The Truth about RVs

Untold stories behind Indiana’s RV boom

“You’re not going to buy an RV and drive it off the lot and have no hassles”

Elkhart, Indiana is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll-out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler, and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River (owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway), and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades Elkhart has been ravaged by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The result, as documented October 19, 2022, by the Indianapolis Star in a 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins.

Down the road in an RV © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockdowns that confined Americans to their homes in 2020 created a record demand for recreational vehicles, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But COVID also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers even as they were being pushed to increase production.

Already strenuous jobs suddenly required even more from workers whose earnings are largely dependent on how many RVs they push out the door. Several compared it to a football practice that lasts eight hours or more leaving a body battered at the end of every day. 

Newmar factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV workers say they were frequently allowed—and sometimes pressured—to show up while sick or injured to meet the demand for a luxury product, according to IndyStar interviews with two dozen current and former workers and several family members. Some faced steep pay cuts for missing work due to COVID. Others were fired. 

As factories became COVID-19 hotspots, companies raked in record profits. Manufacturers shipped out 48 percent more RVs in 2021 than the year before the pandemic.

Inside the factories where those RVs were made, workers shared stories about the human cost behind the record profits.

Freightliner Custom Chassis Service Center, Gaffney, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From plywood and junk parts to luxury coaches

The RV industry in Elkhart County began with a man who built a travel trailer using plywood and junkyard parts for his family during the Great Depression. Milo Miller began building more trailers that he sold from a rented shed at a Mishawaka lumber yard, RV historian Al Hesselbart wrote in RV Capital of the World: A Fun-filled Indiana History. Other business-minded Hoosiers followed suit launching the first RV factories in the state. Those few factories turned into a few dozen then several hundred from RV manufacturers to parts suppliers, transporters, and repair shops.

Related article: RV Industry Surges amid Supply Chain Problems and Price Increases

Today, the industry dominates life in this manufacturing region just south of the Michigan border. Roads are typically congested as early as 3 a.m. as workers head to the factories. Restaurants are busy at lunch time when plants typically let workers out.

Across the factories in a county that’s home to blue-collar workers, grueling conditions are a long-accepted way of life. Calling in sick has always been seen as a sign of weakness, workers told IndyStar and many said they fear getting fired for taking too many sick days. 

Newmar Service Center, Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But problems in RV plants have been brewing long before the pandemic. Workers told IndyStar about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories. 

Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin, or Adderall—even methamphetamine—to keep up with the pace. The most readily available option, energy drinks, can cause heart problems, worsen anxiety, and send workers to emergency rooms when abused.

Still, tens of thousands flock to the industry. Many cycle in and out, beaten down by the work but desperate for the fat paychecks. 

Newmar factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A punishing pace takes heavy toll on workers

Abey Bonifield took her first RV job because she needed more money than she could earn cleaning houses. Bonifield worked for multiple RV makers over about six years. Every day, she hit the ground running long before the crack of dawn, sometimes working for 13 hours a shift. She installed windows alone. She hefted appliances half her weight over her head. She pulled a small RV on a dolly by herself.

“I mean, who can wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and work themselves like that?” Bonifield said. “That’s not meant to be.”

She brought home enough to live a middle-class life without a college diploma and raise her two sons. In the process, Bonifield pushed her body past its limit. She worked even when she was sick or injured, sprinting in the summer heat to keep up with relentless production demand. She lived on energy drinks and caffeine pills, consuming an unhealthy amount each day. The faster she worked, the more money she made.

Related article: Forest River Workplace Safety Violations Top $250,000

But the breakneck pace gave her anxiety attacks as she scrambled to finish one RV unit and move on to the next. She stopped the energy drinks and caffeine pills only after developing kidney stones.

“The money is just not worth it,” she said. “Sometimes you can bring home two grand and that’s a lot of money for someone who didn’t finish high school or college. But emotionally dealing with that … no.”

Bonifield left the industry last year. And she doesn’t want to go back.

Newmar factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dreams go up in flames

Jenny Doman and her family stood beside a highway exit ramp watching helplessly as bright orange flames engulfed their brand-new RV.

Jenny Doman and her family had purchased the 40-foot-long Heartland Road Warrior, a fifth-wheel trailer and “toy hauler” made by a subsidiary of Thor Industries. The price tag was more than $100,000. Excited to enjoy the new luxury RV, they left their home in Oregon and hit the road for a trip to visit family in Utah.

But they only made it to Montana before flames engulfed their brand-new RV. The fire quickly transformed their dreams of a carefree life in their new home-away-from-home into a nightmare. The fire spread within minutes. Instead of spending the night in their new RV, Doman and her family found themselves standing near a rural Montana highway in the middle of a snowy winter night with nothing but clothes on their backs.

“There goes our fifth wheel, toy hauler, everything in it. Oh my gosh!” Doman said in a video she later posted on YouTube.

Newmar Service Center, Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pandemic drove demand for RVs

The desire to get away from home yet remain isolated introduced a new kind of lifestyle for many people during the pandemic. Recreational vehicles and trailers like Doman’s offered a vacation anywhere with all the comforts of home but not the crowds, costs, or hassles of commercial travel.

The RV industry—one of the biggest manufacturing sectors in Indiana—was quick to capitalize on this new and unprecedented demand. Last year, more RVs were built and sold than ever. Profits also soared to record highs.

Newmar factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recalls up, quality down

Recalls became more and more common—in part because parts suppliers are also under pressure to build fast. Defective products that go to multiple manufacturers meant multitudes of recalls.

Recalls jumped even more during the pandemic years.

Related article: THOR Buys Tiffin Motorhomes: What Happens Next?

Since 2020, three of the biggest RV manufacturers in the country have recalled hundreds of thousands of their products, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Companies owned by Thor Industries, the largest RV maker in the country, recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year. Forest River recalled nearly 200,000 RVs this year. Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000 RVs this year.

RVMH Hall of Fame, Elkhart, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure, and poorly installed awnings.

In its statement to IndyStar, Thor Industries said the quality of its units went up even as factories were producing more. The company cited its lower warranty claims for products sold during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic years. But that doesn’t account for the recalls.

Forest River didn’t respond to requests for comment. Winnebago Industries didn’t answer questions about alleged quality issues.

Newmar factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoddy work, unhappy buyers

A Hershey, Pennsylvania-based RVer bought a new 2022 unit valued at more than $100,000, only to have the generator and some other items stop working. After six weeks passed, he had no resort but to call the corporate office as he couldn’t get the manager to return his calls. Finally, he was told his warranty may have expired. After multiple calls, his unit was delivered to him in early June, but alas, not in acceptable condition. As you might expect, he wants a full refund. He’s still waiting.

Others, like John Kucharski, face a steady stream of issues that are not as devastating but add up to far more than just inconveniences. Kucharski, a longtime camper, had spent years saving enough money to buy a brand-new RV. He planned to spend his retirement years traveling the country with his fiancée.

RVMH Hall of Fame, Elkhart, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So in December, he bought a brand new Keystone Cougar, a 40-foot trailer, and paid the full price of $80,000. But problems became apparent as soon as he brought the RV home to Mesa, Arizona.

Among a long list of more than a dozen problems: The slide-outs aren’t sliding out properly. There’s a rip on the kitchen floor. The frame of the back window is bent. The bolts that hold one of the couches together are stripped so the back of the couch falls off. The drawers aren’t opening properly.

RVMH Hall of Fame, Elkhart, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“All these things are fixable and at some point in the trailer’s life will go wrong,” Kucharski said. “But when you buy brand new—and we’re talking about a lot of money … And to get home and see all this shoddy work.”

Related article: Buying an RV

The RV was sitting in a repair shop just three weeks after Kucharski bought it.

By August, a day before Kucharski was about to go on a six-day road trip, he saw the roof was coming off and large air bubbles had formed on its outer layer.

As some problems were fixed, new ones piled up.

Newmar Service Center, Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I don’t even know where to begin. I would be so outrageously angry if I wasn’t so disgusted,” Kucharski said in a scathing email he sent last month to Keystone RV and the dealership.

Keystone RV did not respond to a request for comment.

But no matter how angry he becomes, Kucharski said he knows not much will change.

“Manufacturers and dealers expect consumers to fall in line to buy RVs. So why make them better?” Kucharski said. “You just know you’re going to buy crap.”

Worth Pondering…

It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.

—Martin Van Buren

RV Industry Surges amid Supply Chain Problems and Price Increases

With this latest report, 2021 officially becomes the year the RV industry built more RVs than ever before—and that is with two months left in the year

The recreational vehicle industry has done what many U.S. businesses did in the face of this year’s epic shortages and surging inflation: Churned out more products and made more money than ever before.

Winnebago Industries Inc reported record fiscal 2020 revenues in October—up over 50 percent from the previous year. On Friday it is expected to post its second straight quarter of sales over $1 billion and a 33 percent increase in earnings per share, according to analysts’ estimates compiled by Refinitiv.

Newmar Service Center in Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thor Industries Inc, the largest producer, last week reported record results for its fiscal first-quarter while noting its backlog as of the end of October was over $18 billion—a 100 percent increase over a year ago.

Michael Happe, chief executive of the Forest City, Iowa-based Winnebago, said in an interview that his company’s retailers have “been able to optimize retail pricing in a way they have not been able to do in a long, long time.”

Newmar Factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The RV industry is a prime example of how many U.S. producers have been able to thrive despite COVID-related shortages—and the related price increases in raw materials from steel and plastic to electronics and foam. The surge in RV sales began early in the pandemic as worried Americans looked for ways to travel without the risks of staying in hotels or riding in airplanes.

Related Article: Why are RVs So Popular?

Newmar Service Center in Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all ri

All types of outdoor-oriented industries have boomed during the pandemic. Sales of swimming pools, boats, and all-terrain vehicles all surged after initial lockdowns.

Labor shortages also are bedeviling the industry which has struggled to fill jobs in production hubs like northern Indiana where Thor is based.

Newmar Service Center in Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite all these barriers, the industry is producing and shipping more than ever. Results for the RV Industry Association’s (RVIA) October 2021 survey of manufacturers determined that total RV shipments ended the month with 57,971 units, an increase of 22.5 percent compared to the 47,326 units shipped during October 2020; this October was also the best on comparable record with shipments surpassing the October 2017 total of 48,926 units by over 18 percent. This month’s total was also the highest production total on comparable record for any month, surpassing last month’s record of 55,014 units by more than 5 percent.

Newmar Factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wholesale shipments of RVs in North America are expected to hit a record 602,200 units this year—a 40 percent increase over 2020 and 19 percent higher than the last record high set in 2017, according to an analysis prepared for RVIA. The analysis, by ITR Economics, is projecting a smaller increase of 2 percent in 2022, to 613,700 units.

Related Article: RVs Move America

Newmar Factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jon Ferrando, CEO of RV Retailer LLC—a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based retailer with 90 stores in 26 states as of the end of this year—said pricier raw materials, together with higher labor and transportation costs to move motorhomes and trailers across the country from factories to his stores—has meant multiple price increases passed along to consumers rather than the normal once-a-year adjustments.

Newmar Service Center in Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Certainly, this year, there are more frequent price adjustments,” he said. But he added that the increases have not curbed the appetite of buyers.

“To the extent we have pressure to raise prices, consumers have great ability to trade down and get the price point they want,” he said.

To be sure, the price tags on RVs range widely. RV Retailer sells everything from $10,000 teardrop-shaped tow-along campers to $1 million diesel motor coaches.

Newmar Service Center in Nappanee, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jason Lippert, chief executive of LCI Industries, the largest parts supplier to the RV industry, said he expects supply chain problems to continue. But he does not see rising prices softening consumer demand any time soon.

Related Article: RV Sales Continue to Soar and Here Are the Reasons Why

“If you’re a first-time buyer, you’re not looking at what you could have bought in 2018 or 2017,” he said. “People buying their second or third RV will likely think about the price a little more.”

Newmar Factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One aspect of rising prices could ultimately add headwinds for the industry: gas prices which have soared this year.

But James Boyle, a spokesman for the RVIA, said the industry does not expect current prices at the pump to curb business anytime soon, noting that many RVs are used for short trips and tailgating, rather than long road trips.

Newmar Factory tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new shipment report comes on the tail of a recently released survey showing more Americans plan on RVing in the next year than ever before. The survey showed 72 million Americans planning an RV trip in the next year in an RV they own, rent, or borrow—an 18 percent increase over the 61 million reported in the same survey a year ago.

Related Article: How COVID-19 Changed RVing

Worth Pondering…

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.

—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1968)

THOR Buys Tiffin Motorhomes: What Happens Next?

THOR Industries Buys Tiffin Motorhomes

The RV world was rocked just 18 months ago when Winnebago Industries purchased luxury RV manufacturer, Newmar. What seemed unthinkable became a reality. Now, what seemed unfathomable has happened as well. THOR Industries, one of the “Big Three” in the RV industry along with Winnebago and Forest River, has purchased Tiffin Motorhomes for $300 million.

Tiffin Phaeton Motorhome at Jackson Rancheria RV Resort near Jackson, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tiffin Motorhomes, operating in Alabama and Mississippi, manufactures a luxurious lineup of gas and diesel Class A Motorhomes including the Allegro Breeze, Allegro Red 340, Allegro Red, Open Road Allegro, Phaeton, Allegro Bus, and Zephyr models. The company also produces a premium Class C product line—The Wayfarer.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vanleigh RV, operating in Mississippi, produces a line of fifth-wheel towable products, including the Pinecrest, Vilano, and Beacon models.

Additional companies within the acquired Tiffin Group include a window manufacturer (Alabama-based Wynne Enterprises, Inc.), a furniture manufacturer (Alabama-based Roma Enterprises, Inc.), a door manufacturer (Alabama-based Tiffin Door Co., Inc.), a fiberglass supplier (Mississippi-based Water-Way, Inc.), and an RV transport company (Alabama-based Drive-A-Way of Red Bay, Inc.).

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

THOR Industries is the sole owner of operating subsidiaries that, combined, represent the world’s largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.

According to a news release, “Tiffin Group will operate as stand-alone operating company within the THOR family of companies. The Tiffin family and the Tiffin Group’s experienced management team will continue to manage their operations just as they and their family have done for the past 49 years.”

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For diehard Tiffin Motorhome fans, it’s a bit like finding out your favorite sports star has just been traded to a rival team (remembering the Gretzky trade). Tiffin, long known for quality coaches with a consistently high customer ranking, a great factory service center experience, and brand loyalty, will now fall under the vast THOR umbrella. Devoted Tiffin owners are now left to wonder what happens next.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Will Tiffin Motorhomes Stay in Red Bay, Alabama?

One would assume that Tiffin would remain outside of the Elkhart bubble, at least geographically speaking. How will this acquisition affect pricing, quality control, availability, and delivery times? Will those mecca-like pilgrimages to Red Bay, Alabama for factory service continue?

Much like Newmar customers, Tiffin owners have enjoyed a bit of an elite status. Until their recent roll out of the Wayfarer series of Class C RVs, Tiffin Motorhomes has been known as an upper-end Class A RV manufacturer. Tiffin owners are as devoted to “roughing it smoothly” as they are the brand itself. That confident swagger that comes with driving and owning 40+ feet of quality diesel motorhome carries over into conversation whether sitting around the campfire or in popular RVing forums.

Newmar Factory Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Happens Next?

Will that confident swagger lose a little of its swag, now that Tiffin Motorhomes is just another THOR brand? Will a vast infusion of cash from THOR Industries take Tiffin to the next level or instead water down the overall brand? Will Tiffin Motorhomes be pressured into building more motorhomes faster, causing quality to suffer? Or will THOR allow a successful business to continue to be successful while fine-tuning sensible cost saving measures? Will Tiffin Motorhomes shine even brighter under THOR or lose its luster?

Newmar Dutch Star © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Time will tell. The jury is still out on how Winnebago’s acquisition of Newmar has affected the quality and innovation of that brand and we can expect the same with this one. The big three just got bigger and Tiffin Motorhome owners are wondering what happens next?

A personal message to Tiffin owners: As a loyal Newmar customer I feel your pain.

Worth Pondering…

Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.

—Earl Gary Stevens