Before buying our Isuzu Dmax, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted the end product to be. Something that was reliable, functional and capable enough to tour Australia. With a Ute, the canopy is often where most of the goodies lie, and I spent a fair bit of time planning, designing and then building the end product.
Finding a canopy
To start with, I knew the most functional style canopy for touring was an aluminium gull wing one. Aluminium for weight, and gull wing for easy access. I have seen so many people spend a fortune on the well body tub canopies only to ditch the whole lot down the track and move to a proper gull wing canopy. They have more room, better options for using space underneath, and your access options are substantially better. Unfortunately, they aren't cheap and you can lose a lot of money by doing this.
However, I also knew I didn’t want to spend a small fortune on a canopy, and therein lay a big problem. Custom canopies start off at about 5 grand new, and that's on the cheaper end. Some of the top end units, like Norweld are easily 14 grand and up.
With that in mind, the only real option became finding a second hand unit, and that is pretty hard to do. However, a friend sent a link to me of a canopy with a small 450mm tray on the rear, that had come off an extra cab Hilux, and I came up with the idea of cutting the tray off. A quick visit to see the canopy and I figured it wouldn’t be so hard to do.
$3800 for a 2012 Bull Motor Body Canopy with central locking, LED lights, shelving, a 120W solar panel, 50L water tank and pump, 2500 watt inverter, and in great condition and it was hard to go past. The bloke had paid 12 grand for it about 5 years ago, so a huge saving. Bull Motor bodies are also extremely well made; its the only products they make. They are done well, and they look pretty good too.
A few weeks later and I had chopped the rear tray off, and had a canopy that was 1700 long. A lot of people are putting 1800mm trays and canopies on their dual cabs these days, and I think its a bad idea. Partly because of the extra weight far back, but it also reduces your departure angle and gives you more room to put gear where you don't want it; way behind the rear axle.
Fitting the canopy
Removing the tub is a fairly simple process. On the Dmax, its just a case of disconnecting the rear lights and reversing camera, and undoing 6 bolts and the fuel filler arrangement. We 3 people we fairly easily lifted it off, and placed it to one side. These are worth pretty much nothing; you’d be lucky to get a few hundred bucks for one. The value is in the rear lights and the tailgate, as they are regularly replaced items.
From there, we just plonked the Bull Motor Body on, and then had to look at mounts and spacers. The fuel tank breather was too close to the water tank, so we had to space the front up a bit, and then the rear to make it sit level. The canopy has fairly modular legs, so we moved 4 and had to drill 2 new holes for the other 2. I made up a couple of crush tubes to ensure it would all be locked up tightly without damaging the actual canopy legs.
I cut the plugs off the Dmax lights, and had a mate solder them onto the loom for the Bull canopy lights, making it plug and play. The only other challenging thing was moving the fuel filler. I had to make up an interesting bracket to make it sit in a way that would allow fuel to flow in easily but not touch the vehicle.
Getting the canopy level was a bit of a challenge; despite using a spirit level and being fairly happy with it the initial fitment was terrible; it looked like the chassis was badly bent. After 2 more goes at getting it level, I was happy with it, and locked everything up, for the third time!
Benefits of a good canopy
I want to point out a few things that make me very pleased with the Bull Motor Canopy. For starters, everything is modular. The ‘tray” has slots in it that take M6 bolt heads, meaning you can easily attach anything you want underneath it in a matter of seconds.
The interior bracing of the canopy is all aluminium unistrut, so again, you can use the female electrical sprung nuts and screw anything you want in. You can bolt to it, you can screw an eye bolt in, whatever you want and its ready at your fingers in a matter of seconds.
From there, the dust sealing is second to none, and it leaks zero dust and water. Going a bit further, and you look a the aluminium profiles used to build the tray; light weight but extremely strong.
Central locking is amazing. I no longer have to worry about whether I locked the canopy as it does it every time I press the button.
Designing the interior
I’ve spent enough time around 4WD’s to have a pretty good idea of what works, and what doesn’t. Still, the best advice I can give to anyone fitting a canopy out is to build and bolt nothing down until you've used it a few times. We threw our fridge in, and a heap of gear and took it away to see what worked. When we were happy with it, I designed a box that incorporated a fridge slide and 6 plastic drawers. Despite my fastidious measuring and calculations, when I built the unit, it didn’t fit exactly where I wanted it to, and only cleared the struts by about half a mm on each side.
I used 200kg drawer slides that I had left over from a previous project, and went down to Bunnings and purchased 6 Oates drawers. These are fantastic drawers; solid, light weight, easy to move around and you can stack them. I left 2mm gap top and sides (total gap) and they fit in perfectly.
The fridge slide ended up being a fair bit longer than the fridge, which is fine as it allows for a step and possibly a small pantry to be installed behind it.
The electrical side of things
From there, the electrical build had to start, and I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted. Big, fixed panel on the top that would be overkill for my electrical needs, a simple DCDC battery charger (despite not completely agreeing they are necessary; I still think a VSR and a good solar system is all you need for vehicles with non smart alternators!).
Now, I can do some 12V stuff, and wanted to learn a bit more on this build, but I ran out of time and after seeing some mad recommendations of a mobile bloke I got him around, and he helped make it awesome. Most of the gear was bought by myself, but he supplied all the bits and pieces – anderson plugs, cigarette outlets, usb outlets, cable, split conduit and the various fittings needed.
I wanted a box that held most of the gear, and that had the outlets available. Stephen helped with the basic idea, and I knocked up a box that bolted to the canopy.
Stephen spent many hours wiring everything up and hiding the things that you dont need to see behind the main door. We left the existing solar regulator attached and ready to go, so if I have a problem with the DCDC I can just unplug the solar input and run it through the old regulator, which works just fine.
I got 3 anderson outlets, 2 cigarette outlets and 2 dual USB outlets. That’s enough for my needs, and so far its worked very well. If you want to know more about the electrical side of things, you can read another post which also has the details for Stephen in it - a fantastic mobile auto electrician in Perth) here - Dmax Auto Electrical Upgrade.
Installing it all
After I was happy with the build, I threw it into the canopy, and pushed it as close to the door as possible. I mounted the 150 amp hour (45kg) battery in front of the box, hard up against the front of the canopy (put your heavy stuff as far forward on dual cabs!), and built a 30mm x 5mm flat bar brace to hold it down, and against the timber.
I then bolted the box down to the tray, and installed a number of t nuts and eye bolts in the top, to tie things to. From there, time was running out, and I decided to leave it unpainted and plain for the trip, to see how it all went.
One of my better decisions was to incorporate a fold down table. It's only about 550mm deep by 700 wide, but it is fantastic. I needed something to stop the oates drawers from sliding out anyway, and this works perfectly. I even managed to get it so when its opened it rests on the canopy lip and is almost perfectly level.
What else goes in the canopy?
On the other side of the ply box, I use a pelican case that takes a lot of recovery gear and spare parts. I've used the two old Elocker boxes from my 80 series to take more spare parts and general bush mechanic gear, along with various oils and fluids. Two sets of Maxtrax live at the back of the canopy, along with a shovel.
Our food/cooking tubs get tied down on top of the ply box, and from there everything else just gets chucked in.
Now, as you might imagine, all of this weighs a fair bit. It's on the lighter end of the scale, but still far more than the factory Isuzu springs could handle, and after some calculations I ended up with an ARB Old Man Emu Dmax GVM Upgrade.
How did it all go?
After 3 months of living out of our Dmax and Soft floor camper trailer, I am absolutely wrapped with it. The setup for the canopy is truly awesome; cheap, strong, super functional and I'm very pleased with it. I'll do some sort of cleaning/finishing with the ply, but don't think I'll go down the carpet route; its extra weight and cost. I've seen some ply varnished, which looks pretty sweet.
When you live out of your 4WD, I can't stress the importance of making it super functional.
Got any questions, or suggestions? I'd love to hear them!