The obsession with the GMC Motorhome began for us when Brandon mentioned it over one of our random internet chats. As I recall, he had sent me a link to a vehicle up for auction by Salvation Army. At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. GMC Motorhome? From the 1970’s? It didn’t sound very cool, GMC is a pretty boring brand, generally speaking, known for their big commercial trucks. A quick Google search later and I realized it was not only cool, but there had never been anything made like it before, or since!
It has a design like no other RV, low to the ground, but with a non-square, tube-like body that makes you think more of an airplane than an RV (no coincidence since the body designer, John Locklin, was an Aeronautical Engineer). Front-wheel drive and independent rear air-leveled suspension with a total of 6 wheels. Curved body panels and sweeping, large panes of glass give it a futuristic look (now retro-future) that reminds you of a sort of space-ship before there were any to speak of. It was strangely familiar though, and I realized later that this same model was featured in Stripes with Bill Murray in 1981.
1981 however, was already after the demise of this machine. It was created at an unfortunate time, right before the oil crisis of the 1970’s which resulted in the contraction of production of large, gas-guzzling vehicles by federal mandate. No one had the budget to fuel a 10mpg motorhome down the freeway anymore, if you could even buy that much gas in the first place during the oil crisis. The GMC Motorhome was done. Produced for only 5 short years, only about 12,000 were made, and only some 8,000 are thought to exist today with probably many fewer in good working order.
Learning the history from various blogs and forums, I actually became obsessed with the thought that went into this vehicle, compared to the lack of thought that went into RVs that I was accustomed to. GMC seemed to have thought of everything, and this was the 70s! The large windows, low deck, creature comforts, and over 50 interior designs led by Home and Garden were all very inspired compared to the RVs I had seen or been inside.
The First Drive
I had a craigslist e-mail notification search running for “Painted Desert” since that’s all I knew this model of RV by…I wasn’t aware there were many “flavors” of GMC Motorhomes at the time, which explains my lack of initial search results. One came up on my e-mail alert and I quickly showed my girlfriend Linda and asked if she wanted to go check it out with me the next day in South Bay. We took a drive down to San Jose and met the two brothers who were selling it. It was their uncle’s RV. They had inherited it and taken their family on trips around California. It had 72,000 miles on it and started right up when we got there. This particular one had been upgraded to fuel injection, and seemed to be in pretty good condition. They had mentioned they took out the plumbing and gas, and had I known what a big deal this was, I probably would’ve waited to find another!
I texted Brandon, who was in Japan at the time, and we agreed to go in on it together and get working on restoring it when he got back. I put down a deposit and promised to come back in a few days with the rest in cash, for about $7,000 total. It felt like a great deal at the time, so much machine! A house on wheels! You couldn’t build a tiny house for that amount of money, and this one had a motor and could go anywhere!
It wasn’t exactly a bad deal, but after we took possession, it was pretty clear these guys had very poor taste, and did their “renovations” with the lowest budget in mind. Crappy linoleum floors that were already coming off on our drive to San Francisco, and really lazy patches over the existing holes in the body where vents used to be. This was all fine, since our plan was to renovate it and turn it into a projection of our style on wheels.
There are plenty of regrets in purchasing this one after doing what should have been due-diligence before purchasing. After finding out that “Painted Desert” wasn’t the only model, and there were in fact many other model names: Eleganza, Eleganza II, Palm Beach, Kingsley, Glenbrook, Sequoia, Canyon Lands, Glacier, and the Transmode (a “shell” version sold to outfitters), I felt like I jumped the gun a bit. Each of these designs marked the colors of the RV as well as the interior layouts and styles, with multiple layouts under each model name. In either case, this was our baby and we were going to make it good.
Coming fresh from our 5th Burning Man, we were definitely riding on a dream, and over the next couple months we shared many ideas of what we wanted to do with it when we had more time. We put her in storage in South San Francisco and got on with our lives while keeping the ideas flowing. The relatively blank slate left room for so many ideas.
The next few months would be challenging as we struggled with the reality of what lie ahead, and the costs of keeping a dormant RV around a dense city. The story will continue in our next post…