BY Jim Bounds—A few years ago I wanted to keep camping with the wife and kids, but tent camping was no longer an option. We were a young family with 3 kids, and the logistics of camping (i.e. keeping the kids clean, evening temperatures get cold, bathroom convenience, beds that don’t give you a sore back when you wake up, etc.) was getting tougher to manage. So what were my — and your — options?
The conclusion that a lot of young families come to is – buy an RV. And if you are like me, you don’t have a lot of money, and you can’t afford to lose the little you have on a depreciating, occasional use recreational vehicle. A new entry-level class C motorhome will easily set you back $45k, and in just a few short years it will be worth less than $20 on the open market. Trailers (or towables as they are sometimes called) are an option, but they are not very good for camping in campgrounds without at least electric hookups and showers. In windy conditions towing can be downright scary at times. If after weighing the different RV options you came to the conclusion that a motorhome would best suit your needs, then a GMC is definitely worth considering.
What makes the GMC Motorhome special?
Why would a young family want to buy a motorhome that is about as old as you are? That’s a very good question. If you have gotten this far in your search on the web, you probably fall into one of several categories: 1) You stumbled onto this crazy old motorhome that kinda looks cool and the price is right; 2) You remember seeing one of these things when you were a kid and thought, ‘Man, that’s cool!’; or maybe 3) You have an attraction to eccentric things, and don’t mind projects that can be technically challenging.
The Driving Experience
There is a lot of information on the web on GMC motorhomes, so I will not bore you and replicate it here. Suffice it to say, the GMC motorhome is in a class by itself. It was designed from the ground up to be a different kind of motorhome. Using the powerful Olds Toronado powertrain with front-wheel drive allowed the whole rear of the coach to sit much lower to the ground for better aerodynamics and greater stability. The rear suspension put the tires in tandem for less intrusion on internal space, greater stability, a more comfortable ride, and adjustability for different loading conditions. And, when you get to your camping spot, the rear suspension is adjustable so that you can level out the motorhome.
What you get with all of this is a motorhome that drives like no other. Some owners compare theirs to driving a van, and I would wholeheartedly agree. It drives smooth and is not buffeted by the wind like much higher profile vehicles. This makes getting there much more enjoyable. In fact, I often take mine out for the weekends to run errands because I enjoy driving it so much. At 26 feet, it isn’t overly long, making it easy to maneuver and park. At just about 9 feet 6 inches tall it can even fit under things that the other cannot. It gets around 10 mpg, which is about the same as a large SUV.
Be sure and drive one before you purchase that Class A or Class C motorhome. It will be an eye-opening experience.
Even though they are more than 25 years old, they have all of the comforts of more modern RV’s (i.e. air conditioning, power steering and brakes, cruise control, etc.) And, as these systems needs repairing or upgrading there are a myriad of options out there and parts are readily available. There is a whole network of owners who are out there on the internet to offer advice, and that has proven invaluable to me (GMCnet and GMCMI.org).
Some GMC interiors were designed, built and installed by GMC, while others were sold as an empty chassis to other motorhome outfitters, and still others have been updated or had frame off restorations that modified them to their owner’s wishes. Whatever your taste and family needs, there is a GMC interior out there to meet it.
My particular model is a stock 1978 Eleganza II, which means that it is 26 feet overall, has a sofa and dinette up front, and a pair of settee sofas that face each other in back. GMC’s (with interior’s outfitted by GMC) were intended to have all of the sitting areas convertible to sleeping areas to maximize space and increase the enjoyment of getting there.
I don’t know of another RV that has so much capacity in a 26 foot chassis. When it is time for bed, the sofa converts to bunk beds (which the kids always fight for, but can even accommodate adults over 6 feet tall easily), the dinette folds out into a twin bed (nearly a full size), and the rear settees fold into a full size bed. That means that it can sleep 5 or 6 comfortably. For tailgating parties at the stadium we can seat a total of 13.
Other interior features of the standard 26 foot GMC interior include 7 cubic foot refrigerator/freezer, ducted heat, dual roof air (some have only 1), 2 powered roof vents (one in the bathroom and one above the dining area) 6 kW generator (some only have 4kW), 3 or 4 burner stove/oven combo with fan and lighted hood vent, wet bath (shower and toilet occupy the same space), motor-aided hot water heater (water heated by the engine coolant, besides the normal electric element).
In addition, my coach has the optional locking gun cabinet in back (which I use for fishing poles), a rear ladder and storage pod for bring extra items, the optional stainless steel convection microwave in place of the oven (made by Thermador no less! These GMC’s are high class!), the optional central vacuum system (which works very well for us, and you all know how dirty things get when you take the kids camping), a towing package (which is mostly used to bring bikes along or a platform for firewood and such), an 18 foot outside awning, 15′ LCD TV, DVD player, deployable outside antenna, and outside spare tire carrier.
One of the nice things that you notice inside the GMC is the openness of the floorplan. It is very well thought out. The windows are extra large and the windshield wraps around the front of the coach, providing everyone with commanding views of the scenery as you drive. The rear of the coach has that very large signature rear window which is great to wake up to in the mornings. On a recent trip to Yosemite we backed the coach right up to the Fresno river, and awoke to see and hear the river each day.
Living with the GMC Motorhome
We have found that traveling in the GMC has given us opportunities to be together and spend time as a family in a way that traveling by car just does not afford. Our last summer vacation we went up the California coast through the redwood forest and up the Oregon Coast. Truly an epic trip that the whole family will remember. It drives so nice, and there is so much space to stretch out inside and get comfortable. Having the portable bathroom works well too.
On another recent trip through central California in over 100 degree temperatures we traveled comfortably with the generator running, and both roof airs on. Set up at the campsite is very simple, allowing you more time to enjoy the outdoors and less time setting things up. Even loading it before a trip takes very little time.
GMC’s require upkeep and repairs, but I have come to discover that all of my friends that have RV’s including those that have bought new motorhomes have problems within the first few years of ownership. In other words, all RV’s require constant maintenance and upkeep, so be prepared to spend money on a regular basis to keep it running. A good benchmark for a GMC is about $25k for a good looking, mostly restored, reliable motorhome. If you find one for $15k, you can expect to spend another $10k to go through the whole coach to make sure that it is safe and reliable. If you do the work yourself it could be less.
You might be concerned that GMC repairs are more expensive and the parts harder to find than newer motorhomes, but I have found that this is not the case. As a matter of fact, you can find interior and exterior replacement parts for GMC’s much more readily than other motorhomes because of the large following that they enjoy. Oftentimes I have found guys that are willing to give me the interior parts I need for free if I pay for shipping. I told you these guys that own these things are great!
Mechanically, you can still get engine and other parts at auto parts stores. In addition, if you don’t find yourself to be very handy mechanically, or if you’re like me and aren’t allowed to work on cars in front of your house per the association rules, there are many mechanics out there that can work on GMC’s, because the engine, transmission, ignition, and other components are all still available and were used for some time by GM. Many GMC owners do their own repairs, as such have become GMC experts.
A lot of these guys will help you perform repairs, do the repairs for you for decent prices, hold repair clinics for several owners at a time, or even conduct rallies where lots of GMC owners get together and share stories. Several GMC owners sell parts that improve the parts that they replace or have started their own companies to manufacture and sell GMC parts. I have found them all to be very helpful and to charge reasonable prices, comparable to what you would expect to pay for a similar part on another motorhome brand if it needed repair.
Some Final Thoughts
If you are a young family that enjoys the outdoors, buying an RV can be a good investment in spending quality time together. Consider the alternatives to buying a new RV to avoid the depreciation, and you will soon discover that the GMC motorhome is a good investment ‘ a well engineered and timeless design, that will last for years to come.
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Guest contributor, Jim Bounds, writes and publishes videos and technical articles about GMC Motorhome; explores its history; and takes the reader through some of the more challenging restoration projects he and his team have worked on over the years.