TCM visits the Four Wheel Camper factory in Woodland, California, and checks out the AEV Jeep Brute Sparrow, or at least half an AEV Jeep Brute Sparrow. Okay, we only saw the Sparrow. Jeepers!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this article was published, Four Wheel Campers moved to a new factory.
Since 1972, Four Wheel Campers has been focused on building extremely durable and ultra-lightweight aluminum-framed pop-up truck campers for almost any truck you can imagine. While the company continues to refine this basic concept, its target never wavers from this simple and very popular formula.
So what could we expect to see when we visited Four Wheel Campers three years after our last visit? Well, not too much has changed. They are still focused on building their simple and popular pop-up campers. The campers and manufacturing processes have been refined, but essentially nothing was different. After thirty-seven years, why mess with success?
But wait! Is that the Brute Sparrow sitting over there? Let’s check out what might be the most exciting concept to hit the pop-up market for 2010 and see what’s old and new on the Four Wheel Camper production line.
Left photograph courtesy of American Expedition Vehicles.
At the Overland Expo last April, Four Wheel Campers debuted the Sparrow. Based on a Jeep TJ Wrangler with a Brute truck bed conversion from American Expedition Vehicles, the Sparrow was a major hit at the Expo and has received plenty of buzz from the overland community ever since.
So you can imagine our disappointment when we saw the Sparrow sitting inside the Four Wheel Campers production building without the Jeep Brute conversion. After the Expo, the Jeep Brute had returned to American Expedition Vehicles in Missoula, Montana. Bummer.
Once we recovered from our emotional trauma, we decided to take a close look at the Sparrow and see exactly what was possible on a Jeep. The 660-pound camper has a healthy list of features for a camper this size including a 22-gallon fresh water tank, twenty-pound propane tank, propane heater, two-burner gas range top, steel sink with Whale faucet, electric water pump, two twelve-volt outlets, power inverter, two 120-volt outlets, pull-out overcab bed, sofa, radius rear door, front window, side window, rear door window, four pop-up canvas windows, and at least ten drawers and other interior storage compartments.
All that’s on a Jeep for goodness sake! This camper is very exciting and I hope to personally take it out for an adventure someday. Of course, we’ll need the Jeep Brute, hint, hint.
LEFT: Four Wheel Campers consists of a main office building and a production building behind it. If you look close, you can see the rear end of our camper between the office building and the factory building.
CENTER: During a production break, we assembled the entire Four Wheel Campers team in between the office and production buildings for a group shot. This is the exact same place where we took the group photo when we visited in 2007. It was immediately clear that there are quite a few more Four Wheel Campers employees now.
RIGHT: While Four Wheel Campers models may look similar at first glance, the differences in floor plans, length, width, and other features become much more apparent when you experience the campers in person. If you visit the factory, plan on spending some time in their outdoor showroom to get acquainted with these sometimes subtle, but always important model distinctions.
When we’re photographing a camper factory, we always look for a high vantage point to capture the entire production line at once. When we couldn’t find one at Four Wheel Campers, Chicali, Four Wheel Camper’s Foreman, offered to take us up on their man lift. A what?
It turns out that a man lift is an open top steel cage designed to be lifted about ten to fifteen feet into the air by a forklift. Since our health insurance is current, we thought, “Sure, why not?” and climbed in.
Chicali then took the wheel and raised us up and away. Once he had us at altitude, we took a few bird’s eye photographs of the camper production and asked Chicali to take us further down the line. With everyone on the production line looking at us like we were a parade float from planet weird, we slowly cruised down the production line until we signaled that we were where we needed to be. A few more photographs later, Chicali returned us to terra firma. Thanks, Chicali!
LEFT: On his table saw at the back of the production building, Rick Cosgrove cuts every piece of wood in every Four Wheel Camper. Here he’s cutting 3/4” formica finished plywood. Sweet mohawk Rick! That might be my next dew.
CENTER: Victor Barrera is in charge of the Four Wheel Campers wood shop. Here he’s sanding part of the front lift mechanism.
RIGHT: Gonzalo Delgado is building the side cabinets for a Four Wheel Camper. Gonzalo explained that he likes to assemble as many side cabinets as possible at a time for efficiency.
LEFT: Gabriel Blanco is one of two welders at Four Wheel Campers. Here he’s welding an aluminum front camper wall frame in a jig.
CENTER: After the frame walls and floor have been welded, the walls and floors are welded together to make Four Wheel Campers’ aluminum frame. On the right side of this photograph, you can see how the welds are then sanded down before the frame continues down the line.
RIGHT: Just to the center of the factory floor from where Gabriel is welding, Luis Bibriesca installs the wood floors. Once they leave Luis’s floor station, the campers are turned right side up for skinning and interior paneling.
While the cabinet and welding teams are assembling their parts of a new Four Wheel Camper, the sewing team is preparing a vinyl soft wall and interior cushion set.
LEFT: Right where we left her three years ago, we watched Lynne Zenovich cutting the vinyl for a new soft wall and placing the screen material. Lynne couldn’t be more friendly and enjoys taking care of the two resident Four Wheel Camper cats, Fozzy and Sweet Pea.
CENTER: Upstairs from where Lynne is cutting vinyl soft wall material, Dora Medina was working on a set of new cushions. Behind her, Leo Izquiordo sews curtain covers.
RIGHT: Further back into Four Wheel Campers’ sewing department, Brenda Jackson was completing the assembly of a vinyl soft wall. In this photograph, Brenda is working on the windows and privacy flaps.
To the side of the production line, Jorge San Miguel assembles the folding panel lift mechanisms. Jorge explained that he builds two different sizes of lift mechanisms, one for the Eagle, Fleet, and Finch and another larger mechanism for the Grandby, Hawk, Keystone, and Kestrel.
The lift mechanisms are completely manual and extremely simple to operate, especially when assisted by the optional gas struts. Without the struts, the lift mechanism is still very simple to use but requires more effort to lift.
LEFT AND CENTER: Next to where Jorge is manufacturing the lift mechanisms, Ricardo Martinez is building the Four Wheel Camper roofs. In the first two photographs, you can see Ricardo insulate and later check and clean a roof for quality control.
RIGHT: Once a roof is completed with the lift mechanisms installed on either side, the roofs are lifted by two people and placed into a rack ready to go for the production line. In this photograph, you can clearly see the different sizes of roofs used for the different Four Wheel Camper models.
LEFT AND CENTER: On the opposite side of the production line from where Jorge and Ricardo are working, Jay Bailey prepares and assembles the plumbing and wiring harnesses into kits for each camper coming down the line.
RIGHT: These kits are then boxed complete with converters, sinks, and water pumps, and put onto a shelf ready for the assembly line.
Now that the cabinetry is completed, frames are welded, soft walls and cushions are sewn, lift mechanisms are built, the roof is completed, and electrical and plumbing kits are prepared, it’s time to put all of these components together and make a Four Wheel Camper. This is what Tom Hanagan, President of Four Wheel Camper, loves about truck camper manufacturing. It’s really something to see a camper come together from wood, aluminum, and vinyl materials. I’m right there with you Tom, it is neat.
LEFT: After a camper receives its floor from Luis Bibriesca, Natanael Garcia installs the interior luan wall panels.
CENTER: One station down the line, Alberto Aguilera skins camper in aluminum. When aluminum skin is complete, Alberto installs the windows. In this photograph, Alberto placing a front overcab window on a hard side Finch.
RIGHT: Daniel Camargo is also working on the hard side Finch. Here Daniel has just completed water-sealing the interior of the propane compartment and is now installing the compartment door.
LEFT: Oliver Romero is one of the most senior members of the Four Wheel Campers’ production team. Oliver does the plumbing and electricity for the appliances including running the propane gas lines and installing the stove, water heater, and 110 volt and 12 volt systems. During our visit, Oliver was focused on training new hire, Jose Badilla.
CENTER: Danny Newton works with Oliver to install the electrical and plumbing systems. Here Danny is installing the wire harness into a Four Wheel Camper Fleet. If you look on the floor of the camper, you can see Danny’s copious wiring and plumbing notes.
RIGHT: The next station down the line is where a new Four Wheel Camper has its vinyl soft wall installed. Joe Hernandez is part of a two-man team that installs the soft wall, final finishes the roof, and adds the six exterior roof latches. Once the camper has its soft wall, the unit will go through several more steps of final finishing and quality control inspections before delivery to the customer.
The “one of these things doesn’t belong” game came to mind when we saw an experimental overland project vehicle at Four Wheel Campers. Tom explained that the vehicle was a concept project that Four Wheel Campers took on as part of their continuing interest in the overland market.
The rig is full of new ideas and products from one end to the other. Is it a truck camper? Heck no. Is it really cool to see Four Wheel Campers push themselves forward with a project like this? You bet! We hope to see some of the ideas in this concept make it into the core Four Wheel Camper line. For example, the interior red LED night lights are for better night vision.
It’s often said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With Four Wheel Campers, this saying is about to be challenged. While they’re going to stay focused on their simple, durable, and lightweight aluminum pop-up formula, they’re also pushing forward with campers like the overland project and the Jeep Brute Sparrow.
And there’s another potentially exciting project waiting behind the scenes at Four Wheel Campers. Right now, it’s literally in a big black box. While we were not privileged enough to know what this top-secret project is, we have been promised by the people involved with the project that it would be something amazing, possibly a game-changer. We’ve also been promised an exclusive. How’s that for a teaser?
Call us when you’re ready to open the black box Four Wheel Campers. We’re ready!