One of the biggest complaints that I hear about motorhomes, outside of quality problems, is that they aren’t very fun to drive. Indeed, most motorhomes drive like you’re trying to ram a bus-sized brick through the wind, and don’t respond well to hooliganism. Bill Collins, one of the engineers behind the Pontiac GTO and the designer of the DeLorean DMC-12, decided that motorhomes should be more like sports cars, so he built his own. The Vixen 21 TD is pretty much the closest you’ll get to an RV that’s also a sports car.
One of these lovely RVs has shown up for sale in Canada, and a number of people have been recommending that I write about it. Thank you, Michael B from Twitter!
can we all agree @the_autopian is in desperate need of an eye-catching promo rig? is this perfect or what
— Michael B ???? (@banovsky) January 27, 2023
Unfortunately, despite its $47,000 asking price, it sold in just three days. Don’t worry, because unique RVs can’t elude me. I found a 1986 Vixen 21 TD for a cheaper price at a dealership in Texas! If anything, this one is even better because of its radical graphics.
The Man Who Dreamed Of The Driver’s RV
William “Bill” Collins Jr. is known for his engineering efforts behind a number of awesome cars throughout history. Fresh with a mechanical engineering degree in hand, he was 22 years old when in 1954 he started working for General Motors as a road test project engineer position at Pontiac. Among his duties was testing acceleration to 60 mph, fuel economy, and cold-room-starts. According to Hemmings, Collins spent two years at GM before spending two years with the Army evaluating the T-60 amphibious cargo carrier prototype.
Collins returned to General Motors in 1958, where he worked on the development of the flexible steel driveshaft and the transaxle for the 1961 Tempest. He grew through the GM ranks to become Director of Advanced Engineering in 1964. There, Collins and his team worked on the XP-833 two-seat sports car under the direction of John DeLorean and Elliott M. “Pete” Estes.
Collins work also includes greats like the Pontiac GTO and during his stint at the DeLorean Motor Company, the development of the DMC-12. This career alone is pretty epic, but Collins wasn’t done.
As Hemmings writes, when Collins left DMC he started working as head of product planning at AMC. While there, Collins drove home Renaults and came to the conclusion that front-wheel-drive would be great for an RV. This idea further took shape and Collins left AMC to found Vixen Motor Company in Pontiac, Michigan in 1981. There, Collins would use everything he learned from his previous experiences to make a better RV while not making the same mistakes as DeLorean before him, from Hemmings:
“I look at Vixen as the culmination of all my experiences from starting with a clean sheet of paper and building a car from the ground up,” Bill proclaims. “I possessed an overview of how to build a whole car that I would never have gotten had I been a spark plug engineer for Chevrolet. I also learned from John DeLorean what to do and what not to do to raise money to launch a company. I didn’t call it the Collins Motor Company. I’m a behind-the-scenes guy who gets things done–I didn’t need my name on it.”
Working with Bob Dewey and his wife, Nina, Collins decided to build an RV inspired by a previous road trip. In 1973, Collins had taken a road trip in a 1973 GMC Motorhome. Collins idea was to build a Class A motorhome that fixed problems that even the GMC Motorhome missed. His RV would have better efficiency and comfort than your standard motorhome, it would be aerodynamic, utilize space efficiently, and be able to park in a standard garage, too. And he wanted to sell it for just $35,000.
A Motorhome Cosplaying A Sports Car
Collins was so serious about aero that he put a 1:5 scale clay model of his RV into a wind tunnel. While your typical Class A has an abysmal drag coefficient, the Vixen 21 TD has a drag coefficient of just .295 in part thanks to Collins making the RV slick with a flat undertray. Hemmings notes that a 1982 Z28 had to work with .369. For a modern example, my beloved 2012 Smart Fortwo has a drag coefficient of .35.
Collins further helped the Vixen 21 TD achieve sporting characteristics by giving his RV a wide stance and a low center of gravity. Backing up its sporty looks and the low ride is a rear-mounted 2.4-liter inline-six turbodiesel sourced from BMW.
This engine was good for 115 horsepower and it is bolted to a five-speed manual transaxle from Renault. The whole RV rides on a four-wheel independent suspension. That engine was used in diesel versions of the BMW E30, the Lincoln Continental, Bertone Freeclimber, and other vehicles.
The Vixen motorhomes were parts bin specials, with the suspension noted as coming from GMC G20 vans, a leveling system from Cadillac, a GM automotive HVAC system, GM bumpers, and Pontiac T-100 taillights.
Vixen advertised the motorhome as being able to hit 100 mph or return 30 mpg at 55 mph. Many motorhomes of today struggle to stay above 10 mpg and you can forget about doing 100 mph. Coupled to a 5,100-lb empty weight and molded fiberglass body, the Vixen 21 TD was essentially a motorhome dressed up as a sports car.
If you have any doubts about the Vixen’s performance claims, check this out. In 2015, the first production Vixen 21 TD hit 108.9 mph in Blytheville, Arkansas.
At 21 feet long and 7 feet tall, the RV also fits into some garages. To ensure decent standing height, the pneumatic roof opens with the push of a button to provide 6 feet, 6 inches of headroom. Making an RV into a sporty vehicle didn’t kill the camper parts either. You still get a full bathroom, galley kitchen, and a master bedroom that includes a full-size bed that spans the entire rear of the motorhome.
Along with typical RV appliances, you get a 25-gallon freshwater tank, 13-gallon waste tank, and 20 gallons for grey water. These aren’t huge numbers which mean that the Vixen 21 TD is not something for long-term boondocking, but it looks perfect for a fun road trip. And with its 23.5-gallon fuel tank, you could conceivably go more than 700 miles between fuel stations.
Everyone Loved It, Nobody Bought It
The Vixen 21 TD made its debut at the 1986 Detroit Auto Show before going on sale that March. Collins pulled off what he promised. As Hagerty notes, when reviewers and owners alike got their hands on a Vixen, they came out impressed that Collins designed a motorhome that handled and drove so well.
However, there was a bit of a problem. While the Vixen 21 TD was-and likely remains-one of the best-driving motorhomes built, with a design that looks futuristic today, there weren’t many people lining up to buy them. As it turns out, your average RVer might not be someone who wants a track-ready camper. Just 298 were built in 1986 followed by 78 in 1987.
In an effort to expand the project, Vixen Motor Company released the Vixen 21 SE, which dropped the BMW diesel for a 3.8-liter V6 making 165 HP from General Motors. There was also the Vixen 21 XE, a limo version of the camper. That one was a little longer and did away with the pop-up roof for a fixed configuration.
That really only delayed the inevitable. Three years after its debut, Vixen closed its doors after building 587 units. Buyers put down $40,000 to $53,000 ($108,320 to $143,524 today) for these wonderful RVs and today they remain a rare sight. I mean, the fact that the Vixen that I was going to write about sold in three days tells you how much people love these things.
Sadly, there are no details coming from the dealership selling this 1986 Vixen 21 TD, but at least it looks fantastic in pictures. If you’re interested, it’s being sold by Texas Trader RV in La Feria, Texas for $39,999.
As for Vixen, these rare rides are kept on the road today with help from a newer company, Vixen Motorcoach. Vixen also has a strong fanbase, so you’re not entirely left in the dark about keeping an orphan RV alive. The more I think about these RVs, the more I come to a silly conclusion. The Vixen 21 TD might be one of the only “driver’s RV” ever built.
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