The difference between a crapcan and a luxury car is mostly just what gets checked on the options list. But what if you could turn a basic truck into a luxury vehicle with some modifications? That’s what we did before setting off on the road trip of a lifetime, and here’s how you can too.
The pickup you see above is my 2005 GMC Canyon. I drove it across country a number of times, including one trip from Texas to Canada and back. I love my pickup for its reliability and spunky five-cylinder engine. It’s my first new car and I’ve put 99.9 percent of the 180,000 miles on it.
That said, it’s noisy, it’s beat up, the stereo sucks and the interior is filthy from years of neglect including the “iced tea incident,” which we don’t speak of. So, three areas that needed improvement were comfort, capability and entertainment.
My girlfriend Rachel and I decided to quit our jobs and drag my derelict camper across America. Marriage and children also seem to be looming, so it’s about our last opportunity to travel before she has to finish school and I have to find a real job.
As for the camper, I heard about a free one last fall. The floor was completely rotten but the canvas and everything else was in great shape. I took it home where it sat in my backyard all winter. Then in early spring I got ambitious. I gutted it, installed new plywood floors and floor covering. The wheels got some new tires and the bearings got fresh grease.
But this isn’t an article about rotten old campers, it’s about fixing up your car. Here’s what I did to get my truck into shape.
The noise level in the cab at highway speeds was too high for comfort and there’s a lot of heat that comes off the transmission tunnel once the truck is up to temperature. To fix this I wanted to add sound deadening. This meant gutting the truck to get to the floorboards. The headliner was disgusting too from the aforementioned iced tea incident, so out it came.
Headliners and interior components on newer cars can be tricky to get out. Manufacturers use loads of plastic components and fasteners. It’s a quick and cheap way to assemble cars but plastic trim and fasteners get brittle with age.
If you’re considering doing some of this work I suggest getting a cheap trim tool set. Take your time to avoid breaking things. Use zipper bags and a marker to bag and label components as you take them off.
Here are the bare floors and roof skin. There is some jute padding attached to the underside of the carpet that serves as heat and noise control. Aside from what you see in the passenger floorboard there’s nothing else.
I chose to address the lack of insulation with a few different products.
From left to right there’s a roll of Reflectix, some heat control fabric (think oven mitts), some batting, some thick rubber material, cheap brushes, contact cement, scissors, a roller, foil tape and some self-adhesive sound deadening.
Sound deadening is a polarizing topic. Look on YouTube and you’ll see teenagers knocking on the panels of their hand-me-down Honda Accords. There’s also a lot of hype from manufacturers and nonsense spouted by know-it-alls. If you fall into the latter category, the comment section is at the bottom of the article. You can tell me how I did it all wrong. For everyone else, keep reading to see how I did my best with what I had.
After cleaning the floorboards with a wet/dry vac, I wiped them down with wax and grease remover. I cut my sound deadening to fit before peeling off the back and sticking them down. Work from the middle out to avoid trapping air bubbles. I used GT Mat based on reviews and price. I’ve used more expensive stuff and found this comparable to all but the priciest options. Here’s what I ended up with after installing the GT Mat.
I didn’t go wall to wall with it, partly because I didn’t have enough and because I’m not convinced it’s necessary here. Sound deadening mats work by adding mass to panels to prevent them from vibrating. It’s a like touching a ringing bell. It mutes it. The foil backing prevents heat transfer. With this in mind I placed the GT Mat where I thought It would be most effective.
To add more mass, and hopefully some heat control, I glued down some rubber material left over from another project. Think toolbox drawer liner only about three times as thick. I brushed contact adhesive on the floor and the backside of the mat. Once it had time to get tacky I positioned it and mashed it down for a permanent bond. I use DAP Contact Cement because it’s virtually indistinguishable from another Dap product used in upholstery shops. Except it’s cheap and available at hardware stores.
With all the matting in place I started on the rear panel. While driving I could reach back and feel the heat coming through it. I supplemented the factory jute insulation with some Reflectix. I also pulled the door panels and A-pillar trim to glue some of the oven mitt material on the inside. This serves two purposes. First, it prevents heat from transferring through the door panel, and second, it keeps any rattling of the panel against the door.
Next came the roof skin. The issue here isn’t really noise control but heat is a big factor. The top of the truck radiated heat down onto occupants on a hot day.
I cut the Reflectix into strips to fit the space between the roof panel supports. I used contact cement to stick them up there. I used to do this to customer cars when I worked at an upholstery shop and I wondered if it worked. I could tell the difference right away. I also cut some small pieces and stuck them to the trans tunnel.
Before reinstalling the interior components I power washed the carpets, cleaned all the plastic and the headliner. I’d like to install some more comfortable seats, but I haven’t found any in budget yet. Anybody have some Canyon/Colorado crew-cab or H3 seats for cheap?
Finally, I went to Done Right Glass in Denton, Texas and had the front windows tinted. They look great, provide privacy and keep me from getting a trucker tan.
To enhance the truck’s capability I added a receiver hitch. I pulled the trailer home using a bumper mounted ball. The trailer rode at an angle making it buck and scrape the bumper. Trailers like to ride level, it allows the trailer’s suspension to work properly.
I pulled the ball out of the bumper to remove and replace the damaged trim. The trim piece is only $30 and it dolls up the back of my pickup.
Next, I installed a Reese Class IV hitch and a Reese Starter Kit. It seemed like the best bang for the buck and offered bolt-in installation.
It fit my truck perfectly and the install was a snap. Six bolts and you’re done. I like the stealthy look and the trailer pulls smoother. I also don’t have to worry about my bumper being torn off, and that’s nice.
Nobody bought a Canyon for the sound system. I chose to update the tired old stereo with a Boss Audio touchscreen unit. It features Bluetooth and all sorts of inputs. It comes with a back up camera which will come in handy when backing up to the camper. It’s definitely not the most expensive and probably not the best, but it had the features I wanted at an affordable price..
Stereos are not my bag. However, I can read a wiring diagram and crimp wires together. I searched YouTube for install tips and found an accessory wire beneath the steering column to tie into. There are manufacturers that will sell you a harness that plugs into your original wiring but I’m cheap so I did it this way.
The install is straight forward but I needed to drill holes for the back up camera. I drilled one in the cab floor and one in the rear bumper trim near my license plate.
I put a grommet in the floor hole, then sealed around the wire with silicone. I wired the backup camera into the reverse lights which was easy after identifying the wires. I used some heat shrink to make a waterproof install.
With everything installed and buttoned up I took the truck for a spin. Aside from smelling a lot like drying glue, the shakedown went well. The road noise was diminished but the most notable difference was the cabin temperature. I had to dial back the A/C which is unheard of during summer in Texas. The glue smell dissipated after a couple days.
So, what did all this Trumpian luxury cost me? I used about $30 bucks worth of GT Mat I already had. Reflectix, contact cement and the stuff from the fabric store cost another $37. I spent $30 on the rear bumper trim. The big ticket items were the hitch and receiver which cost about $120 for both. The stereo set me back $117.
For a total of $334 I added a lot of comfort, capability and entertainment. As far as I can tell it’s money well spent.
There are still plenty of things I’d like to improve; upgraded seats and key-less entry are high on the list. For now though, I hope you’ll read along as I write updates from the road. Follow #GART on Twitter and Facebook for the play by play from the driver’s seat.
Aaron Vick Starnes is an unemployed motor-journalist currently on the road chasing the American Dream. Follow him on Twitter @AaronVStarnes and check out his work.
This story was originally published on August 8, 2016