Curbside Classic: Home-Built Toronado-Based Motor Home

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(first posted 5/24/2013)

I called GM’s decision to build a giant personal-luxury coupe with front wheel drive a Deadly Sin (here).  The dubious advantages hardly outweighed the disadvantages, as well the whole exercise being a case of an expensive misplaced priority. But the silver lining of the Toronado project was that it was instantly recognized by a few forward-looking motor home builders as manna from heaven. At a time when motorhomes weren’t quite the split-level McMansions on wheels today, the Toronado’s Unitary Power Package (“UPP”) offered a way to build them with a superbly-low center of gravity and car-like performance and handling. And that extended to back-yard builders too, like whoever it was that can take credit for building this one.

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I was taking an opossum I’d trapped under one of my rental houses for a ride to Alton Baker Park when I saw it from a distance, and instantly recognized it for what it was. The distinctive Toronado wheels and very low stance made that pretty obvious. The fact that it wasn’t just slab sided indicates that the undertaking was more ambitious than average. And here’s the kicker: this is the second home-built Toro-based motorhome I’ve found. How many more are there?

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The other one took a rather different approach ( full CC story here). The builder started with a big 1946 Spartan aluminum trailer (CC here), then grafted on the front end of a Chevy COE truck cab, and used a Toronado’s UPP, its front subframe and axle, and its dead rear axles.

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That is a big, full-sized motorhome, at least for the times. And a rather flamboyantly-decorated one, too.

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With the Blazer conveniently providing a frame of reference, this one obviously is very much smaller. A bit too much so, for the current owner, a homeless person who is staying here in one of Eugene’s many dedicated parking lot campsites for the homeless. She got it from a relative, after it sat for some years, and knows nothing of its origins, except that the title makes some reference to 1970, because that was the date of the most recent major component used in its construction.

It’s too cramped for her and her partner, and she’s rather have a tall, conventional rig. I didn’t even ask to shoot the inside, as it was jammed with personal belongings. She’s also eager to sell it, if anyone is game enough to take on this piece of history. If so, e-mail me at the CC Contact form. But hurry, because her camping permit there is good only for a month.

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The donor was obviously an early Toronado, as it still has the dubious drum brakes. That was one of its major shortcomings, and discs became an option in 1967. Given how light this motorhome probably is, and the fact that it has six drum brakes, it presumably has adequate stopping power, unless one were to exploit its full performance potential.

Which was undoubtedly among the very fastest motorhomes in its day, maybe for quite a while. The 425 cubic inch (7 L) V8 was rated at 385 (gross) hp. This one has a performance Holley (?) four-barrel carburetor, but the owner’s partner is eager to find an original Quadrajet, as he indicated it was “over-carbureted”, and not running quite a well as it should.

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I took only a quick peek at its underside, to confirm the twin leaf-sprung Toronado rear beam axles, and noted frame rails that were mighty close to the pavement. The ground clearance is very limited; no Niedermeyer-style RV off-roading in this. But the handling potential of was/is probably superb for the genre, with its very low center of gravity.

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A 1971 Chevy pickup grille works nicely at the front end. So when was it built?

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Almost certainly after the GMC motorhome appeared in 1972, as the basic similarities are all-too obvious.

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A side-by-side comparison with the smaller 23′ GMC makes that quite apparent. Twenty-three feet (7.0 m) is almost tiny for today’s standards, although more compact and efficient motor homes are making a bit of a comeback. And the home-built one looks to be even lower than the GMC.

So why build one yourself? The GMC, along with most motorhomes, were quite expensive in their day. And there wasn’t the huge inventory of older used ones on the market like today, that are such a boon to homeless folks. But perhaps most of all, someone wasn’t interested in the usual traditional Winnebago-style RV, and set out to build a much cheaper GMC themselves.

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And a rather nice job at that. The riveted body work is of a quite high caliber; the only iffy spot is this difficult corner at both back ends, which looks like a patch, but isn’t. It would be a bit of a shame to not see this one find a loving home. It’s definitely one-of-a-kind, and a tribute to its unknown builder. Anyone out there recognize it, or know its origins?

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