Looking for a new house can make replacing a car seem like a walk in the park. When my parents moved to a small college town years back, I can remember the family accompanying them on an endless parade through properties that were often rather disappointing. One rather contemporary Brady Bunch-style house was packed with odd elevated loft areas, sunken living spaces, and catacomb-like hallways. “This is a pretty shitty house,” quipped my brother, “but it would make a great laser tag arena.” He was right.
There are plenty of instances of designs missing their true purpose; other times the world just isn’t ready for the idea yet, or the technology just isn’t there. Forty years ago, there was a transportation concept that suffered from both of these issues and was quickly dismissed as a failure. However, I think it’s worth revisiting and reanimating with the advances of today. Actually, I’d like to repurpose it as something that it could be a better fit for. Spoiler alert- this will get weird.
Camping In The Same Old Crap
A week or two ago, one Autopian named put a comment into an ill-publicized piece by yours truly about yet another dumb motorhome idea that I had. OverlandingSprinter lamented the lack of innovation in camper design:
I came to the defense of these typically small northern Indiana shops with limited manufacturing capabilities, but don’t for a minute think that I don’t feel his disappointment. As a little kid, if you asked me what a larger recreational vehicle in the year 2024 would look like I would likely describe something akin to a then-current (yes I’m old) 1973-1978 GMC Motorhome:
However, my mind was seeing a GMC Motorhome on steroids. The visions of space-age campers in my Tang-and-Count-Chocula fed mind would include designs like Larry Shinoda’s Rectrans camper, the vehicle from the short-lived Ark II TV show (which had a companion machine based on a Brubaker Box), and even the electronic Big Trak toy that we all wanted to see under the tree for Christmas in 1979 (I didn’t get it, of course).
At one point, I even looked at what a GMC motorhome for 1989 would have looked like as a love letter/mix tape to this masterpiece. With four steerable front wheels and individual V6s driving each rear wheel, it captured a bit of what I was hoping tomorrow world would hold :
Indeed, the reality of the real 2024 is far, far from any of that; boring boxes on old-school truck chassis that have barely changed in decades disguised with absurd graphics. If anything, we’ve gone backwards from the great GMC masterpiece.
Actually, I already did a Cybertruck-style trailer for Tesla, but I think I know the deeper question that OverlandingSprinter is asking. What if some large company threw budgets out the window and, like with that early seventies General Motors masterpiece, developed a clean sheet of paper approach to the best large scale motorhome you could imagine? Come on, we thought we’d be flying around in Jetsons cars by a quarter of a way through the 21st century. Throw us a bone, here, somebody!
Anyway, the other day I was reminded of a stillborn old concept that wasn’t right for what it was designed for, but possibly perfect for our challenge. Let’s take a look.
Low Rider, Get A Little Higher
A picture can tell a thousand words, and the one below could push that number into at least the five or six figure range. Feast your eyes on this:
First of all, yes, that was a real thing. In 1983 a German company called Steinwinter (which had a logo that looked almost exactly like Ferrari) wanted to revolutionize the trucking industry by creating a more efficient truck that could get cargo into the maximum length allowed by law. A sixty foot long truck? How can we get that to be ALL cargo? Possibly some designer at the Steinwinter company saw some movie or TV show where a car drives into the void space under a semi trailer and said “Damn (or whatever that is in German), we could make a tractor like that!” Before cooler heads could prevail, Steinwinter went headlong into the idea of a truck where no tow vehicle takes up usable length and disrupts the airflow. The Steinwinter Supercargo 2040 was to be the answer for the future. Besides cargo, the Steinwinter was supposed to be able to tow a passenger bus style trailer; you can see it below (and also the juxtaposition to a normal sized European semi):
Of course, this wasn’t the case. If you take a glance on any highway now, you’ll see the trucks out there still look pretty similar to the ones seen in Smokey and The Bandit nearly fifty years ago. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, and some are rather obvious in the answer-to-a-question-nobody-asked.
Visibility and Control: Sitting so low gave drivers used to being king of the road a commanding view of ants. The overhanging cargo box of the Supercargo made stoplights invisible, and it was supposedly impossible to see the extremities of the truck with mirrors. Worse than that, apparently, was the front overhang made maneuvering the thing a pain in tight situations since the “tractor” turned much earlier than the cargo box above. Look below and you’ll see how contorted things get for drivers in turns:
That tiny passenger compartment under thousands of pounds of cargo looks like a “so this is how I will die” situation. Still, that reclined sports-car driving position looks cool, and that interior is a 1980s car guy’s wet dream with those Recaros, acres of buttons, and the huge old Benz steering wheel.
Mechanical Problems: It didn’t run all that well. The lack of a large grille meant overheating was a problem, and understeer was a rather big issue as well.
Size and Efficiency: The expected fuel economy savings and advantages of the slightly large cargo capacity didn’t end up making much difference. What put paid to the whole thing was a change in regulations not long after the concept was released that determined how long a trailer could be, eliminating the last possible advantage of the Supercargo.
Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play, right? Sure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some kernels of good stuff here, and what if this design wasn’t used for an eighties era semi truck, but instead a more modern motorhome? Hard to believe, but I can see a pretty good fit there; Overlanding Sprinter wanted to see next generation RVs, so here we go.
This Ain’t No Winnegabo
Buyers of large motorhomes really have two choices; a giant bus-like loaf of bread or a huge trailer that would be towed by a gargantuan pickup truck with a “fifth wheel” connector like on a semi truck mounted in the open bed space. Each one has some challenges. The bus design makes for a rather cumbersome vehicle that necessitates towing a small car behind in many cases for the owners to venture on trips from campsites. The fifth wheel versions are over sixty feet long when connected yet have gobs of wasted space; the large F-series 250 or 350 trucks used to tow them don’t have a lot of usable space either with the towing equipment in place.
This is the dilemma with cargo-carrying trucks as well, and the Supercargo was a well-intentioned solution to this by having as large a cargo box as possible and minimizing the size of the towing apparatus.
Note that we’ve used the same approach with our Tesla EarthRover motorhome concept with some very important changes. Take a look:
Here’s the problems with the Supercargo, and how we combated them with our EarthRover:
Visibility and Control: I actually think sitting Countach-style in a truck is pretty cool, but I don’t doubt that would limit the appeal of a motorhome. Also, while a cargo truck needs every square foot of space available, a motorhome can make some concession. For example, we can afford to angle the whole front back to a more wind-cheating form, and the very front of the “cabin” of our motorhome would be a king-sized bed for the main bedroom, so we don’t need a full height ceiling in that area. The extra space under the bed will be used to allow us to raise the passenger’s cabin of the tow unit to a more livable height.
I’ve angled the front back a bit and eliminated overhang over the windshield. I also wonder if a “locking” feature on the fifth wheel might be nice for situations where you don’t want or need the articulation; on icy roads you’d never “jackknife” with the fifth wheel locked.
Don’t forget that the Supercargo debuted in a time long before multiple rear view cameras or proximity sensors. Today some car companies seem to be telling us that we don’t need a rear window on a car anyway.
Mechanical Problems: Naturally, we’d want a future machine to be an EV. I can see how something like the SuperCargo with zero frontal area for a radiator might overheat, but having no internal combustion engine would solve that (or a very small motor as a range extender, or the generator for the whole camper). Dual turning front wheels will hopefully help with the understeer issues.
Size and Efficiency: The one-piece bullet-train-like-shape will almost certainly be aerodynamically efficient, or at least as efficient as something the size of a house can be. Notice the angled-back glass nose; the front of the “trailer” follows the same profile. The vehicle shape also tapers slightly at the front widthwise for even less blunt frontal area.
That giant space for the camper “cabin” would be quite usable; I’ve got room for that aforementioned large bedroom with a bath, a separate bedroom, another bathroom, and a big “open concept” space with living and kitchen area, all accessible for a staircase in back (London Bus style).
Ah, but there’s a lot of void space in the area below the living area. This would be available for Greyhound bus-like storage area but it’s larger than a motor coach; ATVs, personal watercraft, or even a low sports/race car could be made to fit.
Separated from the trailer, the tow vehicle looks pretty strange, but The Future is a weird place:
Note that the tow vehicle, which seats five people (or six with optional front center seat), can be detached from the “trailer” to be used on local trips (sadly you’ll need to tip or rotate the front seats to access the back area). It’s a bit big- around the size of an F450 tow vehicle- but relatively low and it has covered cargo areas flanking the fifth wheel. Notice the sliding bar windshield wiper that also cleans the headlights.
As described earlier, the very bare Tesla dashboard could put relevant displays projected onto the windshield, while a wide reconfigurable screen below shows a panoramic rear view of the rig. Note the “ghosted” “invisible” trailer that lets you see what’s happening in the adjacent lanes and behind the trailer.
Was The Steinwinter An Answer To The Wrong Question?
Xerox is sometimes known as the first company to create the mouse-operated computer with the Alto in the seventies. The brand had essentially no idea how important what they had created was, yet Apple’s Steve Jobs did know and brought it to the masses with great success. Is this the case with the Steinwinter SuperCargo? It would seem that the technology of today makes it possible for this space efficient design to be a great clean-sheet-of-paper approach to a motorhome. Well, at least a clean sheet of tracing paper over an old idea approach.
Regardless, I’m glad that people like OverlandingSprinter are vocal in their demands for the RV of tomorrow that we should have received yesterday. He’s not alone, and now we have a bunch of Boomers with money ready to sell their houses and shell out the likely high cost of one of these things. General Motors led the RV way before, but I doubt they’ll do it again. Come on, Elon, can you just say screw it with the Mars thing and accept that the Boring Company is, well, boring, and just give us something cool to drive out to the Grand Canyon? Please!