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.