Nigel Donnelly

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The 2015 Winnebago Tribute is a motorhome to fall in love with, says Nigel Donnelly, fresh from a trip to Kentucky, so why aren’t there more of them?

In the car market, one way to ensure strong sales is to make people love the product. Thing is, that takes time to achieve. Love for something like a car comes over time, with good memories, reliability and other positive association. One way for a manufacturer to short circuit that is by introducing something unashamedly retro. 

In the car market, the most obvious examples are the BMW Mini, Fiat 500 and the Volkswagen Beetle. In all cases, the manufacturers concerned have hoovered up all the positive regard and romance associated with older vehicles and transferred it to new ones. All three of those cars sell very well, and with the various options for personalising them, with bright colours, stripes and so on, they are often pretty expensive too. But customers are happier to pay more for something they have fallen in love with. 

I was recently at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, and one of the most striking vehicles to be found anywhere among the 727,849sq feet of exhibition space is the 2015 Winnebago Tribute. 

Students of the RV market may remember the vehicle which inspired this unashamedly retro bit of design. It is based on the iconic Winnebago ‘Flying Dubya’ models of the 1960s and 70s, so called because of the large ‘W’ motifs on the flanks. 

The new Winnebago Tribute borrows the slabby styling of the original ‘Brave’. Back when the Brave was current, the styling was conceived out of necessity, with the large expanses of flat aluminium, the simple radiator grill and flat windscreen glasses all making it cost effective and easier to produce. The pronounced prow above the windscreen and stubby nose are very distinctive styling cues, along with those striking side graphics. 

Sat in the middle of the Winnebago stand, the Tribute looks amazing. The halls at Louisville are filled with all manner of A-class motorhomes, but what is striking is how derivative the looks are. They are all huge, dressed up with chrome detailing, often in black or silver but look hard, and many of them are hard to tell apart. 

The Tribute looks like nothing else, and the numbers of people crawling all over it suggest interest among dealers at least is set to be strong. It is available in five colours, all distinctly period treatments with suitably dreamy names such as ‘Bell Bottom Blue’ and ‘Crimson ‘n Clover’ while the interior treatments are thematically consistent.

Sadly, it’s doubtful that any Tributes will make it to Europe, if only due to the practicalities of running a 362hp 6.8-litre V10 petrol motorhome without the support of the £1.50 per gallon fuel prices which predominate in the US. That’s not to say some of the thinking which brought the Tribute to market could not translate to European markets. 

Genuinely iconic designs are perhaps a little thin on the ground, but certainly some brown and gold Hymers, or reimagined Auto-Sleeper monocoques might be interesting to consider. Perhaps a more affordable, less risky strategy for manufacturers, however, might be to take a look at how the car manufacturers add personalisation options to vehicles, without adding complication to the manufacturing processes. Vinyl decals, more distinctive interior treatments and some bolder colour options might be the difference between a customer choosing one 'van over another at the vital moment. 

That so many homes have been found for cute Danbury T2 conversions, despite them being a handful to drive and cramped suggests it is very possible to make customers fall in love with a motorhome or camper. Those Danbury customers often personalise the vehicles to get exactly what they want, and pay for the privilege. In essence, that is what Fiat 500 customers do too, agonising over whether to go for Countrypolitan Yellow or Pasodoble Red, which decals and so on, to get exactly what they want. And getting exactly what they want is frequently more important than the ticket price. Both the T2 and the Fiat 500 are poorer to drive than the best rivals. But owners love them.  

While building all new motorhome models based on retro designs is too risky and impractical for manufacturers to seriously consider, working out affordable, simple ways to liven up the appearance and appeal of modern motorhomes by making them easier to fall in love with could well pay dividends. 

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