The GMC Motorhome Delivers Big Block V8 Power, Classic Styling, and A Modern Cult Following
It might seem strange given their preponderance on modern roads, but there was once a time when motorhomes didn't rule campgrounds across America. The RV spirit that is so popular today dates back to a very specific period in time, sparked by a handful of successful recreational vehicles that dared to push the limits of technology and design potential—like the GMC Motorhome.
To date the only RV to have ever been built by one of Detroit's Big Three (not counting conversions and third-party outfitters), the Motorhome defied convention and in doing so transformed itself into a legend. This big block powered camper has become a cult figure among collectors, thousands of whom still make use of the GMC to get away from it all every summer. Even as wave after of wave of Winnebagos and Wayfarers have followed since, there's still nothing like this self-contained camping icon.
Shaped Like A Bullet
A big part of what made the GMC Motorhome so special was just how stark the contrast was between its fuselage shape and the box-like wood-and-fiberglass RVs available in 1973 when it first hit the market. Unlike smaller manufacturers, General Motors realized that styling was an important aspect of any design, and rather than focus exclusively on making its Motorhome an ultra-large backwoods bug-out machine, it instead chose to balance looks, practicality, and innovation.
The huge glass at the front of the Motorhome gave drivers a commanding view of the road ahead, and its smooth sides and sloped front end also improved aerodynamics and reduced fuel consumption. That extra visibility also helped make drivers feel more comfortable behind the wheel while introducing them to such a large vehicle.
Indeed, much of the GMC's mission statement involved making it much better to drive than its rivals. Rather than simply dumping a box on a truck chassis, the company instead borrowed the front-wheel drive setup from the Oldsmobile Toronado and married it to a ladder frame that featured a fully independent, leading trailing arm suspension at the rear riding on air springs. Not only could the vehicle's ride height be adjusted based on load, but the lack of a driveshaft also permitted a much lower floor inside the Motorhome and improved overall interior room.
Powering the beast was the Toronado's 455 cubic inch big block V8 (later replaced by a 403 cubic inch V8 when the 455 was discontinued). Dubbed the 'Unified Powerplant Package,' the setup had been used in the past by other RV manufacturers and was a proven, torque-happy design that could handle bulk of a vehicle like the GMC Motorhome. Rated at 265hp at launch, the entire platform had a gross vehicle weight rating of 11,500 lbs.
Pick Your Floorplan
GMC had originally intended its Motorhome to serve as more than just an RV. The 'Travel Vehicle, Streamlined,' or TVS-4 was built to be used in a variety of different functions, including hauling passengers as an airport shuttle or serving police and fire departments (as well as television stations) as a command post on wheels. As such, the interior of the GMC was relatively versatile, with its body panels made of aluminum and fiberglass and attached with adhesive to an aluminum frame.
Stretched across 23 foot and 26 foot models, GMC allowed buyers to pick one up fully-furnished (sink, bathroom, cooking appliances, seating areas) or stripped down to a bare shell (the TransMode). The vast majority were sold in the longer edition, and roughly three times as many campers made it out the door as compared to TransModes.
A total of 15 floor plans could be ordered across both vehicle lengths (House and Garden magazine was consulted in putting together the vehicle's interior décor), along with the famous 'Pineapple Yellow' exterior color that would prove to be the RV's most enduring visual impression (and one of its seven total color schemes).
Unique among campers of the day was the GMC's removable rear body cap, which made the installation of appliances and other large furniture easy thanks to its gaping maw at the factory.
GMC's focus on making the camper good to drive rather than simply an apartment on wheels can also bee seen in its equipment list. It offered 50 gallons of fuel spread across two tanks, a 30 gallon water tank, and an equally large wastewater tank, which allowed for decent range and a reasonable, but not overly lengthy period of self-contained camping. Heat came from a propane furnace, and hot water was heated in a 6 gallon tank by way of engine coolant loops. A dual lead-acid battery system provided juice when the engine was shut off, but that could be upgraded by way of a generator. Also in the cards as options were a larger propane tank air conditioning, and a fridge.
Still Prowling Highways, Parks, And Beaches
The GMC Motorhome went on sale in 1973, and lasted all the way to 1977, when rising fuel costs made its gas-gulping weight and V8 a hard sell to cost-conscious customers. Officially, GMC said at the time that the decision to drop the Motorhome was made to free up production facilities for more profitable truck line. The company was also about to cease production of its large V8 engines and cars as it braced for the energy crunch of the '80s, a prospect which didn't bode well for the Motorhome's future.
Although only in production a short time, 13,000 of these rigs were built in total, and a huge number of them remain on the road today. Owners were engaged, loyal, and sociable, and there are a number of different clubs out there dedicated to keeping the Motorhome's legacy a lively one. They are still as good to drive in today's traffic as they were back in the 1970s, and their reasonable footprint gives them an advantage over the bulked-our RVs that followed throughout the '80s (and which inspire far less passion as collectibles). To this day, it's still the only camper to earn its own Hot Wheels die cast from its starring role alongside Bill Murray in the classic 'Stripes.'
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