Curbside Classic: 1968 Winnebago F 17 – The Model T Of Motorhomes

(first posted 10/15/2011)    I know some of you are probably a bit weary with my obsession with RVs. But only once since the Model T revolutionized the car industry, has a similar revolution taken place in regard to non-passenger car wheeled vehicles. Henry Ford was able to slash the price of his car thanks to efficient mass production, making it accessible to a vast segment of the population. It was a one-time occurrence, but one with lasting impact. That a little outfit in rural Iowa desperate to create some jobs was able to revolutionize the RV industry in a comparable way is a story worth telling, especially when I found one of the earliest models to help tell it.

Obviously, the whole history of motor homes is long and a bit complex, since one-off and small-scale production “motor-homes” have been built since the Model T’s day; quite a few on its chassis, actually, like this 1915 Lamsteed Kampkar. But in terms of what it became can be reduced down to the key pioneers of the modern motorhome, of which there are just really two.

Ray Frank coined the term “motorhome”, starting with his first one of 1953, built on a Dodge truck chassis. A partnership with Chrysler resulted in the the Frank-Dodge motorhome (above), which then evolved into the Dodge Travco (CC here).

In 1963, the Travco pioneered a sleek two-piece fiberglass shell, and became the iconic motorhome of its time. But it was pricey, well into the teens then (about $100k adjusted). The Travco was something the average American might dream about, but not realistically attain.

Winnebago got its start building trailers in Forest City, Iowa in the mid fifties. This was a very dispersed industry then, but somehow Winnebago survived and prospered. In part, it may be because it was willing to innovate, like its Thermo-Panel sandwich wall construction, rigid foam insulation sandwiched between the aluminum exterior skin and the inner paneling.

In 1966, Winnebago took the leap to building motor homes, and this one, serial #001, is still running. This first model was a nineteen footer, built on a Ford P-350 chassis, as typically used for step vans. Thanks to Winnebago’s modern production line and volume purchasing, it charged less than half compared to comparable sized motorhomes then available. Just like the Model T Ford, the Winnebago motorhome took off, as the first of its kind realistically available to large segment of the population.

I can’t find an exact price for that 1966, but the seventeen foot F-17 model featured here was priced at $5995 in 1970. That adjusts to $33k in 2010 dollars. And that’s also just a tad more than what a Toronado cost in 1970. Given that hourly wages were just about to hit their all-time peak in 1971 or so, the convergence of rising income and an affordable price was an explosive combination. In 1970, Winnebago went public, and in 1971 its stock was the highest flying of any on the exchange, up 462%. Winnebago was the google of its day.

Within a year or two of motorhome production, there was a whole line of Winnebago models, and all of the larger units (above) except the smallest F-17 moved to proper Dodge motorhome chassis, with dually rear wheels, the 318 V8 and the venerable TorqueFlite. I dare say that a substantial part of the TorqueFlite’s reputation grew from the fact that it was in just about every motorhome for several decades. And it acquitted itself superbly.

But what we have here , the F-17, is the smallest of the line-up, and mighty short at that, a mere 17’4″ long (208″). It still sits on the Ford P-350 van chassis, with all of 104″ of wheelbase. Given that this rig is 111″ tall, it’s one of the few vehicles to be taller than its wheelbase. That’s not anything to be proud of, and these shorty Winnies had a rep for being a bit less than stable under certain conditions, like wind, among others.

And what powers this flying brick? The Ford 300 cubic inch (4.9 L) six. A six cylinder motorhome; hmm. Well, it did weigh a mere 4,890 lbs, dry. That’s less than some CUVs today. Winnebago’s Thermo-Panel construction was light, as well as providing decent insulation. And that Ford six was rated at 170 (gross) hp back than, the highest of any domestic OHV six.  Still, this Winnie would trundle down the (flat) highway at adequate speeds, while Mom made lunch in the kitchen and the kids played in the back dinette or in the bunk over the driver’s head.

That front upper bunk and the unique angles of Thermo-Panel that defined it became a Winnebago trademark, and the basic configuration of all Winnie motorhomes,

including this much bigger later model from the late seventies. By then, the HD 440 big block was building a rep for itself along with the TorqueFlite.

The RV industry’s fortunes are tied to the economy and price of gas more directly than perhaps any other. The First energy crisis put a dent in Winnebago’s explosive growth, but by the late seventies, the party was in full swing again, and the big W built its 100,000th motorhome. The crash and oil-run up of 1981 almost did the company in, and the old look models gave way to a more contemporary style.

But these old Winnies are still plying the streets, although more often nowadays, they’re also being lived on in the streets, by owners who have no other place to call home. And they have vintage paneling to cheer them up. Actually, these very early models still had light-colored paneling, but that soon gave way to the ubiquitous  dark fake-walnut that graced every motorhome for decades. Let’s just say that RV manufacturers have not been big on hiring interior decorators, at least not until quite recently for the higher end units.

Winnebago continues its dance with the economy, after mostly shutting down in 2008. The past few years have been brutal for the industry, and here in the Eugene are we have lost all of the the several manufacturers that once made the region a manufacturing node for the industry. It’s a business that thrives during the go-go times, when folks are optimistic, despite knowing that RVs have atrocious depreciation. Or maybe they didn’t know.

But the RV inndustry always seems to reinvent itself, and more efficient smaller diesel units are here and more on the way. But the odds of an RV manufacturer being the hottest stock of the year are long gone. That was a one-time event, due to the assembly-line efficiencies Winnebago introduced coinciding with a time of peak wage growth. Neither of those scenarios are about to come back.