Diesel Pusher on a Budget
Living for the weekend. It’s the natural order of things for most Americans. For tens of thousands of us, Friday afternoons are spent loading up and heading out to our favorite weekend getaway. For J.D. Donohue, it means escaping to the desert with all of his toys in tow. Recently, he’s discovered that you can haul your toys in luxury if you wait for the right deal.
Already in possession of a 30-foot, triple-axle enclosed trailer, J.D. was looking to get away from buying another toy hauler and began to browse the used diesel pusher market instead. After all, the kinds of toys he was hauling out to the desert had grown from dirt bikes and quads into side-by-sides over the years, so it only made sense to explore the RV segment.
After landing a deal for $50,000 on a low-mile, ’04 Alfa See Ya—a motor coach that stickered for $228,000 brand new and had an asking price of 80-large when he found it in 2016—J.D. quickly found himself behind the wheel of a like-new diesel pusher. Even though a fresh paint job, blown head gasket and several interior knick knacks ate into his budget, he now has a rock-solid reliable tow-rig that happens to have an upscale living quarters.
The used RV market is saturated with these things, and with a little bit of elbow grease and regular maintenance they can be made to last for years. J.D.’s own experience is a great way to illustrate how you too can break into the luxury motorhome market.
The Alfa: Part Tow Rig, Part House on Wheels
Built by Alfa Leisure of Ontario, California, the 2004 model 36FD runs 38-feet in length, features a 32,000-pound GVWR and is rated to tow up to 10,000 pounds. Don’t let the fact that Alfa Leisure went out of business during the Great Recession scare you. Only the box of the motorhome was theirs. The chassis came from Freightliner, the engine from CAT, the transmission from Allison, the axles from Meritor (including a 20,000-pound drive axle out back), the generator from Generac Power Systems and so on. Knowing this going into it, J.D. knew sourcing replacement parts would be relatively easy.
At the back of the bus and under the master suite you’ll find the heart of this Class A motorhome: a Caterpillar 3126. The inline-six diesel mill displaces 7.2L, makes use of a fixed geometry turbocharger, utilizes a HEUI fuel injection system (pressurized engine oil is used to fire the injectors) and bolts to a 3000 series six-speed Allison transmission. This particular model engine, a 3126E, puts out 330hp—the highest rating offered of any 3126. Perhaps the best part about picking up the 3126E is that it didn’t have to meet the stricter emissions regulations its successor, the C7, would.
Soon after buying the motorhome, J.D. noticed the engine had a tendency to overheat. After cleaning the radiator and replacing the thermostats, he realized the head gasket was blown. The root problem was traced back to the engine fan being installed backward by the previous owner (installed correctly above), along with the factory crankcase breather facilitating an oily buildup of debris on the cooling stack, which only further hampered airflow through both the intercooler and radiator.
DIY Top-End Overhaul
Rather than fork over $6,000 to $8,000 to have Caterpillar handle the head gasket job, J.D. decided to buy all the necessary parts and perform the work himself. He even went so far as to rig up his own A-frame engine hoist in the motorhome’s bedroom. The job was extensive and labor intensive (especially when it was time to torque the head bolts), but saved him at least $4,500 when all was said and done. From start to finish, J.D. had roughly eight hours in the repair.
During the head gasket repair, J.D. also replaced the factory Hot/Cold dummy gauge on the dash with a 100-280-degree water temp gauge (along with a new sending unit) from Equus Products. Now, with the new head gasket, fresh thermostats, modified breather tube, correctly installed fan and shroud and a clean cooling stack, it’s rare when coolant temp crests 160 degrees. In fact, the only time the thermostats get close to opening (180 degrees) is when the pusher is climbing a six-percent grade, with the 10,000-pound enclosed trailer attached, in 100-degree heat.
Manning the Ship
Part of the interior restoration called for fresh carpet on the floor and more comfortable, Flexsteel captain chairs up front. Simple, push-button shifting is available for the Allison 3000 automatic and the air brake system features dual tanks with convenient automatic moisture ejectors. A full air ride suspension from Neway (along with Sachs-tuned shock absorbers) gives the 15-ton behemoth the feel of a second-generation Lincoln Town Car, while hydraulic four-point leveling jacks help stabilize the motorhome once it’s made it to the campsite.
An onboard Xantrex 3000-watt inverter serves as an all-in-one battery charger, transfer switch and inverter. When AC power is available, the inverter recharges the coach’s batteries while simultaneously allowing all surplus AC power to run any downstream AC loads such as a microwave or TV. When AC power is disconnected or not available, the inverter/charger converts DC battery power into AC electricity.
7.5 kW Diesel Generator
Siphoning off some of the coach’s 100 gallons of fuel for itself is a 7,500-watt Generac diesel generator, which suits J.D.’s dry camping style. Its biggest workload is powering a residential style, 27,000 BTU basement A/C unit or a 13,500 BTU top-mounted unit, along with various other appliances throughout the cabin. However, after scoring a 10,000-watt Onan generator on the cheap (a $10,000 unit), it soon will replace the Generac, along with being attached to a steel slide-out for ease of serviceability.
Home Away From Home
Two slide-outs (one in the living/dining area, one in the bedroom) transform the RV into a small home once you reach your destination, with the primary ceiling measuring 7-feet 6-inches and the interior head room in the slide-outs providing 6-feet 2-inches of height. Positioned on the half ceramic tile, half carpet floor sits an 82-inch leather sofa sleeper opposite an optional leather J-lounge sofa. To modernize the interior, J.D. converted everything to LED lighting. Natural light makes its way into the cabin via the factory-installed, solar-tinted glass windows.
Built with full-timers in mind, a washer/dryer combo is present in the bathroom, with a glass-door shower with a seat directly across from it. Other life-on-the-road features include attic storage, a four-door refrigerator/freezer with 12 cubic feet of space and oversize galley and wardrobe cabinets.
Thanks to Freightliner’s XC raised rail chassis, plenty of storage space is available in the pusher’s climate-controlled basement. Two full-length, pass-through storage trays allow you to stow anything and everything out of the way. Well insulated, the doors are 2-3/8-inch thick fiberglass (just like the walls) and make use of posi-seals.