted to keep my wooden glory box which we had built into the cupboard unit.”
The bedroom is roomy with a full-sized queen island bed. “I chose the mattress early on and Wades built a base to accommodate it,” says Gemma. Most motorhomes provide storage under the bed, but it can often be a little tricky to access. Not so with this bed. Gas struts allow the mattress to effortlessly pop up (and stay up), revealing a treasure trove of storage space beneath. When you’re done, the mattress glides back down into place. Gemma and I both pondered why standard beds in the average home don’t make use of this clever, simple idea. I want one.
Having had their new behemoth home for a few weeks, I asked the couple if they ever had a moment when they felt they’d gone too big. “In the early stages we did wonder if maybe the size would be an issue, and we know there will be places that we can’t go, but we’ve also made the necessary arrangements to adapt,” says Allan. “We’ve got the ability to leave the trailer parked up somewhere and just take the truck, or the bike. And for every downside of being big, there are many more upsides.
“This is our permanent, forever home. It’s big, yes. But it’s exactly what we wanted, and we can take it pretty much wherever we want to go.” Eventually, the couple will head back to Australia, but for now, their plans are to see as much of New Zealand as possible. “We are both able to work from just about anywhere in the country, so we have lots of scope.”
One thing is for sure, wherever they do go, they get lots of attention. “Naturally, people want to get a closer look at the truck, but we had to make the decision right from the start to say no to anyone who asks for a look inside. This is our home and we have to be firm about treating it that way. Just as you wouldn’t let someone who knocked on your door at home in for a look, we have to take the same approach.”
It’s been quite the journey for Allan and Gemma, even before they started their travels. But with the hard work and headaches behind them, they’re now looking forward to their new life travelling wherever they fancy, working as they go, and always having their own home with them. We wish them safe and happy travels and may all the pot-holes and dead-ends be well and truly behind them. If you’d like to take a look through their home, head here to view the video and hear Allan and Gemma talk through more of the cool features.
For those of you who are interested in the numbers, here are a few of the details that Allan and Gemma are often asked about:
- MAN TGM 13/250
- 250 HP c/w SCR Technology Euro 5
- 4×4 Fully engageable
- Automatic 12 speed Tiptronic Transmission
- Fuel Cap. 300L
- PTO driven hydraulic crane – 800kg lift capacity
- JOST turntable with 50mm kingpin
- Driver/Passenger seats fully air-ride
- 4 x reverse camera monitor – 1 on the truck, 3 on the trailer
- 3KVA Honda generator
- Fully loaded 7900kg (approx)
- Fruehauf 12 metre (11 metre living space) PSK semi-trailer
- Twin axle, single tyred, full airbag suspension
- 1000L fresh water capacity in 4 tanks
- 500L grey/black water capacity in 2 tanks
- 200L diesel tank for Eberspacher heating system and additional long range reserve for the truck
- 2.5 cubic metres of external storage
- Weber Q gas BBQ in cabinet on slide
- 3 x 340w split cell solar panels
- 1 x mastervolt lithium battery and controller
- 3000w inverter
- Dometic RUA5208X fridge freezer tropical rated
- Thetford Caprice MK111 gas oven, grill, hob
- 1000w Panasonic microwave
- Engel 80L freezer
- Sphere 85cm automatic satellite dish c/w twin LNBs adaptable to Australia
- 32-inch Majestic LED tv c/w Sky box
- F&P 6kg top loader washing machine
- Dometic sea/land 511 gravity flush toilet
- Total weight 10,500kg fully loaded
Grand total weight, including truck – 18,200kg