“I really like the styling of your motorhome” is a statement that you hear about as frequently as “I wish they kept making the Murano CrossCabriolet” or “why can’t Jason Torchinsky be more interested in amber turn signals on seventies cars?” The fact is that most campers today are essentially boxes covered in lurid colors and graphic stripes in an attempt to make them more appealing. I think that in some cases they’re purchased in spite of their appearance.
I’m not picking on Jayco or any of the manufacturers out there now. Making these things in the most cost-effective way possible tends to push this type of approach, but it doesn’t mean that a handful of nicely designed, aesthetically pleasing motorhomes haven’t existed in the past.
In the eighties we had the compact Vixen motorhome, a rear engined low profile machine that could fit in a garage.
The seventies brought the front wheel drive GMC Motorhome, which was a landmark design that showed what a clean sheet of paper approach could do:
Airstream, typically know for their aluminum trailers, made self-powered motorhomes that used their iconic silver lozenge shape that refuses to ever be characterized by words like “trendy” or “dated”.
Still, when we go back further in time we get some motorhomes (and buses that have been turned into motorhomes) that can still stop traffic with their beauty. The movie RV was a less-than-Oscar-quality 2006 film made partially watchable by the talent of the late Robin Williams and the presence of a gorgeous vintage motorhome based on a 1948 Flxable bus.
Even non-car people watching the movie are enamored with this photogenic piece of rolling sculpture. Amazing how a type of vehicle that is usually frowned upon by homeowner’s associations can actually be an object of desire. I’d love to make a modernized version of a camper like this, but in doing so we might as well have the basis be arguably the greatest bus or truck concept ever made: the GM Futurliner.
As amazing as the GMC Motorhome was at its debut in 1973, the Futurliner makes that vehicle looks rather pedestrian. Now coming up on ninety years of age, I can’t imagine how the people of 1939 reacted when twelve of these things rolled into town. Yes, that’s right: introduced for the World’s Fair, the Futurliners went on a 150 city “Parade of Progress” tour where at each stop they assembled around a central tent. Telescopic lights rose out of the roof, and the side of every Futurliner opened up to reveal an exhibit of new technologies. Electric appliances! Advanced farm equipment! The “March of Tools”! People were really much easier to entertain back in the day, weren’t they?
The Parade of Progress continued up until 1956 when the newfangled witchcraft the exhibits promoted like televisions were already in most people’s homes, and they weren’t about to give up watching The Honeymooners to look a bunch of dioramas in things that resembled big red metal elephants. After the end of the final tour, one of the Futurliners was destroyed in an accident, while the others went on to the fates you would expect of a cast off commercial vehicle. Most ended up in junkyards or abandoned in fields but remarkably nine of the original dozen remain accounted for. The “March of Tools” bus sold at a 2015 Barrett-Jackson auction for four million dollars; for once you can look at a stratospheric price like that and think that the buyer got a lot of vehicle for their money.
A motorhome is merely a metal framework and a fiberglass or aluminum body, so why can’t the shape be more complex and attractive? With some modifications, could the Futurliner shape be adapted to our modern retro interpretation? These classic GM buses look enormous in photos, like you could fit a semi trailer inside of it, but a quick check of the dimensions had me almost fall on the floor. Every measurement is within a foot of the average size of a Class A motorhome.
It’s like the Harley Earl-the famous GM design chief who penned the Futurliner-is REACHING OUT to us from beyond the grave to make this throwback happen. I think it needs to; look at the current camper below the Futurliner in the image above. I fully understand the need to make things economically but is that really what over eighty years of progress looks like?
We’ll still have to switch many things up. For one, lack of lower windows on the Futurliner looks cool but is entirely impractical, so we’ll add glazing down lower but with a graphic band to help tie it all together and stay as true to the original as possible. I’ve also added more standardized aluminum wheels and tires to make replacements easier, but certainly spun aluminum full covers could be a possibility.
A rounded shape does no favors for space utilizations, but I think the sacrifices of a radiused nose, tail, and top edge will be worth the trade-off for aesthetics. In back, the extremely rounded tail presents the same challenges, but since that’s really just a full-width bed back there I think we could make it work.
Along the center of the roof and wrapping down the back is a multi-piece “mohawk” skylight, sort of like the feature found on certain Nissan Maximas some years back. A power shade can close for privacy and light control. You can see in this view looking back at the main bedroom how the sunroof wraps down the back of the bus (the crossbars above are for the steel structure that holds the fiberglass body.
One salient feature of the Futurliner is that it takes the idea of “commanding driver’s view” and pushes it into the “terrifying driving from a basketball hoop” level. Steps inside the corner-mounted front doors of the bus allow access to the steering wheel and dashboard, eight feet off the ground. I’d think a drive around the block would subtract ten years off of my lifespan, if not subtract my lifespan from my lifespan. It’s a bit reminiscent of the bridge on a 747 which was decades away from existing.
There’s no way that we’ll have this thing piloted from a perch that high, and dead center of the vehicle. The driver in our design will sit at a more “normal” height behind the lower windshield, but the windows up top can remain to surround an upper sleeping area (which lowers down when then motorhome is stopped, just like on many current models).
The original Futurliner was powered by a supercharged 4-71 Detroit Diesel four-cylinder, pumping though a 4-speed automatic transmission to the rear wheels (after the war the powerplants were replaced by 302 cubic inch straight sixes) so likely it just sort of gained momentum instead of truly accelerating. Ours would be built either on a standard motorhome chassis with a Detroit V8 or on an EV “skateboard” chassis. The fiberglass molds and steel support structure could honestly sit on top of anything.
I’m hoping that better looking motorhomes will become a thing; with a six-figure investment on a motor vehicle I’d want to be damn sure that my rig won’t look out of place in twenty years. While I’m as sick of “retro” design as anyone, I’m all for showing a rather forgotten masterpiece from nearly a century ago some well-deserved appreciation.