In our RV History exploration of the Neo-Classic Era (1990-2007), you’ll see how innovation inside the RV industry led to changes so important that fundamental principles on weight and width needed redefinition.
We’ll also journey through the details of how Freightliner and Ford became the dominant chassis suppliers in the motorhome industry. As fuel prices rose, you’ll learn how a foreign automaker redefined its image and turned a minor RV category into one of the most popular. Finally, discovering a new building material with multiple properties allowed RV manufacturers to expand the ultra-lite category into the traditional towable classes.
Come with us as we show you how the Neo-Classic Era shaped RV History and influenced the RVs we see today.
RV History Breakthrough – The Slideout
In 1998, the son of Newmar’s co-founder, Marvin Miller, gained his place in the RV Hall of Fame. As the owner of Newmar, Mahlon Miller introduced the Dutch Star and Mountain Aire as the first Class A motorhomes for the company in 1990. The invention that made this Mennonite Pastor a Legend in RV history, was the sidewall power slideout.
At first, Miller designed his power slideouts for Newmar’s fifth-wheel RVs. With the technology perfected, he added one to a Class A model. Despite the doubts of his engineering team, he took them on a ride down the roughest roads in the area. While the team thought the slideout would shake noisily, it stayed quiet and didn’t move.
Newmar was the only company in the 1990s with slideouts in their Class A motorhomes for three years. Once the competition saw it was more than a trend, RV shows in the mid-1990s debuted RVs with slideouts from every manufacturer. For the next decade, owners of non-slideout motorhomes and travel trailers would have difficulty selling their coach. Buyers wanted the extra width in the living room and bedroom. RV manufacturers developed new floorplans that took advantage of the extra interior space.
Early slideout technology connected the slideout to the frame. The design led to the slideout boxes falling off their track due to weight problems and other factors. Slideouts also sat above the main floor, adding a lip. Miller built his slideouts to be chassis supported become flush with the main floor. Soon after, the RV industry followed suit.
We use the slideout as the beginning of the Neo-Classic Era because it changed the nature of the RV in most of the categories. Before this time, RV consumers and designers had a width anywhere between 7-8 ½ feet as a static assumption regardless if it was a drivable or towable coach. With this width-expanding technology, ideas that were considered impossible were realistic in the pop-up, travel trailer, fifth-wheel, and motorhome classes. Slideouts affect everything in the design. Weight distribution, interior design, and everything in between had to change.
Kids Have a Place of Their Own with Bunkhouse Floorplans
Another game-changing RV history innovation was the creation of the bunkhouse. Before the early Neo-Classic Era, parents had their space while children slept on converted dinettes and sofas. During the day, the kids would have to fold their sleeping space back to daytime seating.
The bunkhouse gave a designated section of the travel trailer, fifth wheel, or motorhome kids could claim. Early models had two twin-size bunks on both sides of the RV with some storage. A door, pocket door, or curtain would close the section off, telling parents that this is a “kids-only zone.” Travel trailers with two bathrooms had the second one in the bunkhouse and a rear door. Besides the safety factor, the second bath could be used as a mudroom and give the kids a different place to wash up, so parents could continue to enjoy their privacy in the master bath.
The Modern Era (2008 and forward) would further develop the bunkhouse by sacrificing the lower bunks for cabinet systems, two-seater sofas, and two-person dinettes. The cabinet added storage and had an LED TV space. The convertible furniture added sleeping space and would be great for full-timers who homeschool or other daytime activities. Some do-it-yourself RVers would remove the lower furniture and turn the bunkhouse into an independent office or retail business space.
Bunk Bed Configurations
Other configurations in smaller travel trailer models used a bunk bed section instead of a whole room. Parents appreciated the design of the bunk beds since the designers enclosed three of the four sides with walls. The safety precaution prevented children from rolling off the bunks.
Towards the end of the Neo-Classic Era, RV manufacturers increased the size of the bunk beds to near full-size bed dimensions. Younger children could double up on each bunk, while teenagers had more room to sleep and keep their things. Motorhome bunk beds would stay in the dual twin bunk configuration, but additional features made the bunk bed space multifunctional. You could flip up the top bunk and use it as an extra closet. The lower bunk also made an excellent bed for larger dog breeds.
Mid-level and luxury Class A RVs would add fold-down LED TVs with built-in DVD players so each bunk could enjoy their favorite movies or TV show. Small storage nets or cubbies allowed bunk users could keep items nearby. Users could draw privacy curtains, and reading lights would be bright enough for personal use.
RV History: The Industry Goes Corporate With Its Big 4
In our RV history Classic Era (1971-1989) discussion, we talked about how Thor Industries started in 1980 with its purchase of Airstream. During the Vintage Era (1945-1970), we saw John Hanson open Winnebago in Iowa. In the Neo-Classic Era, Forest River’s Peter Liegl would take the remains of Cobra RV and establish itself as the third corporate entity in 1996. REV Group (called American Industrial Partners or AIP in 2006) would use Fleetwood and other assets to become the fourth corporate RV powerhouse.
While Thor slowly started buying other RV brands in the Classic Era, the Neo-Classic Era saw the establishment and growth of the corporate giants of the RV Industry. The Modern Era saw the most buyouts and mergers, essentially dividing all of the popular brands under the four parent corporations. By 2007, Thor Industries owned over half of the American RV Industry, followed by Forest River and REV Group. The chart below shows how the Big 4 divides the RV industry. We’ve included the year each brand joined its parent company to differentiate the Era of the merger.
|Thor Industries||Forest River Incorporated||REV Group||Winnebago|
|Airstream- 1980||Rockwood, Flagstaff, Cherokee- 1996||Wheeled Coach- 2006||Create Itasca- 1993|
|General Coach- 1982||Palomino- 2002||Fleetwood, American Coach- 2009||Newmar- 2019|
|Dutchmen- 1991||Bought by Berkshire Hathaway- 2005||Monaco, Holiday Rambler- 2013||Grand Design- 2020|
|Four Winds- 1992||Rance Aluminum Fabrication- 2007||Renegade RV- 2016|
|Komfort- 1995||Coachmen, Shasta- 2008||Lance- 2017|
|Keystone- 2001||Prime Time- 2009|
|Damon- 2003||Dynamax- 2011|
|Krystal Infinity, Federal Coach- 2012|
|Bison Coach- 2013|
|Livin’ Lite- 2013|
|Wakarusa RV production campus- 2013|
|Cruiser, DRV- 2015|
|Postle Aluminum Co. 2015|
|Jayco, Starcraft, Highland Ridge, Entegra- 2016|
|Erwin Hymer Group- 2019|
If you look at the portfolios of each parent corporation, you’ll see that they each have assets in other markets. These assets include personal watercraft, specialty vehicles like emergency response vehicles, buses, and heavy equipment component manufacturing. Since RVs use many of the same parts, you’ll see similar designs and components within the various vehicles.
The Great Chassis Race of Detroit’s Big 3 Reaches the Final Stretch
At the beginning of the RV history Classic Era (1971-1989), Class A motorhomes bounced between 3 different chassis at the gas motorhome level. Once Dodge discontinued its M-Series in 1979, Class A gassers came with either a Chevy or Ford chassis.
On the diesel side of the fence, the Classic Era started with the John Deere chassis, the Spartan, and the Freightliner Road Master made explicitly for Monaco. By the millennium, RV manufacturers could choose between the Freightliner or Spartan chassis for their diesel pushers.
In 1978, Prevost introduced its first bus conversion shell to the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) as a high-end luxury Class A motorhome chassis and frame. For our discussion, we won’t include the bus chassis since the construction methodology is vastly different than traditional gassers, diesel pushers (DP), and front-end diesel (FRED) Class A RVs.
To simplify things, here’s a breakdown of the popular chassis options seen in the RV history Neo-Classic Era:
- GM/Chevrolet P30/32 Chassis: 1984-1998
- GM/Chevrolet/Workhorse P32/W20/W22/W24/W25.5: 1999
- GM/Chevrolet P12 Chassis: 1998-1999
- Ford F-53 Chassis: 1988-2007/ Super-Duty F-53: 2008-Present
- Spartan Chassis: the MM (Mountain Master) or IC 2242
- Oshkosh/Freightliner: XCS or XC
How GM Ran the Race
GM’s P-Series evolved from the step-vans of the 1920s. The P30 chassis, primarily sold under the Chevrolet brand, was the commercial truck chassis. The RV version was the P32. Due to generalizations and referring to the chassis as the P-Series, the two became lumped together. The significant difference the P32 had from its sister was an altered steering column position and a wider wheelbase.
In 1998, GM developed the super-duty P12 that allowed Class A RV manufacturers to build longer and heavier gassers. It was short-lived because one year later, General Motors sold its RV division to Workhorse Custom Chassis. Workhorse continued building RV chassis with the W20, W22, W24, and W25.5 models using GM’s Vortec V8 and GM-owned Allison transmissions. In 2005, GM sold workhorse to Navistar, the parent of International Truck, ending their Class A motorhome chassis business.
Ford Wins the Race With Its F-53 Chassis
As the RV Industry transitioned into the Neo-Classic Era, Ford introduced its F-53 chassis. Many industries, including RV manufacturers, adored the multipurpose medium-duty chassis. At first, the chassis came with Ford’s 460 V8. In 1999, the Blue Oval redesigned the chassis as a super-duty and paired it with the new Triton V10 engine.
Motorhome owners also enjoyed the power-assist steering Ford offered compared to the Chevy chassis’s full power. Chevy chassis owners would have to install an aftermarket steering stabilizer bar for better control to stabilize the constant steering adjustment. After the buyout, Workhorse made an effort to stay competitive, but with the F-53’s proven track record and the new Triton engine, Ford won the race in the gasser motorhome chassis division.
The John-Osh-Liner Chassis
Early RV history Classic Era RVs used chassis built by John Deere (the legendary green farm equipment company). In the late 1980s, heavy equipment, and military contractor Oshkosh bought the RV chassis division from John Deere.
Freightliner, a daughter company of Daimler AG (Chrysler wouldn’t come into the picture until 1998), had already entered the RV chassis market with its exclusive partnership with Monaco. To increase their market share, Freightliner purchased Oshkosh’s RV division in 1995. The XC and XCS chassis models today originate from both of the previous manufacturers.
Fire Trucks and RVs: Spartan Motors
In 1974, the bankruptcy of Diamond Reo Trucks gave its largest customer, the Form-Rite Corporation, the opportunity to restructure the company to fulfill a lucrative contract the defunct company had won. The agreement asked for several custom fire trucks. Form-Rite’s President Charles McManamey hired the talent he needed and had this new division of his corporation running quickly.
Spartan evolved into many different components of the auto industry. In the Neo-Classic Era, their most popular RV chassis were the Mountain Master (MM) Series and the IC Series. Today, they’re known as The Shyft Group. Once they sold their emergency response division to REV Group in 2020, they rebranded under the new name, but the chassis division is still known as Spartan RV Chassis.
Freightliner’s dominance in the diesel motorhome sub-category comes from many factors. Some of it has to do with the existing contracts with the John Deere and Oshkosh takeovers. Others include the variety and quality that Freightliner brings to the table. Spartan’s K-Series in today’s Era is prevalent in 40-45 foot diesel pushers. Each has its pros and cons, but if you read the various forums like iRV2, you’ll see that fans of both chassis.
Das Deutsche Wohnmobile Brings Back the Class B. It’s Wunderbar!
If your German’s a little rusty, the wonderful German manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz, brought the Class B campervan back to the forefront of the American RV consciousness with their Sprinter Van. The merger with Daimler-Chrysler did many great things for both auto manufacturers.
The first generation of the Sprinter started in Europe in 1995. It won the International Van of the Year when it debut. The U.S. first saw it with the Mercedes three-pointed star until 2003. In the American mind, Mercedez-Benz represented luxury. The van was also the first European-style van the U.S. had ever seen. Convincing the public the Sprinter was able to stand bumper-to-bumper with the domestic full-size vans was proving difficult.
Before the Sprinter, Americans were used to the wide-bodied vans like the Ford E-Series, Chevrolet C10, and other Classic American body styles. The thin-width, high roof European-Style van was too different. Mercedes had to change the American perspective by rebranding the Sprinter. Once they placed the iconic Dodge Ram logo on the van for the 2004 model year, Americans saw the Sprinter for was it was: a cargo van full of potential.
The RV industry saw the van in a whole new light. From the year 2000 to 2007, the average gas price started at $1.51 and rose to $2.80 a gallon. RVers looking to get into the drivable categories began to cringe at the low gas mileage Class A, and Class C motorhomes get. The time was right for the Class B RV to step out of the shadows and stand center stage. The Sprinter’s 2.0L 4-cylinder or 3.0L V6 diesel engines looked more appealing. Both RV companies and consumers enjoyed the fact that the van comes with a roof height that allows people to stand straight.
As the Sprinter’s popularity exploded, Ford brought its European Transit Van to the U.S. When Fiat bought Daimler-Chrysler from Mercedes in 2009, Dodge created the Ram ProMaster to stay in the cargo van category.
In 2006, towards the end of the Neo-Classic Era, Mercedes released the second generation of the Sprinter. Known as the New Concept Van 3 (NCV3), new chassis and length options gave RV makers a bigger canvas to work.
Customers could choose between a 144-inch or 170-inch wheelbase. The roof height came in either standard or high. The Sprinter now had a short, standard, and extended length. Like GM and Dodge, Mercedes added a 2500 and 2500 weight class to increase payload capacities. The heavier weight classes allowed expansion into the B plus realm.
Independent RV brands would use the Class B category to enter the RV industry like others use the teardrop category. Long-time Class B manufacturers Pleasure-Way, Road Trek, and Sportsmobile incorporated the Sprinter and other European-styled vans into their lineups to rebrand themselves. In a time of high fuel prices, these RV companies would see record-breaking sale revenues.
The Magical Material That Made RVs Mid-Size SUV-Friendly
If you ask the average RVer what Azdel is and how it works, they probably don’t know enough about it to give you a full explanation. What they will tell you is that you must have it in your RV. In the RV community, it’s become a mythical material that solves many problems. While we all wish the material lived up to the legend, the true nature of this material has its counterpoints.
In 2006, Azdel was discovered as a weight reduction building product for RVs and other industries. This fiberglass and polypropylene blended building material adds strength to laminated fiberglass sidewalls with aluminum frames. The product also has insulating qualities that resist heat transfer, sound and is eco-friendly. Due to its moisture-repellent properties, mold, mildew, and other corrosive agents can’t grow.
Azdel won’t hold paint, decals, or anchoring hardware like screws. That’s why RV manufacturers layer it in between the interior and exterior walls with rigid foam insulation. Despite these shortcomings, the use of Azdel was a money-saving construction material that helped the industry recover from the 2008 Financial Crisis.
A Near Extinction Level Event: The 2008 Financial Crisis
The Financial Crisis of 2008 was a scary time in RV history for the RV industry. We’ll discuss the factors that led up to the Great Recession and how it impacted the RV world more in-depth in the upcoming Modern Era article. At its core, the RV market is a luxury item. Many Americans and the World focused on maintaining their basic necessities and watched the stock market eat away at their retirement investments. Buying an RV or taking a trip was the furthest thing from many people’s minds. Some RV companies closed their doors for good, and others bailed themselves out by joining up with one of the Big 4 RV corporations. A handful took the massive leap of founding a new RV brand. One major player used the downtime to reinvent itself completely.
In June, we’ll conclude our Era Series with the Modern Era (2008 and forward), highlighting the significant RV innovations and events in our time. You’ll see how the pieces fell together after to 2008 Financial Crisis, what mobile telecommunications did for RVing, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the RV world, and other points of interest.
Our exploration of RV History will continue down other trails, so we’re only nearing the end of our first leg of our journey. There’s so much more to discover about the history of the RVing world. Some of the other topics we’re preparing include:
- The history of the Big 4 and other significant legendary brands
- The development of the U.S. National Parks
- The History of Iconic Roads including Route 66
- Fascinating Camping Destinations
Meanwhile, make sure you’re signed up for the Campers Smart Newsletter so that you don’t miss our latest articles. You can also learn more from the RV Life Network on all things RV. Do-it-yourself RV has excellent guides and advice for handy folks at all levels. If you’re looking for a great campground to stay, check out Campground Review’s blog.
Don’t forget to look into the RV Life Pro suite of apps. You’ll get the best RV trip planner, RV Trip Wizard, the RV Safe GPS, Campground Reviews, and Maintain My RV in one synchronized package. With these four apps, you can plan your route, use an accurate RV-friendly GPS, find great places to stay. While you’re having fun, your computer or mobile device is keeping track of when it’s time to complete the next maintenance task.
We’ll See You Down the Road!
About the Author
Although he’s from Motown, Brian Newman 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 Brian’s not writing, he supports his daughter’s dog rescue efforts and disability causes.