We evaluate a lot of gear here at Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. Tents, trucks, bags, fridges, and recovery equipment are regularly used and reviewed by our team, and normally the write-ups are pretty straightforward. We cover their specifications, talk about our expectations, and determine how well the product ended up meeting them. But today I find myself unable to follow this tried and true model. For the first time, I feel that my personal experiences are so interwoven with my opinion of a product that I simply can’t talk honestly about one without mentioning the other. So, with that in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for being candid, and giving you the entire story of these Scheel-Mann seats.
An Unfortunate Beginning
Life has a way of throwing us curve balls. For a lucky few these unexpected roadblocks might just be small diversions from day to day activities, but for others, their entire lives might be turned upside down. Last year, I was unfortunate enough to be counted as one of the latter. There were many changes in my life during this time, but one of the most painful was a serious injury to my back. I had never thought that in my late-twenties I would be hunched over and having to receive help walking from friends, but that’s exactly where I found myself last November. Facing a decision between a cane or surgery, I opted for an operation, but my road to recovery was far from over.
After the procedure, and much to my dismay, I found the one activity that was guaranteed to induce debilitating pain was driving. Every vehicle I tried was troublesome, but my 2000 Excursion was absolutely unbearable. Even a trip across town would cause my sciatic pain to flare, and a long journey required constant stops, mountains of ibuprofen, and admittedly a few tears. I was beside myself. I knew that if there was any chance of me continuing to do what I love, I’d need to find a way to support my back, and thus the research began. I read articles and blogs, tried braces and cushions, and even considered a new vehicle, but nothing solved the problem. That’s when I remembered the orthopedic seats I saw in a Maltec Camper at Overland Expo East. They were from a company called Scheel-Mann, and after a little research I decided to give their U.S. office a call.
A Legacy of Support
Over the next hour on the phone I learned all about Scheel-Mann’s heritage from their U.S. representative, Toby. This company that I thought was relatively new, had in fact been producing high-end automotive seats for over 50 years, often for legendary manufacturers like Porsche and BMW. Their founder, Mr. Rolf Scheel, was an avid race car driver, and was dissatisfied with the flat seats used in the sixties. He wanted something that gave him better control of the vehicle, while also being more comfortable and supportive. After a few iterations, Rolf unveiled a revolutionary design with a backrest that closely matched the curvature of the human spine, which he then combined that with a lateral support structure which held the driver firmly in place while cornering. It was a smashing success. For decades, their small factory outside Stuttgart, Germany, continued to develop and improve the support of these seats, and eventually their products worked their way into almost every automotive category, including four-wheel drives.
I was obviously hopeful, and began to browse through their wide range of offerings. There were numerous shapes, styles, sizes and colors, with a variety of features and accessories, even some with removable seat bottoms for accessing the batteries in Defenders, but one line in particular caught my eye, the Vario.
The Vario is based on the company’s legendary Traveler seat, and designed to promote good posture and back health for anyone who uses them, not just people with back issues. Unlike most automotive seats which take a one-size fits none all stance, the Vario is adjustable in 10 ways, allowing you to form the seat to your body for a perfect fit. You can adjust the seat bottom in and out in order to match nearly any leg length, and the upper bolsters can be tucked in or pushed out with the turn of a dial so that your torso is cradled to suit your driving conditions. The lumbar is also four-way adjustable, meaning you can not only push it in and out, but also maneuver it up and down to match your back height. There’s even an XXL model that is 3 inches taller! All of this translates to a phenomenal and healthy driving experience, in a seat that feels as if it were made specifically for you, regardless of if you’re 6’4” or 5’2.
I was beyond excited, but my optimism was also tainted with some concern. There was no guarantee that these seats would fix my problem, and at $1,900 each they represented a huge investment on my writer’s salary. After a lot of debate, phone calls to several Scheel-Mann owners, and a look at my physical therapy bills, I decided to make the jump. I ordered two Vario F XXLs with heated backs and bottoms along with the optional arm-rests, and had them shipped to Main Line Overland (MLO) in Pennsylvania, where I was headed for some additional projects. Two weeks later, I began the long and painful drive out to get them.
By the time I arrived at the MLO shop, I could barely stand upright without wincing. The trip had been miserable, and I resolved that if the seats didn’t work I would sell the truck and fly back rather than drive it again. I unboxed the two gorgeous Varios and gave Toby a call. He walked me through the installation on video chat, and I was quickly assembling and installing the seats with the help of the MLO crew. The entire process was easy and straightforward, with just a bit of wiring for the new heating elements. The only part that would have been difficult was dealing with the factory airbag sensors, but I was lucky and the 2000 Ford didn’t throw a single code. By midday, my new seats were in place, and with great anticipation I lowered myself onto the driver’s side for the first time.
It was heaven.
If you’ve ever been standing so long that you’re utterly exhausted, and then feel that immense relief when you sink into a chair, you’ll know what sitting on that Scheel-Mann seat was like. I was absolutely blown away. I quickly made my adjustments, and set out on the road to try out my new toys like a kid on Christmas. The head rest actually contacted my head in the proper position for the first time in my life, the lumbar was placed exactly where it should be and provided the perfect amount of support without trying to break my spine, and for once the seat bottom was actually the right proportions for my long legs. It was a huge win, but only a long drive would really determine if these seats were the solution I had been looking for.
I decided it was time to go big or go home. I entered Goose Gear’s California address into my GPS for yet another project, and set off for a coast to coast trip. On the first day, I drove 15 hours while only stopping for fuel, and to my amazement, ended the day with no pain. Day two was just as good, but did reveal some soreness in an entirely new area—my rear end. As it turns out, driving with the support of the Scheel-Manns is sort of like adjusting to a new bike seat. If you go all out on a long drive right away, you might find yourself with a sore behind. It takes some time to adjust, but by day three all was well, and my back still had no pain. When I finally did reach my destination, I stepped out of the truck, stretched, laughed, and almost cried with relief. They actually worked.
Enjoying the Journey Once More
Over the next several months and thousands of miles I tested the Vario Fs in all sorts of environments and conditions. Snow and salt got on them as I pushed through the mountains, sand from the California coast filled in their cracks, and heavy Oregon rains soaked their fabrics, but they still cleaned up to look like new, and never faltered in their support of my spine. I fell in love with all of their adjustments, and the heating elements were able to soak my back in warmth even on the coldest of winter nights. The lower bolsters on the F model made ingress and egress of the vehicle a breeze, and although it might sound vain, I’m sort of obsessed with how good they look.
I could go on and on about the range of fabrics and leathers they come in, or how many people compliment me on them, but truthfully, none of that matters compared to the core experience of driving in a Scheel-Mann. I’m now able to enjoy the journey and focus on what’s around me rather than thinking about the throbbing in my back. I feel like I am planted and in better control of the vehicle than ever before, and best of all, I’m able to hop out and experience the destination in full health rather than exiting the vehicle hunched over and in pain. This experience isn’t just limited to me. Other people who ride along find they are less fatigued after a long day on the road, and often realize an hour or two into a drive that they aren’t sore or shifting around like they usually do.
Of course, no product is perfect, and ironically the only gripe I could find come’s from the seat’s quality. All of the adjustments are very precise, so it takes a lot of turning knobs to make big changes. This isn’t usually a problem, as you tend to only make big changes the first time you use the seat, and then fine-tune from there. There is one exception though. If you’re on a long drive and your partner wants to lean their seat all the way back to nap, they have to turn the adjustment knob for what seems like an eternity to lay the Vario flat. This obviously isn’t an issue for drivers, but it could still be annoying.
Now I have little doubt that many of you are wondering why the price tags on these seats are not listed as another issue, and I don’t blame you. They are certainly expensive, and there is no doubt that their cost is a big drawback, but I cannot overstate the difference that they have made in my life, or the improvement they’ve created in my journeys. When I compare their expense to the cost of lost experiences and time on the road, there simply is no better bargain.
At the end of the day Scheel-Mann seats aren’t for everyone. They won’t make your truck faster or taller, give it better grip, or help you get out of a ditch when you botch a line. What they will do is give you better control and comfort on and off the road, provide your body with the healthy support it needs, and best of all, help you enjoy every mile of the journey. If you have ever experienced discomfort while driving, suffer from chronic back pain, or simply want an amazing set of new seats for your vehicle, I implore you to give Scheel-Mann a call; you’ll be happy you did.
If you are contemplating purchasing a set of these seats, and need to experience them for yourself, stop by the Scheel-Mann booth at Overland Expo. Toby will have a variety of seats to test and enjoy, and once you’re done, you can head on over to the Overland Journal booth to try out the heavily used seats in my Excursion. I think you’ll be amazed by what you find.