How ‘Road trip!” has evolved to “Van Life”

Whether by choice or by necessity, traveling, sleeping and even living fulltime in vans has become part of the fabric of American life. Social media abounds with stories and photos. The Instagram hashtag #vanlife has accumulated more than 12 million posts. A quick search on the Internet turns up websites devoted to the lifestyle:,,,,, – and on and on. There are many apps designed to connect Van Lifers with advice, campsite locations and each other.  

Van life in the United States encompasses a wide spectrum of Americans. There are impoverished retirees and young people fleeing the lack of affordable housing and who live in used vans they’ve converted themselves. But there’s also been a boom in new and newer Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, Ford Transits and RAM ProMasters that can be seen on highways returning from weekend recreational jaunts or longer vacations.

The recreational vehicle industry has enjoyed a couple of very good years, more than partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reports that in 2021 manufacturers shipped more than 600,000 RVs of all types, including towables – trailers, popups and fifthwheels. Motorhome sales in 2021 increased by 37.8 percent but by far the fastest growing segment was Class B campervans, which increased 91.5 percent year over year.

Colorado Is a Van Life Hotspot

Not surprisingly, Colorado’s scenic wonders and outdoor activities have made it a natural

Van Life hotspot both for consumers and van producers. A 2018 survey of 725 “van lifers”  by online publication Outbound Living, ranked Colorado #2, behind California among van life states.

A more recent survey by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association  (RVIA) looked at Class B campervan demographics, which – much like Colorado’s – trend younger: Young families accounted for 42 percent, millennials and Gen-Z accounted for 45 percent. Two-thirds are male and more than half have no children at home. They like outdoor sports (44 percent), fishing (32 percent) and water recreation (32 percent). Their motivation for owning a campervan, according to the RVIA survey, include “maintaining control over one’s own itinerary, spending time outdoors, and visiting a location with natural beauty.”

The younger cohort of van lifers may think they’ve stumbled on to something new and different and romantic – whether they’re in a DIY rig or a tricked-out campervan. Looking at some of the photos on van life Instagram and Facebook pages exhibits some of the romance and adventure they feel as they are able to pursue remote employment while shifting their location from ocean to mountains to desert and back. But van life can actually be traced back years – even centuries.

A Short History of Vans

Arguably, van life began with the Romani (‘gypsies’). There are accounts beginning in Medieval times that these nomads traveled throughout Europe in horse-drawn wagons. A 14th century monk wrote that they “rarely or never stop in one place for more than 30 days.” They were persecuted wherever they went.

Motorized campervans made their American debut early in the 20th century. The 1910 Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau with a fold-down bed and sink was displayed at the Madison Square Garden auto show. And “The Vagabonds” – Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone – outfitted a Lincoln truck for annual camping trips between 1913-1924.

Fast forward to 1950. Volkswagen began producing a box on the chassis of its Beetle, the Type 2. The VW Microbus was useful as a commercial vehicle, but people almost immediately saw that the interior could be adapted for other uses, including camping. Volkswagen partnered with Westfalia to produce conversion kits, and by 1956 the VW Westfalia camper had come to America. Though low on horsepower, it was high on appeal, and it became a symbol of a culture outside the mainstream of American life, earning the nickname “hippie bus,” although plenty of non-hippies saw its attraction, as well. Many are still in use today.

Volkswagen discontinued the Microbus in 2014, but has announced an all-electric version, the ID. Buzz,  that it plans to introduce for the 2024 model year.

American-made commercial vans had more power and room than the VW, and adapted well to camping. Tricked out with beds, carpet and often stoves and refrigerators, they continued to acquire fancier accessories like mood lighting and sound systems, more luxurious seating and sleeping arrangements and distinctive paint jobs. Many of these are still on the road, as well.

A Happy Medium: The Class B Campervan

Over the years, the term “recreational vehicle” (RV) has embraced everything from buses to semi-trailer trucks that have been converted into homes on wheels (Class A) to motorhomes with a bed over the cab and conveniences like built in showers and toilets (Class C). In between is the Class B van, which has gained huge popularity in the last few years because it is large enough to accommodate multiple beds and other amenities, but smaller, more efficient and easily maneuverable.

The Class B campervan was developed beginning in the mid ‘70s in Canada, by Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way. According to Phil Ingrassia, president of the Recreational Vehicles Dealers Association (RVDA). “They kept the flame alive by outfitting vans into real RVs, with kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping that were above and beyond what the early van campers could’ve imagined.” But it was Mercedes-Benz and its Sprinter that made it possible for an adult to stand up inside.

Sprinters brought more height and a narrower wheelbase to the industry and gradually, the Mercedes-Benz “Eurovan” silhouette has become the U.S. standard. Ford brought its Transit stateside, and RAM (part of Stellantis, formerly Fiat-Chrysler) modified its existing vans to European-style standards, dubbed the ProMaster. These three brands dominate the Class B market.

There are familiar names RV industry giants like Winnebago and Airstream that build far-from-basic campervans based on Sprinters and ProMasters. There are also scores of smaller van conversion companies. Many of them will advise and sell van parts and accessories to DIYers, like solar panels and additional water storage, but their business primarily is building and selling completed units or converting van shells that clients have acquired and brought to them for conversion.

Colorado Campervan Entrepreneurs

Matt Felser, co-owner of Dave & Matt Campervans, and Eric Miller, co-owner of Tourig, could be considered poster boys for van life. They are van enthusiasts, Colorado-based van converters who have lived full or part-time in their Class B campervans.

Matt and his partner, Dave Ramsay are living the van life dream. They own a successful van conversion business based in Gypsum, Colorado. The partners graduated from Williams College and went their separate ways – Dave to a hedge fund in New York and Matt to being a ski bum. Eventually, Dave quit finance, converted his first van, and then started a small van rental company.

Matt lived in Tahoe City, California before migrating to Vail, where he taught Spanish. “I was exploring my next vehicle to bike and ski outside of school,” he said. In 2016-17, “The only way to get a campervan was to get a Winnebago or Roadtrek or get a custom van for nearly $100,000. Not doable…I had people who talked me into I could do this myself.” He found a used ProMaster in Texas, “watched about a thousand YouTube videos, everything from flooring to electrical to even how to use power tools.” Dave arrived and about four months later, the “labor of love” was finished.

They took it throughout the U.S. in 2018. “The turning moment was the amount of people on the trip who wanted to check it out,” Matt said. They reasoned that if Matt could do it on a teacher’s budget, it was a viable business concept. Purchasing used vans and converting them, “We sold the one, then two, then four. We brought on some friends and now have built 350-plus in the last three years,” Matt says.

Dave and Matt Campervans works mostly on RAM ProMasters; they are licensed RAM dealers, which allows them better access to inventory, although during the pandemic of the 190 orders they placed they only received 19. Matt says the ProMaster’s front-wheel drive was important for better handling in adverse conditions. It’s reliable. It also has the most interior space. They are exploring diversifying into Ford Transits.

From the beginning, their model has been to “provide everything you need and nothing you don’t.” It makes it possible for them to keep their prices lower while offering maximum design flexibility to their clients.

The company has just bought a new 39,000-square-foot facility in Rifle and, once the vehicles start flowing again, their goal is to build 1,600 vans by the end of 2024. “We want to be the largest private manufacturer of RVs in the country and we’re proud to do it in the state of Colorado,” Matt says.

Dave and Matt offers 10 customization options in three different lengths. “Efficiency keeps the price-point down and keeps more people on the road. “Everything we do removes the bells and whistles and replaces them with a lot of flexibility and expansion,” Matt says.  Prices range between $65,000 and $76,000.

“We engineer vehicles that are open enough to take in all kinds,” Matt says. “Most sales are to millennials, followed by Boomers. The most interest across social media is Gen Z. The most prominent in the industry as a whole are Gen Xers. … It’s really cool to see if it’s a millennial entrepreneurial-minded and lives full or part time in the vehicle or a Boomer who wants to see the country of a Gen Z – a lot of grad students who want to reduce their overhead and don’t want to live in a dorm anymore.”

As for Dave and Matt, they’ve both lived full-time in vans. Dave still does when he’s in Gypsum, although he keeps an apartment in Denver. Matt Felser’s van has been his only vehicle for the last four years. He lived in it full-time for two summers and “still uses it as much as I can.”

The High End of Van Life

Tourig, based in Golden, Colorado, is at the other end of the price – and luxury –  scale. Co-founder and CEO Eric Miller, says the idea for Tourig grew out of his job as a traveling sales rep in the outdoor industry. “I was spending a lot of nights in hotels and in tents and thought there’s got to be a more efficient way to do this.” Before his daughter was born in 2009 Eric spent 150 nights a year for eight years in one of two vans he and a partner converted. “It was fun to watch people’s eyes light up when I would pull in and get out with my dog and nobody really cared about why I was there…they cared about the van and the dog,” Miller says.

The idea kept percolating but it wasn’t until 2014 that Eric thought it was time to start a business. He called his partner, Paul Bulger, an experienced marine outfitter and skillful carpenter. “Coming from the sailing background he understood what it was like to travel in a confined space … it’s the best part of what made us what we are today because of his quality and attention to detail,” Eric says.

In 2015 they build their first van in a 1,000-square-foot building in Nederland, Colorado. The business took off. According to Eric, “All of a sudden the phone rang and somebody said they wanted one too. Then it rang again and before you knew it, we had people lined up and needed to hire some staff and off we went.” The first year it was just two men converting two vans. The second year it was 10-12 vans. Tourig’s business model now calls for about 50 per year. “It allows us to really manage our supply chain, keep quality consistent and always elevated, and it makes it exclusive,” Eric says. Exclusive means prices range between $225,000 and $300,000 for a finished new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

Tourig works exclusively on Sprinters, and the company has a dealership license that allows them to source new Sprinters directly from the manufacturer or sell used. Tourig branched into Ford Transits in 2021 because Ford can produce and deliver vehicles that can be serviced at thousands of dealers across the country. There are far fewer dealers who can work on a Sprinter. That is partly why Tourig has doubled its space to include a service facility where they can work on vans, not necessarily Tourig-built vans. It also provides more production capacity.

A full van conversion takes Tourig about six weeks to complete. That includes about four weeks of production time plus two weeks of quality control and final detail. “We’re different from an RV company. They don’t produce at our level. A Class B RV retails for $180,000 and they might produce 30 a week. Our guys are artisans. They’re craftsmen and it’s never enough, sometimes to our detriment,” Eric says.

While Tourig produces on the high end, Eric has respect for what more mass-market manufacturers offer. “I think the RV companies do an amazing job of giving people a lot of stuff for a compelling price. What we provide is an experience.” The Tourig experience clearly must be worth waiting for, since they have clients waiting and delivery is 12-14 months in the future.

As far as the Tourig client? “We cater to 40-45 at the low end – family, established, job, means to afford. We’re seeing a lot of people in their 60s and 70s who a few years would have went to a Winnebago or Airstream because that’s what you know. Now those people are saying, ‘hey! I still want to be cool. I want to be relevant and out there…Why should I settle for a mas-produced product?’” Eric says.

“Hard to explain to somebody how it changes your life because unlike a tow-behind camper or a big RV, vans have an attraction to people. Go back to the ‘60s, right? Vans were cool. Now they’ve become so sophisticated and luxurious that anybody can participate. Anybody from the people who are just getting started in van life up to vans that are doctors and lawyers who have a little more discretionary income.”

Eric agrees the pandemic has contributed to the expansion of the business, but says he started to see an uptick in the industry in 2018. He couldn’t afford a manufactured van when he first wanted one, so he built his own. “Now today there are 200 companies in our little niche if you just talk about one guy in a shop to 100 guys in the back. We’re in-between that with about 40.” And that’s just in the last three to four years.

Eric Miller has owned 10 vans over the years and his current Sprinter – his daily vehicle – is his favorite. “Had a successful career and a good life – all things essential to the American Dream. I’m happiest with my van, and whatever I can fit into it going down the road.”

At the other end of the spectrum from the boutique upfitters is Summit Bodyworks, a subset of Transwest Automotive Group, a  Colorado-based dealer for new and used RVs, trucks and trailers. Summit upfits commercial vehicles for its national clientele. Need a bookmobile or bloodmobile? Summit Bodyworks is the place to go. Although Transwest already sold several mass-produced RV brands, Summit jumped into upfitting Class B campervans in 2019, even before Covid juiced the market.

“We upfit all other vehicles, so why not make that bridge? The Class B market is out of control and continues to rise,” says Summit’s CEO, Meredith Lyons. She believes Summit’s Antero brand of Class B vans will continue to prosper, even once the pandemic is officially over. “The world has taken a different look for how to vacation,” she says. “Once people see that they can sleep in their own sheets and have their own things, they see it’s a nice way to travel.”

Lyons says some of her customers already own large RVs and some who use their vans as a hybrid: part RV and part commuter vehicle. “People hauling kids around. Skiers who can get dressed without hauling everything into the lodge and don’t have go through the lunch line.” She had one doctor who would sleep in it and could even meet patients in it. 

Working out of two buildings in Ft. Lupton, Lyons’ team of 15, including the eight-employee production crew, turns out seven units a month. That’s if she can get enough Ford and Mercedes-Benz chassis. Recently, Summit has added Freightliner to its Class B chassis mix. “Last summer I still had chassis outside waiting. Now we get too close to comfort waiting – I would like to have two outside waiting [to be worked on] at all times, she says. “Supply chains are getting better but we’re a ways from saying, ‘Oh, they’re good.’”

Lyons involves her entire team in making decisions because they represent the customers and the producers and they are constantly looking at changes in models, colors and configurations, within the reduced bounds of the supplies she can get. she says. “You can’t just sit and think it won’t change. We’re always looking for a way to make it better. If you stop and rest, you’re going to get left behind.”

Who Are Van Lifers?

The van life movement – people view it in those terms – actually is less about full-time living than part-time enjoyment. In the RVIA survey, only 1.5 percent of total RVers live in their vehicles. More than a third are over 55, they are 70 percent female, and the average annual income is under $65,000. The top full-time living RV choices were trailers, fifthwheels and larger motorhomes.

Class B campervans represent only four percent of RVs, and their demographic is quite different. The average income for 65 percent is more than $65,000. Owners are more likely to be male (66 percent). The overall age breakdown is 51 percent between 18-54 (young families, millennials and Gen-Zers) and 49 percent over 55. Almost 59 percent have no children in the home.

“While the numbers are not huge, compared to other RV types, there’s a certain acceleration of the van market because it offers a lot of things for buyers: viability, flexibility and the chance to go places where you couldn’t go and stay if you didn’t have these types of vehicles,” says the RV Dealers Association’s Phil Ingrassia. And with the pandemic, people were “saying they didn’t even think of an RV until their [travel] options were limited. For some people the van camper was a perfect…also a prestige …way.

“These are not entry-level campers … They are a premium purchase for a lot of folks. But the economics of higher-end vacations are such that if you’re going to use it for a certain number of years, a lot of people are doing the trade-off and opting for vans,” Ingrassia points out.

Living the Part-time Van Life

Travis Berry is a 55-year-old Denver resident who bought a four-wheel-drive Sprinter four years ago. It’s equipped with a bed and a refrigerator. “Pretty spartan version. For my purposes it is perfect. It can get anywhere – small enough and inconspicuous. You can park it anywhere. Has the comforts I need. Kind of a mobile biking, camping, skiing headquarters,” he says. He admits he “lusted after one of those old VW campervans for years.” Travis never followed through until he saw Sprinters. “It was all of that plus – new with safety stuff and four-wheel-drive and not something I need to worry about breaking down on me,” he says.

Travis has taken his campervan around the West, driving it to Wyoming for the 2017 solar eclipse and on several bike trips around Colorado. The longest trip was the four-day Wyoming trip. What he’s found is that van owners are “a total tribe. I’m floored at the explosion of them. I wanted one for a long time and they were sort of rare but now if you go to the mountains or ski areas or to a trail, they’re all over the place.”

He admits his wife isn’t as in love with his Sprinter. “One Valentine’s Day I did get a portable toilet that hooks up to the floor, but I don’t use it much.” And he sees that he might want to upgrade in the future, “…when I’m done working or when I start to slow down and spend more time in it – getting one with more creature comforts,” including a better bathroom for his wife.

Phil Hayes went a different route. The cost to purchase a fully converted van was daunting, so he looked for a used, low-mileage Sprinter, which he found in Omaha. He worked with VanWorks in Fort Collins, Colorado after having done some prep work on the vehicle himself. “We ended up with a fully converted van for about $65,000 to $70,000, and it could have cost us twice that,” he explains.

It’s definitely a family affair. He and his wife have a 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. “It’s a little tight. Sometimes we put the kids in a tent.” His Sprinter has a bed platform and a ‘garage’ for storing gear.

“We have really enjoyed it. We might end up selling and upgrading to something nicer or use the proceeds to buy a cabin. We don’t have enough time to just drive around,” Phil says. He’s taken the Sprinter on camping trips including a mini tour of Colorado during the pandemic, to Kansas City for a Broncos game and to at least a dozen music festivals. In fact, he’s shrink-wrapped the Sprinter “like the Grateful Dead in red and white with a lightning bolt on the front.”

Beverly Razon and her husband have a 170-inch Sprinter. “We’d been wanting to buy and looking to van experiences – probably around 2019 before the whole COVID thing and didn’t pull the trigger,” she says. Other expenses and a desire to do some international travel for their family got in the way. A road trip to the Northwest in a regular RV persuaded Beverly and her husband that a purchase would be worthwhile. “The kids loved it, the dogs loved it.”

They had to go to Kansas to find their Sprinter and used an outfitter in Salt Lake City because the demand for custom vans in Colorado was so great. With two children, now eight and 10, they needed four seats, two beds, a kitchen, and space for some gear and their aging dog.

The Razon’s Sprinter has been on some long hauls in the year they’ve owned it. With family on the East Coast and fears about flying during the pandemic, it made travel possible. They’ve visited national parks, caravanning with some neighbors. “We didn’t have to go in anywhere except restrooms along the way,” Beverly enthuses. The ability to fix all their meals is a plus. “It gave us flexibility to adapt to any situation and do any excursion. We also enjoyed the fact that the kids have space.”

Their Sprinter included an extra water tank that allows them to hook up an outside shower and clean off dirty gear before stowing it. They haven’t purchased a toilet, but it’s in the works. “We don’t want to pamper the kids that much,” she jokes.

Having the ability to work while on the road also has been a game-changer, Beverly acknowledges. “To me, it’s checked so many boxes about being able to travel and have the comfort of our own personal space.”

Beverly is no stranger to van life. Growing up, her family had a conversion van and went through the Grand Tetons, southern Oregon, the California redwoods and coastline. She says, “You either love it or you hate it…Mostly it’s about creating memories and experiences that we may not otherwise have.”

The Future Is Just Over the Next Hill

When the RV industry is looking at the future, just like the rest of motorized transportation, it looks electrified. Many vans are already equipped with solar panels for heat and light. Full electrification is coming fast.

“It’s almost a given that the van campers will be the first [recreational] vehicles that are run on an electric chassis,” Ingrassia says. He’s hearing that from the largest manufacturers like Winnebago, which has already unveiled its e-RV concept vehicle with a 125-mile range that can charge “almost anywhere” in 45 minutes.  According to Winnebago’s Director of Advance Technology Jamie Sorenson, the e-RV is “a new solution for people to explore the outdoors with a small environmental impact.”

Looking down the road, Ingrassia thinks the future looks very bright. “There’s a lot of potential for the van market, especially as people take a look at the features these newer vans have. A whole new contingent of people interested in EV vans will be leading.”

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Diesel engines remade trucking

Heavy-duty trucks run on heavy-duty fuel: diesel. These days, more than 95 percent of the big trucks on the road run on diesel fuel. But it took a while for diesel engines to take hold. Rudolf Diesel went from being a student of thermodynamics to inventing a new kind of engine based on the premise that higher compression created more power and efficiency. His first prototype was built in 1893 and the first successful model in 1897. It was 16.2 percent more efficient than the steam engines that were available at the time.

Other inventors’ improvements only increased the diesel engine’s benefits and utilities. Swiss inventor lfre Büchi added a turbocharger to the diesel engine in 1925, boosting efficiency more than 40 percent. In 1927 Robert Bosch made diesel engines even more economical and efficient with a fuel-injection pump.


Clessie Cummins, a mechanic in Columbus, Indiana, formed a partnership in 1919 with industrialist and banker William Irwin, for whom he was a part-time chauffeur. Their first endeavor – a three-horsepower farm diesel built for Sears, Roebuck – was a bust, but with Irwin’s backing, Cummins kept working to build better, more powerful diesel engines. He hit on a successful solution in 1930 that worked well in automobiles.

Truck manufacturers remained unconvinced, continuing to rely on gasoline engines. Irwin came to the rescue again, placing Cummins diesel engines in the delivery trucks in use by his California-based grocery chain of Purity Stores. The drivers liked them and word spread. The company prospered as America’s roads and highways led to more truck traffic. Cummins continued to focus on engines it sold to truck manufacturers. Cummins developed a turbodiesel in the early ‘50s which increased engine horsepower by half without increasing fuel consumption. Cummins dominated the heavy-duty U.S. diesel market throughout the ‘50s, but the ‘60s brought increased competition. Cummins kept to diesels, but its attempts to scale down to the light-duty market were not particularly successful, nor were the company’s efforts to diversify.

On a roller coaster driven by a fluctuating economy, Cummins increasingly turned toward non-highway engines and a growing European market. In the ‘80s, it faced more competition from Japan, and met it with better manufacturing procedures and cost-cutting. In the late ‘80s the pressure was on to meet government emission control regulations. Its offering had problems and business migrated to its more successful competitors, causing Cummins’ market share to fall dramatically.

Cummins bounced back under a new partnership with Ford, Tenneco and Kubota, and its 75th year, 1993, was its most profitable ever. It went on to form a number of joint ventures and invested heavily in research and development. Nevertheless, Cummins and other heavy diesel engine manufacturers paid a large fine to the EPA to settle a suit that claimed computerized timing devices were used to evade emissions tests. Cummins’ financial fortunes dropped with its heavy-duty truck engine sales declining precipitously. The slide continued. However, in 2001, Cummins agreed to build engines for Paccar, the parent company for Kenworth and Peterbilt. Cummins diversification into other sectors beyond heavy-duty diesel engines ultimately saved it. One notable development was its alliance with Chrysler and the introduction of the first Cummins-powered RAM truck. It is a partnership that has thrived.

The Cat – Caterpillar

Caterpillar was founded by competitors Benjamin Holt and C.L. Best. Holt invented the steam tractor in the 1890s, while Best worked to perfect gasoline technology. The two tractor companies combined after World War I, to form Caterpillar Tractor. They introduced the Caterpillar Diesel Sixty Tractor in 1931 and quickly became the world’s-largest producer of diesel engines. They widely powered construction, mining and agricultural vehicles. Caterpillar introduced its first truck-specific engine in 1939, but stopped building truck engines during World War II and didn’t start again until the 1960s. Caterpillar introduced its first off-highway truck in 1962. By the mid-2000s, Caterpillar led the market in Class 8 engines, with almost 30 percent of the market; Cummins was nipping at its wheels. Market lead flipped in 2007, with Cummins selling more than Caterpillar.

Caterpillar ran afoul of the EPA’s emission standards with its 2002-03 engines, and paid a hefty fine. By 2008, Caterpillar decided that the market for truck engines was plateauing and the costs of keeping up with ever-increasing emissions standards were just too great. It made the decision to bow out as an independent engine manufacturer in North America by 2010. It formed an alliance with Navistar to continue selling trucks and engines in Asia and Europe, focusing on severe-duty trucks for construction, petroleum production and logging. There is still a fairly robust market for “remanufactured” Caterpillar engines.

Made in Detroit

The history of Detroit Diesel goes back to 1938 and General Motors, which founded the GM Diesel Division. Heavy-duty war equipment needed lighter-weight, compact engines and GM delivered. The Series 71 performed well and gained a reputation. By the ‘50s GM was developing new designs and shifted their focus to over-the-road trucks. In 1957, the Series 53 engine, including two-, three- and four-cylinder models. They were versatile enough to be used for many different industries.

GM rebranded its diesel division to Detroit Engine Division in 1965. It combined efforts with the
Allison Division and officially merged the two in 1970 to become the Detroit Allison Division, which competed successfully with Cummins throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The Series 60 line, introduced in 1987, included standard integrated electronics and boosted fuel efficiency. It was a huge hit and quickly became the best-selling Class 8 truck diesel engine. It attracted the attention of Roger Penske and his Penske Corp. took a majority ownership in a new endeavor, Detroit Diesel. The new company flourished and by 1993, when it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, controlled about a third of the on-highway engine market. Its success attracted a new buyer, DaimlerChrysler. As a division of Daimler Trucks of North America, Detroit Diesel retooled and upgraded and released a new engine line, the “DD,” while continuing to sell its Series 60. It sold its one-millionth Series 60 engine in 2009.

Detroit Diesel – now known simply as “Detroit” – continues to stay on the leading edge of diesel engine development with concepts such as the BlueTEC® emissions technology and Remote Diagnostics System. It also is a leading supplier of products to other industries.

The Future of Diesel Engines

Considering the durability of diesel engines and their ability to haul huge loads, it’s hard to envision that they will be replaced soon. Many diesel truck engines are able to rack up more than a million miles and still run. Advanced technology has boosted fuel efficiency and reduced emissions without sacrificing power.

Electric, battery electric, as well as hydrogen fuel cell-powered heavy trucks are beginning to surface that future watchers say will make diesel engines obsolete, but it’s hard to tell if they are a real threat or just the newest shiny thing. In any event, with diesel engines powering truck fleets worldwide, not to mention all other heavy machinery across multiple industries, it will take a long time before they go the way of the dodo, even though government regulators around the globe are working hard to make diesel, as well as gasoline engines, obsolete.

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Colorado Tourism Office, EV photo and video shoot

Porsche Taycan arrives at Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch
Porsche Taycan at the Ritz
Drone powered video and photo equipment was impressive and provided by Andrew Maquire photography
Drone videographers capture EVs crossing Green Bridge at Red Cliffs Lodge
EVs extraordinaire line up for drone powered vide footage at Green Bridge over Red Cliffs, Colorado
Mustang Mach E enhance with mobile video-camera for drive across Green Bridge
It’s Porsche Taycan’s turn with the fender mounted video camera.
Chevrolet Bolt joins the lineup for EV video shoot at Green Bridge.
Ford Mustang Mach E lineup for Twin Lakes Stand up Paddle-board (SUP) near Leadville, Colorado
Pro actors and models staff the EV adventures touting Colorado’s scenic byways with Colorado Tourism office photo-shoot.
Red Cliffs Lodge was near scene of photo and video shooting site where Colorado Tourism Office organized advertising production to tout EV tourism to some of state’s most scenic venues.
On the road again, between Vail/RedCliffs photography set and the next one near Leadville at Twin Lakes. This one featured the silver Ford Mustang Mach E
Highway signs between photo shoot venues.
Twin Lakes, between Leadville and Independence Pass on Highway 82.
Chevrolet Bolt EV was filmed at Green Bridge near Red Cliffs Lodge
Behind the scenes filming for Colorado Tourism Office along state’s scenic highways
New Audi eTron being filmed at EV charging station in Salida, Colorado
More photos from the Salida shoot for pics with Colorado Tourism Office
Kia Niro EV at Wagon Wheel Gap in San Juan Mountains near Creede.
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How American truck makers thrive under global ownership

Imagine the United States as a body, with the highway system as its veins and arteries. The blood made up of middle- and heavy-duty trucks, delivering the goods we need while carrying our waste away. 

The precursors of trucks were horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches and farm equipment. But trucks actually developed out of automobiles, specifically, the Winton automobile.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company hand-built automobiles beginning in 1897. Alexander Winton raced his 10-hp car around a track in Cleveland at the awe-inspiring speed of 33.6 mph and later drove from Cleveland to New York City. He drew buyers, but how would the motor carriages be delivered?  The solution was to mount a trailer on a Winton model truck, creating an auto hauler.

If automobiles could be hauled from producers to sellers, so could other goods. By 1914 more than 100,000 trucks were rolling. A handful of states enacted weight requirements, even though trucks were still constrained by speed limits and solid tires. Truck drivers formed the first union in 1901; the Teamsters Union followed in 1903.

Charles Fruehauf was hired to build a boat trailer in 1914. His client was thrilled with the result and asked Fruehauf to make trailers for his lumber yard. The idea caught on with other industries. Long-distance trucking was made viable with inflatable tires, developed during World War I. More than a million trucks plied the roads by the early 1920s. The introduction of much more efficient diesel engines came in the 1930s, followed by power-assisted steering and brakes.

Trucks, it turned out, were useful for all sorts of tasks. Their growing presence led to several developments, such as refrigerated trucks in 1938, emergence of truck stops in the ‘40s, the invention of the CB radio in 1945, and the construction of the Interstate Highway System beginning in 1956.

What Are They?

Trucks generally fall into essentially eight (8) classes.

  • Classes 1-3 include pickups, vans and SUVs – mostly non-commercial vehicles, although some Class 3 pickups qualify as medium duty.
  • Class 4 (14,000-16,000 pounds) – e.g., delivery trucks.
  • Class 5 ( 16,000-19,500 pounds) – e.g., bucket trucks, farming equipment.
  • Class 6 (19,500-26,000) pounds – e.g., beverage trucks.
  • Class 7 (26,000-33,000 pounds) – e.g., garbage trucks
  • Class 8 trucks (33,000 pounds +) – e.g., tractor-trailer/semis; also cement and dump trucks.
  • Classes 4-8 generally require special training and driving licenses

Truck Fast Facts

  • The American Trucking Association (ATA) reported that 11.92 billion tons of freight were transported by trucks in 2019, representing 80.4% of the nation’s freight.
  • Medium and heavy-duty trucks accounted for 26% of all U.S. trucks in 2018.
  • There were 3.91 million Class 8 trucks operating in 2019, including both tractor-trailer/ semi-trailer trucks and straight (single chassis) trucks.
  • America’s heavy-duty truck drivers traveled more than 432 billion miles in 2018, using 54 billion gallons of fuel, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.
  • There were 3.6 million truck drivers employed in 2019 and 795 million people in jobs related to trucking (excluding those self-employed) – about six percent of all full-time jobs in America.
  • While the trucking industry is made up of 928,647 private motor carriers, the overwhelming majority of them (91.3 percent) are small businesses with five or fewer trucks.
  • U.S. trucking industry’s 2017 revenues exceeded the GDP of more than 150 nations.
  • Commercial trucks paid more than $41 billion in state and federal highway user taxes in 2015, according to the ATA.

While there are scores of manufacturers, just a handful dominate heavy- and medium-duty truck manufacturing. Freightliner (Daimler) leads the pack with 29%, followed by Ford (19%), International (13%) Kenworth (11%), Peterbilt (7%) and Volvo (5%). Others continue to make notable vehicles, though, including Mack, GMC/Chevrolet, Ram, Isuzu and Hino. Legendary status belongs to at least one no longer built: the REO.


Ransom Eli Olds was successful building cars with his original company, Olds Motor Works, which became part of General Motors in 1908. REO Motor Truck Co. was formed as a subsidiary of his later company, REO Motor Car Company, in 1910. It mounted truck bodies on modified auto chassis to create three-quarter ton trucks. Heavier-duty trucks followed beginning in World War I.

The famous REO Speedwagon was introduced in 1915 and manufactured until 1949. It is widely considered the precursor to the pickup truck. In the 1920s, the Speedwagon pioneered electric starters and lights, shaft-driven axles and steel-mounted pneumatic tires. The product line grew to include trucks that could carry up to two tons.

Experiencing financial problems, REO declared bankruptcy in 1938. It reorganized and supplied military vehicles during World War II. After the war, REO manufactured heavier-duty trucks, until it was sold in 1957 to White Trucks Motor Company in 1957, forming Diamond REO. The company and its iconic name changed hands again to a Class 8 dealer with plans to continue building REO’s C-116 Giant but it was not successful and REO ceased to exist in 1995.

International: From Farm to Trucks

Cyrus McCormick developed the horse-drawn reaper in the 1830s and co-founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago in 1847.  After a series of mergers it became International Harvester in 1902.

While continuing to manufacture tractors, IH moved into vans and trucks. Beginning with the Auto Wagon, the company built light trucks from 1907 to 1975. It was also an early producer of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The cab-over-engine (COE) heavy-duty CO-4000 – the first entirely designed and built by IH – was introduced in 1965. Through the 1980s, IH trucks were characterized by a variety of names ending in “star.” Beginning with the Loadstar, there was the Class 8 Transtar, Paystar, Cargostar and Fleetstar.

IH’s finances were precarious throughout the 1960s and ‘70s and it was substantially affected by labor problems in the ‘80s. It sold off pieces of its business but kept the truck and engine divisions, changing its name to Navistar International in 1986. Navistar’s subsidiary, International Truck and Engine Corporation continues to build and sell trucks and engines badged with the International name.

White’s Rise and Fall

White Trucks grew out of the White Motor Car Company, which in turn grew out of a business that manufactured everything from roller skates to sewing machines. After World War I, the company stopped making cars and focused on a range of trucks. Following World War II, it concentrated on heavy-duty trucks and acquired a string of competitors, including REO. It distributed Freightliner Trucks from 1951-77. Sales started dropping in the ‘60s and White began to have financial problems. When White filed for bankruptcy in 1980; Volvo acquired its American assets.

Mack: the Industry’s Bulldog

Carriage-makers Jack and Gus Mack founded Mack Trucks in 1900 in Brooklyn, NY. Jack was reported to be inspired by riding in a neighbor’s automobile.

An early bus builder, Mack’s 40-hp, 20-passenger sightseeing bus operated in Brooklyn for several years before being converted into a truck. Mack produced the first motorized hook-and-ladder fire truck in 1910.

Mack adopted the cab-over-engine (COE) configuration in 1905. It can also claim credit for features that prevented stripped gears and allowed drivers to shift gears without going through intermediate gears. It introduced air and oil filters and rubber mounts in 1918, power brakes using a vacuum-booster system in 1927, and four-wheel brakes in 1936. Mack pioneered the all-fiberglass, metal cage-reinforced cab in the MH Ultra-Liner in 1982.

Mack’s bulldog trademark originated during WWII, when the truck’s blunt-nosed hood and durability reminded British soldiers of their bulldog symbol. The war effort required 35,000 Mack Trucks.

Mack became a wholly-owned Renault subsidiary in the early ‘80s and subsequently was bought by AB Volvo.

Peterbilt and Kenworth: A Family Affair

Peterbilt and Kenworth compete as separate brands. However, both are owned by the Pacific Car and Foundry (PACCAR) conglomerate.

William Pigott, Sr. founded Seattle Car Manufacturing in 1905, soon merging with Twohy Brothers to become Pacific Car and Foundry Co., which stayed in the Pigott family for many years. The company acquired Kenworth Motor Truck Co in 1945 and rebranded as PACCAR in 1972.

Peterbilt started as a solution to T.A. Peterman’s problem in the 1930s: How to move logs from forest to mill? Floating them downriver or hauling them by steam or horse would be too slow. Ultimately, using Army surplus trucks, Peterman later bought a failing motor company in 1938, establishing Peterbilt to build a truck chassis. His relentless pursuit of improvement and innovation continued until he died in 1944. Employees bought and continued to grow Peterbilt until 1958. Pacific Car and Foundry purchased Peterbilt when Peterman’s widow sold the property where the factory was located.

Peterbilt’s innovations include using aluminum to reduce weight (1945); the all-aluminum tilt hood (1965); the first Smartway Designated Alternative Fuel Vehicle and the first standard Air Disc Brakes (2011). It announced plans in 2018 to produce all-electric semis. Peterbilt hit the million-truck mark in 2018 with the Peterbilt Model 567 Heritage.

Seattle-based Kenworth is named for both of its founders: Edgard Worthington and Captain Frederick Kent. They acquired Gerlinger Motor Car Company in 1917, renaming it Kenworth Motor Truck Company in 1923. Kenworth expanded to building buses in 1927 and in 1932 built its first fire truck. It became the first American truck builder to make diesel engines standard in 1933; diesel was a third the cost of gasoline. It also introduced the first factory-made sleeper cab in 1933.

Kenworth supplied American forces with almost 2000 vehicles for World War II and by war’s end, had supplied almost 2,000 vehicles for the war effort and has continued to contract with the government since. It also supplies components for Boeing’s B-17 and B-29 bombers.

Pacific Car & Foundry acquired Kenworth in 1945 when employees couldn’t get financing to buy their company. Kenworth grew from a regional to an international truck manufacturer by 1950, selling trucks for Middle East oil production. In 1959 it expanded manufacturing to Mexico and later to Australia. By its 50th anniversary in 1973 , annual sales had grown to 10,000 units. Kenworth continues to manufacture trucks as a PACCAR company.

The Swedish Invasion

Volvo has continually sought to improve safety and fuel efficiency in both its cars and trucks.

It has manufactured trucks in Europe since 1928, moving into the U.S. market in 1971. Volvo launched the F613 medium-duty truck in 1976 and in 1981 bought part of the White Motor Corp. A joint venture between Volvo and General Motors – Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corp. – was formed in 1988. In 1997, Volvo bought GM’s truck division to become Volvo Trucks North America. Since 2001 the truck company has used the Volvo brand name. With its Renault and Mack Trucks, Volvo is the second-largest truck builder in the world.

Freightliner – American with a German Accent

Freightliner launched itself into the truck market in 1942 with its all-aluminum cab. Truck-building halted during World War II while Freightliner manufactured military equipment. It introduced the Eastern Freightliner tractor to haul trailers in 1950 and in 1953 followed with its first overhead sleeper tractor, which could run on multiple varieties of fuel. Both Freightliner and Peterbuilt lay claim to the first 90-degree tilt cab that eased maintenance in 1958. Along with Cummins engines it developed a power-assist for tractors hauling double or triple trailers over high mountain passes.

Daimler-Benz AG bought Freightliner from its parent company, Consolidated Freightways, in 1981, followed by firetruck maker American LaFrance (1995); Louisville Lines; Ford’s heavy-truck division Louisville Lines (1997); and Detroit Diesel (2000). Daimler/Freightliner continued to innovate, building larger sleepers and electronically assisted articulating steps. The company created a full-scale wind tunnel in 2004 to test aerodynamics and adopted its “Run Smart Predictive Cruise” in 2009 to allow modeling the road ahead to achieve fuel savings. Freightliner was chosen by the federal government in 2013 to find ways to improve Class 8 trucks’ fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. Freightliners’ Detroit engines met federal greenhouse gas emission standards in 2016 – a year ahead of schedule. It was the first manufacturer to offer a suite of safety systems using radar to prevent collisions and cameras for lane departure warnings.

As for Ford selling Louisville Lines to Daimler/Freightliner, I have a personal connection to that evolution.  My cousin, John Merrifield, who grew up near Richmond, Missouri, and spent an entire career with Ford Motor Company, was head of the Ford’s Louisville Lines division when Ford made the sale.  The Louisville Lines division became Sterling Trucks, under Daimler/Freightliner and John was the CEO of Sterling.  After a few years as a standalone brand, Daimler/Freightliner rolled Sterling division into Freightiner.   

The company turns 80 in 2021.

Japan Shows Muscle in Middle-Duty

While heavy-duty trucks haul the goods, medium-duty trucks are the workhorses of society; they are contractor’s vehicles, delivery trucks, bucket trucks and cherry pickers and farm trucks.

Isuzu has been a leading supplier of middle- and some heavy-duty trucks since it began importing to the U.S. in 1984; it’s KS22 truck had an 87-hp diesel engine. Isuzu quickly became the best-selling low cab forward brand in America. Low cab forward (LCF) trucks’ engines are located under the cab, rather than in front and it’s easy for a user to choose the body that will work best for their application.

Isuzu has delivered more than 500,000 trucks in North America. It began assembling trucks here in the mid-‘90s. Isuzu’s commitment to become cleaner and more fuel-efficient has been a theme in the company’s development: LCF medium-duty trucks were the first to achieve compliance with 2010 EPA regulations in 2010;  2015-16 diesel models met greenhouse gas emissions standards in 2015 – a year early; and an all-electric Isuzu truck was shown at the Work Truck Show in 2018.

Japanese powerhouse Hino has been Japan’s top-selling truck brand for almost 50 years, and boasts it is America’s fastest-growing medium-duty truck brand but also manufactures heavy trucks. Hino was established as an independent company and began selling in the U.S. in 1995; it became a subsidiary of Toyota in 2001. It has plants in West Virginia and also manufactures parts in California and Arkansas for Toyota.

The Americans – Tough, Rockin’ and Ram-in’

Ford, Chevrolet/GMC and RAM are best known for pickup trucks, but also manufacture bigger trucks, including farm and construction workhorses such as Ford F-350  through 650, Chevy/GMC Silverado 4500 – 6500  and RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks. Ford continues to build medium-duty F-650 and 750, as well as some Class 8 F-750s.

Chevrolet began building versions of its iconic pickup in 1918 to compete with Fords Model TT It continues to specialize in pickups. Chevrolet and GMC trucks share architecture but have individual badges. The C/K line debuted in 1960, with pickups but also incorporating some heavier models. From 1966-2003 these General Motors twins produced the B series medium-duty “incomplete” trucks, based on the C/K chassis, that could be built out for commercial use. This was popular adapted for use as a school bus.

The Chevy/GMC C/K series underwent several iterations until 2000. Now, its Silverado “Heavy Duty” versions, the 1500HD, 2500HD and 3500HD are capable medium-duty trucks; GMC uses Sierra HD branding. In 2001 Chevrolet introduced the Duramax 6.6L turbodiesel, which morphed into the second-generation Duramax producing an impressive 910 lb-ft of torque.

Stellantis (formerly Chrysler Corporation, Daimler-Chrysler, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) Ram Trucks grew out of Dodge Trucks and became their own line in 2010, led by the flagship Ram 1500. The 2500 and 3500 were manufactured beginning in 2010, with both Hemi V8 gasoline and Cummins diesel engines and availability as both automatic or manual transmissions. Ram also built chassis cab versions, which could be adapted for several uses beginning in 2010. Currently Ram boasts “Best-in-Class Towing Capacity,” of up to 35,220 lbs., which it showed off at the 2019 Denver Auto Show, and elsewhere among other major shows and events.

Future Direction of Heavy-Truck Industry: Power Source Technology

Along with the push for zero emission cars by governments around the world, there have been growing demands for zero emission trucks.  That is a very tall order.  Diesel engines are very efficient and packs a great deal of energy.  These engines also tend to be very reliable and durable.  Many diesel trucks on the road today are 20 or more years of age with rebuilt engines.  Diesel fuel has powered the trucking industry for the past ninety years.  Trucks have become more fuel efficient over the years and have, for the most part, eliminated brown cloud particle emissions from their tailpipes.  The other kind of emissions from motor vehicles is the clear, climate changing CO2.

While the industry has greatly improved efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions, we are a long way from being emission-free.  There seem to be three avenues at this time, to reach zero emission trucks.  None will be easy nor will any be inexpensive.

  1.  Battery-electric Trucks (BETs): Just as batteries are fast becoming the preferred power source for emission-free cars, there are those who believe battery powered semis can eventually replace the fleet of over the road trucks.  The challenges of powering cars with batteries are magnified greatly when applied to heavy freight hauling trucks.  These issues include 50 to 100 percent added costs, as well as battery size and thus weight (estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 pounds greater than a conventional diesel at this time).  There is also the question of range, as in how far a truck can go while pulling its capacity load.  Will there be charging systems on route and spaced as needed?  Charging time and the amount of power required to fully recharge the batteries (current estimates are that a full BET may require 1 megawatt of power to charge it fully).  On the good side, to offset some of these fierce negatives is: anticipated lower operating costs and reduced maintenance costs over time [rework this sentence].  Freightliner, Peterbuilt, Kenworth, International, Volvo, White, and Tesla are all testing ranges on early editions of BETs.  Volvo has gone one step further and committed by 2040 to have a complete fossil-free product range using battery and hydrogen technologies. 

Elon Musk first unveiled the Tesla Semi in 2018 and announced it would be ready for fleet use the next year.  Countless trucking companies put down sizable deposits with expectations of deliveries io 2019.  Now, in early 2021, there are still no Tesla Semis in production.  As Kermit the Frog would say, “It‘s not easy being green!”  As any car or truck manufacturer would say, its not easy to mass produce quality products. 

  • Hydrogen fuel cell technology (hydrogen, for short): Hydrogen powered semis are expected to address some of the concerns of BETs.  Hydrogen would take up less space and weight being carried in the payload of the truck, compared to BETs.  Refueling times would be significantly less that of BETs.  A startup truck company called Nikola hailed its over-the-road hydrogen powered semi technology.  General Motors and others placed big bets on Nikola’s investment in hydrogen powered over-the-road semis.  Then news broke that was no “there” there in Nikola’s hype.  Personally I think hydrogen makes more sense for over-the-road trucks than the mammoth batteries required for long-haul service in BETs. 

3) Renewable Natural Gas and Renewable Diesel Powered Trucks –

  • Compressed natural gas (CNG) makes great sense as a long-term bridge between diesel or gasoline powered vehicles and the ultimate, yet extremely difficult, goal of zero emission trucks. Various studies indicate that carbon emissions can be reduced by something between 20 and 40 percent versus traditional diesel or gasoline fueled trucks. Additionally, compressed natural gas is home-owned and home grown. In essence, the United States has an abundance of natural gas and is actually producing more than we use, so we have become a net-exporting state when comes to CNG. And, another bonus, natural gas is less expensive than diesel or gasoline so buys more miles per dollar than other fossil based fuels. Ultimately, CNG is more accessible, more affordable and easier on the environment through lower carbon emissions. CNG makes sense for truck manufacturers, for trucking companies and for the public at large.

  • The other major, game-changing advancement in over-the-road trucks is that of self-driving technology, what some of us are now calling, Robot trucks.  Just as passenger cars and light duty trucks get closer, to driving themselves each and every year, so too do over-the-road, freight-hauling semis.  This technology, when perfected, is game-changing.  No longer will freight routes be dependent on relay system drivers or sleep time for overworked drivers.  If it lives up to its promise, the technology will take the pain out of engaging personnel to get the payload down the route toward destination.  You have heard the phrase, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the really, really good.”  In this particular instance, we all must demand the perfect.  The “really, really good” just isn’t good enough to cut it.  This technology must excel to the magnificent magnitude of perfect.  When it does, the industry can literally just keep on trucking.
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On Sunday sales, color Colorado auto dealers blue

There’s a time and a place for everything, and Colorado’s auto dealers think that Sunday is not the time for their businesses to be open. Not surprisingly, their refusal to go along with the rest of the retail world has made for some pushback, not least from Colorado state regulators.

There are several good reasons for staying closed on Sunday. 

The single biggest reason is that it actually saves consumers money. There are various estimates for how much, but the figure is probably between 11-14 percent on the price of a new car because of the increased overhead and personnel costs associated with opening Sundays. On the cost of apparel, toiletries, groceries, or even household appliances, all of which are available on Sunday, that extra cost isn’t a huge amount for consumers to deal with. Add it to the price of a $30,000 automobile, and it becomes a steep price to pay for the privilege of a Sunday purchase.

Mike Feeley, a former Colorado legislator and now an attorney in Denver and the lobbyist for the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association makes the case. “Ultimately, it’s for the protection of the consumer. Given the low margins that exist in the industry, and the additional cost of opening a seventh day, the only people who would pay for it would be the consumers,” he said. “All the [dealers] sales and service agreements say that if you’re open under state law, you have to be all open,” which would mean not just the showroom for sales, but the service and parts departments, as well.

Colorado dealers are experiencing a shortage of qualified automotive technicians. It’s already hard to find employees to staff the dealerships six days of the week. Many simply refuse to work on Sunday, which is often considered “family day.”

Even if dealers were to open on Sunday, it would be difficult to conclude a sale, since lending institutions and insurance agents are not available to provide the necessary legal underpinnings for a new vehicle purchase.

Many people like the ability to visit a dealership on Sunday, when there are no salespeople, so they can look over cars at their leisure without being interrupted or pressured to buy. If they like what they see, they’ll probably be back. As Feeley notes, “They [dealers] won’t sell any more cars in seven days than they do in six days.”

The internet has radically changed the nature of motor vehicle sales. In the not-too-distant past, it was common for  consumers to visit four or five dealers of different brands in a quest to find just the right vehicle at just the right price. It wasn’t unusual for it to be a family outing so that spouses could agree on what they wanted and the kids were entertained by climbing in and out of various vehicles as an extra benefit. Nowadays, the majority of consumers are shopping vehicles online and narrowing the possibilities down to just one or maybe two. After zeroing in on what they want, they’ll come in for a test drive. Increasingly, dealers will bring a vehicle to consumers’ homes or businesses for a test drive and conclude the deal on the spot, making a visit to the dealership unnecessary.

While online shopping can take place on Sunday, a test drive – whether it starts in the dealership showroom or the customer’s driveway – can’t. Most dealers would like it to stay that way.

Colorado’s ban on Sunday sales was enacted by the Colorado General Assembly in 1952 and there have been several attempts to repeal it. In 1957, Max Mosko, co-owner with his wife, Lillian, of Max Mosko Auto Wholesale, challenged the constitutionality of the Sunday sales ban in court.

Among other things, the Mosko suit contended that auto sales were singled out as a class for special treatment. The case ended up in the Colorado State Supreme Court. In its explanation for ruling against Mosko the court relied on a New Jersey decision that stated, “The statutes in question here apply to all automobile dealers within the state, with no distinction as to class, type, location or otherwise. All are required to close. … No economic advantage can be gained by any one with in this State by reason of the Sunday regulation because no persons other than those covered by the enactments can engage in the business of selling motor vehicles.”

Since then, there have been several attempts to overturn the ban on Sunday sales, including one in 2005 and most recently in 2017. After the 2005 attempt, which CADA lobbied hard against, I would run into lawmakers in the corridor at the State Capitol who would greet me, “Hi, Tim. Never on Sunday.” It’s like we’re branded because we’ve lobbied so intensely over all these years. This story was recounted in an “Automotive News” wrap-up about Sunday sales throughout the U.S.

Colorado’s 2017 attempt was put forth by the Department of Regulatory Agencies’ Office of Policy, Research and Regulatory Reform as part of a mandatory 10-year Sunset review of the Motor Vehicle Dealer Board. The Colorado General Assembly is required to reauthorize the board every 10 years or it would be eliminated. According to Mike Feeley, “One of their major findings was that the department wanted to repeal the ban on Sunday sales.”

Feeley said, “It is funny. We’ve seen people’s minds changed. We’ve had [legislators] come up to us and say, ‘Hey, you want to get rid of that ban on Sunday sales? I can help you with that.’ And by the time our conversation is over they … well, it’s ‘Never mind, now I understand.’ We’ve actually seen that lots of times.” One reason they change their minds about Sunday sales is that the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association works very hard throughout the year to get together with all state legislators to educate them about our industry. These Legislative Grassroots Meetings have been an invaluable tool for us on many issues, not least of which is Sunday sales.

The state regulators presented their argument in 2017, which according to Feeley and CADA’s other lobbyist, Melissa Kuipers, basically amounted to a philosophical one: Blue laws are archaic and consumers should have a choice. “Most bills have an argument for the consumer, one side or another making the argument. For this one there’s no coalition of consumers seeking to have dealers open on Sunday,” Kuipers said.

The ban on Sunday sales of vehicles was compared by the regulators to the ban on Sunday liquor sales, which was repealed in 2008. According to Feeley, “They went back and said, ‘There used to be other blue laws … One by one they’ve dropped by the wayside and from their perspective it [the Sunday Sales ban] should be dropped, as well.” The difference is that the liquor stores wanted to be open, and automobile dealers largely do not.

CADA’s lobbying effort paid off and the repeal of the Sunday sales ban did not pass in its initial legislative committee consideration. We will continue to oppose it, knowing it probably will come up again, even before the next Sunset review.

Blue laws, or Sunday laws, grew out of the religious practice of observing the Sabbath, as set forth by the Fourth Commandment in the Old Testament of the Bible. The practice of closing on Sunday really gained traction under English and Scottish Reformers, known as “bluestockings,” hence “blue laws.” More than a dozen states join Colorado in keeping the Sunday sales ban on motor vehicles.

The question of constitutionality – as in the Mosko case – has arisen often. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that blue laws are constitutional. The court said that, “as presently written and administered, most of them, at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and that presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion.”

Some automobile dealers use Sunday to go to church. Others just use the time to rest and spent time with their families. We believe we have better relationships with our employees because they can rely on having Sunday to spend in the way they wish. They come back to work on Monday feeling more rested, relaxed, and ready to serve Colorado consumers looking for  new cars to drive or to do maintenance on their existing vehicles.

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Cars became more essential than ever, providing maximum safety, independence and freedom during the pandemic

Transportation planners are in a pickle. They want people to abandon cars in favor of walking, bicycling or public transit. Meanwhile, a deadly disease – COVID-19 – is raging through America, and people wisely are staying in their cars for their health and safety.

Even if planners and environmental activists don’t want to acknowledge it, private automobiles are proving essential during the pandemic. As cold and flu season begins, reliance on cars is likely to increase.

During summer of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published COVID-19 Employer Information for Office Buildings that advocated private vehicle use instead of public transportation and even suggested that employers ought to help workers pay for parking, or provide other incentives to encourage safety through car use.

The recommendation was in addition to suggested precautions for people to follow if forced to use public transportation. These included the usual: wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces, and wash or sanitize hands before and after using public transportation. But they also included some suggestions that are more difficult to follow, like staying six feet away from others and out of crowded spaces. That’s almost impossible when riding the bus or train during rush hour, when most working folks need to travel, is often a crowded and poorly ventilated experience. 

The CDC’s recommendations came before Colorado and many other states began opening up after a long lockdown, but COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, and flu season is right around the corner, with fewer than half of Coloradans saying they will get flu vaccinations, and no proven, authorized coronavirus vaccination available in the immediate future.

An added factor is that Colorado’s air quality lately has been terrible – mostly because of smoke from fires here and throughout the West – so people have been encouraged to avoid outdoor exposure, thereby ruling out most walking and bicycling. That puts people without cars back on the bus.

Riding the bus is even harder in the Denver metro area because RTD has cut back service by 40 percent. It has big budget problems partly due to a 60 percent drop in ridership from pre-pandemic times and is now considering cutting jobs – likely resulting in even poorer service.

Do you see a pattern here? People are driving their cars. They cannot work from home and must get to their jobs. They are the frontline healthcare workers and first responders and those who work in lower-paid service jobs.

These are people who need their cars when they work odd hours and when buses aren’t running frequently. Who live in places that don’t have adequate or any public transportation. Who live too far from work to walk or bicycle. Who fear exposure to coronavirus because illness means, at the least, financial hardship or ruin and, at the most, their health or their lives. They can’t afford to be without their cars.

That’s why California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent directive, that beginning in 2035 all new cars sold in the Golden State must be electric, is so problematical. While the auto industry has steadily moved toward offering more electric vehicles (EVs), Americans have been slow to go along. Here in Colorado, which has already adopted California-style low- and zero-emission standards, only three percent of drivers so far in 2020 are choosing electric vehicles, despite lavish tax incentives designed to entice them, as well as 35 to 40 electric models to choose from.

The subsidies have not been enough. Electric vehicles often still cost more up front than gas-powered cars and drivers have been skeptical about their range and the spotty availability of charging facilities. Meanwhile, new gas-powered vehicles are extremely fuel-efficient and clean.

Mandates like California’s don’t make sense. The marketplace should decide whether drivers will adopt EVs. Until they do, being able to have an affordable private vehicle – especially during a pandemic – is a matter of economic equality and social justice.

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US auto industry with roots to early 1900s, saw international competition begin in 1950’s and gain intensity over decades

As the rest of the industrialized world struggled to recover from World War II, America’s economy experienced one of the greatest surges in history. The GIs were home, families were growing, housing development was going suburban and everyone wanted an automobile. It was a good time to be in the industry.

Not only were the homegrown automakers growing, but Great Britain was turning its eyes to the United States as its auto industry savior. Many American soldiers had fallen in love with British cars when they were stationed in England and some had shipped them home. Others, unable to find a domestic version of what they had left behind, decided to buy a British-made import.

The British government actually produced a film in 1946 called “Export or Die,” with the message that, “We must sell the things we like to buy the things we need.” In 1950, 397,688 of the 522,515 cars produced in Britain went to the United States.

It wasn’t that foreign cars hadn’t been available in the U.S. before the war. But they were mostly one-off luxury or high-performance sports cars, purchased abroad and shipped back by the ultra-wealthy.  

The British sports car juggernaut was the British Motor Corporation (BMC), formed in 1952 by a merger of Morris Motors (the M in MG) and Austin. In 1966 BMC merged with Jaguar and became British Motor Holdings Limited and in 1968 merged again with Leyland Motor Corporation LTD, owner of Standard-Triumph International, becoming British Leyland. The cars exported to the U.S. by this conglomerate included not just MG, but Austin Healey, Triumph, Jaguar, Austin, MINI, Rover and Land Rover, as well as many vans, taxis and trucks.

Returning GIs wanted more of the racy sports cars they’d fallen for during the war. The MG-TC was the third version, launched in 1945. Over the next four years, 2,000 of the 10,000 built were shipped to America when the MG TD was introduced; more than 22,000 TDs made their way here.

As you can see, one constant among British automobiles has been repeated changes in ownership. Rover became Rover Triumph, part of British Leyland, then British Leyland sold it to BMW in 1994, which then sold it in 2000 to Ford which also bought Jaguar. Ford then sold both of them to Tata Motors of India.

Several of the once-revered British marques disappeared from the market, either temporarily or permanently due to a combination of manufacturing and financial issues, or because they didn’t meet increased American safety and emissions regulations that were enacted in the mid- ‘60s.

The survivors include Jaguar, whose introduction of the XK-120 in 1948 is credited with spurring Chevrolet to develop the Corvette. It’s sexy XK-E was produced for the American market between 1961 and 1975 and claimed a top speed of 150 mph. Jaguar has joined the parade toward more SUVs and seems committed to a future of more electric vehicles.

Jaguar and Land Rover have become a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Motors and all of its vehicles are designed and manufactured in Great Britain.

Land Rover returned to the U.S. market as the Range Rover in 1987 and was joined by the Land Rover Discovery in 1989. The popular Evoque came out in 2011. A new edition of the original Land Rover Defender is expected soon.

 That original rugged Land Rover, which made its debut in April of 1948, was inspired by the Jeep and was built on a Jeep chassis and the first Land Rovers were painted a dull green color because there was surplus paint left over from the war.

The tiny MINI Cooper – winner of the title “Best British Car of All Time,” became emblematic of the British invasion of the ‘60s (along with the Beatles and Twiggy). It grew out of the fuel shortage caused by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1957. It was the first front-wheel-drive car and excelled as a rally car due to its firm stance and go-kart handling. Imports to the U.S. were halted in the ‘60s because the MINI didn’t meet new American safety or emissions standards. MINI staged an American comeback in 2002, when an enlarged version, similar in looks to the original but loaded with new features and more power, was introduced by BMW, which had acquired MINI from British Leyland and continued to manufacture the original MINI until 2000.

Since its reintroduction in 2002, MINI has flourished in the U.S., establishing a loyal following that appreciated its signature low and wide stance, go-kart handling and refusal to go all-digital in the cockpit. It won the 2003 North American Car of the Year competition, besting the Infiniti G35 and Nissan 350Z.

Italian Cars Survive in U.S. Because of Looks, Performance and Partnerships

When looking at the Italian automotive industry, only one name really carries much weight: Fiat. That’s because the humble Fiat – the Italian equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle – is now part of a giant corporation: FCA (Fiat-Chrysler). And because most of the iconic Italian brands now live under the Fiat umbrella, which covers Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati. Meanwhile, Lamborghini is owned by another automotive giant, Volkswagen.

Nevertheless, Italian cars still occupy a definite niche in the American market.

ALFA, later Alfa-Romeo was born in 1910 in Milan with the 24 HP, but switched to military hardware in 1915. In 1941 it started to manufacture military vehicles and returned to building cars after the war. It gained its greatest fame as manufacturer of sports and racing cars.

Like many European brands, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz ,BMW, Porsche and the British brands, Alfa-Romeo first came to the U.S. in the 1950s thanks to Max Hoffman. He apparently was behind the development of the Giulietta Spider. Alfa-Romeo formed its own American dealer network in 1961.

The brand really took off with the 1967 release of “The Graduate,” in which Dustin Hoffman  drove a Spider roadster (the Duetto in Italy), which became an instant classic. It had a four-cylinder, 109-hp engine, five-speed transmission, disc brakes and was one sexy Italian ride.

Alfa-Romeo stopped importing into the U.S. in 1995 but returned under the FCA umbrella in 2009. It launched the two-seater 4C coupe in 2014 and the Giulia – based off a much smaller version from earlier years – in 2015.

Enzo Ferrari actually got his start working for Alfa-Romeo in 1920. He raced for the marque for 10 more years before starting his own team, continuing to race Alfas. After World War II, he started working on his own car, a 12-cyclinder 125 S that debuted in 1947. The first Ferraris were imported into the U.S. in the late ‘40s, including a street version, the 166 Inter.

The brand was known for design, performance, quality and scarcity. By 1960, the total production was just over 300 vehicles, and still focused largely on racing. Facing financial difficulties, Ferrari was rumored to be talking with Ford but then sold part of his company to Fiat in 1969.

Ferrari became a household name in 1986 when a 1961 250GT co-starred in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Just two years later Fiat took over 90 percent of the marque’s ownership.

Maserati joined Fiat in 1993, although Chrysler Corp. owned a stake in it for a few years in the ‘80s. The Chrysler TC (Touring Coupe) by Maserati was a flop when it was introduced in 1989 and Chrysler bailed on the partnership with Maserati’s then-owner, Argentinian  Alejandro de Tomaso, who sold Maserati to Fiat in 1993, which in 1997 handed it off to Ferrari, also controlled by Fiat. Maserati returned to the U.S. in about 2002 with the Spyder.

The sixth-generation Quattroporte was introduced worldwide at the Detroit Auto Show in 2013 and the first Maserati SUV, the Levante, in 2016. In addition to the Quattroporte and the Levante, Maserati now imports the Ghibli and the MC20 – a super sports car that accelerates from zero-100km/h in 2.9 seconds.

Fiat Chrysler (FCA) now owns most of the Italian auto industry, but the Fiat brand itself is best known in the U.S. for its small cars. Actually, Fiat in the U.S. dates back to 1908 with a factory in Poughkeepsie, New York that produced luxury cars. Fiat left America at the start of World War I and returned in the ‘50s. Its product line included a couple of successful sports cars, the Fiat 124 Sport Spider and the X1/9.  But quality issues dogged Fiat and it closed its U.S. operation in 1983.

Fiat came back to the U.S. in early 2009 when Fiat took a 20 percent interest in Chrysler and began selling the small Fiat 500, which was produced by Chrysler in Mexico, in 2011. Despite its continued popularity outside of North America,  the Fiat 500 and its electric variant are being discontinued in the U.S. because of low sales volume. At its peak in 2012, Fiat sold 47,000 cars, dwindling to 5,370 in 2019. Except for on-hand 500s, now only the Fiat 124 and Abarth 124 are available under the Fiat name. Fiat took full ownership of Chrysler in early 2014.

Lamborghini has traded hands many times since its founding in 1963 to compete with Ferrari. It was once owned by Chrysler (1987-94) and now it is under ownership of Audi, which is owned by Volkswagen. In 2019 fewer than 8,500 Lambos were sold worldwide. They include the  flagship V-12 Aventador, the V-10 Huracan and the Urus SUV, priced beginning at a low (for a Lambo) $222,000 and which “Car and Driver“ summed up thusly: “Looks unlike any other SUV, faster than any other SUV, more practical than any other Lambo.” But the editors also noted that like all Lamborghinis it’s an unaffordable gas-guzzler.

Americans (heart) German Cars

Many post-war Americans had seen a glimpse of what was available from European manufacturers and wanted some of the worldly glamor it represented. Of course, it wasn’t all glamorous. Moreover, the British may have considered imports to the U.S. as an existential essential, but the German Volkswagen in 1949 was among the first. Ironically, the Germans lost the war but won this first race to export heaven.

The Volkswagen Typ 1 had been produced in Germany since 1936, but Germany was forced to “de-industrialize” after the war. The VW plant was slated to be pulled apart and shipped piecemeal to Great Britain but that plan wasn’t workable and the factory’s control was assumed by a British major, who ran it until 1949. That was the year the first VW was exported to America by Max Hoffman, who went on to represent many European marques. By 1955 VW had produced a million of the little cars, and many were tooling around the U.S.

That first VW – the Typ (or Type) 1, was the predecessor of the iconic “Beetle,” of which 5 million were sold in the U.S. Volkswagen of America was established in 1955 and sales surged. Next came the popular VW microbus, forever associated in America with the counterculture of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, followed by the sporty Karmann Ghia – a Typ 1 in much sleeker clothing. The popular Rabbit was introduced in 1975. Volkswagen set the stage for the eventual migration of foreign manufacturing/assembly to the U.S. by opening a plant in Pennsylvania in 1978 that built Rabbits, Golfs, Jettas and other vehicles before closing a decade later.

VW simplified its manufacturing process in the 1970s by using standardized components that could be plugged into different models, beginning with the Passat (Dasher) and then the Golf (Rabbit). The Beetle was discontinued in 1979 and then re-introduced in a streamlined style several years later, only to be discontinued. As the 2000s began, VW had joined other European makers to offer SUVs and a luxury vehicle, which given Volkswagen’s reputation for budget-minded vehicles didn’t sell well against more-established luxury brands.

The legendary Max Hoffman was the person most responsible for the introduction and subsequent popularity of imported European automobiles in the United States. He brought Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Jaguar, Austin Healey, and Jaguar marques to the American market, but he probably is best known for Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche.

That’s not surprising, since Hoffman was an Austrian Jew who fled the war to Paris and then to New York, where he found success in the costume jewelry business. Using the profits from jewelry, he re-entered the automobile business. He cut his teeth in the business in the 1920s and ‘30s as a racing driver and dealer for French Amilcar and a long list of other brands including Auburn, Duesenberg, Lancia and later including Rolls-Royce, Alfa Romeo and Volvo, among others.

After the war, in 1947, Hoffman founded Hoffman Motor Company and capitalized on his contacts in the reawakening European auto industry. The first brand he imported was Jaguar, followed by Volkswagen, although his attempts to sell it in the U.S. fell flat. He began importing Mercedes-Benzes in 1952. His sales successes were significant enough that Mercedes, BMW and Porsche took his advice when developing vehicles for the American market.

Hoffman began importing BMWs in the mid-‘50s and influenced the development of the BMW 507 roadster. He went all-in with BMW in the mid ‘60s and sold his other marques. The BMW 1600 was introduced in 1968. It was Hoffman’s idea to juice the German car, manufactured in Munich, with a two-liter engine to create the 2002, which was a real hit and from which BMW developed its later reputation as “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” a tagline it adopted in 1974.

Hoffman was so successful with BMW in the U.S. that BMW wanted to take back the right to import them and in 1975, Hoffman sold his distributorship back to the manufacturer. BMW was one of the first of the foreign manufacturers to begin building cars stateside. It opened an assembly line in South Carolina in 1975, which is its largest plant.

Many people credit Mercedes with the first “modern” motorcar, beginning in 1901 with a 35-hp vehicle designed by Wilhelm Maybach for Daimler. It had a top speed of just 53 mph. It was off to the races.

Max Hoffman imported the first Mercedes-Benz automobiles to the U.S. in 1952. He was responsible for developing the iconic 300SL Gullwing, among the most sought-after classic vehicles. The Gullwing and the 190 SL roadster hadn’t even been introduced in Germany, yet, when Hoffman displayed them at the 1954 New York International Motor Sports Show. 

Hoffman was successful enough growing the Mercedes-Benz brand that it formed its own distribution partnership with Studebaker-Packard in 1957. It formed its own distribution arm, Mercedes-Benz USA in 1965 with Hans Hoppe at the helm because Studebaker-Packard had failed. He chose the best of Studebaker’s dealers to represent M-B and set about establishing a self-sufficient arm of Daimler-Benz in North America before returning to Germany and spreading the brand elsewhere in Europe.

Ferry Porsche, son of the company’s founder, Ferdinand, saw opportunity in the U.S. and like so many others, found Max Hoffman to be the best way to take advantage of it. Hoffman began representing Porsche in America in mid-1950 out of his Park Avenue showroom in Manhattan, starting with the Porsche 356. He contracted to import 15 cars a year. On the West Coast, Johnny von Neumann started selling Porsches at Competition Motors in North Hollywood. The Porsche 356 had an aluminum body and a 35-hp engine with a top speed of nearly 84 mph.

From those modest beginnings, by 1954 weekly Porsche sales in the U.S. soared to 11, representing almost a third of Porsche’s total sales. By 1965, American sales were almost 75 percent of Porsche’s overall sales, and Porsche was making a name for itself on the American racing circuit as well as with celebrity buyers.

Audi was originally Auto Union, formed by a 1932 merger with three other companies, hence the four-ring logo. By the time Audi made it to the U.S. market in 1970, it had been part of Daimler-Benz and finally under the aegis of Volkswagen, which had acquired a 50 percent share in 1964. Volkswagen introduced Audi to the United States for the 1970 model year. There was a lot of cross-pollination between VW models and Audis, including the Audi Fox and Volkswagen Passat and the Audi 50 and VW Golf. The Audi Quattro was the brand’s first performance car in 1980.

Audi began refocusing its vehicles to compete with other German luxury brands BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s. The automaker experienced some serious quality problems resulting in recalls between 1982-87. Sales fell from about 74,000 in 1985 to just over 12,000 in 1991. Innovations helped to rehabilitate its image and sales have grown since the beginning of the 21st century.  Besides the distinctive four-ring logo, Audi has made the shape of its distinctive LED running lights – each model a different shape –  a selling point.

Swedish neutrality meant that auto production could continue throughout World War II, and Volvo, which had been founded in 1927, introduced its first small car, the PV444 in 1944. Affectionately known as the “bathtub,” the PV444 arrived in the U.S. in 1955. It and a successor, the PV544 were imported until 1966, although a new model, the Amazon (122S in the U.S.), made its U.S. in 1959. Volvo gained even more popularity with 140 series in 1966 and 240 series, which was sold in the U.S. until 1993.

Volvo’s sporty P1800 gained fame in the U.S. when a 1962 P1800 was featured in the TV series, “The Saint,” driven by Roger Moore as Simon Templar.

Volvos great selling point was their safety and the Swedish manufacturer gets credit for inventing the three-point safety belt and putting it in all its vehicles in 1959, which was eventually adopted by most manufacturers. Volvo also was a leader in developing innovations like laminated glass, crumple zones, rear-facing child seats, side-collision protection and collapsible steering columns.

Volvo sold its auto manufacturing division to Ford in 1999. It was part of a group that included Jaguar-Land Rover, which Ford sold to India’s Tata Motors in 2008. Ford’s precarious financial situation after the U.S. financial markets crashed in 2008 was worrisome to Swedish authorities and they considered various ownership possibilities, but Ford finally sold Volvo to the Chinese Geely Group.

Looking to the future, Volvo has been diligently working on developing autonomous vehicles. It announced in 2019 that all of its models will be electrics or hybrids.

Made in Japan

Automobiles have been manufactured in Japan since the 1930s, and Japanese automakers have been importing to the U.S. since the 1950s, beginning with the Toyota Crown in 1958, followed by Datsun in 1959.

Toyota and Datsun were rivals for a share of the U.S. market. Datsun had the Fairlady 1200 Roadster beginning in 1961, followed by a 60-hp pickup in 1965 and the 2000 Roadster five-speed in 1967 that offered 150 hp and over the next 20 years won 10 Sports Car Club of America Championships. It brought its first SUV – badged as a Nissan – to America in 1967. The first Datsuns made especially for the U.S. market were the 510 sedan and station wagon. The 510 four-door sports sedan became a best-seller with more than 300,000 units in the U.S.

The legendary Datsun 240Z sports car was introduced in 1969 at the New York Auto Show.

Toyota was already a manufacturing juggernaut in Japan before it began importing to the U.S. It had launched a line of cars and a pickup during the ‘40s. In the ‘50s it continued to grow and produced what was to become the Land Cruiser. Toyota introduced the still-popular Corolla to the United States in the ‘60s, followed by the Corona and Celica in the 70s. During the ‘80s Toyota brought in the popular 4Runner and the Toyota Camry, which has been a best-seller.

Toyota scored a big win with the Prius hybrid vehicle, which had been enormously successful in Japan. Toyota brought it to the U.S. in 2001.

Toyota and Datsun were joined in the United States by Subaru in 1969, introduced by Malcolm Bricklin. Its GL/DL sedan was the first to have four-wheel drive (4WD), which made it perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, and which has made it so popular in Colorado. Honda actually made its debut in the U.S. in the late 1950s. It was the first Japanese maker to create an American subsidiary, rather than independent distributorships.

American Honda Motor Company, based in Los Angeles, sold motorcycles until 1969-70, when the tiny, underpowered Honda N600 arrived, laying the groundwork for Honda’s first widely sold car,  the Honda Civic, in 1973. The Civic was the first car that met 1970 U.S. clean air regulations without a catalytic converter. Honda has had many environmental firsts, including the first gas-electric hybrid, the Honda Insight in 1999 followed by the Civic and Accord Hybrids. Honda was the first manufacturer whose gas-powered vehicles met California’s stringent low-emissions regulations. It’s been in a race with Toyota to develop a mass-market fuel cell electric vehicle.

Toyota and Nissan understood the American love of pickup trucks and both brands added them to their product lines. Nissan joined the parade to compact trucks with the Datsun 1000 (1.0 liter, four-cylinder, 37 hp) in 1970. The first full-size Japanese pickup built in the U.S. was the Toyota Tundra in 1999. It was Motor Trend’s 2000 and 2008 Truck of the Year. The Nissan Frontier was built stateside beginning in 1997. Honda’s Ridgeline pickup debuted for the 2006 model year, and while it won North American Truck of the Year, it had poor sales. It was revamped for the 2017 model year, again winning Truck of the Year and sales took off. 

Mazda also began importing cars into the U.S. in 1970. Mazda was known for developing the revolutionary 12A rotary engine-powered RX-2, followed by the RX-3, RX-4 and the RX-7 sports car. The 1971 Dodge Colt was actually a Japanese automobile, manufactured by Mitsubishi, which didn’t debut its own marque in America until 1982. Since their introduction, Mazdas have developed into consumer and reviewer favorites, picking up a nomination for its RX-8 in 2004 North American Car of the Year competition, a nomination for the CX-7 for North American Truck of the Year in 2007, 2017 SUV of the Year for the CX-9 (also nominated in the World Car of the Year contest).

The rotary engine fell into disfavor during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo because other Japanese makers’ vehicles were more fuel efficient. But Mazda has announced it is bringing it back as a range extender in its electric vehicles. Mazda’s technological innovation has been evident in its SkyActive® technology that has contributed to increased engine efficiency and vehicle chassis and body stability.

While the small Japanese autos managed to carve out a reasonable share of the U.S. market, their small size put them at a disadvantage with larger, softer-riding and much less efficient American-made automobiles. But they really came into their own as American consumers struggled with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and the gasoline shortages it brought. Suddenly there were lines of panicked customers waiting outside of gas stations for their chance to purchase limited supplies of gasoline. An odd-even system based on the last number of a car’s license plate was devised for purchasing fuel.

Japanese automobiles became very, very popular and continued to be competitive. By 1975 Datsun claimed to have become the #1 U.S. vehicle importer, with 335,415 units to Volkswagen’s 268,751 and Toyota’s 328,918. It stopped using the “Datsun” in the U.S. and adopted the Nissan name it holds today.

Although Volkswagen became the first foreign brand to open a U.S. factory, Honda was the first Japanese manufacturer, opening a plant in Marysville, Ohio, where the first U.S.-built Accord was built in 1976. Nissan opened an assembly line in Smyrna, Tennessee in 1983 and Toyota formed a joint venture with General Motors in 1984 to produce Corollas and Chevy Novas in Fremont, California. Mitsubishi and Chrysler got together in Normal, Illinois in 1988, the same year Toyota opened its own plant in Kentucky. Subaru’s first American plant, in conjunction with Isuzu , opened in 1989 in Indiana. Other assembly plants have opened in the U.S. since then, so “Built in the U.S.” is no longer the exclusive province of domestic brands.

Compared to most European luxury imports, the Japanese imports were definitely gear toward budget-minded Americans. The Japanese manufacturers wanted a slice of that pie, and their bid for it began in 1986 with Honda’s introduction of the Acura Integra and Legend, followed in 1989 with the NSX “Supercar,” which Motor Trend Magazine dubbed “the best sports car ever built.” Acura brought the MDX SUV into the market, with three-row seating , in 2000.

Nissan began planning and developing a luxury brand in 1985, launching the Infiniti Q45 sedan and M30 coupe in 1989. A line of V6 engines came out in 1995 with the VQ series – included as one of “Ward’s 10 Best Engines” for 14 years. More accolades came in 2003 with the inclusion of the G35 Sport Sedan and Coupe among Car and Driver’s “10 Best Cars.” Infiniti continued innovating through the first decade of the 2000s with development of 360-degree viewing, lane departure prevention and warning and blind spot warning.

Toyota’s entry into the luxury market was the Lexus. Toyota took its cues from American focus groups and unveiled its first two models for the 1990 model year, the ES 250 sedan and the LS 400 sedan. The LS earned compliments for a quiet ride, excellent quality and a powerful V8 engine while coming into the market at a lower price point than the German sedans it wanted to compete against. Lexus has continued to grow in popularity while introducing more powerful and sporty models, as well as SUVs, which were taking an ever-larger share of the market.

Lexus also was a trendsetter in the early 2000s with an array of hybrid vehicles.

Korean industrial giants Kia and Hyundai entered the U.S. market later than the Japanese, but they have made up for lost time and become extremely popular. Initially plagued by what was viewed as poor quality and performance, both now rank on par with their European and Japanese competition.

Kia was founded in Korea in 1944, manufacturing steel tubing and bicycle parts. It eventually expanded to motor scooters, motorcycles and three-wheelers. It built its first automotive factory in 1973 and produced its first automobile in 1974.

Kia didn’t begin selling vehicles under its own name in America until the early 1990’s, although it had been importing vehicles under Ford’s blue oval since 1987. The subcompact Kia Pride was dubbed the Ford Festiva and sold for seven years until it was replaced by the Aspire, also made by Kia.

The first car imported under the Kia name was the Sephia in the early 1990s, which was sold only in the West. Kia Motors America was incorporated in the United states in 1992. Kia hit on a winner with its second model, the Sportage compact SUV. By the beginning of the 21st century, Kia was being sold nationwide.

Kia, facing bankruptcy, merged with Hyundai in 1998. Hyundai now owns more than a third of Kia Motors, which has continued building cars under the Kia name, and steadily improving its quality, safety, reputation, and sales. Kia models have earned accolades from J.D. Power, Kelley Blue Book and MotorTrend in the last few years. The Kia Telluride won the 2020 World Car of the Year competition as well as being named the North American SUV of the Year.

The Hyundai Motor Company, incorporated in 1967, was part of a huge South Korean conglomerate that was founded in 1947. It’s first car was the Hyundai Pony, introduced in 1975 but not sold in America. The Hyundai Excel was the first vehicle the company exported to the U.S., beginning in 1986. It was an immediate hit. Hyundai Motor America sold almost 170,000 Excels in the first year and more than 260,000 in the second year.

Like Kia, Hyundai’s first exports had quality issues, but they improved quickly. In 1991 Hyundai offered consumers free regularly scheduled maintenance, besides the standard warranty. Hyundai gained from 19th to 11th among manufacturers in the 1994 JD Powers Customer Satisfaction Survey and two years later made an almost 50-point year-over-year gain in the JD Power Initial Quality Survey, gaining even more in 1998.

The market-leading Hyundai Advantage warranty was introduced in 1998, offering a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. And the hits for Hyundai have just kept coming: a new assembly plant in Alabama in 2005, and more kudos for quality, safety and fuel-efficiency, including winning 2012 North American Car of the Year with the Hyundai Elantra, and wins for the Hyundai Kona as 2019 North American SUV of the Year.

Like the Japanese manufacturers before it, Hyundai wanted a toehold in the luxury market and created it with the Genesis, introducing it at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The company spent a half-billion dollars during a two-year development period. It had a successful run under the Hyundai badge, including a win at the 2009 North American Car of the Year competition, until it spun Genesis off as its own standalone brand in late 2015 and launched its flagship G90 and the G80 in 2016 in the U.S. Originally, Hyundai dealers set aside room in their showrooms for the new Genesis models, but later it required its own showrooms. The G70 was unveiled at the New York Auto Show in 2018. An SUV was added to the Genesis family in 2020.

Genesis quickly became synonymous with quality, earning the top spot on JD Powers Initial Quality Study in 2018 and the Genesis G70 was named North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show in 2019.

The story of imported vehicles in the United States is one of huge success. Whether Americans buy imports because they are fuel efficient, fast, luxurious and/or glamorous, it’s clear that imports have completely changed the complexion of the American automobile market since they arrived here 70 years ago in the early 1950s. In 2020 alone, Japanese vehicles accounted for more than 40 percent of new light truck (including pickups and SUVs) and car purchases, on a par with domestic vehicle purchases. European-manufactured vehicles accounted for about 11 percent of the market and Korean vehicles for not quite eight percent.

The top-selling foreign brands in Colorado (descending order) are Toyota, Subaru, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, VW, Mazda, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus and Volvo. They are also 13 of the top-20 brands in both the state and United States.

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Auto shows log 120 successful years, still popular and viable

The 2020 cancellation of most of America’s major auto shows because of COVID-19 was a blow to both auto enthusiasts and the automotive industry.

The Denver Auto Show, staged annually by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, scheduled for the Colorado Convention Center from April 2-5, 2020, was postponed until September, and then cancelled altogether for the first time in 44 years, along with surrounding events – the Green Car Parade, Innovative Dealer Summit , Preview Gala and the inauguration of the Colorado Automotive Hall of Fame.

The Denver Auto Show is America’s third oldest after the first New York Auto Show in 1900, and the 1901 Chicago Auto Show. Denver’s first show was in 1902. Other major shows came a few years later, including Detroit and Los Angeles in 1907. Another show, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) in Las Vegas, showcasing automobile aftermarket products, wasn’t established until 1963.

Auto shows arose because of the growing popularity of motorized vehicles. There were almost 2,000 different manufacturers in the early part of the 20th century covering the gamut from steam to electric to gasoline engines, and they were produced all over America, although Ford’s first Model A debuted in 1903 and General Motors was founded in 1908, both in Michigan. Even in a Cowtown like Denver, cars were the coming thing in the early 1900s. According to Bud Wells in The Colorado Car Book, estimates of the business transacted as a result of the 1905 Denver Auto Show amounted to about a quarter-million dollars.

The first recorded auto show actually took place not in America, but in Paris in 1898. Le Salon de l’Automobile du Cycle es des Sports” reportedly required exhibitors to drive their vehicles to Paris from Versailles.

New York Auto Show: Another American First

The first New York show in 1900 was at Madison Square Garden and over a week’s time hosted 10,000 visitors who came to see 31 new “horseless carriages.” A star of the show was Ransom Eli Olds’ proposed “runabout,” or “Curved Dash” that became America’s first mass-produced automobile. Perhaps foreshadowing the popular “Camp Jeep” exhibit at today’s auto shows, including the Denver Auto Show, the New York show featured a ramp so various models could demonstrate their ability to climb and safely descend hills.

The New York Auto Show has been held annually, except for wartime breaks, now in April at the giant Jacob Javits Convention Center. It is still one of the most important and prestigious of the international auto shows – a showcase for what’s new and imagined in the automotive world.

Among the notable vehicles shown at past New York Auto Shows were the exhibit of the Pierce Silver Arrow concept car in 1933; a gold-painted MGA (the British roadster) in 1962 to celebrate 100,000 MGs built, most of which came to America; and James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from “Goldfinger.” By 1984, the New York Auto Show included more than 700 models; now it’s almost 1,000 vehicles. It is now the New York International Auto Show.

Clearly, automobiles were the future of personal transportation, so it was necessary to find ways for horse-drawn and horseless carriages to coexist, at least until cars took over entirely. Consequently, Connecticut enacted a speed-limit law in May of 1901, covering both horses and cars: 12 mph in the city and 15 mph outside of it.

Chicago: The Second City Is the Biggest

Chicago bills itself as the nation’s largest and “World’s Greatest” auto show, staged at the massive McCormick Center on the shores of Lake Michigan. The current show now covers more than a million square feet with more than 1,000 vehicles on display.

The first Chicago Auto Show in 1901, drew a crowd of 4,000 over eight days at the Coliseum Exposition Hall. The 1902 show displayed 100 models from 36 manufacturers, the majority powered by gasoline. A poster advertised “The Great Fournier’s Racer. Exciting Speed Contests. Seventh Regiment Military Band.”

The Fournier Racer was built by a Frenchman who established world’s records for speed, driving his two-seater to a 51.6-second mile. The speed contest was between two vehicles that mounted on friction wheels that emulated road resistance – kind of like a treadmill. A measuring dial indicated how fast each car drove a quarter mile. Chicago was the first major auto show to reopen in 1950 following the 1941-49 break necessitated by World War II.

Detroit: An American Show Goes International

Organizers of the Detroit Auto Show – now the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) – argue that they actually had the first American auto show, in 1899. That year, William Metzger, Detroit’s only automobile dealer, displayed two electric and two steam-powered cars at a show alongside sporting goods and fishing gear. Detroit’s first all-vehicle show was organized in 1907 by the Detroit Automobile Dealers at a beer garden. It’s been at Cobo Hall since 1960.

As Detroit was firmly cemented as the heart of the American auto industry – Motor City – the NAIAS has assumed major importance as a place to show off the newest of the new in automotive. More than 6,000 automotive journalists attend and the show hosts more than 800,000 attendees over the course of nine days to view more than 700 vehicles from many countries. COVID-19 caused a delay and eventual cancellation of the 2020 show. The only other break was because of World War II between 1941-53.

NAIAS is the venue for handing out the North American Car, SUV and Truck of the Year awards, highly coveted by both domestic and foreign automakers.

Los Angeles: The City the Car Built

As Los Angeles Auto Show opened in January of 1907, the Los Angeles Times reported, “There are towns in the East that boast an automobile to every one hundred of the population … Los Angeles, with a quarter of a million people, has an automobile for every eighty persons. It is without exception the banner automobile city of the world.”

Opening night brought out an estimated 3,500 people, excited to view 99 vehicles from 46 manufacturers. Attendance was so heavy that the show was extended a day. The Times reporter said there was a two-fold reason cars were so desirable: the all-season climate and “because we can afford it. … It marks an advance in the wealth and prosperity of the Southwest.” After all, this was the home of Hollywood and movie-star glamor.

Los Angeles got its first traffic signal in 1920 and traffic laws in 1925. The show grew to 120,000 square feet by the mid-1920s, much of it under tents. A huge fire destroyed the tents in 1929 but the show went on, reopening at the Shrine Auditorium one day later. Auto sales dwindled by about 50 percent from 1929 to 1930, but the show continued. It and other major shows moved their shows to November, as requested by President Roosevelt to boost the flagging economy.

After a 12-year break because of the war, the Los Angeles Auto Show returned in 1952. By the beginning of the 1960s the show, which had moved to the Pan Pacific Auditorium, had grown to 400 cars, encompassing domestic and imported brands.

LA Auto Show organizers created the Connected Car Expo in 2013 to showcase new technologies and in 2016 merged the Expo with the show’s press and trade days to create AutoMobility LA, which has become an important event on its own to highlight new developments in design and green energy, including the Green Car of the Year Awards.

SEMA: To the Trade Only

The general public isn’t allowed at the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s annual show in Las Vegas. This is where manufacturers show of some of their wildest dreams of how vehicles can be customized, pimped out, and glammed up. The 2019 show featured 2,400 exhibitors and 3,000 products throughout five halls; the 2020 show was cancelled.

SEMA started in 1963, organized by suppliers of performance products for hot rods. They called themselves the “Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association” and had several goals, including promoting their industry and creating some uniform standards for their products. Years later, the little guys that founded SEMA have become the big guys and the specialty products – “aftermarket” – industry, is worth almost $30 billion annually. Their quest to support ‘”ingenuity in action’ in the design and development of products” has been wildly successful and the SEMA show is popular with almost every sector of the automotive industry with a role in giving Americans the rides they want to express their needs and personalities.

Denver: The Biggest Show Between Chicago and LA

Denver’s auto dealers and the Denver Auto Show predated other Colorado icons. The ski industry didn’t get started until 1911, Rocky Mountain National Park opened in 1915 and the Broncos date back just to 1960.

The first Denver Auto Show in 1902 featured 15 models, including motorcycles, and ran for six days at the old Denver Coliseum. By 1908 the show had moved to Mammoth Gardens roller rink in Capitol Hill with 107 vehicles on display. It kept expanding, except for breaks during both World Wars, moving to the new Denver Coliseum in 1952 and then to the brand-new Currigan Hall in 1969, where it occupied all of the facility’s 100,000 display space with 325 cars and trucks

The show went dark for a few years in the early ‘70s, but was brought back by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association and the Metro Denver Automobile Dealers Association, and their president, William D. Barrow. Continued growth meant that when the Colorado Convention Center opened in 1991, the show moved again, remaining at the Convention Center, occupying as much space as available – usually about a half-million square feet – with more than 500 of the newest, best examples of automotive innovation on display. The

The Future of Auto Shows Is Still Rosy

There’s been a lot of chatter in the automotive world and beyond in recent years about the usefulness of auto shows, for consumers as well as for manufacturers and dealers. Some manufacturers have reduced or cancelled appearance at many of the country’s 60-some auto shows. Since the auto show dates back more than 100 years both in the U.S. and in Colorado, it technically is an antique. But are auto shows as an institution also antiquated?

German makers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, especially, have stopped participating in American auto shows. But there are ample data suggesting they are making a mistake. For example, a survey of attendees at dozens of auto shows indicated that while there had been a trend toward digital marketing, auto shows were still a powerful influencer of buying decisions. Foresight Research’s “2019-20 Auto Show Season Attendance Report©,” surveying 46 U.S. auto shows, showed 61 percent of them had higher year-over-year attendance and indicating their viability as a marketing tool.

Christopher Stommel, Foresight’s president said, “Some brands shifted marketing dollars toward smaller, more targeted events, especially for their new vehicle launches.  But no matter how or where new product is launched to the press, it is still the local auto show where the largest number of consumers are going to first experience that vehicle.  And the data shows that when a brand is absent, the consumer will take a closer look at the competitive brands who are on the show floor, and those brands end up benefiting with increased reach and consideration.”

Consumers still want to kick the tires, sit in the seats and revel in that new-car smell. According to Barbara Pudney, former VP of Paragon Group, CADA’s producing partner for the Denver Auto Show, “A third are looking to buy, a third are gearheads, and a third are looking for something to do. But those last two-thirds are still potential buyers.”

Coloradans have a long history of a love affair with their cars, so it’s likely the Denver Auto Show will continue to be a powerful draw as Colorado’s longest-running and biggest trade show.

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Recreational Vehicles – Rooted in History – More Popular than Ever in 2021

If you think about it, the first recreational vehicles (RVs) – ones that could be “lived” in, or at least slept in – really belonged to snails and hermit crabs. Perhaps it was from observing these examples from nature that humans figured out they could move a dwelling unit around fairly easily.

While the history of the modern RV in the U.S. began in 1904, these wheeled or towed vehicles actually date back much further in history. Think about the Gypsy wagons in medieval times. The people we now call Roma – then called Gypsies because they were thought to originate in Egypt –  traveled throughout Europe, living in horse-drawn wagon caravans. Wherever these wagons stopped they seemed to bring thefts, pickpocketing and forbidden acts of magic. Local authorities would move in and the vagabonds would move on.

Then, there was the traveling circus. The first recorded example in the U.S. was John Bill Ricketts’ show, which toured the East and Canada in the late 1700s. The traveling circus’s heyday was in the mid-1800s, taking long caravans of gaily decorated wagons holding performers and animals throughout the U.S.

Rolling West in Covered Wagons

An American version of the Gypsy wagon was the covered wagon. The covered wagon was modeled on the Conestoga wagon that freight haulers in the eastern part of America, but smaller. Their greased, canvas-covered tops, seen from afar, resembled sails on the horizon, thus the nickname “Prairie Schooners.” They moved settlers westward, beginning with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1820s, and increasing with migration along the Oregon Trail. One major wagon train of 120 wagons and about 1,200 settlers, left from Missouri on the Oregon Trail – “The Great Emigration of 1843.”

It took settlers four to six months, carrying all their supplies in the wagons, which weighed up to 2,500 pounds. Generally, the wagons weren’t used for sleeping – tents were usually assembled nightly and were struck each the morning, or people slept beneath their wagons. In the event of bad weather or an Indian attack, wagons offered shelter. Arriving at their destinations, settlers could live out of their wagons – the 19th century version of today’s RVs.

The Birth of the Modern RV

A hand-built shelter built onto a vehicle in 1904 is credited as the first RV. According to a report in The Smithsonian Magazine (Sept. 4, 2018), it had incandescent lighting, an icebox, a radio and slept four. But the earliest vehicle that most resembled today’s RVs was unveiled at the 1910 Madison Square Garden auto show: a Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau with a fold-down backseat that converted to a bed and fold-away sink that increased space.

“Tent trailers,” moderately priced and meant to be towed, carrying tents, sleeping bags and the other accoutrements needed for camping appeared in the 1910s. They developed to include a collapsible tent, cots and storage for cooking equipment.

The Conklin family headed out from New York in 1915 on a camping trip across America in its “Gypsy Van,” a 25-foot vehicle built by the Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company. Conklin’s house-on-wheels with its electric lights, kitchen, built-in furniture, including beds, entranced the media. The New York Times marveled it had “all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.” Ransom Eli Olds introduced the REO “Speed Wagon Bungalow” in the mid-1920’s, about the same time as the Hudson-Essex “Pullman Coach.”

Americans had discovered the joys of the Great Outdoors and recreational camping: the “Back to Nature” movement. In fact, a group of famous men dubbed the Vagabonds – with names like Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford – took annual camping trips between 1913 and 1924 in a customized Lincoln truck. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Americans again headed west, living out of their vehicles – the migration brought on by the Great Depression.

The Covered Wagon – Motorized

Pharmaceutical executive Arthur G. Sherman had a bad camping experience while trying to erect a tent on a trailer, and his family got soaked. He hired a carpenter to build his own version of a covered camping trailer. Sherman’s “Covered Wagon” was displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in early 1930. It was six-by-nine feet, had windows on the sides and two in front and included domestic amenities like built-in furniture and storage. Expensive at $400, Sherman still sold 118 of them, grossing $3 million by 1936.

In 1929, Wally Byam repurposed a Ford Model T chassis with a teardrop-shaped structure and built the first Airstream trailer – not yet the streamlined stainless steel-clad version we know now. It sold for $500 and up and was light enough to be towed by an average car.

RVs were deployed as mobile hospitals, morgues and jails during World War II. The military bought thousands for enlisted housing. But when the war ended, returning soldiers – perhaps tired of “camping out” in foxholes –  decided a better experience was desirable, and the RV industry happily obliged. Among the offerings in 1952 was a 10-wheel luxury motorhome: carpeted, with two bathrooms, television and even a swimming pool. Its $75,000 price amounts to $810,000 now – not so different from some of the best 2021 RVs.

The era of the modern motorhome/recreational vehicle had begun. And the establishment of the Interstate highway system made it even more attractive.

Many Types to Choose From

The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates that 12 percent of RVs sold in 2019 in the U.S. were motorized:

  • Class A is essentially a repurposed bus with a flat front end, including the top-of-the-line Canadian Prevost costing more than $1 million, and the Georgetown and Winnebago for more than $100,000.
  • Class B is the repurposed van. Mercedes-Benz’s Sprinter, Ford Transit and Winnebago’s Rebel are examples.
  • Class C includes RVs that generally are built on a pickup or van chassis with the structure coming over the cockpit. There is a “Super C” class built on a semitrailer chassis.

Side Trip to Microbuses and Conversions

Who can forget the first Volkswagen microbus, the Typ (Type) 2, beloved of youth during the freedom-loving days of the ‘60s and ‘70s? According to Volkswagen, the original design was sketched out on a napkin in 1947 by Dutchman Ben Pon, Sr., who imported it into the U.S. beginning in 1950.

“It took you everywhere with your friends, it was a car but also a home on wheels, it was both reliable and unconventional, it was highly emotional,” according to VW Chairman Herbert Diess, speaking in Pebble Beach, California, while introducing a concept all-electric VW microbus, dubbed the I.D. Buzz, planned for production in 2022. It looks amazingly similar to the iconic microbus.

A generation of microbus imitators followed and eventually morphed into the conversion van, which appeared in the 1970s. The mostly standard commercial utility vans were customized with added seats, carpeting and other features to provide the creature comforts Americans wanted while camping out in style. The vans are still popular and are part of Class B.

Lots of Trailers, Too

The RVIA estimates that towables comprise 88 percent of RVs on the road. They also are categorized:

  • Pop-up campers with folding sides and tops.
  • Travel trailers of 13-40 feet, with many floorplans and options. Often with pop-outs on the side.
  • Fifth Wheels of 25-40 feet, that hang over and are attached on the bed of a pickup. Also with lots of floorplans and options.
  • Toy Haulers, which can be any of the above with built-in storage for outdoor gear such as dirt bikes and ATVs.
  • Teardrops, which are smaller and lighter-weight than the above, towed trailers.

The Industry Is Booming

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made RVs and trailers wildly popular. Americans, unable or unwilling to travel in ways that put them in company with strangers, still have wanted to get out of their houses and go places. Buying or renting RVs or trailers are time-honored ways of doing that.

The Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) reported that despite a two-month shutdown because of COVID-19, production in 2020 increased about four percent, for a yearly total of about 400,000 units. Sales have increased hugely. According to RVIA, there was a 43.4 percent increase from November 2019 to November 2020. RV Technical Institute Executive Director Curt Hemmler expects that to continue, “even as the vaccine rolls out and folks’ comfort levels may return to flying again or taking a cruise.” The National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds predicted that 2021 would be a banner year; a study it conducted predicted that more than 53,000 new privately owned RV/camping sites would be constructed in 2021.

Americans are learning that RVs represent not only freedom to travel but also a good deal. A study by CBRE Hotels Advisory Group indicated that RV vacations are the most economical way to go, even with the cost of RV ownership and fuel, even if fuel prices escalate to as much as $13/gal., and even if they travel in the most expensive types of motorhomes.

Who buys RVs? The Nielsen-conducted “Go RVing Communications Planning Study” estimates that the groups most likely to be interested and to purchase RVs are “Active Family Adventurers,” “Nature Lovers,” and “Kid-Free Adult Adventurers,” about 40 percent of all U.S. households.

By the Numbers

The RVIA’s 2019 research revealed a $114 billion overall impact on the U.S. economy. That includes nearly 600,000 jobs with $32 billion paid out in wages and $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes. The impact on Colorado’s economy is also significant:

  • 11,105 RVs shipped to Colorado
  • 1,028 RV-related businesses
  • 9,752 jobs
  • $491.7 million paid in wages
  • $179.8 million paid in taxes by the industry
  • Retail value of RVs shipped to Colorado: $404.9 million

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How little bicycles grew up to be big motorcycles

Motorcycles conjure up an image: Marlon Brando in The Wild One; Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider; Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; and, of course, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. These independent, macho heroes (or anti-heroes) exemplify a small slice of a motorcycle history beginning in the 1800s.

Motorcycle Development

While the history of the automobile can be traced back to the 17th century, it’s a little harder to pin down exactly when and where the motorcycle began. But bicycles and synchronicity were definitely the foundations as inventors in America, Europe and Asia borrowed from and built on one another’s contributions. And it continues. NADA lists more than 300 new and used motorcycle manufacturers.

The Americans

American inventor Sylvester Roper attached a two-cylinder, coal-fired, steam-powered engine to a velocipede – that vehicle with the huge front wheel – in what is assumed to be 1867. Arizonan Lucius Copeland built a smaller, steam-powered velocipede in 1881 that achieved 12 mph.

Charles H. Metz, founder of the Waltham Manufacturing Co. in Massachusetts, first used the term “motor cycle” in an advertisement for his Orient motor-powered cycle in 1899. The Orient won the first recorded American motorcycle speed contest on July 31, 1900.

Landmark American contributions to motorcycling came beginning in the 1900s. Indian Motorcycle adopted a four-stroke engine, developed by the French DeDion-Buton, in 1901. Indian had a hit with its Single and was producing more than 20,000 units by 1913.

Two years later, William Harley and partners Arthur and Walter Davidson collaborated to found Harley-Davidson out of a wooden shack in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By 1905 they were producing a commercially viable bike, developing the first dual-cylinder engine in 1909. Variations of that iconic engine are still part of the Harley lineup. Harley was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, selling in 67 countries.

Indian and Harley-Davidson remained the only two American motorcycle manufacturers until 1953 when Indian closed and British maker Royal Enfield took over the Indian name. Indian made a comeback in 2013 under the aegis of Polaris, a maker of ATVs and snowmobiles.

The French

Pierre Michaux attached pedals to a primitive velocipede in 1861, taking the two-wheeler to popularity. According to Louis Schafer in “American Motorcyclist,”  “… aching legs prompted imaginative minds to search further for a better power source.” Michaux’s son, Ernest, added a small steam engine to his father’s “boneshaker” bicycle.

Inventor Guillaume Perreaux patented a commercial alcohol-fired, single-cylinder steam engine fixed to Michaux’s bicycle in 1868 with “… a maximum speed of about 9 mph. However, it also used up its water supply quickly and was dangerous to the rider in the slightest mishap or fall.”  It didn’t have brakes.

The DeDion-Bouton engine – a lightweight, four-stroke engine that produced 1.3 hp – was introduced in Paris in 1895 and became popular with moto-bicycle builders, including Indian. Peugeot Motocycles exhibited a motorcycle powered by an engine invented by DeDion-Buton in 1898. It continued to build motorcycles until WWII. After the war, while still building some motorcycles, transitioned more toward mopeds and scooters.

The Italians

As with clothes, shoes and fast cars, Italians have created some standout motorcycles. “What is a motorcycle from Italy? In the first place, it is speed. Second, it is a high level of exterior elegance,” as one source put it. The best-known brands include Ducati, MVAgusta and Aprilia.

Ducati produced radio transmitters until World War II. Post-war, it fulfilled a need for cheap engines attached to bicycles with the Ducati Cucciolo, followed by the two-hp Ducati 60 in 1949 and bigger bikes in the ‘50s. Street racing fueled desire for more bikes. Ducati has continued to produce motorcycles for both streets and tracks. Ducati is famous for introducing the “naked bike,” or “standard,” with no wind-deflection and exposed chassis.

Its website enthuses: “…the passion remains, for a true, unique, adrenaline-filled experience, like a red motorcycle hurtling down the roads and racetracks throughout the world.”

Aircraft maker MVAgusta rebuilt post-WWII to manufacture motorcycles. Racing enthusiast Count Domenico Agusta applied racers’ characteristics to production bikes. The company has changed hands several times, and is now owned by multinational investors. It continues to manufacture high-end road and racing bikes.

Aprilia, formed after WWII to manufacture bicycles, moved into scooters and motorcycles. It’s built renowned racing and motocross bikes. It continues to excel with its racers after acquisition by Piaggio, which is better known for its Piaggio and Vespa scooters.

The Germans

Gottlieb Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) and Wilhelm Maybach attached their first gas-powered combustion engine to a traditional bicycle, called the Daimler Reitwagen, in 1885. The Reitwagen’s engine ½-hp engine got up to 7 mph. It is credited as the first modern motorcycle.

Hildebrand & Wolfmuller, the first to factory-build motorized two-wheelers, coined the name “motor-cycle” (in German: motorrad) beginning in 1894.

NSU – another bicycle maker – debuted its first motorcycle in 1901. It achieved racing fame, breaking many world records, including a 211-mph World Land Speed Record at Bonneville in 1956. During the ‘30s NSU was the largest motorcycle manufacturer; by the mid-‘50s it produced 350,000 units. NSU turned more to automobile engine development and ceased motorcycle production in 1963.

BMW was banned from aircraft engine manufacturing post World War I. Its first motorcycle – the R32 – was introduced in 1923. A consistent innovator, BMW’s original flat-twin boxer engine configuration is still used along with other designs and it introduced the first anti-lock brakes. BMW sold more than 175,000 units in 2021.  

The British

British motorcycle history is all about mixing, matching and consolidation. In the 1930s there were more than 80 different makers of British motorcycles, and over the years there have been 280 identified British brands, but Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry, reported British production peaked in 1928 at 147,000 machines.  

The Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd. (BSA), incorporated in 1861, sold guns and bicycles. BSA transitioned to motorcycles with the BSA 3 1/2 hp. BSA eventually became the largest motorcycle producer in the world by vacuuming up many of its well-known competitors.

Ariel produced its first motorcycle in 1902. Acquired by Components Ltd. that year, it continued producing a three-speed, two-stroke bike, the Arielette, which it made up until the beginning of World War I. After the war it continued building motorcycles, becoming part of BSA until dying in 1965.

Triumph, founded in 1884 to sell bicycles produced a motorcycle in 1902 – a one-cylinder machine with a Belgian engine; 500 were sold that year. Triumph was selling 3,000 units annually by 1909. By 1930  it sold 30,000 units in eight models. Triumph was sold to Ariel in 1935 and to BSA in 1951.

Norton Manufacturing, founded in 1898 to make bicycle parts, soon was assembling motorcycles with other makers’ parts. Norton became known for racing motorcycles. The company failed in 1913 but was resurrected. It absorbed BSA-Triumph in the mid-‘70s, failed again and now is in the hands of India’s TVS Motor Co.

Royal Enfield Motorcycles began building bicycles in 1882, making parts for others before transitioning to motorcycles in 1901 as The New Enfield Cycle Company Ltd. It was sold twice before being absorbed by BSA in 1907. The Royal Enfield Bullet, still manufactured by Enfield of India, is considered the longest-lived motorcycle in history.


The U.S. Army reportedly used Harleys to hunt Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution. And motorcycles played a critical role in both world wars; better for delivering dispatches to the front lines than horses in World War I and with the ability to mount a machine gun. Harley-Davidson sent 20,000 units to Europe for Army use in World War I. Indian contributed most of its production during the Great War.

British forces relied on some 30,000 Triumph Model Hs while Norton contributed more than 100,000 WD161Hs. Peugeot offered more than a thousand bikes to support French troops.

World War II also was fought with motorcycles. The modified Harley-Davidson WL maneuvered well and was sturdy –  70,000 were produced for the war effort, including thousands that ended up in Russia’s hands. Britain ordered more than 126,000 BSA M20s; thousands of lightweight Royal Enfield Flying Fleas were parachuted behind enemy lines.

As good as these bikes were, the BMW R71 may have been better. Used extensively in Europe it excelled in North Africa where because it resisted desert grit.

World War II heralded post-war motorcycle popularity. Returning veterans saw how these wartime workhorses could translate into excitement and fun on America’s roads, especially as bigger and faster bikes were produced and the highway system was developed.

The Japanese

Japan’s motorcycle industry blossomed after WWII when cheap transportation was necessary for rebuilding. They since have become motorcycling innovation and competition juggernauts.

Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha motorcycles grew out of existing companies. Honda Motor Co. incorporated in 1948, producing a 98cc bike in 1949, the Dream, or Model D, followed in two years with the four-stroke Dream E. Honda kept building bigger, faster bikes, and became a racing powerhouse. The renowned Gold Wing was introduced in 1974. Honda is now the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

Suzuki got into motorcycles in 1951 by clipping a motor to a bicycle. Over the years it has gained fame for its off-road, sport and racing bikes.

Kawasaki Motorcycles were part of a huge industrial conglomerate that acquired Meguro motorcycles in 1963 and the next year produced its first Kawasaki. It established a U.S. presence in 1966 with small two-cylinder Omegas. Kawasaki quickly gained a reputation for endurance racing and off-roading.

In 1955, Yamaha’s first bike, the Red Dragonfly won two races. Yamaha imported two streetbikes into the U.S. and also began competing on the world racing circuit at the 1958 Catalina Grand Prix, the first time a Japanese motorcycle raced in America. The 1975 YZ Monocross set the tone for future motocross competition.

The Future

U.S. motorcycle use is growing: 12,231,000, a two-million + increase over 2014 according to the latest data (2018). The Motorcycle Industry Council reports shifting demographics:

  • Households owning motorcycles: from 6.94% in 2014 to 8.02% in 2018.
  • Gender: Male owners – 81%, with growing female use; 22% female GenX owners and 26% female Millennial owners.
  • Age: Getting older. Median age of motorcycle owners in 2012 was 45; in 2018 it was 50. Retirees equal almost a quarter (24%).
  • Education: College graduates increased between 2012 (17%) and 2018 (24%).

U.S. motorcycling is dwarfed by other countries. According to, “Daily over 200 million motorcycles are in use all around the world … Leading countries with greatest motorcycle use are India (37 million motorcycles/mopeds) and China (34 million motorcycles/mopeds).”

In dense, urban areas of developing countries, motorcycles and their smaller brethren – scooters – are less expensive and more maneuverable on narrow and crowded streets than cars. In the United States, large cruisers are gaining popularity, along with three-wheel motorcycles (trikes for adults!). Some of these larger vehicles are more expensive than automobiles and as the data indicates, older people with more disposable income and a yen for the independence associated with motorcycling, will be hitting the road on two (or three) wheels.

Motorcycle Glossary

There is a motorcycle for almost every use:

  • Street bikes – for riding on paved roads, and usually have 125 cc or larger engines, and light tread on their tires.
    • Standards/naked bikes/roadsters – general purpose bikes designed for upright riding without windscreens.
    • Cruisers – defined by Harley-Davidson with forward foot placement, higher handlebars and lower ground clearance. Especially good for low to moderate speeds. Power cruisers have more power and a higher ground clearance.
    • Sport bikes – built for more speed, acceleration and handling on paved roads. They position riders’ legs closer to the body and riders lean over more to reach the controls.
    • Touring – built for driving longer distances in an upright, relaxed posture. Generally have large-displacement engines, bigger fuel tanks, windscreens, and more luggage capacity.
    • Dual-sport – built to be street legal but can also go off-road. A subset is the Supermoto, designed to bridge road and track racing and motocross, but is still street legal.
    • Utility – adapted to perform specific jobs. These include deliveries, police work and other specialized uses.
  • Off-road – for riding on unpaved surfaces with lighter weight, better ground clearance, flexibility and knobby tires.
    • Motocross – for racing on closed off-road tracks with obstacles like hills and jumps.
    • Enduro – built for events that can last days and may include both road and off-road. A subset is the Rally, with larger fuel tank to accommodate very long distances like the Paris-Dakar rally.
    • Trials – built for a specialized kind of competition. Riders stand, rather than sit, so these bikes are built for  good balancing and precision shifting.
    • Track racers – self-explanatory. They are built for speed with no brakes, no rear suspension and only two gears.
    • Trail/Dirt – for general off-roading.
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