Sportsmobile Raises the Bar – and Roof – With Unique Class B's
Having started building Sportsmobile van campers in 1961, Charles Borskey, 71, has seen all of the ups and downs the RV industry has experienced over the last four decades. And he’s seen the market shifts.
“A long time ago, our market was young families with a couple of kids and a few retired people,” Borskey said. “Now it’s reversed, although we are finding that more and more young people are getting back into it.
“The one thing about Class B’s is that 95% of our customers also use them as first or second cars, so it’s not the luxury purchase that most RVs are.”
Sportsmobile actually is three companies, two owned by Borskey and the third licensed to Alan Feld in California. Together, they convert Ford Econoline, Chevrolet Savannah and Dodge Ram vans in standard lengths of 17 feet and extended lengths of 19 feet, and offers more than 70 standard floorplans. But even with that number, few Sportsmobiles leave the factory without some additional modification. “There are hardly two alike coming off the line,” Borskey said. “They usually make some interior changes.”
Sportsmobile also manufactures a patented soft-sided popup Penthouse Top that provides a 6-foot-10-inch interior height in the camper.
The company started in El Paso, Texas, in 1961 when Borskey signed a contract with Volkswagen America to install kits in the Volkswagen minibus. Later, he did the same thing for Ford. “We started off very nicely,” Borskey recalled. “We were pioneers in the United States, and we were too early for the market. They didn’t sell, even with Ford and VW advertising nationally.”
Borskey relocated to Indiana and contracted with Travel Equipment Corp., which later went out of business, and General Engineering Corp., one of Borskey’s OEM suppliers, to manufacture Sportsmobiles.
In 1976, Borskey took off on his venture in a factory in Huntington, Ind., only to be battered by the second oil embargo and high interest rates. In 1980, he decided to leave the business and moved back to Texas, leaving factory foreman Jim Friermood in charge of phasing out the Huntington plant.
“I had van burnout,” Borskey said. “I didn’t ever want to see another van.”
A strange thing happened, however. Sales began to pick up and Friermood persuaded Borskey to keep the plant open and continued to produce Sportsmobiles.
Four years later, a reinvigorated Borskey decided to build a small factory in Austin, Texas, and get back into the business.
Production in California began in 1990 after Alan Feld persuaded Borskey to grant him a license as a Sportsmobile manufacturer, and that is where the business is growing. In May, Sportsmobile West opened a new 66,000-square-foot plant, and is producing 15 to 20 units a month, while in Texas and Indiana the average is five each.
“We do the design and engineering for all three in Austin,” Borskey said. “Essentially, the other two locations build and sell the units.”
Among Sportsmobile’s most popular models is the RB-50, which is based on a 1970 VW minibus floorplan. Sportsmobile encourages customers to fit their RVs to their lifestyles with a “design your own” option that starts with a blank piece of graph paper and a design kit.
Sportsmobile has sold factory-direct since 1976.
“We’ve sold Sportsmobiles to people who’ve never even seen one in person,” Borskey said. “I find that amazing, but we’ve never had anyone drive out yet who wasn’t smiling.”
More than 40% of Sportsmobile’s business is from repeat customers or referrals.
“If it wasn’t for word of mouth, we wouldn’t be in business,” he said. “And the Internet has worked out very well for us. We’ve gotten a lot of business from the Internet.
“In California,” he said, “Alan Feld wants to grow, so they go to a lot of trade shows and get a lot of new customers.”
Sportsmobiles on Ford Econoline vans account for nearly 70% of company sales.
“Chevy redesigned the Savannah several years ago, but for some reason, it just hasn’t caught on,” Borskey said.
In late July, he expected to build a Sportsmobile prototype on Freightliner’s new 22-foot Mercedes Benz Sprinter 5-cylinder van.
“We don’t know what the market is going to be,” Borskey said. “We have one order already. We will convert the prototype and see what happens.
“Sprinters are longer inside, so you can do more with them. But at some point, women aren’t going to want to drive them as a car. We are confident that we will be able to put something together. But at this point, we’re not sure that we will go into full production.”