By Bill Bryant, F65627
Produced by General Motors from 1973 through 1978, the innovative GMC Motorhome gained a following that is still as strong “” if not stronger “” today. This three-part series explores the fascinating history of a motorhome still considered by many to have been far ahead of its time. Part 1, in the February 2004 issue, discussed how the GMC Motorhome was conceptualized and developed. Part 2, last month, covered completion of the design, building of prototypes, and the beginning of testing. This month, the story concludes by describing the mass production; marketing; and, sadly, the phaseout of GMC Motorhome manufacturing.
The first few motorhomes moved slowly down the assembly line during the fourth quarter of 1972, and by the second week of November the first two dozen had been built. The first 100 were finished before the end of January 1973, and more than 1,750 orders were received by mid-February. In March 1973, Alex Mair, general manager of GMC Truck & Coach, reported, “The initial response has surpassed even our most optimistic expectations.” It was reported in June of that year that back orders totaled 3,000 units, and the rate of motorhome production was about 20 units per day.
As might be expected, there were some startup problems. A new group-assembly concept was developed, with a six-member team responsible for body and trim upfitting and a three-member team for assembling and upfitting the chassis. This team concept lasted a month or two, but then production reverted to the standard Detroit auto assembly method of individual job responsibilities.
With the complexities of a new facility, a new workforce, the assembly of a totally new vehicle, plus all of the living requirements (including the proverbial kitchen sink), GMC Motorhome production was indeed an ambitious and complex undertaking. Alex Mair was holding “design school” with the engineers each morning at 7:30 to address any concerns or problems and to review progress. He often would walk through the plant to discuss the day’s activities with line employees.
By June 1973 GMC had 64 dealers signed up to sell and service GMC Motorhomes. Company officials had hoped to have 200 dealers by the end of 1973 but decided not to sign up any more until adequate supplies were available. GMC Motorhome dealerships were separate, stand-alone entities, and GMC truck dealerships didn’t automatically become GMC Motorhome dealers. The cost of a GMC Motorhome dealership franchise was reported to have been $250,000.
The 1973 GMC Motorhome was available with a choice of four models, six exterior colors, 15 floor plans, and two body lengths. And then there was the long list of available options. The “Detroit” mentality of something for everyone had arrived full force in the RV industry. The first series of motorhomes were named for national parks “” Canyonlands, Glacier, Painted Desert, and Sequoia “” and the 26-foot and 23-foot coaches used the same model names. Three of the exterior colors were standard “” white, camel, and pineapple yellow “” and three others “” bittersweet, sky blue, and parrot green “” were optional for an additional $34. A horizontal accent color stripe wrapped around the front of the body; continuing the stripe down the sides of the coach was an $86 option.
The total of 15 floor plans was split between the two body lengths, 11 for the 26-foot coach and four for the 23-footer. Any floor plan was available in any of the four models. The model names defined the interior décor, colors, and upholstery patterns and not the floor plan.
Manufacturer’s suggested retail base price was $14,569.06 for the 26-foot motorhome and $13,569.06 for the 23-foot motorhome. Almost everything was available as an option. Possibilities included auto air, $482; AM-FM radio, $217; chrome bumpers, $75; wheel covers (7), $52.50; suspension power-leveler, $85; built-in vacuum cleaner, $210; roof air, $525; auxiliary 6-kw generator, $1,675; factory-delivery drive-away prep, $32; or customer drive-away prep, $105.
A number of RV shows and demonstrations were used around the country to exhibit the features of the new GMC Motorhome. GMC even displayed the motorhome at a truck show in Frankfurt, Germany “” the Germans loved it! During one of the most impressive demonstrations, a GMC Motorhome was driven over 4×4-type timbers spaced a few feet apart. It was followed by a different brand of motorhome, which was fitted with a cover to obscure its manufacturer’s name. This demonstrated the difference in suspension abilities. The GMC handled the timbers with ease; its tires danced over the obstacles with the body barely bouncing. The covered motorhome with leaf-spring suspension on a competitor’s chassis had its tires leaving the ground and appeared to be leaping in the air after the third or fourth timber was crossed “” much to the crowd’s delight.
Alex Birch, foreman of the Experimental Engineering shop, was the driver of the GMC in many of these demonstrations. At one demonstration, he completed the pass, pulled up smartly in front of the grandstand, and was to open the door, wave at the crowd, and then drive off. All went well until the door latch jammed and the door could not be opened. Alex’s quick thinking saved the day, however. He hopped back in the driver’s seat, honked the horn, waved to the crowd, and drove off. That was not the last of the problems associated with the latch manufactured by Lake Center Industries, which was used in the 1973 motorhomes.
Dolly Cole, wife of GM president Ed Cole, and friends went to a charity ball one evening at the Detroit Orchestra Hall. They chose to arrive in the new GMC Motorhome to show it off. The driver pulled the coach up in front to discharge the passengers, and the door latch jammed again. The passengers disembarked with great difficulty, which the press attending the event duly noted in the morning papers. Early that next morning motorhome engineers were called into Alex Mair’s office and told in no uncertain terms to fix the problem, immediately. That is why you see a stainless-steel patch with the replacement latch on 1973 GMC Motorhome doors up to approximately serial number 3V101850.
Starting in 1973 and continuing through 1977, a number of films were produced to promote the GMC. Walking into a GMC Motorhome dealership showroom, you might see what looked like a small TV with a number of film cassettes. GM called these units “Mini-Theaters,” and films showing the many features of the motorhome could be viewed on one of these self-contained units. Fourteen films were produced, as well as three more from a TV program of the time, “Holiday on Wheels.”
In late 1973, the 1974 models were introduced with little fanfare. They were a continuation of the previous year’s models, incorporating running changes made to correct deficiencies in the early designs. Many of these changes and corrections can be found in the GMC Motorhome Service Bulletins and other publications. One change for the better with the 1974 models, in my opinion, was the discontinuance of the parrot green color.
The GMC plant was operating at one shift while the Gemini plant was at two shifts. The motorhome’s body and chassis were being assembled more rapidly than the interior upfitting at Gemini. An early problem at the Gemini facility was plant layout: parts and assemblies were not properly placed for efficient manufacturing flow given the relatively large build volumes. Gemini plant personnel experience had been based on the one-at-a-time build practices at Travco. Employees from the GMC plant were able to provide assistance with this problem, thanks to their extensive background in large-volume manufacturing.
The parking lot at the Gemini facility in Mount Clemens was usually full of motorhomes awaiting interiors. Completed coaches were shipped from this location to dealers as well.
The GMC Motorhome assembly operations were shut down in early December 1973. The official reason was “to bring inventories in line with retail sales.” However, the gasoline shortage had begun to seriously affect the RV industry.
In Las Vegas in January 1974, GMC announced a new series of vehicles for commercial, medical, and general transportation purposes, and nine Transmode concept vehicles were shown to the press. An Eleganza SE (RPO#696) “featuring customized interiors much more luxurious than those in current models” was displayed as well. This was the start of Alex Mair’s plan to make the GMC Motorhome the “Cadillac of motorhomes.” He had made the comment at one point that the GMC Motorhome was to GMC what the Corvette was to Chevrolet, its halo (image) vehicle.
GMC, now offering a motorhome rental program, conducted a fuel economy run with press representatives from Automotive News, Motor Trend, and Trailer Life magazines. A motorhome economy run could be very risky, and some reporters noted that GM should get the “sheer courage award” and had “corporate guts” to propose an economy run on a 23-foot motorhome during the gas crisis. Over a 264-mile test from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which included the well-known Baker Grade, which peaks at 4,751 feet, the reported mileage was 10.2 mpg using cruise control most of the way. The return trip provided an 11.2-mpg average, since this direction was slightly more downhill. As can be seen by the above efforts, GMC was trying hard to revive sales during this period of gas shortages.
In March 1974 GMC announced that it had suspended production once again due to a lack of orders. Gemini still had a backlog of shells to upfit, but scaled back to a one-shift operation. Sales began picking up over the next couple of months, and by midyear inventories were depleted and production was resumed.
The 1975 model year brought many changes to the GMC Motorhome. New model names were announced; Eleganza II and Palm Beach replaced the previous models. New, better-quality woven fabrics supplanted the printed fabrics that had been used in earlier coaches, and Flexsteel seating was installed. Assembly of interiors at Gemini was discontinued, and all of the interior upfitting was brought in-house at the Pontiac plant (none of the Gemini employees were picked up by GMC for the in-house assembly). Grand Rapids Furniture Co. was now building the interior modules, and dovetail joints replaced glue and staples. While the quality of the interior fittings improved measurably, heavier weight and higher cost of the furniture was the downside. Exterior changes included new colors and stripes; exterior paint was now urethane (Imron) instead of the previously used synthetic enamel; raised “GMC” letters replaced vinyl decals on the motorhomes; and the fit and function of exterior panels and doors were improved, as was the floor substructure. Stronger frame cross members were added; new Hehr side windows were installed; an HEI ignition system was added; and polybutylene (plastic) plumbing replaced copper. Gross vehicle weight ratings were increased to 11,700 pounds, and many other changes and improvements were incorporated as well.
The Transmode, an “empty motorhome” for those who wanted to build their own interiors, was available from 1975 through 1978. GMC no longer offered the 23-foot unit as a motorhome, although it could still be purchased as a Transmode and upfitted by others.
Many companies were upfitting the new Transmode as motorhomes and for commercial applications. Some of the motorhome upfitters were Avion, Coachmen, Carriage, LRP, Midas, Norris, Hughes, Landau, Roll-a-long, El Dorado, Foretravel, and Winnebago, plus a few others with very low build quantities.
Transmode upfitters for commercial purposes were many. These GMCs were used as ambulances/emergency vehicles, bookmobiles, mobile banks, airport shuttle buses, mobile showrooms, on-location radio broadcast centers, hearses, courtesy coaches for beer and soda distributors, and much more.
The 1976 GMC Motorhome models arrived with few changes from the previous year. Two new models were introduced in addition to the Eleganza II and Palm Beach carryovers: the Glenbrook and Edgemont. The Edgemont was the price leader with a base price about $1,000 below the other three models. Running changes continued to be made, most starting with serial number 6V100878. They added an entry door strap; relocated the air compressor and solenoid valves to an inside compartment (Electro Level); and added a glass-lined hot water tank, cab floor support (stamping), radial tires/wheels, and body side rub molding (with adhesive replacing stainless).
In 1977 the Kingsley model debuted, replacing the previous year’s Glenbrook model. The Eleganza II and Palm Beach continued to be offered. The Edgemont was replaced by a new twin bed/dry bath floor plan in the Eleganza II. Other changes included a redesigned dash, which relocated the AC/heater outlets and moved the Electro Level controls to the left of the driver; a new Freedom battery; an entrance door rain cap; and an assist handle.
Another model, the Coca-Cola, was built in two versions. The first was the “standard” model, offered in cameo white with a red horizontal stripe, the same pattern as other GMC Motorhomes. It is believed these motorhomes were used primarily by Coca-Cola bottlers and distributors as courtesy coaches and at public events. The second Coca-Cola model was dubbed the GadAbout and equipped with all the bells and whistles. The exterior paint was white with a sweeping wedge of Coca-Cola red up the sides that blended to a yellow near the top rear of the coach. The GadAbout name appeared near the front, and a bottle-cap-shaped spare tire cover was at the rear.
Inside, the Coca-Cola red upholstery was the same in both coaches. In the GadAbout, refrigerator door graphics made the appliance look like a soda-dispensing machine “” very impressive! Other extras were a Coca-Cola logo entry floor mat, clock, and mirrored picture, as well as a rear table with a Coke checkerboard pattern. On the dash above the glove box was an attractive pewter plaque with a GadAbout motorhome in profile and the slogan, “Coke adds life to . . . cruisin’ in a GadAbout.”
Five GadAbouts were given away to first-prize winners of a Coca-Cola contest held in December 1977. Twenty-five second-prize winners each received the use of a GMC Motorhome for two weeks along with $3,000 in cash. GMC records indicate that a total of 55 Coca-Cola models were built, most in 1977 and a few in 1978. It was originally believed that only five of the total were GadAbouts; however, more have been discovered lately, and as many as nine or 10 may have been built.
The 403-cid engine replaced the 455-cid engine by the end of January 1977 and was used for all remaining motorhome production. GM’s downsizing had started and would soon have severe implications for the GMC Motorhome.
Plant No. 3 in Pontiac, Michigan, had been the site of GMC Motorhome production from the beginning in late 1972 through mid-1977. In August 1977 production was moved to Plant No. 29, also in Pontiac. This site provided a more efficient production facility and was used through the end of production in 1978.
On November 11, 1977, Robert W. Truxell, general manager of GMC Truck and Coach, announced the phaseout of GMC Motorhome and Transmode production (see the accompanying sidebar for the text of the announcement). According to the GMC engineers I have spoken with, no advance warning was given to the employees, and they were surprised at the news. In all probability, it should not have been too surprising. Carrying too much burden and overhead and never reaching the volumes needed to achieve real profitability, GM saw better ways to use its resources and achieve greater return on its investment.
The 1978 model year began with three models of GMC Motorhome interiors: Eleganza II, Palm Beach, and Kingsley. Production of the Transmode continued as well, with many upfitters participating. The major upfitter was Coachmen Industries (Jimmy Motors), producing the Royale (26-foot) and Birchaven (23-foot).
New GMC Motorhome two-tone body colors and a three-color horizontal midbody stripe distinguished the 1978 models from other years. A number of features that were options in previous years were now standard, and many features were improved. Improvements included the Electro Level II, a larger bathroom skylight, a 36-gallon holding tank, integral refrigerator vents, new solid cupboard doors, new countertops, and woven window blinds. Chrome bumpers were finally standard. Among the new options were a glass and spice rack, a microwave oven, an overhead rear cabinet, a six-speaker sound system, a lighted visor vanity mirror, and a lockable overhead front cabinet.
On the Transmode, urethane foam floor insulation, previously an option, was now standard. The steering wheel, column, and hand brake were now saddle-colored, and the front-end GMC logo was now displayed in raised lettering instead of a decal.
With the end of production approaching, plans had to be made to phase out production in as orderly a manner as possible. Build-out plans were made, i.e. matching parts inventories to dealer/customer orders. One example of this was the sale of surplus transmissions and final drives by GM to an Ohio GMC Motorhome dealer who purchased 1,361 units. These were initially offered at a sale price of $495 each (the suggested list prices were identified as $1,375 for the transmission and $675 for the final drive). When the inventory got down to 500 units, the sale price was reduced to $475. In 1983 the price was reduced again to $295, at which time the remaining inventory was sold. GMC Motorhome and Transmode production ended in July 1978.
That being said, the rest of the story is as follows. An important consideration should be that Alex Mair, a very strong advocate for the GMC Motorhome, had gone to the Pontiac Division, and there was no one willing to fight for the program. There were, of course, other serious and obvious concerns with the program that needed to be resolved. The Oldsmobile engine and drivetrain would soon be gone from the Oldsmobile lineup due to GM’s downsizing efforts. GMC would either have to build this unit on its own or design a new one involving new tooling and development expenses. Sketches of a rear engine/rear drive and front engine/front-wheel drive (using a transfer case) exist. A front suspension using a solid front axle and single leaf springs with an air spring at the center, similar to the RTS bus design, was proposed. Apparently, one operational prototype of a transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive motorhome was built. None of these redesigns would support a business case. Motorhome build quantities were just too small to end up with positive results and, finally, the decision to terminate production ended all further development efforts.
GM announced additional details over the next few weeks. The GMC Motorhome Club, supported by GM, was discontinued, and in its place a new organization, GMC Motorhome Owners Association (GMC MOA) was formed. GM noted that it was independent and separate from GMC Truck & Coach.
GMC attempted to sell the GMC Motorhome assets for a reputed $7 million to another manufacturer that would continue production. AM General, a Division of American Motors, took a look and built five prototypes using a 454-cid engine, with a transfer case to turn the drive back to the new front axle, much like Revcon actually did in subsequent years. On the inside, the front steps to the driving compartment had to be modified to allow additional room for the transfer case. This was as far as it went for AM General. After some testing, company officials decided not to pursue the purchase of the GMC Motorhome.
Eventually Donald Wheat purchased the motorhome manufacturing rights and tooling. Mr. Wheat organized the Wheat Motor Company (WMC), and several ex-GM officials served as corporate officers. The company was to be based in Rancho Cucamonga, California. It was reported initially that the use of a GM 454-cid engine was planned; that later changed to a Ford 460-cid engine. The WMC Motorhome was to be a 1986 model and retail for about $60,000. The difficult and expensive redesign of a new engine and drivetrain by a company with fewer resources than GM doomed the effort, and no actual production took place.
More than 25 years have elapsed since GMC announced the phaseout of motorhome production. It would seem reasonable to assume that the GMC Motorhome would have faded away by now, not to be heard from again. That is not the case; allow me to give a few examples.
- There are currently 22 FMCA chapters devoted to GMC Motorhomes.
- Parts are readily available, both OEM and aftermarket. A large variety of new, improved, never-before-offered parts and tools are available as well. A few examples: fuel injection, rear disc brakes, carbon metallic pads/shoes, alloy wheels, many new suspension upgrades, new fiberglass body parts, new dash panels, new final drive ratios, better shock absorbers, special tools, etc.
- The Internet is abuzz with vast amounts of technical information, helpful assists, “how to” tips, sources for parts and service, and more.
- Current owners have restored, modified (built slideouts, driver doors, converted to diesel), stretched (typically 2 to 5 feet), or just maintained and enjoyed their coaches.
- Mattel has been making its HotWheels die-cast GMC Motorhome since 1977, in about 50 different versions to date. What is most interesting is that over the past couple of years, 10 new GMC Motorhome models have been issued.
Twenty-five years ago, it is unlikely that any of us would have conceived that any of the above would likely happen. I believe this is a strong indicator of the interest and longevity of this classic motorhome.
Long live the GMC Motorhome!
GMC Motorhome Phaseout
A press release datelined Pontiac, Michigan, November 11, 1977, read as follows:
GMC Truck & Coach Division of General Motors plans to discontinue producing luxury Motorhomes and similar Transmode multipurpose vehicles and convert those plant facilities to expand truck operations, a GM vice president said today. Robert W. Truxell, general manager of GMC Truck & Coach said, “As a result of this action, GMC will be able to utilize production facilities more effectively for servicing growing truck demands. The long-term outlook for greater truck activity is extremely bright and GMC production operations will be realigned to help meet expanding customer needs,” he said.
“GMC will continue offering a wide range of trucks which are designed to meet a variety of recreational vehicle applications,” Truxell emphasized.
He described the planned facility conversion program as “a continuation of major steps taken recently at GMC Truck & Coach facilities in Pontiac in response to growing truck needs. Van production will be doubled to more than 250 a day on two-shift operations, starting this month.
“With a continuation of strong sales, GMC van operations will be expanded throughout the 1978 model year,” Truxell pointed out. He said another van production increase is anticipated in the spring of 1978 and facilities are being expanded to begin van interior installation operations in the spring.
The GMC van program has already added about 1,000 jobs in Pontiac, and another 1,200 new jobs could result within a year, Truxell said.
A high percentage of GMC’s chopped van output is utilized for recreation vehicle applications with special bodies, such as mini-motorhomes, installed by independent companies. “While it is regrettable that luxury Motorhome and Transmode production will be discontinued, the action will assist GMC in serving other parts of the recreation vehicle business to a greater extent and help meet growing truck demands,” Truxell explained.
He said industry truck sales in the United States in the 1978 model year should reach 3,750,000 units, and anticipates the growth trend will continue.
GMC Motorhomes have been built in Pontiac since their introduction in early 1973. Parts, service, and warranty provisions will continue through existing GMC Motorhome dealerships, Truxell said.
Termination of Motorhome production will be accomplished gradually and it is expected that approximately 325 persons currently involved in Motorhome activities will be transferred to other GMC Truck & Coach operations, Truxell said.
GMC Motorhome Production Totals
Model year production:
1973 1974 1975 1976 * 1977 1978
23′ 461 168 ~ ~ ~ ~
26′ 1,598 1,496 1,195 2,413 1,695 689
23′ ~ ~ 36 549 253 178
26′ ~ ~ 425 298 455 1,012
Total: 2,059 1,664 1,656 3,260 2,403 1,879
* peak production year