Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

The RV world isn't what it used to be — nor is the world

You blink your eyes a few times, a decade slips by, and all of a sudden you're looking back at a whole different era.

For a refresher, 2002 was the year that sales of Hummers exploded, that the average price of gasoline was $1.36 per gallon, that President George W. Bush told Americans, "We need an energy policy that encourages consumption."

It was also the year that Harry Womack — an independent recreational vehicle sales representative whose business card identifies himself as "The Busman" — delivered a 45-foot-long motor home to a buyer in upscale Windermere, near Orlando, and "picked up 10 $100,000 checks."

Yes, this was the holy grail of his industry, the million-dollar motor home.

"In its time, this was the mack daddy," said Womack, 60, of Winter Park.

In its time.

Last week, Womack was trying to sell this same motor home, used of course, at the annual rally of recreational vehicles at the Hernando County Airport. With only 76,000 miles on the odometer and the marble floors and granite countertops still gleaming like new, the price had come down to $225,000.

What does that mean?

Just that the leather-upholstered captain's chairs "look a little dated," as Womack acknowledged? That its three flat-screen televisions are no longer jaw-dropping marvels? That, with diesel fuel at nearly $4 per gallon, it's no longer much fun to tool around in a vehicle that, according Womack, gets "5 1/2, 6 miles per gallon on a good day"?

Or does it mean something bigger?

That the recession forced us to look harder not only at our expenses, but at our idea of luxury? That we've come to covet items slightly more subtle than rolling McMansions? That we realize there are only so many resources in this wrung-out rag of an Earth and that retirees driving a vehicle as big and powerful as a city bus are using a bit more than their share? That, just maybe, the land of plenty doesn't have to be a land of excess?

Of course, that's a big theme to tackle with one visit to the Family Motor Coach Association's Southeast Area rally, which wraps up today.

But here are some impressions:

You don't get the feeling, as you once did, that this rally is suddenly Hernando's most bustling town. It drew about 1,000 coaches this year, only half as many as a few years ago.

There was less gawking at opulent features and more focus on socializing and entertainment. I heard a lot about the parade Thursday and the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz impersonators performing that evening.

I stumbled upon a cluster of relatively modest Born Free motor homes that are built around super-duty Ford pickups. These aren't exactly the Priuses of motor homes, drinking down fuel at the rate of about 12 miles to the gallon. But the owners brag about how cozy and well made they are, not about queen-size beds in the back bedroom.

I met Don and Sandy Moyer, who had spent a mere $1,800 on their motorcoach. It was a wreck at the time, of course, having been built in 1948 as a Spartan bus, in Sturgis, Mich., and soon rebuilt as an early motor home.

If Moyer, 68, was a little long-winded on the subject of its restoration — "There's a cute story about the two alternators you've got to hear," he said — you can see why he's proud. It looks like new, with a blue and white paint job that matches the original and refinished walnut legs on the fold-out kitchen table.

"That's my favorite part," said Sandy Moyer, 65, running her hand down the length of carved, shiny wood.

And it runs well enough that it made the 1,200-mile trip to Brooksville from the Moyers' home near Cleveland.

I met prospective buyers such as Jim Matthews, 72, a retired television news executive from the Jacksonville area, who was looking for a new mobile home that uses space and fuel more efficiently.

You hear a lot of that these days, said Kevin Broom, spokeman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

"It's like the great recession reset priorities for people across the board," Broom said in a telephone interview Friday. "You get the whole movement toward simplicity and paring down, and that's definitely true in the RV world."

Womack, though, is looking forward to a return to what he thinks of as the good old days. It will happen, he said, "if we can get a regime change in Washington." And, no, the gas mileage won't deter anybody, he said, pulling out his wallet.

"If you have this, it doesn't matter."

I hope not, because that would mean we haven't learned a thing.

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