For much of the 20th century, General Motors was at the forefront of design innovation in the widest variety of transportation devices. Nowhere was the company's spirit of ingenuity more evident than in the creative development, engineering, and marketing of the 1972 to 1978 GMC MotorHome program.
Although I have never taken a vacation in a recreational vehicle, not even a travel trailer, I have long been fascinated by all forms of what are essentially portable hotel rooms. When it comes to the most inventive recreational vehicles ever built, the leading candidates in my opinion are the revolutionary motorhomes GMC built from 1973 to 1978.
That's right, GMC. Now, I know what you're picturing: a motorhome built on a GMC chassis, not a GMC-designed and manufactured motorhome. But you would be just as wrong as I was when I first came across these classics. The 1973 to 1978 GMC front-wheel-drive motorhomes remain the only such recreational vehicles built in house by a major automotive manufacturer.
General Motors designed the GMC MotorHomes from the ground up at a time when America's car company owned 50 percent of the domestic market. In those heady days, no concept, no matter how outlandish at first glance, was beyond the company's grasp.
Designed to be a halo vehicle for the entire GMC line, the motorhome would leverage the expertise GM teams had accrued in designing and building both trucks and commercial buses. GM's experience with reinforced plastics literally underpinned the construction of the RV's space-age-looking body.
Powered by a modified version of the Oldsmobile Toronado's innovative big-block, front-wheel-drive drivetrain, the GMC MotorHome set standards for recreational vehicle design that remain unsurpassed.
Moreover, almost 35 years after the last unit rolled off the specialized assembly line, these classics of the American road have engendered a cult-like following among classic motorhome aficionados.
I discovered these unique vehicles almost by accident while on a knowledge quest for background information on the Cadillac Eldorado. (The Eldorado is related to the Toronado due to the similarity of their front-wheel-drive drivetrains.)
Unlike most of its contemporaries--boxes built upon a rear-wheel-drive truck chassis supplied by one of the Big Three--the GMC MotorHomes were built on a chassis specially developed for use as a motorhome. The GMC team constructed a totally integrated package that placed all drivetrain components up front, resulting in a flat floor just 14 inches above the road. Combined with a very low step-in height (about the same as a contemporary truck-based body-on-frame SUV), it broke away from all motorhome conventions of the time.
The GMC MotorHomes were powered by a front-to-back-mounted 455-cubic-inch Oldsmobile V8 (downsized to 403 cubic inches for the last two years of production, 1977-1978). The engine was combined with a GM-designed Turbo-Hydramatic 425 automatic transmission placed alongside the engine. The result was an extremely compact layout.
This marvel of packaging efficiency employed a wide chain drive to connect the output of the longitudinally oriented engine to
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