Curbside Classic: 1989 Vixen 21 Motorhome – The DeLorean Of Motorhomes, Beautiful But Also Fatally Flawed

The Vixen 21 TD (top) was hailed as a bold and radical motorhome when it arrived in 1986. It was sleek and beautiful, aerodynamic, fuel efficient with its rear mounted BMW turbo-diesel and 5-speed manual transmission, and most of all, exceptionally low, only 6’3″ tall. It was (and still is) hailed as “the sports car of motorhomes”.  And it failed, leaving the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit with over $28 million in losses.

The main reason is rather self-evident: Bill Collins, its creator and designer, had just left DeLorean Motor Company after playing a key role there in the development of the DMC sports car. Prior to that he spent twenty years at Pontiac with DeLorean, playing a key role in the creation of the GTO and the Banshee. In 1973 Collins used a GMC motorhome and decided he just had to have a motorhome of his own, but one that would fit in his garage, which had an old swing-up door that cleared only 6’4″. So instead of getting a new garage door, he decided to build a motorhome that would clear it.

The result was a motorhome lower than an Econoline van, with extremely limited headroom inside unless the flip-up top was raised. That turned out to be a major liability, and eventually a raised roof gas-engine version, the 21 SE (lower photo above) was created as a last ditch effort to save the failing company.

Obviously Collins was heavily inspired by the advanced and aerodynamic FWD GMC motorhome (left) that he had used. He envisioned something more fuel efficient, given that he started the project in his garage in 1980 at the height of the second energy crisis. There’s a lesson in that alone, one that GM learned at its peril: Don’t make major downsizing decisions based on assumptions of future fuel costs. It cost them dearly with their “shrunken head” 1986 E-Body Eldorado, Seville, Toronado and Riviera.

This is Collins’ hand drawn sketch from 1980 with the basic configuration of what he had in mind, quite close to the final one, and has some key design targets: 3,000 lbs curb weight, “consider rear E-W (transverse) powertrain, X car, diesel” (I assume one or the other), aluminum and FRP construction, and getting ahead of himself a bit, some highly optimistic sales and profit projections: “2000 units x $10,000 variable profit = $20,000,000 (profits)”. Sure, Bill. It’s going to be that easy; after all, he had just been DeLorean’s #2 man at the even more ambition DMC project. DeLorean’s wishful thinking and blue sky sales pitches to investors was apparently infectious.

This shot of the original Vixen 21 TD makes it clear just how low it was. It’s often been called “the sports car of motorhomes”, although with all of 114 hp from the BMW 2.4 L turbo-diesel six motivating the Vixen’s none-too-light 5,100 pounds of (dry) curb weight (2,000 more than the target), genuine sportiness was also going to have to be more in the realm of optimism or wishful thinking. Obviously it handled curves better than the typical tall motorhome. But is that why people buy motorhomes, to carve canyons? Or is it for the interior room and comfort? One reviewer damned the Vixen with this faint praise: “the perfect motorhome to drive between hotels”.

Although at the time I appreciated its looks and potential fuel efficiency (up to 30 mpg at a steady 55 mph), I failed to be fully impressed because it struck me as nothing more than a new take on the Corvair-based Ultra Van, but with some crucial compromises and limitations due to its low height.

“Everything a motorhome has never been before”.


Except back in 1964.


Unlike the chunky steel-framed Vixen, the ultra-light Ultra Van was built just like an airplane, with a monocoque structure of aluminum stringers and stressed skin. The fuel, water and waste tanks were integral structural elements of its floor. This resulted in a (dry) curb weight between 3,000 and 3,400 lbs. Even with a 110 hp Corvair engine and Powerglide, it managed to move along quite adequately for the times.

And unlike the claustrophobic Vixen, the UV had a full size interior, with 6’3″ of headroom. Given that I’m tall, maybe that’s why I feel claustrophobic in the Vixen.

Here’s the dinette in the Vixen. Honey, would you please crawl over to the fridge and get me a beer? Headroom: 66″.

Yes, the pop top helped considerably when opened, But one still had to duck down to get in the main entrance door, and one doesn’t really want to have to bother with raising the top for a quick lunch or bathroom stop, or such. There is a very good reason why just about every van conversion is based on the tall-roof body style. Low roof vans are a serious compromise, pop top and all.

Which, along with the weak turbo-diesel and Renault 5-speed manual explains largely why the Vixen TD sold poorly. The energy crisis was long over by 1986 when it finally arrived, and the compromises that had to be made to possibly get that fuel efficiency were no longer saleable. If you could afford the $40-53k at the time ($113-150k adjusted) for a new Vixen, worrying about the fuel bill just wasn’t likely to be a priority. And Vixens weren’t available in California, a potential key market, because the BMW diesel was not emission certified there.

There were other issues, such as the competition: Winnebago was developing its own high-efficiency diesel-powered low-roof motorhome, the LeSharo, which arrived in 1983, two years before the Vixen. Winnebago simply mated the FWD cab and drive train of a Renault Traffic van to a new low-floor rear body section. Collins was aware of the LeSharo but by that time he had lined up initial investors and it didn’t stop him from developing the Vixen. Anyway, the LeSharo was a few inches taller, so it wouldn’t have fit in his garage.

Winnebago’s approach turned out to be very practical and long-lived, eventually they swapped out the Renault for a VW T4 van front end in 1995 and built it all the way through 2005.

In order to try to salvage the company and get additional financing from the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit, Collins agreed to step down as CEO and the high roof version 21 SE seen here was brought out in 1988, powered by a GM 3.8 L gas V6 with a 4-speed automatic (as used in the FWD Buick LeSabre and others)  Although it did offer stand-up height in the center section, it was too little, too late. Vixen was finished in 1989. It did manage to outsell the Ultra Van, 587 units to some 370.

The fact that both the Vixen 21 SE and the Ultra Van were powered by rear-mounted GM 6 cylinder engines and automatics is one of those curious twists of fate. I found this one at a transmission shop, so maybe things are not well with the THM-440T4? It’ll be easier to fix than the Renault 5-speed manual in the TD.

Although the Vixen is endlessly praised for its brilliant design and sports car-like nature, I see it at best as another example of the hubris that was so rampant at GM back in the day, although even they didn’t design vehicles based on someone’s obsolete garage door. But I can’t shake the idea that this was all-too similar to the deception (and worse) that infected the DeLorean project from beginning to end. Here’s a picture of Collins with a 1/12 scale model of what might be assumed to be the DMC but was actually a Schuco model of the BMW Turbo, which was he and DeLorean blatantly cribbed in their initial investor presentations for the DeLorean car. All of this was documented in great detail by Don Andreina’s superb post here on that subject. 

the Vixen mock up being moved out of its birthplace

In the final analysis, how much would it have cost for Collins to just have a larger garage door installed? Or even a taller garage built? Certainly many of orders of magnitude less than the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit lost in building him a new factory. Which they wisely built with a taller roof than necessary so it could be used as a warehouse just in case Vixen went bust.


Related reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1985 Winnebago LeSharo Turbo Diesel – 23 MPG, If It Still Has The Original Renault Engine

Automotive History: John Z. DeLorean, The BMW Turbo And The Birth Of The DeLorean

Vixen History at