The first time I set eyes on this epic MAN Kat 1, I was parked across the bay in Reine, Lofoten Islands, and distinctly remember thinking, “What in the name of Tolkien is that?” (or words to that effect). I rushed over, letting out the occasional childlike giggle of excitement (not dissimilar to a Chucky Doll), and with every step, the truck seemingly grew larger. Finally, I was face-to-face with a real-life monster; with adoption papers in hand, I was ready to meet my new parents (a boy can dream). Living on the road, I see a lot of larger vehicles (the Leyland DAF T244, Mercedes 1622, MAN LE160C, and Iveco Eurocargo are frequently sighted here in Europe), but Boris Malesset’s “Darth Vader” is in a totally different league.
Originally developed for the German military, the MAN Kat 1 (or Category 1) is a high-mobility tactical truck that was offered as a 4×4, 6×6, and even 8×8. The vehicle is designed to carry heavy loads over rough terrain while being powerful and capable enough to keep pace with the tanks. These trucks are not luxurious, but they are highly versatile, and even the basic cargo truck offers a 10-tonne payload. It’s a vehicle not often adopted by overlanders due to its gigantic size and expensive running costs, but that’s what makes today’s article such a fascinating case study.
Trucks like this aren’t particularly popular among the general public either, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they’re seen as unnecessary gas-guzzling environment killers. Myself, and today’s owner, Boris, are the first to accept that huge diesel engines are not ideal, but contrary to popular belief, live-in examples are better for the environment than the average household. Lower your pitchforks, and let me explain!
Sure, the V8 diesel isn’t going to be fitted to the latest Toyota Prius or win any prizes at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But as Boris stated, “The day when there is the possibility to turn this truck electric, I’d be the first person to do it.” The issue here is that people see these large vehicles and fixate on what comes out of the exhaust pipe rather than taking time to assess the bigger picture.
This MAN Kat 1 is not simply a vehicle but rather a rolling family home. Power is generated by the sun, water is pumped and filtered directly from rivers, the toilet is composting, and the majority of the time, this home on wheels is stationary. Alternatively, the average American family household uses more than 300 gallons (as per the United States Environmental Protection Agency data, epa.gov) of water per day (around half this truck’s entire capacity), and most domestic electricity is still produced by power stations burning fossil fuels. I appreciate that some households are more economical and recognize there are more efficient vehicles on the market, but it’s important to see the bigger picture with these live-in trucks. Boris, his partner Mathilde, and their two children (Lucien and Zoe) live in Darth Vader year-round, which means this “gas-guzzling environment killer” is effectively a self-sustaining, off-grid long-term home.
Behind the Build
Boris Malesset is the owner of Powder We Go(a company that organises ski trips around the globe), director of TopSki, an avid sailor, and world traveller. He is also blessed with a French accent that added a certain je ne sais quoi to our interview. Once I’d stopped blushing, Boris explained that he was born into a family of seasonal workers—mainly skiers and sailors. “As a kid, I used to move and travel a lot. It was during this time, in the mid-nineties, that I discovered electronic music and ended up going to parties all over the world. We used to travel around in big trucks with huge sound systems.” Boris is now focused on his skiing expedition company, with recent adventures in Japan, Norway, and Siberia, while his home base is currently parked in the skiing mecca of Val d’Isère, France.
“The truck is built to travel but is also our home and is comfortable even in polar conditions,” he says. This extraordinary rig took a whopping seven years to build, and almost all of the work was completed by Boris himself. He met a couple with the same vehicle at a festival, and they explained they were shipping it to Australia, then driving to India. Completely in love with the MAN Kat, Boris vowed to one day have his own. When a reasonably priced example came up for sale, he decided “life’s too short” and snapped it up. “I went to Germany, purchased the truck, and when I came back, my friends said, ‘What the hell are you doing with that monster?’ I laughed and told them it was my dream vehicle. [They replied,] ‘But it will take you a lifetime to build.’ [I said], ‘Yep, and I’ll do it.’”
The MAN Kat 1 is an unapologetically hardcore military vehicle, and this has meant extensive work and modifications have been carried out to improve refinement and performance. The original engine was swapped for the D2866 KFG V8 Biturbo 8×8 MAN Kat variant, which produces 380 horsepower. However, there’s an option to boost the diesel pump via a button in the cab, and that temporarily increases power to 450 horsepower. “It can hit 140 kph [87 mph],” Boris says, “but that’s dangerous.” A MAN Kat 1 specialist in Germany matched the new engine with a bigger turbo, stronger gearbox, and modified transmission ratios (longer gears). While this solved the vehicle’s power issues, the truck’s handling, particularly on the highway, was like a “sailing boat.”
A number of suspension upgrades tamed the H.M.S Vader, including a spring coil suspension (rated to truck), custom reinforced shock absorbers (with additional spring coils), suspension amplitude limitation jacks for high-speed on-road driving, and a custom rear-axle stabilisation bar. “It was a terrible mess at the beginning, especially with the new camper body. One of the coolest modifications is the ability to limit spring coil movement when on the highway, which drastically reduces body roll.” Once the tarmac ends, this setting can be disabled, and Darth can really stretch its legs.
The increased power, custom suspension setup, rear, front and inter-axle differential locks, and rugged XZL Michelin tires make this a truly all-terrain vehicle and a fantastic platform for off-grid travel. “This size allows you to go almost anywhere. Sure, 90 percent of the time, you could complete most journeys in a normal car, but the MAN lets you explore that one percent, and those routes are the most magical.”
Boris was quick to point out that even the largest, most capable trucks get stuck. “On one trip, I was in Siberia, in an even more capable Tatra 6×6, driven by a 4WD specialist; we got stuck, and it took a day-and-a-half to get out. During that trip, all the trucks got bogged down at some point.” At 14.5 tonnes, it’s easy for Vader to sink into soft surfaces, so there’s a built-in compressor that allows for seamless tire deflation and inflation. Like many overlanders I’ve spoken to, Boris has chosen not to fit a winch. “Winches are no use to take yourself out but are more useful in helping others.” He continued by explaining that his family carries sand ladders and shovels —“That’s it.” Recovery means deflating the tires, engaging the lockers, and accepting the process will require a lot of digging and patience.
Possibly the most impressive element of Vader is its completely custom-made habitation box and camper build-out. There are two designated sleeping areas (front and rear), a central living room, kitchen, dishwasher, composting toilet, shower, central heating, and air conditioning (Mathilde, who’s a Set Designer for the film industry, played a big role in designing and assembling the interior). “It’s a big truck, but living in a vehicle full-time, as a family of four, in freezing climates when you can’t be outside can be challenging. We simply couldn’t be comfortable in anything smaller.”
Power is provided by 18 220-amp-hour Victron gel deep-cycle batteries (with a combined weight of over a tonne), 540 watts of solar, and a Victron Quattro 24/5000 inverter. According to Boris, this setup provides 4,000-amp-hours at 12-volt, but linked in 24-volt, it provides around 2,000 amp-hours. “I also have a backup Whisperpower GV4 generator for wintertime when the solar doesn’t get enough sunlight.”
Vader spends a lot of time based in Val d’Isère, French Alps, where temperatures regularly drop to -15°C (5°F), so keeping the rig warm year-round was a priority. Hence, there’s a Webasto Dualtop 6-kilowatt diesel heater, a 2-kilowatt electric heater, and a backup boat petrol heater for when the diesel tanks begin to freeze. Ducting is integrated throughout the vehicle to circulate heat, and the Webasto is located within the sub-floor (which also contains the air conditioner and batteries).
Heating, air conditioning, 24-volt power, an inverter, a generator, and all tanks (clean, wastewater, and fuel) are monitored via a central control panel. The MAN Kat 1 has three fuel tanks (280, 380, and 420 litres) and a 640-litre water capacity. “Our children learn that electricity, heat, and water are limited,” Boris explained. “Sure, we have almost 700 litres of water, which is good for a truck, but small for a house. Lots of people tell me, ‘Oh, it’s criminal to drive something like that with the climate crisis,’ and it’s true in some respects, but they overlook that we’re powered by the sun, we source and filter our water, and for the most part, we’re self-sustaining when stationary.”
Darth Vader was initially fitted with an insulated military box, which was “far too nice to scrap,” and inspired Boris to engineer a bespoke trailer, which is now primarily an office but also serves as a spare bedroom for friends and additional storage. The trailer boasts its own power and amenities but is generally left at base camp due to the hassle and increased running costs of towing.
Life on the Road
Vader was purchased with the dream of driving around the world, but the birth of their two children (now ages five and eight) during the build-out has delayed these plans. Nevertheless, the family has already toured France, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. “We’re currently waiting patiently and monitoring the pandemic, but we’d love to prioritise Iceland, Canada, the USA, and perhaps South America in the near future,” Boris says.
A few years back, Boris left his MAN Kat 1 behind, joining a convoy of trucks on an overlanding trip to Mongolia, where the group volunteered at an orphanage. “We travelled with two big trucks, a trailer, and a four-wheel drive, navigating one of the longest and most remote routes in the world. It’s a slow mode of travel, but you get to meet so many people who invite you into their homes, and in return, you can invite them into yours. That exchange was extraordinary.”
We spoke at length about long-term travel, our goals for the future, and lessons learnt on the road. Boris’ love for the great outdoors, helping others, and sharing these experiences with his family are very inspiring. “There are lots of variables, highs and lows. It’s a life of freedom and a great way to teach kids about nature and its fragility. It’s the school of life, especially when you visit developing countries where you witness firsthand how tough life is. As a family, we’ve seen how the poorest people help one another with no expectations, just because it’s the right thing to do. My kids understand the importance of taking care of people; if someone has a problem we want to help—that’s what community is about.”
Where can we find you?
1979 MAN Kat 1 (5TMILGL)
V8 Biturbo engine, 12,500-cm2 (custom)
380 horsepower with a 450-horsepower temporary boost
Suspension and Drive
Long axle ratio transmission (custom)
Rear-axle differential lock (stock)
Front-axle differential lock (custom)
Inter-axle differential lock (stock)
Spring coil suspension
Reinforced custom shock absorbers (with additional spring coils)
Suspension amplitude limitation jacks for high-speed on-road driving (custom)
Rear-axle stabilisation bar (custom)
Wheels and Tires
Rims with ring strapping (allows tire changes without undoing the rim)
XZL Michelin tires 16.00R20
Recovery and Armor
Sand plates mounted on front bumper
Steel plate (10-millimetre) mounted as a front low bumper
Solar panels, 540-watts, 24-volt
Whisperpower GV4 generator
Victron Phoenix 24-volt solar charger
Victron Gel deep-cycle batteries, 18- x 220-amp-hours
Victron Quattro 24/5000 inverter
Webasto Dualtop 6-kilowatt fuel and a 2-kilowatt electric central heater
Ocean Vitrifrigo DP150i-12 fridge and freezer, 118-litre and 30-litre
Thetford Caprice MK3 combo gas cooker (4-burner), oven, and grill
Trailer (with second habitation box and Planar diesel heater)
Three tanks: 280-, 380-, and 420-litre
Truck: 14.5 tonnes
powderwego.com–Freeride skiing, ski touring, heliskiing travels company, based in Val-d’Isère and operating in the polar regions of Norway, Japan, Kamchatka (Russia), and more.
prodboxevents.com– Events production company, specializing in musical, sports events, exhibitions, light design, production, and much more.
topski.fr– Off-piste ski school based in Val d’Isère, organising freeride snowboarding and skiing weeks, day trips, ski touring, and heliskiing in the Tarentaise Valley.
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