RV show sets up camp for 50th year

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

One chilly winter day, the doors of the old Michigan Light Guard Armory on Eight Mile opened on a rather costly experiment: the first Detroit Camper and RV Show.

It was 1966, the year of the Gemini space mission, the first Pampers diapers, the mini-skirt and 32-cents-a-gallon gasoline.

Dealers of motor homes, pop-ups and everything in between had displayed a few models previously at outdoor sports and boat shows, but the notion of an expo devoted entirely to RVs was new.

“It was a great risk at the time,” recalls Bill Garpow, then the assistant executive director of show promoter, the Michigan Association of Recreation Vehicles and Campgrounds. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”

What happened was that Metro Detroit residents thronged the 300,000-square-foot building, eager to tour the 250 campers and motorhomes on display.

“The temperature was in the teens outside, but with all those people it got so hot in there we had to turn off the heat and open the windows,” recalls Garpow, who went on to spend 40 years in the RV trade group industry and now lives in Brunswick, Ga. “The State Police came to us and said the lines of cars waiting to get in were blocking traffic all the way back to Woodward.

“We said, ‘Well, what do you expect us to do about it?’ ”

Over the course of the 10-day show, about 100,000 people toured the exhibits. Towable trailers — whose parentage dates to the Covered Wagon Company in Mount Clemens — had been used for much of the century, but motorized RVs were just coming into vogue. That’s the year, for example, the first Winnebago rolled off the line in Forest City, Iowa, and the VW Bus — already a teenager with its inception in 1950 — was being adopted as a hippie icon.

Fifty years after the first outing, the Detroit Camper and RV Show is going strong. About the same number of vehicles will be on display and their prices tags are a bit higher than five decades ago. Some luxury “diesel pushers” sport 500-horsepower engines and half-million-dollar stickers.

But vestiges of the early days live on, not only in nostalgia. Many of Michigan’s 89 RV dealers were kids helping out in dad’s dealership in the 1960s and beyond, said MARVAC Executive Director Tim DeWitt.

“I’d say about half the dealers in the Novi show started out sweeping floors for mom and dad, and now they are running the business,” he said. He’s revved up for a robust turnout and the challenge of moving 250 RVs into the expo center on Super Bowl Sunday.

“We’re expecting a gangbuster 50th show,” DeWitt said. “It’s not just a plus for our dealers, but a great economic indicator for campground operators, suppliers and manufacturers.”

Garpow has a basic explanation for the popularity of the show: “It’s cold, it’s the middle of winter — and it’s a great time to come out and dream.”

If you go

What:50th Annual Detroit Camper and RV Show

When: 2-9 p.m. Feb. 10-12; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Feb. 13; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Feb. 14

Where: Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi

Cost: $10 for age 13 and up; $9 for seniors; free for kids 12 and under

More information: www.marvac.org