Motor homes zoom back: gas prices stalled them; motel bills are giving them a boost

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Holiday travelers aren't the only ones cruising the roadways in recreational vehicles these days. Look a little closer at that RV barreling by: Is that a business executive and his wife? A salesman hauling his wares as well as his motel room?

They are catching on to what travelers have long known. It's often more economical, convenient, and comfortable to travel by recreational vehicle than it is to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.

It's one way to beat today's skyrocketing cost of accommodations for salespeople, lecturers, and others whose work keeps them on the road.

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Pulled into a rest area off a US Interstate highway is a motor home the size of a Greyhound bus. Inside are a traveling professional woman, her jack-of-all-trades mobile secretary, and even their dog, secure and fast asleep in their home on wheels.

One businessman whose wife travels with him says that since they switched from car travel to a modest-size motor home, he has cut his costs by 30 percent.

Nobody has done a survey to see whether this is a trend. But the feedback Art Becker (director of marketing for Kampgrounds of America Inc., the nation's largest campground franchise company) gets is that more and more businessmen are living in and working out of recreational vehicles.

For instance, instead of removing the back seat from Cadillacs and Lincolns and filling them with racks of samples, as clothing salesmen have done for years , today many are using RVs for their rolling displays. Peddlers of pro-golf and pro-tennis products like them for the same reason.

There are 6 million RVs on America's roads, owned by people firmly committed to the freedom of this life style. These vehicles are mainly for weekend pleasure jaunts and occasional long trips. Mr. Becker's guess is that about 90 percent are used for recreation, while a mere 10 percent are touring on serious business.

It costs from $5 to $15 for a full overnight hookup at most campgrounds. This includes taking on water, dumping sewage, and plugging into an electrical outlet. There are many amenities: laundry facilities, hot showers, swimming pools, children's playgrounds, etc. On Ohio Turnpike rest stops, which have full hookup facilities, the charge is a trifling $2 a night.

Compare those figures with the average cost of $58 a night the American Automobile Association estimates a family of four is paying this summer for lodging. In small towns this may drop to $43. In large cities it may zoom to $ 100. This helps explain the lure RVs have, not only for families seeking less costly vacations, but for working people who constantly ply the highways.

For many of the latter, however, travel-cost savings are incidental to the comfort, convenience, and yes, adventure of getting about in this self-contained way.

Sunup comes and those two women we left parked in an Interstate rest stop are on their way. What they drive is not the biggest, plushiest baby on the road. A 40-foot-long Blue Bird Wanderlodge made in Fort Valley, Ga., for instance, sells new for $283,000. These women eat, sleep, work, and travel in a 38-foot-long, 8 -foot-wide custom-built Newell Private Coach. In two years they have piled up 52 ,000 miles.

Every week they do their grocery shopping in a different supermarket. ''I never check into a hotel,'' the owner says. ''I very seldom eat a meal out. We eat well but simply - a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables, and salads. But we have refrigeration and full capacity to cook: a gas stove with four burners and a microwave oven. We take our own frozen meat with us. We have a large water supply on board (150 gallons' worth) so we can wash dishes. We live just like you do in a house.''

''I don't know that businessmen would be interested,'' she says, ''but another neat thing about this is that once a week when we have laundry to do, we find some big shopping center that has a good grocery store and a laundromat. One of us does five loads of laundry simultaneously; the other one does the food shopping. In one hour we've got all our groceries in, our laundry done, our beds remade, everything put back together, and we're on the road again. It's simple, and a lot of fun.At home it would take practically all day to do five loads of laundry.''

While the owner is busy working in her office, complete with desk, typewriter , and two shelves of books, her secretary is at the wheel, barreling down the highway.

This vehicle is not designed to accommodate a lot of people but to enable three people to function fully. ''I have my own pillow every night. My husband joins us about every two weeks for three or four days. Our room has wonderful twin beds in it that are very comfortable. There's a big shower, dressing area, all very private.''

It took the owner's husband about six weeks to teach his wife's secretary how to operate this 38,000-pound buggy and to trouble-shoot fuel pumps, water separators, etc.

''I feel it's an accomplishment to be able to wheel this thing around,'' she says. ''At first it intimidated me. But now it's fun. I've been in all kinds of traffic, from freeways and turnpikes to narrow streets in Philadelphia and old mining towns in Colorado. We've never been in any trouble.''

The coach carries 400 gallons of diesel fuel and gets 10 miles per gallon. So it can go 4,000 miles nonstop. Diesel fuel costs now range from $1.09 to $1. 40 a gallon in various parts of the United States.

The owner recommends this kind of travel for any businessman. ''I'm extremely interested in costs,'' she says. ''This unit is secondhand. I saw it advertised in a newspaper and got a nice buy on it. It's entirely a business expense. All of my payments are deductible, because this is my hotel, car, office, and restaurant. It's very practical.''

Only a small fraction of RV fans can afford to cruise around in this kind of luxury, but RVs come in many different styles and sizes, from the little pop-up folding camping trailers to the behemoths. Yet what most land rovers crave these days is fuel economy.

The industry has seen the writing down the middle of the road and has started introducing lighter, aerodynamically designed models that fit the bill. These lightweights appear to be be opening up a new era in RV design that may give the industry a less rocky road ahead than it has had in the immediate past.

RV sales have been on a roller coaster in recent years. It was only in the early 1960s that mobile homes (one type of RVs) went into mass production. Before then everything was custom made. Homes on wheels appealed to Americans' built-in wanderlust. The craze caught on quickly. Business boomed.

Then, pow! The 1973 Arab oil embargo dealt a heavy blow to this young industry. Sales shriveled as gas lines lengthened and oil prices rose. But that wasn't and still isn't the critical factor. Users of RVs like them so much they are willing to pay more for fuel, if they have to.Gas availability is the real key. It doesn't make sense to anybody to buy a vehicle if he can't find fuel for it.

As the 1973-74 gas shortage and recession eased, RV sales perked up. By 1978 manufacturers were again hitting their stride, churning out 526,000 units, almost up to the 1972 level of 583,000.

Then the turmoil in Iran in 1979 caused a new gas crunch. Interest rates soared. Under this double whammy, the RV business went into a tailspin. By 1980 shipments plummeted to 181,000, the worst year on record. All the big auto manufacturers in Detroit closed their operations that converted chassis into RVs.

Small manufacturers were hardest hit.In 1978, there were 135 manufacturers of motor homes. Today there are fewer than 70. The National Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, in Fairfax, Va., has lost half its 4,000 dealer members.

But now, unlike many businesses still caught in the current recession, RV manufacturing appears to be on the comeback again. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association reported last December that in the first eight months of 1981 sales increased 43 percent over the dismal record of the same period in 1980. Latest reports show this increase in wholesale shipments is continuing into 1982.

Industry experts attribute this resurgence to people's search for less expensive vacations, and to the fact that the new generation of lighter, more fuel-efficient models has begun reaching the market. The RV Industry Association reports that ''most manufacturers have increased their fuel efficiency 35 to 50 percent over the last 3 or 4 years.''

Winnebago Industries Inc., probably the most well-known mobile home manufacturer, is a pioneer in this trend.

''We realize that fuel economy is an emerging consumer requirement in vehicles,'' says Frank Rotta, Winnebago's director of corporate public relations. ''We've seen it in cars. So we've applied that logic to our motor homes. In April 1981 we began production of a new line of motor homes that are 3 ,000 pounds lighter than our regular models. We have radically redesigned them, from the wheels up.''

By streamlining boxy profiles, using lighter materials and diesel engines, ''Winnie'' has increased fuel efficiency of its new Warrior and Spectrum models up to 15 miles per gallon under good conditions, compared with 6 to 10 m.p.g. for a conventional motor home.

Rentals are infusing new hope in the industry, too. In the last few years foreign visitors to the United States have discovered that one great way to see America is through the windshield of an RV.

Just this spring the National Recreational Dealers Association formed a new division, called the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association. One of its main purposes is to develop high performance standards to assure renters of professional treatment by dealers.

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