Buying a motorhome off a dealer’s lot is like buying a suit off the rack: Aside from a few minor alterations, what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get. But what if everything you’ve seen doesn’t quite fit with the way you plan to use your new motorhome? Maybe you’d like your coach to do double duty as a mobile office or showroom. Or perhaps you’d like each of your two teenagers to have their own rooms on a yearlong cross-country adventure. Those options and many more are out there, making it possible to drive off into the sunset in a motorhome that’s the equivalent of a finely tailored garment.
Nips & Tucks
When it comes to getting what you want in your next motorhome, there are essentially three basic approaches. Which one is right for you depends on what you’re looking for, from minor tweaks of an existing floorplan to a full-scale custom unit created to your exact specifications. The easiest and least expensive plan of attack is to fully explore the range of options already offered by mainstream manufacturers. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, make a point to ask your dealer if the manufacturer is willing to accommodate customer requests for changes beyond what’s listed in the product brochure.
This approach can be especially fruitful if you’re shopping for a high-end motorhome. Ken Williamson, who helped develop the special order process at Fleetwood RV’s upscale American Coach division, says that a high percentage of the company’s four models, which range in price from the $240,000 American Tradition to the $550,000 American Heritage, incorporate at least one special modification requested by the buyer.
“We have five people on staff here at the factory who do nothing but work on special orders,” Williamson explains. “They range from drafters to a buyer who handles nothing but ‘special-build’ parts, to a man on the production line whose job it is to make sure that these customer requests are being handled correctly.”
Despite having a process in place to handle special orders, Williamson points out that the company’s plant is still centered around a traditional production line, and so has certain builtin limitations.
“We need to keep the units moving through the factory,” he explains, “but we try to take a good look at every request, and if we can do it without disrupting production, we usually will.”
If it turns out that the ideas you’d like to incorporate in your next motorhome are so off-the-wall that no mainstream manufacturer is willing to build it, don’t give up hope. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a number of smaller manufacturers who are ready, willing and able to turn your dream rig into a reality. Many offer a choice of several basic motorhome designs that you can customize with everything from a few personal details to a completely unique floorplan.
“We’re kind of the last resort for customers who are looking for things that the big RV companies don’t offer,” says Eliseo Rodriguez, co-owner of Elkhart, Indiana-based Euro- Liner. “People who dry-camp a lot ask us for large battery banks and solar panels; others might be looking for a two-bedroom motorhome, or for one with a rear garage that will hold a couple of Harley-Davidsons or a small car, like a Mazda Miata.”
Even with the greater flexibility this manufacturer offers, however,there are limits, according to Rodriguez. Safety, for example, always takes precedence over a customer’s requests.
“We can do just about anything a customer could want, but the one thing we won’t do is to build a unit that doesn’t meet RVIA (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association) or DOT (Department of Transportation) standards. We’ve had people who asked for things that weren’t good ideas from a safety standpoint, and we had to tell them we couldn’t help them.”
Form Follows Function
While multiple bedrooms and rear garages give some idea of the range of possibilities, they’re far from the only reasons you might want to seek out a custom manufacturer.
“We’ve done our share of unusual floorplans, but we also get a lot of business from full-time RVers who’ve discovered that most motorhomes aren’t designed to stand up to the wear and tear of full-time use,” says Paul Hill, owner of PHC Inc. in Ashburn, Georgia. “For them, we can create a rig that includes things like a much-heavier frame, a longer-wearing grade of carpet and a higher density of foam in furniture that’s not going to begin to break down after being used every day for a year.”
People with disabilities, or those who are just getting older and find they could use a little help getting around now and then, may also want the services of a custom-coach builder.
Designer for a Day
Each manufacturer will have a slightly different approach to helping you create a motorhome with the special features you’re looking for. The one thing they all have in common is that they rely on you to play a vital role in the initial design process.
“Most people have looked around a lot before they come to us, and they usually have some idea of what they want,” says Hill. “So I ask them to give me some kind of rough floorplan sketch — even if it’s scribbled on a restaurant napkin — and a listing of features they know they want. If they can do that, we should be able to take it from there.”
While the process is fairly straight forward from the buyer’s perspective, creating a custom coach from scratch involves countless decisions, large and small. That means you should plan on spending a few days at the plant to help work out details, such as design features, optional equipment and upholstery, flooring and paint choices. From the point where all the details are agreed upon and everyone has signed on the dotted line, you can expect the actual construction process to last between 12 and 16 weeks.
As the final step in the process, most manufacturers will ask you to arrive a couple of days early to do a walk through and spend your first night in the coach at or near the factory, so last-minute questions and problems can be addressed quickly and
While building a new rig from the ground up is exciting, it might make more sense to consider making a few changes to an existing coach to make it better-suited to the way you live. Here’s where a good dealer or aftermarket company can help turn your desires into realities. Dealers can often handle simple installations, such as grab bars in the bathroom or in-motion satellite systems, in their own service facilities. They also can usually refer you to reputable aftermarket companies in your area that can handle more complex or involved projects, ranging from adding a built-in computer desk to a full-scale remodel. McCray Built Interiors in Bend, Oregon, is a good example of such a full-service aftermarket company.
“We can do a wide range of interior and exterior modifications, from cabinetry and countertops to upholstery and flooring, right here,” says Tom McCray, who works on 75 or more coaches every year. “Plus we have people we work with who can do electrical work, install upgraded audiovisual systems, or add wheelchair lifts, which makes it possible for us to handle literally any kind of changes a customer could want.”
Recovery Room RV, based in Riverside, California, specializes in what co-owner Lorin Randolph refers to as “soft goods,” such as upholstery and floor coverings.
“We sell and install new Flexsteel furniture, and we can handle almost any customer’s request for different materials,” he says. “For example, we can install carpet, vinyl or wood-laminate floor coverings. We also do shades, custom drapes, valances and custom bedspreads.”
Founded 20 years ago by Wes and Melva Randolph, Recovery Room RV has handled everything from the installation of one captain’s chair to a completely new RV interior — and they handle coaches, both old and new.
As is the case with hand-tailored clothing, the process of having a new coach designed and built to your exact specifications just doesn’t make good financial sense for everyone. But if you’re one of those RVers with special needs — or you know exactly what you want and won’t settle for less — you might find that it’s worth every extra penny to create a motorhome that’s a perfect fit for you and your lifestyle.