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The GMC Motorhome: Gone but not forgotten

In late '72 the General Motors’ Truck and Coach Division debuted its revolutionary FWD low-floor Class A moho..
In late '72 the General Motors’ Truck and Coach Division debuted its revolutionary FWD low-floor Class A moho..
GM Media Archive

It's been over four decades since the first Michael Lathers designed GMC motorhome rolled off the General Motors’ Truck and Coach Division production line in Pontiac, Michigan, but in the intervening period the venerable steel, fiberglass and aluminium bodied 6-wheeler, with the Toronado powertrain, has assumed something approaching cult status amongst the RVing fraternity.

The GMC motorhome joins a pantheon of iconic GM vehicles like the Futurliner and Scenicruiser.
GM Media Archive

Interestingly, although GM had a long history of building coaches and specialist vehicles -- like Loewy and Gegoux’s GMC Scenicruiser and Harley Earl’s Futurliner -- this was the first time that Alfred P. Sloan’s automotive colossus had ventured into the manufacture, though not the upfitting, of motorhomes. A first not only for GM but for any global automotive manufacturer and a feat that wasn’t emulated by an automaker until Volkswagen began manufacturing its California camper van range -- upfitted by Westfalia -- in 1988. GM, too, opted to outsource the upfitting of its new motorhome and selected PRF Industries, manufacturer of Travco and Sightseer motorhomes, as its partner in the Gemini facility. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that GM, just like VW in 2003, opted to bring the upfitting of its GMC motorhomes in house.

Manufactured in both 23-foot ($13,569.06) and 26-foot lengths ($14,569.06), and offered with a choice of six exterior colors, four interior color schemes and fifteen different floor plans, the GMC MotorHome, dubbed the “pie wagon” by the GMC development team, was well-received by RVers when it hit the sales floor of a select handful of GM dealerships in February, 1973. Although other major RV industry manufacturers gave this new “Cadillac of motorhomes” a more muted response, it wasn’t long before industry luminaries like Coachmen, Winnebago and Foretravel -- and even the Coca-Cola Company with a special edition GadAbout GMC MotorHome -- joined the party.

In spite of the popularity of the GMC platform and its relatively modest, by seventies standards, thirst for gas (approximately 10.2 -11.2 mpg), GM was never able to achieve the production volumes and associated economies of scale necessary to justify extended production of the GMC (and its sibling Transmode motorhome). So, when it came to a choice of investing in a new engine and powertrain for the moho or pumping that money into the company’s more profitable truck and van lines the writing was on the wall for the GMC.

When the last of the 12,900 motorhomes rolled off the production line in July 1978 the GMC, like so many motorhomes before it, might simply have disappeared into obscurity were it not for the impressive durability of the Merkle and Locklin designed GMC chassis and body. Indeed, the popularity of the platform -- originally promoted by The GMC marketing team as a “motorhome that doesn’t look like a box or ride like a truck” -- continues to grow exponentially with each passing year, aided in large part by a fortuitous series of events that have conspired to keep the vintage GMC motorhome in the public eye.

The GMC: Gone but not forgotten

Immortalized by Hot Wheels as the RV of choice for comic book hero Captain America in the ‘70s, the GMC augmented its celebrity status when it picked up a cameo role in the ‘80s comedy motion picture “Stripes” which saw a GMC masquerading as the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle complete with machine guns and flame thrower. Whilst purists would bemoan the addition of the external armour and other extraneous movie dressing that managed to obscure Lather’s exquisite exterior styling, the movie did serve to underscore the vehicle’s kick-ass reputation for durability and reliability.

In 2006, the GMC appeared in a different guise when the General Motors design team submitted a motorhome blueprint as part of a design challenge award at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Although the GMC Pad -- a fascinating 21st century spin on the original GMC -- never made it off the drawing board there’s no doubt that this stunning RV design could have been drawn straight from the pages of Richard Matheson’s seminal ‘50s era post-apocalyptic novel, I Am Legend. The concept GMC -- which was envisaged as a futuristic diesel-electric powered living space for the modern city dweller -- would have been equally at home on the streets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or cruising through the charred ruins of a post-apocalyptic society.

That same year, and over three decades after the first GMC rolled off the production line, a GMC hit the headlines again when a team of petrolheads at Dyno Sources Inc. pimped out a 500hp GMC -- owned by Jim Rosenburg & driven by Dennis Scheve -- and posted a new RV land speed record of 102.76 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The GMC’s land speed record credentials were further enhanced in August, 2013, when the Palmer Designs LSR GMC -- outfitted by Vehicle FX and Applied GMC -- came within a whisker of recapturing the record with a confirmed speed of 120.8 mph. According to Britt Palmer, the next Guinness World Record attempt will be in August 2014 when Palmer Designs will head back to Bonneville “armed with a Supercharger, 800hp and a gear ratio change,” for the annual Speed Week event.

Jim Bounds’ Orlando, Florida-based Cooperative Motor Works Inc., an East Coast company that specializes in the restoration of vintage GMC motor homes, received some well deserved publicity in February, 2012, when the company was featured in a one-hour special on the Travel Channel. The “Killer RV Upgrades” show featured a $57,005 refit of a GMC moho (nicknamed the dumpster) which subsequently sold for $89,000.

Similarly, Jim Kanomata’s Applied GMC business on the West Coast was featured in 2013 as part of the Brett Michaels “Rock My RV” show which aired on the Travel Channel network. The GMC restoration specialists took Bill and Sally Layton’s tatty looking 1974 GMC Canyonlands and turned it into a bespoke “Bite Me Sausages” food truck with a fire truck red paint job, chrome trim, powder-coated wheels, and a snazzy automated awning.

Another notable GMC conversion was undertaken by Jack Grant in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Grant took a 1977 GMC motorhome and remodeled the interior to create a bespoke mobile smoking lounge decked out with leather couches, a dark wood humidor, flat-screen TVs, and a heavy duty air filtration system. Dubbed the CigaRV, the 26-foot-long mobile man cave was a popular fixture at area events until the anti-smoking lobby forced the closure of the business.

Inspired by a house boat vacation on Lake Shasta and constructed with a Flash Gordon motif, the aluminium skinned $500,000 Deco Liner with its distinctive “flying bridge” is the fifth of Randy Grubb’s automotive sculptures. Grubb took a $1700 dollar, 26-foot-long 1973 GMC Motorhome and then married it to the front cab section of a B.C. Harris designed 1955 White Motor Company model 3000 COE trash truck.

The coach built Deco Liner -- which consumed over $100,000 in parts and took over 5,000 hours to complete -- weighs in at just 7,000lbs. The GMC chassis was restored using original parts from San Jose-based “Applied GMC” whilst everything else in the vehicle, like the vintage Stewart Warner gauges and the lights with their glass lenses and chrome bezels, are period correct.

It’s hard to recollect any recreational vehicle that has had an impact on the North American camping market as influential as that of Wally Byam’s iconic Airstream travel trailer but Michael Lather’s GMC MotorHome certainly comes close. Not only has the vehicle been extensively re-imagined by both businesses and individual owners over the past four decades -- including a super cool car carrying GMC conversion -- but the introduction of the GMC also spawned something of a media and merchandising revolution, from Hot Wheels collector’s cars and a Mattel Barbie GMC to kids coloring books and GMC branded apparel, the GMC Motorhome may well be gone but it’s certainly not forgotten.

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