Editor’s Note: Bob Livingston, group publisher for Affinity Media’s RV trade and consumer publications, joins a host of U.S. RV industry executives this week in Dusseldorf, Germany, home of the Caravan Salon — the world’s largest RV show. Given the state of the U.S. economy and the domestic RV industry, the Dusseldorf Show is widely viewed as a trendsetter right now as U.S. manufacturers cast about for lighter and more fuel-efficient designs to incorporate here in the States. Suffering from jet lag, but awed by the breadth of the European RV industry on display, Livingston filed this initial dispatch after his first afternoon of wearing out shoe leather at the show.
Pushing my jet-lagged body up and down the seemingly endless aisles of the Caravan Salon RV show in Dusseldorf, Germany, it was obvious that the European RV industry has come a long way from the rigs of yesteryear on display here at Caravan Salon. Just as BMW has become a shining star in the design and manufacture of fine automobiles — certainly a long way from the late ‘50s Isetta 300 on display, pulling an equally vintage (and equally diminutive) caravan — the European RV industry has proven that innovation can overcome the lack of interior square footage, held in check by narrow roads and historically high fuel prices.
Throughout the more than 200,000 square meters of floor space spanning 11 exhibition halls and outside areas were 2,000 RVs from the European manufacturing and supplier communities that will attract more than 160,000 visitors before the nine-day event is concluded.
In the motorized segment, it seemed like Class Cs dominate the offerings, including a display by Great Britain’s giant manufacturer, Swift, showing for the first time in Dusseldorf. Builders of these Class C’s excel in zeroing-in on potential occupancy when designing floorplans. Rigs earmarked for families typically have a cabover bed and a second fixed bed in the rear. Larger families are accommodated with unique placement of bunk beds. Almost universally, once the sleeping arrangements are implemented, the rest of the interior real estate is split up for the galley, bathroom and living area — all tiny by U.S. standards, but amazingly efficient. Slideouts are virtually non-existent (mostly due to much more compact campground sites) and huge trunks are commonly built into the rear of the coach where bicycles or other large implements are housed. Towing cars is not big in Europe – yet – although Roadmaster was exhibiting its line of tow bars.
The European builders are masters at space utilization, evident by the innovative use of space within the tight quarters of the dozens of Class B motorhomes on display – but when provided with the additional footage afforded by a Class A chassis, livability is expanded remarkably, even without slideouts.
Interior design and aesthetics are key elements in carving out floorplans that fight claustrophobia and work smoothly for families. Modern laminates and the use of rounded corners help open up the interior visually while providing excellent storage capabilities. Technoform, an Italian design firm deeply immersed in the European RV industry, is a key player in promoting new materials and nearly artistic elements. The company specializes in cabinet doors, interior doors and countertops. Descriptions of new offerings never use the word “square” as free-flowing lines and rounded corners are clearly the company’s main expertise.
Product Development Manager Alessandro Rossodivita guarded his latest design prototype behind a locked door and only allowed invited guests to take a peek. The new galley structure prototype uses very modernistic-appearing laminates for its seemingly free-floating overhead cabinets and huge drawers designed to handle all kitchen storage needs. Innovative storage systems behind cabinet doors utilize just about every square inch of space and are easy to access without going into back-breaking gyrations. Consideration is given to comfortable counter heights for cooking and washing dishes and units often are created for more than one use. A computer desk, for example, doubles as a makeup table and uses a “magic mirror” that features a hidden television screen behind the mirror that can also be used as a computer monitor.
While there were a few pick-up campers and fifth-wheels on display, it was obvious that the caravan (travel trailer) segment of the industry is a main focal point. Unlike trailers marketed in the U.S., European builders produce trailers — up to 30-feet — that are designed to be towed behind just about anything with four wheels. Lightweight materials and critical weight distribution contribute to products that are easy to tow and simple to hitch up. Weight-distributing hitch hardware is non-existent and effective surge brakes eliminate the use of brake controllers.
Many of the chassis are designed and distributed by Al-Ko, a chassis supplier to the U.S. RV industry. Its European versions feature a sophisticated coupler – essentially, a mechanical A-frame jack with a spring-loaded wheel that remains connected and a braking system that stabilizes the trailer when unhitched. Al-Ko’s integrated braking system also senses sway and automatically applies the brakes (around 10%) to keep the trailer under control.
Since many European campgrounds are too tight to maneuver trailers into sites, controls operated by strong electric motors are used to guide the trailer without having to push – something that can actually be accomplished with most caravans. Many models even have handles on the four corners to allow users to push and pull the trailer into position.
There were a number of creative exercises in radical design, including a few motorhomes designed for severe service – think adventure and exploration to remote, off-road locations. But it was clear that European designers have a good sense of humor, evident by the multi-angled Mehrzeller concept caravan. Assembled with exterior walls that seem to connect three “globes,” the wild-looking trailer certainly pushed the design envelope. Inside, the multi-shaped walls provide unusual shapes and angles for the sleeping area, dinette and galley. No bathroom in this prototype; finding enough normal legroom for the potty might be challenging.
Another unique caravan was the Car-Camp offered by Heku. Once the fifth-wheel-like trailer is attached to a car (in this case an Opel), one might think it almost looks like a motorized RV. Thinking out of the box is clearly a motivation of many European RV industry designers and engineers. And they seem to have a lot of fun with radical exterior design and bright colors.
The most expensive rig at the show, a Class A Volkner designed to accommodate a small roadster in its streetside storage bay on a special platform, retails for $1.7 million Euros. At current exchange rates, that’s nearly $2.47 million US dollars.
The Caravan Salon Dusseldorf show will also be host to the first Recreational Vehicle World Conference, scheduled for Thursday. The event will allow RV industry principals from the U.S., Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia to meet and exchange ideas and goals.
That’s it, for now — but look for full report on the Caravan Salon show and the World RV conference in an upcoming issue of RVBusiness. For me, it’s back to exhibit halls to burn off more shoe leather and stave off sleep deprivation – but revel in an environment filled with new ideas and excitement about a world getting smaller when it comes to RVs.