Curbside Classic: 1963 Clark Cortez Motorhome – The Revolutionary Compact RV: FWD, Slant Six, Torsion Bar Independent Suspension, And Built Like A Forklift

(first posted 5/30/2012)    The early sixties was the most fertile era for so many things, including motorhomes. In 1960, the Big Three unleashed their new compacts, including the rugged slant six Valiant and the bold rear-engined Corvair. Perhaps stimulated by them, two radically new RVs appeared in 1963 and 1964, with completely new approaches to their body structure, configuration, suspension, and power trains. The compact 1963 Clark Cortez is one of them, America’s first modern front wheel drive RV; the other is the Corvair-engined UltraVan (CC here).  Although both were radically new, they were polar opposites in almost every way possible, most especially in their weight. Given that the Cortez was made by forklift manufacturer Clark, guess which one weighed more?  Way more.

A brief re-cap: up to this time, almost all motor homes were built on large truck chassis; big, tall, ponderous, rough-riding, crude-handling and thirsty. During this creative era, this approach was seen as less than satisfactory in a number of ways by at least a few bold folks, and our two revolutionaries felt that more compact, advanced and efficient alternatives were the way to go.

I’ve often wondered what exactly motivated Clark, which built the world’s first seated and counterbalance forklift in 1917, to enter the risky RV business. But why they chose to build it with front wheel drive is probably easier to answer: forklifts are all fwd! It probably also helps explains why the Cortez has a very hefty all-steel unibody.

This site ( has a treasure trove of historical Cortez photos, but no captions. But there’s several of this particular and unique one, which must be the original prototype. All dressed up to take the missus for a camping trip; she’s even got her hat box in hand. Just like the Niedermeyers heading off to the boonies.

As you can see already, this is very much a “compact” motor home, drastically so for today’s standards, with an overall length of just 18.5 feet. And a low height, thanks to its fwd. It rather corresponds to the compact one-story ranch houses that were so popular at the time.

It appears that the original prototype on the left gave way to the pre-production prototype on the right, which looks much like the final design. But what’s under the skin is what’s interesting.

Unlike the typically lightly framed, aluminum skinned RV on a ladder frame, the Cortez is built like a bus, or tank, or…forklift. The whole unitized structure is made up of substantial steel, all welded together, including steel external panels. There were two downsides to that, which we’ll get to later, but they’re not hard to guess.

But instead of old pictures, let’s use the example I saw in traffic and instantly followed. I’ve been infatuated with the Cortez forever, lusted after one repeatedly, and have been rather desperate to find one to share with you. There used to be one right down the street, but before my CC days. They’re certainly easy to spot, with their distinctive shape and rear door. And fortunately, it was headed for Wal Mart.

It was a fortuitous thing that I needed to run that an errand just then and stumbled into this one, as it’s not just any old Cortez, but Serial# 29, one of the first of 3,211 Cortezes ever built. Its new owner just bought it in California, after it had been sitting in a field for over a dozen years. It’s a bit rough, but it’s going to get a complete restoration. Maybe we’ll do a follow-up.

Before we take a tour, maybe this shot will help put the Cortez in perspective. Did I already say it was just over eighteen feet long and very compact? On the outside, that is. The Cortez is surprisingly roomy inside, and back in the day could sleep up to six happy campers.

Although the rear-door motorhome is now considered obsolete, it does have some decided advantages in a short and compact RV, given that it doesn’t intrude into the main cabin. It makes for an efficient and snug cabin layout, a lot like those in a boat. Given that my own 18′ Chinook has a similar rear-door configuration, I’m probably a bit biased. But it does have some obvious advantages for maximum space utilization, and the Cortez has front doors for both the driver and passenger.

The bathroom is behind that first door on the left, just like in my Chinook. I’m already guessing it’s going to be very “vintage”.

Sure enough, I’m not disappointed. Turquoise was big in 1963. It’s a fairly roomy “bath”, and designed to be used as a shower too. Across the hall from the bath is a very large closet; some early versions had twin bunks in that space. Big families back then!

The Cortez kitchen is a roomy one, running almost the full length of the main compartment. Many smaller RVs today have only the most rudimentary cooking facilities; microwaves rule.

Here’s how the kitchen (and its COO) looked in their prime years.

The dinette also doubles as one of the beds. What I really like about this Cortez cabin, and our Chinook, is that they both have very large windows and are a pleasant cabin to be in, and from which to enjoy the beautiful scenery inevitably outside the window, since we shun RV campgrounds/parking lots like the plague.

There are few more delightful things than to be sitting at the beach or a mountain lake in our Chinook having lunch or afternoon tea, reading a good book or magazine, while the wind blasts down the rugged coastline. Most new RVs have small windows; I guess folks are looking at their electronic screens more than the scenery. Dinner in the Cortez is ready! Eighteen feet can be surprisingly roomy.

The second front bed is made up by lifting up the front dinette seatback, and hooking its special heavy-duty strap to an anchor in that solid steel roof. The front two-thirds of that upper bunk comes from the passenger seat, which the owner has, but is not installed now.

Here’s how that looks when all the pieces are there; split-level sleeping, for up to four, if you like that sort of thing. Hey, it was the sixties.

Enough of all the domestic stuff. Let’s get to the bridge, and the business end of the Cortez. Looks promising, with that big manly shift lever sticking out of the floor. Old-new school indeed.

Before we look at what’s in front of that transmission, here’s a fine solid all-steel dashboard indeed. Clark’s forklift roots are evident everywhere. Although the steering wheel looks to be proprietary, the instruments look rather familiar. And I’m 99% certain that they are from the same company that supplied the engine.

I slipped the heavy and chunky shift gate back on, so that you can see what the Cortez driver has to guide him on his many shifts.

Here’s what that long lever connects to, the Cortez’ four-speed fully-synchronized transaxle. Did that stem from a forklift? Sure looks like it might have. This unit is one of the Cortez’ potential weak spots. Don’t expect Aamco to have one in stock.

This might a good time to point out something nobody else has regarding the Cortez. Its configuration isn’t all that original, as it mimics Citroen’s legendary H-Van very closely, from the engine out front ahead of the transaxle, to the individual trailing arm rear suspension that makes for an extremely low floor height. The H-Van was a popular camper conversion for the hip set in 1960s-1970s Europe.

Why the funny protruding grille? Well, that grille comes off, and after the bumper is removed, the whole power train assembly in its cradle can be slid out, after six hefty bolts are undone. Well, that’s the Cliff’s Notes version. But it’s also an idea taken from the Traction Avant Citroens.

Tada! Lift up the inside “hood”, and what do we see? You recognize a Chrysler Slant Six when you see one, don’t you? Yup, a heavy-duty truck version of the 225 inch³ (3.7 L) six, making 140 (gross) horsepower. Yes, the four-speed gets a workout, and the low gearing keeps the cruising speed of these six cylinder Cortezes at about 55 – 60 mph. But they can get up to 15 – 16 mpg, allegedly. On the flat, at an easy pace, with maybe a tailwind.

Here we see the whole front end unit, suspension and all. Worried about whether 140 hp is adequate?  Well, it is a “compact” RV, you know.

But not a light one, by any means. All that heavy forklift inspired steel does add up, to some 8000-9000 lbs. That may not sound too horrible from today’s perspective, but let’s just say that’s about three times as much as that other revolutionary RV, the airplane-inspired Ultra Van, and the UV is quite a bit bigger too, a full 22 feet. with a rear bedroom. The slant six gets a constant workout hauling almost five tons fully loaded, but then slant sixes were used in lots of medium-sized trucks back in the slow, old days.  It can take it, if you’re patient.

Weight is only part of the story. The bigger problem is that the Cortez wants to endlessly shed its weight, through the process of oxidization. Fighting rust everywhere in these is a big and never-ending challenge, since there was little or no rust-inhibiting process used when they were welded up. My fiberglass Chinook is starting to look real good right about now. This Cortez is from California, so it’s been relatively spared, given its age.

Beginning in 1969, the Cortez switched to Ford engines, either a six (probably the 300) or the 302 V8. And in 1971, a big change: the Toronado fwd drive train became available, with its three-speed automatic and 455 cubic inch big block V8. That took care of the power issue, as well as the fuel economy one. Many owners of early slant-six Cortez have swapped in the excellent Chrysler 360 V8, as shown here being mated to the Clark transaxle via a customized marine bellhousing. If it’s like the 360 in my Chinook, it should be good for about 11-12 mpg.

While we’re deviating from our tour, how about a bit more Cortez history? In addition to camping and such, the Cortez was also marketed as an ambulance, mobile office, sales room, and NASA astronaut shuttle.

Clark also considered some other variations, like this king-sized Econoline-ish truck. Empty, I’d say the front-rear weight distribution probably would have set some kind of record, as the Cortez already carried over 60% on its front wheels; more like 65%. BTW, the Cortez was built in Battle Creek, MI.

In 1970, Clark sold off its less-than madly-successful RV operation to Kent Industries, which moved production to Ohio. It also added a foot to its length, as well as a side door. Keeping up with the times.

In 1975, Kent was also ready to pull the plug, along with so many other RV manufacturers after the energy crisis. A group of 26 Cortez owners bought the production line, and set up a company to keep them coming a bit longer. The latest ones added more length, and now weighed some 12,000 lbs or more. This one’s a 1977, just a year before the last one was built.

Let’s get back to our tour, but for the remaining portion, we’re going to get out knees dirty and take a look at the undersides; no proper Niedermeyer tour is complete without that, thanks to my preference for sturdy work pants. Here’s the view of the front suspension; all very heavy-duty stuff indeed, as a one might expect from a maker of forklifts. Front springing was via torsion bars, which connected to the upper control arm, and went forwards from there. It’s the top bar, terminating into that big black rubber bushing.

Here’s the same stuff from behind. The drive shaft is apparent here, as is the curved bottom of the cradle. The drive shafts used conventional universal joints, not CVs, which means it’s best not to make tight turns with anything but minimal power; coasting even, if possible. Binding and premature wear are the consequences of not doing so.

The rear suspension consists of two single trailing arms on each side, with a coil spring. This would be a good time to point out one of the Cortez’ best features: thanks to fully independent suspension front and rear, and a very low center of gravity, it had a superb ride and excellent handling. Probably better than some of the cars of the time. And all that weight only added to its “Cadillac ride”.  No comparison to the tall and ponderous motorhomes typical of the times.

The center section has a nice smooth “belly pan”, except that it’s made out of plywood! Which is pretty heavily weathered, in this case. Maybe the weight was getting out of control. Or the expenses. Cortezes were not cheap, which is what kept sales down.

Especially after Winnebago exploded the RV market wide open, with their tract-home approach to mass-production, which cut motor home prices in half. Outfits like Cortez were doomed, which probably explains why Clark sold off the division two years after the Winnebago F17 (CC here) appeared. A total of 3211 Cortezes were built in its fifteen years; probably about what Winnebago spit out in a month or less, in a non-recession year.

But the Cortez has become immortal, with a strong cult following. Its devoted owners who have learned how to stop the rust and keep their transaxles working, if they haven’t just swapped in a Toronado drive train. Shame! The slant six is perfect for these thrifty, high gas price times. Who’s in a hurry?

I’m immensely drawn to the Cortez; its size, packaging and space utilization are exactly perfect for our needs. And its fwd cradle could easily support just about any modern fwd drive train, especially a turbo-diesel from a VW or Audi donor-mobile. The only serious downside is its heavy and rust-prone all-steel construction. If the Cortez had been made of alloy, like the GM coaches, and so many other many other coaches and RVs, there would almost certainly be a Cortez in our driveway. Weighing some 5000-6000 lbs, any modern fwd drivetrain would turn this into a 20-25 mpg motor home ready for the next half century. Too bad.

Although the Cortez may not have found gold for its makers, it certainly blazed new trails, and did much of the heavy lifting for the other front-wheel-drive motor homes that followed it.

Related reading:

This Clark Cortez Got Saved, But Went Up In Flames Within An Hour On The Drive Home

Curbside Classic: Ultra Van – Cross An Airplane With A Corvair For The Most Radical RV Ever