Living Pod: The GMC Motorhome, 1973 – 1978

Exhibit / April 25, 2019

Object Name: GMC Motorhome
Maker and Year: General Motors, 1973-1978
Object Type: Recreational vehicle
Image Source: bdub.net
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Combining the insular self-sufficiency of a lunar module with the intimidating bulk of a futuristic tank, the GMC Motorhome was the perfect attack vehicle for the leisure wars of the 1970s when—encouraged perhaps by the hermetic novelties of the space race—the recreational activities of the wealthiest fragment of the planet began to reflect a growing preoccupation with what we might call modular living.

Since the 1950s, motorhomes (also known as Recreational Vehicles, RVs, or by the altogether less prepossessing eponym Winnebegos) had been allowing increasing numbers of owners to indulge—or impose—their love of travel without relinquishing any of the comforts of home. Earlier motorhomes had generally been modified vans or simply a centaur-like melding of truck and caravan, but General Motors’ GMC Motorhome—the first and only motorhome to be produced by a major car or truck manufacturer—was instead a sleek, integrated unit whose radical body design ensured good road handling. At a starting price on its 1973 release of under $14,000 (almost exactly half of what was at the time the average price of an actual home in the United States) and available in 23- and 26-foot versions, the GMC Motorhome was designed to provide comfortable accommodation for self-reliant tourism.

With its aerodynamic outer hull and interiors boasting alluringly baroque levels of domesticity (begging the question of what exactly the point of traveling was if not to escape the strictures of one’s own everyday life), the Motorhome resembled a fusion of two American myths, both related to new frontiers: the spacecraft and the covered wagon. The Motorhome also evoked strange parallels with another artifact from seven years previous: the Living Pod, designed in 1966 by David Greene of British avant-garde architecture practice Archigram. Though far less practical and far uglier to look at, Greene’s Living Pod was also intended to be both a vehicle and habitat that would protect its inhabitants from harsh or unknown environments. Like many of the architectural practices that followed it, Archigram was, to all practical intents, primarily a conceptual initiative that used provocative conceits—many of which were clearly influenced by science fiction—to stimulate discussion and change.

Greene’s Living Pod reflected the ethos evinced in Archigram’s concept for the “Plug-In city,” a place “…designed as an appliance to be transported around with the owner, the city becomes a machine people plug into.”  In Greene’s vision, homes—and by extensions, lives—became slot-in components, an idea whose sci-fi warmth the marketplace would appropriate to its own ends. In fact, despite their superficial dissimilarities, much of avant-garde architecture’s dreams of progressive social change were rooted in the same optimistic visions of technological advancement as were the ideas of the motor industry.

Green said that the Living Pod provided “a new agenda where nomadism is the dominant social force; where time, exchange and metamorphosis replace stasis; where consumption, lifestyle and transience become the programme; and where the public realm is an electronic surface enclosing the globe.” As with the Instant City, the underside of the Living Pod ‘s idealism proved eerily prescient about where the future would take us. And by implicitly positing the rest of the world as an alien, even hostile, terrain, the motorhome in some ways seemed to hint at the “survivalist” mood that would become such a ubiquitous motif in the 1980s (and the effects of which continue to this day).

The motorhome concept made a powerful impression on popular culture: Mack Bolan, protagonist of Don Pendleton’s Executioner action novels (the first of which was released in 1969) lived aboard one, dubbed a “terran module,” highlighting the strangely alluring blend of NASA sterility and domestic womb. The heroes of 1976 TV series Ark II travelled post-lapsarian wastelands aboard a streamlined, self-contained mobile habitat, while—with its bazookas and cannons—the Landmaster vehicle from the appalling (and appallingly enjoyable) 1977 film adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel Damnation Alley demonstrated perfectly the armored-car aspect of the motorhome’s charms. In 1977, the Coca-Cola company gave away five ”GadAbouts”—customized motorhomes with Coke-themed interiors and a refrigerator designed to resemble a Coke vending machine, while a “VanHome” provided Fabian, the rootless polo-playing protagonist of arch-American-dreamer-cum-fantasist Jerzy Kosinski’s 1980 novel Passion Play, with a non-home. Between 1977 and 1983 six different Hot Wheels motorhome toys, including a Captain America model, were released by Mattel, which in 1976 also created the motorhome-like Star Traveler for Barbie.

In 1978, after producing almost 13,000 of this combination of armored car, survival chamber, and lunar vehicle—which looks now very much like a perfect manifestation of several of the issues then on Western humanity’s mind—the GMC Motorhome succumbed to another of the issues then on Western humanity’s mind: rising oil prices made it a luxury that diminishing numbers were willing or able to afford, and the company decided to dedicate its facilities to the production of more profitable trucks.

One thought on “Living Pod: The GMC Motorhome, 1973 – 1978

  1. I’d love to live in a motor home, but security and parking up can be an issue, especially if bound to a regional occupation. Also, I hate the modern motor vehicle infrastructure. It’s a claustrophobic beehive. The modern tiny home revolution appeals though. I can dig that.

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