A Very Special Delivery Truck

This Sprinter conversion wraps luxury around utility to deliver a family-sized travel cruiser.

Credit Howard Becker for thinking inside the box to meet the challenge from a client for a sumptuous yet functional long-distance family hauler. The foundation of Becker's nine-passenger travel wagon was the Dodge Sprinter, as XXL-size commercial van only recently imported into this country but sold worldwide bearing Mercedes-Benz badges since 1995.

The Sprinter conversion represents the latest stage in the evolutionary growth of Becker Automotive Design that began in the late '70s with the design and installation of sophisticated automotive audio systems for the cars of Hollywood stars. When the world's top entertainers began driving SUVs, Becker expanded his creative efforts by offering luxurious interior and exterior appointments to surround his custom sound systems. In 1998, Becker Automotive Design separated itself from the herd of aftermarket SUV customizers with a Suburban designated for actor Will Smith. It began the trend for urban cruisers that offered the privacy of an opulently upholstered interior crammed with studio-quality multimedia equipment.

To prove his company was more than a one-trick pony performing only for Hollywood glitterati, Becker moved forward by combining his appreciation for the expanding applications of mobile wireless technology with inspiration sparked by the latest trends in executive jet interior design. He built vehicles aimed at the new breed of road warriors, the busy executives who could appreciate that saving time was the biggest luxury of all. Becker turned Ford's Excursion and full-sized passenger vans, which provided ample interior space and heavy-duty carrying capacity, into lavishly furnished mobile offices with multimedia computer systems, Internet capabilities, and video conferencing to go. The scheduled 2004 demise of the huge SUV and cloudy future of the full-size vans prompted Becker to seek alternatives, a search that ended with the Sprinter, which, in addition to being taller and longer, had the cachet of being a Mercedes-Benz. This is where Al Parish enters the story.

Parish is an economist and college professor in Charleston, S.C., who was looking for a comfortable way to haul his family on vacation trips and weekend outings. He and his wife have four children, ages 7, 4, and 8-month-old twins. Their travel companions also include his mother-in-law and nanny, plus assorted strollers, car seats, and other child-rearing necessities. The arrival of the twins has obsoleted his seven-passenger minivan. He considered a stock Excursion but ruled it out, based on the awkward procedure required to strap in four small children. Parish, whose daily driver is a Jaguar XKR roadster, wanted his family vehicle also to be a bit more special, so he turned to Howard Becker for ideas for a conversion vehicle.

"We like the Sprinter because it offers us the versatility to meet different customer needs and we can send it to customers around the world," Becker says of the utilitarian vehicle that can be ordered in three wheelbase lengths (118, 140, and 158 inches) plus two roofs heights offering either 64.3 or 73 inches of interior standing room. The Sprinter can be ordered with windows and seats a la an airport shuttle or as a windowless cargo carrier. Cargo and people easily enter through a nearly 3.5-foot-wide sliding side doors or two rear doors that swing back 270 degrees to the sides of the van.

All U.S. Sprinters are powered by a Mercedes-Benz 2.7-liter, 5-cylinder turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine. The engine features the latest in common-rail direct injection and produces 154 hp at 3,800 rpm and 243 ft lbs of torque at 1,600 rpm for decent acceleration (zero to 60 mph in 13.1 seconds) considering the base curb weight of 5,186 pounds. The transmission is a 5-speed automatic that also allows manual gear selection.

What made Parish decide to become Becker's first Sprinter conversion client was the generous access through the side door and capability to stand while buckling in his kids. The diesel powerplant's nearly maintenance-and clatter-free operation while delivering fuel mileage more than twice that of a gasoline unit was another big plus.

Becker also had a number of reasons to be excited about the project as his client was. The Sprinter has an independent front suspension with a tried-and-true rigid axel supported by leaf springs at the rear. Becker feels that this gives the Sprinter a better ride and better handling that the Ford and GM vehicles he has used. The Sprinter is also more easily adapted to an independent rear suspension to further enhance ride comfort for limousine applications. All-wheel-drive versions of the Sprinter are available in Europe, and Becker says grafting on the necessary components could also be easily done for those customers willing to pay (about $20,000) for the added traction. Speaking of traction, the Sprinter comes standard-equipped with the Mercedes Electronic Stability Program (ESP) antiskid control and computerized traction control (ASR) as well as ABS braking.

Despite coming fully equipped with the above features plus amenities such as power steering and cruise control, the Sprinter remains basically a big, tall, empty box on wheels, something that gives the normally exuberant Becker a shiver of doubt upon first seeing it sitting au naturel in front of his 40-employee, 18,000 square-foot shop north of Los Angeles.

"When it arrived in the raw, I though, 'Oh God, what did I just get here!'" he recalls.

Closer inspection of the sliding door also put a few dings in his mettle. The door was heavy and awkward to close, especially from the inside. Parish's major stipulation was that this door be easy to use because he and his wife would usually have their hands occupied loading or unloading the children. Becker's solution was to reengineer the remote control power unit from a Ford minivan for smooth, hands-free operation.

For the interior, Becker selected buttery-soft European leather, bird's eye maple, Berber-style carpeting, and an Italian suede headliner for a rich but family-oriented environment that is light and airy. Parish opted for a seating arrangement that features a pair of custom-made, leather-covered, seven-way power-adjustable bucket seats for the first three rows with a six-way power-adjustable couch along the rear that slides forward for additional cargo space. The front seats include a cooling ventilation system, and Becker designed back massagers with a stimulating yet soothing alternation pulse pattern. For the second-row buckets normally occupied by the twins, Becker adapted the built-in child restraint harnesses from a Chrysler minivan for added security.

Becker's fondness for aircraft-inspired touches shows in foldaway side tables at each rear seat and LED-based, ceiling mounted reading lamps. Sixteen feet of high-intensity white LED strip lighting along the edge of the ceiling provides striking but gentle-to-the-eyes interior illumination. Becker equates the effect to a Close Encounters of the Third Kind experience the first time you open the doors at night. Parish calls it "white sunshine."

Of course, no Becker vehicle is complete without a superb and ingeniously designed entertainment system. For openers, the Parish Sprinter has a 20-inch retractable video monitor, six-disc DVD changer, VCR, and PlayStation game console. Sound comes with a 570-watt 14-speaker arrangement with Dolby Digital 5.1 processor, 10-channel parametric equalizer, and satellite radio receiver. A touchscreen navigation system includes a monitor with integrated rearview camera. There is also a PC and wireless Internet compatibility plus an auxiliary AC electrical system.

Becker says the exterior offered a bigger challenge than the interior. The Sprinter received a sporty face-lift with the addition of a front spoiler, a three-pointed star grille, fog and driving lights, and new bumpers. The bright blue paint scheme with silver accents adds flair and diminishes the van's tall, boxy silhouette.

Parish is delighted with the vehicle's handling and reports that although he avoids cramped downtown streets and low-cling parking garages, the Sprinter has been a delight to drive in his first 7,500 miles of ownership. He raves about the diesel engine's highway performance and light appetite for fuel that returned 26 mpg on a Florida trip.

Becker Automotive Design has a number of floor plans and interior configurations designed for the Sprinter, as well as an armor protection program. Starting with the basic Sprinter that retails for about $35,000, Becker says conversions can range from $100,000 to $250,000, depending on materials and accessories.