“Aerodynamic” and “motorhome” are terms you won’t often find in the same sentence. Even today, motorhomes tend to be luxurious and spacious bricks that use horsepower to push through the wind. But not all coaches completely ignore aerodynamics. Throughout history, forward-thinking RV builders sought to make driving a motorhome better through aerodynamics. One of those coaches is the ElDorado Starfire, a coach from a company with experience in building buses and truck campers. The Starfire used a lightweight one-piece fiberglass body and wore the face of a Lincoln Continental. It was an innovative idea, but one that didn’t seem to stick around.
A lot of you lovely readers have been sending me various Smarts and RVs in our Discord server. You better be glad I’m not in the market for any of the vehicles you’ve sent me or else I’d be in trouble. A Starfire coach currently for sale was sent to me by our David Tracy and I fell right down a rabbit hole.
This one isn’t nearly as pretty as the one in the top photo, but it’s far cheaper. We’ll get back to that later. For now, let’s look at some RV history!
Thanks to one Bring a Trailer auction, the ElDorado Starfire coach has been featured at other outlets in the past. But I’ve noticed some unanswered questions, namely, who designed this thing and how is it built?
ElDorado Motor Corporation
The Starfire is the work of the ElDorado Motor Corporation (EMC), a company with roots in building buses and truck campers. I’ve written about ElDorado’s history before and here’s what you need to know:
ElDorado Bus says it started in Minneapolis, Kansas during the 1950s. Back then, the company was called Honorbuilt Manufacturing and it was founded by Bob Stewart to construct campers under license from a company on the west coast. Honorbuilt’s camper was called the “El Dorado Coach” and it was reportedly a popular truck camper. Ward Manufacturing from Ohio purchased Honorbuilt in 1965 and Honorbuilt became a division of Ward. Stewart’s company would continue to expand and in the early 1970s, the company got into building motorhomes. In 1978, Stewart bought out the partners in his company and rebranded the operation as El Dorado RV. Soon after, El Dorado expanded further by getting into the transit bus market.
The company’s buses often had a bit of a weird look to them. Check out this Indianapolis Motor Speedway track tour bus:
Things get a bit weird in 1988. El Dorado, which had been renamed again to the ElDorado Motor Corporation, bled $5 million after RV sales slowed down. That year, the company went bankrupt and its savior was Thor Industries. Thor took ElDorado’s commercial bus division and combined it with National Coach when Thor bought that company in 1991. The business was split up into two divisions. One was called ElDorado National–California and the other ElDorado National–Kansas. The California division would build larger commercial buses while the Kansas side built buses out of van cutaways.
In essence, one company became split up into two divisions, one that built large commercial buses and another that built small buses out of van cutaways. In 1990, the bankrupt ElDorado Motor Corporation reorganized its RV business into Honorbuilt Industries, Inc. and through both a federal loan and investors was able to restart motorhome production that year. Sadly, Honorbuilt wouldn’t stick around for a long time, as it soldiered on to just 1996 before SMC Corporation acquired Honorbuilt and closed its factory. SMC ceased RV operations in 1997, ending ElDorado’s RV run for good.
In 2013, Thor sold both Eldorado National divisions to Allied Specialty Vehicles, which later became REV Group. The Kansas cutaway division was sold to Forest River in 2020, becoming ElDorado Bus. Meanwhile, the California commercial bus division of ElDorado is still held by REV group and operates as ENC.
Less is known about the Starfire coach. It’s reported that ElDorado launched the motorhome in 1986. That would mean the Starfire released the same year as another, more famous aerodynamic motorhome: the Vixen 21 TD. This era, a time when America was conscious about fuel economy and emissions, saw a lot of experimentation in lighweight and aerodynamic designs. Another coach from about this time was the Champion Ultrastar, which attempted to remove bulk by riding lower to the ground. The Winnebago LeSharo was another ’80s coach that tried to slim down while slicing through the air. So, while the EMC Starfire looked out of this world, its design was one of a number of different motorhomes that bucked the “brick through wind” trend of the past and honestly, the present day, too.
According to a June 1987 issue of Popular Mechanics, the ElDorado Starfire was engineered exclusively to be the first coach to ride on Ford’s then new Econoline-based Class A RV chassis.
At the time, Chevrolet had a dominating presence in the RV arena and Ford wanted a slice of the pie. Having the Starfire be the first coach to ride on Ford’s new chassis offered an interesting proposition as the Starfire’s driver sat further forward than the driver of a coach on Chevy’s Class A platform. The Starfire owner also got that aerodynamic front end and apparently, more interior space, too. Sadly, Popular Mechanics did not state what exact models the Starfire was competing with.
What Popular Mechanics did describe is something that ElDorado did not in its own advertising. One archived brochure (above) states that the coach has a “one piece Monoframe™” body, but doesn’t explain what that means. A “one piece Monoframe” body sounds like unitized construction, but that’s not the case here. The Starfire has a big beefy frame, check it out:
Instead, what that marketing speak is describing is the coach’s one-piece fiberglass body and honeycomb insulation. Both are credited with reducing the Starfire’s weight but they’re also great for longevity. Fiberglass tends to be more durable than plywood walls, rubberized roofs, and all of the seals that go bad on typical RVs. Unfortunately, it’s not a bulletproof design as ElDorado did cut holes in the roof for the air-conditioner, but that’s still fewer places for water to get in than the typical RV. This fiberglass was made by a Nebraska firm called A1 Fiberglass.
A highlight of the Starfire’s design is the nose.
Class A coaches tend to have a transit bus style, so the Starfire is memorable for its massive hood. Situated on the front of that runway of a hood is the grille from a 1984 Lincoln Continental and 1984 Lincoln Mark VII headlights. Out back, more Ford lighting parts come in the form of 1980s F-Series taillights. Hagerty interviewed a former EMC employee, Dennis Foerschler, who said that the fiberglass body and long nose were intended to advance the performance, durability, and comfort of a Class A coach. That fiberglass body consists of a shell that was molded out of a single large piece of fiberglass and then joined with a one-piece fiberglass floor.
Something Foerschler didn’t know and remains unknown to this day is exactly who designed the Starfire. Foerschler believes the design was farmed out to a third party, but he didn’t know where. A large number of for-sale ads claim that the designer of the coach was Bill Lear. Yes, the same Bill Lear of Learjet fame. But I’ve found exactly zero evidence to back this claim up. No brochures, documents, or anything of the sort. Lear did have his hands in large vehicles, but that was just installing an experimental steam turbine into a GM New Look transit bus.
The innovation wasn’t just limited to the exterior. The interior was laid out in a sensible manner. Starting with the cab up front, the large curved windshield reminds me of a Beechcraft’s cockpit windows and the driver-centric dashboard has a layout that reminds me of a semi-tractor or a bus. Hagerty says that both the long nose and the cab are aircraft-like, going as far as to describe it as “very Boeing 727,” but aside from the windshield, I don’t see it. A 727’s flight deck looks nothing like this and aircraft noses don’t tend to be so droopy.
Still, the interior is clever. Foerschler says Airstreams were used as a baseline and EMC also took inspiration from upfitters in the marine and private aircraft industries. This meant the Starfire got cabinets made of tambour, a material then commonly used in audio cabinetry. Storage cabinets were also made of form-fitting tubs rather than the typical joined pieces of laminated particle board and plywood found in the typical RV.
The high-end audio equipment didn’t stop there, as EMC fitted the Starfires with a Fujitsu Ten UM-132EX1 modular audio system. The $2,000 stereo system sported an AM/FM tuner, a cassette deck, a CD player, a 50-watt amp, and pre-amp graphic equalizer. It took up an impressive chunk of real estate on the dashboard, too. Check it out:
The Starfire also got a Star Alert system, which was a giant monitor for lighting and waste tanks with controls for the coach’s 4kW Onan generator (located under that huge hood), air-suspension, and an optional monitor for a rearview camera. Documentation I could find states that these coaches were available in 27-foot and 31-foot lengths, both sizes came with 51-gallon fresh water tanks and 50-gallon to 52-gallon waste tanks depending on floorplan.
Power came from a 460-cubic-inch Ford V8 or an optional 6.9-liter International indirect injection diesel. ElDorado advertised as much as 11 mpg, presumably with the diesel engine. That engine was backed by a Ford C6 transmission. Providing a cushy ride in the coach was an aforementioned air suspension and the 31-footers got a tag axle in the rear to handle the extra weight. Add all of the features up and ElDorado’s flagship motorhome was supposed to handle like a car.
The June 1987 issue of Popular Mechanics suggested that the coach was at least no slouch. As for pricing? Popular Mechanics said that the Starfire started off at “under $70,000” ($192,065 today), presumably for the 27-footer. The one featured in much of this piece was sold on Bring a Trailer in 2022. That 31-foot example had a base price of $83,135 ($228,104 today) before options. That pristine example sold for just $35,000.
This brings us to the Starfire David sent me. It is one of two I could find for sale in the entire country and the other one didn’t have pictures. This 1987 ElDorado Starfire is faded and dirty, but it shows potential. The seller says they purchased it five years ago to do a restoration.
Apparently, the seller made some progress, including replacing the air-conditioner and stove, then adding a solar charger of some kind. The seller then drove it around the block, discovered a carburetor leak, parked it, and removed the carb. That’s where it’s been since. So, it’s going to need carb work if you plan to drive it out of its current residence. The handful of blurry pictures show an interior that’s a little worn, but would probably look much better after a good cleaning. Be sure to flip through those pictures, it has shag carpeting in front of the toilet!
If you’re interested, the seller is asking just $5,900 for it, which seems like a reasonable price. You can snatch it up from the seller in Henderson, Nevada.
The RV That Couldn’t Save Its Maker
Sadly, the flagship Starfire couldn’t save ElDorado Motor Company and it’s estimated that the Starfire ceased production before or around ElDorado’s bankruptcy of 1988. In the few short model years it was in production, the Starfire sold a handful of units. I’ve seen estimates as high as 300 units, but Foerschler is confident that the company didn’t even make 100 of them. And of the ones that were built, some weren’t even motorhomes, but mobile offices and limos.
In the end, it seems like the ElDorado Starfire was a good idea, but it failed to revolutionize the RV industry. Today, most Class A coaches are the same old bricks pushing through the wind and it’s not often we see new motorhomes built around the idea of being good or fun to drive. Instead, RV builders still focus on the luxuries you will experience once you park. The ElDorado Starfire, like the Vixen 21 TD, exists in RV history as an innovative failure, and it’s one that makes us think what a modern interpretation of this idea would look like.
That said, if you do know who designed this coach, I would love to know! Drop me a line at email@example.com so I can stop falling down this rabbit hole.
(Top Image: Bring a Trailer Seller)
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