Early this month, while off-roading my 1991 Jeep Wrangler YJ at Rowher Flats off-road course just north of Los Angeles, I stumbled upon a $1 Million RV called the 27North Ascender. It was in rough shape. The driveshaft was twisted up like a Twizzler, the winch line was wrapped around the driver’s side mirror, and the camper unit was leaning hard to one side. It seemed to me that the primary problem had to do with too much skinny pedal, too much weight, and too steep of a grade, though the company’s CEO claimed a significant cause of the failure was a defective wheel bearing from Ford. I was skeptical of the claim, and the article resulted in a bit of drama, with the CEO becoming a bit upset with our publication. Now we have videos from YouTube channels Donut Media and Matt’s Off-Road Recovery showing what happened to the over-eight-ton, seven-figure off-road RV.
Let’s recap with pictures. Here’s the vehicle in question:
I wrote a simple blog about what I saw, including this driveshaft failure that appeared to be the main cause of the vehicle’s lack of mobility:
To learn a bit more about the vehicle and what happened, I reached out the 27North. Its CEO, Pavel “Paul” Bosovik, told me that a significant cause of the vehicle’s failure was defective wheel bearings from Ford. Here’s a quote from my previous article:
As for what happened, Paul told me this: “Bearing seized up. That pressure damaged the driveshaft and twisted it. Now Ford is getting it towed back… to their facilities to rebuild the rear axle.”
Paul claims that a failed rear wheel bearing — a part that Ford has allegedly recalled (I haven’t been able to find the recall notice) — caused additional strain on the drivetrain, leading to the factory driveshaft twisting up like a pretzel. “It all came back to defective bearing and Ford’s been covering everything under warranty,” Bosovik told me over the phone.
Bosovik also told me that others in the off-road RV space — including EarthRoamer — have had similar bearing failures as well. In addition, Bosovik said that his team was transitioning from 2022 to newer Ford F-550 chassis, saying the newer models will no longer have these bearing issues. For his part, when asked about bearing failures, EarthRoamer’s CEO Scot Allen told me that his company has had no issues with 2020 and newer F-550 bearings. Allen suggested that a bearing problem on a 2022 chassis — like the one that the Ascender is built on — could be due to an overloaded rear axle.
It wasn’t really a big deal and not the main point of the story, but I was skeptical that a wheel bearing was relevant to this failure at all. The problem appeared to be a driveshaft being overloaded by a heavy machine driving on a rather difficult off-road trail. Here’s what I wrote:
I’m a bit skeptical about this for a number of reasons. First off, who off-roads a truck with a failed wheel bearing? Bosovik claims his team “hired one of the best drivers [they] could find,” so that seems a bit odd. Or did the wheel bearing catastrophically fail off-road? That seems unlikely to me.
We’ll find out from the media outlet that took this thing off-road how a wheel bearing seizure factored into this whole thing, why they took the truck off-road in the first place with a bad wheel bearing, or if this was just a case of too much weight plus too much pedal equals too much torsional strain on a stock driveshaft.
Well, we now have a bit more information now thanks to Donut Media, the aforementioned unnamed media outlet responsible for the vehicle’s failure. Have a watch:
The video begins with a discussion of the Ascender’s on-road driving experience. “This feels like you’re riding an elephant. Really heavy, steering is like kind of a suggestion,” one of the hosts says. “There’s just so much mass so high that it just pulls you wherever it wants to go,” his co-host chirps before the driver chimes back in: “And when you go over dips it bounces for about a minute in a half.”
Donut tries taking the RV through a McDonald’s drive-through, but the truck is too tall. Then the team goes off-road, and notices the camper section of the truck leaning back and forth on a mild dirt trail. “A lot of flexin’ going on,” one host says.
The team then shows the rather nice interior and power-ejecting stairs, and also notes the Ascender’s decent parking lot maneuverability. There’s a stocked kitchen and a slick screen that turns on various functions. There were apparently some issues getting the stove to work, but Donut figured it out and used it to cook a nice salmon and veggie dinner. As for sleeping, a Donut host says the Ascender is “Better than sleeping on the ground for sure,” and one applauds the fact that he didn’t have to alight from the vehicle to urinate, and that there was no packing needed to continue on the trail in the morning.
Then the video shows the harder off-roading. “This truck is definitely a little bit overwhelming,” a host says after the rather tall vehicle hits some trees. One host compliments the vehicle’s climbing ability, and another calls the machine “sketchy.”
The team notes the relative lack of weight up front, and that makes it seem like “[the Ascender] could roll over.” Ultimately the truck makes a rather steep climb — which a Donut host calls “impressive.” I agree that that grade is rather difficult.
After Donut notes the truck’s lack of dual locking differentials, one host, Justin, decides to get behind the wheel and try the climb. As shown in the screenshot above, it does not go well. The vehicle appears to hop a bit, and then the driveshaft fails, leaving the vehicle immobile right in the middle of the sketchy hillclimb. Donut tries backing and then towing the vehicle out, but the Ascender is too heavy for their tow rigs.
Donut reaches out to Matt’s Off-Road Recovery YouTube channel. Here’s what that team did to get the Ascender unstuck:
According to Matt, “the guy who owns the vehicle” (that should be 27North itself) apparently tried recovering the truck, but ultimately Donut Media asked for Matt’s help.
As you can see in the video, Matt’s solution to recover the machine was to replace the driveshaft. And not just swap it out, but build a new driveshaft from scratch. Very impressive!
Matt’s team brought along a bunch of metal tubes of various sizes, as they weren’t sure of the exact diameter of the Ascender’s driveshaft. The team sliced off the ends of the stock driveshaft so that they could weld those ends onto a pipe and bolt the whole thing up to the transfer case and rear section of the driveshaft (the vehicle’s rear driveshaft has two sections; the front section is the one that twisted.)
Matt’s team then cut the pipe to the appropriate length (after measuring the distance between the rear pillow bearing and the transfer case yoke) and welded on the ends from the stock driveshaft:
After some iteration, the team seems to have done a great job getting the ends on there nice and square:
It’s obviously not a permanent solution, in part because it’s not balanced, but honestly — the team seems to have done an amazing job. For them to drive to California, assess the situation, remove the failed driveshaft section, and build and install a new one within just a few hours — that’s just legit.
This video shows a recovery that involved solely a driveshaft replacement; there’s no mention of a bad wheel bearing. As a courtesy, I reached out to 27North. Bosovik’s response made it clear that he was rather upset with my coverage and refused to provide a comment — presumably in large because I was skeptical about his wheel bearing failure claim.
Now, I’ve been off-roading for most of my life, I have an engineering background, and I’ve seen driveshaft failures before; never have I seen one caused by a wheel bearing failure. Typically wheel bearing failures happen over a long duration. Why would one drive a vehicle off-road with an already-failing wheel bearing? A wheel bearing could theoretically seize up, but this would probably happen at very high wheel speeds, and again, there would almost certainly be signs beforehand. Plus, I also was unable to find a recall for a 2022 F-550 (which is what underpins the Ascender), and when I asked EarthRoamer, its CEO said it had no issues with 2020+ F-550s (15 issues with pre-2020s). It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Anyway, this little bit of drama is all for naught, really, because the trail was difficult. It’s not like this truck snapped its driveshaft on a newbie trail; that grade is no joke. It failed during the prototype stage, and that’s OK. It happens.
Anyway, Bosovik eventually did provide a comment to The Autopian’s publisher Matt Hardigree, who had messaged him after watching the two videos. Bosovik says that the bearing issue actually happened before the off-road trip, and that this could have caused the driveshaft to weaken. Again, I remain very skeptical that a bearing was the culprit here, but here’s Bosovik’s comment:
We had an issue with a Ford damaged part three weeks prior to the trip, one that Ford covered under warranty, and believed that could have resulted in extra stress on the driveshaft. We are still investigating the issues.
Bosovik further added:
27North Inc., a leading innovator in expedition vehicles, is thrilled to announce the triumphant journey of our 27North prototype truck, which became the first official Class C expedition truck to conquer the formidable 30-degree slopes of California. We take immense pride in this accomplishment as it signifies a significant milestone in our mission to engineer robust and versatile vehicles for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers.During this groundbreaking expedition, our team gained invaluable insights that will shape the future development of the 27North model. As a result, we have committed to enhancing the vehicle’s performance and efficiency. This includes reducing the weight from the current 18,000lbs loaded to 15,000lbs, ensuring improved agility and maneuverability on rugged terrains. Additionally, we will be upgrading the driveshaft to expedition version and partnering with a leading industry suspension company to double the rear axle’s capabilities. Furthermore, we are excited to announce our collaboration with Liquid Spring, as we transition from an air suspension to a liquid spring suspension system, providing unparalleled stability and ride comfort.In our relentless pursuit of excellence, we are already gearing up for the next round of testing. The upgraded prototype will undergo rigorous evaluation in the fall of 2023, where we expect it to surpass expectations and further cement its status as the epitome of class-leading expedition vehicles. Stay tuned for more updates as we continue to push the boundaries of innovation in the world of outdoor exploration.
Asked if he was surprised by the tone of the video, Bosovik added “[W]e gave them our prototype and said ‘break it so we know what we need to do better!'”
In my opinion, the primary issues that caused the driveshaft failure were these five: 1. Lots of weight. 2. A steep grade. 3. An obviously-not-strong-enough shaft for this application/these conditions 4. The line chosen by the driver and the driver’s limited experience piloting that vehicle and 5. An apparent lack of locking differentials (you can see some front axle wheelspin in the clip above).
That last point is key. In my experience off-roading, axle and driveshaft failure is almost always a product of a wheel spinning up due to lack of traction and then quickly hitting the ground. This instantaneous traction creates a shock load that tends to snap shafts. Including lockers in the Ascender would almost certainly make failures like this less frequent, as lockers would limit wheelspin. For $1 Million, these should be standard anyway, in my opinion.
“This is heavy heavy heavy. You can just feel it,” Matt from Matt’s Off Road Recovery says while driving the Ascender after fixing its driveshaft. “So this rig is a lot of things…I’m not gonna get into what it is. But I’m gonna get into what it isn’t. It isn’t made for this. This is a very, very steep hill,” he says.
“This is a very very heavy rig,” he continues. “I understand why it twisted driveshafts. It’s super heavy. And really really steep hills — any bouncing, one bounce, and BOOM it’s done. Ask me how I know.” He later says: “It just feels like the wrong rig to be here in.”
So anyway, moderate reporting drama aside: impressive work by Matt and his team getting this heavy beast off that steep trail. And you know what, good on 27North for putting their truck through such a grueling test and planning to use it to make improvements.