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.”

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