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 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.

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