The GMC Motorhome has been out of production for more than 23 years, but its legacy continues with thousands of FMCA members.
By Bill Bryant, F65627
My wife, Nita, and I recently returned from a motorhome trip to an area many of you may have visited — western New York and southern Ontario. Nature had just started to dress this beautiful countryside in its autumn colors, and the Niagara Falls were every bit as awesome and beautiful as we had heard they would be.
But I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of this trip: the unique motorhomes that brought us there, as well as their owners. First, allow me to describe some of the features that make this RV so distinctive.
It has a stylish body with aerodynamic qualities that were tuned in a wind tunnel. Its fiberglass-and-aluminum body panels are bonded with space-age adhesives to eliminate exposed rivets and screws. It has a low-profile design with the center of gravity only 37 inches above the roadway. Its chassis design is unusual, incorporating six-wheel independent suspension and brakes. The rear suspension is supported by air bags with automatic leveling that comes into play while traveling, and a raise-lower leveling feature when parked at the campsite. The front suspension uses torsion bars. A large-displacement gasoline engine powers this RV through the reliable GM Hydra-Matic transmission to the front wheels. More than 30 different floor plans are available.
Incredibly, the motorhome I’ve just described, with its many advanced features, was designed 30 years ago. The classic GMC Motorhome was built from 1973 through 1978 and remains popular today. According to Ralph Luby, administrative vice president of the GMC Motorhomes International chapter, owners of these motorhomes represent more than 5 percent of the current active FMCA membership.
The timing for the rollout of this new motorhome probably could not have been worse. The gas crisis hit in 1974, causing long lines, limited fuel availability, and price increases. The motorhome’s introduction also occurred as cars were being downsized to meet the new fuel economy requirements. Large-displacement gasoline engines and related running gear used in the GMC Motorhome were being discontinued. And the RV industry in general was going through a difficult time.
Since this motorhome has been out of production for more than 23 years, one might expect that it would have faded into the sunset. Not so! There is surprising interest in this venerable coach, even though fewer than 13,000 units were built. FMCA recognizes 21 chapters dedicated to the GMC Motorhome. The largest of these is GMC Motorhomes International, with nearly 2,300 family members. Known as GMCMI, the chapter holds spring (March or April) and fall (September) conventions at various locations throughout the country. The conventions last for six days with activities that never seem to end. The most recent fall convention was held September 23 through 29, 2001, at the Niagara Falls KOA Kampground in Grand Island, New York. Nearly 280 GMC Motorhomes were in attendance.
During this convention we enjoyed ice cream socials, a flea market, midday lunches, membership meetings, water aerobics, open houses, bingo, seminars, and many other activities.
Each day started with coffee hour, a great way to meet old friends and make new acquaintances. To give you an idea of participation, 450 gallons of coffee and 230 dozen doughnuts disappeared during the week.
By 9:00 a.m. each day, the seminars were under way. At our conventions, the seminars are of two varieties: technical and non-technical, and go on for five days. The technical seminars enable coach owners to glean GMC Motorhome information from other knowledgeable GMC owners since much of this information cannot be found elsewhere. It comes from experienced, knowledgeable, helpful people. Seminar topics include suspension; engines; brakes; ignition; carburetor/fuel injection; and air compressors, to name a few. These seminars are of special significance to our members, as many coaches have thousands of miles on them as well as many years of wear. Maintenance procedures as well as new parts and accessories also are of great interest. In fact, more new and improved parts for this vintage coach are available now than when it was new. Twenty-two GMC-owner vendors attended the fall convention, and they are an important part of our support system.
Many non-technical seminars were conducted as well. Throughout the Niagara Falls convention, members enjoyed sessions related to crafts, hobbies, genealogy, and storytelling. They also could take part in a book exchange, a discussion group focusing on coping with the times, and two entire hours about chocolate. A beautiful hand-sewn quilt that had been made during the past three conventions was given away in a lottery drawn from the names of those who had made a block for the quilt. Another quilt is in progress and will be completed during the next few conventions.
The collectibles seminar is another indication of how popular this vehicle was and still is. GMC Motorhome toys, articles, and materials abound. Over the years, Mattel has made more than 40 different die-cast versions in its Hot Wheels line, and new models are still being released. Mattel also made a 3-foot-long version of the GMC Motorhome in its Barbie collection, producing three different models.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hess Oil Company outfitted six GMC Transmodes (empty motorhome shells) and used them in the eastern United States to train Hess service station personnel. In the winter of 1980, Hess added a replica GMC Hess Training Van to its popular toy truck promotion, which were available for purchase at its service stations at a cost of $3.29, batteries included. The scale-size motorhome has an operating side door, pop-up TV antenna, headlights, and taillights. Today these units regularly sell at online auction sites for as much as $300.
More than 50 different manufacturers have used the GMC Motorhome in magazine ads to sell their wares. Demonstrating their products in connection with the GMC Motorhome gave them a touch of class. Several companies had contests, awarding a new GMC Motorhome as the grand prize. Examples of these companies were Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and Union Carbide. New ads using the GMC Motorhome occasionally show up in current magazines, 23 years after the last one was built!
Open houses (coaches) at our conventions draw a great deal of interest, as folks are eager to see the many conversions, upgrades, and restorations that fellow GMC Motorhome owners have made to their vehicles. This is the place to gather new ideas to freshen up or completely rebuild your coach. You’ll find new paint jobs, updated color and furnishings, new and unusual features, and coaches stretched 2 to 6 feet in length. If you’re looking for new ideas, make sure to bring a camera, pencil, and paper, because you won’t be able to remember it all otherwise.
During the past few years, GMCMI has celebrated the 25th anniversary of each model year, and has awarded first-, second-, and third-place prizes for motorhomes in two classes: “Best Original” and “People’s Choice.” Ninety-seven coaches from the 25th anniversary model-year of 1976 attended the September 2001 convention. The six winners were awarded plaques, and all of the owners of 1976 model-year coaches received a certificate.
As the convention concluded and we said good-bye to our friends, it was with some sadness. Through the years we have met many people who have become important parts of our lives. But there is a bright side to the good-byes: there will be another convention in six months, and we will again be enjoying the activities and friendships. The spring GMCMI convention will be held at the Greater Gulf State Fairgrounds in Mobile, Alabama, March 22 through 28, 2002. Come join us; we look forward to seeing you there.
For more information about FMCA’s GMC Motorhomes International chapter, contact Ralph Luby, 571 Province Road, Barrington, NH, 03825, (603) 664-5044, or visit the chapter’s Web site at www.gmcmi.com. This Web site has a wealth of interesting data, with additional links to other GMC Motorhome information.