Chinook/Trail Wagons, Inc.
Chinook RV, a division of Trail Wagons, Inc. was a family-owned and operated manufacturer of relatively short-length, high-quality Class C (Class B+) recreational vehicles, once considered “The Sports Car of Motorhomes” until the company’s initial demise in 2005.
In January 2013, the intellectual property rights of the Chinook brand, including the nameplate, designs, templates, manufacturing jigs, molds and support equipment were acquired by Phil Rizzio, owner of Wagon Trail RV in Las Vegas, Nevada, Creston RV in Kalispell, Montana and Van City RV in St. Louis, Missouri. Specializing in the Class B market including buying, selling and trading Class A, B, C, fifth-wheel towables and diesel pusher RVs, Mr. Rizzio’s franchise is an exclusive dealer for Airstream, Leisure Travel Vans, Pleasure-Way, and Dynamax RVs.
With a new production line of the fabled Chinook RV nameplate in Indiana, “birthing pains” of a prototype Class B+ model in 2014 and a change in design strategy the following year delayed roll out of all-new “Countryside” and Bayside“ Class B models on a Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter chassis. Its Sept. 2015 introduction immediately received mixed reviews by current Chinook RV owners, but favorable notices in the professional RV industry as plans slowly developed to reintroduce legacy models of the Concourse and Glacier.
The Early Years: A dream born in a garage
Most successful companies in the United States can trace their roots back to ideas that originated in the minds of entrepreneurs. Time has shown the products they created were usually non-conforming and non-traditional in nature, but filled a need for the American consumer.
First produced in 1938 by Sy and Rose Mair in Orange County, California, Chinook was among the oldest U.S. brand names in the RV industry. Over the next thirty years, the family-run business of Mair & Son, Inc. would relocate to Union Gap, Washington where they would build small travel trailers, pickup campers and chassis mounts that went on a one-ton cab chassis.
It was during the early 1950s and 60s that the first mass-produced motorhomes started appearing on the road, with some of the early models looking like a cross between a slide-in camper and a motorhome. These Class C motorhomes were actually constructed on a truck chassis. Fabricators ordered trucks without the traditional bed and added their own creation, a practice that is essentially still done today.
A friendly bet turns outdoorsman into a family-crafted RV outfitting business
Meanwhile, during the spring of 1961, another RV business saw its humble beginnings start out of a family home garage in a San Jose, California. Don Lukehart, Sr., an avid enthusiast of outdoor camping and fishing, was frustrated with the lack of mobile campers available on the market. Working at night in his garage with his son Gary, who had a background in design and cabinet making, the Lukeharts converted a Chevrolet Corvair into a “mini camper van.”
1961 Convair Greenbrier sports wagon van conversion with solid wood cabinetry, sink and Coleman refrigerator
The first-time effort would launch another family-run business after a friendly bet was made between a father and his sons. When others would ask the senior Lukehart where they could get a camper just like the custom-built one he had, a challenge was started by the younger Lukehart siblings whether they could actually sell more than six campers.
The results would ultimately revolutionize the RV industry.
1964 Convair Greenbrier brouchure highlights optional RV conversion accessories
The Lukehart family would start up Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company to build and sell converted Chevrolet and Dodge vans into custom-designed camper coaches. While eldest son Don Jr. would continue his career as a schoolteacher and wrestling coach, middle son Gary would be the chief designer of the units, while youngest son Roger would handle the marketing and sales of the family-owned business.
Phoenix Rising: Chinook Mobilodge Class A motorhomes and Fifth Wheeler
Their reputation firmly established after early successes in building deluxe slide-on camp coaches, Mair & Son, Inc., developed into the Chinook Mobilodge Company as it looked toward expanding into the large size RV market.
On Thursday, Oct. 14, 1965, a U.S. federal trademark registration was filed for Chinook by Mair & Son, Inc. The Chinook trademark was filed in the category of “Non-Metallic Building Material Products.” The description provided to the US Patents and Trademark Office for Chinook was “Pick-up truck campers, House trailers, and self-propelled mobile homes.”
Despite a devastating fire that all but destroyed their Union Gap facility on June 19, 1967, the company managed to rise from the ashes like the mythical Phoenix via the introduction of the Chinook 1400 chassis mount, a cab over Class C motorhome built on a Dodge truck chassis, followed by the Chinook 2200 and 2500 Vista/Brougham, the company’s first – and only – fully self-contained Class A motorhomes.
The 1966 (top, with ribbed aluminum roof) and 1969 (bottom, with fiberglass roof) Chinook Mobilodge Class A motorhome on a Dodge chassis
A 30-foot Fifth Wheel model, featuring an aerodynamically designed fiberglass end cap and roof that conformed to wind currents, allowing the unit to track effortlessly was also added to the company’s lineup. The Fifth Wheel was designed to be towed by Dodge’s Crew or Club Cab, Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Sportsman, GMC/Chevrolet’s Crew Cab, Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Sportswagon, Ford’s Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Econoline Club Wagon or International’s Crew Cab or Standard 3/4 ton Pickup. With each succeeding model year, the company was also employing further use of fiberglass in the overall construction process.
It was also at this time the development of the first one-piece, all-fiberglass shell had been successfully designed for the Chinook Mobilodge’s 2500 Vista and 2500 Brougham motorhomes. Built on either a special Dodge 1-ton with a 159 inch wheelbase, or a Chevrolet 1-ton with a 157 inch wheelbase, the smoother, curved lines and angles, the rounded contour and low profile body design quickly became evident with customers and the RV manufacturing industry.
Up until then, most recreational vehicles were in the style of the Winnebago Chieftain, which epitomized most Class A units of the era; big, square and boxy looking with all the aerodynamic coefficient properties of a brick. Lukehart’s incorporation of fiberglass allowed for some creative styling and flair in the Chinook Mobilodge that would replace the old-style ribbed aluminum cladding traditionally found in the RV industry.
Also unique were the two models of the Chinook 2500 themselves. The 2500 Vista was designed for traveling family-style, offering a wide-open floor plan for active vacation living featuring an exclusive “Vistaramic” picture window in the rear compartment that matched the forward panoramic design of the crew cab. Seating for three individuals was available up front via a swivel driver’s seat and a two-place passenger seat. The multi-purpose living/dining room area converted in minutes into a bedroom with comfortable sleep accommodations for up to five adults via a double bed, a single bed and two drop down bunk beds.
The 2500 Brougham model was designed for couples on the go year round – a predecessor of today’s “fulltimers”. Additional drawers and ward room space was provided with a fold out queen-size double bed opposite a vanity table. The bed could be left made up without obstructing passage through the bedroom compartment. Luxury features included a private bathroom with separate shower, wide counter top and built-in medicine cabinet. Both models also featured a four burner range with eye level oven, 7.5 cubic foot refrigerator/freezer and stainless steel double sink. To accommodate guests in complete privacy, the adjoining four place dinette converted into a double bed.
Unfortunately, events a few years later and half a world away would have a major impact on the lifespan of the Chinook 2200 and 2500, which can be found in the book, ”Mobile Mansions: Taking Home Sweet Home on the Road“ by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, Publisher 2006-03-03 ~ ISBN: 1586857738 ~ Paperback) with the following description on page 121:
“This 1973 Chinook Class A Mobilodge, powered by a massive 413-cubic inch Chrysler gas engine, was manufactured at exactly the wrong time, 1973. For years, Americans had been guzzling fuel at an alarming rate. In 1972, the average American automobile got a mere 14.5 miles per gallon of gas. By the end of 1972, America’s oil reserves were at a critical low levels, and by the winter of 1973 there were widespread brownouts.
For most Americans, the real crisis came in October 1973 when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) severely reduced their oil exports, which resulted in long lines at the gas stations or simply no gas at all. The ultimate cruelty came during the Christmas season when President Nixon refused to turn on the National Christmas Tree’s lights to save energy.”
Big things come in small packages: Chinook Dodge Maxi-Van and Chinook Chevy Trail Wagon
Meanwhile, back in California, the Lukehart’s Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company continued to expand, develop and refine the self-contained mini motorhome market based on the growing popularity of full-sized vans. Beginning in 1970 after designing a lightweight, yet strong fiberglass roof extension that could be attached at the roofline of a Dodge Maxi-Van or Chevy G20 or G30 Trail Wagon, the Lukehart’s partnered with Western Recreational Vehicles to create Chinook Western, a division of Chinook Mobilodge, Inc. as the new nameplate for these luxury van conversions that sold in the auto market.
These “B-vans”, phased in over 1970 as 1971 models, were radically different from the earlier A-van models in response to customer requests. Wind resistance was cut, which lowered noise and increased highway mileage; windshields were made full length and curved, replacing the old separate sheets of plate glass and the center windshield pillar, and the instrument panel, seats, and trim were brought upscale to match or beat passenger cars.
In fact, since some parts came from passenger cars, the Lukeharts successfully marketed “Do it Yourself” conversion kits for owners of previously purchased Dodge, Ford or Chevy vans. For DIY owners looking to turn their own vans into a luxury mobile bedroom on wheels, the simplicity and popularity of these “drop in” components, including a spring-loaded fiberglass Push-up Top fueled these economy weekend campers during the remainder of the ’70s and into the 1980s and mid-90s.
Birth of a Legend: The Chinook 18 Plus
However, by 1971, a confluence of events would see some major changes taking place in Washington state’s RV manufacturing industry: After Chinook Mobilodge Company had been merged and sold several times, the Lukeharts entered into the picture.
Taking their growing skills northward from California, the family relocated to Yakima, Washington, the neighboring city of Union Gap. By now, Gary Lukehart had come on board as president of the company, which was owned by an investment group based in New York City and intent on capitalizing the growing RV market by taking it public.
1971 was also a major turning point in RV history: Gary Lukehart designed what would later turn into an iconic RV legend – the Chinook 18 Plus motorhome, forerunner to the present-day Chinook Concourse. Initially built on a Dodge Maxi-Van chassis, it would eventually evolve and be refined over the next three decades on the Chevy and Ford van “cutaway” chassis, providing the public with a recreational vehicle that carried – at the time – the only lifetime guarantee in the RV industry for the original owner.
A beautifully restored 1971 Chinook 18 Plus on a Chevy chassis, sporting a custom, three-color paint scheme
Featuring a proprietary-designed single unit all-fiberglass shell, Arctic foam insulation, signature forward-angled side windows (mathematically and scientifically known as a “Parallelogram” – a four-sided polygon with two pairs of parallel sides) and sporting a bold and rakish looking “Racing stripe” paint pattern, the Chinook 18 Plus would become a contemporary classic in the early 1970’s.
The Chinook RV team’s commitment to on-going improvements in quality and innovative engineering, along with a strong emphasis on livability and comfort as well as excellent customer service lent itself well to creating a state-of-the-art mini motorhome. The company custom-built their own cabinetry using solid oak, and its paint and graphics design work were done in-house at its Yakima, Washington facility.
Same nameplate, decades apart: 1st generation 1971 Chinook 18 Plus, 2nd generation 1988 Chinook Concourse 18+, and 3rd generation 1998 Chinook Concourse XL
In 1985, Lukehart moved away from the Dodge Maxi-Van chassis in favor of Ford and Chevrolet platforms, redesigning the Chinook 18 Plus into the now familiar Chinook Concourse. With second-generation (1989-1996) models built on the Ford V-8 460 and Chevy G30 dual-axle chassis and third-generation (1997-2006) models later assembled on the one-ton Ford V-10 Triton and Chevy V-8 Vortec dual-axle platforms, the present-day Chinook Concourse created and defined the just-right sized Class C brand for the Chinook RV.
Larger than a standard-sized van, yet smaller than the typical cab-over Class C RVs featuring a streamlined and aerodynamic body that foreshadowed today’s latest “B-Plus” mini-motorhome trend, the Chinook Concourse would earn the reputation and eventually be marketed as “the ultimate two-person coach.”
Mini-RV on a budget: The Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome (Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG)
With the quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC, coupled with high government spending due to the Vietnam War and growing stagflation in the United States, the New York City investment group behind the original Chinook Mobilodge Company brand name would eventually pull out in 1975, leaving the company idle after abandoning the manufacturing of the large Chinook 2200 and 2500 Mobilodges. By this time, Gary Lukehart would also leave the company to form Trail Wagons, Inc. in Yakima, Washington to build Class B van campers.
However, before those events would occur, the idea of a mini-pickup truck-based RV would originate across the Pacific in the land of the Rising Sun at Toyota.
For years, backyard mechanics had been fitting the miniscule Toyota pickup with an array of homebuilt campers almost from the time the truck debuted in the U.S. in 1964. So it wasn’t surprising when the company finally signed an agreement in September 1973 to introduce the world’s first micro mini-motorhome in the process: the Toyota-Chinook.
Based on lessons learned and early successes with their Do it Yourself kits for van conversions, Gary Lukehart and his Chinook Western team began to design a small fiberglass shell that could be built on a Datsun- or Toyota-powered mini-pickup truck chassis, starting in 1971. The effort was the result of two years of joint development between the two companies. Executives at Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. and Chinook Mobilelodge Inc. liked what they saw and jointly announced the signing of a five-year, multi-million-dollar agreement for the manufacture and marketing of recreational vehicles in the U.S.
Under the contract, signed by Takasuki Osuka, assistant to the president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. and Richard Dowling, Chinook chairman of the board, Chinook International – a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinook Mobilelodge – would produce a compact motorhome utilizing a specially designed Toyota Hi-Lux cab and chassis. The new unit, initially called the Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome, would be sold exclusively by Toyota dealers.
The agreement was the largest to date that Toyota had ever signed with a U.S. manufacturer. It called for a minimum of 4,000 units the first year with officials at both companies predicting that as many as 10,000 would be produced.
“This agreement represents another step in Toyota’s program to create U.S. jobs and ease the balance of payments problem by purchasing American-made goods for Toyota distribution,” said Iwao Kodaira, president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.
Production began in September 1973 at the Chinook Western plant in La Verne, Calif. with manufacturing plans calling for a gradual build up to more than 300 units per month by December. The units would be initially marketed in the western part of the country with a suggested retail price in the under $5,000 range. The first vehicles were actually shipped to dealers in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota. Additional distribution would then be expanded to the Southwest and Far West, although contract provisions called for construction of a second assembly plant at an undetermined location to serve the remainder of the country.
The first Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome models sold in 1973-74 were built on a Toyota long-wheelbase half-ton truck chassis, powered by Toyota’s 18R motor with a standard rear axle. It was designed from the start to provide fuel economy and almost car-like handling. Eventually marketed as the Toyota Round Tripper, the unit contained storage cabinets, sink and water supply, ice box, dinette and sleeping for two adults and one or two small children.
A 1976 Toyota-Chinook Pop-up camper (left) and a 1975 Toyota-Chinook transplant to a late 1990’s model 4×4 chassis in their original paint scheme.
Although initial reviews and comments from buyers were positive, some initial flaws were uncovered in the early model Toyota Round Tripper. Based on feedback and surveys conducted by both companies, further refinements were made to the production line. By 1975, the “Round Tripper” moniker was dropped and simply referred to as the Toyota-Chinook. Except for some new colors, many would not notice differences on the outside because the same smooth lines and attractive styling of the ’74 model were carried over into 1975.
However, the big differences were on the inside — under the hood, within the walls, around the windows, under the sink, and in the galley.
Three noteworthy changes with the 1975 model was the addition of a steel reinforced frame, frame-mounted step bumper and the larger 20R cross-flow engine. The frame added dimensional rigidity and durability to the entire vehicle, which was a natural safety selling point with Toyota dealers. The peppy 2.2 liter 20R engine also gave the Toyota-Chinook the power to perform both on the highway and in city traffic, with either manual, or a newly added automatic transmission.
The newly enhanced Toyota-Chinook sported an upgraded chassis built specifically for RV use; the truck’s 101.7-inch wheelbase was stretched to 110 inches and equipped with an 8” ring and pinion third member (AKA heavy duty) and stouter tires, compared to the standard 7.5“ rear gear on the earlier models. The larger platform took care of weight and handling issues and the Chinook team took care of the rest. The coach builder fitted the diminutive chassis-mount camper with the sleek fiberglass shell that concealed an impressive number of comforts without presenting a cumbersome profile.
With a base price of under $7995, the Toyota-Chinook line was considered three vehicles in one: Economy car, station wagon and motorhome. Featuring the legendary Toyota “R” series of powerplants, the Toyota Chinook – sometimes affectionately referred to by its owners as “The Toy”, “Toynook”, “Chinyota”, or “Little Chinook” – was one of the most popular recreational vehicles on the road during the mid-70s, particularly with the Southern California surf and action sports culture.
For starters, it offered excellent fuel savings: up to an astounding 29 miles per gallon on the highway and 16 mpg in city driving despite meeting stringent California emission standards. For any type of RV today with current powerplant technology, few could match it, including the new class B van conversions based on the diesel-powered Sprinter chassis that manages 16-22 mpg (albeit somewhat heavier than a Toyota-Chinook).
It was also compact. Not quite 17 feet long and 77 inches high (closed), the Toyota-Chinook offered weekenders a stainless steel two-burner butane gas stove, 2.3 cubic-foot icebox, a long six-foot, eight-inch convertible L-shaped dinette and sofa that turned into a full size bed. An optional, pull-out extension for an over-cab bunk allowed for two small children to sleep in the vehicle, once the spring-latched pop-up top was unlatched – the design of which owed much to the original push-up tops seen in the full-size van conversions. Open, the coach boasted six feet of headroom for an adult – once parked – to stand up and move around inside the mini-camper; Closed, it offered a low profile which contributed to its car-like handling and fuel-saving economy, as well as a possible mounting location for roof racks to carry surfboards, kayaks or skis.
Granted, it still had a few drawbacks. For starters, it didn’t have an enclosed bathroom, although a “porta-potty” toilet was now available as an option. It also ran on DC power exclusively and the sink “drain” consisted of an outside fitting to which owners attached a hose leading to a container. However, it also was capable of traveling more than 250 miles on a single fill-up of its 13.7-gallon gas tank, and could sleep up to four people in a vehicle just under 18 feet long.
A restored and custom modified 1976 Toyota-Chinook 4×4 Pop-up camper in its closed and opened positions
Unfortunately, rumors of complaints regarding mechanical issues concerning the rear axle and suspension were reported, due to the weight of the pop-up camper portion of the vehicle, although they were built well under the weight restrictions put on the axle by Toyota. More than likely, the problem was due to the catchall phase “operator error” as owners may have overloaded their vehicles for roadtrips. However, as testament to the mini-RV’s durability from the standpoint of the pop-up fiberglass shell and 18R powerplant in the 1973-74 model years, followed by the 20R powerplant during the 1975-78 model years, many of these unique vehicles still ply the roads 40+ years after their creation.
In 1978, as the contract with Toyota had been fulfilled and Chinook was now building their units for resale at both Toyota and RV dealerships, the company starting using the Gazelle/MPG names to distinguish between the two virtually identical models. 1978 was also the last production year for the Toyota-Chinooks, but because of build dates, some were sold as a 1979 model, even though they were built on a 1978 chassis.
While the majority still in service today sport their original colors and 70’s-era decor, others have been completely stripped down and were either transferred to later model platforms including a 4×4 chassis – which was never originally offered by either company – or rebuilt by their owners to suit their individual tastes and personalities.
What IS That!?!: Chinook and General Motors team up for “The Big ‘Nook”
Yet another joint venture took place with Chinook Western, this time with General Motors in 1976-1977 which produced the Chalet and Casa Grande for the short-bed Chevrolet K5 Blazer and GMC Jimmy pickup trucks. These rare pop-up campers for the 3/4 ton GM-built 4×4 trucks are nicknamed “The Big ‘Nook” and were considered the domestic U.S. “sister” to the Toyota Chinook due to their similar styling. Approximately 1,780 units were built and sold: 1,555 Chalets to 225 Casa Grandes. They were not, however, slide on campers like other typical units, but permanently affixed shells. The Blazer and Jimmy came off the same production line as a regular truck and had the pop-up camper shell installed by the Chinook Western facility in Yakima, Washington.
As with the Toyota Chinook, the Chalet and Casa Grande featured a propane heater and stove, water tank and sink, and either an icebox or a refrigerator. Shelves, closets and a removable tabletop round out the furnishings. They did not, however come with a shower or toilet and were, in short, a home away from home for a couple of people for the weekend.
Unfortunately, just like the Toyota Chinook, the Chalet and Casa Grande were short-lived. Initial production was around 100-150 units per month, stepping up later, and averaged some 200 units monthly overall. The trucks were produced only for nine months, before quietly disappearing. There are multiple theories to explain this: lackluster sales and legal issues among them.
The Chalet was popular at the time it was introduced, and some folks report that, as with many brand-new models today, consumers were paying sticker price for them (i.e., no haggling with the dealers took place.) However, the premium for the convenience of the camper may have been a bitter pill for some owners to swallow. While the camper’s Regular Production Options is listed as a nominal $895 option, the camper-equipped trucks almost invariably had the high-end “Cheyenne” trim package and every available option GM could stick on them, so they were considerably more expensive than a base Blazer. Also, given Chinook Western’s highly manual assembly required for small-volume specialty vehicles such as the Chalet, the cost of manufacturing was likely high enough to prevent much room for a profit margin.
It was reportedly rumored GM was forced to cease production of these units because of axle/spring issues – the very problem rumored to have dogged the Toyota Chinook line. Other folks point out the truck was awful heavy for a half-ton vehicle. The Department of Transportation may have noticed that either the rear axle weight rating, or perhaps the overall gross weight rating, was exceeded in practice by these trucks (presumably GM would have had to upgrade the suspension and/or emissions equipment to be certified for the higher weight rating, which would have driven costs up further). One story goes that the DOT offered GM the option of recalling all their trucks, or ceasing production with a “no fault, no foul” rider; if the story is to be believed, GM took this latter route and quietly dropped the model.
However, the reality was GM discontinued manufacturing the Blazer and Jimmy with a cutaway cab section, which allowed for direct access into the back of the Chalet or Casa Grande. Nevertheless, a good portion of Blazer Chalets and Jimmy Casa Grandes still on the road today have been modified or upgraded by their owners with either helper springs or air bag additions on the rear axle – or outright replacement on a newer model Blazer chassis, just as Toyota Chinook owners have done with their fiberglass shells.
The campers were profiled in an April 2009 issue of Hemmings Motor News magazine, featuring a 1977 Blazer Chalet formerly owned by Russell Cook of Phoenix, Arizona, and includes a brief write-up on one that sold at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction for $9,350.
A discussion forum for owners and enthusiasts of the Blazer Chalet or Jimmy Casa Grande is available on the Internet. To date, approximately 75 members – half of whom are known to currently own a Blazer Chalet or Jimmy Casa Grande, with a few owning two or more of these rare and unique rigs – are using the forum to trade information and restoration tips, plus collect and post an ever-growing series of photo galleries. Further information about these rigs can also be found on the Chevy K5 Blazer Chalet web site.
Close encounters of the weird kind: A time of transition
The Chinook moniker would also become attached to other notable RVs such as the short-lived (1976-1979) Chinook Futura and its little brother, the Toyota Chinook Newport or the Toyota Chinook Omega.
The “otherworldly” and short-lived 1978 Chinook Futura (inspired by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?)
According to Chinook’s advertising brouchure of the time, “There’s never been a motorhome like the Futura! Advanced styling and innovative engineering assure you that this is not just another motorhome. The Futura is beautifully sculpted from fiberglass and reinforced with a steel safety cage. There are three floor plans with innovative ideas for ultimate livability.”
The Futura was definitely a departure from the more streamlined Chinook 18 Plus, at least with regards to the front and back ends. Built on a Dodge Maxi-Van dual axle chassis with a V-8 440 cubic inch motor, the Chinook Futura was longer, slightly taller and heavier than a Chinook 18 Plus, owing to a protruding cab over sleeping area that is the typical look of all Class C motorhomes. However, the angular shapes gave it an “otherworldly” science fiction look, probably influenced from the Steven Speilberg-directed blockbuster, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The Toyota Chinook Newport and its sister Omega model were patterned in a similar fashion. Essentially an enlarged hardtop version of the Toyota Chinook Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG, the Toyota Chinook Newport/Omega models owed their styling cues directly from the Chinook Futura.
The 1978 Toyota Chinook Newport (left) vs. near-identical 1978 Toyota Chinook Omega
With “the styling of the 80’s today, designed and engineered to meet the demands of tomorrow”, the Newport and Omega models could sleep four individuals with plenty of storage and enough room to walk around in while in motion, unlike the Toyota Chinook Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG pop-up model. Although both models offered such standard features as a “sunport”, commode and complete galley, perhaps the most unique aspect of the Newport/Omega was its angled upper and lower split-door arrangement, located at the extreme rear passenger side corner of the vehicle.
More than two dozen nameplates, ranging from Coachmen and Dolphin to Keystone, Odyssey and Winnebago were ultimately affixed to Toyota-chassis mini motorhomes before the coach line finally fell out of favor in the early ’90s. As with Toyota Chinook’s Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG pop-up, the Newport/Omega’s days were numbered as it suffered the same rumored fate of rear axle problems, largely due to growing weight issues. The problem would eventually be corrected with a larger, more robustly designed rear axle in the mid- to late-80’s and early ’90’s.
However, even though the chassis’ weight rating was improved to 5,500 pounds, many of the later entries were really pushing the limit on GVWR. What looked underpowered and overweight quite often was. By 1993, Toyota exited the mini-pickup truck chassis business because of liability concerns due to the overweight issues and their desire to go head-to-head with the larger U.S. domestic truck market.
Although Chinook’s marketing campaign proclaimed that “Any other motorhome just may be a compromise”, it appeared the RV-buying public decided otherwise.
The Iranian Revolution sharply increased the price of oil around the world, leading to the 1979 energy crisis. This was caused by the new regime in power in Iran, which exported oil at inconsistent intervals and at a lower volume, forcing prices to go up. Tight monetary policy in the United States to control inflation led to another recession. The changes were made largely because of inflation that was carried over from the previous decade due to the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis.
The production line for the Chinook Futura and Newport/Omega models quietly ended at the beginning of the 1980’s, leaving the newly reborn Chinook Concourse as the clear cut industry trendsetter with its classic exterior and elegant interior settings.
The Next Generation: A new name and a new facility
Aerial views of Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV van conversion facility in Fairfield, California
As the 70’s came to an end, another move was made by Gary Lukehart to spin off and partner with a new generation of Lukeharts at the helm. For the first half of the 1980’s, Chinook had laid dormant after the end of the Toyota and GM partnerships until Lukehart purchased the remnants of the original parent company and its all-important brand name. By 1985, a new division was formed, taking its name from one of Lukehart’s van conversions: the Chevy Trail Wagon.
Trail Wagons, Inc., the new parent company of Chinook RV, was now under Gary Lukehart’s ownership. He eventually began to focus singularly on redeveloping and improving upon the Chinook 18 Plus mini motorhome. With its fabled one-piece fiberglass shell which Lukehart had designed while on the staff at Chinook Mobilodge, Lukehart would now spend the next two decades refining the renamed Chinook Concourse into a high-end Class C motorhome at their main factory in Yakima, Washington. Depending on options selected in built-to-order models, up to 900 labor-hours would eventually go into the construction of each motorhome, nearly twice the amount of time any other manufacturer would devote to an RV.
At the same time, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV would discontinue marketing their Do it Yourself van kits in favor of expanding their Class B van conversion business at a separate facility on land purchased by Lukehart in northern California.
Located in Solano County, between Sacramento and San Francisco where Interstates I-80 and I-680 intersect in an area known as Cordelia Junction, the Trail Wagons, Inc. / Chinook RV van conversions near the city of Fairfield would be operated by two of Lukehart’s nephews.
Tim and Hugh Lukehart are the sons of Don Lukehart, Jr., who chose to remain a school teacher and wrestling coach at the start of Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company. After working on their uncle Gary’s production line in Yakima during their college years, learning the family business alongside Lukehart’s son, Dan, their cousin, the next generation of Lukeharts would start to turn out a complete line of “Van Motorhome” weekend campers suitable for any RV owner’s budget.
From left to right: 1986 Chinook Runabout, 1990 Chinook Voyager and 1994 Chinook Trail Wagon Class B motorvans
Over the next decade, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV would see the rollout of many popular series of 17-19 ft. Van Motorhomes with nameplates like Aspen, Buccaneer, Cruiser, Clipper, Runabout, Trek, Viking, Vista Classic and Voyager. In many ways, the designs and quality of workmanship put into these van conversions by the Lukehart’s pre-dated many of today’s Canadian Class B van conversion manufacturers, most notably the PleasureWay, LeisureTime and Town and County’s RoadTrek 170, 190 and 210 series of motorhomes.
Storm warning amid recession and expansion
By 1993, hampered by declining sales caused by an economic fallout attributed to the first Gulf War in 1991, the line of Class B van conversions were either closed out or consolidated to the Yakima facility. However, rather than relocate to Yakima, Hugh and Tim Lukehart opted to stay with their original Fairfield location once the expanded 10.5 acre van conversion facility was sold in 1994 to North Bay Auto Auction. After leasing out a portion of storefront space within the original Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV building, they would establish Sierra Truck and Van and eventually purchase back the rest of the facility, having built a strong customer base as a factory direct Weatherguard outlet serving the northern California market.
Meanwhile, the Class C production line in Yakima, which had been using both the Ford Econoline and Chevy Van chassis with V-8 powerplants for the Chinook Concourse, would transition exclusively to the Ford Econoline E350 platform. In 1994, to help weather the economic recession, the company would introduce the Chinook Premier, a lower-cost model with lesser features in the cabinetry work, a smaller refrigerator, two-burner stove and squared off standard windows.
Eventually, as the economy improved in the mid-90’s, the Chinook production line responded in 1997 after Ford Motor Company discontinued their V-8 460 engine and moved to the more fuel efficient Ford V-10 Triton engine on the Econoline cutaway van platform. At the dawn of a new millennium, a third model would be added that went in the opposite direction of the scaled-down Premier: the Chinook Baja 4×4. A glitzy, West Coast-style 4-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle, the Baja was built using the same Concourse fiberglass shell. With additional off-road additions that appealed to the growing Sports Utility Vehicle crowds, the Baja drew lots of media attention in the latter years of the company’s operation.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Concourse, 2004 Chinook Premier and 2004 Chinook Baja 4×4
1998-2001 would mark the height of Chinook RV’s success, as the company would hit the “sweet spot” by producing their finest model years on record. Helping them along would be new marketing technology provided by an internet presence at ChinookRV.com (NOTE: Partially archived PDF file). Potential customers could view and decide upon various models and floorplans, pre-select from a choice of interior decors and wood grains, decide special features and locate a dealer for a custom-designed motorhome suited to their tastes or personalities.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Destiny and 2004 Chinook Cascade
Entering the 21st Century, a new model called the Chinook Destiny was added to the lineup in 2001. Essentially a “stretched” version of the Concourse, the 24 foot long Destiny was built on a Chevy C30 1-ton Van chassis featuring the V-8 Vortec engine.
The three extra feet in length and extra foot in width allowed for a more spacious bathroom at the rear of the unit, albeit still a “wet” variety in which the sink and commode were incorporated within the shower area. A multi-drawer pantry, larger clothing cabinet and internal storage area for the spare instead of the “Continental” tire kit used on the Concourse rounded out the major differences between the two.
A lower-cost version of the Destiny with the lesser quality features modeled off of the Premier (including the same squared off windows) followed a couple of years later and was marketed as the Chinook Cascade.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Glacier and 2004 Chinook Summit
As the national RV industry expanded into the marketplace with slideout units in Class A motorhomes, the Lukehart’s began expending company profits toward creating the first slideout units to be offered in a Class C mini-motorhome. The end result added the 25 foot long Chinook Glacier to the 2003 lineup that for the first time would also feature a full-size “dry” bathroom with separate shower. It was closely followed by the 27 foot long Chinook Summit in 2004 that featured two slideouts. Both models were built on Ford Motor Company’s heavy-duty Econoline E-450 van chassis.
Chinook prices would vary, according to year, make, model type and built-to-order optional accessory packages. Choices ranged from custom exterior paint patterns to specially-branded models like the Harley Davidson special edition Chinook Concourse. Chinooks typically commanded top dollar in the RV market for its relative size. Average costs varied from $73,000 to $128,000 for the Premier, Concourse and Destiny models, all the way up to $143,000 to $203,000 for the Chinook Glacier 2500 and Chinook Summit 2700 deluxe models during the latter years of the company’s operation. Building up 42 dealerships across North America with exports to Europe, the Middle East and South America, Chinook RV developed a reputation and international recognition as one of the finest manufacturers of mini motorhomes in the world.
The reviews are in: Chinook delivers a land speed record, fun, luxury and adventure. . .for a price
On August 16, 1998, history was made as the world’s fastest motorhome would set a land speed record on the powdery Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sanctioned by the Southern California Racing Association, a Yakima-built and specially-modified Chinook Concourse, painted in a bright orange racing stripe pattern and sporting an air scoop on its hood, rumbled down the three mile course with Dan Lukehart at the wheel.
The Chinook team reportedly had to throw out more than just the kitchen sink; most of the Concourse had been gutted out, from the rooftop air conditioner to the sofa, dinette table, stove, refrigerator, cabinets, wet bath and holding tanks. In its place, a custom built roll cage was installed in the driver’s cab as Dan Lukehart would speed to a recorded 99.776 miles per hour in three minutes time to break the old record of 97.613 mph, set May 16, 1970 by a 26-foot, 4-1/2 ton, Oldsmobile Toronado-powered Travoy, built by Ramona Motor Coach Company of San Jacinto, Calif. at El Mirage Dry Lake, Calif.
The Chinook’s LSR was set at a density altitude of 5,384 feet. Adjusting to sea level the speed would have been 108 mph.
“We are extremely pleased with the results and we have learned a great deal from this project. With a cross wind of 15 mph, the Chinook proved very stable at 100 mph and that was what we wanted to prove – that a motorhome, if manufactured correctly, and on the right platform, can be extremely safe at any speed,” said Charles McGhee, vice president of sales at Trailwagons, Inc. “We could have gone faster,” said Dan Lukehart, “but the Triton V-10’s computer could not adjust itself to the altitude and we were running with a very rich mixture. Unfortunately, we did not have the electronic equipment to make the necessary adjustments.”
Eventually, Lukehart would break his own mark with the assistance of a Banks Performance System in the Chinook Concourse, driving it to an all-time top speed of 114 mph – a feat that had not been matched or broken in nearly a decade’s time
Editor’s Note: There’s debate over a Dyno Sources tuned GMC Transmode not being considered a true motorhome, since it served as a Command Post for the Tampa Bay Fire Department. It was powered by a 454 V-8 setting a record of 102.76 mph at Bonneville on Sept. 14, 2006. However, both records were clearly broken in 2010 by a Hymer Car motorhome, tuned by Goldschmitt and powered by an economical 2.3-litre Multijet engine with an innovative gas-diesel drive – reaching more than 200km/h (124 miles/hour).
Hymer and Goldschmitt have obtained approval for a record attempt in spring 2011 on the test track in Papenburg, Northern Germany to make it into the Guinness Book of Records with a symbolic speed of 230km/h from standstill within exactly 1000 meters – 200km/h for the title of the fastest motorhome, and then 30km/h is an extra one for every year of the Goldschmitt company.
Since then, a Fiat Dobro fitted out as a Class B motorhome, clocked 141.3 miles per hour in 2015 to earn Guinness World Record title recognition. Equipped with a two-burner stove, refrigerator and toilet, the rig had been listed for sale on eBay but bidders failed to reach the reserved price.
“While the European record and engine are indeed impressive, there is a significant difference between the Concourse and this rig,” stated Duncan Fowler, a Chinook RV owner. “The Concourse is significantly larger, bulkier and I suspect heavier than this (vehicle that broke the) record.”
Not to be outdone, in 2000 the company entered a new, off-the-line Chinook Baja featuring a Quigley 4×4 all-wheel drive package in the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally, a grueling 4,500-mile road challenge. Starting out in Seattle, Washington through the Yukon Territory of Canada, the rally traveled all the way up to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a tiny town on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. From there, rally entrants returned south to Anchorage to finish the nine-day rally.
Dan Lukehart, who succeeded his father Gary to become the company’s president in 1996, was convinced the Chinook Baja 4×4 model could live up to its design expectations and do so under extreme weather and road conditions. The company actually fielded two Chinooks in the Rally; the primary vehicle, named the “Saka-Tumi” and a back-up, known as “Eagle Eye.” A third Chinook Baja, called the “Black Bear” acted as a support vehicle. Out of a field of 24 entrants which included sport-utility vehicles, all-wheel-drive vehicles, and pickup trucks, the “Saka-Tumi” Chinook Baja, piloted by Dan Lukehart finished 16th, won the Pirelli Sportsmanship Award, won the Dalton Class of the Rally and achieved five perfect scores in one of the timed speed/distance events – not bad for a 12,000 pound vehicle.
“We did it to prove that Chinooks aren’t just motorhomes and shouldn’t be stereotyped as being only for old people,” Lukehart said.
According to a 2005 profile of Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV in FMC magazine, the official publication of the Family Motor Coach Association, a look at the demographics of those clients quickly revealed a common denominator: 60 percent of Chinook owners were motorhome enthusiasts who had downsized from large, high-end Class A luxury units. These owners enjoyed the luxury motorhome lifestyle for a number of years and wanted to continue traveling, but needed to do so in a coach they felt was more manageable to navigate. At the same time, these owners didn’t want to compromise the quality and luxury to which they had grown accustomed to. The Chinook brand was able to successfully identify this niche and responded accordingly in their marketing campaigns.
Dan Lukehart also tells the story of a customer who left a paper cup full of coffee on the rear bumper of his new Chinook Concourse Class C motorhome and drove off. “When he got home,” Lukehart relates, “the cup was still sitting on the bumper with coffee in it.” That story speaks volumes for the manufacturers of Chinook one-piece molded fiberglass mini motorhomes.
“We don’t have any other priorities other than making the most sound motorhome possible,” Lukehart said. “It’s expensive to do it that way, but that is what makes us a niche. Not everybody can afford everything that we build.”
Indeed, customers expect quality and top-line features from Chinook RV, which manufactured about 450 mini motorhomes annually.
“We’ve failed at building an economy model,” Lukehart said. “That’s what controls our volume completely. There’s not an employee here who could build a midline vehicle. I’ve been asked to do that hundreds of times, and I ask how? Every time we try to do it, every time we try to design something out, somebody else (in Chinook management) puts it back in.”
Chinook emphasizes the strength of its one-piece molded fiberglass construction.
“Our molds provide as fine a finish as you have on any car,” Lukehart said. “The whole thing involves as many as eight to 10 layers of fiberglass at the end of the process. It’s 3 or 4 inches thick at some points. We mold a lot of the openings, and we don’t have any flange-mounted doors. All that does away with having to install trim and caulking. Because it’s one piece, it has a lot of strength. It has no weak points and it provides a solid ride.”
2004 Chinook Baja 4×4 demonstrates its off road stream crossing abilities
“The words RV and Adventure are sometimes mistakenly seen as mutually exclusive. It’s true that RV adventure takes many forms, from simply heading across a county line to wandering the far-flung backwoods off the beaten track, and each person sees a different level of adventure as great fun. The Baja edition four-wheel-drive (4×4) Chinook Class C is one of those motorhomes that makes possible the wildest kinds of RV adventure imaginable. The Chinook RV division of Trail Wagons Inc., Yakima, Washington, has been building motorhomes for more than 40 years. Top-quality assembly and first-class amenities are hallmarks of the Chinook, which is referred to by the company as ‘the sports car of RVs.’ Compact size and a powerful drivetrain contribute to sports-car-like driving performance compared to a full-size motorhome, but the Chinook is also laden with the typical sports car’s reduced storage and human-space size constraints. Many sports cars aren’t cheap either, and a buyer has to want exactly what the Chinook Baja offers. Price aside, the Baja edition has a lot to offer the adventure-seeking RV enthusiast with an eye on a smaller motorhome. This is not a coach for sneaking around and keeping a low profile. Chinook motorhomes are stylish and eye-catching in standard two-wheel drive (2WD), and the cosmetic and functional extras that come with the Baja package make this a tough motorhome to miss as it trundles down the pike. But it’s not all looks. Chinook has used the Baja edition to compete in the grueling wintertime Alaska Highway rally with excellent results. The 4×4 conversion that includes a solid front axle, leaf springs and a manual-shift transfer case with low range is added by one of several Ford-approved aftermarket upfitters used by Chinook. Off pavement, the Chinook handled like any serious 4×4 vehicle should. Our test drive included a California state-maintained off-pavement vehicle recreation trail that’s fairly treacherous in spots. We growled our way up several slopes with loose rocks and rutted surfaces, and the Baja edition happily moved ahead over anything we were brave enough to tackle.”
–Sept. 14, 2002 Motorhome Magazine review
Even today, used models still retain relatively high resell prices in comparison to other manufacturers’ Class A, B, B+ or C recreational vehicles of the same model year. For example, the 1998-2001 model year Chinook Concourse or “budget” Chinook Premier can be found on eBay and Craigslist from a low of $20,000 up to $40,000+ price range, depending on condition and mileage.
The last model years of 2002-2006 for the Cascade, Glacier and Summit can still be found with asking prices ranging from $65,000 to $95,000 (or more) at RVT.com, RVTraderOnline.com, RVSearch.com, LocalRVs.com, and RVOnline.com.
Celebration, Downfall and The End of the Trail(Wagons)???
The Chinook brand, billed as “the sports car of motorhomes,” celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2001. At the time, the future looked bright for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV as the company included the recreational vehicle assembly plant and Chinook Business Park owned by the elder Gary Lukehart, who had established himself as a well-recognized businessman and developer in Yakima. Always innovating, Chinook had built and shown macho-style off-road Class Cs, which included a mini motorhome with the look of GM’s Hummer.
“It’s a front-appearance package with a Hummer H2 nose on a Chevy cutaway chassis,” Dan Lukehart said. “We’re not saying that it’s a Hummer, but it was fun to do. That’s what it’s all about; Dress it up and make it look nice.”
Few, however, were able to see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon for the company, the Chinook brand and the RV industry as a whole.
For starters, Stuart LaMarr, executive vice president and Charles McGhee, vice president of sales for Trail Wagons Inc. left the company to form the startup LaMarr Motor Coach, Inc. in 2000. Equipping a 43,000-square-foot factory in Pasco, Washington with a staff of 10 people, in November 2000, they introduced the Stiletto, an unusual 36-foot fifth-wheel luxury trailer featuring a molded fiberglass exterior and boasting a suspension system that allows the body to be lowered to ground level when parked.
Looking to reinvent themselves once again, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV received a low-interest loan of $2.45 million in 2003. The money was a grant by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency to the city of Yakima, which in turn made the HUD funds available to Gary Lukehart for expansion of his Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV production facility. At the same time, Trail Wagons Inc./Chinook RV made the switch from fiberglass to all-composite shells and floors for their Class C motorhomes, according to Composites World magazine.
Since 1971, the company had manufactured one-piece molded fiberglass shells consisting of gel coat, ceramic shield and a single polyester skin laminate with plywood-stiffening panels. But in 2002, it switched to a lightweight sandwich construction featuring a vinyl ester resin composite recommended by Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tennessee. Composites World magazine reported the composite shells are stable from well below freezing to 110 degrees to prevent blistering and cracking.
“After just one year of using the new shells, the results have been astounding. None of the new RVs have shown a single stress crack,” stated Jeff Gaskell, Chinook’s fiberglass division manager.
The composite shells used for Chinook’s 21- and 24-foot models are gel-coated and include 0.5-inch-thick closed-cell PVC structural foam from DIAB Inc. of Desoto, Texas. For Chinook’s 25- and 27-foot models, Gaskell needed to reduce floor weight to avoid exceeding the chassis’ gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). Instead of using laminated 1.5-inch plywood with polyester resin/glass-laminated bottoms, the company switched to a new floor design featuring a sandwich construction.
Skins of quadraxial glass fabric from Vectorply of Phenix City, Alabama, are layered in a flat mold on both sides of DIAB balsa core that came pre-cut to size. Then, 16 gallons of Eastman’s vinylester resin are used to infuse an entire vacuum-bagged 25-foot floor, optimizing the glass-to-resin ratio, eliminating waste from overspray and resulting in 15 percent resin savings. The floor is ready for demolding after only two hours and reduces styrene emissions nearly 100 percent.
“The process has reduced the floor weight by 35 percent and increased compression, tensile and sheer strength by 300 percent, enabling us to expand motorhome size,” Gaskell reportedly told the magazine. Trail Wagons Inc./Chinook RV planned to vacuum-infuse shells as well as experiment with using light resin transfer molding to replace open molding for smaller parts, such as storage compartment doors, running boards and shower components.
2004 Chinook Winchester 4×4 “concept” RV with matching towable trailer
At the 2004 Louisville RV show in Kentucky, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV showcased the Chinook Winchester concept RV. It was the company’s most audacious rollout to date on a Class C motorhome created by Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, manufacturer of the fabled Winchester model 1873 rifle, commonly known as the “Gun That Won the West.”
Complete with a Wild West theme that included cowboys and cowgirls and Winchester shell casings, the Chinook Winchester was a one-of-a-kind, custom-built RV, the likes of which had not been seen in a Class C motorhome. Commanding a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $177,785 (including a freight delivery charge of $2,205), the two companies reportedly put in over $96,000 worth of documented upgrades, over and above the base price of a standard Chinook Baja built on a Ford E-450 chassis.
Although the steep retail price for the Chinook Winchester concept RV redefined the phrase, “Sticker Shock” for RV owners, the list was extensive: Banks performance system, oversized front and back IWC anti-sway bars, full 4×4 conversion under the authority of Ford Motor Company, oversized tires on all aluminum wheels, diamond plate underbody protection, onboard air compressor, GSM (military spec.) house batteries, a 12,000 lb. remote control Warren winch, dual heated seats, all upgraded leather interior, authentic Corian countertops with Moen faucet, custom carbon fiber dash/front door accents, heated holding tanks, tile and carpeted floor, hidden safe, flat screen TV with Bose surround sound, solid maple custom cabinets with black ebony inlay and Winchester 30-30 brass shell casing inlays, custom solid maple back lighted gun rack, 30-30 brass shell casing inlays molded inside stool seat, granite coat shower, integrated and color matched front and rear bumpers, in-dash Sirius satellite radio, eight full-size PIAA lights, custom full body paint with custom airbrushed accents and Winchester logos.
Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV also introduced two new “entry level” models to their lineup: the Chinook Eagle 2100 and the Chinook Maverick 2400. The Eagle was a 21-foot, rear-door unit that utilized the same fiberglass shell design as the Chinook Premier while the Maverick was a 24-foot 4×4 model with a side entrance based off of the Destiny/Cascade mold, making the Chinook brand a full-line Class C manufacturer.
The Eagle and Maverick were marketed as lower cost products that complimented the company’s traditional high end offerings, giving dealers and customers a choice in price and value. According to company representatives, Chinook management felt compelled to add these new models in order to compete with a growing market of Class B+ and Class C RVs that included Coach House, R-Vision Trail-lite, Kodiak, Forest River and Winnebago’s Aspect.
2005 Chinook Maverick 4×4 side entrance model with “dry” bath and shower
The layout was equipped with a dry bath to help bring the coach in at a retail base price of $95,000. The Maverick, which previously featured a wet bath and rear-door floorplan, debuted without fanfare in January. At the September 2005 RV and Camping Show in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Chinook RV rolled out an upgraded version featuring hardwood cabinets, heat pump-equipped roof air conditioning, a larger sofa bed and separate dinette.
“We wanted a coach that was capable of handling a small, younger family of four,” stated John Chelist, eastern region sales manager for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV. “We’ve gone solely with Ford because it gives a better ride and it has a 305-hp V10 engine.”
The company was essentially adopting an old marketing strategy used by the major automakers in Detroit, according to Frank A. Aukofer, a reporter and car reviewer covering the automotive industry for the Scripps Howard News Service.
“The idea is to develop a new (vehicle) and then give it multiple identities. That, as the theory goes, broadens the appeal and results in overall sales,” Aukofer explained. “Think Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan and any number of General Motors models. In the 1980’s GM sold its compact J-Car through all five divisions: Chevolet Cavalier, Pontiac 2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron.”
According to Aukofer, the badge engineering practice fell out of favor in recent years, maybe because consumers wised up and decided they wanted their cars to be distinctive individuals instead of fraternal twins, triplets or even quintuplets.
In hindsight for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV, the move turned out to be a strategic mistake.
Just one year later, faced with a changing recreational vehicle market coupled with skyrocketing production costs, declining real estate values and business deals gone bad, the warning lights were blinking at the family-run business. By early 2005, Trail Wagons, Inc. had suspended production of its Baja model with aftermarket four-wheel drive, and converted its 24-foot Maverick Class C motorhome from the Chevy V-8 Vortec chassis to a Ford E-450 Super Duty chassis, allowing for a new floorplan.
By now, Gary Lukehart had returned to the helm of the company that built the Chinook Concourse he originally designed. He replaced his son Dan as company president, who had failed in attempts to sell the company to investors since January 2005, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.
A high-profile developer who built a Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites in Yakima, Gary Lukehart had announced plans in 2004 for Vineyard’s Gate, an open-air shopping center to be located next to the hotel. One year later as Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV struggled, the land for Vineyard’s Gate was still bare. Lukehart, who also served as chairman of the Yakima Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau was also behind the “Welcome to Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington” sign on Interstate 82 as part of a promotional plan to bring more business into Yakima. One indication that Lukehart was reorganizing his holdings was the sale of his Gateway Center shopping plaza for $17.5 million, according to county property transfer records. However, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV was considered his biggest economic development success because it paid family-wage jobs and appeared to be riding the wave of the RV boom.
Unfortunately, noticeable declines in the overall quality, craftsmanship, attention to detail, and Chinook’s all-important personalized customer service could not be ignored by RV owners.
Sales plummeted virtually overnight. Rumors ran rampant as Chinook RV owners searched for answers that were not forthcoming from company representatives. E-mails were exchanged on the Chinook RV Club discussion boards as some regional managers tried to paint a positive picture of deals in the works to find additional partners to help shore up funding and rescue the company. Eventually, the painful reality set in near the end of 2005 when Trail Wagons, Inc. was forced to cease operations, lay off its staff, liquidate its remaining assets and shutter the recreational vehicle assembly plant and Chinook Business Park in Yakima.
Twin sons of different mothers?: 1992 Mallard Sprint on a Chevy chassis (left) vs. 1994 Chinook Premier on a Ford chassis
Part of the reason for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV closing its doors has been attributed to Dan Lukehart’s mismanagement of the company and ultimately pricing themselves out of the RV market after receiving stiff competition from other manufacturers like Coach House. Two such examples were the Gulfstream BT Cruiser and R-Vision Trail-lite which undercut the Chinook brand by offering amenities like a larger, “dry” bathroom with more interior storage space within the same length vehicle. What also appealed to former and potential Chinook owners were significant cost savings between the BT Cruiser and Concourse – often times at half the price – which justified for some buyers their reasons for putting up with a much more boxier unit and lower quality workmanship.
Some have said Chinook lost its brand “identity” when lower-cost (by Chinook owner’s standards) Premier, Eagle and Maverick models were introduced with standard, squared-off side windows and lower quality wood cabinetry, which diluted the Chinook line and made them look like any of the also-rans that were now flooding the market, such as the virtually identical-looking Mallard Sprint.
Others didn’t particularly care for the wild and outlandish “Millennium”, “Infinity” or “Laser” custom paint schemes, preferring the earlier “Racing stripe” livery. Rumors abounded of a “sweetheart” deal struck between Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV and Coach House, Inc. A few key Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV employees eventually moved from Yakima to join the Nokomis, Florida-based company, which by 2001 had begun manufacturing their own patented one-piece fiberglass shell for the Platinum series of Class C RVs built on the same Ford Econoline E-350 chassis. The company has since followed up with the newer Platinum II models on the diesel-powered Freightliner Sprinter chassis in recent years.
Comparison of the Chinook Concourse in the “Racing Stripe” design (1998-2001) vs. the newer “Millennium/Infinity/Laser” paint schemes (2002-2005)
Whatever the real reasons, Trail Wagons began downsizing in early 2005.
According to court records, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV quit making payments in May, and defaulted on mortgage certificates held by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Capital Inc. in June, still owing $3.6 million in principal plus interest and penalties. A few Ford supplied van conversion chassis were still on the production lot when Trail Wagons-Chinook Properties defaulted on the loan, prompting a judge to remove Gary Lukehart from control in mid-October 2005 and put the company into receivership, according to a story published in the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper.
Wells Fargo Bank was the original lender to Trail Wagons-Chinook Properties, but the loan was later sold to investors. Their trustee, LaSalle Bank National Association of Chicago, sought the receivership to protect their assets. Although the receiver, Inverness Partners of Bend, Oregon took control of the Chinook Business Park on behalf of LaSalle Bank, they didn’t have the authority to liquidate the business because receivership is not bankruptcy. However, according to the judge’s order, it did have direct management control of the property and employees, along with bank accounts and other operations. The $2.4 million balance on the loan received from HUD was expected to be repaid to HUD once the property was sold.
A last ditch effort for the company’s survival by its employees was attempted in a March 7, 2006 letter from office manager Carolyn McMurry to Chinook customers that was obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic. According to lawyers for debtors of the company, a foreclosure sale of the property by then had been set for March 24.
“We have a few other potential buyers, but if something doesn’t happen soon, I am not sure if Chinook can survive,” McMurry wrote in the letter. McMurry said the company, which stopped production the previous year, thought it had a committed buyer in late February but the deal fell through. In contacting Chinook customers, McMurry said the intent “is to get the right individual/individuals to see the true value of the Chinook product and why it is so important to continue this legend.”
The newspaper reported that Chinook RV customers felt they were left in the dark and don’t know whether their warranties for repair work would be honored.
George Poulsen of Arlington, Texas, vice president of membership for the Chinook Camping Club, said in an e-mail: “We’d like to see it once again establish itself as a viable ongoing business to serve us with one of the finest products ever developed for serious campers. Many have felt a bit violated in that no news was provided from the company prior to the receivership. Clearly our faith has been jeopardized as well as our warranties.”
Nevertheless, it was not to be as time ran out for Trail Wagons Inc. on March 31, 2006 when the company was unable to forestall a foreclosure sale of its land and buildings. The property, including a 110,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in two buildings, sold for $2.9 million on the steps of the Yakima County Courthouse. The only bidder was LandAmerica Default Services, a collections firm representing the Chicago-based trustee for the company’s mortgage lender, LaSalle Bank.
Trail Wagons, Inc., which once employed more than 162 people, had numerous judgments against it in Yakima County Superior Court, according to the newspaper.
A former high-level manager of Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV said in filed court documents that he was let go in March 2005, despite the fact the company still owed him money. “The financial demise of Trail Wagons has been a sad and tragic thing for many employees and their families, including my family,” wrote Paul Comisky, former vice president and general manager in a September 2005 letter to an attorney for Mohawk Carpet, one of the creditors at the time. In his letter, Comisky said he used personal funds to make payroll twice in 2004.
The Trail Wagons, Inc. lot at its manufacturing facility, once full of Ford cutaway van chassis, was quickly emptied and the company was “not in an operating mode,” according to Michael Morales, the city of Yakima’s economic and community affairs specialist. However, when contacted by the trade paper RVBusiness.com for a story at approximately the same time as the Yakima Herald-Republic report, an unnamed representative from Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV said “the company is going through a sale and is not in receivership,” declining further comment.
On July 16, 2006, more than 100 people showed up for an opportunity to bid on everything from upholstery to machinery at the defunct Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV plant. The Yakima Herald-Republic reported the bidders included “owners seeking parts for their RVs and others who bought manufacturing equipment for RV businesses,” according to Ron Hannon, an auctioneer for James G. Murphy Inc., the firm which ran the auction for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV. “They are getting bargains,” he said.
Julie Murphy, CFO of the auctioning firm, said she did not know what Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV would do with the auction’s proceeds.
By then, the former creditors for the now-defunct company had filed suit with the U.S. District Court in Yakima against former owners Gary and Mary Lukehart. The Yakima Herald-Republic reported that Ford Credit, a commercial lending division of the Ford Motor Company, was seeking $872,975 plus interest for a loan that financed truck-chassis purchases used on the company’s once-popular Chinook RV production line.
In court papers, Ford Credit said it filed suit after several failed attempts to resolve the situation with the couple.
By January 2007, Gary and Mary Lukehart were able to avoid legal action by making a settlement with their former creditor. According to Mark Watson, a Yakima attorney representing the Dearborn, Michigan company, the Lukeharts agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to Ford Credit. The total loan was for nearly $3.7 million, but was reduced when the company received revenue from the July 2006 liquidation of Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV equipment, tooling and supplies after it had shut down in August 2005. The Chinook recreational vehicle production facility was eventually sold off in mid-2007 and converted into a Coca-Cola distribution center.
In a strange twist of fate, Adventurer Manufacturing Ltd., a truck camper builder, relocated from Abbotsford, British Columbia to Yakima. The company purchased two buildings totaling 70,000 square feet not far from the former site of the now-defunct Western RV Inc. Western RV, a high-end motorhome manufacturer which had partnered with Chinook in the early years, had also been forced to lay off 220 workers after failing a recapitalization effort with Monomoy Capital Partners, L.P. in November 2006. The company wound up shutting down its Union Gap plant for good in April 2007. With Adventurer’s relocation to Yakima, the company was able to hire some of those experienced laborers by the holidays. According to Adventurer, several of its key management personnel previously worked for Western RV and Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV, including:
• Dave Frampton, director of product development and engineering. Frampton has 18 years management and most recently held a similar position with Western RV.
• Jeff Gaskell, director of operations. Gaskell has managed light/medium industrial manufacturing facilities since 1978, with experience in the consumer, commercial, and military fields. He held a similar position during the last eight years with Trail Wagons Inc./Chinook RV.
• Burk Morgan, director of sales and marketing. Morgan has 25 years experience in sales, marketing and customer service to the recreational vehicle industry at both the wholesale and retail level. He most recently served in a similar capacity with Western RV.
• Bill Hahn, director of purchasing and warranty. Hahn has more than 25 years experience providing supply chain management in the residential, manufactured housing, and recreational vehicle industries. He recently held the position of purchasing manager with Trail Wagons Inc./Chinook RV.
Postscript: Old Chinooks refuse to die (or fade away)
Years after the company’s demise, the Chinook RV still remains a recognizable icon on the road today. Numerous variants and model years are still in service and meticulously maintained by their dedicated owners – some of whom have owned more than one over the course of years when they were built.
Chinook’s original commitment to ongoing improvements in quality and innovative engineering, with a strong emphasis on livability and comfort is customer proven years after the company’s closure. The results of those efforts can be seen on roads today with the durability of three generational series of the Chinook 18 Plus and Chinook Concourse, spanning from 1971 to 2006, and considered by many as the ultimate two-person coach that still has few equals today. The same can also be said for the Toyota-Chinook, Chevy BlazerChalet, GMC Jimmy Casa Grande and numerous versions of van conversions built at the former Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV facility in Fairfield, California.
Chinook RVs earned a well-deserved reputation and obtained international recognition as one of the finest manufacturers of mini motorhomes in the world. With the handling of a luxury sedan, performance of a sports car and all the comforts of home, the popular Chinook Concourse class C (Class B+) RV provided less driving fatigue and was ready to enjoy when its owner arrived at their destination. Owners claimed it just fit and feels good to drive – 7’7” wide, 9’11” high, 21’long – and could be parked and driven like a van or sport utility vehicle, except with all the appliances and capacities of larger coaches.
The one-piece molded fiberglass body provided for an aerodynamic design, which equaled better fuel economy, provided less chance for water leaks, was easier to clean and maintain, and was more stable in adverse weather conditions, providing durability, structural integrity and safety that was second to none. The Arctic foam insulation used throughout the floor, walls and ceiling was an innovation at the time, providing for that just right feeling of comfort in either warm or cold climates. According to Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV, it was the right way to ensure proper insulation in an RV. It also offered a limited lifetime guarantee on the Chinook’s molded fiberglass exterior body that included a 3 year/36,000 mile Ford and Chinook warranties and 24-hour roadside assistance to the first-time owner.
Chinook RV celebrated over 40 years of manufacturing quality motorhomes, a respectable achievement in an RV industry undergoing a serious retrenchment as larger name manufacturers continue to file for Chapter 11 protection or cease operations all together. While other company’s recreational vehicles have long left the road and head to salvage yard obscurity, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV provided long-term products with a high resale value enjoyed by owners to the present day. Featuring driver and passenger side air bags, four-wheel antilock brakes – the highest level of safety available in RV’s today – the Chinook class of mini motorhomes fully met all FMVSS, CMVSS,CSA, Ford QVM and RIVA standards.
An iconic late model (1998) Chinook Concourse in Redwood City, Calif.
“Based on the construction of our Chinook’s primary boxes, I think it’s safe to say that without any real new annual entries into the Class C market, over a period of time, the Chinook, Coach House and Isata would be the three primary remaining [quality RVs] still standing. All will sooner or later achieve Corvette Classic status,” stated George H. Poulsen, an ardent Chinook RV owner and supporter who has shared his knowledge with others in the interest of promoting quality Chinook RV adventures.
“I wish I had the cash and the lot to buy up every good condition Chinook available and store them for just a few years. I would possibly have far better sales and service than the new ones, and a lot less value to lose in the long run,” Poulsen added. “Kind of like the ‘Previously-owned programs’ of Lexus. Besides, all of us who bought them new have served to capitalize the long-term assurance of value for our own little industry.”
There are currently two active Chinook RV “clubs” in existence. Both actively sponsor a discussion board, hold annual rallys for Chinook RV owners and publish quarterly newsletters for their members: The East Coast-based Chinook Camping Club featuring the “Trailblazer” newsletter, and the West Coast-based Chinook RV Club which offers “The Roadrunner” newsletter. Discussion boards supported by current owners of the Toyota-Chinook, Chevy Blazer Chalet and GMC Jimmy Casa Grande continue to thrive today.
And yet, there was a persistent report the Chinook RV line could be reborn once again…
In a February 2011 phone conversation with the now 75-year-old Gary Lukehart, the original manufacturing jigs and equipment are being kept in storage on his ranch in Yakima, “until a time when the economy may improve and someone may decide to make an investment to bring Chinook back.”
Only time would tell…
BREAKING NEWS: The rebirth of a legend (aka “The RV with Nine Lives”)
During the early evening hours of Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, the “RV blogosphere” came alive with a flurry of short, cryptic messages on Yahoo! Group’s Chinook RV Owners forum and discussion board.
According to Chinook owner Dave Shehane of West Linn, Oregon, Phil Rizzio. owner of Wagon Trail RV in Las Vegas, Nevada and Creston RV in Kalispell, Montana, purchased “the rights, plans, fixtures, etc.” – essentially, everything left from the old Trailwagons Inc./Chinook RV operation in Yakima, Washington – and is planning to restart production. Mr. Rizzio’s general manager is John Chelist, a former national sales representative for Trailwagons/Chinook and Pleasure-Way before becoming general manager of Van City in St. Louis.
Speculative talk of a new Chinook RV production line opening could occur as early as summer 2013. The first new models were expected to be built on Ford’s commercial van cutaway Econoline E-450 Super Duty chassis, to be possibly followed later next year on the new Ford Transit chassis.
Ford’s Transit commercial van, originally a European design, is the big brother of an emerging family of commercial vans – not to be confused with the Transit Connect Wagon and Transit Connect Van, which are smaller, lighter-duty people- and cargo-movers. The new vehicle was developed by Ford as part of a new generation of global Transit vans under the company’s “One Ford” product strategy for sale in Europe, North America and other world markets.
The first full-size Transits began rolling off Ford’s Claycomo assembly plant in Kansas City, Missouri after undergoing a $1.1 billion remodel to build the new platform alongside the popular F-150 truck line. They were introduced to the North American market in four model configurations, three roof heights, three body lengths and two wheelbases.
Ford’s new Transit platforms feature a 25 percent increase in fuel economy through a choice of alternative fuel capability (CNG or LPG) and three engine selections: the standard 3.7-liter V-6, the same 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine proven in the Ford F-150 truck line and an all-new, in-line five cylinder, 3.2-liter Power Stroke Diesel option. The Transit went on sale in fall 2014, with the intent of replacing the company’s famed Econoline E-Series nameplate that was first built in 1961. Ford planned to discontinue the E series van in 2014 or 2015 but will continue making the Commercial E Series cutaway chassis.
Although no official statement was made regarding support of existing Chinook RV models built on the Ford E-Series, Chevy C30 or even Toyota light truck platforms, further details were promised to be forthcoming as to when and where the phoenix-like rebirth of the legendary RV will take place.
The following afternoon, a new posting hit the Chinook RV discussion board, considered an official confirmation of the rumored good news:
Re: New Chinook Company! Mon Jan 28, 2013 4:09 pm (PST) Posted by: “Wagon Trail RV” chinookmotorcoach
“To all please forgive me for not posting yet we have been extremely busy at the dealership today. I have two thriving dealerships and at times we just don’t have enough personnel to go around. Please feel free to see what it is we do at our websites below. We are one of the few that only specialize in Class B RVs.
I know this is extremely shocking and exciting news for everyone and we will get you up to speed I promise.
We too are chomping at the bit, but it will take time to get everything in order to get production going, however we have the most important part accomplished. The purchase from Trail Wagons is complete to include the Name, molds, drawings and templates.
This in itself has been a chore to organize and get resolved. So now we can look forward to the next steps of getting a plant ready and scheduled to open. We have not decided on a location positively yet but we have two locations that are looking very promising.
I thank everyone for their interest and support of the finest RV resurrection to come. We are very excited and cannot wait to say we are ready to take orders. This is all just getting off the ground so keep checking in and we will keep you updated as we get closer to settling in our new plant.”
Phil R. Wagon Trail RV
As of September 2013, the new venture began moving ahead. The first prototype of an improved Glacier model, came off the production line in December. Expected next would be a Concourse, followed by an all-new 24 foot model on a Mercedes chassis.
The new Chinook was reportedly built at the Country Coach plant in Junction City, Oregon near Eugene via a joint agreement between Wagon Trail RV and Country Coach as it returns from corporate bankruptcy. Ron Lee, president/CEO and original founder of Country Coach Corporation took over the bankrupt assets with a core team of employees with over 400 years of Country Coach history, experience and tribal knowledge. It is presently in the parts and upgrade business for their prior coaches. Trail Wagon RV projected to start taking orders on the all-new Chinook line by the beginning of 2014.
A sneak peek at the “New & Improved” Chinook
On March 29, 2014, John Chelist, former national sales representative with Trailwagons, Inc. and general manager of Wagon Trail RV, visited the West coast Chinook RV Club’s annual rally at Pahrump, Nevada to show off a prototype of the first Chinook built after a nine-year hiatus. Reportedly built at the Country Coach Corporation’s facility in Junction City, Oregon, the prototype is an upgraded and refreshed version of the 25-foot Glacier, utilizing the original fiberglass molds by Trailwagons on the latest Ford E-450 commercial van cutaway chassis.
As with any prototype, not all features and/or equipment have been finalized. Wagon Trail RV intends to show the vehicle over the next several months to get feedback from current Chinook owners and potential customers to learn what items need to be “tweaked” before going into full production. Some items have already been identified (i.e., corrected Chinook brand name font, dining table too long, awning should be full length, television should be name brand, cabinets above the sofa need to open with slide closed, etc.). All in all, however, the initial reaction from current Chinook owners is the prototype is a stunning resurrection of the fabled “sports car of motor homes.”
“The finishes are in line with Chinook quality,” stated Dave Shehane, moderator of the Chinook RV Owners discussion board. “The new windows are beautiful, the upgraded electronics and technology are nicely incorporated, the LED lighting is superb, and myriad of large and small improvements are impressive.”
According to Chelist, Wagon Trail RV hopes to build as many as 35 Glaciers in the first full production year while also beginning work on the first Concourse prototype, possibly on the E-450 chassis. Pricing for the Glacier model has not yet been established, but is probably in the $200,000 range. Chelist also reported the mileage he achieved driving the prototype from Oregon to Nevada was around 12.5 MPG – which, if that holds true, is a significant improvement in Ford’s new 360 hp V-10 engine. The company is also expecting great performance from the planned “liquid spring” suspension, which will be incorporated on all follow-on units.
To see a slideshow of the prototype Chinook Glacier, visit the New Chinook Photo Gallery
Surprise! Chinook RV pulls a switcheroo, introduces the 2016 Countryside
“The legacy that is Chinook RV, is reborn! Chinook RV is all about top quality craftsmanship, luxurious details, and the most innovative technology on the market. All of this combined truly defines Chinook RV as a luxury brand in the RV industry and at the top of its class. The brand new Countryside unites quality and precision craftsmanship perfectly with today’s most innovative technologies to bring you luxury, comfort, and style all in one.”
So starts the opening line of the new Chinook RV website introducing the first, all-new, production model “Countryside” Class B for 2016. Built under contract with luxury van upfitter Midwest Automotive Designs, LLC in Elkhart, Indiana on a Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter chassis and measuring 24 feet in length, the Chinook Countryside features five different floor plans with six choices of wood finishes.
Unfortunately, the effort to bring back the classic one-piece fiberglass Chinook motorhome was put aside for the time being.
As previously alerted to owners by Chinook RV Club (West Coast) president Dave Shehane in the April 2015 issue of the club newsletter, The Roadrunner, Wagon Trail RV started a new initiative to introduce a new custom “Class B” coach built on the narrow Sprinter chassis by a custom coach operation in Elkhart, Indiana with the Chinook name. The next follow-on development will be a “B-Plus” on a wide body Sprinter Chassis. Time will once again have to wait for the famed one-piece fiberglass bodied coaches to be back on the market, although the Class B and B-Plus models appear to be going back to the Chinook’s roots and starting over.
With only two models of the Countryside rolled out so far in Kalispell, Montana – one in Jet Black, the other Metallic Silver – reaction on the Chinook RV Owners forum was almost immediate, and somewhat negative:
“Too bad. Like all the other Sprinter’esque types. Duallys, nice, but it all looks the same as all the Sprinters.”
“Not exactly a revolutionary design. In fact, if I were to buy a Sprinter rv, I’d be looking at one of the Canadian companies first. Except–none of them have what I like about our Concourse; that is, the layout and features of the galley, the extra width, the rear entry, the compact, easy to drive size.”
“…a Chinook in name only. That is disappointing.”
“Sorry, I don’t like it. Too cold and uninviting for me and very cramped. I guess I am truly spoiled with our Glacier.”
“It looks cramped and has none of the greatness of the Trail Wagons design.”
The company is simply trying to cash in on the Chinook name. They are not offering anything different then you can buy from many other companies offering that same design on the same chassis. They can call it a Chinook, but it does not make it a Chinook. I have a Ferrari…It is actually a Mustang, but I call it a Ferrari.“
$1,073 for a rear screen door???? Only a 2.5 LPG generator, will that barely run the AC? Hope they only made the two.
“The RV equivalent of the October 1929 Variety headline: ‘Wall Street lays an Egg’…” (a reference to the Stock market crash that signaled the beginning of The Great Depression)
On Sept. 8, 2015, John Chelist, general manager of Wagon Trail RV and a former employee of the original Trailwagons/Chinook RV company, addressed some of the negative feedback via the Chinook RV Owners discussion group:
”…I understand a lot of you have concerns about the new Chinook. Well I’m here to tell you that this has been a major undertaking and we have been working very hard on the re-launch of the company. We did switch gears a bit with coming out with a new class “B” instead of the B+ first, but we fully intend to have a new Chinook B+ back into the market soon and are working on it diligently.
Not sure if most of you are aware, but Ford is discontinuing the E-series of vans, the chassis that all of the old Chinook’s were built on. No other cut-away chassis in the market is heavy enough to handle the load of what a Chinook weighs. So we thought of diversifying and offering a B and a B+, and get back into the market place now.
We understand the B van model is not for everyone (just like a B owner wouldn’t choose a B+), but feel that we are going to make a big splash with a van that is truly a Chinook caliber vehicle. Offering things that other companies don’t quite hit the mark on, like three a/c units as a standard, and etc.
So please stay tuned, as there are big plans on the drawing board for the new Chinook’s, and this is just the beginning!“
A follow-up posting by John Chelist on Sept. 9 attempted to clear up a few misunderstandings some Chinook owners had against the Sprinter-based Countryside model.
”…First off, a lot of you have made comments about boondocking. Our new Chinook has a 3000 watt inverter system which will allow you to run your convection microwave, and your optional induction cooktop off the batteries. Perfect for boondocking! No noisy generators, although you do have a generator if you need it as well as standard solar. The induction cooktop is just an option we offered. A propane cooktop is standard. We just hear from a lot of customers that they don’t want to fuss or get scared of propane.
Second, we are offering a variety of floor plans. Six for now actually, with an additional 6-8 to be available shortly. Making us stand out from all the other company by offering you more choices to fit your needs. Some floor plans are designed to be more of a luxury travel van. While others are geared to be the best two person camper on the road.
Thirdly, we know a lot of you travel with your pets. That is why we offered the van with three air conditioners standard. No one else in the industry does that in a b van. You have your dash air, regular roof mounted AC, and also a 60,000 BTU 12 volt air and heat system. All of our vans will also come with high idle feature so you can leave your van run for hours and keep the pets safe. We can even offer you a camera inside the van. so when you are out shopping, dining, hiking or whatever it may be, you can check in on your pets. Again, an option nobody offers.
Fourth, we will be, and already have, built a B+! We are simply trying to expand our market. Yes, we will be building fiberglass. Yes we will use Mercedes, Ford, Chevy, and who knows what else in the future. Our goal is to offer, you the customer, a variety of units, floor plans, chassis’ and options to fit your needs, wants, and desires.
These are very exciting times for us and hopefully you as well. The re-birth of Chinook only strengthens the value of your older ones.
We do appreciate all of your comments and concerns. The good ones and bad ones. Although I have to say I was a bit surprised to have a few awfully negative comments that seemed to want us to fail miserably and die. I honestly will say I didn’t appreciate that. If you really step back and think about it, the re-birth of Chinook is good for all of you owners, not just for us.
Thank you to all the Chinook loyalists out there.“
“To Be Continued”…
Only the passage of time and customer interest will tell if the rebirth of the Chinook RV line is a success or failure. The first positive indications came in February 2016 with favorable report in RV Pro, a professional RV trade magazine. Chinook RV then took to the road in September to officially debut the 2016 Countryside and Bayside models – along with the prototype Chinook Glacier – at America’s Largest RV Show at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
This was immediately followed up in October with the Recreational Vehicle Industry of America (RVIA)’s longest running California RV show at the Pomona Fairplex.
On Nov. 10, 2016, after more than two-and-a-half years in the making, a “Grand Reopening” marked Wagon Trail RV’s expansion to a new 10,000-square-foot sales and service facility, located across the street from its original location in Las Vegas, Nevada. The new facility sits on three acres once occupied by a bus depot near McCarran International Airport. It features separate sales and service areas with five, 50-foot service bays, plus an outdoor sales lot and room to hold small rallies. An outdoor kitchen and barbecue area to the side includes plans to turn a corner of the lot –- which has large palm trees on either side acting as columns -– into a special red-carpet area for customers to receive their newly purchased vehicles upon delivery.
Another sign of the changing times for Chinook RV came in a July 12, 2017 story appearing in the Elkhart Truth newspaper, which reported Phil Rizzio, owner of Chinook RV was setting up shop in Elkhart County, Indiana – the heart of the RV manufacturing industry in the U.S.
Melanie Shawa, communications manager for Chinook RV, announced the company had purchased a 61,800 square-foot facility located in Baugo Township, and that minor work had begun on cleaning up the facility in preparation for future renovations by investing nearly $2.5 million to potentially create 207 jobs.
“I have no idea when we might move into the facility. We are currently dealing with getting licenses to operate the business in Indiana,” Shawa stated to reporter Ben Quiggle.
In a June 2017 Elkhart County Council meeting, Mark Dobson, president of Elkhart County’s Economic Development Corporation, reported Chinook RV was looking at Elkhart as a “potential manufacturing location,” along with a few other states. He would not comment further on the development, stating there were still steps in the process before other details could be revealed. What was known was Phil Rizzio, as owner of Chinook RV, had been very active in the Elkhart RV community and approached the council about securing a nine-year tax abatement, which would allow the company to phase-in property tax payments through 2026. According to tax abatement documents given to the council, the company looked to invest $1.4 million in new manufacturing equipment and $160,000 in new information technology equipment.
Chinook RV invested $930,000 in real estate improvements to their facility and estimates the 207 new positions will equate to around $13.8 million in annual wages. Dobson pointed out state funding could come into play, but the state of Indiana would wait for the county to take the first step with a tax abatement before approving any tax breaks or additional funding for the project.
As reported by David MacNeal in the June 2017 issue of RV Pro magazine:
”…When Phil Rizzio purchased the rights to Chinook in 2013, it was with the caveat that he’d restore the company’s Glacier and Concourse models to their former glory. Rizzio promised Gary Lukehart, the company’s former owner, to reignite the nostalgia of those units, restoring the zeal Chinook’s Class B’s once evoked. After long negotiations, Rizzio received Lukehart’s blessings as well as the fiberglass molds for the Concourse and Glacier. Lukehart was pleased to see the prototypes roll out, and gave his thumbs up. “We’ll make it the best it’s ever been, further enhancing what his vision was,” says Rizzio. “That’s one of my big motivations. Lukehart didn’t want to turn the project over to just anybody. He was very adamant that Chinook was never coming back…”
According to RV Pro magazine, production on the new legacy Chinook class B+’s on the Ford Econoline E-450 Super Duty chassis is slated to be underway with the goal of 300 Glaciers and Concourses a year in addition to 300 Class B’s on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis currently being produced.
Drawing on the past to build upon its future
According to the company’s media kit, Chinook RV has united the historic signature quality of past Chinook products with 21st century technology. Built on the Mercedes Benz Sprinter chassis, Chinook Class B Vans redefine opulence by making luxury features standard. Each motorcoach combines innovative, eco-friendly, BlueTEC technology and safety with Mercedes Benz style, world-class performance, and unparalleled design.
Chinook is now placing its quality stamp on the towable market through acquisition of Riverside Travel Trailers in Fall 2018. Their RPM toy haulers are the most rugged and durable products in its class and the DREAM travel trailers are the quality alternative to the entry level towable market.
In March 2019, Chinook debuted the Trail Wagon, a fully bonded automotive style constructed toy hauler that combines the amenities of a luxurious Trail Suite for friends and family with the ability to haul your family fun off-road vehicles and cargo.
The legend continues…
Models and Years built
Chinook Custom Pickup Camp Coach
Chinook Cayuse slide-in truck camper
Chinook 1400 Chassis Mount
Chinook Mobilodge 2200
Chinook Mobilodge 2500 Vista or 2500 Brougham
Chinook Dodge Maxi-Van
Chinook Chevy Trail Wagon
TrailWagons Chinook M-18 PLUS
TrailWagons Chinook M-2000
Toyota Chinook Round Tripper, Gazelle or MPG “Pop Top”
Toyota Chinook MPG “Pop Top”
Chinook Fifth Wheeler travel trailer
Chinook Western Futura
Chinook International Constellation
Toyota Chinook Newport
Toyota Chinook Omega
GM-Chevrolet Blazer Chalet
GMC-Jimmy Casa Grande
Trail Wagons Chinook M-17
Trail Wagons Chinook M-18 PLUS
Trail Wagons Chinook M-19
Trail Wagons Chinook M-2000
Concourse 18 Plus -Chevy
Concourse 18 Plus -Ford
Buccaneer -Chevy, GMC, Dodge, Ford
Clipper -Chevy, GMC Dodge, Ford
Cruiser -Chevy, GMC, Dodge, Ford
Runabout -Chevy, GMC, Dodge, Ford
Voyager I, II – Dodge, Ford
Buccaneer Saver Package
Travel Van Saver Package
* Cascade LE
Summit SS Diesel
Chinook Glacier (Prototype)
Chinook RPM toy hauler
Chinook Dream Travel Trailer
Chinook Trail Wagon toy hauler
Typical ‘legacy” Specs
Manufacturer. . . Chinook/Trail Wagons Inc., 607 E. “R” St., Yakima, WA 98901; (800) 552-8886, (509) 248-9026, fax: (509) 248-9054; http://www.chinookrvs.com
Model . . . Concourse
Floor plan . . . Rear Door Entry in Dinette, Club Lounge or Twin Sofa Beds; Side Door Entry in Dinette or Twin bed Sofa configuration
Chassis . . . Ford E-350 Super Duty (with optional Quigley 4×4 package)
Engine . . . V-10 Triton (with optional Banks Powerpack Exhaust system)
Transmission . . . four-speed addition (with optional Banks TransCommand module)
Axle ratio . . . 4.10:1 with limited slip
Tires . . . LT225/75 R16 all-terrain (studded optional)
Wheelbase . . . 138 inches
Brakes . . . four-wheel antilock disc
Suspension . . . Ford with ipd, MOR/ryde, and Quigley 4×4 upgrades
Alternator . . . 130 amps, heavy-duty
Batteries . . . chassis – (2) Group 27 auxiliary, 220 amps
Steering . . . power
Electrical service . . . 35 amps with 45-amp charger
Auxiliary generator . . . 4-kilowatt Onan MicroQuiet, gasoline-powered
Exterior length . . . 21 feet
Exterior width . . . 7 feet 7 inches
Interior height . . . 6 feet 5 inches
Exterior height . . . 11 feet 2 inches with tubular rack
Gross combination weight rating (GCWR) . . . 19,200 pounds
Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) . . . 12,500 pounds
Gross axle weight rating (GAWR) . . . prototype – unavailable
Wet weight (no water, quarter tank of fuel) . . . front axle – 3,680 pounds; rear axle – 6,860 pounds; total – 10,560 pounds
Payload . . . 1,940 pounds
Frame construction . . . full frame chassis with molded uni-body fiberglass
Insulation . . . Arctic foam, blown in
Fresh water capacity . . . 32 gallons
Holding tank capacities . . . gray water – 36 gallons; black water – 17 gallons
Fuel capacity . . . 37 gallons; 17 gallons auxiliary
Fuel requirements . . . Unleaded 87 octane gasoline
Propane capacity . . . 19 gallons
Water heater . . . 6-gallon LP-gas with electric start
Water system . . . demand
Heating system . . . 16,000-BTU LP-gas furnace, 8,500-Btu heat pump, Nu-Heat in-floor heat
Air conditioner . . . 13,500-BTU with Dometic heat pump
Refrigerator . . . Dometic three-way 6-cubic-foot double-door
Toilet . . . China bowl, marine
Warranty . . . chassis – 3 years/36,000 miles; coach – 3 years/36,000 miles; shell – lifetime
Base suggested retail price . . . $74,375 (2000 model year)
Rear Door Dinette
Rear Door Club Lounge
Rear Door Twin Bed Sofa
Side Entrance Dinette
Side Entrance Club Lounge
Side Entrance Slide out
Comfort & Livability
Deluxe reclining driver and passenger captain chairs
Wall-to-wall carpet with Rebond pad including driver compartment
Cab area privacy drape/rear door drape
Day/night fabric shades
Decorative hardwood valances with indirect lighting
Sofa sleeper with under-bed storage
Deluxe Dark Oak cabinets with hardwood raised-panel doors
Overhead florescent lighting
Lighted interior cabinets
3-way (110/12V/LPG) double-door 6′ flush-mount refrigerator
3-burner cook top
Recirculating power range hood with light and fan
Double-bowl sink with covers
Hardwood cutting board
Hardwood drawers with deluxe roller slides
Tip-out sink storage
Fiberglass shower wet-bath with sink
Marine-style toilet with spray wand
Covered toilet paper holder
Power roof vent with light
Water saver shower head
Carpeted Floor mat
Convenience & Safety
Entrance door with window, screen door and deadbolt lock
Lighted entrance grab handle
LP gas detector
Hardwood magazine rack
Mag-Lite flashlight with brackets
Towel racks with towel
Three double coat hooks (one inside closet)
Cedar clothes hangers
Molded fiberglass overhead console with switch cluster
Note pad holder
2-bottle wine rack/opener (Club Lounge model only)
110V night light
First one-piece, fiberglass body
Artic Foam insulation
Chinook “Glamour” shots
1996 Chinook Concourse SE (Side Entrance) in Visalia, Calif. and 1999 Chinook Concourse 2100XL in San Diego, Calif.
2001 Chinook Destiny 2400 in Napa, Calif. and 2003 Chinook Destiny 2400 in Santa Clara, Calif.
Chinook Clubs, Owner’s discussion boards and Promotional videos
* Chinook RV Club – Official, co-located home page for Chinook Camping Club (East Coast), and Chinook RV Club (West Coast)
* Chinook RV Forum – Relatively new forum for Chinook RV owners to discuss various topics associated with the Chinook RV.
* Chinook Travel Blog – Brand new blogsite sorted in an organized fashion. Details travels to a specific state that can be searched by members interested in going straight to info on that location.
* Chinook Camping Club Facebook page – A “restricted access” Facebook page for members of the Chinook Camping Club only. If you are a member and would like to join, submit a request for approval to be added to the group.
*The Chinook: Adventures in subsistence – A self-produced and self-funded (and sometimes tongue-in-cheek) video series of a Toyota Chinook owner Paul Marino, copyrighted through Screen Writers Guild.
* BlazerChalet.com – Official website for owners and enthusiasts of the GM-Chevrolet Chinook Chalet or GMC-Jimmy Chinook Casa Grande “pop-up” camper
* ChinookRVOwners discussion group – Newer Chinook discussion board; Requires registration and approval (to deter “spamming”)
* ChinookRVs discussion group – Older (since 2004) and original Chinook discussion board; In process of being phased out in favor of above listed ChinookRVOwners discussion group (CAUTION: Contains “spam” postings from porn sites)
* Toyota Chinook discussion group – Very large and active group and discussion board on Toyota Chinook Gazelle or MPG “pop-up” campers and the Toyota Chinook Newport or Omega mini-motorhomes from 1973-1978 model years
* Chevy K5 Blazer Chalets / GMC Jimmy Casa Grande discussion group – Discussion forum for owners and enthusiasts of the GM-Chevrolet Chinook Chalet or GMC-Jimmy Chinook Casa Grande
* Chinook Recreation Vehicle promotional video – A professionally produced marketing video on the Chinook RV
* Chinook RV across the USA – A private Chinook Concourse owners’ travelogue detailing a 1996 cross-country trip from Oakland, CA to Richmond, VA
* 1976 Dodge Chinook motorhome in southern Utah
* 2004 Chinook Concourse start up and walk around
* 2004 Chinook Concourse start up and drive
* Touring a 2005 Chinook Concourse
* Toyota Chinook restoration project
* Crankin’ the Toyota Chinook Camper
* 1977 Chevy Blazer Chalet
“Chinooks for Sale” websites
* Chinook RVs.com – Current listing of used Chinook Trailers and Chinook RVs (A service of RVUSA.com)
* SearchTempest.com – A search engine that scans for all available Chinooks currently listed for sale on Craigslist and eBay
* RVT.com – Current listing of used Chinooks for sale on RVT.com
* RVTraderOnline.com – Current listing of used Chinooks for sale on RVTraderOnline.com
* RVSearch.com – Current listing of used Chinooks for sale on RVSearch.com
* 1979 Dodge Chinook 18 Plus
* 2000 Chinook Concourse 2100XL
* 2001 Chinook Concourse 2100XL
* 2002 Chinook Destiny 2400
* 2003 Chinook Destiny 2400
* 2003 Chinook Destiny 2400
* 2004 Chinook Premiere 2100
* 2005 Chinook Glacier LE Diesel
* 2005 Chinook Glacier Diesel
* 2004 Chinook Summit 2700
* 2005 Chinook Summit 2700
* 2002 Chinook Baja 4×4 One Owner
Partial listing of current Chinook owners, location, year, model and type
* Joanna Brewster – 2004 Chinook Glacier LE 2500
* Brian Cerwin – 2004 Chinook Glacier 2500
* Pam Cooper – 2003 Chinook Destiny XL
* Kent Eskam – 2005 Chinook Concourse
* R Ferreira – 2003 Chinook Destiny 2400
* John Guerrero – 2004 Chinook Concourse 2100
* John Murphy – 2005 Chinook Concourse XL
* Nick Sarmiento – 1999 Chinook Premier
* Jim Spellman – 1999 Chinook Concourse 2100XL
* Larry Vice – 1969 Chinook Mobilodge Dodge
* Danny Williams – 2005 Chinook Glacier 2500
* Bill & Danielle Miller – 1997 Chinook Concourse
* Charlie Woodruff – 2004 Chinook Premier
* Mike Boring – 2005 Chinook Glacier 2500 LE
* Stuart and Julie Kollas – 1994 Chinook Premier
* David Perez – 2004 Chinook Concourse
* Dave Shehane – 2004 Chinook Glacier 2500LE GL-150
* Andy Combs – 1977 Toyota Chinook
* Sal Lazzara – 2000 Chinook Premier
Chinook RV Resources & Personal owner’s websites
* Sierra Truck & Van (Formerly Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV Van Conversions) 225 Lopes Road, Fairfield, CA 94534 Tel: (707) 864-1064 Fax: (707) 864-4383 Contact: Hugh Lukehart or Tim Lukehart – Truck and van accessory showroom and factory-direct Weatherguard outlet facility that is family-owned and operated by Hugh and Tim Lukehart, nephews of Chinook designer Gary Lukehart and cousins of former Chinook president Dan Lukehart. Offers a large selection of appearance and performance parts for trucks, vans, or SUVs from manufacturers including Westin, Drawtite, Valley, Yakima, PIAA, and more. Also carries Eagle brand utility trailers. Visit their Blog
* Aubreys RV Center Inc. 2010 Landon Ave., Union Gap, WA 98903 Tel: (509) 453-4709 Contact: Carolyn Gefre – A Yakima, Washington area-based RV parts and service center with a limited supply of hard-to-find replacement components for Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RVs which were acquired after the company closed its doors in 2005; Original owner Aubrey Reeves worked as a line foreman for Chinook Mobilodge Company before starting his RV repair center in the mid-1960s.
* JR Products 9680 County Rd, Clarence Center, NY 14032 Tel: 800-269-7622 – JR Products has been in business since 1970 as manufacturer and distributor of a wide variety of products for the RVDA RV Dealers Marketplace including including: Switches, Electrical Hatches, Water Hatches, Flanges & Dishes, Fuel Hatches, Multi-Purpose Hatches, Phone & Cable Plates, A large assortment of Exterior Hardware, Exterior Showers, Tub & Sink Strainers, Awning Accessories, Camping Accessories, a large assortment of Towing Pins, and much more.
* Makarios RV 2001 S. Memorial Drive – Suite D, New Castle, IN 47362 Tel: 888-340-7837 – Hours 9:00 am – 5:00 pm EST, CST, MST – The online partner for JR Products, including the elusive ID Tags for external hatches on the Chinook RV. As long as you provide Makarios RV with the correct JR Products part number, they can order you any JR product.
* Toyota Motorhomes – Website featuring rebuilt Toyota Chinooks
* Toyota Motorhome Rear Axle FAQs – Frequently asked questions concerning rear axle problems with early model motorhomes built on the Toyota mini-pickup chassis
* “The Dog Mobiles” – Personal profile of a 1976 Toyota Chinook (aka “Little Chinook”)
* “The Chinook Diaries” – Step-by-step restoration of a 1978 Chinook Western Futura on Dodge chassis
* 1978 Toyota Chinook Newport motorhome
* “The parallel universe of the Wrybread Chinook” – Personal page on restoration of a 1973 Chinook 18 Plus
* Chinook Recreational Vehicle – Company promotional video from 1997 featuring the Chinook Concourse and Premier models, including rare, behind-the-scene segments showcasing construction of a typical Chinook RV at the TrailWagons facility in Yakima, WA.
* Chinookers Journey – Meanderings in a 21′ Chinook Premier RV
* To simplify… one man’s pursuit of happiness through simple & mobile living – Personal blog of Glenn, a 40-something professional musician (composer, arranger, orchestrator and saxophonist) who once lived full-time on the road in a 2004 Chinook Concourse before downsizing to a modified Volkswagen Vanagon.
* FLTLNDR™: THE CHINOOK MOTORHOME – FLTLNDR™ is a “Captain’s Blog” about a personal Chinook obsession.
* Clay’s Retirement Blog: Chinook Concourse RV – Sharing interests and experiences in renovating and upgrading a 2000 Chinook Concourse.
* “How much do Chinook RVs generally cost?” – Reference.com Q&As on the Chinook RV.
* The Chinook Motorhome by Trail Wagons – Blog site featuring links to various models of the iconic sports car of motorhomes.
* Sargent Schutt Photography – Professional glamour shots of a Chinook Concourse 2100XL 4×4 turbo diesel RV.
Chinook reviews profiled in trade magazines
* “Chinook RV officially lands Elkhart facility” – July 12, 2017 RV Pro magazine article
* “Wagon Trail RV gets high-end dealership” – March 24, 2017 RV Pro magazine article
* “Wagon Trail RV ready to open new Las Vegas location” – Nov. 11, 2016 RV Pro magazine article
* “Chinook Brand Returns at PRVCA’s Hershey Show” – September 2016 RV Business news article on the Chinook RV’s return to dealer lots
* “Chinook RV Gets Rolling Again” – February 2016 RV Pro magazine article
* “For $4,000, Don’t Be a Schnook, Buy A Chinook!” – April 2014 writeup on the Toyota Chinook mini motorhome
* Hemmings Motor News magazine – April 2009 review of Chinook Chalet and Chinook Casa Grande for Chevy K5 Blazer and GMC Jimmy 4×4 shortbed trucks
* Family Motor Coach Association magazine – 2005 review of Chinook Glacier 2500
* MotorHome magazine – July 2000 Feature Review: Chinook Baja 4×4
* Quigley Motor Company/Family Motor Coaching – July 2000 issue: “The Roadworthy Concourse Baja”