I’ll just convert it a little bit.’ So said Martin Howdle as he made his pitch to buy a 101 Forward Control ambulance. He needed to tread carefully – this vehicle’s owner, Rob Hallam, was a true 101 enthusiast who at the time owned no fewer than 12 of the things. He’d seen too many Marshall ambulances bodged; projects abandoned.
‘Rob didn’t really want to sell it to me,’ remembers Martin. ‘It was absolutely standard, dead straight, with 5500 miles on the clock. Rob knew I wanted to do a camper conversion. So, I told him I’d just convert it “a little bit”.
‘But you can’t, really, can you? Not if you’re going to use it.’
That’s true. But even Martin didn’t intend to take it so far. ‘First job was the interior,’ he explains. ‘I’ve got my own machining
and fabrication business, so I made the units myself and did the whole interior. The stainless steel cupboards are offcuts from kitchen-splashback jobs we did. I had a lot
of help from upholsterers Darren Elliott and Perry Franklin at Elliott Renovations. It was Perry who told me about this springy foam stuff that I’ve lined the inside with. It’s great – if you’re tall and bang your head on the roof, it’s not so bad.’
And that is making a long story very short. A Marshall ambulance’s cab and back body have separate spaces – Martin has cut through, which has made the interior seem much more roomy and light. There’s carpet, spotlights, pumped water, a sound system, curtains, an inverter and even a Webasto blown-air heater – all of which have made the camper conversion very nice.
But it was still a 101 Marshall, as Martin soon found out. ‘First time I had it out, to Cornwall, it was awful,’ he grimaces. ‘The original seats were very uncomfortable. And to change gear, you have to reach back and behind – there’s an art to it.’
And Martin had to change gear a lot: ‘It still had the original 3.5-litre V8 – very noisy. These engines are all right, but not for motorways. And those bar-grip tyres have no grip at all.’
With safety uppermost in mind, the 101 was soon wearing some
ultra-wide rubber – so wide, in fact, that he’s had to make wheelarch eyebrows to stay legal. Next up, the original V8 was hauled out and an engine from a Rover SD1 saloon car put in, complete with overdrive.
Better? ‘Well, it was all right,’ says Martin. ‘Then I went for higher-ratio transfer gears, and that killed it. On motorway hills we were down to 35mph – the engine wouldn’t pull it.’
Not ideal, then. But by now Martin had decided that there was going to be no compromise – he knew he had the makings of a great camper, but it needed more work to become the vehicle of his dreams. Converting ‘just a little bit’ went out the window and big plans came flying in.
‘My mate Andy Dudley and I stripped the paint over a weekend – every single layer. Then, when my business partner Nigel Parker came in on the Monday morning it was all done, ready for painting. He helped me with that and the trailer.’
Ah, yes – the trailer. It’s as useful to a 101 camper as a shed is to a house: somewhere to dump excess stuff. Martin made up a removable tow hitch so the original ambulance steps could be kept. The trailer got the wide-wheel treatment, too. ‘Being
a Sankey, it has five-stud wheels.
I machined adapters to take six-stud wheels: that spaced the wheels out, so I had to make wheelarches as well.’
Hours of work later, trailer and camper were both wearing a new coat of Land Rover Bonatti Grey, not to mention some neat artwork.
‘I wanted something to brighten it up,’ explains Martin, so I left the 101 with signwriter John Leeson and
told him to do something to take the mickey out of VW campers.
‘When I came back, he’d done this [pointing to a cheeky mural above the nearside rear light cluster]. It’s caused problems, but I’ve earned the right to take the mickey after spending eight months trying to restore a VW. And that on the front doors? It’s for the band, the Levellers. The symbol stands for anarchy, I think.’
It was looking great now, but was still underpowered. Martin had a plan for that, too, though. ‘I went to JE Developments in Lutterworth and got a 4.6 V8 lump. Basically, we took everything we could off the original engine and used a new 4.6 block and head. The boss, John Eales, is regarded by many as be the V8 guru.’
And with good reason: JED turns out 200 V8s a year, and is top of the tree in racecar engine circles. Not that Martin wanted a racecar engine.
‘What he wanted was grunt and economy,’ explains John Eales. ‘We built a fairly standard 4.6-litre, with 9.35 compression ratio – that’s standard. The 4.6 makes a lovely engine for relaxed driving.’
And it’s surprisingly quiet, too. ‘That’ll be the balancing,’ John smiles. ‘We take a lot of trouble with the balancing. That engine gives a maximum of 220bhp and 284 lb ft – but the more impressive figure is 210 lb ft at 1000rpm.’
One thousand rpm? Now, that is Grunt with a big G.
Martin wasn’t at the finishing line yet, though. ‘I broke two of the manual gearboxes,’ he explains. ‘So
I fitted an automatic from a Range
Rover Classic.’ And that auto box brought some side benefits: no arm-aching gearchanging; no gearlever between the seats (it’s now a nice, flat, warm place where Martin’s dog curls up); no more broken gearboxes; and, best of all, no rumbles.
‘I expected the automatic to be better than the manual. But it was just… wonderful!’
But maybe a bigger bargain is the front seats: ‘They came out of an Audi A8, about 40 grand’s worth of car. They’re leather Recaro jobs that were sitting there on eBay, doing nothing. They were an absolute bargain – and they fit superbly.’
The final tweak? Martin points under the front offside corner: ‘Power steering – it’s an Adwest box off a Discovery. I’ve had to cut a V in the chassis and mount it sideways.
By now, we’re a very long way from a standard 101. So, what about Rob the purist, the guy who sold Martin the ambulance in the first place? ‘When he first saw it, he just turned around and walked away,’ Martin says. ‘But now he’s all right about it. He actually quite likes it, I think.’
And the result of all this work is a camper and trailer that really will go anywhere. Martin demonstrates the domestics, setting up the rear awning first: ‘It was modified by me, because there’s nothing you can buy off the shelf that will fit a 101.’
Then, when we’ve seen all the home comforts, it’s time to find out what this huge lump of modified taxpayer’s money will do in the rough.
The answer? As much as you could sensibly need, and much more than you could reasonably expect. Ride quality is astonishing; power seems endless; and the autobox really makes the most of that lovely 4.6.
What’s most impressive of all is experiencing the quietness while huge chunks of lumpy terrain disappear underneath, far below. The command driving position has to be the best there is, especially from the comfort of a lovely ex-Audi leather seat.
This feature appeared in the February 2009 issue of LRO. Current and Back issues are available to download on digital devices here. Please note, we only hold stocks of the the last three back issues.