Earthroamer: Brawny Class C Design Takes the Roads Less Traveled
A friendship born at UCLA while they were studying for masters degrees in business eventually led Bill Swails and Michele Connolly to Colorado to build what is arguably one of the most unusual RVs on the market.
Production of the high-end EarthRoamer Expedition Vehicle (XV), an all-weather Class C chassis-mount motorhome meant to be fully self-contained like few other RVs, is about to kick into high gear in 2006.
The small Colorado company anticipates that a move to a new manufacturing facility in the Denver area next summer will allow production to more than double annually from 20 units in 2005 to 128 by 2008.
"We are in a high-growth mode," said EarthRoamer President Connolly. "There are a lot of things going on in the RV market and in the world that tell us that now is the time to expand. More people are traveling domestically and there's been a reduction in air travel.
"And then there is the whole Baby Boomer demographic. Folks are buying RVs younger, and more people are active at an older age than in the past. That plays right into our hands."
Swails, EarthRoamer's chief designer and COO, developed the innovative EarthRoamer concept while working as a travel writer and outdoor photographer. "I took a four-month trip to Alaska with a popup camper," recalls Swails, who worked in his father's automobile repair shop as a teenager in West Lafayette, Ohio, and who holds both industrial engineering and systems engineering degrees from Ohio State University.
"That's when I started realizing the deficiencies of that design," he continued. "I spent a lot of time in Home Depot fixing things that broke, and I spent a lot of cold nights because it wasn't insulated.
"I started thinking about what I needed to have, and it was after that that I designed a hard-walled camper that was all-diesel and mounted permanently on a Dodge Ram chassis. It was the precursor to what we are building now."
Swails said his education in system design was particularly important in EarthRoamer's development. "I took the entire picture," he said. " 'What am I trying to do with this vehicle and how am I going to do it?' Things work together; they have a synergy – like deciding not to have propane. If you get rid of propane there is a cascading series of benefits.
"You gain space, you don't have to go searching for fuel, and there's also a safety factor. When you combine all of that, you end up with a vehicle that is extremely easy to use. You don't have to switch a fridge from 12-volt to propane or start up a generator to run your microwave."
In fact, there is no generator.
Electric power is provided by an array of 170-watt solar panels that charge two AGM marine batteries, providing enough power to run a high-efficiency air conditioner for 10 hours and only consume 25% of the batteries' power.
The system was adapted from marine technology as were other of EarthRoamer's systems. "Boats have to have their own power requirements," Swails said, "and they need to always work with an extreme degree of reliability."
The first prototype of the contemporary EarthRoamer was built in 2003, and the first unit on a Ford pickup was sold to a customer in early 2004.
While the RV industry in general promotes an outdoor lifestyle, EarthRoamer owners practice it to the nth degree, Connolly said.
"The best way to describe our customers is they all have a common need to be in the outdoors, whether that's horseback riding or surfing or riding a motorcycle," Connolly said. "They're typical Baby Boomers who have the capital and the wealth to be able to invest in a higher-end product like ours. But most of them also say that they can't picture themselves in an RV park. They want to go out in the middle of nowhere and do what they do. A typical motorhome would tie them down."
Said Swails: "Our vehicles are enablers. They enable people to do what they really want to do. EarthRoamer literally is an all-weather camper. You can be out in minus 10 degree weather here in Colorado and be fully comfortable."
EarthRoamer customers purchase their own pickup trucks under a special arrangement the company has with a local Ford dealership.
The one-piece shells are manufactured using EarthRoamer molds by a local outside contractor. The body also is painted off-site to match the color of the pickup truck.
"We've chosen not to do slideouts for a number of reasons that involve structural integrity, insulation and weather proofing," Swails said.
Typically, it takes three to four weeks on the production line to complete, and the company has more than a six-month backlog of orders.
Currently EarthRoamers are sold factory direct with a heavy reliance on word-of-mouth and the company's Internet site (www.earthroamer.com), which led to the concern's unusual corporate name – EarthRoamer.com LLC. "You'd be surprised about how many people can't search the Internet without '.com,' " Connolly said.
"We will continue to discuss dealerships as a possibility, but at least early on, EarthRoamer's technology is unique enough so that there is a lot of education that is required in the marketplace before we can send it out to a traditional dealer network."