RV History: The Classic Era – 1971 – 1989

If you have ever watched the History Channel, then you have seen the RV Complete series on the History Channel. The show was produced by Mountie Productions and the host was David Adler. Throughout the episodes, a red lab coat was worn by Adler and he would discuss about RVing.

The RV boom of the 1970s experienced tremendous growth. The economy was just starting to rebound, and optimism and energy permeated the nation. Despite the growing national economy, the off-grid lifestyle was still popular, as more and more people sought pleasure away from the all-too-familiar city.

The RV industry experienced a period of astonishing growth during the 1970s.

The early 1970s created new challenges for the RV industry. The rise of the global economy, new technologies and the way the recreational vehicle industry did business made the period 1971-1989 a crucial one. On the other side of the classic era, the RV world has witnessed the standardization of construction methods, the emergence of a new class of motorized vehicles, and one of the Detroit Big Three made decisions that determined its future in RV history.  If you study the history of RVing, especially the classic era of the RV industry, you will learn about the important influences that shaped the years between 1971 and 1989. Many of these innovations and developments have led to the modern age we know today. If you want to start at the very beginning, we recommend you start with the first volume of our RV History series – The Old World (1910-1944). We continue with the era of motorized classic cars (1945-1970), then the era of towed classic cars. Each article focuses on the types of recreational vehicles and the industry influences that led to the classic era.

How the 1973 gas crisis affected RV history

In the early 1970s, the U.S. reduced its oil production and relied primarily on oil from the Middle East. The U.S. government and Wall Street assumed that the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries (OAPEC) needed the volume of oil purchases from the United States and Europe to survive economically. OAPEC did not agree. In 1973 the OAPEC announced an oil embargo against the United States and the Netherlands. The organization quadrupled the price of oil to other European consumers from $3 to $12 to compensate for the loss of export volume. Gas rationing was widespread in all the countries concerned. In America, gas stations closed on Sundays and consumers lined up to fill up their cars with V8 or straight-six engines so they could go to work. Gas shortage in the early 1970s. The six-month embargo was in effect from October 1973 to March 1974. Although this is a low season, it will take months for U.S. gas supplies to return to sustainable levels. The delay of several months caused a delay in the 1974 camping season. Travelers pulled up or started their motorhomes when they could, but long trips waited until the next year. The word Made in America still resonated in the hearts and minds of all citizens, but after the embargo, Japanese car brands such as Toyota and Honda began to attract people’s attention. Their fuel-efficient four-cylinder vehicles will reduce average fuel costs and increase range. The automotive industry has received a new demand from consumers. Instead of big V8 petrol engines, people wanted economy. Washington began passing laws on energy efficiency and pollution, and established the Department of Energy. The goal was to find ways to produce energy on a national level and to find new alternatives. The RV industry has had to adapt to these changes. The concept of lightweight caravans was not new, but it was a change of direction. The good news is that the innovations were already there, they just needed to be developed and adapted to the new era of cars with four and six cylinders. This flexibility has led to changes in the RV industry and ultimately in the history of RVing.

Fashion is said to be cyclical. When we look at today’s motorhomes, we see that many categories or components have their origins in earlier eras. The best example is the pop-up camper. In the old days (1910-1944), the most affordable caravan was the tent camper. The tarpaulin tent is installed in a brick building trailer. The poles were inserted into the sides of the trailer so they didn’t have to sleep in the mud. The nicest versions had beds that folded up in the middle of the trailer. Although the 1954 Ranger failed in the era of classic cars (1945-1970), its roof-lift mechanism became the staple of the pop-up category. Pop-ups started in the 1960s, but by the 1970s family vans had replaced pop-ups. Families could easily fit them in the garage; they were very light and offered enough amenities to live comfortably in a caravan.   The plans of the current pop-ups are the same as those of the 1960s and 1970s: two double beds sticking out in the middle. There is a dining area and a galley kitchen with storage cabinets. Most pop-ups originally used a double cloth for the walls, but then began using alternative fabrics for better weather protection. If you were a kid in the era of the classic RV, we invite you to share your stories of handstands and other fun home decorating moments you experienced with your parents’ RV in the comments section below. The author recalls his father spending an hour and a half fiddling with a carpenter’s spirit level to measure the balance of a pop-up window. As a young man, the writer had to adjust the stabilizers by about eight inches each time.

Extra light trailer egg on wheels

In 1968, fiberglass specialist Ray Oleko and mold maker Shandor Dusa opened the Boler Manufacturing Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Erwin Krieg was the third partner in the alliance and responsible for production. At first, it was difficult for Boler to gain market share with its compact caravan. With a price tag of nearly $1,500, it was hard to sell the van when the average selling price of competitors was $900. Eventually Oleko found its market and Bohler became a success. Few four-cylinder cars could tow a van in those days. The Boler travel van was the first manufacturer of vans with full glazing. Instead of using the traditional van design (see below), Oleko and his team developed background colors for the lower and upper halves of the caravan. The two halves of the van are shaped and assembled – a horizontal seam runs down the middle of the sides, front and back. The fiberglass casings were also used as frames for the car. The Bohler weighed 800 pounds, but was four times stronger than the steel in a van of the same weight. The Oleko trailer had a dining room with four chairs in the back that could be converted into a queen-size bed. At night, the front bench was converted into a bunk bed. The removable platform with legs fits into the corners of the Gaucho sofa. The kitchen cabinet, which was on the door side between the cabinets, contained a two-burner propane stove and a sink. In addition to the pantry in the kitchen, there was a large closet next to the front door. Most fiberglass caravans still use this layout.   Boler’s expansion into the United States was short-lived. Although a big seller in Canada, Americans were not enamored with eggshell travel trailers. One major franchisor, the Eveland family of Minnesota, kept the mold after Boler closed in 1972 and created Scamp and Casita. Erwin Krieg diversified and founded L’il Bigfoot and Armadillo Trailers. Trillium Trailers is also a descendant of Boler. After an initial failed attempt, Calgary-based Outback Custom Lightweight Trailers took over the molds and once again opened the doors for Trillium. The other fiberglass caravan companies are not direct descendants of Boler. Almost all of these RV manufacturers sell their RVs to direct order, not mass production. Before 2020, the average waiting time to place an order was between six months and a year.

Industry is shifting to the traditional use of sticks and cans

Since the early days (1910-1944) of RV history, RV manufacturers have utilized the traditional RV design in one form or another. The industry did not standardize it until the beginning of the classical era. The practice of wood frame construction and corrugated aluminum cladding has its origins in residential construction. You can hear RV industry professionals refer to these vehicles as a stick and sheet metal when comparing them to their newer counterparts with aluminum frames and laminated fiberglass walls. The VR engineers experimented with different types of wood, both light and strong. Today’s traditional wooden frames use printing and other treatments to enhance the properties of the wood. Corrugated aluminum is rust resistant when properly coated. It is light and does not break. The bending increases the strength of the aluminium. Both materials are also cheap to buy as building materials. You can learn more about the comparison between conventional vans and aluminum vans in our main article to help you decide which model of travel trailer is best.

Luxury sports car revolutionises the motorhome industry

In 1965, the Oldsmobile division developed GM’s first front-wheel drive chassis, unwittingly laying the groundwork for the history of the motorhome. In 1970, the Toronado had a 17.9-foot chassis and used a 454-hp V8.  Initially Oldsmobile was not allowed to pursue this project, but when GM management realized they had something that could compete with Ford’s Thunderbird, the car was given the green light anyway. The motorhome industry has been having a musical chairs game when it comes to choosing chassis and engines for Class A motorhomes. One year you could see a Chevrolet P30 chassis with a 5.7 or 7.4L engine with 454 horsepower. A year or two later, the P30 camper will use a Ford F-Series or Dodge M-Series chassis. The rear wheel arches are high due to the leaf spring suspension and other factors.   Few people knew that the chassis of the Oldsmobile Toronado was long enough to accommodate a Class A motorhome. With a few modifications, the front-wheel drive allowed the van to stay low to the ground and leave enough room for the large tanks. The Clark Cortez motorhome we wrote about in Motorized Vintage Era magazine used to use a Toronado chassis for several years. When GM took the second generation (this version started in 1971) Toronado off the market in 1978, the RV industry was no longer interested in this chassis. Only one manufacturer was using it at the time, and that was GM itself. As you will see, GM didn’t think the RV industry would survive long, and sealed its fate in the annals of RV history.

GMC competes with theByam family.

In 1968 John Hall, son-in-law of Airstream founder Wally Byam, began making his own REVOLUTIONARY CONTEMPORARY. The Revcon Class A motorhome was the first to use the Oldsmobile Toronado FWD chassis. John used his knowledge of his father-in-law’s construction techniques to build an all-aluminum frame and lowrider body that cornered better than any other car on the road. GM was unsure of Hall’s decision to use the Toronado chassis. When John made the deal with GM for the chassis, he had to agree to the condition that he would be responsible for all testing and sharing his data with GM. After tests that cost thousands of dollars and lasted more than a year, his suspension worked perfectly. In its early days, the Revcon was a 2.5 meter van with a single rear axle and a flat nose. In recent years, the nose has been aerodynamically refined and a double axle has been added at the rear on the 33-foot version. The interior was luxurious. Back when most motorhomes had wet tubs, Revcon was a dry tub motorhome with aluminum interior walls with vinyl wallpaper and teak panels. Full production began in 1971, but Hall closed in 1977 due to declining sales. His biggest competitor: the one he had to share his test data with. One of the reasons for Revcon’s demise was competition. In 1973-1978, GM, through its GMC division, decided to enter the RV market with the Toronado chassis and the same 454 big block V8 used by John Hall. It was available in a 23 or 26 foot version with two axles. The official name was TVS-4, but many call it the GMC submarine. Gemini Corporation manufactured the interior in Mount Clemons, Michigan, and a total of 12,921 units left the factory. Today, there are an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 vehicles still in circulation. Restoration companies like Cooperative Motor Works, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, specialize in restoring these monumental pieces of RV history.   By 1978, GMC motorhome sales were in decline. As mentioned earlier, Oldsmobile was ready to redesign the Toronado. The decision whether or not to continue operating the mobile home was made by the accounting department. Although they initially saved money by using John Hall’s test data instead of conducting their own tests, the department did not see how the RV industry could be profitable in the future. GM closed the motorhome division with this result. Sometimes we like to speculate around the campfire about what the RV world would look like if GM had gone the other way. Will GM become a mega power in the RV industry like Thor Industries? Will they dominate the gasoline chassis sector, like the Ford F-53 chassis? Has the history of VR changed?

Food Truck to Bradley Tank: One Company Pioneers Classic Era Luxury Motorhomes (FMC)

Food Machinery Corporation (FMC) began in 1883 when inventor John Bean developed the insecticide pump. Then they went into canning and worked as military contractors developing amphibious vehicles. The impact on the history of VR was short but profound. When Vietnam ended and military contracts dried up, FMC decided to venture into RVs and produce a luxury class A motorhome. From 1973 to 1976, the 29-foot aluminum masterpiece was mounted on a custom chassis or an Oldsmobile Toronado chassis (depending on the year). He used an independent suspension inspired by European design to provide the owners with maximum driving comfort. Attention to detail was so essential that the interior walls of the cabinets were carpeted to reduce street noise. By comparison, the FMC was the Newmar King Aire of its day. During the active production years, a buyer would spend as much money as they would for a residential home to acquire one of the first rental villas on the street. In 1973, the starting price was $27,000 ($160,000 in 2021), but later models have gone up to $54,000 ($250,000 in 2021) and above. Owning one of these beauties told the world that you belonged to the masses. People like Carol Burnett, Clint Eastwood, James Brolin and Mario Andretti have had a CMF in their driveway. In 1976, production of motorhomes ceased and the company was able to begin building the Bradley tank platform. Today, the company specializes in agriculture, chemicals and mining.

RV history is made – Thor buys Airstream

Mjolnir forging with silver bullets

In 1980, Airstream was in trouble. The 1970s was a disastrous decade for the iconic brand. When Wally Byam died in 1962 at the age of 66, the company was never the same again. In a market looking for lightweight caravans with the latest innovations, Airstream was always a day late and a dollar short. New caravans and motorhomes were not for sale. Recognizing this, Wade Thompson and Peter Ortwein purchased Airstream in 1980 – a major acquisition in RV history. As a result of this groundbreaking purchase, Thor Industries was founded. This acquisition marked a new way of doing business in the RV industry. This saved the Airstream company and allowed it to concentrate on what it did best: Building transporters. As parent company, Thor Industries will manage the business and focus on restoring profitability. In the following decades, Thor continued to acquire RV and bus companies to expand its business. Subsidiaries will benefit from sharing innovations, supply chains and other factors. In 1984, Thor Industries was listed on the New York Stock Exchange (THO) and Forbes magazine named the company one of the top 200 small companies in America, cementing its place in RV history.

Toyota attempts to gain unexpected market share in the US truck market

After the 1973 oil embargo, Toyota began to make a name for itself in the American car market. However, they had a four-cylinder Hilux pickup that American buyers largely ignored. The last time Americans saw a pickup with 100 horsepower was in 1948, it was the Ford F-100 pickup with a 239 cubic inch flathead V8. Since Toyota found it difficult to enter the truck market directly, it decided to take an indirect approach. The automaker has partnerships with companies like RV :

  • Chinook
  • Coachman
  • Dolphin
  • Huntsman
  • National
  • Winnebago

Toyota has developed a concept that allows the camper to be permanently mounted on the Hilux pickup. The automaker described it as a micro-minicamper, ideal for one or two campers. It was easy to maneuver wherever you went, and the cab had full access to the bus. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Toyota concept was one of the first examples of a C-class motorhome. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, manufacturers began offering Class C motorhomes as a smaller alternative to the Class A versions. Van manufacturers built this new class on the chassis of pickups and vans, as they do today. The Toyota chassis offered fuel economy and the same comfort in a smaller size. The chassis of the Hilux RV (from which the Tacoma evolved) got modest mileage until the 1990s. Many of them are still working today. There are Toyota micro-mini motorhome clubs all over the United States. Toyota’s camper may not have broken all records, but it has an enthusiastic fan base that has helped the automaker enter the truck market. RV history has been repeating itself lately, as news of the rebirth of the Chinook motorhome has been making headlines.

Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way bring VR out of the shadows

In the classic era, Class C motorhome manufacturers offered motorhomes with and without an upper floor. Today we consider the dented versions of the lofts to be part of the B-Plus class, but they were essentially the C-Class without the nose. Class B motorhomes existed, but were rarely seen. Sportsmobile was one of the few major manufacturers still assembling Ford Econoline, Chevy G-Series, Dodge Ram Van and VW Kombi vans. In 1980, Jac Hahnemeyer, a Dutch immigrant living in Ontario, Canada, founded Roadtrek. His motivation came after building his motorhome based on a 1974 Dodge Ram van, in which he and his family could live comfortably during his adventures. In 1986, RV dealer Merv Rumpel in Saskatchewan, Canada, had a similar idea for a Class B motorhome. He set up an independent workshop at the rear of his dealership to assemble his Pleasure Way motorhomes. In that first year, he and his team produced their first ten models using a Dodge Ram van. Both companies were successful in their early years. Both vans could be seen on local highways and campgrounds in the 1980s and the neoclassical era (1990-2007), even before European-style vans exploded the B-Class. At the time, automakers were making van conversions that confused the public. This set Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way apart from what the big three offered. The vans had a back seat that turned into a queen-size bed, captain’s chairs in the second row, a separate radio, a small ceiling-mounted television, and a VCR in the more expensive versions. Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way offered all the features of Class A or C motorhomes, but were downsized to fit in the cargo space of a full-size van. Both companies sold well, but they were ahead of their time. America always wanted size and space. Today, European parent company Rapido Group added the Roadtrek to its family of motorhomes. Pleasure-Way is still in business and offers a large selection of RVs.

Taking stock of the classic era and looking to the future

The classic era is when the RV industry became a real economic force. John Hanson’s idea to establish a Winnebago production line during the Vintage era (1945-1970) paved the way for smaller RV brands to establish themselves as major manufacturers. Construction methods have been standardized and refined. Technological innovation has grown out of economic and political challenges, rather than inhibiting the sector. The neoclassical era (1990-2007) will examine how the industry has made great progress through innovation. This era was marked by the invention of the retractable side panel and ended with a financial crisis that wiped out almost the entire RV industry. Traveling in an SUV became less safe when the internet and wireless technology became practical on the road. The leisure vehicle sector has shifted further towards US companies. Until next time, try answering these questions (without looking) to begin your introduction to neoclassicalism.

  • Who invented the van drawer?
  • Which motorhome brand is known as the first brand to equip its coaches with sliding doors?
  • Can you name the top four parent companies in the RV industry?
  • What assets did Peter Ligl purchase to create Forest River?
  • Which car manufacturer fusion revolutionized the RV category?

To find the answers to these and other questions, sign up for the Camper Smarts newsletter, published every Tuesday. As our series on RVing history updates each month, we dive into the world of RVing. With Camper Report, Do-It-Yourself RV, Camping Reviews and the wider RV Life Network, we all work to keep you up to date on the latest topics, tips and trends.  Also check out the discussion forums. We are sure you will find one that fits the brand or type of van you own. Learn from other car owners about all things. In the true spirit of the RV lifestyle, we help each other. Sometimes you are the teacher, sometimes you are the student.

About the author

Although originally from Motown, Brian is a Rover heir who grew up on I-75. Since 2017, he, his wife, and two working fur babies have lived full-time in their mobile home. Like John Madden, he hasn’t worked in years because he can write about his passion. When not working, he supports his daughter’s dog rescue and disability projects. Learn more from him on Camper Smarts.comThere is an undeniable class to the classic campers that have been around for decades. From the large gas-powered RVs to the classic canvas vans, the retro campers that have been around for decades are a step above. Take for example, the 1971 Coleman 4800 Classic Woodland Campers.. Read more about 1978 gmc motorhome and let us know what you think.

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