This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.
Christopher Michaels knows how to tell a good story. He understands the need to engage his audience while building the scene. He picks his words wisely, adding color and detail as he builds suspense and tension. Being a professional artist from Atlanta, Ga., he has a unique ability to bring inanimate objects to life. He can cleverly paint a picture with words, yet knows when to leave something unsaid to allow the imagination to fill in the blanks.
Michaels is also a diesel truck owner who has a passion for specialty builds. He’s not afraid of tearing into an engine or making major modifications to his truck. Yet he’s willing to preserve one story while creating another. Here’s just a small part of his story.
“As a kid I always loved the sound of diesel trucks and the smell of diesel fuel,” Michaels said. “As I got older and my knowledge of engines grew, I came to appreciate the design and power potential of diesels.”
Michaels grew up around diesel tractors and diesel farm trucks. He understood the power and reliability these vehicles delivered. He also acquired an appreciation for some of the subtleties associated with such power.
“I had a neighbor with a first-generation 12-valve Cummins RAM that was the coolest-looking, coolest-sounding pickup I’d ever heard,” he said. That veneration continued to grow the more he spent time around diesel trucks.
“My second overland truck was an International Harvester Scout with a rare turbo diesel,” he explained. “After that I was hooked.”
Michaels has been pretty much a motorhead his entire life. He enjoyed being around well-tuned engines and impressive mods. In the back of his mind he was always searching for that one perfect vehicle that could become part of his story, his life. With his taste for adventure and travel, he started looking for some type of a “power wagon” that could take him out to remote places and new experiences.
Dodge Concept Truck
In 1999, Michaels recalls seeing the Dodge Power Wagon concept truck during the Detroit International Motorshow.
“This truck was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” he explained. It had a modern style of the old 1930-40 power wagon trucks you would see during World War 2—the narrow grille and big front fenders with headlights mounted on them.
“This truck was a modern version of them, but with a big diesel engine and big tires.” Michael recalls that during this time Dodge was coming out with a lot of cool vehicles. But he knew that concept trucks rarely make it to production. He would have to keep looking.
“At that time, the closest thing I got to that truck was a Hot Wheels model of a black power wagon,” he said. It was a cool model, and much like his dream, something he could hold on to.
Seven years later, Dodge redesigned its RAM truck. And with its third generation 2006 RAM, suddenly there was a vehicle that had most of the features Michaels was looking for. At the time, Michaels was pretty active in motorized vehicle competition and with his ever-growing business ventures. “I just had too many irons in the fire,” he explained. He just wasn’t in a position to pursue his dream of owning this truck.
Although the body style for this particular RAM went from 2006-2008, it was the 2006 model that really captured his heart and he knew some day he would have one of them.
After a couple of years, Michaels felt his life had slowed down to where he could start looking for a used truck. But as he searched for a Dodge RAM 3500 Heavy Duty with the Cummins turbodiesel, he found that either the trucks had been worked to death and beaten up, or they had been well-maintained and the owners wanted way too much money for them.
Michaels considered himself a fairly competent mechanic so he wasn’t afraid of finding something that had been abused if the price was right. He decided to start looking for a salvage truck or damaged truck that still was in good enough condition that he could make the repairs himself.
“That rabbit hole led to me finding all sorts of other trucks to consider,” he explained. Usually the trucks were either way beyond the damaged condition listed … or he would just be a little too late and someone else would scoop up the decent ones. But in his quest to find one, he noticed that the federal law enforcement agencies (like the DEA) would sometimes have vehicles they had confiscated in drug busts or for other reasons, and would sell them for salvage. Now some of these vehicles may have a shady or questionable history, but they were still good vehicles ... and they likely had a great story to go with them.
“Then one day I found one,” Michael said. “There it was, a 2006, 3500 Mega Cab. It already had the bumpers on it, it had the fender flares, it had everything I wanted … and it was black. It was like the closest thing to that little Hot Wheels car that I had seen.”
He made a call and found that the vehicle was still available. All he had to do was send a $500 deposit and they would hold the truck for him. The problem was that Michaels lived in Atlanta and the truck was in Houston, Texas. Sending a $500 deposit for a vehicle he hadn’t seen seemed risky.
Michaels again took a hard look at the price of the truck … it was pretty low for the condition the truck was claimed to be in—about half of what the market value for a similar truck was. He again asked why the price was so low. He wondered if there was some kind of weird damage, or if something was missing. But everything just seemed to check out. So he decided he had to take a chance, send the deposit and run out to Houston.
After all, this would at least make for another good story. So Michael rented a vehicle and made the drive to Texas.
The truck was at an unmarked warehouse that had that abandoned look to it. The truck was parked behind the building inside a chain link fence “like some sort of caged animal,” he recalls.
The truck was indeed black. And everything on it, including the windows, was black. “It wasn’t that chalky flat black,” Michaels explained. “It was inky, like life-just-disappeared-into-it black. It was just menacing, even in the daylight.”
When he first saw the truck, he knew he had to own it. “Even if someone had been murdered in this truck, I just had to own it,” he said.
Michael was told he could take the truck out for a drive before making a final decision on whether he wanted to buy it. He grabbed the keys, climbed inside and headed down the road where he could find a quiet place to more closely examine it.
The interior had some unique damage—like there had been a wrestling match in the front seat—with the visor torn down, the seatbelt mounting torn and radio kicked in. Although it was cleaned up fairly well, there were some stains on the passenger side “like someone had shaken up a Dr. Pepper and it had sprayed all over the headliner and carpet,” he said. “I just assumed somebody had spilled a drink or something.”
Once out on a narrow Texas road where there wasn’t any traffic, Michaels decided to see if the engine had any life to it. When he put his foot hard on the throttle, this truck just peeled out from under him. It had incredible power. He was just flying down the highway and loving every second of it. It had an amazing sound from the pipes, great acceleration. Michaels said he had drag raced a lot of cars so he quickly recognized that this thing was flat-out fast. He pulled over, opened the hood and everything inside was shiny, clean and well put together. It was fully loaded. He immediately returned to the warehouse so he could sign the title and take ownership before someone realized the true value of the vehicle.
Piecing Things Together
As he was completing the paper work, he asked about the history of the truck. Through his personal research he had found that it hadn’t been registered in over three years. Basically, from 2006 to 2011 the truck was just a ghost. It didn’t have a paper trail. There had been no insurance claims or anything that was found when running the VIN number. All Michaels could find was that the DEA had seized the truck in Laredo, Texas, and the DEA had used it for a year before turning it over to the government auction.
Once he got his new truck back to Atlanta, he started going through it. He realized that everything on the interior that could make noise or draw any attention to the truck—horn and lights—had been disconnected or eliminated. This truck was designed to be stealth, perhaps for boarder crossings or transporting drugs. It had infrared lights so it could travel in the dark with night vision goggles. And it had the power and speed to outrun pursuing vehicles.
“With the [title washing] done for ex-criminal vehicles, it's impossible to go back any farther on the ownership of my truck,” Michaels said. “But I was able to find it was sold on eBay in Texas when it was two years old. But it was not registered anywhere for the next three years.”
Michaels said once the story of this truck started getting out on the Internet (thanks mostly from an interview with VinWiki.com) he had a border patrol agent contact him. Although the agent didn’t offer any specific information about this particular truck, he did say he had encountered similar trucks (they called them [Coyotes]). They would be blacked out with night-vision, big motors and big bumpers that spend their days hidden in a shop and their nights going out to the border to pick up whatever was being smuggled. He said that when law enforcement moved in to make an arrest, the trucks used their speed and stealth to outrun them, disappearing into the dark and using the bumpers to ram fences, cattle or whatever was in front of them.
Once while Michaels was driving the truck, a stranger came up to him and said, “If you were back in Texas, I'd swear this was the truck that belonged to a drug smuggler I knew.”
One day Michaels was working on the interior, trying to clean up some of the stains. A buddy with experience in removing stains came over to help. He looked at the stains, then pulled a blue blood tracker light from his tool box and shined it on the stains. “Dude, that’s not Dr. Pepper, that’s blood,” his friend exclaimed.
That’s when Michaels decided that was all the farther he wanted to go in finding out the history of the truck. “I know enough about what the truck was used for and I don't think I want to know any more details about the bad things that happened in it,” he explained. “It used to smuggle in bad things from another country. But now I've given it a new life exploring all the great things in this country.”
Although the story still intrigues him, he knows it’s best to leave the rest for his imagination and move on to the next great adventure.
Fixing Things Up
Although there were a lot of unique features on this truck, some were not practical for a street-legal vehicle and needed to be fixed.
“I had to fix things like the multiple mufflers, the cut wiring for the lighting and horn, the broken seat, torn visor, and the kicked-in radio, and had to clean up most of the stains it had when I got it,” he said.
But his plan wasn’t to change everything on the truck. He wanted to keep enough of its past to still tell that story. “As for the parts I'm leaving, as grim as it sounds, the part most people want to see when they recognize the truck are the bloodstains in the carpet,” he said. “So for now, they're still there.”
Although Michaels has done a lot of the work himself, he also was able to trade some of the work out in exchange for some of his art work. Everything from wiring to body work to engine work had to be sorted out on the truck. When he first started working on the truck, he took it to a dyno to see what kind of power it was making. “It pulled 698hp, 1,158 ft/lbs of torque,” he said. “It was just a riot to drive.”
They say a candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. The same was true with this truck. After a couple of years he started having some issues with the engine. The truck needed an entirely new drive train. This was way out of his budget.
Michaels decided he wanted this truck to be something he could turn into a great overland truck with camping gear so he could get away from civilization and enjoy nature. The changes he would make would reflect the direction he wanted to take.
“I find diesels, particularly the straight six turbos, easy to work on because of the room under the hood and their relatively simple designs and their reliability,” he said. “If there is a challenge it would not be the engines but the maintenance to the suspension and bushings required for the heavy-duty trucks they come in.”
The RAM 3500 had a stock body and suspension. So Michaels added all of the lift, tires and overland equipment himself. “The biggest change I want to make to it now is to soften the suspension because even though the roof rack, bumpers, sand ladders, tent, lights etc. look big and bulky, they aren't really that heavy compared to the weight a 3500 was designed to haul,” he explained. “I find the impacts from bumps get sent through the suspension to the frame bushings, ball joints and other components.”
What’s Been Done
Here’s a quick rundown of the mods Michaels has made to this 2006 Dodge RAM 3500 Heavy Duty:
- Rack: A custom bed rack around an Autohome roof tent with 360-degree LED lighting, 8x10 awning, sand ladders with integrated rear window protection, jerry cans, shovel, sand rake, driving lights and limb risers. Also it has custom fold-out tailgate steps, storage for gear, 48-inch jack, twin spares with cargo lighting, 12-volt and 110-volt power and a pair of deep cycle batteries for camping. There is 20 gallons of fresh water stored on board with a shower, 20-pound propane tank, a bed-mounted camp kitchen and heat for the tent.
- Engine: A Garmon Diesel Performance built 24-valve Cummins bored to 6.3L breathing in through a Safari Snorkel and custom airbox into a K&N Heavy Breather filter and aFe cold air intake pipe mixed with an Industrial Injection pump, held together by ARP head studs, O-ringed head and slightly decompressed pistons for longevity and third-world-quality fuel, breathing out through a Banks Performance turbo crossover pipe, Holset 351 Turbo and Silverline 5-inch exhaust all monitored and controlled by an Edge Juice tuner.
- Transmission and driveline: A Garmon Stage III 48RE transmission with a triple disc torque converter, upgraded everything and billet input and output shafts turning 4.56 Yukon gears with front and rear ARB air lockers, raised axle breathers.
- Suspension and Steering: A 5-inch Superlift suspension lift with Superlift BlackMax shocks, dual Rancho steering stabilizers, BD Diesel Performance steering brace, Bluetop steering box with Hellwig sway bar and links.
- Wheels and Tires: Toyo 37x13.50x18 Open Country tires with two spares, all on XD Rockstar wheels.
- Body: Ranch Hand Legend front and rear bumpers and grille guard, custom skid plates, Bushwacker pocket-style fender flares, diamond plate bedrail and tailgate protectors, Rhino-liner spray-in bed liner, custom grille and Ventshade window protectors.
- Lighting: HID headlights, 360-degree LED flood lights, rock lights, cargo lights, fog lights and cornering lights, hood-mounted rally lighting and roof mount driving lights from Hella, Recon, FOX and Spyder all powered by custom switch and relay boxes with a triple switch setup that can be controlled from the cab, awning area or tent.
- Recovery and Trail Clearing: receiver mounted 12,000-pound winch with wiring for front or rear mounting, four aluminum bridging/sand ladders, side winch points, ground anchor, 6-ton cable winch, 48-inch jack, exhaust jack, chainsaw and log dragging cleats.
- Audio and Navigation: Alpine 400-watt digital head unit with Infinity/Boston Acoustics 8-speaker surround sound system, two Rockford Fosgate 12-inch sub-woofers and two 600-watt amplifiers; satellite radio, satellite navigation system, CB/FRS/VHF/HAM radios, inverter with laptop.
- Other Mods: Homemade powertank for tire filling with a ViAir constant duty compressor for the air lockers, horns, air tools, etc., with front and rear air lines, hidden safe, custom switches and electrical system, an underbody storage locker with common spare parts (water pump, fan clutch, alternator, bearings, u-joints, belts and hoses) and under-seat storage for a full suite of tools.
- Coolest Mod: An actual ram skull provided by Skull Bliss that was hand-carved by their artists in Bali with a Phoenix pattern just for this truck.
- Favorite Mod: The Autohome roof tent which sets up in 5 seconds, closes in 30 seconds. “It gives me the best sleep I have anywhere, including my bed at home,” Michaels said.
It Ain’t Cheap
When you go all-out in building a custom truck that can operate safely at highway speeds while still leaving the pavement and exploring off road, the cost tends to add up.
For Michaels, making the necessary modification had to be done within a budget. A lot of the improvements came through trades. Fortunately for Michaels, he has the ability to barter his art for truck parts.
“I got a deal on the truck because of its condition at the time and have since traded my artwork for the suspension, tires, custom engine, transmission and audio system,” he said. “I've done the rest of the welding, fabrication and wiring myself, using metal I had around the shop. Nearly everything on it is custom. I don't think I could replicate it for less than $100k and would likely have twice that if it was based on a new truck.”
Even with all this work, Michaels still says there is more he would like to do.
“I'm really happy with the setup of my truck,” he said, “but I’m about to add four channel trail cameras front, rear and two underneath. I would also like to add a divorced overdrive unit for highway cruising, a diesel-fired heater for the tent, and build a custom wiring system to eliminate some of the potentially problematic computer modules on the truck with the goal of making it as simple and field serviceable as possible.”
When Michaels first purchased the 2006 Dodge RAM, it had around 80,000 miles on the odometer. In the nine years he has owned it, he’s added another 100,000 miles via road trips and adventures. Included in those miles are a lot of unique stories. And along the way, he meets a lot of people who have heard about the truck and want to get their own personalized recitals of the stories. Those experiences alone have made all the work and sacrifice worth it.
Michaels describes himself as a professional artist and sculptor, as well as a part-time overland vehicle builder and occasional internet personality (telling stories of his travels, mishaps and adventures). His hobby is traveling—he has been to 48 states, four continents and more than 51 countries. He has crossed the Arctic Circle and traveled around the world. He still has plans to drive from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of North America and to visit the South Pole.
For 20 years he has been building overland trucks for a hobby. But recently, the popularity has grown and enough people have approached him with requests to build and fabricate something specifically for their needs, encouraging him to start his own business.
“Once my truck became known around Atlanta at Caffeine & Octane [automobile show] and then became known to millions on VinWiki and the various Facebook groups like Peach State Overland Community, people started coming out of the woodwork asking me to build trucks and trailers and safari cars,” he said. “With the recent pandemic putting a big dent in the mural and sculpture business while driving more and more people to seek recreation out in the woods, it seemed like the time was right to take some of these people up on their offers.”
Michael started Allnight Overland, which quickly outgrew his driveway. He is now in the process of moving to a hangar and will be taking limited customers for unique builds. He already has a 4x4 diesel van, an army trailer and a 911 Porsche lined up.
Each one of these builds will come with a unique story. Leave it to Michaels to tell the tale in a tantalizing way. That’s what great storytellers do.