What’s gone wrong?

          Problems we’ve had with our Chevy/Tiger


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This article was originally written in November 2011, at which time we had travelled 116,o00 miles (186,000 km) in our Tiger during the four and a half years we’d owned it; more recent updates have been added below. Current mileage as of May 2016 is 170,000 miles (270,000 km).  (For the most recent information on the status of our vehicle, don’t miss our two recent articles: 2016 Tiger Refit 1 and 2016 Tiger Refit 2).

All in all we’ve been very fortunate and have experienced little in the way of problems with the vehicle.  However, no vehicle can be perfect and we have had some issues along the way, ranging from minor annoyances to trip altering events.  In this report, I’ll review the various repairs we’ve needed and try to pass along whatever hard won wisdom we’ve been able to accumulate both in terms of dealing with them enroute and perhaps avoiding them by better planning before the fact.  

I will break the information down into three areas:  Our Chevrolet truck chassis, our Tiger living quarters, and the equipment or adaptations we’ve added to the original vehicle.

Chevy Truck:

We’ve always been very happy with the choice of our 2007 Silverado Classic 2500 HD truck and would not hesitate to go with a Chevy chassis again if we were buying a new Tiger today.  The Duramax/Allison powertrain is excellent and we’ve been very happy with the overall handling, steering, braking, fuel economy, serviceability and comfort of the truck.  That said, the most serious problems we’ve encountered with our vehicle have been Chevrolet problems, not Tiger problems, including the only times we’ve actually had to alter our trip plans in order to have something repaired.  Our Chevy problems have occurred in two distinct areas; wheels and electronics, with a few odds and ends and normal wear and tear thrown in as well. 

Wheels:  Much to our surprise, we experienced two broken wheels on our truck after arriving in Europe in 2010 (this was at about 85,000 miles).  These were the standard equipment steel wheels that came with the truck.  The wheels cracked in the bead area, resulting in a creaking noise noticeable at low speed and a loss of air pressure.  The tires didn’t go flat, but just lost some pressure; then when adding air, the pressure would leak out as it got above about 50 psi.  When the first wheel broke, we had a spare wheel sent to us from the US (for our trip to South America we traveled with two spares but when coming to Europe we only brought one of them with us).  Within a month, a second wheel failed in the same way.

We cannot say for sure what caused these wheels to fail, but can suggest three probable causes.  First, our vehicle weight exceeds the GVWR of the truck by about 10%.  This is pretty much impossible to avoid in most RVs.  Our Tiger has an empty weight of 8800 lbs and the GVWR of our 2500 HD chassis is just 9200 lbs.  Shortly after our unit was built, Tiger switched to the 3500 HD chassis, which has a higher GVWR, and in recent years GM has increased the weight ratings of all 2500 and 3500 chassis, so this problem should not occur on newer Chevys.   Secondly, during our first 65,000 miles in the Tiger, which included time in Alaska, the Yukon, Mexico and Central and South America, roughly one third of all miles were traveled over unpaved or badly paved roads, including a lot of washboarding, particularly in South America. Lastly, in order to safely deal with the weight on the rear, we had upgraded our tires from 245 x 70 to 265 x 70 and were running the rear tires at their maximum pressure of 80 psi.  This tire size is standard on the 3500 chassis, but I have never been able to ascertain whether the wheels on our 2500 HD were the same as on the 3500.  I should also mention that to my knowledge, wheel breakage has never been a common problem with either Tigers or Chevy trucks, many of which carry heavy loads.  I have always suspected that it was more the pounding of the washboard roads than the actual weight that caused the failure of the factory wheels.

So, having broken two wheels we decided we needed to replace all of them.  After quite a bit of online research, though not enough as it would turn out, we ordered a set of Dick Cepek aluminum Torque wheels based on their claimed weight rating of 3640 lbs/wheel.  While this rating is 500 pounds per wheel higher than our actual rear axle weight of just over 6200 lbs, these wheels subsequently failed as well.  In this instance it seems the only logical reason for the failures is that the wheels are not accurately rated and simply could not handle the weight.  During the only fifteen months and 30,000 miles we used these wheels we did very little dirt road driving and, while we certainly saw our share of poorly paved roads in this time period, there was never any sense of the constant roughness for hours on end that we’d experienced earlier, and in this case, all five wheels cracked in the same way.

We have now ordered the replacement wheels I would have bought in 2010 if I had known about them.  The new units are Rickson 19.5” steel wheels that will carry a set of commercial truck tires.  These wheels are rated at 5000 lbs each and I believe they will prove to be the final solution for us.  Update July 2012:  You can read about how they are working on our Tiger at our own Rickson Wheels page.  

I’m sure that many, many owners of Chevy 2500 HD trucks carry as much weight as we do or even much more and have not had any problems with wheel breakage.  Nonetheless, if I were buying a Tiger or mounting a conventional camper on a pre 2011 Chevy 2500, I would not stay with the stock wheels, but would replace them with a set of Rickson or other proven heavy duty wheels.

Due to the cracking of our replacement wheels in 2011, we had to cancel our plans to go to Turkey in order to return to England where our resources for repairing the truck and for receiving shipments from the US are much better then in other parts of Europe.  This was a sixteen hundred mile journey, with fuel costs as high as $8/gallon, in order to deal with a problem that should not have happened to begin with.  Technically of course, this is not a Chevrolet problem at all.  I’ve included it here because if the original factory wheels hadn’t failed we wouldn’t have needed to mount the Dick Cepek wheels.  To close on a positive note, after some discussion and a few hoops to be jumped through, Mickey Thompson USA, the distributors of the Dick Cepek wheels, did give us a full refund of the entire purchase price of the failed wheels.  Thank you MT!

Electronics:  Electronic systems on modern vehicles make many things possible, but they can also be endlessly frustrating when they are not working properly.  We have experienced two episodes of electronics difficulty with our Chevy, the first and most significant happened in far southern Chile in 2009, with about 60,000 miles on the odometer.  At that time, the truck suddenly began running very poorly and defaulted into Limp Mode; we could coax it up to about 12 miles per hour, but that was it.  We were located about 150 miles south of the first town of any size, most of that on unpaved road and in mountainous terrain.  After two lengthy rides on flat bed tow vehicles that were far too small to carry the Tiger, followed by a 24 hour ferry ride, we arrived in Puerto Montt, Chile and the nearest Chevy dealer.  They were great about tackling the problem and would have had us on the road overnight except that the needed parts had to come from the US.  They ended up replacing the main computer and a fuel pressure sensor.  The overall experience from first problem to final repair ate up a full month of our travel time, causing us to miss an area we wanted to see due to the passing of the seasons.  I am happy to report that after some delay in forwarding paperwork Chevrolet made good on the bulk of our expenses for this episode, covering the parts and labor, but not the tows because we couldn’t provide credit card receipts for payment to the drivers as they were paid in cash.

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Our second electronics issue troubled us for many months during 2011/13.  This was a trouble code combined with a Reduced Engine Power condition that was not nearly as bad as the Limp Mode we had in South America, but still was more than just a nuisance.  We might go several days without the problem happening but sometimes it happened three or more times in a day.  We carry a code reader (DO NOT leave home without one) that allows us to not only read the code, but to reset it as well so that we can drive on normally until the next time it sets.  Having returned to England for the broken wheels, we were able to have this problem checked and following diagnosis the accelerator pedal assembly/throttle position sensor was replaced. This pretty much corrected the problem for a time, but it later returned.  While general maintenance and mechanical issues are not much of a problem during foreign travel, dealing with this type of difficulty in foreign countries is quite difficult due to language issues as well as a lack of local knowledge and experience with an American vehicle.  We soldiered on with this problem with no real hope of a resolution until we could return La Tortuga to the US.  Update 2013:  We were finally able to come to grips with all of our electronic gremlins.  First, in rural Turkey our low power engine code issue finally got so bad that it was consistently setting the code.  This meant that we could not continue to ignore it, but more importantly it meant that a technician could actually experience the problem and hopefully find the solution.  We located the nearest Chevrolet dealer via GPS and went directly there.  We were very fortunate in that one of the service personnel spoke good English and was happy to have our problem looked at.  A young technician was not intimidated by our big American truck and dove right in.  In the end, after nearly two hours of work, he found a loose connection that was causing the problem.  We were sent on our way, with lots of smiles and thanks in both directions, and without any charge.  We were delighted.  Later in the year, an American owned shop in Berlin found some other loose connections and some bare wires and got rid of some less important but still irksome electrical issues for us.  All in all, 2013 was a very good year for problem fixing.

Other Items:  Beyond these two issues, we’ve had few problems with our Chevy.  A dealer in Medellin, Colombia replaced an EGR motor under a Chevy recall and a dealer in Rapid City, South Dakota did the same with an exhaust flange and an axle seal (at 70,000 miles).  We have continued to have leakage problems from the rear axle seals and have had repairs done on three separate occasions.  The most recent repair, done in Batumi, Georgia on the shore of the Black Sea, seems to be holding.  The two starting batteries failed after less than two years and were out of warranty because we were over 36,000 miles; that was rather disappointing.  We again had to replace the starting batteries in March of 2012 and yet again in June of 2015 so it seems they don’t last as long as we’d like.  I have no doubt that storing the vehicle for up to four months at a time may be a contributing factor here.  We also had to weld a crack in the frame over the rear axle in 2011.  Several factors regarding our use of the truck and modifications we’ve made could have caused this and I don’t fault Chevrolet for it happening.  As noted above, in 2011 GM fully re-engineered the 2500 and 3500 truck series with stronger, fully boxed frames and increased weight ratings so this is unlikely to happen on a newer truck.  

Update October 2012/April 2013:  We’ve just experienced a front wheel bearing failure at 130,000 miles.  While traveling in rural Turkey we stopped to have some noise checked and discovered the failed bearing.  The bearings are sold only as an assembly with the front hubs and of course these parts could not be found in Turkey.  However, one of the advantages of dealing with problems in less developed areas is that the mechanics are accustomed to having to make do; the hub was sent off to another shop where they pressed out the old bearing and pressed in a new one so that we could get back on the road.  As anticipated at the time, this proved to be a temporary fix as the same bearing began making noise again within about 2,000 miles.  When we flew back from the US the following spring we carried two new hub assemblies in our checked luggage and had them installed right away.  We should be good to go for some time now.  Further update March 2014:  At the end of 2013, at 146,000 miles, the alternator bearing began showing signs of imminent failure.  I bought a more powerful replacement alternator while in the US over the winter and once again carried it back to Europe in our checked luggage.  I also brought along an upgraded isolation solenoid and larger 1/0 cable to connect the batteries to the alternator.  Thus we not only avoided eventual failure of the factory alternator, but these changes made a dramatic improvement in our ability to charge the house batteries from the engine alternator.  Update 2015:  Near the end or our 2014 season we got an engine light that meant that one of the glow plugs for the Duramax diesel had failed so for the new year we brought back a set of new glow plugs and had them installed in Amsterdam.

Normal maintenance on the truck is simple and relatively infrequent; brakes, tires and other expendable items have lasted appropriate lengths of time, fuel economy is quite good, averaging about 14.5 mpg overall, but over 16 mpg on a highway run at 60-65 mph.  Overall, the truck still starts, runs, and drives as it did when new.  I will also say that the times we’ve needed help, the dealerships we’ve visited have been consistently good and Chevrolet was very fair in their handling of our warranty claim for the work done in Chile.  We speak highly of our Chevy and particularly its Duramax/Allison power train whenever asked. Update 2016: see our 2016 Tiger Refit 2 report for work we’ve had done to prepare our Chevy for more years of overseas travel.

Provan Tiger:  

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We love our Tiger and it has never failed us in any significant way.  Structurally it has remained sound and, when clean, still looks good.  Early on we had a few issues that were dealt with under warranty.  These were a refrigerator that needed stronger screws to keep it in place over the rough northern roads in Alaska and in the Yukon and Northwest Territories; and a propane regulator that filled up with mud and sand on those same roads.  These both occurred within our first few months of owning the Tiger.  

The most serious issue we had to deal with early on was a water leak into the cabover bed area.  This was present from the time we picked up the Tiger and wasn’t cured properly, despite three attempts by the factory, until two years later when we returned from South America.  At that time, Provan was under new ownership and the new owner, Mark Guild, took great pains to discover the problem and get it fixed.

In 2009, after our trip to South America, we had a small list of things done to refit the Tiger prior to shipping it to Europe.  For the most part these were either cosmetic items such as upgrading to the new kitchen counter top design and fitting new, firmer foam to the couch, or preventive measures such as new faucets and a new water pump that were done only in an attempt to prevent failures when we were once again out of the country.  We also replaced the original mattress.

In 2011, having discovered that there are several shops in England specializing in repairing and servicing American motorhomes, we did another round of minor RV house related repairs while awaiting delivery of our new wheels.

One issue that comes up as a question from time to time is whether the Tiger is a real expedition vehicle and whether or not the body will crack under heavy use.  I can’t answer that for everyone, but I will say that we have experienced absolutely no stress cracks or any other sort of breakage of any part of the Tiger structure despite thousands of miles of unpaved, potholed, washboarded, muddy or just plain difficult roads.  From Tierra del Fuego to the Andes to Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey, the Tiger has held up very well for us in the way that we use it.  We chose the Tiger because we want to be able to go down any road that we find, and we do.  But we don't go off road other than into a field to park for the night.  We don't go out of our way to find rough hills to climb or rocky escarpments to challenge; that’s just not what we do.  Everyone’s idea of expedition is different.  It may well be that some Tiger owners have subjected their units to more difficult conditions than we have and have encountered difficulties as a result.  I can only comment on our own experience.  Update 2015:  We recently spent six weeks in Iceland with our Tiger and happily traveled all of the famed interior roads on that island including the F-26; the longest of Iceland’s interior crossings.  Most visitors never get to see these areas, but our Tiger took us to them with no difficulties.  Update 2016:  After six seasons in Europe we have now brought our Tiger home, in part for some refurbishment and upgrading at Tiger Vehicles in South Carolina.  See our 2016 Tiger Refit 1 report for details on the work being done.

We bought our Tiger to travel the world, and as a travel vehicle it is fully up to any and all conditions we are brave enough to attempt.  If Kathy and I see a dirt road and want to take it, we do.  If it turns rougher or rockier or muddier than we are comfortable with we either decide to go on or we turn around or back out.  Our goal when we bought the Tiger was to get a vehicle that will take us wherever we want to go, in all sorts of environments.  This means a vehicle with enough traction and clearance to handle rough roads or bumpy fields that we want to camp in, but also one that is small and compact enough to take us into narrow medieval towns or Andean villages.  It also means a vehicle that provides us with a comfortable home night in and night out for months and years at a time.  For us, our Tiger meets that combination of challenges better than anything else we have seen before or since.

Add Ons:  

While we’ve never suffered a major breakdown caused by any added on equipment, for sheer frequency of incidents requiring attention, this category wins hands down.  For awhile we referred to our travels as the World Wide Welding Tour.  Over the first year we had the Tiger we mounted, remounted, added and removed a motorcycle rack (with motorcycle of course), two different sets of aluminum storage boxes, went from spare tire in the front to spare tire in the back to two spares, front and back, roof top cargo box yes, then roof cargo box no (sold for $20 on the street in Costa Rica).  Often enough these changes weren’t just due to our efforts to decide what we needed to carry and where we should carry it, but also just so the guy on the dusty street in Guatemala could do a slightly messier but ultimately sturdier spare tire mount than the much more expensive guy up in the Yukon had done; Yukon was $90 bucks an hour, while Guatemala was $15 and a couple cans of Chunky soup.  We finally finished up the welding tour, well mostly, in Ecuador with some reinforcement to the cracking supports for our rear storage boxes.  I guess it didn’t really end until the fellows in Texas completely revamped and remounted our rear storage boxes prior to our shipping to Europe, but after Ecuador we didn’t have any more repairs needed.  Update 2013:  Oops!  One day in Armenia, a country well known for its rough roads, our front mounted spare tire fell, plop, right into the street.  Amazingly enough this happened just as we pulled to a stop in the middle of a large city instead of on some remote, winding mountain road where it could have caused an accident.  A passing local fellow helped us load the tire into the coach and led us a few blocks to a welding shop where repairs were made.  Total loss of time, about thirty minutes; damage to the tire or truck, zero; cost of repair, about $5.

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Probably the next area for discussion is electronics, and we really haven’t had too many problems there.  We have all of our solar work done by Ron at D&R Family RV in Glendale, Arizona, with the parts sourced through RV Solar Electric in Scottsdale.  As a result of their good work we’ve experienced very little in the way of failures.  The only things that come to mind are an inverter failure in Argentina and the failure of one of our solar panels in the Balkans (former Yugoslavia).  We had initially installed a much smaller inverter than we really wanted due to space limitations.  When it failed, we went ahead and installed the full sized 2000 watt inverter we knew we needed, but we had to give up an entire closet shelf space to do it.  In 2011, one of our solar panels failed while we were in the Balkans.  Working through RV Solar and then directly with Kyocera, the manufacturer, they shipped us a new panel all the way to Bulgaria, all under warranty.  Excellent service all around.

As discussed above in the Chevy section, the failure of our Dick Cepek wheels really should come here in the add on area.  This experience points out to us the limitations of relying entirely on internet research when looking for parts and accessories for your vehicle.  Finding companies that give solid technical information on their products is difficult, and then sometimes the specs that are given turn out to be incorrect anyway.  It’s a problem for all of us in this wired world; when traveling away from home it becomes more of an issue because the local dealer you’ve relied on for so long is no longer there to be asked.  We have tried hard to maintain connections with people we’ve worked with along the way who seem knowledgeable and willing to help us when needed.  Whether at home in the states or out on the road, such folks can be extremely valuable. 

Conclusions:

We feel that we’ve done pretty well with our vehicle, traveling through fifty-six countries on five continents.  The only spare parts we carry are filters and light bulbs and we’ve never needed any of the bulbs.  Each time we’re in the states I’ll ask at the Chevy dealer if we should be concerned about belts or hoses or other parts that should be replaced.  For a long time they just smiled and said no, then it was suggested that we replace the serpentine belt, which was done at 117,000 miles.  Since then we’ve taken to having the truck serviced at the end of each season of travel.  Then, the following spring, we’ve brought needed parts back to Europe with us in our checked luggage.  This has worked out very well.  We’ve always been able to have the truck serviced wherever we’ve been and have never had a bad service service experience; some of them have been phenomenal.  When possible, we’ll service the truck at a Chevrolet dealer and have done so in the US, including Alaska, and also in Colombia, Chile, Turkey and Italy.  We’ve also had work done at small independent shops in Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, England, Scotland, Morocco, Bulgaria, Turkey and even Georgia (the country, not the state)  with never a problem.  These service experiences are all a part of our traveling saga. 

Before we bought our Tiger we looked very hard at getting something based on the Mercedes Sprinter van, which is sold worldwide.  While this could certainly be an advantage in the event of a major failure, we have found that we’re very comfortable going anywhere with our Chevy truck, finding service places along the way.  To this point this has served us well and we have no regrets regarding our choice of vehicle.  We can also relate stories of problems experienced by travelers in any manner of well regarded vehicles up to and including the famed Mercedes Unimog, often thought of as the holy grail of overland travel.  International travel presents problems for any vehicle and difficulties will occur.  Our experience has been that a good old American pickup truck can manage these difficulties about as well as any other vehicle.

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2017