In a move that may well reinvent the Class A chassis business, Workhorse Custom Chassis LLC in late August released a rear-engine motorhome chassis available with either gas or diesel engines. While gas-powered 2007 units will be available this fall from several motorhome builders, the Union City, Ind., company won’t unveil its diesel models until next year – with an assist from its new parent company, International Truck and Engine Corp.
“You might say that we are reinventing Workhorse,” said Workhorse President David Olsen, whose firm was purchased by Chicago-based International last year.
Dubbed the UFO – for “Universal Fuel Option” or “Universal Floorplan Option,” take your pick – Workhorse quietly introduced the 26,000-pound GVWR chassis over the summer with a quirky marketing campaign centering on a website reporting imagined UFO sightings.
Behind it all, however, is a dead serious initiative by a company that wants to appreciably alter the modern-day Class A business.
“If you look at the Class A market today, it’s been fairly simple,” Olsen told RV Business. “If you wanted gas, the engine came in front. If you wanted diesel it usually came in the rear. Front engines had their advantages, and rear engines had their advantages. But you could not mix the advantages. You had to choose one or the other. Our solution is the universal fuel option – one product, two fuel options. If you like a floorplan, which is the No. 1 reason that people buy a motorhome, make that decision first, then you get to choose the engine.’’
The gasoline-version of the UFO chassis launched in August with a Chevy 8.1-liter Vortec engine, the same power plant Workhorse installs in its market-leading W-series chassis. Sometime in the spring, the diesel version will debut with a Cummins ISB engine and in the fall with International’s V-8 Maxxforce power plant, the horsepower ratings of which have not yet been released.
The gas chassis is being released first, said Bob Wert, vice president of sales and marketing, because Workhorse’s service infrastructure is already in place for its front-engine W-series gas chassis. Integrating Cummins ISB in the spring and International Maxxforce engines next fall will take more preparation with regard to service, Olsen said. Olsen said motorhomes featuring the gas-fueled UFO chassis likely will debut during this fall’s retail RV shows.
In private market surveys Workhorse commissioned during the last two years, Olsen and his senior managers explain, some 72% of current RV owners said they would prefer a rear pusher chassis and 54% said they would prefer that chassis to be gasoline powered. “That’s pretty strong demand for a product that didn’t even exist yet,’’ Wert said.
Based on the analysis of those statistics and others, Olsen said, Workhorse estimates that rear-engine gas chassis could eventually account for 35% of the Class A market. Workhorse’s management figures that high-end gasoline-powered motorhome buyers initially will migrate to the UFO chassis, followed by mid-priced coach consumers. Meanwhile, in Workhorse’s view, front gas engines will remain the norm for “entry-level” coaches.
“We think this chassis is a game changer,” Wert observed. “It will allow manufacturers to become more efficient and develop floorplans that their customers want without regard to whether it has a gasoline or a diesel engine.’’
For instance, front-gas floorplans are limiting because the layout requires a mid-coach or rear entry door. “That prevents the manufacturers from developing floorplans that have dual opposing slideouts, and it cramps the galley,” said Bill Walmsley, marketing manager.
Additionally, he said, the UFO chassis will feature flat cockpit floors because a “dog house” that usually contains the drive train won’t be necessary. Ditto in the rear of the coach where neither gas nor diesel designs protrude into the living area and OEM’s won’t have to build elevated platforms along the back wall.
In the big picture, Olsen said, the UFO chassis should assure Workhorse a substantial position in the diesel pusher market. “In order to be a major player going forward, we needed a solid diesel strategy and solution,” Olsen said. “We had a pretty good strategy, but, frankly, we were a very small customer to people like Cat and Cummins as a stand-alone company. That’s changed now that we are part of International.’’
The integration of International’s V-8 Maxxforce engine – now installed in some 300,000 Ford diesel pickup trucks annually – into Workhorse’s UFO chassis will be International’s first direct product-related venture into the RV industry. However, it’s not likely to be the last. “As the fight goes forward,” Olsen said, “you are going to see a predisposition for … Workhorse to sell chassis with International diesel engines in them.’’
Workhorse isn’t worried that the rear-engine chassis will take sales away from Workhorse’s front-engine gas products. “We spent little or no time worrying about what it will do to our product,” Wert said. “We brought the W22 out because it had features that customers wanted, knowing full well that it would destroy the P-series chassis that we retired last year. We have no concern or regard about cannibalizing our own products.’’