The Frank Motor Home, Dodge, and Travco
In 1958, Raymond and Ronald Frank, who lived in Brown City, Michigan, built a motorized all-weather recreational vehicle for family vacations. The father/son team’s creation so enthralled the folks around Brown City that between 1958 and 1960 they constructed, using their barn as a factory, seven custom-made motorhomes for their friends. Their creations needed a proper name so they simply christened them the Frank Motor Home.
By 1961, Raymond and Ronald became managing partners in their own company. Raymond’s wife, Ethel, took on the role of office manager and secretary. In the first year of operation, the family churned out 160 units. The wood and aluminum bodies, which were mounted on a Dodge chassis, came in 20-, 23-, and 26-foot lengths and sold for between $6,500 and $7,300.
In 1962, the Franks formed an alliance with Dodge, and thanks to the infusion of funds by the automotive giant, they were able to develop the tooling to fabricate an entirely new body made out of two huge 27-foot pieces of fiberglass. This streamlined design, which looked like an enormous version of the egg that holds Silly Putty, was a marked deviation from the boxy limited production house cars of the past.
In order to further expand the Frank Motor Home’s market appeal, it was decided that a more identifiable name would be needed and in 1963 the vehicle became the Dodge Motor Home.
Two years later, the motorhome went through another incarnation when the company was sold to Detroit businessman Peter R. Fink who renamed it the Travco. Through all the ownership and name changes, the quality and desirability of the Travco remained high, chiefly because of its rustproof fiberglass body and innovative features like its optional sewage incinerator system, the “Destroilet” gas incinerator-type toilet that almost eliminated the need to empty holding tanks.
There were problems to be sure: the 318-cubic-inch engine in the early models had to work very hard to go up any significant incline, there were stability issues because of the lack of anti-sway bars, and its low-slung body hampered tire changing.
Eventually, a more robust 440 engine replaced the 318, other problems were corrected, and Travco became one of the most coveted motorhomes.
By the early 1970s, Travco experienced increased competition from other manufacturers, but the company failed to come up with new innovations to separate it from its competitors. Like all motorhome manufacturers, Travco’s sales also plummeted as a result of the 1973 energy crisis. Travco still had alliances with Dodge/Chrysler, which unfortunately caused the company to suffer during Chrysler’s financial woes in the late ’70s.
Travco Corporation finally ceased operations in 1979. In January 2004, the Travco’s inspiration, the Frank Motor Home, was featured on Playboy magazine’s 50 Inventions that Changed the World in celebration of Playboy’s fiftieth anniversary. The list, which was a compilation of innovations in the last fifty years included the Big Mac, Pampers, Post-it Notes, and silicone augmentation devices.
Travco took off as a leader in innovative motor home design. Travco motor homes incorporated ideas that would outlast a model or year or manufacturer. Some of these conceptual lessons would continue on, long after the Travco company, into motor homes of the future. It has been nominated by MotorHome magazine as being one of the greatest coaches ever.
Dodge’s ‘Lifetime Body’ in addition to a lightweight, unitized fiberglass body, the Dodge/Travco obviously had a lot going for it, including a classic streamlined design and the solid backing of Chrysler Corporation. In fact, it may have played some role in the demise of the Ultra Van .
Built on a rugged truck chassis, the 26-foot Dodge offered roomy interiors and floor plan options accommodating a family of eight.
Actually built by Frank Motor Homes, Brown City, Michigan, it had a built-in national sales network of Dodge dealers. And Chrysler, with its deep pockets, created a veritable media blitz for the 1963 rollout of the then-Dodge motor home. Besides an attractive price of just under $11,000 for a motor home that was nearly fully equipped, the Dodge offered unique features, such as a sewage incinerator system that almost eliminated the need to empty waste holding tanks.
It was powered by a 318-cid, 200-hp V-8 and had a three-speed push-button automatic transmission, power steering and brakes. 1964 would be the last year of the push-button transmission and as years would come and go, the Travco RV would use a more robust engine to propel the luxury, heavy motor home down America's highways.
Livability features included an electric driver’s seat, a bath with separate shower and roomy pull-down bunks. Press releases promoted the Dodge’s aerodynamics, passenger-car comforts and “lifetime” fiberglass body, “which cannot rust or corrode and never needs painting.” Corporate literature also claimed a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 pounds for the 137-inch wheelbase, B300 1-ton chassis (later extended to 173 inches and designated the B375) and a 7,980-pound dry weight.
Likable as it was, of course, the Dodge wasn’t perfect, either. Current owners say it actually weighed more than its stated GVWR, with some fully loaded coaches tipping the scales at more than 13,000 pounds. Because it lacked anti- sway bars, there were problems with body roll and cross-winds. Tire changing was difficult due to the low-slung body. Weight put a real strain on the 318 engine, requiring first-gear on most grades. Still, the Dodge was actually No. 1 in motor home sales for a time, creating a clamor for Dodge chassis among other coach builders.
During the 60's and early 70's, Travco ruled the motor home industry. Frank's fiberglass body, the Dodge chassis, and consistent quality production shielded Travco from any notable competition. So well built was the Travco motor home that it became known as "the tank" inside the company. It was absolutely the most rugged, durable, quality-produced motor home that could be made.
In 1971, the Travco Corporation company won a tax ruling that would benefit the motor home industry for all future manufacturers. Essentially, that Dodge truck frame was a commercial size and was "usually" subsequently taxed for its commercial use. Using that same type truck chassis on an RV was the first occurrence of the truck chassis on a family vehicle. Since the truck chassis on the Travco RV was not used for commercial business, the vehicle should not be taxed as a commercial vehicle. The tax ruling, handed down by the IRS, confirmed those beliefs. In summary, sales by the manufacturer of truck chassis produced from heavy-duty truck-type components but designed and constructed specifically to accommodate and transport nontaxable self-propelled mobile home bodies are not subject to the manufacturers tax."
From 1973 to 1976, Travco Corporation produced motor home interiors for GMC motor homes. But again, the venture was not as profitable as had been hoped. Counting on the 270 model to carry the company, other versions such as the 210 and 320 were not as popular. Travco fell behind in developing newer innovations and failed to keep up with an host of competitors. With the introduction of a number of motor home manufacturers during the 70's, such as Winnebago, Coachmen, and Champion, Travco lost its grip on their once dominated motor home market. When the federal government became involved in the bail-out of Chrysler in 1979, the "Loan Guarantee Board" forced Chrysler out of the motor home chassis business. Combined with financial woes, Travco Corporation ceased operations in 1979.
During the late 70's, Travco Corporation brought in a number of automobile executives into the company. Their experience with high volume production worked contrary to the time required for quality and craftsmanship in motor homes. Combined with a series of poor management decisions, Travco Corporation entered into a number of non-profitable ventures, including the production of the Sight Seer motor home - a low-end motor home which had limited market appeal.
In 1979, the manufacturing rights for the Travco were sold to Foretravel . Foretravel bought truckloads of Travco parts at the public auction. Remaining items went to the high bidder. Beneath it all, Foretravel was really after ownership of the Travco Motorcade Club. It was the largest of its kind. Control of this large band of motor home owners meant steering membership towards newer products - developed by Foretravel. As expected, a number of Travco owners became Foretravel owners.
1968 Travco Motorhome
The Travco motorhome was an aerodynamic Class A Recreational Vehicle built on a Dodge motorhome chassis from 1965 until the late 1980s. The Travco design originally emerged as a 1961 model called the "DodgeFrank Motor Home" and marketed with the assistance of the Chrysler Corporation, who were the makers of its chassis. One hundred thirty one were produced the first year, with an average price tag of $9000. The Travco/Dodge Motor Home design and fiberglass body were refinements by Ray Frank to the original Frank Motor Home, a conventional box-type design based on the Dodge chassis and built in Brown City, Michigan from 1958-1962. Ray Frank, founder of Frank Industries,also made up the name "motorhome" and went on to develop Xplorer Motorhomes. Mr. Frank has been inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame & Museum(RV/MH Heritage Foundation,Elkhart Indiana) as the father of the motorhome.
Travco enjoyed a large market share of the budding motorhome market, its success played a part in the demise of more estanblished makes such as the Corvair-powered UltraVan, and opened the market to lower cost makes such as Winnebago. Travco's use of the Dodge Motor Home chassis established Dodge chassis as the most popular make of motorhome chassis for twenty years.
The original Dodge Motorhome Chassis used for the Travco and many other makes was powered by the Chrysler 318 "Polysphere" engine, many heavy duty refinements were made to this outstanding small engine to increase its durability hauling the heavy motorhome body, GVW's could exceed six tons, but the small and efficient 318 engine with the distinctive parabolic combustion chamber design netting around 200 horsepower could manage to keep up with traffic and had a top speed slightly over 70 mph in most configurations. The 318, and later 413 and 440 engines were mated to the Chrysler Torqueflite 727 transmission; until the 1964 model, these transmissions shared the 'pushbutton' selector quadrant used on other Chrysler Corporation vehicles. From 1965 on, Torqueflite used an instrument panel mounted selector lever similar to Corvair Powerglide. All Dodge motorhome chassis engines were specially improved 'truck' versions, that operated on regular gasoline, with special durability features such as improved valves and stress relieved castings and forged crankshafts. The Dodge chassis utilized a live dual rear wheel axle and an 'I'-beam front axle, suspended on semi-elliptic leaf springs, both ends.
Travco offered a variety of lengths and floorplans over the years, its 27 foot model was the most popular model.
The Travco Corporation challenged the tax law on RV chassis, which were considered 'trucks' and taxed at a higher rate than private motor vehicles- Travco won its case in 1971 and the IRS accepted Motorhome Chassis would be taxed at the lower rate. This was a significant victory that served all manufacturers in the industry.
The 1962 Dodge Motor Home (later Travco) design was revolutionary due to its shape and fiberglass-over-steel construction, thus eliminating paint jobs and dry rot. It was sold as the Frank Motor Home from 1958 to 1963 until the company went bankrupt. Two investors bought the RV body molds and the patent rights, and opened up Travco Corporation a short time after, incorporating as PRF Industries.
A little known fact is that Travco's sister company, Gemini, built the interiors of the GMC Motorhome between 1973 and 1974 in Mt. Clemens, MI. Production of GMC Motorhome interiors shifted to GM's own factory in Pontiac, MI with the 1975 models.
In 1964, Travco Corporation (contraction of Travelers Company) took control, the windows were enlarged and various other cosmetic modifications were added. The mid-1960s Travco was offered in six colour combinations. The design changed very little from 1964 to 1980 except for a choice of grille designs that hurt the look of the well-designed RV. Four sizes were offered; the 21-foot 210, the 27-foot 270, the 29-foot 290, and the 32-foot 320. Out of the four, the 270 was the best seller, and the best selling color in the 1960s was white with a red band running lengthwise around the center. The popular colors in the 1970s were any shade of earth tone with or without a two-tone. Eventually, the "Atomic Age" design failed to impress most buyers, despite the more modern-looking grille introduced in the mid-1970s. As part of the Loan Guarantees to the Chrysler Corporation during its financial crisis in the late 1970s, Chrysler was told to abandon the medium duty truck market (including Dodge Motorhome Chassis) and concentrate on building light trucks- International Harvester was told to do the reverse, and get out of light trucks and concentrate on medium and heavy duty vehicles as part of their agreement with the US Federal government. This stopped production of both the very popular Dodge chassis, the 440ci big-block V8, and contributed to the demise of the Travco, which was identified strongly with the Chrysler Corporation. Other factors, including management changes and extraordinarily high fuel costs and interest rates in the 1979-era contributed to Travco's difficulties. However, the body shells were used by a luxury-RV maker called Foretravel until around 1990. The Travco body-shell molds have probably been destroyed, so no more replacement body parts will be made.
In a side note, Travco also offered van conversions called "Family Wagons" as well as class C Minihomes called "Family Wagon", with aluminum sides similar to Winniebago's "Minnie winnie" and a fiberglass version call "L'sprit"
Travco motorhomes, regarded as among the very best in the industry in contemporary reports and now considered a classic RV on par with Airstream, Avion, Silver Streak, Sportscoach and Spartan, were owned by both the famous and ordinary families. The country music star Johnny Cash owned and toured in several Travcos (many of which are included in documentaries and films about him) over the course of his career; William Shatner of 'Star Trek' had a specially customized 1979 Travco with four wheel drive. Travco was considered a leader in the industry, and was the first manufacturer to create a vehicle that defined the modern day Motorhome. Almost every feature regarded as typical of the class A motorhome originated with Travco and its Dodge Motor Home/Frank motorhome predecessors, from central air conditioning, to self contained electricity generation, to a toilet ("Destroilet") that incinerated its own waste.
In a recent survey of all time highest quality and desirable makes of RV on the RV.net website, Travco models were in the top three postwar RV manufacturers. Even within the Travco company, their product was affectionately referred to as 'the tank'- a reflection of its toughness and stout lifetime construction.
The Travco 270 came standard with twin swivel chairs under a crank-out bunk bed, a dinette table was located across the way, with cabinets above, and the kitchen was fully equipped with not only the expected four-burner range/oven, double-door refrigerator and double sink, but some even came with built-in toasters and coffee pots. The bathroom was large, and it was fully equipped with marine toilet, sink, and shower. A large closet was across from that. A tiny bedroom with a queen-sized bed, a mirror, and numerous storage areas occupied the rear end of the motorhome.
Over the years, floorplans varied from the luxury 27 foot 'Dodge Mahal' in the early 1970s which offered posh comfort intended for just two, to family floorplans sleeping up to ten. The "SightSeer" economy motorhome was a basic, stripped down and shorter model directed at the economy market typified by Winnebago. Sightseer was a conventional box-style motorhome that did not share the distinctive flowing aerodynamic Travco signature body style.
Charles Kuralt and his "On The Road" crew for CBS News traveled about the country in a motorhome from 1967 to 1994 to come up with unique feature stories that appeared on the CBS Evening News and later on the CBS News Sunday Morning program, also hosted by Kuralt. One of the motorhomes used by the On The Road crew was a Travco.
Mobiles Mansions by Douglas Keister (March, 2006) has an informative section on the Frank Motor Home, Dodge, and the Travco.