For those lacking the visionary powers of Nostradamus and H. G. Wells – which likely is most of us – predicting the shape of things to come can be fraught with difficulties. The recreational vehicle industry, just like its automotive counterpart, has certainly had its fair share of hits and misses. Michael Lathers’ revolutionary 1970’s era GMC Motorhome and John C. Crean’s groundbreaking Fleetwood Bounder, a decade later, did for the US motorhome sector what Wally Byam’s revolutionary Airstream travel trailer accomplished for the US towables market over three decades before. However, other ground breaking designs like Pontiac’s ill-fated Aztec SRV camper, Summit’s stunning Stiletto Fifth Wheel, Freightliner’s ecoFRED™ diesel-electric chassis and MVP’s “Winston” all-electric Class A platform failed to live up to their initial promise.
In spite of US dominance in the international recreational vehicle industry, in recent years the balance of power has swung towards more innovative European RV manufacturers. This is evidenced by the success of Germany’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platform here in the USA which was subsequently joined by Ford’s European Transit Van and Italy’s Fiat’s Ducato chassis. Small is the key in Europe though there are some superlative Class A motorhome manufacturers like Volkner Mobil and Ketterer Spezialfahrzeug both of whom offer mohos with integral car garages and full-length lateral slides. The Germans have also built some stunning Toterhomes including Concorde Reisemobile’s stunning 420hp Centurion 1200 RV.
On a continent where the Flxible™, Eagle™, and Blue Bird Wanderlodge™ once ruled supreme, the leading luxury motorhome chassis in the United States is currently manufactured by Swedish-owned and Canadian-based Prevost Car, Inc. Even Oklahoma-based Newell Coach turned to European-based Porsche Design when they decided to refresh the front end of their luxury motorhome line-up.
With few exceptions, the most radical and innovative designs are heading across the pond from east to west, and Germany’s Dethleffs are a case in point. The latter debuted their latest 177hp Class A diesel motorhome on the Fiat Ducato platform at the 2012 CMT show in Stuttgart, Germany. Designed by Michael Studer the Dethleffs “Evan” measures a mere 18.5 feet in length but still manages to sleep four by way of a lift bed under the roof of the cab as well as a 2-berth sleeper in the pop-top roof tent. The unit is notable for its exceptional use of the available interior space. It even incorporates a variable space bathroom!
One good reason for Germany’s Volkswagen Group to reconsider a return to the North American market would be Danbury’s revolutionary “DoubleBack” conversion of the T5 Transporter. Developed by mechanical engineer, Craig McCormack, the DoubleBack camper incorporates a remarkable 130kg telescoping rear Pod which, once deployed, adds almost 2 metres (6 feet) to the length of the vehicle. The pod can be used to provide an additional 2-berth bedroom (in addition to the pop-top sleeping berth) or can be configured for use as a seating or storage area.
In the absence of a US-built VW Transporter, off-road enthusiasts should check out the US-built XPCamper. Designed by German immigrant, Marc Wassmann, the XPCamper utilizes a tough, lightweight camper shell which incorporates a remote controlled hydraulic popup system and sports an exceptionally equipped interior. The XPCamper – which has the distinction of being the world’s first composite RV pop-up camper – was subsequently joined by the “V2,” a smaller clamshell designed XPCamper model that’s custom designed for compact trucks like the Toyota Tacoma.
Whilst overlanding isn’t confined to Germanic speaking nations they do appear to have a particular expertise in this area. Austria’s Action Mobil is best known for their gargantuan MAN KAT-based 8×8 AWD Desert Challenger, although the company actually manufactures a wide range of heavy duty RVs including the “7900,”a car carrying overland expedition vehicle based on its popular Atacama coach. In November 2011, Action Mobil began offering the same Atacama model on the Mercedes-Benz Zetros chassis. The twin-axle Zetros 1833A/4×4 – powered by the in-line six cylinder OM 926 LA turbo-diesel engine – can carry 10 tons whilst the 2733A/6×6 triple-axle variant can handle 16 tons.
The French made 4-berth BeauER 3x is a tin can travel trailer with a difference. Designed by Eric Beau and based on the popular AL-KO chassis, the 8-foot-long caravan incorporates two telescoping modules which extends the width of the travel trailer from 1.80 metres (5.9 feet) to 4.60 metres (15 feet) in the space of just 25 seconds. The company subsequently introduced two additional caravan models – the 3X+ (27m² with 2 bedrooms) and 3X++ (40m²with 3 bedrooms) – and a motorhome variant dubbed the 3XCC on Toyota’s “Dyna” diesel-electric chassis.
Germany also appears to be a breeding ground for pioneering travel trailer designs from Daniel Straub’s remarkable amphibious Sealander Schwimm Caravan to the retro masterpiece known as the T@B caravan. The former is powered by a 5hp electric motor and utilizes a monocoque glass fibre-reinforced plastic shell and a marine double-bottom for additional safety while the chic T@B caravan was designed in-house by the team at Knaus Tabbert whilst the exterior was crafted by Klüber design.
The United Kingdom has also been responsible for a spate of recent innovations in the global travel trailer market like IH Leisure’s stylish Monopod 660 and Fifth Wheel’s Inos with its integral slide-out. These stunning caravan and camping trailer designs were joined in late 2012 by a revolutionary camping trailer that was dubbed the “Tripbuddy” by its designer, Bill Davis. Similar in many respects to the NDA-Airstream Basecamp, Bill’s sleek camping trailer has helped introduce the RV and tent camping experience to a younger generation of outdoor enthusiasts.
The US has to re-learn that innovation is the only way to move an industry forward. Rolling out the same unimaginative products year after year is simply not an acceptable business model. The good news is that there are an increasing number of truly unique and inspired American RV designs. Two of the best have come from the drafting table of designer Dan Rodabaugh whilst Garret Finney’s pop-top cricket travel trailer – manufactured from aluminium composite panels and a laser-cut skeleton– is another example of a design that’s taken the US RV market by storm. This durable lightweight travel trailer – inspired by NASA’s SEV – was catapulted to stardom by an appearance on the Travel Channels’ Extreme RV show in January, 2012.
John S. Herrington once said of the United States that “there are no dreams too large, no innovation unimaginable and no frontiers beyond our reach.” Americans believed that once. They need to start believing again.
[This article, authored by Julian L. Gothard, was first published in North America’s leading RV industry publication: RV Business magazine]