RV from the Classic Era

RV History: The Classic Era – 1971 – 1989

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The early 1970s created new challenges for the RV Industry. The early global economy, new technology, and how the recreation vehicle industry conducts business would define 1971-1989 as a defining era. On the other side of the Classic Era, the RV world would see the uniformity of building methods, a new driveable category, and one of Detroit’s Big Three make decisions that would define their future in RV history.  As we explore RV History, specifically the Classic Era of the RV Industry, you’ll learn about the significant influences that defined the years between 1971-1989. A considerable portion of these innovations and events are the basis for today’s Modern Era. 

If you want to start from the beginning, we encourage you to start with the first part of our RV History series, the Antique Era (1910-1944). Continue with the Motorized Vintage Era (1945-1970), and then the Towable Vintage Era. Each article focuses on the defining RVs and influences on the industry that led up to the Classic Era.

How the Gas Crisis of 1973 affected RV history

In the early 1970s, the United States decreased oil production, relying primarily on oil from the Middle East. The American Government and Wall Street operated on the assumption that the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) needed the United States and Europe’s oil purchase volumes to survive economically. OAPEC disagreed.

OAPEC declared an oil embargo in 1973 on the U.S. and the Netherlands. The Organization quadrupled oil prices from $3 to $12 on the remaining European customers to compensate for the export volume loss. Gas rationing was widespread throughout all the countries affected. In America, gas stations closed on Sunday, and consumers ended up in long lines waiting to fill up their V8 or inline-six engine cars so they could commute back-and-forth to work.

RV History - Gas shortages marked the early 1970's
Gas shortages marked the early 1970’s

The six-month embargo went from October 1973- March 1974. Although this was the camping off-season, it would take months for the American gas supply to return to sustainable levels. The months of lag time bit into and delayed the 1974 camping season. RVers would hitch up or start their motorhome engines when they could, but long trips would wait until the next year.

“Made in America” still resonated in the hearts and minds of every citizen, but after the embargo, Japanese-made car brands like Toyota and Honda started to catch people’s attention. Their fuel-efficient four-cylinder cars would decrease the average household fuel bill and increase driving distance. 

The auto industry saw a new demand from consumers. Instead of gas-guzzling Big Block V8 engines, people wanted fuel efficiency. Washington started passing legislation on energy efficiency, pollution and organized the Department of Energy. The goal was to find ways to create energy domestically and new alternatives. 

The RV Industry needed to adapt to these changes. The concept of lightweight travel trailers wasn’t a new one, but this was a focus shift. The good news was that the innovation was there, it just needed to evolve and adapt to this new era of four and six-cylinder vehicles. This flexibility accounted for a shift in the RV industry, and ultimately in RV history.

RV History – Canvas Comes Back As The Family Favorite Trend 

They say fashion is cyclical. Many categories or components have their origins in previous RV Eras if you look at today’s RVs. The best example is the pop-up camper. During the Antique Era (1910-1944), the most affordable travel trailer was the tent camper. A canvas tent would set up in a walled utility trailer. The poles would fit into the sides of the trailer, so you didn’t have to sleep in the mud. Nicer versions had beds that folded out from the middle of the trailer.

Even though the 1954 Ranger pop-up failed during the Vintage Era (1945-1970), its roof-raising mechanism became the basis for the pop-up category. Pop-ups started in the 1960s but would replace the canned-ham trailers with the family-friendly camper trailers in the 70s. Families could store them easily in the garage; they were very light and offered enough travel trailer amenities to enjoy a comfortable RV lifestyle.

Today’s pop-up floorplans are the same as the 1960s and 1970s—two double-bed pull-outs from the center. There are a dinette and a galley-style kitchenette with cabinetry for storage. Most pop-ups used a double-sheeted canvas for the walls initially, but substitute materials took over for better weather protection.

If you were a Classic Era RVer child in the pop-up lifestyle, we invite you to share your stories of hand-cranking and the other “fun” setup moments you had with your parent’s camper in our comment section below. This author remembers his father spending an hour and a half with a carpenter’s level measuring the pop-up’s balance. Since he was young, the author had to run around the camper making the stabilizer corrections an eighth-of-an-inch at a time.

The Ultra-Lite Egg On Wheels Trailer 

In 1968, fiberglass expert Ray Olecko and master mold-maker Sandor Dusa opened the Boler Manufacturing Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Erwin Krieg was the third partner in the operation in charge of production. At first, Boler had a hard time gaining market share with its compact travel trailer. It was hard to sell their RV with an almost $1,500 price tag when their competitor’s average retail price was $900. Eventually, Olecko found his market, and Boler would become a hit. After all, not many four-cylinder cars could pull an RV at the time.

The Boler travel trailer was the first all-fiberglass RV manufacturer. Instead of using the conventional RV building method (see below), Olecko and his team created molding dyes for the bottom and top half of the travel trailer. Both halves of the RV were molded and joined together—the horizontal seam was midway on the sidewalls, front, and back. The fiberglass shells also acted as the frame for the coach. The Boler weighed 800 pounds yet was four times stronger than steel compared to an equal weight RV.

Olecko’s trailer had a four-seater dinette in the rear that converted into a full-size bed. The front sofa converted to bunk beds at night. A removable platform with legs would fit on the corners of the gaucho couch. The kitchen cabinetry on the off-door side in between the furniture featured a  propane two-burner stove and sink. Besides the kitchen storage, there was a full-size wardrobe next to the entry door. Most fiberglass molded travel trailers still use this floorplan today.

Boler’s expansion into the United States was short-lived. While he was a hit in Canada, American’s weren’t overly thrilled with the “egg on wheels” looking travel trailers. One of the significant franchisers, the Eveland Family of Minnesota, would keep the molds after Boler closed in 1972 to create Scamp and Casita. 

Erwin Krieg branched off and started L’il Bigfoot and Armadillo Trailers. Trillium Trailers is also a descendent of Boler. After a failed first attempt, Outback Custom Lightweight Trailers of Calgary picked up the molds and reopened Trillium’s doors. Other fiberglass travel trailer companies out there aren’t direct descendants from Boler. Virtually all of these travel trailer companies sell their RVs as direct order units instead of mass-production. Before 2020, the average wait time was anywhere between six months to a year when you ordered one.

The Industry Goes Conventional With Sticks and Tin

Since the Antique Era (1910-1944) of RV history, RV manufacturers have used the conventional RV construction method in one form or another. The Industry didn’t standardize it until the early Classic Era. The wood frame and corrugated aluminum shell practice evolved from the house-building trade. You may hear RV industry professionals refer to these coaches as Stick and Tin builds when comparing them to the newer aluminum-framed fiberglass laminated wall counterparts.

RV engineers experimented with different types of wood that were light and strong. Today’s conventional wood frames use pressure and other treatments to enhance the attributes of the wood. Corrugated aluminum is rust-resistant when treated with the proper coatings. It’s light and won’t break. The corrugation improves the strength of the aluminum. Both materials are also cost-effective to buy as a building material. You can learn more about conventional versus aluminum-framed RVs from our feature article so you can decide which is the best quality travel trailer construction method.

A Sporty Luxury Car Revolutionizes the Motorhome Industry

In 1965, the Oldsmobile Division created GM’s first front-wheel-drive chassis, unknowingly laying the seeds for a bit of RV history. By 1970, the Toronado had a 17.9-foot long chassis and used a 454 horsepower V8.  At first, Oldsmobile wasn’t allowed to pursue the project, but when the GM top brass realized they had something that could compete against Ford’s Thunderbird, the car was green-lighted.

The RV Industry was playing musical chairs when it came to chassis and engines in Class A motorhomes. One year, you’d see the Chevrolet P30 chassis with a 5.7 or 7.4L 454 hp. A year or two later, the P30 motorhome would use the Ford F-Series or Dodge M-Series chassis instead. These rear-wheel-drive motorhomes would ride high due to the leaf spring suspension and other factors.

A select few would discover that the Oldsmobile Toronado chassis was long enough to adapt to a Class A motorhome. With a few modifications, the front-wheel-drive allowed the motorcoach to ride low to the ground and left plenty of room for larger holding tanks. The Clark Cortez Motorhome we discussed in the Motorized Vintage Era previously used the Toronado chassis for a couple of years. 

Once GM discontinued the second generation (this version began in 1971) of the Toronado in 1978, the RV industry was no longer interested in the chassis. Only one manufacturer was using it at that point, and it was GM itself. As you will see, GM didn’t think the RV Industry would last much longer, thus sealing their fate in the annals of RV history.

GMC Competes Against the Byam Family

In 1968 John Hall, the stepson of Airstream’s founder, Wally Byam, struck out to create his own REVolutionary CONept. The Revcon Class A motorhome was the first to use the Oldsmobile Toronado FWD chassis. John used his knowledge of his stepfather’s building techniques to build an all aluminum-frame and shell low-rider that handled corners better than anything on the road.

GM wasn’t confident about Hall’s decision to use the Toronado chassis. When John made his deal with GM about the chassis, he had to agree to the condition that he would be responsible for all of the testing and share his data with GM. After thousands of dollars in testing and over a year, his adaption of the chassis worked perfectly.

The first few years, the Revcon started as a 29-foot single-rear axle, flat-nosed RV. In the last few years, the nose became aerodynamically pointed, and the 33-foot added a tandem axle in the rear. The interior features were luxurious. When most motorhomes had wet baths, the Revcon was a motorhome with a dry bath, interior aluminum walls with vinyl wall coverings, and trimmed everything in teak. Full production began in 1971, but Hall closed his doors in 1977 due to sales drying up. His main competitor: the one he had to share his test data.

One of the reasons for Revcon’s demise had to do with his competition. From 1973-1978, GM, through its GMC division, decided to step into the motorhome business with the Toronado chassis and the same 454 big-block V8 John Hall used. It came in either a 23 or tandem axle 26-foot version. Its official name was the TVS-4, but many refer to it as the GMC Submarine.  

The Gemini Corporation produced the interior in Mt. Clemons, Michigan, and a total of 12,921 came out of the factory. Today, there are an estimated 8,000-9,000 still on the road. Restoration companies like Cooperative Motor Works, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, specialize in restoring these monumental pieces of RV history.

By 1978, the GMC motorhome’s sales were declining. As we mentioned previously, Oldsmobile was ready to redesign the Toronado. The decision on whether to continue the motorhome or not came down to the accounting department. While they saved money initially by using John Hall’s testing data instead of running their trials, the department didn’t see how the RV Industry could be profitable in the future. With that conclusion, GM shut down the motorhome department.

We sometimes like to speculate around the campfire what the RV World would look like if GM went the other way. Would GM be the mega power of the RV industry like Thor Industries? Would they dominate the gasser chassis sector like Ford’s F-53 chassis? Would RV history be changed?

From Food Carriages to Bradley Tanks: One Company Pioneers Luxury Classic Era Motorhomes (FMC)

The Food Machinery Corporation (FMC) began in 1883 when inventor John Bean created an insecticide pump. Later, they would get into canning and work their way up as a military contractor that developed amphibious vehicles. His impact on RV history would be short, but profound.

As Vietnam wound down and their military contracts dried up, FMC decided to try its hand in the RV industry with a luxury Class A motorhome. From 1973-1976, the 29-foot aluminum masterpiece rode on a customized chassis or the Oldsmobile Toronado chassis (depending on the year). It used European-inspired independent suspension to give owners the ultimate ride. Attention to detail was so essential, the inside walls of cabinets were lined with carpet to reduce road noise. To provide you with a modern-day comparison, the FMC was the Newmar King Aire of its time.

During the active production years, a buyer would spend the same amount as a residential house to buy one of the first rolling mansions on the road. In 1973, the starting price was $27,000 ($160,000 in 2021), but later models went as high as $54,000 ( $250,000 in 2021) or more. Owning one of these beauties told the world you were a part of the “in-crowd.” People like Carol Burnett, Clint Eastwood, James Brolin, and Mario Andretti had an FMC in their driveway. 

In 1976 the motorhome production stopped, so the company could begin building the Bradley Tank platform. Today, the corporation focuses on the agriculture, chemical, and mining industries.

RV History Made – Thor buys Airstream

Forging Mjolnir With Silver Bullets

By 1980, Airstream was in trouble. The 1970s was a disastrous decade for the iconic brand. When Wally Byam died in 1962 at the age of 66, the company wasn’t the same. In a market looking for lightweight travel trailers with the latest innovations, Airstream was always a day late and a dollar short. 

The travel trailers and new motorhomes weren’t selling. Seeing this, Wade Thompson and Peter Orthwein bought Airstream in 1980, an important acquisition in RV history. This landmark purchase created Thor Industries. The acquisition marked a new business method in the RV industry. It took the business tasks away from the RV company, so Airstream could focus on what they did best: build RVs.

As the parent company, Thor Industries would manage the business matters and focus on returning the company to profitability. Over the next few decades, Thor continued to purchase RV and bus companies to grow the corporation. The subsidiaries would benefit by sharing innovations, supply chains, and other factors. By 1984, Thor Industries became publicly traded on the NYSE (THO), and Forbes Magazine listed them as sixth in the top 200 best small companies in America, securing its place in RV history.

Toyota Takes an Unexpected Approach to Gain Market Share in the U.S. Truck Market

After the Oil Embargo of 1973, Toyota was starting to gain headway into the American Auto Market. Yet they had a four-cylinder pickup truck named the Hilux that U.S. buyers mostly ignored. The last time Americans saw a 100 horsepower pickup truck was the 1948 Ford F-100 pickup truck with the 239 cubic inch flathead V8. 

Since Toyota had a hard getting into the truck market straight through, they decided to take a flanking approach. The automaker partnered with RV companies like:

  • Chinook
  • Coachmen
  • Dolphin
  • Huntsman
  • National
  • Winnebago

Toyota came up with a design that permanently attached a truck camper to their Hilux pickup truck. The automaker called it a micro mini motorhome that would be ideal for one or two RVers. It was easy to maneuver no matter where you drove it, and the cab had full access to the coach. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Toyota’s concept was one of the early Class C motorhome examples. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, manufacturers started to offer Class C motorhomes as a smaller alternative to the Class A versions. RV manufacturers built this new category on a pickup truck and van chassis like they do today. Toyota’s chassis offered fuel efficiency and all of the same amenities in a more compact size. 

The Hilux RV chassis (which turned into the Tacoma) had a modest run until the 1990s. Many of them are still on the road today. There are Toyota micro mini motorhome camping clubs throughout the United States for owners. The Toyota motorhome didn’t have record-setting specifications, but it has an avid fan base and allowed the automaker to step into the truck market.

RV history has recently repeated itself, as news of a revived Chinook camper recently made headlines.

Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way Bring the Campervan Out of the Shadows

In the Classic Era, RV manufacturers offered Class C motorhomes with and without the overhead loft. Today we consider the non-cabover loft versions part of the B plus category, but they were essentially the Class C without its “nose.” Class B motorhomes existed, but it was rare to see one. Sportsmobile was one of the only significant manufacturers still building them from the Ford Econoline, Chevy G-Series, Dodge Ram Van, and the VW Kombi bay van.

In 1980, Jac Hanemaayer, a Dutch immigrant who lived in Ontario, Canada, started Roadtrek. His motivation came after he built his campervan in a 1974 Dodge Ram Van that he and his family would be comfortable living in while they adventured out. 

In Saskatchewan, Canada, RV dealer Merv Rumpel had a similar idea about Class B motorhomes in 1986. He set up an independent shop on the back of his dealership property to build his Pleasure-Way campervans. That first year, he and his crew made the first ten models using the Dodge Ram Van. 

Both companies became successful within the first few years. You would see both of their vans cruising the highways and at local campgrounds in the 1980s and well into the Neo-Classic era (1990-2007) even before the European-Style Vans exploded the Class B Category.

Automakers were making van conversions at the time, which confused the public about what made Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way different from what the Big 3 offered. Van conversions had a rear bench that converted to a full-size bed, second-row captain chairs, a separate back radio, a small ceiling-mounted TV, and VCR in the high-end versions.

Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way offered all of the features you could find in a Class A or C motorhome but scaled down to fit inside the full-size van cargo box. Both companies sold well, but they were ahead of their time. America still wanted size and space. Today, European parent corporation Groupe Rapido brought Roadtrek into its family of campervans. Pleasure-Way is still going strong, offering a great selection of RVs.

Summing Up the Classic Era and Looking Forward

The Classic Era was the age where the RV Industry became a real economic force. John Hanson’s Winnebago production line idea of the Vintage Era (1945-1970) paved the way for small RV brands to establish themselves as large manufacturers. Building methodologies standardized and grew. Technological innovations sprouted from economic and political challenges instead of hindered the industry.

In the Neo-Classic Era (1990-2007), we’ll explore how the industry took big steps forward with innovation. The era declared itself with the creation of the sidewall slide-out and ended with a financial crisis that almost destroyed the entire RV industry. RV travel became less uncertain once the internet and wireless technology became road-friendly. The business of the recreational vehicle sector advanced further into Corporate America. 

Until next time, see if you can answer these questions (without looking them up) to get you started on the Neo-Classic Era.

  • Who invented the RV slide-out?
  • Which RV brand is known as the first to add slide-outs to their coaches?
  • Can you name the “Big 4” parent corporations in the RV industry?
  • What company’s assets did Peter Liegl buy to start Forest River?
  • What auto manufacturer merger revolutionized a motorhome category?

To learn the answers to these questions and more, make sure you sign up for the Camper Smarts newsletter that comes out every Tuesday. Even though our RV History series updates monthly, we dive deep into the RV world. Together with Camper Report, Do-It-Yourself RV, Campground Reviews, and the greater RV Life Network, we all work hard to keep you informed on the latest issues, tips, and trends.  Be sure to check out the discussion forums too. We’re sure you’ll find one that’s relevant to the brand or type of RV you have. Learn from your fellow RVers on all matters. In the true spirit of the RV lifestyle, we help each other out. Sometimes you’re the teacher; other times, you’re the student. 

About the Author

Although he’s from Motown, Brian is a legacy RVer that grew up on I-75. He, his wife, and two working-class fur-babies have enjoyed the full-time RV lifestyle since 2017. Like John Madden, he hasn’t “worked” in years because he gets to write about his passion. When he’s not working, he supports his daughter’s dog rescue efforts and disability causes. Learn more with him on Camper Smarts.com

14 thoughts on “RV History: The Classic Era – 1971 – 1989”

  1. Avatar

    Surprising that you left out Ray Frank, who produced the “Dodge Motor Home” later forming the Travco RV company, the first fiberglass class A’s, and just as significantly, the first class B, the Xplorer series.

  2. Avatar

    CW Smith:
    Thanks for your comment. I thought about adding Ray’s Xplorer in this one, but I did mention his Xplorer series in the Motorized Vintage piece. The Xplorer series came out in 68. Sportsmobile beat him with their American VWs in 61. There were a lot of RVs I had on my list for this piece that didn’t make it. There were a few sleepless nights trying to figure out which ones make the cut and which didn’t

  3. Avatar

    The real reason for the 1973 OPEC/Arab Oil Embargo was the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, in which the U.S. supported Israel. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. turned off the Persian Gulf oil tap. Regular gas (no unleaded yet) prices in Colorado went from 31 cents/gallon to $1.00/gallon in a matter of months. So today’s increases for unleaded from $2.35/gallon to $2.85/gallon pale by comparison!

  4. Avatar

    I feel you left out the Winnebago LeSharo…… designed exactly for the high price of oil during the late 70’s, early 80’s. There are still a lot of them on the road, many being retrofitted to modern drivetrains.

  5. Avatar
    Patrick DAnnunzio

    I started RVing in 1980 and my first was a used 1972 Winnebago. Traded it for a Coachmen lightweight TT in 83 during the “crisis”. Never looked back.

  6. Avatar

    The Oldmobile Toronado/GMC motorhome FWD V-8 engine was 454 cubic inches, not 454 horsepower! At the same time, Pontiac and Buick had 455-cubic inch, Chevy had 427/454, Ford-Mercury-Lincoln had 429/460, and Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge had 426 Hemi and 440 Wedge big block engines.

  7. Avatar

    Oldsmobile had a 455 cubic inch engine. Chevrolet had a 454 Cubic Inch engine not sure of the horse power but the government had a lot of restrictions these engines they did not put out a lot of horse power.

  8. Avatar

    Around 1950 my dad built a tent trailer. No folfing mechanism for the frame. Jointed 1/2″ electrical conduit. After that was all done he took measurements and had the canvas tent made at a local canvas shop. Since I was born in 1949 I grew up camping in this trailer. It pulled smooth as he used the rear axle of some lightweight vehicle that had coil springs and shock absorbers instead of the bouncy rough leaf springs of most trailers.
    Besides camping locally in Minnesota we traveled all over the country. By the time I graduated from high school we had been to all the lower 48 states and a lot of places in Canada. The family continued to use this until moving to a regular travel trailer in 1967 for a trip to Alaska. My uncle took it then and continued to use it and passed it to his son where in finally saw its last days.
    Growing up this way gave me a love of travel and simplicity. In 1970 I built a pop top camper for my ’65 Chevy PK and used that until 1976 when I bought a VW Campmobile. Loved the camping part with it, but the air cooled 4 cylinder engine was terrible!
    So here I am at 71, long retired, sold my house and living and traveling in a 2001C200P Roadtrek! Just born to it!

  9. Avatar

    I blew 2 air cooled Volkswagen van engines! Going down the freeway, all of a sudden no engine noise. Never had any power at all.

  10. Avatar

    As previously mentioned the Oldsmobile engine was 455 cubic inches, not 454 OR 454 HP.

    Interesting that GM thought motorhomes would not remain popular. On of many decisions starting at that time that would eventually turn a once great company into an also ran.

  11. Avatar
    An old olds mechanic

    The 455 c.i. olds was a good engine. Heavy duty and dependable with lots of torque. Coupled with the front drive version of the TH400 trans, it made an excellent motor home drivetrain.

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