by Douglas W. Richardson
Telephone 310-457-6400 10am - 8pm California time. No texting.
I started building Land Rover camper conversions in 1964. The goal was to create the most comfortable camping vehicle possible without compromising the off-road capabilities.
I was a mechanical design engineer located in Los Angeles, California. Mexico was only a short distance away. Even a 3-day weekend was enough to cram in a Mexican beach camping get-away. But what I would accept as adequate comfort, my wife would not. We started out tent camping. Then we tried various vehicles with makeshift conversions. When I checked out a 109 Land Rover, I concluded that it was the best vehicle for our purposes. I was particularly drawn to the bolted on roof design. I thought that offered a number of camper conversion design possibilities. There were several conversions available that took advantage of the Land Roverís roof design. Some hinged the roof at one end and some just added increased headroom. None really appealed to me.
My approach was to hinge the roof on the side. I built a 4" thick plywood frame affair that bolted to the Land Rover in place of its roof and then hinged the roof on the top side of the frame. Braces held the roof in an almost vertical position when open. I then attached a tubular support to the other side of the frame with hinges. I made a fabric enclosure that attached to the three non-hinged sides of the roof. The other edges of the fabric were attached to the three sides of the frame that did not have roof hinges. The support held the fabric up on the side opposite the roof. This worked extremely well. When the roof was folded and secured to the frame, the vehicle height was raised by only 4-1/2". There was nothing that altered the off-road capability of the vehicle other than a small increase in weight. When camping, the roof would be released, tilted up, braced, the support folded out and locked in position by two spring loaded stays. It took less than three minutes to create a box-shaped second story with 8' of head room throughout the back of the Land Rover. I fitted removable bed panels to the top of the frame. They could all be moved forward over the front seats for stowage, yielding full headroom usage of the rear area of the Land Rover. It was like a tree house. High and dry above the ground, it also afforded protection from ground creatures and low level bugs. The support tilted past the vertical when erected. This resulted in the top being further out than the bottom. This meant that rain would fall off the edge of the fabric at the support rather than run down the fabric like it would on a sloping tent. When it rained, the side window flaps could be rolled down to allow ventilation without getting wet. The best feature was the short time it took to erect or lower the roof. This is extremely important because if it is not quick and easy, it will not be used.
So many possibilities were created by my opening top design. I built cabinets into the rear area of the Land Rover to provide a little kitchen, seating, storage, etc.
Our traveling and camping activities continued to expand with road trips to the Soviet Union, Africa, Europe and all of Central America. All the time redesigning, improving, refining and otherwise pushing the envelope of the possibilities for the ultimate in camping comfort and off-road capability.
By this time we were ordering custom built Land Rovers directly from the factory. I was ordering Land Rovers for our use as well a client following. It became a routine to custom order a new Land Rover, build a new conversion, ship the conversion to England, take delivery of the Land Rover and then assemble the camper near the dock where we and the camper conversion had arrived by ship. It was becoming an obsession (although with a lot of fun) to create the best possible traveling vehicle.
We had been having a problem with cooking stoves. We had tried every kind of fuel. White gasolene, leaded gasolene, LPG, Sterno, Primus and diesel. Nothing was satisfactory. Finally, a person was looking at our vehicle and made the comment "You have everything in there but a microwave oven." That was the answer! But how do you power a microwave oven in a vehicle. Today the obvious answer is with big batteries and an inverter. But that was a long time ago when suitable inverters were not available. To my knowledge, we designed and built the first battery powered microwave oven. Even so, it turned out to be impractical so I worked with a company developing inverters. We eventually got an invert/microwave system to work.
I had finally reached the point where I believed I had developed a commercially viable product. Everywhere we took the Land Rover, people would be drawn to it. They were fascinated by its uniqueness and comfort on such a short (109") wheelbase vehicle. The idea of going off the beaten track in comfort had a wide appeal. The back packers were old enough to want something like this. I had designed and marketed some Land Rover products including Spin-On Oil Filter Adaptors and Door Vents for the 109s and Demolition- Bumpersô, which were a combination bumper, towing system, brush guards, off-road lights and a submersible tank.
I was not so naive, though, to think the Land Rover application alone could support a business manufacturing what I was now calling the "Sleeper-Topô". I decided to make the production prototype featuring a design that could be fitted to most any pickup truck, SUV or van.
First off, the Land Rover roof would have to be replaced with a completely new top designed to be easily changed in length and width. The same would be true for the matching frame. The frame would have to be adaptable to a variety of mounting surfaces and even be the top section of a pick-up bed shell. It needed to be very modular and self-contained. Everything had to be built into the frame and connected to the vehicle with a single plug-in cable. Keeping those criteria in mind but still intent on building the best possible Land Rover camper, I began.
The first task was to order a new Land Rover to my specifications. This would be my 16th Land Rover. I was told at the time that I was the only individual in the world who had his own factory specification. The Land Rover ordered was a 1988 2-door 110 Long Wheelbase, Hardtop, Turbo-Diesel with air conditioning, power steering, folding side steps, folding side mirrors, locking fuel filler caps, military seat box, link front floor mats and power brakes. It was built on a modified military chassis with military suspension, push bumpers and NATO towing provisions. An added stabilizer provided better control. It was fitted with a rear station wagon fuel tank and station wagon rear door. The left rear wheel box was made without a tool box or spare wheel mount to be compatible with the camper interior cabinetry and additional fuel tanks underneath. It also has two spare wheels making 6 road wheels in all.
Subsequently, the Land Rover was fitted with large backup lights switched so as to be useable for outside rear lighting, ARB Locking Differentials on both axles & automatically engaged when the center differential is engaged, Demolition- Bumperô, my design folding rear step and special stainless steel front flooring with under floor storage boxes. The seat box was later replaced with a custom built unit providing large under seat storage boxes, starting battery, permanently installed heavy duty jumper cables and battery switching and charging equipment. Battery trays were fitted under the new seat box with two 4D gel house batteries. Two additional 15 gallon fuel tanks were fitted just forward of each rear wheel with standard Land Rover key-locking side fillers. All three tanks are controlled by a run dry fuel switching system. Two 20 liter fuel/water cans are mounted on the rear door. The standard alternator was replaced with a low rpm/high output unit. The center seat was replaced by a center divider storage console. A 25 amp converter provides charging when plug-in power is available. A 1000 watt pure sine wave inverter, fitted behind the console, provides AC power.
Next came the Sleeper-Topô. Although the design called for aluminum extrusions to be used extensively during production, the prototype had to be hand built at great expense. The frame was made entirely of aluminum. It incorporates the house lighting, outside rear lighting, radio, spring mounted heavy duty antenna, speaker system, ventilation, roof fasteners, brace fittings, support hinges, folding bed flooring, control panels, gages, etc. When the bed, including mattress, pillows, etc. is folded forward over the front seats, there is full walk around headroom in the rear of the vehicle. When the bed is unfolded for sleeping, there is still an open area next to the rear door for access to and from the bed and the toilet. Optionally, a different type of bed flooring can be permanently attacheded to the frame with the access opening over the front seats. That would be the arrangement if the back of the Land Rover was to be used only for cargo.
The roof had to be completely hand formed from aluminum sheets. All hinges, fasteners and brackets were custom hand made. Fittings were attached to the roof to provide tie-downs for roof cargo like an inflatable boat and bicycles as well as the spare wheel. The fabric cover was fitted with large screened windows with rain covers and separate sand fly net window covers.
The interior cabinetry is modular. With the removal of only a few bolts and a couple of plugs, the entire interior can be removed so that the whole vehicle bed can be used for cargo or the cabinetry can be set up outside the vehicle. A couch fits along the right side. It contains 3 drawers and 3 top loading bins. The back end of the couch contains a self-pumping, macerating, push button operated, electric, recirculating, chemical toilet of my design. The toilet can be emptied virtually anywhere along the road side without problem. The couch back and cushion can be placed at the side of the couch to provide a second wide bed.
Across from the couch is the galley. It contains numerous drawers, two tilt-out bins, sink, water pump, microwave oven, electric refrigerator and a fold-out table.
Indoor/outdoor floor carpet, sliding privacy curtain closing off the front compartment and rear window curtain add to the camper comfort and privacy. There are also front and rear waste boxes and a magazine rack.
The left rear window was replaced with my design shower unit. A fold-out fabric enclosure provides a shower stall on the back of the Land Rover. There is a 20 gallon heated water tank under the chassis. There is nothing like a hot shower after a dusty and sweaty trek.
A large tent-like enclosure fits on the side of the Land Rover creating a pleasant outside sitting/living area. When the weather is dry, the top is held up to provide head room. When it starts to rain, the top is dropped to form a giant funnel with a hose attached. The end of the hose fits into the water tank. So, as long as there is diesel fuel and it rains occasionally, the camper is completely self-contained. To increase camping stay time, I designed, but did not have the time to build, a removeable side mounted 1000 watt solar panel that could be set up in a sunny area while the vehicle is in the shade.
A 12volt air compressor and 5 gallon air tank are mounted underneath behind the left rear wheel. To enhance off-road capability in addition to the ARB locking differential, I considered making an adaptor to allow the rear wheels to be doubled "dually-style" using the two spares but chose to make four custom locking ring wheels fitted with 9.00" x 16" tires. Locking ring wheels can be broken down easily by hand with tire irons in order to repair tires in the wilderness.
Even though everything seems to be Land Rover focused, with minor design modifications, virtually every component could be fitted to other vehicles. To prove this, I planned to start building a Sleeper-Top conversion on my Mitsubishi pickup truck. Also, the original roof, seat box, bumper, alternator and differentials are available to return the Land Rover to its original factory configuration if desired.
My goal was to sell the Sleeper-Topô design to someone wanting to go into the camper conversion manufacturing business. Although everything was well documented by engineering drawings, I anticipated being involved as a consultant. To find a buyer, I needed exposure. The best way to get that is through magazine articles featuring the Sleeper-Topô. Several articles had been published in the past about our Land Rovers and travels and there was one writer inquiring about the latest vehicle. We worked out an arrangement whereby I would provide everything he needed for his article but I would have review and editing rights because I wanted the article to sell the design, not the Land Rover. As things go, there were changes going on within the magazine company. We lost all control over content. I ended up with piles of letters from people who wanted to buy a Sleeper-Topô and none from anyone who wanted to buy the design. I was too old and involved in other things to start a new business so that was the end.
As things stand now, the Land Rover and a treasure of Land Rover parts catalogs, parts and historic information are for sale. I suppose it is never too late for someone to go into the Sleeper-Topô manufacturing business but I am not sure just how much help I can offer. I got even older and then lost most of my vision.
There are articles posted on the next several pages that may be of interest. The two Land Rover campers shown in the photo are my #15 and #16. Number 16, the white one, is the production prototype I have been talking about above. There is also an article about the Demolition-Bumperô. I still have one of the original 109 model Demolition-Bumpersô available if someone is interested.