autoevolution

How a “Cheap Bastard” Turned a 2005 Unimog U500 Into the Ultimate Custom Rig

Preparing to go off-road can be fun if you have the budget to splurge on whatever tickles your fancy. But building your own rig is twice the fun and several times more rewarding. Just ask John Marshall.
Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500 13 photos
Photo: FourWheeler.com
Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500
The difference between John Marshall and your average adventure-seeker is that Marshall does this for a living. He’s a Certified Master Off Road Driving Instructor by the International Four Wheel Trainers Association and runs Coyote Adventure, which regularly puts together tours, and rescue and recovery missions. He has 30 years of experience off-road, is a well-known fabricator, and has been a garage-tinkerer his entire life.

He also often describes himself as a “cheap bastard.”

Since August is autoevolution’s Expedition Vehicles Month, we couldn’t have let the occasion go by without a mention of Marshall and his most recent project: a 2005 Mercedes-Benz Unimog U500 he built into the ultimate rig. The project lasted two years and had no hard deadline, and was completed a couple of years ago. Since then, Marshall has been on the trail with his Unimog nearly seven days a week, as he puts it in an interview with Four Wheeler from earlier this year.

Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes\-Benz Unimog U500
Photo: FourWheeler.com
“I'm on the trail nearly seven days a week,” he says. “And then when I go on vacation it is typically in the backcountry for weeks at a time. Some may say I have a problem!”

Marshall has built a lot of stuff in his life: he’s done anything from 4x4s to rat rods and houses, and he’s seen his fair share of Unimogs. They may be a rarity in the U.S., but he loves them for how reliable, versatile, easy to handle and powerful they are. So when the chance presented him with a 2005 Unimog U500, of which only some 200 ever made it to the U.S., he didn’t waste a second to make the purchase.

Right off the bat, he set out to shorten the wheelbase, bringing it from 216 inches (419 cm) down to 156 (396 cm).

Next up on his list was the camper. This one, he built from scratch, using a Gichner Box bought from a military surplus at an auction. This would become the camper, but not before Marshall polished it, cut out windows and the door, laid out the plan, and took care of the wiring and plumbing.

Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes\-Benz Unimog U500
Photo: FourWheeler.com
Today, the camper is 7 feet (213 cm) wide, 12 feet (365 cm) long and 7 feet (213 cm) tall. As you can see in the gallery attached, Marshall’s Unimog has an actual patio. It’s 4 feet (121 cm) wide and is made of aluminum, with hard pine floor, operated via button-based linear actuators. It came about out of necessity, since Marshall didn’t like the idea of using a ladder to gain entrance into the cabin, as the door opened on the outside as well. The patio actually extends interior space when camping, which is extremely useful especially when using the kitchen.

Inside, there’s an elevated bed that hides an 84-gallon (318-liter) fresh water tank, a kitchen area, a toilet / shower module, and some storage space. The cabinets were bought from Home Depot, but much of the stuff inside came from eBay. As noted above, Marshall is “cheap” and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Plus, he says, he hates the idea of buying something from someone, if he can handle it on his own.

“My father was quite handy in the garage, but more importantly, he was also extremely cheap,” he explains. “Therefore, I grew up learning to do whatever it took to get the job done. Yes, I'm too darn cheap to hire someone to do things for me.”

Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes\-Benz Unimog U500
Photo: FourWheeler.com
Marshall added solar panels and an inverter and battery bank, and he gets through the summer completely off-grid. The rig also has air-conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen, three-way fridge, water heater, entertainment system and flat-screen TV, LED lighting, and perhaps more importantly, cell phone booster and antenna tower.

Powered by a 6.4-liter diesel engine believed to make some 280 hp, the rig rolls on Hutchinson wheels clad in Goodyear military tires. The Unimog’s VarioDrive system means that, at the touch of a button, the steering and pedals move to the left side, allowing operation from either the left or right-hand side. Another button switches from manual to automatic transmission, and there’s also power take-off and central tire inflation system.

Custom rig build by John Marshall on a 2005 Mercedes\-Benz Unimog U500
Photo: FourWheeler.com
This rig looks massive, but it’s actually easy to handle and quite speedy when it needs to be. Marshall says it can roll down the highway at 70 mph (112.6 kph), while he quietly enjoys looking inside the cabins of semitrucks. You have to love a man who takes pleasure in the simplest, smallest things in life.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Elena Gorgan
Elena Gorgan profile photo

Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
Full profile

 

Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories