‘YOU’RE GOING TO Louisville? What for? You won’t learn anything over there’
This was a common reaction when I explained to people that I was heading to the RVIA National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky.
RVIA stands for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association and its trade-only event is used by American RV dealers to choose which motorhomes and travel trailers (caravans to you and I) to stock for the coming season. And if, like me, you wanted a crash course in the US leisure market, it is a great place to start.
[tl:gallery size=459×341]RVIA Trade show in Louisville, Kentucky is a fixture in the US trade calender
Thing is that European manufacturers are, on the quiet, pretty sniffy about US-built leisure vehicles. Generally, the trailers are thought to be heavy, badly built, old fashioned and crudely engineered. They are, however, well-equipped and affordable. Parking the preconceptions of everyone else to one side, I took a wander into the Kentucky EXPO Center to form my own opinions.
The basic American recipe for building a travel trailer has lots in common with what European builders were doing twenty years ago. Rather than composite floors and walls, a lot of the cheaper US-built kit has a wooden framework which is clad on the outside with loose-laid aluminium, and skinned with pre-finished wallboard inside. The cavity between the panels is filled with loose fibreglass insulation of a type than you might use in the loft of your house.
In terms of equipment, there isn’t much you won’t find in an American-built trailer. Hobs, grills and ovens are pretty standard, but so are wind-out awnings, air-conditioning, water and waste tanks and all manner of other little things that aren’t even available as extras in a UK tourer. Yet in terms of price, US travel trailers look a lot of value.
Let’s take as an example, the Avenger ATI 14RB from Prime Time RV. This has a trade price of $6995, which would likely become a retail price of somewhere closer to $8500. That equates to £5292.45. Approximately. In terms of kit, it has pretty much everything you would get in a mid-range UK tourer. Plus air-con and an awning. The maximum weight is 3000lbs which is around 1340kg, which puts it, superficially, within reach of a Ford Mondeo class towcar.
Like most US trailers, Avenger ATI (Anything tows it) is well equipped
The ways in which prices are kept so keen are manifold. Labour rates and transport costs in the USA are far lower than the UK, so that obviously helps. But that’s not everything. The chassis is built as a traditional ladder frame and the floor is a single sheet of moisture resistant plywood. An off-the-shelf suspension and braking set-up bolts to the factory-built chassis and all braking operations are electric rather than using a mechanical overrun system. This means the chassis and running gear lack the sophistication of something like the lightweight Al-Ko units we are used to, but they are cheap and flexible.
Building in this way, virtually all of the caravan body is above the wheels, so the body is essentially a box with little in the way of wheelbox intrusion to cater for. The whole trailer unit simply sits far higher off the ground than a European unit. Factor in that much of the build is done by hand, rather than by using expensive – if efficient – machinery, and it is clear that cost savings can soon mount up. Particularly if labour is cheap.
Know your limitations
Before we all go rushing off to look for an American trailer though, they are not without their downsides. Plainly, the looks are a bit challenging for European tastes and interiors are distinctly dated compared to a UK tourer. Single-glazing predominates too.
Also, the standard water and space heating systems are not very fuel efficient, burning up to three-times the amount that a basic European blown air system might to achieve a similar result. Having the wheels so far back means the ‘tongue weight’ (read ‘noseweight’ in Europe) will be on the high side too and stability will suffer due to the high centre of gravity.
All of which got me thinking. If expensive composite walls, floors and sophisticated electrical systems were ditched in favour of simpler kit, prices of entry level tourers could drop significantly. The resulting ‘vans would only be suitable for three-season use and would not be for everyone, but I’d say a look across the pond might help us learn a thing or two after all.
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