By JONATHAN WELSH Aug. 20, 2015 1:23 p.m. ET
BEFORE EMBARKING on a family road trip from his home in Red Bluff, Calif., to Pueblo, Colo., next month, Gary Bovee needs to do a few things: Check his vehicle’s oil, tire pressure and wiper fluid. He also needs to make sure the stove lights and the toilet flushes—and, oh yes, he plans to rebuild the front end with better brakes, stronger suspension parts and heavy-duty wheel bearings. So it goes when you have a luxury motor home that happens to be 37 years old.
Winnebago, General Motors, Airstream, Travco and other motor-home makers popular in the 1960s and 1970s are making a comeback, driven in part by people such as Mr. Bovee, who are snapping up decades-old models and restoring them to their kitschy glory, which often includes paint and trim in shades of orange, green and harvest gold. A network of clubs, forums, parts suppliers and service shops—like Good Old RVs,ClassicWinnebagos.com and Applied GMC—is making it easier to keep the old machines rolling.
Interest in vintage RVs is fueled by road-trip nostalgia and an improving economy but also mirrors an upswing in the mainstream RV industry, where shipments rose 5.5%, to 202,653 units during the first half of this year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Helping the uptick were a spate of new RVs with old-fashioned looks, like Winnebago’s Brave, a riff on its 1970s model. Trailer maker Shasta made a splash recently with replica of its 1961 Airflyte.
The appeal of classic models like the (original) Winnebago Brave, GMC Eleganza and Fleetwood Pace Arrow is partly that they’re relatively easy on the wallet. They typically start at a few thousand dollars for a fixer upper, whereas a new “Class A” rig of a similar size can cost $100,000 and up. That said, their fuel economy (six to 10 miles per gallon) is about the same as a modern gasoline-powered motor home (i.e., pretty terrible) and a few mpg short of a new diesel model.
While Mr. Bovee, a retired air-pollution control officer, acquired his cream-colored 1978 GMC Royale motor home free from a cousin seven years ago, the going rate for old Winnebagos and other vintage RVs in working condition and with a nice interior is $20,000 to $25,000. With fixer uppers, the new owner often winds up paying about the same amount to make all the fixes.
Low-slung with (relatively) aerodynamic styling, 70s-era GMCs like Mr. Bovee’s are in high demand. Meanwhile, Winnebagos, especially models from the 1970s, are coveted for their boxy shape with slanted front grilles and a prominent, protruding “eyebrow” above the windshield. The features make the vehicle look as though it’s leaning forward into the wind.
“They’re so cute,” said Jeff Barth, a Winnebago fan who works in product planning for Boeing in Seattle. Last October he found a 1973 Winnebago Chieftain in Spokane, Wash., with just 22,000 miles on the odometer. While the rig had nearly all its original parts and interior décor, it needed lots of work to make it roadworthy.
“The last time it had been driven was in 1984, so all of the rubber parts had deteriorated and had to be redone,” Mr. Barth said, adding that the tires alone cost $2,500. That was just the beginning. On its first “shakedown” trip, the camper’s starter failed. Mr. Barth was eventually able to track down a replacement part and a motor-home-friendly mechanic to install it.
But other parts of the RV also required attention. The work wound up costing about $3,900. This was in addition to the $6,000 or so Mr. Barth had already spent reconditioning the engine, transmission and other systems.
“It adds up fast,” he said, estimating that he has spent about $30,000 on the rig altogether. But now he has a reliable vehicle that’s sure to start conversations wherever he pulls up for gas. The Chieftain was especially attractive because of its period-perfect interior, including “crazy orange” shag carpeting, Mr. Barth said.
Motor homes have been around almost as long as automobiles. One of the earliest, a modified 1916 Ford Model T pickup called a “telescoping apartment,” is at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Ind. It has slide-out compartments that expand its 16 square-feet of cargo area to a space large enough for a mattress and additional storage. The design foreshadows modern RVs that maximize space with sliding walls, said museum president Darryl Searer.
“The retro trend is really catching on,” Mr. Searer said, noting that older RVs are getting difficult to find even in junkyards because their spare parts are increasingly in demand.
The RV industry has gone through numerous cycles of boom and bust, but the 1960s and early 1970s were especially good times that saw advances in the vehicles that made them attractive to a widening range of customers who wanted to “camp” without having to sacrifice the comforts of home. Ads for Allegro motor homes around that time used the tagline “Roughing It, Smoothly.” GMC touted that its models, which had front-wheel drive and cushy adjustable air suspension, didn’t ride like trucks—a barb at rivals who built campers on truck chassis.
Many longtime vintage-RV enthusiasts say they expect a new crop of younger owners to keep the trend going, though the culture of the hobby is changing.
“The newer people seem to get together in smaller groups and take shorter trips, probably because they aren’t retired and their time is limited,” said Frank Condos, a retired aerospace engineer and member of the GMC Western States club. “There are younger folks coming into it, but they aren’t joiners, so membership in the clubs isn’t necessarily growing.”
Mr. Condos said Facebook and other social media have partially replaced the in-person gatherings that previously brought like-minded RV drivers together. For example, there’s a Classic GMC Motorhome Facebook page that has attracted more than 1,500 members since starting about a year ago. “If you go to that page, people are asking the same questions, like ‘Where do I find spare parts? or ‘How do I fix my generator?’ ” he said. “It’s familiar.”