Class 8 Camping

| December 12, 2008

Kingsley Coach started with a Peterbilt 379 to make this truck-based RV.

Heavy-duty trucks are the latest “thing” in recreational vehicles. Although not a new concept, truck-based RVs are rapidly becoming preferred equipment for a wide range of outdoors enthusiasts.

The trend, a classic win-win situation, provides truck makers with a new outlet for their products and, at the same time, offers some muscular nameplates to an industry overpopulated with whimsical-sounding brands such as Kiwi, Georgie Boy, Lazy Daze and Rockwood Roo.

It’s hard to say who first converted a truck for camping – or when that was done – but the practice likely began shortly after trucks were invented. Thomas Edison reportedly built an RV on the back of a Ford truck chassis in the 1920s. By the ’60s, handcrafted “housetrucks” were a vehicular fashion statement among a select group of enterprising nonconformists who wanted to travel and commune with nature without contributing to the wealth of Winnebago and other such corporations.

Don Wright, an author and RV historian, says the first manufactured truck RVs emerged in the late 1970s, but these were all prototypes developed by small companies trying to establish a market niche. That effort was short-lived, however, largely because the units were too pricey for most buyers. “They were listed between $100,000 and $150,000 at a time when regular motor homes were selling for $25,000 or less,” Wright says.

Despite its commercial failure, the idea continued to spread among do-it-yourselfers throughout the 1980s. The growing popularity coincided with suspension improvements – air-ride rear axles, taper-leaf front springs – and the near-universal use of radial tires.

Today, homemade truck-RVs compete for campground space with “store-bought” models, and the numbers of both are increasing at a brisk pace. The appeal of these rigs is understandable, says Ralph Dickenson, founder of Middleburg, Pa.-based Kingsley Coach, the company largely responsible for establishing the truck-RV industry.

“Trucks are more solidly built than standard recreational vehicles,” he says. “The frames are sturdier; the engines are more powerful; and the components last a long time. Plus, they ride nicely but don’t lean much in wind and corners.”

Dickenson, an entrepreneur with a diverse background, attributes his start in the truck-RV business to country music singer LeAnn Rimes. He’d attended one of her concerts in 1996, driving his personal Peterbilt-based motor home. The rig attracted the attention of Rimes’ father, Wilbur, who promptly ordered three similar units. This was Kingsley Coach’s first sale.

A lot has changed in eight years, Dickenson says. At first, most of his customers were fleet owners or construction company officials who came in with their own trucks, nearly all of them used. “Now, though, about two-thirds of our builds are on new chassis, and we’re selling to retired investment bankers, lawyers and other white-collar professionals,” he says. “The concept has become more acceptable.”

As the market and clientele have evolved, so, too, has the number of creature features. Nowadays, GPS, satellite radio, collision avoidance, satellite-tracking systems and retractable plasma-screen televisions are just a few of the more commonly installed gadgets. This level of electronics, of course, has added to costs. Kingsley Coach recently delivered a motor home valued at $708,000, a record high for the company. Dickinson adds that it is possible to get a very nice model for “as little as” $215,000 to $225,000.

Obviously, any multiple of $100,000 is a huge amount of money for most people, and more than many would spend on a piece of equipment that generates no income. It is possible to acquire a truck RV for less than six figures, but that involves bargain hunting, backyard construction or both. Tom Warren is an expert in both fields.

Warren and his son, Tom Jr., operate a Diamond T restoration shop in Amarillo, Texas. Several years ago, the elder Warren bought a 1976 GMC General featuring a Cummins engine and, oddly, a Peterbilt AirLeaf suspension. He had a vague notion of someday converting the truck into a motor home, but he wasn’t exactly sure how. “At first, I thought about converting an old freight box and mounting that behind the cab,” he says. “But they’re usually pretty beat up, and the companies want too much for them.”

Weeks passed without any progress on the project. Then one day while scanning newspaper classifieds, he saw an ad for a used travel trailer. He bought the unit, thinking it could be reconfigured and somehow attached to the General. He eventually decided to construct a sub-frame to join the truck and trailer.

His next winning purchase was an abandoned Winnebago motor home, picked up for a scant $600. The derelict RV had only 27,000 miles on its odometer – plus it was fitted with an Onan electrical generator, which alone was worth several thousand dollars. The engine and transmission went into a school bus his son was restoring, and the generator found a new home on the General.

By the time Warren finished his truck RV – an eight-month effort – he’d spent just $15,000, roughly the price of a good, second-hand pickup truck. He figures that it’s one of the better investments he’s made. The rig is powerful (450-hp), economical (8 to 9 mpg), durable and remarkable. “Every time I stop somewhere, a crowd gathers,” he says. “Even when I’m fueling, it takes at least 30 extra minutes to answer all the questions.”

Allen Hodges of Wildomar, Calif., has the same experience when he tours with his 1985 Kenworth W900-based RV. “It’s amazing,” he says. “We’ll park next to million-dollar motor homes, yet people are all coming over to my rig, wanting to check it out.”

Hodges formerly owned a 34-foot gas-powered Bounder RV, but he wasn’t happy with it. “We had no horsepower and no braking,” he says. “Passing tractor-trailers would nearly blow us off the road. That thing was made for parking, not driving. In general, those kinds of vehicles will barely get you to a destination and barely get you back, but they’re fine while parked.”

Like Warren, Hodges mounted a used travel trailer on a truck chassis that he bought specifically for the application. “I had a vision,” he says, “but it wasn’t very detailed. We created a lot of it on the fly.” That method kept things fluid and interesting, but it also caused problems. “We hit a number of situations that simply stumped us, and we couldn’t go on without solving them.”

Hodges had previously built a dump truck and pumping unit for his concrete business, but he teamed up with his wife on the RV, a $60,000 project that consumed many evenings and weekends for 18 months. The couple did most of the work themselves and, in the end, produced a personalized vehicle that now matches their recreational activities.

Chuck Sterne embarked on a similar quest but took a slightly different approach. Sterne, co-owner of a California-based Peterbilt restoration shop called Courtland Truck Works, wanted an RV that was both historic – a promotion for his company – and futuristic, filled with the latest creature comforts. “Basically, it was intended to be a show truck,” he says.

Sterne drew up a floor plan for the rig’s living quarters and selected its appliances and fabrics, but he farmed out the construction to a nearby travel-trailer manufacturer. While that was underway, he and his partner Darrow Thomson began restoring the chosen truck, a two-axle 1954 Peterbilt 280. “It was an old dirt hauler and had been pretty well hammered,” he says. “We just started from scratch, ordering two new 35-foot frame rails.”

Once the old Pete was fully reconditioned, it was sent to the trailer builder where the new RV body was waiting. Sterne says the whole process spanned nearly a year and cost about $150,000, but he thinks it’ll all be worthwhile: a lot of fun and great advertising for Courtland Truck Works. “The level of attention this vehicle attracts is almost embarrassing,” he says. “It’s a great way to meet people.”

Sterne’s tricked-out antique truck chassis no doubt turns a lot of heads, but it also comes with a price: He estimates $50,000 to $70,000. RV-minded owner-operators could avoid this expense by using their old trucks for recreation after they’ve fulfilled their freight-hauling duties.

Dale Callen, a retired trucker from San Marcos, Calif., applied this theory in 1987, when he decided to convert a 1980 Peterbilt that his son had been driving. He refurbished and repowered the truck before deploying it as a pleasure craft, yet kept his total investment to roughly $120,000. “And that includes the original price of the truck, which had been in service for seven years,” he says.

Callen didn’t get involved in the actual construction of his RV. That chore was delegated El Cajon, Calif.-based Callen Campers, which his nephew headed at the time. He was, however, instrumental in developing the floor plan. He says a full-scale, detailed layout is critical to the job’s success.

“You should draw it out and put it in place,” he says, “then get under the truck to see if any components will interfere with things like steps, toilet and sink drains, holding tanks or the generator.” Once this is done, the RV body can be built anywhere, independent of the truck. Then, when the two are later mated, the risk of unpleasant surprise will be much lower.

The appeal of these ultimate “big boy toys” is spreading fast. At least one website, truckconversion.net, is devoted to this special class of vehicle. It’s hard to say how far the trend will continue, but there’s no reason to believe that it won’t go further as well-heeled, retiring baby boomers look for ways to spend their savings and travel in original style.


IS IT FISH OR FOWL?

Truck-based RVs are licensed the same as regular RVs. The fees vary by state.

In many states, the maximum legal length for any type of RV is 45 feet, the same limit as applied to motor coaches. At least one manufacturer, though, touts vehicles stretching to 50 feet.

Federal excise tax is required on all new commercial vehicles. FET doesn’t apply to RVs, however. Consequently, builders of truck-based RVs must often jump through narrow loopholes in the law – or rely on a friendly truck dealer – to avoid the tax when ordering new trucks from factories.

Drivers of vehicles heavier than 26,000 pounds (GVW) need commercial licenses. Designations (A,B, etc.) vary by state. Drivers must have an air-brake endorsement on their licenses to pilot any rigs with air brakes.


RESOURCES

Kingsley Coach
(877) 546-4759
www.kingsleycoach.com

Courtland Truck Works
(916) 775-1633
www.courtlandtruckworks.com

Tom Warren’s Vintage Trucks shop
(800) 374-3056

Butler Motorcoaches
(920) 386-4633
www.butlermotorcoaches.com

Century Custom Coach
(480) 688-8000
www.centurycustomcoach.com

NRC Modifications
(574) 825-3646
www.nrcmod.com

Renegade
(574) 848-1126
www.kibbi.com

Transport Designs
(570) 368-1403
www.transportdesigns.com

United Specialties
(574) 206-9406
www.unitedtrendsetter.com

WildSide
(800) 291-9453
www.wildsidellc.com

Dynamax
(888) 295-7859
www.dynamaxcorp.com

RV Salvage Links
bart.ccis.com/home/mnemeth

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