Wheels Within Wheels

The take-it-for-granted joy and freedom of personal mobility can be stolen in a split second in a Texas football tackle or in a Los Angeles crosswalk. Sometimes the change is slower, but inexorable, as a disease encroaches. For the Moores, the Stiffs, and the Freemans these are stories of hardship and hope.

Many Winnebago owners don’t know that the company has a Specialty Vehicles division. Over the decades, Winnebago has turned motorhome shells into bookmobiles, mobile command posts, showrooms, bloodmobiles, health clinics, and the first all-electric powered motorhome. It has also customized various models for travelers who use wheelchairs.

Ready-to-Buy Accessibility Enhanced Offerings

This January, at the 2019 Florida RV Supershow in Tampa, the company will debut three models of Accessibility Enhanced (AE) motorhomes. Ashis Bhattacharya, Winnebago’s Vice-President of Strategy, lays out the business case, “Our research tells us there are nearly four million people today who use wheelchairs. For over thirty years, the company has been modifying coaches for accessibility on a custom order basis. It’s a complicated process for buyers and we think we can improve that. We’ve selected three different coaches, spanning a range of prices and features, from which we can offer both ready-to-buy products and advanced customization.”

The Adventurer is one of three new accessibility enhanced floorplans.

The three new AE products are based on both gas and diesel chassis. There’s the gas-powered, entry-level Intent 30R/AE and the mid-priced Adventurer 30T/AE. The final step up in features and size is the Forza 34T/AE diesel pusher.

Roll-in bathrooms and showers are all part of the AE design.

All of these models have electric lifts to raise a wheelchair into the coach. The bathrooms are oversized for easy entry and use and, where possible, assist bars are added, and appliances and sinks adjusted for lower height access. There are also options for ceiling-mounted transport and an over-the-bed lift.

Meet the Owners: Why AE is a Game Changer

Owners of AE motorhomes usually come to the solution from two different experiences. The first are those who’ve been RVers before. With a change in health and mobility of one of the partners, they’d like to continue to enjoy as much of the mobile-living lifestyle as they can. The other, are people who never would have considered an RV purchase, but their circumstances caused them to look at an RV as an appealing mobility option.

Just over twenty years ago, Jerome Moore was a senior in high school when a devastating injury left him without the use of his legs. Today, he and his wife Catrina have built a fulfilling life together. Jerome’s six-four tall frame fills his electric wheelchair.

Jerome and Catrina Moore in front of their new Winnebago AE coach.

The Moores have tried air travel which can be as hard on the wheelchair as the passenger. That’s where an accessible RV makes travel much easier. In their newly modified Adventurer, Catrina expects that she’ll be doing the driving, “but right now either my dad or Jerome’s step-dad have been the drivers,” she says. “We see ourselves taking trips like family reunions and vacations in the future.”

An avid Dallas Cowboys fan, Jerome tests the new lift.  Notice the lighted access lights on each side.

It was a big leap of faith for the Moores to buy a motorhome sight unseen. They worked with a local Texas dealer and directly with Winnebago to work out configuration and widths for the electric wheelchair. “It sure would have been great if we could have seen one first at a dealer,” Jerome explains. “We’d even thought about driving up to Iowa to the factory, but we felt comfortable working with Sonya who was great in walking us through the process.”

Sonya Kobriger has worked at Winnebago for close to 25 years. Her gentle, calming voice wraps a tranquility blanket around the complicated aspects of building an AE coach. Over the years, she has become a true expert in mobility challenged design. “It’s my job to translate the customer’s needs into a customized motorhome floorplan that works for them,” she patiently explains. While her voice may be soft, it’s clear she’s both a passionate customer champion and an empathetic listener. “These are people who have had tough circumstances in their lives and my singular goal is to help make their lives easier and restore some sense of freedom and joy,” she says.

That sense of joy was something Karen and Jan Stiff were afraid they’d lose. Karen and Jan spent years living in the scenic high desert on the east side of the California Sierras. They had owned RVs before which they used for both travel and a base camp for skiing and fishing in the nearby mountains. As Jan started experiencing neurological problems, walking became increasingly difficult. Both Jan and Karen were engineers by training which prompted them to look very analytically at their options. Karen did a lot of internet research and determined that Winnebago would be the best choice.

Jan and Karen Stiff have been long-time family RVers.

“I’ll be doing the driving and width doesn’t bother me,” explained Karen. “It’s length. And at 30′ feet long, Winnebago offered the shortest motorhome that could be adapted.”

As the Director of Specialty Vehicles and Advanced Technology, Jamie Sorenson loves the unique challenges of accessible design. Quick to smile, Sorenson exudes a relaxed style that belies the intense complexity of custom designing motorhomes for a wide variety of specialized applications.

His passion and enthusiasm are evident as he walks through a bay where an external wheelchair lift is being anchored. “Of all the different special purpose coaches we’ve built, nothing gives me greater satisfaction of seeing one of our accessible coaches on the lot, ready for delivery. Many people don’t even know that this option exists. The idea that we will be increasing manufacturing output of accessible motorhomes to offer more choice and availability is an exciting game changer.”

Yet as optimistic and positive these accessibility enhanced new coaches are, the fact remains that they exist to serve people where life has taken an unexpected curve. Such was the case of Mike and Cheri Freeman who, in 2013, received a call that no parent wants to get. Their vibrant, active twenty-three-year-old son, Patrick, had stepped into a crosswalk in LA and was struck by a car running a red light.

Cheri, Patrick and Mike Freeman in front of their new Forza.

Patrick suffered a massive traumatic brain injury that will require a lifetime of specialized care. The Freemans’ lives were completely upended by this devastating injury. They sold their Colorado home and moved to southern California where their new full-time job was focused on Patrick’s rehabilitation and continuing care.

A specialized lift helps to transfer Patrick into a wheelchair.

Patrick’s condition deeply limited car travel with only short distances per day being possible. Air travel could only be done via the astronomical price of an air ambulance charter. Through lots of online research, Mike and Cheri found their way to Winnebago and ordered a highly modified Forza.

New adventures are now possible for the Freemans.

With the Forza, the Freemans travel cross country much more easily and comfortably. In a quiet moment where Mike Freeman was observing Patrick working hard at rehab to learn how to walk with an exoskeleton, he matter-of-factly explained, “Getting the Forza allowed us to return and relocate to our native home near Indianapolis where we have extended family and a highly supportive environment for Patrick. He really seems to thrive here.”

Travel happy. Patrick and Cheri Freeman at home in their Forza.

Far beyond the satisfaction and fun that RVs bring their owners, Winnebago’s Accessibility Enhanced products offer an even higher level of comfort to wheelchair travelers. And, as any RVer will tell you, it’s nice to have all the comforts of home with you. In the case of Winnebago’s Accessibility Enhanced products, the Specialty Vehicles division sees itself in the customer satisfaction business offering new freedom, independence, and dignity for disabled travelers and their families.

Read more about Winnebago’s Accessibility Enhanced products

RVing is all about making memories and, these days, those memories are continually being captured on cell phones, GoPros, and all sorts of digital cameras.  It seems like ages ago, but in the early 2000’s Kodak was still a household name, Walmart or the grocery store was where we dropped pictures off for processing (Double prints! Over-sized prints!). Camera stores were common, and digital photography was the widgety domain of hobbyists, not pros.

How quaint.

I started my career in photography and built a very successful corporate media company around that passion. But by the late 1980’s, my Nikons were gathering dust as staff and contract photographers were now doing the work.  It wasn’t until 2000, when Nikon introduced the three-megapixel, split-in-half, Coolpix camera that I started to drift back into taking pictures for fun.

With digital photography, snapshots were snappier and there was no waiting for processing.  Darkrooms had been replaced by photo editing software and photographic-quality inkjet printers.  Though I never returned to filling camera bags and cabinets with lots of high-end photo gear, I’ve owned a steadily improving succession of hobbyist and prosumer digital cameras that are pretty amazing.  And perhaps, none more so than the camera in my current iPhone X.

I just mentioned photo quality inkjet printing, but who even does that anymore?  It’s all about squinting at photos on our phones (so much for wallet photos), or maybe gazing at our iPads.  Digital has made it super easy to capture and share an image.  Today digital photography is like social media, it’s all about “being in the moment.” But sooner or later, as the years go by, those moments will become the stuff of deeply satisfying golden memories.  Making sure you can find those memory pearls, and that they’re preserved, isn’t probably something you’ve given much thought to — but you should.

The joys and confusions of photo software

When it comes to managing the continual stream of digital photos, the pros have it all figured out. But for casual and hobbyist photographers, it’s a different story.  If you’re a Mac owner, you’re in luck.  The Photos app that’s free on every Mac, iPad, and iPhone is a great organizing and editing tool.  Windows owners still need to piece together two or three free or paid programs to equal the overall features of Apple Photos.

The free Apple Photos App is the Swiss Army knife of photo editing and management software.

At the top of the pile are the expensive photo editing products like Adobe Photoshop (deep editing and manipulation) and Lightroom (touch-up and organization).  These are pro tools and Adobe is pushing people into $10 a month subscriptions to use them.  If you’re a casual photographer, that gets pretty expensive.  There’s a great one-time-purchase, high-end photo editing option for Macs called Affinity Photo ($50) – which gets you very close to Photoshop.  There’s also Gimp, which is a free open-source photo editor software that is available on both Windows and Macs. But programs like this only help you edit your photos, not catalog and manage them.

Affinity Photo for Mac and iPad is a very affordable and powerful alternative to Photoshop with plenty of pro editing capability.

If you have iOS or Android phones/tablets, you can also find dozens of inexpensive apps for adjusting and applying special effects.

Today, editing your pictures for color and cropping is easy and there are lots of solutions.  Where it gets harder is in photo management.  Apple’s Photos does this quite nicely by automatically organizing your photos by date, collection, or people.

You can attach a lot of additional information to a digital image beyond simply changing the file name, such as tags for keyword searches and location where the photo was taken.

For pros, the go-to organizing software is Adobe’s Lightroom, which can be used on a monthly subscription basis or (at least for now) purchased as a standalone application.  However, if you’re simply looking at a good file management program, Adobe has a no-strings, truly free program called Bridge which you can download.  While Bridge doesn’t offer any image retouching tools, it’s a fantastic way to access and manage folders of photos.

Adobe Bridge is free for both Macs and PCs and is a great tool for organizing and managing your photos.

How photo management works and the great risk it entails

The way programs like Apple Photos and Adobe Lightroom work is that they suck in your pictures into a highly optimized database.  This is great for accessing and editing your pictures.  And, in a digital world, where people tend to take a lot more pictures than they used to (no film and processing costs), these powerful organizers are invaluable. But … and this is a huge but … all those photo files are dumped into one giant database (it can be gigabytes in size).  If that database becomes corrupted. or your hard drive dies, or you switch phone operating systems (like from Apple iOS to Android), poof goes your pictures.  Got your attention, didn’t I?

How to manage and preserve your digital photos forever

Organize by folders

Because professional photographers depend on maintaining photos for a living, they almost all use a “referenced file” system. While there may be some variance in approaches, here’s the one I use.

When I’ve been taking pictures with one of my digital cameras, like during a trip, I pop out the memory card and either using a built-in or accessory card reader on one of my computers,  I copy the recent files into a new folder.  I create a folder for each year.  Then, within that year, I create a sub-folder by topic (a trip or event).  That’s where all the photos wind up.  Because I have plenty of hard drive capacity, I tend to leave my iPhone photos inside the Photos app. But by using the export command from the app, I create a duplicate of the picture in an event folder that may also contain pictures from my other digital cameras.  Now all my shots from my various cameras are all in one place inside a single folder.

This screenshot shows all my photos arranged by year.  The green check mark indicates that this folder has been saved to my Dropbox account on the cloud — so there’s now a backup.

All my photos taken in 2017 are arranged by events.

If I’ve been taking pictures with my iPhone, all of its pictures and videos are automatically uploaded to my iCloud account – which can be viewed through the Photos app on my computer, iPad or iPhone.  Using the Photos app on my Mac, I periodically export the photos I’ve taken throughout the year into a folder I’ve created on my hard drive.

While this process duplicates what I have in the Photos app, when I use a heavy-duty tool such as Lightroom, I don’t import my images into the program.  Instead, I tell Lightroom to reference the pictures in my folders.

Organize your pictures within years and then by events.

By keeping all my original photos in yearly folders, and within sub-topic folders, I have all my photos in one place.  That makes it super easy to back up.

One strategy is using dates for naming folders, so they can be displayed in ascending or descending order.  This was great for all the years of family photos I digitized.

Backup strategies

With all your photo sub-folders inside one main folder (I unimaginatively named mine “Photos”), this makes it very simple to make a backup copy to an external hard drive, USB memory stick, or CD/DVD.  Some years ago, when photo files were smaller (fewer megapixels), and I didn’t have as many pictures, I would burn a CD (650MB) or DVD (4.7GB) disc of the pictures.  However, my accumulated photo library is now tipping the scales at 288 GB, so copying to discs no longer makes sense.

Long held corporate backup strategies usually hold that you should have three copies (original, plus two) of your files. At least one of those copies should be stored at a second location.

So, let’s talk about the actual storing of your files.  Some years ago, it was claimed that if you burned CD/DVDs that your data would last for 100 years.  Hmmm. While nobody’s lived long enough to find out, the growing body of thought is that no data, on any medium, may last longer than ten years.  Dyes inside the disc may fade and electrons float away from silicon memory chips.

Just like storing paper photo prints, you should keep your physical data media in a dark, cool place – and away from electric sources, such as power outlets.  Today, I back up onto three different storage media:  a hard drive, SSD drive, and the cloud.  Let me take you through each of these.

Today, USB hard drives are small, self-powered, and relatively inexpensive.  You can easily move your library to other computers and also use a second drive for a mirrored backup. (The photo selected here – and featured at the top of this article – is from Christmas day 2017 at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland).

Hard Drives

It’s most likely you’ll manage your photos on your desk or laptop’s hard drive.  The quickest and easiest backup is to plug in a USB powered hard drive and copy your files to it.  These drives are quite reliable and run $50-$100 depending on storage size.  Your data is recorded on a tiny spinning platter and read by a “head” that floats above the fast rotating platters.  Hard drives should have 50,000 – 100,000 hours of life, so as a backup device they’re barely ever going to be used.  However, I’ve seen some disks fail right out of the box. Generally, if it works right out of the box, it’ll keep on working. If you have a hard drive failure, it’s usually in the recording head armature.  If all your memories are stored on a failed hard drive, you have the option of spending a ton of dough to ship the drive off to a company that will remove the platters and place them in a new read/write mechanism.   However, there are zero guarantees that if this happens to a drive twenty years from now that parts will be available.  Frankly, these days, I think you’re more likely to slip and die in the bathtub than having a hard drive failure.

SSD Drives

The next generation of hard drives is solid state with no moving parts to fail.  They are essentially giant memory chips called SSD drives and are currently more expensive than regular hard drives. But, ultimately, they will become the universal standard.  Do not confuse an SSD drive with a USB memory stick.  SSD drives are built with a much higher standard of data integrity compared to USB sticks.  It’s common to see data lost on USB sticks.  However, nobody really talks about how long the little electrons of your most treasured picture of Uncle Bernie will stay in place in their little nanoscopic filing cabinet.  That’s why I recommend copying your files to new media about every decade (which also will keep you current with operating systems and physical connections like cables and jacks).

Cloud Storage

Finally, there is storage on the cloud.  This is awesome, but you should still cover yourself with a physical HDD or SSD backup (off-site, too).  Cloud storage presumes you have access to a high bandwidth connection.  If you’re a full-time RVer and dependent on a data plan, I’d recommend finding a terrestrial high-speed Internet connection to do all your original uploading.  Once you’ve saved your photo files to the cloud, you will consume a lot less data with occasional updates.

Cloud services are available for free if you have a small amount of data (2-6 GB).  In my case, all my photos and videos add up to nearly a half terabyte (1TB) of data.  Storing that amount requires a paid account.  Major players in cloud storage are Apple, Dropbox, Google, and Microsoft.  I like Dropbox and pay $100 a year for a 1TB account.  And here’s why it’s cooler than cool …

On my desktop Mac, I’ve placed my photos folder inside the main Dropbox folder.  That means that any photo or video I copy into that folder will be available on my hard drive and, quietly in the background, copied to the cloud.  Those files will also appear on my other two laptop hard drives, but with a twist.  Because I don’t want to fill up the laptop hard drives, I can tell Dropbox which folders I want to sync on which devices.  That way the photos are copied, but the big videos are not.  This is called selective syncing and it works with Dropbox, Microsoft, and Google cloud accounts, but not with iCloud.

What’s really fantastic is that you can access your files from any computer using a browser and your password.  Though not actually stored on my iPhone or iPad, I can use the Dropbox app to view all my files and, if I want, download selected ones.  Of course, all these strategies also apply to special documents you may have scanned.

An easy way to start

Right now you might not have the time to go back and completely put your digital house in order.  But you can actually ease into building a process by forming good archival habits immediately.  Simply start with creating a photos folder and, moving forward, putting your pictures into sub-folders.  Either use an existing cloud account or create a new one for your photo, video and document files.  As time and motivation dictate, you can then start going back and adding your older pictures (see my companion article on digitizing old photos). Stay with it and in time you’ll get it done.

Taking the time to get your digital life organized is one of those tasks that might feel too time consuming and frustrating to do.  I’d liken it to packing for a trip (which I hate) because you’re faced with lots of mini-decisions.  But once you start laying clothes out on the bed, things get a bit easier.  Getting your organizational framework in place is the toughest part.  After that, it’s simply a question of electronically sorting and filing.

Once you’re done, I can give you a 100% guarantee that three things will happen:  (1) you will have a very deep sense of accomplishment, (2) you’ll feel much happier knowing that your precious memories are safe from accidents and catastrophes, and (3) by having your memories organized and highly accessible, you’ll find yourself sharing them easily and enjoying them more.

Last year, I was searching for pictures of my parents’ RVs while working on a GoLife story and found them in one of the archive boxes we had in our storeroom.  I knew which photos I wanted, but ended up spending the next couple of hours simply thumbing through RV travel photos my dad took over the years, smiling at the green shag carpet and seeing that some of the same campgrounds we stayed in forty years later hadn’t changed one bit.

First RV experience in the summer of 1971. My parents rented this Cabana shown here at rest in Idaho Falls.  In this, they experienced three blown tires and a nasty holding tank back up in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Despite the experience, my parents would go on to own two motorhomes and log over 200,000 miles over two decades.

Getting Motivated

Like you, I’ve watched TV reports of fires creeping towards homes or long lines of hurricane evacuations.  There’s always the footage of people shoving personal belongings into the back of the car or truck, all of which leads to an oft-asked question: If you only had a few minutes to leave your home, what would you take?  It’s usually a very short list and almost always one of the answers is — the photo albums.  The one thing an insurance settlement can’t provide for is paying for the recovery of precious lost memories.

Given that my interest in photography started back in elementary school, I guess that my deep affinity for the power of pictures has always driven my desire to keep and protect all our family photos. Couple that with getting older – when you start to see your life in a wider angle continuum where past generations and future generations can both be viewed at once – those boxes of memories that you’ve had sitting in the basement, attic or back closet suddenly become more valuable in their currency.

Somehow, through my life, circumstances unfolded that left me as the keeper of five generations of photos, documents, movies, and videos.  Over the last three decades and four house moves, I would slowly sort, consolidate, de-frame, and label archive boxes of materials. In our last move, I placed all the photos, now roughly divided into expanding cardboard file pockets, into tightly sealed plastic archive containers.  The collection filled twelve of these bins where I affixed large signs describing the contents and placed them on wire rack shelving I purchased for the storage room.  They were reasonably protected, yet I worried.  What if there was a pipe break?  Or a fire?  And what, hopefully, years from now, would our son make of all of these treasures that he would know little about and now be faced with figuring out where and how – or even if he should keep them.

I bought a dozen of these plastic archive boxes from The Container Store.  It’s a good way to store precious memories.  I used large filing pockets and folders to roughly organize photos and documents.

I had long ago determined that the best thing to do was to digitize it all, and over the years, not surprisingly, technologies and options improved.  It was always going to be one of those retirement projects for long winter nights.  Well, close.  This summer it became an almost-retired, too hot to go out in the middle of the day summer project.  Somewhere between the desire for digital archiving and the equal desire to continue with life simplification (less stuff!), I found myself popping the lid off the first box.  Three months, and over 12,000 scans later I’ve done it!  Five generations, twelve archive boxes, all backed up and reduced to the size of a thumbnail.

I don’t think I can fully put words together that are powerful enough to explain what a fascinating and satisfying project this was.  Nor could I have anticipated the new doors of discovery and learning that these photos and documents would open.  This became less about preserving the past and more about richly understanding it. Not only for me, but my family and my relatives.

An old photo of my parents led me on a high-tech detective hunt to find where this picture was taken.  You can read about that experience in this GoLife article.

As you think about digitizing your life you’ll start realizing that you’ll have photos of different sizes, newspaper clippings, slides, and videos.  That means you’ll need some different strategies and technologies for digitizing.  You’ll also want to think about how these digital files will be organized.

Tips for Digitizing Your Memories

File Naming & Formats

You want to make sure that the file formats you save in are standard, so that decades from now they can be viewed.  That’s why I picked the three most universal ones.  The most common was JPEG, which is how I scanned the photos.  For a few photos and documents, where I wanted super high resolution, I saved the files in the TIFF format (with smaller JPEG copies).  For documents, I saved in the PDF format.  PDFs can get huge and I used a small program to help reduce the file size.  PDFs were perfect for saving the multi-page love letters my father wrote to my mother while stationed overseas during World War II.  Each letter was saved as its own PDF, where I scanned the envelope with postmark and the multiple pages.  Then, I put the date as part of the file name.

These stacks are every letter my mother saved that were sent by my dad during WW II over a period of two and a half years.  He fought in the Aleutian Islands and these letters (some passages razor bladed out by military censors) tell the powerful story of how my parents went from friends to lovers, and ultimately marriage when Dad returned from overseas.

As I scanned envelopes and envelopes of snapshots, I saved them into folders with the month (or season) and year with a short description.  A folder name might look like:  1986.4.22 Andy’s Third Birthday.  By using this system, as I built more and more folders of scans, they would sort in date order.  Inside the folder, you can even go further in renaming the files to help you identify the photo and people in them.  Many photo editing software programs will also allow you to save a meta-tag to a file, where you enter in a much more detailed description.

Tintypes were popular for casual photography in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They tend to fade more than regular photographs, but Photoshop manipulation did a lot to restore this early 1900s photo of my great uncle with two young women on a picnic.

Scanning Hardware

If you have a lot of snapshots (and what parent of the 80’s and 90’s doesn’t?) I highly recommend a snapshot scanner.  Fujitsu and Epson are two good brands. After a lot of research, I bought an Epson Fast Foto.  This is not a cheap scanner (around $550), but it’s worth every cent I paid for it.  Why? It sucks snapshots through at one a second at 300 dpi resolution and about two seconds for 600 dpi resolution.  It also can scan both sides of the print at the same time to preserve any notes written on the back of the photo.  It even handles 8 1/2 x 11 pages, which was awesome for papers I’d saved from my college days (and some of my mom’s college assignments from the 1930’s).

A workhorse.  I’m not sure my huge scanning project could have been accomplished (with sanity intact) without this super-fast scanner.

You’ll also need a flatbed scanner.  If you have an all-in-one printer, you may already be good to go.  In my case, I do have a Brother color laser with a document/flatbed scanner, but I decided that a separate flatbed, specifically the Epson V600 Photo (around $200) would be better because I also wanted to scan slides.  The Epson can scan four slides or negatives at a time and does a very good job of it.

An all-around scanning champion.  If you are only going to buy one scanner, the Epson V600 should be at the top of your list.  Beyond flatbed scans of reflected material, it can also scan slides and negatives.

If you have several thousand snapshots, you really want to think about getting a super-fast scanner like the Epson Fast Foto. But if you only want to scan a few hundred photos, the V600 allows you to place numerous photos on the glass and then, in preview mode, draw a sizing box around each image.  When you hit the scan button the V600 will scan and save each photo individually.  There were countless times I used this feature, which was better than the fast scanner when I had a variety of different sized documents or photos.

This Wolverine is fairly inexpensive ($125) and is essentially a digital camera.  It does a reasonably good job of copying slides and it’s pretty fast (you can scan about 30 per hour).  However, its quality isn’t as good as the much slower Epson V600 or a high-end scanning service.

Over-sized documents, such as newspapers, created a bigger challenge (literally).  The V600 scan area is roughly 8 1/12 x 11 inches.  So for some critical newspapers, I had to scan the page in 4 to 6 sections and then,  assembled them into one page using a photo editor (I used Photoshop).  This is very time consuming (30-60 minutes of file editing per page) and requires both experience and practice.

For some over-sized pages where I wanted a good image, but not quite as good as a flatbed scan, I laid out the document on the living room floor and took a picture. For copy photography, you want indirect (not direct) sunlight that is smooth and even.  Standing over the document, I took a picture with my 20MP Sony camera.  You could also use a high megapixel phone camera and still get pretty good results.  This was perfect for junior high school programs and historical newspaper headlines.

Here’s a quick iPhone photo of an old newspaper featuring my mom (top left) in 1938.  Using software, I eliminated the deep yellowing of age and improved the contrast.

Scanning Resolution

There’s a tendency for people to think that the higher the resolution, the better the scan.  While technically that’s more or less true, scanning at too high a resolution is like over-watering the lawn.  Scanning resolution is often described as dpi, which stands for dots-per-inch.  There’s also PPI (pixels-per-inch), but dpi seems to be the defacto standard both for electronic files and in the printing industry. 

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • Photos and documents to be viewed on screen and printed at 5×7: 300 dpi
  • Photos and documents to be printed at 8×10: 600 dpi
  • Photos and documents to be printed at 16×20: 1,200 dpi
  • Slides: 2,000 – 4,000 dpi

I ultimately scanned most snapshots at 300 dpi and some of the really important ones at 600 dpi.  Out of 12,000+ images, I think that I only scanned less than 100 photos at 1,200 dpi.  For all the slides I scanned myself, I went with 2,000 dpi – which looks very good on my 27” Mac screen and at 4K video resolution.

Scanning at higher resolutions dramatically slows scanning time and increases file size.  And if a photo is a bit blurry, a high-res scan will not make it any sharper.

Software

I used a variety of software apps because there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  If you’re on a Mac, the built-in programs called Preview and Image Capture are amazingly powerful.  Epson also has software for their scanners (both Mac and PC), which can be very useful in batch naming and multiple-scan control.

I found this old processed roll of 35mm photos with a paper contact print which helped me match the negatives.  The scan results were impressive on my Mac’s 27” Retina display monitor.

For adjusting color and cropping, there are Mac and PC programs like Photoshop or Adobe Elements which will give you plenty of picture control.  I found a small Mac app that reduced PDFs which, for $6, became indispensable.  For managing and reviewing files and folders, the real bonus discovery was Adobe Bridge which is part of the very expensive Adobe Creative Suite, but can be downloaded and used for free.  Yes, free.  It’s a fantastic value and great tool to have either on the Mac or the PC.

Scanning Services

I had 3,000 slides which I edited down to 600 keepers.  I calculated that it would take me over 50+ hours, as each slide can take one to three minutes to scan.  I also had hours of 8mm home movies which, years ago, I had transferred to VHS and subsequently had burnt DVDs of.  I had long ago come to the conclusion that digitizing these kinds of media should be done outside.

There are many places, such as photo stores and Costco, that offer scanning services.  However, I did a much deeper dive and carefully researched companies that specialized in scanning.  One company that kept showing up in the top three of various reviews is a firm outside Phoenix called DigMyPics.  Before I risked shipping off all the home movies, I sent DigMyPics one short 50’ 8mm reel for a test.  Within a couple of days, they had digitized it (their process does one frame at a time) and sent me a link for web review.  It. Blew. Me. Away.  Compared to the transfers I’d done in the early 80’s, the color saturation and detail was fantastic. 

I spent more than a thousand dollars having them digitize movies that went back to 1954.  They sent them back on a hard drive (big files), but I could also download high-quality MP4 files from their server.  The six hundred slides were $.40 cents a scan, looked great and had detail and tonal range better than even my good Epson V600 scans.  DigMyPics clearly has figured out what an anxiety-producing experience shipping off your family treasures can be.  To that end, their level of customer service really quelled my worries with their progress reporting.  Depending on the amount of material you have, the whole process can take several weeks or more.  I was thrilled with the outcome and very happy not to sit chained next to a slide scanner for weeks (with a bottle of Ibuprofen nearby).  When it comes to precious family memories, use a good national scanning service. 

After the Scanning

For me, my pre-digital scanning project ranged from the late 1880’s up until my first Nikon Coolpix camera digital pictures in 2000.  After that time, my world became completely digital.  And that leads to a whole new conversation on organizing and archiving your digital life.

The ultimate space saver.  Even as a hard case techie, I still marveled at reducing twelve stuffed archive bins to a memory stick the size of my thumbnail.  Wow.

The same review, management, and archiving issues I’ve used in my digital life for nearly twenty years can now be applied to our new family scanned archives, which are all arranged and backed up. (Read this companion story on best digital storage strategies). All the truly irreplaceable family memories are safely preserved — and now instantly accessible.

Flood? Fire? Earthquake?  I laugh at your natural (or manmade) disasters!

The best time for thinking about selling an RV is before you buy one. These are expensive investments and unlike an appreciating asset, it’s more about how you preserve the diminished value of inevitable depreciation.

Buying a well-made RV backed by a strong company and dealer network is a good start.  Choosing a sensible floorplan and tasteful interior will also help hold value.  A good case in point is that with our last Navion, we ordered it with the overhead bunk above the cab. Even though it was only going to be the two of us, we knew that having that extra bed would ensure a wider group of buyers when we went to sell or trade.

If you’re buying your first RV, it’s very possible it won’t be your last.  Over time you may decide to upgrade or change styles. And, more than likely, will probably work a trade-in with a dealer.  However, there are times that you may choose to sell outright and when you do, here are some of the things you’ll want to know.

Helpful Selling Tips

Consider Timing

One of the first things you should consider is timing.  While different for everyone, the factors that go into a selling decision should take into account the age of the unit, mileage, time of year, geography, equity and/or loan balance, and market interest. “Sweet spots” of salability come and go. And with each revolution, there is a decline in value.  In my case, I had a three-year-old rig with a little over 40,000 miles. In the case of a Mercedes Sprinter with an engine duty life of 400,000 miles, the mileage was less a deducting factor than if this were a Class C with a gas engine.  And while my mileage was higher than average for a three-year-old rig, we had many upgrades. So for a lot of upgrades, you could buy on a brand new model, we would ultimately sell for $20,000-$30,000 dollars less.

I also knew that spring is when the majority of the market starts thinking about buying RVs with dreams of a summer getaway driving their interest.  I also knew that Sprinter-based motorhomes are in high demand, so my potential buyer might very well be out of the market area.

Know How Much to Sell For

There are several ways of selling your RV:  (1) to a private party, (2) to a dealer or broker, or (3) by consignment to a dealer or broker.  

Just like cars, RVs have a wholesale and retail value.  If you sell or consign to a dealer or a broker, the number they’re going to be looking at is the wholesale value with the expectation that they’ll make money in the reselling markup.  Unlike cars, the retail to wholesale spread for RVs can vary greatly as there are a lot more variables in valuation.  Not only is it a question of mileage, but also of wear and tear and configuration and accessories.

In the automotive world, there are guides such as the NADA and Kelly Blue Book to help determine the price of a car.  But what savvy car brokers and dealers do is look at the industry wholesale auctions which provide the truest, real-time, wholesale market price of a car.  But alas, there’s no equivalent for RVs, so consumers need to really dig deep to understand the true resale value of their unit.

If you’re planning to take the direct private party approach in selling your RV, your first stop should be visiting RVT.com.  Here you can use multiple criteria to search for your similar model and see what it’s selling for.  If you have a 2015 model, search for a couple of years older and newer to see where comparable listings are at. However, years don’t always tell the story.  For instance, there was a big model change between Navions in 2015. The prices you’ll see will essentially all be retail whether or not they’re from a private party or a dealer.  That will give you a good sense of where you compare.

When I was starting to think about selling our Navion, I used RVT to give me a sense of what my top number would be.  I then called my dealer and asked the salesperson I had worked with when I bought the Navion what he would buy it for to establish a floor.  Knowing my rig, he was also very helpful in suggesting a good “opening price” should I list it myself.

Consider Trade-In

If you are planning to buy another motorhome, then depending on the state you live in, it may be more advantageous to simply trade-in your rig, as sales tax is calculated on the difference.  Getting a wholesale value for your motorhome may be a wash in paying higher sales tax on an entire purchase.  It’s also a lot more convenient.

A few years ago when we got our second Navion, we sold our old one to friends.  We actually ran that transaction through our dealer for a $300 handling fee which streamlined clerical steps and, as a trade-in transaction, minimized my sales tax bill.

As we’re switching over to a new Winnebago diesel pusher later in the year, and thinking about the prime selling season, I decided that the higher value of a private sale more than offset the sales tax trade-in difference.

Pick the Right Listing Platforms

If you do decide to go the private sale route, using RVT.com will allow you to reach a national market (RVtrader.com is another popular site, but does require a fee).  Take the time to get good photos of your motorhome and carefully consider how you write the listing.  If there are some key features or upgrades worth pointing out, do so in your descriptive copy.

And while RVT has the highest visibility, don’t rule out alternative channels for advertising — and most of them are free.  There’s Craigslist, special interest forums that you may already be a member of, and of course, Facebook.  One friend tapped into a Facebook group of people traveling to dog shows to find a buyer.  That was brilliant!

Create a Great Listing

For me, the best response came from the RVT listing.  Beyond interior shots, I included photos of the Navion at various destinations.  I also shaped the copy to be more owner-to-owner sounding instead of the traditional laundry list of specs that dealers tend to use.  I then set the listing for contact through a blind e-mail address which filtered out non-serious inquiries.

Pro tips: Write your ad copy out ahead of time.  Be brutal in editing it down to be concise – you don’t have to explain every feature.  Point out key features, but don’t over-hype with flowery language.  Think carefully what’s important to buyers (sometimes what’s important to you is less important to someone else).  Stage for good photos. Smartphone quality is absolutely good enough as long as the shot is well lit. The panoramic feature of many smartphones is a great way to shoot a wide angle interior.  Arrange your pictures in sequence from the exterior to interior and number the files sequentially to keep track.

Find a Buyer You Can Trust

Within a couple of weeks, I had flushed out one very interested local buyer and one from across the country.  Ultimately, the out-of-town buyer took the pole position and then we entered into a phase that everyone has to feel their own way through trust.  The buyer wanted to make sure he was getting a well-maintained and reliable motorhome.  I wanted to make sure the check cleared. Fairly early on, we had agreed on a price. And then, through telephone calls, e-mails and texts, I was able to answer specific questions on the rig.  In getting to know the buyer, where he lived, and where he worked, I became much more comfortable with his trustworthiness.  As a measure of that trust, I agreed to hold the rig with no deposit and the buyer booked a flight to Denver.

As we worked through questions about VIN number, insurance, and license plates, my confidence continued to increase.  The plan was that he would fly into Denver, we’d fully go through the rig and do a test drive.  If everything was satisfactory, he’d hand me a bank check.  

Because of good planning by both buyer and seller, everything went very smoothly. And as we eagerly contemplate our next new coach, I’m already thinking about possible exit strategies in a few years.  Even though it’s all about fun, a little business-like planning sure doesn’t hurt.

In our RV travel life, we’ve spent six years and over 80,000 miles traipsing across the continent.  Typical of many RV travelers, we’ve collected our fair share of National Parks and must-sees.  Some places we have returned to, that I first saw as a child, are at once both nostalgic and new, through adult eyes.

Increasingly our destinations are less driven by bucket list check-offs, and more by whimsy or serendipity.  And it was a little of both that led us on a forensic expedition into one of the least-visited areas of the desert southwest.

The Mission Begins

Meet my mom and dad:  Julie (Julius) and Hermine.  Both of them died some years ago and, as an only child, I became the de facto preservationist of the family movies and photos.  I spent the entire summer of 2018 digitizing a priceless treasure lode of over 12,000 images and documents and scores of hours of home movies.

When my dad died in 1992, I put together a slideshow memorial of his life with my mother and I came across this picture.

Twenty-six years later I rediscovered the small snapshot again. From accompanying images I know that the year was 1948.  As a post-war ambition, my parents moved west from New York City to settle in Denver a year earlier.

I really love this picture. What fascinates me is the formality of their dress against the backdrop of some type of southwestern ruins. I suspected that this was one of Dad’s first trips working as a clothing manufacturing rep.  Years ago, I sort of chalked it up to being at the Taos Pueblo.  However, as I was studying this, and the other pictures in a paper photofinisher’s envelope, I knew it wasn’t Taos — the Taos pueblo walls are smooth and these are stacked rock.

I studied this and the other photos very carefully.  I looked at the hills, the cottonwoods in the background, the vigas coming out of the building, the square doors.  Oh, and let me take a moment to comment on their travel attire.

While people certainly dressed to “go downtown” in those days, I don’t think this was standard “road trip” apparel.  My hunch is that Dad was seeing customers in the area that day.

Here’s another one that’s a bit blurry, but interesting in that shows more of the ruins.  This got me thinking more about Anasazi and Chacoan cultures.

In this same collection of photos were a few more.  It had to be a southern trip from Denver and, most likely into New Mexico.

This partially double-exposed photo matches up perfectly with the view from Wolf Creek Pass looking down on Pagosa Springs.  The freeway system had yet to be built, and it made sense that the folks would travel on US Highways (in this case US 160).

These images definitely confirmed they were on a Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico trip.  But where was that photo of the two of them taken?

Finding the Right Match

I started looking at a map of the four corners region. Using Google, I put in keywords for pueblos and chose to filter by images (I use this feature a lot).  I looked at Chaco Canyon, but the configuration of the structures didn’t match.  I then thought of Hovenweep and found a picture that, for a few days, seemed in my mind to be a possible match.  However, I was still struggling with the background topography.

One night, around midnight, scanning thumbnail images of a Google search, one of the images that came up in a Hovenweep search looked interesting.  It took me to the ruins at Aztec, NM.

Back in the late 1990’s, I was the CEO of a high-tech company that became the first to commercially plot locations on a map (ATMs for Visa).  It was all so miraculous, even with slow connections, the paucity of information, and clunky interfaces.  Fast forward into the late teens of this new century, and I sat in the glow of my Mac reviewing satellite images like a Tom Clancy CIA analyst hunting down the enemy.

I used Google Maps to pinpoint Aztec. These days, Google Maps is so powerful that when you search for a specific location, you can also see related photos (and a lot of them are 360-degree navigable).  This is the photo that piqued my interest. Very close.  A definite possibility.

I then clicked on a navigable picture.  It was a walk around a big Kiva.

Bingo!  It all snapped into place. The barren hillside behind the ruins match, as do the cottonwoods.  The confirmation of the steep ruins matches picture two.  But the true triangulating moment comes with the vigas on the Kiva.  Look at the doorway above the star.  There are two vigas above that door.  Then look at the square entrance to the kiva, just to the left of it. The star is close to where they were standing.

Now, go back to the Julie and Hermine’s photo and you’ll see these elements all aligned in the photo. Going back to the first picture it all fit.

They either came south or headed north into/out of Colorado from Durango.  Aztec is due south on US Highway 550.  That would have been the main route back then. 

Seeing for Ourselves

And this is how our next trip began.  I immediately started looking at routing options and using the AllStays app checking out RV campgrounds.

When we approached the front desk at the visitor’s center, I asked the ranger if we could walk anywhere on the grounds.  He smiled and politely explained, “Well, we ask that you stay on the marked paths.”  I slid an enlargement of the photo across the desk and said, “I’d like to take a photo on the same spot my parents stood, seventy years ago.”

As he looked down another ranger sitting behind him leaned forward, they both smiled and the first ranger looked up, “Wow.  That’s really cool.  Go ahead, I’ll let the other rangers know that it’s okay.”

Holding the old photo as a reference we made a rough guess of where Julie and Hermine would have stood.  Then, with the camera on a tripod, we shot several self-timed images.

I could tell from my folk’s picture that they had visited the ruins in very late winter and in the afternoon.  Seventy and one-half years later, we were there at the autumn solstice – also in the afternoon.  The angle and the shadows are fairly close.  And look at the cottonwoods in the background.  They weren’t there 70 years ago.

Compared to the photos, movies, and stories of my parent’s travels, I sometimes feel like we’re players in a science fiction movie.  From that day in 1948, before the federal highway system, before motorhomes, before GPS screens in cars with real-time traffic updates, before a smartphone that has more power than all the collective computers in that post-war world, and before an image could be captured digitally and sent instantly to anywhere on the planet, my parents had the same sense of adventure and discovery.  Twenty-three years later, they would buy their first motorhome. And in twenty more years, travel 200,000 miles throughout their adopted homeland of the Rocky Mountain West.  And as Terry and I roll along in their tracks, sharing their same sense of wonder, they are with me always.


Travel Tips for the Desert Southwest

The desert southwest and RVs were meant for each other.  There are lots of boondockable opportunities.  And also plenty of dusting and vacuuming of the desert dust.

What to See

Within the four corners region, the BIG attractions are Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley.  And then there’s the B-list which are harder to get to, but arguably equally as impressive and fascinating.  Those include Goosenecks of the San Juan, Hovenweep, Canyon DeChelly, and Chaco Canyon.

In returning from southern California to Colorado, we knew we needed to wind up in Aztec.  (Aztec got its name when early settlers mistakenly assumed the ruins were built by the Aztecs from Mexico.  They weren’t.  It was the Anasazi people who populated in the area roughly between 500 and 1300).

Our route would take us off of I-40 and north from Gallup, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado.  In between was a long desired and hard to get to destination, Chaco Canyon.  Chaco is totally worth it.  Unlike the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Chaco is built on the valley floor and some of the original buildings go up four stories.  Definitely take the time for a ranger-led tour.  It’s a graduate course on Puebloan anthropology.

RVing Tips

Whether you come in from the north or the south, there are 20+ miles of dirt road, and we found the northern road to be annoyingly washboard-y. It’s nearly 40 or more miles for any services near the Chaco visitor center, but there is a campground.  I wouldn’t recommend it for Class A’s, but B’s and C’s who are happy to boondock for a day or two will be fine.  Your stay should be rewarded by a light-pollution-free canopy of stars.

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco

If you have a tow car, the best strategy is to leave the rig at the campground and do a day trip to Chaco.  There are a variety of campgrounds north of Chaco off US 64, between the towns of Farmington and Bloomfield.  To the east of Aztec and Bloomfield is Navajo Lake State Park where there are lots of camping and water opportunities (including high-quality fly fishing on the San Juan river).

A few months ago I was in a conversation with a fellow RVer who shares my same view that life without bandwidth … ain’t life.  Just recently at home, we switched to a gig Internet service which means there’s no wait for a YouTube video to play and you can tell your cable company that you want to start dating other people.

My friend said, “If I could get the same Internet speed on the road that I can when I’m home with my cable modem, I’d probably go full-time.”  I love my urban downtown life when we’re not traveling, but was shocked at how readily and comfortable my agreement with him was.  Gimme a hundred megs anywhere and I’m out of here!

There’s no doubt that fast data speed anywhere will happen in the future.  It already has a name: 5G, and the big cell companies are racing to plant skinny antenna poles on every corner like spring saplings.  It’s coming, but it’s going to take a while.  In the meantime, what good is an unlimited data plan if you can’t get a signal?  That’s where cell boosters help.

I (and others) have logged a lot of keyboard strokes about strategies to get data signals into a coach.  To recap, there are two technologies: wifi and cellular.  And though they are different, what they both have in common is that if you have a good antenna you can pull in a stronger signal.  For a cell signal, both signal reception and amplification can help.  And that’s where cell boosters come in.

For years, I’ve used a Wilson Electronics cell booster in our Navion with great success and it often made the difference whether or not we could make a call or download e-mails.  Several years ago, the company rebranded their products as weBoost and introduced a next-generation suite of products that are more powerful.

For RV owners, there are two weBoost products that stand out.  The first is their more portable solution, the Drive Sleek.  It’s an updated version of their cradle mount system, but with some significant changes.

The Drive Sleek ($200) comes with a small magnetic mount antenna.  It’s really designed to be moved between cars, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it for an RV installation.  It needs to magnetically attach to a steel roof. But if you have a fiberglass one like our Navion, the big question is where can you mount it on the roof? The no-holes-to-drill answer is that you can affix any kind of small metal plate that’s roughly 8-12” round or square to your roof with some 3M VHB tape and plop the magnetic antenna onto it.  Then run the cable down the side of the coach and through a side window or door jam.  If the coax interferes with closing a window you can consider drilling a 1/4” hole in the sidewall of the coach and thread it through to the interior with a little squirt of silicone sealant.  If you drill a hole that does, however, commit you to a more permanent solution.

The tiny antenna needs to attach to any surface that is magnetic.

With the coax now inside the coach, snake the wire to the small booster which may best be tucked under one of the front seats or up near the firewall under the carpet or floor mat.  From there, you run a 12V power wire from your accessory power port to the amplifier and then a cable up to the boost cradle.

A clever cradle system attaches to any dash vent at just about any angle.

For the Sleek system to work, your cell needs to rest in the very nicely designed cradle that is spring loaded to gently pinch your phone into place.  weBoost has come up with an ingenious and powerful magnetic mount that allows you to affix the cradle to the fins of your vehicle’s dashboard vents.

Stepping up to the Drive 4G-X RV system ($500) gives you a more robust antenna and the ability to boost signals to several devices inside the coach like a couple of cell phones and a mi-fi hotspot without them sitting in a cradle.  This is the gold solution and is meant to be a permanent installation. It will require a few holes to be drilled and, depending on your coach, some creative strategies for running the coax cables.

All the components for easily installing the Drive 4G-X RV are included. Rocket science degree is optional.

If you’re reasonably handy, it’s probably a short afternoon project, or it may be something you ask an RV dealer to do.  weBoost has excellent documentation and support.  The key thing you need to remember in figuring out where to place the indoor and outdoor antennas is that you want them about 10 to 20 feet away from each other.  And any cell device you plan to use inside the coach should be 4-6 feet away from the inside antenna.

These days, we find that our iPhones and hotspot (we’re on AT&T) almost always work better than local RV park or public wifi hotspots.  And though we have an external wifi antenna, the convenience of the happens-in-the-background connection to the cell network eliminates monkeying with searching for wifi hotspots with a web browser connected to an internal coach router.

I’m a BIG fan of the weBoost products and these newer and more powerful models can make a huge difference in both voice and data connectivity. 

My wife Terry and I felt like lottery winners when we were asked to take a brand-new Winnebago Horizon for a two and a half month livability test.  In the last five years, we had criss-crossed North America putting 80,000 miles on two Navions.  We were drawn to the Navion for its simplicity, ease of driving, and clean Euro-inspired interior.

Most of our friends owned big rigs and a group of our former Vail Valley neighbors kept insistently inviting us to join them in their winter escape in Indio, California.  Indio is in the Coachella Valley and is one of several linked desert cities in a 30-mile long swath with Palm Springs on the north and Indio on the south.  The RV parks and resorts in the area start to fill in November and pretty much empty out in April.

The view from the patio at Outdoor Resorts where the Horizon was parked looking west toward the San Jacinto mountains.

All our friends are at the Outdoor Resorts Indio, where the driveway lots are all owner owned and some are available in the resort’s rental pool.  While the word resort is all too frequently paired with the word RV, it is most often mischaracterized at best and misleading at worst. However, in the case of ORI, the word resort is 100% true with many lots on the private golf course along with a clubhouse and restaurant, tennis, pickleball, lap pool, exercise room, and activities director all on-site.

Most lots have outdoor kitchens and the trend is to build much more substantial covered structures with TVs, fire tables, full gourmet kitchens, electric heaters, and even washers and dryers.

However, ORI only permits Class A vehicles (at least 28-feet long and newer than 10 years), so as lovely as our Navion is, it wouldn’t qualify.  Needless to say, leaving a Colorado winter behind, living in a first-class resort and getting to do it in an ultra-modern motorhome truly was a lottery win.

Getting started

In late January, we flew up to Winnebago’s Junction City, Oregon, plant that is just north of Eugene.  We spent a day picking up some basic road essentials between Costco, Target, Macy’s and Camping World – just enough to start living in the unit on day one as we would then spend the next few days driving the thousand miles to Indio.  I had pretty limited diesel pusher driving experience, and you can read more about how I came up the learning curve by reading this story.

Night number one.  We use Winnebago’s complimentary hook-ups a block from the customer service facility in Junction City, Oregon.

Because Terry and I are well-seasoned RVers, once we got on the highway and then exited later for an evening at a campground, the evening set-up and morning road-ready processes with the Horizon was pretty simple.  Our four days on the road gave us plenty of time to test the mobile systems.  And, once we set the jacks on the drive in Indio, we now had plenty of day-to-day time to settle in and learn all the house systems in depth.

Design matters

Amazingly close to the original vision.  A rare photo of the hand-built mock up of the Horizon two years before it was announced.

The reason the Horizon won the RV Business 2018 “RV of the Year” award is simple:  design.  Both inside and out.  It was a long three-year journey from concept to showroom (you can read a companion story here).  It starts with the refreshing disappearance of exterior swirls and complex patterns that vaguely channel abstract coats of arms.  I guess the best way to describe the exterior effect is more color and less drama.  Our test Horizon is very understated with a dark gray base and black accent color.  My personal preference is the clean white with the high contrast of the black side element.  But no matter your choice of exterior paint scheme, the effect is obvious:  this is a different RV with a design that will appear less dated as the years go by.

As I’ve come to describe the Horizon to RV friends, I’ve got my sound bites down cold:  there are no puck lights (except hidden in the closet), no external cabinet hardware and no RV wallpaper.  You can’t make that claim in my friends’ high-end Newmars or Newells.

(Click here to watch an in-depth video walk-through of the Horizon 40A)

21st century interior features

When RV-savvy visitors walk into the Horizon, there are two universal comments.  The first is how open it feels.  That’s due to the expansive windows that aren’t separated by mullions or screens.  The second is the ceiling.  A slim center canopy drops slightly from the ceiling with embedded LED lighting.  Gone are the mirrors, scrolls, pedestrian hardware, and impractical elements that confuse ornateness with class.

Our orange pillows from our loft in Denver added a personal touch to our winter home.

The color palette of this particular Horizon is the Briarwood/Hemetite combination.  I was worried that the dark gray counters would be too dark, but it isn’t at all.  The lighter Ultraleather fabric, light-color porcelain and medium toned wood and laminate coverings are surprisingly light feeling.  On the galley side, the liberal use of stainless steel for the back and side splashes really amp up the modern feeling without overtly calling your attention to them.

The bath design, with two entry points, stops people in their tracks.  It’s here that the size, functionality, lighting and storage completely reset one’s expectations of an RV bath.  Yes, there are more expansive baths (including the larger 43’ Horizon floorplan), but you won’t find any more comfortable to spend time in.  It makes me smile every morning.

Most of the high-gloss cabinets have hidden hardware and when a pull is installed, it’s slim chrome almost disappears, yet is comfortable to pull on.  As I write this review, I’m sitting in the living room lounge and as I look around the coach (as I do every day) I continue to marvel at the level of assembly precision and sleekness of my current home.  The daily living difference is profound.

The livability difference

And this isn’t about the move from a Class C to a Class A.  This is about the importance that we place on our living environments.  We’ve lived in several homes over the decades, and with each subsequent home, we increased our interest and sophistication in interior design.  When we did a major remodel of our former Vail Valley home, we spent a couple of months at multiple tile, stone and carpet showrooms evaluating surfaces.  Now, in our downtown Denver loft, we very carefully curate even the smallest of spaces.  We’ve often spent 2-3 years at major art festivals and galleries looking for that “one perfect piece.”   We’ve spent countless hours evaluating cabinet pulls, lighting fixtures, door handles, and plumbing fixtures.  We’ve also toured and been guests in multi-million dollar homes (some are tasteful and others … ).  It’s all that experience that makes us both critical and appreciative.  And truly, at any price point, the Horizon is the first motorhome where we don’t feel we have to compromise our design sensibilities for day-to-day use.

Classy = simple.  This is the vanity faucet.  Note the two-tone Corian sink with a silky smooth seam between the counter and sink which makes cleaning a breeze with a simple wipe down.

Winnebago has clearly broken free of the gravitational pull of traditional design and we know it won’t be for everyone.  But at least now, in the diesel pusher segment, there’s finally a more modern feeling choice.  Yet there’s another side of the design coin and, with sixty years of experience, it’s deep in Winnebago’s wheelhouse:  floorplan design.  Looking pretty and being functional are two different things.  And I’m here to tell you that the Horizon absolutely lives as well as it looks.  This 40A floorplan has a single bath, but the two entries (hall and bedroom) offer great pass-through access.   The fixed kitchen island offers a lot more space than competitive galleys, and the uncluttered open space of the main living area is very, very flexible.

Both of the Horizon floorplan options are derived from well-honed Winnebago designs.  They work.  They make sense.  And they make extended or full-time living exceedingly comfortable.

The driving and cab experience

The odds are you’re going to spend a lot more time living in a Horizon rather than driving one.  But getting comfortably and safely from point A to B and all the points beyond is important.  Moving you down the highway is a Cummins diesel in the rear.  There are three key differences between the 40A and 42Q models.  The 40A comes with a 400-horsepower engine and the 42Q bumps that up to 450 along with an independent front suspension and tag axle.

Coming from our Navion, we were immediately struck by the smoother ride and much quieter cab noise at freeway speeds.  Terry appreciated the electric cover that slides over the front stairwell and comfortable passenger seat.  I appreciated not only seat adjustability, but also the steering wheel tilt and adjustable brake and accelerator pedals.

The six-speed Allison transmission is fully electronic and controlled by push button.  There’s a nifty switch that immediately puts the transmission in downshift mode when descending steeper grades which got a good test on the rolling up and downs of I-5 in southern Oregon. You can also make manual gear selections as it suits your driving needs.

Switches are all within reach, but pretty typical of the over-the-road truck heritage switch placement and labeling that’s pretty utilitarian.  This isn’t a Winnebago shortcoming per se, I see pretty much the same arrangement in other competing products.  What this means for new drivers is spending some time exploring and playing with the switches prior to taking your eyes off the highway while you search for the sun shade button (which looks like every other button).  Though the Horizon’s molded dash curve looks as modern as the rest of the coach, it’s pretty clear that ergonomic user design hasn’t made it into the cockpit.

The large screen of the Xite infotainment system makes it easy to glance at information and get your eyes quickly back on the road.

So, while I’ll give the switches a C, the 10.5-inch Xite Infotainment system gets an A.  That huge screen really makes a quick glance of the Rand McNally navigation display easy.  And while the Winnebago signature high-quality side mirrors are excellent, the high-def cameras built into them display side traffic full screen when you activate the turn signal.  I found this HUGELY helpful in looking at my blind spot on the right side of the coach.  There were two instances where the video display revealed a vehicle on the right that wasn’t readily apparent in the mirrors.

Beyond the premium sound system, the Xite can also be used with a Sirius XM subscription and play music, audio books and podcasts through Bluetooth.  You find Xite units in various Winnebago rigs and many people have a love-hate relationship with it.  Those who love it (and I’m in that camp) are the ones who’ve patiently taken time to learn the deep features of the Rand McNally GPS software.  No, it’s not as brilliantly friendly as Apple CarPlay, but it’s much better optimized for specific RV driving needs.  (You can find a good video tutorial I produced by clicking here).  There’s also a smaller passenger display that can also control many functions. And in front of the passenger seat is a hinged cover that opens up to reveal storage for various dash accessories along with dual USB and a 12-volt charge point. When parked, we have come to enjoy the standby feature that displays both the time and temperature outside the rig.

Finally, going down the road with the slides in, Terry had no problem accessing both the galley and the bathroom.

Smart furniture

Winnebago both makes and contracts furniture built to their exact specifications.  In the front living area, both the driver and passenger chairs can be swiveled to face in and the passenger chair also has a pop-up footrest.

IMAX dining! We were surprised at the versatility of being able to move the dinette to the left and right.  It’s a feature we never thought we’d use, but did.

The “Glide and Dine” dinette is a Winnebago exclusive that always brings shocks and smiles as it’s being demonstrated.  Pulling an under-the-table lever allows you to slide the table a couple of feet to the left and the right.  It comes with two extension leafs that are slipped into vinyl-covered padded bags.  With the two extensions in place, there’s comfortable space for four.  There are two comfortable fabric covered side chairs with a hint of mid-century modern design.  When company shows up, there are two wood-frame, solid and sturdy folding chairs that are equally well designed and comfortable.  We’ve been living daily with one leaf in the table that adds a little extra surface for working with papers spread out next to our laptops.

Most RV sofas have footrests that don’t come all the way up to even out with the cushions which makes them less comfortable.  This is a much better solution — and sturdy, too.  You can sit on the foot cushions without worry.

Across from the dinette is the “Rest Easy” sofa.  I’ve shot a few videos demoing this piece of furniture, but now that we’re living with it on a daily basis, I’m here to tell you this ain’t no simple couch.  All three seating cushions are motorized, so you can tilt them back for TV watching or flatten them out for sleeping.  But here’s where it gets very, very cool.  There’s a slot underneath the front cushion that you reach into to squeeze a release handle.  You then pull out a sturdy steel rail frame with a matching top cushion that pulls up and locks firmly in place to form a footrest, ottoman, or sleeping extension.  The footrest/ottoman is rock solid and you can sit on it without worry.  The true brilliance to this design is that the ubiquitous ottomans you have to maneuver around in many coaches is completely unnecessary.  During the day, the cushion and rail slides back under the sofa where it’s out of sight and no longer a tripping hazard.

As you’re sitting on the couch, there’s a thin end table that hides a fold-out table for use by the adjacent recliner.  The recliner is a solid and reasonably heavy piece of furniture.  Like all the seating areas, it’s covered in a premium grade of Ultraleather that is easy to clean, very durable and has a silky and sumptuous hand feel.  The lounger can be swiveled to watch TV across the cabin or turn towards the fireplace for a chilly evening warm-up.

The other critical piece of furniture is the bed.  A queen bed is standard and one big upside is the thin nightstands that parallel its narrower size (they aren’t available with the optional king size).  It also makes maneuvering in the bedroom a bit easier.  Our Horizon has a full-sized king, and like the queen version, it has an inflatable internal bladder system that allows you to adjust firmness with a wired memory remote. We started our marriage over three decades ago on a water bed and, before they were fashionable, have been sleeping on a Tempur-Pedic.  We’re pretty fussy, but even for us, the Ideal Rest mattress in the Horizon is a pleasure to fall asleep on at night and wake up on every morning.  And thankfully, the king-size bed is easy to make.  The mattress is light enough that lifting the corners to pull on a fitted sheet isn’t hard.

Less a galley and more a kitchen

They say that the heart of a home is the kitchen and the central placement of the galley in the 40A truly makes that so.  The number one benefit of this floorplan galley design is the fixed island.

RV kitchens are usually pretty stingy with counter space, and the Horizon really excels on this point not only with the island but with what I’ll call a coffee bar in a very practical cabinet stack.  At the top is a large high-wattage residential convection/microwave.  Below is an open and deep counter for a coffee maker, toaster oven, etc.  We did find that our taller Keurig stores fine under the micro. But to use it, we slide it out toward the front of the counter, so the top lid can be opened.  Below the counter is an optional Fisher and Paykel drawer-style dishwasher.  If you don’t get this option, you get a second big roll-out pantry drawer. And there is also a big pantry drawer below which is ideal for taller items.  This entire stack is hidden by cabinet doors that open and then slide back to remain out of the way for day-to-day access.

Splitting the difference with a large and smaller divided sink.

The kitchen sink is divided stainless.  Winnebago has walked a fine line here with respecting that there are two camps when it comes to sinks.  There’s the “one big sink” divinity and then the church of “the divided sink” brethren.  The sink they’ve chosen is probably the theologically correct answer with a larger main sink and a smaller second one.  We don’t mind it at all and we really like the stainless waterfall front facing.  The large single-control faucet with integral hose sprayer is very equivalent to what we have in our loft at home.

Next to the sink is a two-burner induction cooktop.  We discovered the joys of induction cooking several years ago with a portable unit for our Navion.  Temperature controllability is really close to natural gas.  You can read more about our induction experience here.

Filling out the galley compliment is the refrigerator.  In our coach, Winnebago chose a French door, lower freezer model made by Samsung.  We’ve had Sub-Zeros, Jenn-Aires, and Kitchen Aides and I think this Samsung compares quite nicely.  It’s a 23-cubic-foot fridge which is LARGE.  In residential appliances, you usually top out at 25 cubic feet, so this one is quite generous.  There’s a lot of flexibility in shelf placement and I like that the ice maker and dispenser are built into the left top door.  By putting the ice maker on the door, it frees up space in the freezer below.  Finding items in bottom freezers can be a chilly treasure hunt.  What’s nice about the Samsung is a sliding wire shelf that allows you to better organize and see what’s in the freezer.

In day-to-day use, the kitchen has been really easy for two people to work in at the same time without complicated choreography.

The bath with a wow factor

While the 42Q floorplan has a half bath and master bath, the 40A has a single one and it’s a masterpiece.  Now that’s not just me cranking up the rave machine, we hear this from absolutely everyone who has toured the coach.  So, let’s start our tour with the modern barn door in the hall suspended on a roller and stainless-steel rod track.  Then there’s the entrance into the bedroom that can be divided by a pocket door.  With the doors open, we find ourselves using both the hall and bath entrances as we move back and forth from the bedroom to the coach.  There’s never a traffic jam and the dual flow somehow seems to make a lot of sense.

Two entries into the bathroom makes it feel even larger than it is.

It’s a toss-up as to which is more dramatic, the floor to ceiling backlighted stainless-steel panel in the shower, or the wall-mounted, single-control faucets for the dual vanity.  With a natural skylight, backlit wall panel, and tube-ring LED lighting, taking a shower seems to be a more enervating experience.  There’s a molded seat built at the right height for in-shower leg shaving or setting down a shampoo bottle.  The single-handle control feeds a flexible shower head that can be positioned vertically on a slide rail at various heights and is easily detached for washing off bare feet or being a doggie spa.

The dual vanities are seamless Corian with integral sinks that make wiping them down easy and fast.  The sink stoppers are a wide stainless pop-down-to-plug design.  A very sensible choice.

And finally, in the porcelain department, there’s a Thetford Tecma toilet.  It’s a very stout and comfortable design that keeps a little base water in the bottom of the bowl.  It’s an electric flush with two-lighted buttons on the wall next to it for light and heavy flushing.  No foot pedal or cleaning hose.  The more powerful flush cycle does a pretty good job flushing out solids, but definitely invest in a small bowl brush.  We found that it fits very nicely in the dead corner to the rear of the toilet.  The Tecma uses more water for flushing than traditional RV stomp and dump mechanisms, but with this class of coach you’re more than likely to be hooked up and not worrying about water sufficiency.  There’s also a nifty indicator light on the flush buttons to tell you when the black tank is getting full.

Beyond the high-quality fixtures, the other “wow” moment about the bathroom in the 40A is how much storage there is.  There are two open cabinets below the sink, a stack of three center drawers, three medicine cabinets, a tall and shallow two-door storage cabinet next to the toilet, and a large and deep (though a bit narrow) closet behind the toilet that might best be used for linens and cleaning supplies.

Storage (above)

Just like the bathroom, Winnebago really optimizes storage and, unlike many competitors, they do it in a really smart way.  Like so many features in motorhomes, things are often designed to captivate and capture a buyer’s heart as they walk through a coach at a dealer or RV show.  Some of those ideas at first glance seem super clever, but after you start living with a coach that first impression of admiration can quickly turn to “what were they thinking?!?!”  Throughout all their motorhome products, Winnebago does a pretty good job of prioritizing usable over sexy when it comes to storage, and the Horizon reflects that kind of thoughtfulness.

Terry liked that the dresser was also a perfect stand-up desk, with plenty of storage below.

I’ve produced quite a few videos of Winnebago’s Class A products over the past few years and my sense is that there is a subtle trade-off between panoramic visibility and storage in the Horizon.  For instance, in the 40A we have a lower dresser (with a televator) and above is a large window.  In the 42Q there’s no window, it’s all storage.

When I tell you that we downsized from a four-bedroom, 3,800 square foot house to a two bedroom 1,500 square foot loft, and have traveled in Navions for the past five years, that’ll pretty much tell you where I’m coming from.  Less stuff means less hassle.  But I think the Horizon 40A is perfectly capable of storing everything that a multi-month Snowbird or full-timer would want or need without much in the way of trade-offs.  In our primary residence, we’ve learned to edit wardrobes and home accessories to the best and most essential items and have never felt we cut corners or that we were missing something.

It took us longer than expected to transfer clothing, food, tools, etc from our Navion to the Horizon.

For our extended desert stay, we essentially emptied out our Navion into the Horizon and we have tons of space we’re not using.

In the main living area, there are four wide and deep overhead cabinets on each side (eight total).  There are two more tall and wide cabinets over the dash with a little side storage above the door.  Over the fireplace are another two shallow, but wide cabinets.

Under the dinette bar, six cabinet doors open into two deep and divided cabinets on both sides of the shallow televator cabinets.

Galley storage is pretty good with large, open capacity under the sink, three deep pullout drawers and two overhead cabinets.  Terry and I both think that we’d dedicate the cabinets over the fireplace to additional galley use either for foodstuffs or glassware.  Figuring out kitchen storage is more an art than it is a science and you may come up with a completely different strategy than ours.  Suffice it to say, at least you have options.

In the bedroom, the main wardrobe closet is a little over five feet wide and accessed by very solid bypass doors.  There’s an additional 7-1/2 inches of depth behind the hanging clothes with some fixed shelves.  This would be great for seasonal storage, shoes, and infrequently used items. The wardrobe closet is the only place you’ll see a typical RV puck light and the LEDs are bright and really help you see your clothes.  Underneath the washer and dryer cabinet is a nifty long and deep storage drawer which can act as a small dirty clothes hamper or detergent storage. On the other side of the bedroom, hidden behind the articulated doors leading to the hall, there is a tall, long, and skinny floor to ceiling closet that offers storage options for smaller items like socks, paperbacks, pet supplies, etc.

We are big fans of The Container Store’s plastic shoe boxes and have used many of them in the Navion.  We’ve moved some of them into the Horizon and they’re excellent for storage organization in the overhead cabinets and the bedroom closet.  And here’s a super cool thing I discovered:  For sound dampening and item protection, Winnebago lines many of their cabinets with a very low-pile, carpet-like material.  It’s the kind of stuff that Velcro sticks to beautifully.  This opens up many possibilities for creating divided and secure storage in many of the cabinets.

Storage (below)

Diesel pushers in general have lots of “basement” storage.  On the Horizon, there are 5+ storage compartments.  The “plus” comes from a couple of bays that have mechanical equipment, but also good storage cubbies.  At the heart of the Horizon basement storage is a double-wide bay with a roll-out tray that can be accessed from either side of the coach.  I haven’t seen this kind of wide storage in other, far more expensive, coaches and it’s due to Winnebago’s custom Maxum chassis which lowers the coach rails, improves center of gravity, and allows for this super-wide storage drawer that has even more fixed storage below and on the side. It’s pretty impressive.

That’s one BIG storage bay!

One of the other storage bays on the passenger side can be fitted with a roll-out Dometic freezer/refrigerator which is ideal for ultimate tailgating or Costco miscalculations where you just couldn’t pass up the 10 pounds of USDA Prime.  And while we’re on the subject of bays and tailgating, there’s a bay up front on the driver’s side where a 20-pound LP tank is stored.  When connected, the tank feeds a connection tap on the passenger side of the vehicle to power a propane barbecue that you supply.  What a treat not having to mess with a bunch of one-pound bottles and worrying about running out of gas before dinner is cooked.

All the large bays have bright internal lights and you can turn them on and off from a variety of locations including an inside panel right at the front entry.

Surfaces

Unlike larger residential spaces, the smaller space of an RV tends to take you much closer to finishes.  While it didn’t hit us immediately, after a couple of weeks in the Horizon we started noticing things we hadn’t paid attention to before. The first was the absence of the traditional RV papered wallboard.  You won’t see any of it in the Horizon.  The wall surfaces behind the sofa and recliner are padded soft vinyl panels.  The same holds true for the main ceiling panels.  The walls around the bath and leading to the bedroom are highly dimensional laminate that have the appearance of variegated slate.  It’s an unusual product and an even more unusual application of it.  The lighter porcelain tile in this model has a very good foot feel.  Though smooth, there is a slight roughness to the surface that makes it less slippery in socks or when stepping out of the shower.

From great foot feel on the tile, to the soft padding around window frames, every surface of the Horizon is a pleasure to touch.

The Italian-made Technoform cabinetry is a high-gloss laminate.  And yes, fingerprints do show up, but we’ve found that it’s a minor issue and a quick wipe takes care of it.  The glass-like finish of the cabinet doors and matching door panels adds to the sense of spaciousness with their high degree of reflectivity.  All the positive locking overhead cabinet latches are hidden right underneath the doors and the larger cabinet doors and drawers have these thin chrome pulls that are barely noticed.  However, they provide an excellent grip — especially for the positive soft-close drawers.  These are the subtle touches you just don’t see in motorhomes in this price range (or often higher) and they’re next to impossible to notice as you dart in and out of various makes and models, but these are the small details that, in aggregate, lead to a more comfortable and satisfying living experience.

Windows, shades and awnings

I’ve talked earlier about how much we enjoy all the expansive glass on the Horizon.  This afternoon as I was reviewing the draft of this story, I saw a Newmar London Aire back into a space near ours.  I was struck by the large size of the windshield.  My friend who owns a similar Essex told me the replacement cost of the window (which he had to do).  That’s one expensive piece of glass and a good argument for insurance.  While it gives the coach a bold look on the outside, on the inside a lot of that real estate is hidden behind the front cabinets.

I looked at the London Aire and then again at the Horizon.  Both are handsome coaches, but the Horizon gives you all the windshield you actually need which, heaven forbid, is a lot less glass to replace without any sacrifice in wide angle views from the front seats.

All the Horizon shades are manual except for the front sun and blackout shades which are controlled from a switch to the left of the driver’s seat.  There’s a limiter that lowers the shade enough for driving into the sun, but not too far when you’re driving.  When parked, you can set them at any height.  All the rest of the shades are the field-proven MCD mechanisms with both sun and blackout shades which I have always found to work well.

There are two exterior awnings.  One over the front door and the other down the passenger side.  Both have wind sensors for auto retraction and embedded LED lights.

Electronics

I’ve already discussed the Xite infotainment system with optional premium sound speakers.  It’s worth noting that the sound system is strictly for the front cab.  For the home entertainment electronics, there’s a cabinet and rack above the driver’s seat where there are shelves, outlets and connections for satellite, cable, and internet.  Additionally, there’s a pre-installed Blu-ray DVD player.  Our coach has four TVs.  One on the outside with a soundbar and wireless sub-woofer, two screens (dining and bedroom) on televators that are controlled from light panels, and an optional fourth 50” screen above the fireplace.

We found that we never turned on the big screen above the fireplace and would just as soon pass on that option and go with the more stylish cabinets instead.  There are two reasons for that.  The first is that we (like most people) like watching TV directly facing the screen.  The only seats that really do that are the rotated driver and passenger seats.  On the other hand, the sofa – with its built in electric recliner and pullout ottoman – directly faces the dinette screen.  And while it’s just a tad smaller, this is a more sophisticated Samsung than the other sets and it has an excellent soundbar and subwoofer.  We also have found that it’s impressively cinema-like to sit at the dinette table with the chairs angled to watch TV.

I think Winnebago has made a wise decision to forego adding a stereo system and speakers in the coach.  I find many friends who simply don’t turn them on for watching TV.  Too many remotes. Too complicated.  The main cabin TV soundbar sounds excellent.  If you do love listening to music (and I do) then consider a standalone solution like Apple’s wonderful HomePod.  It arrived at the coach on the first day of shipping and it’s a winner being able to stream Apple Music from the internet or from our iPhones and iPads.  I also recommend the competitive products from Sonos.  Either way, you’ll get great sounding music without any wiring or control hassles.

For video signals, the Horizon comes with an autoseeking Winegard HD antenna which has worked well for over the air signals.  You can also order a Winegard satellite dish.  For the past couple of months, we’ve found that a combination of over-the-air and streaming have been a perfect solution.  For $44 dollars a month, we have a 100Mb internet cable modem connected to an AppleTV.  More and more streaming is where it’s at and with a modem connection we use the AppleTV as our main viewing hub to access our Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO subscriptions.  The pro-class HDMI switcher in the electronics cabinet allows you to send signals from any source to any TV to support different programs in different locations.

For in-coach WiFi, I installed some nifty WiFi routers from Google.  There’s one in the front electronics cabinet plugged into the cable modem.  Then I put one in the back in the bedroom and through a simple app they connected and formed a “mesh” network.  This gives us strong WiFi on the side and back patio on our lot which is great for using my portable outside Bluetooth speaker or fast surfing on my Mac or iPad outdoors.

Systems

Engine

This class of motorhomes all put a lot more emphasis on the word home rather than motor.  However, it’s worth pointing out a few things about the vehicular aspect of the Horizon.  One of the big conveniences is having locking diesel fill doors on both sides of the coach for maximum flexibility in filling up.  A large DEF tank with an easy-to-read gauge is on the driver’s side to the rear.  It’s far enough from the diesel fill that you may have to roll the coach forward about 10 feet if you’re at a pump that also has a DEF dispensing nozzle.

The 40A has a 400HP engine and the 42Q has a 450HP engine.

Service is pretty straightforward.  The 40A is a rear radiator and the 42Q has a side radiator.  Some owners, who are mechanically inclined, will say they prefer the side radiator style for easier service.  For owners like me, I’m happy to tend to other systems and let the engine guys handle the oil changes and routine service.

At the back of the coach is a 2” hitch receiver with standard 7-way connection that supplies power to an auxiliary braking system in a tow car.  Oh yes, you can tow a really, really big car as the hitch rating is for 15,000 pounds.

Generator

The Cummins Onan generator is in the front of the coach and can be manually pulled forward for access to service.  It’s a 10,000-watt generator that’s capable of running the three ceiling air conditioners.  In running it, we were certainly aware it was on, but the noise and vibration wasn’t bothersome.  In the back of the coach, you are barely aware of it, so if you found yourself spending a hot night in a Walmart parking lot or boondocking in Quartzite, the generator could run all night and keep the air conditioning going without keeping you up. There is also an automatic generator start (AGS) which monitors house battery level and automatically starts up the generator before battery levels get too low.

Electrical

The Horizon is an all-electric coach and, especially with a residential refrigerator, there are six AGM batteries to supply power when not connected to shore power or running the generator.  For those times you’re strictly on batteries, there’s a 2,800-watt inverter to keep juice running to the refrigerator and lower wattage 110-volt electrical devices.  On the roof is a 100-watt solar panel which can be easily expanded.  Now this isn’t enough solar to meaningfully power devices, but it’s excellent for topping off battery charge and maintaining long battery life – especially if you’re storing your rig outside for extended periods.

For shore power, there’s a thick 50-amp cable that stores in a bay large enough so you don’t have to wrestle with cramming a cable that’s become stiff at low temperatures.  We’ve felt there are a decent amount of 110-volt outlets throughout the coach and really, really appreciate that many of them also have two USB ports in the receptacle.

The Firefly multiplex control panel is in the closet and is surprisingly easy to read and figure out if a relay needs to be reset.

The 12-volt system operates lights, ventilation fans, and the televators.  There are two suppliers to the RV industry, Silverleaf and Firefly. Generically, this is referred to as multiplexing. Both systems are very powerful and capable, but I personally like the Firefly system that Winnebago uses because of the clarity of interface in their panels.  After all, you don’t want to spend time puzzling switches out on a daily basis. All the panels are backlit which makes them easy to see in the dark.  If that’s too bright for you, there’s a button you can push that turns the lights off.

Every panel has a different mix of controls depending where it’s placed in the coach. There’s a couple of panels you might not see at first.  One is above the sofa, which has lighting control and raises/lowers the TV.  The one over the bed offers lighting and televator control, but also allows you to start the generator from bed.  Nifty.  The Firefly design uses a small blue indicator, so you can see at a glance if a light or device is active.  Most of the light control buttons also have a dimmer.  Simply press and hold and the lights will cycle from dark to light where you can choose the optimum level.

The main Firefly control panel not only gives you control over all the coach lighting, but also is where you monitor tank levels, electrical system health, slideouts, and heating and cooling.  The interface was very easy to figure out and I didn’t need a manual to explain the control options.

Heat and air conditioning

There are two systems.  One below and one above.  Below the floor of the coach is an Aquahot heating system.  The Aquahot is both a water and radiant heating system.  It can run off of either electricity or diesel.  If you want to heat the coach (or water) quickly, you simply turn on the diesel burner from the master Firefly panel.  I’ve found that you can start with a quick diesel heat-up and then maintain temp throughout the day with electric.  The diesel heater makes a low-pitched hum which isn’t distracting, and it can barely be heard a few feet away from the coach. For heating the coach, you have three zones.  The main cabin, bedroom, and underneath storage bays (for keeping plumbing from freezing on very cold nights).  The Aquahot circulates an anti-freeze glycol fluid through coils across which zone fans blow and put the hot air through vents that are well placed.

An electronic fireplace uses an electric element and fan to actually put out heat.  A few years ago, when we saw an electric RV fireplace we thought they were pretty hokey.  Well, our opinion has taken a 180 as this fireplace puts out enough heat to take the chill off a cold evening and, with all its fancy wireless control, actually looks aesthetically pleasing.

Up top, there are three air conditioners that can also act as heat pumps.  However, heat pumps rapidly lose their effectiveness when the air temps drop below fifty degrees. On one cold northern California morning, we gave them a go to help bring the temp up quickly.  Within about five minutes, they started blowing warm air. But we also supplemented with the Aquahot furnace which, in combination, got us to a pleasant cabin temperature in about ten minutes.

In hot (and humid) climates, the air conditioning can be running all the time.  The Winnebago ceiling design offers both good air distribution and some degree of sound baffling. The net effect is that you’re aware the air is on, but can still carry on a conversation and, with a slight bump in volume, hear the TV.  If the hot nights cool off a bit, there’s a silent and effective two-speed ceiling fan in the bedroom to keep air moving around which can be turned off either at the wall panel or the panel right above the bed.

Water

The outside water and sewer service bay is large and easy to access.  There’s a Firefly panel that allows you to turn on compartment and exterior work lights along with the water pump.  Hose and sewer connections are fairly high and don’t require a lot of bending over.  I also appreciated the black tank flush and rinse connection.

Central vacuum

There is a port mid-way in the coach that, when you plug in the heavy duty hose, automatically starts a strong vacuum. The expandable hose stretches to get to every corner of the coach and comes with several tools.  You can access it from the main storage hatch where there is another port.  This came in quite handy to vacuum dust off of some of our patio furniture outside.

Washer and dryer

In this long, long parade of features, it’s important to give a shout out to the Splendide stacked washer and dryer units made by Ariston.  These can handle modest RV-sized loads and we were both really impressed by the cleaning ability of the washer and the power of the dryer which has to be heated with a 110-volt line.  You’ll feel a slight wobble in the coach when the washer goes into spin cycle, but beyond that, this petite combo has been doing a fine job.

Saving the best for last – a long warranty

Winnebago is putting their money where their mouth is by backing their quality with the industry’s best warranty.  It’s a full three-year warranty on the coach itself which is unheard of.  That certainly gives buyers some piece of mind and economic certainty for three years.

Final thoughts

By their nature and design, diesel pusher motorhomes are created for extended living over weeks, months or year-round.  Every floorplan and feature set is a study in compromise, and all run hard up against the legal limitation of highway size.

In the couple of months we’ve been living in the Horizon, we’re both surprised and pleased at its livability, comfort and convenience.  We’ve rarely found ourselves saying, “gee why couldn’t we have that feature” or “boy, what was Winnebago thinking?”  Our living test has been one of gradual discovery, not only of features, but how we adapt to them.

Within the resort we’ve been staying, there’s a strong representation of top-end coaches that include products from Prevost, Marathon, Foretravel, Newell, Newmar, Entegra, Tiffin and (of course) Winnebago.  From the outside, our Horizon is subtly different, but you have to linger for a moment to appreciate its elegant simplicity.  But walk five steps up into the coach and it only takes a moment for an eyebrow to raise or someone to exclaim “wow.”  And it’s not an over-the-top wow, it’s a recognition of a design that is at once, completely new and immediately comfortable.

Of course, that leads to the next question of “how much is it?”  That’s when the second shock wave hits that, in some cases, it’s a third to a quarter of the highest-end coaches.  And when owners from similarly priced coaches in the $300-$500 thousand-dollar range walk through, both their reactions and their comments reflect a consistent sense of wishing that the Horizon was available when they bought their current coach.

The Horizon brings a remarkable balance of RV features with a palpable feeling of style that makes every morning and every evening a relaxing and comfortable environment you want to be in. It’s the first Class A that has ever opened us up to considering moving from our well-loved Navion.  I never would have thought that was possible, but that’s what the power of good design does – it invites and inspires.

 

Click here for full specs, floorpans, colors, and virtual tours of the new Horizon.

Don and Terry Cohen spent two months living in a brand-new Horizon and there’s nothing like really living in a coach to understand it.  Here’s their in-depth review of the Horizon and a look at one of America’s top RV resorts, Outdoor Resorts in sunny Indio, California. (Read their detailed Horizon review here.)

If you’re thinking about retiring and considering escaping the northern cold for a warmer climate, then gather closer for a tale about an extraordinary winter living opportunity.

My wife and I have been second homeowners for thirty years.  Living full-time for twenty years in the Vail Valley (the second home was in Denver), we became very conversant in understanding both the culture and economy of the second home market.  About half of our neighbors showed up for a month or two in ski season and then came back to stay through the summer.

Intro to super-elite RV resorts

This is not at all unlike the huge RV snowbird migration that swells the population of RV parks and resorts in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.  Throughout the sunbelt states, there are numerous RV parks that fill with trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes.  Many offer reduced full-season rates. Some allow long-term ground leases for park models.  A few have lots you can actually buy.  And within that smaller group, there’s about a dozen or so super-elite properties that most RVers never hear about.

Outdoor Resorts in Indio from the air.  Most sites are on the Par 3 golf course.

In the Coachella Valley (anchored by Palm Springs on the North and Indio on the south) there are four high-end resort ownership properties.  At the top of the list is Desert Shores where every lot has a casita, garage, and many have a small pool.  Next down is the Motorcoach Country Club, which only allows Class A motorhomes.  Across the street is Outdoor Resorts/Indio (ORI), which is also Class A restricted.  And about 20 minutes north is Outdoor Resorts/Cathedral City, which allows both motorhomes and fifth wheels.

These properties all essentially work the same way.  You purchase a lot (driveway).  You then pay a monthly homeowners fee and the requisite utilities and property taxes.  Some resorts allow you to improve your lot with enclosures, shade structures and outdoor kitchens.  These resorts are highly amenitized with executive golf course, gardens, tennis and pickleball courts, clubhouses, and on-site dining.

Our experience at Outdoor Resorts/Indio

Unlike a traditional resort, there are no garage door openers where you drive into your home, cocoon, and then have limited engagement opportunities with your neighbors.  What’s great about ORI is it melds country club living with the unique outgoingness of the RV culture.  There’s a wide range of affluence from comfortable to high net worth, and not a hint of class hierarchy.  What you can only tell, after spending a few weeks or months living at ORI, is how lively, active, and inclusive it feels.  This culture pretty much eliminates the “starting from scratch” re-establishment of social connections people have when moving to a new community.

The Horizon at Outdoor Resorts.  Fortunately, the only lemon(s) in the photo are on the tree.  The new Horizon has been remarkably trouble free.

We were drawn to Outdoor Resorts because we knew four couples from our old Vail Valley neighborhood who now spend the winters there.  With the assignment to live in a new Winnebago Horizon for several months, I knew we had a great place to test it out.  Our experience showed me a largely hidden facet of the high-end RV lifestyle and uncovered a really appealing strategy for enjoying luxury for less.

Lots accommodate rigs up to 45′ with at least one parked car (many have two).

Rules, upgrades & investment

The ORI rules are pretty simple.  Once you purchase a lot you must have a Class A motorhome that’s at least 28 feet in length and less than 10 years old.  So yes, a new entry level Winnebago Intent, which you can buy below $100 grand, would qualify.  However, most of the rigs you see in ORI are diesel pushers that (new) range from $175,000 to $2,000,000.  An unscientific walk through the community seems to indicate that most owners have coaches in the $250,500-$500,000 range. You see Tiffins, Newmars, Prevosts, Entegras, and Winnebagos.  You’re not required to upgrade your rig after you buy, but the community ethic seems to insure that even older coaches are very well tended to.

Many owners build enclosed pergolas with electric heaters when the nights get a bit cool.  Our friends Dennis and Kathy even had a digital fire video playing one evening.

Once you’ve purchased a lot, you then are responsible for the monthly HOA fees.  At ORI it’s $455 a month.  When you add in property taxes and electric, the good rule of thumb is that your annual operating costs will be around $7,000.

There are 419 lots and at any given time about a quarter are up for sale.  And here’s the thing — there are some undeveloped lots (no outdoor kitchen) that are on the market for as little as $25,000.  To be sure, there’s a few that are on the market for over $200,000, but lots that were bought and improved (pre-recession) with over $200,000 in original value can be purchased for $50,000 to $90,000.  Many owners have now taken their lots and added permanent pergola structures with full outdoor kitchens, TV cabinets, fireplaces and premium drive surfacing for $75,000 to $100,000.

A driveway transformation.  Improvements like this one lot can run between $75,000-$100,000.

You can take a medium priced lot for $75,000, put another $75,000 of improvements on it, add in a near new diesel pusher for $200,000 and find yourself smack dab in the middle of a beautiful resort for $350,000 – and even less if you keep your improvements and motorhome modest.  Granted, even this “good deal” may be out of reach for many.  However, if your income and savings allows it, this is a very attractive option, especially when you compare it to patio homes built on golf course communities nearby in Indio.  Those homes are in the $800K to $1.2M range with all the cost burdens of homeownership and much higher country club fees.

RV resort vs. traditional second home

Second home real estate can be a temperamental beast.  The Great Recession hammered all the homes in the Coachella Valley including the RV resorts.  Prices dropped by half and while they’ve recovered, the annual price growth of around 4% is not governed by the wildly inflated SoCal and Bay Area prices you read about.  Generally, unless you are in a high-demand second home market, your modest equity gain is probably eroded by maintenance, taxes, and real estate commissions.

Compare traditional resort real estate to the RV resort model and the gap isn’t as great as you might think.  First of all, your cash outlay for an RV and a lot to park it on will generally be less, assuming a standard 20-25% down payment on a sticks and bricks home.  And your carrying and transaction costs will be way less with the RV resort model.  Of course on the other side of the ledger, you know that your RV (whether new or lightly used) most likely will have a steep depreciation curve.  However, during the 100+ degree summers, you can enjoy your “second home” in cooler climates, only to return when the mercury slides back to pleasantly warm.

There’s gold underneath this rainbow.  Pickleball and tennis courts.  Putting green, pool, spa, indoor steam/sauna, high-quality exercise equipment, meeting room and owners lounge.

What’s interesting is that the original developers of these luxe RV resorts all went bankrupt.  Like so many economic white crosses on the side of the RV industry highway, the sales expectations fell significantly short of the huge infrastructure investment required to build this small number of resorts.  Today, to build an ORI from scratch, you’d probably have to price lots at $250,000-$500,000 which can’t support a market.  I’m doubtful if any more will be built. The four high-quality resorts I mentioned have a combined inventory of 2,000 lots for a market area that includes the western halves of the U.S. and Canada. Yet, few know about these properties.

A pre-Super Bowl tailgate party.  At 72 degrees that evening, many (like us) watched the game outside on their patios.

Talking with many owners at ORI, there is a universal recognition that none of them look at this as an asset play.  Their return on their investment converts to fun.  And that passion and deep contentment is far more persuasive than the glossiest of brochures.

All of these resorts are homeowner association-owned. Their owners are starting to realize that their valuations are unusually low and are starting to make changes to property policy and marketing to change that.  If they’re successful, that will definitely push property prices up.  Even then, it should remain an extremely attractive option, but for now, it’s a downright steal.

In the past five years, we’ve put 80,000 miles on two Sprinter-based Winnebago Navions that have touched all four corners of the United States, including a few crossings into both Canada and Mexico.  We chose the Navion for two key reasons.  The first is that it was super simple to drive and not particularly intimidating.  The second was the more clean, modern, Euro-inspired interior design.

When I first saw the conceptual mock-up of the Horizon, I was intrigued.  Three years later, when my wife Terry and I saw the first production models, we both agreed that this was the first Class A motorhome we would consider. We simply like modern design.  That’s what sings to us.  And if the Horizon were a soundtrack, it would be either a warm jazz combo in a New York club, or a soft Bossa Nova on a warm Miami night.

Getting in the driver’s seat

But for all of its interior sleekness, the Horizon is a diesel pusher.  A big, long, and wide conveyance that from one moment took my thoughts from sublime mobile living to terrifying highway traffic anxiety.  So let’s get this over with — I’m tearing up my “macho” card and freely confessing that driving a big rig is intimidating.  That’s one of the top reasons we bought the nimble, shorter, skinnier, and easy-to-drive Navion.  Yet even at that, there was some adjustment.  I vividly remember the drive home from the dealer with our first Navion where I white knuckled our brand-new purchase twenty miles from back to our storage garage. However, by the end of our first 6,000-mile trip in the Navion, Terry and I felt very comfortable driving it and now don’t even give its size a second thought.

Still, as we drove up to the Junction City plant, I really was dreading having to muscle a big motorhome south for one thousand miles of both freeway and Californian urban traffic.  To psych myself up for the journey ahead, I would remind myself that many others have stepped up (literally five steps) and gotten behind the wheel.  At least a few years earlier I had received a lesson from the Winnebago pro, Paul Smith, as he calmly talked both Terry and I down the quiet rural country roads around Forest City behind the wheel of a Grand Tour.  But for the upcoming trip, there would be no Paul reassuringly next to me.

Night #1 a block from Winnebago’s Junction City, Oregon plant.  A perfect back-in with the help of the rear video camera.

After a full orientation on the coach at the Junction City, Oregon plant, provided by the lead foreman who was involved in its construction, there were hugs and handshakes and then the solitary tension trending toward dread that I was going to have to get this puppy out onto the street, down to the Safeway to fill up on diesel, and back to our first overnight campsite across a park from customer service.  Alone in the big lot next to the factory I gingerly reversed away from the building and then, pushing the transmission button to drive, I slowly started tracing figure eights in the lot to get a sense of the size and steering wheel feel.  By the third circuit, I was both shocked and pleased that all that time behind the wheel of the Navion had surprisingly prepared me for the next step up in scale.  It was much easier and far less tense than I had anticipated.

With confidence slowly seeping inwards, I pointed the Horizon out to the main highway that goes through Junction City and a mile north to the Safeway for fuel.  It was not a simple drive-through truck stop. I could see that I would have to pull into the station and circle around to get to the diesel pump, not unlike pulling in with our Navion and tow car attached.  Not too bad.

When we drove back to the guest hook-ups I was now confronted with having to back into the space.  Terry jumped out, as she always does, to direct me in my side mirror.  While she stayed in my sights, the backup camera appeared on the 10.5-inch Xite display screen and I shocked Terry by deftly backing into the hook-ups without any adjustment.

In trucker territory.  Big rig friends suggest getting credit cards with the truck fueling chains like Pilot and Flying J for discounted fuel and pay-at-the-pump convenience.

Differences in big-rig vs. small-rig driving

Driving a big rig, there are several things you immediately sense that are different.  The first is the high and wide panoramic view.  Actually, this has a lot less to do with scenery watching for the driver as it does simply seeing lane lines and traffic.  Perhaps it was the 80,000 miles of Navion driving, but there was no typical car reflex to look for a rear-view mirror.  And frankly, all your focus is what’s in front or on the sides of you.  Let’s just say that I’m not aware of any stories about an RV being rear ended!  You also notice a different dynamic in turning as you’re essentially sitting over the front wheels.  That gives you a surprising sense of maneuverability.  The final driving difference is steering wheel orientation.  It’s more horizontal and “bus-like.” And while comfortable, it’s a decidedly different experience, though one that didn’t require much adjustment.

Now if you’re currently a Class A gas owner, the transition will be even easier.  You’re already used to the same width and height, so that won’t even be a hurdle.  What you’ll immediately notice is a smoother, quieter, and more powerful ride in a pusher.  So at this point, you can be excused from reading further.  As for the rest of you newbies or small rig readers, keep your seat belts on.

A panoramic view from a huge windshield.  The up and down grades on I-5 were a great way to learn about engine braking, which is as easy as flipping a rocker switch.

In our trip from Oregon to California, I made sure I would stay on major arterials and fuel up at truck stops.  In our smaller Navion, we could easily pick almost any gas station and pull u-turns on many streets.  Not so with a diesel pusher.  But the good news here is that if a semi can do it – so can you.  There were times that I actually felt the 41-foot Horizon (we weren’t towing) seemed “small” when navigating through a truck stop.

Prior to our thousand mile trip I pointedly questioned my big-rig friends about their driving experience.  And what they told me seemed very consistent with my own experience.  These vehicles are easy to drive, but they require more focused attention on the road than cars or smaller RVs.  You find yourself constantly tending to lane placement and scanning mirrors and traffic ahead – especially in higher traffic urban areas.  The general consensus of large coach drivers I’ve talked to seemed about right:  you can do 350-400 miles a day comfortably.  In our Navion (and in past car driving trips) I always figured that 500 miles was easy and 600 was doable.  I think most people would feel pretty beat up driving a big rig that far in a day.  And though a full tank of diesel can last you for 500-600 miles, you definitely change your mindset about where rest stops and truck stops are to take a short breather.

Stay in your lane and traffic will sort itself out around you.

For me, I never felt very tense during driving, but I did feel that there was a higher level of intensity in paying close attention.  There were a few spots, most notably a three-lane street in Sacramento where there was a lot of traffic and the lanes were much skinnier. There were cars and a delivery truck or two on each side.   Intellectually, I knew we were less than a foot apart with no room for maneuvering. I’m sure I gripped the wheel a bit harder and deeply, deeply focused on staying right in my lane.  I just kept myself where I needed to be and everyone else could sort it out around me, but I became more relaxed when I could merge onto a freeway and wider lanes.

Now you may laugh (or cringe), but a surprisingly large number of RV buyers don’t actually test drive an RV.  Their first experience is driving off the dealer’s lot.  That’s intimidating enough for even first time B and C drivers.  And when you step up into a bigger Class A, the pucker factor can really kick in.

The need for a special driver’s license can vary from state to state.  Some states require a version of a CDL (commercial driver’s license) based on driving a vehicle over 26,000 pounds GVW.   Check your state’s regulations carefully.  While the weight requirement in my state of Colorado is 26,001 GVW for a Class B license, a paragraph later it states that “Recreational vehicles such as a motorhome” are exempt.

If you feel you want to build your confidence and skills, you may want to research various RV driving schools on the Internet.  Class costs range from $250 to $600.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask a dealer for a test drive and a quick lesson.  They do it all the time and it’s a common request.  Good RV sales reps have plenty of driving experience, which they’ll be happy to share with you.  Nothing’s better than a big parking lot to get the feel of the rig (brings back memories of my high school driver’s ed class). Once you get a little parking lot confidence, you’ll find that most dealers are on the outskirts of major metro areas, so there’s usually quieter roads nearby to test drive on.

So boys and girls, I’ve done it and you can too – especially the gals (I’ve met a lot of women big rig drivers over the past few years).  I’m guessing it won’t be half as intimidating as that first time many of us, as teenagers, learned to drive.  Like most things, the idea is much scarier that the actual reality.

Read more about the Winnebago Horizon in this detailed review.

Who knew?  Five years ago, on a lark, I reached out to Winnebago with the idea of creating a tiny hobby job.  That little whim turned into an amazing journey.  Starting from scratch with GoLife we now get over 40,000 visits a month.  We have attracted the best digital storytellers and RV enthusiasts in the industry.  It’s been exciting, surprising, and very gratifying to work with a team that has brought a consistently fresh and upbeat viewpoint to the RV world.

Western film buffs will quickly recall the final scene from John Ford’s “The Searchers.”  John Wayne stands in a doorway for a moment and then walks out into the wide expanse of the desert southwest as the screen fades to black.  Whoa.  Wait.  Rewind.  That’s not quite how this story ends.

Yes, I’m handing the keys over to a team who’ll be taking you and GoLife on new journeys and destinations.  In my edited cinematic scenario I’m walking out the door, but waiting outside is a new Winnebago.  No driving off into the sunset, just a change of direction.

My own Winnebago life will be shifting toward special projects like our recently completed livability test of the brand new Horizon.  It’s a fantastic rig and you can watch our in-depth video review by clicking here. There’s also a deep written review.

When I started GoLife I had expected that it would be a year or two before other manufacturers did the same, but they haven’t.  What really has impressed me is Winnebago’s commitment to support a growing WinnebagoLife universe.  At its core Winnebago is still a company that passionately cares about its customers and its products.  It is that belief that has deepened the company’s commitment for a continuing conversation on the GoLife website, Facebook, Instagram, and other forums.  It’s one of the things that continues to separate this venerable brand from its competition.  And it was that forward thinking that drew me into the Winnebago world which has (and will) continue to fuel a remarkable journey.

Don

The Messe complex is about a 15-minute train ride from downtown Dusseldorf, Germany.  At the end of summer, sprawled across nineteen exhibit halls is the Caravan Salon, the world’s largest RV show attracting over 200,000 visitors with 500 vendors and 2,000 towables and motorhomes on display.  The investment in the displays is significantly greater than what American RV buyers see compared to the parking-lot style of indoor and outdoor shows held across the country.  It reflects the premium the European market places on design, from the way product is presented, to the product itself.

The Catalyst to Change

Descending an escalator between halls seven and nine, down to the train platform, Ryan Roske was feeling the out-of-sync end of day letdown from jet lag.  As Winnebago’s product manager for the company’s line of diesel pusher motorhomes, he had just completed his first day’s mission of rambling through the many halls taking notes and dozens of pictures.

Growing up in Winnebago’s hometown of Forest City, Iowa, Roske had risen through the sales path to become a product manager.  And now his trip to the Caravan Salon was adding another link in the chain of the company’s commitment to discover, source, and embed world-class components into its motorized products.

Keeping a watchful eye on the competition, Winnebago product manager Ryan Roske’s office is mapped with the competitor’s floor plans.

More than any other American motorhome manufacturer, Winnebago has paid very close attention to the European market for nearly three decades.  With gas shortages in the mid-1970s, the company turned to fuel-efficient German and French chassis to build higher mileage products.  In 2006 it was the first U.S. company to construct a motorhome on the Mercedes Sprinter light delivery van chassis.  But beyond chassis mechanics, Winnebago also paid very close attention to the sleek, super-efficient interior designs inside all the small Euro motorhomes.  And, a few years after the launch of the company’s best-selling View/Navion Sprinter motorhomes, they switched to an Italian company to specially manufacture the interior cabinetry.

The gentle rocking of the train to Roske’s downtown hotel added weight to eyelids that were still set for a time zone seven hours behind.  With his backpack between his legs, he closed his eyes for a moment to begin sorting out the day’s visual stream of rounded corners, glass-polished cabinet surfaces, and envelopes of edge-glow lighting.  He had come to Dusseldorf fairly confident that the company should risk going against what would come to be called “the sea of sameness” of RV interior design, but now he was sure, absolutely sure, that it was time to set in motion events that might very well bring the biggest change to American motorhomes in decades.

Historically, interior RV design had mirrored the deep roots of midwestern cabinet makers with traditional hardwoods with the sculpted trim being the invariable standard for every manufacturer and every product line.  The View/Navion products were different.  While the Mercedes star brought intrigued first-time buyers into RV dealers, Winnebago’s more sculpted and contemporary interiors sealed the deal offering buyers a distinctly more contemporary and stylish mobile living environment.

Designed for Luxury and Class

Four thousand, three hundred, fifty-nine miles away in Forest City, Bob Ritter was leafing through clippings and images of yachting magazines. Also, an Iowan native, Ritter could easily fit the role of the gruff, but always fair high school football coach.  For fourteen years, Ritter had steered a team that always had to balance a complicated list of variables.  Surfaces, colors, tactile effect, durability, temperature resistance, livability, and functional efficiency were all pushed hard against the constraints of manufacturing processes and final price tag.  And the photos he was looking at all were from products whose single cost would be greater than the combined value of four full blocks of well-tended homes up the hill from Winnebago’s main plant.

Bob Ritter led an in-house team that boldly broke out of traditional design with a complete rethink of a modern interior.

In the rarefied air of ultra-luxe motorhomes of over one million dollars, when you walk into brands like Newell, Foretravel, and Marathon, you’re looking at design elements that brook no compromise and are priced accordingly.  Yet in a quirk of American consumerism, many of these ultra-luxe coaches often have little design coherence. Their designs are often driven by the owner’s whims and just like their lower-priced RV cousins, they can still feel like they were assembled out of the same parts bin, albeit with filigreed wood, ornate trim, and cut-glass cabinet insets.  In envisioning a truly contemporary designed motorhome, both Roske and Ritter were looking at a different inspirational model — luxury yachts.  Of the top ten yacht builders in the world, nine are from Europe and only one is from America.  At prices ten to twenty times greater than their luxury RV land counterparts, these toys for the super-rich more often than not reflect the minimalist elegance of high Italian style with rare hardwoods and formed and lacquered composites.

For the View/Navion series, Winnebago had found a family-owned cabinet manufacturer, Technoform, in Bologna, Italy.  They had many European clients including high-end yacht companies, so it was a pretty big accomplishment for Technoform to land an American brand.  Technoform had the ability to shape and mold cabinets with precise, graceful curves both concave and convex.  They did it with a process and special machinery that would form laminate materials into doors and front pieces.  This process also allowed the rich design of wood-like surfaces or deep chromatic laminate colors.  The surfaces themselves could be finished with mirror-like reflectivity or subtly textured matte qualities.  For motorhome use, the cabinetry components were dimensionally stable which made them immune to size changes due to humidity and temperature variations.  And finally, for as strong and durable as the cabinets were, they were remarkably lightweight, which was a critical requirement for the smaller Sprinter-based motorhomes.

Paving a New Path

Early on, there had been some discussion about simply taking an existing coach line like the company’s entry-level Forza models and simply re-skinning the interior with more contemporary cabinetry.  Winnebago even mocked up a sample galley with other Technoform components used in the company’s Era Sprinter van. It was placed alongside other potential cabinet fronts which were put on display at a dealer meeting in Las Vegas in 2014.  But dealers were skeptical.  They knew that, by and large, most of their buyer’s homes were more traditionally furnished and felt that many wouldn’t embrace an aggressively modern interior.  Doubts and opinions were strong and both Roske and Ritter worried that pushing the taste envelope could be the kind of bet that limits careers and leaves competitors snickering.

Roske returned from Europe fully resolved that the creation of a completely modern mid-luxury diesel pusher motorhome would find market acceptance.  While there were timidity and skepticism in the dealer network, Roske had heard plenty of first-hand comments from motorhome owners that they loved what the company was doing in its smaller Euro-based motorhomes and vans.

There’s an adage in the RV industry that says, “Floorplans sell motorhomes.”  And to some extent that’s true.  For those who’ve shopped for RVs at shows and on dealer lots, floor plans and finishes all become a blur after the first hour’s survey.  To break through the product monotony, manufacturers will often create design features that look indispensable at the show, but end up being ignored in real use.  More than most, Winnebago’s floorplans are constantly being adjusted based on owner feedback.

The First ‘Buck’

Aligning the engineering, product planning, and interior design teams started a process where collectively they would consider length and floor plan style.  For this new product, it was decided there would be two plans.  The shorter one would have a single bath and the longer one a bath and a half.  The planners selected two very successful core designs that had found great favor in other Winnebago coaches.  But for the shorter model, they made a very interesting tweak to the single bath with a pass-thru entry from the main hall and from the master bedroom.

In a large warehouse in the factory complex, they began to assemble the framework of a new motorhome.  It sat simply on wood risers, not an actual chassis.  Just like building a home, the full-scale model took shape with framing, exterior walls, and a roof.  The prototype is called a “buck,” a name given to the process so long ago that no one can recall how the term came to be.  Special factory craftsmen hand built all the structural components of the buck based on all the computer-aided design drawings of the approved floor plan.  Concurrently, Winnebago sent the dimensions and surface finishes to Technoform to tool up and build components for a single coach.

It’s a time consuming, complicated and expensive process working across languages and time zones, creating something from scratch where there are no road maps.  And over the months, dozens of people worked on various aspects of the mockup.  While Technoform was to supply the cabinets, the furniture such as the driver and passenger captain chairs, couches, and side chairs would all be manufactured domestically to Winnebago’s specs.

Ritter and his team had long trusted the UltraFabrics company who’s Ultraleather fabrics are used extensively in Winnebago products.  Ultraleather is a premium synthetic leather fabric that is manufactured by patented technology from a Japanese mill.  While its “hand” and texture can be completely indistinguishable from real leather, its durability, stain resistance, ability to withstand the heat and cold of off-season coach storage, and remain colorfast are superior to leather.  And underneath the Ultraleather upholstery are fillers, padding, and suspensions that are built to high-use commercial grade quality.  Once the cabinet components were installed in the buck, then the furniture was placed.

The interior design team knew that just bolting new cabinets to the walls and placing some modern looking furniture nearby wasn’t going to make the big leap from nice to remarkable.  They spent a great deal of time evaluating different wall and surface textures.  A variety of treatments were experimented with before settling on several never-seen-before laminate textured surfaces Technoform had developed.

As fashion forward as the cabinet surfaces were, hardware was selected that was equally as modern.  One of the most evident applications would be the brushed steel barn door suspension hardware on the bath — a space saving technique used in modern urban lofts and boutique hotels.

They gave a great deal of thought to a ceiling treatment that would hide and diffuse the rooftop air conditioners, but also provide a soft envelope of coach lighting.  While a viewer’s eye would be drawn to fabrics and curving surfaces, perhaps the greatest perceptual impression would be the least paid attention to — a ceiling with a disciplined simplicity.

The creation of the buck served two important purposes, the first as a fully immersive proof-of-concept for the radical new deep Euro look.  The second was a working laboratory where manufacturing issues on wiring, line assembly, and components could be fine-tuned.  Now complete, the future would be quietly displayed to a handful of dealers who, after walking down a long corridor, through a nondescript white door, into a dimly lit warehouse, would step up on a plywood box and walk onto the porcelain tiled floor of the future.

The Birth of the Horizon

The reactions were pretty uniform in their surprise and excitement.  “Do you really think you can build a production unit that looks like this?” one admiring skeptic asked.  “Sure we can,” Roske replied, but in the back of his mind, he was thinking of component logistics and spreadsheets of cost analysis knowing that there were a lot of details to be worked out.  Standing in the buck, Roske knew that this yet-to-be-named motorhome would also rewrite Winnebago history to be the first all-new model not to be made in the company’s Forest City plant.

The Great Recession treated the RV industry with extra viciousness.  Almost overnight it snuffed out a large swath of manufacturers with well-known names.  Monaco, Holiday Rambler, and Country Coach were just a few.  Winnebago’s workforce shrunk by half from four to two thousand and, perhaps the most extraordinary number of all was seeing business plummet from nearly one-billion dollars a year to two-hundred and fifty-million — a seventy-five percent drop.

There were two things that kept Winnebago from joining other storied brands as little white crosses next to the RV highway.  The first was no debt and sufficient operating capital.  That admired Midwest Iowan business conservatism had served the company well.  The second thing is that they were still selling some products.  Specifically, the Euro-inspired View/Navion models which were surprisingly still in demand.  Painfully, order by order, quarter by quarter, the company and the RV industry began to walk out of the smoke of the wreckage.

Market demand and momentum started to build.  Good, but undercapitalized, manufacturers were acquired.  Among those was the Middlebury, Indiana trailer company, Sunnybrook, that Winnebago bought.  Then, in 2015 the company’s senior vice-president stood in front of a small podium surrounded by dozens of dealers and Winnebago employees at the industry’s annual show in Louisville, Kentucky and announced the company’s acquisition of Country Coach in Junction City, Oregon, just north of Eugene.

Country Coach had built a passionate following of luxury diesel coach owners. It was known for its well-built chassis and high-quality interior assembly.  Winnebago viewed the acquisition as a positive for two reasons.  First, it would provide a west coast presence for direct factory service.  And second, there was a skilled motorhome manufacturing workforce in the area.  By 2014 it was evident that, across the industry, there was a strong resurgence of buyers.  Workers were added back to the assembly lines in Forest City as the company geared up for new orders.

In motorhome manufacturing, there are two common approaches.  The most common one is bay assembly.  For Winnebago, with larger volumes, a three-path assembly line was developed over the decades for high volume.  But, the company and its dealers had learned, after the recession, that the consequences of having too many unsold rigs at a dealership weren’t a good thing.  The term they used for it was “lot rot.”  So, instead of making a big guess and building twenty of a particular model at one time, Winnebago had to adeptly adjust by creating a logistical symphony of parts and technicians that would work on lines where a Class A diesel might be followed by a Class C Sprinter, and then a Class A Ford gas chassis.

With a west coast facility that was purpose-built for diesel pusher manufacturing, Winnebago began a two-year project to transition the big rig manufacturing to Junction City.  It would free up capacity for Winnebago’s other product lines, but it also represented a significant change in supply chain, support services (like exterior painting), and manufacturing processes.  Unlike Forest City, the Oregon plant used a bay assembly process which, for large-scale coaches with big slide rooms, was actually more efficient.  And it was here that Roske’s new model, now badged with a past nameplate of the Horizon, would be built.

While the true innovation story of the Horizon rested with its advanced coach design, it would sit atop Winnebago’s exclusive chassis of choice manufactured by the Daimler-owned Freightliner Custom Chassis in Gaffney, South Carolina.  Depending on model, the chassis would come with a high horsepower Cummins diesel engine.  Winnebago had perfected an important change to the basic Freightliner design with their Maxum branded chassis that lowered the motorhome’s center of gravity and provided capacious underneath storage.  The skeletal frames of newly delivered chassis were neatly parked next to the plant to be driven into the assembly bays where the Horizon would take shape.

Risky First Impressions

The term “line pilot” is given to the first units assembled.  These are the ones that are the next step beyond the full prototype.  It’s here that final engineering and assembly steps are adjusted for efficiency and quality.  As the line pilots were set to go under construction, a small group of Winnebago dealers was meeting in Phoenix as part of a periodic advisory process.  Roske couldn’t attend in person but sat in as a voice on the speakerphone in the middle of the room.  When the conversation turned to the Horizon, the tone was optimistic, but after a while doubt started creeping into the conversation.  Was this too big a risk?  Would buyers smile, but turn their back on such a sleek approach.  The negativity started building until one long-time dealer defended the project and made the case that with great risk, comes great reward. Things would continue to move forward, but in the back of Roske’s mind the list of logistics from supply chain to marketing seemed to grow even longer.

If the move to an aggressively clean European design seemed like a risk, the debate around what the exterior should look like was even more fraught with anxiety.  After all, one’s first impression of a motorhome is when it’s being looked at from the outside.  This was the problem staring at Matt Clements.

Clements is the head of exterior design.  Like almost all the departments on the Forest City campus, Clements and his team work out of a windowless area tucked away in the back of the main administration building.  On entering, one is struck by the bright lighting and, in the middle of the main design area, hanging on big frames, are full-sized clay models of both fronts and backs of whatever future coach is being contemplated. Designers check sketches and CAD drawings to physically sculpt the front and back caps with modeling clay.  Ultimately these models will be scanned and that data will be used to create the forms from which the caps will be molded.

Matt Clements (R) reviews the design of the new Winnebago Intent which, like the Horizon, is a big departure from traditional external graphic treatments.

While sculpted by hand, the precision of inset lines, headlight locations, and front cowling curve are astonishingly precise as they are painstakingly shaped with the same tools a fine artist would use.  And, not surprisingly, many of the members of Clements’ team pursue artistic hobbies off work.

At sixty-five miles an hour, all motorhomes essentially look like shoeboxes on wheels as they rush by.  But at a campsite, a driveway, or RV resort it’s a different story.  Not only did the designers want to create a pleasing and inviting look — something that said, “Come drive me,” but also a consistent visual theme that ran across the model line.  Like the difference in faces, the front ends take on personification of eyes, cheekbones, and smiles.  In describing the Horizon, Clements uses terms like “confident,” “purposefulness,” and “positive tension” as he talks about the impression good design should leave.  He explains that “Our real challenge is to work within many constraints to come up with something that beckons, but still stays within the existing geometry — and finally is recognizable as a Winnebago.”

Ditching the Swirls

Beyond the physical dimensions of exterior RV design, the elephant in the room is. . .how to paint the elephant.  When once asked of the long-term editor and publisher of Motorhome Magazine, “Where did the swirls come from?”  He paused, thought about it for a moment, and tentatively said, “It’s been so long, I can’t remember.”  One long-term industry insider claims that swirls appeared first on the 1993 Beaver Patriot.  What’s clear is that for over two decades the American RV industry has been tightly wrapped up with swirls, swooshes, and flairs.

In one of the rooms where Winnebago exterior designers work, the walls are covered with laser prints of thumbnail models of RV sidewalls in various colors for various models. Altogether creating a sense of a palette display in a paint store.  On closer inspection, the patterns change in intricacy, but then there’s one group that clearly stands out based on its simplicity.  What’s noticeably absent is what Clements calls “graphic drama.”  These designs show a visual simplicity that hews to the visual concept of negative space, where the eye finds a balance in the total view.

From the front of the coach Clements’ team begins with a dark accent paint that sweeps up and rises to exit to the rear of the coach.  Below is a monochromatic base that is separated by textured paint that the designers call a fade.  And finally, below are thin horizontal stripes that bisect the lower expanse as if an artist dragged a paintbrush along the side as if to finish the canvas.  The effect, to RV aficionados, is at once both heretical and innately pleasing.

Introducing the Finished Product

It was now a month before the Horizon’s official launch at an industry event called the Open House in Elkhart, Indiana.  Elkhart has the largest concentration of RV manufacturers in North America.  A few years ago, some of the biggest companies headquartered there decided to throw their doors open to dealers.  Unlike trade shows, which are concentrated in one place, the Open House takes place throughout the greater Elkhart area in fields, parking lots, and plant facilities.  The two-line pilot Horizons would ultimately have to make their way from Oregon to Indiana.  But first, a stop off in Denver was planned to use this modern city as a backdrop for photography and video.

On the day of the total eclipse, the two Horizons were parked at the base of a three-story open stairway in downtown connecting Denver’s toniest and newest urban neighborhood.  The surroundings matched the Horizon’s aggressively modern design and, as the drivers moved them into position, passerby’s slowed in curiosity to watch two big rigs maneuvered to the base of the stairway, jacks set down, and slides pushed out.

Roske and the company’s marketing team stepped in and out of the coaches for final preparation while a photographer launched a small drone to capture a top-to-bottom video arc, with the Horizons beneath the 12-story suspension mast of the pedestrian bridge.

For an intimate private showing, a small invited group had gathered outside of Denver’s historic Union Station and alongside Winnebago’s CEO, Mike Happe, and the motorized division’s vice-president, Brian Hazelton, walked two blocks to the West to the base of the Millennium Bridge, crossing the freight line tracks.  From the top of the bridge they could see a large park with the South Platte River and the front range of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.  It was here, less than 1,000 feet away, where Denver would germinate about a hundred years after the rendezvous of French fur trappers and plains Indians.

Prepositioned in lower downtown Denver early in the morning, two Horizons are made ready for a private preview showing.

Ahead of time, the marketing team had determined a stopping point at the top of the bridge that offered a panoramic view, yet held the Horizons below out of sight.  On a well-rehearsed schedule, Roske addressed the group and, with a few steps forward the Horizons were now revealed.  For the next hour, the coaches were carefully studied from the inside out.

Million-Dollar Motorhome?

For Roske, the harbinger of things to come was both with the positive reactions of the group and then a small procession of neighborhood locals who were keen to poke their heads in.  This was the first time anyone from the public had gotten to see these motorhomes. They were drawn in by the clean exterior design and bowled over by the quiet sophistication of the interiors.  The comments were telling, “Is this a million dollar motorhome?  I have never thought of having an RV, but this would change my mind.  I’m calling my husband, he needs to see this.”

The Horizon’s spacious bathroom suggests a modern luxury hotel suite.

Over the next several months at industry-only events, the word of the Horizon spread quickly.  Skeptical dealers realized that Winnebago was quite prescient in understanding the strong consumer appeal of the first truly modern Class A motor coach of the twenty-first century.  Winnebago had unlocked new interest in a static segment by elevating design.  And within two months of its announcement, the order backlog for the Horizon assured the manufacturing team at the Junction City plant that they would be very busy for months to come.

At the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association’s annual industry trade show in Louisville, Kentucky, in early December 2017, the stream of dealers, press, and competitors walking through the Horizons on display was continual.  And at an industry social event in downtown Louisville the publisher of RV Business magazine, Sherman Goldenberger, shook Roske’s hand as the Horizon was named “RV of the Year.”  The doubts, second-guessing, and uncertainty of three years vanished in that moment.

With the clean lines of a luxury yacht, the Horizon redefines modern motiorhcoach interiors.

The introduction of the Winnebago Horizon had earned a mark on the historical timeline of RV history.  It was one of those inflection points where a singular product changes perceptions and competitors change plans.

It was now late fall and the precise GPS guided planting of green rows of Iowan corn and soy beans had long been tilled under to wait for spring renewal.  A northern wind pushed the idea of winter coming closer as Roske walked out to his car.  Behind him, most of the buildings sprawled across more than a square mile of campus, had grown quiet following the final afternoon shift.  Just another day at the office.  But, like Roske’s sleek new Horizon, the company behind him was changing too and showing that talent, innovation, vision, risk and hard work were alive and well and doing just fine growing in the American heartland.

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About the Horizon  The new Winnebago Horizon comes in two floor plans starting at an MSRP of $385,214.  In addition to its first-in-the-market contemporary design, Winnebago also offers an industry-leading three-year coach warranty on the Horizon and all their diesel pusher products. You can see specs, photos, virtual tours, and videos by visiting the Horizon web site.