The 1960s and 1970s were an explosive period for the recreational vehicle industry. Travel trailer and motorhome designs were evolving into a form a bit closer to what you see today and the call of the road trip was alluring to Americans. The prospect of getting people into a motorhome convinced a number of companies to divert some resources to building campers. Clark Forklift Company was one of them, and for a period in the 1960s and 1970s it built this, the Clark Cortez Motorhome is a front-wheel-drive compact wonder and one of them can be yours!
Flipping through the pages of RV history, a number of the manufacturers that are famous today took off during the 1960s. Winnebago started before then, but its iconic motorhomes didn’t enter production until 1966. For fans of all things fiberglass, the first Bolers hit campgrounds in 1968, inspiring countless future companies and designs for decades to come. New fiberglass campers designs made today call back to the original Canadian creation.
This evolutionary period for RVs also saw companies in industries not even tangentially related to RVs deciding to build campers. We wrote about the rolling palaces built by a company that started with food machinery. Now, we have a company that specializes in forklifts trying to solve the problems it saw with the RVs of the day.
Check out this 1966 Clark Cortez:
It’s a clean example of a rare motorhome that was pretty revolutionary for its day. Around 3,211 of these were built and despite their low production, they caught enough attention that NASA modified one into an astronaut transfer van during the Apollo era. This one is $42,000 from a seller in Culver City, California. But wait, it was built by a forklift manufacturer?
From Drills To Forklifts
The Clark Material Handling Company got its start over a century ago in Chicago in 1903. Back then, executives at steel producer Illinois Steel Company launched a separate company in Illinois Steel’s basement to create durable drills that could survive the abuses of boring railroad rails. The company was named the George R. Rich Manufacturing Company, after the engineer who designed the drill.
A year into business, George R. Rich Manufacturing moved out of its basement and into a headquarters in Buchanan, Michigan. However, the company wasn’t successful. An Illinois Steel electrical engineer, Eugene B. Clark, was brought on to fix it. Clark found that the drill had faulty metallurgy. He fixed the problem and within a year, he found himself in control of the company, changing its name to Celfor Tool Company after the name of Clark’s improved drill. Clark Material notes that electrical engineers like Clark were in high demand as the industry moved away from centralized steam power and into electrical power.
Celfor Tool Company was successful and found itself expanding into different industries including disc wheels for cars and an innovative internal-gear type truck axle that replaced chain-type axles of the day. Then in 1917, the Clark Equipment Company (the resulting name after Clark merged Celfor Tool Company with the Buchanan Electric Steel Company) built the Tructractor, what it calls the first internal combustion industrial truck.
In 1922, Clark’s truck design would evolve to include a lift. Clark says that its Truclift was the first internal combustion truck to use hydraulics rather than mechanical linkages to lift a load. What Clark calls the world’s first internal combustion forklift truck came just two years later in 1924.
The Duat was originally a tow tractor that could pull loads of materials around a yard. Clark added an optional tiering attachment, creaking a forklift.
I could go on and on about Clark’s forklifts because the company has archived an incredible almost year-by-year history of forklift advancements. I’m talking forklifts with 80,000-pound capacities and safer designs for operators. What you won’t find in Clark’s public archives is its diversification into RVs.
The Camper Built Like A Forklift
In 1963, Clark decided to get into building motorhomes with a design unlike what most manufacturers were doing back in the day. According to brochures saved by enthusiasts, Clark felt that RV designs of the day weren’t innovative enough. Indeed, save for weird designs like the Ultravan, most motorhomes were large, ungainly, and rode high on truck chassis.
The first way Clark would differentiate itself from other manufacturers was with front-wheel-drive. A whole decade before General Motors did the same with the Motorhome, Clark paired a motorhome with a front engine driving the front wheels. The standard engine of a Clark Cortez was a 225 cubic-inch Chrysler Slant Six making 140 HP. That was bolted to a four-speed manual transaxle of Clark’s own design. Having a front-wheel-drive design allowed Clark to build a coach that was closer to the ground with a flat floor behind the engine. Clark wanted to build an RV that drove like a car, so in addition to making its Cortez coaches ride closer to the ground, the company also outfitted them with four-wheel independent suspension.
Another notable departure in Clark’s design is the chassis and body. The Clark Cortez motorhome is built out of a unitized steel construction. Normally, this is where I’d say that the coach has a steel skeleton to which fiberglass panels are fitted, but that’s not the case here. Perhaps borrowing from its forklift history, Clark built this thing entirely out of steel. It has that steel skeleton, but the entire body is steel as well and it’s all welded together into a single piece of steel. The completed motorhome is just 18.5 feet long. Like the classic Winnebago from earlier this week, it’s a small Class A coach compared to the monsters on the road today.
On one hand, building an RV entirely out of steel should alleviate worries about water leaks. On the other hand, steel is not known for being light and it rusts. That vintage Winnebago F-17 from Monday? It was a similar size and weighed 4,890 pounds. This?
It tips the scales at about 7,000 pounds. Though, if you could live with the extra weight, you got a camper built like a tank, or…well, a forklift. You don’t have to worry about plywood sandwich walls wearing out when your walls are steel!
According to information gathered by Cortez owners, this motorhome was only part of Clark’s plan. There were allegedly designs for a mobile office, a travel trailer, and an ambulance, but none of them ever reached production. While Clark didn’t further expand its vehicle line, one 1967 Cortez did become a NASA astronaut transfer van.
Starting with Apollo 7, the van would carry astronauts, the ground crew, and equipment. The van ferried astronauts to the Saturn V complex at Kennedy Space Center and yep, that means some of its passengers included Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong. NASA used the converted camper until the sixth flight of the Space Shuttle program, Mission STS-6, the first flight of Space Shuttle Challenger. Today, the Cortez astronaut transfer van can still be found on display at the Kennedy Space Center.
Sales of the Cortez were slow and Clark tried a couple of different changes to the design. The company added power by tossing the Chrysler Slant Six and replacing it with either a Ford 300 straight six or a 302 V8. Clark also tacked on a foot in length to the camper. Sales continued to be slow and in 1970, Clark sold the Cortez division to Kent Industries. Kent decided to change the powertrain again and dropped in an Oldsmobile Toronado’s 455 V8 powertrain. Power was now a healthier 350 HP and in 1971, Kent added more to the length, making the coach 21.5-feet long and up to 10,000 pounds.
This Clark Cortez
The motorhome on your screen is a 1966 model. It predates Kent ownership and the powertrain changes by Clark. That means that under its nose resides a 225 cubic inch Chrysler Slant Six making 140 horses. It’s not a fast RV, but at least the four-speed manual transaxle is present and intact. In fact, this whole RV is in remarkable condition.
Starting with the body, at first, I thought it was fiberglass because it’s so smooth and glossy. But you’re looking at square feet of metal and it appears to be in great shape. Flipping through the photos, I don’t see any rust, peeling paint, or anything like that.
Inside, it looks like it hasn’t even been camped in.
The listing doesn’t say much about what you’re getting for the $42,000 asking price, but I did find a brochure! According to Clark, 60 percent of the camper’s weight rides on the front axle for handling, traction, and stability. In terms of motorhome equipment, everything that you’d expect to be there is present. It sleeps four adults with a floorplan that includes a full kitchen and bathroom with shower and toilet. The coach’s engine feeds from a 25-gallon fuel tank and there’s storage for 30 gallons of water onboard. The brochure doesn’t note anything about waste capacities.
In addition to the steel build, Clark advertises the camper’s three doors. It has two doors in the driver compartment like a van, then a single entry door at the rear of the camper. Later versions would get a door on the side like a more conventional motorhome. There’s one neat surprise on the options list, and it’s an on-demand hot water heater. This system used engine exhaust to heat water up quickly.
The seller of this 1966 Clark Cortez says they’ve left the camper stock save for two quality-of-life upgrades. It now has an air-conditioner and a generator. It’s not said if this camper was restored at some point, but I’m happy that it’s been kept as a time capsule to another era of camping. That said, be warned that you should expect your road trips to be leisurely. Clark says that the camper’s cruising speed is “Normal Highway Speed,” which considering when this was built means a cruising speed of about 60 mph. At least you’ll be doing it in a camper that looks like nothing else.
Sadly, the story of the Clark Cortez has a sad ending. In 1975, 26 Cortez owners banded together, acquiring the design from Kent Industries. Still, the company fell into liquidation in 1978. The bank kept production going until 1979. When all was said and done, around 3,211 of these were ever built. That makes this 1966 Clark Cortez a rare beast. With that said, one of these did sell on Bring a Trailer for $19,500, though that one didn’t look as nice as this one. If you still want it, you can grab it for $42,000 from a seller in Culver City, California.
Hat tip to Hugh!
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It’s a pity they had the gear stick blocking the hallway.All the effort they they went to and they fall short there?
The forklift trivia is interesting.
And that Duet sure is weird.Front single wheel steering? Teensy load sharing wheels? What were they thinking!
Still,the 1000 lbs carrying capacity was 1000 lbs more than anything else so there’s that.
Well duh.Ignore that last sentence.I should have read properly
I saw one of these in southern Vermont last summer. It was in vastly worse condition, and I didn’t connect the Clark name to the forklift company.
The gent fueling it up wasn’t particularly friendly, and didn’t have any interest in chatting about it. Nice to see this write-up!
Clark…that there’s an RV!
Once Klaus finished off the rest of his colleagues, the company was confused with what to do with their, ahem, less than stellar employee and simply offered him early retirement to go away.
I saw one of these in my little town a couple of years ago on the back of a transport truck. It’s almost uncanny how small these look in person. These are probably one of my favorite RVs.
A couple of fun factoids Mercedes left out about the Clark Cortez:
The entire engine, drivetrain, and front subframe can be detached with only a few bolts and slid out for easier maintenance and replacement, hence why the radiator sticks out on the early ones like that.
The four wheel independent suspension consists of semi trailing arms in the back and torsion bars up front.
Mercedes, next review a Superior motor home. They had an aluminum skin, but flat sides.
There’s a Clark Cortez in Bend Oregon I see occasionally. Out here rust is lessof an issue. Clark’s rear entry layout appears to be the inspiration for Chinook, another brand worthy of a write up. For those who prefer a not quite so slow vehicle some later ones had a 318 or 360 V8
Cortez are cool, but availability of parts isn’t good, make sure you can live with it, especially true for the Clark ones, that transaxel is unique, there are only salvage parts from other motorhomes. At least the Kent ones you can get GMC Motorhome drivetrain parts. I’m chicken, I got a GMC, though I looked at a Cortez.
Mercedes it is unbelievable that for every old RV you write about that not only you get fantastic detail you always seem to find one for sale. That is unbelievable.
Is that 25 gallon fuel tank right? seems like you’d be filling up every couple of hours.
Isnt that the usual for RVs, Semis, and cars?
Those slant sixes weren’t that thirsty so I’d guess that helped some with range.
I love that Clark built an RV that was really meant to last. In my business we use forklifts a lot. And I can confirm, they’re built like brick bathrooms. My only quibble is that 225 Slant Six. I can only imagine the 0-60 is measured in millennia and it’s going to be so overworked with a 7,000 LB curb weight that the mileage would make “pathetic” sound like a compliment. I’d say slap in a 4BT if space is at a premium in the engine bay (it probably is).
I guess that it’s because the transaxle is behind the front mounted engine, but that reach behind you 4 speed is certainly not a pinnacle of ergonomics.
Certainly doesn’t look like it makes it easy to get from the front to the back or vice versa either.
It’s a motorhome with a gated shifter. At that point ergonomics can take a back seat, so to speak:
Love to know what the gear ratios and final drive were.
A slant six with 7000lbs to lug needs some serious gear reduction.
It’s gated like a Ferrari though! With that said, the amount of time between shifts is probably measured in minutes, so you aren’t going to be *snick snicking* your way to an enjoyable driving experience.
You made me stop and think.I wonder if it even had synchros?
I’d actually prefer it without.Much more fun that way!
Clark should have stuck to its Forklift roots and made it Front wheel drive, Rear steer. Think of how maneuverable it would be in tight campgrounds!
It would also be undriveable on the highway but that’s beside the point!
Just drive in reverse!
Want down a rabbit hole on the Clark Cortez, and thought Mercedes would like this.
Well she went down all the rabbit holes, and there are some very deep dwelling rabbits wondering who was that woman going on about RVs and forklifts?
Now I know even more about Mr Clark’s RV, thanks!