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
recently posted. via: https://t.co/k8n2NNBFm7 pic.twitter.com/x7tlEkfPsL
— 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.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
Bill Collins was involved with so many intriguing vehicles. Sadly he passed on 3/5/23.
I have a lot of problems with this article.
First, 21′ long 7′ high, and under 6000lb makes this literally smaller than a sprinter van. Which means it’s really really not a class a camper.
All the performance claims made seem like typical “failed 80s business” types of claims. This motorhome going 100mph with 115hp is literally impossible. 0-60 in 15 is also impossible. 30mpg is impossible.
I know you backed up the performance claims in the article, but the fact is that, even with the remarkably low drag of this thing, it’s not hitting 100mph with less than 120whp. 115 at the crank is not 120 at the wheels.
Also, wasn’t that transmission famously weak in a delorean half the weight of this thing?
There was one for sale behind the closest gas station to my house at the time, I would literally swoon and make a point of driving the long way around to scope it out.
They had a sign up for $22k which I thought was ludicrous at the time considering you could get bigger and newer equipped rvs for the same.
But c’mon, my comparison is like saying that a Ford Taurus can do the same job as a Lotus Esprit.
The Vixen is fucking sexy and looks like it’s going fast just sitting still.
Yeah, I’ve seen this written about before. It was an interesting idea but it seems to fall in an strange slot that doesn’t work for most people, IMO. Without a full height roof in the early models, it was too much of a hassle. And it rides too low to take camping anywhere except the most plain jane RV parks. Honestly, if it simply had a poptop with a bed like a regular van conversion might, then it might’ve done better. Otherwise, it is sort of an awkward medium sized RV–too big for someone wanting something compact and too small for someone wanting a lot of space. It was built in an era before slides, and of course a slide would’ve added weight, but a large slide on one side would’ve got a long way towards making it into a luxury space after you parked the thing.
Every three years, two months and eighteen days the Vixen RV is ‘rediscovered’ in automotive blogs and a new fawning article is written about it. I can’t think of any other vehicle that’s so reliably recycled into a new story on a predictable schedule.
“While there, Collins drove home Renaults and came to the conclusion that front-wheel-drive would be great for an RV”
Proceeds to build rear engine RV.
Right? Though, any advantages FWD has, move with the engine to the back. He might have been thinking about packaging and floor height?
Someone brought one of these to the 2010 Microcar and Minicar World Meet in Crystal Lake, IL, claiming it was indeed diminutive by RV standards. We all agreed this was true but I don’t think it got a trophy.
How the hell do you get that much engine noise in the front cabin of a rear engined vehicle? (the video) Or did they strip out the whole interior to make it go faster?
It has a Hot-Wheels aesthetic that is very cool. Perfect if your RVing style includes a lot of driving.
Probably too alien of an idea for most RVers who see their rigs more as mobile condos rather than vehicles.
In the Class A and Super C market that is what they are. A vacation home you take with you. It is not a speed run. Granted you can tow your track vehicle with them.
This is also why money no object I have one to bring the family, pets, and towed vehicle with me one I reach my destination.
In my experience “you can tow your track vehicle with them” is not a high bar to clear.
Saw a Vixen in-person and walked through one when they came out at the Tampa RV show in the mid-80s. Their “booth” was outside the main show in the parking lot. Not sure exactly why that was or if that was actually condoned by the show or not. Most likely a cost-saving strategy, but they did get pretty good traffic. Was love at first sight for me, but I couldn’t talk my parents into buying one!
0-60 mph acceleration in 15 seconds with top speed of 108 mph is hauling ass for an RV of that era. Given its frontal area and mass, 30 mpg at 55 mph is impressive. Its performance holds up well compared to actual cars of its time period.
There is a street parked one of these near my daily walk that is there so often I can find it on streetview.
Almost an icon in the neighborhood.
There’s one in my neighborhood too. Definitely had to Google that one the first time I saw it.
Mercedes- another interesting RV to peruse is the Spectrum 2000 by Winnebago. Low 22″ floor height, wide 89″ track, 32′ long, almost 9′ tall with a .309 drag coefficient that handled like no other coach I was ever in. Winnebago designed and manufactured the chassis in house with features like central AC with no roof mounts, custom Kohler front mount generator, tanks low in the frame and all the amenities of full size Class A motorhome.
My father drove our first (and unfortunately ended up only!) example from a show in Elkhart back home for an open house. This coach took a full cloverleaf ramp at ungodly speeds and was absolutely flat changing lanes at 70 mph. This was a driver’s coach for sure. Ford 460 rear pusher with independent front suspension, torsion rear with a unique ZF final drive system. He was and still is very proud to have been one of the 25 dealers chosen by Winnebago Industries to sell and service them, but it was not meant to be.
Engine cooling issues, including some fires as well as braking (Kelsey-Hayes IIRC) problems doomed them to around 90 examples built and all were picked up from dealers or repurchased from owners and returned to Forest City Iowa. Some (most?) subsequently ended up at Lazydays RV in Florida even as they were to be scrapped. The story is hard to follow from there but some were re-powered with Triton V10s and later some diesel engines. Australia has a few as there are also a few here in the US.
Sorry for the long post!
Wow, the Spectrum 2000 is a fascinating looking beast! It’s like a mega-Le Sharo! Shame they had technical issues, I feel like a large Class A RV that drives well would be such a revelation.
This (and the Vixen and countless in other industries) is why most companies won’t go out on a limb to design their own “something different” at least the way I see it. It could have been a game changer.
The few people that were able to drive a Spectrum 2000 at least the ones I personally know or have read about all agree it was worlds apart from the standard GM P30 chassis under most Class A’s at the time.
The only one we physically had was still owned by Winnebago as it was one of their first demo units. When they called it back my Dad had no other recourse.
These are insanely cool. I remember seeing a BMW-badged one in Yellowstone as a kid and being blown away that they actually exist in person! That said, I think the moral of the story is just that RVs are by nature a compromise, and pushing that compromise more toward drivability rather than space and comfort was something no one was really asking for (also see Winnebago Le Sharo, though that saw a fair bit more success). I almost wonder if this would have done better in Europe where driving dynamics are a bit more pertinent; in the U.S. where everyone already drives a full-size pickup I don’t think many are concerned with an Econoline-based C or A class RV being ‘too unwieldy’!
We sold quite a few LeSharo models, especially in 1985! The first gen had a NA diesel with a 4 speed manual, followed by a Turbo Diesel also with a 4 speed manual (how I learned to drive stick) then a gasser with a 3 speed automatic – all from Renault. The 5 speed manual, gas fuel-injection (1988-1989?) was particularly enjoyable to drive.
MotorWeek has their old segment on the LeSharo among their old Retro Reviews too – that popped up again when I went to look for an old RV review of the time thinking it maybe was the Vixen.