More than 80 years have passed since Chinook RV began life as a family enterprise in the nascent RV industry. Since those humble beginnings, and in spite of multiple setbacks, the company once known as Mair & Son continues to build pioneering motorhomes.
A close look at the Peru, Indiana-based manufacturer’s offerings today reveal a variety of innovations that make its Class B Bayside and Class B+ Maverick and Summit stand out from units made elsewhere, says Seth Buchheit, factory representative.
“The uniqueness of our Summit B+ isn’t just the four-seasons capability but the rear entry. We are the only manufacturer that is doing the rear-entry floorplan. The copycats from back in the day that may have imitated Chinook in the past are no longer around. These other manufacturers are not really focused on rear entry,” he says.
The ability to walk out the back door is a huge plus in tight parking or camping spots, but Chinook didn’t stop there, according to Buchheit. There’s also a floorplan with a swing-down bed arrangement similar to a Murphy bed; it’s called an Eddie bed by Chinook that’s wider than it is tall, he says, allowing sleepers to lie along the length of the coach instead of across it.
A partnership with Expion360, an advanced lithium battery maker, means Chinook now offers all-lithium versions of its floorplans; the company also added Elwell Corp.’s Timberline hydronic heating system so Chinook units are free of LP tanks and appliances, he says.
Another standout feature: thermal suppression. General Manager Jeff Butler says the idea of adding the capability to each motorhome came from Chinook’s owner, Phil Rizzio, who also owns Van City RV, a longtime dealer with four locations across the western U.S.
“He was driving his motorhome across the country and witnessed an RV fire. The driver was going the opposite way on the highway and the back end of his motorhome was on fire. Phil was shocked and couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. “There was no way to turn around and warn the guy. It was apparent the guy didn’t even know what was going on.”
Chinook adds a kit of tubes, filled with a suppression agent that automatically open when high temperatures are detected, throughout its units.
“We found a partner that we can purchase these kits from and we made it standard on our motorhomes. We’re trying to get ahead of having problems for people. How do you put a price on a life,” Butler says. “Our vision has been to put these kits everywhere there’s a potential flame source. That would be behind the refrigerator, above the breaker box, the generator, the batteries, where you sleep at night, the engine compartment, anywhere were something could create a flame.”
Butler, an engineering veteran in the RV industry with stints at Monaco Coach, Country Coach and Dynamax, says thermal suppression is just another example of Chinook’s unconventional approach.
“We don’t have any competition for our B+. That is a uniquely designed and built motorhome. I’ve been in this business for 38 years and the way it’s manufactured has never been done before and we did that intentionally. We spent over a year in developing it and I would always tell our suppliers leave the word standard in our car in the parking lot when you walk in. We don’t do anything standard,” he says.
The construction, for example, is definitely different, according to Butler.
“The way it’s made with an automotive-like build, it’s very unique. We have aluminum panels on the sides and the roof. They overlap like siding on your house so all of those panels are bonded together. I have never seen anything built like this before.”
Buchheit agrees, noting Chinook units go against the trend of becoming unnecessarily complicated.
“We’re not doing the multiplex ‘everything through the same touchscreen’ system. If an issue arises in something like that, your whole coach is down, so we’ve separated everything,” he says, so lighting, air conditioning and heating are all controlled independently.
Although Chinook RV, now entering its 11th year of ownership under Rizzio, still bills itself as “the sports car of motorhomes,” there’s been a considerable effort to keeping prices competitive, according to Buchheit.
“For me to come in at $260,000 MSRP for our flagship Summit, you’ve got a win-win-win of a coach for everything it offers value-wise,” he says of the benefit to consumer, dealer and manufacturer. “We’ve done a lot work with weeks worth of vetting and looking up pricing.”
After Buchheit noticed competing units sometimes had $20,000 spreads between dealers in different parts of the country, Chinook began a minimum advertised price (MAP) policy to reduce customer confusion and encourage more local buying.
The price of entry for the Chinook name starts with the Bayside, built on a Ford Transit AWD chassis and offered in three floorplans. The MSRP is in the $180,000s, he says, and climbs to $199,000 with the optional lithium batteries. The larger Maverick, also built on a Ford AWD chassis, starts in the $230,000s and goes up another $10,000 or so for the lithium option. The Summit, on a rear-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, is only available with lithium batteries.
In its second year since Chinook exited the towable business it acquired from Riverside Travel Trailers in 2018, Buchheit says the company is better aligned to deliver it coaches now than ever before. With 200,000 square feet of space among two buildings and 45 employees, he says Chinook has the ability to double production from its rate of 200 units.
That means Chinook will continue to grow its dealer network.
“We’re looking for the entire partner, not one that just wants to sell a unit but one that wants to service the customer,” Butler says. “These motorhomes, particularly our B+s, are heirloom-type motorhomes that our customers are going to buy and their kids and their grandkids are going to want that motorhome, just like if you bought a Corvette.”
Buchheit, who brought experience as a corporate department manager at big-box DIY retailer Menards with him to Chinook in 2020, says selling van-based coaches takes commitment.
“We’re not just going to sign anybody up. We have plenty of capacity here to add five more dealers and be able to supply them if we wanted to,” he says. “If a dealer wants to buy 10 motorhomes but isn’t going to be a solid partner, we’re not going to do it. We’re still going to look for someone who wants to be in it for the long haul.”