Extreme Rigs

Diesel & Dragons: A TopKick Tale

Dennis Grazian wasn’t sure about the flame job and dragons on the used GMC TopKick on Craigslist. He bought it anyway, thinking he’d wrap it. Then the thumbs-ups began. Can a truck be destiny?

Diesel And Dragons A TopKick Tale

Is it possible that the universe knows what truck you should get, even if you don’t? Who knows? All we can say is the following story sure makes a good argument that maybe–just maybe–trucks pick us. One moment you’re looking at Craigslist, the next there’s something calling you through the electron ether. Come hither. Your truck awaits…

In February 2023, we published three feature articles on Ford-550, Ram 5500, and GM 5500 truck and camper rigs. The Class 5 truck camper articles were huge hits, especially with folks who own larger campers.

During that series, Dennis Grazian reached out to us about his GMC TopKick and Lance 1172 rig, but his set-up wasn’t ready. About a year later, we reached out to him and he sent us truck and camper photos we knew would make for a crazy fun story. It’s not every day that we publish a truck camper rig with a flame job.

Based on his interview, there’s no way Dennis would have picked this particular TopKick truck. However, we can’t see how any other truck on the planet could have been better for him. Maybe the stars aligned. Perhaps the fairy truck mother waved her wand. Whatever it is, Dennis’ rig had to be destiny. One roll of the twenty-sided die, and it was Diesel and Dragons.

Topkick Truck With Flames

Above: Dennis’ 2005 GMC TopKick and 2015 Lance 1172

How did you get into truck camping?

In true last-minute style, we decided to go camping in Yosemite National Park for Christmas. At that moment, we were still tent campers. Then I looked on Craigslist and found a 1993 Lance (pictured below) for $900. It was listed as, “nothing works”. Being me, I said, “The price is right”. I spent every day working on the old Lance for a week and got it ready to go. We made the trip and everything except for the refrigerator worked. I’ve been hooked on truck camping ever since.

1993 Lance Camper Square

How did you make a non-functioning camper work in a week?

The camper didn’t have propane tanks or a battery. All that the previous owner used it for was going to concerts. Essentially, he said nothing worked, but he never tried anything. I put a battery in the camper and nothing initially worked. Then I discovered the main fuse to the converter was blown. I changed the fuse, and mostly everything I needed to work, worked.

I also resealed the roof and generally went through everything. My biggest challenge was that I didn’t have my F-250 set up for a camper. With a little bit of welding and brackets, I got that together. Then I got a refurbished cooling unit a month or so later and got the refrigerator to work.

I do fabrication and automation for the food industry. We work on conveyor systems and anything that gets food production going on a larger scale. I have the luxury of shop space and welding fabrication equipment.

Lance 1172 At The Beach

Why did you decide to get a GMC TopKick?

A friend of mine essentially did roughly the same build before me, but did it on an extra cheap budget. That’s what gave me the idea.

The TopKick and Kodiak have a van-like chassis and are designed to be worked on. Anything you need to work on is accessible. I can tilt the front clip forward or get to the doghouse to access the turbo and the parts behind the motor. The inner fenders are removed on a hitch pin clip. It’s a fleet-style truck.

If your transmission has a problem, on some pickups trucks, you have to pull the entire cab. I’ve heard stories of Fords with turbo issues where they’d have to pull the cab off. If we are out of state and run into an issue, I could get my rig to O’Reilly’s and change the turbo myself.

GMC TopKick GVWR 17500 Pounds

Tell us about your TopKick.

The TopKick is technically like a 4500. However, with the Air Ride rear suspension, double pancake bags in the back, no leaf springs, and the bigger brakes, it’s more like a 5500 with its specs.

The GVWR is 17,500 pounds. When you register a vehicle with over a 14,000 pound GVWR in California as an RV, that vehicle becomes smog exempt.

When I saw this truck on Craigslist, it was listed as no longer carb complaint. It was sitting on Craigslist for a long time. It could not be registered in California as a truck, so the price drastically dropped.

The guy I bought it from said that he spent $95,000 on the cab and chassis alone. Then, he put $15,000 into paint and $15,000 into a Highway Products cargo bed and boxes. It was crazy how much of what he did was what I wanted in my build.

With the mounted camper, my TopKick is classified in California similar to a diesel pusher Class A motorhome. If I pull the camper off or change it to a regular pickup bed, it would no longer be compliant and I’d have to leave the state. A flatbed is fine.

Hot Rod Truck Camper

Was the truck painted with the flames and dragons when you got it?

The paint is hilarious to me. I looked at the flames on the truck in the Craigslist listing for weeks. I didn’t like it. It looked ridiculous. I kept looking at it and my opinion didn’t change.

I eventually went to see the truck and brought a friend in case I bought it. In person, the flames are pretty cool. It’s done well. Then my friend looked at the hood. The hood has two dragons, a castle, a solar system, and planets. It’s way, way over the top. I said, “No way. I can’t drive that down the road.”

Even with the flames and dragons, I bought the truck. I thought I could put a wrap over the paint to hide it. I hemmed and hawed about what to do as I drove around. As I drove, I kept getting thumbs up from kids on the street.

GMC Topkick Hood With Dragons

And like that, it started growing on me.

A month or so later, I added the camper to the mix. By then I was getting constant feedback at gas stations like, “I like that thing. Look at those flames”. A lot of people really like the flames. One day a guy drove up with a Ford Ranger taking pictures with his flame paint job.

So I decided to leave the flames. I didn’t touch the dragons either.

Lance Camping Desert With Topkick Truck

We definitely give the flames and dragons a big thumbs up here at TCM. Tell us about your TopKick and Lance 1172 combination.

We kept our 1993 Lance for a couple of years and sold it. I got tired of putting the camper on the truck on a Friday only to remove it on a Sunday. So, I decided to buy a purpose-built truck that could accommodate a truck camper and tow our Jeep or boat.

I liked the idea of a flatbed with more storage options. A side door camper seemed like a great idea, especially since we tow. After purchasing the TopKick, weight was no longer an issue. When a 2015 Lance 1172 showed up for sale, they looked like they were meant for each other.

GMC TopKick With Lance Camper

Your TopKick and 1172 rig looks tall. Does that limit you to the places you can go?

It is tall. My rig is 12’10” high, 8’0” wide, and 25 feet long with the Lance 1172. The TopKick has a wide beam front axle which helps with stability. The truck has load range G tires, which is crazy. The tires are at 110 PSI. I don’t get a lot of tire flex, which helps a lot.

We are constantly looking up. My rig is 12’10” to the air conditioner. It’s not any higher than most toy haulers, but it’s still very tall.

The TopKick turns better than my F-250. The wheelbase is about the same as any truck. It has a kingpin front axle and two-wheel drive so there are no axle restrictions. The wheels turn at almost a 90-degree angle. Pulling into gas stations or small fire roads is no problem. The only issue is weird off-camber stuff.

We do a lot of desert camping where there are no trees. We drive dirt roads for 45 minutes while we’re towing. You’re only going to go so far when you are towing anything. Then we take the Jeep where we want to go.

GMC Topkick Camper Towing Trailer

What do you get for fuel mileage?

When I’m not towing, I get around 13 to 14 miles per gallon. When I’m towing a basic box trailer, it might get 11.5 miles per gallon. The trailer is 5,500 pounds loaded, but it’s out of the wind since my truck is so big.

When I’m towing my Jeep, I get 8 miles per gallon driving Highway 50 to Tahoe. That’s climbing straight up for an hour.

Lance And Topkick Towing In Parking Lot

Can you go to a GMC dealer and have the TopKick worked on?

I can take it to a GMC dealer, and they know what to do with it. It’s a standard 6.6 Liter LLY V-8 Duramax turbo diesel with an Allison 5-speed transmission, just like a 3500. For the most part, it is the same turbo as a regular truck. It has a larger oil pan and transmission capacity.

If you are getting into chassis repairs, like with the Air Ride rear, a dealer doesn’t know what to do with things like that. That’s when I go to Loves or truck stop stations. They will do tire work and have brake parts there. I can get the suspension airbags there as well. I pull into a truck stop and they have those items. You need to know where to take it and when.

The TopKick has very large lug nuts. If you go to a truck shop and they don’t put them back on with the proper torque spec, you can’t get them off when you’re on the side of the road. I have them put them close, but sometimes they don’t do it right. That’s when I get out my large Milwaukee gun and torque it to what my Milwaukee can do. I have to go to a heavy-duty truck place to change a tire.

GM Topkick Front Hood

Do you need special insurance or a special license to drive it?

Not at all. Once you register your rig as an RV in California, it doesn’t matter how big it is. It could be an RV bus or a Class A. Once a vehicle is registered as an RV, anyone can drive it without a special license. That’s what the huge 40 foot Class As are.

With insurance, I was able to go through State Farm. They consider it an RV with the year of my camper, so it’s a 2015 Lance RV. The truck is covered as part of my RV.

Lippert Three Step System

Your steps into your camper look sturdy. What are they and how are they attached?

There are only two exterior steps on the stock Lance 1172. I was tired of stacking blocks to make up the difference and found these Lippert steps. They bolt into the same location as the steps that came with my 1172.

With the amount of leverage at the third step, I made a bracket to bolt into the Lance better. They feature a kickstand to the ground which supports the steps. It’s an easy and stable walk into the camper now.

Step System On Lance 1172

Do you still get lots of attention with your TopKick and Lance?

Yes. People are constantly asking questions about the truck and camper, and it’s fine. At every campground we pull into, everyone has to know the story. We have to put out a lawn chair the first hour we arrive.

Around home, I don’t get as much attention because it’s a surf town. The retired folks will say, “Why do you have something that big?” If I go camping in Nevada or Arizona, everyone has a question. There are a lot of people who are inspired by a camper on a flatbed.

Some folks say, “That’s a hot rod camper”. I’ve thought about wrapping the camper to match the truck.

Frame Extension During Construction

Could you explain your frame extension?

The frame extension goes through the rear bumper of the flatbed. I’ve made mine bolt-on in case I separate the truck and camper. It’s made from the same material the frame is made from; 3/8 inch fabricated c-channel metal that was sheered and bent at a local fab shop to match the exact frame of the truck.

I had an inner 24-inch piece of C-channel made that fits to the inside of the frame. The frame extension butts up to it and an inner plate hooks to the inside. I marked the holes as an 8-bolt pattern. It bolts to the end of the existing frame and then to a new frame. The outside plate sandwiches it all together. It’s super strong.

I unbolted the existing hitch and bolted in the new frame extension and matched the bolt pattern on the end of the truck. It moved the hitch four feet.

I wanted something safe and reliable. With the thickness of the sheet metal and 5/8 inch bolts (10 per side) I don’t worry about anything falling apart.

Flame Truck With Jeep

Have you made any modifications to your rig?

I added lots of solar, an inverter, a pellet smoker, a bar side, and onboard air. We never plug in. I wired extra outlets on the outside so that we can use our pellet smoker.

We’ve had our rig for three years and we’ve put less than ten hours on the generator. For five days in the desert, we may run it for an hour.

Topkick GMC In Desert Camping

You guys are really active when you go out camping. How often are you able to go out?

We use our camper a lot. We go out on a three-day weekend trip at least once a month. There’s so much where we live. I can get to the mountains, beach, or lake within three hours.

This weekend we’re going to a lake that’s two hours away. My friend has property there and a boat. We’ll go after my son gets out of school and go fishing for the weekend. In a couple of weeks, we’re headed to the Nevada City area toward Reno to a motorcycle dual-sport event.

In the winter, we go to the Mojave Desert in southern California or the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

I also use the camper to do farther away jobs for work. I have customers near Yuma, so we go there in November. We’ll go out for ten days for my three-day work trip. If the whole family goes, I can get a hotel room with a swimming pool for two nights. Then I drive the camper to work. Afterward, we all go to the hot springs and take road trips to see other things.

Ventura Beach California

The beach is ten minutes away from where we live. Some days I’ll drive the camper to work. My wife will pick up our son after school and meet me at the beach in the evening. We hang out and play cards at the beach in the evening, and are home by 9:00 p.m. that night.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

For anyone who wants to dig into a TopKick or a Kodiak, know what you are getting into. You have to pay attention to the height of your rig. Some gas stations are too low. You have to have your head on your shoulders and look around. These trucks are large and easy to drive, but you have to be aware when it’s 17,000 pounds going down the road.

“These trucks are large and easy to drive, but you have to be aware when it’s 17,000 pounds going down the road.”

Dennis Grazian’s Rig
Truck: 2005 GMC TopKick 4×2, Duramax diesel with Allison transmission
Camper: 2015 Lance 1172
Suspension: Full Air Ride rear with 15 gallons of air and twin Viar 450 compressors


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