Rare Vehicle Sighting: 1973-78 GMC Motorhome

By Chris Haak

08.22.2009

img_0344While on vacation at the beach in Delaware this past week with my family, we obviously happened to see many different sizes and types of RVs – large and small, old and new, Class A and Class C motor homes, and travel trailers.  But the one that we saw on our last evening at the beach was unique enough to inspire me to write about it.  It was a nicely-restored 1970s GMC Motorhome, and I was immediately reminded of how fond I’ve always been of these unique vehicles.

The GMC Motorhome showed the creativity and forward thinking that made GM the market leader in the US for most of the 20th century.  Troublingly, it also sold in relatively small volumes and is rumored to have not made money for GM during its six years in production.

gmc_motorhome_chassisDesign and engineering work on the GMC Motorhome began in 1970, and the prototype was displayed for the first time in spring 1972, with a 1973 model year on-sale date.  Although its configuration was (and still is, in large part) nearly unheard-of in the RV industry, the Motorhome utilized many areas of GM’s in-house expertise and existing components.  For example, it was front wheel drive – unlike other motorhomes – with a front suspension design and drivetrain borrowed from the Oldsmobile Toronado.  The Toronado also donated its 455 cubic inch V8 engine.  The front wheel drive configuration was a pretty intelligent way to improve both space efficiency (no need for a driveline tunnel or truck-based ladder frame) and handling performance (the rear wheels were attached to independent swing arm suspension, which allowed engineers to lower the vehicle’s center of gravity significantly compared to a standard motorhome.)

gmc_motorhome_cutaway_viewPitting the old GMC’s spec sheet against a Dodge Sprinter-based Class C 2009 Fleetwood Icon 24 foot RV is an interesting exercise.  The GMCs were available in 23 or 26 foot configurations and were 8′ 1″ tall without a roof air conditioner, and 9′ 2″ feet tall with the air conditioner.  The 2009 Icon is 11′ 4″ tall with a roof air conditioner.   The GMC was 96″ wide, while the Icon is 91.5″.  Finally, the 23′ GMC had a 140″ wheelbase, the 26′ GMC had a 160″ wheelbase, and the 24′ Fleetwood Icon has a 170″ wheelbase.  The bottom line on the measurements is that the GMCs ride far lower to the ground than does a modern RV, yet probably handled decently well with their wider track and independent suspension.

gmc_motorhome_intThe body of the GMC Motorhome was a combination of aluminum and fiberglass-reinforced plastic (similar to what has been used in the Corvette) for a rust-free body.  The interior was available in multiple configurations, but at its most fundamental level, the GMC Motorhome was meant to be more about the journey than long-term camping comfort.  The upside of this decision was that the Motorhome had giant expanses of glass area that made the vehicle really easy to see out of (for an RV), but the downside was that they were fairly short for motorhomes, and original configurations did not have permanent sleeping areas.  Instead, other furniture (such as the dinette) had to be converted to a bed each evening.  Also, as originally configured, the GMC Motorhome had only an automotive-grade battery that lasted only a short period before needing a recharge; a deep-cycle marine or RV-type battery would have given longer battery life.

my_gmcThe now-iconic shape of the GMC Motorhome, to my eyes, has aged extremely well.  Without knowing that it’s a design that the public first saw in 1972, and in an example that was renovated to eliminate the 1970s color schemes, it’s easy to believe that it boasts a more modern shape than many current RV offerings do.  The cylindrical shape likely helps somewhat with crosswind mitigation, but also serves to cause some interior space compromises.  Likely because of the longevity of the body shell (and the Motorhome’s aluminum body framing), many owners have chosen to upgrade their Motorhomes to modern specifications.  Based on a quick scan of the cell phone photo that my wife took of this particular GMC, I’m guessing that it has gone through the upgrade treatment.  The color scheme looked more 1990s than 1970s, it had later-model taillights (which screw into the original openings perfectly), and it had a satellite TV dish on the roof.  Of course, I couldn’t see the interior, but I’m assuming that if its owner bothered to install satellite TV and a full exterior rejuvenation, that the interior was also brought up to modern standards.

Over the Motorhome’s six-year model run, 12,921 units were produced.  It is estimated that between 8,000 and 9,000 of them are still on the road today, many of which have shed their 1970s-style avocado green exterior striping and interior trim for something more contemporary, as did the owners of the example that I spotted while on vacation.  (N.B. – the avocado green motif was just one of many color palettes available, though perhaps no color better illustrates 70s fashion sense – or nonsense – than it does).

In the past few weeks, we’ve chronicled some of the vehicles – like the Chevrolet Vega and Oldsmobile Diesel – that were some of the main reasons GM wound up in bankruptcy court earlier this year.  It’s heartening to see that, even in the malaise era of the mid 1970s, GM was still building some cool vehicles – even if they didn’t make the company any money.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Note: Thanks to gmcmotorhome.com for much of the historical information used above.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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33 Comments

  1. Wow, I have never seen a restored motor home, much less one operating on the road. Didn’t know people even did that.

    But I guess that makes sense. I’ve seen restored farm tractors and restored electric Cushman trikes and restored Chris Craft, so why not motorhomes?

    Sure, I can hang with that. Would have liked to walked around inside the thing.

  2. Although it’s more expensive becaus it’s a much bigger vehicle, it’s easier to re-fit a motorhome than to restore a car.

  3. I wonder how many tenths of a mile per gallon this baby gets.

  4. My GMC is a 79 it is all aluminum and fiberglass it weighs about as much as a cadillac (less than 5000lbs).
    Towing My Toyota race car on a trailer I still got 19mpg on the road at an easy 65-85 mph.

  5. Great Pictures, I am having a 73 gmc motorhome restored, and wonder if you have anymore pictures of the inside plumbing,cabnets,stove, sink area, as this has all been removed and has to be replaced, and I’m not sure how it should be replaced, thanks Jan

  6. If you’re interested in the GMC motorhome, you should visit http://www.gmcers.org. From there you can gain access to the great world of the GMC. There are, literally, thousands of them still on the road, MANY of them in excellent original or restored condition. There are dedicated clubs all across the country having dozens of rallies annually. Almost any part for maintenance of them is immediately available and more parts are continuously becoming available from dedicated support organizations. It probably better supported than any new motorhome. The 73-78 GMC is owned by more FMCA members than any other motorhome. You’ll be amazed at the camaraderie and enthusiasm of the group. Ken H.

  7. Smotri, A GMC motorhome will get between 8-10 mpg.

    Warren G, What model do you have as I have never heard of a GMC that weighed anywhere near 5000 lbs and I’d sure like to know what you did to your engine to get double the mileage!

    Janet, Do a Google search for GMC Motorhome and you’ll find all kinds of links!

    Regards,
    Rob Mueller

  8. I maintain the GMC Registry and have tracked down history on over 7,900 GMCs. Many owners report from 8-10 MPG easily and occasionally 11-12 MPG with the 23′ version.
    There are many sites to enable owners to restore, refurbish or customize these beautiful classics. Check out Links at my web site, Jan for leads on what a stripped down interior looks like. You can find many ideas on how to lay out your interior at http://www.gmcmhphotos.com/
    Happy Trails and Happy New Year! Dave

  9. Warren G’s ’79 fiberglass GMC weighing 5,000 lbs is probably one of those Blazer Chalet rigs. There was a GMC version too. Even if it were one of those, my old 1980 Blazer never got over 10mpg back in 1982!

    Another good place for GMC MH info is http://www.bdub.net. has the most links.

    I have a ’77 26′.

  10. Your article mentions a single battery. Actually there are 3 or 4 batteries in a GMC motorhome depending on year. One for the engine, two high capacity deep discharge ones for running the house systems, and on some early GMCs a small one for starting the 110 volt generator. All of these can be charged from the engine, shore power (220volt 50 amp) or with the built in 4 to 6 KW Onan generator.

    Some more sites for you:
    http://www.gmcmi.com
    http://gmcws.org
    http://gmceast.com

    There are at least 10 or 12 more sites of local clubs serving the US and Canada.

    Here are two vendor / repair facility sites:
    http://www.gmccoop.com
    http://www.appliedgmc.com

    There are also many more GMC motorhome facilities and suppliers spread across the the US and Canada.

    I own a 1976 26′ Palm Beach GMC. Highway mileage is right 10 mpg at freeway speeds.

  11. It’s not cheap to fully restore a GMC Motor Home. I have a 1976 Royale that was converted to its original state by Coachmen. Jim Bounds (GMC Co-op) restored the coach to a totally modern state for a cost of well over $100K. If that seems expensive, compare it to the cost of new rigs and this one is done to my specs including a satellite dome and leather upholstery. I’ve had mine on the road for around 5 years since the restoration and have averaged around 5-8000 miles/year and have been completely around the US. Don

  12. I love these things! Glad I found this article. I think these motorhomes have great design elements.

  13. In May ’73 our 23′ was being built as I was graduating from high school. We finally got to take possession of her in March ’07. She was used but not abused all those years and someone along the way loved her as she had some decent upgrades. The last couple years my husband and I have had a blast improving her even more. ( I love the “man mall”) Belonging to the GMCMH community is awesome-so much help. MPG-he gets about 12, I get about 10- hey, I love to hear that Qjet kick those secondaries-what a rush! Carbon footprint be damned my other vehicle is a Scion xB for 350 days of the year! We love our almost 12,00 pound hot rod with plumbing. Yes sir, she’s more fun than a ’55 Chevy—bigger back seat ; ) Google GMC motorhome and you’ll be wanting one for yourself-we’re glad we did.

  14. I have a 1974 Glacier. The original interior has been removed and upgraded to a more color acceptable palate for todays RV’er.

    The 455 is a sweet engine and the ride is like that of a luxury car, thanks to the airbag suspension in the rear and torsion bar suspension in the front.

    The GMC is still available in many levels of condition which reflects on the price asked.

    Though some folks will have the upgrade contracted out for unimaginable mounts of money, it can be upgraded by the owner at a substantial, more affordable, cost savings. The original interiors were color matched to the colors of the 70′s, and though at the time they were very popular, todays RVers ,unless you are still living the 70′s mindset, prefer a more modern color palette .

    There is a huge following for the GMC MotorHome and even a support group that no other RV brand has or probably ever will enjoy.

    The comfort and styling built in by GM has far surpassed any designs from the 70 era and still running around on the streets of America today.

    GMC MotorHome clubs are in abundance and ralleys are held almost monthly, where good company, good times and seminars about GMC MH systems abound. The information base on the GMC MH is Huge, you can learn about almost anything you may need to know these days. The GMC community is more family than a vehicle ownership group.

    When not on the road, this “family” keeps in contact on the web and all keep abreast of seminars, upgrades and general commeraderie.

    The GMC, as it is today, stands for a quality product, and a compfortable place to stay when on a trip. THE GMC is more part of the family then anyone might imagine, more than just a plan on the drawing boards.

    Thanks for the artical… I enjoyed the ride.

  15. These things cannot be any more retro-cool. Unbelievable! I am now in love with these vehicles. I don’t have that much free time, but I’ve got enough money to spec out one of these up right, and now that I’ve discovered that such a thing exists, I’m really thinking about it.

    I am completely digging the GMC motorhome. Very nice. Thanks for this article.

  16. Great post! Did not know any of this before, and these are interesting vehicles. GMC did a good job with their motorhome.

  17. So many people, including car guys are unaware of these great vehicles. Thanks for the article.

  18. I just bought a 1977 Palm Beach 3 weeks ago and
    got it up and running good.The thing rides like
    a dream! It has a 403 engine with a rebuilt
    transmission and runs great.It has the original
    interior in pretty good condition and a 6KW Onan generator with 2 roof air units.
    I have only driven it about 60 miles so far to
    get it to a RV repair facility to get some of
    the details fixed.
    I am very excited and high on this unit!!

  19. Hello everyone my name is APOLLO and I work for a company located in Freemont, California, that does repairs and restorations on these beautiful coaches. Its called APPLIED AIR FILTERS/GMC and they are one of the biggest warehouses/distributors this side of the Mississippi. Anyone with one of these GMCs knows how great they are, and my boss JIM KANOMATA would love to be the guy to keep the life on your beautiful coach going. SO if u have any questions or need some parts or just plain good old service don’t hesitate to give us a call @ 1800-752-7502.

  20. iv been looking for a good one for a wile …. GOT ONE .. i love this thing … cooler than all others .. ppl seem to be drawn to it like junebugs to a flame she is 26′ and rides better than my ladys minivan … have allways been a mopar fan …but the olds 455 is a close second (had a few 442s back in the day) ….. will never sell her perfict weekend party rig

  21. o ,, btw .. did i mention i payed 450 bucks for it and drove it home ???

  22. Can any of you GMC Motorhome owners tell me whether these units will tow an 8,000 pound trailer?
    Thanks.

  23. I have a 1975 gmc that said on the side of it that it’s a birchaven. I found out that it’s a rare AVION. I drove it to the beach two years ago and got 14.6 MPG .That with no water in holding tank and air pressure at 65 psi.I have reworked the front end with all new parts. it drives great and rides good.Have done about 5gs of work on it.

  24. GMC made a small bus version of this that was not advertised etc. It was as good or better than the Sprinter that is selling very well. Why??? Small busses abound around airports and on small group trips. Most are made on one or two ton truck chassis and have zero handling qualities. The GM bus had its problems {high repair cost} but did look great and had decent handling. Wish it was still here

  25. I have a 76 GMC Eleganza II. While I agree with people that you do have to get all mechanical systems updated and working and maybe upgrade sound systems and such the only thing I seem to disagree with is that most who own them want to drastically change the exterior color, interior layout and color scheme. You wouldn’t do that to a classic car during a restoration. I actually love the original interiors and the simple lines of the original stripes. I can’t think of one original interior that couldn’t be made to look a little more modern just by changing curtains, throw pillows and carpet if your upholstery and cabinets are in good shape. These motorhomes sported full body Imron paint which in my opinion should be kept original if repainted. Nothing excites me more than seeing one of these with it’s original paint and interior. I’ll always pass up the opportunity to see the interior of a remodeled GMC if there is an original one that I can see instead. I’ve tried to keep mine as original as possible and keep that 70′s look. People always comment on how nice and modern it looks. The Eleganza II interior was brown/beige. I kept most of that and added some burnt orange. Looks great and very modern. I have always thought that the Glacier could be improved on slightly just by adding some additional colors. I love the teak paneling in those and that blue and green fabric which is coming back in style. Just add some brown carpet, brown, lime green and blue throw pillows. Change the stripping to dark blue/brown/lime green but keep the light blue paint and it would look like it stepped out of House and Garden Magazine, which, by the way, the original interior did. Most motorhomes today do not have a unique style and all seem to have the same basic look. The GMC was very stylish. To me when a person says they have a Glacier it’s not really a Glacier if it has been completely changed from the original color scheme. It is just a GMC. The color scheme is what made the name. That goes for Canyonlands, Sequoia (the green one pictured in the article), Royale, Birchaven, Painted Desert, Glenbrook, Kingsley, Edgemont, Crestmont, Palm Beach and others that I may have forgotten. Long live the GMC! (with original color shceme, of course!) :)

  26. Bought a 78 Royale in May 2010. Have always loved the GMC. Probably paid a little too much ($11,750) but I wanted a Royale with the walnut cabinets and I wanted a center kitchen model. I just got done with the repaint and now I kind of think the just maybe the GMCs looked best with orignal scheme and colors. I am redoing interior and money seems to be flying out the door. Just wish I had been a little better educated befoe I bought the thing and had looked a little closer at things like the silicone that was everywhere (takes forever to get off) and then there was some body damage I did not see. It has a 455 versus original 403. What is the the difference between the two in terms of power and MPG???? If anyone knows please reply in that I am looking at another royale that has a 403. I want to do another one and rebuild everything…..
    Jim

  27. GMC was a good motorhome but take a look at the starfire built by eldorado 1986 to 1989 very nice and still in a good condition restord at 90% if want a picture let me know

  28. Great article, great vehicle. Retro-Cool to the max.

  29. This is the coolest looking motorhome ever made.

  30. 1974 masda mini 160 just bought it in orginal shape and pretty good.motor is 350 small block and beside need for outsid up date it just great

  31. Dodge had something very similar to this, saw one in Bowman, ND in March of this year. Way cool, had a lot of miles on it for sure.

  32. Just bought a ’78 GMC used for $1800 used. This one has been garaged, and looks like new, inside and out. The previous owner took real good care of it, and I am lucky to have it. It reminds me of the ’73 unit, my grandparents had, when I was a child, and I thought it, at the time to be way ahead of it’s time. The only reason I ended up with this RV, is the man died, and his family did not want to be bothered with it. Very rare indeed, and I can’t remember the last time I have seen one on the road, either.

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