If there is one story that has popped up from the COVID-19 pandemic that I have not gravitated fully to – it is the renewed interest in recreational vehicles.
It is a charming story, cottoned by the want of getting away and social distancing in a contained home. You can "work from home" in one, as long as there is a strong wi-fi hotspot nearby – or, on board. RV and van life can be a very carefree lifestyle for those who can afford to do so.
This development in our vehicular life brings me back to the 1970s, when we had the original van life. Van conversions were on the rise, thanks to better designed full-sized models from General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Not to mention the rise of the big RV – including the introduction of the cool-looking GMC motorhome.
My mother was shopping for one back in 1974. You can thank my brother and I – and our involvement in the Boy Scouts – for her almost trading in the 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight for a 1974 Ford Econoline. We had a fellow scouting family in Reseda with a 1969 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van and another with a 1968 Ford F-Series with a slide-in camper in the box.
My uncle had a Winnebago. I forget which one. He and my aunt were members of the Good Sam Club. Ah, the 1970s…
Memories aside, RV and van life are indeed a real trend that is real right now. The industry has recognized this, as well. In a recent "eMeet" with the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Ford saw that there are customers looking at their full-sized Transit van series for either van conversions or to add a camper space to their cutaway or cab-chassis models through a third party provider.
It is not just Ford who have been supplying camper companies their cab/chassis or cutaway vans. We are seeing a lot from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles with the Ram ProMaster, GM with the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana, and Mercedes-Benz with the Sprinter. Nissan offers a full-sized van, but it appears that they might be exiting the market soon. As it stands, Nissan does not offer a cutaway or cab/chassis model to the NV lineup.
One thing that was pointed out by Ford was the use of the rear-drive-biased platform for these kinds of applications. It makes sense as you need strength and balance throughout the frame to make a good RV. The same goes for larger RVs built on a bus chassis. The engine placed in the rear is made to anchor the RV, rather than GMC’s use of the large front-drive format from their 1970s Oldsmobile Toronado to propel their cool classic.
If you are looking for a leader in the RV world, look no further than Winnebago. Based in Forest City, Iowa, this 62-year-old company produced their share of iconic RVs. They still produce their line of big Class A motorhomes to towable campers. They still produce the Minnie Winnie, an icon among van-based RVs.
Airstream is another well-known producer of RVs and campers. Their rounded aluminum design has been the dream of glampers for decades. Their heritage goes back to 1896, but they really took off over 90 years ago by adding a camping addition to a Ford Model T. Currently owned by Thor Industries, Airstream uses Mercedes-Benz Sprinters as the basis of their “touring coaches” that augment their iconic travel trailer lineup.
Thor also operates fourteen other brands of RVs and travel trailers. All available at your local RV dealer, along with other manufacturers with multiple brands.
There is a flip side to the RV business. While business is good, the manufacturers have been going at a faster rate of speed to deliver new RVs. When you rely on some manufacturing processes that are seen as simple, some of them may not cut it for quality-minded consumers.
A recent CNBC report pointed out that there had been a host of quality issues of these RVs, due to the drive to keep up with demand. The build quality of the living spaces and the way these spaces are built are among the chief faults pointed out in this report.
However, the recent uptick in interest and sales of RVs, including towable models and van conversions, has been fostered by the need to not worry about flights, hotels, and other trappings of the usual travel habits we do. It is not one demographic that has been driving this trend towards RVs. The average age of an RV customer was reduced into the mid-40s with a lot of younger people looking at purchasing one for the purpose of "getting off the grid."
That's great and all, but there is another issue awaiting this uptick in RV sales. If you have an RV, where are you parking it for the night? CNBC also reported a two-fold issue regarding RV sites for overnight users. One, there are fewer spaces available with many RV places reported being full for the summer. Secondly, it is a very expensive proposition to build more spaces – even entire parks.
Several of my colleagues have been encouraging me to pursue such a story. I understand the reasoning. It reflects not only a trend, but it gets us out of our work from home environment. It affords us the license to explore, engage, and tell those stories from the experience of RV-ing.
However, I am not considering such a story.
It was worth considering, but I also have to look at my limitations along with the upsides. I have not driven anything larger than a three-quarter-ton pickup or a full-sized van in the past decade or so. These RVs – even Class C models – are larger. If one has not driven a larger-than-usual vehicle in a very long time, it is probably best not to do so. That’s what I keep telling myself.
But, yes, it is doable. The want of wanderlust feeds into an RV story. Not just taking one towards the Boundary Waters or along the North Shore, but across state lines and discovering more new destinations and communities. Meeting more new people. Yes, that kind of story.
For those who would love to read (or watch videos on YouTube), there are plenty of my colleagues and other influencers who are telling their RV stories across the internet. You can live vicariously through them. Or, go do your own thing in an RV.
The freedom of an RV is enticing. Is it for you? If you can pack up and get away from everything – you might as well go for it.
All photos by Randy Stern