Curbside Classic: Tiara – The Ultra Hot-Rod Of Motorhomes

(first posted 5/30/2012)

Front-wheel-drive may have been a bit of expensive over-kill for the personal-luxury coupe 1966 Toronado, but the Oldsmobile engineers who created the UPP (Unitized Power Package) unleashed a revolution for powering motor homes. It was just the ticket: a compact, but very powerful (375 hp) and slick package to stick in the front end of an RV. Who would be the first to take the plunge? Or more importantly, who would have the lightest motor home to turn into a hot rod? Ultra, of course.

Olds toronado_engine_trans

The Toronado’s UPP was just begging to be put into a motorhome, since it eliminated the long driveshaft hand heavy rear driven axle, and most importantly, allowed a lower floor. Two motor home pioneers saw the UPP’s potential, and acted upon it.

The first to hit the market was the 1969 Travoy, a 26 footer with a long aerodynamic nose that had two benefits: access to the engine, and…high speed.

A stock Travoy was soon taken to the salt flats, where it set a new motor home record of 97.613 mph. But top speed is only part of the equation; what about acceleration?

There were two shortcomings from using the Corvair engine in the ultra-light Ultra Van: it was underpowered, and Chevrolet was discontinuing the Corvair as of 1969. And the allure of the Olds UPP blazed brightly, in this case, in the eyes of Chuck Burgess, Ultra’s head of Engineering. So Burgess took the basics of the UV, including its airplane-like alloy body and low floor, and reconfigured it to accept the UPP. The result was the Tiara.

The Tiara didn’t fully supplant the UV, which was also revised to accept a 200hp Chevy 307 V8 in the rear, but as a higher-priced premium Ultra. But except for new front and rear caps, the middle section was still the same basic structure.

The Tiara did add some weight over the UV, but it was still a relative featherweight at about 6000 lbs. Combined with the 455’s 375 hp, that made for a power-to-weight ratio of 1:16, a superlative figure, better than many if not most passenger cars from the seventies. The Tiara was unparalleled in acceleration, and if it had been blessed with a somewhat less blunt front end, would undoubtedly have topped 100mph easily. I’m not aware of what its top speed actually was, but effortless cruising at anything up to ninety was now at hand, if one was willing to pay for the gas bills. At reasonable speeds, eleven mpg was about average.

The Tiara arrived six months after the Travoy, but Ultra ran into problems in 1970, and only some 39 Tiaras were ever built. A successor firm, Belco, continued production until 1972. CC reader Tom found this 1971 Tiara for sale on craigslist ($9000), and wanted to share it with us. That got me going on some further research, and a flickr page with lots of Tiara material.

Of course, the Travoy and Tiara weren’t the only ones grabbing Toronado power. Even home-builders got in the act, like this wild converted 1946 trailer.

The Revcon appeared in 1972, and spawned a long line of Toro-powered caches. We’ll do a CC on this handsome beast soon.

And belatedly, GMC got in the act too, with their superb 23 and 26 foot motor homes. I promise a CC on these one of these day/years/decades.

Anyway, the Tiara will continue to wear the crown for the best power-to-weight ratio of any of them, and that deserves a deep bow.