Delivering the Queen Mary across America...
by Richard Robertson.
The first thing you need to understand about lower-end US motorhomes is that they are appliances intended to be junked after a relatively short time.
Designed and built to a price they are cheap to buy, expensive to run and quickly become ‘bargains’ in the used market. Indeed in many ways they epitomise everything wrong with America’s consume-to-excess-and-throw-it-away society.
This ‘test’ vehicle was actually a brand new Apollo rental motorhome that we picked up at the Fleetwood RV factory in Decatur (pronounced De-Kate-Err), Indiana. Every year between March and June, Apollo needs to move hundreds of new vehicles from the factory to its rental locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Consequently, a veritable motorhome mass migration takes place each year and the Good Mrs iMotorhome and I joined this year’s stampede.
Our vehicle of choice (yes, we had one) was a Fleetwood Tioga Montara 31M, complete with two slide-outs. We could have opted for the single slide Tioga Montara 25K, which was the predominant model available and would have been a bit more economical, but chose the extra space and comfort instead.
On Apollo’s website these vehicles have different names and the rental fleet changes regularly, so for this story I’m using the manufacturer’s model designations. We quickly christened our vehicle the Queen Mary due to its size, thirst and handling prowess: a name that proved entirely appropriate.
The smaller/cheaper end of the US motorhome market is primarily built on Ford cab-chassis. By far the most common vehicle type on the road, the venerable F-Series Ford is now actually the E-Series, which means it can accept ethanol-based fuel. Interestingly, this whole line of light-to-medium duty trucks and vans, which has been the backbone of Ford’s commercial line-up in America for decades, is being replaced in 2014 by the Ford Transit. However, production of the cab-chassis models to suit motorhome construction (and other specialist duties) will continue until the end of the decade, Ford has announced.
The Queen Mary was built on a Ford E450 Super Duty cab-chassis and had a gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 6577 kg. It was listed as a 31 footer (9.45 m) but was actually 32 ft 5.5 in (9.89 m) long. It was also 8 ft 6 in wide (2.59 m) excluding the awning and side mirrors. Australia’s limit is 8 ft 2 in (2.5 m) including attachments. Interestingly, the Fleetwood brochure has a disclaimer in the fine print that says, “Motorhomes feature a body-width over 96" which will restrict your access to certain roads. Before purchasing, you should research any state and/or province road laws which may affect your usage.” Very comforting (not!) and something nobody at the Fleetwood factory or Apollo mentioned. Completing the measurements, the Queen was 11 ft 5 in (3.5 m) tall and rode on an 18 ft 2 in (5.54 m) wheelbase. No special license was required for this size/weight motorhome – or it seems, for any other size motorhome in America. Go figure...
According to its Federal Certification Tag (equivalent to our compliance plate, but a paper sticker inside the vehicle) the tare weight was 5621 kg, leaving an occupant and cargo carrying capacity of 956 kg. Interestingly, the tare weight included an allowance of 271 kg for fresh water and propane, but not grey and black water. Maximum towing capacity was 2268 kg but with a ball weight of just 159 kg. Surprisingly, the tag said the vehicle was seatbelt equipped for seven people although we didn’t notice more than a couple of dinette seat belts (but then we weren’t really looking).
Under the Queen Mary’s bonnet lurked a 6.8-litre Triton V-10 petrol engine, which at first I thought was ‘stonking’ but by the trip’s end realised was quite modest by American standards. For example, Chevrolet makes a V8 petrol engine used in many A-class motorhomes and it’s 8.1-litres.
The Triton V10 produced 305 hp (227 kW) and 420 lb-ft (569 Nm) and drove through a five-speed column-shift auto to the rear wheels – naturally. To satiate the V10’s thirst a 55 US gallon (208-litre) fuel tank was provided and on average we comfortably travelled 250 miles (402 km) between refills. Overall we averaged 7.8 mpg (30l/100km), with a worst of 5.88 mpg (40l/100km) while escaping an ice storm in Oklahoma City. Ouch! Our best was 9.5 mpg (25l/100km) on the largely downhill run into California from Las Vegas. The Apollo brochure says 10-12 mpg is to be expected. In their dreams! I drove conservatively and usually below the posted speed limit, never exceeding 60 mph (100 km/h) on the freeways, even in places where the posted limit was 75 mph (120 km/h). Drive it at those speeds at your financial peril!
Suspension-wise the big Ford was more sophisticated than anticipated. Independent coil spring front suspension was a surprise, as were four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, although a live rear axle with leaf springs was what I’d imagined. Steering was power assisted recirculating ball and true to form lacked any real precision, but it was nicely weighted and suited the vehicle.
I was pleased to see quality Michelin Mud & Snow tyres fitted all around, although I’m not sure if they were standard or specified by Apollo. They certainly had their work cut out in the snow and slush as we left Oklahoma City in an ice storm, but never missed a beat. That was just as well as no spare wheel was provided: the task of wheel changing deemed far too risky for tourists. If we’d had any problems we were required to call Apollo (if we’d had phone coverage!) and let them send someone. Not very reassuring, to be honest.
Construction-wise the Queen Mary was thoroughly conventional: A frame of steel and aluminium covered by composite walls with a fibreglass outer skin and internal block foam insulation. There were also plenty of external storage bins, as you’d expect from a vehicle this size.
Jumping into any new motorhome requires some adjustment, even if you’re familiar with the basic vehicle type. Jumping into a new motor home that’s about a foot wider than anything else you have driven, on a completely unfamiliar base vehicle, with the steering wheel on the wrong side and requiring you to drive on the wrong side of the road was more than the usual challenge. I guess it’s a tribute to the easy drivability of the big Ford that it didn’t prove too much of a challenge.
Stepping into the cab for the first time I found myself sitting quite low and yet there was still decent visibility, aided by large side mirrors and a most welcome (optional, I’m thinking) reversing camera. Both front seats proved very comfortable but the age of the E-Series design was obvious in a number of ways.
Firstly, the engine protruded considerably back into the cab and significantly compromised the footwell space – especially the passenger’s – and also radiated much heat into the cab, especially on the passenger's (exhaust) side. Secondly, the equipment level was odd. For example, despite heated electric side mirrors, power steering and steering wheel-mounted cruise control, the cab lacked central locking (very inconvenient) and there was only a basic AM/FM radio.
Firing up the big V10 was simple and the engine was quiet and refined under most conditions. Only when cruise control dropped it back, say from 5th to 3rd in quick succession on steep hills and the revs rose north of 3500, did it intrude. On long down hills the gearbox had a neat feature that helped hold the big girl back. At the end of the gear lever was a button marked tow/haul, designed like a sports mode to hold the transmission in gear to assist in the American national pastime of towing. It held gears longer under acceleration and also prevented upshifts when coasting; sort of acting like an engine brake on long descents. Very handy.
Despite her size the Queen’s turning circle proved quite reasonable; her ground clearance and rear overhang didn’t cause any problems and she had a comfortable and quite refined ride quality, even on choppy surfaces (aided by her long wheel base, no doubt). Our east-west route saw us battling strong quartering headwinds for about two-thirds of the journey and that was where the Queen’s two biggest drawbacks came to the fore: thirst (understandable) and windage.
Effectively a tall and empty box on wheels, the Queen’s vast slab sides, huge nose cone and relatively low weight (compared to a similar sized truck) caused ‘bother’ in strong winds. Lots of bother, actually. With winds gusting 60-80 km/h most of the time and reaching 100 km/h on occasions, twice we were literally nearly blown off the road. The rest of the time was a constant battle to stay in the lane – not always successfully – and an inexperienced driver might have had real issues.
Despite all that after about a week I was completely ‘in the groove’ and by the time our 15 days/14nights were over I was genuinely sad to hand Her Majesty back.
Of course, driving the Queen Mary was only half the adventure. Living in her was a whole other experience. Compared to the more compact (and nimble) motorhomes I’m used to reviewing in Australia, the Queen was indeed a luxury liner – albeit a rather old fashioned one. But first, here’s a look at some of the major differences between US and Australian/New Zealand motorhomes.
For starters, North American vehicles have an inbuilt propane (think LPG) tank that requires filling at a ‘gas’ station. This is never turned off and in fact the Queen’s large Dometic two-door fridge/freezer ran exclusively on propane (a rental feature I later discovered) and operated 24/7. Surprisingly, we didn’t blow up, nor did we see highways and campsites littered with burnt-out wrecks.
Also, North American vehicles almost invariably have their own generator and the Queen was no exception: a remote start Onan 4 kVa petrol-powered unit was tucked neatly away in an external bin just aft of the driver’ door.
Having plenty of water (60 gallons/227 litres), propane (11 gallons/21 kg) and our own generator meant we free-camped most nights and only connected to ‘shore power’ (as the American’s call it) when we stayed on the strip in Las Vegas, at Circus Circus. Shore power is another interesting difference and the Queen was wired for 30 amp power, which I’m told is equal to our 15 amps, given the US uses 110 volt electricity. Bigger US units require 50 amp power and you have to specify what you need when you check into an RV park.
The power hookup method was very different, too. It used an inbuilt heavy-duty power lead in one of the external bins which, when on the road, needed to be left plugged into a bin-mounted power point to allow the house electrics to work. When connecting to shore power you unplugged it, pulled out the cable from the bin and connected it to the mains power point. Because of the amperage the cable was very thick: I’m guessing twice as thick/heavy duty as an Australian 15 amp.
Waste water management was another major point of difference, with North American vehicles seeming to use black water tanks for the toilet waste rather than removable cassettes. This necessitated a different routine and we were advised to let the black water tank, which held 35 gallons (132 L), fill more or less to capacity so the toilet chemicals could work their magic on the contents. Both grey and black water drained via a common hose (that cleverly resided in the hollow rear bumper bar) and you had to ensure the black water was dumped first, with the great water used to flush the black tank and hose. Our vehicle also had a separate mains pressure connector for fresh water that was just used to flush the black and grey water tanks.
Another major difference was the use of propane-fired central heating. Operating via a domestic-style wall mounted thermostat, when we pulled up at night I just set it to auto, set the temperature slider to around 72F (22C) and it kept the Queen cosy until morning via five floor level outlets (2 kitchen/lounge, 2 bathroom and 1 bedroom). Very civilised. Considering we used propane for heating, refrigeration and hot water, we only filled (partially) once enroute for about US$15 and still had some left in LA.
Naturally, airconditioning was included and a single roof-mounted system sent cooling air via ducted ceiling outlets throughout the vehicle. It was operated from the same wall mounted thermostat control as the central heating and could be run using the generator when not connected to mains power.
All Plans on Deck!
The Queen’s floor plan comprised an over-cab bed, front lounge and dinette, mid kitchen and rear bathroom and bedroom. Although the dinette and fridge were in the front slide-out and could easily be used without extending it, the queen bed down the back required the slide-out to easily access it and most of the bedroom cupboards (although you could still open the double wardrobes).
We only used the over-cab bed for storage and it was voluminous. Through-cab access was easy with the centre bed-section folded back and I felt like a bomber pilot every morning; stepping down into the cockpit, ducking slightly and lowering myself into the left seat and then starting the engine, while my copilot retracted both slide-outs.
Speaking of slide-outs, we quickly developed an evening routine. Arriving in camp and with the engine still running we would both slip back into the living area, where I’d activate the dinette slide-out. Mrs iMotorhome would make the long journey aft and activate the bedroom slide-out and once deployed, I’d cut the engine, lock the cab doors and we were set for the night.
The driver’s side four-place cafe-style dinette had a height adjustable table, while directly opposite was a rather too upright two-seater lounge that converted to a third bed. We basically lived at the dinette and I put Issue 23 of this magazine together from there, but after just two weeks the cheap foam seat cushion had a Richard-shaped depression in it. Opposite the fridge, at the rear of the dinette, was the side entry door, which effectively separated the lounge area from the kitchen.
Positioned in the middle of the vehicle the -shaped and relatively small kitchen had everything Mrs iMotorhome needed – except much usable bench space. It included double stainless steel sinks, a full gas oven/grill/cooktop, rangehood, microwave and 2-door fridge/freezer, plus a decent set of cupboards and drawers.
Because of the kitchen’s L-shape, to move past it towards the bedroom you walked down a hallway on the driver’s side, complete with a feature floor-to-ceiling window! The kitchen’s back wall was shared with the bathroom and at the end of the hallway on the left, just before entering the bedroom, was the main bathroom door (there was a secondary concertina door between the bathroom and bedroom – of course!).
The bathroom featured a separate shower cubicle with sliding Perspex door, a corner vanity, a heap of cupboard space and in the corner between the main and secondary doors – in splendid isolation like a true throne – sat the ceramic bowl toilet! In all honesty the bathroom worked very well and it was great having double access. It was also great having a ton of room around the loo and not trying to squeeze into a corner on some cramped swivel-headed device!
The bedroom featured a kerb-side east-west queen sized island bed, bedside windows, tables, reading lamps and overhead cupboards, plus a double wardrobe and lots of drawers on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. The bed had an innerspring mattress and proved very comfortable, while the bedroom layout – with the bed head in the slide-out (behind the bathroom) and the bedroom door by the foot of the bed – afforded plenty of privacy even without the need to close the bedroom door. Most evenings I’d work on the magazine and the good Mrs would retire to read and eventually nod off. We were, effectively, in separate worlds.
When it came time to hand over the Queen Mary we’d both become very fond of her and were rather sad. That’s despite the awful 1980s decor; the mix of ill-placed fluoro and incandescent lighting; cheap foam dinette cushioning; the uncomfortable sofa; the dinette slide-out that never retracted flush and sat out by about an inch at the top; the bathroom vanity light fitting that was broken ex-factory; her appalling thirst; dodgy handling in high winds and the need to empty the toilet via a black water hose.
You might say, “Only in America,” but consider this continent-crossing land-liner lists at just US$81,340 full price (which nobody pays), whereas an Australian equivalent would be something like three times the price. In bang-for-your-buck terms the Big Girl proved hard to beat; if a bit crude, rough around the edges and unrefined by our standards.
Would I buy my own Queen Mary? Surprisingly, yes. Or something similar. Discounts in America are rife – expect to pay about $65,000 with a bit of shopping around – and the diesel argument doesn’t stack up: you’ll never save the price difference with fuel savings unless you basically travel all-day every-day.
Consider also that in 10 years she’ll be worth around $20,000 or less and the used market is littered with them. They can make excellent buying, just make sure it was never a rental. Long live the Queen – we can’t wait to do it all again next year!
- Bang for your buck
- Vast living space
- Gas central heating
- Standard generator
- Comfortable bed
- Big bathroom
- Tough E450 Ford
- Smooth, easy to drive
- Appalling thirst
- Poor build quality
- Ford’s odd equipment list
- Dated decor
- Cheap foam dinette seating
- Poor quality interior lighting
- Stability in high winds
- Suspect longterm body durability
- Awful resale
Click HERE to visit the Fleetwood website.
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications, photos and contact details.