Take a historical ride along the highway on which this venerable RV manufacturer has traveled during its half-century of existence.
By Bob Zagami
One of the true giants in the RV industry, Winnebago Industries, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Throughout these five decades, the company has worked to establish itself as a leading motorhome manufacturer and has set the standard by which other RV companies are measured.
Much of what we have to be proud of in the motorhome segment of the RV industry can be traced back to the mid-1950s when the forward-thinking Forest City, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce established an industrial development committee for the small town of just 2,500 residents. One committee member was John K. Hanson. Mr. Hanson studied the feasibility of persuading a travel trailer company to open a manufacturing plant in Forest City. In January 1958 Modernistic Industries began production of those travel trailers in town.
Rewarded for his vision and entrepreneurial thinking, John Hanson became president of Modernistic Industries in 1959 when five residents bought out this branch of a California travel trailer company. In 1960 the company created the “Flying W” company symbol, and just a year later the name of the company was changed to Winnebago Industries, after the county in which the company is headquartered.
In 1964 a devastating fire destroyed the Winnebago Industries manufacturing plant. Mr. Hanson was not about to give up on his dreams, however, and within five months the plant had been rebuilt featuring high-speed, automotive-type assembly lines.
Two years later, in 1966, the company’s first self-contained motorhome, the Winnebago F19, rolled off the assembly line and into our lives.
I’m sure many of you reading this historical perspective can, like me, remember the first time you saw that boxed beauty that later became known as the Winnebago Brave. We had no idea at the time the role it would play in future years as we adopted the RV lifestyle with gusto. We did not know the impact the industry would have on our lives.
For me, my first glimpse occurred in a roadside rest area on the Mohawk Trail, a portion of Route 2, in western Massachusetts. Long View RV had purchased some Winnebago motorhomes to sell at the family gift shop alongside the highway, which also included a lookout tower that treated spectators to views of five different states on a clear day. I remember it as though it were yesterday.
By 1973 Winnebago Industries was producing 600 motorhomes a week. Two years later the company introduced the Itasca product line, built on a Chevrolet chassis. In 1977 it became the first RV manufacturer to produce its 100,000th unit.
Beginning in October 1973 and again during the late 1970s and early ’80s, the United States faced fuel crises, which some might say mirrors the challenges many manufacturers face today. The company responded with the Winnebago Winnie Wagon in 1974, which used an innovative lightweight formed fiberglass body, and with the Winnebago Warrior and Itasca Spectrum in 1981 “” two units that nearly doubled fuel economy through lighter-weight-construction technology.
The fuel-efficient trend continued in 1983 with the LeSharo and Phasar motorhomes, which featured streamlined styling and were powered by a Renault diesel engine that delivered more than 22 miles per gallon.
As the gas crisis eased, Winnebago Industries began producing the aerodynamic Winnebago Elandan and Itasca Windcruiser models in 1984, which caused considerable head-turning when they traveled down the highway. These units also featured steel cab compartments and doors on both the driver and passenger sides of the coach.
As the company celebrated its 20th anniversary of motorhome production in 1986, Winnebago Industries set another industry record as the 200,000th motorhome “” a 37-foot Elandan “” rolled off the assembly line and down the streets of Forest City.
The following year saw the introduction of the Winnebago Superchief and Itasca Suncruiser, models ranging from 27 to 34 feet that featured extensive storage space in compartments below the living area. The highlight of 1988 “” the company’s 30th anniversary “” was the complete redesign of the popular Winnebago Chieftain and Itasca Sunflyer models for the 1989 model year. These beauties improved on the high storage capacity that consumers were demanding, along with cold-weather utility systems and significant improvements in drivability, livability, comfort, and convenience.
Motorhomes were rapidly becoming a favorite way to travel with family and friends as the RV industry was going mainstream, and Winnebago Industries was leading the way. In fact, the company was so well-known that seemingly anytime people saw a motorhome driving down the highway, they would refer to it as a “Winnebago,” a generic form of endearment. This phenomenon continues today.
More revolutionary changes occurred in 1990 with the debut of the 1991-model Winnebago Warrior and Itasca Spirit micro-mini motorhomes, which were built on a Toyota chassis. Although many other companies produced similar products, Winnebago accounted for more than 60 percent of the entire micro-mini market.
The following year, the famous Brave nameplate was resurrected in a totally new 1992 model-year motorhome. The Brave and its Itasca sibling, the Sunrise, upheld the same quality and low-cost tradition that made the original Brave models so successful in establishing motorhome travel.
The 250,000th Winnebago Industries motorhome was produced in 1992, a year of growth and recovery for the company as it continued its leadership and domination of the RV industry. Highly focused on research and development, the company had perhaps the best motorhome lineup in its history thus far. Ninety percent of its models had been completely redesigned in the prior two years with new floor plans and features that set the company apart from its competitors.
As more and more RVers adopted full-timing as a way of life, Winnebago responded with the 1993 Vectra “” its first bus-style basement motorhome “” specifically designed for RVers who wanted to live and travel in their motorhome for extended periods of time. The 35RQ model was built on a rear-engine diesel-pusher chassis designed specifically for the Vectra by Spartan. Most models featured a central air-conditioning system, and some even included dishwashers and icemakers. Many modern conveniences folks enjoyed at home were starting to be incorporated in their homes on wheels, and the popularity of motorhome travel continued to soar.
The year 1993 saw the introduction of the company’s first wide-body model: the Winnebago Minnie Winnie and the Itasca Sundancer, Type C motorhomes that provided more flexibility in floor plans. A 21-foot model was introduced to give customers a viable product to replace the micro-mini models that were no longer available.
New models were unveiled at both ends of the product spectrum in 1994: the 1995 Rialta, a unique 21-foot front-wheel-drive motorhome built on a fuel-efficient Volkswagen chassis, and the Luxor, a luxurious top-of-the-line coach. The 1995 Winnebago Adventurer and Itasca Suncruiser lines were redesigned to an all new wide-body configuration that included an HWH hydraulic room extension system. The Winnebago Brave and Itasca Sunrise added a diesel pusher to their expanded model lineups.
In 1995 Bruce Hertzke, a 25-year company veteran, was named chief operating officer by the company’s board of directors. Already the nation’s largest motorhome manufacturing facility at the time, the Forest City plant was expanded by another 34,000 square feet.
The 1996 Vectra lineup was increased to include a new slideout room option, and the Vectra Grand Tour was introduced to fill the niche between the Vectra and the Luxor. A 31-foot Winnebago Minnie Winnie was added to the Type C offerings, making it the longest mini-motorhome ever produced by the company.
In 1996, although several highlights were celebrated, they were tempered by the passing of company founder John K. Hanson. Mr. Hanson was known for his astute ability to identify the potential for new products and for implementing effective, cost-cutting measures that ultimately brought mass production to motorhome assembly. Fred Dohrmann assumed the position of chairman of the board in addition to his CEO title, and Bruce Hertzke added the role of president to his chief operating officer duties.
Production highlights included a new front entry door for the high-line Luxor, giving it a more bus-like appearance for the 1997 model year, and the addition of the new Volkswagen VR6 engine in the front-wheel-drive Rialta, which reportedly boosted power by nearly 30 percent. The Winnebago Chieftain and Itasca Sunflyer lines also were introduced.
In 1998 “” a most significant year in the company’s storied history “” Winnebago Industries reached three milestones. The company celebrated its 40th anniversary; produced its 300,000th motorhome; and achieved record sales and earnings. Product development continued to be the hallmark of the company’s success, as more than 75 percent of the 1998 products were introduced as either totally new or redesigned as compared to the previous model year.
The 2000 diesel lineup expanded with the debut of the Winnebago Journey and Itasca Horizon product lines. New models dubbed the Winnebago Adventurer and Itasca Suncruiser were promoted as the most research-driven products in the company’s history. These motorhomes included more homestyle features than ever before, such as the company’s own TrueAir Residential Air Conditioning and OnePlace Systems Center, which enables RVers to monitor all systems from a central location.
Entering the next millennium, Winnebago Industries continued its new product march with the Ultimate Advantage and Ultimate Freedom motorhomes. In 2001 the company overtook the number-one combined market share position in Type C and Type A retail sales.
For 2003 the Winnebago Industries lineup included 76 models, including its first motorhomes with triple slideouts in the Ultimate Advantage and Ultimate Freedom lines. This also was the year the company adopted “Lean Manufacturing” philosophies, a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste through continuous organization and process improvements.
In 2003 company employees were saddened by the passing of Luise V. Hanson, John Hanson’s beloved wife. Luise worked side by side with her husband during the formative years and served on the company’s board of directors from 1958 to 1981.
Winnebago Industries’ breakout year came when revenues for fiscal year 2004 reached a record $1.1 billion. Total motorhome offerings increased to 91 models, approximately 35 percent of them new for 2005.
The new lower-profile Winnebago Aspect and Itasca Cambria joined the 2005 lineup. These units were easy to maneuver, with a sleek 95-inch width and an aerodynamic front-end design, and they boasted a 5,000-pound towing capacity. The Voyage was introduced with six floor plans, two of them featuring triple slideouts.
Ever since the first Winnebago Brave set a new standard in the RV industry, Winnebago Industries has remained committed to taking the high road with quality products, professionalism, and dedication to its customers. As testimony to that success formula, in 2004 the company was named the Most Admired RV Manufacturer in America “” not by its customers, but by its competitors, dealers, and suppliers in a poll conducted by RV Business, an industry trade publication. Nearly 300 industry professionals participated in the survey. Winnebago Industries was ranked the “most admired” by nearly a third of the survey respondents, with the next-highest-ranked company receiving 15 percent of the vote. Winnebago Industries also received the Quality Circle Award from the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association for the eighth consecutive year.
The 2006 model lineup, introduced in 2005, included the brand-new Winnebago View and Itasca Navion. These revolutionary coaches were built on the Dodge Sprinter chassis and powered by a 2.7-liter five-cylinder turbo-diesel Mercedes-Benz engine, producing 154 horsepower and achieving fuel economy of approximately 20 mpg.
Also new in 2006 were the Winnebago Tour and Itasca Ellipse, created to fill a price point between the company’s existing diesel entries, the flagship Winnebago Vectra and Itasca Horizon, and the entry-level Winnebago Journey and Itasca Meridian. Increased headroom, a new industry trend, was incorporated into many of the company’s models, creating a more spacious residential interior.
Challenging market conditions began to appear in 2006 and 2007, impacted by rising interest rates, escalating fuel prices, and declining consumer confidence throughout the financial sector. However, the company marked another major milestone in December 2007 when its 400,000th motorhome rolled off the assembly line.
In 2008, as conditions continue to test the mettle of consumers and companies alike, those at the helm of Winnebago Industries are committed to maintaining its status as an industry leader.
In May 2008 company president Bob Olson, a 38-year Winnebago Industries veteran, also assumed the roles of chairman and CEO upon Bruce Hertzke’s retirement. Mr. Olson acknowledged the responsibility he shoulders leading the company through these trying times:
“This past year allowed us to reminisce about our past and look to the future with a promise of better days. As we move closer to the dawn of a new year, I am both optimistic and excited for the future of the RV industry. As we come out of this downturn, I believe we will be faced with pent-up consumer demand for RVs as more and more Americans realize the beauty and appeal of this lifestyle. Our best opportunities are most certainly yet to come.”
As Winnebago Industries concludes its first 50 years and jumps into the next half-century, the challenges it faces may be different from those confronted by John K. Hanson in 1958. But if history is any indication, the company will continue to invest in new product development; advanced manufacturing facilities; and innovative, technology-driven features that allow the company to lead the field and set the standard by which others are measured.
If you, like me, were on hand for the first chapters of the Winnebago story, you might agree it’s been a great “read.” If you are new to RVing and are just starting to appreciate what Winnebago Industries means to all of us, then please keep good notes, because I’m not going to be around to write the 100th anniversary story. But you can bet it will be a great one!