1977 FWC Fleet Complete Overhaul

Bailey77FWC

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Joined
May 22, 2024
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Hi everyone! My wife and I bought a beat-up '77 Fleet a couple weeks ago and are hoping to completely rebuild it! We've never had a truck camper before, and this is one of the few small enough for our little old truck (2002 Mazda/Ranger) to carry.
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The goal is to turn it into something that makes winter camping more comfortable, and that can see some moderate off-road use in the summer. I'm hoping to use this thread to document our progress and many mistakes in case anyone were to do something similar, and to ask this great forum for advice when we run into snags!
 
On initial inspection, the camper is in better shape than we were expecting. The siding on the rear has been pulled up some near the door, and the lift panels are almost completely gone (seems like this is to be expected). If it's original, the plywood looks surprisingly decent... but I think it will all need to be replaced anyway to achieve our goal of getting something that is reliable off-road.
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The first week was spent cleaning out wasp nests (thankfully they did not survive us dragging this thing over Vail Pass with no front window) and gutting the interior.
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I was amazed the canvas was still present at all, and surprisingly intact. From other threads, it sounds like we might be able to buy this new from ATC or FWC still? I haven't reached out to them yet, but I hope that's the case since niether my wife or I can sew! The backup plan is to find a local canvas shop - it seems like there are a few in Denver that make RV accessories and shop awnings, etc...
 
After a couple weeks of spending evenings tearing things apart, we barely managed to squeeze the camper into our garage:
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Once it was inside and I had my truck back, we were able to start really taking the camper apart. I wanted to be able to look at the aluminum frame and see if anything was bent or cracked, so we dismantled the interior paneling and started taking the siding off. The trim seems to do the bulk of the work holding the siding on, so this task was mostly just zipping out 1/4" hex head sheet metal screws. The siding was also stapled to the aluminum frame in places - these came out easily enough but really bent up the old siding as we tore it off. I didn't see this as a big deal since the siding was pretty dented and damaged anyway, and we decided early on not to try to reuse it.
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So far the aluminum frame seems like it is in good shape, with only one tube missing at the front (which I actually busted off accidently - oops). The floorpack is pretty rotten around the front and back, and at this point I am convinced it will need to be replaced. Overall I am encouraged by the shape that this nearly-50-year-old camper is in! It seems better than a lot of much younger plywood trailers I've seen... It's going to be a huge project, but hopefully we can resurrect it for many more years of use.
 
This post brings me up to my current progress (the teardown happened over the last two weeks). I was hoping to buy plywood for the new floorpack this weekend but kept second-guessing myself and wondering if there were a more robust or lighter way to build it. I spent some time in SolidWorks modeling the existing frame and plywood for a baseline weight:
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If anyone is curious, the aluminum frame alone is incredibly light - just 42 lbs. The wall thickness of the tube I broke off measured about .050", so this weight assumes all the tubes in the structure have that thickness too. I averaged the density of a few different marine-grade plywoods based on some weights for 5/8" 4x8' sheets I found online, and assigned that density in Solidworks... the assembly of just the frame and floorpack came in at 203lbs. I'm sure this is a little optimistic because it doesn't include and paint, sealants or fasteners, but I was mostly just looking for a ballpark number.

We were curious if it would be possible to save any weight by building an aluminum lower frame out of 80/20 and sheet it with aluminum composite panels, so I modeled that up last night. It seems like it might be more robust, but the weight savings came out to be minimal and 80/20 is so expensive that we wrote off that option.
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It seems like plywood is probably the way to go, although I'd be curious if anyone has used something like Coosa board to build a floor pack... I'm probably overthinking things but I figure it's a big enough project to justify spending a couple days in Solidworks trying things.

One of the biggest drivers for me is reducing the weight anywhere I can... hoping to stay at least close to GVWR on our little pickup!
 
Now this is cool! Have you weighed your aluminum frame to see if its around 42 lb?

Maybe you can save a little weight by using thinner panels for the vertical pieces. Perhaps the narrow horizontal pieces can also be thinner. Deflection and strength of a flat plate is dramatically affected by smaller widths.
 
I haven't been able to weigh it yet - it's currently still attached to the old floor pack. That would be a good idea though, if it's really that light I could probably suspend it from a fish scale or something cheap like that!

And I was wondering if I could get away with 1/2" plywood instead of the original 5/8"... That would save a little weight, but mostly because I can't find 5/8" marine-grade anywhere haha. I need to learn a little about different joining techniques because I'm worried about putting wood screws into the end of the thinner sheets...
 
If you attach things like a folding bench/bed, fridge, sink, etc. you might want thicker wood. Or maybe some backup material under to give it something for the threads.

I think there's lots of opportunity to save weight in these campers. But it could add labor for the manufacturers (cheap in your case!) or material costs. Saving weight was the most fun part of my design job when I was a working stiff. If you think about every single dimension, and the contours of every part, a little here and there adds up. Even better, if you think you don't need a part, leave it out.

Unfortunately, our camper is overweight and I'm not doing anything about it... all talk, no action. It's great to see you thinking about it at this stage.
 
Can't really add anything now but, but I'm also looking for a vintage FWC and intend to follow your progress closely. Found the thread searching for how to replace the canvas on a potential purchase up in Wyoming. I'm also in Colorado.

Dan
 
And I was wondering if I could get away with 1/2" plywood instead of the original 5/8"... That would save a little weight, but mostly because I can't find 5/8" marine-grade anywhere haha. I need to learn a little about different joining techniques because I'm worried about putting wood screws into the end of the thinner sheets...
I’m using Baltic birch for my rebuild, lots of thin plys with hardly any voids. Costly compared to cheap exterior plywood but the second you start cutting it and it doesn’t have gaps in it or start warping it makes it worth it to me. Fully glued and narrow crown staples to assemble. I am using 3/4” cause I want it robust and don’t have a payload concern to work around.

Sounds like you’re in Den? If so Consolidated Hardwoods, Austin Lumber, Front Range Lumber carry it.
 
thx for write up and pics. good luck. i had an ocelot ATC on a gmc 1500, and went with no interior - whatever they call that model. i used 8020 to frame up shelves, batt. enclosure, propex heater, etc., and total weight was just under 900lbs. oh, had 2 solar panels on roof. at that weight, u hardly knew the camper was on.
 
Have fun.. I have done 3 of them... nice to be able to build them the way you want them..
 
Thanks everybody! Yes - I'm hoping to keep it as light as possible without sacrificing longevity at least... Our old truck is slow enough as it is, haha! @pods8 I was actually looking at Front Range Lumber and might give them a shot first since they are the closest (we are a little ways back up 285).

I was playing around with it some after work, and am leaning towards a hybrid thickness setup... 3/4" for the floor and other "horizontal" surfaces and 1/2" for the "vertical" surfaces. I was thinking this would let me drive wood screws into the thicker material from the edge, and hopefully give it a better chance of not splitting over time, while saving some weight on the vertical members. This also give me a nice beefy floor to bolt things too. Feel free to let me know if this is a stupid idea... I have very little woodworking experience!
In the image the blue pieces are 3/4" and the rest is 1/2"

I'd kinda like to find full marine-grade if I can... I like the idea of fewer knots and voids even if it is a little overkill. It seems like most places only stock 1/2" and 3/4" in that grade though. I'll call around and see if anybody has 5/8", if so I might just make everything that thickness.
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@Black914 I'd say you should go for it. We bought this one thinking it was a basket case since we were planning to strip it down to the frame anyway. Even after almost 50 years the aluminum structure looks sound and square! If you found one with decent plywood I could see replacing canvas and lift panels and having a lot of confidence in the camper... Not like the used plywood trailer world at all haha
 
Glue and narrow crown staples, not screws. It’ll hold well and won’t split. Staples have adhesive on them that is activated by the friction heat shooting them in.

Baltic birch is no voids, waterproof adhesive and lots of plys (stiff). The 3/4” is 13plys.
 
How thick are the floors in it now? And are there wood stiffeners underneath going from left to right?
 
Wait so are staples actually considered better than screws in this case? Less likely to split the wood I guess? I didn't know that! I always assumed the OEMs just used them because it was quicker. That makes sense though... Like I said I know nothing about woodworking so I'll take all the advice I can get!!

The original material all seems to be 5/8", although it's a little hard to tell since it's somewhat rotten. I might go to baltic birch instead of marine and just make everything 5/8" exactly like the original... That would make things easier and probably cheaper.
 
Better is hard to say as there are variables but 1.5” long staples have a good amount of grip and if you wanted you could fire in a lot without splitting the wood. Screws you’d have to drill pilot holes for them all to reliably not split the wood.

Personally I glued the joint, fired in staples every few inches and that’ll hold solidly but I am going to go above and beyond and epoxy/fiberglass over the joints. This will serve two purposes, one being it’ll reinforce the joint notably. Secondly it’ll seal off the edge of the plywood and help protect the edge.

I did use screws to attach the floor pack to the frame.
 
I traveled down this same path 9 years ago with a 1977 Grandby. Totally stripped the interior; didn't remove the roof or siding. This was my first attempt at cabinetmaking.

I went with 3/4" plywood for countertops and 1/2" plywood for vertical surfaces. 3/4" is solid for countertops, 1/2" is more than needed for cabinet faces (IMO).

For my last cabinet I used 3/8" ply with double thickness where needed (door hinges, etc.) and reinforcement for corners.

I used glue & screw for assembly, always into crossgrain, never end grain. This was a labor of love so pre-drilling for screws wasn't a chore.

I did use 1/4" ply when strength wasn't needed (like the box enclosing the refrigerator).

My 'canvas' looks its age but it is weathertight.

End result:
Camper weighs 1560 lbs fully loaded for 6-8 week adventures (including 12 gallons of water and 2 weeks of food).
The build has held together for 8 years of washboard.

P.S. If you want to weigh the bare frame borrow a couple of bathroom scales and balance the frame on them, add the weights.
 
FYI here were some prices I gathered up a month or so ago if of use:
Consolidated hardwoods 4x8 baltic birch bb/bb veneer 1/2": $99.60; 3/4": $140.80

Front range lumber (the one in Ft. Lupton, not sure if same pricing in lakewood) 4x8 baltic birch 3/4": $143

Austin Hardoods: 4x8 baltic birch bb/bb veneer 1/2": $132 ($146.16 for B/BB veneer); 3/4": $157.26 ($188.32 for B/BB veneer)

Austin Hardoods: 4x8 soft wood "marine grade" 1/2": $140.35; 3/4": $172.56
-I presumed this is fir based plywood with low void and waterproof glue but it likely is something like 7 plys (just my assumption), being it was more expensive that baltic birch and less plys/thicker plys I went baltic birch.

The 1/2" baltic birch I got is 9ply and the 3/4" is 13ply. Here are a couple edge photos of my inprogress floor pack, I rounded over the edges with a router and flush trimmed/sanded the joints (because I'm going to glass them) so that is why the outside plys look weird. Still have a little prep work to do but you get the idea hopefully.
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Wow that looks great @pods8 ! I was considering fiberglassing the joints too but it's been a long time since I've worked with that stuff and I wasn't great at it back then haha. I bet that will be a bomb-proof structure when you are done though - that really seems like the way to "do it once and do it right!"

I probably won't have time to get to the lumber yard until Friday at the earliest with work this week, but those prices are very helpful, thank you!
 
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