Eventually, this will be my first contribution to the COAL series, which will follow a non-linear narrative.
2015, I was twenty-five old and two years out of the US Navy, enrolled (thanks to the G.I. bill) at a very small private university in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, studying product/industrial design. I chose to live in the Upper Peninsula, because after my experiences in “the service”, I was ready for some introspective solitude.
Growing up, mom & dad had owned a string of recreational vehicles. One of my favorite childhood adventures was traveling to the Upper Peninsula in my parents’ early 1970’s Chevy van chassis class-C motorhome. The idea of freedom to roam with one’s own bed, kitchen, and shower has always captivated me. Here I am sitting on my parents’ “ElDorado”; it was so much fun to ride in the bunk above the cockpit, akin to standing at the peak of a ship’s forecastle.
I also appreciate good design and engineering. I’d been somewhat familiar with the innovative GMC motorhome. I liked its looks. I knew, as do most of you curbsideclassicers, it was the only motorhome integrally designed and constructed by one of the big-three. I knew it used the FWD powerplant of the first generation Olds Toronado (mine was powered by the 403 c.i.). Combined with a partial air-bag suspension, it was known for its handling prowess.
One afternoon, driving home from the CO-OP, I saw a pretty nice looking example for sale in the yard of a well-kept house, and decided to stop and check out the sign. It was listed for $5,500. I had just sold a motorcycle for this exact amount of money, and figured why not ask for a look inside.
The interior was original and very clean. Most of these rigs have modded interiors, the owners considering the original 1970’s fixtures as gauche. I loved the originality, and the owner produced a stack of maintenance records, dating to when the motorhome was new. It was purchased locally, by the owner of a local lumberyard. He used it frequently, until it was sold to the selling owner, approximately five years before I purchased it.
The motorhome was clean, but not perfect. The original gas/12v/120v refrigerator had been sloppily replaced with a 120v dorm-room size unit. The headliner (all 26’) was drooping. The windows in these rigs are huge, and provide a great fishbowl view, but all the gaskets in mine were severely dried out, causing water infiltration. The suspension bushings felt similarly dried-out, and the airbags for the rear suspension leaked down over several days. Having owned several older vehicles, it seems like old and dried-out rubber and plastics are the most difficult and pervasive issues to rectify.
Even with an older and unrestored drivetrain, having driven my parents’ box slapped on a truck/van chassis motorhome, I was really impressed with how it handled. It drove like a big van, and cross-winds really did not affect it. I didn’t drive like it was on rails, but I was able to drive it at highway speeds without feeling like I was in a constant struggle to keep the rubber side down. I think this was not only due to the motorhome’s suspension design, but due to a favorable coefficient of drag.
From Wikipedia: “The front-drive configuration eliminated the driveshaft and rear differential and solid axle found on most front-engined motorhomes. As a result, the floor could be built with about 14 inches (36 cm) clearance above the roadway. The floor was too low for a rear cross axle, and GM designed the rear suspension as a tandem pair of wheels, mounted on bogies which rode on pins attached to the sides of the low-profile frame. With the exception of the wheel wells, the rear suspension does not intrude into the living space. The rear bogies are suspended using a double-ended convoluted air bag that is pressurized by an automatic leveling system to maintain the designed ride height.”
Some other design features which I really appreciated included how the hot water tank was heated with either 110v, or via a heat exchanger which scavenged heat from the engine’s coolant (I was surprised this still functioned, considereing the coolant had to travel from the front of the rig to the water heater, mounted amidships) . The interior was built to a high standard. The cabinetry was well constructed, for instance using dovetailed joinery. The ability of the couch’s back to pivot and attach via straps to the ceiling, transforming the couch into a bunk bed, was also really novel. I also liked how the windshield wipers were powered hydraulically from the power steering pump. This feature made the windshield wipers swipe in a particularly smooth manner.
(Unfortunately, I never captured any photos of the interior. This advertisement ran in National Geographic)
For my maiden voyage, I decided to travel about 150 miles east, to the town of Munsing. About 10 miles from my destination, the brakes went out. The pedal mushed all the way to the floor. I tried finding a shop or technician willing to look at the rig. Nobody was willing to look at it, let alone work on it.
By now, the more mechanically experienced will have probably guessed my brake master cylinder was dead. At the time, I didn’t understand how power brakes functioned. All I knew was I had to get home. I decided to leave at 2 AM, as to avoid other motorists, and head home without brakes. Piloting this huge mass 140 miles without brakes was quite an adventure, and (in retrospect) pretty irresponsible. Somehow, I managed to make it back home. I had the brakes fixed (a pretty easy fix, considering the master cylinder is about the only thing directly under the minuscule twin hoods), but this escapade started to sour my experience with the motorhome.
(some friends and I took a trip to Marquette, the only voyage I sailed without a debilitating mechanical malady)
I also began to realize I had neither the time nor money to really use the motorhome, and fixing its many niggling issues was definitely not in my budget. For example, replacing headliners and window gaskets on these behemoths is complicated and expensive. I was always anticipating breakage of another complex and difficult to repair system.
I advertised the motorhome on craigslist for the same amount I originally paid, and my inbox was soon overflowing with inquiries. Shortly after listing, two young schoolteachers and their children came to view the motorhome and fell in love. They are camping and road-trip enthusiasts, and had outgrown their Westfalia VW. I still occasionally run into them at the grocery store. They have driven the rig across the Mackinac Bridge several times, and this summer they were planning on driving it to California. I used the money from the sale as a down payment on my next COAL.
The sun had set on my GMC motorhome experience.
These are impressively engineered vehicles. It seems like they are still ahead of their time, but unfortunately the years take their toll. I suppose that given enough time and funds you could have worked the bugs out. But that’s also the same problem with any older, complex vehicle. Lot’s of times our enthusiasm runs out before our time and money. Motorhomes look like they might be fun, but my Wire and I prefer to rough it by staying in a nice vacation condo and drinking our morning coffee on the deck.
Last weekend I saw a 1977 VW Westfalia camper parked on the curb for sale. The price listed on the sign was $19,500. It struck me as kind of funny that you were able to buy a much bigger and more luxurious GMC Motorhome of the same vintage for just a bit more that 25% of the price an old Westfalia goes for.
Air cooled westys also have about 25% as many components which will eventually break. The new owners of my rig have found success because they are willing to overlook issues such as the shower which doesn’t drain. To repair it would necessitate removing the entire fiberglass bathroom enclosure. But, they don’t shower on the road anyway.
Bigger is not always necessarily better.
VW Westfalias are in a world (or bubble) of their own. Their prices have been climbing steadily the past some years. The van lifestyle is a huge fad right now, and Westys are the major beneficiaries of it, as they are considered the coolest of them all.
I have a GMC, keep watching the prices, they will keep going up. The rule of thumb on these things is the price you pay will be about $15,000 for one that will be reliable and comfortable. If you pay less, expect to pay the difference to get it there. Personally we have spent very little the first 7 years and in the 8th we did a head gasket, mufflers and some brake work. We also repainted – a big cost but we wanted it to look great and could have waited a couple of years. We figured we spend less per year than the cost of 1 family vacation and we still have it for all of the other trips and weekends we travel. We are in the Niagara region and ours has climbed the Rockies, travelled out West, all over Ontario and down to the East Coast a number of times and all that time we had our bed to rest in and our food prepared our way. They really are a great fun memory maker that can be serviced anywhere across the continent thanks to its own network for help called The Blacklist. google the parts and new engineering for these – there is no better supported rv in the market and finally, when I sell mine I’ll get pretty well the same price I paid and you can’t say that about the new junk being sold. Roll GMC roll on.
I remember being told at the time what impressive pieces of engineering and construction these were. And they were ungodly expensive when new.
I am not a camper by nature or temperament but I could probably do one of these with Mrs. JPC. (I am not saying that she would agree). I would be torn between the Mopar components of the Dodge Travco and the camper part of one of these. Too bad you had to give up on it so soon, it sounds like you had a good one.
“it sounds like you had a good one.”
This kind of says it all about not only used RV ownership, but RV ownership, in general. If this was a ‘good’ one, imagine what a ‘bad’ one would be like .
While the idea of traveling in an RV seems great, the economic realities of doing it would be a bit daunting for a lot of people, particularly those without a rather large stockpile of cash and/or aren’t too interested in a constant maintenance/storage regimen. A previous poster mentioned the much higher price for a used Westfalia. There’s a reason for that. IIRC, unlike a small class-B RV, the large, bus-sized class-A and -C RVs are not based on an existing truck chassis. So, there isn’t the same level of engineering on those behemoths (with the exception of something like this GMC). Maybe if there was a factory Toyota RV, it would be okay. But, man, I bet it would be pricey.
On top of that, nearly all those big RVs use the same kind of wood framing as truck campers. What that means is that moisture gets inside and eventually rots the wood (not to mention the effects of breathing in the mold). I think there was a CC a while back where someone detailed their exploits on having to reframe one. It seemed like a lot of work and I doubt it was worth the effort and expense.
The bottom line is that anyone considering RV ownership really need to do their homework before they jump in with both feet. After doing the research, they may find that there are other alternatives more suited to their vacation lifestyle (and pocketbook).
I would add, RV ownership is not an exercise in economic frugality. Similar to owning a classic car, the RV lifestyle is almost always grounded in emotion, not rationality or logic.
Owning an RV is all about the (sometimes imaginative or hypothetical) ability to be self contained and free.
Which is why the rental RV business is doing so well. I went to Yellowstone this summer and rental RVs were everywhere.
I love it. Look at all that glass space. It’s unfortunate it was going to nickel and dime (or Jackson and Franklin) you to death, it would be such a neat vehicle to own if one could afford it.
I might well have been tempted at that price. I’ve always had a rather intense infatuation with these, as they are the spiritual successor to the Ultravan. But there are several reasons I’ve held out, one of them being the inevitable issue that come along with an older rig. The other is that it’s a bit unwieldy in some of the forest-road situations I find myself in. And the fuel mileage is of course pretty bad too.
But the attraction is still there…
Paul, I can envision your satisfaction with the driving dynamics, and you are adept enough to fix whatever breaks. That being said, I think these rigs are too large for your lifestyle. These were meant to drive on the interstate and park at the nearest Good Sam Club. Navigating a forest service road was not what the designers considered.
Also, I would consider the GMC Motorhome as a GM deadly sin. The amount of money designing and marketing these rigs must have grossly outweighed the number sold. I have no evidence, but I speculate this was another case of Grosse Pointe myopia.
Agreed on both counts. GM hubris strikes again.
And as appealing as they are, they had a law in their basic design that also worked against them: their ultra-low floor meant no underfloor storage. Americans that buy a big motor home to be on the road for extended periods demand lots of storage. The GMC had essentially none.
What you see on Facebook etc about these are close but also squeaky hinges seeking oil. There are services and parts available for these – much of it newly engineered by a number of companies and people who love them. For the mileage question, you need to subtract what your personal vehicle would use on the same trip. We look at actual cost per day for travel and we are always under a car trip or flight and hotel and our views are always better, our food is better and our bed is the same at home so it’s great and no bed bugs etc. For service Google The Blacklist, it is a group of people across North America that will help a member with help if you need it or just a visit for coffee. There is a blacklist map and on it there are groups now in Australia and Europe. Would I buy a new RV, only if I won the lotto but these are keepers.
I understand. As I said, it’s not really ideal for me as it’s too big to take on some of the really narrow and rough back roads I take. And If something does happen in the middle of nowhere, all that support out there for these isn’t going to help me much.
But I appreciate the strong following these have. I always enjoy seeing one on the road.
I have never really understood USA’s RV obsession. To buy one, store one, insure one, fuel one, repair one…and depreciate one….always seemed WAY more than its worth. These really are commercial vehicles, with all the wallet draining expense that come with them.
I did a coast to coast motorcycle journey, camping all along the way…back when I could sleep on the ground in a tent…and enjoyed it very much. I do appreciate the great outdoors!
–for day trips. Now, in my 50’s I like camping at the Hilton.
I think the way the US does the RV thing is simply a function of the wide-open vistas available across the country, particularly out west. With that kind of space, those with the wherewithal go for the living-room-on-wheels, converted-bus experience. In Europe, space is quite a bit more limited, so they go with the smaller contained units.
One of the more interesting facets, though, are places like Germany where towing a vehicle is prohibited. They have large RVs but the reason is for bringing along a small car ‘inside’, i.e., a mobile garage.
The best compromise would seem to be Canada. RV-use up there is much more restrained but still quite prevalent.
There’s absolutely no question that for many, motor homes are huge expense, due to the brutal depreciation. The bigger new ones are invariably bought by older folks who just don’t care about that; they’re fulfilling their retirement dreams of being on the road (more realistically hooked up at an RV park for weeks/months). If they can afford it, they don’t seem to mind the expense.
Low mileage motor homes that older folks need to sell can be great bargains, even if they don’t have status anymore. The wicked depreciation is mostly finished.
We bought our ’77 Dodge Chinook in 2002 for $1200. I swear I don’t have more than $2500 in it total, and we put almost 30k miles all over the West and two trips to Baja. I can almost certainly sell it for that now. It’s been as cheap a vehicle as any. I insured it seasonally, liability only. I had a place to park it at home. It always started and got us there.
I’m going to end up spending about $38k on our new van conversion (van included). yes, that’s apiece of change, but we love to hit the roads into the mountains and high desert, and it’s going to be new, reliable and twice as efficient. And it’s probably worth about $65-70k, based on what I’ve been seeing other new van conversions selling for. Vans are hot, and values are high.
I could see if I had children and grandchildren in another part of the country. Having houseguests for a week is ok, having them for a month or two is a whole other kettle of fish. Renting a motel room for a month is hideously expensive, and extended stay motels and efficiencies have a “colorful” crowd. You have a place to go so your son/daughter and their life partner can do life partner things. Even better, you take the grandkids in the RV to whatever theme park/beach/living history site for a week. Your kids save money on day care and you get quality Grammy/Grampy time. A younger demographic could go wild and do things that would make Caligula blush. Both are solid choices.
I have no doubt that well-to-do retirees make up the bulk of the sales of pricier, more fancy, bigger RVs. There might not be so many who just drive around aimlessly from campground to campground, but I’d be willing to bet there are a whole lot of them that do exactly what’s described, i.e., visiting grown children hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away for extended stays with the grandchildren during the summer when school’s out..
In that scenario, staying a couple of months in an RV would really be ideal. Provided, of course, wherever they went had ample space to park one of those behemoths.
KFRC, San Francisco had one as a mobile studio from 1981-1983 and from 1985-93. It was sold to the NPR station in Monterey and used to broadcast the Monterey Jazz Festival for years before essentially being mothballed. A former KFRC employee who now lives in Reno, Nevada bought it a couple of years ago, restored it to its original specs and glory and exhibits it around Northern Nevada, most notably at the annual Hot August Nights car fest. There’s a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/KFRCMobileSturgeon/
I used to LOVE jock Doctor Donald D. Rose (Doctor Don) on KFRC…during morning drive in the early 1980s. All the silly sound effects…goofy voices…fart jokes….good fun. Such innocent times….
Since we’re on the subject…the Sturgeon appears driving across the Golden Gate at :28.
Omg, I actually drove that beast! I worked at KFRC from 1992-1998 and we used the “mobile studio” for remote broadcasts. To say that it was grossly overloaded is an understatement, the thing had a retractable 50 foot transmission tower and a complete radio studio built into the back. In my day, the show was run out of the main studio which took some of the weight out, but still.
The chief engineer took me out for a test drive and for some reason we ended up on Church Street heading north down the steep side of Dolores Park. I was standing on the brake pedal and it was very clear that I wouldn’t get it to stop at the red light at the bottom. One of the add ones was a big air horn that I blasted as we rolled through the intersection. Amazingly that was considered a pass and I became the semi regular driver for a summer.
The scariest moment was my first time through the Caldecott Tunnel. To this day I don’t think the original bore is lit, and rolling into total darkness with lanes built to accommodate Model A Fords was scary as hell. The dashboard was modified to handle all the radio add ons and I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights. I don’t know how I got it through there without hitting someone.
A very intriguing RV, perhaps one of my favorites.
You had a good time with it and were aware of the issues yet still knew when to dispose of it. That is a success in and of itself.
I passed one of these on I-44 a few years ago. It was running a solid 70+ mph and was tracking quite straight. It was a great sight to see.
Jason, thanks for the insight. I agree. This was first vehicle I owned which I was able to sell for the purchase price (not considering repair bills). I count that as a win.
I’ve been a fan of these since they first came out. And they still look good now!
But as you said, the years take their toll, no matter how much maintenance one does.
It’s not the miles, baby, it’s the years!
A very attractive RV (the most attractive?), I highly approve of the idea, but am glad it was someone else and not me that took the plunge. What a great experience though!
I, too, love these, and agree the styling has worn well. A coworker, also an industrial designer, owned one for a number of years – it saw a lot of use, but he also did a ton of work on it, seemingly unendingly. He sold it a couple years ago and replaced with a modern RV.
Another massive fan of this shape here. Aaron Severson recently noted the Barbie GMC Motorhome camper was complemented by one for Big Jim.
A friend has one. It is a true Classic in the CC sense, and while flawed in some (many??) ways, I hope no one considers it a deadly sin.
The only context in which I consider it a deadly sin is wasting resources which should have been spent designing/constructing vehicles competitive with the contemporary imports. At least it kept the truck and bus folks in Pontiac busy for a while.
I’ve always admired these from a distance, and can see why there are devoted owners willing to work/spend to keep them on the road.
Interesting to see the collective-wisdom resources out there, including this incredibly detailed study of braking issues (including parking brake and cable problems, possible disc brake upgrades, etc.): https://www.gmcmi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/GMCMH_Parking_Brake_Improvements1r5spring2011webr1.pdf
The gentleman’s PowerPoint is not without humorous touches:
gmcmi is a valuable resource for the GMC motorhome crowd
In 1979 a colleague and I had the pleasure of driving a company owned one round trip from San Francisco to Ontario, California. I don’t know its age, but it still smelled brand new.
What a great way to travel! I’m glad for the experience.
You tell an engaging story. For that price, you had an experience most only daydream about. It played out the way I imagine it would for me too. A truly unique and classic American vehicle. I like the Upper Peninsula. In 1990 I had a friend in the Air Force at KI Sawyer AFB that I would visit when up there. Thanks for your service also.
In the mid/late-70s, a manager of mine considered renting one for his vacation. At $200/day plus $0.20/mile, he decided that he and his wife could take their Mustang, stay at nice hotels and enjoy a nice dinner each night, and still come out ahead. Still, amidst the Winnebago’s of the era, it was a striking machine.
Like I posted above, emptying one’s wallet on an RV is much more emotion than logic.
I got my first GMC in 87, it was a ‘77 Kingsley. It was the successor to a ‘74 Westfailia that we outgrew as my kids got older. We traveled a lot in the GMC with my brother and sister in law and all our kids. Towed a VW Thing. I put it in storage when our kids went to college.
Three years ago, I got a’78 GMC unexpectedly. It had been renovated in ‘96. My ‘work son’ got the ‘77, and renewed the interior, toning down the rust colored ‘70’s look. He added a Fitech EFI and put in the second timing chain, new fuel and brake lines.
The ‘78’s 403 was rebuilt by a former Olds genius in Delta township, MI. (The previous owner had shredded the belts and overheated the engine.)
Both GMCs have new front bearings from a guy (with incredible talent) north of Flint – a former GM engineer of the amazing quality that made the company great back in the day.
It’s like anything with wheels that’s 40 years old. It takes work to keep it roadworthy. We take our three grandkids on trips, and have a great time. There are several very active Facebook groups with knowledgeable owners and a strong group of parts suppliers.
I work in Elkhart County, IN – the birthplace of dozens of brands of RVs. None of them are close to the ride quality and usefulness of the GMC. (Although some of the new ones on the MB chassis are getting really close.)
Nice to hear about your Kingsley. To each one’s own, and I can appreciate why one would be compelled to rehab the interior, but I think the original tacky 70’s interiors just add to the charm of these rigs.
great write up!!! i consider these to be the ultimate motorhomes and would love owning one. they look so cool and relatively easy to drive. one day!!
My parents bought one of these new in 1978. We made several trips in it and it was a great RV. They have had 4 different RV’s and this one was my favorite to drive. It was not affected by crosswinds nearly as much as the others. The inside was very nicely finished, all around a high quality vehicle.
Wow, that’s a motor home all right! Almost literally for some I suspect.
I love the 70s styling and the ambition of the vehicle – in a way, you can sense that GMC thought they were building the Range Rover of motor homes, and with some clean slate, unconventional ideas. Got to admire that part o fit.
But the accountants must have been stressed, and puzzled – as far as I can tell, there was never a commercial vehicle or minibus application fot eh low floor, FWD, air suspension idea, perhaps surprisingly.
“enrolled (thanks to the G.I. bill) at a very small private university in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula”
You went to a university whose initials are F.U., didn’t you?
(I live in da U.P. in case you are wondering)
Awesome article! I’ve always been fascinated by the 1973-78 GMC Motorhome. I’d buy a 1977 Motorhome if I had someone to share in the experience. At 26′ (7.9 metres) in length, 96′ (240cm) width, and 9′ (2.7 metres) tall, they’re large enough on the one hand for two adults to comfortably travel in, and yet they’re small enough that anyone with a standard driver’s license can drive it comfortably.