Getting publicity in the auto industry is easy. You build something, invite journalists, feed them shrimp and boom! — page inches. But what if you're an also-ran RV company in the late '60s looking to kick the competition in its smug, Winnebago ass? You build a custom, butane-powered motorhome powerful and tough enough to race in the punishing, off-road Baja 1000. Then you paint a weird mural on the side. Then you invite the journalists.
Being a kid is strange. Your developing brain carves pathways so deep and heavy with context and excitement that whatever information's stored there ends up massively out of proportion to what comes later. Take me and Condor Coach's "Debbie Special" 4x4 motorhome. I saw a picture of it a million years ago — I can't even remember where. I stumbled on it again today. Now my head's all fizzy with kid-car feelings flooding back. That's crazy, isn't it?
It's the kind of thing the Internet does so well: reuniting adults with the kid imagery that formed their vision of the world. Sometimes it's loose and fun, other times it's spooky. Now is one of those spooky times.
Where the hell did I see this thing, and why was I so obsessed with it? I can't remember. Was it in one of those Scholastic photo pamphlet-books — the ones we used to pad our orders with on "book day" — with '70s youth-culture titles like "Funny Cars," "Custom Vans" and "REO Speedwagon." Maybe. But these days we have Google, so let's get to it.
During the late '60s, the Condor Coach motorhome company wanted a piece of the lucrative hardcore-sportsmen market. Their idea was to build a big, trail-mangling, off-road-capable version of their full-sized camper. The brash move would distance it from all those weekend-at-Yosemite family cocoons RV companies were building by the thousands. This would be for men. Men who hunt and fish and drink and score with the broads. None of this "daddy-look-it's-an-owl" crap. Strictly killing, drinking and fucking purposes only.
The Condor Coach brass were big off-road racing fans, and friends with racers Bill Stroppe and Parnelli Jones, whose Ford Bronco race trucks were ubiquitous at big events like the Baja 500 and 1000. Those Stroppe Broncos were so popular, even 10 years later every kid in town had a version in his toy arsenal — especially of the "Big Oly" — either Revell model, pull-cord racer (me) or slot car.
Why not attract some attention to their new 4x4-motorhome venture, thought the Condor guys, by building the biggest, most insane and brightly-colored Baja buggy ever conceived? This would announce to the world — in the grandest fashion — that their 4x4-motorhomes could run with the tough crowd, grab the wilderness by its short cactuses and yank. And that's what they did.
According to lore, Condor garnered support from Ford, their chassis supplier, and help from motorsports powerhouse Holman and Moody-Stroppe Associates, and built a serious off-road racing RV with a full roll cage and a seat belt on the toilet, because you think we're stopping? Think again, Jack.
"The Debbie Special" as it was called, would compete in the popular off-road races of the time, soaking up TV coverage, while accommodating VIP guests. Such guests included prospective buyers, salespeople and, you're goddamn right that meant print journalists too. Who's Debbie? Who knows? The country was lousy with Debbies back then. Could have been any one of them.
This Debbie, though, was pure, gorilla-guano insanity. Starting with a Condor Coach built on a Ford M-500 chassis, it had a balanced-and-blueprinted Ford 460 ci V8 — converted to run on both butane and gasoline — and C6 transmission hooked to a heavy-duty Art Carr shifter, plus a Napco front diff and two-speed Eaton rear axle. Amenities included that mega roll cage, a 12,000-lb winch, 60-gallon butane capacity, 90 gallons of gasoline, and all the typical RV comfort stuff, including that seat-belt-equipped toilet.
And then there was that technicolor mural, whose provenance is lost to history.
The result was a vehicle so awesomely over-the-top, it could have been the tour bus for a '70s Saturday morning cartoon rock band of stoner zoo animals that solved amusement-park crimes between gigs. Artist Sean Duffy, whose father raced off-road in a zebra-striped Toyota FJ40 in the Baja 500 and Mint 400 back then, posted some vintage (yes, pre-Instagram) shots of he and his sisters posing with the Debbie Special at those events.
Manned by Condor Coach president Walt Kiefer, plant manager Wes Thomas and sales manager Don Bass, the Debbie Special was employed to give invited journos a bone-crunching experience that would naturally translate into coverage in all the right books. And it did. Articles appeared both in newspaper syndication and magazines like Field and Stream and Popular Science, whose readership of sportsmen just happened to be Condor's target market.
Syndicated columnist Bob Cochinar was one of the writers who did a leg of the Baja 1000 from Ensenada to La Paz with Kiefer and Thomas, and wrote about it in his column on November 14, 1970, taking the obvious, "what-have-I-gotten-myself-into" angle:
To begin with, to call what we were driving on a "road" is an euphemism of the highest order. Roads, in my experience, do not come equipped with four-feet-deep holes, boulders the size of brobdingnagian pumpkins and assorted debris which make driving more of a hang-on-for-dear-life activity than actual steering.
Walt Kiefer directed our lumbering Condor for nearly eight hours before the heavy-duty springs shattered and forced on us a six-hour repair job (and, for me, six hours of grand, glorious sleep). Unfortunately, things were pasted together and we were off for more of the same.
In its run as Condor's show truck, Debbie competed in the 1969, 1970 and 1971 Baja 500 and 1000, Mint 400, and Pike's Peak hillclimbs. Though, as one BroncoFix forum member recalls, it was never in real contention for anything, and mostly served drinks and provided entertainment of sorts to spectators and other racers:
Obviously it couldn't run as quick as the smaller "real" off road racers (and this Condor was a full blown race rig). The two guys loaded the refer [sic] with cool drinks and would stop along the course wherever a race car was broken, and give the people there cold drinks. At the Mint 400 they'd make one lap which took them a fair amount of time, and as they'd cross the finish line they'd blow a siren, turn on their flashing lights on the roof, and pop a pink drag chute. A couple of real fun guys.
So, what ever happened to the "Debbie Special"? We'll be trying to track it down, naturally. From what we've uncovered, it was last sold sometime in the mid 2000's. In the meantime, perhaps this is it, though the mural seems to have been painted over. Maybe it will live to traverse the Baja route once again.