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Chinook/Trail Wagons, Inc.
Chinook RV, a division of Trail Wagons, Inc. was a family-owned and operated manufacturer of relatively short-length, high-quality Class C (Class B+) recreational vehicles, once considered “The Sports Car of Motorhomes” until the company’s demise in 2005.
In January 2013, the intellectual property rights of the Chinook brand, including the nameplate, designs, templates, manufacturing jigs, molds and support equipment were acquired by Phil Rizzio, owner of Wagon Trail RV in Las Vegas, Nevada and Creston RV in Kalispell, Montana. Specializing in the Class B market including buying, selling and trading Class A, B, C, fifth-wheel towables and diesel pusher RVs, Mr. Rizzio’s franchise is an exclusive dealer for Airstream, Leisure Travel Vans, Pleasure-Way, and Dynamax RVs.
With plans to re-open a new production line of the fabled Chinook RV in Junction City, Oregon by the end of the year, “birthing pains” with a prototype model in 2014 and a directional change in design strategy the following year delayed roll out of the all-new 2016 Chinook “Countryside” Class B vehicle on a Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter chassis until its Sept. 2015 introduction to immediately mixed, but mostly negative reviews by current Chinook RV owners.
The Early Years: A dream born in a garage
Most successful companies in the United States can trace their roots back to ideas that originated in the minds of entrepreneurs. Time has shown the products they created were usually non-conforming and non-traditional in nature, but filled a need for the American consumer.
First produced in 1938 by Sy and Rose Mair in Orange County, California, Chinook was among the oldest U.S. brand names in the RV industry. Over the next thirty years, the family-run business of Mair & Son, Inc. would relocate to Union Gap, Washington where they would build small travel trailers, pickup campers and chassis mounts that went on a one-ton cab chassis.
It was during the early 1950s and 60s that the first mass-produced motorhomes started appearing on the road, with some of the early models looking like a cross between a slide-in camper and a motorhome. These Class C motorhomes were actually constructed on a truck chassis. Fabricators ordered trucks without the traditional bed and added their own creation, a practice that is essentially still done today.
1963 Chinook Custom Camp Coach
From top to bottom: 1969 Chinook Custom Camp Coach, 1972 Chinook Cayuse Camp Coach
Meanwhile, during the spring of 1961 in San Jose, California, another RV business had its initial beginnings in a family home garage. Don Lukehart, Sr., an avid enthusiast of outdoor camping and fishing, was frustrated with the lack of mobile campers available on the market. Working at night in his garage with his son Gary, who had a background in design and cabinet making, Mr. Lukehart converted a Chevrolet Corvair into a “mini camper van.” The first-time effort would launch another family-run business after a friendly bet was made between a father and his sons. When others would ask Don Lukehart where they could get a camper just like the one he had, a challenge was started whether they could actually sell more than six campers.
The results would ultimately revolutionize the RV industry.
The Lukehart family would start up Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company to build and sell converted Chevrolet and Dodge vans into custom-designed camper coaches. While eldest son Don Lukehart, Jr. would continue his career as a schoolteacher and wrestling coach, middle son Gary would be the chief designer of the units, while youngest son Roger would handle the marketing and sales of the family-owned business.
Hit & Miss: Chinook Mobilodge Class A motorhomes and Fifth Wheeler
Their reputation firmly established after early successes in building deluxe slide-on camp coaches, Mair & Son, Inc., developed into the Chinook Mobilodge Company as it looked toward expanding into the large size RV market. Beginning in 1966, the company introduced the Chinook 1400 chassis mount, a cab over Class C motorhome built on a Dodge truck chassis, followed by the Chinook 2200 and 2500 Vista/Brougham, the company’s first – and only – fully self-contained Class A motorhomes.
A 30 foot Fifth Wheeler model with sleek, aerodynamically designed exterior contours that conformed to wind currents, allowing the unit to track effortlessly was also added to the company’s lineup. The Fifth Wheeler was designed to be towed by Dodge’s Crew or Club Cab, Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Sportsman, GMC/Chevrolet’s Crew Cab, Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Sportswagon, Ford’s Standard 3/4 ton Pickup or Econoline Club Wagon or International’s Crew Cab or Standard 3/4 ton Pickup. With each succeeding model year, the company was also employing further use of fiberglass in the overall construction process.
The 1966 (top, with ribbed aluminum roof) and 1969 (bottom, with fiberglass roof) Chinook Mobilodge Class A motorhome on a Dodge chassis
By 1971, a confluence of events would see some major changes taking place in Washington state’s RV manufacturing industry. After Chinook Mobilodge Company had been merged and sold several times, the Lukeharts took their growing skills from California to Yakima, Washington, the neighboring city of Union Gap. By now, Gary Lukehart had come on board as president of the company, which at the time was owned by an investment group based in New York City that took it public.
It was also at this time the development of the first one-piece, all-fiberglass shell had been successfully designed for the Chinook Mobilodge’s 2500 Vista and 2500 Brougham motorhomes. Built on either a special Dodge 1-ton with a 159 inch wheelbase, or a Chevrolet 1-ton with a 157 inch wheelbase, the smoother, curved lines and angles, the rounded contour and low profile body design quickly became evident with customers and the RV manufacturing industry. Up until then, most recreational vehicles were in the style of the Winnebago Chieftain, which epitomized most Class A units of the era; big, square and boxy looking with all the aerodynamic coefficient properties of a brick. Lukehart’s incorporation of fiberglass allowed for some creative styling and flair in the Chinook Mobilodge that would replace the old-style ribbed aluminum cladding traditionally found in the RV industry.
Also unique were the two models of the Chinook 2500 themselves. The 2500 Vista was designed for traveling family-style, offering a wide-open floor plan for active vacation living featuring an exclusive “Vistaramic” picture window in the rear compartment that matched the forward panoramic design of the crew cab. Seating for three individuals was available up front via a swivel driver’s seat and a two-place passenger seat. The multi-purpose living/dining room area converted in minutes into a bedroom with comfortable sleep accommodations for up to five adults via a double bed, a single bed and two drop down bunk beds.
The 2500 Brougham model was designed for couples on the go year round – a predecessor of today’s “fulltimers”. Additional drawer and wardroom space was provided with a fold out queen-size double bed opposite a vanity table. The bed could be left made up without obstructing passage through the bedroom compartment. Luxury features included a private bathroom with separate shower, wide counter top and built-in medicine cabinet. Both models also featured a four burner range with eye level oven, 7.5 cubic foot refrigerator/freezer and stainless steel double sink. To accommodate guests in complete privacy, the adjoining four place dinette converted into a double bed.
1973 Chinook 2500 Vista, the last Class A RV built by the Chinook Mobilodge Company
Unfortunately, events a few years later and half a world away would have a major impact on the lifespan of the Chinook 2200 and 2500, which can be found in the book, ”Mobile Mansions: Taking Home Sweet Home on the Road” by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, Publisher 2006-03-03 ~ ISBN: 1586857738 ~ Paperback) with the following description on page 121:
“This 1973 Chinook Class A Mobilodge, powered by a massive 413-cubic inch Chrysler gas engine, was manufactured at exactly the wrong time, 1973. For years, Americans had been guzzling fuel at an alarming rate. In 1972, the average American automobile got a mere 14.5 miles per gallon of gas. By the end of 1972, America’s oil reserves were at a critical low levels, and by the winter of 1973 there were widespread brownouts. For most Americans, the real crisis came in October 1973 when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) severely reduced their oil exports, which resulted in long lines at the gas stations or simply no gas at all. The ultimate cruelty came during the Christmas season when President Nixon refused to turn on the National Christmas Tree’s lights to save energy.”
Big things come in small packages: Chinook Dodge Maxi-Van and Chinook Chevy Trail Wagon
Meanwhile, back in California, the Lukehart’s Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company continued to expand, develop and refine the self-contained mini motorhome market based on the growing popularity of full-sized vans. Beginning in 1970 after designing a lightweight, yet strong fiberglass roof extension that could be attached at the roofline of a Dodge Maxi-Van or Chevy G20 or G30 Trail Wagon, the Lukehart’s partnered with Western Recreational Vehicles to create Chinook Western, a division of Chinook Mobilodge, Inc. as the new nameplate for these luxury van conversions that sold in the auto market.
These “B-vans”, phased in over 1970 as 1971 models, were radically different from the earlier A-van models in response to customer requests. Wind resistance was cut, which lowered noise and increased highway mileage; windshields were made full length and curved, replacing the old separate sheets of plate glass and the center windshield pillar, and the instrument panel, seats, and trim were brought upscale to match or beat passenger cars.
In fact, since some parts came from passenger cars, the Lukeharts successfully marketed “Do it Yourself” conversion kits for owners of previously purchased Dodge, Ford or Chevy vans. For DITY owners looking to turn their own vans into a luxury mobile bedroom on wheels, the simplicity and popularity of these “drop in” components, including a spring-loaded fiberglass Push-up Top fueled these economy weekend campers during the remainder of the ’70s and into the 1980s and mid-90s.
Birth of a Legend: The Chinook 18 Plus
In 1971, Gary Lukehart designed what would later turn into an iconic RV legend: the Chinook 18 Plus motorhome, forerunner to the present-day Chinook Concourse. Initially built on a Dodge Maxi-Van chassis, it would eventually evolve and be refined over the next three decades on the Chevy and Ford van “cutaway” chassis, providing the public with a recreational vehicle that carried – at the time – the only lifetime guarantee in the RV industry for the original owner.
Featuring a proprietary-designed single unit all-fiberglass shell, Arcticfoam insulation, signature forward-angled side windows (mathematically and scientifically known as a “Parallelogram” – a four-sided polygon with two pairs of parallel sides) and sporting a bold and rakish looking “Racing stripe” paint pattern, the Chinook 18 Plus would become a contemporary classic in the early 1970’s. The Chinook RV team’s commitment to on-going improvements in quality and innovative engineering, along with a strong emphasis on livability and comfort as well as excellent customer service lent itself well to creating a state-of-the-art mini motorhome. The company custom-built their own cabinetry using solid oak, and its paint and graphics design work were done in-house at its Yakima, Washington facility.
Same nameplate, decades apart: First generation 1971 Chinook 18 Plus, Second generation 1988 Chinook Concourse 18+, and Third generation 1998 Chinook Concourse XL
In 1985, Lukehart moved away from the Dodge Maxi-Van chassis in favor of Ford and Chevrolet platforms, redesigning the Chinook 18 Plus into the now familiar Chinook Concourse. With second-generation (1985-1995) models built on the Ford V-8 460 and Chevy G30 dual-axle chassis and third-generation (1996-2006) models later assembled on the one-ton Ford V-10 Triton and Chevy V-8 Vortec dual-axle platforms, the present-day Chinook Concourse created and defined the just-right sized Class C brand for the Chinook RV: larger than a standard-sized van, yet smaller than the typical cab-over Class C RVs featuring a streamlined and aerodynamic body that foreshadowed today’s latest “B-Plus” mini-motorhome trend. The Chinook Concourse would earn the reputation and eventually be marketed as “the ultimate two-person coach.”
Mini-RV on a budget: The Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome (Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG)
With the quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC, coupled with high government spending due to the Vietnam War and growing stagflation in the United States, the New York City investment group behind the original Chinook Mobilodge Company brand name would eventually pull out in 1975, leaving the company idle after abandoning the manufacturing of the large Chinook 2200 and 2500 Mobilodges. By this time, Gary Lukehart would also leave the company to form Trail Wagons, Inc. in Yakima, Washington to build Class B van campers.
However, before those events would occur, the idea of a mini-pickup truck-based RV would originate across the Pacific in the land of the Rising Sun at Toyota.
For years, backyard mechanics had been fitting the miniscule Toyota pickup with an array of homebuilt campers almost from the time the truck debuted in the U.S. in 1964. So it wasn’t surprising when the company finally signed an agreement in September 1973 to introduce the world’s first micro mini-motorhome in the process: the Toyota-Chinook.
Based on lessons learned and early successes with their Do it Yourself kits for van conversions, Gary Lukehart and his Chinook Western team began to design a small fiberglass shell that could be built on a Datsun- or Toyota-powered mini-pickup truck chassis, starting in 1971. The effort was the result of two years of joint development between the two companies. Executives at Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. and Chinook Mobilelodge Inc. liked what they saw and jointly announced the signing of a five-year, multi-million-dollar agreement for the manufacture and marketing of recreational vehicles in the U.S.
Under the contract, signed by Takasuki Osuka, assistant to the president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. and Richard Dowling, Chinook chairman of the board, Chinook International – a wholly owned subsidary of Chinook Mobilelodge – would produce a compact motorhome utilizing a specially designed Toyota Hi-Lux cab and chassis. The new unit, initially called the Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome, would be sold exclusively by Toyota dealers.
The agreement was the largest to date that Toyota had ever signed with a U.S. manufacturer. It called for a minimum of 4,000 units the first year with officials at both companies predicting that as many as 10,000 would be produced.
“This agreement represents another step in Toyota’s program to create U.S. jobs and ease the balance of payments problem by purchasing American-made goods for Toyota distribution,” said Iwao Kodaira, president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.
Production began in September 1973 at the Chinook Western plant in La Verne, Calif. with manufacturing plans calling for a gradual build up to more than 300 units per month by December. The units would be initially marketed in the western part of the country with a suggested retail price in the under $5,000 range. The first vehicles were actually shipped to dealers in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota. Additional distribution would then be expanded to the Southwest and Far West, although contract provisions called for construction of a second assembly plant at an undetermined location to serve the remainder of the country.
The first Toyota-Chinook Mini-Motorhome models sold in 1973-74 were built on a Toyota long-wheelbase half-ton truck chassis, powered by Toyota’s 18R motor with a standard rear axle. It was designed from the start to provide fuel economy and almost car-like handling. Eventually marketed as the Toyota Round Tripper, the unit contained storage cabinets, sink and water supply, ice box, dinette and sleeping for two adults and one or two small children.
A 1976 Toyota-Chinook Pop-up camper (left) and a 1975 Toyota-Chinook transplant to a late-1990’s model 4×4 chassis in their original paint scheme
Although initial reviews and comments from buyers were positive, some initial flaws were uncovered with the early model Toyota Round Tripper. Based on feedback and surveys conducted by both companies, further refinements were made to the production line. By 1975, the “Round Tripper” moniker was dropped and simply referred to as the Toyota-Chinook. Except for new colors, many would not notice differences on the outside because the same smooth lines and attractive styling of the ’74 model were carried over into 1975. However, the big differences were on the inside – under the hood, within the walls, around the windows, under the sink and in the galley.
Three noteworthy changes with the 1975 model was the addition of a steel reinforced frame, frame-mounted step bumper and the larger 20R cross-flow engine. The frame added dimensional rigidity and durability to the entire vehicle, which was a natural safety selling point with Toyota dealers. The peppy 2.2 liter 20R engine also gave the Toyota-Chinook the power to perform both on the highway and in city traffic, with either manual, or a newly added automatic transmission.
The newly enhanced Toyota-Chinook sported an upgraded chassis built specifically for RV use; the truck’s 101.7-inch wheelbase was stretched to 110 inches and equipped with an 8” ring and pinion third member (AKA heavy duty) and stouter tires, compared to the standard 7.5” rear gear on the earlier models. The larger platform took care of weight and handling issues and the Chinook team took care of the rest. The coach builder fitted the diminutive chassis-mount camper with the sleek fiberglass shell that concealed an impressive number of comforts without presenting a cumbersome profile.
With a base price of under $7995, the Toyota-Chinook line was considered three vehicles in one: Economy car, station wagon and motorhome. Featuring the legendary Toyota “R” series of powerplants, the Toyota Chinook – sometimes affectionately referred to by its owners as “The Toy”, “Toynook”, “Chinyota”, or “Little Chinook” – was one of the most popular recreational vehicles on the road during the mid-70s, particularly with the Southern California surf and action sports culture.
For starters, it offered excellent fuel savings: up to an astounding 29 miles per gallon on the highway and 16 mpg in city driving despite meeting stringent California emmission standards. For any type of RV today with current powerplant technology, few could match it, including the new class B van conversions based on the diesel-powered Sprinter chassis that manages 16-22 mpg (albeit somewhat heavier than a Toyota-Chinook).
It was also compact. Not quite 17 feet long and 77 inches high (closed), the Toyota-Chinook offered weekenders a stainless steel two-burner butane gas stove, 2.3 cubic-foot icebox, a long six-foot, eight-inch convertible L-shaped dinette and sofa that turned into a full size bed. An optional, pull-out extension for an over-cab bunk allowed for two small children to sleep in the vehicle, once the spring-latched pop-up top was unlatched – the design of which owed much to the original push-up tops seen in the full-size van conversions. Open, the coach boasted six feet of headroom for an adult – once parked – to stand up and move around inside the mini-camper; Closed, it offered a low profile which contributed to its car-like handling and fuel-saving economy, as well as a possible mounting location for roof racks to carry surfboards, kayaks or skis.
Granted, it still had a few drawbacks. For starters, it didn’t have an enclosed bathroom, although a “porta-potty” toilet was now available as an option. It also ran on DC power exclusively and the sink “drain” consisted of an outside fitting to which owners attached a hose leading to a container. However, it also was capable of traveling more than 250 miles on a single fill-up of its 13.7-gallon gas tank, and could sleep up to four people in a vehicle just under 18 feet long.
A restored and custom modified 1976 Toyota-Chinook 4×4 Pop-up camper in its closed and opened positions
Unfortunately, rumors of complaints regarding mechanical issues concerning the rear axle and suspension were reported, due to the weight of the pop-up camper portion of the vehicle, although they were built well under the weight restrictions put on the axle by Toyota. More than likely, the problem was due to the catchall phase “operator error” as owners may have overloaded their vehicles for roadtrips. However, as testament to the mini-RV’s durability from the standpoint of the pop-up fiberglass shell and 18R powerplant in the 1973-74 model years, followed by the 20R powerplant during the 1975-78 model years, many of these unique vehicles still ply the roads 30+ years after their creation.
In 1978, as the contract with Toyota had been fulfilled and Chinook was now building their units for resale at both Toyota and RV dealerships, Chinook starting using the Gazelle/MPG names to distinguish between the two virtually identical models. 1978 was also the last production year for the Toyota-Chinooks, but because of build dates, some were sold as a 1979 model, even though they were built on a 1978 chassis. While the majority still in service today sport their original colors and 70’s-era decor, others have been completely stripped down and were either transferred to later model platforms including a 4×4 chassis – which was never originally offered by either company – or rebuilt by their owners to suit their individual tastes and personalities.
What IS That!?!: Chinook and General Motors team up for “The Big ‘Nook”
Yet another joint venture took place with Chinook Western, this time with General Motors in 1976-1977 which produced the Chalet and Casa Grande for the short-bed Chevrolet K5 Blazer and GMC Jimmy pickup trucks. These rare pop-up campers for the 3/4 ton GM-built 4×4 trucks are nicknamed “The Big ‘Nook” and were considered the domestic U.S. “sister” to the Toyota Chinook due to their similar styling. Approximately 1,780 units were built and sold: 1,555 Chalets to 225 Casa Grandes. They were not, however, slide on campers like other typical units, but permanently affixed shells. The Blazer and Jimmy came off the same production line as a regular truck and had the pop-up camper shell installed by the Chinook Western facility in Yakima, Washington.
As with the Toyota Chinook, the Chalet and Casa Grande featured a propane heater and stove, water tank and sink, and either an icebox or a refrigerator. Shelves, closets and a removable tabletop round out the furnishings. They did not, however come with a shower or toilet and were, in short, a home away from home for a couple of people for the weekend.
Unfortunately, just like the Toyota Chinook, the Chalet and Casa Grande were short-lived. Initial production was around 100-150 units per month, stepping up later, and averaged some 200 units monthly overall. The trucks were produced only for nine months, before quietly disappearing. There are multiple theories to explain this: lackluster sales and legal issues among them.
The Chalet was popular at the time it was introduced, and some folks report that, as with many brand-new models today, consumers were paying sticker price for them (i.e., no haggling with the dealers took place.) However, the premium for the convenience of the camper may have been a bitter pill for some owners to swallow. While the camper’s Regular Production Options is listed as a nominal $895 option, the camper-equipped trucks almost invariably had the high-end “Cheyenne” trim package and every available option GM could stick on them, so they were considerably more expensive than a base Blazer. Also, given Chinook Western’s highly manual assembly required for small-volume specialty vehicles such as the Chalet, the cost of manufacturing was likely high enough to prevent much room for margin.
It was reportedly rumored GM was forced to cease production of these units because of axle/spring issues – the very problem rumored to have dogged the Toyota Chinook line. Other folks point out the truck was awful heavy for a half-ton vehicle. The Department of Transportation may have noticed that either the rear axle weight rating, or perhaps the overall gross weight rating, was exceeded in practice by these trucks (presumably GM would have had to upgrade the suspension and/or emissions equipment to be certified for the higher weight rating, which would have driven costs up further). One story goes that the DOT offered GM the option of recalling all their trucks, or ceasing production with a “no fault, no foul” rider; if the story is to be believed, GM took this latter route and quietly dropped the model.
However, the reality was GM discontinued manufacturing the Blazer and Jimmy with a cutaway cab section, which allowed for direct access into the back of the Chalet or Casa Grande. Nevertheless, a good portion of Blazer Chalets and Jimmy Casa Grandes still on the road today have been modified or upgraded by their owners with either helper springs or air bag additions on the rear axle – or outright replacement on a newer model Blazer chassis, just as Toyota Chinook owners have done with their fiberglass shells.
The campers were profiled in an April 2009 issue of Hemmings Motor News magazine, featuring a 1977 Blazer Chalet formerly owned by Russell Cook of Phoenix, Arizona, and includes a brief write-up on one that sold at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction for $9,350.
A discussion forum for owners and enthusiasts of the Blazer Chalet or Jimmy Casa Grande is available on the Internet. To date, approximately 75 members – half of whom are known to currently own a Blazer Chalet or Jimmy Casa Grande, with a few owning two or more of these rare and unique rigs – are using the forum to trade information and restoration tips, plus collect and post an ever-growing series of photo galleries. Further information about these rigs can also be found on the Chevy K5 Blazer Chalet web site.
Time of Transition: Close encounters of the weird kind
The Chinook moniker would also become attached to other notable RVs such as the short-lived (1976-1979) Chinook Futura and its little brother, the Toyota Chinook Newport or the Toyota Chinook Omega.
The “otherworldly” and short-lived 1978 Chinook Futura (inspired by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”?)
According to Chinook’s advertising brouchure of the time, “There’s never been a motorhome like the Futura! Advanced styling and innovative engineering assure you that this is not just another motorhome. The Futura is beautifully sculpted from fiberglass and reinforced with a steel safety cage. There are three floor plans with innovative ideas for ultimate livability.”
The Futura was definitely a departure from the more streamlined Chinook 18 Plus, at least with regards to the front and back ends. Built on a Dodge Maxi-Van dual axle chassis with a V-8 440 cubic inch motor, the Chinook Futura was longer, slightly taller and heavier than a Chinook 18 Plus, owing to a protruding cab over sleeping area that is the typical look of all Class C motorhomes. However, the angular shapes gave it an “otherworldly” science fiction look, probably influenced from the Steven Speilberg-directed blockbuster, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
The Toyota Chinook Newport and its sister Omega model were patterned in a similar fashion. Essentially an enlarged hardtop version of the Toyota Chinook Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG, the Toyota Chinook Newport/Omega models owed their styling cues directly from the Chinook Futura.
The 1978 Toyota Chinook Newport (left) vs. near-identical 1978 Toyota Chinook Omega
With “the styling of the 80’s today, designed and engineered to meet the demands of tomorrow”, the Newport and Omega models could sleep four individuals with plenty of storage and enough room to walk around in while in motion, unlike the Toyota Chinook Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG pop-up model. Although both models offered such standard features as a “sunport”, commode and complete galley, perhaps the most unique aspect of the Newport/Omega was its angled upper and lower split-door arrangement, located at the extreme rear passenger side corner of the vehicle.
More than two dozen nameplates, ranging from Coachmen and Dolphin to Keystone, Odyssey and Winnebago were ultimately affixed to Toyota-chassis mini motorhomes before the coach line finally fell out of favor in the early ’90s. As with Toyota Chinook’s Round Tripper/Gazelle/MPG pop-up, the Newport/Omega’s days were numbered as it suffered the same rumored fate of rear axle problems, largely due to growing weight issues. The problem would eventually be corrected with a larger, more robustly designed rear axle in the mid- to late-80’s and early ’90’s. However, even though the chassis’ weight rating was improved to 5,500 pounds, many of the later entries were really pushing the limit on GVWR. What looked underpowered and overweight quite often was. By 1993, Toyota exited the mini-pickup truck chassis business because of liability concerns due to the overweight issues and their desire to go head-to-head with the larger U.S. domestic truck market.
Although Chinook’s marketing campaign proclaimed that “Any other motorhome just may be a compromise”, it appeared the RV-buying public decided otherwise. The Iranian Revolution sharply increased the price of oil around the world, leading to the 1979 energy crisis. This was caused by the new regime in power in Iran, which exported oil at inconsistent intervals and at a lower volume, forcing prices to go up. Tight monetary policy in the United States to control inflation led to another recession. The changes were made largely because of inflation that was carried over from the previous decade due to the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis. The production line for the Chinook Futura and Newport/Omega models quietly ended at the beginning of the 1980’s, leaving the newly reborn Chinook Concourse as the clear cut industry trendsetter with its classic exterior and elegant interior settings.
The Next Generation, a new name and a new facility
As the 70’s came to an end, another move was made by Gary Lukehart to spin off and partner with a new generation of Lukeharts at the helm. For the first half of the 1980’s, Chinook had laid dormant after the end of the Toyota and GM partnerships until Lukehart purchased the remnants of the original parent company and its all-important brand name. By 1985, a new division was formed, taking its name from one of Lukehart’s van conversions: the Chevy Trail Wagon.
Trail Wagons, Inc., the new parent company of Chinook RV, was now under Gary Lukehart’s ownership. He eventually began to focus singularly on redeveloping and improving upon the Chinook 18 Plus mini motorhome. With its fabled one-piece fiberglass shell which Lukehart had designed while on the staff at Chinook Mobilodge, Lukehart would now spend the next two decades refining the renamed Chinook Concourse into a high-end Class C motorhome at their main factory in Yakima, Washington. Depending on options selected in built-to-order models, up to 900 labor-hours would eventually go into the construction of each motorhome, nearly twice the amount of time any other manufacturer would devote to an RV.
At the same time, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV would discontinue marketing their Do it Yourself van kits in favor of expanding their Class B van conversion business at a separate facility on land purchased by Lukehart in northern California between Sacramento and San Francisco. Located in Solano County where Interstates I-80 and I-680 intersect in the area known as Cordelia Junction near the city of Fairfield, the Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV van conversion business would be operated by two of Gary Lukehart’s nephews.
Tim and Hugh Lukehart were the sons of Don Lukehart, Jr. who chose to remain a school teacher and wrestling coach at the start of Family Wagon Compact Equipment Company. After working on their uncle Gary’s production line in Yakima during their college years learning the family business alongside Lukehart’s son Dan, their cousin, the next generation of Lukeharts would start to turn out a complete line of “Van Motorhome” weekend campers suitable for any RV owner’s budget.
From left to right: 1986 Chinook Runabout, 1990 Chinook Voyager and 1994 Chinook Trail Wagon Class B motorvans
Over the next decade, Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV would see the rollout of many popular series of 17-19 ft. Van Motorhomes with nameplates like Aspen, Buccaneer, Cruiser, Clipper, Runabout, Trek, Viking, Vista Classic and Voyager. In many ways, the designs and quality of workmanship put into these van conversions by the Lukehart’s pre-dated many of today’s Canadian Class B van conversion manufacturers, most notably the PleasureWay, LeisureTime and Town and County’s RoadTrek 170, 190 and 210 series of motorhomes.
Storm warning amid recession and expansion
By 1993, hampered by declining sales caused by an economic fallout attributed to the first Gulf War in 1991, the line of Class B van conversions were either closed out or consolidated to the Yakima facility. However, rather than relocate to Yakima, Hugh and Tim Lukehart opted to stay with their original Fairfield location once the expanded 10.5 acre van conversion facility was sold in 1994 to North Bay Auto Auction. After leasing out a portion of storefront space within the original Trail Wagons, Inc./Chinook RV building, they would establish Sierra Truck and Van and eventually purchase back the rest of the facility, having built a strong customer base as a factory direct Weatherguard outlet serving the northern California market.
Meanwhile, the Class C production line in Yakima, which had been using both the Ford Econoline and Chevy Van chassis with V-8 powerplants for the Chinook Concourse, would transition exclusively to the Ford Econoline E350 platform. In 1994, to help weather the economic recession, the company would introduce the Chinook Premier, a lower-cost model with lesser features in the cabinetry work, a smaller refrigerator, two-burner stove and squared off standard windows.
Eventually, as the economy improved in the mid-90’s, the Chinook production line responded in 1997 after Ford Motor Company discontinued their V-8 460 engine and moved to the more fuel efficient Ford V-10 Triton engine on the Econoline cutaway van platform. At the dawn of a new millenium, a third model would be added that went in the opposite direction of the scaled-down Premier: the Chinook Baja 4×4. A glitzy, West Coast-style 4-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle, the Baja was built using the same Concourse fiberglass shell. With additional off-road additions that appealed to the growing Sports Utility Vehicle crowds, the Baja drew lots of media attention in the latter years of the company’s operation.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Concourse, 2004 Chinook Premier and 2004 Chinook Baja 4×4
1998-2001 would mark the height of Chinook RV’s success, as the company would hit the “sweet spot” by producing their finest model years on record. Helping them along would be new marketing technology provided by an internet presence at ChinookRV.com (NOTE: Partially archived PDF file). Potential customers could view and decide upon various models and floorplans, pre-select from a choice of interior decors and wood grains, decide special features and locate a dealer for a custom-designed motorhome suited to their tastes or personalities.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Destiny and 2004 Chinook Cascade
Entering the 21st Century, a new model called the Chinook Destiny was added to the lineup in 2001. Essentially a “stretched” version of the Concourse, the 24 foot long Destiny was built on a Chevy C30 1-ton Van chassis featuring the V-8 Vortec engine. The three extra feet in length allowed for a more spacious bathroom at the rear of the unit, albeit still a “wet” variety in which the sink and commode were incorporated within the shower area. A multi-drawer pantry, larger clothing cabinet and internal storage area for the spare instead of the “Continental” tire kit used on the Concourse rounded out the major differences between the two. A lower-cost version of the Destiny with the lesser quality features modeled off of the Premier (including the same squared off windows) followed a couple of years later and was marketed as the Chinook Cascade.
Left to right: 2004 Chinook Glacier and 2004 Chinook Summit
As the national RV industry expanded into the marketplace with slideout units in Class A motorhomes, the Lukehart’s began expending company profits toward creating the first slideout units to be offered in a Class C mini-motorhome. The end result added the 25 foot long Chinook Glacier to the 2003 lineup that for the first time would also feature a full-size “dry” bathroom with separate shower. It was closely followed by the 27 foot long Chinook Summit in 2004 that featured two slideouts. Both models were built on Ford Motor Company’s heavy-duty Econoline E-450 van chassis.
Chinook prices would vary, according to year, make, model type and built-to-order optional accessory packages. Choices ranged from custom exterior paint patterns to specially-branded models like the Harley Davidson special edition Chinook Concourse. Chinooks typically commanded top dollar in the RV market for its relative size. Average costs varied from $73,000 to $128,000 for the Premier, Concourse and Destiny models, all the way up to $143,000 to $203,000 for the Chinook Glacier 2500 and Chinook Summit 2700 deluxe models during the latter years of the company’s operation. Building up 42 dealerships across North America with exports to Europe, the Middle East and South America, Chinook RV developed a reputation and international recognition as one of the finest manufacturers of mini motorhomes in the world.
The reviews are in: Chinook delivers a land speed record, fun, luxury and adventure. . .for a price
On August 16, 1998, history was made as the world’s fastest motorhome would set a land speed record on the powdery Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sanctioned by the Southern California Racing Association, a Yakima-built and specially-modified Chinook Concourse, painted in a bright orange racing stripe pattern and sporting an air scoop on its hood, rumbled down the three mile course with Dan Lukehart at the wheel.
The Chinook team reportedly had to throw out more than just the kitchen sink; most of the Concourse had been gutted out, from the rooftop air conditioner to the sofa, dinette table, stove, refrigerator, cabinets, wet bath and holding tanks. In its place, a custom built roll cage was installed in the driver’s cab as Dan Lukehart would speed to a recorded 99.776 miles per hour in three minutes time to break the old record of 97.613 mph, set May 16, 1970 by a 26-foot, 4-1/2 ton, Oldsmobile Toronado-powered Travoy, built by Ramona Motor Coach Company of San Jacinto, Calif. at El Mirage Dry Lake, Calif.
The Chinook’s LSR was set at a density altitude of 5,384 feet. Adjusting to sea level the speed would have been 108 mph.
“We are extremely pleased with t