I love to look back on the histories of General Motors’ dead divisions and platforms. I usually highlight GM’s many influential buses, but it’s time to shine a light on the mark it made on recreational vehicles. The GMC MotorHome wasn’t just innovative, but it’s a time capsule of funky 1970s design.
I’ve written about GMC MotorHomes for sale before, but I’ve never really gotten into why one of the most iconic RVs in history has a GMC badge on it and is front-wheel-drive. That changes today, so put on your best bell-bottoms and platform shoes because we’re going to the ‘70s.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a boom in people going out and camping in an RV. Demand for RVs was so high that fiberglass campers rose to popularity, and Winnebago even kitted out helicopters to be flying RVs. The desire to camp even persisted through the Oil Crisis. General Motors didn’t just see potential in entering the RV market, but it also saw plenty of room to flip the script.
RVs of the time were like many are today. You got a truck chassis with a living space bolted on top. Of course, this made for vehicles that weren’t just tall and ungainly but frankly pretty ugly. And of course, they were a burden to drive. Countless companies built their RVs like this but some decided to do things a bit differently. One of them was General Motors.
And what the General built wasn’t just something different. It was a complete revolution in building recreational vehicles.
Perhaps the biggest change made by GM was to build the MotorHome on a new platform propelled by a front-wheel-drive automotive drivetrain. GM wasn’t the first to do this; the Clark Forklift Company used front-wheel-drive transaxles to make shorter RVs. Revcon, Travoy and Tiara all also built RVs with front-wheel-drive. But GM’s effort would become the most memorable example.
As Hagerty notes, this platform and the drivetrain required two GM divisions to work together. The Truck & Coach Division — responsible for such greats like the New Look and Rapid Transit Series buses — was responsible for the chassis while the drivetrain came from an unlikely source. Powering the MotorHome was Oldsmobile’s Unitized Power Package.
This system compacted the entirety of a vehicle’s powertrain into one unit and was famously used on the Oldsmobile Toronado. In the UPP you got a longitudinally mounted 265 HP 7.5-liter Rocket V8 and a TurboHydramatic 425 three-speed automatic. Later MotorHomes would get the 185 HP 6.6-liter Oldsmobile V8 after the former engine’s discontinuation in 1977.
The system meant that the MotorHome could do without a long driveshaft or rear differentials. As a result, the floor was a low 14-inches above the road, making for a short vehicle that was easy to climb into.
And it wasn’t just about making things low, as GM also wanted the MotorHome to not look and drive typical brick of an RV.
Part of that was giving it an aerodynamic shape. As GMC MotorHome resource GMC Motorhomes International notes, a 1/16th scale model was built then put into the Guggenheim wind tunnel in California to find its drag coefficient. The numbers were good. The scale model came in at a CD of 0.310, cleaner than the period Corvette’s 0.503. The production MotorHome maintained the profile, getting a drag coefficient of 0.39.
The MotorHome’s body was also something special. An aluminum body frame extruded from the steel ladder frame. From it, fiberglass panels made up the lower portion while more aluminum was up top.
GM designer Paul Deesen gave the MotorHome a body ripped from the pages of science fiction and the good looks were complemented with huge windows that offered great visibility and an airy feel in the interior.
All of this rode on front independent torsion bars with double A-arms. In back were trailing arms with an air spring on each side between the tandem axles.
The addition of an air suspension not only meant a softer ride, but allowed the driver to make leveling adjustments when the MotorHome was parked. The rear wheels were pushed out to the outside of the frame. And since there weren’t chunky axles back there, the rig’s two 25-gallon fuel tanks were fitted in the empty space.
All of this work made for an RV that was just eight feet tall without counting a rooftop air-conditioner. They came in two lengths with a 23-foot model and a 26-foot model. The 23-footer weighed just 10,500 lb while the 26 came in at 12,500 lb.
And the interiors were solidly planted in the era in which they were built. Check out the interior of this 1973 model for sale on Bring a Trailer.
The patterned upholstery isn’t original, but it certainly adds to the look.
Amenities in a GMC MotorHome are nothing special, but it includes everything from a ducted furnace and a 44.5 lb propane tank to 30 gallons of fresh water storage and 30 gallons of wastewater storage. Yep, you even got a bathroom and options for a generator. The MotorHome even had a marine water heater that provided hot water on the move using engine coolant loops.
Prices ran $13,569.06 for the 23-foot model and $14,569.06 for the 26-foot MotorHome. That’s $92,820.29 and $99,660.88 in today’s money, respectively. GM produced 12,921 MotorHomes between 1972 and 1978. One of them is the brown and orange 26-foot RV featured here. It’s actually for sale with bidding at $17,250 with one day to go.
You might wonder why production ever stopped if they were such a great idea. Well, remember how I said that it took two GM divisions to make the MotorHome happen?
MotorHome production counted on the UPP drivetrain, and when it went away in favor of smaller transverse drivetrains, the MotorHome had nothing to power it. So, in 1977 the Truck & Coach Division announced the end of the MotorHome.
According to Hagerty, as many as 9,000 remain on the road today owing to their durability and the fanatic owners that keep them alive. Even today the MotorHome remains an oddball among the sea of massive and heavy bricks that you see at campsites. And thankfully, many will be around for people to enjoy for a while.