The town of Louisville, in the US state of Kentucky, is a fairly unassuming one to visit, but it has plenty of claims to fame. It’s the home of the legendary Kentucky Derby horse race, it was Muhammad Ali’s – or should I say Cassius Clay’s – home town, and it’s also where the iconic Louisville Slugger baseball bat is made by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company.
But for fans of trailers (caravans) and RVs (motorhomes), it’s most famous for being the location for the National RV Trade Show, the annual show of force by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. This year’s event – the 54th running – filled seven halls of the Kentucky Exposition Center from 28 November-1 December, and was bigger and better than ever. We know, because we were there!
It’s two years since I was last at the Louisville show and in that time quite a lot has changed in the American industry. As you might expect, at the top end of the trailer market the vans are even bigger than ever; with these behemoths, just one slideout is never enough. Two, three or more is now the norm, with some at the 2016 show – such as the wonderfully named Bighorn Traveler, or the Heartland Sundance and Big Country – even featuring slide-outs within slide-outs, giving the ultimate sense of space inside.
Talking of space, how about a two-storey caravan? Yes, really! We were bowled over by the likes of the Wildwood Lodge by Forest River, which features a rear master bedroom – with slide-out, of course – that has a kids’ bedroom above it, reached by a small staircase!
Curiously, however, despite these monsters, the real theme of this year’s Louisville show was downsizing and wild camping. More than ever before, it was the smaller, more rugged trailers that were gathering the most attention. Vans such as the tiny MyPod ‘sleeper unit’ from Little Guy Trailers, or the slightly larger, more practical Ascape by A-Liner. Costing from around $15,000 (around £11,800 at the time of writing) OTR, the smart-looking Ascape packs in a huge front double bed made up from the lounge sofas, along with a full kitchen with microwave, hob and a tap that doubles up as a shower. There’s even a loo hidden away under the counter – part of the ‘A-Plus’ package along with air-con, a television and a Bluetooth sound bar.
Although rugged, the Ascape looked positively conventional alongside the funky Tiger Moth, part of a three-model range along with the pop-top Cricket and Woolly Bear trailer-tent from TAXA Outdoors. Like the Dutch Kip Shelter, it has an external kitchen on a cantilever drawer to the rear of the van, but my favourite bit was the opening rear and sides, which lift up to create canopies and mounting points for awnings to expand the van’s capacity.
Even more minimal was the Jeep Extreme Trail Edition tent camper, a joint project between the car maker and RV brand Livin’ Lite. Weighing in at a tiny 1262lb (572kg), yet with a 1066lb (484kg) payload and 15in (38cm) ground clearance, it features a lid that opens up to create a 6ft 6in x 5ft bed, with the small sofa also folding to offer a third berth. It’s minimal, but what more do you need when touring the Rockies?
Along with compact and rugged, the other story of Louisville 2016 was retro and vintage. The R-pod by Forest River is now available in the UK, but the firm introduced a new-look version of the RP179 at the show with a fresher interior and exterior look. And other manufacturers were really muscling in on the retro market, most notably Gulf Stream with its range of four Vintage Cruisers. They are based on the mainstream Vista models, but with 1950s-style whitewall tyres, chrome hubcaps and wood-effect graphics, all new for 2017 along with a fold-out double step. Inside, there’s the feel of a ’50s diner with the red-and-white vinyl dinette, and the ‘Knotty pine’ woodwork, yet with all mod cons including a proper sound system and USB charging points.
Elkhart-based Heartland RV was also going for the vintage market with its Terry Classic, a stainless-steel trailer modelled on the 1962 Terry range, originally produced by Fleetwood. This gleaming show debutant was drawing plenty of interest, aided no doubt by its tempting $25,000 (c£19,700) retail price, but for real retro appeal it was hard to look past the Serro Scotty display. In addition to its all-new five-model range, the revived manufacturer – which is co-run by the family of John Serro, who founded the brand in 1957 – brought along not one but two genuine classics. There was a fully restored 1966 Serro Scotty Sportsman, and the original GRP prototype for the stillborn 1968 Royal Scott Highlander – which the firm has ambitious plans to put into production, complete with its unusual humped roofline.
But my favourite van on show blended all of the show themes, as compact, rugged and retro were mated perfectly in the fabulous new Airstream Basecamp. Airstream recently departed our shores and rumours abound about its possible return, though it remains to be seen whether this entry-level model will make it to Blighty, bearing in mind that it shares its name with a brand-new Swift range.
Although far cheaper than its land-yacht siblings, this is still a premium model with retail prices beginning at $34,900 (c£27,500) – and that despite a relatively minimal (but no less stylish) interior finish. Kit levels are high, however, with standard Truma Combi heating, plus a full kitchen and side washroom and choices of single or double beds. Options include two awnings (rear and side), giving up to 120sq ft of floor space, plus a microwave and air-conditioning.
At 2585lb (1173kg) plus a 915lb (415kg) payload, it still demands a pretty good-sized tow car despite its compact 16ft 3in shipping length. One thing is for sure, however, there was no funkier-looking van in all of Louisville, and the all-stainless-steel semi-monocoque Basecamp was a real crowd-pleaser with its visor-style wraparound front window, side door and rear ‘escape hatch’.
It’s two years since I was last at the Louisville show, and in that time quite a lot has changed in the American industry