The week that our writer Mercedes Streeter was checking out this half-million dollar GMC restomod I, too, was looking at a similar vintage GMC RV. This one was very different, though. Almost the opposite. Whereas the one Mercedes was looking at had a modernized exterior and a traditional RV interior, this vintage GMC Kingsley RV by New York’s Ai Design is a delightfully retro ’70s lime sherbet dream on the outside and the nicest modern Bushwick apartment on the inside.
First, a little disclosure: I’ve been watching this RV build almost since the beginning and have been pleading with the people I know at Ai Design to let me check it out when it was finally finished. When my daughter was born, we moved up to Westchester, NY and ended up renting a house around the corner from Ai, a shop I was well aware of from all of the company’s other projects (including Alex Roy’s Cannonball Run M5). When I first saw the big RV taking up space on the shop floor I couldn’t wait to see what the technicians would do with it. Little did I know this was a process that would take so long I’d move (twice!) and my kid would grow from diapers to an elementary student.
True to their word, when it was done the Ai folks invited me back to check out what it looked like finished.
The crew at Ai Design specialize in a certain kind of perfectionism their clients seem to appreciate, largely due to their willingness to iterate and improve until it’s exactly what was requested. Whenever I’d walk into this shop there would be a new drawing or rendering on the outside that would demonstrate the insanely intricate steps needed to get through the next installation.
How This Project Came Together
The line on Ai Design is that it typifies the difference between East and West Coast customization philosophies. Forgive the glib oversimplification, but where the average West Coast shop goes out of their way to show you a car is customized, the East Coast philosophy is to hide the work. That appeals to certain clients, including the music executive (he was happy to have me share his ride but asked to keep his identity secret) who came to Ai with a vision: Build the ultimate vintage GMC RV for going to music festivals. Money and time, pretty obviously, weren’t his concern. It was better for him to get it right than to get it now, even as his vision kept evolving. This is not my philosophy, clearly, but I can respect it.
I do get the urge to use a GMC Motorhome, though. My wife and I have dreamed of renovating one for years and The Autopian has written about these a lot. Built from 1972 to 1978 using the front half of an Oldsmobile Toronado, the FWD RVs were a bit of a revelation when they emerged. Rather than being a RWD big box, the streamlined GMCs offered both a superior ride and better handling. Famously, the vehicle was the basis for the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle in the movie “Stripes.”
While Ai does do performance modifications, they are not RV specialists and so the vehicle they sourced got sent to Cinnabar Engineering in Michigan, who specialize in this platform (and did the work on the RV that Mercedes wrote about, actually). Cinnabar did a top-to-bottom engineering overhaul, bringing the Oldsmobile 455 V8 and various systems up to spec while also mostly keeping true to the original capabilities. Almost every part was replaced or refreshed, including the GMC’s air suspension system. The goal was to build something that would perform better than what came out from the factory in Pontiac, Michigan.
While the RV was being refreshed, Ai’s founder Matt Figliola, met with the client to discuss paint schemes and layout. Some of the original ideas were pretty out there. Of the above designs, the one inspired by a 1970s-era folding chair of the type I remember my grandparents using is absolutely my favorite. If I’m being honest, though, what they ended up with is probably the best of the options. It feels period correct and yet somehow new.
Around this time they also went to work designing the interior. Basically, everything behind the front driver seat was getting swapped in favor of a more modern look. Ai worked with the customer’s cabinet designer (something I’m sure we all have) to create something comfortable and familiar. Here are some early renders:
There are a few notable changes that emerged in the five year process, but they actually ended up quite close to the original goal. One of the bits that Ai Design does well is the details (check this video done by my old gig for more). It’s the only customs shop I know of with a trained art historian on staff.
The most conspicuous piece here is the vintage turntable. This was supposed to be an OG Technics 1200 turntable with, possibly, a DJ setup, but along the way that got dropped. I asked Figliola why that was and he explained that while space and cost were potential issues, “It was the novelty of it that ultimately nixed it… cute idea, but not likely something one would actually use.”
I think it’s a super cool concept, but the added weight and space needed for both the turntable and physical records seemed a bit silly to me. Plus, the sound was well covered.
The Final Product
I love RVs and have had the opportunity to drive a few of them; whenever I see one on display, I ask if I can poke around inside. I’ve seen dozens of RVs from the inside, at least, and this is one of the most unique and most attractive. While I’ve seen more opulent designs (like the Newmar King Aire), there is something inconspicuously grandness about what the designers did here that I appreciate.
While this is a custom design, it looks pretty much like what you’d expect from an RV of this era. If you told me this was the way it came from the factory and it’s just been preserved in a bubble for 50 years I’d probably believe you.
Even the custom grab handle just looks like it came out of the factory:
You could almost lick the car from the outside.
You can see what the driver position looked like before any of the work was done on it with this drawing:
This was from early in the design phase. Now you can see what they ended up with:
I do miss the granny’s-barcalounger-orange look from the OG design, but this new layout is definitely more modern. They let me sit in the front chairs for a bit and it’s a comfortable place to spend a few hours days driving and I appreciate that everything’s within easy reach.
More updated switchgear includes an aftermarket cruise control system, a screen for the cameras (a huge plus), and a holder for the front-facing iPad control center. Ai does a lot of custom integrations of screens and controls, but I appreciate the simplicity of just being able to swap in whatever device you’re using so you don’t have to trudge back to Westchester every time your system needs an update. Plus, when you’re not driving, you can hide the iPad and it looks mostly stock again.
The Living Area
While the layout doesn’t entirely deviate from the original design, it was a completely clean sheet approach that saw the technicians completely stripping the GMC RV until it was an empty hulk.
Despite the size, the RV is mostly meant to carry two people to Pitchfork, or wherever. As such, the living area is centered around having guests in and not shuttle a family of six and the dog to a national park. There’s a comfortable dual dining area and a long bench for when guests to come hang out during the Remi Wolff set, or whatever. If there are overnight guests, the dining area turns into a bed.
Everything feels good in the inside, which is another of the company’s touches. There’s no cheap RV feel, it’s extremely Brooklyn modern. There’s also no wasted space, with each of the cabinets either storing bedding, materials, or the electronics to keep the vehicle running. There are two different Sonos sound zones in the RV in case someone up front doesn’t want to listen to the same music as the people in the back. Also installed is a drop-down television with AppleTV controls so you can watch “Poker Face” instead of Tyler the Creator.
Kitchen And Bath
The kitchen is fairly straightforward in appearance, but it’s the materials here that are the show. Surrounding the soft-close cabinets, minifridge, and stove/oven combo is a big single piece custom resin sink and counter. They clearly spent a lot of time trying to get this right as I’d often poke my head in and see them adjusting or finalizing this piece.
I don’t like marble countertops for various reasons. They’re functional, but they’re kind of bougie now and it’s a lot of weight for a vehicle. This setup makes a lot of sense and seems like it would be easy to clean.
But the most bonkers part of this whole all RV is the damn bathroom. First, look at this place. It’s actually quite roomy for an RV bathroom outside of one of those ornate Class A diesel pusher setups.
The bathroom-to-living room ratio is pretty high, which is fine by me. The bathroom sink is the same resin design as what you’ll find in the kitchen. The walls, though? The walls are crazy.
Subway tile is also probably bougie, sure, but it’s a bougie I like so I’ll forgive it here. Putting subway tile inside of an RV is a completely stupid idea, though. Imagine how hard it is to clean. Imagine the added weight. Imagine what happens if it breaks.
This isn’t tile, though. It’s actually Corian that’s been CNC’d to create the little ridges that give it the tile look! They’ve also milled out the back of it to reduce the heft. This saves weight, complexity, and likely makes it easier to use and clean. As someone who thinks a lot about bathrooms in RVs it’s a complete trip to touch it and see how it works.
After the surprise and delight of the bathroom, the bedroom is… a bedroom. There’s a comfortable bed, a place to charge items, and under-bed storage. It looks like a fine place to sleep.
This RV had to live up to five years of expectations and I think it did the job. The owner seems to think so as well and, actually, I guess it’s more important that the person who paid for it likes it. Or is it? I’m not sure. There’s sort of a Stockholm Syndrome aspect to this particular custom job because I’ve been around it for so long.
I’ve long had my dream RV in mind and this one is actually quite close to what I’d do, though I think I’d maybe swap the motor for something more powerful and efficient than the original V8. I’d also ditch propane power for an onboard battery system, though both suggestions would take away from the OG RV feel. It’s not mine, though, right? I’ve got to keep telling myself this.
If you’re at ACL Fest or on the highway and see this big green dream I hope you can appreciate the insane amount of work that went into making something that is simultaneously so familiar and yet completely new.
Photos: Author, Ai Design
Damn, that is a great layout on top of the amazing finish and material work.
It’s hard to tell from the perspective, but it looks like the seats are a lot harder to get out of than the old design.. Other than that, it’s gorgeous, especially the cabinets!
I didn’t have any issue getting in and out of them, but I’m fairly narrow-hipped.
I’d always wondered what happened to the EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle.
Would have preferred a bit of 70’s plaid accent with the interior but otherwise this is a damn near perfect build. And is to that color scheme giving the owner away?
Looks like the final version has a wet bath instead of a separate shower. Would not have expected that. But all in all, beautifully done.
Yeah, it was an interesting change. I have no real issue with a wet bath when the shower isn’t right on top of the toilet like it is here. The overhead setup isn’t my favorite, but I also try to avoid using RV restrooms unless I can’t avoid it.
Love these things, but imho the biggest achilles heel is that olds 455. Torquey, but sucks gas like a mofo. If I ever built one of these I’d want a diesel in there, for the low RPM torque to push that brick down the freeway, and better MPG. Cummins, powerstroke 7.3, something big and thicckkkk would be better. Idk how that would translate to keeping FWD, but…. hey I can dream.
I think the most reasonable setup on these is to add throttle body injection with basic computer controls to give modern driveability and a 4-speed overdrive transaxle (4T80) for reduced engine speed at cruise.
I think the problem is the transmission. Not too easy to do swaps on it, and if you do, how much torque can it handle? Of course if you had enough money, you could have a custom unit made I imagine. Anything is possible if you have enough $$$
It is a TH425 in these. They can be made pretty stout.
I think rated for around 450 ft-lbs stock, I used to drag race a car with a TH400 on which these are based.
Corian definitely does not equal Formica. Two totally different products. Corian is heavy as hell as well — they might have saved some weight actually using tile.
Considering how they milled out the backsides of each “tile”, they removed a ton of weight. Also, with that curved wall, actual tiles would not have lined up. Ai Design elongated the tiles on the curve to make a perfect match. Lastly, tiles are great, until they start falling off from road vibrations and impacts.
Corian isn’t Formica. Formica is thin laminate over particle board. Corian is a tradename for “solid surface” which is a thicker composite resin material usually bonded to plywood. You can’t rout a pattern into Formica and seal it up against moisture like that. You don’t usually see installations of solid surface like that, though — that’s pretty cool!
I’ve restored a couple of motorhomes before. The bedroom might seem “meh” but in an older, narrower body without the benefit of slideouts. you’re pretty much limited to putting a full or queen-size bed sideways like in this project. (Later ones from the late 80’s and early 90’s often were wide enough to put the bed lengthwise with a very narrow aisle on each side — enough to shuffle sideways to get into the bed.) On the bonus side, a full-area bed done as shown can be set up with a large hidden storage area down underneath; there are ways to raise it with electric actuators and/or gas lift cylinders.
I liked the earlier concept which showed a separate shower; one of the downsides of the GMC motorhome has always been the “wet” bath — it’s kind of sub-optimal especially if you’re trying for a modernized floorplan. But expanding the bathroom inevitably eats up space needed for the kitchen and sitting area, which seem to be the real focus for this build anyway.
One outfit retrofitted dual slides to a GMC motorhome. Spanned between the front door and the rear wheels. Looked nice. I’m kinda surprised they didn’t consider that option here.
It looks very well done. I dig it. When I bought my first used camper trailer about a decade ago now, you could still get a pretty good GMC motorhome for mid 5-figures. I considered buying one, but didn’t. I regret that decision.
I’m disappointed not to see roll down armoured shutters for the windows or a ‘drawbridge’ rear door.
If I was spending this much money on restoring this RV (I’m sure this wasn’t cheap), I’d be 100% doing a EM-50 clone. And ditching the 70’s era V-8 for something that can motivate this thing easier like a modern diesel.
There’s a Charity group in the Twin Cities called Cars Against Crime that create replicas of movie vehicles and there is a car show at the garage condos once a month where their garage is and they built a tribute to the UAV. The license plate is HULKA.